Archive for Brian Donlevy

Fritz bits

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 17, 2017 by dcairns

The real Heydrich was NOT shot in the spine, but in the spleen… my guess if, Fritz Lang may have seen images like this when injured in WWI (three horses shot out from under him) and chose to include it…

“Bert” Brecht’s scenario for HANGMEN ALSO DIE! includes a HUGE number of supporting roles, some with only a few lines. Director Fritz Lang fills the dramatis personae with memorable faces and wrings a whole panoply of peppy performances from them. In the lead, Quatermass McGinty (Brian Donlevy) is better than he ever was elsewhere, suggesting by minimal means the moral strain of a man who knows hundreds may die in consequence of his actions. America’s first largely prosthetic actor, not counting Kong, whom he slightly resembles, Donlevy never made a move without his elevator shoes, corset and toupée, but couldn’t do anything about his startlingly short arms, like those of a T-rex. Couldn’t Bud Westmore, who made Harold Lloyd’s special lifelike glove to hide his missing fingers, have knocked together a couple of arm extensions for McGinty?

Really good work from Walter Brennan, cast way against type as a professor — anti-Nazi films always have a professors, it seems, and professors everywhere have beautiful daughters, and so here we have Anna Lee, also excellent. These characters are even more moving in THE MORTAL STORM, as you’d expect with Frank Borzage in charge, but Lang’s harder edge also has its advantages. We also get Margaret Wycherly, looking like a haunted tree™ as usual, and Dennis O’Keefe, whose tendency to turn up whenever his fiance is in what looks like a compromising position, seems like good prep for all those farces he made later in the forties.

But I want to talk about smaller roles. Janet Shaw fascinated me. She played the dead-eyed slattern of a teen waitress in SHADOW OF A DOUBT and was just remarkable. Anytime she shows up in a film, I get fascinated. Here she’s a little TOO perky, perhaps, as a factory worker and patriotic saboteur, her eyes darting vivaciously around the faces assembled at a meeting of the resistance. But she has a great moment later when arrested, spitting fire and defiance at her captors.

See here and here for previous appreciations.

We also get Charles “Ming the Merciless” and Dwight Frye and a defenestrated Lionel Stander, star-spotters!

But the film’s array of Nazis is its best point (aside from Lang’s bleakly beautiful mise-en-scene, of course, and his crisp cutting, many scenes joined together by questions asked in one scene and answered in another, or phrases begun in one place and completed elsewhere. Is this where Welles got the idea for KANE’s scene-linking?).

The decision to have the “Nazis” play their roles as comedy is a surprising one. It doesn’t attract much comment in discussions of the film. HANGMEN ALSO DIE! is far from being a comic film, but its treatment of those running the Protectorate is almost Lubitschian. All the various types of Hollywood Nazi are represented here — and the idea seems to be to refute the German claims of superman status with an insistence on the pathetic, grubby human foibles that make these guys on the one hand, no better than the rest of us, and on the other, considerably worse.

There’s Heydrich himself, Hans Heinrich Twardowski (from CALIGARI) in a big rubber Mabuse nose, conforming to the stereotype of the Nazi pansy (usually Martin Kosleck’s department). This isn’t an accurate depiction of Heydrich, but the goal is partly just to INSULT, using exactly the terms we assume would be most offensive to the Nazis.

There’s the spotty Nazi (Tonio Selwart), with a big set of Marcellus Wallace sticking plasters on the back of his neck and a gleaming chancre on his brow, later seen lovingly squeezing a pluke in the mirror — an undreamt-of image in Hollywood cinema or anywhere else — I equate this to Dennis Hopper picking his nose in LAND OF THE DEAD (which I equate to stuff like Paul Wolfowitz caught licking his comb on camera) — a concentration on the undignified, messily human aspects of the supposed superman.

There’s the lightweight sadist (Reinhold Schunzel, THE THREEPENNY OPERA), not an imposing figure, more like a mean schoolteacher, but one with a whole state apparatus backing him up. He tortures an old woman using only a loosely assembled chair, and the power behind him. Personally, he’s a buffoon, with a Sig Ruman-like delivery, cracking his fingers as he gloats behind his desk. Without a desk and armed guards at his command, he’d be pathetic. He IS pathetic. Time will tell.

And then there’s the detective (Alexander Granach, the Shadowplayer from WARNING SHADOWS; Knock, the gibbering Renfield figure from NOSFERATU), the most competent figure we meet on the enemy side. He frequents whores and is addicted to Czech beer, so again, his lack of “purity” and his vulgarity and human frailty are front and centre. But he’s a worthy opponent. The big trick staged by the resistance in the film’s third act would never work if he were around to study it. His innate shrewdness and unerring mental leaps (signalled with a pantomime snap of the fingers) means he’s only ever a step or two behind the heroes, and frequently a step or two ahead. Thwarted for the moment, his finger-snap is exchanged for a first pounding into a palm. Very theatrical, but with all this comedy Lang is not only making a satirical point, he’s finding a way to leaven the  film’s grimness.

