TCM Complete Lost and Found RKO Collection February 3, 2009Posted by clydefro in : Classic Films, 1930s , add a comment
Back in December, cable channel and haven of quality older films Turner Classic Movies did something a bit strange. In conjunction with online retailer Movies Unlimited, TCM put together a package of six films originally made for RKO studios in the 1930s and released them exclusively through its website, both together in a box and individually. TCM had previously partnered with corporate buddy Warner Bros. Home Video for several DVD releases through a separate TCM Archives banner. These will surely continue, with a Forbidden Hollywood Volume 3 scheduled to hit shelves in March. The RKO films are different, however, and have no connection to Warner Bros. at all.
The six films (titles later) were all picked up by former RKO head and King Kong producer Merian C. Cooper several years after he left the studio. Legal stuff. They had very few television showings in the 1950s, mostly in the New York City area I believe, but hadn’t been seen again until February 2007 when they all screened at Film Forum in NYC. In April of the same year they made their debut on TCM, and the channel has aired the pictures intermittently ever since. The films were presumed lost, but actually had been stowed away safely by Cooper. Some more legal wrangling eventually allowed for the TCM broadcasts and freshly struck film prints. Though Warner Bros. owns the majority of the RKO catalog, these films weren’t included due to the rights being used as payment to Cooper decades ago. At some point, TCM apparently anted up for the films’ rights and we now have a lovely box set of early Hollywood films.
The artwork used and entire presentation is really quite elegant and classy. My particular set was a Christmas present, but I was eyeing it strong enough that a purchase was nonetheless imminent. Imagine my surprise, then, when I opened the sturdy keepcases only to realize that the discs are not actual manufactured DVDs, but burned DVD-R copies. This is clearly a blunder on TCM’s part. DVD-R discs are less stable than regular DVDs and can sometimes refuse to play on certain players and/or crap out after a period of time. The set isn’t cheap either, costing $65 plus shipping with no friendly competition to drive the price down. None of this DVD-R business was advertised either. I had assumed this was a legitimate operation and that I’d receive DVDs. Future releases are apparently planned and I now dread the idea of paying high prices for DVD-R copies. This particular set, dubbed the TCM Complete Lost and Found RKO Collection, is being advertised as only available for a limited time. How limited is anyone’s guess. Aren’t we all only available for a limited time?
Going in, I’d only seen one of these RKO pictures - the Ginger Rogers movie Rafter Romance. I almost always find Ginger’s movies from the ’30s to be delightful and this is no exception. She stars alongside Norman Foster as a pair of youngsters who unwittingly fall for one another while sharing the same Greenwich Village apartment. Ginger’s character rents during the night because she’s a telephone salesperson hocking ice boxes by day. Foster lives in the same room during the day and acts as a night watchman while she’s in the apartment. They meet away from home, not knowing they’re roommates, and a sweet little romance develops. It’s cute enough for 70 minutes and definitely my favorite in the set. There’s even a stray dig at the Nazis thrown in for little reason other than a somewhat hidden political statement.
The other title I was most interested in was Double Harness, with William Powell and Ann Harding. Powell was under contract at Warner Bros., though he’d gotten attention while making Philo Vance mysteries for Paramount, and was loaned out to RKO for the picture. The plot has Powell as a rich playboy shipping magnate who’s sort of conned into marrying Harding. It’s slightly interesting that the rationale for their entire marriage is Harding’s father coming over after the couple had presumably engaged in premarital relations. Though seeing such topics addressed just prior to the implementation of the Production Code does hold some value, the film overall is dull and aggressively depressing. No one seems happy, even the typically jubilant Powell, and there’s a sense of doom hanging over the entire thing. The Depression is referenced twice (a surefire downer for anyone watching at this point in time), most cleverly early on when we’re told everyone’s broke and those who aren’t should pretend to be.
The somber tone of the film feels odd. Harding’s sister is constantly in debt for buying expensive clothes, but it’s hardly a few bucks here and there. Her bill at one store prior to getting married is over $3,000. That’s $3,000 in 1933 money. Later she tries to wrangle another $1,000 from Harding and anyone else who’ll listen. That’s an insane amount of cash for that time period. Even crazier is Powell’s character, who thinks nothing of writing out a check for it. Something with all of this sits funny with me. Really no one in the film has it together at all. Each character is undeserving of what they have and completely unsympathetic. Harding makes almost zero impression. The final wrap-up is jarring and takes about as long as it would to rip a bow off of a gift. Aside from a couple of good lines (Powell’s likening of geraniums to Harding) and a sometimes interesting performance from Powell, Double Harness is difficult to recommend with any enthusiasm.
A bit better is the third film from 1933 in the set, One Man’s Journey. It stars Lionel Barrymore, who’s considerably folksy and humble as a doctor still wounded from the death of his wife in child birth when the movie begins. He moves back to the country and tries to establish himself as a physician in the small town, but falters on his first try when an expectant mother doesn’t survive the birth of her child. The father is so angry he doesn’t want to keep his own baby daughter. Barrymore’s Dr. Eli Watt begins raising the little girl alongside his young son, with a helpful May Robson moving in to keep things afloat. Soon enough (the film only runs 72 minutes), the doctor gains respect in the town by successfully treating a smallpox epidemic. His son grows up to be Joel McCrea, and he wishes to follow his father’s career path except as a specialist who can work in the city. The casting here is notable because McCrea’s love interest is played by Frances Dee. Shortly after filming the two would be married and remain so for 57 years, until his death in 1990.
One Man’s Journey was a nice little surprise that plays well to my innate sense of American small town folksiness. Barrymore’s restraint is noteworthy, as is the film’s resistance to ever becoming overly preachy or simplistic. Dr. Watt is portrayed as a generous man who’s primarily concerned with treating those in need more than earning even a modest wage. That overly simple portrayal of a life that may have never even existed (though I suspect it did) usually wins favor from me. The film has a few other moments of interest, belying its pre-Code production, which also tend to mitigate the rushed nature and other shortcomings. Most fascinating is a quick, and a bit awkward, scene where Barrymore and Robson are driving and her dialogue comes to an abrupt stop only to then be picked up by the now grown-up girl taken in at the beginning (played by Dorothy Jordan, who had just become Mrs. Merian C. Cooper and wouldn’t make another film for twenty years) and her paramour. The presentation is unexpected, but so is the subject matter. The Jordan character is pressured into premarital sex under the stars, later leading to a pregnancy. There’s what seems to be a punishment that immediately follows the act. For a film this homespun, the scene plays as even more naughty than it probably should.
