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The Spirit of St. Louis November 15, 2006

Posted by clydefro in : Classic Films, 1950s, Billy Wilder , add a comment

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More than the noble failure it’s often called, The Spirit of St. Louis is a charming, well-made movie about one of the most extraordinary feats in human history. Telling the story of Charles Lindbergh’s famous flight from New York City to Paris, the 1957 film begins with Lindbergh’s nervous struggle to sleep the day of his journey. The aviator is unable to relax in his hotel room and thinks back to the beginning of his quest to make the Transatlantic flight. The audience sees how the famous plane, which shares its name with the film’s title, was built from scratch as Lindbergh looked on. The film’s first half is an engrossing look at the origins of the famous flight and the process it took for the plane to reach the air. The second half has more flashbacks, this time from the perspective of Lindbergh during his flight. We see Lindbergh’s progression through his barnstorming and mail pilot days.

It’s obvious and unavoidable that James Stewart is much too old to play Charles Lindbergh here. The pilot was only 25 at the time of his flight while Stewart was about 48 when the movie was filmed. Nevertheless, it’s not a fatal flaw and Stewart’s boyish persona combined with his fine acting make it far less distracting than it could have been. It also helps that Stewart’s slim frame and pilot experience lend the portrayal a certain amount of authenticity other actors probably would have lacked. His presence in nearly every scene required a strong, likeable actor to play Lindbergh and Stewart was therefore a good choice. If it’s true that James Dean was set to play the role before his death then he might have pulled it off, but almost any other actor of the time would have struggled to play the part as well as Stewart did, regardless of age.

I certainly might be biased in my opinion of The Spirit of St. Louis since it was the only pairing of my favorite actor and director, but I don’t think the film is anywhere near as plodding or long-winded as some reviews portray it. Billy Wilder’s creativity shines even in this, his most uncharacteristic work. While Wilder is often described as the quintessential cynical auteur and Stewart as the wholesome star, both men showed plenty of evidence that these labels were much too simplistic. Wilder’s work is often much sweeter than he’s given credit for (”Shut up and deal.”) and Stewart’s post-war roles were as daring as any major Hollywood star, if not more so. Their work together in The Spirit of St. Louis may not be close to either’s best, but it’s still solid entertainment.

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Wilder’s insistence on the fly buzzing around Lindbergh’s plane as he travels over North America probably had its origins in the unfilmed scene between Charles Boyer and a cockroach that director Mitchell Leisen omitted from the final version of the Wilder-scripted Hold Back the Dawn. The insect passenger may look a little silly to some, but the monologues that Stewart delivers to the fly are testament to the pilot’s internal nerves leaking out into a one-sided conversation with a bug. That Lindbergh seems more at ease with a companion in the early and tense stages of his flight, an essential for the pilot to remain awake and accomplish his great feat, was surely Wilder’s goal.

For the most part, it doesn’t matter how accurate the portrayal of Lindbergh and the events leading up to his flight are. I don’t think Wilder had in mind that he was making a docudrama or historical document here. Lindbergh’s faults as a man have been much explored elsewhere and there’s certainly nothing in this movie that negatively portrays him. Even though the final cut was apparently not what Wilder had in mind initially and Lindbergh greatly restricted what was to be shown, I don’t think this hurts the film that significantly. The most interesting aspect of the movie is the extraordinary achievement Lindbergh accomplishes, not the pilot’s personal opinions. His outside determination and unblinking stoicism combined with the inner anxiety and fear is certainly an affecting human contrast and probably the only way someone in Lindbergh’s shoes could have handled the enormous pressure and uncertainties he faced.

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The movie looks spectacular on the recently released DVD. I noticed only two small aberrations, one involving sharpness for a few seconds and the other being some brief damage most likely from the negative. Otherwise, it looks like a film from twenty years or more after it was made. The colors and cinematography are extraordinary. This is a film that really benefits from a large screen and I have to wonder if its critical reputation would not have been more positive had The Spirit of St. Louis been seen more often in a theatrical setting. Its widescreen composition was certainly intended to be viewed this way and not on a much smaller television screen, especially in the butchered full frame format it has often suffered from on cable television channels.

Like Howard Hawks’ Only Angels Have Wings, Wilder’s film, ultimately, is about aviation and the obstacles and dangers faced by the men who had a passion for flying. Lindbergh was an unlikely candidate to pilot the first solo Transatlantic flight, but his determination and confidence in his own abilities made him one of the most famous men in the world in 1927. The Spirit of St. Louis does a nice job of showing Lindbergh’s undying commitment to flying. That the film (as well as Lindbergh’s book) is named after the plane instead of its pilot is instructive, I think, since it’s much more about the flight than the man.

