30/12/2011

The Man In The White Suit (1951)



Alec Guinness always said that this inspired manufacturing industry satire from director Alexander Mackendrick was his personal favourite among the Ealing pictures in which he appeared. Reunited with Joan Greenwood (and, briefly, Miles Malleson) from their triumph in Robert Hamer’s Kind Hearts & Coronets (1949), Guinness is endearingly childlike here as mad scientist Sidney Stratton, a niave but brilliant chemist who secretly develops a luminous, indestructible fabric while working as a lab technician at a Lancashire textile mill. When the factory's boss Mr Birnley (Cecil Parker) learns of Stratton's combustible but potentially lucrative invention, he is keen to press on with its mass production, only for his rivals to round on him and point out that such a move would destroy their entire business as consumers would never require more than one suit of clothes in a lifetime. When the plant's trade union members learn of Stratton's miracle material, they too rise up and the poor fellow is unceremoniously imprisoned and then chased through the streets as both capital and labour unite to try and suppress his creation.


Perhaps not the funniest of Ealing's capers but arguably the studio's weightiest and most thought-provoking script (from an unproduced play by Mackendrick's cousin, Roger MacDougall), The Man In The White Suit serves as an allegory for the restriction of scientific progress under a conservative capitalist hierarchy. However, Stratton's resilient and dirt-resistant cloth (barring instabilities in its structure) would certainly have put millions out of work had it been embraced - a detail that makes it as destructive a prospect as the A-bomb and which makes the film more relevant today than ever as we find ourselves shufflingly unthinkingly into a digital economy founded on self-service supermarket checkouts, eReaders and mass unemployment. "Why can't you scientists leave things alone? What about my bit of washing, when there's no washing to do?" What indeed.

Greenwood is as sexy as ever as the plucky daughter of Parker's compromised local industrialist, Vida Hope is utterly authentic as a strident socialist, Ernest Thesiger is hilarious as a sickly, ghoulish tycoon (very much a proto-Mr Burns) and there's an early part for Michael Gough (best known to modern audiences for his recurring role as Alfred Pennyworth in the pre-Christopher Nolan Batman films, 1989-1997). Guinness and Parker, meanwhile, would team up with Mackendrick one final time for The Ladykillers (1955) before the Scot packed his bags for America and the mighty Sweet Smell Of Success (1957). Critic Charles Barr divided Michael Balcon's directors into the categories "mainstream" and "maverick" in his 1977 study Ealing Studios, singling out Mackendrick and Robert Hamer for the latter label. Its an apt description of two men whose work was more cynical, irreverent and morally complex than the liberal but safe output of Charles Crichton, Charles Frend and Basil Dearden. The Man In The White Suit is as fine an example of a "maverick" Ealing production as you could wish for.

27/12/2011

Passport To Pimlico (1949)



"We always were English and we always will be English and it's just because we are English that we're sticking up for our right to be Burgundian!"

I just received a nice new Ealing box set for Christmas courtesy of my dear old Dad and the first one we plumped for was this smart satire from prolific studio writer T.E.B. Clarke and first time director Henry Cornelius about the discovery of a treasure trove of jewels and gold coins belonging to the last Duke of Burgundy near the site of an unexploded bomb in darkest Pimlico, London. Amongst this stash is a royal charter from Edward IV of England bequeathing the area to the fleeing ruler after he was presumed dead following the Battle of Nancy in 1477. The authentication of this parchment by Margaret Rutherford’s dotty academic Professor Hatton-Jones leads the locals to declare the Miramont Place estate a free territory independent of the United Kingdom, whereupon the locals run riot with glee (“Blimey! I’m a foreigner!”) and the moustaches of Whitehall begin to twitch and bristle with vexation.


A fine example of producer Michael Balcon’s “mild revolution”, Passport To Pimlico stands as a comic fantasy of liberation from the necessary restrictions imposed on Brits living in tenement rubble and brick dust by the post-war austerity Labour government of the day. There’s a palpable sense of fear detectable here about a return to the horrors of evacuations, conflict and the siege mentality of the war years, still so fresh in the memory, but also a nostalgic yearning for a revival of the famous “Dunkirk spirit” the British people pulled together to demonstrate under those same dark skies. In 1949 the ration book was still king and many were beginning to feel exasperated by the ongoing scarcity and want and dreamed of deliverance from the deprivation they encountered every day, a mood Passport To Pimlico captures perfectly and is typified by the scene in which Stanley Holloway’s Arthur Pemberton proposes a new children’s playground be built nearby and is met with a frosty response from the chair of the local council: “This borough is in no position to finance daydreams”. Clarke’s script is always quick to set idealism crashing against the rocks of practical reality and the story actually unfolds as a logical examination of the likely problems a new microstate such as Burgundy might encounter – the immediate appearance of black marketeers (the rogue fishmonger purporting to be selling “Danish” eels at extortionate rates), the festivals of bureaucracy taking place at its borders and diplomatic wrangling in its corridors of power, a dependence on its neighbours for water and food supplies and the potential collapse of law and order (British manners and respect for rank are abruptly cast aside in the pub in favour of drinking and dancing). The result is an extremely satisfying enterainment and no doubt provided a welcome escape for contemporary audiences.


Balcon insisted his studio's films should tell stories "ripped from the headlines" and Clarke’s tale of the South London Burgundians was duly inspired by a news story he encountered during wartime concerning the pregnant Princess Juliana of the Netherlands, who went into labour with the country’s heir while living in exile in Canada, a turn of events that would have rendered the boy ineligible for the throne because he wasn't born on home soil. To remedy the situation, the maternity wing of the Canadian hospital in question was temporarily handed over to the Netherlands and Dutch law was appeased. Ingenious! Of the many highlights among a cast including Raymond Huntely, Hermione Baddeley, Sydney Tafler, Michael Horndern and a young Charles Hawtrey, it's great to see the return of Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne, Charters and Caldicott themselves, as representatives of the British government. The film also includes arguably the best pathetic fallacy joke of all time – the whole picture takes place during an unseasonal heat wave, which only ends when Burgundy is welcomed back into the UK, whereupon it immediately begins to rain.

23/12/2011

Scrooge (1951)



A very merry Christmas to all my readers - both of you - and here's an early gift, my favourite of the seemingly infinite number of screen adaptations of Charles Dickens' most beloved tale.

Composer Bernard Herrmann once observed, "Audiences are like children; they don't mind hearing the same story over and over again. It's how you tell it." The endless reworkings of A Christmas Carol (1843) appear to bear out this notion perfectly. Brian Desmond Hurst's spin on the old yarn really is a gem though - authentically spooky thanks to C.M. Pennington's Richard's gloomy cinematography and extremely faithful in tone to its source ("There's more of gravy than of grave about you"), filled with the sad experience of its author but tempered with a sympathetic pro-welfare state message. As much as I like the Muppets, this is most certainly the version for me. Alastair Sim makes for a marvellous Ebeneezer Scrooge - fearsome early on and exuberantly joyful at the close - and there's fine support from Mervyn Johns as a charming Bob Cratchit, Michael Hordern as the ghostly Jacob Marley, Kathleen Harrison as Scrooge's Cockney charwoman and Jack Warner as roguish embezzler Mr Jorkin. Look out too for George Cole as young Ebeneezer, Ernest Thesiger as an undertaker, Miles Malleson as the wry pedlar Old Joe, Hattie Jacques as Mrs Fezziwig and Patrick Macnee as young Marley.



As essential a Yuletide movie as It's A Wonderful Life (1946), Miracle On 34th Street (1947), A Christmas Story (1983) or Bad Santa (2003), go for this baby every time (though perhaps not the sickly colourised print from 1989) and, whatever else you do, remember to steer well clear of the Patrick Stewart and Kelsey Grammer TV movie travesties. Those really are frightening.

