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"And if I felt half as good as you look, I'd go out and kill myself while it lasted."
29 January 2009
Warning: Spoilers
I saw LOVE IS A RACKET at the Museum of Modern Art on a dismal, rainy, slushy winter day, and it is exactly the bubbly pre-Code cocktail I would have dreamed up as the ideal entertainment for such a time. The plot—some nonsense about a "milk racket" and a flock of rubber checks—is merely a flimsy scaffolding for all the fun stuff. This flick has everything: non-stop slang and snappy patter, great music and settings (many scenes take place in Sardi's, or a reasonable facsimile thereof), gratuitous leg art, a practical-joke-loving goon, and a gotten-away-with murder. Loath to waste time on exposition, the movie just plunges us into a world of racketeers, Broadway babies, and reporters who wake up at 5 pm, go on the town, and come back to do a little furious two-finger typing before dawn.

If this is a pre-Code movie about reporters, then logically it must feature Lee Tracy. Sure enough, though he isn't the star, he's the hero's best pal, and he's at his shamelessly scene-stealing best. He gives every small moment a riveting flourish: juggling a telephone and a shaving brush; body-checking another reporter to get to the phone; declaring his love for Ann Dvorak through a mouthful of steak ("Say, if you loved me half as much as you love that steak I'd surrender just out of pity," she replies tartly); hamming up the agony as he climbs into a cold bath in his pajamas to win a $50 bet; delivering lines like, "Well I'll be a double-jointed son of a...Bulgarian acrobat." But Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. holds his own in the lead, helped by a perfect profile, a twinkle in his eye and a sense of mischief. He has some sexy moments and also some very funny ones, like when he curtsies to a "pansy" dress designer, or announces that he's "going to get what was known among the ancient Athenians as 'swacko.'"

Ann Dvorak's role gives her little to do besides hang around vainly hoping Doug will notice her, but she does get some nice, biting lines, as when she replies to her rival's polite how-do-you-do, "Oh, fine. Just a slight touch of leprosy." Frances Dee looks luscious and wears the cat-with-the-cream expression of a girl who knows her face will get her whatever she wants. Lyle Talbot, dressed as usual in black tie and a light coating of slime, plays the gangster who runs the milk racket, and delivers the movie's best line (see the subject line above) when he makes a heavy play for Miss Dee.

The most mind-blowing scene is set in a ravishing art deco penthouse where hot jazz plays on the radio ("Hittin' That Bottle") while the hero discovers a corpse and covers up the murder in a shocking, ruthlessly clever way. Under the froth, this is an astringent movie. Fairbanks's reporter has zero interest in taking on corrupt forces for the public good; it might be bad for his health, or at least his ability to get a good table at Sardi's. A cold-blooded murder is shrugged off because, after all, the guy deserved to die. And Fairbanks concludes the film with a brilliant speech about why "Love is just a mental disorder": it makes you waste your money, lie awake at night worrying, wait two hours for dinner when you're "hungry as a toothless timberwolf," and generally make an errand-boy and a fool of yourself. He vows that he will never again fall for one of these lady "racketeers." Somehow, with Ann Dvorak standing by, I have trouble believing him.
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Inn of Evil (1971)
The Kobayashi-Nakadai partnership continues in this somber, atmospheric nocturne
23 September 2008
Warning: Spoilers
INOCHI BO NI FURO means "We give our lives for nothing," and I would award the highly competitive prize for ludicrous English re-titling to the person who decided to render this as "Inn of Evil." For American lovers of Japanese cinema, however, the indignity of silly international titles pales beside the sheer difficulty of getting hold of brilliant movies by great directors. Only three of Masaki Kobayashi's films are readily available on DVD in the U.S. (I don't count THE HUMAN CONDITION, which will set you back around $300), but I was lucky enough to scrounge up a decent copy of INOCHI BO NI FURO. It's a fascinating film, as dark and intricate as its marshy, nocturnal setting, and it richly deserves to be seen.

After taking muddy, visceral realism to the limit with THE HUMAN CONDITION, Kobayashi embraced traditional Japanese aesthetics; his period films combine denunciations of feudal oppression with austere formal beauty, creating a tension between explosive emotion and serene ritual. HARAKIRI (his masterpiece) and SAMURAI REBELLION have a spare, clean look, with many scenes set in white, rectilinear tatami rooms or raked-sand courtyards. INOCHI BO NI FURO is stunningly different look at the past. More than half the scenes are set at night, and the gorgeous black-and-white cinematography creates a breathable sense of place: a small island in the marshes, home to the Easy Tavern, a hideout for a band of smugglers. The camera explores the rambling, shadowy wooden building and peers through screens, wooden grilles or tall, waving reeds, visually evoking the mysterious privacy of the island, where strangers are made very unwelcome by the criminal inhabitants.

Tatsuya Nakadai, Kobayashi's favorite actor and personal discovery, stars as Sadashichi, nicknamed "Sada the Indifferent," who impresses and terrifies the rest of the band with his vicious temper, ruthlessness and enigmatic gloom. With his snake-quick reflexes and knife hidden in his kimono sleeve, Sada is reminiscent of Nakadai's pistol-packing villain in YOJIMBO, but he's even more closely related to the icy, dead-eyed killer Nakadai played in SWORD OF DOOM (a runner-up in the bad re-titling sweepstakes.) But unlike either of these heartless men, Sada is vulnerable and deeply wounded: he broods over his mother, whom he lost as a child when she was sold into prostitution, and he nurtures a baby sparrow, pathetically hoping its mother will return to claim it. After he brutally stabs a policeman who comes to search the tavern for illegal goods, an incredible spasm of horror, weariness and sorrow passes over his face. When Nakadai acts he really ACTS, but he's so good he gets away with it. He's a bit flamboyant here, but just try to take your eyes off him—his serpentine grace, haunted eyes, fierce anger and monstrous sadness are mesmerizing.

The proprietor of the tavern, a man with the calm face of a Buddha, sounds like an enlightened social worker when he talks about his "boys," whom he sees as emotional cripples unable to survive in society and starved for sympathy. Kobayashi the humanist makes these crude misfits (one stutters, one has tuberculosis, one is an ex-monk teased for his bisexual proclivities) much more appealing than the police who plot against them, who are nothing but cold bribe-hungry thugs. (This gets a little too obvious when the camera dwells on the swastika crests on one cop's kimono.) The film pivots on a rather implausible change of heart when the smugglers, led by Sada, decide to risk their lives to help a young fugitive who is trying to raise money to keep his fiancée from being sold to a brothel. Sada's own tortured psychology makes his sudden desire to help the young man convincing, though the eagerness of the other bandits to become do-gooders is a little hard to buy. They're basically just followers, but several other characters are well developed. Shintaro Katsu, as the only outsider allowed to drink in the tavern, spends most of the film doing a slobbering-drunk act in the background, but finally gets a chance to tell his own story, which he carries off with poignant, dignified restraint. The proprietor's daughter, a sweet girl who harbors a growing love for Sada, embodies the film's conscience in her simple belief that no one is worthless, every life is worth fighting for. The young couple taken up as a cause worth dying for are ordinary, imperfect people; the victory sought is an average, peaceful life. Most of Kobayashi's films are about resistance to authoritarian power, but the enemy here is rather selfishness and indifference, which can be defeated only through self-sacrifice.

The climax comes in a spectacularly beautiful battle when an army carrying paper lanterns attacks at night; the glowing spheres flow across the dunes and float above the water like fireflies. I won't give away what happens, but ironically, despite its title, this is the only Kobayashi film I've seen which does NOT end in futility. The heroes give their lives "for nothing" in that they seek no personal gain--but not in vain.
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How much does it cost to buy back your soul?
23 September 2008
GOHIKI NO SHINSHI bears all the hallmarks of film noir: a labyrinthine plot involving crime and betrayal, gritty urban settings, expressionistic black-and-white camera-work, and a hero seeking redemption for his sins. The film begins with Oida (Tatsuya Nakadai) in prison for killing a man and his daughter in a car accident. He didn't mean to do it, but the fact that he was distracted by an argument with his bar-hostess girlfriend, whom he was about to dump to marry his boss's daughter, increases his sense of guilt and our sense that he might be a selfish, opportunistic man. A few days before he is to be released, Oida attracts the attention of another prisoner, Sengoku, when he risks his life to help capture a knife-wielding inmate. Learning Oida's story, and that he has no life to return to (he lost his job and fiancée because of the accident, and has no family), Sengoku makes him a proposition. The payoff is big; no questions are allowed. He is to assassinate three men for a share of 30 million yen.

Oida drifts into accepting the deal but soon has second thoughts. He meets the first man, Motoki, and comes close to pushing him off a dock while he's drunk, but can't quite do it. When he leaves him briefly, Motoki is killed by two mysterious, trench-coated gangsters. Oida tracks down the other two men on his list, not to kill them but to warn them that their lives are in danger. He also becomes the reluctant guardian of Motoki's orphaned daughter, the adorable pigtailed Tomoe. He obsessively tries to uncover the secret behind the strange colliding vendettas: why do both Sengoku and the gangsters want the three men dead, and what happened two years ago at a train station? (We have some idea, having seen a heist, stylishly shot in negative, over the credits). Each of the three men tells a story about how he slipped into crime: one is a former cop who fell in love with a criminal's wife, another a boxer who had his arm broken after he refused to throw a fight. Everyone is sad and desperate, including Sengoku's girlfriend, a bar hostess who says, "We're all prisoners on death row," and the widow of the man Oida killed, whom he meets backstage in a cabaret, still burning with hatred for him.

This is not Ozu's Japan. "Seamy underbelly" hardly does justice to the film's settings: grimy docks, industrial warehouses, junkyards, prison yards, deserted amusement parks, alleys, strip clubs and cheap bars where two hostesses have a vicious cat fight in the bathroom. Amid this squalor the elegant, beautiful Nakadai moves like a fallen angel, spellbound by melancholy and remorse. Slowly he comes to life as he finds a purpose in protecting Tomoe, who follows him like a lost duckling, calling him "Oji-san" (uncle). He lets Sengoku think he killed the men as instructed, planning a double-cross of his own. When Tomoe is kidnapped, fate provides him with a chance to redeem himself—but it won't be easy, since the newly-released Sengoku cares as much about money as Oida cares about his buying back his soul.

Hideo Gosha was a master of genre, making a slew of chambara (swordplay) and yakuza (gangster) films. He's principally a stylist, and at times the style overtakes the substance and gets a bit rococo (he loves startling cuts and long-drawn-out fights.) Nakadai said that the director often cared more about the images than the story, but called him an "impassioned" filmmaker. GOHIKI NO SHINSHI is a fairly standard thriller, impeccably entertaining, and the combination of powerful acting and authentic locations give it a special weight. What lingers most is the weary, lyrical evocation of a world full of hurt, where moments of gentleness are rare and precious. The only flaw is a musical score than tends towards cheesy cocktail jazz, nudging some scenes close to sentimentality. And what was it with the harpsichord in 1960s Japanese films?

NOTE: GOHIKI NO SHINSHI is a truly untranslatable title: it means "Five Gentlemen," but "hiki" is the counter word used not for people but for small animals: so the five "gentlemen" (presumably Oida, Sengoku and the three targets) are also animals in the urban jungle.(Thank you to my Japanese-speaking friend for explaining this to me.) However, surely a more coherent English title than CASH CALLS HELL could have been concocted.
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Conflagration (1958)
"Each man kills the thing he loves"
20 September 2008
Warning: Spoilers
Kinkaku-ji, the Temple of the Golden Pavilion in Kyoto, was built in 1397 and treasured as one of the most beautiful buildings in Japan. To a young monk named Goichi Mizoguchi (Raizo Ichikawa) it is a transcendent ideal of beauty; it will never change, he says reverently. "Idiot!" a cynical friend retorts: "People, history and morals all change." In the wake of World War II the Japanese had good reason to know that even buildings are ephemeral. Kyoto was spared from bombing, but in 1950 the Golden Pavilion was burned down by a mentally disturbed young monk. This event inspired a novel by Yukio Mishima, which in turn inspired the film CONFLAGRATION. Both imagine the back story behind this incomprehensible act, but from very different viewpoints.

The film follows the events of the book fairly closely but changes the emphasis, one might even say the point of the story. The Mishima novel is dense with explications of Zen koans and abstruse theories about the meaning of beauty. Director Kon Ichikawa replaces philosophy with psychology and sociology, and shifts the book's elevated tone to one of dark satire, dissecting the protagonist's inferiority complex and the economic and spiritual poverty of postwar Japan. To Ichikawa, the Golden Pavilion was an implicit symbol of the feudal past and "everything which oppressed" Mizoguchi, but his destruction of it is also the ultimate expression of his own self-hatred and sense of unworthiness.

