27/04/2013

Cheyenne Autumn (1964)


John Ford's final Western was this overlong but visually stunning account of the Northern Cheyenne Exodus of 1878-79, which saw the starving, displaced tribe lose patience with the US government's failure to provide for its people after dumping them on an arid reservation in Oklahoma and head north in search of their old buffalo hunting grounds in Wyoming. Mexican actors Ricardo Montalbán and Gilbert Roland play Cheyenne elders Little Wolf and Dull Knife, who lead the seemingly hopeless trek home before being driven apart by desperate circumstances, while Richard Widmark stars as Captain Archer, the conscience-troubled US Cavalry officer charged with pursuing and containing the Cheyenne but unable to muster much enthusiasm for the job knowing full well the poverty and neglect these dignified, stoic people have suffered. Among Archer's troop, Mike Mazurki is memorable as a Polish-born sergeant reluctant to be made a Cossack, having left behind their horseman's cruelty in the Old World, and Patrick Wayne, son of John, makes an impression as an impetuous young lieutenant out for revenge for the death of his father, long lost in the Indian Wars. Edward G. Robinson also pops up as Carl Schurz, Secretary of the Interior, and Karl Malden makes much of his role as Captain Oscar Wessles, a cornered German captain prone to hiding behind orders and shirking personal responsibility.



An apology for the plight of Native Americans and their treatment by the white man from a director who frequently depicted them as villains (think of murderous Comanche chief Scar in The Searchers, 1956), Cheyenne Autumn is a lavish production on an impressive scale, rightly cherished for its heartfelt sorrow and sympathy and for Oscar-nominated cinematographer William H. Clothier's handsome Technicolor photography. However, it is undeniably a much less tight and disciplined work than some of Ford's best. I personally could have done without the comic interlude in Dodge City, featuring knock-about cameos from James Stewart, Arthur Kennedy and John Carradine as Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday and crooked gambler Major Jeff Blair playing poker and gadding about with rustlers and hookers, a sequence that provides an unwelcome tonal interruption and was cut from some versions of the film's release by Warner Brothers, in spite of its star turns. A strange decision by Ford to revisit characters he had already had the final word on in My Darling Clementine in 1946 and not an entirely successful one. 

25/04/2013

All That Heaven Allows (1955)


Douglas Sirk again teamed Jane Wyman with Rock Hudson, following the success of the previous year's Magnificent Obsession, for this exquisite cross-class romance about affluent New England widow Cary Scott (Wyman), who falls for tree surgeon Ron Kirby (Hudson) only to cave in to social pressure from the snobbish country club set and end the relationship, before realising her mistake when he is badly injured in an accident. Like its predecessor, All That Heaven Allows is as unashamedly theatrical in its plotting as it is heavy-handed in its themes and symbolism (the smashed Wedgewood teapot, the deer at the window) but manages to transcend its obviousness to become a thing of beauty and surprising power.



Sirk once more presents us with a sumptuously photographed model American town before scratching beneath the surface to reveal the sadness and want that is the inevitable consequence of the oppressive conformity required to build and maintain it. For Wyman's genteel Cary Scott, a college graduate turned homemaker who embodies Betty Friedan's "problem that has no name", self-denial for the sake of social approval is both pointless and guaranteed to spawn a lifetime of unhappy spinsterhood sat alone in front of the television because the community she aspires to please is fundamentally corrupted by plenty and entitlement. The townsfolk, typified by resident bitch Mona Plash (Jacqueline De Wit) and drunken lecher Howard Hoffer (Donald Curtis), are cruel, prurient, grasping and anxious for scandal, anything to distract them from the "quiet desperation" Thoreau diagnosed. Sirk makes inspired use of reflective surfaces to capture Cary's unhappy mirror image and therein repeatedly emphasise that she is imprisoned by her privilege: status symbols and the material trappings of success are just that, traps. Cary will only ever escape by biting her thumb at prevailing attitudes and following both her own heart and "nature boy" Kirby's example, as his bohemian friends Mick and Alida Andersen have done, even if moving into that lovingly renovated watermill home means incurring the resentment of her own waspish, self-involved offspring. 

All That Heaven Allows improbably takes its title from the notorious Earl of Rochester's poem 'Love and Life' and was remade by Rainer Werner Fassbinder as Ali, Fear Eats The Soul in 1974 and effectively again by Todd Haynes in his 2002 Sirk homage Far From Heaven. It also struck me as clear influence on Tim Burton's popular Beauty and the Beast fable Edward Scissorhands (1990), in which another unconventional and lonely gardener, this time a man-made goth and a specialist in topiary rather than silver-tipped spruces, falls for a suburban girl before similarly suffering persecution at the hands of a torch-wielding mob of bored middle class housewives.

