25/06/2013

20,000 Leagues Under The Sea (1954)


James Mason makes for a stern and immovable Captain Nemo in this ambitious CinemaScope Jules Verne adaptation from Disney, an early example of the summer blockbuster two decades before Jaws (1975). Verne's tale of the misanthropic steampunk submariner who forsakes humanity to live below the waves dates from 1870 but touches on a number of enduring concerns, most notably the horrific potential of scientific advancement in the wrong hands. Professor Pierre Aronnax (Paul Lukas), an interloper aboard Nemo's Nautilus, begs the ingenious captain to share his ship and its wonders with the world for the greater good but Nemo declines, preferring instead to act as an anti-colonial moral avenger, using the craft to sink slave boats regardless of the human cost of his actions. Aronnax is particularly anxious to know what powers the Nautilus, a vessel at once an ornately decorated Victorian drawing room and a powerful deepwater battering ram. Nemo never reveals the answer but it's a particularly pertinent question that would have had uncomfortable resonances for an Atomic Age audience. Verne was clearly a man as visionary and ahead of his time as his protagonist.


Truth be told, once Professor Aronnax, his assistant Conseil (Peter Lorre) and boisterous American harpooner Ned Land (Kirk Douglas) have been taken aboard the Nautilus, Fleischer's film fast runs out of radium. However novel, the murky seabed setting ultimately creates longueurs and there is simply insufficient incident to hold the attention outside of an agreeably rickety battle scene with a giant skid. Douglas is entertaining singing comic shanties, brawling with Nemo's crew and befriending his pet seal Esmeralda, but the energy he brings to the piece is at odds with Mason's grave and thoughtful turn. Nemo is a man governed by hate and fixated on the tragedies of his past and the actor treats the character with the seriousness he deserves. Lukas is also good value as the voice of reason but it's sad to see Lorre again reduced to comic sidekick status.



The beautifully designed sets used for the interiors of the Nautilus would ultimately be reused at Disney World to create a popular ride. This theme park afterlife provides a parallel with the same studio's more recent Pirates Of The Caribbean franchise (2003-11), which was famously a Disney attraction before it was spun off into a lucrative box office plundering series that also served up a bevy of deranged captains, spectacular ships, extrovert character performances and a cannibal island chase remarkably similar to that involving Ned Land in Fleischer's film.

20/06/2013

Ossessione (1943)


Just as F.W. Murnau did not have the blessing of the Stoker estate when he used Dracula (1897) as the basis for Nosferatu in 1922, Luchino Visconti had no legal right to make a film of James M. Cain's 1934 hard-boiled pulp The Postman Always Rings Twice but did so anyway. The young Italian aristocrat was presented with the idea when Jean Renoir hurriedly shoved a copy of the book and an abandoned early draft of a screenplay into his hands before fleeing Europe for American as Nazi tanks began to make serious inroads into France. Wartime restrictions prevented Visconti obtaining the necessary permissions but he had other problems to contend with. He knew that no treatment of Cain's steamy novella would get past Mussolini's censors so he and his Milanese anti-fascist co-writers Mario Alicata, Antonio Pietrangeli, Gianni Puccini and Guiseppe de Santis packaged their unofficial adaptation as a light murder mystery bearing a cautionary moral against extramarital relations, which, unbelievably, was enough to see it rubber stamped.


The relocation of this timeless yarn from California to a trattoria in the swampy marshes of the Delta Ferrarese presents no problems whatsoever and the sweltering climate actually provides a highly appropriate backdrop for the lovers' desperate crime of passion. In what is often cited as the first neo-realist film, Visconti captures the poverty and hopelessness of these environs but remains equally interested in the emotional ordeals of his protagonists. Gino (Massimo Girotti) is a lost soul drifting from one lowly blue collar job to another, forever restless and unfulfilled, while Giovanna (Clara Calamai) found herself forced to choose at a young age between taking a blustering older man (Juan de Landa) for a husband or a life of prostitution and is reluctant to be exposed again. The world is bleak, dusty and unforgiving for these hardened survivors and their animal lust for one another is as much about shared pain as it is stolen pleasure. It's beautifully played.


