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.

14/08/2011

Quatermass & The Pit (1967)



Following the ressurection of the Hammer horror brand in 2007, the creaking old British production house has at last begun churning out new films again, the best of which so far is undoubtedly Irish supernatural chiller Wake Wood (2011) starring Aiden Gillen. However, Hammer is also in the process of revisiting its back catalogue, restoring and re-launching some of its biggest titles on Blu-ray. First out of the traps, ahead even of The Curse Of Frankenstein (1957) and Dracula (1958), is this eerie and profound sci-fi oddity from director Roy Ward Baker and television genre pioneer Nigel Kneale, about the discovery of a series of ape skulls and a Martian spacecraft buried in the clay beneath a London tube station. Amazing what you find lying under our nation's capital (see also Passport To Pimlico, 1949, in which the unearthing of some forgotten treasure belonging to the last Duke of Burgundy leads to a startling revelation).

Hammer had already made two Quatermass films prior to this one, both of which, like Quatermass & The Pit, were remakes of earlier BBC television series. This time, however, Baker took over the reins from Val Guest and stern Scot Andrew Keir inherited the title role from American actor Brian Donlevy, delivering a committed, emotional and admirably serious performance that serves to anchor the film and rescues proceedings from camp tongue-in-cheekery. James Donald, Julian Glover and studio regular Barbara Shelley all deliver solid support and the film's pay-off, in which an industrial crane is toppled into the pit to smash the subterranean homesick aliens like a giant mallet, is distinctive and memorable. However, it is surely Kneale's ideas and daring that make Quatermass & The Pit so enduring.


The film's plot revolves around the shocking extraterrestrial findings and their implications for humanity. Government scientist Professor Quatermass refuses to believe the military's official theory that the bones, rocket and locust-like insectoids within represent a forgotten Nazi propaganda stunt and soon works out the truth. The bugs have actually lain there for five million years, having abandoned their dying home planet and visited earth in search of a species with whom they could communicate. Finding only an underdeveloped primate populous, the creatures made a Promethean intervention to create their own intelligent race of earthlings - man - and killed off the failed mutant prototypes in a savage purge. If that wasn't enough to horrify the creationists, Kneale's script goes on to suggest that the horned arachnids at Hobbs End are also the secret inspiration for every Christian or folk conception of the devil man has ever devised - their evil faces carved into every gargoyle and superstitious etching produced by human hand.

Bold and provocative stuff - and an idea that leads to rioting and panic in the streets, a plot turn that gives the film an unexpectedly topical spin, given the sudden outbreak of looting, arson and anarchy we've seen around London and several of the UK's other major cities this week. Perhaps that's what it was all about... a revelatory tweet from a latter-day Quatermass about alien evolutionary meddling rather than just mobs of opportunistic oafs deciding en masse to abandon the rule of law because they'd quite like some free trainers and a nice new widescreen TV.

09/08/2011

The Glass Key (1942)



This was Paramount's second crack at an adaptation of Dashiell Hammett's 1930 political thriller - after Frank Tuttle's 1935 version with George Raft, Edward Arnold and Ray Milland - and it turned out to be a winner. Veronica Lake and Alan Ladd were teamed for the second time and continued to spark nicely off one another in a story about complex relationships and loyalties under strain.

Ladd stars as Ed Beaumont (dropping the initial "N" and fine moustache of his literary counterpart), a "hanger-on" and adviser to San Francisco politician Paul Madvig (Brian Donlevy), an influential but decidedly dubious local fixer. With an election looming, Madvig is backing reform candidate Ralph Henry (Moroni Olson) for governor and is in love with the man's spunky daughter Janet (Lake) but soon finds himself in a whole heap of mess when Henry's no-good gambler of a son Taylor is slain in the street after a heated confrontation with Paul. It's up to Beaumont to investigate the circumstances of Taylor Henry's demise but even he has his misgivings about his boss, doubts that are only compounded when a series of mysterious poison pen letters begin to appear around town accusing Madvig of murder.

