29/09/2013

The Seven Year Itch (1955)


Marilyn Monroe shares a joke with Billy Wilder on the set of The Seven Year Itch before shooting the famous scene in which she stands astride a New York subway grate as a train passes below, causing her white dress to billow in the breeze as Tom Ewell stands back and admires the view. It's Ewell though who really carries the film, reprising the role of Richard Sherman from the source play's original Broadway run, and appearing and soliloquising in almost every scene as the neutered husband left home alone in the sweltering heat of the summer while his wife and son head up to Maine on vacation. Unlike Mad Men's Pete Campbell, who ran into trouble with a German au pair in similar circumstances, Sherman vows to forego all opportunities for infidelity until he encounters Monroe's leggy dream girl renting the vacant flat above and proceeds to tie himself in knots with desire and guilt.


Ewell and Monroe bond over potato chips, champagne and Rachmaninoff and make for a delightful double act in a comedy of sexual frustration that was controversial in its day and still feels startlingly frank. A recurring joke about two male "interior decorators" living upstairs proves to be just one of many extraordinarily daring details in George Axelrod's script, which brilliantly casts Ewell's domesticated publisher as a sexual Hamlet, tormented by his lust for Monroe but unable to decide whether or not to go through with an affair. Austrian wit Wilder finds just the right cartoonish tone for this bawdy premise and deftly interrupts Sherman's agonised hand-wringing with fantasy interludes spoofing such contemporary reference points as From Here To Eternity (1953) and Liberace. The result is funny and warm with plenty to say about society's ingrained hypocrisies towards sexual manners and mores, even if it does ultimately serve up a predictably conservative moral. The film's standout scene comes early on when Ewell visits a voguish vegetarian restaurant (which reminded me of this vintage Sid Caesar sketch) and finds himself harangued by a waitress, a militant naturist, on the subject of world peace through nudity, a notion worthy of Peter Cook's E.L. Wisty.

28/09/2013

Breakfast At Tiffany's (1961)


The iconic image of Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly, nonchalantly tapping her cigarette holder, is a horribly overfamiliar one. Variations of this famous publicity pose have adorned a trillion t-shirts, posters and tote bags over the last half century and today it seems more ubiquitous than ever. You'd never guess Hepburn was playing an escort if you weren't already acquainted with Blake Edward's film or Truman Capote's more explicit 1958 source novella. In fact, the economic realities behind Holly's lifestyle are treated so euphemistically in playwright George Axelrod's screen adaptation that it has almost proved possible for lazy merchandisers to successfully whitewash this inconvenient truth out of popular memory entirely. Today's consumers appear to prize Hepburn's elfin beauty and slender grace above all else. Having only half-comprehended her best-known character, they have co-opted Holly as an emblem of kooky/cute female befuddlement, an Annie Hall or Frances Ha for the early sixties. There is a case for Holly Golightly as proto-hipster: she keeps her telephone shut up inside an old suitcase to muffle its ringing, plays guitar on the fire escape and enjoys stealing animal masks from thrift stores and guzzling champagne before the sun is over the yardarm. The character's confused pop cultural afterlife would all be fine (because, ultimately, who really cares about fictional characters being properly understood before they're splashed around as role models?), but I just can't believe that all those who sport Hepburn's likeness on their walls or indeed about their person have actually sat through Edwards' ugly little romantic comedy lately and doubt very much that they'd think much of it if they did.


For Holly herself is much more than a charmingly chaotic eccentric with a chic wardrobe. She's a deeply haunted individual, a functioning alcoholic repulsed by her New York clientele of "rats and super rats" (and thus, by extension, herself and her choices), tormented by concern for her G.I. brother Fred and on the run from a past she is ashamed of, specifically her underage marriage to Doc (Buddy Ebsen), with whom she has two children that she's abandoned. Her refusal to name her cat turns out to stem from a deep rooted horror of "ownership", meaning people laying claim to her or otherwise attempting to possess her or pin her down to a serious romantic commitment. Paul Varjak (George Peppard) appears to be the right man to make an honest woman of her (well, these were different times) but he too proves to be a self-loathing sex worker, a failed writer supporting himself as a kept man. There's is a sad and troubled courtship between two wounded souls in which tragedy is only narrowly averted. Despite the undeniable charm of the leads, I'd say this psychodramatic scenario makes for a largely depressing viewing experience - aside from a raucous house party scene and Holly and Paul's twee day together spent doing new things - with the action rather drably shot and lit by Edwards throughout. Only a jaunty score from Henry Mancini (which unleashed 'Moon River' on an unsuspecting galaxy) and lively support playing from the likes of Patricia Neal and Martin Balsam help lighten the mood. The moment in which Holly learns of Fred's death via telegram and trashes her apartment, wild with grief, is powerfully played but also genuinely upsetting. Add to this Mickey Rooney's appallingly racist yellow-face turn as Mr Yunioshi, an irate and clumsy Japanese grotesque who lives upstairs and is prone to pratfalls ("Miss-a Gorightry!" etc.), and you have a decidedly more problematic product than the t-shirts promise.

20/09/2013

Classe Tous Risques (1960)


Fugitive French crook Abel Davos (Lino Ventura) flees Italy with his partner Raymond Naldi (Stan Krol) and young family, getting as far as Nice before both Naldi and Abel's wife Thérèse (Simone France) are brutally gunned down by the gendarmes. With no time to grieve, Davos conceals his sons in a seaside boarding house and seeks help from crime boss Frangier (Claude Cerval), who dispatches hired hood Eric Stark (Jean-Paul Belmondo) to rescue the outlaw and his progeny in an ambulance and deliver them to Paris. En route, Davos and Stark become fast friends but the former soon learns that his old employers no longer have his best interests at heart, a realisation with bloody consequences for all concerned.

