Archive for Billy Wilder

The Wronger Man

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on September 5, 2020 by dcairns

I’d always meant to watch John Brahm’s 1939 criminal justice melo LET US LIVE, and now I know why I held off — I got a chance to watch it streaming from Bologna in a gleaming fresh copy, better than any grungy old version I might have tracked down.

Henry Fonda plays an innocent cabby wrongly convicted of armed robbery and murder. Maureen O’Sullivan is his bride-to-be, frantically trying to prove his innocence before he goes to the chair. The movie anticipates Hitchcock’s THE WRONG MAN in plot terms, but Brahm gives it all a glossy Hollywood expressionism more showy than Hitch’s gloomy death march.

How to account for Brahm’s fluctuating visual style — here in this relatively early work (he’d done his remake of BROKEN BLOSSOMS in the UK, and three B pictures for Columbia before this one) his arresting use of chiaroscuro and violently off-centre framing is fully developed. In later films it comes and goes. It could be the amount of prep time, the skills of the cinematographer he was working with, or the amount of enthusiasm he could muster.

(Brahm films to see: THE LODGER and HANGOVER SQUARE, THE LOCKET, GUEST IN THE HOUSE, his Twilight Zones and some of his Alfred Hitchcock Presents episodes. He never had what you’d call the best scripts to work with.)

One cut to Fonda’s face made Fiona gasp, exactly as happened in THE LODGER with Laird Cregar. Remember Billy Wilder’s line about a close-up being like a trump card in a game of bridge, to be used sparingly where it’ll really count? But how many times has a simple cut to a character, already established as being present in the scene, taken your breath away?

My new ambition — if I can get to direct one more thing, I’d like to make that happen. I know the trick — the face or expression must be new and arresting, and the face appear in an unexpected part of the screen in an unusual, off-centre composition. Now somebody give me a million bucks before I forget.

Bellevue to a Kill

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on October 2, 2019 by dcairns

Did someone at Bellevue Hospital feel that Billy Wilder’s presentation of the place in THE LOST WEEKEND — reputedly filmed on location, though you wouldn’t know it — gave the place a bad rep, and that another movie might balance out the negative publicity?

If so, THE SLEEPING CITY, a decent little noir trifle from able western hack George Sherman and crime specialist screenwriter Jo Eisinger doesn’t do the place any real favours. It’s from the shot-on-location phase of post-KISS OF DEATH noir, but not a ripped-from-the-headlines number — star Richard Conte shows up in scene one, in costume but out of character, to assure us that this is NOT a true story. Or I think that’s what he’s saying — he says it never happened at Bellevue or anywhere in New York, but that certainly leaves loopholes.

In the next sequence, a young interne is abruptly murdered — a very well-staged sequence, midway between docudrama and melo. Conte is an undercover cop from the “confidential squad” (which is the film’s alternate title) planted in the hospital to investigate. Colleen Gray is a lovely ward nurse, and there are excellent supporting perfs from Alex Nicol (bitter roommate) and some guy called Richard Taber, playwright-actor, as a creepy old fart called “Pop.”

If the hospital authorities were hoping for good press, they hadn’t counted on the effect of b&w cinematography on institutional architecture. The place looks terrifying, and expressionist homunculus Taber, by his very presence, turns it into a nightmare of sci-fi intestines. The plot, with suffering patients being prescribed painkillers they never receive, thanks to a dope ring, isn’t exactly reassuring either. It’s my strong belief that an investigation of the Bellevue employment records will reveal that their head of PR was dismissed around about 1950.

Breakaway Props

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 27, 2019 by dcairns

Marlene Dietrich and John Wayne make a surprising duo, yet they made three films together (and didn’t really get on — Marlene seems to have been the difficult one).

The films have a lot of brawling in them. SEVEN SINNERS is my favourite, although Wayne’s character is kind of a self-destructive dope. Strong support from Mischa Auer, Marlene’s DESTRY co-star, a comparatively slim Broderick Crawford (pictured) and a villainous Oscar Homolka.

THE SPOILERS casts Randolph Scott against type as a louse, which like Wayne as a dope is unconventional but not particularly pleasing. I guess I’m like a 1940s audience member, unwilling to accept my stars out of type-casting.

Mind you, what it does to Wayne’s persona is positively dizzying, and I didn’t mind that so much. Even the blackface gag seemed… not as offensive as it should be. Marietta Canty’s sensitive playing keeps the humour just the right side of awful.

PITTSBURGH — and how weird is it that Universal made a film called PITTSBURGH and expected people to like it? — is my least favourite. Wayne plays an absolute louse, the worst character he ever played. He’s like Charles Foster Kane with anthracite. And I’m reminded of what Billy Wilder said about coal mining films — “I don’t leave the theater… elated.”

Also there’s not enough brawling. Does Pennsylvania lack conducive saloons?

A friend told me a story that’s movie punch-up related. His dad was a merchant seaman or something like that. First time at sea. They stopped in an exotic port and hit some seedy dive on shore leave. Somewhere like the Seven Sinners. A fight broke out.

The young not-yet dad immediately knew what to do — he’d seen the right movies. He grabbed a chair and swung it down on somebody’s back. There was a snapping sound, the guy fell to the floor — but the chair remained in his hands, unbroken.

He ran back to the ship and didn’t leave it for the rest of his leave.

The respective directors of these epics are Tay Garnett (kind of replaying HER MAN), Ray Enright, Lewis Seiler.

SEVEN SINNERS stars Lola Lola; the Ringo Kid; Dr. Cyclops; Harry Brock; Bronwyn; Prince Nikita Starloff; Professor Von Schwartzenhoffen; Col. Stok; Commodore Schmidlapp; Charleston; Blake of Scotland Yard; and Jabez Stone.

THE SPOILERS stars Lola Lola; Gil Westrum; the Ringo Kid; Millie Ray; Trader Horn; Bat MacPherson; Pa Bailey; Pa Joad; Tubal; James R. Smoke; Dobosh; and the Frankenstein Monster.

PITTSBURGH stars Lola Lola; Gil Westrum; the Ringo Kid; Doctor Harry Brewster; Prof. Shemp Howard; Captain Edward Teach aka Blackbeard; Pop Gehrig; Pa Bailey; Mr. Manleigh; and Mrs. Laurel.