Director Stuart Heisler's film is a pretty faithful recreation of Hammett's source novel that isn't afraid to take liberties with the material. The whodunnit plot is simplified to eliminate some complicated clues involving missing hats and canes and Joseph Calleia's urbane gangster Nick Varna comes in as a replacement for the book's Shad O'Rory (perhaps because contemporary audiences would have been sceptical about Maltese actor Calleia attempting a lilting Irish brogue). However, Jonathan Latimer's script wisely retains many of the book's best scenes, including Beaumont's graphic, sustained torture in the "dog house" at the fists of Varna's henchmen Rusty and Jeff (Eddie Marr and William Bendix). The latter of these two goons is repeatedly described by Hammett as an "apish" evolutionary retrogression, a Prohibition Mr Hyde, who takes an immediate shine to Beaumont, whom he labels, admiringly, "a God-damned massacrist". Jeff's relationship with his victim certainly takes on a viciously sadomasochistic edge (“I never seen a guy that liked being hit so much or that I liked hitting so much”), which is beautifully played out by Bendix. This uncomfortable theme - that sex and violence are two sides of the same coin - is neatly expanded upon in the opening scene of Heisler's film when Janet slaps Madvig for bad-mouthing her brother, whereupon he instantly falls for her. One slight deviation from the text is that Beaumont's relationship with Paul has something decidedly homoerotic about it in the book, which is thoroughly scrubbed out on screen. Both men are careful and "sheepish" around one another in Hammett's Glass Key, old friends whose parting at the end feels more like a heartbroken divorce than a simple betrayal. None of that college boy mush here.


Ladd is actually perfectly cast as Beaumont in spite of the fact that this remake was primarily commissioned as a further vehicle for the Ladd-Lake brand. He is as cool, calculating, opaque and inscrutable as the character is written (arguably a thinly disguised, if idealised self-portrait by the author). Perhaps the most interesting thing about this protagonist though is just how extraordinarily ambiguous he is, far more so than the same writer's Continental Op, Sam Spade or Nick Charles. As critic Peter Wolfe put it in his book Falling Beams: The Art Of Dashiell Hammett (1985): “His neglect of the poor, the sick and the jobless make him, along with his free spending, an unlikely Depression hero”. In a time of bold strokes, of G-men and rum runners, hobos and bankers, Hammett presents us with a deeply worldly, matter-of-factly amoral man unafraid to make unsentimental choices to suit his own ends. However, his commitment to Madvig is recognisably human and his personal motto is one for his age and ours: "I can stand anything I've got to stand."

07/08/2011

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)



Marilyn Monroe's sweet natured gold-digger Lorelei Lee can't hide her surprise when she finally gets to meet eligible heir Henry Spofford III (George "Foghorn" Winslow) aboard a transatlantic liner in Howard Hawks's smashing Fox comedy from the 1949 stage musical by Anita Loos. It was here that Marilyn perfected her innocent, sensual brand of sex appeal and she is a delight to witness throughout - it's astonishing to think this creature really walked upon the earth - but the late Jane Russell also deserves enormous credit as the film's wry, knowing straightwoman. Russell is especially game impersonating her co-star in a Paris courtroom and in her ludicrously camp solo number 'Ain't There Anyone Here For Love?', which takes place in a cruise ship's gymnasium against a backdrop of male Olympic athletes working out in ill-advised skin coloured shorts.



