27/07/2013

Written On The Wind (1956)


Long-suffering Douglas Sirk regular Rock Hudson this time plays geologist Mitch Wayne, a childhood friend to Texan oil heir Kyle Hadley (Robert Stack) and now the grown-up playboy's right hand man. Tasked with keeping Kyle's drinking in check by Hadley patriarch Jasper (Robert Keith), the introspective Mitch is also an obsession for Kyle's nympho sister Marylee (Dorothy Malone) but, alas, only has eyes for his buddy's new bride, Lucy Moore (Lauren Bacall), a Madison Avenue graduate whom Kyle has swept off her feet by exchanging obnoxious, ostentatious displays of wealth and alpha male posturing for searing emotional honesty. Naturally, this volatile situation can't be expected to remain stable for long and sure enough doesn't. After a year of wedded bliss, Kyle learns that he might be sterile and resumes tearing himself apart with bourbon and vermouth, while prolific tramp Marylee seduces gas station attendants, pines after Mitch and dances like Salome in a rose negligee as her sorrowful father lies dying at the foot of the stairs. Mitch soon becomes so sick of this claustrophobic psychodrama, which would be enough to send Tennessee Williams outside gasping for air, that he considers taking a job in Iran (!) to escape it all, only for matters to come to a head when Lucy announces that she is pregnant, prompting Kyle to go on one final wild bender, convinced the child isn't his and plotting revenge against the imagined adulterer.


As is often the case with Sirk, the standalone plot of Written On The Wind (taken from a gossipy novel based on true events by Robert Wilder) may sound overblown but it's the surefootedness of the director's judgments, the superb ensemble acting and cinematographer Russell Metty's exquisite Technicolor palette that carry the day. The latter in particular outdoes himself here, reveling in the exaggeration and artifice of it all. Metty's work is always striking but in Written On The Wind he hardly lets a single scene pass without catching some astonishing splash of colour, be it a birch branch hung with rusty autumn leaves, a mint green bar top, Hudson's clay suit or the electric pink walls of a Miami hotel corridor. Automobiles particularly lend themselves to this approach, with Kyle Hadley introduced drunk and roaring around town in a yellow Allard convertible (which reminded me of Leonardo Di Caprio's monstrous ride in Baz Luhrmann's recent Great Gatsby). Elsewhere a taxi cab basks in blue moonlight and Malone is just too outrageous to be true sporting pastel pink behind the wheel of a freshly polished cherry red Woodill Wildfire parked against a hazy evening. The late Roger Ebert considered Sirk a subtler filmmaker than Ingmar Bergman and that really may not be such a ludicrous notion after all.

26/07/2013

I'm All Right Jack (1959)


Stanley Windrush (Ian Carmichael), an Oxbridge graduate fresh out of the army, embarks on his civilian career and decides to seek employment in the manufacturing sector. After several false starts, he is invited to take a position as a forklift truck driver at Missiles Ltd., a factory owned by his swindling uncle Bertram Tracepurcel (Dennis Price). The latter is in cahoots with Sydney DeVere Cox (Richard Attenborough), owner of the rival firm Union Jack Foundries, with Tracepurcel hoping to win a major contract from a Middle Eastern government and then dupe Stanley into causing a strike at his own plant, making delivery of the commission impossible, whereupon Cox's organisation can step in and finish the order for an inflated fee, with the windfall split evenly. However, when Union Jack employees stage a sympathy demonstration, Britain grinds to a halt and Stanley finds himself in the eye of a media storm. 


In this loose sequel to their earlier military comedy Private's Progress (1956), again based on an Alan Hackney novel, twin brothers John and Roy Boulting turn their satirical gaze to British industry and present a world in which a never-ending war of self-interest is being waged between a ruling caste of upper crust executives and the militant labour unions representing the hands that serve them, a situation that benefits neither and for which both parties are at fault. Fat cats have been lampooned since time immemorial so what makes I'm All Right Jack interesting is its daring to criticise the workers, accusing them of bone idleness and a dogged commitment to low productivity and personal comfort to the detriment of the greater good. Tired clichés about the dignity of labour and the saintly nobility of the proletariat are gleefully thrown out by the Boultings (timely in the era of Arthur Seaton and the Angry Young Men), who make a stinging attack on trade union gangsterism and present scenes in which munitions factory workers hide behind packing crates so that they can carry on a card game in peace before breaking for lunch. Orchestrating their cushy existence is Peter Sellers' famous shop steward Fred Kite, quite possibly the comedian's finest film characterisation and certainly one of his most restrained performances. This aspiring Bolshevik, a martinet in overalls, may rule the roost at Missiles Ltd. but he is an irrelevance in his own home, routinely overruled by his brassy wife (Irene Handl) and daughter (Liz Fraser) and quite unable to darn his socks or do the washing up when left to his own devices.


