25/06/2010

Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959)


"Plan 9? Ah yes, Plan 9 deals with the resurrection of the dead. Long distance electrodes shot into the pineal and pituary glands of recent dead."
- The Ruler

With a scheme that good, it's got to be ninth time lucky for the Ruler and his gang up at Space Station Seven. Hasn't it? Surely, surely, this time, after eight false starts, the earth will be theirs and the Pentagon reduced to a smouldering heap of rubble by lunchtime? I mean, they've got an elderly man, his deathly pale wife and a burly 400 pound police Inspector wandering around a very foggy San Fernando cemetery with their arms outstretched. It's no picnic invading a planet but Plan 9 can't lose. Can it?


Legendary Z-movie auteur and transvestite angora-fetishist Edward D. Wood Jr never lived to see his work hailed affectionately as "the worst of all time." Championed today in the wake of Tim Burton's loving tribute Ed Wood (1994), starring Johnny Depp, Wood's career actually staggered on long after the period documented in that film, his once-irrepressible zest drained away and his output increasingly sleazy, desperate, exploitative and pornographic. After the "glories" of Glen Or Glenda (1953), Jail Bait (1954), Bride Of The Monster (1955) and Plan 9, his biggest successes were screenplays for shlock movies about teenage girl gangs (filmed as The Violent Years by William Morgan in 1956), a gorilla being reincarnated as a woman (Adrian Weiss's The Bride & The Beast, 1958) and hillbillies marrying child brides (Boris Petroff's Shotgun Wedding, 1963), plus a host of lurid directorial efforts of his own with titles like The Sinister Urge (1960), Orgy Of The Dead (1965), Necromancia (1972) and Fugitive Girls (1974). A prolific typist, Wood also wrote a number of smutty pulp novels to supplement his income but was well and truly washed-up by the time of his death in 1978, depressed, alcoholic, regularly evicted and crippled with financial worries. Then, suddenly, posthumous recognition came two years later when the publication of Michael and Harry Medved's book The Golden Turkey Awards coincided with Plan 9 winning the top prize at New York's Worst Film Festival of 1980. A cult hero was born.

It's easy to mock the continuity errors, leaden acting, woeful dialogue, laughable production values and recurring patio furniture of Plan 9 but Wood's "pride and joy" has more heart than a thousand summer blockbusters. I'd take his amiable brand of technical ineptitude over aggressively marketed, the-President-saves-the-world bullshit like Independence Day (1996) any time. Yes, the editing is atrocious, especially in the many scenes that switch between night and day seemingly at random. Yes, the cardboard gravestones wobble. Yes, the military stock footage is obvious. Yes, the flying saucers are clearly toy models on strings. Yes, the co-pilot's still reading the script in the cockpit scene. And yes, it was ridiculous to try and cover for the death of Bela Lugosi by using Ed's chiropractor (Dr Tom Mason, a clear foot taller than the Hungarian ham and reduced to holding a cape over his face). But it's all so joyous! My favourite bit is when Tom Keene, playing the apparently deeply misogynistic Colonel Tom Edwards, visits the Trent house and completely ignores Mona McKinnon's greeting, then neglects to shake her hand and then sits with his back to her, before snarking about "modern women" with the lieutenant in a later scene.


Undoubtedly one of the most interesting aspects of Plan 9 is the kooky gaggle of misfits that made up the cast and crew, shooting over a five day period in November 1956 at downtown L.A.'s Quality Studios, next door to Ed's favourite Martini haunt, Gold Diggers. Its executive producer and financier was a devout member of the First Baptist Church of Beverley Hills named J. Edward Reynolds, who also appears as one of the grave diggers. As shown in Burton's biopic, he was Wood's landlord and was conned into helping bankroll his tenant's venture, then called Grave Robbers From Outer Space, with the promise of making enough profit to fund a series of Biblical epics, which, naturally, never happened. Wood and several of the cast also had to agree to be baptised before Reynolds and friends would put up the dough (the final budget amounting to around $20,000 in total). Reynolds would later die of a heart attack induced by his excessive consumption of mayonnaise, a story told by fellow church-goer and actor Gregory Walcott - almost a parody of the square-jawed leading man as pilot Jeff Trent in a part that Reynolds had won for him ("I can't say a word - I'm muzzled by army brass!").

Among the "aliens" we see in Plan 9 (there was no time or money for elaborate make-up) are failed transsexual and socialite John "Bunny" Breckinridge as the ultra-camp, world-weary extraterrestrial ruler, future television writer Joanna Lee and the brilliantly monikered Dudley Manlove as the proud, prissy Eros, all suffering in shiny faux-medieval tunics designed by a certain Dick Chaney (surely no relation...). Paul Marco would play the cowardly comic relief cop Officer Kelton three times in Ed Wood projects, also donning the badge in Bride Of The Monster and Night Of The Ghouls (1959). Along with the dying Lugosi, Tor Johnson, Vampira and Criswell, actors Duke Moore and Conrad Brooks ("the John Gielgud of bad movies") were part of Wood's regular stock company, as was cinematographer William C. Thompson, who actually manages to get some beautifully lit, almost noirish exterior shots into the finished film despite being blind in one eye and completely unable to see colour.


