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The Melville Way December 15, 2008

Posted by clydefro in : Classic Films, 1960s , 2 comments

Drastic measures require as much self-advertisement as possible when it comes to the films of Jean-Pierre Melville and only a smidgen of views over at DVD Times. I’m not sure what happened, but suspect the new look of the DVD Times site may have resulted in fewer visitors and, thus, fewer peeks at reviews. Whatever the cause, the two pieces I’ve recently submitted on Criterion’s Melville releases (Le doulos and Le deuxième souffle) haven’t been too popular, though admittedly the discs were released in the first part of October. (Blame DVD Pacific for the delay, not me.) I was fairly proud of the reviews and Melville is one of my very favorite filmmakers so, if you’ve not already, you know, clickety clickety.

That nasty ratings system becomes ever worthless when dealing with personal favorites like Melville. I really do try to assign ratings based on an all-encompassing scale of objective reasoning. I only deliver a “10″ when we’re dealing with something like Chinatown or The Apartment or Sunset Blvd. or my favorite television show, Sports Night. Out of 106 things reviewed, those and No Country for Old Men are the only things that I’ve given the highest rating. I see a 9 as just under a 10, and I’ve tried to be stingy with those as well. The result is that a lot of films I really like end up with an 8, like both of these Melvilles. Both are great films and I can’t imagine not owning either, but I like four other films he directed more.

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Criterion sort of blatantly dropped the ball with these releases, too, and neither probably warrants the $40 retail tag. I get the idea that a commentary automatically bumps up the price, but Le doulos just has half an hour’s worth of Ginette Vincendeau talking and it’s ported from the BFI disc. The other commentary, on Le deuxième souffle, is pretty good actually, but the rest of the extra features are hardly generous. I also wonder if Melville has unfortunately gotten a bad deal by having Vincendeau show up in almost every DVD release for one of his films. She’s obviously informed, but perhaps a fresh perspective is necessary at some point. Melville’s attention to detail and obsession with professional camaraderie are well explored. It’s troubling, though, that a one-person consensus seems to have bubbled up. I don’t think Melville was such a one-dimensional filmmaker as to only require a single commentator’s voice. It’s bad enough that Criterion turned their release of Les enfants terribles into a veritable love affair for Jean Cocteau, with very little rebuttal to the idea that it’s a film owing more to Cocteau in terms of authorship than Melville.

If all this sounds like heavy complaining, it’s not meant to be. I’m entirely grateful to Criterion for putting out seven Melville films, with only Un Flic existing in R1 outside of their work. (That leaves five unreleased, though Le silence de la mer and Leon Morin, pretre are available in the UK, from Masters of Cinema and the BFI respectively; all Melville R2 titles except Silence seem planned for Optimum in the new year.) I will admit that it’s a bit funny how Criterion has issued two Melville films each of the last two years, just as his Army of Shadows became an unlikely success on the art house/repertory circuit in 2006. Strike while the iron’s hot and such. These most recent titles are interesting especially as transitional films between the two portions of Melville’s career. Le doulos looks like a significant step in the direction of his later films and Le deuxième souffle may have been the official first move. If you’re just starting out with Melville, Bob le Flambeur is an excellent start and Le doulos a fine second, but make sure to save room for Le samouraï and Army of Shadows.

Lombard Bombard December 2, 2008

Posted by clydefro in : Classic Films, 1930s , add a comment

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Since we last met I’ve found myself binging on all the previously unseen Carole Lombard films I could find. This isn’t as easy a task as one might think since too many of her films are unavailable on DVD (thanks Universal and Sony). The first option this past week should have been Film Forum, which continued to show many unpolished gems. I didn’t get over there as much as I’d have liked to, though. A Thanksgiving day triple feature of From Hell to Heaven, Ladies’ Man and Man of the World (which is in the Lombard Glamour Collection set) was a particularly painful omission, but sleep is often valued even higher than Ms. Lombard. Nothing Sacred was shown a couple of days too, and I wondered whether the print was an improvement over the dodgy public domain stuff you usually see. Didn’t make it then either. Woulda, shoulda, coulda. You know how it is.

