24/12/2009

The Gold Rush (1925)


Some critics, clamouring desperately for a controversial opinion, will tell you that Charlie Chaplin is unforgivably sentimental and pretentious or that he's an inferior artist to Buster Keaton. These people are morons. Only the emotionally stunted could snub Charlie's unabashed humanity as "sentimental". The man simply has a big heart, a ready reservoir of sympathy for the plight of his fellow man born from his experiences of growing up in abject poverty in south east London. And as G.K. Chesterton said, "It is as healthy to enjoy sentiment as to enjoy jam." Similarly, Chaplin's aspiring to articulate profound, universal truths through his comedy, to make popular art, could only be called "pretentious" by the terminally shallow. As for his lacking Keaton's comic talents, Sight & Sound reviewer David Robinson put it best in 1972 when he wrote, "All they had in common was the chosen trade of creating laughter... Keaton's was an art of understatement, of concealment; Chaplin's of virtuosity and display". Comedian Paul Merton rightly labelled the debate "tiresomely idiotic" in his book Silent Comedy (2007) and surely put it to bed with the ultimatum, "they are both fantastic. There's no need to choose between them. Enjoy them both!" Quite so. There's more than enough room for The Gold Rush and The General (1926) in this crazy world.

The Gold Rush finds the Little Fellow turned Lone Prospector in Alaska, 1898, and contains many of Charlie's best known routines, including the classic boot eating scene (above), the log cabin teetering on the edge of a snowy precipice, Big Jim McKay's (Mack Swain) chicken hallucination and, of course, the dance of the rolls (below). The inventiveness of this first set piece cannot be over-emphasised. Twirling the laces like spaghetti, fillitting the sole like a fish, cracking the hobnails like wishbones - genius, nothing less. However, genius came at a price for poor old Swain, who wound up with a nasty case of the runs after consuming one too many prop leather boots made from liquorice over multiple takes. A nice little story-of-the-scene for you there. Incidentally, another boring point frequently raised by Chaplin-deniers is that he stole the dance of the rolls sequence from Keaton's directorial debut, The Rough House (1917), starring Fatty Arbuckle. Well, so what? You say rip-off, I say homage. Charlie makes more of it anyway.


I can only say that anyone who doesn't feel for Chaplin in his naive pursuit of the more worldly dance-hall girl Georgia (Georgia Hale) must be a bigger bastard than Black Larsen. But the happy ending awarded to the nouveau riche tramp must have seemed bitterly ironic to Chaplin, given his sad personal circumstances at the time. The part of Georgia was to have gone to the underage Lita Grey (who had previously appeared as an angel in The Kid, 1921) until Charlie became romantically involved with her, got her knocked up and was hustled into a shotgun wedding in Mexico by the girl's scheming mother and uncle, a shyster lawyer. The ceremony occurred just three days after the funeral of director Thomas H. Ince, "the father of the Western", whose death after a party aboard William Randolph Hearst's yacht, the Oneida, remains a mystery to this day. Some say Hearst himself put a bullet in Ince's brain, mistaking him for Chaplin, whom he suspected of carrying on with his own mistress, Marion Davies. This is certainly the thesis of Peter Bogdanovich's film The Cat's Meow (2001) and would explain the hostile coverage meted out by Hearst's newspapers when Chaplin divorced Grey in 1927. Lita's full first name, Lillita, provided the inspiration for Vladimir Nabokov's notorious "nymphet" and she is described bitchily by Kenneth Anger in Hollywood Babylon (1975) as, "Impudent but not clever, with a broad face and low forehead, she was backward in school." Nevertheless, the little tramp left the Little Tramp short of a million dollars with two sons and prematurely grey hair.

Still, Charlie can take heart from the fact that The Gold Rush remains one of the most pioneering comedies ever committed to celluloid. Building on the comedy of peril popularised by Harold Lloyd in Safety Last! (1923) with epic scale and great jokes, Chaplin never neglects a very human story of hunger and longing. See the 1942 version for his hilarious narration: "You can be most annoying at times", Big Jim mutters to the Little Fellow, as his fidgeting almost causes them to plummet to their deaths in the wayward cabin. On that note, have a very merry Christmas and gawd bless us, every one.

22/12/2009

The Man From Laramie (1955)


This was Anthony Mann's eighth and final film with Jimmy Stewart (five of which were Westerns) and is sadly something of a let-down. Stewart plays Will Lockhart, a trader seeking revenge for the murder of his cavalryman brother whose troop were wiped out by Apache warriors brandishing automatic rifles. Lockhart considers the man who sold the weapons to the Indians to be directly responsible and ventures out to track him down. While delivering goods to the town of Coronado, Lockhart gets caught up in the affairs of cattle baron Alec Waggoman (Donald Crisp), New Mexico's answer to King Lear. The old patriarch is going blind and agonising over how best to divide up his kingdom: should the Barb ranch go to his no-good son Dave (Alex Nicol) or trusty foreman and surrogate Vic Hansbro (Arthur Kennedy)?

There are some shockingly violent action sequences here, notably Lockhart's lassoing at the salt flats and Dave blasting a hole through his hand, but these moments are too sporadically placed and abrupt. The mountainous terrain suitably echoes the characters' angst but Mann spends too much time labouring over the tedious Oedipal psychodrama absorbing the Waggoman clan and too little examining Stewart's haunted avenger. Mann's other characters are simply less interesting than Lockhart (Nicol and Kennedy are physically similar and often hard to tell apart), although Aline MacMahon does bring some very welcome sass as rival rancher Kate Canadine.