Gurning zombie Johnson had been a pro-wrestler, nicknamed "the Super Swedish Angel", and had previous film experience playing, er, a wrestler, Tosoff, in W.C. Fields' film The Man On The Flying Trapeze (1935). He would later be immortalised through a best-selling latex Halloween mask designed by the Don Post company in 1965 and a comic strip serial by cartoonist Drew Friedman. Johnson also once appeared as a contestant on Groucho Marx's quiz show You Bet Your Life with hilarious results. Vampira too had Scandinavian roots. A Finnish immigrant whose real name was Maila Nurmi, she found fame in 1954 when she won a best costume contest at a Hollywood masquerade ball and was then invited by the KABC-TV network to introduce late night horror movies - something she did with great style, awful puns and lashings of dry ice. She is said to have had a relationship with James Dean and went on to own an antique jewellery store and front her own band, Vampira and Satan's Cheerleaders, before launching a $10 million lawsuit against Elvira, Mistress of the Dark (Casandra Peterson), for stealing her act, which ultimately proved unsuccessful. Well, she had stolen the idea from Charles Addams herself, after all. Vampira could not drive and Ed had no money for a cab, let alone a chauffeur, so she really did have to ride the bus to the studio in full costume for the shooting of Plan 9, as shown in Ed Wood. As for the Amazing Criswell, the film's psychic narrator, he was a mortician's son who had been a radio newscaster in New York, making up wild prophecies to fill excess airtime. His own show, Criswell Predicts soon followed on a local L.A. TV station, along with a syndicated newspaper column and several more appearances in Ed Wood misadventures. Most of his outlandish, sensational predictions fell flat - including the outbreak of mass cannibalism in Pittsburgh, the complete destruction of Denver and the Presidency for his friend Mae West - but he did successfully call the assassination of J.F.K. and claimed an 87% accuracy rate anyway. Criswell was genuinely close to Wood and would be present at the director's funeral to watch his ashes being blown out to sea.


Some have suggested that Plan 9 From Outer Space is, in actual fact, not a bad film at all and really a semi-serious attempt at an "anti-masterpiece". Ed Wood's magnum opus is certainly an exuberant example of guerrila filmmaking for the sheer love of the game and is also credited with introducing the concept of "symbolic special effects" - we can plainly see that they're cheapo fakes but it doesn't matter because they succeed in conveying the idea anyway. Surely any work of art that remains a genuinely engrossing experience and continues to generate interest, affection and legions of new fans over half a century after its initial release can't really be the worst in its field?

Mae West - Criswell Predicts.mp3

17/06/2010

The Apartment (1960)

Billy Wilder's follow-up to Some Like It Hot (1959) again stars Jack Lemmon, this time as C.C. Baxter, a New York insurance drone who works his way up the career ladder by loaning out his apartment to senior executives as a base from which they can carry on their extramarital affairs. The inevitable complications ensue when Baxter falls for his firm's kooky elevator girl, Fran Kubilek (Shirley MacLaine), only to find she's involved in a tortuous relationship with his oily, imperious boss Jeff Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray, returning to Wilder for the first time since Double Indemnity, 1944).

Building on a slightly sleazy premise, The Apartment turns out to be a touching, thoughtful meditation on loneliness in the city and the pressures of corporate conformity, an important touchstone for fans of AMC's magnificent Mad Men (2007-). There's no suggestion that Baxter has any voyeuristic interest in what goes on behind his own front door - his intentions are purely mercenary - but the character could easily have developed into an unappealingly misanthropic vulture, an Upper West Side variant on Uriah Heep, glorying meanly in the hypocrises and weakness of his superiors. That he doesn't owes everything to Lemmon's sensitive, charming and sad portrayal. Baxter's domestic routine and fastidious tidying up anticipates The Odd Couple (1968) but this bachelor makes for an altogether blokier protagonist than that film's Felix Ungar, straining his spaghetti through a tennis racket and channel hopping impatiently as he stabs away at a TV dinner. Critic Louis Giannetti said of Baxter, "He's both a schnook and an opportunist, a victim and a victimiser. But in the end, he prefers being a mensch to being a swine. He's Wilder's portait of the loser as a winner, with more class than he realises." Lemmon is always watchable and gives one of the greatest ever portrayals of a man with a cold this side of The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974). Wilder himself once said of his star, "There was a little bit of genius in everything he did."

The elfin MacLaine is also lovely, as sweet here as she was in Alfred Hitchcock's The Trouble With Harry (1955), and handles some spectacularly loveless scenes with MacMurray beautifully, not least the exchanging of Christmas gifts: she gives him an LP by a Chinese pianist who gigs at their favourite restaurant, he gives her a $100 bill. As in Sunset Boulevard (1950), Wilder again has his leading lady attempt suicide to further the plot, but the subject is sensitively played and adds enormously to the melancholy strain that underscores the film. The scene in which she and Lemmon play gin rummy, his heart breaking at her plight and inability to love him in return, is quietly devastating.

There's wonderful comic support from Jack Kruschen and Naomi Stevens as Baxter's jovial Jewish neighbours (he wants Baxter to leave his body to medical science, she thinks chicken-noodle soup is the answer to everything, even attempted suicide), Edie Adams as bitchy secretary Miss Olsen, the return of "Sweet Sue" Joan Shawlee to tear up the office party and the hysterical Hope Holliday, who picks up the drunken, bowler-hatted Lemmon in a bar on Christmas Eve and talks incessantly about her husband, a crooked jockey imprisoned in Cuba for doping a horse. Of the innumerable great lines in I.A.L. Diamond's script, I liked this one most from a tearful MacLaine: "When you're in love with a married man, you shouldn't wear mascara." Lemmon would make a further five pictures with Wilder, including a reunion with MacLaine in 1963's Irma La Douce.

