Archive for David Melville

Fever Pitch

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on December 2, 2017 by dcairns

Running a blogathon in early December nicely replaces the childhood excitement of an advent calendar — instead of opening little panels in a cardboard object with a bad painting of the nativity on it, I’m getting articles through email or the comments section, little treats more sweet than chocolate. “And the day Jesus was born, that was equivalent to a double-sized bit of chocolate!” Actually, in my day, the tabs opened to simply reveal more, smaller bad art underneath. So this is MUCH better.

David Melville Wingrove essays the final film of Gerard Philipe below, and finds it marks and end point in more ways than one. Philipe died at the age of 36, like Marilyn Monroe. Like Bela Lugosi, he had himself buried in costume — in his case, as Don Rodrigue, El Cid. Why?

FEVER PITCH

La Fièvre Monte à El Pao has one of those titles that invariably sound better in French. Its literal English translation – “The Fever Rises at El Pao” – sounds more like an idea for a movie that never got made than a lavish international screen epic. This tale of passion and politics on a sweltering Caribbean island was the last film of its star, the French matinee idol Gérard Philipe. Perhaps the most consummate romantic hero in screen history, Philipe is cast (uncomfortably) as an ineffectual bureaucrat trying to reform a corrupt and brutal system from the inside. As befits the perversity of such casting, La Fièvre was also the last vaguely disreputable film by its director, the Spanish provocateur and surrealist Luis Buñuel.

In fifteen years as a peripatetic hack-for-hire, Buñuel had turned out a fair few masterpieces (Los Olvidados, El, The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz). Yet much of his work was frankly awful and even his most vocal fans fall silent after watching Gran Casino or Cela S’Appelle L’Aurore. Whether for better or for worse, Buñuel lacked the whorish mentality required to handle cheap melodrama as if it were High Art. Unlike the masters of the genre (Douglas Sirk, Teuvo Tullio, Roberto Gavaldón) he made no effort to hide his contempt for his material. He seemed – in his very worst movies – to want to punish his audience for paying money to watch such tripe. In his choice of camera angles and mise en scène, Buñuel did his utmost to ensure a philistine movie public would derive no pleasure from its experience whatsoever. With luck, they might not darken the doors of a cinema again!

A Franco-Mexican co-production from 1960, La Fièvre Monte á El Pao was the last film Buñuel would ever make in this vein. A year later, he returned to his native Spain to shoot Viridiana, a scabrous black comedy that won the Palme d’Or at the 1961 Cannes Film Festival. Like all his best work, it was cold, brilliant and almost wholly devoid of conventional entertainment value of any sort. Its success not only garlanded Buñuel as a gilt-edged international auteur, but also ensured that his later films – whether they were great (Belle de Jour) or abysmal (The Milky Way) – would hereafter be venerated as Art. Although it was by no means its director’s last film, La Fièvre marked the end of one career and heralded the start of another. Fitzgerald may have insisted there were “no second acts in American lives.” But movie-makers have as many lives as they can persuade a producer to pay for.

So how interesting is the film itself? The chief fascination of La Fièvre lies in the sheer epic folly of its star pairing. The script would have us believe Philipe’s character – a meek and rather unappetising little fellow – has been nursing a secret passion for María Félix, the voluptuous man-eating wife of the island’s brutal governor. Like other barn-storming divas of her ilk – Bette Davis, Anna Magnani, Joan Crawford – Félix found it next to hard to find a leading men strong enough to hold their own against her. She was cast most effectively opposite icons of Latin machismo (Pedro Armendáriz, Arturo de Córdova) or, failing that, young men so handsome but insignificant that a director might just as well have borrowed a tailor’s dummy out of Wardrobe.

