The Dark Mirror

Posted on February 22nd, 2010 in 1940s, Film Noir, Robert Siodmak by Colin

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The 1940s saw a run of movies that attempted to cash in on the craze for psychoanalysis. Probably the most prominent among these was Hitchcock’s Spellbound, but there was no shortage of imitators (there was even an entire series based on this premise, namely Columbia’s Crime Doctor pictures starring Warner Baxter). Generally, such films used large dollops of cod Freudian psycho-babble to simultaneously jazz up and lend a touch of gravitas to the plot. Robert Siodmak’s The Dark Mirror (1946) is one of the more successful efforts, helped largely by an outstanding central performance from Olivia de Havilland.

The Dark Mirror is basically a murder mystery that uses the gimmick of having a crime committed by one of a pair of identical twins - the problem for the authorities (and the audience) is working out which one did the deed, and how to prove it. The opening shot is of the apartment of the victim with the corpse lying sprawled before a symbolically broken mirror. At first the case seems clear cut as the detective in charge, Lt. Stevenson (Thomas Mitchell), has witnesses that can easily identify the woman seen leaving the scene of the crime. Well, we’d be looking at a pretty short movie if that’s all there were to it. The problem is that the woman in question is either Terry or Ruth Collins (Olivia de Havilland), one of whom has a cast iron alibi for the evening - but which one? With the official investigation grinding to a halt due to the impossibility of the circumstances, Stevenson turns to analyst Dr. Elliott (Lew Ayres) for help. Elliott agrees to undertake a private examination of the twins to try and discover which one has the psychological profile consistent with a murderess. In so doing he utilizes all the recognisable tools of the trade from ink blots and free association through to a polygraph. Although he satisfies himself as to which sister is the most likely culprit, the proof remains stubbornly elusive. What complicates the situation even further is the fact that Elliott finds himself becoming increasingly attracted to the “good” sister while the other jealously works behind the scenes to undermine her sibling’s sanity.

Two for the price of one - Olivia de Havilland in The Dark Mirror.

From a purely technical point of view the illusion of having the same actress playing scenes in a dual role works extremely well. One scene in particular called for one of the twins to sit next to the other and rest her head on her sister’s shoulder, and it’s a compliment to the film’s level of technical accomplishment that this effect is carried off so believably. Personally, I was really only aware that I was watching process work in one slightly ropey shot late in the movie where one sister addressed the other, who was positioned behind her, via an artificial looking mirror setup. Aside from this, Siodmak’s direction is assured throughout, and he wraps the whole thing up in a tight and pacy 82 minutes (PAL). As I said at the beginning, Olivia de Havilland’s performance is one of this film’s great strengths. It’s no mean feat to play twins with markedly different characters and remain convincing, but she managed it with aplomb. Thomas Mitchell’s cop is there to help ground the story for the viewer, and he plays his part well enough - if I have any criticism it’s that he imbued it with a little too much lightheartedness. Lew Ayres, on the other hand, was the weak link for me, never completely selling me on the idea that he was an eminent psychiatrist. 

Working out where the rights to a film lie can sometimes be akin to blundering one’s way through a minefield. This was originally an International picture, later to be combined into Universal International, but the R1 home video rights don’t seem to belong to Universal now. A few years ago, when the rights to the Republic library reverted back to Paramount from Artisan they announced this title (along with a few others complete with artwork) for release on R1 DVD. However, Paramount then promptly licensed the library to Lions Gate and those titles disappeared off the schedule. Bearing all that in mind, I’d imagine the chances of The Dark Mirror making an appearance on DVD in R1 are slim to non-existent at the moment. However, the film did get a release in Germany late last year via Koch Media (I think there’s also a French disc out there, but something tells me it suffers from the dreaded burnt in subtitles) and it’s a very attractive disc. It comes in a book style digipack with a booklet - 10 pages, but all in German - and boasts a nice transfer. The image is generally very strong and sharp, although there are a few instances of weakness and heavier grain. All told, it’s a pleasing disc of a hard to find movie. Slowly, more and more of Robert Siodmak’s noir films are making their way onto DVD and I found this latest addition very welcome. I’d place it somewhere in the mid-range of the director’s work, which should be recommendation enough in itself.