All-American everyman Stewart adds another obsessive to the impressive roster of psychotics he had begun accumulating in the fifties in his work with Mann and Alfred Hitchcock*. Lockhart, a former army captain himself, takes to the trail as a frontier detective trying to unravel a whodunnit. "Hate is unbecoming on some men, Mr Lockhart. On some men it shows", his companion Charley O'Leary (Wallace Ford) observes. While he is motivated by a hatred of injustice, Lockhart remains a hard man to read. Although he knows the Indians carried out the atrocity that claimed his brother, he refuses to blame them, unlike John Wayne's racist Ethan Edwards in The Searchers (1956). Instead he is fixated on the mysterious, amoral gun runner who made it possible. Similarly, he does not devote much time to rounding up Dave Waggoman's posse, who, after all, dragged him through fire, razed his wagons and executed his mules. Lockhart seems quite satisfied with the financial restitution offered by Alec and a brief wrestle, whereas the similarly affronted Jed Cooper (Clint Eastwood) in Hang 'Em High (1968) signs up as a marshal in order to mercilessly hunt down and persecute those who wronged him. Lockhart's acute but idiosyncratic interpretation of the case before him is never sufficiently probed by Mann. In the end, the man from Laramie winds up leaving town as opaque and unexplained as when he first arrived.

Ultimately the film, co-scripted by Frank Burt, the man behind Stewart's Six Shooter radio show, proves a disappointingly so-so outing but worth a punt anyway and memorable for the damn silly theme song by Lester Lee and Ned Washington. Bizarrely, former BBC Radio 2 DJ Jimmy Young scored a UK number one with this laughable ballad in 1955. All together now...

"The man from Laramie,
He was a man with a peaceful turn of mind,
He was kind of sociable and friendly,
Friendly as any man could be,
But you never saw a man out-draw
The man from Laramie."

21/12/2009

Jane Eyre (1944)



You've got to love a nice, stodgy, overblown literary adaptation once in a while. Five years after William Wyler's popular Wuthering Heights (1939) with Laurence Olivier as Heathcliff, Orson Welles had a crack at his own jaunt through Brontë country, strutting about in riding boots and bellowing for all he's worth as Mr Rochester, the brooding, reluctant Bluebeard of Jane Eyre. Joan Fontaine, fresh from two similar roles in Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca (1940) and Suspicion (1941), makes for an altogether more mild, quietly determined Jane and the clash in their acting styles only adds to the fun.

Stripping Charlotte Brontë's classic doorstop from 1847 of much of its weird, fairytale otherness and resetting it in what appears to be a giant stone Death Star leering over the Yorkshire Moors, perhaps the real highlight of this version is Orson's entrance, his horse rearing up through the mist, his cape billowing, his prosthetic Roman nose cast against a troubled sky. Wartime audiences lapped it up and today the film's melodramatic, irony-free approach is as refreshing as an ice cold beer in Hades.

Director Robert Stevenson also contributed to the script, along with Aldous Huxley, Henry Koster and John Houseman, Welles's long-suffering collaborator from the Federal Theatre Project and Mercury Theater On The Air (1938). Other Mercury veteran's appearing here include composer Bernard Herrmann and actress Agnes Moorehead, who features as Mrs Reed during the opening account of Jane's miserable childhood. This is one of the film's strongest passages, helped hugely by a fantastic performance from child actress Peggy Ann Garner alongside the sneering Henry Daniell as Mr Brocklehurst. His introduction recalls the invasion of David Copperfield's happy home by Mr Murdstone (Basil Rathbone) in George Cukor's superior 1935 Dickens adaptation. That David O. Selznick production benefited hugely from a bevy of hilarious character performances, not least the Great Man, W.C. Fields, as Wilkins Micawber. Daniell aside, this is something distinctly lacking from Stevenson's Jane Eyre. The decision not to reveal Bertha Mason, the mad woman in the attic, on camera is a bold one and pays off, suggesting an unimaginable evil too awful to even contemplate. Elsewhere though Hillary Brooke as Blanche Ingram and John Abbott as Richard Mason fail to make much of an impression. Far better are the film's child actors. Apart from Garner, Margaret O'Brien does well as Mr Rochester's precocious French daughter Adele, while a young and uncredited Elizabeth Taylor makes her mark as Jane's consumptive school chum Helen Burns.


The Mercury Theatre production of Jane Eyre is available online at Calfkiller's Old Time Radio Archive and is well worth checking out. The series also includes Welles's notorious Halloween broadcast of War Of The Worlds, which caused panic in the streets when it was first aired in the US on October 30 1938. Calfkiller's site also hosts many other forgotten gems of American radio, including the James Stewart horse opera The Six Shooter (1953-54), Vincent Price as aesthete sleuth The Saint (1944-51) and Bold Venture (1951-52), a steamy, tropical noir series set in Havana and starring husband-and-wife team Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall: "Adventure! Intrigue! Mystery! Romance!" A wonderful free resource, enjoy it while you still can children.

