Archive for 20th Century Fox

Up, skirt

Posted in Fashion, FILM, literature, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 1, 2018 by dcairns

Strange that THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH should be this famous thing, despite being one of the weaker Billy Wilder films of its era. (Arguably, all six Wilder films made between ACE IN THE HOLE and SOME LIKE IT HOT are minor work, but minor Wilder ain’t nothing, and some of them are favourites of mine, whatever their flaws.) He never co-wrote with George Axelrod again, and would later say the one-off collaborations were the ones that didn’t work. Axelrod said that the play was about a man who commits adultery and feels guilty about it, but censorship forbade the sex from actually occurring so the movie is about a man who DOESN’T commit adultery and feels guilty about it — a somewhat trivial complaint.Also, Wilder had wanted to cast Walter Matthau. Imagine THAT film. Tom Ewell is skilled, but he has a truly sinister smile and is never what you’d call pleasant to look at. Calling him “Tommy” in the Saul Bass titles doesn’t make him any more boyish. There’s a reason why Skelton Knaggs never played lead in a romantic comedy. (Matthau’s shall-we-say unconventional looks never seem to be a problem — except when he takes his shirt off — and he eventually acquired leading man status and became a fixture in Wilder’s films.)

The film’s balancing act begins at the beginning, with a history of Manhattan in which the voiceover man has to sound like a classic fifties narrator-dude but also break character with casual jokes. The uncredited voice artist isn’t quite up to the second task.The island of Manhattan, as viewed from a nearby hill.

Having packed wife Evelyn Keyes and space cadet son* off to cooler climes for the summer, Ewell starts fantasising, which is most of the film.

This is Wilder’s first ‘Scope production, in some ways a counterintuitive format for a movie consisting largely of a guy alone in his apartment. In New York, yet. A city that seems to invite the filmmaker to rotate the anamorphic lens 90º and make the vertical horizontal, like with a camera phone. (I think I’d seen this movie in every ratio except the right one, until now.) But it’s a Fox pic, so the frame shape was compulsory. And Wilder finds an interesting use for the width when mixing into flashback. The long slow dissolves, in which the foreground stays solid for ages as a new background bleeds through, must be influenced by CITIZEN KANE, but the 1949 stage debut of Death of a Salesman, with its lighting-change time-shifts, may have influenced Axelrod in the first place. (Hmm, I seem to recall another Arthur Miller connection here, but I can’t quite put my finger on it.) Preston Sturges said he wanted the fantasies in UNFAITHFULLY YOURS to look as if they were written and directed by the protagonist, who is neither a writer nor a director, Wilder’s treatment of Ewell’s nocturnal thoughts really takes this idea further. Ewell’s job, publishing sensational literature (a milieu already explored by Danny Kaye in THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY), further inflects his lurid imaginings. Wilder frames stagily and Ewell aims his performance at the camera rather than his co-stars (who include the great Carolyn Jones as a passion-crazed nurse) and the effect is as much soap opera as it is pulp magazine. The spoof of FROM HERE TO ETERNITY (whose director, Fred Zinnemann, was a friend, fellow Austro-Hungarian, and former collaborator of Wilder’s) got the biggest laugh from Fiona, due to Ewell’s disabled sprint along the shore. It’s not the most sophisticated bit of comedy, but this isn’t exactly Wilder’s most sophisticated film.**

Just before meeting Marilyn’s “The Girl,” Ewell slips on his son’s roller-skate and spills raspberry soda all over his pants. (The second skate will slide, sharklike, silent and seemingly under its own will, to trip him again much later. No explanation offered for its cartoon self-propulsion: either the family home is poltergeistically punishing him for thoughts of infidelity, or it’s acting as psychic familiar for his son, junior member of the Anti-Sex League. Note how the lad used his space helmet to escape a fatherly kiss. No affection is allowed. The child’s role in marriage is to cockblock the parent, right?) Seconds later, speaking to Marilyn, Ewell is dry of trouser. I guess the detail of the soda spatter was impossible to reproduce, though the appeal of Ewell grinning after the leading lady with a sodden crotch strikes me as a detail worth pursuing.Monroe is so artificial a performer when she’s doing her thing (the carefully arranged grin, lips pulled tight to hide gums), that it’s hard to assess her performance, especially when playing such an obvious fantasy figure. It IS nice to see her playing Chopsticks, though, with a different kind of smile, one we aren’t used to seeing on her, one that seems real. Or at least unfamiliar. It’s the shape her face makes when she smiles, sings “pop-pop-pop” along with Chopsticks, and keeps her gums hidden. It’s a good face. I guess the scene’s other purpose is to make her tits jiggle. Trevilla’s costume designs emphasise the natural squishiness of body fat and avoid bullet-bra rigidity.