Mizoguchi is tormented by self-doubt, a bad stutter and a vulgar, grasping mother. As a child he witnessed her adulterous affair, and his cuckolded father, attempting to console him, planted in his mind an ideal of pure beauty, the Golden Pavilion. As a novice at the temple, Mizoguchi sees it defiled both by tourists (including an American G.I. who comes with his pregnant Japanese girlfriend) and priests who are money-grubbing and fleshly (the head priest has a geisha mistress) and he becomes obsessed with protecting its sanctity. When he violently bars the pregnant girl from entering, the G.I. is thrilled because she falls downstairs and has a miscarriage, solving his problem. He rewards Mizoguchi with a carton of Chesterfields. Materialism, hypocrisy and nihilism pervade the film. The policemen who interrogate Mizoguchi (forming the framing sequence for a complex flashback narrative) keep talking about whether the temple's destruction will hurt the tourist trade, speculating on how much it will cost to rebuild, and pompously referring to it as a "national treasure."

The well-meaning but weak head priest, who sees Mizoguchi as a possible successor, pays for him to go to college. There he befriends the club-footed Tokari (Tatsuya Nakadai) who is both his opposite and his doppelganger. Embittered and malicious, Tokari is also keenly intelligent and as articulate as Mizoguchi is helplessly mute. Alienated by his deformity, he is a serial seducer of women, manipulatively using his lame leg to gain sympathy. Like Mizoguchi he is the son of a Buddhist priest, but he dismisses temples as "just buildings that escaped the bombing." He cruelly mocks Mizoguchi's naivite and tries to shatter his illusions, but beneath his bravado Tokari is more like his lonely, insecure friend than he can admit. When his second girlfriend, an ikebana (flower-arranging) teacher, insults him as a cripple, his vulnerability is laid bare in his hysterical response. But despite his destructiveness, he can also create beauty: in addition to arranging flowers he plays the shakuhachi (bamboo flute), producing exquisitely pure, otherworldly music. When Mizoguchi finally sets fire to the Golden Pavilion, the film cuts from the massive spectacle of the blaze to a wordless scene of Tokari playing a mournful tune on the flute, as though somehow sensing or participating in the tragedy. The fleeting beauty of the music outlasts the monumental beauty of the temple.

Nakadai, at the start of his career, attacks his role with scene-stealing gusto. He is charismatic, vicious, funny and pathetic, sometimes all at once. Like Lon Chaney he makes his crippled body riveting and its tortured movements perversely vigorous, bringing to life Mishima's description: "His walk was a sort of exaggerated dance, utterly lacking in anything commonplace…Physically he was a cripple, yet there was an intrepid beauty about him..." Nakadai's electricity complements Raizo Ichikawa's introverted performance, which creates a painfully convincing portrait of adolescent confusion, desperate because he can't communicate, because (the universal adolescent tragedy) "no one understands." He destroys his ideal, but not before it destroys him.

NOTE: The Golden Pavilion, which burned several times in the course of Japan's violent history, was reconstructed yet again in 1955.
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Untamed Woman (1957)
When a woman ascends to independence
10 July 2008
Warning: Spoilers
In its dissection of Japan's traditional feudal values, Japanese cinema has created some of the most searing accounts of the oppression of women. As the lowest rung in the feudal hierarchy, women were expected to serve, sacrifice, and resign themselves to lives of deprivation and humiliation. In films, when they're not being raped by soldiers or kidnapped by bandits, they're being forced into arranged marriages, neglected by their husbands, exploited by their families, or reduced to supporting themselves as prostitutes or bar hostesses. Filmmakers like Naruse and Mizoguchi showed admirable compassion for women's suffering and turned an admirably sharp eye on the weak and selfish men who cause it, but rarely offered hope that things could change. It is a surprise and a pleasure to discover a movie about a woman who refuses to accept her lot, and who not only fights back but wins.

The astonishing Hideko Takamine plays Oshima, a woman who is rough around the edges, spunky and indomitable. UNTAMED is the episodic tale of her attempts to find a place for herself in a world that has little use for her. But this world is a Japan in transition, and the gradual embrace of Western modernity is an undercurrent throughout the film, mirroring the heroine's gradual climb towards independence. The film opens in 1912 (the first year of the Taisho period, an era of openness and modernization), with Oshima being married to a domineering, uptight shop-keeper (Ken Uehara). Her rebellious nature is already evident: she ran away from a previous arranged marriage on her wedding night, and she bears a scar from the time her mother hit her with a hot iron. Nonetheless she works hard and tries to please her husband, who goes on "business trips" to see his mistress, a smugly conventional beauty. Oshima is likeably forthright and down-to-earth, but still childish and unformed. Confronting the other woman, she is humiliated by her own plainness and lack of polish. Her husband habitually insults her and finally throws her out of their bedroom after an argument, causing her to fall downstairs and have a miscarriage. Quick divorce ensues. Throughout the film, adultery and divorce are ubiquitous and seemingly carry little stigma.

No one wants to give Oshima a home, so she is sent to the mountains in Hokkaido to work as a maid at an onsen (hot spring) to pay off her brother's gambling debts. There she begins an affair with the married owner (the elegant, melancholy Masayuki Mori), who is gentle and appealing but incorrigibly weak and ineffectual. She refuses to let him support her as his mistress, and drifts first to another onsen, then back to Tokyo where she boldly moves from doing hand-sewing at home to working on a sewing-machine in a small factory where she is the only woman. Determined to move up in the world, she sells her trousseau to open her own tailor's shop, teaming up with the homely manager Onada (Daisuke Kato), whom she marries. His laziness dooms their first venture, and they have violent fights, but she sticks with him and eventually their third shop succeeds. He grows a moustache and starts wearing Western suits; she dons dresses and hats, rides a bicycle and passes out advertising handbills; a Victrola appears on the tatami mats.

When Oshima discovers that her second husband—a vain, petulant buffoon—is also two-timing, she decides to leave him and set up shop on her own. Not only does she declare her independence in the final scene, it also seems that her reward for enduring a string of disappointing men will be the young, drop-dead-gorgeous Tatsuya Nakadai (whose first appearance prompted wolf-whistles from the audience with whom I saw this film.) He's an employee in the tailor shop, and Oshima simply claims him—over the telephone, our first glimpse of yet another symbol of modernity—summoning him to a hot spring to discuss the new business venture. Talk about taking charge! In his brief cameo Nakadai doesn't have much to do except stand around looking handsome, but he was at the start of a long and very distinguished career in which he successfully avoided typecasting as a pretty boy. Already visible here is his irresistible enthusiasm, an inner fire that leaps through his almost too perfect face and shines from his soulful eyes.

All of the acting in UNTAMED is flawless, but Hideko Takamine effortlessly dominates. Contradicting the demure and graceful stereotype of the Japanese woman, she has a slouching posture, a slightly coarse voice and a kind of dynamic clumsiness. When drunk she crashes through a painted screen, and she engages in several punching, kicking, biting, rolling-on-the-floor brawls, first with her husband and then with his mistress. We constantly see her at work: rolling up her skirt to walk through rain or snow, standing barefoot in a stream washing clothes, running along a hallway polishing the floor, sewing and doing sums with an abacus. She is a very ordinary, and at the same time extraordinary woman; her resilience, bravery and unquenchable spirit reveal themselves gradually and always credibly. The episodic structure of UNTAMED can be hard to follow, and at first the film feels slightly glum and aimless. But as it builds steam (like the trains that appear with increasingly frequency) it becomes deeply involving, capturing the rhythm and texture of daily life. As Oshima stumbles and rebounds, she engages the sympathy so strongly that the film becomes suspenseful as we wait to see what will happen next. The last third has a comic, outrageous mood, but the final shot of Oshima walking in the rain has the grace and inchoate melancholy of a woodblock print. Calm and mature, the woman who has never fit in finally looks at home.
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Daisy Kenyon (1947)
Love triangle with rich noir shadows
13 May 2008
Warning: Spoilers
The Preminger Paradox has often been noted: Otto was a notorious tyrant on the set, but his films are like courtrooms in a good way. Everyone gets a fair hearing. The keynote of Preminger's movies is moral ambiguity; they never turn on a simple axis of good and evil, and they feature few characters who are entirely sympathetic or unsympathetic. And despite his legendary tantrums, he consistently drew subtle, tamped-down performances from the actors he terrorized. DAISY KENYON displays all of these virtues and uses them to complicate what would otherwise be a conventional love-triangle plot. The film is impressive in its nuance, complexity and ambivalence. It's not completely satisfying, but perhaps that's the point. By the end, you realize that no possible outcome to the story can really be a happy ending.

It's trite but tempting to say that this is a Joan Crawford movie for people who don't like Joan Crawford. Despite her central, eponymous role, Crawford as Daisy is never as interesting as the two men in her life, Dan O'Mara (Dana Andrews) and Peter Lapham (Henry Fonda). Neither Andrews nor Fonda wanted to do the movie, presumably feeling that they would be playing second fiddles to the female star, but they outshine her. Crawford wanted desperately to do the movie, and it's easy to see why: at 40-something she gets to play an attractive young career-woman being fought over by two very attractive men. (Some predicament! I guess that's why they call this a "woman's picture.") However, girlish dresses with lace collars don't make Crawford look any younger, and the shadowy lighting allegedly designed to hide her wrinkles only adds to the inappropriate sense that she might be about to reach for a carving knife. Crawford is great in MILDRED PIERCE, SUDDEN FEAR and POSSESSED, all made around the same time. Here she's not only too old but too strong and too alarmingly intense for a character who should be softer and more likable.

Daisy is a successful commercial artist involved with a married man. She loves him but knows it's a dead-end relationship, so she agrees to marry another man whom she doesn't love, but who needs her badly. This is pretty standard stuff, but in detail it's oddly persuasive. Dan O'Mara is a glib, high-powered lawyer, spoiled and overconfident, a man who cheats on his wife and treats her with cold contempt. He's a heel—and yet Dana Andrews makes him not only sexy but somehow sympathetic. (This was the third of four films Andrews made with Preminger, a quartet that gave him his best roles and made brilliant use of his gift for ambivalence.) Everything comes too easily for Dan; he knows he's smarter than the people around him, and his charm is irresistible, despite his slick habit of calling everyone "honeybunch" and "dewdrop." His daughters adore him, his secretaries adore him, maitre-d's adore him. Then everything goes wrong: he loses the first case he ever really cared about (defending a Japanese veteran dispossessed of his land), he loses his daughters to divorce, and then he loses his mistress. The bleakness that comes out in his face feels like it was there all along, under the smirk. Dana Andrews had the most haunted eyes in Hollywood. Here they're haunted by self-knowledge.

Peter Lapham is a lonely, psychologically wounded veteran and widower. He's gentle and low-key; his vocation as a yacht-designer hints at something graceful and fine in him. But there's something creepy about him too; he declares his love for Daisy on their first date, then forgets to call her, then sets up surveillance and follows her home. "The world's dead and everyone in it is dead except you," he tells her unnervingly. Peter is obviously the more deserving man, but his method of pursuing Daisy is sneakily passive-aggressive, and they are never as convincing a couple as Daisy and Dan. You can't tell up to the last minute which man she will end up with, or even which one you want her to end up with, which is the film's triumph.

DAISY KENYON has been released on DVD as part of Fox's Film Noir series, which is misleading, but there is something hard to place about the film. The look is typical forties high-gloss (Daisy lives in a ridiculously palatial "Greenwich Village" apartment, which her lover refers to as a "hovel," on an eerily deserted studio street), but the shadows are as dark as any noir. And there is an undercurrent of unpleasantness throughout the film—nightmares, child abuse, racism, adultery. This too is typical of Preminger, who did more than anyone to force Hollywood to grow up and face the facts of life. The shadows aren't only in the cinematography; they don't just fall across the characters but spread from inside them.
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Two ladies show they can take it like men
28 April 2008
In The Silent Clowns (a book it is difficult to refer to without the adjective "magisterial"), Walter Kerr suggests that there were no important comediennes in the silent era because actresses were handicapped by the requirement that they be pretty, which, he suggests, prevented them from being really funny. Maybe Kerr never saw A PAIR OF TIGHTS. Anita Garvin and Marion Byron, in their third pairing, take their share of pratfalls without sacrificing their allure. The teaming of tall, statuesque, sultry Anita with tiny, cute-as-a-bug Marion was Hal Roach's attempt to create a distaff Laurel and Hardy, with Anita as the bossy Ollie and Marion as the hapless Stan. Their first effort, FEED 'EM AND WEEP, borrowed heavily from L&H's FROM SOUP TO NUTS (in which Anita has one of her finest moments as the nouveau-riche hostess defeated by a wobbly tiara and an elusive cherry), with everyone falling face-first into trays of food and Marion waiting tables in her underwear. The girls' gameness is impressive—and they really were girls, Marion just 17 and Anita all of 21—but the material is pretty shopworn.

A PAIR OF TIGHTS takes a different and much more promising tack. Instead of trying to be Laurel and Hardy, the girls play themselves, and deal with uniquely feminine problems like lousy dates. Here they are ravenous roommates stuck with a couple of tightwads (see the title) who don't want to take them out to dinner. When the men arrive, Marion canoodles with boyfriend Stu Erwin while Anita subjects Edgar Kennedy to a withering deadpan glare. In a long, long, long take, Kennedy squirms and fidgets under Anita's stony, disgusted gaze, before finally managing to open with, "So, how are you?" This is a perfect example of how total inaction can be funnier than people falling on their butts—which is exactly what Anita does when Kennedy gets up off his end of the piano bench where they're sitting.