18/04/2013

Suddenly, Last Summer (1959)


Tennessee Williams was the hottest ticket on Broadway in the fifties and Hollywood wasted no time in adapting his work for the big screen, often drafting in the playwright himself to knock out a script. Indeed, a small cottage industry soon erupted to capitalise on booming demand for the writer's popular melding of psychological trauma, steamy sexuality and expressionistic Southern Gothic stylings. Warner Brothers proved quickest on the draw, releasing their version of The Glass Menagerie starring Kirk Douglas and Jane Wyman in 1950. Elia Kazan's A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) for Warner and Richard Brooks' Cat On A Hot Tin Roof (1958) for MGM remain the best remembered of the Williams adaptations of this period, but I've always been fond of the hysterical Suddenly, Last Summer from Joseph L. Mankiewicz. This balmy, stifling melodrama was produced by Sam Spiegel and shot at Shepperton Studios in Surrey (those extras playing lunatic asylum inmates all look unmistakably British), boasts a script by novelist Gore Vidal and an enviable cast, which makes particularly inspired use of the great Katharine Hepburn's arch and haughty persona.


Not long after he was badly disfigured in a serious car wreck and only hired at the insistence of Taylor, a sickly Montgomery Clift stars as Dr John Cukrowicz, a Chicago surgeon relocated to a rundown New Orleans mental hospital to specialise in lobotomy. Exasperated by the institution's lacklustre facilities, Cukrowicz gladly accepts when wealthy local widow Violet Venable (Hepburn) demands an audience. It transpires that Violet is still grieving for the loss of her son Sebastian, an aesthete and poet, who perished the summer before while holidaying in Spain and is demanding that Cukrowicz employ his skills on her niece, Kathy (Taylor), a disturbed young girl who remains traumatised by the same circumstances that led to Sebastian's death. Cukrowicz meets Kathy, who appears perfectly sane, if a little bi-polar, and resolves to help her, ignoring her aunt's attempts to blackmail him into hurriedly carrying out an operation in exchange for a shiny new hospital wing.


Clift anchors the film as the doctor-turned-detective tasked with unraveling the mystery of what really happened to Sebastian Venable in the summer of 1937, the key to Kathy's "sickness", but it's really a two-hander, with the honours just about even between Hepburn and Taylor. The stately Katharine is astonishing in the opening scene with Clift in which she descends from the ceiling in her customised gilded elevator, discoursing on Byzantine emperors and proceeding to chronicle her deeply unhealthy relationship with her son in a conservatory stuffed with primordial hothouse flowers. Hepburn was famously indignant about the way she and her fellow cast members were treated on set, storming off after her final scene, spitting at Mankiewicz and calling Spiegel "just a pig in a silk suit who sends flowers". Crumbs. Meanwhile Taylor is increasingly impressive (and no stranger to Williams country), absolutely nailing her final monologue, in which Sebastian's horrific demise is finally recalled in a sleazy and nightmarish flashback implying rent boy cannibalism, no less. A genuinely haunting episode that's beautifully played by an actress whose skill is too often neglected in favour of smirking about her admittedly farcical private life. Her co-star in that intense psychodrama, Richard Burton, would, incidentally, appear in John Huston's The Night Of The Iguana (1964), the film that marked the end of Hollywood's feverish enthusiasm for exhausting the Tennessee Williams back catalogue.

The Ramones - Teenage Lobotomy

13/04/2013

The Creature From The Black Lagoon (1954)


As Marilyn Monroe points out to Tom Ewell in The Seven Year Itch (1955), Gill Man isn't so bad, he just wants to be loved. This was a common trait among B-movie monsters of the fifties, most of whom aped King Kong's pursuit of unavailable women, with dear old Robot Monster probably the horniest and loneliest of the lot. Still, it's hard to disagree with fish boy's taste in abductees: Julia Adams is quite lovely and marvellously athletic. The scene in which she and this scaly evolutionary nightmare perform a sychronised swimming act together in the depths of the Amazon (without her even realising it) is as startlingly beautiful as it is unsettling. In fact, the film's underwater cinematography is probably its finest asset, other than the exceptional creature design by Millicent Patrick, whose contribution was not properly acknowledged for over half a century. Hats off to her then and to James C. Havens, who handled all scenes shot below the waterline while Jack Arnold directed the bickering expedition party aboard the Rita. Also deserving of a nod are Ben Chapman and Ricou Browning, the poor devils inside the rubber suit tasked with bringing Gill Man to life. You can check out some superb behind-the-scenes action shots from the making of the movie over at Spin Serpent, incidentally.