14/06/2010

Bringing Up Baby (1938)


An increasingly overwhelmed palaeontologist (Cary Grant) and an extremely scatty heiress (Katharine Hepburn) find themselves forced into an impromptu leopard hunt in darkest Connecticut in Howard Hawks's breathless, madcap screwball classic, surely one of the funniest, most joyous films ever to wrap and a work of art that has contributed more than most to the planet's Gross Human Happiness and the general greater merriment of the species. From the very first moment, as Bringing Up Baby's opening titles rear up on screen, it's hard to stop a sappy, idiotic grin from stretching itself out across your face and why would you want to?

Both leads are on priceless form but it's Hepburn who's the real revelation. Unfairly labelled “box office poison” at the time after a string of commercial failures (of which this was the last), Hepburn found a winning formula in teaming up with Cary Grant. They had appeared together once before in George Cukor's Sylvia Scarlett (1935) and would be reunited for a second time in 1938 in Cukor's Holiday (1938), before Hepburn's big triumph two years later in The Philadelphia Story (1940), a popular Philip Barry play to which she owned the rights and which found Grant joined by Jimmy Stewart in the battle for her hand. Here, as there, Hepburn is on hysterical form, a born comedienne absently stealing golf balls and purses, crashing cars, flipping olives, marching around with her underwear showing, falling into rivers, impersonating gunmolls and serenading the titular wildcat with 'I Can't Give You Anything But Love'. Grant's growing exasperation is also a treat and he gets to appear in a fruity dressing gown, remarkably managing to keep his dignity in drag just as he would in 1949's I Was A Male War Bride, again at Hawks's instigation. This versatile director, using a motor-mouth script by Dudley Nichols from a Hagar Wilde short story that had first been published in Collier's Weekly the year before, seemed to create masterpieces wherever he turned, from Westerns like Red River (1948) and Rio Bravo (1959) to crime pictures such as Scarface (1932) and The Big Sleep (1946). Bringing Up Baby, along with the later newsroom romp His Girl Friday (1940), again starring Grant, essentially defined the screwball romantic comedy. As writer James Monaco wrote in Sight & Sound in 1974, Hawks's key trait was his "oblique three-cushion dialogue", which resulted in his producing films "almost better to listen to than to watch". Monaco goes on to suggest that, "Outside of the Westerns, very few images in Howard Hawks films are striking; it is the dialogue we remember. More than anyone else, Hawks made 'talkies'".


Aside from the leads, also well deserving of a mention for their performances in Bringing Up Baby are Barry Fitzgerald (Michaleen from The Quiet Man, 1952) as a tippling Irish gardener, Charlie Ruggles and May Robson as the delightful, loon-imitating Major Applegate and his no-nonsense dinner date Aunt Elizabeth respectively, plus Walter Catlett as an easily sidetracked and arrest-happy small-town police constable. Special notice too to George, the wire-haired fox terrier played by Skippy, a canine thespian who also starred as Asta in the popular thirties Thin Man detective series with William Powell and Myrna Loy. George, described by Robson as “a perfect little fiend”, clearly had a ball snatching and burying the “intercostal clavicle” Grant needs to complete his brontosaurus skeleton (submerging it somewhere in a 26 acre lawn alongside his prized collection of old boots) before scurrying off to wrestle Baby. Fearless stuff.

12/06/2010

Stage Fright (1950)


I can't believe it's taken me this long to feature an Alfred Hitchcock film but here we are with Stage Fright, one of Hitch's least favourite amongst his own work. The great director was highly dismissive of it in later years, blaming his actors (whom he famously considered “cattle”) for Stage Fright's commercial failure and telling François Truffaut, “The more successful the villain, the more successful the picture. That's a cardinal rule and in this picture the villain was a flop!” A shame, as Richard Todd has an authentically deranged look about him when confronted with the truth and the denouement, in which blacky ironic use is made of a “safety” curtain, is very effective indeed.

Stage Fright stars Jane Wyman as Eve Gill, a student at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA) whose rehearsals are interrupted when a friend, Jonathan Cooper (Todd), arrives in a state of some distress. He confesses to Eve that he is the lover of renowned actress Charlotte Inwood (Marlene Dietrich) and that he has helped to cover up the murder of her husband by returning to the scene of the crime to conceal evidence. However, the police are chasing Jonathan after he was spotted by Charlotte's spiteful maid Nellie Good (Kay Walsh) and he now needs a means of escape. Eve, in love with him, agrees to help, roping in her eccentric father along the way (a very droll Alastair Sim), but soon finds that all is not as it seems when she goes undercover to stand in for Nellie at Charlotte's side.

The story was adapted for the screen by Hitchcock's wife, Alma Reville, from a novel by Selwyn Jepson (Man Running, 1948), with assistance from Whitfield Cook - rumoured in some quarters to have had an affair with Alma. Jepson's book was based on a real case, that of lovers Edith Thompson and Frederick Bywaters who were executed for the murder of her husband Percy on 3rd October 1922 after a night out at the Criterion Theatre, Piccadilly Circus. Hitchcock had expressed interest in making a documentary about the pair but settled on Jepson's fiction after contemporary reviewers suggested it might make an excellent Hitchcock picture. He told Truffaut:

“What specifically appealed to me was the idea that the girl who dreams of becoming an actress will be led by circumstances to play a real-life role by posing as someone else in order to smoke out a criminal.”