The four set out for a drive, and Kennedy agrees to spring for ice cream cones. The rest of the film follows Marion's efforts to carry four cones through a set of swinging doors—she is hit from behind, from the front, attacked by a dog, and finally tormented by a horrid freckle-faced boy—while the three in the car get into a dispute with a cop who forces them to drive around and around the block, with Anita still glowering at her date. The film concludes with one of those escalating street battles that were a specialty of the Roach lot, following the exponential spread of quid pro quo as pedestrians start ripping each others' pants off or pasting each other with pies.

Anita and Marion never made another film together, which is a shame because they're both delightful and deserved to be in the spotlight. Anita Garvin will always be remembered by Laurel and Hardy fans for her menacing, vampy performances, while Marion "Peanuts" Byron is best known as Buster Keaton's leading lady in STEAMBOAT BILL, JR.

One last thought: just what WAS that stuff that passed for ice-cream, pie filling and pretty much any other foodstuff in silent comedies? I sure hope it was good for the complexion.
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The Fan (1949)
The critics, the audiences and the director were all wrong about this one--it's excellent
20 January 2008
Warning: Spoilers
When I got home from a screening of THE FAN I sat down to re-read "Lady Windermere's Fan," and came to the conclusion that the film is significantly better than the play. I don't think this opinion is as heretical as it sounds. Wilde's literary reputation rests largely on his exquisite aphorisms and his one perfect work, "The Importance of Being Earnest," my nominee for the funniest play ever written. Before he hit his stride with "Earnest," Wilde's plays were an awkward hybrid of sophisticated comedy and stilted melodrama, with creaky plots that heavy-handedly flogged their worthy message of tolerance. There is always a woman with a past, an acidulous dandy, a shameful secret, and a self-righteous young man or woman who has to come to terms with that secret.

Otto Preminger seems like a poor choice to interpret Wilde. He did not have a light touch, and anyone expecting sly, frothy comedy from THE FAN will be disappointed. (Watch the Lubitsch silent version instead.) Preminger downplays the comedy-of-manners aspect without eliminating or destroying it, but he succeeds in translating the cardboard melodrama into something subtle, complex and moving. Preminger's gift was for creating ensembles in shades of gray, with no black villains or white heroes. Here the whole cast is tamped-down and naturalistic: there is no mannered camp about the comedy and no teeth-marks on the scenery after the dramatic peaks.

The first half of the film is original, setting up the situation that the play lays in our laps in its first scene. To begin with there is a framing device set in contemporary post-war London, where the octogenarian Mrs. Erlynn (Madeleine Carroll) discovers the fan at an auction of unclaimed property from bombed buildings. In order to reclaim her property she has to prove ownership, so she tracks down Lord Darlington (George Sanders), now a doddering "museum piece" living in a remnant of his former home. We learn that Lord and Lady Windermere were killed in the Blitz; that the two worldly, ambiguous characters have survived the pure couple feels appropriate to a changed world. The frame gives the costume-drama portion a wistful edge; instead of the usual Hollywood gloss, here the past gleams through nostalgia like a flower buried in a paperweight.

The flashback unfolds as Mrs. Erlynn relates her story to the reluctant and skeptical Lord Darlington. George Sanders might seem like almost too obvious a choice to play this role. Some of the dialogue ("As a wicked man I am a complete failure. In fact, there are some people who say I have never done anything really wrong in my life. Of course, they only say it behind my back") might have been written for that inimitable dry-sherry voice, at once rich, acid and smooth. But Sanders, like the rest of the cast, does not lean on wit, delivering the bon mots casually, almost under his breath. Instead, he comes as close as I've ever seen him to suggesting raw feeling behind the polished facade of disdainful boredom. As Lady Windermere, delicate Jeanne Crain turns the tiresomely shrill, uncompromising puritan of the play into a fresh, gentle innocent, a young woman of innate but untested fineness. It's like watching a paper doll come to life.

But this is Madeleine Carroll's movie. All too often relegated to decorative roles, here she gives a nuanced performance as a complicated woman: flirtatious, scheming, unscrupulous, but ultimately brave and compassionate; proud but stricken with inconsolable regret. She manages the mother-love scenes with compelling emotion, never sliding into sentimentality. As a young woman Mrs. Erlynn left her husband and child for another man, breaking her husband's heart. In middle age, still relying on youthful allure and trailing a scandalous reputation, she returns to London. She is not above blackmailing her daughter's wealthy husband, Lord Windermere, who gives her large sums of money to spare his wife from learning the truth about her idealized mother, whom she believes is dead. Gossip turns this transaction into an affair, and Lady Windermere is devastated when she believes her handsome young husband has betrayed her.

Interestingly, the film shows Lord W. initially attracted by Mrs. Erlynn, suggesting he is no plaster saint. But he hardly deserves the agony of having to choose between losing his wife's trust or destroying her illusions about her mother. Meanwhile, Lord Darlington seizes on the alleged infidelity to declare his love for Lady W. and beg her to leave her husband for him. Would he really have devoted his life to her, or would he have abandoned her after a year, as Mrs. Erlynn suspects? We're never sure, but we believe that he still regrets losing her. This must be one of the few cases in which the movie version of a literary work has a less happy ending than the original. The elimination of Mrs. Erlynn's last-minute marriage suits the darker, sadder, more mature tone of the film—and since we see her in hale old age we know that she landed on her feet somehow. There is the faintest hint that she and Lord Darlington might make a December-December match, but it's not overplayed.

Few films have done a better job of hiding their stage origins; this one never feels static or talky, and the interpolated activities like a fencing match and a shopping trip feel natural and evoke an elegant lost world. THE FAN has more warmth and tenderness than many of Preminger's films, and if it doesn't belong with his very best, it certainly belongs with those, like DAISY KENYON, that deserve greater exposure and appreciation.
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Brother, can you spare a nickel?
12 January 2008
Warning: Spoilers
A few years ago the New Yorker magazine, in a breathtaking lapse of taste, published a fashion spread inspired by the iconic photographs of Dust Bowl migrants. Much as I deplored the sleek models in $400 distressed cardigans pretending to thumb rides along a dusty highway, the project tapped into a phenomenon I am hopelessly susceptible to myself: the mystique of the Great Depression. I'm attracted to the cultural products of the time: music, movies, fashion, architecture (why did the world have such thrilling elegance in a time of so much suffering?) But I'm also drawn to the zeitgeist: a profound disillusionment, ranging from wry to bitter, which stands out sharply from America's traditional optimism and innocence.

Please forgive this personal digression, but I think it is relevant to my appreciation of WILD BOYS OF THE ROAD, one of the most vivid—and least glamorous—depictions of the Depression I've ever seen. It's easy to romanticize freight-hopping, but this film, while thoroughly enjoyable, conveys just how awful homeless wandering was. At the same time, it helps explain the dignity that elevates those photographs of the Depression's victims—so foreign to our own graceless era. The key to every character's response to hardship is stoicism: a desire, above all, not to be a burden on others.

The film opens at a high-school dance, where the girls wear evening gowns, the kids dance to the Shadow Waltz (Warner Bros. never lost a chance to cannibalize its own products), and there are some pre-Code jokes about hanky-panky in the backs of cars. But signs of the Depression already creep in: one boy doesn't have 75 cents for admission, and when the main characters come out, they find someone has stolen the gasoline from their car, so they blithely siphon some from a handy convertible. They are Eddie (Frankie Darro, the junior Jimmy Cagney), a pugnacious but tender-hearted boy, and his best friend, the more retiring, sleepy-eyed Tommy (Edwin Phillips.) Tommy's fatherless family is already on the skids, and Eddie promises to help out, until he learns his own father has been laid off, and they too are soon on the verge of being evicted. Eddie bravely sells his beloved jalopy, then decides he and Tommy should seek their own fortune, leaving two fewer mouths to feed.

Step one, of course, is to hop a passing freight. They meet a girl their own age, Sally (adorable, freckle-faced Dorothy Coonan), a tough cookie traveling alone dressed as a boy. They are soon part of a community, with hundreds of bums crowding onto the trains and trying to evade the railroad cops who wait in every freight yard. Realizing they have the cops outnumbered, they decide to put up a fight, pelting the police with eggs and fruit. When they find out that a brakeman (Ward Bond) has raped another of the girls traveling in boys' clothes, they mete out vigilante justice. It's easy to imagine audiences cheering at these assaults on law and order. In a later, even more shocking scene, the cops come to clear out a shanty-town where the young vagrants have been living; again they fight back, but the cops turn fire hoses on them. Things get even bleaker when Tommy is run over by a train and loses his leg. Edwin Phillips is poignant without mawkishness as he tries to shrug off his loss, as he broods over being a drag on his friends, and as—in the film's last scene—he miserably watches Eddie turn handsprings down the street. Frankie Darro does his usual Cagney impersonation (in a hilarious touch, when he runs into a movie theater a Cagney film is playing) but shows real talent and presence. Sadly, none of the three young leads went on to prominent careers. Dorothy Coonan (a spiffy tap dancer too) took the role of Mrs. William Wellman.

The story is packed with incident and sprinkled with comic relief, some from Sterling Holloway, but it's not really a story as much as a portrait of a time, a people, a predicament. It's amazing and yet completely credible how quickly two middle-class boys turn into ragged panhandlers (they don't even ask for dimes, just nickels), one a cripple, one stooping occasionally to petty theft. The hobo community is painted warmly, maybe sentimentally, as loyal, diverse and supportive (blacks and girls are treated as equals). But no one is having any fun; they're not wild, just bone-weary. Eddie, Tommy and Sally wind up in New York, living in a garbage dump; here their fates take a turn for the worse and then an improbable turn for the better. The kindly judge who lectures them on how things are going to be better now, they are going to get a fresh chance, as the camera pans up to the NRA ("We Do Our Part") poster over his head, will likely prompt eye-rolling today. But the audience probably cheered for this too: think how badly they wanted to hear it. The last-minute idealism fails to dull the force of the movie, which approaches the biting austerity of Woody Guthrie anthems like "Hard Traveling" and "I Ain't Got No Home in this World Anymore."
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From Warner Brothers, another Depression Special
22 December 2007
Warning: Spoilers
It has been said that Joan Blondell's career suffered because she never got "Stanwyck parts." With BLONDIE JOHNSON, she got just that, and not even Stanwyck (before whom I bow down) could have done it better. Blondell is her usual wisecracking, tear-jerking, tough, funny, sexy self, but the film gives her more dramatic scope than usual and an edge of bitterness lacking in her wised-up-but-good-hearted sidekick roles. In the halcyon days of pre-Code Hollywood, it was no big deal for a movie heroine to be much, much smarter and more hard-headed than any of the men around her, as it was no big deal for a Japanese-American actress to a play a role in which—with one humorous exception—no mention is made of her ethnicity. (As part of a con game, Toshia Mori dresses up in a maid's uniform, but she's really a fur-swathed gangster's moll.)

The film opens with a five-minute prologue that sums up the Great Depression with such raw intensity you can practically taste the despair. In a Welfare Office, the bedraggled Blondie Johnson (Blondell, wearing no make-up and a drab suit) pleads for aid. She has been evicted and her mother has pneumonia; she lost her job in a laundry because she resisted her lecherous boss, and her younger sister died after becoming pregnant at fifteen. When her mother dies too, Blondie decides that only one thing matters: "dough—and plenty of it." A priest reminds her that there are two ways of making money. "Yeah," she replies, "The hard way and the easy way."

The next time we see Blondie, she's wearing a snappy velvet suit and conning suckers out of $10 bills by pretending to be a damsel in distress. She's aided by a friendly cabbie (Sterling Holloway); their friendship is sealed when they realize they have both been trying to chisel each other. Though she's not above batting her eyelashes at the chumps, for Blondie the "easy way" has nothing to do with latching onto a sugar daddy. Fiercely protective of her virtue, Blondie is determined to use her brains to get ahead, and while she teams up with a racketeer named Danny (Chester Morris), she holds him at bay (he tends to "talk with his hands") even though she really likes him. It's just that she has big plans, and "the one thing that doesn't fit into them is pants." Her plans involve deviously plotting against the big boss and working some deliciously clever confidence tricks. Ultimately she rises to be head of the "corporation," all the while denying her true feelings for Danny, even to the point of ordering him rubbed out when she thinks he's squealed. You know where this is going, and it goes there, but despite a limp "we've learned our lesson" ending, it's a great ride.

