Archive for Arthur Miller

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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In the frame

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on November 9, 2015 by dcairns

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Gradually overcoming my foolish Elia Kazan aversion — based on his politics/ethics, not his movies, so I’ve just been robbing myself, really — and ran BOOMERANG! (1947), a wackily titled courtroom/political drama from Fox, recklessly elaborated from a true story. Ambitious D.A. Dana Andrews (but the D.A. stands for District Attorney, you see) builds up a perfect case against a drifter (Arthur Kennedy, young but already rodent-like) accused of murdering a priest — ballistics, eye-witnesses, a destroyed alibi and a confession, but then, since he’s a painfully honest man, he risks his whole career by trying to dismantle the evidence, which proves shakier than first assumed.

These corruption dramas are always double-edged things. The old Hollywood model has to show the system working, both to confirm our faith in society and to deliver the required happy ending. But one can be left with doubts. If not for the impeccable Jimmy Stewart in MR SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON, the forces of corruption would surely win, and the movie makes it very clear that Stewart/Smith is an unusual individual, therefore can we not assume that corruption wins most of the time? So with Andrews here. Kazan can be assumed to have meant more criticism of the status quo than Capra ever would. Here, the newly elected reform politicians are shown to be as capable of shady dealings as the villain they ousted — some are prone to “noble cause corruption,” believing that basically any course they take is justified if it gets them re-elected so they can carry out more reform. One, played by the turtle Ed Begley, blatantly has his fingers in the till.

(I think SERPICO marks a significant point — corruption is seen as so entrenched that a single honest man CANNOT reform the system.)

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The usual suspects: Arthur Kennedy, number 5, but in a surprise cameo, Arthur Miller is rumoured to appear in one of the film’s lineups.

Another guest star: Gadge’s dad uncle, as an incompetent witness. Runs in the family?

There’s some corny stuff in here, corny but fun. Sam Levene plays a hardboiled newspaperman with as dopey sidekick. Andrews indulges in ludicrous courtroom theatrics that make you applaud, like having a loaded gun aimed at his own head, the trigger pulled (yeah, probably more lawyers should do this); when a stooge tells the baddie “It’s been a pleasure meeting you,” the baddie replies, “I know.” A jilted dame testifies against the hapless patsy out of sluttish pique. Lots of cornball stuff, and filming on location doesn’t diffuse that, though the occasional reverberant sound in the background testifies to the existence of a world outside the frame.

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More valuable is the strong cast, with Kazan regulars Lee J. Cobb and Karl Malden in evidence. Cobb as the police chief, more muted than usual, is rather wonderful. He uses sleep deprivation to torture a confession out of his man, but refuses to use violence. He has a conscience, up to a point. There’s no evidence that he lets politics influence his performance of his duties. But like a lot of flawed cops, once he sells himself on a man’s guilt, he can justify almost any action to get a conviction. At that point, an innocent man’s denials become lack of contrition, and the further he goes the more committed he is to proving a supposition rather than investigating a case.

So the social critique is quite smart — only the script’s need to roll everything into a neat ball, and to amp up the dramatics, compromises its credibility, so that you pretty much KNOW watching it, “Well this wasn’t part of the original true story… nor this…” Still, it’s a strong piece of Hollywood product — like is Kazan and Zanuck got into a telepod together and what came out was… Kazanuck!

You can lead a whore to culture…

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 21, 2009 by dcairns

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MOSS ROSE is a moderately pleasing Gothic thriller, fairly predictable but enlivened by some odd casting and writing — the biggest fault in the film is also its most interesting feature. Faults are rarely as enjoyable as this one.

Peggy Cummins, the Welsh whirlwind, is Rose, a music hall chorus girl whose friend is murdered by a mysterious maniac — and by the corpse, a single flower, identified by horticulturally-inclined sleuth Vincent Price, as  a moss rose. Having reason to suspect Victor Mature, Rose behaves rather oddly — rather than rushing to Uncle Vinnie and spilling the proverbial beans, she blackmails Big Victor into inviting her down to his country home for a couple of weeks, under the very noses of his mother (Ethel Barrymore) and bride-to-be (Patricia Medina).

