Archive for September, 2015

His Name Was Ernie

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , on September 30, 2015 by dcairns

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Sometimes I watch a Richard Quine film and I’m disappointed and it takes me a while to watch another, sometimes what I see is very inspiring — OPERATION MAD BALL, though not a masterpiece, inflates a slender premise to a reasonable size, and gets some good comedy going.

France, right after WWII. There’s an army base full of nurses and enlisted men, but they’re not allowed to date because the nurses technically count as officers. The wily Jack Lemmon lots and schemes under the nose of stickler-in-chief Ernie Kovacs to organise a super-celebration at which the guys and girls can dance and hold hands and like that.

Kathryn Grant is extremely cute, sporting the same little curl above her big spherical forehead that she wears in THE SEVENTH VOYAGE OF SINBAD — a hairstyle apparently popular in both 8th century Persia and the 1940s US military. There’s an energetic cameo by Mickey Rooney. Kind of horrible, but undeniably energetic. And there’s Lemmon and Kovacs.

Jack Lemmon must have seemed a colossal breath of fresh air in 50s American film — it seems like, after the war, there was a rush to re-cement gender roles and men had to be Glenn Ford or nothing. The comedies gradually got less daring, as if you couldn’t even joke about the relationship between the sexes. Of course, there was still a lot of good stuff happening, but the appearance of a Jack Lemmon facilitated a lot of interesting developments. Lemmon is light, and not super-masculine. He doesn’t have a camp bone in his body, which made him safe to cast in SOME LIKE IT HOT, but he doesn’t radiate machismo. His insertion into the cultural mainstream opened a duct allowing about a hectolitre of excess testosterone to be drained off. This was later frozen and chiselled into the form of Charles Bronson, so nothing was wasted.

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Here, he’s playing a bit of a schemer, and the plot requires him to break down the resistance of a very proper young lady. At a key point, he has to threaten her with incipient spinsterhood if she doesn’ yield to what I suppose we must call his blandishments — a slightly nasty, and definitely sexist speech. Lemmon makes it a lot less hateful than it would have sounded coming from your typical tough guy, and he throws in a guilty look at the end which I’m positive wasn’t specified in the script.

Kovacs, asides from his creative genius as a television comedian, is just an amazing actor — his choices are really bold, but credible. To make Capt. Lock loathsome, he does a lot of work with his mouth, making it seem very wet and eager — canine qualities which can be endearing in a mutt, but are also a bit repulsive if you imagine getting too close. While his TV character Percy Dovetonsils would draw the edges of his mouth as far back as possible as if his head were attempting second-stage separation, lips parting tightly to admit little gasps that seem to ellicit our approval. By contrast, Capt. Lock’s lips seem slack and slobbery, his grin loose, stupid, ingratiating, somehow suggesting an abyss of self-doubt behind his bullying facade.

Lock is finally defeated when Lemmon frames him, getting him picked up by the military police. By chance, his own C.O. happens to pass, and Kovacs appeals for help — surely this man will vouch for him. But it’s one of those rather mean humiliation comeuppances — his C.O. doesn’t like him, and declares he’s never seen this guy before. (We’re to believe that this will all be straightened out in the morning, but Kovacs will spend the night in the cooler.)

Lock’s reaction to this apparent lack of recognition is stunningly played by Kovacs. Lock, of course, can’t comprehend why his superior officer is denying knowledge of him — he’s crossed over into the Twilight Zone. What he does, deprived by shock of the power of speech, is to point at his own moustache. With both index fingers. “This is my moustache,” the gesture seems to say. “So surely this is me?”

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An existential crisis we can all relate to, I think.

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Blind Tuesday: Mother of Tears

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on September 29, 2015 by dcairns

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The return of our occasional series of Tuesday thrillers about people who don’t see too good. We’ll get around to WAIT UNTIL DARK one day, I swear.

But for now, let’s stay Argentinian, with Carlos Hugo Christensen’s NO ABRAS NUNCA ESA PUERTA (DON’T OPEN THAT DOOR), his 1952 Cornell Woolrich compendium. We might also consider this Cornell Woolrich Week Revisited.