Hitch had dealt with theatreland homicide before in Murder! (1930) while the slippery nature of identity and its misuse for performance or deception are themes that recur again and again in his work, from James Stewart's sicko, Pygmalion-style makeover of Kim Novak in Vertigo (1958) to the confusion over Henry Fonda in The Wrong Man (1956) or Cary Grant in North By Northwest (1959) and Anthony Perkins dressing up as his own dead mother in Psycho (1960). The killer here wears a mask of strained innocence for much of the film before he's finally backed into a corner and forced to reveal himself, recalling Joseph Cotten's Uncle Charlie from Shadow of a Doubt (1943) and anticipating Norman Bates. Other recurring Hitchcock tropes present in Stage Fright include its having a heroine romantically involved with a policeman and a memorable fairground scene (featuring Joyce Grenfell as the wacky proprietress of a duck-shooting stall), which looks back to the silent prizefighting melodrama The Ring (1927) and forward to his next film, Strangers on a Train (1951). Hitch's own daughter, Patricia, appears in the film and was studying at RADA herself at the time, which probably gave her parents an idea or two.

Wyman (a recent Oscar winner for Johnny Belinda, 1948, and fresh from divorcing Ronald Reagan) carries the film extremely well although Hitchcock claimed her vanity prevented him from making the most of her second role as “Doris Tinsdale”, as she refused to look too dishevelled in disguise so as not to be outshone by Marlene Dietrich. The latter steals every scene she's in, moans a path through Cole Porter's 'The Laziest Gal in Town' and is exquisitely photographed throughout, having commandeered cinematographer Wilkie Cooper all for herself in order to ensure she was properly lit. She also had an affair with co-star Michael Wilding (a future Mr Liz Taylor and returning from Under Capricorn, 1949, to play Wyman's second love interest, the kindly Detective Inspector Wilfred O. Smith), which caused further disruption on a London set Hitch felt alienated from after 11 years away in Hollywood. Although the result is never thrilling exactly, Stage Fright is suitably theatrical, well played, contains a few nice moments of suspense and one major cinematic coup - introducing the concept of the unreliable flashback, the subversion of a device audiences had come to trust implicitly as an honest plot explainer. Contemporary punters resented being lied to and Hitch later admitted it was “very indirect” but I certainly found myself wrong-footed by it.

10/06/2010

Spanish Fly (1975)

Here's a truly asinine sex comedy from the clueless cinematic wasteland that was mid-seventies Britain. After the promising New Wave of Saturday Night & Sunday Morning (1960) and Billy Liar (1963) had crashed on the rocks of Beatlemania and the Pop Revolution, this sort of bawdy idiocy was almost all anyone could come up with (until the Pythons graduated from television) in a landscape dominated by the never-ending Carry On and James Bond franchises. Here, old rogues and real-life Ibiza neighbours Leslie Phillips and Terry-Thomas (by far the more dignified and amusing of the two) are pitted against one another on holiday in Minorca. The former's lingerie entrepreneur is in town for a photo shoot with a bunch of implausibly horny models while the latter is attempting to make a killing by buying up nasty local wine to sell back in Blighty. However, when the drop turns out to be too disgusting even for that, Thomas's Sir Percy instructs his enterprising valet Perkins (Graham Armitage) to experiment with whatever ingredients he can find to try and redeem it. Accidentally adding the titular fly to one batch, Perkins and Sir Percy realise they've created a powerful aphrodisiac, which naturally leads to a healthy dollop of soft-core smut involving Phillips and his free-spirited Eurotrash until the side-effects kick in and the whole island goes, quite literally, barking mad.

A film so crass it might as well have been called, Look, Tits! Bob Kellett's dire comedy is incompetently directed and contains any number of gratuitous scenes, inserted seemingly at random, in which topless girls gyrate around on the beach to naff instrumentals while Phillips leers and winks and rubs his hands together in feigned glee. A gay photographer (Ramiro Oliveros) drinks some of Thomas's unholy brew and instantly goes straight: “Oh well, at least it solved his problem,” observes Phillips. It really is that bad. The whole thing reeks of sweaty, business class lechery but the panama-hatted Thomas is at least a highlight, clearly enjoying the sun and lecturing Perkins on the vital role played by gin-and-tonics in the march of the British Empire and otherwise doing a greatest hits package of his most popular catch phrases (he was gravely ill with Parkinsons' disease by this point). His ever-optimistic biographer Robert Ross acknowledged that Spanish Fly was both "badly written and sloppily directed" but somehow managed to find "something quietly magical about the film" in amongst all the dross. I don't see it myself and Phillips in particular is utterly ghastly as a wannabe Hugh Hefner in Speedos. What an absolute shower!

09/06/2010

After The Fox (1966)

Beat this. A zany sixties caper directed by Vittorio De Sica, godfather of neo-realism and director of The Bicycle Thief (1948), from a debut screenplay by Broadway playwright Neil Simon, with a score by Burt Bacharach and a theme song by the Hollies, starring Peter Sellers, Britt Ekland, Akim Tamiroff and Martin Balsam plus a self-deprecating but apparently plastinated Victor Mature. Phew. Long sentence.

