17/03/2012

It Always Rains On Sunday (1947)


Australian John McCallum and Googie Withers are the star-crossed lovers in this bleak but beautiful British post-war kitchen sink noir from Ealing, a film as gloomy as its title about a Bethnal Green housewife whose drab, suffocating existence is turned upside-down by the return of Tommy Swann, an old flame on the run from the police after escaping from Dartmoor. The actors were real-life husband and wife having met on the set of Edwardian melodrama The Loves Of Joanna Godden earlier that year and both are on fine form, sharing a simmering chemistry charged by revived hopes and a hunger for what might have been. Withers in particular carries the picture as Rose Sandigate and reminds us what an underrated actress she was. A former barmaid who lost the great love of her life when Tommy disappeared, Rose has since surrendered herself to a marriage with a complacent older widower (Edward Chapman) and a lifetime of domestic drudgery and resentment from his daughters, trapped in her own prison of floral wallpaper, net curtains and hot stoves. Withers captures Rose's bitterness and deprivation to a tee. The press coverage that followed her death in July last year was nowhere near sufficient.



Shot by Robert Hamer, who would go on to make Kind Hearts & Coronets (1949), and adapted from Arthur La Bern's novel by the director with Angus MacPhail and Henry Cornelius, It Always Rains On Sunday makes for an invaluable record of East London in the late forties. Captured in a crisp, documentary style by cinematographer Douglas Slocombe, the film presents a working class world of boozers and bovver populated by cockney crooks, market traders and barrow boys, Jewish jazz musicians and wry bobbies on the beat. The local colour is fascinating and brought to life by an experienced studio cast including such names as Jack Warner, Sydney Tafler, John Slater, Alfie Bass, Vida Hope, Edie Martin and Hermione Baddeley, each with their own sub-plots and quirks. The ending, in which the police close in on Swann and pursue him across the railway sidings, arguably jars somewhat with the slow-burning, sometimes Hitchcockian tension that has preceded it but does make for an exciting injection of action worthy of Carol Reed. A great British noir then, but also something of a proto-EastEnders.

14/03/2012

La Grande Illusion (1937)


French director Jean Renoir, son of leading Impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir, served as a pilot during World War One and brought his experiences to the screen in this seminal anti-war picture starring Jean Gabin, Erich von Stroheim, Marcel Dalio, Pierre Fresnay and Dita Parlo. Along with La Règle Du Jeu (1939), La Grande Illusion is probably his masterpiece and as fine an example of the “poetic realist” style as you could wish to find. Unlike other screen depictions of the Great War, Renoir’s film is unusual in that it focuses in on the relatively humane conditions experienced by prisoners of war in German camps rather than the squalid realities of trench warfare. La Grande Illusion contains no grandstanding speeches or universal pleas. Renoir’s concern is not with decrying the horrors and mechanised violence of conflict but with underlining its complete futility through the presentation of realistic characters that have much in common, not least their basic humanity and social class ties, despite being on opposing sides nationally and politically.

Here’s the very charming Renoir himself explaining it much more effectively than I ever could for La Grande Illusion’s theatrical re-release in 1958:



The film’s plot concerns the capture of two French aviators, Maréchal (Gabin), a mechanic in civilian life, and the upper-crust Captain de Boeldieu (Fresnay), after they are shot down over Germany by Captain von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim). The latter is courteous to his adversaries, especially de Boelideu whom he recognises as a member of the same fading European elite as himself, and invites the pair to dinner before despatching them to prison. There, Maréchal and de Boeldieu meet other French inmates and plot to dig an escape tunnel, the men keeping each other’s spirits up by putting on a variety show with the help of group joker Cartier (Julien Carette). Before the prisoners can make their escape, however, they are disbanded and sent to other camps, with Maréchal, de Boeldieu and Austrian Jew Rosenthal (Dalio) packed off to the mountain fortress of Wintersborn, now being commanded by von Rauffenstein. Though the Captain is again sympathetic, de Boeldieu hatches a plan so that Maréchal and Rosenthal can escape, forcing von Rauffenstein to shoot him in the process, a situation the officer regrets gravely. Maréchal and Rosenthal take to the hills and find salvation with a lonely German widow (Parlo) keeping a farm near the Alps, with whom Maréchal falls in love. The fugitives are reluctantly forced to push on into Switzerland, however, and it remains unclear at the film’s close whether the lovers will live to be reunited.