Quite clearly, Gérard Philipe is neither one nor the other. It may be possible, just about, to dream up a more incongruous romantic duo. Jeremy Irons and Carmen Miranda, perhaps? Or maybe Greta Garbo and Adam Sandler? Still, it is hard to picture Félix and Philipe in the same movie – let alone on the same island and least of all in the same bed. But that does not stop Buñuel from trying. When the governor gets assassinated, his widow (Félix) and his secretary (Philipe) promptly become lovers. They set about reforming the island’s penal colony along humane and liberal lines. Well, Philipe does anyway. Félix spends the film prowling about like a bored panther, wondering if Philipe has enough flesh on his bones to make a square meal.

From an audience point of view, the arrival of a new governor (Jean Servais) is a not entirely unwelcome distraction. He soon pegs Philipe as a dangerous liberal and forces Félix to go to bed with him, as a way to keep her lover out of prison. This sexual encounter is the one vaguely memorable scene in the entire movie. A man of somewhat ‘specialised’ tastes, Servais has the bedroom decked out as if for a funeral, with black crape curtains round the bed and a plethora of phallic votive candles. A none-too-subtle strain of necrophilia creeps through many a Buñuel film – from Abismos de Pasión/Wuthering Heights to Viridiana to Belle de Jour – and this scene is nothing if not true to form. Would it be rude of us to suspect that Félix actually has a better time with this monster than she ever has with poor befuddled Philipe?

The rest of La Fièvre Monte á El Pao is flat and rather boring – which is, for a melodrama, the one unpardonable crime. A lesser director than Buñuel would have revelled in the gratuitous sadism of the island’s prison guards. He might, in so doing, have egged on the audience to share in the mounting spirit of revolt among the prisoners – which spills over (largely off-screen) in a bloody and calamitous rebellion. Yet Buñuel seems to have thoroughly digested Hannah Arendt’s notion of “the banality of evil.” The guards on this island are not sadists, simply bored functionaries doing their job. By the same token, Philipe’s character is not a hero – just a weak and well-intentioned liberal bent on reforming a system that is inherently beyond reform.

Philipe’s position seems ironically akin to that of Buñuel himself. Judging from what we see on screen, Buñuel’s only aim in directing this melodrama (apart, naturally, from the money he was paid) was to display his unalloyed contempt for his material and his own Olympian superiority to melodrama as a genre. That is a deeply unlikeable position for a director to be in – but when did Luis Buñuel ever want to be liked? His promotion to full-fledged auteur status, the following year, would turn out to be nobody’s loss and everybody’s gain. Not least because he could finally leave steamy and melodramatic trash like La Fievre to those of us who really enjoy it!

David Melville

Advertisements

Forbidden Divas: It’s a Magic Number

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on June 23, 2017 by dcairns

Just as I jet off to Bologna, David Melville Wingrove slides into my place to offer up another Forbidden Diva close to his heart ~FORBIDDEN DIVAS

IT’S A MAGIC NUMBER

“My mother always said I’d marry two men.”

“Only two?”