OK, so it's not really very good and full of silly accents and daft disguises but the plot is innovative enough. After a $3 million truckload of gold bullion is hijacked in Cairo, the thieves need cover for unloading their loot in Europe. Master criminal Aldo “The Fox” Vanucci (Sellers), recently escaped from jail, plans the perfect set-up, posing as a Felliniesque film director making a picture about a gold heist in a southern Italian port town and roping in a supporting cast of enthusiastic locals, including sister Gina (Ekland) and ageing Hollywood star Tony Powell (Mature), as unwitting accomplices. The result is intermittently amusing, benefiting enormously from its gorgeous Bay of Naples surroundings. It's bizarre to see Inspector Clouseau and Doc Holliday on screen together while De Sica has a neat cameo as himself shooting a Biblical epic in the desert (“More sand!”). Balsam, Detective Arbogast in Psycho (1960), is a riot as Powell's sceptical agent. Though generally little thought of today, After The Fox seems an obvious influence on Mike Myers' slapstick Austin Powers franchise (1997-2002).

07/06/2010

High Sierra (1941)


Bogie stars as “Mad Dog” Roy Earle, a career criminal released from prison with a governor's pardon after his old boss pulls some strings among influential friends. On the outside, Earle dreams of “crashing-out” and returning to his roots as an Indiana farm boy but is soon summoned to front a hotel robbery instead by his former paymasters. Doom beckons.

“He calls the tune and you dance to it,” crooked ex-cop Barton MacLane warns Bogart early on in High Sierra, in reference to dying crime lord Big Mac (Donald MacBride, rather than the giant talking hamburger you might have been expecting). This is a reminder that Roy Earle is a free man in name only. He may find himself outside the prison walls, for now, but he's still “owned” by the associates who sprang him. Roy knows it. It's carved on to his gaunt, weary old face like a valentine into a tree trunk. He knows he'll never be truly free so long as he carries this debt and seems almost to be willing his own destruction in order to break it. There's a half-heartedness to the Tropico hold-up when it finally takes place and an inevitability about the final show-down in the mountains. Roy even seems to be toying with death when he's forced to run his car off the highway to avoid hitting a startled jack rabbit (N.B. director Raoul Walsh actually lost the sight in his right eye when just such an accident happened to him in 1928). That's why Roy's so reluctant to throw in his lot with Ida Lupino's resilient but bruised gangster's moll Marie and Pard, the bad luck terrier. Trying for a straight life with a patched-up family just feels hopeless. He'd rather hang on to a dream he knows is impossible and therefore can't hurt anyone else, that of marrying Velma (Joan Leslie), the club-footed girl he's in love with because she reminds him of the Corn Belt childhood he longs to return to. At least that way he can savour the heartache and disillusionment of rejection. Doc Banton (Henry Hull), quoting John Dillinger, tells Earle that men like him are “just rushing towards death.” But only in death can this buzz-cut con find the freedom he seeks, something Marie comes to realise as she stares down through her tears at his stricken form, lying beneath the pines, cordoned off by police tape.


The law-abiding society Roy Earle rejects is epitomised – for novelist W.R. Burnett, writer John Huston and director Walsh – not by the kindly Ohio grandfather (Henry Travers) he befriends but by the ungrateful, egocentric tart Velma becomes, with her prissy fiancé and drunken friends. It's the pushy man who crashes into Pa's car without signalling and then threatens to sue. It's the wealthy, dumb Californian hypochondriacs the doc makes a living disabusing of their vain notions. The sublime natural splendour of the Sierras seems to mock the people living so unhappily within its shadow. Roy implicitly recognises this and retreats there to die. He has tried to right the wrongs of the broken world he found beyond the bars as best he can – intervening in Pa's argument, hiding Mac's booze from the doctor to ensure the old man doesn't lose his last remaining pleasure, arranging Velma's surgery, beating up the hood who slapped Marie around – but it's all for nothing in a cruel, cruel, unforgiving universe.


Jack Warner wanted Paul Muni for High Sierra and the script was also sent to George Raft (as per usual) before Bogart got his hands on it and made Mad Dog his own. This was the last time he would play a gangster after dedicated service throughout the thirties and the part paved the way for his playing smart, chippy types on the right side of the law. His relationships here with Lupino, Travers and Pard (actually Bogie's own dog, Zero) are touching and real – though his third wife Mayo Methot grew increasingly jealous and difficult about Bogart's on-set friendship with his leading lady (Lupino appearing with Bogie for Walsh a second time after They Drive By Night, 1940). The project was given a huge boost when Hal Wallis brought in flamboyant journalist Mark Hellinger as his associate producer, a man of spivy clothes and loudly boasted mob connections. His short story 'The World Moves On' had been made into The Roaring Twenties by Walsh two year earlier, starring Jimmy Cagney and Bogart, and Hellinger was instrumental in ensuring that Burnett's story remained a subtle, brooding character piece rather than a dumb cops-and-robbers affair. The inclusion of Algernon (Willie Best), a bug-eyed, narcoleptic racial stereotype, as handyman to the gang's hideout wasn't such a hot choice of comic relief but then hindsight is a wonderful thing. High Sierra's climactic car chase almost has the beating of the one in The Bank Dick, released the previous year.