While One Man’s Journey lends itself to a sense of being realistically grounded in a definite time and place, the 1934 film Stingaree more closely resembles a peacock in a fish tank. Its sincere ridiculousness keeps the viewer interested at all times, if for no other reason than to see whether the film will acknowledge in some way how absurd it is. That this movie, which involves an English bandit in the Australian outback whose superpower seems to be the ability to write songs, was directed by William Wellman only furthers the disbelief. Wellman was a prolific studio craftsman who excelled in the 1930s with pictures often aimed in the direction of exploring social issues. Wellman’s films like The Public Enemy, Wild Boys of the Road, and Heroes for Sale still have quite the impact several decades later and play as hard-hitting, to the point dramas. In comparison to these and other Wellman pictures, Stingaree seems almost like a joke.
Reuniting Irene Dunne and Richard Dix from Best Picture winner Cimarron, Wellman’s film pairs the leads, respectively, as a woman who dreams of singing but is essentially trapped in the home of a rich, badgering woman who has a terrible voice and the infamous bandit Stingaree who poses as a music box salesman. The movie starts off well enough as Stingaree and his goofy sidekick Howie (Andy Devine) enter a saloon quietly and leave with much more of a commotion. The mustachioed bandit then shows up unannounced at Dunne’s home as she’s singing and playing the piano. Where exactly he thought this visit would lead is anyone’s guess, but the path taken is probably even more unlikely. Stingaree, pretending to be a famous composer, teaches Dunne a song, which she later uses to become world renowned with help from the real composer. The creeping feeling of how sensationally silly the plot is sort of makes the film an early contender for the “so bad it’s good” mantle. Aided by Wellman’s direction and the lead performances, Stingaree’s flaws are strange enough to very nearly become strengths. I’d rather watch a movie like this than bland retreads of the Living on Love variety.
Canvassing the same ground as Rafter Romance did just four years earlier, Living on Love takes a pretty good story and buries it in mediocrity. James Dunn picks up the Norman Foster role and while he doesn’t embarrass himself, I still prefer Foster’s lanky slickness. More discouraging is Ginger Rogers’ replacement, Whitney Bourne, who shows herself to be a poor actress and has no chemistry with Dunn. It’s easier to believe the warring anonymous roommates portion of the plot than the budding lovebirds business. A direct comparison of the two films also favors the slightly risqué nature of Rafter Romance. Its pre-Code mischievousness makes the remake look prudish. Scenes that are duplicated across both films especially suffer. When the landlord is showing his female tenant her new shared apartment in Rafter Romance, he cheekily shoves a liquor bottle out of the way before also claiming a pipe as his own. Living on Love omits the liquor bottle altogether. You won’t be seeing the equivalent of Ginger Rogers showering in the latter either, which instead seems to have a strange preoccupation with shots of legs running or walking down the street.
The final film in the set is also a remake of another one of these very movies. A Man to Remember, the first picture directed by Garson Kanin (at the tender age of 25) and released originally in 1938 , follows the same story as One Man’s Journey. It was made quickly and cheaply, but garnered rave reviews when first shown. Much of the later film is familiar territory, but without a lot of the sentimentality found in the earlier version. Star Edward Ellis was older than Lionel Barrymore had been and it shows in his performance, which comes across as more serious and dignified. The straightforward humanity displayed is once again impressive and perhaps the film’s strongest attribute.
Future blacklistee Dalton Trumbo received sole credit for the screenplay. He altered the story structure from the original film and source novel, starting A Man to Remember at doctor John Abbott’s funeral and flashing back to moments in the man’s life. That the remembrances occur with visual fades from various debts Abbott owed at his death seems of some definite importance. Trumbo’s work is often scrutinized for hints into his leftist politics, and while One Man’s Journey also had a sharp focus on the doctor’s somewhat selfless work done for little money, A Man to Remember particularly emphasizes this point in terms of duty versus monetary reward. Some of the other small differences are especially intriguing, with events rearranged or altered between the two films. One particular contrast is the much warmer, eventually romantic relationship that develops between Abbott’s son and the orphaned girl he raised. The earlier One Man’s Journey gave both characters separate companions while Kanin and Trumbo use an odd, almost incestuous fix to the romantic angle that one would normally expect more from a pre-Code film.
Though the idea to pounce on one event after another in the man’s life makes for some awkward and unconvincing transitions, the more distracting issue with A Man to Remember is something that can’t be helped. The other films in this set were all licensed out for regional television broadcast in the 1950s, but A Man to Remember hadn’t been seen since its original release in 1938. The only known print to have survived originated in the Netherlands and has Dutch subtitles burned into the bottom of the picture. This is a mild imposition on its own and can be ignored once the viewer settles in a bit. For awhile my eyes kept gravitating to the subtitles like they would for any other subtitled film, except I can’t read Dutch. The bigger problem is that most all of the written material in the film, the notes of debt and various other things, has also been converted to Dutch without any English equivalent provided. I knew silent films often did this, but I don’t think I realized other pictures were altered for international audiences in this manner.
Regarding the quality of the prints used, nothing was disappointing. There’s some minor dirt and vertical line damage on most of the films, but not to the point of distraction. A few frames seem to be missing, particularly on A Man to Remember. Stingaree has an annoying habit of sometimes looking slightly greenish. It doesn’t appear that any major clean-up was done, as evidenced by the amount of dirt and occasional scratches, but all the films look good enough to satisfy the reasonable viewer.
The bonus material on these releases initially seems generous, and indeed some thought and care must have been put into it, but only a couple of titles really have much of any substance. Each film has a selection of stills, lobby cards and posters accessible from the disc. Pressbooks are also available from the menu and as pdf files upon inserting the DVD-R into a computer. All the films are advertised as having a “Rudy Behlmer Video Commentary,” but this is a tad misleading since Behlmer’s comments are quite short at just a couple of minutes per title and the two remakes share the same pieces with their originals. Stingaree doesn’t even have one of these, though it does have a short bit on the history of these RKO titles, as do all the other discs. The main interest in the extra features comes from an interview on Stingaree with William Wellman that runs 10 minutes and finds the director being quite candid and entertaining. It’s taken from Richard Schickel’s The Men Who Made the Movies episode on Wellman, which is soon to be released in the Forbidden Hollywood Vol. 3 set. Equally worthwhile is a piece with Garson Kanin from 1995 that lasts just over 11 minutes. It was done for TCM and has him discussing Samuel Goldwyn and Kanin’s preference for writing over directing.