14/12/2011

Christmas In July (1940)



A little more Dick Powell for you in Preston Sturges' underrated follow-up to the same year's The Great McGinty, based on a never-produced play the writer-director had drafted in 1931, A Cup Of Coffee. It may not actually have anything to do with Christmas but, hey, so sue me.

A real product of the Great Depression - think My Man Godfrey (1936) - Sturges' satire on consumer-capitalism concerns Jimmy MacDonald (Powell), a poor but earnest young clerk at New York's Baxter Coffee Company who enters a contest to compose the new slogan for rival firm Maxford House Coffee ("If you can't sleep, it isn't the coffee. It's the bunk"). Taking advantage of a delay in the announcement of the winner (William Demarest's Mr Bildocker causes it by anticipating 12 Angry Men (1957) and refusing to side with the majority vote, driving his fellow executives, including Robert Warwick and Jimmy Conlin, to distraction with his stubbornness), three of Jimmy's colleagues decide to play a prank on him by writing a phoney telegram in which he is declared the lucky recipient of the $25,000 first prize. When Jimmy's boss (Ernest Truex) gets wind of this triumph, he decides to hand the lad a promotion to the advertising department, where Jimmy immediately impresses. Having picked up his cheque from an unquestioning Dr Maxford (Raymond Walburn), Jimmy and his loving girlfriend (Ellen Drew) proceed to hit the stores to buy a wedding ring, a high-tech davenport for his mother and gifts for everyone on the block. However, when the truth is discovered, all hell breaks loose and a fish fight erupts between Jimmy's neighbours and the department store creditors trying to retrieve their goods, leaving the naive victim disillusioned and debt-ridden. Until...

There's some real pathos on show here in the desperate dreams of Sturges' protagonist of hitting the jackpot and selflessly delivering those around him from the poverty and desperation that has blighted their lives. Powell and Drew make for an adorable couple and her impassioned speech to save his job is a truly touching moment, as is the scene in which the trio of contrite jokers bring the MacDonalds a replacement couch for their pains. This is a fable as timeless as they come and as relevant now as when it was penned but, as a spoof of modern business culture, the hollow pursuit of material wealth and the illusory nature of success, Christmas In July is perhaps not as biting as it might have been. Still, Mr Baxter's rationale for thinking less of Jimmy when he learns he hasn't really won the competition has an enjoyably crooked logic - without the quantifiable endorsement of others, his ideas have no capital and are thus to all intents and purposes worthless, no matter how fine they may have seemed at first ("I didn't hang on to my father's money by backing my own judgement, you know"). There are also some splendid character turns to enjoy here, from the likes of Truex, an animated Walburn, Franklin Pangborn as a frazzled radio personality and Alan Bridge as an eccentric jewelry salesman. Not Strurges' finest but rather lovely all the same.

12/12/2011

Man On The Flying Trapeze (1935)



Kathleen Howard struggles to conceal her disgust at husband Ambrose Wolfinger (W.C. Fields) talking with his mouth full in this inspired Paramount comedy from dear old "Charles Bogle's" best period. Like Harold Bissonette in the previous year's It's A Gift (who was also married to a Howard moaner), Wolfinger is another of Fields' stoical family men, a breadwinner who has been forced to survive on cold toast for eight years because of the greed and selfishness of the ungrateful in-laws he's been doing his best to support. The last laugh is most assuredly his, of course.

I've written fairly extensively about The Great Man before so there's no need to dwell on his back story too much here. Instead, let's just stand back and admire the brilliance of one of his very finest films. Man On The Flying Trapeze, essentially a remake of his 1927 silent feature Running Wild, benefits from the simplicity of its premise, that Fields' unassuming office file clerk and "memory expert" wants to take his first afternoon off work in 25 years to see a wrestling match, a championship bout between Tosoff, the Russian Behemoth (played by Swedish beast Tor Johnson, later a star of Ed Wood's infamous Z-movies) and Hookallockah Meshobbab, the Persian Giant. Ambrose's boss Mr Malloy (Oscar Apfel, returning from 1934's The Old Fashioned Way) isn't too keen on the idea so Wolfinger is forced to volunteer the lie that his hated, shrewish mother-in-law Cordelia (Vera Lewis) has recently passed away from alcohol poisoning. However, with his ticket for the match swiped by work shy brother-in-law Claude Neselrode (Grady Sutton, Ogg Oggilby from The Bank Dick, 1940) and the premature memorial wreaths stacking up at home, the poor devil's going to have to come up with something pretty special to win the day and appease his bossy wife Leona (Howard), the sort of woman who delights in reading aloud "Gertrude Smodden" editorials from the newspaper.


The highlights here are many. Arguably the stand-out is the opening sally in which Fields takes a nip in the bathroom while he's supposed to be brushing his teeth, performs a laborious blowing-and-rolling ritual with his socks (twice) before taking up arms and venturing down to the basement to apprehend two burglars supping on his homebrewed applejack and instead joining them in a sentimental croon, along with the equally sozzled cop they are handcuffed to. Fields caterwauling along with these two hoodlums (played by future cowboy character actor Walter Brennan and Fields regular Tammany Young) to 'On The Banks Of The Wabash' is a real moment of brotherly fellowship and just too funny for words. His manic chase downhill and onto the railroad tracks in pursuit of an escaped spare tire is also splendid as is Wolfinger's surprisingly violent final confrontation with Claude and Cordelia - knocking the former out cold and chasing the latter away with a wild swing that only narrowly misses. However, as always, our man has plenty to say about the human condition as well, depicting a cruel world populated by ghastly relatives, sycophantic superiors (Lucien Littlefield's fastidious Mr Peabody is especially memorable) and patronising traffic cops. It's genuinely affecting to see Ambrose cross the threshold to his own home sporting a black eye and a nosegay of wilting flowers ("Things happened...") and the only source of solace and relief in this man's dreary and unhappy existence is a quiet drink and the love of his doughty daughter (Mary Brian) from an earlier marriage - tellingly christened Hope. It is she who clears his name and wins him back his job with a stellar raise and she who most deserves her place in the front of his new car as the credits role while Claude and Cordelia cower in the rumble seat, drenched by a sudden rain storm to the driver's beaming satisfaction.


Aspects of Man On The Flying Trapeze are thought to be autobiographical - Fields' own estranged son was named Claude, he himself really did have a photographic memory (he read precociously and was able to recall lengthy passages from hefty tomes in detail) while his on-screen secretary is played by Carlotta Monti, the comedian's long-term mistress. These are mere details and dalliances, however. Our man deals in universal truths. "It's hard to lose your mother-in-law. Almost impossible..."

11/12/2011

Murder, My Sweet (1944)



Dick Powell as Raymond Chandler's celebrated private eye Philip Marlowe, temporarily blinded by gun smoke and under suspicion from the cops, in Edward Dmytryk's excellent adaptation of the author's 1940 novel Farewell, My Lovely. The former Warner Brothers musical star tends to divide opinion in the role but, personally, I love his light comic touch and whimsical, perpetually amused take, perfect for smirking through Chandler's witty dialogue. A scene in which Marlowe strikes a match off the cold marble buttocks of a statue of Cupid to light his cigarette before grinning wryly up into its eyes in anticipation of annoyance sums the character up beautifully. Powell may handle Marlowe pretty differently to Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep (1946) - he's no hard man but then Marlowe's no Mike Hammer - though he did get there first and there's surely plenty of room for both interpretations. Some of Powell's lines are unbeatable, however: "'OK Marlowe,' I said to myself. 'You're a tough guy. You've been sapped twice, choked, beaten silly with a gun, shot in the arm until you're crazy as a couple of waltzing mice. Now let's see you do something really tough - like putting your pants on.'"

Powell would be rewarded for his brilliance in 1949 when he was granted his own radio series on NBC, Richard Diamond, Private Detective. The show enabled Powell to combine his talents, delivering snappy dialogue between mysteries and crooning a song to his devoted secretary at the end of each episode , making Diamond the original singing detective.