Visconti's completed film succeeded in outraging both church and state, with an archbishop called in to sprinkle holy water in one cinema auditorium and Il Duce's son Vittorio Mussolini walking out of a preview screening exclaiming furiously, "This is not Italy!" All copies were subsequently destroyed by the Fascist authorities except for Visconti's own negatives, from which all remaining prints are derived. This hostile reaction meant that Ossessione was suppressed until 1959, when an abridged cut was finally presented in Paris, and not seen in its entirety until 1976. This was also the fault of MGM in Hollywood, which had produced its own (approved) adaptation of Cain's book in 1946, famously pairing Lana Turner and John Garfield, and had subsequently busily set about attempting to bury Visconti's rival work. However, both versions offer something entirely different and deserve to co-exist in harmony.

09/06/2013

The Golem (1920)


German director Paul Wegener plays the titular monster himself in this marvelously creepy expressionist horror from the golden age of U.F.A. The Golem is an old Prague legend about a mystical colossus sculpted from clay by the benevolent Rabbi Loew and brought to life with Hebrew incantations in order to protect the inhabitants of the city's Jewish ghetto from anti-Semitic prejudice and persecution. This was Wegener's third crack at the tale, having directed a version in 1915 that he was not entirely satisfied with and a parodic short two years later, The Golem & The Dancing Girl, both of which are now sadly lost. You can see his surviving Golem in its entirety below for precisely nothing.



A peculiarly potent and enduring myth, the Golem is a man-made monster that turns on its Promethean creator: the story therefore shares superficial similarities with Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818). It was the subject of a strange, dreamlike novel by Austrian bank clerk turned occultist Gustav Meyrink in 1915, which was reportedly a direct reference point for Wegener, and could also be said to have lived on through the tradition of superhero comic book writing. After all, Superman was created in 1938 by two Jewish writers, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, just as the Nazis came to power in Germany, a time when the Jews of Europe once more found themselves forced to bow their heads and pray for deliverance. Batman, another champion of the people, made his debut appearance in Detective Comics a year later and was also the product of Jewish invention, the caped crusader later battling a villain who resembled the Golem in the shape-shifting person of Clayface. The Golem thus remains a symbol of man's undying hope of release from toil and oppression, particularly as technology advances and the possibility of automata aiding and enhancing our working and domestic lives becomes ever closer to reality. The word "robot", incidentally, like the Golem, also originates from the Czech Republic. It was first used by the satirist Karel Čapek in 1920, the year of Wegener's film, in the title of his play R.U.R. about a factory that builds artificial humanoids. The idea must run in the very waters of the Vltava.

08/06/2013

Blood & Sand (1941)

Following his popular starring role in The Mark Of Zorro (1940), Tyrone Power was assigned another silent remake for his next assault on the box office by Fox chief Darryl F. Zanuck. This time, Power followed in the footsteps of Rudolph Valentino to star as illiterate Spanish peasant boy Juan Gallardo, a dreamer who emerges from obscurity in Seville to become the nation's star matador. Along the way, Juan marries his childhood sweetheart Carmen (Linda Darnell), only to fall for Rita Hayworth's aristocratic vamp Doña Sol de Muira and find himself torn between the two women as his career in the bullring begins to falter.



Again working from the 1909 novel by Vicente Blasco Ibáñez, Rouben Mamoulian directed this sumptuous, sweltering Technicolor epic, in which the real stars are perhaps the opulent costumes designed by Travis Banton. And of course Hayworth, cast because Carol Landis was reluctant to dye her hair red and because of her Spanish heritage and experience as a dancer, which is demonstrated to magnificent effect in an erotic tango scene with Anthony Quinn. Power has the looks and conviction for the lead and is well served by ace supporting players like Darnell (in her fourth appearance with him), Laird Cregar and John Carradine. However, the film in unquestionably overlong and suffers from its extremely tired rise-and-fall narrative structure. Despite featuring stunt work from Armillita, a real toreador, Blood & Sand's pivotal bullfighting scenes are also too often abruptly cut short at key moments, breaking the illusion and depriving us of the chance to truly understand the essence of this brutal sport. Mamoulian had never been to Spain at the time the film was made, relying on Renaissance-era painting to guide his mise-en-scène. As a result, Blood & Sand is therefore essentially a Hollywood studio fantasy depiction of the Iberian Peninsula and its Hemingway-approved pursuits, rather than an accurate recreation, doing for Spain what John Ford's The Quiet Man (1952) would do for Ireland. The locals didn't mind, however, and were actually astonished to learn the truth from Mamoulian years later, politely claiming to be entirely convinced.