Gabin is as splendid as ever in another trademark role and his minimalist acting style contrasts nicely with that of classically-trained stage actor Fresnay and earthy comic Carette. Von Stroheim too is extraordinary. Probably best known to American audiences as Max the butler from Sunset Boulevard (1950), the great silent director breathes centuries of history into von Rauffenstein, a man who understands that the world he knows and the codes of honour he lives by are gradually being blown away and that he’s already missed the most fitting end for a gentleman of his class and breeding – tumbling from the sky in an explosion of fire and glory ("For a commoner, dying in a war is a tragedy. But for you and me, it's a good way out", de Boeldieu tells him). Banished to a remote Gothic castle in the mountains like some ancient ghoul and forced to shoot one of the last of his own kind in Captain de Boeldieu, von Rauffenstein is sighing for the end behind his rigid military demeanour and von Stroheim’s performance is unforgettable. La Grande Illusion obviously looks forward to the coming of World War Two as well as back to the circumstances of its predecessor and as such was instantly banned in Germany upon it release, with Joseph Goebbels pronouncing Renoir, “Cinematic Enemy Number One”. It was also blacklisted in fascist Italy under German pressure, despite its winning a prize at the Venice Film Festival and Mussolini apparently harbouring a deep personal fondness for it. Film fans will recognise a tribute to La Grande Illusion in Casablanca (1942) in the scene in which the patrons of Rick's Café Américain rise up and sing 'La Marseillaise' in defiant fashion.

12/03/2012

Gaslight (1944)



MGM's lavish Victorian melodrama based on the hit stage play by British writer Patrick Hamilton followed so closely on the heals of Thorold Dickinson's 1940 UK version that the American studio tried to buy up as many copies of the original as it could in order to destroy the negatives. They didn't entirely succeed but Dickinson's film is not so easy to see these days as it might have been as a direct result of the studio's decidedly unsporting conduct. While that is undeniably a crying shame, there's still plenty to enjoy in George Cukor's Gaslight, not least the opulent sets lashed with murk and fog and two enjoyable supporting turns from a ghoulish Dame May Whitty and a surprisingly menacing Angela Lansbury in her screen debut. The stars of the show though are of course the Oscar-winning Ingrid Bergman at her most fragile and hysterical and Charles Boyer at his most deliciously devilish. For those who haven't seen it, the story concerns Paula Alquist (Bergman), a naive young newly-wed who witnessed the strangulation of her aunt, a well-known opera singer, some years earlier and who reluctantly consents to move back into the same London townhouse where the crime took place, which she has since inherited, at the instigation of her controlling husband Gregory (Boyer). Paula becomes increasingly unwell and preoccupied with the past during their stay but is all as it seems or is Gregory systematically trying to undermine his wife's psychological well-being for his own nefarious ends? Only kindly Joseph Cotten, an old admirer of Paula's aunt, can get to the bottom of the mystery but will he be too late? Dun-dun-durrr!

10/03/2012

Rancho Notorious (1952)


Wyoming cowpoke Vern Haskell (Arthur Kennedy) sets out in pursuit of the two bandits who murdered and molested his fiancée Beth Forbes (Gloria Henry). He tracks the pair to their campsite where he finds one of them, Whitey (John Doucette), dying from a gunshot wound in the back courtesy of his treacherous partner. Haskell hears Whitey's last word, "Chuck-A-Luck", and follows the clues to a legendary gunfighter named Frenchy Fairmont (Mel Ferrer), whom he rescues from jail in order to lead him to a hideout of that name owned by Altar Keane (Marlene Dietrich), a former showgirl and saloon singer turned horse rancher. There, Haskell impresses with his skills as a gunslinger and falls for Altar's charms, all the while keeping one eye on the man he came in search of.


Disappointingly, Rancho Notorious is nothing like as kitsch and eccentric as Nicholas Ray's similarly feminist Johnny Guitar (1954) with Joan Crawford. Altar's outlaw colony makes for an interesting setting but, in the end, all the film has to offer is a fairly ho-hum revenge plot, cheap sound stage sets and some Technicolor photography that does its ageing star Dietrich very few favours. So tight was the film's budget that Marlene apparently had to arrive on set fully made up having applied the necessary slap herself at home (presumably using a trowel). She was inevitably displeased by this, loathed director Fritz Lang and was frustrated in her romantic pursuit of co-star Ferrer, then married to Audrey Hepburn. I agree with her later assessment that the result is "a very mediocre work", however, with Kennedy distinctly lacking star power in the lead. One would have hoped for better from Lang though it does share his familiar theme of good men driven to extremes by a thirst for revenge, a subject he would handle with much greater aplomb in The Big Heat (1953). There are one or two memorably unusual scenes, however, plus a pleasantly silly theme song from William Lee that was intended to compliment the film's original title, The Legend Of Chuck-A-Luck, which RKO head honcho Howard Hughes rightly insisted on changing. Rancho Notorious is also of interest for its featuring George Reeves in a minor character part, he being the star of the popular Adventures Of Superman television series between 1952 and 1958, whose sad death was the subject of Allen Coulter's interesting fictionalised biopic Hollywoodland in 2006.