Lang wasn’t too great at comedy — the jokes in WESTERN UNION, with Slim Summerville slowly starving, seem sadistic and depressing. Sometimes, laughs can spill out into places they don’t belong, as in the campy, though still compelling, HOUSE BY THE RIVER. Lang is a harsh, heavy filmmaker and humour isn’t his element — but this kind of nasty wit seems ideally suited to his temperament and, crude though some of it is, it’s very effective because it’s so surprising in this context.

A lot of American films made fun of the Nazis — it was understood that they would hate this, and its was felt better to despise them and sneer at them than to be afraid of them. James Harvey in his book Romantic Comedy points out how strange it was, in this context, that Lubitsch’s TO BE OR NOT TO BE was thought to have gone too far. He identifies the problem being located in one line from Sig Ruman to Jack Benny, his insulting review of Benny’s acting: “What he did to Shakespeare we are now doing to Poland.” The joke turned auditoria ice-cold at the time, apparently — other attempts at humor by the Nazi characters are deliberately rather gross, but this one asks us to laugh at the effect it has on Benny. In other words, the Nazi wins this round, though he doesn’t know who he’s talking to. Audiences at the time were not prepared to laugh at the thought of Nazis winning anything.

Lang is on safer ground — the humour is present merely in how the Nazis are portrayed, by artful, expressionistic actors, whose style contrasts elaborately with the simplicity of the Americans playing Czechs (plus one Brit, Anna Lee). So there’s a satisfying (Brechtian?) distance between how the Nazis see themselves — superior, in a word — and how both the performances and the plot encourage us to see them — as nasty buffoons.

Or, as Fiona put it, it’s like a long episode of ‘Allo, ‘Allo!

It’s also defensibly close to reality — though the film omits the massacre of Lidice, it surprises by showing the Nazis murdering all the hostages they had promised to release, a smaller but dramatically equivalent atrocity. Lidice, in fact, boomeranged badly, becoming the signature crime used in propaganda to denounce Nazi Germany. The Nazis handed the Allies a club with which to beat them. It’s not funny, but it’s certainly oafish.

Seventeen Hours of Something or Other

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 18, 2013 by dcairns

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On the second Sunday of the month we usually go to the excellent Filmhouse movie quiz, but we’d exhausted ourselves and our funds seeing STAR TREK: INTO DARKNESS and so skipped it, staying home and running a double feature of Mitchell Leisens. Incorrectly believing I’d been recommended THIRTEEN HOURS BY AIR, I popped that in the Panasonic, we watched it, but I quickly realized the film I’d been supposed to see was FOUR HOURS TO KILL! so we ran that afterwards. The movies are only 80 mins and 70 mins respectively, so it was a snappy double bill, amounting to seventeen hours of something or other in just two and a half hours of viewing time.

The 1936 aviation drama 13 HRS posits Fred MacMurray as a pilot flirting with passenger Joan Bennett (still blonde) and dealing with a hostage crisis. It’s a nice glimpse of early air travel, with a few good supporting players like Ruth Donnelly, Zasu Pitts, Alan Baxter and Quatermass McGinty himself, Brian Donlevy (pre-moustache). It’s fairly corny, and the model plane shots, which are not the best, make it seem cornier. But it’s shorter than AIRPORT.

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Also: gayness!

Not really, since the characters aren’t coded gay, but the covert cigarette-lighting moment seems like a heavy wink in the direction of certain audience members all the same.

Baxter slugs a berserk Fred Keating, twice. “The second one was unnecessary,” advises MacMurray. “What did you want me to do, kiss him?” snaps Palmer.

Leisen was a keen aviator himself, and maybe the film is too authentic in a sense — the multiple lay-overs needed to fly across the continent make narrative progress episodic and tend to diffuse the tension. At that time, the trip actually took fifteen hours, but Leisen knew they’d manage to shave off some time eventually, so he preempted this to guard against the movie dating. It dated anyway, but is still diverting.

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But 4 HRS! is a minor masterpiece — Norman Krasna adapts his own play, about backstage drama in a theatre showing one of those incomprehensible musical reviews that seem to fill every venue in thirties movies. We never see the stage (but glimpse Leisen as the conductor), focussing on audience and staff, their lives, loves and hates. Ray Milland, a major Leisen collaborator in the coming years, plays a love rat, Roscoe Karns plays a comedy relief expectant father, his arc diverting neatly into emotional trauma and meltdown, there are some bland lovebirds, but the show is stolen by minor character guy Charles C. Wilson as a cop escorting a prisoner, and Richard Barthelmess as the prisoner. Outside of HEROES FOR SALE and ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS, I’ve never seen Barthelmess play tough — he excels at vulnerability, and like a number of ’30s male leads (Douglass Montgomery, Phillips Holmes, David Manners), seems more usually to embody weakness than strength. But he can turn on the cold-eyed murderer look like nobody’s business, and with an approximate stab at an Irish-American intonation, he transfixes.