The Unforgiven

Posted on February 17th, 2010 in 1960s, Westerns, Burt Lancaster, Audie Murphy, John Huston by Colin

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John Huston has to be one of my favourite directors but I’ve only just realised that, before today, I hadn’t written up any of his films on this blog. A quick browse through his lengthy and wide ranging filmography also drew my attention to the fact that he only made two westerns - I’m not counting The Misfits or The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, although some probably would - and I thought that seemed a little odd. The Unforgiven (1960) is a movie that doesn’t get talked up very much (the director professed a dislike of it which may have hurt its reputation some) but I believe it’s worthy of a bit of attention. The movie derives from a story by Alan Le May (The Searchers) and, perhaps unsurprisingly, concerns the fate of captives. What makes The Unforgiven a little different is the fact that the abduction that forms the background is a reversal of the usual white child spirited away by Indians one. In this case the settlers have taken a Kiowa baby and adopted her as one of their own. This storyline offers the opportunity to examine the effects of racism not only within the community but within the confines of the family as well.

The Zachary’s are a close knit frontier family who, with the father dead as a result of a Kiowa raid, are held together by eldest son Ben (Burt Lancaster). He, with the help of brothers Cash (Audie Murphy) and Andy (Doug McClure), has been putting together a herd of cattle to send to Wichita and make their fortune. The family’s future looks secure and there is a chance of marrying the only sister, Rachel (Audrey Hepburn), into a neighbouring family of fellow ranchers, thereby cementing their partnership. However, the Zacharys’ dreams are built on shaky foundations and are soon to be swept away. Into their midst rides a mysterious old man (Joseph Wiseman), clad in a decaying Civil War uniform complete with sabre. In between quoting scripture he tosses out casual innuendo relating to a dark secret held by the Zacharys. Before long, Ben and Cash find themselves having to hunt down this otherworldly figure, knowing as they do that he intends to destroy them. This leads to one of the most memorable scenes in the film, as the two brothers chase their ghostlike quarry through a swirling dust storm - the old man seeming to appear and disappear at will, and then rushing out of the clouds of windswept sand with his sabre swinging murderously. Nevertheless, despite their best efforts, their nemesis evades them and poisons their neighbours and former friends against them. By the time the Kiowa turn up outside the sod covered family home demanding the return of what they claim belongs to them the Zacharys are about to tear themselves apart. Cash is an unashamed racist haunted by visions of his father’s death at the hands of the Kiowa, and barely able to contain his contempt and hatred for the red men. Therefore, Ben must prove himself the rock upon which the others can depend in order to weather the gathering storm.  

Under siege from within and without - The Unforgiven.

I’ve read that John Huston may have been displeased with the final product due to the fact that Audrey Hepburn later suffered a miscarriage, possibly as a result of a fall during production, not to mention that Audie Murphy almost drowned etc. Be that as it may, the film remains a solid, professional piece of work from Huston. He and DOP Franz Planer made excellent use of the wide angle lens to capture the scenery around Durango, and it contrasts well with the dark and claustrophobic interiors of the Zachary home. Apart from the aforementioned dust storm, the action scenes during the climactic siege are quite impressive. The cast as a whole acquit themselves very well, with Lancaster displaying his customary stoicism interspersed with the occasional witticism. Audrey Hepburn would hardly rank as anyone’s idea of a western heroine but I thought she was pretty convincing in a difficult role. Audie Murphy never gets a lot of credit as an actor but this movie, probably more than any other, shows just how capable he was. He invests the character of Cash with a simmering mix of conflicting emotions that enables him to steal almost every scene he’s in. Lillian Gish also has a high old time as the tough matriarch with a steely resolve, and has a wonderful scene where she sits playing the piano outside at night to counter the music of the Kiowa medicine men. Joseph Wiseman chews up everything in sight as the spectral (no pun intended) Abe Kelsey, a genuinely scary yet pitiful husk of a man driven insane by grief and a desire for vengeance on those he deems responsible for past wrongs.

Given the indifferent treatment MGM often handed their catalogue releases the R2 DVD of The Unforgiven is actually quite pleasing. It’s given a handsome anamorphic scope transfer that has little damage on show save for a bit of light speckling here and there. Since this film is not widely regarded as one of Huston’s greatest it’s no real surprise that the only extra available is the theatrical trailer. I think this movie has been unjustly maligned by many and, even if it never comes to be seen as vintage Huston, it does work well as a mature western that at least tries to tackle a complicated issue. All in all, I like it and feel the performances and photography are ample reasons to give it a go.