The first story in the film is graced with spectacular, exotic production design, but takes a while to get going and is a little unsatisfactory, at least for me, in narrative terms — which is fine, because I want to talk about the second half, which deals with a blind woman and her son, who has been away for years but returns as part of a gang of armed robbers on the run from police but already planning their next heist. All this poor woman’s hopes have been wrapped up in the idea of her prodigal’s eventual return, and now she realizes, via a tune he whistles, that he’s a dreadful criminal. The conjunction of blindness with recognition via a tune recalls Lang’s M, which was also referenced in Christensen’s other Woolrich adaptation, IF I SHOULD DIE BEFORE I WAKE. The idea of the giveaway melody also recalls CLOCKWORK ORANGE and makes me wonder if M was an influence on that? Bear in mind that Alex’s spirited if misguided rendition of Singin’ in the Rain does not occur in the Burgess source novel and was an inspiration of star Malcolm McDowell…

The story makes free use of all the traditional superpowers of blind people — the mother has acute hearing, and can easily find her way about her home due to her perfect recall of furniture placement. Like Edward Arnold in EYES IN THE DARK and Audrey Hepburn in WAIT UNTIL DARK, she renders her enemies helpless by disabling the lights. She also has to fumble about as they sleep, locating their sidearms and removing them — the film’s most suspenseful scene. Watch out for that bottle!

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Christensen again proves himself a master of suspense — this half hour entertainment, with its thoroughly satisfying and tragic twist, would stand out as a perfect episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. It’s real yell-at-the-screen tension.

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Yaaah!

Delightfully and heroically, Eddie Muller’s Film Noir Foundation has rescued the film just before its negative decayed — what we need now is a DVD release so the rest of the world can enjoy it in something better than a scuzzy off-air recording.

Forbidden Divas: A Woman of Her Importance

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 28, 2015 by dcairns

Our regular guest Shadowplayer David Melville returns with another in his series, Forbidden Divas.    

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A WOMAN OF HER IMPORTANCE

When I wanted your trust, I didn’t get it.

Now that I have your trust, I don’t want it!

Dolores del Río, Story of a Bad Woman

On the long list of places I’ve never been to, Argentina is the one that makes me most curious. I’ve heard that Eva Perón – a prostitute who married a dictator – is still revered by many as a saint. That the tango is popular only in the capital, Buenos Aires, and reviled elsewhere in the country as vulgar and salacious. That decades of conflict over las Islas Malvinas (known to imperialists as the Falklands) have done nothing to blunt a perverse but enduring fascination with all things British. According to one old saying: “An Argentine is an Italian who speaks Spanish, works like a German and tries but fails to dress like an Englishman.”

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So perhaps it’s weirdly fitting that Argentina (not the UK) has produced the smartest and most elegant screen version of an Oscar Wilde comedy. Historia de una mala mujer (which translates literally as Story of a Bad Woman) is a liberal but pitch-perfect adaptation of Wilde’s 1892 play Lady Windermere’s Fan. Made in 1948 – when Argentina still rivalled Mexico as the leading film industry in the Spanish-speaking world – it’s the work of one Luis Saslavsky, a brilliant but little-known auteur who fled into exile in the 50s and spent the bulk of his career in Europe. Its star, Dolores del Río, was a legend in both Mexico and Hollywood. Here she pays a gracious goodwill visit to points further south.

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Sinuous in its camerawork, eye-wateringly lavish in its costumes and sets, Story of a Bad Woman may be the best film ever made from an Oscar Wilde text. The other contender for me is Carmelo Bene’s 1972 version of Salome, with 60s supermodel Veruschka shedding a skin of jewels off her nude body while her director/co-star writhes in understandable lust. That film was an Italian avant-garde epic – so perhaps, in order to film Wilde successfully, you have to slice his text to ribbons and translate him into a foreign language. The one truly Wildean film in English, Robert Hamer’s 1949 black comedy Kind Hearts and Coronets, is not actually based on Wilde at all.

While British and American directors tend to preserve Wilde’s bonbons of wit in a glaze of stiff and flavourless aspic jelly, Saslavsky uses the text as a springboard and sets his camera free to do its job. He opens at the opera, at a gala performance of Verdi’s Il Trovatore. As in Luchino Visconti’s Senso (1954) – which opens at a performance of the same opera – there’s far more drama in the audience than on the stage. Every pair of opera-glasses in the house is trained on a single empty box, in which the scandalous femme fatale Mrs Erlynne is due to appear. Once the lady shows up, she does not disappoint. In a black velvet gown with a long trailing black-and-white cape, Dolores del Río is an Aubrey Beardsley illustration sprung to life.