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The Man in the White Suit September 20, 2006

Posted by clydefro in : Classic Films, 1950s , 1 comment so far

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Ealing, the British movie studio formed during World War II that later became famous for a genre of comedy all its own, had a serendipitous relationship with Alec Guinness.  In 1949, when Ealing was still looking to eke out its own identity separate from the war propaganda it had been producing originally, the studio released Kind Hearts and Coronets, a darkly humorous story of one man’s effort to become a duke by murdering his entire family.  Guinness brilliantly portrayed all eight victims of the D’Ascoyne family and, despite a small amount of screen time per character, gave each family member his (or her) own personality and mannerisms.  Two years later, Guinness starred for Ealing in both The Lavender Hill Mob, earning his first Oscar nomination, and The Man in the White Suit.   

The Man in the White Suit starts off somewhat slowly as we’re introduced to Sidney Stratton (Guinness), an aspiring scientist who has problems keeping a job and is allowed to work in the lab of a large textile company for no pay.  His experiments prove explosive and, just when he thinks he’s come up with whatever it is he’s trying to make, he’s branded a loon as his formula is destroyed.  Undaunted by such adversity, the idealistic eccentric continues his work elsewhere and eventually constructs a fabric that he claims will never need washing and last forever.  His boss is initially thrilled at Sidney’s new invention, until a textile rival opens his eyes to the capitalistic quandries such a development will raise.  When Sidney refuses to sign away his rights to the fabric (for 250,000 pounds!), he becomes a hunted man by both the textile management and the industrial workers whose jobs would be threatened if such a product was released commercially.

On paper, the film sounds much less like a comedy than a drama or even a thriller.  I can imagine a modern remake that completely loses the satiric elements in favor of a paranoid man-on-the-run suspense film.   Of course to do that would be to entirely miss the point of what director and co-writer Alexander Mackendrick was trying to accomplish with The Man in the White Suit.  The idea that society is somehow better off by maintaining the status quo with small, periodic advances instead of more sweeping and effective technologies is perhaps even more ripe for exploration today than it was in 1951 Britain.  The questionable selfishness that Sidney exhibits in the development of his fabric is perceived as harming a larger group of people than it would help.  Yet, is this really much better than capitalist society’s frequent appeals to a lowest common denominator in various aspects of life?  Consumers are constantly bombarded with one-size-fits-all advertisements and products that we’re expected to purchase again and again.  This is a problem that will continue to plague civilized nations indefinitely as long as we’re consistently given new toys that require frequent replacement or repair (see: computers, televisions, kitchen appliances, automobiles, cellular phones, etc.).  The crux of the issue, as explored in The Man in the White Suit, is that any deviation from such a rigid tradition might result in chaotic consequences. 

manwhitesuit1.jpgWhile the film certainly can be appreciated for its serious themes, there’s also a great deal of humor as expected by the involvement of Guinness and Ealing.  The gag that most stands out to me is the baker, also dressed in solid white, who is briefly mistaken for Sidney when the mob of people are running after him.  It’s not necessarily a belly-laugh inducing bit, but it’s smartly done and injects a nice touch of humor into the climactic chase.  There’s also a poignant quality to some of the humor, such as the final solution to the seemingly indestructible suit.  That all the chaos is eventually rendered moot surely has some comedic value. 

In some ways, though, the movie succeeds more in idea than execution.  Despite having a running time of less than ninety minutes, the first half drags a bit (at least on a first viewing) if you’re waiting for the titular suit to make an appearance.  The idea of Alec Guinness wearing the blinding white suit is itself charmingly funny and the brilliant poster is perfect, if somewhat misleading.  Furthermore, the satiric elements of the film almost lurk beneath the surface, only occasionally drawing attention to their presence.  In some ways, this is an applaudable approach for not hitting the audience over the head with a message.  In others, it muddies up the intentions of what should be derived from the satire.  The second half of the film is smart, but it seems more admirable on reflection than enjoyable in practice.  Additionally, we see Sidney evolve from an innocent idealistic who doesn’t understand the magnitude of his invention into a much more selfish and manipulative character who, by the end of the film, seems determined to see his fabric realized no matter the cost.  Such an unsympathetic shift can be frustrating and mildly negate the unscrupulous actions of the textile companies for the audience. 