All in all, the overly expensive set has some flaws both in the decision to use DVD-R’s and the quality of the films as a whole, but the simple option to own these films in relatively good editions should still be pleasing enough to the classic film consumer.
Top 50 of 1980s January 27, 2009Posted by clydefro in : Classic Films, 1980s , 11 comments
My lists of Top 50 films from each decade seem to be quite popular and I’m happy to continue with them. They are compiled for the purpose of submission at the Criterion forum (.org), in the Lists Project. I then put together an attempt to justify my selections via a few sentences, as well as adding links whenever I’ve written about a particular film. This decade, the 1980s, is a particularly difficult one for multiple reasons. Foremost, I don’t like it. The ’80s in general just don’t interest me. I don’t really like the movies, the music, the television, anything. There are, of course, exceptions and all 50 of these films listed below are ones I do enjoy on some level. The additional snag is that I’ve probably seen less movies of merit from the ’80s than any other decade since the ’30s, or maybe even the ’20s. I tried to fill in a lot of the more obvious gaps (I’d never seen Blade Runner before this project, for example), but some things still eluded me.
Another problem is the multiple versions for so many of the important films of the decade. There’s a director’s cut for this and an extended cut for that. Who can see all of these different iterations? Mostly, I found a version that seemed definitive and used it. Thus, The Big Red One is really the Reconstruction from 2004 and Fanny & Alexander is the longer television version. I don’t even know which Manhunter my vote is for, though. The simple idea of so many versions and so many extended cuts makes for additional anxiety. I cheated with Fanny & Alexander since it has a television and a theatrical cut, but I didn’t feel right about including mammoth productions like Berlin Alexanderplatz or Kieslowski’s The Decalogue. How do you begin to weigh a program that lasts hours upon hours against a simple 90 minute picture? My decision was to stick to theatrical features.
The list itself is one of my more eccentric offerings. There are things you won’t see and will wonder where they are, and there will probably be others that you’ll fail to understand how they either made the list at all or received such high placement. I can only say that this is what felt right at the time and I’m sure it’ll change or improve eventually. Enjoy, and thanks for reading.
1.) Blue Velvet (Lynch, 1986) - A film full of disorienting playfulness hidden behind suburban America. Lynch is so good at turning the sense of what makes us feel safe completely on its side and resulting in something terrible and horrific. I’m not a fanatic of Lynch’s films, but absolutely no one in American cinema has been able to so successfully peel back the scab of suburbia. I think this is still his best film and I’d be extremely disturbed to encounter either Dennis Hopper or Dean Stockwell in the darkness of night. Virtually every film (plus Twin Peaks) that Lynch has made since owes some debt to Blue Velvet.
2.) After Hours (Scorsese, 1985) - Better than Raging Bull?? I don’t know. I do know that I’d rather sit down with After Hours. I absolutely love movies that veer off into unpredictable and odd directions with the protagonist in tow. This is, in my opinion, the best of that sort of film. Griffin Dunne plays a guy who has the night of his life in New York City, all while simply trying to get back home. You get a sense of the frustration and the strange exhilaration he experiences in the process. Scorsese is one of my favorite directors, and I’ve seen virtually all of his films, but this may actually be my favorite. When I met him a couple of years ago, this was the DVD I asked to have signed.
3.) Wings of Desire (Wenders, 1987) - The idea of the “life-affirming” film too often gets relegated to a ghetto full of junk. This is different. This is nearly perfect in its insistence on gathering everything we know about the human experience and reminding us how privileged we are. We’re privy to the idea that our emotional treasure chest is greater than most anything the world has to offer. I’ve not seen all of Wenders’ work by any means, but it’s nonetheless surprising to find him having made this particular film. It is far from being overly sentimental or treacly. It is, however, entirely life-affirming.
4.) Raging Bull (Scorsese, 1980) - Brilliant indeed, but what turns me off slightly from Scorsese’s mammoth achievement is the sheer brutality of the whole thing. There is no redemption. There is no sense of any warmth being exuded at all. I don’t feel that even Scorsese likes Jake La Motta. De Niro probably does, but not screenwriter Paul Schrader or Scorsese. Otherwise, this is a high point in the film biography for its unflinching desire to reveal the unsympathetic reality of celebrity. There’s no one in the film I feel any emotion for, but like a car crash, I’m still completely enthralled.
5.) Videodrome (Cronenberg, 1983) - I was a latecomer to the Cronenberg parade. It took actually hearing him speak and then trying to understand his point of view before being sold, but I think I’m there now. I watched Videodrome one night and couldn’t believe my eyes. Where Cronenberg excels is by inventing these situations seemingly indebted to the science fiction genre while still maintaining a more intellectual stance that allows for separate consideration apart from stomach cavities. This is, for me, his peak thus far and just about as compelling as cinema gets. If you can get past the muck and ooze of the make-up, there’s an important cautionary tale about technology and obsession. And, of course, some people enjoy the muck and ooze.
6.) Do the Right Thing (Lee, 1989) - Incendiary statement against racism, certainly. Powerful announcement of a new voice in American cinema. Spike Lee is another of my favorite contemporary directors. This is simultaneously loud and aggressive, truly the work of a master filmmaker with strong opinions. He’s since managed to alienate a great deal of the moviegoing public, making his name almost a liability on a picture, but very few directors from Lee’s generation have branded themselves to such a degree on the public at large. Do the Right Thing is special because it was clearly made for a select few who might understand the intentions of a simmering racial divide in the midst of what is supposed to be one of the most diverse areas in the country. The film was slightly misunderstood, but has never abandoned its reputation of being, foremost, an important work of its time.
7.) The Verdict (Lumet, 1982) - Unfortunately, this didn’t even rank in the final tally, but it’s very nearly Paul Newman’s best performance, rivaled by The Hustler and, possibly, Hud. I particularly like Sidney Lumet’s films because they seem free from so much of the superfluous nonsense actors often try to inject. Lumet got great performances from his actors time and again. The work here from Newman and the script from a young buck named David Mamet are extraordinarily balanced and distressing. The film does well in highlighting one man’s attempt at redemption and the constant force he seems to be struggling against. It’s not a movie about alcoholism or, really, the judicial process, but the idea of a last chance where failure really means the end.