Another individual deserving of special mention is stuntman Buster Wiles, who rolled 90 feet down a mountainside in Bogie's place, only to ask to if he could do it again and be told, “Forget it. That's good enough for the 25 cent customers.” Wiles also stood in for the police sharp shooter on the ledge above, thereby effectively assassinating himself with the bullet that finally puts Mad Dog down. High Sierra was remade twice: as Colorado Territory, a Joel McCrea Western in 1949, and again in 1955 as I Died A Thousand Times, starring Jack Palance as Roy Earle.

05/06/2010

Mississippi (1935)

Critic Judith Crist wrote in 1972 that W.C. Fields was, "an American Falstaff at war with the twentieth century." It's a great description and one born out by how at ease the Great Man appears to be here in the late nineteenth. This time Fields plays Commodore Jackson, a boastful, cheating showboat owner and gambler, sailing merrily down the Big Muddy with a glass in his hand, a cigar at his lips and a bevy of tall stories percolating on the stove, ready for an impressionable crowd (gamely provided by Fields regular Jan Duggan). When the paddle steamer docks near the Rumford plantation mansion, Jackson wanders in on an engagement party for elder sister Elvira (Gail Patrick) and her crooner beau Tom Grayson (Bing Crosby), a Northerner and ward to Mark Twain-alike General Rumford (Claude Gillingwater Sr). When love rival Major Patterson (John Milijan) challenges Tom to a duel of honour, Grayson refuses on pacifist grounds. Branded a coward, he is outcast from the family and signs up with Jackson, much to the anguish of cute younger sister Lucy (Joan Bennett), who has secretly been in love with Tom all along. Naturally, it all ends well with Tom accepting the necessity of standing up to Patterson in order to get the girl. Mint juleps all round!

Comedy journeyman A. Edward Sutherland directed this sumptuously costumed little beauty for Adolph Zukor's Paramount with uncredited help from Wesley Ruggles. The story comes from Magnolia (1923), a play by Booth Tarkington who also wrote The Magnificent Ambersons (1918), famously filmed by Orson Welles as his follow-up to Citizen Kane in 1942. Magnolia had been shot twice before in the silent era as The Fighting Coward (1924) and River Of Romance (1929). As a portrait of the prelapsarian grandeur of the Old South, Mississippi ticks off all the obvious references and presents the potentially fraught subject of race relations in a cosy light. Fields peddles a black children's choir called the "Inky Kids" but is kind to them and Bennett is on friendly terms with her maid. W.C. never tires of telling people about the time he ran into a tribe of Indians ("I unsheathed my Bowie knife and cut a path through a wall of human flesh!") but is regularly interrupted with doubts about the historical accuracy of his yarn and is ultimately sent running scared by a shipment of wooden cigar store Indians. His casual racism towards "red skins" is thus deliberately undermined by his cowardice but would have been nothing unusual for the time, also recurring in My Little Chickadee (1940), another costume piece.

The setting aside, this is comfortable territory for Fields. He had caused havoc on a boat before in Tillie & Gus (1933) and would do so again in The Big Broadcast Of 1938. He had often tackled a snooty family's objections to a young couple's union in films like You're Telling Me! and The Old Fashioned Way (both 1934) and would return to the theme in Poppy (1936) and You Can't Cheat An Honest Man (1939). He's clearly in his element here and, according to biographer Robert Lewis Taylor, "Fields had real affection for Bing Crosby, his neighbour [in Los Angeles] and occasional companion. In turn, Crosby had an idolatrous, filial attitude towards Fields, whom he always called 'Uncle Bill'." Apparently Eddie Sutherland approached Crosby on set with the warning: "See here, Bing. I'm worried about this thing. Bill Fields is walking off with it. The old devil's stealing every scene." Bing assured his director, however, that he didn't mind at all if it was good for the picture - a generous way of looking at things, but then Crosby was no slouch at playing the jovial straight man, sparring regularly with the likes of Groucho Marx and Jack Benny on radio for years. Fields would also star alongside Bing's regular Road To... (1940-62) co-stars, Bob Hope and Dorothy Lamour, in The Big Broadcast Of 1938.

Crosby does a splendid job here as the gentle Tom Grayson, repackaged by Fields as, "the Notorious Colonel Steele, the Singing Killer." An exaggeration - his songs aren't that bad. In fact, they're all by Richard Rogers and Lorenz Hart and are included below. There's a swell running joke begun early on when Fields objects to someone singing 'Swanee River', complaining that it'll never catch on because the tune isn't memorable, only to find that he can't get it out of his head for the rest of the film. Both men also get a fair bit of action to play. Crosby's brawl with debt collector Captain Blackie (Fred Kohler) after he interrupts a performance is suprisingly violent and physical while Fields' wild knife throwing practice frequently threatens to decapitate poor showgirl Queenie Smith.

Bing Crosby - Soon.mp3
Bing Crosby - Down By The River.mp3
Bing Crosby - It's Easy To Remember.mp3

03/06/2010

The Lavender Hill Mob (1951)


This charming Ealing caper stars Alec Guinness as Henry Holland, a meek London bank clerk responsible for overseeing the transfer of gold ingots from the foundry to the city vaults. When a new lodger moves into his sleepy boarding house home in Battersea, Holland befriends the man, Alfred Pendlebury (Stanley Holloway), and learns that he is a sculptor who makes a living designing and manufacturing souvenir nicknacks. Together they hatch an ingenious plan to hijack the bank's bullion van on Holland's watch, melt down the gold and reshape it into miniature statuettes of the Eiffel Tower for shipment to Paris, where it can finally be sold on the black market. But they'll need help and, as always, the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.