18/12/2009

It's A Wonderful Life (1946)


Well it just wouldn't be Christmas without a trip to Bedford Falls now would it? Somehow this baby just never gets old and these days the goings on at the Bailey Building & Loan seem more topical than ever.

Frank Capra's film was based on a 21 page, 4,000 word short story called 'The Greatest Gift' that was enclosed inside the Christmas cards sent out by American Civil War historian Philip Van Doren Stern in 1943 after it had been rejected by a string of magazines four years earlier. It was only when Cary Grant's agent got hold of one of the 200 original copies through a friend that RKO bought the rights for $10,000, intending it as a vehicle for Grant. Dissatisfied with several attempts to adapt the tale into a feature, they sold it on to Capra's short-lived independent production company Liberty Films. After nine different writers had had a crack at it at various stages (including Capra himself, Dalton Trumbo, Clifford Odets and Dororthy Parker), a festive ritual was born.


I'm sure most people have seen this cherished Scrooge fable several zillion times but in case you haven't, It's A Wonderful Life is about a suicidally depressed idealist under investigation for embezzlement who is about to throw himself off a bridge on Christmas Eve when a second-class angel (Henry Travers) intervenes and takes him to a parallel universe so that he can see what life would have been like for his nearest and dearest if he'd never been born. There he finds the Rockwellian Bedford Falls turned into a nightmarish, noirish dystopia called Pottersville where everyone he might have known is deeply unhappy. Returned to earth, he re-evaluates his life, runs home and discovers that he's really "the richest man in town" because "no man is a failure who has friends."  I've never understood how anyone could call Capra's film schmaltzy or sentimental. There's way too much (very realistic) pain and darkness under discussion for that.

James Stewart is absolutely extraordinary as George Bailey, the put-upon, thwarted dreamer whose childhood hopes of leaving town to see the world have been persistently frustrated by unfortunate and bitterly ironic quirks of fate. Stewart is essentially asked to play two completely opposing roles here - that of the idealistic high school graduate and the desperate, angry, failed father and husband with an abusive streak - and turns in a masterly performance. The unshaven, teary, lank haired look of this beloved figure as he staggers towards the snow-dashed bridge to do himself in is about as distressing as it gets - this from a leading man not always given his due as an actor and who had considered giving up the profession altogether after his experiences serving as a bomber pilot in WWII (co-star Lionel Barrymore talked him out of it with a lengthy lecture on the social importance of his craft). Aside from the star turn, with It's A Wonderful Life you get quite possibly the greatest supporting cast ever assembled in movie history: Barrymore as the villainous Mr Potter, Travers as the endearingly dotty Clarence Oddbody, Donna Reed as Mary, Gloria Grahame as Violet, the town's tart with a heart, Ward Bond as Bert the cop, H.B. Warner as the drunken pharmacist Mr Gower and Thomas Mitchell as the forgetful Uncle Billy, complete with pet raven - all relatively small, second tier roles. Wow. The performance of Warner in particular and the plight of Mr Gower made me sob like a girl the last time I saw this.

The film certainly has its detractors - Elliott Stein of Sight & Sound once sneered, "Its spiritual meat is that the only thing wrong with capitalism is Lionel Barrymore" - but I just can't agree. There are any number of great scenes in It's A Wonderful Life, two of my favourites being the timeless romantic interlude from the courtship of the young George Bailey and Mary just after the incident with the Charleston contest and the movable gymnasium floor and this little corker, one of Capra's best ever David and Goliath moments as our man takes on the unfeeling Big Business bulk of Henry F. Potter. Stick it to him George.


The newlyweds' first night in their leaky new home, waited on by Bert and Ernie after their honeymoon has fallen through, is also one of the most romantic and moving scenes in movies. Sheer magic of the sort that reminds me why I care about art in the first place.

If you can't get enough of this seasonal favourite, check out the Lux Radio Theater for a broadcast from 10 March 1947 in which Stewart and Donna Reed reprised their roles while Victor Moore took over the guardian angel duties as Clarence. Enjoy.

P.S. By way of further reading, I've just discovered a brilliant article on the film from New York Times journalist Wendell Jamieson that you can find here in which he goes further and argues that Capra's Yuletide classic is in fact, "a terrifying, asphyxiating story about growing up and relinquishing your dreams, of seeing your father driven to the grave before his time, of living among bitter, small-minded people. It is a story of being trapped, of compromising, of watching others move ahead and away, of becoming so filled with rage that you verbally abuse your children, their teacher and your oppressively perfect wife." Jamieson also suggests that Pottersville would actually have represented a more promising future for Bedford Falls in that it embraces the services industry and would thus have avoided the sort of post-industrial economic decline seen in many equivalent US towns in the decades since. Maybe it would have been better if George Bailey had never been born after all...

13/12/2009

Some Like It Hot (1959)

Jerry: "I'm engaged!"
Joe: "Who's the lucky girl?"
Jerry: "I am!"

It could all have been so very different. Danny Kaye, Jerry Lewis, Frank Sinatra and Anthony Perkins were all considered for the part of runaway bow fiddler Jerry while Bob Hope was very nearly cast as Joe the jazz saxophinist in a film provisionally titled Not Tonight, Josephine (Hope having already starred in one film called Some Like It Hot 20 years previously). Billy Wilder had vowed never to work with producer's choice Marilyn Monroe ever again after the frustrations of shooting The Seven Year Itch (1955) with a leading lady almost constitutionally incapable of learning her lines. On top of that, Monroe's studio contract stipulated that all her films had to be shot in Glorious Technicolor in order to best showcase her charms - a move the Austrian director was desperate to avoid, fearing it might make his male stars look grotesque when appearing alongside her in drag.