8.) Something Wild (Demme, 1986) - Proof that the studio system didn’t take a break the entire decade. Jonathan Demme’s outrageous and entertaining tribute to both film noir and screwball comedy is a marvel of the unexpected. You think one thing and the film does another. It’s two very separate halves that form an impressive whole. Melanie Griffith has never been better and Ray Liotta has rarely been as psychotic, though the competition is a bit fierce there. Yet, it’s Jeff Daniels who holds it all together as the suburban geek whose home life is shot to hell. Griffith’s Lulu is using Daniels no more than he’s benefiting from her.
9.) The Purple Rose of Cairo (Allen, 1985) - Jeff Daniels once again, this time in an effective dual role as both a 1930s film character who emerges from the screen and the worried actor who portrays him. Mia Farrow seems to basically be imitating Woody Allen with her mannerisms, but it’s somehow okay this time. If you love film in general, especially watching old movies in the cinema, this should resonate. There’s a perfection via Allen’s reluctance to go overboard that he rarely achieves in his films. The only complaint is Danny Aiello’s character, who may be necessary but still comes across as a stereotype.
10.) Veronika Voss (Fassbinder, 1982) - Such beautiful black and white cinematography that the rest almost seems beside the point. Inspired by the tragic life of Sybille Schmitz, Fassbinder finds an affecting plot to complement the aesthetics and ends up with a film that’s both engrossing and deeply unsettling. The character of Veronika Voss may have been modeled after German actress Schmitz, but here she also resembles Norma Desmond from Sunset Blvd. and I think that elevates the film into something beyond simply the fictional biography.
The Melville Way December 15, 2008Posted 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.
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, 2008Posted by clydefro in : Classic Films, 1930s , add a comment
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.
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.
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.
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.
Blah Indeed November 30, 2008Posted by clydefro in : General Film , 3 comments
One of the tiniest of upsides in all this financial crisis mess is the comparative resurgence of the U.S. dollar against several other currencies, including the British pound. Those on the other end obviously see it differently, but the favorable exchange rate has finally allowed for some good deals when importing UK discs. I’ve tended to have good luck especially with Amazon UK, which somehow often gets my orders across the Atlantic faster than its American counterpart even when the latter generally ships from a warehouse either in my own state or just one over.
Back in mid-October I ran across some fantastic prices at another British site, Blah DVD, on titles from Second Run. The small Second Run DVD company generally puts out esoteric films in affordable editions that still have some humble bonus features. I’ve reviewed five of the SR releases for DVD Times, but there are only a handful of others I’ve seen so it seemed like the perfect time to delve deeper. After going through the sale listings, I chose a few that I’d wanted to have for awhile now, $12 apiece after the exchange rate. A reasonable deal by anyone’s standards.
The bargain unfortunately becomes less attractive when you don’t actually receive the items purchased. Blah’s dispatch email stated that I should contact the site if the order wasn’t received within 28 days of shipment. Fair enough. I did that and was patted on the head with a response saying the discs were mailed via Swiss Post and I’d have to wait 6 weeks before anything could be done. I was assured, however, that while most orders arrived within 4 to 8 working days, it can sometimes take longer. Nothing to do but wait then.
After the 6 weeks were up this past Wednesday, I pecked out another email, hopeful now that my DVDs would again be on their way soon enough. The first reply was to confirm my mailing address and Blah also asked if I had received either shipment since apparently my order of just 4 discs was split into a pair of concurrent shipments. I had not received either and I confidently let them know this. I expected to then receive dispatch confirmation, but instead Blah responded by suspending my account and informing me an investigation would now be conducted. Why? Because I’m now a repeat offender with two packages lost - the two packages from my one and only order that were apparently sent on the same day and probably rubberbanded together in some U.S. or Swiss mail center’s lost and found. I can’t even access my account to check my order history now.
A follow-up email confirming that Blah wasn’t pulling a prank on me resulted in little more than nonsense that could’ve been explained better by a monkey. A refund has been promised, most likely placing me as the loser of a few dollars since the exchange rate is even lower now than it was when I was originally billed. My Second Run discs are nowhere to be found and replacements aren’t planned. Placing another order with Blah is out of the question. I think I’ll stick to Amazon UK from now on.
Virtue November 25, 2008Posted by clydefro in : Classic Films, 1930s , 2 comments
The centennial of Carole Lombard has been celebrated quietly, but nonetheless in many of the best places (though unfortunately not on DVD). Turner Classic Movies made her Star of the Month in October, Lombard’s birth month, and Film Forum in NYC has recently begun a nice tribute of 23 films, several not on DVD. Seeing the blonde queen of screwball on a large screen obviously has its advantages. You tend to see things previously unappreciated, assuming it’s a relatively good print. The long scar on her left cheek is especially prominent. She was in a serious car accident in the 1920s and I guess this was a side effect. Beauty requires “imperfection” though, right? And her eyes. Oh my. Not only the wide and intense focus, but the piercing stares that are only magnified on the big screen. This was a movie star for any era. I was reminded of Norma Desmond’s assertion that the silent stars had “faces.” Carole Lombard certainly fit the bill.
Like a lot of actors and actresses, Lombard was petite but it’s nearly imperceptible while watching. In the particular film I’ve chosen to discuss a little here, Virtue, she has a scene that involves violently slapping another woman and threatening to kill her. And for those few minutes while it’s happening, you believe her fully. For most of the film, she settles into a natural rhythm of one-liners and soft focus close-ups, but never pretend this wasn’t an actress capable of much more than looking nice. Speaking of which, the big screen also accentuates Lombard’s reluctance to wearing a bra. Without being overtly sensual or seemingly even trying to be alluring, she completely does it. She was approachably perfect, meaning she had an incredible beauty but her screen persona, possibly owing to those midwestern roots, was more normal than glamorous. Part of the appeal is a rare intelligence you can sense in nearly all of her performances. I don’t know a lot about the former Miss Jane Peters, and the lack of a good in-print biography doesn’t help, but few actresses of the studio system era were in possession of the built-in wit Lombard carried around. She makes things funny in a completely different way than, say, Mae West or Jean Harlow. There’s some elegance in Lombard’s screwiness.