04/03/2012

Notorious (1946)



Cary Grant's deeply compromised US intelligence agent Devlin shares a drink with Ingrid Bergman's Alicia Huberman, the daughter of a Nazi war criminal whose guilt he preys on in order to convince her to go undercover and help smoke out fugitive members of the "German gentry" holed up in Rio de Janeiro in the aftermath of WWII. Alfred Hitchcock's sublime espionage thriller for RKO conjures great quantities of suspense, peril and menace without a single shot fired and benefits from two exquisite leads and a moving and sad supporting performance from Claude Rains as Alexander Sebastian, the ageing conspirator Alicia is brought in to entrap.



Hitchcock's film was highly topical upon its release a year after Hiroshima, the exiled Nazis' plot revolving around the hoarding of uranium ore in a Rio mansion in order to develop atomic bombs of their own. Allegedly, Hitch and his screenwriter Ben Hecht were placed under surveillance by the FBI after visiting the California Institute of Technology to research this explosive subject though the Feds needn't have bothered. It's all a MacGuffin: the ore, the Nazis, the whole spy caper. What's really going on here is the tortuous love affair between Devlin, a suave but repressed cove who admits to being "afraid of women" and hides behind his patriotism even when his government asks him to pimp out the one he loves to the enemy, and Alicia, a damaged, intemperate drinker desperate for redemption. Both Grant and Bergman are superb and the drama comes in watching how far Devlin will allow Alicia's mission to go, how much suffering he can watch her endure before stepping in to intervene and admit his love. Rains' performance as Sebastian, completing the triangle, complicates the issue, as the actor manages to instil real charm and sympathy into a character we expect to despise. An early instance of a Hitchcock creation stifled by an overbearing mother (Leopoldine Konstantin), Sebastian knows the lengths his accomplices will go to to eradicate any threat to their operations but can't help his infatuation as old age dawns. Having said that, he does ultimately try to poison Alicia with spiked coffee to save his own skin, so the door closing on him as Devlin and the girl escape at the film's close rightly leaves him to the mercy of his nefarious colleagues.

The theme of state-sponsored prostitution and the callous and hypocritical disregard of spymaster Paul Prescott (Louis Calhern) and his cronies for Alicia's fate makes for a shocking statement, especially in 1946 when America's status on the international stage was hardly up for scrutiny. A world in which such a fearless soul should be sold into sex slavery for political gain with little more than a shrug is a dark one indeed. The spying game wouldn't look this murky and amoral again until John Le Carré.

Original producer David O. Selznick had insisted on casting Joseph Cotten as Devlin but Hitch pushed for Grant, a counter-intuitive choice that eventually won the day, though Cotten would get to play the role for the Lux Radio Theater two years later. Following Grant's appearance in None But The Lonely Heart (1944), adapted and directed by socialist playwright Clifford Odets, the FBI (always busy) had issued a memoranda entitled 'Communist Infiltration Of The Motion Picture Industry' in which the bureau expressed concerns about the film, which it regarded as provocatively anti-capitalist. As such, the independent-minded Grant was becoming well acquainted with being regarded as an object of suspicion and gossip, especially regarding his personal life, and proved a fine fit for the part. He would remain firm friends with Bergman for many years afterwards and was one of the few Hollywood people to speak out on her behalf following the scandal surrounding her affair with Italian director Roberto Rossellini in 1950. Selznick did get his way with one important casting decision on Notorious, however, preferring Rains over Hitch's original choice of Clifton Webb. The director by and large had his own way on set as Selznick soon turned his attentions to King Vidor's Western Duel In The Sun (1946) and the result is filled with what would become classic Hitchcockian tropes, not least men seeking to exert control over a troubled woman and the abuse of trust. The virtuoso crane shot roaming down the stairs before closing in on the key in Alicia's hand is justly celebrated and the use of champagne bottles during the party scene, quickly disappearing from the ice bucket and creating a countdown to the head waiter's descent into the same wine cellar that Devlin and Alicia are seeking to infiltrate, is an ingenious suspense device and a telling moment for Hitchcock to make his signature cameo. Also worthy of note is Notorious's intricate kissing scene, in which Grant repeatedly pulls away from his delectable co-star to mutter into the telephone, which was written by the director to mock Production Code rules that no screen kiss could last longer than three seconds. The result is one of the most intimate clinches in cinema.



Its premise very loosely inspired by a John Taintor Foote short story published in the Saturday Evening Post in 1921 entitled 'The Song Of The Dragon', Notorious helped create the template for the modern spy romance and was shamelessly ripped-off in John Woo's Mission: Impossible II (2000), which lifted the film's plot wholesale and then tried to cover its tracks with a feeble "homage" by recreating Hitch's tense racecourse scene with an embarrassed cough. This is standard practice in Hollywood, unfortunately, where executives tend to assume they are free to recycle material from older films because audiences interested in brainless action blockbusters simply won't have seen them. See the obvious lifting from The African Queen (1951) in the first Pirates Of The Caribbean installment (2003) or, worse, the complete relocation of Casablanca (1942) to a dystopian future in the laughably inept Pamela Anderson vehicle Barb Wire (1996). Actually, don't. Avoid them at all costs.