Fortunately for us, Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis won the casting battle and the rest is history - despite the combined best efforts of the state of Kansas and the National Legion of Deceny, a Catholic censorship mob who wanted to see Some Like It Hot banned. Monroe was indeed a nightmare on set, upsetting her co-stars and crew by forever turning up late and unprepared. It apparently took her 47 takes to say, "It's me, Sugar" and 83 to ask, "Where's the bourbon?" with her back to camera. Ill-feeling was such that she was not even invited to the film's wrap party. However, everyone's perseverance paid off as she turns in her best-ever comic performance as dippy ukulele strummer Sugar Kowalcyzk, sending up her public image with good humour and positively glowing during her three musical numbers. Marilyn may still be ubiquitous today as a nostalgic style icon, her image adorning everything from calenders to posters to bookmarks, but when was the last time you actually sat down and watched her doing her thing?


One angle often overlooked by viewers of Some Like It Hot is its brilliance as a spoof of the Warner Brothers gangster flicks of the thirties. Set in 1929, Wilder's film opens with a police car pursuing a hearse, which turns out to be ferrying tommy gun-toting mobsters and a coffin full of bootleg whiskey, through the backstreets of Al Capone's Chicago to Mozzarella's funeral parlour, a front for a mafia speakeasy. It's here where hard-boiled Detective Mulligan (Pat O'Brien) first encounters crime boss Spats Colombo. The casting of George Raft (a Warner regular most famous for turning down the parts that made Humphrey Bogart a star) as Spats was crucial, as the actor chose wisely to play it straight in a zany picture otherwise concerned with amateur transvestism. There are plenty of cute gags when the "Friends of Italian Opera" congregate in Florida for their annual convention: Spats threatening his henchman with a grapefruit à la James Cagney in The Public Enemy (1931) and sneering at Johnny Paradise for mimicking his own coin-flipping trick from Scarface (1932). Paradise is played by one Edward G. Robinson Jr, who featured alongside his father in Little Caesar (1931) and who almost convinced the old man to play Little Bonaparte here (a role eventually taken by the frothing Nehemiah Persoff). Another veteran of Little Caesar is George E. Stone as Toothpick Charlie. Mike Mazurki also appears as one of Spats's hoods - a wrestler and former bodyguard to Mae West (insert joke here) turned character actor, most famous for playing Moose Malloy in Edward Dmytryck's popular Raymond Chandler adaptation Murder, My Sweet (1944). Blending crime fiction with recent American history (prohibition, the St Valentine's Day massacre), Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond spin a web worthy of James Ellroy or Martin Scorsese.

In a genuinely daring screwball farce filled with nice comic bits, especially Joe E. Brown as "naughty boy" millionaire Osgood "Zowie!" Fielding III, Joan Shawlee as Sweet Sue and Al Breneman as the horny bellhop, Lemmon and Curtis walk away with it. In heels, no less. Lemmon is hilariously deranged as Daphne - beaming blissfully as he shakes his maracas till dawn dreaming of married life with Osgood, a picture of frazzled sexual frustration on the night train as a slumber party erupts in his berth. Curtis's imitation of Cary Grant as Junior, the Shell Oil heir, has long since passed into legend ("I don't talk like that", muttered Grant on seeing the film). So much so, in fact, that it's become a sort of go-to voice for faux-sophistication. See Dana Carvey's variation on the theme in Wayne's World 2 (1993), the morning after Kim Basinger's Honey Horneé makes a man of Garth.

Both Lemmon (above right, with Wilder) and Curtis handle the cross-dressing superbly without resorting to camp and it never once feels like pantomime. The pressure of role-playing adds greatly to the film's pacing - the tension created by Curtis racing Monroe to the pier without realising that he's still wearing Josephine's earrings is worthy of Hitchcock. And that famous closing line was only thought up the night before shooting by Wilder and Diamond and was almost abandoned in favour of a tango scene featuring Sugar and Spats. As fun as that sounds, the end result provides Some Like It Hot's real signature and is one of the truly great moments in American movies.



Marilyn Monroe - I Wanna Be Loved By You.mp3

10/12/2009

Kind Hearts & Coronets (1949)


"Kind hearts are more than coronets,
And simple faith than Norman blood."
- Alfred, Lord Tennyson, 'Lady Clara Vere de Vere' (1842)

A matter of some delicacy. Robert Hamer's Kind Hearts & Coronets for Ealing must be one of the blackest comedies ever produced. Looking like nothing less than an inky Ronald Searle drawing brought to life, Kind Hearts is in fact an adaptation of Roy Horniman's little-remembered 1907 novel Israel Rank, a work since suppressed over misguided accusations of anti-Semitism, the protagonist in the book being a Jew and Horniman actually intending to satirise the abiding mood of anti-Semitism then rife in Edwardian England, rather than justify it. The film instead tells the story of Clapham draper's assistant Louis Mazzini (Dennis Price), who has grown up in poverty after his aristocratic mother was disowned by her wealthy family, the D'Ascoynes, as punishment for eloping with his father, an Italian opera singer. When Mrs. Mazzini passes away with her dying wish scorned, Louis vows vengeance on his relatives and conspires to murder his way down the family tree, "pruning" its branches until he can finally claim his birthright, the dukedom of Chalfont.