Despite her appearance - underlined by that shock of platinum and the pencil eyebrows that hardly ever look appealing on anyone else - she didn’t seem concerned with playing less wholesome types. I saw Lady by Choice on TCM when it aired in October, and even though it’s understandably sugarcoated, her character is a stripper who’s arrested and then takes in a drunk vagrant to play the part of her mother. In Virtue, she’s a full-on prostitute. Her character, Mae, gets picked up for solicitation by the police and tries to lay low. She ends up falling for cab driver Pat O’Brien, but doesn’t tell him about her past. He does find out, probably at the absolute worst time possible, and it creates a significant rift in the relationship. They try to work through it until one of those convenient cinematic twists rears its head and Mae ends up behind bars on a murder rap. O’Brien’s character leans in the direction of being a stereotypical and chauvinistic male, but he’s not without redeeming qualities and soon tries to clear his wife’s name.
Virtue tries to be a whole lot in just a little more than an hour’s worth of time and that somewhat haphazard quality prevents it from focusing heavily on any of the plot details. The film, like a lot of pictures of the ’30s, seems more concerned with simply moving things along before the audience tires of any particular aspect. There’s a charm to that sort of approach and Virtue plays especially well when examined in such a regard. Its screenplay was by the extraordinary Robert Riskin, who wrote many of Frank Capra’s best films including It Happened One Night, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Lost Horizon, and Meet John Doe. In keeping with the ideas of the day, the female lead is portrayed as inferior to the male income-earner, but Lombard was such a strong actress in every sense of the word that she’s almost misogynist-proof. Can you think of a film where she comes across as helpless or dainty? I’m not sure there’s a cage brave enough to hold her. Whatever overriding ideas contained in the screenplay, possibly including the theme of redemption obtained by establishing a nice, normal life and literally destroying the older existence, Lombard ends up overpowering O’Brien (and everyone else) so that the helpless female idea is rendered inapplicable.
Adding further interest to a picture already full of curiosities, the only one of Mae’s former acquaintances who turns out to be helpful is played by Mayo Methot. Aside from Methot’s impossibly funny name, she’s known primarily for two unflattering facts. First, she was married to Humphrey Bogart when he met Lauren Bacall, though their marriage had been troubled nearly from the start. Methot was also a depressive alcoholic who died when she was only 47 years old, alone in a hotel room outside Portland, Oregon and not found for days afterwards. It’s truly astounding to think that Mayo Methot was only 27 or 28 when Virtue was filmed. She looks a decade or two older. Harsh doesn’t begin to describe that face.
Lombard, by comparison, would’ve been probably 23 when Virtue was filmed, given its 1932 release. Her premature death has provided timeless youth, but there’s nothing precocious or ingenue-like here. As in most of Lombard’s lead roles, she displays confidence and certainty with aplomb. In a lesser role, she also does this in the other screening I caught - the 1933 feature White Woman, which I didn’t hardly care for as much. Charles Laughton really, really tries to ham it up, and even though he’s often funny it goes too far over the top, to the point where I wondered if the director Stuart Walker was even attempting to rein in Laughton. One of the other main actors, Kent Taylor, makes a weak impression, as well. Some strange business with Percy Kilbride and a chimpanzee does get points in the oddity department. Even so, I’d be glad to pick up both films on DVD if Sony, which controls the Columbia-produced Virtue, and Universal, which has Paramount’s pre-1950 back catalog including White Woman, would pick up the pace.
Invisible Stripes November 18, 2008Posted by clydefro in : Classic Films, 1930s , 2 comments
Humphrey Bogart and William Holden have very little in common. They both won an Oscar. Both men were obviously accomplished actors and movie stars. Each was married to an actress. But the most obvious thing they’ve shared for over fifty years now is Billy Wilder’s Sabrina, where the two played the brothers Larrabee. There’s no real chemistry between them in that film, perhaps understandable given the different styles and significant age difference, but they’re supposedly vying for the same girl. If you go back a few years earlier, Bogart and Holden actually appeared together in another film, a gangster picture made for Warner Bros. called Invisible Stripes, directed by Lloyd Bacon. Neither was the star, though. Bogart was still in his phase of playing second fiddle, largely uninteresting gangsters and Holden was a babyfaced runt just lucky to have a role of any significance. His first breakthrough Golden Boy was released the same year, but there was little reason to think Holden would be anything big during filming.
The lead in the film was actually George Raft, who must’ve stood under five and a half feet tall and had the acting range of a surly gorilla. Bogart would soon become a star thanks to Raft turning down roles in High Sierra, The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca, all parts the latter would’ve been mediocre in. None of the three are particularly special here, but Raft probably makes more of an impression than either Bogart or Holden. He has far more screen time and a much better role. Both Raft and Bogart are in Sing Sing when the picture begins, each awaiting parole. As luck would have it, they get out on the same day, but end up taking different paths. Raft is determined to stay straight and set an example for his kid brother, played by Holden. Bogart figures less importantly, but it’s clear that he’s more interested in finding a natural blonde to cozy up next to than a legitimate job.
There’s real effort put into showing that Raft as a parolee and ex-con has a lot of trouble finding and keeping a job. I can’t think of too many other films of this time that seem so intent on bringing to light the struggles of someone just released from prison. Maybe Raoul Walsh’s The Roaring Twenties, which has Cagney try to go straight before ultimately failing back into old habits, but Invisible Stripes seems more focused on that difficulty than merely using it as a jumping off point for the plot. Even its title refers to the stigma that prison life carries over into the outside world. Raft somewhat humorously ends up as a stock boy at a department store working alongside Leo Gorcey. So was Warner Bros. actively lobbying for better treatment of ex-cons in these gangster films of the late ’30s/early ’40s? It definitely seems that way by having popular movie stars portray men with records who can’t find work. I don’t know if this was another effort in the studio’s continual attempts to bring social realism and awareness into its movies or if there really was a prevalent problem concerning out of work ex-cons. I’d guess some of both, but it’s so obvious in this film as to seem peculiar.