05/06/2013

Angels Over Broadway (1940)


Four strangers meet by chance at New York's Pigeon Club one rainy night and share a drink. One of their number, Charles Engle (John Qalen), turns out to have been caught embezzling company funds from his long-term business partner in order to bankroll a venture on behalf of his no-good girlfriend and now faces prison, a situation that has driven him to suicidal despair. Boozing one-time Pulitzer-winning playwright Eugene Gibbons (Thomas Mitchell) determines to help the poor weed claw back the $3,000 he needs to repay his debt, colluding with gum-chewing chancer Bill O'Brien (Douglas Fairbanks Jr) and Nina Barona (Rita Hayworth), a novice showgirl, to wangle Engle an invite to a gangster's poker game. The trio assume that if Engle poses as a rich rube, the hoods will allow him to win a few early hands to give him a taste for it, at which point he can make his excuses and clear out before the higher stakes kick in. Naturally, things do not run quite according to this otherwise inspired plan.

Currently showing at the BFI Southbank as part of a Love Goddess retrospective, Angles Over Broadway from writer-director Ben Hecht is a strange fish indeed. The plot description above may make it sound like a screwball comedy, but it's really too dark and noirish for that. The four players are uniformly excellent but Qualen in particular is given a melancholy part to play while much of Mitchell's droll, Fieldsian bar room philosophy smacks of its author's own savage world view: "I speak as one who has destroyed himself a score of times. I am, Mr Engle, a veteran corpse. We are all corpses here! This rendezvous is one of the musical graveyards of the town. Caters to zombies hopping around with dead hearts and price tags for souls." The mobsters too are a forbidding bunch and all-too-plausible, which means it's left up to the burgeoning romance between Fairbanks and Hayworth to inject some much-needed levity. His O'Brien though is disgusted by her readiness to leap onto the casting couch of jaded theatrical impresario Hugo (Fred Sweeney) in exchange for a career boost and his disdainful attitude towards her thereafter constantly threatens to curdle the milk. Still, despite the abiding bitterness of Hecht, a former Chicago Daily News journalist who broke the "Ragged Stranger Murder Case" before being summoned out West by Herman J. Mankiewicz, Hayworth is charming in a star-making role and so is Fairbanks, the film's associate producer, as the know-it-all hustler, although Mitchell probably steals it for his orotund wit. Hecht's screenplay ultimately lost out on an Oscar to Preston Sturges for The Great McGinty and there's no shame in that.

02/06/2013

La Belle Et La Bête (1946)


French poet Jean Cocteau's famous fairy tale adaptation is simply unutterably lovely, a work of art approaching perfection in its execution and which has unquestionably added to the sum of gross human happiness ever since its premiere in the midst of postwar depression and austerity. I grew up with the Disney animation from 1991, which drew heavily on Cocteau and is also charming, although I can see now that it could never hope to match the atmosphere and feeling of its inspiration.

Starring Josette Day and the director's lover, Jean Marais, Cocteau's film of Jeanne-Marie LePrince de Beaumont's 1756 version of the tale is unfailingly visually inventive and makes inspired use of theatrical trickery. From the uncanny arms emerging from the walls of the Beast's castle to bear its candelabra to the roving eyes of its statues, there are endless wonders here. The influential leonine make-up in no way hinders Marais' capacity for expression, as can be seen above in his alarming first appearance, accosting Belle's father (Marcel André) for plucking a rose from his enchanted garden. Although the Beast may initially frighten us, Cocteau follows the best traditions of European children's literature by reminding us that the only real monsters in the world are human: Belle's vicious sisters (Mila Parely, Nane Germon) and her self-indulgent, vain father, whose financial naivety and complacency have brought the family to ruin. This is a romance, however, and the avarice and narcissism of Belle's relations merely add bold secondary shading to the splendour Cocteau conjures in the foreground. It is perhaps a little perplexing that we should feel a pang of regret for the passing of the Beast when he casts off his fur only to assume the physical form of Belle's wastrel suitor, Avenant, but the strangeness of this finale, and the lovers' subsequent heavenly ascent, only adds to the film's dreamlike quality.