Alec Guinness usually wins all the plaudits for his masterly comic turn, playing no less than eight members of the D'Ascoyne clan including a windbag parson, a hubristic admiral and, best of all, Lady Agatha, a militant suffragette on the war path ("I shot an arrow in the air/She fell to earth in Berkeley Square") and very good he is too. Guinness certainly earned his praise: nearly drowning on set as the naval man going down with his ship and narrowly avoiding a balloon accident by insisting that a stuntman stand in for him in full drag, so lapse were studio safety standards at the time.

However, there's certainly a case to be made for Price being the real star here, the actor playing twin roles himself and carrying the film with huge suavity and cunning as Louis, the sort of serial killer you really can't help but love. Both men attributed their success to Hamer, a Cambridge economics scholar who had been sent down for indulging in a homosexual affair, an opponent of hypocrisy thereafter whom Guinness described as, "looking and sounding like an endearing frog". Also stealing scenes is Miles Malleson as a Dickensian hangman, possibly an ancestor of Mr. Dennis from Barnaby Rudge (1841), who is disappointed to be denied an opportunity to test out his new silken rope ("The last execution of a duke was very badly bungled. That was in the days of the axe of course"). Joan Greenwood is at it too as Louis' childhood sweetheart, the equally calculating Sibella, whose lisp is, quite frankly, irresistible. Louis' trial in the House of Lords (his privilege as a duke), charged with the one death he is not responsible for, makes for an astonishingly original finale and, 60 years on, Kind Hearts & Coronets remains the quintessential English bloodbath.


Watch out for future Dad's Army (1968-77) star Arthur Lowe in an early cameo as a reporter at the end when Louis emerges from prison with an impossible choice to make.

07/12/2009

All About Eve (1950)



Anthony Quinn, chief critic at The Independent, recently compiled an alternative list of the 100 best films of all time. I usually find such exercises an academic waste of time. After all, one man's I Spit On Your Grave (1978) is another's Citizen Kane (1941). However, Quinn's selection was a clear bid to shake up the old orthodoxies and blow the dust off a steadily festering canon and, for that, he deserves credit (though there's no denying it was also plainly a neat wheeze to fill up a week's worth of arts supplements with pretty stills). The usual suspects were still out in force - La Règle Du Jeu (1939), Tokyo Story (1953) - alongside newer, more populist and less obvious fare like The Lives Of Others (2007), This Is Spinal Tap (1983) and Hal Ashby's The Last Detail (1971). Kane, no easier to topple from pole position than Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band (1967), came in a miserable 20th behind a surprise winner, Joseph L. Mankiewicz's theatreland bitch-a-thon All About Eve. Good call.
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There's no denying the colossal monolith that is Kane but All About Eve is home to some of the sharpest dialogue you're ever likely to hear. The film stars Anne Baxter as stage door dreamer Eve Harrington, who is granted an audience with her idol, the acclaimed Broadway actress Margo Channing (Bette Davis, only making her screen comeback after Claudette Colbert injured her back). Margo and her entourage, including director partner Bill Sampson (Gary Merrill, soon after to be the real-life Mr Davis) and playwright Lloyd Richards (Hugh Marlowe), are enchanted by Eve's sorry backstory and welcome her into their circle of friends as Margo's personal assistant. But after a happy start, Margo's ego kicks in, fur starts to fly and Eve's pallid mask eventually slips, revealing her ruthless ambition and deep hunger for celebrity.


Davis blows the bloody doors off as a fork-tongued neurotic terrified of losing her looks and being replaced by a younger model waiting in the wings. The debonair George Sanders steals the film at the death as acerbic columnist Addison DeWitt while Baxter charms and then repulses as a Uriah Heep in pearls. Great support too from Celeste Holm and Thelma Ritter as Margo's more grounded advisers. An added bonus is an early role for Marilyn Monroe playing Sanders' latest ditzy ingenue, batting her eyelashes at suggestible producers across a crowded party in the hope of securing her big break the easy way.


All About Eve is a rollicking piece of writing but is it better than Kane or, for that matter, Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard (1950), its box office rival and another behind-the-scenes tale of fading stardom in a fickle world? Who can say?

06/12/2009

The Pit & The Pendulum (1961)


I'm a huge Vincent Price fan and for my money The Pit & The Pendulum is probably the best of his overripe Edgar Allan Poe cycle with cheapo director Roger Corman. Science fiction novelist Richard Matheson fleshed out Poe's original story by rehashing the basic premise of Corman's House Of Usher adaptation a year earlier (by way of Joseph L. Mankiewicz's Dragonwyck, 1946) to tell the tale of 16th century English nobleman Francis Barnard (John Kerr) turning up unannounced at his brother-in-law's Gothic pile on the Spanish coast to investigate the circumstances behind his sister's sudden death. There he finds a grieving Nicholas Medina (Price), tormented by his father's antics as a torturer during the Spanish Inquisition and the sneaking suspicion that he may just have buried his beloved bride prematurely on the advice of his shifty physician (Antony Carbone, veteran of Corman's ridiculous spoof Creature From The Haunted Sea, 1961).