Making Hitchcockian use of le tour Eiffel and a series of more unusual locations, including a girls' primary school and a police training college in Hendon, The Lavender Hill Mob largely takes place in a bomb-damaged capital slowly getting back on its feet after the war. Some have noted the influence of Italian neo-realism over Michael Balcon's Ealing during this period, as many of the studio's comedies shared the then topical theme of ordinary citizens being driven to crime in response to economic adversity. That's very much the case here, as amateur crooks Guinness and Holloway call in professional cockney hoodlums Sid James and Alfie Bass to help execute their heist. Others have read into the foursome's trusting relationship a political allegory for Clement Attlee's Labour government but that seems like stretching a point to me.

As he would later do to such great effect playing George Smiley in a brace of splendid John Le Carré adaptations for the BBC (1979, 1982), Guinness hides a deviously cunning, calculating brain behind a mask of phlegmatic officialdom. No one suspects fastidious, dependable old Henry Holland after 20 years of loyal service. His late-blossoming bromance with Holloway is sweet and beautifully evoked in the scene in which they race down a spiral staircase at the Eiffel Tower, laughing hysterically together and discarding hats and coats as their masterplan threatens to unravel at the hands of a group of giggling schoolgirls. The tender portrayal of their friendship seemed to me to be a clear influence on the unlikely criminal syndicate at the centre of Robert Asher's later Make Mine Mink (1960). The film also features a thrilling chase in a stolen police car, an original set-up that allows Guinness and Holloway to thoroughly bamboozle their pursuers by issuing misleading, contradictory instructions over the radio. In fact, the authorities are mocked throughout The Lavender Hill Mob and this particular scene spoofs Ealing's own police propaganda film The Blue Lamp (1950), which was also scripted by T.E.B. Clarke, featured Dirk Bogarde in an early role and introduced the world to Jack Warner's Dixon of Dock Green.


A cast of familiar faces in small character parts includes Sydney Tafler, Edie Martin, Marjorie Fielding, John Gregson and even a young Audrey Hepburn in the opening Rio scene (though she doesn't appear in the on-set picture above). Hepburn would be promoted from extra to cigarette girl that same year when she appeared in Mario Zampi's Laughter In Paradise and things could only get better from there. Clarke won an Oscar for his ingenious screenplay though Guinness lost out on Best Actor to Gary Cooper for High Noon (1952). Amazing to mark the difference between US and British output at that time. Director Charles Crichton, also responsible for two other celebrated Ealing odes to amateur pluck, Hue & Cry (1947) and The Titfield Thunderbolt (1953), was dredged out of retirement by John Cleese in 1988 to helm A Fish Called Wanda. Listen out too for the film's score by Frenchman Georges Auric, who would also contribute the music for a number of Ealing films including Passport To Pimlico (1949).

02/06/2010

Brief Encounter (1945)


David Lean's Brief Encounter might beat even A Matter Of Life & Death (1946) in the sop stakes, being one of the most excessively sentimentalised films ever to trouble the collective imagination of the great British public. It's an enduring weepie, sure enough, the performances are strong and Robert Krasker's crisp, noirish photography is gorgeous but it's also about as subtle as the doodles in the margin of a schoolboy's exercise book. Those trains roaring into Milford Junction - gushing steam and coal dust, to the bruising thud of Rachmaninov's Second Piano Concerto - might as well have the word “Metaphor!” scrawled along the carriages, just in case audiences hadn't quite grasped their significance.

Every aspect of Noël Coward's script (based on his one-act stage play Still Life, 1936) is needlessly spelt out in this way. Celia Johnson's clipped, first-person voiceover articulates, anatomises and specifies every acute distinction and nicety of her and Trevor Howard's tortured emotions until there's nothing whatsoever left unsaid or in doubt. We are told precisely what each participant is feeling at every stage so that really there's little else for Johnson and Howard to do but look longingly at one another, mouths a-tremble with tender feeling. It might have made a superlative silent film.


Coward is similarly heavy-handed in skewering the British character. Stanley Holloway and Joyce Carey in the station tea room, Irene Handl as the inept cellist and Everley Gregg as the gossiping Dolly Messiter make for excellent support but they are all nevertheless playing stock types. Almost everyone in Brief Encounter shyly stutters something awkward about the weather at one point or another or otherwise allows the lower part of their face to droop into a frown under the weight of an iron stiff upper lip. Rather than an accurate portrait of British social mores, self-denial and habitual repression put to the test, Brief Encounter is a caricature of it. The fictional film the pair see at the cinema, Flames Of Passion, is another misstep, a spoof of sensational Hollywood romance that just comes across as smug and aloof, as though it were the sort of crowd-pleasing pap that superior artists like Lean and Coward wouldn't touch with a barge pole.