But back to Murder My Sweet. Dmytryk's leading man is by no means let down by his supporting players in this superlative tale of missing dames, extortion, phoney stick-ups, trophy wives and jade MacGuffins. Mike Mazurki (above) is unforgettable as hulking simpleton Moose Malloy in his best known role, a character described by Chandler as, "a big man not more than six feet five inches tall and not wider than a beer truck.. He wore a shaggy borsalino hat, a rough grey sports coat with white golf balls on it for buttons, a brown shirt, a yellow tie, pleated grey flannel slacks and alligator shoes with white explosions on the toes... Even on Central Avenue, not the quietest street in the world, he looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula in a slice of angel food."

Brilliant stuff and Mazurki gives life to this creature so magnificently that his Malloy ends up as immortal a screen monster as King Kong or Boris Karloff's in Frankenstein (1931), two more big brutes in search of love. Anne Shirley is also sweet as the distrustful Ann Grayle while Claire Trevor makes for a fine femme fatale, seductive, street smart and entirely believable with a pistol in her hands during the climactic beach house scene. It's easy to imagine her clipped delivery and sharp manner providing the inspiration for Julianne Moore's avant-garde artist Maude in The Big Lebowski (1998), just as Ben Gazzara's Jackie Treehorn in the same film seems to echo Otto Kruger's turn as quack blackmailer Jules Amthor here. The surreal dream sequence Marlowe endures after being knocked out and doped seems to have provided a further cue for the Coen Brothers. Another postmodern spin on Chandler's mystery came in 2009 with the launch of HBO's inspired comedy series Bored To Death, in which Jason Schwartzman's depressed writer Jonathan Ames rediscovers the novel and sets out to become a detective himself (unlicensed) like a latter day Don Quixote, with similarly disastrous results.

07/12/2011

The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)



The magnificence of the Ambersons may have begun in 1873 but it looks like we may never get to see it in all its glory. Orson Welles's follow-up to Citizen Kane (1941), an opulent adaptation of Booth Tarkington's Nobel Prize-winning novel of 1918, was famously butchered by nervous executives at RKO when the director's back was turned - its editor Robert Wise instructed to shave over an hour of footage from Welles's final cut, burn the negatives and shoot a more optimistic ending after a lukewarm preview screening had given the suits the jitters and before Welles could return from the set of his unfinished It's All True in Brazil in time to intervene. Some say a complete reel of Welles' finished cut was sent to him for safe keeping in South America by loyal crew members but, if such a treasure ever existed, it has long since been given up as lost. However, after the amazing rediscovery of a longer cut of Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927) in an Argentine storeroom in 2008, the possibility of an unadulterated Magnificent Ambersons turning up suddenly feels that little bit less remote.



What we have left of Welles's lost masterpiece remains a spellbinding piece of cinema. This elegaic gem concerns a wealthy Midwestern dynasty living in splendour at the turn of the century before being brought low by the bull-headed arrogance and destructive snobbery of its heir, George Minifer Amberson (Tim Holt), who opposes his widowed mother Isabel's (Dolores Costello) last chance at happiness with the true love of her life, a nouveau riche automobile pioneer named Eugene Morgan (Joseph Cotten), whose fortune might have saved the Amberson estate from crumbling into nothing. George's oediapl jealousy and misguided preoccupation with protecting the family name from gossip and rumour leads him to sneer at Morgan's "horseless carriage", even though he himself is ostensibly in love with the man's spirited and devoted daughter Lucy (Anne Baxter). Anxiety over their feud eventually drives poor Isabel to an early grave and Eugene away to grieve while the Ambersons fall on hard times and are forced to exchange their gloomy mansion for labouring jobs, a cheap boarding house and a life of toil, destitution and quiet desperation.


Welles was introduced to Tarkington's novel by his father Richard Hodgdon Head Welles, who was a close friend of the author and may even have inspired the character of Eugene, having made his name with the invention of a best-selling range of bicycle headlamps and married a society beauty, one Beatrice Ives, an accomplished concert pianist. Orson was actually the director's middle name, incidentally. His Christian name was George. The young Welles became fascinated by a novel with such close ties to his own childhood and produced a version for his radio series The Campbell Playhouse in 1939, in which he took the role of George himself but in which only Ray Collins appeared from the later cast. By the time the director came to shoot a film of The Magnificent Ambersons in the wake of his critical triumph with Kane, Welles decided that he was too old and had become too portly for the central role so instead cast Tim Holt as George, a performer he considered, "one of the most interesting actors there's ever been in American movies" but whom he felt squandered his talent by taking easy, minor roles in Hollywood Westerns. Welles doesn't appear on screen but his pitying, murmurous narration reverberates around the halls and haunts proceedings superbly, his presence always felt. Cotten, the redoubtable Agnes Moorehead and composer Bernard Herrmann were all Mercury Theater veterans while Anne Baxter was handed a role because she knew something herself of living with a legacy, being the granddaughter of famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright. The stately Amberson house was built in full on a studio sound-stage - parts of it reused in countless films since - with the idea that its walls could be removed so that Stanley Cortez's camera could roam freely around the place like a character in its own right. This effect is noticeable in the scene in which George confronts his Uncle Jack (Collins) soaking in the bathtub, swapping glances from each man's perspective and catching their reflections in the mirror and also in the scene in which the bullied Aunt Fanny (Moorehead) appears at the top of the third tier of bannisters, eavesdropping on the arguments below.


Like Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons presents a personal empire tearing itself apart with hubris and resentment and demonstrates the powerlessness of humanity and all its impermanent trinkets and monuments to withstand the ravages of time, recalling the "Colossal Wreck" of Ozymandias in Percy Shelley's poem of 1818. The Magnificent Ambersons is arguably a more mature, disciplined work than its celebrated predecessor, however, taking the bold decision to centre itself around a protagonist so sour and unpleasant that he risks alienating the popcorn crowd from the get-go and capsizing the whole venture. No wonder the Philistines were spooked and chose to pair Ambersons in contemporary picture houses with the loopy Lupe Vélez vehicle Mexican Spitfire Sees A Ghost (1942). In a movie full of wonder, my favourite scene has to be the magical moment in which Morgan's shivering jalopy finally breaks down in deep snow, whereupon the merry inventor cranks it up gamely and keeps everybody cheerful by starting a sing-along to 'The Man Who Broke The Bank At Monte Carlo'. Everyone except George, that is. Cotten, Costello, Moorehead and Collins give memorable performances as a quartet of sad and kindly ghosts who have been so terribly wronged by their spoilt offspring.

03/12/2011

Night & The City (1950)



American hustler, confidence trickster and nightclub tout Harry Fabian (Richard Widmark) was a lifelong loser who came to London after the war with dreams of striking it rich and damn near made it. For one fleeting moment, he had it all right there in the palm of his hand. This one wasn't like the football pool's scam or the Birmingham greyhound track. This one was big.

A chance encounter with the Great Gregorious (Stanislaus Zbyszko), an ageing Greco-Roman wrestling champion and a purist disgusted by the fakery and choreography of the modern game, gives Fabian the idea that he could become a big shot promoter. But such a venture would require a solid backer and his bloated boss at the Silver Fox, Phil Nosseross (Francis L. Sullivan), may have one too many ulterior motives to be truly trustworthy, not least his jealousy towards Fabian over his ruthless wife Helen's (Googie Withers) wandering eye. The boy will also need to overcome the objections of another party, Gregorious's son Kristo (Herbert Lom), a shady fellow keen to modernise the sport into a more contrived, spectacular entertainment without losing the old man's love.