Four years after The Man in the White Suit, Guinness and Mackendrick reteamed for The Ladykillers, the latter’s final film for Ealing.  Guinness, of course, moved on from his Ealing work into more serious fare for David Lean and Ronald Neame before playing Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars.  His performance here as the naively determined Sidney is a fine example of disappearing into the character without coming off as showy or forced.  It’s not hyperbole to proclaim him as simply one of the finest, most versatile actors in film history.  Mackendrick, by contrast, is frequently discussed as a great ”could-have-been” director who was unable to approach the great heights he scaled at Ealing after the arduous production of Sweet Smell of Success, a biting criticism of the power of gossip columnists such as Walter Winchell.  That film, a cynical noir masterpiece, essentially ruined his career as a director and he would only finish three more movies before becoming Dean of Film at the California Insitute of the Arts in 1969, a position he held until right before his death in 1993.       

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The Naked Spur August 17, 2006

Posted by clydefro in : Classic Films, 1950s , 1 comment so far

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In many of his greatest roles, Jimmy Stewart had a twinge of unstable depravity lurking somewhere in his characters. I think that’s why he’s been my favorite actor for a number of years now. He’s considered the quintessential all-American movie star, yet often there’s something cruelly awry in these characters. His work with Alfred Hitchcock on Rear Window and Vertigo are the two most obvious and widely discussed portrayals of the kind of character I’m talking about and therefore need no further mention here. Maybe less referenced are roles such as George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life, whose suicidal intentions serve as the catalyst for that film, or Elwood P. Dowd in Harvey, an unemployed middle-aged man both suffering from insane delusions and battling an apparent alcohol addiction. Both these films are beloved by many, yet Stewart’s characters are deeply troubled men struggling with serious problems.

Stewart used the westerns he made with Anthony Mann as an opportunity to roughen his image and immediately added another of these dark characters in their first collaboration, Winchester ‘73. In that film, Stewart was gritty and dangerous as a man who would seemingly stop at nothing to recover the rifle of the title. Three years later, after also making Bend of the River, the two men re-teamed for The Naked Spur. While I don’t find the film to be as riveting or successful as Winchester ‘73, it’s not too far off and Stewart is once again in fine form. He plays Howard Kemp, a man looking for a fugitive in order to receive the reward money that’s been offered in Abilene, Kansas. As the film progresses, we learn that Kemp and Ben Vandergroat, the man with the price on his head, have a history between them and that a woman Kemp had once loved has sold his land while he was fighting in the Civil War, but that’s about all we know about the history of or between these two men.  Kemp claims they merely played cards a few times, but the audience never really knows if this was the extent of their past.

All five actors give impressive performances with frequent villain Robert Ryan as Vandergroat and a young Janet Leigh as his female companion.  Ralph Meeker and Millard Mitchell play the two men who help Kemp capture Vandergroat, insisting on their share once they realize there’s a bounty involved.  The small cast and vast nature setting provide an interesting contrast between the claustrophobic interaction among the principal characters and the expansive Rocky Mountains.  As Vandergroat patiently bides his time, waiting for his opportunity to escape, he tries to psychologically pit his captors against each other.  Ryan is very good at making the audience wonder whether he’s truly dangerous or benignly trying to regain his freedom.  Overall, there’s a strong sense of ambiguous intentions for all the characters with the possible exception of Mitchell’s old prospector.  The little we do know about the characters seems to make them even more intriguing and I think that helps put The Naked Spur a notch or two above most western fare.  The star performance, however, is from Stewart.  I can’t imagine other movie stars of his era being capable of delivering such a tense and layered performance.  Taking advantage of his everyman persona, Stewart gives the audience something else entirely by playing a man whose motivations appear questionable, even if the ultimate goal is to collect the reward money and buy back his farm.  By the end, his actions may seem surprising, even if we’ve seen him struggle with his own intentions throughout the film. 

Regarding the DVD and the minor uproar over its supposed inferior quality, I was very skeptical after reading some criticism online about the new Warner Bros. release. I’m happy to say that, for my viewing standards, it was much ado about very little. Some scenes may be less sharp than I would have liked, but the image overall is strong with vibrant colors and a clean transfer. Thankfully, consumers are not forced into watching their DVDs frame by frame so the only real way to judge a DVD’s quality is seeing the movie in motion and not by looking at screencaps on the internet. Warner Bros. has released some disappointing DVD transfers at times (such as the Film Noir V.3 set), but The Naked Spur is more than acceptable and never distractingly blurry, as I had feared from reading online reviews.

The Naked Spur is greatly helped by the strong direction of Anthony Mann and central performance of James Stewart, whose stark loner seems to be somewhat of a precursor to the lead character from the Sergio Leone-Clint Eastwood films.  Even if the DVD image is not as crisp as some might like, it’s still worth the price considering it would only be roughly six dollars if purchased with the six-film James Stewart Signature Collection.  Regardless, the film is a ruggedly taut psychological western that remains near the top of the Mann-Stewart collaborations. 

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