Hustle

Posted on February 10th, 2010 in 1970s, Mystery/Thriller, Robert Aldrich, Burt Reynolds by Colin

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I’m unsure how to categorise a film like Hustle (1975). Should I refer to it as neo-noir, post-noir, or use some other unwieldy title? Let’s just put it this way, if the movie had been made twenty years earlier it would have been classed as film noir. It has all the ingredients of classic era noir but it’s just not of the right vintage. As a result we’re left with a stylish 70s critique of a corrupt system and a world that’s lost its way. Incidentally, it’s also a damned fine film. 

Phil Gaines (Burt Reynolds) is a homicide cop with a long list of things wrong in his life. At first glance everything might seem just dandy since we first see him reclining in bed and being pampered by his beautiful French girlfriend. However, his situation is far from ideal. The girlfriend, Nicole (Catherine Deneuve), works as an upmarket call girl and Gaines is just about dealing with this. The two of them plan and dream of hopping a jet and seeing out their days in Rome but neither one really has the ability to break away from their lifestyles. Nicole’s excuse is the need to earn a living and Gaines keeps putting it on the long finger, preferring to gaze at the fading photographic calender tacked on his office wall whilst indulging in idle fantasy. In addition, his job is increasingly getting on top of him and shows no signs of improving as his next case looms. The body of a young girl is found washed up on the beach and triggers an investigation that will eventually expose corruption in high places and drive Gaines to finally become more than a mere spectator. The girl in question was a hooker/dancer, a runaway whose life descended into seediness instead of the glamour she sought. Everyone appears inclined to write the whole thing off as another pathetic suicide, everyone except the girl’s father that is. Marty Hollinger (Ben Johnson) is a Korean War vet with an axe to grind and an obsessive streak. It’s his unwillingness to let the matter lie that pushes Gaines to dig ever deeper until the truth is exposed. By the end of the movie that truth is laid bare but, as in life, it doesn’t necessarily help anyone. The ending itself is a real choker and unapologetically noir in tone.  

Burt Reynolds and Catherine Deneuve - looking for a way out.

Robert Aldrich generally invested his films with a brutal honesty and cynicism, and Hustle isn’t any exception in that regard. He never shies away from the unsavoury and paints a bleak picture of 1970s America, a place where average people are simply nobodies and the wealthy are hopelessly corrupt - in Phil Gaines words, “Guatemala with colour TV.” That rank degeneracy is best exemplified by the villain of the piece, a marvellously sleazy turn by Eddie Albert. In the lead, Burt Reynolds does very well and shows that, when the director and material were right, he was more than capable as an actor. He’s made an excessive number of fairly ropey films but, here and there, the odd gem turns up. He has some excellent moments in this movie, especially when his simmering jealously is dangerously near the surface as he tortures himself listening to Nicole take dirty phone calls from her faceless clients. Catherine Deneuve displayed the right kind of cool detachment that was necessary for her part, and she’s certainly very easy on the eyes. There’s plenty of great support from Paul Winfield, Eileen Brennan and Ernest Borgnine but Ben Johnson rises above them all. He turns in an absolute blinder as the emotionally scarred veteran who feels his country owes him something, and has allowed that massive chip on his shoulder to tear his family apart. The way he forces himself to confront the lifestyle his daughter adopted is as painful for the viewer to watch as it is for him to experience. A real class act was Mr Johnson.

Paramount’s R2 DVD of Hustle offers an excellent image, as was usually the case with that company. The 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer is clean and sharp throughout, and I can see no reason to criticise it. However, there’s absolutely nothing in the way of extra content and that is a little disappointing. Overall, I’d rate Hustle as a very fine example of modern noir from a highly accomplished director and a cast that’s uniformly good.

Two Rode Together

Posted on February 3rd, 2010 in 1960s, John Ford, Westerns, Richard Widmark, James Stewart by Colin

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“The worst piece of crap I’ve done in twenty years.” Those were John Ford’s own words when assessing Two Rode Together (1961). Even now, critics never seem to have anything very positive to say about this film. Ford’s work in the 60s was certainly patchy, even more so when it’s held up for comparison against his earlier movies. I’m not sure this is as much of a dog as its reputation suggests; it’s a weak John Ford film for sure, but even a lesser work from the great man always had some points to recommend it.