BLONDIE JOHNSON is obviously derivative of the previous year's BLONDE CRAZY, but here is a case where, in the words of Mae West, "too much of a good thing is wonderful." The only flaw is that Chester Morris is no Jimmy Cagney; he is convincing as a rather dim bulb and shares none of the chemistry with Blondell that lit up BLONDE CRAZY. The supporting cast helps fill the breach, with Allen Jenkins earning a laugh at his first appearance just by being Allen Jenkins; Mae Busch as Jenkins's world-weary girlfriend; the lovely and sardonic Toshia Mori; and the inevitable "other woman," Claire Dodd. (Blondell would memorably kick Dodd's butt—literally—in the next year's FOOTLIGHT PARADE.) Blondell effortlessly fills the central role, deepening the mystery of why she didn't get more starring parts. Matthew Kennedy, author of a new biography (I heard him introduce a glistening new print of BLONDIE JOHNSON at the Museum of Modern Art last week) suggests that Blondell was simply too reliable; she was so good at elevating mediocre material that the studio saw no need to give her better scripts.

BLONDIE JOHNSON is a typical assembly-line product, predictable in the best possible way. From the art-deco lettering of the opening credits, so familiar from the Busby Berkeley series, to the courtroom finale, everything is just what you expect from Warner Brothers in the early thirties. The wisecracks go off regularly as popcorn popping. The music is dance-band jazz, the decor is pure deco, and Blondell sports some eyebrow-raising, peek-a-boo lounging pajamas. Society is indited for turning the underprivileged into criminals, and we are invited to enjoy their blithe crimes before they are dealt a half-hearted slap on the wrist. Blondell lends the lightweight yarn a core of gravity. Her wariness and cynicism cut through the fluff, even as her delectable looks, warmth and sly humor provide the necessary fizz. As Danny repeatedly tells Blondie, she's "a fresh dame." Seventy-five years later she's just as fresh, and she'll never go stale.
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"A lot of things happened in the war"
10 December 2007
"What is it, love trouble or money trouble?" a burnt-out good-time-gal asks the man she just picked up in a bar. She's seen all the troubles in the world, she tells him, "And they boil down to just those two. You're broke, or you're lonely." Most noir films confirm this: the hero is brought down by lust or greed or some combination of the two; by the temptations of crime or the lure of a femme fatale. But this time the world-weary hooker is wrong; her man's problem has nothing to do with love or money. It has to do with the war, when, as the man tells his wife, "A lot of things happened...that you don't understand."

World War II is an undercurrent in many post-war noirs. A generation of men had faced violence and death; they couldn't settle back into their ostentatiously wholesome communities, and they were all too ready to pull out their service revolvers to solve peacetime problems. ACT OF VIOLENCE offers the most direct analysis of the war as a source of noir angst, becoming both one of the best examples of the genre and one of the best films about the effects of war. Four years after America's victory, it was still daring to admit that not all of our boys behaved honorably overseas, and that our prosperity might rest on corrupt foundations.

Frank Enley (Van Heflin) is a perfect image of postwar success, a war hero with a thriving business, a nice house in the suburbs, a beautiful wife and a young son. This idyll of fishing trips and checkered aprons is invaded by Joe Parkson (Robert Ryan), a creepy, limping, gun-wielding, apparently deranged stalker. He was with Frank in the army and in a P.O.W. camp, and holds a mysterious, murderous grudge against him. The first part of the movie plays like a horror film, using magnified sounds--especially the slow, shuffling drag of Parkson's lame leg--in eerie stillness to heighten suspense. As we learn more about what really happened in the war, the black-and-white scenario of threatened innocence unfolds into a complex moral puzzle. Can desperate circumstances or good intentions mitigate an act of betrayal and moral cowardice? Is violent revenge ever justified?

Robert Ryan starts out in typical form: intense, tightly-wound, scary, seething with hate. But we also get to glimpse the suffering and moral outrage that underlie his tortured obsession. His anger might be righteous, but he's still a figure of terror. Van Heflin has the richer part, and he reveals the full measure of his under-appreciated brilliance. He doesn't look like a movie star--he was well described as "attractively homely"--and he doesn't act like a movie star either. He's so transparent and direct; he never advertises what he's doing. Like Arthur Kennedy, he specialized in ambiguity, playing nice guys with something shifty and unreliable about them, or unscrupulous heels with decent cores. Here he evolves from an amiable pillar of the community to a man so sick with self-loathing that he can hardly stand up straight.

In a classic noir trajectory, he moves from the sunny suburbs to the wasteland of an urban night, where the desolate streets around L.A.'s Angel's Flight mirror his state of mind. (The suburbs too have dark shadows and unsettling overtones, like the background motif of the Enleys' baby screaming behind the bars of his crib or playpen, trapped and helpless as his father.) At the end of his rope, Frank meets a friendly, worn-out barfly (a shockingly weathered and tawdry Mary Astor.) Astor works wonders with a clichéd part, all nervous tics and generosity pinched by fear and bad memories. She keeps talking about "getting her kicks"--it's all she has left. "Gee, there's no law says you gotta be happy."

In this seedy underworld, the man with the tortured conscience meets a man with no conscience, a killer-for-hire with a smooth voice and plump, evil face (Barry Kroeger) who plays the part of Satan, tempting Frank to get rid of his problem the easiest way. Heflin manages to retain sympathy for his weak and sometimes despicable character, through the honesty and vividness of his anguish. Fred Zinneman keeps the suspense mounting through taut, spare direction: no excessive music or flashy visuals or extraneous flourishes, just a relentless focus on the collision courses of the main characters, who include Frank's wife (the girlish, gorgeous Janet Leigh) and Parkson's girlfriend (Phyllis Thaxter), who doesn't want her man to be a murderer.

What would you do if you were starving, literally fighting for survival, and you had a chance to save yourself? What if you had done something terrible and knew that only one living witness knew about it? What if you were that witness? There are no easy answers in this movie, which attacks the popular notion that when a war is over it's over, and people can just get on with their lives. An "act of violence" is never the end, it always leads to another.
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Dark city, doomed gangster, stolen jewels--noir heaven
22 August 2007
With his silky manners and glittering eyes, Richard Conte was a prince among hoodlums: elegant, magnetic and sharp as a shiv. As the mugs and roughnecks of the early thirties evolved into more sophisticated postwar gangsters, Conte's regal bearing gloved the gangster's raw aggression in smooth style. (Significantly, he was one of the first Italian-American leading men in Hollywood.) Conte always looks like he's plugged into some private source of electricity, like you could get a shock from touching him. He needs that intensity here, since he plays a wounded criminal who spends most of the movie lying in bed or limping around, dragging a gunshot-riddled leg and crumpling with pain. He still manages to radiate menace and charisma, threatening or seducing everyone who comes near him.

Plot-wise, CRY OF THE CITY is that old chestnut about two boys from the same neighborhood (New York's Little Italy, presented with far more nuance and authenticity than Hollywood's usual spaghetti-with-meatballs style) who grow up on opposite sides of the law. Lieutenant Candella (Victor Mature) pursues Martin Rome (Conte) relentlessly after he escapes from a prison hospital; Rome is determined to clear his girlfriend of suspicion in a jewel theft by finding the real culprits. The plot is just a scaffolding to support a series of scenes in which Rome and Candella alternately vie for leverage and influence over an eclectic parade of supporting characters, all of whom seem driven by fear or greed. Desperation inhabits the city like weather. Director Siodmak, one of the masters of film noir, suffuses the film with a dark mood, atmospheric locations, and those corrupted personal transactions that define the genre.

In a hospital in the middle of the night a priest murmurs and family-members weep quietly over a dying man who is chained to his bed—Martin Rome has just killed a cop in a shoot-out. Later, after he has escaped and collapsed again, his girl (Shelley Winters in a leopard-print coat) enlists an unlicensed foreign doctor to treat him in the back seat while they drive around damp city streets, using neon signs for light. Stolen jewels get stashed in a locker in a subway station. Marty almost meets his match in a massive, burly masseuse (Hope Emerson), who looms over him as he works his bright-eyed, caressing charm. Their scene together is funny, scary and perversely titillating all at once, as the mountainous woman starts to massage his back and then gets her hands around his throat. Sadder is Marty's seduction of a plain, middle-aged hospital nurse who is burdened, we later find out, with a nasty, selfish, annoying old mother. At one point Candella reads off to Marty a list of all the former girlfriends the cop has had to look up, and Marty amusingly reacts to each name with regret, embarrassment or fondness. For this tough guy, sex appeal is as powerful a weapon as a gun or a knife—sometimes it's the only one he has.

All the time we're rooting for Marty—at least I was. CRY OF THE CITY perfectly demonstrates how easily movies can mess with one's moral compass. Marty is a killer and a selfish, remorseless crook, but his élan and vulnerability make him an irresistible underdog. His adversary, Candella, is a self-righteous moralizer, a monomaniacal Javert whose hatred seems inspired more by his enemy's charisma than by his crimes. Victor Mature's heavy, stolid presence sharply contrasts with Conte's proud, dazzling quickness. Someone once described Mature as an intelligent actor cursed with the face and physique of a dissipated life guard; I forget who wrote that, but it hits the nail on the head. The poor guy *looked* like a bad actor—all beef and no brains—even though he wasn't. Here his scenes with the Rome family are intended to soften his character, and he does have likable moments, but the way he turns them all—finally even the kid brother—against Marty only increased my sympathy for the endangered outcast. His accusation that Marty uses people is fair enough, but he lays it on too thick; it wasn't Marty's idea to enlist the illegal doctor or the "trusty" who helps him break out of jail. Booming, "Stop in the name of the law!" Candella embodies implacable authority, and who could root for that?

I like to think that in real life superficial concerns like these wouldn't get in the way of my knowing right from wrong, but this is a movie; style is bound to trump substance. Are films like this one—made under the Hays Code, when movies were not allowed to openly glorify criminals—deliberately subversive? The script says one thing, but the casting says another. In a way, that hypocrisy is essential to noir, an under-the-radar phenomenon that made caustic comments about human nature while ostensibly endorsing the Ten Commandments. For Martin Rome, a premature death isn't too high a price to pay for all the fun he had breaking the rules. And a clichéd ending is not too high a price for the pleasure of this movie.
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Blessed Event (1932)
If you want to know what "chutzpah" is, watch Lee Tracy in action
3 May 2007
Lee Tracy is one of the lost joys of the pre-Code era. He mostly played newspapermen (he was Hildy Johnson in the original Broadway production of The Front Page) with a sideline in press agents, and whatever his racket he epitomized the brash, fast-talking, crafty, stop-at-nothing operator. He makes Cagney look bashful, skating around in perpetual, delirious overdrive, gesticulating and spitting out his lines like an articulate machine-gun, wheedling and needling and swearing on his mother's life as he lies through his teeth. He was homely and scrawny, with a raspy nasal voice, and he always played cocky, devious scoundrels, yet you find yourself rooting for him and reveling in his sheer energy and shameless moxie. Audiences of the early thirties loved his snappy style and irrepressible irreverence; they loved him because he was nobody's fool. He's a rare example of a character actor—that guy who always plays reporters—who through force of personality, and the luck of embodying the zeitgeist, had a brief reign as a star.

In BLESSED EVENT he plays Alvin Roberts, a character based so closely on Walter Winchell that Winchell could have sued--but he probably loved it. When we first meet Alvin, he's a lowly kid from the ad department who has been given a chance to sub for a gossip columnist and gotten in trouble for filling the column with dirt—primarily announcements of who is "anticipating a blessed event" without the proper matrimonial surroundings. Soon he's become an all-powerful celebrity and made scores of enemies, including a gangster willing to bump him off to shut him up. There's a subplot about Alvin's ongoing feud with a smarmy crooner, Bunny Harmon, played by Dick Powell. Anyone who finds Powell in his crooning days repellent will appreciate Tracy's merciless vendetta. Actually, I think Powell is being deliberately irritating here—even in Busby Berkeley films he's not so egregiously perky and fey. He does sing one good song, "Too Many Tears" (a theme throughout the film), and a wonderfully witless radio jingle for "Shapiro's Shoes."

Alvin's standard greeting is, "What do you know that I don't?" The answer is nothing—at least not for long. But he's surrounded by worthy foils. Ruth Donnelly is both tart and peppery as Alvin's harried secretary ("You want to see Mr. Roberts? Oh, you want to sue Mr. Roberts. The line forms on the left.") Allen Jenkins, who keeps saying he's from Chicago even though his Brooklyn accent could be cut with a steak knife, plays a mug sent by his gangster boss to threaten Roberts. In a mind-blowing scene, Alvin terrifies the tough guy with a graphic, horrifying description of death in the electric chair. Tracy plays this monologue with unholy gusto; if you're not opposed to the death penalty, you will be after this. There's a funny scene in which Jenkins has to pass time with Alvin's sweet, clueless mother, who is continually thwarted in her desire to listen to the Bunny Harmon Hour on the radio. The usual suspects fill out the cast, those character actors whose very predictability is their glory: Ned Sparks the perennial gloomy pickle-puss; Frank McHugh the perennial hapless nebbish; Jack La Rue the perennial menacing hoodlum. Director Roy Del Ruth (who also helmed the wildly entertaining BLONDE CRAZY) keeps BLESSED EVENT going like a popcorn-maker; the sly, outrageous zingers just keep coming.