What I did see in the meantime was an absolutely gobsmackingly good WWI movie I mentioned in my TCM Ten picks a few weeks ago - The Eagle and the Hawk. Stuart Walker, who directed the iffy White Woman with Lombard and Charles Laughton, is the credited director, but Mitchell Leisen is given a very prominent associate director credit. I’m generally no big fan of Leisen, though his choice of material was at one point top notch. I’ve read he really directed this film and, if so, it’s probably the second best thing I’ve seen from him, after Midnight. Either way, it’s Fredric March’s performance that immediately grabs your attention. March is an ace pilot stationed in London and sent to France to fly in two-man photography missions. Over and over, his partners are killed and the March character is shown increasingly cracking up as a result.

Lombard appears in just one scene, but it’s highly memorable and no one seeing the film could possibly forget her. March takes a one-week leave and sees Lombard in an angelic white dress. She attaches herself to him, taking the same Hansom cab in the night, and he returns refreshed, yet still contemplative. Though the film is quite short at under seventy minutes, the impact is piercingly strong. After March returns to combat, he discovers some bad news and blames Cary Grant’s character. The movie’s been out three quarters of a century, but I still hate to ruin it so I won’t detail the ending. It’s devastating, to be sure. Absolutely one of the most harrowing, and bravest, conclusions to a Hollywood film of its decade that I’ve witnessed. And March’s performance is entirely extraordinary. I’m not sure Fredric March was ever a big movie star, but he was surely one of the finest actors of his era, and quite versatile as well. Before the finale, there’s a nightmarish freak-out scene he has that’s brilliantly lit, filmed, and acted. Bravura stuff, really. And not on DVD, of course.

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The other at-home viewing was No Man of Her Own, a bland title owing little to the actual film. It was Lombard’s only onscreen pairing with future husband Clark Gable, and the two apparently were strictly business during filming. Gable is an inveterate gambler and cheater who puts together elaborate card games only to cheat high rollers. Lombard plays the small town librarian who’s unaware of Gable’s “occupation” and falls for then marries him. It’s a fun, breezy picture that relies quite a bit on the two leads’ star power and chemistry. I actually enjoyed it a lot and found it superior to some of the Lombard-MacMurray films contained in the Glamour Collection set. She’s typically quick and strong-chinned in the film and he’s firmly in that pre-moustache, It Happened One Night time when playing rogues was not just acceptable, but endearing. Like a lot of these Lombard pictures, it’s also gloriously pre-Code, released in 1932, and astute viewers can tell. What gave it away? The fact that she has a scene running around (literally) in her underwear?

Less obviously made before the Production Code were the three I saw in a triple feature at FF. In this trio, Lombard is about as green as a fried tomato and she’s mostly in support. Two of the pictures featured Norman Foster and Skeets Gallagher, a couple of actors who never made it big like she did and seemed to hold Lombard back, if anything. Foster, though, shouldn’t be entirely dismissed because he’s fairly likable in the two films I saw (It Pays to Advertise and Up Pops the Devil), and he’d eventually write and direct several of the Mr. Moto features. He also earned a directing credit on Journey Into Fear, the Orson Welles film largely thought to be directed by Welles himself. Regardless, I thought Foster was a good enough lead in the two features and his main detriment may have been a goofy voice not up to leading man standards. Of the two Foster-Lombard pairings, and neither was especially great, It Pays to Advertise was the most enjoyable and still relevant. Plus it has Louise Brooks in the opening scene.

In the film, Foster is a rich, good for nothing son of Eugene Pallette’s businessman soapmaker and Lombard is Pallette’s secretary. A particularly interesting scene early on finds Lombard scheming Pallette out of $5,000 after making Foster fall in love with her. She then agrees to try for another five grand by staying with Foster in a business deal. Things get especially haywire when the two, along with Skeets Gallagher, venture into their own soap company, but focus entirely on advertising. Billboards, sandwich boards, and all sorts of creative advertising endeavors end up crippling the company’s finances, but making them known by everyone. The problem, predictably, is that they have neither an actual product in hand, nor any orders. In its own innocent way, the film lays into consumerism by declaring that 50% of all buyers are sheep and will covet whatever product they see advertised, regardless of any question of value or efficacy. The soap company essentially invented without any additional attribute of existence becomes a hot item based solely on advertising.

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Lombard is buried far enough into the picture that she fails to make an impression of any worth. She also can be noticeably seen mouthing her co-stars’ lines when preparing to recite her own. The big screen especially reveals these little details and it probably just goes to show how totally out of their element burgeoning stars like Lombard were back then with four or five films a year mandated by a studio contract. I think I caught her doing this very slightly in the other two films, as well, but it’s most blatant here. It also made me wonder if the director’s attention to detail was maybe less than his peers. The helmer in question was actually Frank Tuttle, who later made This Gun for Hire, a very early film noir with Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake that I like quite a bit. Tuttle is obviously not a key director of anything, and the guys behind Up Pops the Devil - A. Edward Sutherland - and Fast and Loose - Fred Newmeyer - weren’t either. With that in mind, it comes as little surprise that their films are best for Lombard completists and of questionable value otherwise.