As in many of the Boultings' other institutional satires like Brothers In Law (1957), Carmichael makes for a game lead but I fear his appeal may be largely lost on modern audiences. There's no shortage of rivals for the limelight though, with Terry-Thomas again on hand to reprise his role as Major Hitchcock, now head of personnel, and busily denouncing his inferiors as "positive showers" with delicious relish. The likes of Margaret Rutherford, John Le Mesurier, Raymond Huntley, Kenneth Griffith and even Malcolm Muggeridge make for an enviable supporting cast but Miles Malleson probably just about steals it as Stanley's father, an extremely relaxed but committed nudist.

16/07/2013

Dark Passage (1947)


The least loved of the four films hard-boiled husband and wife Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall made together, Delmer Daves' adaptation of the excellent David Goodis novel for Warner Brothers is actually a solid piece of work, although admittedly not without its faults. Bogie stars as Vincent Parry, a con who escapes from San Quentin three years into a life sentence for the murder of his spouse and is determined to prove his innocence. Parry immediately runs into trouble on the road and is lucky to be rescued by beautiful amateur artist Irene Jansen (Bacall) who seems determined to help him and too good to be true. Irene allows Parry to hide out in her plush San Francisco apartment where a fond feeling quickly develops between them, despite Parry's face being trussed up in bandages like the Invisible Man after his undergoing plastic surgery to evade the cops. The fugitive soon finds himself framed once again when his best friend George (Rory Mallinson), a lonely trumpeter, is found dead, prompting him to delay his flight to Peru in order to investigate, just as the police dragnet is drawing in around him.


We don't see Bogart's face on screen for the first 62 minutes of Dark Passage. Instead, Daves shoots much of Vince Parry's escape from prison and subsequent scrambling for survival in the first-person, moving rapidly to capitalise on the recent box office success of Robert Montgomery's subjectively shot Raymond Chandler novelty for MGM, The Lady In The Lake. While the technique is perhaps better justified here in narrative terms, it hardly works in practice. Of course we know we'll be confronted with the unmistakable face of Humphrey Bogart when the mummified Parry unwraps his new head, we've seen the man's name on the poster and opening credits and heard his equally distinctive voice throughout. Despite the pivotal grand unveiling proving a flop, Bogie and Bacall are as reliably cute together as ever, there's an alarming hallucinatory dream sequence to enjoy when Parry is anesthetised by his surgeon and an expert piece of villainy on show from Agnes Moorhead as local busybody Madge, as twisted a harpy as they come. Quite whether the lovers fully deserve their happy ending, slow dancing in South America with three new graves dug at home, is another matter.

13/07/2013

Forbidden Planet (1956)


Fred McLeod Wilcox's Forbidden Planet for MGM proves to be an amazing mix of Freudian theory, Shakespearean allusion and technophobia set to the world's first fully electronic film score, courtesy of maverick Greenwich Village husband-and-wife team Louis and Bebe Barron. The story concerns Commander John J. Adams (Leslie Nielsen) and the crew of United Planets Cruiser C57-D, who touch down on Altair IV in search of survivors from a failed exploration mission 20 years earlier. There they encounter Dr Edward Morbius (Walter Pidgeon), a genius living in isolation with his virginal daughter Alta (Anne Francis), who informs Adams that his colleagues were exterminated one-by-one by a mysterious planetary force soon after landing. When Adams and his warm-blooded subordinates begin to take a romantic interest in Alta, the invisible monster returns to slay them, prompting the commander to further investigate Morbius. The latter admits that he's been using the technology of a long-extinct race of superbeings who once inhabited Altair IV, the Krell, to build his splendid home there, a revelation that causes Adams to guess the unnerving truth about the malevolent creature and its origins.