Also, by persistently emphasising that Laura Jesson and Alec Harvey are “ordinary” people (i.e. middle-aged, middle-class, commuter belt suburbanites) and thus the supposed universality of their plight, Coward leaves them with little at stake should they choose to break off their chaste affair. Yes, the impossibility of their being together in a socially-accredited relationship is sad but it is by no means a tragedy. He will head off to South Africa with his unseen wife and sons to an exciting and important new career in a Commonwealth hospital while she will return to dull domestic comfort with her complacent but otherwise cuddly husband Fred (Cyril Raymond) and their precocious children. By having his protagonists do the safe, pragmatic thing and part company with their morals firmly intact, the playwright flirts with danger only to err on the side of caution. One might even call that Cowardly.


I probably wouldn't be so disdainful of Brief Encounter if it weren't so relentlessly lauded and apparently immune to criticism. For some reason, people seem to get misty-eyed at the very idea of unconsummated platonic love (see Lost In Translation, 2003) and always enjoy the simplicity of a straight romantic story economically told (Wong Kar Wai's In The Mood For Love, 2000). Lean's film also carries more than its fair share of the burden for a great deal of nostalgia about the passing of Britain's pre-Beeching steam railways with their branch lines and cosy stations, which is not really its fault. A professional job, touchingly played, but hardly without flaws.

01/06/2010

A Matter Of Life & Death (1946)


A frequent intruder on those incessant “100 greatest films of all time” lists, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's much-trumpeted wartime fantasy is one of the most preposterously whimsical, winsomely saccharine romances I've ever ground my teeth through. The plot hinges on a celestial book-keeping error, compounded by thick Channel fog, which allows British WWII airman Peter Carter (David Niven) to miraculously survive the Lancaster bomber crash that should have killed him, falling in love with June (Kim Hunter), an American radio operator, on the way to bailing out sans parachute. To rectify the mistake, a heavenly court is convened to hear Peter's case.

Like a reverse Wizard Of Oz (1939), Powell and Pressburger have Jack Cardiff shoot the real world in bright, sickly Technicolor while heaven is portrayed as a humourless, colourless, modernist bureaucracy, populated by hordes of lawyers, file clerks and receptionists apparently busy catering to the best-attended national stereotypes convention in history. Dignified Hindu and Gurkha soldiers, solemn black Americans, starchy nurses, moustachioed R.A.F. pilots, sour New England Puritans - no wonder Niv's so keen to cheat death. While the afterlife looks thoroughly unappetising, the filmmakers then entirely squander their premise by shooting the Technicolor world almost entirely in ugly interiors. After a bright opening in which a confused Peter staggers around the sand dunes of a windswept Devon beach and goes on a dreamlike first date with June in a rose garden, the rest of the film's terrestrial scenes largely take place between Dr. Reeves' (Roger Livesey) cluttered study and a sterilised army operating theatre (whose idea was it to put a brain surgery scene in this lavish schmaltz anyway?) Yuck.

Another wasted conceit occurs at the trial. The script is at pains to stress that Carter can choose anyone in history, anyone at all who has ever lived and died, to represent him. He is free to pick from the finest minds humanity has to offer, from the greatest classical orators, thinkers and philosophers to the wisest of politicians, artists, theologians and scientists. So who does he plump for? Plato? Shakespeare? Schopenhauer? No, dear old Dr. Reeves. And you know what that means. The poor bastard has to die. And how do Powell and Pressburger engineer this tragic turn of events? By having poor old Roger Livesey thrown off his motorcycle in a torrential downpour and burned to death horrifically by the roadside. Nice. Couldn't he have just slipped away peacefully in his sleep? For some reason, the writers almost completely reject the idea of populating heaven with identifiable historical figures – John Bunyan does get a cameo – but it's not at all clear why. Surely a guest appearance by someone playing Laurence Sterne or Fats Waller wouldn't have hurt? Anyone would have been better than Archers repertory player Marius Goring's increasingly irksome French fop, quite understandably decapitated by the revolutionaries for being too decadently twee (think Lumiere from Disney's Beauty & The Beast without the grit). That he is said to smell of fried onions comes as little surprise.


A Matter Of Life & Death is full of these sort of bewildering judgement calls and unanswered questions. Did the filmmakers sincerely believe that all it would take for them to be hailed as “literary” was by having almost every character recite poetry? Did they really think that getting their actors to freeze whenever an angel appears was anything other than an appalling drama school gimmick? Hunter visibly corpses at one point, unable to hold her pose completely still, as though suddenly struck by the absurdity of it all. And why oh why have the trial descend into an idiotic, Transatlantic pissing contest between Livesey and Raymond Massey's Abraham Farlan? The film was commissioned by the Ministry of Information to boost Anglo-American relations post-war - how exactly is this end served by having Massey sneer at boring radio cricket commentary and Livesey declare himself bemused by R&B? The list goes on. What's the deal with the misspelt barracks production of A Midsummer Night's Dream that never happens? Is this a metaphor I see before me? And WHY is the heavenly judge played by the same actor (the magnificently eye-browed Abraham Sofaer) who appears as Peter's neurosurgeon? Is the old sawbones a ghost then? An angel? Or is the entire trial and the silly magical escalator just a figment of Peter's fevered unconscious imagination? Frankly, I gave up caring long before we got there. Niven, Livesey and Massey are all very well but who honestly gives a damn about the fate of the utterly anonymous Kim Hunter? A contemporary reviewer in Variety hit the nail on the head when he wrote that, "Like other Powell-Pressburger pictures, the striving to appear intellectual is much too apparent." A Matter Of Life & Death is a bold venture, certainly, but a most vexing one nonetheless.