This is odd behaviour for a heroine. We expect Peggy to turn amateur gumshoe, following the bloody trail to the lair of the killer. Instead she exploits the crime for her own selfish ends, seeking to learn the airs and graces from miscast aristocrat Victor. The movie is like MY FAIR LADY with a body count. And indeed, the corpses keep coming, rapidly reducing the list of suspects to the point where even Scotland Yard might be able to figure it out.

Peggy Cummins is never less than endearing (except in GUN CRAZY where she’s flat-out sexy and psychopathic), and here her cuteness is enhanced by a cocker-knee accent which she rather struggles with: not that she can’t do it, but you’re conscious of the sheer effort of remembering to drop every single “H,” while adding others in so that “H” is pronounced “Haitch.” Actually, that’s how it would be pronounced in a well-ordered universe. It’s ridiculous that “H” begins with a silent “H.”

Our leading lady being a blackmailer could make for an interesting plot point if the movie had any plans for how to exploit it. If Peggy turned out to be the killer (she isn’t)… if she was a cold-blooded vamp (she isn’t supposed to be: she makes several comments about her poor dear murdered friend, invested with all the emotion actress and writers can muster)… if she was secretly working for the police (she isn’t)… One expects, in the days when the Production Code reigned supreme, that P.C. would get some kind of ironic comeuppance for her actions, but even on that score the film shows no signs of acknowledging the oddity of her scheme. Quite apart from the morality angle, it’s a little peculiar that she doesn’t feel herself to be in any danger from the man she believes murdered her friend.

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I was reminded of the Douglas Sirk noir SHOCKPROOF, based on a mangled Sam Fuller script, where the hero is a parole officer who falls for his client, helping her jump bail, leave the state, and steal a car. Despite the Production Code, all ends happily for the disgraceful pair: after they are returned to the long arm of the law, no charges are made. Sometimes the need for a happy ending could outweigh the need for crime not paying. Some filmmakers worked hard at finding clever ways to flaunt the Code, but others apparently solved the problem with sheer stupidity. SHOCKPROOF and MOSS ROSE can both pass for morality tales if you simply fail to think about them.

Direction (adequate) by Gregory Ratoff, script (odd) by Niven Busch, Tom Reed and the great Jules Furthman, whose weird hand can perhaps be detected in these oddities.

Another minor pleasure the film offers is this bridge —

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— recognizable as the same one depicted in Fritz Lang’s MAN HUNT. A set which Lang claimed did not exist. Having been forbidden by Zanuck to shoot the bridge scene, Lang set about finding a way to do it in secret and for free.

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Frame grab from The Auteurs’ Notebook.

“All we had were cobblestones on the street. Then I said, ‘Ben, I saw a railing around here that looks like a bridge.’ He said, ‘Yes.’ I said, ‘Does it cost anything?’ He said, ‘No, that you can have.’ But we needed two, so I said, ‘How much would it cost to make a second one–at my expense?’ I think it was forty dollars. I talked with Arthur Miller–he was a genius as a cameraman–and he said it was possible to light in such a way that the background gradually faded away in the fog, so we didn’t even need a backdrop. We had the cobblestone street and we had the sidewalk, on which we put these two railings. We had a lamppost in the foreground, then a second lamppost, and we hung progressively diminishing lightbulbs–say, a 100-watt, then 80, then 50, and so on; and over the whole thing we put a little London fog. We started at four o’clock in the morning–just Ben, Arthur Miller and myself–and we fixed up this whole set. […] I shot the scene and Zanuck didn’t say a damned word about it. All he said was, ‘WHERE THE HELL’S THAT SET? I want to talk to Silvey! You keep that set and we’ll shoot a whole picture on it.’ ‘I’m terribly sorry, Mr. Zanuck,’ said Ben, ‘there was no set.'”

Quote from Lang interview in Who the Devil Made It by Peter Bogdanovich.

Not for the first time, we find Lang bending the facts, although the set is undoubtedly a forced perspective illusion and there’s no backdrop. It also looks like there might only be ONE “fence” — we never see two at a time.