“What IS this relationship?” asked Fiona as the film ends. What has the film shown us, in fact? Ewell enjoys (and is tormented by) a flirtatious friendship, and this is somehow going to reinvigorate his marriage, though it’s not quite clear how. His wife is unaware of everything that happens, and isn’t aware of any marital problem either. The problem The Girl diagnoses is that his wife trusts him: not the worst problem to have.There’s also a half-hearted attempt to make something out of The Sonny Tufts Subplot, with Ewell becoming jealous about his wife (obviously a feat of projected guilt) and the aforementioned Tufts, whom he will eventually slug. Since Tufts is blameless in reality, this bit of gratuitous violence seems to stem solely from Wilder’s assessment that Tufts is the kind of guy we would like to see punched, an assessment I cannot honestly fault. There’s a fine German word, Backpfeifengesicht, for Sonny Tufts’ face.There’s also a very weird, broad, Neanderthal performance from one Robert Strauss, who inexplicably doesn’t get punched. I guess we could say he has the Cliff Osmond role. And a VERY funny perf by Oscar Homolka as Dr, Brubaker, psychologist, who proves himself a fine conduit for the Wilder style. As we’re told Wilder dictated every pause and gesture, I assume he also gave indications of timing/delivery, or maybe it’s just his writing that offers to the sensitive actor a suggestion of what to stress and what to throw away. At any rate, Homolka proves himself the funniest headshrink in Wilder’s long parade of nerve specialists (certainly more amusing than Martin Gabel or Klaus Kinski).The removal of the act, or even the suggestion of the act, of consummation, does more than turn the movie into merely an exploration of male fantasy (something it would need to employ Dr. Brubaker fulltime in order to get to the bottom of). It sadly turns it into a disconnected bag of bits, blackout sketches without a real final punchline. Some very funny bits, some stylish filmmaking, and a strong sense of the specific weirdness of its time and place. All accidentally elevated to classic status by a scene where a skirt blows up, and the girl enjoys the sensation.**** See also Fred MacMurray’s moon-mission aspirant offspring in THE APARTMENT. Admirable efficiency of American society: as soon as they got a space program, they started giving birth to would-be astronauts.

** Wilder has the fantasy female in this segment declare “from here to ETERNITY!” to make sure we get it, but also to make a joke out of the making sure. Later he has Ewell mention the famous actress Marilyn Monroe — evidently she was already too iconic to be wholly enveloped in the story as a fictional presence. The most amusing in-joke, however, is the reference to one “Charlie Lederer” — the name of a fellow screenwriter irl — going crazy last summer and getting tattooed.

***Was the scene perceived as a triumph of eroticism because it shows us legs, and shame-free exposure, or because it makes us FEEL the sensation of cool air on bare skin?

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“Sun’s coming up, like a big bald head…”

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on January 27, 2009 by dcairns

Image from QUIET, PLEASE: MURDER! (possibly the most heavily-punctuated title of any 1940s Hollywood film).

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Bosley Crowther’s review of the film questions why the village from HOW GREEN IS MY VALLEY is situated in the art room of a public library. He suggests that the fact that both films were 20th Century Fox productions may have something to do with it. Thanks to Peter for pointing this one out. In other shots we can see more clearly the long slope of the town’s main street, which offers such striking perspectives in Ford’s film.

Thugs with Ugly Mugs

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 27, 2008 by dcairns

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Every private eye’s office should come equipped with a kookalorus to throw crazy shadows on the walls when the lights are dimmed. Standard equipment, along with the snap-brim fedora and raincoat.

My copy of THE BRASHER DOUBLOON turned out to be not exactly pristine. The 20th Century Fox logo looked like it had been filmed underwater, in murky conditions, which was a first, and the rest of the movie had a grubby, dirt-streaked quality as if I was watching it with dirty, dirty eyes.

“…Bunker Hill, which used to be the choice place to live in Los Angeles. Nowadays, people live there because they haven’t got any choice.”

It’s Philip Marlowe! Hello Phil. Phil’s looking a little different because he’s not Humphrey Bogart or even Dick Powell or James Garner or Robert Mitchum, he’s George Montgomery, handsome but not particularly characterful. But his private eye voice-over marks him out as Marlowe alright.

John Brahm, following in the footsteps of Edward Dmytryk’s FAREWELL MY LOVELY and Howard Hawks’ THE BIG SLEEP, does certain film noir things by the book, so Marlowe has a neon sign outside his office window, and a voice-over, and never manages to grab some shut-eye except when he’s sapped on the head, which is often. Also, someone is always pulling a gun on him and he’s always pulling a fast one on them. On the other hand, he smokes a pipe, which seems positively aberrant behaviour for a shamus.

“When in doubt, have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand.”  — Raymond Chandler.

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Brahm may not have the stars or the originality, but he has a vibrant compositional style, and a great eye for bit-part casting. Even the great, chunky and enervated Fritz Kortner pales alongside some of the rogues’s gallery he’s surrounded by here. I can think of few movies before Leone where the supporting bad guys and background schlubs have such grotesque and inspiring kissers. Maybe Fritz Lang’s M, and maybe some Sternberg. And Kurosawa — such care taken with minor creeps and losers in THE SEVEN SAMURAI.

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This fellow, with his straw boater and vaguely Mittel-European accent, is like a debauched ancestor of Polanski’s little bruiser in CHINATOWN. The sleepy eye is a winner. He’s an amazing physical actor too (who the devil is he???) — even his body language has a foreign accent.

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This raddled old coot actor rejoices in the name of Housely Stevenson. Houseley, there’s a name you don’t hear nearly often enough. Looking at his credits, I see he played the role of “Old Man” quite a bit. It’s good to have a speciality to fall back on.

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A face only a mother could love, and even then, only when viewing it through a welder’s helmet.

One could go on, but there is a fine line between appreciating a bit-part player and mocking the afflicted. I enjoyed Brahm’s film muchly (I read The High Window, the book it comes from, years ago), although viewed today, Marlowe’s eagerness to cure Nancy Guild of her phobia of being touched strikes me as a little more than professional. It’s the Dr. Louis Judd  method. The story comes off as more silly and contrived than I remember in the book, as does the whole movie, but “silly and contrived” is Brahm’s preferred mode — you don’t look to him for subtlety or depth. He’s Mr. Panache.

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Marlowe’s hit-on-the-head POV shot. Since this shot also appears in THE DEVILS, a Ken Russell comparison suddenly seems intriguing, except I think Mad Ken is more clever than Brahm, although he often pretends not to be.