With Raft trying to eke out a living and little brother Holden constantly frustrated at his low rung on the totem pole, it doesn’t take a well-seasoned viewer to figure out where we’re going. It seems like Warner Bros. made this type of film over and over again. A gangster or criminal tries to go straight and can’t, or he has a younger brother who flirts with the dark side against the elder’s wishes. Standard issue, but Invisible Stripes remains interesting solely because of the cast. Holden feels really unnatural here. You can barely squint your eyes and see the actor he’d later become. His girlfriend as played by Jane Bryan is another interesting choice, and Bryan, who appeared in several semi-popular WB films, has an oddly intriguing presence despite lacking any real star quality. She looks rather plain, almost resembling Patricia Neal, and her role in the film is of the basic girlfriend/wife variety. But she’s still distinctive enough to make an impression where several other generic looking actresses might have barely registered.
These little attributes, of Holden and Bryan and Bogart, make it all serviceable and maybe slightly ahead of the typical gangster fare. Despite his fate, Raft is sort of a good guy too and his troubles are carefully portrayed as sympathetic. Bogart has no real color, but it was one of his final supporting gangster parts so there’s that bit of notoriety I guess. It’s funny watching Bogart in so many of those thoughtless roles, a dozen or so are probably found within the four volumes of Warner Bros. Gangster sets. He has none of the electricity of Cagney or the forcefulness of Edward G. Robinson. Many of these pictures show absolutely nothing to hint at how bright Bogart’s future would be. You can say the same for Holden here, but he was barely twenty years old. Raft, meanwhile, was in his early forties and destined for semi-obscurity. Like his co-stars, he’d eventually work for Billy Wilder too, but in a much smaller capacity as the lead gangster in the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre that kicks off Some Like It Hot. It’s kind of funny to see Invisible Stripes and be reminded that Raft was at one point a significantly bigger name than either Bogart or Holden, and even capable of delivering a performance of some merit.
Wilder Times & Dangerous Noir November 16, 2008Posted by clydefro in : Classic Films, Billy Wilder, Nicholas Ray , 3 comments
I’ve given the day to Billy Wilder at DVD Times. A privilege, I’m sure. Sabrina isn’t one of my most preferred Wilder films, but I do find it supremely entertaining. Hopefully I’ve conveyed that appreciation sufficiently. Sunset Blvd., on the other hand, is most likely my second favorite of his pictures (and it’s my 100th review for the site). The film is incredibly nasty without being obviously so porcupine-y. In that spirit, I think my review may be somewhat bristling to the reader who isn’t a Wilder fanatic. It wasn’t intentional, but it is perhaps a happy coincidence. Nothing personal, I assure you. I’ll acknowledge that both reviews are as imperfect as always, but they’re sincere and, I hope, passionate.
I’ve now been able to review four Wilder films at DVD Times and a few more here. If I ever find the time, I want to put together a comprehensive listing of his work and the DVD status of everything. For now, I’m as surprised as anyone that there have been those four new re-issues this year in R1 alone, plus R2 got a standalone release of A Foreign Affair, which I recently picked up. Only Five Graves to Cairo (available in Australia), Fedora (available in Spain) and Buddy, Buddy remain without an edition either here or in the UK. His very first effort behind the camera, Mauvaise Graine, is also due at some point from Criterion. I’m still anxiously awaiting a few of his films where he served as screenwriter, including Hold Back the Dawn and Arise, My Love, which I’ve not seen.
The other filmmaker who gets me through the night is Nicholas Ray and I’m very proud of a piece I did about his On Dangerous Ground for the wonderfully dark and gloomy site Noir of the Week. I had written about it before, but I’ve become less and less pleased with that and a few other reviews here. It’s a constant learning process.
Touch of Evil October 8, 2008Posted by clydefro in : Classic Films, 1950s , 9 comments
(This was supposed to accompany a review of the new DVD release, but Universal didn’t send me a copy. I wrote it after a theatrical screening a few weeks ago, and there’s no reason to let a few hours of writing go to waste.)
It’s either to Orson Welles’ credit or the result of a contrarian rebel yell when Citizen Kane is brushed aside as not being the director’s finest film. The Magnificent Ambersons is frequently cited as a worthy alternative, and sometimes the especially difficult like to throw in The Lady from Shanghai or, for the bravest of souls, Mr. Arkadin. But probably more popular for the anti-Kane contingent is Touch of Evil, Welles’ 1958 masterpiece that failed commercially and signaled the end of the director’s relationship with Hollywood. The film doesn’t reach the heights of Kane, but, in its own way, Touch of Evil is equally important and marvelous enough to serve as the ending point for the film noir movement. When the picture is frequently given that status of bookending true film noir, it’s an honour earned both for the achievement within the movie and as a logical conclusion that allows for no real continuance. There’s simply nowhere else to go after Touch of Evil. The so-called neonoir titles that would emerge in colour years later are more retreads than new building blocks, content with anointing Welles’ film as the creative end point of a style simply unable to realistically keep regenerating into exciting and authentic attempts at the corruption of the soul.
Not only is that very corruption at the rotten heart of film noir, it’s coursing through Touch of Evil in a degree as prevalent and unavoidable as in any major example from the movement. When you strip away all the beautiful camera work, some of the finest in any black and white film ever, and leave behind Welles’s scenery-chewing, what remains is a story interested in good versus evil, decency against corruption. Charlton Heston’s Mike Vargas, just married in Mexico to his American bride Janet Leigh, is, by all indications, a good policeman struggling to bring down a narcotics ring in Mexico. Though Heston’s performance sometimes gets denigrated, his Vargas is almost perfectly realised as the dark-skinned white knight amid the titular corrupting influence. Heston was nothing if not effective in hero roles, the only kind he seemed to know how to play, and the character he creates here is perfectly square-jawed throughout. Those critics of the performance seem to require a more fully-faceted character instead of someone only interested in doing good. Vargas’ sensibilities are downright idiotic at times, including leaving his new wife to fend for herself in an out of the way, deserted motel, but Heston’s supreme focus is hardly the problem. His characterisation bleeds moral rectitude just as it should.
The contrast is Welles’ Hank Quinlan, a grotesque and obese American lawman with personal demons long since having dug their way into his daily hell. Quinlan is called a great detective and a lousy cop and that’s dead right. He’s crooked, corrupt, and prone to planting evidence when necessary. Welles makes sure to keep Quinlan mostly in the right, though. He isn’t portrayed as simply framing innocent men. The sticks of dynamite Quinlan supplies a chief suspect of the opening murder are, in their own way, corroborating evidence to both the perpetrator’s and the lawman’s guilt. The dangers here are obvious, as are the opposing techniques to the difficulties Vargas faces in bringing down his drug ring. Had Vargas acted outside the law and secured evidence against the Grandy family, his wife wouldn’t be at risk. Yet, watch how little Welles cares about the Grandy gang or the exploding car that opens the film. The director can hardly be bothered to navigate the almost labyrinthine plot. Touch of Evil is a character study nearly hampered by the insistence on telling a story.