The conflicted Morbius stands in for Prospero in an inspired relocation of The Tempest (1610) to outer space by writer Cyril Hume, with Alta an otherworldly Miranda and the "Monster of the id" akin to the brutal savage Caliban. While these parallels are interesting, they are not the primary focus of Hume's screenplay. Instead, the writer presents us with a psychological drama in which Morbius is so unsettled at seeing the oedipal paradise in which he dwells with Alta invaded by the rescue mission that his subconscious mind, facilitated by the advanced Krell technology, lashes out by manifesting a monster to destroy all those who threaten his queasy domestic arrangements. This reading places Adams in the role of the detective psychoanalyst and also means that the film advocates emotional and sexual repression. "We're all part monster in our unconscious. That's why we have laws and religion", Adams states, later ordering Alta, the free-spirited nature girl who cavorts with deer and tigers, to cover up in the name of earthly modesty. The film's conservatism is also extended towards technology, cautioning against its falling into the wrong hands and having the army step in to save the day and even commandeer Robby the Robot, Morbius's automaton butler. Morbius is meanwhile punished for playing god like so many meddling scientists in 1950s sci-fi and its precursors, encountering himself (figuratively) in the depths of the universe, just as Sam Rockwell's technician does (literally) in Moon (2009), and not liking what he sees.


In addition to its innovative, experimental soundscape, blurring atmospheric Theremin effects with eerie bleeps and zaps, Forbidden Planet features some wonderful matte painted planet backdrops and a number of stylish sets (Morbius's home was memorably likened to Frank Sinatra's Las Vegas living room by Ridley Scott in the 2005 documentary Watch The Skies!) as well as a witty script well played by a sporting cast. However, for my money, it's a touch too heavy on exposition scenes and a little too light on incident to retain one's interest throughout. As with Richard Fleischer's 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea two years earlier, we are invited to marvel at the spectacle on show, cutting edge at the time, but somehow there's not quite enough narrative invention to sustain the film in spite of its bold themes. Nevertheless, Forbidden Planet is a cute piece of work that has left a lasting cultural legacy. Its name lives on in a chain of sci-fi memorabilia shops and its opening starship scenes seem an obvious inspiration for Gene Roddenberry's original Star Trek series (1966-69), with the teleport beams a clear lift.


And then of course there's Robby. This clanking tin Arial, first sketched by washing machine designer Robert Kinoshita and built for the princely sum of $125,000, went on to become one of the most enduring and popular of all 1950s sci-fi creations. On the back of Forbidden Planet's success, Robby starred in his own film, The Invisible Boy (1957) directed by Herman Hoffman, in which he befriends the young son of a mathematics professor before being reprogrammed by an evil supercomputer determined to hijack the US space programme. After this highly eccentric but charming outing, Robby paid the rent by making numerous guest appearances in TV shows like The Twilight Zone (1959-64), Lost In Space (1965-68) and Wonder Woman (1975-79). The highlight of this run is perhaps the 1958 'Robot Client' episode of The Thin Man (1957-59), starring Peter Lawford and Phyllis Kirk, in which Robby is framed for murder by a lab assistant terrified of his potential in relation to the development of atomic power. Robby is still working today, appearing in a promo for General Electric just last year. This metal manservant deserves to live on forever for his delivery of Forbidden Planet's most risqué line. Alta summons him and is frustrated to find him slow in arriving at her side, prompting her to ask where he's been. "I was just giving myself an oil job", he replies, as deadpan and inscrutable as ever.

08/07/2013

Sunrise: A Song Of Two Humans (1927)


F.W. Murnau's simple tale of a farmer (George O'Brien) who plots to murder his young wife (Janet Gaynor) under the influence of a vampish city girl (Margaret Livingston) holidaying in the countryside is perhaps the crowning glory of the American silent cinema outside of Chaplin and Keaton. The great German expressionist auteur behind Nosferatu (1922) and Faust (1926) was invited to Hollywood by studio boss William Fox and the result was this extremely touching meditation on love lost and regained, as enchanting in its depiction of an impoverished but ultimately happy couple as Jean Vigo's later L'Atalante (1934).


Sunrise's admittedly melodramatic plot concerning the adulterer's plan to  drown his wife by faking a boating accident on a lake comes from the short story 'A Trip to Tilsit' by German writer Hermann Sudermann but strongly echoes Theodore Dreiser's roughly contemporaneous An American Tragedy (1925). This parallel aligns Sunrise with George Stevens' adaptation of that work A Place In The Sun (1951) with Montgomery Clift and Liz Taylor, another bold and emotional account of a tortuous love triangle that was lapped up by the crowds.