Director Jules Dassin was dispatched to a Britain still smouldering in the rubble and ruin of the Blitz to make Night & The City by Fox head Darryl F. Zanuck, who knew that Dassin was about to be blacklisted for his alleged Communist sympathies after fellow director Edward Dmytryk dropped his name to the House Un-American Activities Committee. Gene Tierney was sent along with him for this adaptation of Gerald Kersch's 1938 novel in order to get over a particularly bad break-up that had led Zanuck to believe her suicidal. It's perhaps this melancholy background that explains the resulting production's relentless pessimism and abiding gloom. Tierney's Mary Bristol, Fabian's doting girlfriend, is one of the few characters we are introduced to who is anything other than a crooked parasite in pursuit of their own interests. Dassin's London is a nightmarish underworld of squalor, poverty and desperation, its winding alleyways cloaked in expressionistic shadows, in which no one decent has a shilling to spare - an atmosphere no doubt reflecting the director's troubled state of mind at the time. Noir always deals in fatalism but rarely has the point been so unromantically made as in this account of the utterly pointless life and death of Harry Fabian. Czech hood Lom flicking his cigarette butt absently into the Thames after watching The Strangler (Mike Mazurki) polish off Fabian and dump his body in the water just says it all.


Widmark is fabulously energetic in the lead, his bony, taut face and staring eyes barely concealing Harry's frantic ambition. He spends much of the film running, darting away from hoodlums and into doorways and new scrapes and seems to be almost perennially sweating, refusing to surrender to the idea that he can't outrun death. It's hard to resist reading the character as a metaphor for Dassin's plight. Withers and Sullivan also make for a memorably frightful couple, he as beady and wearily knowing here as he was playing Jaggers in David Lean's remarkable Great Expectations (1946). Full-time henchman Mazurki is also well cast as a boorish rival wrestler (a nod to his earlier career) and his bout with the older Zbyszko (the Pole had also been a professional Greco-Roman brawler, see below) is one of the most memorable cinematic sporting contests I can recall.

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Dassin may have been discarded by Hollywood because of his political affiliations but he continued to work and followed Night & The City by relocating to France and making Rififi (1955), possibly the greatest of all bank heist capers. As sweet a kiss-off as they come.

26/11/2011

Follow The Boys (1944)



George Raft, Orson Welles, Marlene Dietrich, W.C. Fields, Arthur Rubenstein and The Andrews Sisters all in the same film? It happened.

Raft stars as vaudeville clown turned Hollywood musical star Tony West who takes it upon himself to organise entertainment for serving US troops following the bombing of Pearl Harbour by the Japanese. Alienating his pregnant wife and co-star (Vera Zorvina) in the process, West tours the country's army camps with such luminaries as Welles, Dietrich, Fields, Rubinstein, Joan Blondell, Dinah Shore, Sophie Tucker, Carmen Amaya, Andy Devine, Nigel Bruce, Donald O'Connor and Peggy Ryan plus band leaders Louis Jordan, Freddie Slack and Charlie Spivak and a good time is had by all.

Welles and Dietrich's magic turn is a definite highlight of this back-slapping Universal variety ensemble, but so is Fields' boozy pool routine (an echo from 1934's Six Of A Kind) and Jordan's lovely rendition of 'Is You Is Or Is You Ain't My Baby?' for an audience of black servicemen from the back of a flatbed truck in the rain. The cruel-looking Raft can certainly bust a move when he wants to and makes for a determined lead in this worthiest of patriotic tribute films but the narrative about his neglected home life, which is used to tie everything together, seems oddly overdone. The decision to kill him off at the end when a Japanese sub torpedoes a navy carrier with the Andrews Sisters on board in mid-song is a particularly heavy-handed touch. We get it. The guy's a hero. All the stars who gave up their time acted commendably (though in publicity terms, it has to be said, they had little choice) but somehow you can't help feeling that the soldiers themselves are being forgotten here amidst all the self-congratulation. There are no real characters among the men and women in uniform and no alternative voice. As such, Follow The Boys from director Eddie Sutherland and producer Charles K. Feldman stands as an uncomplicated record of this peculiar footnote to showbiz history. It's unabashed propaganda but none the less interesting for that.

19/11/2011

The Lady Eve (1941)


Henry Fonda's clumsy snake-spotter and brewery heir Charles "Hopsie" Pike falls for Barbara Stanwyck's manipulative card sharp Jean Harrington (taking out a waiter in the process) aboard an ocean liner from South America in Preston Sturges' excellent screwball comedy. Rather like Cary Grant's Dr. Huxley in Bringing Up Baby (1938), Pike is a bookish, retiring academic type caught up in the affairs of a female whirlwind, this time the manipulative Harrington, in league with her professional gambler father (Charles Coburn) to swindle the rich and stupid at the card table, who accidentally finds herself in love with Charles for real. However, when he uncovers the truth about her choice of career, the befuddled ophiologist storms home to his family's country retreat in Connecticut, heartbroken. She follows him, angered by the snub, posing as a member of the English aristocracy named Lady Eve Sidwich and eventually marries poor, confused Charlie after convincing him that she is in fact Jean's twin.


Here's a very fine moment early on in which the seduction truly begins. Stanwyck is sensational throughout and again uses her shapely ankles to entrap a man, just as she would in Double Indemnity (1944). Fonda's naive Adam is here rendered entirely helpless and would almost certainly say yes to any suggestion she'd care to make, prohibited apples or otherwise.



Paramount's The Lady Eve was based on a short story by Monckton Hoffe entitled 'Two Bad Hats', which was very nearly its title and Joel McCrea, Fred MacMurray, Madeleine Carroll and Paulette Goddard were all slated to star at various stages of pre-production. As delightful as those performers are, Fonda and Stanwyck make for a strong pairing and, as is so often the case with Sturges, the supporting cast are a real highlight. The director had an extraordinary gift for finding the right people and giving them funny things to do, like having the oinking Eugene Palette sing and clang steel cloches together as he becomes increasingly impatient for his overdue breakfast. Or having William Demarest as Pike's suspicious minder Ambrose "Muggsy" Murgatroyd creep past the dining room windows spying on Lady Eve in silhouette before tumbling head first into a flowerbed. Or having Fred and Ginger regular Eric Blore dressed up like The Penguin, complete with monocle and top hat, roaming the country club set posing as a knight of the realm in deliciously villainous style. You can see why the Coen Brothers admire Sturges so much. His slogan for Pike's Ale ("The Ale That Won For Yale") could have come from the same marketing department that cooked up Dapper Dan's pomade.

12/11/2011

Private's Progress (1956)


Taking its title and loose gist from William Hogarth's satirical series of paintings A Rake's Progress (1732-35)*, which chronicle a young novice's rise and fall from worldly innocence to corrupt experience, this was the first of the Boulting Brothers' own string of questioning comedies, a lampoon of the British military based on a novel by Alan Hackney. Private's Progress proved hugely popular upon its release, revealing an enduring taste for wartime capers among UK audiences a full decade after hostilities had ceased.

As with its follow-up Brothers In Law (1957), the period's favourite everyman Ian Carmichael stars as a bumbling naif called into an unfamiliar environment and caught out by its peculiar rules and disciplines, making a right old hash of things until he is taken under the wing of a waggish Richard Attenborough. Here, Carmichael's Stanley Windrush is a conscripted undergraduate from an eccentric but well-to-do background appalled by the poor food and hard physical routines of barracks life and demoted to private after failing an officer's exam. Posted to a holding unit, Windrush is suddenly called up to serve under his uncle as part of a top secret assignment known only as "Hat Rack", a job for which he seems suspiciously under-qualified.


Carmichael is good value as ever and does particularly well playing roaring drunk (as he would in the Boultings' later Lucky Jim, 1957), memorably cheeking a sentry after a night out on the town and giving his name as "Picklepuss" before falling over, laughing hysterically and stealing the latter's whistle. There's also a priceless look on the lad's face when he realises that he's lost his shorts wriggling under a tarpaulin sheet during a training exercise. However, in an all-star cast featuring such stalwarts as Peter Jones, Miles Malleson, Jill Adams, John Le Mesurier, Ian Bannen, Kenneth Griffith and even a young Christopher Lee playing a Nazi officer, two performances stand out. Dennis Price, for one, is a delight as scheming Brigadier Bertram Tracepurcel, hoping to profit from the war by leading an outrageous undercover mission to Germany to recover stolen art treasures before faking his own death and fleeing to South America with a healthy stash of loot and the delectable Adams on his arm. For me, this probably stands as Price's best role after Kinds Hearts & Coronets (1949), which is high praise indeed. The second real corker is, of course, Terry-Thomas in his breakthrough part as the really rather sympathetic Major Hitchcock, a scream in the scene in which he bunks off to the local cinema to watch Noël Coward's stirring naval drama In Which We Serve (1942) only to find that the entire audience is comprised of his own men who are supposed to be out on manoeuvres: "You're all absolute showers!"