Price is as splendidly flailing as ever as Freudian case study Nicholas Medina, Kerr is so wooden it's endearing (he seems to have studied acting at the little-known Stanislavski School of Intense Squinting) and Barbara Steele as the "revenant" Elizabeth gives the film an added frisson for modern audiences as she rises from the grave looking eerily like the late Michael Jackson (Steele was fresh off Mario Bava's notorious Italian vampire-witch schlocker Black Sunday, 1960, banned in the UK until 1968). The shoestring sets by Daniel Haller are a treat - all giant cobwebs, suits of armour, shaky stone stairwells and dry ice. There's also some good use of psychedelic colour filters by cinematographer Floyd Crosby, especially during the nasty flashback sequence to Nicholas's childhood. The Pit & The Pendulum provides some real scares too - the haunted harpsichord and final shot of the iron maiden closed on Elizabeth forever standing out.

02/12/2009

The Blue Angel (1930)

Creepy. The BFI Southbank in London is showing a Josef von Sternberg retrospective this month and the above shot of Emil Jannings is taken from the German auteur's most famous work, The Blue Angel, the film that launched Marlene Dietrich on an unsuspecting world.

Two versions of Der Blaue Engel exist: one in German, one in English (recently rediscovered and apparently inferior). I saw the latter a while back and was initially disappointed by its stagy plot and slow progression. Endlessly parodied and referenced, Dietrich vamps her way through signature song 'Falling In Love Again' with some gusto and doesn't disappoint in a top hat and fishnets. But as sensuous as she is, this brutal little melodrama really deserves to be remembered for Jannings' sad performance as Professor Immanuel Rath, enamoured bachelor.

A rather superior but buttoned-up provincial school teacher, Rath one day spots his charges passing around saucy photos of local cabaret siren Lola Lola (Dietrich). Confiscating them, Rath visits The Blue Angel burlesque club later that evening hoping to catch his wayward pupils sneaking in. There Rath meets the beautiful, provocative Lola and falls hopelessly in love. Returning a second time to hand back some underwear planted on him as a prank, Rath and Lola's romance begins. The next morning he is late for school (nudge nudge) and arrives to find his students running amuck. He is promptly dismissed by a furious headmaster. Now married to Lola but struggling for money, the professor's domestic bliss cannot last and he is forced to take a job as a lowly clown in her act to make ends meet. The proud Rath becomes increasingly bitter, jealous and paranoid and suspects his showgirl wife of reigniting an old flame. Madness descends and his destruction becomes inevitable.


Jannings, the first-ever recipient of the Academy Award for Best Actor a year earlier, brings real heart to a case study in human degradation, prostrating and humiliating himself at the mercy of idealised love. Punished for his hubris in abandoning a respectable way of life to pursue his lust and a lorelei who just can't help it into an unforgiving night, Rath's death at daybreak - crumpled over his old school desk, destitute, robbed of his dignity and utterly vanquished - is very moving. His melancholy liebestod perhaps recalls another aged scholar made a fool of by infatuation: Gustav von Aschenbach, who lies rotting in a deck chair on the Lido beach at the end of Death In Venice (1912). That novella was of course written by Thomas Mann, whose elder brother Heinrich's novel Professor Unrat (1905) provided the source material for The Blue Angel. Those Germans certainly love their glitter and doom.

30/11/2009

The Lady From Shanghai (1947)


"Once, off the hump of Brazil, I saw the ocean so darkened with blood it was black and the sun fainting away over the lip of the sky. We'd put in at Fortaleza, and a few of us had lines out for a bit of idle fishing. It was me had the first strike. A shark it was. Then there was another, and another shark again, 'til all about, the sea was made of sharks and more sharks still, and no water at all. My shark had torn himself from the hook, and the scent, or maybe the stain it was, and him bleeding his life away drove the rest of them mad. Then the beasts took to eating each other. In their frenzy, they ate at themselves. You could feel the lust of murder like a wind stinging your eyes, and you could smell the death, reeking up out of the sea. I never saw anything worse... until this little picnic tonight. And you know, there wasn't one of them sharks in the whole crazy pack that survived."

Orson Welles as Irish adventurer Michael O'Hara in The Lady From Shanghai. Easily as good a speech as his more famous thoughts on Swiss history and the cuckoo clock from Carol Reed's The Third Man (1949), so long as you can get past the ludicrous blarney accent Orson adopts here, perhaps a sourvenir he picked up during his wild rover days in 1932, when, at 17, he managed to con his way into the company of Dublin's Gate Theatre.

The Lady From Shanghai is one of his most taut and entertaining pictures, an exotic and misanthropic caper shot through with romantic fatalism. Welles made it for Columbia as part of the repayment deal on the $55,000 loan Harry Cohn had given him to bail out his stage musical version of Jules Verne's Around the World In Eighty Days (1946). Cohn, whom Welles would later describe as "a monster", had history with the young prodigy, having become so jealous of his marriage to Columbia's top star, Rita Hayworth, that he had banned her from appearing in Welles's magic show for US troops in 1943. He also knew of Welles's difficult reputation and was nervous about handing him responsibility for a $2.3mn budget, until Hayworth's powers of persuasion became too much for King Cohn to resist. It was a decision he would live to regret. He loathed The Lady From Shanghai so much that he offered a $1,000 reward to anyone who could explain the plot to him. Not even Orson was able to claim it. This eccentric noir was originally titled Take This Woman and then Black Irish and based on Sherwood King's novel If I Die Before I Wake (1938), the rights to which had previously been owned by William Castle, the future horror director, whom Orson befriended and brought in to help with the script and serve as an associate producer.

