Archive for the literature Category

Bette Noir

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , on March 23, 2018 by dcairns

Had been meaning to get around to IN THIS OUR LIFE for ages — John Huston’s largely despised follow-up to THE MALTESE FALCON was being discussed on Facebook by Dan Callahan, Farran Smith Nehme and others, and Fiona listened in and got excited. Not quite to the degree you see in the above image, but close.

Initially, I was intrigued, alright. There are some very fancy shots early on, suggesting that Huston may have still been storyboarding at this stage. And Bette’s doing something interesting with her voice, softening it, I think. It’s the opposite of her grating tone in ELIZABETH AND ESSEX, where you feel the strain.

Huston felt the story was too much soap opera to suit his tastes, and clashed with Warners over Bette’s performance: he wanted to “unleash her demon.” Huston wrote that audiences can judge for themselves, but Jack Warner wrote that they retook all the scenes where Bette was judged to be overacting, so maybe we’ll never know.

Bette and Olivia de Havilland play sisters — one good, one evil! — Charles Coburn plays one of his rare but effective nasty roles, as a rich, racist uncle. Dan Callahan was pointing out how overt it is that his relationship with Bette is incestuous. I guess the Breen Office alibi would be that it’s merely flirtatious — that’s all we actually see. And the alibi for the alibi would be that she manipulates the old goat by acting like a little girl, since she’s his favourite niece. But it’s shockingly icky to modern eyes, and there seems no other plausible way to interpret it. He molested her and she uses the power over him in gives her. Brrr. Hard to imagine a modern film portraying the victim of incest so unsympathetically. And yet, since she’s already been established as a little psychopath, this didn’t even occur to me until afterwards.

Huston was proudest of the character played by Ernest Anderson, a black kid who wants to be a lawyer. Davis frames him for vehicular homicide and again the movie is shockingly explicit about the legal system’s racial bias. In Hollywood movies, when characters sink into hopeless despair, they’re always shown as weak or wrong, but here the movie takes his part: he sees more clearly than the white protagonists that he hasn’t a chance. Hattie McDaniel as his mother also gets a very strong scene of depressive realism, explaining to De Havilland just how the white world works. It takes a lot of effort from the good characters plus a fair but of luck and the self-destructiveness of the bad guys to make things come out OK.

The film’s composer, Max Steiner, is in a particularly literal-minded mode, even for him, actually scoring the jail scene with a lugubrious rephrasing of Swannee River. He must be stopped!

Pretty interesting stuff — Huston was probably right that he shouldn’t have been the one to take charge of it (I imagine the Michael Curtiz of FLAMINGO ROAD would have taken to the material) but his liberal sensibilities preserved some of it’s most rewarding aspects.

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Carol & Alice

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , on March 9, 2018 by dcairns

Research for a new project: went to the library to get material on Natalie Wood. Most of the books in the biography section were either written by Simon Callow or about Gypsy Rose Lee, it seemed, but I eventually found Gavin Lambert’s sensitive bio, and as a bonus, Dear Cary: My Life with Cary Grant by Dyan Cannon, which also ties in with this project.

And so in the space of half an hour I read about a drunken Nick Ray accidentally drinking Natalie Wood’s urine sample, and Cary Grant getting his foot frozen to a window. Neither story is particularly useful to my project or anything at all really, but they seemed like enough for a short blog post. If you require more detail, ask for it in comments, but you might prefer to work on your negative capability or just use your imaginations to embellish the scenarios.

I’m mostly better but my stomach is still as sensitive as Mr. Lambert’s writing.

Humphrey Bogart had horns, apparently

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on March 5, 2018 by dcairns

The same evening that we watched CHRISTOPHER STRONG, in which Katherine Hepburn wears silver moth antennae, we watched THE PETRIFIED FOREST, in which Humphrey Bogart has horns. He totally has horns.

This was Bogie’s breakthrough, or one of them. It got him showy heavy roles. MALTESE FALCON moved him up to leading man roles in A-pictures. And he got to stop being showy, and just be Bogie. (Jeap-Pierre Melville claimed that Fred MacMurray invented underplaying, and that Bogie didn’t underplay until after DOUBLE INDEMNITY. I wonder.)

Now, I don’t know if Bogie had his horns filed short for other roles, like Hellboy, or he kept them long and Warners had them removed using the 1930s equivalent of photoshop (basically a sweat shop full of girls with paintbrushes, ruled over by a whip-wielding Hugh Herbert). I leave that for the likes of Rudy Behlmer to determine.

The horns are, arguably, a silly idea, but there’s other business, like a radio announcement in one scene starting to describe a car, followed by a series of hard cut to the bits of the car being detailed, leading out to wide shot showing that car in the desert, broken down but with the radio still describing it. That stuff is smart. Delmer Daves contributed to the script (from RC Sherwood’s play), so…

The Painted Desert

It’s taken me a VERY long time to get around to this film. I had heard of it as stagey and unconvincing in its set design. It IS remarkable how the same studio could make HEAT LIGHTNING, which has basically the same single location, a desert auto camp, and make of it a striking blend of reality and artifice that basically convinces, and then make this a few years later, with its weird, slanting cycloramas that feel close enough for Bette Davis to kick a heel through. As for the staginess, a hostage scenario creates a built-in dramatic tension that can basically let the writers get away with almost anything, so it’s not like it’s ever dull, and even in the long build-up, the whole setting is such a prison, there’s still tension before anything has happened. What makes it feel overly theatrical is the tendency to push character at the expense of situation, having characters reveal themselves in ways they wouldn’t, and eventually playing a love scene during a shoot-out.

Bette is miscast, I fear. You certainly believe she doesn’t belong in this desolate environment (“What’s a dazzling urbanite like you doing in a rustic setting like this?” as the Waco Kid once inquired) but you don’t see how she ever got there and there’s no trace of the naive hick about her. She has to be able to call Villon’s poetry “swell” and sound like she really does appreciate it BUT doesn’t understand that “swell” is a gauche word to use in the circumstances. With Bette, that moment is just kind of surreal. Still, though I can think of other Warners starlets who might have embodied the character more aptly (Ann Sheridan?) I can’t think of any with more star wattage (or oomph, if you will).

Leslie Howard is great. Kind of hated where the character was headed, but he made it electric. I guess we’re in the same phase of inter-war fatalism that gave us French poetic realism. It’s a beautiful, dreamy, melancholic mood, but probably the worst possible mood to have with fascism on the rise. KEY LARGO would have been a more switched-on version of this story to make in such a climate.

And then there’s the great meeting between two contrasting black characters, a moment that allows this film to pass whatever the African-American Bechdel test is. The stick-up man, Slim (Slim Thompson) greets the chauffeur, Joseph (John Alexander) with a jaunty “Hello, colored brother!” and gets a stiff “Good evening!” in reply, which makes his head go back about a foot in surprise. An amazing moment, built on in subsequent interactions. There’s the fact that these two black men ARE contrasting. And while the gangster expects them to have something in common, the driver knows he has NOTHING in common with this crook, and is positively alarmed by the other’s bonhomie, as if he were being cheerfully hailed by a rattlesnake or a hand grenade. And Slim looks at Joseph like he’s just plain from another planet. Warner Brothers’ progressive tendency could fire off in all kinds of directions…