Thematically, Universal's 3D extravaganza is another revenge-of-nature horror but its script (apparently spun out of an anecdote about legendary mermen told at a dinner for Citizen Kane in 1941) explicitly draws parallels between its marine biologists' journey into the heart of darkness with modern space exploration. The fear of uncharted species and the possibility of other worlds representing new dangers discussed in Arnold's film caused critic Peter Biskind to label it a conservative cautionary fable, warning Americans against the dangers of straying from home. But take heart: the chances of running into a prehistoric aqua beast in Brazil or anywhere else are reassuringly remote. If you're planning on going to the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio, you should be fine.

12/04/2013

A Place In The Sun (1951)


We expect to be invited to disapprove of George Eastman (Montgomery Clift), to revel in the sight of him walking the green mile for the premeditated drowning of his poor pregnant girlfriend, whether he finally intended it or not, satisfied to see justice done as he takes his seat on the electric chair for the first and final time. This breezy social climber, this cheery beneficiary of nepotism, this abandoner of the needy... How else could we feel about such a cad other than despise him for a callous opportunist and murderer? The fact that we don't, the fact that we feel anything but, is the genius of George Stevens' take on Theodore Dreiser's An America Tragedy (1925) and of Clift's complex performance in particular. Instead, we wallow in George's tantalising dilemma, for Alice Tripps (Shelley Winters) and her doom-bearing bump are all that stand in the way of his glorious ascent, that final leap away from the memories of an impoverished childhood roaming the mean streets of Chicago in pursuit of a marching missionary mother. With that squalid little factory girl out of the way, nothing could stop George rising up the family bathing suit business and entering the elite upper echelons of society in the arms of Angela Vickers (Elizabeth Taylor). Eastman's entrapment, an all-too-plausible snare worthy of Zola or James M. Cain, turns this confused young man into a fumbling Tom Ripley and we love him for even considering the deed. And yet, we also know that he must be destroyed and pine for its consummation. But not on account of his crime. No, no. Rather, George must burn because he and Angela are simply too beautiful together to be allowed to continue. The radiance of these two, as perfectly matched as twins, is almost intolerable, too much for the sickly human constitution to bear. Seeing this pair torn apart and denied is perhaps the most exquisitely painful pleasure of all.

09/04/2013

Pillow Talk (1959)

"The woman on our party line's a nosy thing,
She picks up her receiver when she knows it's my ring..."
- Hank Williams, 'Mind Your Own Business'

The first of three romantic comedies matching Doris Day with Rock Hudson was this massive box office hit directed by Michael Gordon for Universal. Day, that saintly icon of all-American virginity, was apparently extremely nervous about tackling such risqué material but finally dared to risk her Colgate commercial image and the result remains a sparklingly witty affair that benefits enormously from her bravery and considerable comic talent and timing.

She stars as New Yorker Jan Morrow, an interior decorator routinely frustrated by her inability to make phone calls from her apartment as a result of having to share a party line with a noted local lothario. That beast turns out to be none other than Brad Allen (Hudson), a Broadway composer and serial womaniser who just so happens to be the best friend of millionaire Jonathan Forbes (Tony Randall), an amiable neurotic besotted with Jan. She and Brad regularly bicker over the phone before he comes to learn of his social connection to her and exploits it by posing as a wealthy Texas rancher, "Rex Stetson", only to fall in love with her and realise the need to find a sensitive way to tell her that Brad, whom she hates, and Rex, whom she loves, are one and the same person.

Day and Hudson are superb here and have fun with a delightful script from Clarence Greene, Stanley Shapiro, Maurice Richlin and Russell Rouse, the latter, amazingly, also having worked on D.O.A. (1950). This quartet's screenplay is stuffed with excellent lines and a great deal more eyebrow-raising innuendo than I'd expected: "I have no bedroom problems. There's nothing in my bedroom that bothers me", Jan huffs at Brad's probing insinuation. "Oh, that's too bad..." he sneers. Their plotting also makes good use of theatrical farce conventions, notably the identity confusion engineered by Brad, whose fraudulent hayseed persona mirrors Tony Curtis duping Marilyn Monroe into loving "Shell Oil Jr" in the same year's Some Like It Hot and also looks ahead to the country boy in the Big Apple fantasy of Midnight Cowboy a decade later. Hudson's imitation of a very specific kind of female fantasy man is spot on and a cruelly accurate skewering of his target's ideal.