Welles would later express the opinion to biographer Barbara Leaming that cinema needs to give audiences a "hallucinatory" experience if it is truly to "come alive" and The Lady From Shanghai certainly provides that, not least in the celebrated hall of mirrors finale. Andre Bazin wrote of the film in the September 1958 issue of Cahier Du Cinema:

"The Lady From Shanghai is paradoxically the richest in meaning of Welles's films in proportion to the insignificance of the script [precisely because] the plot no longer interferes with the underlying action, from which the themes blossom out in something closer to their pure states."

By the time of the film's release in 1948, Welles' marriage to Hayworth, his co-star here missing her trademark red locks, had crumbled. As Clinton Heylin noted in his book Despite The System: Orson Welles Versus the Hollywood Studios (2005), Howard Hawks had filmed The Big Sleep that same year specifically to capitalise on the sizzling chemistry between newlyweds Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, "whereas Welles portrayed his own screen goddess... as a lying bitch who deserved to die."

26/11/2009

Odd Man Out (1947)


Here's a strange one. Often it's hard to disagree with the broad critical consensus on a particular film. You might take issue with a few points here and there and some films certainly fall out of fashion but generally it's rare to come across a piece of work that bears so little relation to the reputation it is has acquired. However, I'd say Odd Man Out by Carol Reed is one such due a reassessment. Usually lauded as a masterpiece for Robert Krasker's lush cinematography and the strained performance of James Mason that carries the film, this British noir does have its good points but is also maddeningly ponderous, poorly paced and overlong.

Set amongst the rubble and labyrinthine cobbled terraces of an unnamed Northern Irish city (unnamed, but still Belfast), Reed's camera swoops low over the battered rooftops and eventually settles on a figure perched in a first floor window. This is Johnny McQueen (Mason), an IRA gunman escaped from prison and plotting a major heist. Physically weakened by his six months in hiding, Johnny's fitness for the task is the subject of some doubt amongst the other members of his gang. Sure enough, the raid is bungled when Johnny brawls with and kills a security guard, taking a bullet himself during the scuffle. Wounded, he falls out of the getaway car and is left lying in the road with police sirens blaring close by. His accomplices bicker over whether or not to go back for him but eventually decide against it, agreeing to resume the search later. A wanted fugitive, Johnny spends a long dark night of the soul wandering the streets, bleeding and delirious, trying to evade capture. If only his sweetheart, Kathleen Sullivan (Kathleen Ryan), can get to him first...



I went into Odd Man Out expecting a pacy, brooding crime thriller from the director of The Third Man (1949). And for the first 45 minutes or so, that's exactly what you get. But as soon as the snow starts to fall, the film becomes a drawn-out, dreamlike picaresque in which one oddball character after another is introduced to no particular end. Two nurses, a kindly cab driver, a panicky bartender, a crazed artist and a bowler hatted tramp (Cyril Cusack, more Beckett than Chaplin) all come into contact with the fallen idol and variously dither, argue and scheme about what to do with him. None come anywhere near a resolution. Only the redoubtable Kathleen proactively attempts to carve out an escape route for Johnny and her game of cat-and-mouse with a suspicious detective is the film's only real source of suspense.


There are interesting episodes. A police chase across flimsy scaffolding in the rain involving fellow hood Dennis (Robert Beatty) is much more like it and when the end finally does come for Johnny, corned at the docks in Kathleen's arms, it's almost too abrupt to savour. Krasker also pulls off some inventive hallucination effects, as when Johnny starts to see faces in a bubbling puddle of beer, though even these smack of gimmickry. Ultimately, too many characters serve no purpose, too many scenes overrun. Why, for instance, have Kathleen rendez-vous with a sailor to arrange an 11 o'clock passage for Johnny aboard his ship, only to then have her go back again later and ask for an hour's extension when she can't find him? Why not just make it midnight in the first place and keep the tension up and the narrative rolling to a deadline? Odd Man Out raises several such questions and exposes the vital part Graham Greene's source story obviously played in bringing structural discipline to The Third Man. Even the all-action heist is laboured and implausible here.


Only blind goodwill towards Reed and his star could lead normally miserly reviewers to hail a film so flawed and paunchy. Mason, an actor so urbane as to make Cary Grant look like a dishevelled deadbeat, does well with a part that asks audiences to side with a terrorist (though the film is otherwise at pains to avoid the politics of its setting). By the close, our long exposure to Johnny's agony means he starts to resemble a kind of rogue martyr, St. Sebastian backed up against the railings. The man's dignity is something else. Which is a great deal more than can be said for the hammy Robert Newton (a popular Long John Silver in his day) whose turn as the bohemian drunk obsessed with committing Johnny's fading inner light to canvas is as overblown as it is surplus to the story. And what's the crack with that surly doctor he pals around with? Most vexing.