Perhaps too readily dismissed these days as a fifties museum piece remembered only for the excellent but endlessly parodied 'Diamonds Are A Girl's Best Friend', Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is an ironic and funny treatment of the showgirls and sugar daddies theme. Lorelei chases after harmless old lecher and diamond magnate Sir Francis "Piggy" Beekman (Charles Coburn) while Russell gently disapproves but the film has little to say about the matter beyond asking: who really loses in this deal? Arguably Lorelei's wet blanket millionaire fiancé Gus (Tommy Noonan) or Lady Beekman (Norma Varden), though she in particular is snooty, self-satisfied and complacent in her wealth - more interested in the return of her tiara than her brandy-mottled husband. Piggy gets one last squeeze before the grave and Lorelei wins some nice new bling and a little security - where's the harm? Preston Sturges' The Palm Beach Story (1942) also pondered this subversive spin on conventional morality, as would 1953's How To Marry A Millionaire and Billy Wilder's Some Like It Hot (1959), both of which, of course, also starred dear Marilyn, the period's reassuringly non-threatening face of breathy sexuality. It's hard to resist such relaxed, pragmatic and thoroughly adult logic.

Packed with bags of charm and a delirious sense of fun, Gentlemen Prefers Blondes has plenty of fine scenes but Monroe getting stuck in a port hole and requiring the aid of young Spofford is a definite highlight. Animal magnetism indeed.

05/08/2011

Johnny Guitar (1954)



Joan Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge star as deadly rivals in this camp, bold and really rather mad feminist role-reversal Western from Nicholas Ray for Republic Pictures. Crawford's Vienna, a cornered cat, finds herself playing surrogate matriarch to the male croupiers and bartenders at her empty saloon in an underpopulated, gusty Arizona boomtown just waiting for a new railroad to come through. Her local rival is Emma Small (McCambridge), a hateful rancher and banker's sister, intent on seeing Vienna run out of town. The menfolk, including land baron John McIvers (Ward Bond), suspected bandit The Dancin' Kid (Scott Brady) and drifter minstrel Johnny Guitar (Sterling Hayden), look on passively as these two alpha females play out an increasingly personal and vicious Freudian psychodrama to its inevitable bloody endgame. It's like Calamity Jane (1953) re-imagined as a nightmare.

In Johnny Guitar, Crawford's character is aggressively masculinised - appearing first in black trousers, a bolo tie and boots and spoken of admiringly by her employees, one of whom states that he has, "Never seen a woman who was more of a man. She thinks like one, acts like one and sometimes makes me feel like I'm not one." Vienna is a bullish, headstrong and independent business woman (recalling Crawford's famous role in Mildred Pierce, 1945), the antithesis of the subservient church-going ranchers' wives and prostitutes the Western genre usually insists upon. As her revived romance with Johnny progresses, however, she learns to relax, allows herself to be supported and even fries his breakfast. Her nemesis meanwhile is an embittered, sexually repressed shrew whose long-running feud with Vienna and desire to see her framed and hung without trial seems to stem from a deep-rooted sexual jealousy. There are certainly some heavy hints that Emma is in love with The Dancin' Kid (who, like Johnny, is after Vienna) but is decidedly less than comfortable when he tries to waltz with her and is certainly keen to hunt him down and string him up once his gang robs her late brother's bank. Vienna explains their tangled relations thus: "He makes her feel like a woman and that frightens her." Emma only really looks happy, orgasmically so, when she's burning down Vienna's saloon and some critics have called her a "proto lesbian", an interesting label that further muddies this already conflicted character. Whatever her motivations, this nutty chick certainly has sex and death all mixed up and it's a relief when she finally gets what's coming to her courtesy of Vienna's six shooter.

Ray's film is a strange one visually as well as thematically. Vienna's gambling hall seems to have been built into the side of a rockface while The Dancin' Kid's surprisingly needy Mild Bunch (consisting of Ben Cooper, Ernest Borgnine and Royal Dano) hide out in a secret lair beyond a waterfall. Shot in Trucolor, Emma and the mob-happy townspeople all wear funeral black while Vienna, Johnny and the outlaws don a series of loud and increasingly outlandish coloured outfits. Crawford looks particularly silly in some of these - starting out as a cowgirl dominatrix, she goes on to appear variously in a floor-length white gown for the hanging scene, a mid-80s Michael Jackson costume complete with socks for the subsequent escape and a yellow shirt and red neckerchief in the final shoot-out, which just makes her look like a mid-level McDonald's manageress. This all adds to the eccentric tone but ultimately one's patience starts to run thin. Hayden is excellent as the pastel-favouring Johnny but we only get to hear him play his titular instrument once and ultimately this enigmatic, "gun crazy" figure ends up lost in the gender experimentation and pop psychology of the foreground, which just feels like a waste of a great name and conceit.