The Boultings would reunite many of the key players here to reprise their characters for a sort-of sequel three years later, the trade union satire I'm All Right Jack, which would also give Peter Sellers one of his best-known roles. On the downside, the success of Private's Progress may also have inspired Carry On Sergeant (1958), both of which featured William Hartnell as a no-nonsense CO, and thus unleashed a truly lamentable series of craptacular comedies on an unsuspecting public. You can't win 'em all.

*Another key British comedy of the period, 1960's School For Scoundrels, which again featured Carmichael and Thomas, would also rework the title of an eighteenth century cultural landmark, Richard Brinsely Sheridan's comic play The School For Scandal (1777).

11/11/2011

Left Right & Centre (1959)


With George Clooney's The Ides Of March (2011) currently whipping up Oscar buzz, here's another film from the campaign trail with which it almost certainly has nothing in common. This rather sweet-natured comedy from prolific British Lion director-producer team Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat again stars the redoubtable Ian Carmichael as TV panel show personality Robert Wilcot, star of teatime quiz 'What On Earth Was That?', who agrees to stand as Conservative candidate for the fictional constituency of Earndale in a parliamentary by-election. Wilcot soon becomes disillusioned with the contest when he realises he was only put forward for the nomination by his gleefully avaricious uncle Lord Wilcot (Alastair Sim) in order to ensure publicity for the family's stately home, which the latter has recently opened to the public and converted into a tourist attraction, filling the grounds with funfair rides, a nudist camp and peep show slot machines promising to reveal 'What Ye Jester Saw' and 'Sex in 3D' (which, brilliantly, is out of order, presumably from overuse). Robert's electioneering is further complicated when he finds himself falling helplessly in love with rival Labour candidate Stella Stoker (Patricia Bredin), the Socialist daughter of a Billingsgate fishmonger, much to the annoyance and disbelief of the pair's respective campaign managers (Richard Wattis and Eric Barker), who subsequently join forces to try to fend off the inevitable.

"You'll howl when sex and politics collide head on!" insisted the film's original tagline but actually Left Right & Centre rather abandons the pointed political satire it punts for early on in favour of standard romantic comedy plot contrivances - misunderstandings engineered by self-interested outsiders, confrontations with jealous partners etc. Launder and Gilliat's film opens with a pleasingly ironic narration stating that "every nation, they say, gets the government it deserves" and outlining the key ideological difference between the British right and left accordingly: "Whereas the Conservative philosophy is the exploitation of man by man, with the Socialists it is exactly the other way round". This is followed by a rousing ode to the British electorate in praise of our keen awareness of the important social issues of the day and proud sense of fair play, deftly undermined by images of crowds betting on horse races, jeering at referees and chasing after girls. Left Right & Centre is good on media manipulation - two local rags take entirely opposing angles on a photograph of Wilcot chivalrously carrying Stoker's luggage at Earndale station - and Sim's Lord Wilcot does get to hand his young nephew this astonishing piece of wisdom: "We are all governed by dead ideas but, when it comes to political programmes, an idea has not merely to be dead but to have lost all meaning before it has any chance of being adopted with real enthusiasm." Bold stuff but instead of more in this vein, which could have led to a post-war, pre-Wilson answer to The Thick Of It (2005-), we end up with a harmless and somewhat messy trifle though the result remains a pleasant confection.

Carmichael and Bredin make for a charming item and prove themselves more than game when it comes to fighting it out at the hustings but the premise is pretty unlikely in the first place and, as always when his name appears on the cast list, it's Sim who steals the show here as the delightfully cynical, mercenary and meddling aristocrat, an opportunist far more interested in flogging homemade parsnip wine ("It puts the 'nip' in parsnip!") and counting his day's takings than the competition's outcome. Our man never looks happier than when he's spotted riding around town on the roof of a campaign truck smoking a fat cigar and promoting the paid-entry after-party he's hosting at Wilcot Priory on election night, regardless of the result. His oddly matter-of-fact death at the film's close - killed falling from a step ladder - at least provides one final piece of mischief: despite winning the election, Robert has inherited a peerage by dint of his relative's sudden demise and is thus ineligible to sit in the House of Commons anyway, meaning that the whole business is void and must begin again from scratch. Professional campaigners Wattis and Barker, of different class but otherwise cut from very similar cloth indeed (tellingly, both men share a taste for champagne), are left flabbergasted and squabbling on the pavement as the credits roll but you can't help but sense their exhilaration. This is, after all, what these creatures live for.


P.S. Here's a nice caricature of Carmichael, that perennial underdog, from 1957, drawn by my great uncle Gilbert Sommerlad, whom I've written about before here. Carmichael was appearing in The Tunnel Of Love by Joseph Fields and Peter De Vries at the Oxford New Theatre at the time this sketch was completed.

31/10/2011

12 Angry Men (1957)



Sidney Lumet’s enduring legal drama 12 Angry Men is an undeniably worthy piece of work – it almost feels like a public information film at times – and perhaps not as cool as Otto Preminger's Anatomy Of A Murder (1959) but it's also a perfectly argued and optimistic defence of democratic values and the American criminal justice system. The film is all the more astonishing for the formal constraints Reginald Rose’s script imposes upon itself, making use of just one set – the stifling jury room of the Supreme Court Building in New York’s Foley Square – and taking place in real-time with no action to speak of, just the titular dozen sweating out their deliberations and picking over the evidence in minute detail. It’s a truly amazing feat of writing, acting and directing from all concerned that still manages to keep audiences hooked over half a century later.

If you’ve never seen 12 Angry Men, the film concerns the trial of an impoverished Hispanic youth charged with murdering his own father in New York City. When the jury retires to consider its verdict, 11 members instinctively vote guilty in an initial straw poll. The only dissenter is Henry Fonda’s unnamed bleeding heart liberal who happens to feel that a man’s life is at least worth a conversation and has no time for complacent assumptions. Fonda’s architect assesses the all white, male (and politically representative) faces before him and seeks to persuade and debate his way to an alliance between those among his fellow jurors who are naturally sympathetic to his moderate, left-leaning point of view and those self-made conservative reactionaries in opposition, typified by hateful, perspiring Lee J. Cobb and a racist Ed Begley. Fonda asks his fellow jurymen to reconsider key passages of testimony and aspects of the circumstantial evidence before them and realises in the process that convincing Wall Street stockbroker E.G. Marshall - an enlightened corporate capitalist and early neo-con but, crucially, a man of reason - is the key to ensuring an acquittal for a boy whose guilt no one can honestly be sure of.



Ultimately Lumet’s film champions universal humanitarianism, reasoned argument and dispassionate group decision-making in pursuit of consensus rather than the deeply ambiguous notions of common sense justice and black-and-white moral certainty. 12 Angry Men also asks whether any criminal case is ever truly free from reasonable doubt and invites us to revisit the very concepts of “truth” and “fact”, arguing that all perceived reality is subjective and a matter of interpretation, susceptible to influence by prejudice, bias and narcissism. At one point a frustrated Begley shouts, “I’m sick of the facts – you can twist ‘em any way you like!” and in so doing a profound philosophical point is made in an accessible, box office-friendly manner. A real public service of a film.