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Stalking the corridors at the interval, Dolores gives Saslavsky and his team a chance to show they have read other works by Oscar Wilde and not just the one they are adapting. She runs into an old admirer called Arthur Savile (Francisco de Paula) – who retrieves her glittering serpent bracelet when it falls off her wrist onto the floor. (The device used to entrap the villainous Mrs Cheveley in An Ideal Husband.) But her main purpose of the evening is blackmail. The world-weary husband (Alberto Closas) of an insufferably priggish young socialite (María Duval) has unaccountably started paying Mrs Erlynne’s bills. Given that this lady’s wardrobe alone could bankrupt a small South American nation, we know that ugly and long-buried skeletons are fairly beating on the closet door.

Or that, at any rate, is what the neighbours think. A bevy of gossipy old crones spy out through the windows of one house – and in through the windows of Mrs Erlynne’s house next door. At last, the camera seems to grow tired of their world and glides, seamlessly, through a pane of glass into the salon where Dolores sits at her piano. (For sheer bravura, this shot is easily a match for the famous glass ceiling shot in Citizen Kane (1941), whose director Orson Welles was a real-life admirer of Dolores.) Having found its way into her home, the camera now enters her mind. A flashback shows us how Dolores, once a dutiful wife and mother, lost custody of her child when her husband suspected her of an affair.

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Apart from The Importance of Being Earnest, all Wilde’s comedies contain a strong dose of melodrama; Saslavsky is perhaps the one filmmaker to give this aspect its due. The flashback is staged and lit like a Gothic horror movie, all blazing candelabra, crashes of thunder and flashes of lightning outside the windows. He resurrects this Sturm und Drang later on in the movie, for a scene that reveals Dolores is actually the long-lost mother of the prissy Duval. (My God, does heredity count for nothing?) That, of course, is why the husband is paying her money. If not, she might reveal The Truth and destroy the family’s good name.

Not that Duval is any model of discretion. She flirts quite openly with a smarmily handsome dandy played by Fernando Lamas, a few years before his Hollywood career as a ‘Latin Lover’ to the likes of Esther Williams and Arlene Dahl. Lamas describes her as “a charming puritan” (well, he’s half right) and does his utmost to lure her away from her admittedly dull husband. In fact, nobody in this film has much appeal apart from Dolores – who grows only more radiantly beautiful (like some queer and monstrous orchid) the more other characters prattle on about how depraved she is.

One of those stars whose acting verges on the subliminal, del Río transforms herself from dewy-eyed victim to hardened adventuress with barely a trace of visible effort. She may rival Greta Garbo and Catherine Deneuve for the crown of Great Actress Who Is Most Unlike Meryl Streep. At the film’s climactic ball (which resembles a luxuriant dress rehearsal for Vincente Minnelli’s in his 1949 Madame Bovary) she makes her entrance in a gown of purest virginal white. Wielding an outsize bouquet of stainless white flowers, just in case we miss the point!

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At the ball, her irritating simp of a long-lost daughter looks set to compromise herself (yet again) with the lusty Lamas. Without hesitating, Dolores sacrifices her own reputation to save her child – who is still unaware they are related. This new scandal costs her the love of her latest suitor, who offered her the fleeting prospect of respectability and marriage. (Yawn!) She stands without flinching as the man slaps her publicly across the face. The camera – taking its cue, perhaps, from Dolores – does not move either. We stay in a tight close-up as her face runs the gamut of shock, defiance, hope, anguish and despair. It’s not for nothing that Dolores del Río began in silent films.

Moments like this may make you prefer Story of a Bad Woman, not just to other Wilde adaptations, but perhaps even to Wilde’s original play. Lady Windermere’s Fan climaxes with a cloyingly sentimental mother-daughter reunion and ends with the ‘dangerous’ mother safely married off to a benign elder gent. In Luis Saslavsky’s version, mother keeps her identity to a secret to the end. She strides out of the movie – much as she strode into it – alone and resplendent. Immaculately styled and radiantly gowned, her head held high. “Wickedness is a myth invented by good people to account for the curious attractiveness of others.” Wilde must have had Dolores in mind when he wrote that.

David Melville