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That baby face! Like Harry Langdon with a gun — terrifying! And by lowering his voice in timbre and volume, he turns his rather fluting vocal into an instrument of menace. But terribly sympathetic too. Having missed the train, arresting officer Wilson has taken Barthelmess, to the theatre to kill time, but the escaping murderer has a more literal meaning to the film’s title in mind. He wants to kill just once more, so he can die happy. The stool pigeon who set him up must be lured to the lobby and into the path of a couple of bullets. Astonishingly, though not pre-code, the movie is on his side. Now, I don’t morally agree with murder, for whatever personal reason, but I’m always impressed when a filmmaker takes a bold stance like this. We know Barthelmess has to die for his crimes, and he knows it too.

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Barthelmess and the little-known Charles C. Wilson.

David Chierichetti’s Leisen overview, Hollywood Director, is one of the best books any filmmaker ever had written about him. It’s probably better than Ciment’s Kubrick, to give you an idea. Here’s Leisen interviewed on 4HRS ~

“Richard Barthelmess was extremely shy and wouldn’t shoot the big confession scene except at night, after everybody had gone home except a skeleton crew. I took him to dinner, got a few drinks into him and worked with him a long while until he was ready. We did one take and he was absolutely sensational, and completely exhausted from it. I told them to print it, and the sound man said, “We didn’t get it.” I could have killed him. There was no point trying to get it again that night, so we all went home and I repeated the whole process with Richard the next night. No matter how much we worked, he could not get back to the level of emotion he’d had the night before. We finally got a take that was very good, but it was just not as brilliant as he’d been the night before.”

Decades later, Leisen is still mad and sad about that missed chance. Perhaps he’d have been cheered to know that his second-best take was still blowing our minds further decades on after his death.

Thanks to La Faustin for recommending this one.

Pow!

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 21, 2010 by dcairns

IMPACT isn’t a great noir, indeed bits aren’t much like noir at all, but I wanted to see it because it’s another film to deploy that strange noir meme, the guy who assumes a new identity working in a small town garage — see also Mitchum in OUT OF THE PAST, Lancaster in THE KILLERS, and Balthazar Getty in LOST HIGHWAY. Here, it’s Brian Donlevy who shucks off a life as married corporate bigshot to become a grease monkey in the employ of Ella Raines, after his wife’s lover attempts to kill him and instead inflicts him with temporary amnesia.

But I found another intriguing aspect to keep me occupied as the film trundled along, not exactly riveting but oddly structured — the bucolic middle section is a very unusual feature, and the sympathetic husband inverts the James M Cain adultery-murder plotline — I detected in this 1949 movie a weird echo of 1941’s SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS.

Plotwise, the amnesia gimmick is the obvious connection, but the idea of a powerful rich dude descending to the working classes is another link. As Donlevy staggers along the railway tracks, the movie seems on a convergent line, only to divert ultimately into a not-too-exciting courtroom drama. But the cast is full of Sturges links —

Robert Warwick, a studio exec in SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS plays another desk jockey here, a police captain. Most of the rest of the cast have Sturgesian credentials — Donlevy, of course, was McGinty in THE GREAT MCGINTY and THE MIRACLE OF MORGAN’S CREEK: Charles Coburn was in THE LADY EVE; and Ella Raines played one of her earliest parts for Sturges in HAIL THE CONQUERING HERO.

My old friend Lawrie, who remembered seeing Raines movies in the 40s, once said, “I was always very interested in Ella Raines, because I had heard she was a lesbian, and of course… I had no idea what that meant.”

I have no idea if Ella was a lesbian in reality (she was married twice, once for a long time, and had kids, not that any of that proves anything in this cockeyed carnival) but perhaps anxiety about her sexuality and screen persona influenced the nervousness of the studio bosses at Paramount who told Sturges that his leading lady was unconvincing as a girl next door? The resulting tensions contributed to Sturges’s decision to depart the studio, which ultimately led, alas, to his career plunging into a tailspin.

IMPACT also benefits from the presence of Anna May Wong, albeit in a somewhat thankless maid role, and Helen Walker as the scheming wife. Walker’s best noir role is as the scheming shrink in NIGHTMARE ALLEY, and her best comedy role was not for Sturges but for Lubitsch, as the Honorable Betty Cream in CLUNY BROWN (see it, you may find it to be one of the best forties comedies of all). Alas, a drunk driving incident, when Walker killed a hitchhiking war veteran she’d picked up, damaged her career. Pow.

It’s a great shame, from a movie as well as a human point of view, because Walker could be dynamite on the screen.

Remember, this Friday is the SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS Film Club — drop by and join the discussion!