"I believed in the friendship of Abel Davos and Stark absolutely", said Jean-Pierre Melville after seeing Classe Tous Risques, a film that would greatly influence his own gangster-inflected oeuvre. "The two men's behaviour makes explicit their feelings, without either of them having to speak of their friendship. On the other hand, I was not able to believe in the friendship of [François Truffaut's] Jules and Jim, even though they speak of it often." Ouch. 


Melville was pointedly speaking out in defence of Claude Sautet's feature debut after it had been sadly underrated upon its initial release, dismissed as old fashioned by a film culture caught up in the giddy rush of excitement surrounding la Nouvelle Vague. Seeing it today in a spanking new restoration at the BFI, it's hard to resist cheering Melville's remarks. As tense, brooding and fatalistic a thriller as you could wish to see, Classe Tous Risques benefits hugely from Sautet's tight direction - his curious camera seemingly lurking in every corner, peering over the shoulders of his actors at all times to ensure we don't miss so much as a bead of sweat. Sautet had previous experience as an assistant director and troubleshooting script doctor so clearly knew a thing or two about the mechanics of storytelling. There's a real fondness between the leads, as Melville indicates, which makes the climax all the more affecting. Belmondo is, of course, a handsome dog and makes up one half of a very pretty couple with love interest Sandra Milo (below), but it's ex-wrestler Ventura's show. Recently described by Sight & Sound editor Nick James as promising "the simmering danger of a wounded gorilla", Ventura's tired eyes, wrinkled brow and flat nose are the scars of a brutal existence, of professional violence and punctured illusions. He was cast for his imposing physique and it's not hard to understand why such an authentic tough guy became a star.


The story was adapted from a book by Corsican ex-con José Giovanni, who also wrote the gritty novels on which Jacques Becker's Le Trou (1960) and Melville's Le Deuxième Souffle (1966) were based. One of Giovanni's ex-cellmates had been a certain Abel "The Mammoth" Danos, a hulking mobster and French gestapo during the Occupation, whom the aspiring author befriended by offering chocolate and contraband stamps in exchange for his life story.

03/09/2013

Carlton-Browne Of The F.O. (1959)


I say, what a splendid topper! Wherever did you get it? 

Terry-Thomas is the inept diplomat of the title in this Boulting Brothers send-up of international relations at the fag end of the imperial age. Carlton-Browne, the nominal chief of the Foreign Office's Miscellaneous Territories department, idles away his days sipping tea and skim-reading The Times from behind his ministry desk without a care in the world. Until, that is, a sudden crisis concerning the forgotten colony of Gaillardia stirs him into action.

This tropical island, discovered by accident in the eighteenth century when a British merchant ship carrying a cargo of oranges ran into it on a moonless night, has been permitted self-governance for the last 50 years, although no one bothered to tell the British ambassador (Miles Malleson), who has diligently remained at his post ever since. It is he who unexpectedly reports back to London after a five decade silence that Gaillardia has been overrun with Russian spies dressed as Cossacks intent on digging mysterious holes all over the place. Foreign Secretary Tufton-Slade (Raymond Huntley) dispatches Carlton-Browne to investigate but our man soon becomes sidetracked by a battle for sovereignty between the Oxford-educated heir to the throne (Ian Bannen) and Princess Ilyena (Luciana Paoluzzi), the preferred choice of the Grand Duke (John Le Mesurier), a situation hardly helped by the machinations of slimy Prime Minister Amphibious (Peter Sellers). The island is soon partitioned straight down the middle, leaving the Russians and Americans holding their cards close to their chests and Carlton-Browne precisely nowhere.


Carlton-Browne Of The F.O. had its premiere at the National Film Theatre in February 1959, which Evening Standard reporter Jeremy Campbell described thusly: 

"It was considered jolly good fun that Mr. Terry-Thomas should arrive in a donkey-cart dressed in full ambassadorial kit with a sword and a red hot water bottle, the English being traditionally reluctant to abandon their creature comforts. Imitation F.O. men in bowler hats slightly too large for them were brought in from the Ballet Rambert. They sipped drinks strange to the white-collared world of Whitehall - vodka with tomato juice." 

As fun as this occasion sounds, and for all the film's bold pursuit of big targets, satirical oomph (particularly on the subject of Britain's ludicrous post-colonial geopolitical posturing) and solid character playing, it is, in truth, maddeningly slow and not especially funny. However, Carlton-Browne's shortage of jokes doesn't altogether matter as it's a charming Cold War curiosity nonetheless and there are some definite comic highlights, notably Irene Handl's short cameo as a cheerily ignorant housewife being interviewed by a TV news crew in search of a representative opinion on the Gaillardia question from a typical member of the Great British Public. T-T is rather hamstrung in the title role, which is really more in Ian Carmichael's line, as it doesn't allow him to play his usual purring cad, although he is convincing as an upper-crust nit born into privilege and entirely out of his depth. He's missing Ascot for all this and that's no small sacrifice, we're led to understand. Huntley and Malleson are enjoyable as irate bureaucrat and doddering gout-sufferer respectively, Thorley Walters is amusing as Colonel Bellingham, Sellers is nicely oily without getting carried away but the romance between Bannen and Paoluzzi is far too slight to win our affection, her part in particular sorely underwritten. Still, the very sight of that feathered pith helmet is surely enough to raise a grin.