Where the film truly excels in terms of cinematic language reserved solely for the medium of moving pictures is Russell Metty’s camera and lighting. No matter how many times you’ve heard the praise or seen the evidence, Touch of Evil is a visual masterpiece. Nearly every shot is rendered perfectly, regardless of the contentious aspect ratio, and when the frames are allowed to move one after the other the result is an awe-inspiring shock to remember what it is movies are capable of achieving. The celebrated opening, three and a half minutes of pure cinematic bliss, lets the camera track through the U.S.-Mexico border as Mr. and Mrs. Vargas head north on foot at the same time a wealthy businessman and his stripper girlfriend cross over via car. The car will explode but no one really cares. Welles certainly doesn’t seem concerned. Categorising Touch of Evil as a mystery is like calling Hitchcock’s Notorious a spy thriller. The arches in plot are so far beside the point as to be nearly irrelevant. There are viewers who need a cause and effect, but hopefully there are just as many if not more who are content to soak in Welles’ film with the plot burning far off to the side.
Touch of Evil is a movie that requires no understanding of the English language in order to be entirely effective. Its dialogue was dubbed and almost always seems beside the point, apparently improvised to some extent by the actors prior to filming. Keep Henry Mancini’s jazzy score and study the shots and exteriors of the performances. Welles gives his Quinlan a devastating sense of destruction. His brief encounters with Marlene Dietrich’s character and the allusions to Quinlan’s murdered wife tell us enough about the character as to reduce much of the other details as superfluous. Like many of Welles’ other films, Quinlan as protagonist is mired in reckless defeat. No other American filmmaker was so apparently obsessed with failure and, additionally, able to portray it as purposefully as Welles. Look at Citizen Kane and try to reconcile the potential CFK unintentionally abandons as he destroys himself. The Ambersons similarly are unable to recognise their weaknesses and self-made misfortune prior to a tragic result. The Lady from Shanghai is one big cautionary tale about strength of character and the lure of temptation.
These same themes of not understanding one’s own limitations are recurrent in Welles’ films. His Shakespeare adaptations are, by necessity, battered with dread and personal mistakes. As has been pointed out repeatedly in writings on Welles’ own life, the man whose work was dominated by triumph giving way to ultimate failure had a prophetic insight into his career by way of these favoured themes. If you apply Quinlan as Touch of Evil’s main protagonist, the film follows that same path, placing the detective as a man of unusual brilliance unable to avoid self-destruction. Though Vargas is given the traditional hero role, Quinlan is far more interesting. The latter follows the Welles protagonist path of destroying self in the midst of outside success. Quinlan is a noted law enforcement official, regarded as equally renowned and accomplished. His capabilities are not questioned and his crew is full of yes men who only have to be told how high when asked to jump. He is a man full of power and, in turn, given great opportunity for its abuses.
From a combination of hubris and neglect, Quinlan’s downfall comes at the hands of one of his disciples. Though the character as written would seem totally devoid of sympathy or concern on the part of the viewer, Welles the actor, aided by an inherent interest in the portrayer, layers him tightly in broken dreams. Quinlan is not merely a corrupt cop. He’s a good lawman resorting to doing what he thinks the courts may not. He tells his betrayer that the many incidents where the men had jointly worked outside the rules were merely acts of abetting justice. The loss of his wife and comfort found in Dietrich’s character fill in a few of Quinlan’s motivational blanks, as do the prosthetic obesity and wellworn nature artificially given to Welles. The uninitiated may not realise Welles, only in his mid-forties during filming, physically created his character before the cameras rolled to match the psychological portrayal of what’s seen onscreen. The girth, fatigue, and overall nature of Quinlan lend themselves to him being a Lon Chaney-like figure who’s looking for acceptance.
Indeed, many scenes in Touch of Evil, particularly those involving Janet Leigh in a motel room just a few years prior to her checking into Psycho, feel like they’re straight from a horror film. Part of the appeal of film noir would seem to be in its simulation of that horror unease now made real by the lack of easily identified monsters. Noir exposes the monsters in us all, making for an even creepier ordeal and one catered towards suspense borne from a more likely scenario of wrong time, wrong place. The thing that Touch of Evil successfully conveys is the possibility of a living nightmare where the world is off its axis and our beacon, in this instance Vargas, must struggle to restore order amid chaos. Where Welles’ film deviates from traditional noir archetypes is in its lack of ambiguity. As mentioned earlier, good and evil are clearly defined and only the motives behind each are at issue. The fatalism sometimes seen in noir doesn’t really play itself out here either, but Welles seems to be working from a much more basic, yet no less pessimistic, ideal.
The director elevates noir into his preferred Shakespearean methods of storytelling. Supporting characters sometimes memorably perfect (Akim Tamiroff as follically-challenged Uncle Joe Grandy) or bizarrely out of place (motel night clerk Dennis Weaver in possibly the worst performance ever found in a great film) serve their purpose much as they would in a theatrical setting, which Touch of Evil, like most all of Welles’ films, tends to borrow from a great deal. It’s from this impossibly strange mixture of procedural, horror film and Shakespearean-type play that the movie converges into a one-of-a-kind mastering of nervous tension bundled up inside a character study. Welles sweats through the viewer’s discomfort until the very end.
Mister Buddwing August 27, 2008Posted by clydefro in : Classic Films, 1960s , 7 comments
I propped up Mister Buddwing a couple of weeks ago in my weekly TCM picks. Some minor research left me hesitant but entirely intrigued. James Garner as a guy who wanders around the streets of Manhattan in search of himself sounded familiar. I’ve never experienced memory loss or found myself in Central Park without any idea of how I got there, but there are less literal ways of interpreting the plot.