Pillow Talk also features winning support from the very funny Randall and Thelma Ritter as Jan's hard drinking maid Alma, slightly underused but with just enough time and craft to imply a lifetime of disappointment. Bizarrely, the great Marcel Dalio from La Grande Illusion (1937) and La Règle Du Jeu (1939) also makes an appearance  as Jan's perennially exasperated French boss, bemoaning a wealthy client with all the good taste "of a water buffalo".



Given its period, Pillow Talk features a number of other significant shocks, including a scene in which Day and Hudson flirt with each other from their respective baths via telephone and are separated only by a splitscreen that might as well not be there.

Jan branding Brad a "sex maniac" is also a surprise, but it's a slander that's perhaps justified given the secret buttons he keeps hidden in his bachelor pad to turn the sofa into a bed and automatically lock the door whenever he has female company to entertain. This is a detail that must unavoidably appear creepy to modern eyes, although Pillow Talk is hardly Shame (2011).

Another example is Brad trying to put her off his alter ego by hinting that Rex might be gay ("There are some men who... hmmm... how shall I put it? Well, they're very fond of their mothers... They like to share bits of gossip... collect recipes"). Her horrified and indignant reaction to this idea is especially priceless. In even raising this question, however, especially in the light of what we now know about Hudson's own homosexuality being hushed up by the studios, Pillow Talk was daringly ahead of its time.

It is also right on the money in highlighting the disapproval and judgement single career girls in the city faced (and still face) from the more conservative corners of society and in showcasing the evolving role of women generally. Jan refashioning Brad's apartment into a ludicrous parody of an exotic harem at the film's climax (before, presumably, changing it back into a tasteful home once they are married) is a metaphor for the modern woman remoulding wolfish old chauvinists, showing up and shaking out their hoary, patronising attitudes and remaking them into something more feminised and enlightened.

It would probably be too much to claim this dated little fifties "sexcapade" as a feminist milestone, but Pillow Talk did engage with its zeitgeist impressively and in so doing anticipated the Sexual Revolution that would follow, making it an ancestor to those groundbreaking primetime TV shows that reinvented the portrayal of single women, such as The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-77), Murphy Brown (1988-98) and Sex & The City (1998-2004).

What is certain is that Pillow Talk is a rare example of an older movie that is entirely 100% remake-proof, as technological advances have long since rendered the party line laughably obsolete.

02/04/2013

D.O.A. (1950)


Edmond O'Brien stars in this almost comically frantic noir as Frank Bigelow, a small-town accountant and notary public, who refuses to commit to his secretary and girlfriend Paula (Pamela Britton) and instead takes himself off to San Francisco for a long weekend alone in order to clear his head. Heading out on the town with a party of boozy businessmen staying in the same hotel, Frank gets his drink spiked at local jive joint The Fisherman, after which he begins to feel ill and visits a doctor, who promptly concludes that he has been mortally poisoned with a luminous toxin, giving Frank little more than 24 hours left to live. Rather than submit to bed rest, however, Frank sets out in search of his assassins, determined to thwart their conspiracy and therein give meaning to his premature demise.

As effective as Rudolph Maté's film is, its ludicrously hectic pacing and ever-growing web of shady characters consistently threatens to bewilder. You half expect Bigelow to drop dead from exhaustion long before his radiation sickness takes hold, given the sheer amount of running around he gets through evading mobsters and hunting down clues. However, D.O.A. has plenty to recommend it, from its dramatic opening ("I want to report a murder...") to its novel premise, in which the victim serves as his own detective, and the committed and intense central performance of its underrated star. There's also an especially creepy supporting turn to relish from Neville Brand as psychopathic hood Chester. Director Maté began life as a cinematographer, photographing films for Carl Theodor Dreyer, Alfred Hitchcock and René Clair among others, and makes a good fist of capturing the seedy underbelly of urban California, its sweaty, chaotic waterfront Beat clubs and bustling sidewalks. The film's nuclear age concerns - the bad guys are involved in the black market trade of stolen iridium - aligns it with Robert Aldrich's Kiss Me Deadly (1955) while its script by Russell Rouse and Clarence Greene is laced with neat ironies, as critic Foster Hirsch has noted. Typical of these is the fact that Bigelow's sad predicament actually helps to focus this flaky and indecisive individual for the first time, spurring him into action and forcing him to shape up, look clearly at his life and realise his love for Paula. This interesting character arc calls to mind Dr Johnson's marvellous maxim: "Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully". D.O.A. presents a bleak picture of an America helpless in the face of organised crime and is now in the public domain, so you can view in its entirety for precisely nothing right here. Do so.