“Yes, but at the same time.” ~ Charlotte Rampling, Three

The only film by the novelist and occasional screen-writer James Salter, Three (1969) is a queer triangular love story involving two boys and one car. One morning in the wilds of France, a door of corrugated grey metal grinds slowly and laboriously open. Two young Americans – Taylor (Sam Waterston) and Burt (Robie Porter) – wheel out an old and battered Peugeot, caked with dust. The car at first looks as every bit as grey and dreary as the garage door. Once they wipe away the dust, it turns out to be sombre hearse black. Its wheels and interior are an intense, almost iridescent blood red. The boys drive off on that weird and quintessentially 60s quest for something called freedom. But what exactly is freedom? How will they find it? Will they recognise it when they see it? And what might they do with it when they do?Lying side by side in a sun-baked field of dry grass, they converse in the weird non sequiturs that long-term travelling companions tend to fall into. “Did you ever grow a beard?” “No, but I fell out of a tree once.” They are, of course, looking for girls. But they seem a lot more comfortable with one another. One consciously poetic shot shows Burt – a corn-fed blonde Adonis – naked in bed in some Italian hotel. His creamy torso emerges from beneath the blanket. His arm, wrapped about his head, reveals a delicately sculpted armpit, dusted with light gold hair. Taylor, dark and soulful and sad-eyed, is the one observer there to see. Once in Rome, they pick up two girls (Gillian Hills and Edina Ronay) but that encounter predictably goes nowhere. That is precisely where most things in Three seem to go. On one scorching afternoon, an Italian waiter offers the boys a spremuta di limone. He then remembers, at the last moment, that they are out of lemons.It all changes once the boys get to Florence. They wander through the Uffizi Gallery, as the camera glides lovingly over Verrocchio’s painting of the martyred Saint Sebastian, his body naked and pierced by arrows. Suddenly and barely for a second, Taylor catches sight of Charlotte Rampling – who was, in 1969, the sexy Swinging London chick du jour. She too is a tourist at the Uffizi and it is hard to think of a more dazzlingly appropriate setting for her. She looks, in equal parts, like a perverse Botticelli Venus and an androgynous, pouting youth by Leonardo da Vinci. It turns out she has a boy’s name (Marty) and slouches about, for most of the film, in a wardrobe of jeans and boy’s shirts. She is, beyond a doubt, an object of heterosexual desire. Yet she also seems to embody the covert homoerotic tensions between the two men. If Three were a film from the 30s, she could only be Marlene Dietrich.In fact, the film is based on a short story by Irwin Shaw. Its central trio have remarkably little in common with the Flower Power folk. Their behaviour and attitudes seem more redolent of the gilded Lost Generation of the 20s, familiar from the novels or Ernest Hemingway and F Scott Fitzgerald – and, invariably, bungled very badly by Hollywood. This means that Three was not a massive counter-cultural hit like other road movies of that time, such as Easy Rider (Dennis Hopper, 1969) or Five Easy Pieces (Bob Rafelson, 1970). James Salter’s film sank very quickly into obscurity and has been notoriously difficult to see ever since. Rampling herself has said in interviews how she had a hankering to see it years later. She rang up Salter and asked him – but even he was unable to locate a copy. Yet the film’s very lack of modishness means that it has dated barely at all; Easy Rider, in context, looks embarrassingly like a time capsule. It is in the nature of a road movie to transcend the limits of place, but very rare for one to transcend the confines of time the way Three does. Three evokes a world where – as Taylor remarks wryly – “Everyone lives somewhere else.”

Rampling agrees, all too readily, to travel with the two boys. It is obvious, from the outset, that she is attracted to Taylor and subtly dislikes Burt. Yet the three make a pact that she will never “choose between” them. In other words, should she engage in sex with either one, the deal is off. She takes them to villa in the hills above Florence, where the aristocrats are so world-weary and soigné that they seem barely alive. She leads them, on a beach, in a three-sided game of tag. Her bikini is a hideous shade of near-fluorescent orange; she manages to look coolly glamorous even in that. Driving with them back into France, she dons a clinging silver lamé mini-dress and entices them to a casino. Here she effortlessly wins a fortune at roulette and showers her two escorts deliriously with money. Her role seems to be morphing from Jeanne Moreau as a ménage a trois temptress in Jules and Jim (François Truffaut, 1961) into Jeanne Moreau as a compulsive gambler in La Baie des Anges (Jacques Demy, 1962).Elsewhere, the film is a litany of events that do not happen, of climaxes that do not take place. The three drive to the Southern French town of Dax for a bullfight – but they find the bullring deserted. They have misread the poster and come on the wrong day. By the sea, they see a sailboat capsized and a man in the water calling for help. Taylor strips naked and swims out to save him. Yet his attempt to be a hero is pointless. Before he can get to the drowning man, a rescue boat comes along and saves him first. His relationship with Marty seems to be similarly inconclusive. One night when Burt is out wooing an available French woman (Pascale Roberts), Marty turns the full force of her lynx-eyed, silver-ice gaze onto Taylor. It is one of the earliest and most dazzling examples of that unique Rampling phenomenon known as The Look. “I’ve forgotten what American kisses taste like,” she purrs. But can he ever reconcile his attraction to her with his attachment to Burt?Three is a film about sexuality rather than sex (another reason, perhaps, for its box-office failure) so answers to this and other questions will not be easy to find. The triangle of tension between Marty, Taylor and Burt is fluid and enigmatic, amorphous and ever-shifting. There are long stretches in which nothing whatsoever seems to happen. Rightly, because people are seldom at their most active when all their energies are focused on finding what direction – if any – their lives will take. The absurdly scenic French and Italian roads down which they travel may seem to wind on forever, but their erotic and emotional cul-de-sac offers little if any hope of an escape. Yet we know, by the same token, that it cannot possibly last. This trio is doomed to break up and one vital question is bound to emerge. Who gets to keep the car?

