Archive for Bette Davis

Route of all evil

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 12, 2022 by dcairns

Following Danger Man back to the native land of Bond, we discover Richard Johnson, who would play Bulldog Drummond in a couple of passable spy romps, working in a much more sombre and hard-edged thriller, DANGER ROUTE. Forgettable, generic title, and nearly a forgettable film, but it has moments.

It has a proper filmmaker in the director’s chair, too, though one in decline. Seth Holt would die during the shooting of his next production, BLOOD FROM THE MUMMY’S TOMB — an amusingly persistent case of hiccups turned out to presage a massive coronary. He’s on intermittently good form here — the inconsistent MUMMY movie is more persistently engaging, but he brings his talent fully to bear on the movie’s bitter climax.

The film is pitched somewhere between the brutality of Bond and the morose Le Carre worldview. Not so seedy, but grey and downbeat. Our anti-hero is a government assassin, and the first scene depicts two spymasters planning his final mission in a cinema (on the screen is the director’s previous film, STATION SIX SAHARA, an amusing in-joke though not as pointedly meta as the moment in CAPRICE where Doris Day hides from enemy agents in a cinema showing… CAPRICE), and the make it clear that if agent “Jonas Wilde” survives the job, a female agent has been put in position to destroy him afterwards.

There’s a distinct lack of glamorous locations — the Channel Islands are the height of escapism in this film, and the production values, courtesy of Amicus, are on the thin side, with unconvincing dioramas ob view through every window. Harry THE THIRD MAN Waxman is cinematographer, and the shots are sometimes expressive in a subtle way, but it’s no thrill-ride. A single Deutsch tilt, on a cross-channel ferry. The plot moves forward with some bold elisions, which helps a bit.

“A mountain of evil,” was Bette Davis’ summation of Holt on THE NANNY (probably his best film), which seems to have baffled his friends on the crew. There’s an intriguing comment also from his widow, who said that when Holt worked as producer on THE LADYKILLERS, rather than calming one another down, which is what both needed, they would tend to hype each other into a frenzy. Possibly that was good for the film?

A better script would help this one: good actors make a limited impression with thick eared, hackneyed dialogue. It’s not overtly clumsy but nobody comes to life. Johnson seems at home being glum and angry, but hits that same note too hard and often; Carol Lynley is seductive and sweet; Barbara Bouchet effective when mysterious, but when the mask comes off, what’s underneath is unconvincing; Sylvia Sims, Diana Dors, are as professional as ever, same for Harry Andrews, Maurice Denham and Gordon Jackson.

MASSIVE SPOILER ALERT

The final betrayal comes with a slick reversal — Johnson, a creature of habit, has fixed himself a Bacardi. He’s told by his girlfriend, Carol Lynley, that the ice cubes were poisoned — he’ll start to notice the creeping paralysis now.

He replies that the ice cubes are in the goldfish tank — he’s anticipated the betrayal.

His assassin looks to the tank, where the fish are floating lifeless — a school of substitute Johnsons. And Holt shows the next action — Johnson slaying his lover with one mighty chop — only in the shadow on the glass.

DANGER ROUTE stars Dr. John Markway; Ann Lake; Moneypenny; the Queen Mother; Frau Poppendick; Lord Lucan; Filipenko; MacDonald ‘Intelligence’; Professor Henry Harrington; Mime; and Kreacher.

The Sunday Intertitle: All this, and Halloween too

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on October 25, 2020 by dcairns

“If l could get at Warner Bros a picture with Bette Davis, whom I considered an excellent actress,·or anybody of this kind, I was happy,
no matter how bad the subject was nor how little time I had to do the picture. The whole conception of picturemaking was not to do something too bad (this, already, made us very happy), for this weekly check we were getting.” ~ Anatole Litvak, Oral History.

The sense that the scenarists of ALL THIS, AND HEAVEN TOO are not quite on top of things is reawakened by the surprise appearance of two seasonal intertitles well into the second act. Given that the story is being narrated by Bette Davis during a French class — those kids are going to be utterly at sea in Le Havre — one wonders, did Bette include the intertitle in her recounting of how her arrival as governess for the children of Charles Boyer and Barbara O’Neil (Scarlett O’Hara’s mum; quite bad in this) caused everyone to die. You definitely get a much better experience with this mostly stodgy, “quality” drama from WB if you imagine that Bette is lying her ass off and she’s totally murdered everyone, including her class. We could come out of flashback to find her surrounded by corpses at schooldesks.

The Halloween sequence abruptly allows Anatole Litvak to conjure some nice spooky atmosphere, then it’s back to the wretched plot. The interesting thing about the true story this derives from is that it helped inspire the 1848 revolution, but we don’t see any of that.

My cunning plan was, or should have been, to make Anatole Litvak Week One take us up to the war, which caused a dramatic shift in Litvak’s whole approach to his work. But I’ve run out of weekdays and I have pieces to write on CASTLE ON THE HUDSON, CITY FOR CONQUEST, OUT OF THE FOG, BLUES IN THE NIGHT and maybe THIS ABOVE ALL (dunno, haven’t watched yet). Three of the above are going to share a single post, though. To hell with THE SISTERS. So what I’ll maybe do is run a couple of pieces next week on their own, just to keep the cauldron simmering, and jump back into Week Two, as planned, in November.

