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The Sleeping City (1950) April 23, 2007

Posted by jackal in : Films, Film Noir , add a comment

I hate watching a bad copy of a film. In the murky world of film noir, it’s sometimes unavoidable, but whether they’re dirty, grainy, fuzzy or have a soundtrack that could have been soaked in acid for all the clarity it possesses, the dodgy copies tend to sink right to the bottom of my unwatched pile. A little hiss in the audio and some video buzz to the picture I can just about tolerate, though, and in this case I’m glad I did: The Sleeping City turned out to be something of a minor gem.

Bellevue Hospital, New York. The story opens with a wonderfully atmospheric noir sequence: a depressed, burned-out young doctor strolls out to the deserted waterfront for a cigarette. Without warning he is shot dead in cold blood by persons unknown. With no leads in the case, but suspecting a connection to the victim’s job, the Chief Inspector assigns Detective Rowan (Richard Conte) to go undercover at the hospital posing as a new intern. Slowly earning the confidence of the hospital staff, Rowan also finds himself beginning to fall for Ann Sebastian (Coleen Gray), former girlfriend of the murder victim. When a second intern turns up dead, and the finger of suspicion points to Rowan himself, his investigation becomes a race against time to uncover the conspiracy behind both deaths.

The Sleeping City isn’t without its faults: 40 year-old Richard Conte does look a little old to pose as a fresh-faced young doctor, there’s a snooze-inducing prologue in which Conte reassures the viewer that nothing so fiendish could ever really happen in our fine hospitals, and the story pacing is a mess. Once Conte is set up undercover at Bellevue, he spends a good half hour getting used to his job, making friends, and uncovering … nothing. Only in the third act does the mystery plot take a nice twist and start moving at breakneck speed. I don’t have any complaints however: even during the slack second act, the film is never dull. Filmed on in and around Bellevue, it’s fascinating to watch what amounts to a time capsule of hospital life in 1950.

Bolstered by the semi-documentary style, but without the ponderous narration that so often accompanies such noirs, The Sleeping City emerges as perhaps closest in tone to Dassin’s The Naked City. An atmospheric, engrossing little medical thriller, it comes highly recommended from these quarters. It’s just a shame that Universal’s film noir DVD line is dead in the water; had they continued the releases over the past couple of years, second or third tier titles such as this may well have been released by now. It deserves to be cleaned up and made available to a wider audience, ideally with some contribution from lead actress Coleen Gray. The 84 year-old is perhaps the most enthusiastic among the dwindling ranks of surviving noir stars, having made numerous appearances at film noir festivals with author Eddie Muller. She would no doubt be willing to contribute to a DVD release if asked. Here’s hoping Universal get around to it sooner rather than later.

Fools for Scandal (1938) April 12, 2007

Posted by jackal in : Films , 2 comments

I’ll be the first to admit that I can watch Carole Lombard in anything. It helps that she spent most of her career in screwball comedy, a genre that fit her like a glove. Therein - beautiful, fast-talking, brash, often nutty as a fruitcake - she’s a super-charged dynamo propelling even the flimsiest plot along with madcap glee. Every time I catch even a few moments, I’m instantly reminded why she’s my favourite actress.

Fools for Scandal was a film I had every reason to fear would fit into the ‘flimsy’ category. The Warner Bros comedy was a flop on its release in 1938 and the public’s ’Screwball Queen’ deliberately moved to dramatic roles for her next four films.  Never, to my knowledge, released on home video, it remains little-seen, but time, to my eyes at least, has been kind to this forgotten gem.

Lombard is US film star Kay Winters who, while vacationing incognito in Paris, falls for penniless aristocrat Rene Viladel (Fernand Gravet). Kay, though, is engaged to Phillip (Ralph Bellamy) and feels compelled to return to London and resume her life. The smitten Rene follows, gatecrashing Kay’s high-society fancy dress party, and talking himself into a job as her chef. In the midst of rampant tabloid speculation in the following days, Kay tries to rid herself of the charming Rene, but he ain’t having none of it …

Perhaps it is thinly plotted, but at 80 minutes it doesn’t outstay its welcome. Yes, it’s predictable - Ralph Bellamy as the poor sap, again - but played delightfully by the leads. Gravet, an actor I’ve never seen before, is wonderful: witty, charming and an appropriately daft foil for the ever-sparkling Lombard. The main pleasure for me was the sheer unexpectedness of discovering a minor gem like this lying all-but forgotten in Lombard’s filmography.

Not much more to say on this, really, other than - as a WB film - it at least has a decent chance for future DVD release. It’s no My Man Godfrey, nor is it worthy of an incisive and thorough evaluation. It’s a breezy, amusing little film which allows Lombard to shine. That’ll do.

It Started in Naples (1960) April 2, 2007

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It’s an utterly hollow, lightweight piece of fluff; so how is it that It Started in Naples is so much fun?

When Mike Campbell (Clark Gable) travels to Naples to clear up the estate of his late brother, he finds more than be bargained for: an eight year-old nephew he never knew he had, now living with his maternal aunt, Lucia (Sophia Loren) who is a nightclub dancer on the isle of Capri. Gradually developing a bond with the impetuous little tyke, Campbell decides to take him back to the States for a “better” life. Naturally, this doesn’t go down well with Lucia, and the pair become locked in a battle for the child’s affection. This being a romantic comedy, I don’t think it’ll come as a shock when I say that love wins out at the end. Awwww.

The plot (making time for a couple of song and dance numbers from Loren) is thin at best, and struggles to hold out for the film’s full length, but somehow it just doesn’t matter. The locations are so breathtaking, the warm Italian sunshine so palpable, the mood so relaxed, that It Started in Naples amounts to a 100 minute virtual vacation. The fact that Gable and Loren are really there (no fiddling about with doubles and rear-projection) adds immensely to the genuine atmosphere. Take a look at the pics herein and tell me you wouldn’t want to retire there. Tomorrow.

While filming in Naples and at Cinecitta studios, Gable apparently developed such a taste for the pasta dishes Loren cooked for him that his weight shot up to an all-time high 240lbs. The fluctuation is slightly noticeable during the film, but even so I didn’t find the Gable-Loren pairing to be too unrealistic. Despite being an astounding 33 years older than his leading lady, Gable is one of those actors who - for me - never gets old, he merely gains gravitas. I can watch a late-career Gable in anything; he exudes gruff charisma by the bucketload. Here, in his penultimate film, he’s no different.

Loren is arguably the film’s highlight: radiant and energetic, she provides enough momentum to stop the flimsy plot from collapsing in on itself. According to a recent Gable biography, the two stars got on well, despite an early tiff in which Loren complained to director Melville Shavelson that Gable was hogging the best camera angles for himself. When informed of this, Gable replied that he needed to: “she looks good from any angle; I’ve only got two sides, and they’re both bad.”

In the role of Gable’s young nephew Nando, child actor Marietto (no surname, apparently) is simply wonderful, giving a natural, free-spirited performance that provides much of the film’s amusement. Finally, the music score must get a mention: a delightful Neopolitan selection that sets up the mood perfectly even as the opening credits start to roll.

Paramount’s recent DVD release is, in my humble opinion, near-flawless (check out the Beaver’s review here). The film looks eye-poppingly good, brand new in fact. Watching Clark Gable - a long-dead actor I associate with the ’Golden Age’ of Hollywood - in a beautiful Technicolor film that could have been filmed last week took a little getting used to. It’s no masterpiece by any stretch of the imagination, but It Started in Naples is mellow, genial and warm-hearted entertainment. Perfect viewing for a lazy afternoon.

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