Although Fonda, civilising the land just as he did in My Darling Clementine (1946), is undoubtedly the star here (he also served as producer), there are no weak links in the cast, with some strong turns on show from Cobb, Begley, Marshall, foreman Martin Balsam and a meek John Fieldler (the voice of Piglet in Disney's Winnie the Pooh franchise). Jack Warden is especially memorable as intellectually lazy, wisecracking baseball fan, as is Robert Webber as a crass Madison Avenue man. Balsam and Warden would, incidentally, be reunited in the editorial offices of The Washington Post for another American cinematic monument, All The President's Men, in 1976. You can watch 12 Angry Men in full here and, frankly, it would be a crime not to.

P.S. Fans of period British comedy should check out the following episode of BBC sitcom Hancock's Half Hour from 1959, in which comedian Tony Hancock and sidekick Sid James find themselves re-enacting Lumet's film when they are called up to serve as jurors on a robbery trial at the Old Bailey. A neat and affectionate skewering of the source.

30/10/2011

Cape Fear (1962)



Gregory Peck raises a formidable eyebrow at a meddlesome Robert Mitchum in J. Lee Thompson's classic thriller about a Georgia attorney stalked and terrorised by an ex-con he helped put away eight years previously. Thompson's film was based on John D. MacDonald’s 1957 novel The Executioners and the director brought together some natural casting choices for the job. Peck, Mr Integrity, would play his signature role, Atticus Finch (another lawyer), that same year in To Kill A Mocking Bird while ageing tough guy Mitchum had already played a psychotic pursuer in Charles Laughton’s brilliant, expressionistic The Night Of The Hunter (1955). Similarly, Martin Balsam was fresh off Psycho (1960), where he met a grizzly end as Detective Arbogast, so was a shoe-in for Cape Fear’s voice of law and order, Sergeant Dutton. All are great – as are Polly Bergen, Lori Martin and Telly Salvalas in support - but it’s Mitchum’s performance as vicious rapist Max Cady that keeps us fascinated. Squinting out at Peck’s Sam Bowden from beneath his Panama hat, a cigar jutting contemptuously from his alligator grin, the man oozes menacing insouciance, an American Nightmare invading a cosy middle-class idyll in a similar vein to Joseph Cotten’s Uncle Charlie in Shadow Of A Doubt (1943). Cady clearly enjoys watching his prey squirm on the hook. So much so, in fact, that you start to wonder whether his actually going through with the killing of Bowden and his family wouldn’t rob him of his sole raison d’être. His disturbed sexual interest in Bowden’s young daughter (Martin) remains shocking to this day and Thompson’s film – often parodied, most notably in The Simpsons – still looks beautiful, its cool black-and-white cinematography accentuated in recent high definition releases. Perhaps its biggest selling point, however, is composer Bernard Herrmann’s unforgettable score, as tense and tied to the action in its way as John Williams’ for Jaws (1975).


Mitchum, Balsam and Peck (above) all returned for cameos in Martin Scorsese’s really rather unnecessary remake of this three little pigs tale in 1991, starring Robert De Niro and Nick Nolte in the leads with Jessica Lange and Juliette Lewis providing support. Herrmann’s theme was also recycled from the original, albeit rearranged by Elmer Bernstein, though screenwriter Wesley Strick did beef up Cady's motive for pursuing Sam Bowden, the latter having suppressed evidence that might have seen the defendant receive a reduced sentence in this version – a fatal act of moral judgement on Bowden’s part stemming from his certainty over Cady’s guilt. This certainly helps muddy the waters but you should stick with the original anyway - De Niro's tattooed Appalachian religious nut soons becomes a hysterical caricature and operatic silliness ensues, particularly in Scorsese's overblown houseboat dénouement.

23/10/2011

Brothers In Law (1957)



A befuddled Ian Carmichael takes the lead in another all-star British Lion comedy from the late fifties, this time a broad-brush satire of the legal industry from John and Roy Boulting. The film was intended as a follow-up to the brothers' military spoof Private's Progress from the year previously, taking a swipe at another great British institution in all its bewildering briefs, flying paperwork, convolutions, circumlocutions and archaic quirks. "The law is an ass", Charles Dickens once observed, and that's very much the standpoint taken here in a screenplay adapted from Henry Cecil's popular 1955 novel.


Carmichael stars as naive junior barrister Roger Thursby, who enters the Inns of Court off Fleet Street as a trainee in Miles Malleson's busy chambers, guided along the way by his more worldly flatmate Henry Marshall (Richard Attenborough). Essentially a comedy of embarrassment, Brothers In Law sees Thursby fluff his lines, forced to take guidance on points of law from clearly guilty career-criminal defendants and exasperate any number of judges (especially John Le Mesurier on the golf course) with his inexperience. It's all rather slight and gentle in truth but the film packs bags of charm and an excellent supporting cast including the beautiful Jill Adams as the object of Roger and Henry's affections, Terry-Thomas in a proper character part as cockney geezer and serial swindler Alfred Green as well as minor though amusing turns from such stalwarts as Irene Handl, playing a maddeningly inarticulate witness, Leslie Philips as a smooth tailor and radio panel show personality Nicholas Parsons as a car-obsessed stock broker. Future Billy Liar (1963), Midnight Cowboy (1969) and Marathon Man (1976) director John Schlesinger also makes a brief blink-and-you'll-miss-him appearance. Brothers In Law is available in full here, m'learned friends.

12/10/2011

Shane (1953)



Alan Ladd and young Brandon De Wilde in George Stevens' unusual and enduring pacifist Western Shane, about a jaded former gunslinger who drifts into the middle of a conflict between greedy Wyoming cattle baron Rufus Ryker (Emile Meyer) and a gaggle of homesteaders who just want to live peacefully on land Ryker considers his. Shane (Ladd) eventually takes up with the Starrett family after intervening in a skirmish between pater familias Joe (Van Heflin) and Ryker's posse and tries domesticity for a while, exchanging his trail duds for work denims and firmly buttoning his holster, much to the disappointment of Starrett's impressionable son Joey (De Wilde). Eventually Shane's non-violent stand is challenged by Ryker's crew who bully, humiliate and beat on him until he is finally forced to take arms against this sea of troubles and by opposing end them. But personal vengeance is not Shane's motivation. He enters the final shoot-out as an act of self-sacrifice in the stead of a proud but better man, knowing that he will never be able to live in the second Eden he's helped create as, like Ryker or Victor Mature's Doc Holliday in My Darling Clementine (1946), he's a relic from a savage past that must die before the West can truly be won. Sure enough, Shane rides off into the sunset at the film's close like many a cowboy star before him. But unlike them, he's bleeding from a bullet wound to the guts that will presumably prove fatal. Shane leaves us a self-imposed exile on the dirt road to Cemetery Hill, a legend in the territory and, perhaps more importantly, a hero in the eyes of Joey, its future. There'll be peace in the valley. But not for Shane.



Shane's story, taken from a 1949 novel by Jack Schaefer, is a simple one but packed with hard-felt emotion and mood. Like the brooding purple mountains looming over this disputed stretch of boggy grazing country, there's an overpowering melancholy about the film that stem's from the grim inevitability of its subject's end, something the man himself appears to recognise and understand implicitly all along, accepting it with a stoicism and dignity that underscores the character and is subtly evoked by Ladd. OK, so De Wilde's idolising youngster is a tad cloying and a heavy-handedly allegorical role to begin with, but most of the performances here are first-rate with Jack Palance fascinating as Ryker's enigmatic, man-in-black hired gun and Jean Arthur as lovely as ever in her final screen appearance. For me, the stand-out scene is probably Ladd's brutal punch-up with Ben Johnson's cocksure barfly Chris Calloway, who has earlier splashed whisky on Shane and insulted him as a "sod buster", which is as physical and adrenaline-fuelled an action scene as you're likely to see. Apparently Paramount nearly canned Shane in pre-production because Montgomery Clift, William Holden and Katharine Hepburn were not available to play the leads.