Lee Tracy's career never recovered after he was fired from MGM for a drunken indiscretion committed in Mexico. But I doubt he could have lasted long as a star after the Code anyway, since his films are gleefully amoral, frequently demonstrating that crime—or at least lying, cheating and riding roughshod over other people's feelings—pays. Every Lee Tracy vehicle contains a moment when he realizes he's gone too far, usually when the girl he fancies bursts into tears and tells him off. (Here he crosses the line in a big way when he betrays a desperate young woman who begs him not to reveal her pregnancy.) He looks suddenly abashed, protesting, "Gee, if I'd known you felt that way…I'd give anything not to have done that…Baby, sugar, listen…!" But two second later he's back to his old scheming ways. A reformed Lee Tracy would be like Fred Astaire with arthritis. Not that he isn't a good guy deep down…well, maybe. He has charm, anyway: an impish grin and twinkly eyes and boyish blond hair, like Tom Sawyer crossed with a Tammany Hall fixer. His reactions to sentimentality—to Dick Powell's cloying tenor or Franchot Tone in BOMBSHELL telling Jean Harlow he'd like to run barefoot through her hair—are delicious. He's salt and vinegar, no sweetening. In BLESSED EVENT Alvin has a fit when an editorial calls him the "nadir" of American journalism. Lee Tracy, on the other hand, represents is the zenith of the American newspaper movie.
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A ghost town represents Buster's life in 1934, but he still finds traces of gold
12 April 2007
In 1934, Buster Keaton was near rock bottom: he had been fired from MGM the year before, he had lost his wife, kids and home to divorce, and he was a severe alcoholic considered unemployable by most studios. Yet when he finally found work at Educational Pictures, a poverty row studio that employed many stars on the skids, he turned out some surprisingly decent work. Among the best of the short films he made there is the first, THE GOLD GHOST. Compared to his silent work, it looks cheap, tired and flat, but compared to the talkies he made at MGM it's a masterpiece. MGM shoehorned him into roles and comedies that had nothing to do with his own personality and style, turning him into a puppet (in his last MGM film, made when he was drowning in booze, he looks more like an animated corpse.) But the Educational films give him space to be himself, especially in long wordless sequences where he is alone on screen and the focus is entirely on his performance and his interactions with his environment. He looks worn out and much older than he had just two or three years before, but his movements are as subtle and expressive as ever, and his personality still charms.

Although Keaton took writing credit for only one of the Educational films (GRAND SLAM OPERA, by far the best of the series), director Charles Lamont, who was an old friend, confirmed that he contributed a great deal of material. This is evident from the fact that some gags are recycled from earlier films, while others bear his distinctive stamp. THE GOLD GHOST opens with Buster reprising his rich young twit character, dressed in top hat and tails. He overhears his girlfriend saying she will never marry him until he proves himself a man, so he gets in his car and drives away alone. Next time we see him he has run out of gas in Nevada and wanders into a ghost town, Vulture City, which was abandoned in 1898. Everything is covered in a thick layer of dust and cobwebs and falls apart at his touch. (This setting can't help but seem symbolic of his real-life situation.) At first stumbling around, encountering one mishap after another, Buster quickly adapts to his environment. He finds a sheriff's badge and guns, puts them on and adopts a hilarious parody of a cowboy walk—a delightful instance of his skill at mimicry. In the film's highlight he enters a saloon, winds up an ancient player piano that provides tinkly music, and has a vision of the past: he flirts with the ghost of a dance-hall girl and then shoots it out with some ghostly cowboys. The sequence is haunting and close to beautiful.

Keaton's writers could never resist bringing gangsters into his thirties films. Here a thug on the lam wanders into town, and the two become rather wary friends. Then some old miners discover gold and a new rush begins, and among the arrivals are Buster's girl and her father. The film's reasonably effective climax involves his efforts to prevent claim jumpers from stealing the mine belonging to his girlfriend's father, culminating in a brawl in which his ingenuity makes up for his lack of brawn. There are some bits of action here filmed as authentically as anything in his silent films, which is rare in these low-budget quickies. In the midst of the fight he bumps a slot machine and coins pour out into his porkpie hat, a nice image for the way he could still hit the comic jackpot.

Keaton had very clear ideas about how to adapt his film-making style for sound, and the Educational films demonstrate it well, giving a glimpse of what his sound features might have been like if he had had control over them. There's no unnecessary talking and no comic dialogue, and his character is particularly taciturn, but there's also a deliberate, sparing, atmospheric use of sound. Sound inescapably slows and weighs down the action, and Buster's deep raspy voice alters his otherworldly silent image. (Even in silence he no longer looks angelic; a scene of him undressed is quite alarming, since his once burnished physique is now frail and pasty.) But if he could make something this decent with a low budget while depressed and alcoholic, one can imagine how good his sound films could have been under ideal circumstances. THE GOLD GHOST is no work of art and no laugh riot, but for Keaton fans it's a pleasant surprise. And it's a telling reflection on Hollywood that he went from the richest, most prestigious studio in town to the cheapest and made better movies there.
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A desert island movie
21 March 2007
How do I love it? Let me count the ways...First, like a few perfect jazz albums, OUT OF THE PAST has a distinctive, coherent sound developed through various moods and tempos and melodies. Robert Mitchum is the lead soloist who dominates the score; the sound of the film is his sound, cool and weary and knowing. Though he doesn't sing in this one, no performance better demonstrates Mitchum's musicality, his sense of rhythm, pace and inflection. He referred to his dialogue as "the lyrics," and treated it that way, delivering his lines behind the beat, the way Sinatra sings. Jane Greer contributes her gorgeous dry contralto and Kirk Douglas adds a light, sneering counterpoint to an inspired group improvisation on the theme of disillusionment.

Mitchum is Jeff Markham, alias Jeff Bailey, an ex-private eye who made a big mistake by falling for Kathie (Jane Greer), the gangster's mistress he was hired to track down. Splitting up after he discovers she's a liar and a killer, he hides out in a small town, taking up with a nice girl named Ann, knowing it's just a matter of time before the past catches up with him. His narration and dialogue carry the film along on a laid-back high, like a series of perfect smoke rings. He sums up his philosophy of life in a casino when Kathie asks, "Is there a way to win?" and he answers, "There's a way to lose more slowly." When she says she's sorry the man she shot didn't die, he murmurs dreamily, "Give him time." His enveloping pessimism is strangely elated; Jeff knows the score and savors it like some private hipster knowledge. "She can't be all bad. No one is," Jeff's nice girlfriend says of Kathie, but he returns, "She comes closest."

Kathie Moffat is the greatest of all femmes fatales, because she's the least caricatured. She's not a scheming black widow, just a totally selfish, cowardly woman who feels no remorse for anything she does, and who happens to be beautiful and alluring enough that we can believe any man, even a smart and tough one, would fall for her. Jeff and Kathie's romance is genuinely rhapsodic, nothing like the usual mating of temptress and chump; they're both so sexy and smart and wised-up, always getting the joke together. The disillusionment wouldn't be so compelling if the illusion weren't so lovely. When Kathie shoots Jeff's partner, Mitchum—in a reaction shot lasting all of two seconds—shows Jeff realizing, and instantaneously coming to terms with, the fact that the best thing that ever happened to him is also the worst thing that ever happened to him. He looks simultaneously shocked to the core, and as though he'd expected it all along.

Jeff Bailey is a paradox: you'd think nobody could put anything over on this guy, yet he acts like a sucker; he exemplifies both cynical pride and romantic blindness. Does he know what he's getting into and deliberately delude himself? Is he drawn to Kathie because she can rouse him from his torpor of indifference, because he can only really care about his life when he's in danger of losing it? You're never sure, but Mitchum knows how to hold your interest without explaining himself. His essential "Mitchumness" lies in hidden depths, those hints of melancholy, amusement and cold violence that seep through his impassive surface, the suggestions of menace and compassion and old wounds. He gives the movie a core of mystery that's eternally captivating. Like great American popular music, it's sublime hokum, so well-crafted that it stays eternally fresh and means more to you the more you hear it.

Here is a world in which every throwaway gesture—ordering a cup of coffee, checking a briefcase—has drop-dead style, every word spoken is a wisecrack or a line of pulp poetry. Even minor characters and incidental scenes are rich and unforgettable: Theresa Harris as Eunice the maid in her fabulous Billie Holiday hat in the Harlem nightclub; the check-room clerk at the bus station, witness to who knows how many noir entanglements, with his hollow-man motto: "I always say everyone's right"; Joe Stefanos's black overcoat appearing like an ink-spot in the clean white town; the signs the mute Kid flashes to Jeff by the glittering lake, as the sky clouds over…

The movie floats from place to place, blending real landscapes and studio sets, expressionistic stairwells and Ansel Adams mountains. The episodes run together fluid and compulsive as a dream. Sometimes there's nothing but music and movement: Jeff prowling cat-like around Meta Carson's apartment while boogie-woogie piano plays in the next room. The cinematography is distractingly gorgeous, drifting into glistening abstract patterns of black and white, like the web of bare tree-branches projected onto the bodies of Jeff and Ann at their last meeting. A seamless blend of romance and cynicism, drama and humor, OUT OF THE PAST is not only a perfect Hollywood studio product, it's a definitive movie experience. It's supersaturated, yet it never feels overworked, never tries too hard. It just seems to happen, almost by casual serendipity; the wit and elegance and glamour are so unforced and alive. You succumb to it instantly and helplessly as Jeff succumbs to Kathie's magic. The spell breaks for him, but not for us. Disenchantment may be the theme of OUT OF THE PAST, but the movie itself is a source of perennial wonder.
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Pursued (1947)
A different kind of "horse opera"
14 March 2007
Warning: Spoilers
In his introduction to the video release of JOHNNY GUITAR, Martin Scorsese describes the film as "operatic," and the same term applies to PURSUED, which he also chose for the "Martin Scorsese Presents" collection. Thinking about it this way helps: who looks for logic or realistic behavior in an opera? What you look for—and get with PURSUED—is intensely aesthetic drama driven by passions both heightened and stylized. The screenplay is by Niven Busch, who also wrote DUEL IN THE SUN, and what saves PURSUED from descending into camp is not a better story but restrained acting, crisp straightforward direction, gloriously dark cinematography and an ominous yet contained mood that feels like an approaching thunderstorm. To properly appreciate the cinematic grandeur, you need to see PURSUED on the big screen, where the vast empty landscapes, looming walls of rock, and enormous close-ups provide the right context for this melodrama flavored with Greek tragedy.

Freud was trendy in the 1940s, and Hollywood turned out a number of overwrought yet simple-minded movies about characters whose twisted psyches can be explained by a single event in their childhoods (SPELLBOUND, THE LOCKET, etc.) The first thing you have to accept in PURSUED is that the hero, Jeb Rand (Robert Mitchum), has been scarred all his life by a traumatic childhood experience of violence that he can't clearly recall. We know that his whole family is dead, and he has been adopted by Ma Callum (Judith Anderson), who has a son and daughter of her own. Jeb never quite assimilates into his foster family: he fights constantly with Adam, who sees him as an interloper, while he and Thorley (Teresa Wright) develop a very un-sibling-like attachment. These undercurrents are revealed when Jeb leaves to fight in the Spanish-American war, and nothing improves when he returns as a hero. Controlled by impulses they can't understand, shadowed by the secret that only Ma and her sinister brother-in-law Grant Callum know, the three young people become puppets in a violent ritual. This is where the movie starts to strain credibility, especially when both Ma and Thorley turn implacably against Jeb after he kills Adam in self-defense. They've both known and loved this man all his life, so why can't they believe he's not at fault? "Blood is thicker than water" seems to be the only explanation. And when Thorley decides to marry Jeb and kill him on their wedding night, the film starts tipping towards the ludicrous. Her declaration, and the wedding night itself, are like a soprano's arias, while the scene in which Jeb courts Thorley has a sick, chilling quality, as they act out a polite mockery of their former innocent romance.

The role written for Teresa Wright by her husband Niven Busch is pretty much impossible to pull off credibly, since she starts as an open, gentle, loving girl and suddenly morphs into a cold, hate-filled avenger, only to change back again just as abruptly. Wright does her best, which is very good. Judith Anderson is superbly subtle in her portrait of a woman whose stubbornness and inability to admit her mistakes poisons her noble effort to make amends. Dean Jagger, a smooth-talker with an evil glint in his eye, manages to make a man insanely obsessed with vengeance believable enough to be scary. John Rodney is also excellent as Adam, whose envy and gnawing resentment destroy his decency. Where other actors might have worked harder to depict the mental torment, the waking nightmares that haunt Jeb Rand, Mitchum plays him with a numb remoteness, as an emotionally paralyzed man who has never really been able to connect with anything. His love for his foster sister is a yearning to latch onto her rooted normality, to be fully accepted, to make something good out of the wreckage of his past. But the perversity of the match, with its incestuous overtones, makes it an unlikely vehicle of salvation.