David Melville

Strictly Scarlet

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on June 16, 2016 by dcairns

Good news, everybody! David Melville Wingrove is BACK, with another Forbidden Diva ~

vlcsnap-2016-06-16-10h47m47s541

FORBIDDEN DIVAS

Strictly Scarlet

“It would be unusual…but then great ladies can do unusual things.” ~ Franchot Tone to Joan Crawford, The Bride Wore Red

In 1938, Joan Crawford – one of the most perennially popular stars in the annals of Hollywood – suddenly found herself labelled Box Office Poison by a group of disgruntled exhibitors. Of all the famous names on the list, hers was by far the most unlikely. Katharine Hepburn and Marlene Dietrich were movie legends but never won over a broad public. Mae West had seen her raunchy humour watered down by the Production Code. Greta Garbo was a mythical goddess in need of some modern-day reinventing. But Joan Crawford had long been the factory girl’s favourite, a proletarian star who embodied the needs and aspirations of working-class women. Joan and Louis B Mayer, her all-powerful boss at MGM, must have been speechless with shock. What, oh what, could possibly have gone wrong?

They may have remembered how – a year before the list came out – MGM had starred Joan in a truly catastrophic flop. The Bride Wore Red (1937) was a dark-hued romantic comedy by Dorothy Arzner, the only woman director in the Hollywood studio system. An open lesbian and a stalwart feminist, Arzner was known for films with challenging and unconventional female leads. Katharine Hepburn as the silver-clad aviatrix in Christopher Strong (1933) and Rosalind Russell as the domestic tyrant in Craig’s Wife (1936) were not the type of girl a man would ask out for an ice-cream soda once the movie was done. They would doubtless sneer at vanilla and might even insist on paying their half of the tab. Not that Joan’s character in The Bride Wore Red would have any such qualms about letting a gentleman pay. She was a hooker – one disguised as a socialite, with a luxuriant Adrian wardrobe to match – but always, and unmistakably, a hooker nonetheless.

vlcsnap-2016-06-16-10h47m21s866

Such casting was a step too far for Joan’s fans. Morally conservative and largely female, they would accept their idol as a showgirl or a shop girl, no problem. As a kept woman, perhaps, provided it was Clark Gable or Spencer Tracy who did the keeping. As a hooker, most definitely not! Joan had made that mistake once before in Rain (1932) with a smouldering portrayal of the South Sea island prostitute Sadie Thompson. No matter if it was by far the best of her early roles and she gave a performance to rival that of Bette Davis in Of Human Bondage (1934) – another hooker in another story by Somerset Maugham. The fans were horrified and Rain was a resounding flop. They had no idea the real Joan had been arrested repeatedly on ‘morals charges’ – back in the 20s, when she was still Lucille LeSueur. Or even that she had starred in hardcore pornographic ‘stag films’ before more legitimate movie roles came her way. All things considered, The Bride Wore Red was as close as a silver screen goddess could come to career suicide.