09/10/2011

Devil Girl From Mars (1954)



This charming British B sci-fi concerns the crash landing of a Martian spaceship in the Scottish highlands. The UFO's pilot, a leather-clad dominatrix named Nyah (Patricia Laffan), turns up at the nearest pub, the Bonnie Charlie, in which a gaggle of representative types have gathered for the evening, and explains that she is on a mission to capture earth men to take back to the red planet in order to breed with its womenfolk, who have just eviscerated the last of their male counterparts following a civil war between the genders and are thus without a means of propagating their species. A quite literal battle of the sexes, you might say. Surprisingly, the normally red-blooded Scots are quite against the idea of becoming interplanetary sex slaves and plot to blow-up Nyah's spacecraft instead.

Despite its horny schoolboy's fantasy of a premise and splendid title, there are long stretches of Devil Girl From Mars that are dreadfully dull while the acting on show is of a decidedly mixed bag. Perhaps only the mesmeric and winningly serious Laffan and the wild-eyed, future Dad's Army star John Laurie stand out, although there's some credible, grounded support from Sophie Stewart and Hazel Court as no-nonsense hostess Mrs Jamieson and her incongruous fashion model guest, respectively. Director David MacDonald's special effects are above average for a film with such an obviously small budget but it has to be said that Nyah's tree-zapping robot subordinate Chani does resemble a waddling fridge-freezer. A very poor relation to Gort from The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951). What is arguably most surprising about Devil Girl From Mars, however, is that it was reportedly based on a play. Written by James Eastwood and John C. Maher, who adapted it for the screen, this little opus is extremely hard to find anything out about and it's hard to believe it was ever staged. If anyone out there has the skinny I'd dearly love to know more.

18/09/2011

The Brain From Planet Arous (1957)



Er, yep. That's the titular brain all right and pretty impressive it is too. Or at least it is until the climax of Nathan Juran's splendid Atomic Age B picture, when the hero whose body the offending cerebrum has previously taken possession of hacks away at its "Fissure of Rolando" with an axe and you realise that it's just a helium balloon bobbing around with lights attached. Still, a fine effort for such a low-budget production.

Juran's film concerns the visit to earth of the eponymous brain, an evil, echoey-voiced fugitive named Gor hiding out in California and hell bent on world domination. A bit like Mel Gibson. Attracted by the high levels of radiation being picked up on his Geiger counter, nuclear scientist Steve March (John Agar) visits the desert caves of "Mystery Mountain" - where else? - with his flippant partner Dan (Robert Fuller), who is promptly eviscerated by the floating alien intellect. Steve survives but Gor elects to use his body as a vessel while he goes about his plan of enslaving all humanity. Returning to Steve's devoted little fiancée Sally (Joyce Meadows), Gor-as-Steve paws her hungrily until the family dog George is forced to intervene to keep things decent. Sally is shocked by her man's uncharacteristic display of heated sexual aggression and becomes concerned about Dan's disappearance. Meanwhile Gor is busy using Steve's professional influence to score a meeting with the government's Atomic Energy Commission, wherein he demonstrates his awesome ability to blow up aeroplanes and buildings with nothing more than a frantic wiggle of his eyebrows. Things are beginning to look pretty black for planet earth, until a second remarkably similar-looking brain named Vol arrives in pursuit of Gor and agrees to possess George, the aforementioned canine, so that he can observe his prey at close quarters and ultimately thwart Gor's fiendish apocalyptic masterplan. Vol turns out to be oddly ineffectual, as it happens, and a great deal of nonsense ensues.

Juran was a Romanian immigrant who began working in Hollywood in 1937 when he joined RKO's art department, going on to win an Oscar for Best Art Direction in 1941 for his work on John Ford's How Green Was My Valley. He directed a number of cheapo genre pictures between 1952 and 1973, reaching his creative peak - well, sort of - in the late fifties with Attack Of The 50 Foot Woman and The Seventh Voyage Of Sinbad (both 1958). Juran's direction here is appropriately unspectacular for a man who considered himself a "technician" rather than an artist but does show occasional flashes of brilliance, as when he shoots Agar's tormented, contorted expression through a glass water cooler, distorting his face and making him all the more monstrous. Genre stalwart Agar is also excellent though it has to be said that he's not especially menacing at the best of times and looks damn foolish in a pith helmet and sweat patches. However, Agar does deserve bonus points for soldiering on manfully in tinfoil contact lenses. Those babies really must have chafed something awful.


As with many B-movies of the period, it's hard to ignore the unintentionally hilarious, matter-of-fact period sexism on show. Meadows is lovely as Steve's concerned other half and plays her role with more conviction than The Brain From Planet Arous deserves. However, her Sally is nevertheless primarily concerned with feeding the men around her - charred hamburgers are a speciality - and washing dishes and is routinely patronised by the menfolk, even her doting dad. For me though, it's Gor's insatiable lust for her that represents the film's stand-out detail, hands down. This peculiarly earthy and sinister pronouncement from the supposed intergalactic polymath in conversation with Steve really had me in stitches: "I chose your body very carefully. Even before I knew about Sally. A very exciting female!... She appeals to me. There are some aspects of the life of an earth savage that are exciting and rewarding. Things that are missed by the brains on my planet Arous... Even I must have some interest to stir me up. She'll do very nicely". This kind of extraterrestrial lusting recalls the romantic travails of Phil Tucker's Robot Monster (1953), with which Juran's film's shares its Bronson Canyon shooting location. Both are, needless to say, highly recommended if you like this sort of amiable faff.

02/09/2011

Way Out West (1937)



As a feature, it has to be said that Laurel and Hardy's Way Out West has a pretty thin plot. The boys are on the road again and heading for the town of Brushwood Gulch where they have been instructed to deliver the deed to a gold mine bequested by a dead prospector to his impoverished daughter, Mary Roberts (Rosina Lawrence). Duped instead into handing it over to a crooked saloon owner and his showgirl wife (the reliably wild-eyed and irate James Finlayson and Sharon Lynne), Stan and Ollie plot to get it back, knocking each other over and getting tickled a good deal in the process. Er, that's it. The only clues we have that this is even the Old West - before the boys are eventually overtaken by a stagecoach - are that their coats are slightly longer than usual and their familiar clanking jalopy has been replaced by a pack mule named Dinah. What follows would just be business as usual but for a handful of musical interludes that elevate the piece to immortality and are surely among some of the most inspired moments ever committed to film, all the funnier for coming from such an unlikely source. Elegantly choreographed dancing and sweet syncopation are the last things you'd expect to see from these two self-proclaimed saps.

First up is their irresistible impluse to bust a move to Marvin Hatley's song 'At The Ball, That's All', being performed on the tavern steps by period vocal group The Avalon Boys (who also appeared briefly in Pardon Us, 1931, and the W.C. Fields comedy It's A Gift, 1934), which is simply one of life's great joys and the mother of all funny dance scenes. I've posted the original below rather than one of the myriad anachronistic remixes uploaded to YouTube by various wags, although this Soulja Boy mash-up is admittedly oddly pleasing.



The second such gem is, of course, 'The Trail Of The Lonesome Pine', a lovely little ditty in its own right written by Ballard MacDonald and Harry Carroll in 1913 that was released as a single in the UK in 1975, long after Stan and Ollie had passed on, reaching a respectable number two in the charts. The b-side was 'Honolulu Baby' from Sons Of The Desert (1933), incidentally.



Alas, the film's equally cute closing number, 'We're Going To See My Sweet Home In Dixie', is no longer available online, but it's a peach and brought on by Ollie and the heroine getting nostalgic for the Old South and the promise of home-cooked "possom and yam". Yuck.

28/08/2011

Carrie (1952)



No, not that one. Several billion light years away from Brian De Palma's 1976 Stephen King adaptation of the same name and all its menstrual angst, oppressive Christian fundamentalism, pig's blood and telekinesis is this truly heartbreaking period romance by William Wyler starring Laurence Olivier and Jennifer Jones.