Up Pops the Devil is a wildly uneven try at mixing comedy and drama that doesn’t sincerely register in either direction. Foster and Lombard play a newly married couple who experience problems when she encourages him to quit his job in hopes of cementing a writing career. Meanwhile, she takes up a full time dancing gig while he stews away in their lovely Manhattan apartment. Lots of question marks and lots of continuity issues. Foster is again okay to fine, but his role is a difficult one to play by anyone’s standards. In real life, he was married to Claudette Colbert at the time so it’s perhaps interesting to read some truth into the frustration his character expresses at having a wife who’s more successful than he manages to be. Colbert was just establishing herself at the time, but she did have Lubitsch’s The Smiling Lieutenant in 1931, the same year as Up Pops the Devil. Her greatest successes would, of course, come later, making hindsight a more cruel judge of Foster’s career against hers.

Though Lombard is reasonably effective in the picture, and gives her best performance of the three, I didn’t find it overall as pleasing as the previous one, mostly because of that varying tone that never seems certain as to where it wants to go. The film begins strongly in the direction of comedy, but gradually grows more serious, to the point of separating Lombard and Foster while the former is newly pregnant. You want the two kids to patch things up, even though you also know it both stretches reality and is a foregone conclusion in Hollywood. Only the leads and Joyce Compton as the would-be monkeywrench Southern belle make it worthwhile. Some of the drunken comedy between Skeets Gallagher and Edward J. Nugent feels forced and is performed unconvincingly. Lilyan Tashman’s reviewer character seemed only modestly effective, but she still acquits herself generously enough in comparison. Tragically, Tashman would die from cancer at just 37 years of age in 1934.

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The highest hopes in the triple feature were reserved for 1930’s Fast and Loose, also from Paramount and with dialogue credited to Preston Sturges. Those were a bit misplaced, unfortunately. The film is the debut of Miriam Hopkins, and she also has the starring role. Hopkins can be shrill, annoying even, but she was sort of cute and charming in her own way. She was probably never better than in Lubitsch’s Trouble in Paradise two years later, also for Paramount. In Fast and Loose, Hopkins is a socialite and daughter of a wealthy businessman. It’s a winning performance in that the character can be unlikable, but Hopkins makes her briefly adorable when she wants. A lesser actress would have probably come across as far more grating. Hopkins instead at least allows the viewer to not actively dislike the total worthlessness of the silver spoon socialite. This comes in handy since she’s on screen the vast majority of the film. The actor who plays her brother - Henry Wadsworth - doesn’t register much.

The film’s stage origins aren’t really overcome by Sturges’ dialogue. He was pretty new to Hollywood at this point and you can’t reasonably expect a full Preston Sturges film just by a few script punch-ups. Some of the dialogue does still sparkle, particularly a line about Hopkins’ brother taking a fictional blue ribbon in the dog show for being a rumhound, but it’s clearly Sturges at his most early point in movies. Likewise, this is Lombard at some of her earliest stabs, as well. She doesn’t have a lot of screen time and she doesn’t really make use of what she has, but she does at least look nice not doing much of anything. The story goes that this was the film where the “e” was accidentally added to her first name and it stuck. Probably just myth, and I’ve read elsewhere that her name was spelled with the “e” in publications prior to this film. She doesn’t really show much of the striking charisma that would come later so it doesn’t make sense as to why this would be the performance to determine how her first name was spelled.

Speaking of interesting names, even Ilka Chase as Millie steals any ideas Lombard may have had of making much of an impression. A tall and thin brunette, Chase is dynamite in her handful of scenes. Both Chase and Hopkins outshine Lombard, but there was surely a good deal of trial and error for studio stars of the era. Paramount didn’t let her have many prime roles at her home lot and she ended up getting loaned out to Columbia on several occasions, becoming a bona fide star with that studio’s Twentieth Century in 1934. When you look back at several of the pictures prior to that, there’s a clear evolution in Lombard’s performances and the early roles almost certainly allowed her to learn and create that screwball goddess persona for which she’s best remembered.

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