PURSUED was Mitchum's first lead in an A picture, and he not only makes the most of it, it makes the most of him. In the first scene he rises out of the shadows in a ruined stone house, his ruffled white shirt torn, long hair mussed, eyes dreamily haunted. His physical magnificence competes with the landscape, and both are monumentally flattered by James Wong Howe's camera. (Forgive me if I sound like one of the "Droolettes,"as an RKO publicist dubbed Mitchum's teenage fans.) He speaks in a hushed, weary voice sometimes barely above a whisper; as an added treat, he croons "Londonderry Air" and "The Streets of Laredo." PURSUED was also the first film to fully express Mitchum's persona as the eternal outsider, the man fundamentally alone and unable to fit into any community. "All my life I've known I didn't really belong," Jeb Rand says. Uninterested in steady work, adrift from conventional morality—though he has his own code, and a tender heart hidden away—he is distrusted, disapproved of and envied by other men. He's gambler, willing to risk whatever he has (here he loses his stake in the Callum ranch on a coin toss) because he knows in the end the best he can hope for, as he says in OUT OF THE PAST, is to "lose more slowly." A man doomed, alienated, yet strangely comfortable in that condition, relaxing into his peculiar blend of lucklessness and invincible self-assurance. In real life, Mitchum the former hobo loved to quote from Look Homeward, Angel: "Which of us has known his brother? Which of us has looked into his father's heart? Which of us is not forever a stranger and alone?" Or as Ma Callum tells Jeb, "We're alone, each of us, and each in a different way."
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About as much fun as a doctor's appointment
29 January 2007
With a cast including Robert Mitchum, Frank Sinatra, Broderick Crawford, Lee Marvin and Gloria Grahame, you'd expect hard-boiled crime drama. If so, you might want your money back after seeing NOT AS A STRANGER. One Hollywood wag remarked of the Mitchum-Sinatra-Crawford-Marvin lineup, "That's not a cast, that's a brewery!" and the actors lived up to their rowdy reputations, turning the shooting into "ten weeks of hell" for director Stanley Kramer. Mitchum described Crawford swallowing Sinatra's hairpiece with a vodka chaser (Of course, you never know when Mitchum is putting you on. But I like to believe he did call up Sinatra in Palm Springs to say, "Guess what? The Crawdad just drank your wig.") Sinatra took to calling Mitchum "mother" after he nursed Ol' Blue Eyes through a hangover. It's too bad Kramer didn't film these on-set antics; the footage would have been more entertaining than the plodding and earnest medical melodrama he did produce.

The casting is spectacularly misguided; for a start, everyone is almost twenty years too old. The film opens with the 40-ish Mitchum, Sinatra and Marvin as medical students observing a dissection, and right away credibility is strained. (If I walked into a doctor's office and saw Lee Marvin in a white coat, I would run.) And whose idea was it to cast the famously jaded, take-it-or-leave-it Mitchum as the rigid, idealistic, driven hero? Only top-billed Olivia de Havilland seems to belong in this type of movie, and she suffers from a platinum dye job and a mediocre Garbo accent. I waited more than an hour for Gloria Grahame to show up, and then she was wasted on a throwaway subplot that's over almost before it begins.

No cast could have made the movie much good. It's overlong, and the script is both obvious and underwritten; a few minutes into every scene I could predict what was going to happen by the end, and I foresaw the final plot twist about halfway through the film. The first half follows Lucas Marsh (Robert Mitchum) through medical school. For reasons never entirely clear he is obsessed with becoming a doctor, though his father (who drank up all the money his mother left to pay his tuition) tells him, "I don't think you'll make it. It's not enough to have a brain, you have to have a heart." Thus in the third scene we get the message of the movie, and have a pretty good idea of everything that will follow. Desperate for money to stay in school, Luke woos and marries Kristina (Olivia de Havilland), a frumpy Swedish nurse who—for reasons never entirely clear—is madly in love with him. (We know because she keeps telling him, "I love you SO MUCH!") It's made abundantly clear that Luke is brilliant and noble-minded—he despises the other students who just want to make a lot of money—but arrogant and intolerant of human frailty. In his first practice, assisting a kindly and intelligent small-town doctor (Charles Bickford) he does a wonderful job, but his marriage disintegrates as he falls for a seductive wealthy widow and his wife can't bring herself to tell him she's pregnant. You just know that sooner or later he's going to falter at the operating table and be shattered by the realization that He Too is Only Human.

To this oppressive script, add heavy-handed direction that hammers each point home with obvious symbolism and simplistic montages (and a few--but not enough--moments of unintentional hilarity like the whinnying stallion underscoring the first big Mitchum-Grahame clinch), and the most relentlessly overwrought music I've ever heard. No one except Sinatra, playing the only light-hearted role, manages to crawl out from under the lead blanket of this movie. My admiration for Robert Mitchum knows no bounds, and I wouldn't say he's bad here, but he's certainly been better. It's not that he's incapable of playing characters who care deeply or zealously pursue a goal (See HEAVEN KNOWS, MR. ALLISON or NIGHT OF THE HUNTER.) The problem is that Lucas Marsh is humorless, uptight and self-righteous, devoid of that perceptive, ironic, compassionate distance that's essential to Mitchum. Marsh is hot tempered, intolerant of others and blind to his own flaws—in other words, it's a Kirk Douglas part. Kirk would have been perfect, but Mitchum never really connects with the character. Maybe it just didn't seem worthwhile: Mitchum never gave more to a movie than it deserved. He does have some nice moments: the encounter with his pathetic father gives some explanation for why he's so disgusted by weakness; he plays well with Sinatra, strikes some sparks with Gloria Grahame, and excellently delineates Luke's feelings for his wife, a mix of boredom, admiration and guilt. He's pretty convincing in the doctoring scenes (there are way too many of these, at least for someone like me who gets woozy at the sight of a hypodermic needle.) But he seems a little bored most of the time, not that I blame him. Maybe I should have taken my cue from the actors and had a few drinks on hand.
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Somber and beautiful western starring the original noir cowboy
19 January 2007
The concept of the "noir western" is unthinkable without Robert Mitchum. Mitchum, who started his career as a heavy in B westerns and went on to be hailed as the "soul of film noir" for his world-weary cynicism and cool, doomed aura, defined the hybrid genre in 1947 with PURSUED, then followed with BLOOD ON THE MOON. The plot is essential noir: a man down on his luck is summoned by an old partner and cut in on a big deal; when he finds out that the deal is crooked and his friend is an irredeemable louse, he has to decide whether to accept his slide into corruption or fight to maintain his honor. The scheme just happens to involve cheating a man out of his cattle herd instead of some urban racket. The cinematography is literal noir; at least half the scenes take place at night, in a murk that rather obviously symbolizes the difficulty of seeing anyone's true nature.

None of the western clichés are here: there are no rowdy dance-halls or rip-snorting brawls or comical drunks, no steely sheriffs or white-hatted good guys. The mood is somber, tense and ambiguous, but the film does satisfy the requirements for a western: there are cattle stampedes, a savage fight, a gun battle and beautiful sweeping landscapes, including stunning scenes in a snow-bound pass, the white drifts sliced by the tracks of men and horses. All of the performances are restrained and natural. Barbara Bel Geddes and Phyllis Thaxter, as the daughters of the cattle baron targeted by the scheme, both avoid the glossy glamour that so often makes actresses look out of place in westerns. Bel Geddes is appealingly fresh, and does a good job with a character who starts out as a hostile spitfire in pants (she and Mitchum "meet cute" by shooting at each other) and then morphs into a gentle healer in a dress. Robert Preston is perfect as Riling, a smirking cad with an oily face and a plaid jacket; his former partner Jim Garry (Mitchum) sums him up with the classic line, "I've seen dogs that wouldn't claim you for a son." Walter Brennan adds seasoning as usual, this time poignant rather than comic.

Mitchum makes a beautiful cowboy with his long hair and elegantly rugged attire, at once authentic (on seeing Mitch in costume Walter Brennan reportedly declared, "That is the goddamnedest realest cowboy I've ever seen!") and romantic. In one scene he confronts a gunman on a wide, dusty street and walks towards him—that's all he has to do, just walk towards him and the guy knows he's outclassed. (Mitchum's panther walk is one of the glories of cinema—I would love to watch a whole movie of nothing but Mitchum walking.) I don't think Jim Garry smiles once (though he comes close in a gentle scene where the heroine, tending to his injured hand, asks about his fight with Riling, and he answers, "It was a pleasure.") He conveys a profound inchoate sadness, but as always he uses dry humor to keep emotion at bay. He's contained, laconic, defended. Not merely stoic, he's strangely passive, willing to let things go; his strength is tinged with melancholy because he can "take it," but he also feels it. Lee Marvin (Mitchum's one-time co-star) said it well: "The beauty of that man. He's so still. He's moving. And yet he's not moving."

Mitchum is mesmerizing because you sense so much going on behind the cool, impassive facade. It's partly his film-style acting, which happens under the surface, not on the surface. But under-acting can't fully account for his mystery. There's something fundamentally inaccessible, unknowable about Mitchum's characters, and this is what makes them so real. You never feel they are underwritten or inconsistent; instead you feel he's a whole and complex person who can never be fully explained. Despite his much publicized contempt for most of his work, Mitchum brings this tremendous gift to the slightest and shallowest of movies. BLOOD ON THE MOON, however, is worthy of him.
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Two perfect performances transcend the mismatched-couple-in-the-wilderness genre
19 January 2007
Warning: Spoilers
I can't shake the feeling that I shouldn't like HEAVEN KNOWS, MR. ALLISON as much as I do. The premise—a marine and a nun are stranded together on a Pacific Island during WWII—is hokey and implausible; I'm no fan of organized religion or the military; and Cinemascope Technicolor adventure movies are not my cup of tea. But actually it's a small-scale movie about two people alone together—they are the entire cast, apart from some extras playing Japanese soldiers—and I find it as moving as any love story I can think of, though it's non-traditional: platonic on one side, unrequited on the other. The script and direction are good, but the success of the movie rests entirely on Robert Mitchum and Deborah Kerr, who give two of the most beautiful performances I've ever seen. The respect and affection they show for each other (they felt the same off screen) elevate it above all other mismatched-couple-in-the-wilderness movies.

Deborah Kerr is so expressive she could have been a star in the silent era, though she does an excellent Irish brogue here too. Every feeling and reaction shows vividly but naturally on her face—from her queasiness trying to eat raw fish to her delirious spasms during a fever, from her childlike delight at discovering food left behind by the Japanese to her anguish when she thinks her companion has been killed. Her character, Sister Angela, is brave, funny, sensible, warm and open: you never question the marine's devoted love for her. Running around the hillsides and beaches in her flowing white habit, she looks like a little girl trying to keep up with her big brother.

But good as she is, Mitchum's Cpl. Allison is the engine of the story; he's the one who breaks your heart. It's redundant to complain that Mitchum should have been nominated for an Oscar as Kerr was. The chance of the Academy honoring a man with Mitchum's bad-boy reputation was always slim, and how likely is it that he would win a "best actor" award when he never looks like he's acting? With most actors, no matter how good they are you remain aware that they're giving "a performance." But you never, ever have this feeling with Mitchum; you can never see any mechanism at work, any thought-out characterization. You could watch this and think he's just some big, dumb, good-hearted guy. (Try watching it back to back with CAPE FEAR, where you might think he's just some diabolical sleazeball.) He uses a generic Brooklyn, working-class guy accent (he's supposed to be from Milwaukee, but so what?) and touchingly addresses Sister Angela as "Ma'am"--she treats him with equal respect, always calling him, "Mr. Allison." He's gentle and protective; more than any other, this role demonstrates Mitchum's ability to be macho—overwhelmingly, coarsely masculine—and at the same time incredibly delicate, tender and sensitive. There's poetry in his gestures, as when he whittles a comb for Sister Angela and wraps it in a leaf with a hibiscus flower. In a way, his love for her doesn't seem sexual, but more like the love for an adopted child or a kid sister. When he proposes to her he says, "I want to look after you"; it gives him such pleasure to take care of her, to know she needs him. Mitchum didn't need to act when it came to expressing affection for Deborah Kerr, whom he always called his favorite actress. Once during the filming, after they had been standing on sharp rocks, he got down on his knees, unlaced her shoes, and massaged her feet.

Kerr never suggests that Sister Angela is sexually tempted (though heaven knows, most women sharing a cave with Mitchum would be!) but her platonic love for him, and her pain at being unable to return his love, opens a wider world for her. Their relationship is truly chaste, with no innuendo, no exploitation of the dirty jokes inherent in the situation; John Huston had to fight to make it this way, since studio bosses actually wanted something more suggestive. It's delicate and yet mature—and it's sexy too: when Mitchum takes off his shirt to keep her warm, and the way he strokes her forehead gently when she's sick, and when he needs to undress her he holds up a blanket and hides his face behind it. Somehow despite being such an earthy man, Mitchum makes Allison's restraint entirely credible. Even when he gets drunk and expresses his frustration, you know he wouldn't do anything to hurt her.

