Archive for May 20, 2008

The Monkeybitch Enigma

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on May 20, 2008 by dcairns

As the early Joe Mankiewicz noir SOMEWHERE IN THE NIGHT unfolded, I started praying it would keep up its high standards to the end, but I wasn’t all that optimistic because (a) part of the film’s charm was a sense that it didn’t know where it was going and (b) it doesn’t have much of a reputation, often a sign that a film has fallen at the final hurdle — the climax of a movie often determines disproportionately how people will feel about the film as a whole.

In fact, much of the film’s third act comes together nicely, and there’s ample evidence that the sense of random aimlessness that enlivens the early-middle sections is actually a cunning ploy disguising a tightly-plotted plan. But the climax is over too soon, handed to a supporting character, robbing the hero of the chance to distinguish himself. Since he’s played by the odd-looking John Hodiak, distinctly second-rank, he needs all the opportunities the screenplay can give him. He has the face of a monkeybitch.

Actually, Hodiak’s lack of charisma helps the film in some ways — he’s effective as a lost and confused nobody, struggling to make sense of the world. (This is an AMNESIA MOVIE. Yay!) A big-shot movie-star might well have seemed more likely to come out on top. The greater error is casting Richard Conte as the leading lady’s friend. She keeps talking about what a nice guy he is. We think, “Uh huh, rrrright…” and as it turns out our skepticism is justified.

But knowing all that, one can derive a lot of pleasure from this film. Hodiak plays a G.I. with a misplaced memory, thrust into what you might call your basic shadowy realm of subterfuge as he tries to uncover the secrets of his past. This galloping cliché of a plot gets a shot in the arm from some strong visuals early on — Mankiewicz plays with subjective camera and seems in a more experimental mood than usual — and from the writer’s intelligence, constantly seeking to bolster characterisation and liven up dialogue. One of his notions is to suggest that the characters know what kind of movie they’re in, and feel themselves slightly above it. There is musing on why movie detectives always keep their hats on. The action stops for a Chinese meal. The bad guys are charming and urbane, or cheap but sassy.

And then there’s THIS lovely fellow/shot:

Fritz Kortner’s master-criminal character actually suggests sitting in this spot because the lighting will be suitably mysterious. And he has the face of a monkeybitch.

For much of its running time this is a throughly superior caper — one major plot twist is thoroughly pleasing, and surely original (I guess it’s been copied a few times since), and the sense that everybody’s just making it up as they go along is probably more to do with the unusual fluctuations of tone than the lack of an overall scheme (although one major bad guy remains uncaptured at the end — “We’ll pick him up,” suggests the detective, but will they? WILL THEY?). Amid the banter and suspense scenes, there’s one heart-breaking scene where the wandering hero finally finds somebody who recognises him — only to learn she’s a lonely neurotic, fantasising a connection with him in order to stave off the emptiness of her existence. Nicely done.

*

Louis B. Mayer’s nickname for Joseph Mankiewicz was Joe Monkeybitch.

*

Mankiewicz always said that if he was remembered at all it would be as “the swine who rewrote F. Scott Fitzgerald’s dialogue” in THREE COMRADES. Fortunately, he was wrong. But he’s remembered as “the dialogue guy” who did ALL ABOUT EVE, and there’s a bit more to him than that.

Quote of the Day: 55 Drinks at Peking

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on May 20, 2008 by dcairns

Screenwriter Bernard Gordon (55 DAYS AT PEKING) on Nicholas Ray ~

The Green Ray

“Nick was trying hard to battle a long alcohol dependency, but his approach struck me as weird and unproductive. He didn’t allow himself any wine or liquor but kept a bottle of an Italian digestif, Fernet Branca, at hand. Almost every bar had this drink in stock, ready for patrons who’d eaten too much and were suffering from acid indigestion. Ergo, digestif. I tried it myself. It worked much better than Alka Seltzer, but it was a vile-tasting concoction made from something like fermented artichoke hearts; sipping it was only slightly less unpleasant than suffering from heartburn. It was actually a strong alcoholic drink. From the taste, I suspected it was about a hundred proof. Keeping to his vow and his promise to stay off the sauce, Nick sat all evening, sipping his digestif, consuming almost the entire bottle. Toward the end of the shooting on PEKING, Nick became seriously ill. I blamed that corrosive drink.”

~ From Hollywood Exile, or How I Learned to Stop Worryng and Love the Blacklist.

peking blues

Gordon’s stories from this one shoot are incredible. With an alcoholic director, and an alcoholic star (Ava Gardner, who walked off the film partway, necessitating an offscreen death for her character), the film was what you might call troubled. When David Niven, who had cheerfully signed up without reading a page of script, protested that his character wasn’t active enough, an English writer was brought in to help Gordon flesh out the role. Robert Hamer, the most serious alcoholic of the bunch. It was said at Ealing Studios, latterly Hamer’s home, that if by some freak of chance, endurance or depravity you managed to misbehave more appallingly than Hamer on a night out, he would be unable to face you the next day for shame of having been outperformed in the degeneracy stakes.

Gordon found Hamer charming, but completely unproductive.

He reports that Philip Yordan, handling the production for Samuel Bronston, was an eccentric sort of chap (Yordan, a writer himself, was a “front” for many blacklisted scribes. When all the blacklisted writers names were being restored to the credits of films they’d worked on, Yordan provided information about who had done what — except where he’d had a falling-out with the writer. Then they could go unnamed forever as far as he was concerned). Returning to their hotel from a late meal, Gordon saw Yordan purchase a stack of astrology magazines.

“You don’t believe in that stuff, do you?” asked Gordon, amazed.

“Do you know of a better way to predict the future?”

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