There’s surprisingly little out there written on the film, and what there is seems mostly dismissive. My enthusiasm is often countered by dolts who act like this or that movie is so appalling as to have devalued their own ever-precious life. The disadvantage of everyone having an opinion on the internet is that, well, everyone has an opinion. Some are well-reasoned and considered while others are from the same type of people who desire, consume, and love the unchallenging byproducts of the entertainment lobotomies beamed directly into their living rooms daily. As someone who does in fact regularly give my own opinion on movies, I recognize the irony in those complaints. Still, dealing too much in absolutes makes me uneasy and I’d be the first person to encourage someone to watch based on one’s own views instead of a negative reaction elsewhere. If a movie sounds interesting, dive in headfirst and sort out the details later.
So that’s what I did with Mister Buddwing, directed by Marty helmer Delbert Mann and based on an Evan Hunter book. The film opens with a first-person point of view shot, black and white, in the city. The man whose eyes we’re looking through peers down at his hands. He’s wearing a ring, broken stone. An inscription of “From G.V.” lines the band. He starts walking from a bench in Central Park and to the Plaza Hotel. When we finally do see the man, he appears well-dressed in a suit and increasingly in need of a shave. At the hotel, he dials a phone number that had been written on a slip of paper he’d found inside the suit. A woman, Gloria, answers. Our man doesn’t know his name and he doesn’t know Gloria either so he has to navigate through some awkward introductions. Gloria, who’s played by the terrific Angela Lansbury, believes the man could be Sam, which is good enough for the stranger. The newly christened Sam makes plans to visit Gloria in hopes of getting this whole identity thing straightened out. He leaves the hotel, sees a Budweiser beer truck, looks at a plane flying through the sky, and decides on Buddwing as a last name.
It’s quickly established that the man is not actually Sam, which turns out to be the name of Gloria’s estranged husband. Gloria doesn’t know Mr. Buddwing any more than he knows himself. She asks him some questions that he doesn’t have the answers for, making the man more and more irritated at his lack of memory. He’s then sent on his way with a few extra dollars and still no idea what’s going on. At this point early in the film, and throughout actually, it’s most intriguing that the viewer is really no better informed than Mr. Buddwing. The line of defeat and frustration James Garner treads in his performance is equally shared by the audience.
I’ve always felt Garner was better as a screen presence than he necessarily was as an actor. He was adept at playing not just an everyman, but the ideal everyman. Who wouldn’t want to be James Garner? That deceptively easy ability to make the viewer identify with him was put to good use in Mister Buddwing. There’s a great deal of psychological undercurrent running through the picture. The mood it sustains reminded me of a less dystopian version of John Frankenheimer’s Seconds, released in the same year. Garner has to be believable as a guy we want to solve these personal mysteries, but there also has to be an air of danger where he could slip into almost insanity at any point. The reveal that a murderous mental patient has just escaped from a nearby institution adds enormous possibility, both for the film and Garner’s performance. The actor does well in never entirely hiding how unhinged his character is, creating conflict in the viewer by way of this lingering uncertainty as to Buddwing’s real identity.
More ammunition for Buddwing’s questionable mental health is sourced from the relationships the amnesiac develops with three random women he spots on the streets of New York. He sees a young brunette (Katharine Ross) and yells out the name “Grace,” but the woman ignores him as she gets into a taxi. Buddwing hails a cab, driven by Marty supporting actor Joe Mantell, and instructs the hack to follow the other car. En route, the driver recounts a fare he’d had recently, an attractive blonde woman who was drunk and less than candid on her $28 ride. Though this moment seems inconsequential, it comes up again later as we realize that much of the film feels like it was thrown into an unreliable blender. Everything doesn’t mix as it might should, leaving ample opportunity for false impressions.
Just as the nervous jazz score and frequent shots of Garner wandering around the city ply into the viewer’s consciousness, so do the perpetually ominous depictions of a city on a completely different pace as our protagonist. This constant unease amid a mass of people who at the very least know more than Buddwing because they know their own name is somewhat underexplored, but entirely effective when given the opportunity. The skyscraper-rich city is enough to induce confusion in anyone, much less a person in total disarray. As with much of Mann’s movie, the tension could have been ratcheted up even further, resulting in a bit of a missed opportunity. As a study in disorientation, however, Mister Buddwing should be re-discovered.
While the film hearkens back to amnesia-heavy suspense movies like Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound, as well as foreshadowing more recent fare including Memento and The Bourne Identity, it seems to also accurately predict the oncoming paranoia found in the 1970s. Buddwing becomes so at odds with himself that he can hardly trust his own instincts. In another of the film’s interesting decisions, each potential Grace, starting with Ross, flashes back to Buddwing’s memories of the woman. With every glimpse of the past, the relationship between Buddwing and Grace grows devastatingly harsher. The vibrant optimism of their newlywed days is replaced by turmoil and acrimony, slowly shattering the dreams of youth. That each incarnation of Grace is played by a different actress highlights the stark changes life has to offer over time.
Perhaps done unintentionally, but there’s a strange juxtaposition between how the past versions of Buddwing and Grace move further apart and how amnesiac Buddwing gets closer and closer with his false Graces. Janet, the woman played by Ross, brushes him off completely, even involving the police, but actress Fiddle (Suzanne Pleshette) takes him into her home. The blonde woman (Jean Simmons) he meets next is even more friendly and carefree. Yet, Buddwing seems to become less balanced as he struggles to piece together his past. By the end, when the nobody and the blonde find themselves involved in a high-stakes dice game, his memories spin him into levels near madness.
In trying to get a handle on the film, I found myself curious as to why it’s so little cared about or known, and why there’s not much support among those who have seen this strange portrait of memory loss. It’s far from perfect, not a great film really, and always seems like it could go further than it does (in contrast to Seconds). But there’s definitely something there. That feeling it emits, one of suspense but also caution and deep empathy for the protagonist, is rare in such a tightly wound movie of its era. There’s also a building turmoil we can see coming, but are helpless to stop. Buddwing’s destruction becomes inevitable and that nearly horrific unfolding of how he got to Central Park may be painful for the invested viewer.
The ending changes the game too much for my taste, ultimately making clear that there’s some heavy Christian symbolism at work as it placates the mid-sixties studio film audiences. I’m not impressed with the result, but I do like how it’s handled. The decision to retain a considerable dose of ambiguity is assuring despite an otherwise flat conclusion. I can imagine how I’d like to have the film end, but it doesn’t really matter. Even the apparent happy ending, when kept in the context with Buddwing’s memories, promises little outside the veiled religious undertones.
(Mister Buddwing was made for MGM. Its rights should rest with Warner Bros., but the film is not on DVD.)