François Truffaut loved Johnny Guitar and called it "the Beauty and the Beast of Westerns" and it's certainly a fascinating failure.

03/08/2011

The Lady Vanishes (1938)



Alfred Hitchcock's penultimate British film was this splendid pre-war caper in which a young English socialite (Margaret Lockwood) encounters a charming elderly governess (Dame May Whitty) aboard a transcontinental train heading west through the Balkans who then proceeds to mysteriously disappear without trace. Increasingly perplexed, the girl enlists a roguish folk historian (Michael Redgrave) in her quest to find the missing senior while the remaining passengers repeatedly deny the woman's very existence. Could this delightful English rose really be mad, did Miss Froy simply get lost on the way back from the lavatory or is it all an elaborate ruse on the part of Johnny Foreigner and his nefarious cohorts to waylay the efforts of our green and sceptred isle's least likely spy?

Written by future production team Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder and based on Ethel Lina White's novel The Wheel Spins (1936), Hitch only took on the project after an earlier attempt by American Roy William Neill was scrapped over script controversies. Although this might suggest that The Lady Vanishes was something of a journeyman assignment for Hitchcock, it contains many of his familiar themes and motifs, not least strangulation (Strangers On A Train, 1951), an innocent and their companion embroiled in intrigue aboard a train (North By Northwest, 1959) and foreign authorities under suspicion over a missing person lost overseas (The Man Who Knew Too Much, 1934 and 1956). The film is also arguably one of the most critically neglected in the Hitch canon, perhaps overlooked because of how conventionally entertaining it is. As writer Matthew Sweet explained in an excellent piece for The Guardian following the film's 2007 restoration, The Lady Vanishes is really about Britain's awakening from "self-absorbed triviality to uncompromising engagement with the enemy" in the run up to World War II, typified by the film's very own Rosencratz and Guildenstern, the cricket obsessed clubmen Charters and Caldicott.


I can't think of another film in which the supporting players so routinely upstage such excellent leads. Lockwood and Redgrave are delightful together throughout and we cheer their romantic clinch at the end but it's Charters and Caldicott (Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne) that consistently make us laugh, turning the whole espionage mystery into a bristling comedy of manners. This bumptious, perpetually unenthused Walrus and Carpenter apparently expect the rest of Europe to be ordered according to the cosy standards they are used to at home and are regularly put-out when confronted by the contrary. They are ticked off to have to share a hotel room with a saucy native maid when an avalanche blocks the train's progress, they are affronted to find there's no steak on the menu when the same venue is unexpectedly overrun with guests and quite bilious when a voice in London is unable to tell them the latest test score over the telephone. As for a lady requesting the sugar bowl when Charters is in the middle of illustrating a key passage of play with its cubes... iciness is the response and Miss Froy's imprisonment carries on needlessly as a result. I have rarely seen the English character more effectively skewered in fiction than in the portrayal of these fusty, be-tweeded oafs abroad, who are only prepared to shoot at the enemy once they've been assured it's really necessary and even then ask politely for a handkerchief to bandage a bullet wound.

So beloved were this pair that they were written into several more films thereafter including Night Train To Munich (1941) and Millions Like Us (1943), both of which were also penned by Gilliat and Launder, as well as Crook's Tour (1941) and Secret Mission 609 (1942). They were even revived for their very own BBC TV series in 1985. Radford and Wayne meanwhile made careers playing variations on these genteel buffoons in such fare as Passport To Pimlico and It's Not Cricket (both 1949) before the former died over dinner in a Mayfair restaurant in 1952. A fitting end - it must surely have been teatime.