I forgot the mention that the Japanese invade, and then the Americans invade, and our heroes catch a sea turtle and so forth; the action is always peripheral to the development of the personal relationship. I don't really like the final "moral" of the story, because the marine and the nun, after having the opportunity to abandon their institutions in favor of personal ties, turn back to the institutions. I love Allison's drunken speech about how pointless it is for them to adhere to their jobs alone on the island: "What are you gonna do all day, pray? Yeah, and I'd drill. I can see you telling your beads, me doing the manual of arms, on opposite ends of the island….We don't belong to anything off this island, all we've got is it and each other. Like we were Adam and Eve, yeah, and this was the Garden of Eden!" But I can't say I'd want the film to end differently. The respect and chasteness and sense of duty are what make the characters so appealing. They say goodbye with heartbreaking politeness; you can tell that despite all the danger and discomfort, they're a little sorry to be rescued.
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Understated and heartbreaking portrait of men at war
28 December 2006
Warning: Spoilers
As a rule, war movies made in wartime are propaganda; critical and realistic movies about war appear after the fact. An exception is THE STORY OF G.I. JOE, easily the best film about World War II made during the war, and one of the best American war movies of any era. It's not about famed correspondent Ernie Pyle so much as seen through his eyes; his compassionate observations create a portrait of an infantry company in North Africa and Italy, and a tribute to its commanding officer Captain Bill Walker (Robert Mitchum.) The film culminates in a set-piece based on Pyle's essay, "The Death of Captain Waskow."

Unlike most WWII movies, with their stentorian narration, maps and speeches and clear-cut missions, THE STORY OF G.I. JOE is reticent and nearly formless. There are many scenes of soldiers marching along roads, or waiting around in damp caves; one patrol after another sets out and returns without accomplishing anything in particular. Except for Dondaro, the resident "wolf" who thinks of nothing but dames, the soldiers don't fall into the usual stereotypes. Nor do they look like movie stars; they have real, varied faces. They're just a bunch of ordinary guys, with no obvious ethnic or regional characteristics. One is obsessed with his failure to get into the air corps; another incessantly tries to play a record of his son's voice. (This repetitive motif gets tiresome, but pays off in a big way. Freddie Steele is wonderful as the rough-edged, hard-working sergeant desperate to get back to his wife and child.) There are sentimental touches, especially the presence of a small dog whose whining and whimpering underscores tragic moments, but even this doesn't cloy. The dog is actually an effective symbol of the men's emotional vulnerability, their need for comfort and companionship. A little sentimentality is allowable because the film overall is uncommonly realistic. Like ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT, it's a war movie in which nearly every major character dies, and it conveys equally well the reality of the soldier's life: as the hero in ALL QUIET says, "Our bodies are earth and our thoughts are clay, we eat and sleep with death."

There is a touch of stylized lyricism in the film, and also a good deal of wry humor. Many of the comic lines are copied directly from the cartoons of Bill Mauldin, whose depiction of scruffy, un-heroic, grousing dogfaces was attacked by General MacArthur, but is brought faithfully to life in THE STORY OF G.I. JOE. There is very little action, and the film will disappoint anyone who seeks out war movies for the excitement and explosions. The few battle scenes have the quality of tasteful newsreels; they look realistic but aren't very engaging because they don't focus on the characters we have come to know and care about. Most of the deaths take place off-screen, and are accepted with numb resignation. Understatement is a rare quality in a war movie, and it's what makes THE STORY OF G.I. JOE so powerful. In one wordless scene Pyle sits in a cave while men return from a patrol, collapsing wet and exhausted. Pyle keeps turning nervously to the entrance as each man comes in, and you realize he is waiting to see who doesn't come back. Burgess Meredith is appropriately self-effacing as a man who admires the infantry soldiers so much he feels compelled to suffer alongside them, ashamed of his own safety and of his fame.

Mitchum is characteristically cool, sleepy-eyed and low-key, but his emotional sincerity and the nobility of his character belie his reputation for irreverent cynicism and his dismissal of his acting abilities with comments like, "Look, I got three expressions: looking left, looking right, and looking straight ahead." (He gives a similarly heartfelt performance in HEAVEN KNOWS MR. ALLISON, again as a soldier.) Here, beneath his tough, no-nonsense exterior he's soft-hearted and humane, anguished by his responsibility for sending men to their deaths. There's always a suggestion of sadness in Mitchum's mask-like face (he very rarely smiles) and in his deep weary voice, and both work beautifully here. His character is constructed subtly of small pieces: the way he responds to the crack-up of his faithful sergeant, the humorous scene where he strong-arms a quartermaster into getting turkey and cranberry sauce for his men on Christmas, and above all his conversation with Burgess Meredith as he exhaustedly swigs grappa while writing letters to the families of the dead. This was the scene Mitchum did to audition for the part, and his performance made William Wellman cry. Wellman later said it was one of the most compelling things he ever saw, and he wished he'd had the sets complete, so he could have incorporated the test into the finished film.

By the end of the film, you so love and admire this man that the sight of his corpse, brought down from a mountain by mule, is enough to convey the true heartbreak of war. One soldier sits beside him and strokes his hand; when he has to leave, he straightens the captain's collar and gently touches the side of his face before limping after the company. The fact that this mourner is a character we have not liked up to this point—the conceited, irritating Dondaro—and who has not had a warm relationship with the captain, somehow makes the scene even more touching, saving it from emotional overkill. The field of white crosses behind Pyle's head in his reaction shot is a mute rebuke to triumphalism—an astonishing comment to make just months before the end of the war.
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The Sea Wolf (1941)
"There is a price no man will pay for living"
1 December 2006
It's amazing what a really good actor can pull off. In the Jack London novel on which this film was loosely based, Wolf Larson is tall, blond, Scandinavian, an "ubermensch" flaunting his invincible strength and power over other men. Edward G. Robinson was very short and dark, almost gnome-like with little stubby hands, a homely face and nasal voice. Yet somehow he fills this improbable role, making Larson at once larger than life and credibly human.

Larson is, of course, the "sea wolf" of the title, captain of the Ghost, a mysterious, perpetually fog-enshrouded schooner. Manned by a crew of brutal and brutalized men, the ship is ostensibly hunting seals, but its real destination is a show-down with Wolf's brother, the even more colorfully named Death Larson. We never learn much about this sibling feud, or about the backgrounds of the major characters. Aside from Larson, there is George Leach (John Garfield), who signs on with the ship to escape a prison rap, and two passengers rescued from the wreck of a ferry in San Francisco harbor: Ruth (Ida Lupino), an escaped convict, and Van Weyden, a well-bred writer who becomes, as observer and interpreter of the action, the film's central consciousness. Larson refuses to put the two castaways ashore, seemingly out of pure spite. Leach plots to escape the ship, and the threat of mutiny hangs in the air.

As this summary suggests, the movie's plot is as foggy as its atmosphere, but this doesn't matter very much. The atmosphere, at once raffish and eerie, and the beautifully drawn characters provide plenty of interest, and there is also a serious and compelling theme. Larson's motto (from Milton) is "better to reign in hell than serve in heaven." Van Weyden, who becomes the secretly intellectual captain's confidant, realizes that Larson is afraid to leave his ship because only as its captain can he enjoy absolute power; on shore he would be forced to compete with his equals and betters. His sport is humiliating his victims and stripping them of dignity and self-respect. He gratuitously insults and torments all those who attempt to challenge him: in addition to Leach and Ruth, there is Louis (the excellent Gene Lockhart), a broken, alcoholic doctor who tries to recover his dignity after saving Ruth's life with a transfusion of Leach's blood. Larson won't let him, of course, and his desperate response prompts the writer's comment, "There is a price no man will pay for living." Larson even turns against Cookie (Barry Fitzgerald), his most loyal crew-member. Fitzgerald is spectacularly loathsome, shrieking with laughter and scuttling around his galley like a demonic leprechaun.

John Garfield, to his credit, was never reluctant to take supporting roles in films he admired. His part here, while secondary, is a pip: a defiant young roughneck, smarting with wounded pride, looking terrific in a tattered sweater and fisherman's cap. He gets a great introduction in the first scene, walking into a waterfront dive where he brushes off a pickpocket ("If you find anything in there, brother, I'll share it with you") and knocks out the recruiter who tries to slip him a mickey. On board the Ghost, he's the only one of the sailors who rebels against Larson; when ordered to address the captain with respect, he manages to make "sir" sound like a four-letter word. "Don't worry," he says before the transfusion, "This kind of blood never cools off."

Ida Lupino is wonderful (when was she not?) as the convict who has lost her spirit; her pathetic lady-like act keeps giving way to flashes of anger and underlying sadness. She and Garfield make a perfect couple, and their romance, which could have seemed like a sop to the box office, is deeply touching. Like Garfield, Lupino regularly played tough, resentful hard-luck kids. But her pale, waif-like delicacy and wistfulness contrast nicely with Garfield's rough-hewn sturdiness and combustible temper. They have three good scenes together: one where she finds him huddled like a whipped puppy in the ship's hold (he has been beaten after assaulting the captain) and they smoke cigarettes together. Initially hostile—he tells her scornfully that he only stood up for her because "I can't even stand to see a dog beg, much less a human being"—they quickly bond. He urges her to keep fighting and boasts that Larson can never break his spirit, while she wearily responds that nothing makes any difference to her anymore. Later they talk in a doorway, Ida in her nightgown, and he touches her arm, realizing that his own blood is running through it. They don't kiss, but their chemistry is palpable. Finally they play a love scene on either side of a locked iron door, whispering to each other with their lips touching the wall between them.

Eventually Larson's invincibility starts to crack, as he suffers from crippling migraines and hysterical blindness. He remains too vicious to arouse any pity, but Robinson makes him a fascinating monster. He conveys such a dominant, overpowering will that you hardly notice he's not physically imposing; his sneering voice, nasty laugh and devious intelligence make him genuinely scary. The intense performances of the whole cast knit together this unusual blend of boy's-adventure-story entertainment and serious drama, a classic of the Warner Brothers' minor-key style.
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Meanwhile, back on the home front...
29 November 2006
Many films from the mid-forties deal with men struggling to readjust to their civilian lives after their wartime service. NOBODY LIVES FOREVER offers a twist: the hero's pre-war career was as a successful con artist. He doesn't have any trouble getting his job back, but does he still want it? World War II is a source of anxiety and moral confusion in many postwar noirs, but this film (set during the war) suggests that a stint with Uncle Sam can straighten out a crooked guy.

In contrast to the convoluted plots so common in noir, this is a simple story. Just out of the army, Nick Blake (John Garfield) returns to New York to find his girlfriend has given the money he left in her keeping to another man. After clearing up that little business, he takes off for Los Angeles, where he is talked into fleecing a rich widow, Gladys Halvorson (Geraldine Fitzgerald.) Guess what? He falls for her and wants out, but has to deal with his vengeful accomplices. The plot is unoriginal but also foolproof, and the film's leisurely pace and rich characterizations are the primary appeal, evoking a raffish, Runyonesque world. Leading the troupe of colorful character actors is George Tobias as Blake's sidekick Al Doyle, who doesn't do much except tag along for the ride, cracking wise in thick New Yorkese and complaining bitterly when he realizes Nick has "gone overboard for this tomato." Walter Brennan is Pop Gruber, Nick's boyhood mentor in crime, now down on his luck and scraping a living with a telescope, selling "the moon and stars for a dime" and picking the pockets of his drunken customers. Then there's cadaverous, sinister George Colouris as Doc, a has-been con man consumed by jealousy of Nick. Even the smallest characters—from an ex-jockey bellboy to the counterman in an all-night diner who can't stand to hear the words "java" or "pal"—add flavor; they're a great bunch of "cheap, hungry chiselers." Richard Gaines (Jean Arthur's fiancé, Mr. Pendergast, in THE MORE THE MERRIER) is also amusing as Manning, the widow's business manager, whose only interest in life is golf. Only Faye Emerson, as the nightclub singer who betrayed Nick while he was overseas and keeps turning up for vague plot purposes, misfires; she sings well, but she's a little too bony, toothy and disgruntled for a femme fatale.

When someone suggests that after his sabbatical in the army Nick might not be up to conning the widow, he snaps scornfully, "For me that would be like turning over in bed." The same is true for Garfield playing this morally-conflicted-tough-guy role—but he never lets you feel he's just going through the motions. His performance is split between his "Jewish Jimmy Cagney" persona, spitting out lines like, "Come up with a rod and I'll make you eat it," and his sexy romancer mode. When he turns on the charm, his mark starts to melt like a snowman under a sun lamp. (I can sympathize, being a pushover for Garfield myself.) Geraldine Fitzgerald is lovely and gracious, with a frail, childlike innocence guaranteed to soften the toughest guy.