Taken from Theodore Dreiser's novel Sister Carrie (1900), Wyler's film follows the fortunes of its eponymous heroine (Jones) as she leaves Hicksville, Missouri, for the big bad city of Chicago, first working in a Dickensian shoe factory before reluctantly shacking up with uncouth, manipulative salesman Charlie Drouet (Eddie Albert), a predatory oaf who repulses her but whose overtures she can't ignore because of her dire financial straits. Enter onto this unhappy scene one George Hurstwood (Olivier), manager of the exclusive local eaterie Fitzgerald's, who is kind to Carrie and falls in love with her over a game of cards. George is unhappily married to an equally shrewd and controlling spouse (Miriam Hopkins) and is desperate to intervene and rescue Carrie from her deeply compromised and socially frowned-upon domestic arrangements. However, Mrs Hurstwood soon uncovers their tryst and confronts her husband, who in turn is abandoned by Carrie when she learns of the marriage. Charlie meanwhile, sensing defeat, seizes the opportunity to propose to the distraught Carrie, who accepts against her better judgement. George is spurred into action. Accidentally-on-purpose lifting some money from his employer, he lies to Carrie to get her to board a train with him wherein he explains everything. Reconciled but penniless after George is relieved of the last of his illicit dough, the pair get hitched and set up home together in a cheap New York flophouse. George finds it increasingly difficult to find restaurant work because of his age and the circumstances of his departure from Fitzgerald's and Carrie soon suffers a miscarriage. Reasoning that they are better off apart and leaving George to his fate, she auditions for the stage and becomes a successful actress while her former husband sinks into a slough of despondency and poverty, roaming the streets in search of scraps, sustained only by her fading memory, his fall from grace complete.


Olivier - pictured above on set with his wife, Vivien Leigh - was reunited with director Wyler after their popular Wuthering Heights 13 years earlier and is utterly devastating in this saddest of doomed romances. George Hurstwood's tragic decline from gentleman maitre d' to shambling destitute is almost physically hard to watch, so earnest and decent is this character in the face of such a cruel and savage world. Hurstwood is entirely undeserving of his end - sneered at as "Rockefeller" by his colleagues and overlooked by employment agents because of his obvious breeding and smart attire - his motivation being entirely without vanity and stemming only from sympathy and love for a poor, ill-treated woman he wants to rescue from a life imposed upon her by a louse who shamelessly took advantage of her inexperience and naivety. George is emasculated and robbed by his hateful wife and finally damned for eternity for daring to take a stand and make one last bid for happiness after squandering away his best years in servitude. Jones is excellent too and very touching - the piece wouldn't work if she wasn't on top form - but it's very much the thespian's show and Olivier dominates from his first appearance. David Raksin's score is occasionally a little on the melodramatic side but that's really the only criticism I can offer of this tender and nakedly emotional film, pretty much as satisfying an experience as cinema has to offer. What's that? No, no I'm not crying. It's just... it's just a piece of grit in my eye, that's all... (sniff)...

27/08/2011

Bigger Than Life (1956)



Englishman James Mason co-wrote, produced and starred in this terrifying fifties issue drama from Nicholas Ray - fresh off Rebel Without A Cause (1955) - about a suburban American primary school teacher whose life disintegrates when he becomes addicted to prescription cortisone. Mason is electric as Ed Avery, a mild-mannered educator and caring pater familias transformed into a monstrous domestic tyrant by the supposed wonder drug - erratic, arrogant, aggressive, twitchy and paranoid. Often films built around their star's central performance can topple over into egomania and self-indulgence but Mason is simply towering here and was quite possibly never better. He's ably supported by Barbara Rush and young Christopher Olsen, however, as his increasingly frightened wife and son, effectively experiencing a home invasion at the hands of a man who bears little resemblance to the one they love. There's also a nice early role for Walter Matthau as a concerned PE teacher turned gallant woodsman, rushing to their aid when Avery finally succumbs to a megalomaniacal psychotic episode, believing himself to be the Biblical Abraham sent to smite his own flesh and blood, a scene played out as the family TV set blares a sickly funfair theme. If there's a more ominous line in film than "God was wrong", I haven't heard it.


Ray's film was based on a 1955 New Yorker article by the magazine's medical correspondent Berton Roueché entitled 'Ten Feet Tall', written for the screen by Cyril Hume and Richard Maibaum with help from Mason plus additional uncredited contributions from Ray, Gavin Lambert and playwright Clifford Odets. The tension is cranked up throughout courtesy of a nervy score from Otto Preminger's composer David Raksin and it's exquisitely shot in CinemaScope by Joseph MacDonald, whose darkened primary hues give the film a brooding, haunted look not a million miles away from the landscape paintings of Edward Hopper. The Cahier Du Cinéma crowd certainly adored Bigger Than Life and it's recommended viewing for fans of TV's Mad Men (2007-) for its troubling insights into the real goings on behind the net curtains of the period's imagined Rockwellian small-town world of nuclear families, fishing trips and bridge games. It may take the intervention of cortisone to turn Ed Avery into a cracked mirror but the infants in his school are already painting pictures of trains running late and men angry at their mothers. Paging Dr Freud...

24/08/2011

The Great McGinty (1940)



Would you vote for this shyster? Me neither. Obama he ain't. But that won't stop him. No sir. He's already voted for himself 37 times and has half the drifters in town running around doing the same thing for $2 and a bowl of soup. How can anyone even begin to fight a machine with that kind of class behind it?

Preston Sturges sold the script for this whip-smart political satire, then called The Biography Of A Bum, to Paramount for just $10 in exchange for a shot at the director's chair and the rest is history. Aside from launching its helmsman into the big time, the film itself deserves much more acclaim than it usually receives for daring to present political corruption, graft and extortion as an everyday reality of American civic life, something Sturges does in a jaw-droppingly cheery, nonchalant and matter-of-fact manner. Less well known than Mr Smith Goes To Washington (1939), McGinty deserves as much attention for lines like this, in which William Demarest's proto-spin doctor/fairground barker character actually defends kickbacks as a means of ensuring good governance: "If it wasn't for graft, you'd get a very low type of people in politics, men without ambition, jellyfish!"


Allegedly loosely based on the career of New York governor William Sulzer, impeached in 1913, The Great McGinty begins with its fallen protagonist tending bar in a tropical banana republic. One night he finds himself forced to intervene to stop a disgraced banker blowing his brains out in the men's room. Pouring the depressive a stiff one, McGinty goes on to regale him with the rags-to-riches story of how he became state governor, starting out as a starving hobo and working his way up as a heavy collecting protection money for "The Boss" (Akim Tamiroff) before being made the latter's poster boy for "reform" in the local mayoral elections. As part of his campaign strategy, The Boss explains to McGinty that he'll have to get married because "women don't like bachelors" and so the boy reluctantly agrees to do right by his secretary Catherine (Muriel Angelus). Sure enough, he takes City Hall with ease before moving on to the governor's mansion soon after. However, this latter day Delilah wins our man over for real and her profound sympathy for the less fortunate turns his crooked little head. Maybe he could tackle the real issues of the day, like child labour and squalid tenements, rather than simply idling away his power and influence commissioning unnecessary municipal infrastructure projects and picking up healthy backhanders from unscrupulous contractors. Of course, The Boss hotly disagrees with this new approach and McGinty's past soon catches up with him, all because of that "one crazy minute" in which he tried to do the right thing for the first time in his rotten existence.

Donlevy is splendidly energetic in the lead (a sort of comic version of his later Paul Madvig from The Glass Key, 1942) while Tamiroff provides marvellous support as the philosophical immigrant fixer and self-proclaimed "robber baron" prone to punch-ups with his stooge candidate. Admittedly the ending, in which this pair break out of jail and flee the country, is somewhat anti-climactic but you can still see the Sturges genius at work throughout, with many of his established character players already in place to flesh out the background. Donleavy and Tamiroff would reprise their roles to knowing effect in the same director's later The Miracle Of Morgan's Creek (1944). Both movies are highly recommended.