Still, ALL THIS, AND HEAVEN TOO stars Margo Channing; Adam Belinsky; Lloyd Hart; Ellen – his wife; Dinah Lord; Parthy Ann Hawks; Oliver Larrabee; Garbitsch; Colonel Skeffington; Walter Parks Thatcher; Lord Marshmorton; Mrs. Pike; Maureen Robinson; Randy Monaghan – as a Girl; Lars-Erik; Franz Liszt; Rameses I; Pa Dillinger (uncredited); Mrs. Stark – Jim’s grandmother; James Kirkham; and undetermined secondary role.

Litvak Lit

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 19, 2020 by dcairns

“I may not be talented, but I am very, very intelligent!” yelled Anatole Litvak in an argument with his screenwriter, Peter Viertel (according to Viertel).

James Cagney called Litvak “a natural-born asshole,” and the seeds of his early retirement were sown in the making of Litvak’s CITY FOR CONQUEST. They just took a while to sprout.

Elia Kazan, directed by Litvak twice in his brief stint as a WB character mook, pondered, as Richard Schickel put it, “if this character could be a director, why not him?”

Trying to research Litvak a little, I find there’s one book, but rather expensive (but can anyone recommend it?) and most of the references I find in the university library system are about things like income tax, poker games, horse racing…

There’s an anecdote somewhere about Hall Wallis being furious because Litvak shot twelve takes of a close-up of Bette Davis and printed the worst. He was sure by take 12 Bette had forgotten what the scene was and why she was in it.

Bette herself, who was Litvak’s lover when they made THE SISTERS and ALL THIS, AND HEAVEN TOO, called him “a slave to his preconceptions.”

Arthur Laurents rewrote “every line” of THE SNAKE PIT, he claimed, and seemed a bit annoyed that Litvak was “too busy” (shooting the film, in fairness) to come to the arbitration hearing, with the result that Laurents received no credit.

Litvak does not rate a mention in Sarris’s The American Film. Well, he had to find room for Theodore J. Flicker, get in on the ground floor of THAT major filmography-to-be. (THE PRESIDENT’S ANALYST is one of my very favourite films, but still…)

So, Litvak or shit-sack?

Bertrand Tavernier claims a degree of shame for his neglect of the Russian/Ukrainian filmmaker: “we let somebody like Anatole Litvak die without ever meeting him – and he lived in Paris! Litvak is somebody whose films I’ve since discovered from the Thirties and Forties, as well as his documentaries for Capra: Litvak made the best of the Why We
Fight
series. But in the Sixties, Truffaut, in order to boost Bonjour Tristesse
(Otto Preminger, ’58), which he loved, knocked other directors who had
adapted Françoise Sagan. One of them was Litvak [Goodbye Again]. And stupidly, we followed Truffaut. Because Litvak s last films were bad, we refused to investigate his career. And his career had started in Russia; then he went to Germany and France, where masterpieces in the Thirties like Coeur de Lilas (’32) which contains scenes and a use of sound as imaginative as Renoir- as well as interesting films like L’Equipage…”

The late films aren’t even bad, I think. As with a lot of late work, familiarity with the earlier films and a bit of sympathy go a long way.

The Russian work Tavernier refers to is unlisted on the IMDb and because nobody thought to ask Litvak about it when he was alive, I’m uncertain we can know much about it. (Here’s where I wish I owned that expensive book.) The Encyclopaedia Britannica confirms that Litvak, after fighting in the Russian side in WWI, “began acting in his teens at an experimental theatre in St. Peterseburg,” then directed several short subjects for Nordkino studios, before he left for a career shuttling between Paris and Berlin in 1920. The earliest credits we have are as assistant director for fellow emigres Tourjansky and Volkoff, and on Abel Gance’s NAPOLEON, as well as editor on Pabst’s JOYLESS STREET, but there must be other credits we don’t have — he couldn’t, surely, have become an editor without first being an assistant. Still, those remarkable stylists must surely have exerted powerful influences on the budding director, adding to anything he’d soaked up from whatever Russian filmmakers he worked with.

“Tola” is often attributed with expressionistic tendencies, which is true enough. It’s assumed these were absorbed in Germany, but they might also come from Russia and France — one reason NAPOLEON is such a stonking piece of cinema is because Gance had seemingly absorbed every stylistic tendency the medium had thrown up.

Since none of Litvak’s Russian work is available or even identified to me, his first German film, DOLLY MACHTE KARRIER (1930) is unavailable, and frustratingly, though I’ve been able to see a sampling of the early French and German movies, I haven’t located two British versions of German and/or French originals, TELL ME TONIGHT and SLEEPING CAR, which feature interesting people like Magda Schneider, the awful Sonny Hale, Edmund Gwenn, Ivor Novello and Madeleine Carroll.

There are also odd bits of TV work and a short documentary about refugees that remain stubbornly buried. But all the films from Litvak’s US period on are accessible, which puts him ahead of the Cromwells and Milestones of this world. I won’t be writing about, or probably even seeing, ALL of them. But I aim to provide a bit of an overview of the man’s skills and incredible dynamism.