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The Swimmer (1968)
"inner" stories do not translate well to the screen
"The Swimmer" was released in 1968, the same year as another highly controversial film that went on to be considered a masterpiece. Whether "The Swimmer" is even a competent (let alone good) film is questionable.
It //is// a profoundly annoying experience. It isn't that we're not sure what's going on (or why), but that the acting is loud and overwrought, and Perry's direction is pretentious, failing to create a "matter of fact" atmosphere needed at the start to draw us into the story.
The story is a widely anthologized work by John Cheever. It suffers from heavy-handed metaphor (eg, Merrill being chased from the public swimming pool for not having an ID tag). But it is, overall, restrained enough and short enough that it's easy to forgive Cheever. (We should be grateful that, after making 150 pages of notes, Cheever condensed them into a short story.)
It's not easy to forgive the director's wife, who wrote the clumsy screenplay. Everything important in "The Swimmer" happens in the protagonist's mind. This sort of story doesn't translate well to film, requiring far too much verbal exposition (rather than character interaction). And the film doesn't show the progression of the seasons (and Merrill's apparent weight loss) that suggest Merrill is not experiencing "reality".
The short story pretty much "works", with a fairly obvious meaning. By converting thoughts into images, the film becomes too literal to reproduce the short story's effect. It would have worked better as a 50-minute "Twilight Zone" episode.
A Study in Terror (1965)
Most Sherlock Holmes films are terrible. The Jeremy Brett TV series remains the gold standard, against which just about everything else lags in far behind. (The Basil Rathbone films are a major disappointment, because the producers were too cheap to create period films, and Rathbone's superior performance is wasted on less-than-Doyle-quality stories.) It's actually possible to talk about "A Study in Terror" with the Brett series in the same breath. It's that good.
It has two flaws (which I'll get out of the way first). It was photographed with what are (by today's standards) primitive color film. The contrast is so great, that it's hard to light darker scenes to get any real sense of atmosphere (though some come close).
The other is that the script, and to a lesser degree John Neville's performance, give Holmes a degree of wit and warmth lacking from Doyle's original. His is not quite the Holmes we're expecting.
The strong suit is the script, with plausible situations, strong characterizations, and solid dialog.
The House on Telegraph Hill (1951)
"Notorious" + "Suspicion" equals nothing
Though based on a novel, "The House on Telegraph Hill" looks like a mash-up of two famous Hitchcock flicks, with orange juice replacing milk. It's unlikely this was intentional, but it doesn't change the fact that "House" is annoyingly similar and much inferior to either of The Master's films.
Robert Wise again demonstrates why he's such a profoundly mediocre director. The quality of his films seems to depend solely on the quality of the material he's working with. That's good -- he doesn't ruin good stuff -- but it's bad because he does little to enhance average (or worse) material. If there were ever a non-auteur director, Wise was it. (He even admitted to having no particular style.)
"House" needs the director's help. The script does little to create suspense. Who is "good" and who is "bad"? Is Viktoria imagining things, or is she really in danger? The tale's final unraveling is so drawn-out and overwrought that it's hard not to laugh. As with Wise's "The Haunting", "House" is a suspense film remarkably lacking palpable tension.
It's hard to believe Wise wasn't aware he was in Hitchcock territory, and he'd better be on his toes. But the result is little more than a soporific run-through of the script. Basehart's final revelation of his motives is drab, and seems to come out of left field (even though it's prefigured).
The only good thing is Valentina Cortese's sympathetic and thoroughly convincing performance. If only everything else had been that good...
Autumn Leaves (1956)
"Autumn Leaves" is a pop standard, an agreeably sentimental, even elegiac, song. Someone must have thought that an effective screenplay with that title could be written. Unfortunately, this isn't it.
Joan plays a middle-aged woman who earns a modest living typing manuscripts. She's content to be lonely and alone, until a handsome young man (Cliff Robertson) shows up. After an extended courtship, she finally agrees to marry him -- then starts realizing he's a pathological liar, and worse.
Generally speaking, a story should be about //one thing//. The original idea -- of the difficulties of an older woman marrying a man 20 years her junior (from which an excellent film could have been made) -- abruptly swerves to Joan's fight to cure her husband of his problems. These are (unconvincingly) worked out by throwing him into a mental institution, and giving him drugs and electroconvulsive therapy. The character has real problems -- largely induced by his father breaking up his former marriage by seducing his previous wife (!) -- but the diagnosis of schizophrenia seems, at best, excessive, at worst, absurd.
The casting is so-so to poor. Crawford was never a //great// actress, but though lacking the depth the part would benefit from, she acquits herself fairly well. Cliff Robertson is okay up to the point he has to start acting crazy, then he opens his eyes real wide as if someone has goosed him with a pointy barbecue implement.