Two Rode Together is frequently referred to as a rehash of themes explored in The Searchers, and that’s one of the problems identified right away. Where the earlier classic had depth, gravity and passion this film feels superficial and, at times, cartoonish. However, I’m not convinced the two movies ought to be compared too closely. For one thing, The Searchers focused on the quest and those involved in it, whereas Two Rode Together is really about the consequences of rehabilitation for the rescued captives. Guthrie McCabe (James Stewart) is a marshal in the town of Tascosa, an enviable position in that it entitles him to a 10% cut of everything in the place. His idyllic lifestyle is interrupted, however, when Lt. Jim Gary (Richard Widmark) and his troops arrive to escort the dissipated lawman back to the fort. The army intend to press the reluctant McCabe into acting as a scout/intermediary in order to make contact with the Comanche Quanah Parker (Henry Brandon) and trade for the release of white captives. McCabe is nothing if not a coldly realistic man, and he knows full well that what the army is asking is basically a fool’s errand. Although his cynicism is viewed with contempt by the soldiers, subsequent events will prove that it’s his assessment that’s more grounded in reality. Lt. Gary is sent along to keep a watchful eye on McCabe (he’s regarded as an amoral mercenary at best), and in so doing has his eyes opened and his preconceptions challenged. When it becomes apparent that the surviving captives have been so deeply integrated into Comanche life as to be unrecognisable the decision is taken to return with only two captives: a teenager, Running Wolf, and a Mexican woman, Elena (Linda Cristal). Instead of being greeted as heroes and saviours, both McCabe and Gary find themselves viewed as being partly responsible for the tragedy that ensues. The fear, hatred and suspicion of the Comanche are so deeply ingrained in the whites that there can be no happy homecoming for anyone, and McCabe’s cynicism and skeptcism that were initially painted as repugnant are now seen to be vindicated.

Getting down to business - Richard Widmark & James Stewart.

John Ford’s penchant for broad, knockabout comedy is very much an acquired taste, and you’re either ok with it or you’re not. I mention this because Two Rode Together is liberally laced with instances of trademark Fordian humour. A good deal of this is centered around Andy Devine’s grossly overweight Sgt. Posey and it’s of the hit and miss variety. What’s altogether more successful is the gentle jibing that takes place between Widmark and Stewart as it helps to flesh out and humanise their characters. Ford’s direction is unaccountably flat in general, and really only strikes home in the scenes that focus on the desperation and emotional pain of the homesteaders who yearn for news of their loved ones. Even the landscapes look dull and uninspiring, which is atypical for a Ford film. Of course, news came through during shooting of the passing of the director’s old crony and frequent collaborator Ward Bond, and that may go some way to explaining the slightly detached feeling that permeates the whole picture. If it weren’t for the performances of Widmark and Stewart then this movie would be a real tough slog. Their scenes together constitute the core of the film and help keep it afloat. Widmark is good enough but I didn’t get the impression that he was operating at full throttle, whereas Jimmy Stewart throws himself into the part completely. By this time Stewart had mastered the art of icy indignation and half-suppressed emotion, and it serves him well in the later scenes where he confronts the ugly face of naked racism back at the fort. Of the female characters Shirley Jones received third billing but her part is an undeveloped one and seems to peter out just when it should have taken centre stage. Linda Cristal fares much better as the former captive who’s deeply unsure of her place in society; her discomfort is nearly tangible when she’s paraded in front of the army wives, and she visibly wilts before their prying eyes.

Two Rode Together remains absent on DVD in the US but it’s widely available in R2. Sony’s UK disc offers an anamorphic widescreen transfer that’s goodish without being in any way exceptional. It could use a bit of a clean up but there aren’t any serious flaws. Both colours and sharpness are reasonable enough but, like the movie itself, don’t exactly pop off the screen. There are absolutely no extras at all but this title can be picked up very cheaply, so one shouldn’t complain too much. Well, this is a long way from classic Ford but the playing of the two leads does raise it above the mundane and lends some class. The truth is it’s not a bad little western - it’s just not a great John Ford western.