There are some scenes in smoky back-rooms, and a terrific show-down on a misty oil rig, but this noir is really about as dark as chocolate ice cream. It's full of low-key charm, often stemming from the culture clash between the mugs and the ritzy world they invade. Nick belies his pose as a sophisticate by making paper airplanes out of his program during a concert of classical music. ("Don't you adore Bach?" Manning asks, and Al, awoken from a deep slumber, replies, "Bock? Yeah, cold, with a nice big head on it.") Nick is also uncomfortable leading Gladys through a rumba ("A man looks sort of silly doing this") and looks like a fish out of water when she takes him to the mission of San Juan Capistrano. As was the case with Garfield (the former Julie Garfinkle) in Hollywood, it's precisely Nick's streetwise grit and bad-boy charm that win over the classy dame.

NOBODY LIVES FOREVER was the last film at Warner Brothers for both Garfield and Fitzgerald, who were equally thrilled to escape the studio. Garfield went on to form an independent company that produced his finest films, including BODY AND SOUL and FORCE OF EVIL. He and many others had good reason to resent the studio's relentless pigeonholing and the poor material they were sometimes forced to accept; but this farewell film is a reminder of what the factory system had going for it: a reliable output of supremely watchable movies. With its witty script, easy craftsmanship and excellent cast, NOBODY LIVES FOREVER is a prime example of how good an average, formulaic studio product could be during Hollywood's "golden age." It's a shame that, like so much of Garfield's output, this film is so hard to find.
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"What is wrong and what is right / Will be decided by dynamite"
20 November 2006
Warning: Spoilers
As the bombastic credit music fades, a prologue rolls across the screen, laying out the historical situation in black and white: evil government, heroic rebels. The opening scene presents the Cuban Senate passing a bill to outlaw all public assemblies. Just as your heart is sinking at the prospect of a heavy-handed and simple-minded pageant, the style of the scene changes. The senators are told to stand if they are in favor of the bill, and a few rise immediately. Then, one by one, in a series of close-ups, the senators glance around nervously, feeling the pressure to conform, look craven or embarrassed or merely indifferent, and stand. I've never seen a more subtly scathing attack on politicians, and it works because it's visual, not verbal. Instead of lecturing us, it lets us see for ourselves.

WE WERE STRANGERS is exceptionally well-directed by John Huston, shot not just with flair but with moments of disorienting originality, and inkier shadows than many a film noir (the actors' faces often half-obliterated by darkness.) The script is even more surprising, and it's hard to believe this film was made in Hollywood during the McCarthy era, or indeed any era, since it condones not only assassination but the murder of innocent bystanders for political ends. It stars John Garfield and Jennifer Jones as Cuban revolutionaries and features lame Hispanic accents and some atrocious back-projection scenes in which the actors appear to be walking in place in front of a movie screen. It could be a disaster, but instead it's gripping and fascinating; not a complete success, but both unexpected and unforgettable.

Set in Havana, the story centers on China Valdez (Jones), a proper young woman whose brother, a member of the revolutionary underground, is shot down in front of her eyes after passing out leaflets. Bitter and burning for revenge, China joins the underground and volunteers for a project headed by an American, Tony Fenner (Garfield) to wipe out the entire government by assassinating a high-ranking politician and then bombing his funeral. The small band of rebels moves into China's house, digging a tunnel from the basement to the family mausoleum of the intended victim. The group includes a relaxed, rumba-singing dock-worker (Gilbert Roland) and a wealthy university student who goes crazy with guilt because the man they plan to murder is a family friend. Meanwhile China is shadowed by Ariete, the secret police man who killed her brother: an oily, menacing villain whose suspicions of China are heightened by his lust for her and obsessive jealousy of Fenner.

Granted, Jennifer Jones looks ridiculously glamorous; even after she has joined in digging through the rotting corpses of the graveyard she appears in every scene with flawless eye makeup, crisp sexy blouse and upswept hairdo. Granted, her accent is on a par with Natalie Wood's in WEST SIDE STORY (all of the "Cubans" speak accented English; Garfield, thank heavens, speaks in his usual Bronx-bred tones) But Jones is good, wearing a hardened, mask-like face that barely conceals her terror whenever Ariete pops up. They have a terrific if obvious scene together, in which China sits rigid with mounting disgust and panic as Ariete messily devours a crab, pounding and crunching and slurping, gulping rum and getting drunker and sweatier as he tells her that he's really a man of sentiment and honor.

Garfield's performance is not at all what you'd expect; he's so restrained, in his early scenes he seems almost drugged. We never learn much about his character, a ruthless, efficient mastermind. Once he trades his light tropical suit for a grimy t-shirt, he becomes a more familiar Garfield: skin glistening with mud and sweat as he digs, he exudes grit and sex appeal and lets his façade crack to show vulnerability. With little build-up, he and Jones fall into a predictable clinch, in a scene unforgettably shot in pitch blackness with spare flashes of lightning. The triumph of his performance is that he never tries to make Fenner likable, charming or heroic; the irresistible Garfield grin is nowhere in sight. He's callous, laconic and impassive, yet somehow his charisma is overpowering. Because he was so intense and unafraid of emotion, I've never thought of John Garfield as an under-actor, but in his late performances it's remarkable how little he actually does. He gets tremendous effects out of stillness, often just watching and listening to his busier co-stars. You feel what he feels, almost physically; he has no need for pantomime.

*********SPOILERS BELOW****************

WE WERE STRANGERS is a blend of stark honesty and Hollywood clichés, brilliant direction and cheesy effects. Unfortunately, at the end, Hollywood wins. Garfield gets to go out in style, holed up with his true love, blasting away with a machine gun, lighting sticks of dynamite from his cigarette and lobbing them like hand grenades at the police. Jennifer Jones makes a hokey speech over his corpse—and then the revolution breaks out and in five minutes the government topples! The film never really comes to terms with its endorsement of mass murder (Gilbert Roland insouciantly sings, "What is wrong and what is right / Will be decided by dynamite"), and it's hard to say whether it shows honorable ambivalence or shameful woolly-mindedness. But I came away from this strange, flawed, feverish movie electrified. How did it ever sneak out of 1940s Hollywood?
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Gentlemen prefer Louise--can you blame them?
8 November 2006
Warning: Spoilers
The few stars of the silent era who retain the power to draw audiences today have salvaged many films that would otherwise be entirely forgotten. These films don't survive by virtue of artistic merit, like METROPOLIS or THE CROWD, but by virtue of starring (or even featuring in a minor role) someone like Greta Garbo, Buster Keaton, or Louise Brooks. LOVE 'EM AND LEAVE 'EM is one of these films: without the presence of Brooks, it's unlikely that it would ever be shown. But there's historical value in such examples of average fare, and this film in particular functions as a time capsule of the 1920s. The clothes and sets alone are a treat for those interested in the period, and they realistically evoke the lives of young working people in New York.

A slight but charming film, LOVE 'EM AND LEAVE 'EM revolves around two orphaned sisters who live in a boarding house and work at a department store. The older sister Mame (Evelyn Brent) is responsible, virtuous, and slightly frumpy; the younger sister Janie (Louise Brooks) is a handful, a spoiled cutie who lives for Charleston contests and gets ahead by flirting with every man in sight. She has no scruples about stealing her sister's boyfriend (or her clothes) while she's away on a vacation, and she gets into trouble when she loses the money she's supposed to be collecting for an employees' dance on the horse races. Mame is saintly enough to come to her rescue in spite of everything, but she does so in a way that's anything but saintly, and that reveals her to be a more formidable woman than we previously suspected.

Evelyn Brent (perhaps best known as "Feathers," the gangster's moll in UNDERWORLD) is a striking woman, with narrow dark eyes, a pre-Raphaelite profile, and an intense, brooding presence. Unfortunately for Brent, she has to share the screen with the 19-year-old Louise Brooks, a situation no actress would welcome. As the spoiled Janie, Brooks is so natural and perfectly cast that you wonder if she's acting at all—which can be a definition of great acting. Somehow you can't help but like her bratty character: she's so unrepentantly selfish, and so lustrous with youthful energy and delight in her own adorableness. She glistens, with her patent-leather bob and slinky black satin dresses, her bright black eyes and snow-white face, her incandescent smile. She has a Ziegfeld girl's wiggly walk, and at the employees' dance she gets to cut loose with a fast Charleston, dressed in black tights, a white tutu, a black leotard and a white top-hat. The camera didn't just love her, it was infatuated with her. An unrepentant, fun-loving sex kitten who lives off men and throws tantrums when she doesn't get her way…come to think of it, Janie Walsh is not so different from Pabst's Lulu, though presented with none of the nuance or depth of Brooks's definitive role.

Leading man Lawrence Gray is a nondescript actor, and his character is something of a jerk even before he starts cheating on his fiancée with her sister. He has a high opinion of his skills as a window-dresser despite the fact that all his good ideas come from Mame; it never occurs to him to acknowledge this when he's praised by his boss. This character—the cocky young man who needs to learn some hard lessons—is common in films of the twenties. In this case, however, he doesn't seem to learn anything. Finally, Osgood Perkins plays the creep down the hall who lures Janie into betting on the races, and cheats her out of her money when she wins. He's perfect as a homely would-be Casanova, who "spent six months curing halitosis only to find he was unpopular anyway." He thinks he's going to get lucky when Mame goes to his room for a drink: instead, she steals his wallet and then beats the stuffing out of him. Now if only, for a finale, she would repeat the procedure on her straying boyfriend!
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Sublime style elevates a familiar melodrama
23 October 2006
Warning: Spoilers
The opening of THE WONDERFUL LIES OF NINA PETROVNA is a primer in late silent film-making style. As a movie from the forties might start with voice-over narration, this movie starts with a visual exposition that lays out the premise without the need for a single word. Close-ups of a rococo clock, a maid filling a luxurious bath, an opulent breakfast tray, lead into a tracking shot through a sumptuous apartment, so fluid and swift that it's almost dizzying. The pan leads us out onto the terrace, where Nina Petrovna (Brigitte Helm) lounges, fingering a rose. In a few close-ups her character is fully sketched: the sensuous boredom of a kept woman giving way to girlish excitement as a handsome young soldier passes in a military parade. The sleek and wealthy officer who keeps her in the villa arrives; she extends her hand from behind the door where she's bathing to languidly accept a jeweled bracelet. The smitten young soldier beams over the rose she tossed him.

The entire film unfolds this way, in long, deliberately paced scenes full of sophisticated touches and expressive close-ups. The lavish sets and costumes evoke an elegant St. Petersburg, full of smartly uniformed officers, smoky clubs, bright shop-windows, dim snowy streets and candle-lit rooms. In a palatial restaurant, Nina again spots the young soldier, Michael Rostof (Franz Lederer), and to cover their obvious infatuation with each other, she lies to her lover that they were childhood friends. Col. Beranoff (Warwick Ward) invites Rostof to join them, presumably in order to confront his mistress with her lie, but Nina and Michael are so besotted that they waltz rapturously under the colonel's jealous eye. They spend a tipsy but innocent night together, and when Beranoff discovers them playfully eating breakfast on the floor, Nina leaves behind the villa, the furs and the jewels.

We next see her peeling potatoes in a humble flat, but she and Michael are ecstatically happy together; when their electricity is turned off because they can't pay the bill, Nina lights a candelabra and says, "Isn't this so much nicer?" Desperate for money, Rostof gets into a card game at the officer's club; when the colonel joins in, you can see disaster coming a mile off ("Lucky in love, unlucky at cards," as Beranoff points out predictably.) At about this point, the characters stop behaving like credible, sensible human beings and start following the conventions of romantic melodrama. I won't give away the details of the denouement, which is driven by Beranoff's determination to get Nina back at any cost, but I will say that it contains my least favorite narrative convention: the Noble Sacrifice.

This device (think CAMILLE) involves one character (usually, though not always, the woman) making a sacrifice for her beloved which he would certainly not want her to make, and then lying to him about it, all for his own good. The idea of lying to anyone "for his own good" disgusts me; it's so condescending to assume that the deceived will be happier in ignorance. And I can't understand how telling someone you love that you don't love them—in fact, you never loved them, it was all a game, ha, ha!—could be construed as noble, or even acceptable. Invariably, the beloved storms out, devastated, and the deceiver collapses in hysterical grief. You're supposed to admire the sacrificer, who not only gives up her beloved but slanders herself in the process; but my sympathy is always for the deceived, who is left heartbroken and—through no fault of his own—looks like a foolish ingrate to boot. Suffice it to say that the sacrifice, and the lie, are particularly sadistic in this case, and the movie finds a way to leave everyone miserable.

Brigitte Helm, immortal for her dual role in METROPOLIS, is a revelation with her expressive, readable face. She is physically reminiscent of both Dietrich and Norma Shearer, with a bit of Garbo thrown in, and has a come-hither gaze that few men, I imagine, could resist. Her performance is warm, subtle, and extremely articulate. Franz Lederer, who in the same year nestled his head in Louise Brooks's lap in PANDORA'S BOX, is just as handsome here. While not quite as skillful an actor as Helm, he is touching in his boyish openness, his dark-eyed melancholy frequently giving way to joyous smiles. Warwick Ward makes a perfectly loathsome villain: smug, poised and cruel.

Fans of sublime romantic tragedy will find this film totally satisfying; for those like me who are irked by it, the style and artistry still make it richly rewarding.
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