Although Murnau's film is certainly firstly a touching romance, it is also a fascinating document of newly industrialised urban America, typified by its hectic tramways and night life. The experience of immersing oneself in it is a thrill that anticipates Dziga Vertov's Man With A Movie Camera (1929).



Murnau's genius is evident throughout Sunrise. It's there in his creepily unreal creation of a rural village presided over by an ominous full moon, in the devilish swirl of cigarette smoke about the black-clad city girl and in his deft use of tracking shots. However, it is perhaps Murnau's expert orchestration of tone that most impresses today. The film's mood evolves naturally from the grim menace of the rowboat scene in which the reality of what's about to happen dawns on the terrified wife to the transitional light comedy of the barber's shop and the gaiety inspired by the escaped piglet at the funfair. A truly remarkable artifact, all told.

03/07/2013

Lady Killer (1937)



"The public, which swallows many affronts, would undoubtedly feel that they were being taken for a ride if screenwriters presented them with a happy ending for Jean Gabin."
- André Bazin, What Is Cinema? Volume II (1971)

Jean Grémillon's fraught love story, an adaptation of André Beucler's 1926 novel, opportunistically reunited Gabin and Mireille Balin following their appearance together in Julien Duvivier's wildly popular Algiers gangster caper Pépé Le Moko (1937). The result proved to be this neglected director's biggest commercial success but today it stands as something of a forgotten masterpiece. Gabin is on top form as Lucien Bourrache, a charismatic marshal with French colonial cavalry regiment the Spahi known for his way with the ladies and by the nickname "Gueule d'Amour" (loosely translated as "Lady Killer" but really more like "Love Jaws"). Stationed in Orange, Bourrache has his pick of the town's widows, wives and maids, all of whom gaze longingly after the gallant Legionnaire, but instead he falls for cool, cynical Parisian aristocrat Madeleine (Ballin) whom he encounters while on leave in Cannes, ultimately quitting the army to pursue her. What follows is the tale of a Don Juan degraded, as Lucien finds himself manipulated, humiliated and scorned by Madeleine and sneered at by her effeminate butler and horrid mother until he can take it no longer and strikes out in brutal fashion.

Grémillon's films have been routinely overlooked by the anglophone critical establishment over the last half century but a recent revival at the Edinburgh Film Festival may do much to revive his reputation outside of France. The reason for the director's obscurity over here is not itself clear cut, as academic Ginette Vincendeau pointed out in her introduction to the film at the BFI screening I attended last night. A contemporary of the period's great "poetic realists" like Duvivier, Jean Renoir, Marcel Carné and Jacques Feyder, Grémillon had been a music student before he turned his hand to documentary filmmaking, eventually finding his way into features but enduring such an unhappy relationship with the studios that he would ultimately be driven to drink. He was criticised for spending time in Germany in the late 1930s - Lady Killer was largely filmed at UFA's studios in Berlin with the assistance of the great German cinematographer Günther Rittau - even though he was a passionate supporter of the Resistance during wartime. He also endured several years of self-imposed exile in Spain, so it's possible that his own willingness to disenfranchise himself from his illustrious peers has hurt his standing. Whatever the reason, the quality of his craftsmanship is not in question.



One of the most interesting aspects of Lady Killer is its core misogyny (perhaps another reason the director has failed to find favour, although I understand the film is a completely atypical example of Grémillon's treatment of women). Balin's character is as casually nasty and plausible a femme fatale as they come, the cruel treatment she subjects Lucien to recalling Joan Bennett's abuse of Edward G. Robinson in Fritz Lang's later Scarlet Street (1945). Meanwhile, from a modern perspective at least, there's a definite homosexual undercurrent to Lucien's friendship with René (René Lefèvre), his army buddy turned doctor, who is also led up the garden path by Madeline. Their Gallic kiss on the cheek at the train station at the film's close may be intended as a moment of brotherly solidarity or a tender tribute to the man Lucien once was, but it looks much more like heartbreak at a lover's parting. Grémillon himself was bisexual and his own attitudes bring enormous colour and complexity to the relationships on show.