Ruth Donnelly gives a noisy imitation of Thelma Ritter, while Lorne Greene delivers his patented canned-ham performance. Vera Miles is wasted, giving no indication that she's a good actress.
Even with such poor casting, Robert Aldrich could have done a lot to mitigate an ill-conceived script. He didn't. Aldrich was one of those "competent hack" directors whose films were good when the script and casting were good, but not otherwise.
"Autumn Leaves" is worth watching mostly for laughs. It's prime MST3K material.
a malnourished story
This is one of those "good" episodes that should have been great. The script editor ought to have sent it back to the writer for fleshing-out.
Owney Tupper is a middle-aged man who isn't worried about working his ass off for a lot of material possessions that ultimately don't matter. His late wife (who thought the same way) left him with their most-valued possession, their daughter Amity. Owney and Amity adore each other, and he'd rather spend most of the day playing with her, doing only as much work as needed to keep body and soul together. Amity isn't aware she's missing anything -- and, of course, she isn't.
The serpent rears his ugly head when Owney's sister-in-law and wealthy husband arrive to remove Amity to St Louis, on the basis that Owney isn't a fit father, as they're living in "poverty' when they need not be (which is technically true). The judge agrees. Amity is sent off to live with her aunt and uncle for six months, giving Owney time to make a home materially fit for his daughter.
Owney sets about the task with vigor, surprising people who considered him shiftless. Naturally, Something Bad has to happen, and it's the loss of the seed he needs for planting. (The script handles this poorly, with a clumsily staged accident and Owney's careless behavior.) Needing money for new seed, Owney agrees to being paid $25 to be the executioner. (This, though plausibly motivated, is A Little Too Convenient.) Matt is shocked that such a peaceful, violence-hating man would do such a thing.
After killing (in self-defense) the revenge-seeking father of the executed young man, Owney is largely shunned by Dodge's citizens. * The unspecified crop (soybeans?) comes in better than expected, and the farm is finally in shape for a visit from the "Better Homes and Gardens" photographer. Amity returns dressed in nice clothes, carrying a store-bought doll.
Unfortunately, Owney has now become "responsible", more concerned with tending the chickens (he's now a chicken magnate) than playing with his daughter. Worse, he's trapped and killed the fox who used to playfully visit, the animal having become a chicken killer. This breaks Amity's heart.
Amity -- though not spoiled -- has changed, too. Her aunt and uncle treated her well (a surprise in stories such as these), and wouldn't mind living in St Louis. The aunt and uncle have even invited Owney to live with them (likewise a surprise). Owney declines (probably because, as we've seen, he doesn't want to be dependent on anyone), and insists that Amity go back -- St Louis isn't that far off, and he can visit. He acknowledges that Amity has to grow up in "regular" society. Typical of "Gunsmoke", the story ends unhappily, with Owney griping "Why did they have to bother us?".
The script's problem is that it doesn't do as much as it could have with multiple good story ideas. This isn't apparent from my summary, but it's "thin". My reaction was that the issues weren't covered in as much depth as they should have been. Of course, "Gunsmoke" never went for verbose exchanges, so perhaps I'm being unfair. But I rarely feel this way about any episode, so I'll "stick by my guns" (ahem).
Jay C Flippen (whom I remember mostly from "Ensign O'Toole") gives a solid and sympathetic performance. Andrea Darvi makes a charming and totally un-cute Amity. (Thank you, casting person.)
* Despite Matt's protest that executions have traditionally been carried out in Hays City (I don't know if this is historically correct), the judge complains that Dodge City's people are too cowardly to confront the execution of a human being, and need to have it shoved in their faces.
Frasier: The Show Must Go Off (2001)
one of the classic episodes
Most "Frasier" episodes are at least "good" (and even the "bad" episodes are funny), but this is one of the classics.
Looking for X-Men comics for his son at a fan convention, Frasier spots Jackson Hedley, whose acting inspired him and Niles as young men. Disappointed that such a fine actor has been reduced to playing an android on "Space Patrol", Frasier and Niles decide to produce a one-man show, in the hopes of reviving Hedley's stage career.
It's only after committing themselves to the show that they hear him act. Hedley's performance sets the platinum standard for overacting -- pretentious sighs, wheezy gasping, exaggerated emphases, inappropriate gestures, etc, etc, etc. Next to Hedley, William Shatner comes across as Max von Sydow. (It isn't clear whether Hedley is supposed to be a grotesque exaggeration of Shatner -- but it's hard to believe that an odious comparison /wasn't/ intended.) Frasier finds a video tape of an old Hedley performance, which confirms that he was always that bad. Niles and Frasier recognize that, 30 years ago, they just weren't good judges of acting.