23/11/2009

While The City Sleeps (1956)


First up, here's a beauty. I've just qualified as a journalist but so far haven't had much luck breaking through at a time when the newspaper industry is in turmoil and jobs are scarce. Fritz Lang's noir thriller While The City Sleeps recalls happier days for the career newsman and is one of the most underrated movies about the subject there is.

Lang had made his name in the silent era with Dr Mabuse, The Gambler (1922), the expressionistic sci-fi dystopia Metropolis (1927) and later M (1931), the great granddaddy of serial killer flicks starring Peter Lorre. But in 1934 he was forced to leave his native Germany when Joseph Goebbels himself allegedly invited him to take the helm at the U.F.A. studio and churn out Nazi propaganda. Lang politely declined, turned on his heel and fled. Via Paris he found sanctuary in Hollywood and quickly re-established himself as a major player, making bleak but explosive urban crime dramas like Scarlet Street (1945) and The Big Heat (1953). While The City Sleeps stands as his last real celluloid hurrah. Here he is on set with stars Ida Lupino and Dana Andrews sporting an eyepatch, a then must-have fashion accessory for directors also favoured by the likes of John Ford, Raoul Walsh, Nicholas Ray and André de Toth.


A kind of 1950's ancestor to David Fincher's excellent Zodiac (2007), While The City Sleeps revolves around a fictional New York tabloid, The Sentinel, whose owner Amos Kyne (Robert Warwick) has just passed away from a heart attack. The old man's empire falls into the hands of his son and heir Walter Kyne Jr (Vincent Price), a dull playboy with an oedipal complex the size of a watermelon. Junior instigates a competition among The Sentinel's staff to find a new executive director, challenging his inherited hacks to catch the "Lipstick Killer"*, a brutal strangler responsible for a spate of dead women piling up across the city. Early front-runners include the paper's editor John Day Griffith (Thomas Mitchell), photographer Harry Kritzer (James Craig) and wire service chief Mark Loving (George Sanders). Top reporter and TV anchor Edward Mobley (Andrews, channeling Edward R. Murrow) claims to have no interest in the power struggle and oneupmanship that ensues until he receives a tip-off from a detective friend investigating the slayings. Mobley finally enters the fray, taunting the "Momma's boy" killer during a live broadcast and using his secretary girlfriend Nancy Liggett (Sally Forrest) as bait...


This is a hard world where ruthless reporters gladly put the lives of others at risk to secure a story and in which the line between the apparent good guys and the killer is decidedly blurry. One of the most interesting aspects of the film is Lang's bold decision to reveal the murderer's identity early on, a move regarded by many contemporary reviewers as a mistake but which allowed him to shrug off the trappings and clichés of whodunnit mysteries and focus on the motivations of his journalist protagonists. John Barrymore Jr is excellent as the nervy drug store delivery clerk with an overbearing mother and a taste for suffocation and the character seems a clear influence on later sexually-confused movie psychopaths like Norman Bates and Buffalo Bill. A classy cast of great character actors do the rest and are clearly having a ball stabbing each other in the back. There's something of Charles Foster Kane (and indeed Rupert Murdoch) about the dying Kyne Senior with his grand news corporation while the film's grimey subway chase, as the rat is driven underground, echoes the Vienna sewers sequence in Carol Reed's The Third Man (1949), although While The City Sleeps has deservedly spawned imitators of its own. New York Times reviewer A.H. Weiler damned the picture with faint praise on 17th May 1956 when he said, "While The City Sleeps is likely to keep the customers awake". Trust me, it's a whole lot better than that.

*Presumably no relation to octogenarian mass murderer William Heirens, behind bars since 1946 and thus the US's longest-serving prisoner, who answered to the same nickname.

22/11/2009

Introduction

Good evening ladies and gentlemen and welcome to Faded Video, a new blog about vintage cinema from the first half of the twentieth century, from the silent era to the Hollywood Golden Age and beyond.

My name is Joe and a love of black-and-white movies was instilled in me from an early age by my father, to whom this site is affectionately dedicated. He first introduced me to things like The Big Sleep (1946) and Strangers On A Train (1951), which blew a young mind and introduced me to a world I've never wanted to leave.

I worked hard to expand my knowledge of film history as I grew older by seeing as many old masters as possible. My Dad and I were regulars at the BFI Southbank in London and I scoured the TV listings every Saturday morning, mapping out which films to watch and tape. I soon amassed a formidable collection of battered VHS cassettes, stacks and stacks of videos occupying valuable bookshelf space and containing some of the finest cinema of the early century, a sticky label lovingly plastered along the spine of each to indicate the title. I immersed myself in this treasure trove and found unlikely role models for a child of the nineties in the likes of Cary Grant, Groucho Marx and Vincent Price. But, alas and inevitably, as the years went by, my tapes found themselves replaced by DVDs and hard-drive recording and eventually lay forgotten, gathering dust. Obsolete, outmoded, unwieldy blocks with the labels peeling loose. Faded, smeared, smudged and torn. Life moves on. They gradually disappeared - shoved into boxes, heaved up into cupboards or the attic. The whole collection dispersed and lost, seemingly doomed to suffer the ignominy of ending their days as landfill. Just recently though I've dug them all out, blown the cobwebs off the VCR and begun watching again. I don't know what I'm looking for.

Stay tuned and please do not attempt to adjust your sets...