The theater is packed on opening night, * and hoping to avoid embarrassment, they try every trick in the book to cancel the production. Frasier even sets off the sprinkler system -- which (the building being so old) clogs after a few seconds. Fortunately, Hedley slips in the puddle and injures himself. Unfortunately...
"Frasier" is likely the most-lavishly produced sitcom ever. The producers didn't hesitate to get A-list actors (eg, Eva Marie Saint as Roz's mother!). This episode not only has Derek Jacobi as Jackson Hedley, but Patrick Macnee as his father! One of /the/ classic sitcom episodes (for this series or any other), worth seeing just to enjoy Hedley's appalling skill at scenery chewing.
* The obvious question of why everyone else doesn't recognize Hedley as a miserable actor isn't addressed.
The Magic Carpet (1951)
MGM's slogan was "More stars than there are in heaven." Columbia's might have been "More crap than there is in a chicken coop". Columbia produced some fine films, but its percentage of gobblers is notably higher than that of 20th, MGM, Paramount, Warner, etc. This is one of the turkeys.
The story is the usual Arabian nights hokum. The dialog (some of which sounds as if it was lifted from Westerns) is written so as not to confuse a five-year-old, leading to terminal boredom for adults. The film is so uninvolving that the composer fills virtually every second with music, to make the viewer think something of interest is happening. The fight scenes, in particular, are notable non-events. (They look as if the actors choreographed them.)
The acting is strictly amateur, with only Raymond Burr working up enough energy to sound convincing -- and that only occasionally. John Agar's performance is among his worst -- perhaps //the// worst. One gets an inkling of why his marriage to The Queen of Cute ended.
The sets and costumes are lavishly cheap, and the color is the weirdly hued Super Cinecolor, a couple of notches inferior to the more-expensive Technicolor. The only things that show any taste or talent are several beautiful glass paintings.
This is the sort of film that ought to have been skewered on MST3K, but wasn't. A shame, really.
Knock on Any Door (1949)
This is a terrific film I'd have given an 8 to if it hadn't nearly shot itself in the foot with Bogart's heavy-handed (but mercifully brief) "We're all guilty" summary to the jury.
The prosecutor is played by the wonderful George Macready. Macready -- who in real life was a dear human being -- had a voice that suggested diabolic evil. Simply casting him as the prosecutor has us rooting for the defendant.
Nicholas Ray's direction is generally brisk and focused, and there is a surprising amount of sharp humor during the trial.
Many years ago, a prominent black-revolutionary leader observed that "wanting to be president of General Motors" was a sickness. We need a modern film that shows how the rich and powerful were corrupted into becoming people who achieved success at the expense of ruining thousands of ordinary people's lives.
The Power of the Whistler (1945)
"Well, he certainly fooled us with his maniac's cunning..."
I've never heard the radio series "The Whistler". This movie version (one of eight Whistler films) is reminiscent of an Ed Wood project, especially the clunky script with its heavy-handed narration.
The plot revolves around an escapee from a mental institution who's out for revenge. An accident has induced brief amnesia, and a kindly young woman offers to help find out who he is. We know he's dangerous when we see him killing cats, canaries, and squirrels. (The latter is amazing, as wild squirrels do not tolerate being touched.)
The mechanical script is uninspired, as is the colorless direction. The only halfway interesting thing is a semi-passable performance by Richard Dix as the villain.
Woof-woof, bow-wow. You have been warned.
Once Upon a Time (1944)
likely to induce regurgitation
Would anyone object if I gave this stray puppy a few additional kicks?
Norman Corwin was a celebrated radio playwright whose work leaned to extremes -- stories about social/political issues, and fantasy/science-fiction. "My Client Curly" (on which this film is based) obviously falls into the second group, and was co-written with Lucille Fletcher (Bernard Herrmann's wife at the time).
I don't know what the radio play was like, but the movie adaptation likely crushed whatever wit or originality there was in Corwn's work. Virtually every plot turn is telegraphically predictable, and the sappy/saccharine ending leaves you wishing Cary Grant had crushed the caterpillar with his shoe -- after having set it on fire with lighter fluid -- as it was dancing. "Help me... Help me!"
The one honest moment occurs when Grant slaps the boy when trying to seize the shoebox with the caterpillar. Grant's anger -- and following guilt -- are nicely underplayed.
The script is shallow and tedious (the writers don't seem to have much of an idea about the /point/ of the story), as is the direction. "Once Upon a Time" is one of the longest and most-irritating 90-minute films I've ever seen.