Nor can we accuse Joan or her director of doing it by half-measures. When she first appears, singing in a waterfront dive in Trieste, she looks downright sleazy. (Based on a play called The Girl from Trieste by Ferenc Molnár, the film takes place in a fantasy Mittel Europa that vanished with the Habsburg Empire.) Her hair, tumbling loose almost to her shoulders, plays up and sharpens the weird angularity of her face. Her tight black gown clings to her body like a skin, shiny yet obscurely unclean. Pinned to one shoulder is a clutch of tawdry white blossoms. Camellias, perhaps, but not the sort that Garbo would ever buy! An elderly roué named Count Armalia (George Zucco) summons her over to his table. It is clear that he has no sexual interest in her. Earlier on, we have seen him give a handsome, dark-haired waiter an unfeasibly large tip. He is a joker, an aesthete and a voyeur. All he wants to is to play her Fairy Godfather. To send her, all expenses paid, to a plush hotel in the Tyrolean Alps, where she may pass herself off as a lady.

vlcsnap-2016-06-16-10h48m19s815

Soon enough, Joan is installed at said hotel under the name of Anna Vivaldi, an aristocratic moniker she picked up from a beer advert. Her suite is decorated in those dazzling shades of white-on-white that only ever exist in movies. (One speck of cigarette ash would throw the colour scheme off entirely!) The hotel manager is Paul Porcasi, that most camp and irascible of Hollywood character actors. Alas, the chambermaid (Mary Phillips) turns out to be an old comrade-in-arms from the whorehouse in Trieste. But she is a real pal who keeps Joan’s secret and allows Arzner to work in some of her trademark female bonding. Naturally, this being a Crawford vehicle, there are also two men on hand. Robert Young plays an upper-class lounge lizard in a tuxedo, whom Joan wants to marry. Franchot Tone plays a hunky postman in lederhosen, who wants to marry her. When he is not delivering letters, Tone enjoys blowing on a long and impressively phallic Alpine flute. We may remember that his nickname in Hollywood was ‘Jawbreaker’.

vlcsnap-2016-06-16-10h52m44s363

Naturally, Joan found time for a spot of shopping before she caught the train to the Alps. Yet all the outfits she wears at the hotel are subtly (or not so subtly) ‘off’. For her entrance at dinner on the first night, she sports a ridiculous all-white bridal costume worthy of Miss Havisham in Great Expectations. The gigantic daisy in her hair brings to mind the Bette Midler joke about walking around with a large fried egg on top of your head. Relaxing in her suite, she wears a shiny negligee with two enormous fuzzy puffed sleeves. She looks, honestly, as if she has shot and eviscerated two Muppets and is now wearing one of them on each arm. Yet her most outrageous fashion mistake is kept carefully in abeyance – hidden in her closet and seen only in short, subliminal glances like the monster in a Val Lewton movie. It is a sheer and shiny red evening gown, covered with sequins and oozing and dripping with sex. It is, in short, the perfect visual summation of who she actually is.

vlcsnap-2016-06-16-10h53m19s670

When our heroine dons her red gown in the final reel, she does not look cheap or nasty. She looks resplendent. Unusually for a Joan Crawford vehicle, we have had to wait an hour and a half to see the star in an outfit that actually suits her. (Is anybody still wondering why The Bride Wore Red was a flop?) Striding brazenly down the grand staircase and into the grand salon, Joan is the focus of all eyes. The pallid socialites around her see her and stare and fall silent. The effect is at least as stunning as Bette Davis’s entrance into the Olympus Ball in Jezebel (1938), also in a blazing red gown amid an anaemic sea of white. What is more, Joan’s entrance in red took place a full year before Bette’s, even if it was never rewarded with an Oscar for Best Actress. At moments like this one, Bette’s implacable lifelong animosity towards Joan may almost start to make sense.

With its metaphor of hiding the truth about yourself in a closet – only to one day take it out and wear it proudly, and tell the prudes and puritans around you to go hell – The Bride Wore Red is one of the great symbolic ‘coming out’ movies. It is part of a tradition of covertly gay cinema that ranges from Hollywood melodramas like Now, Voyager (1942) and Splendor in the Grass (1961) to camp Australian comedies like Muriel’s Wedding (1994) and The Dressmaker (2015). It is also, quite possibly, Joan Crawford’s truest and rawest and most touching performance of the 30s – one of a very few roles to demonstrate that she was a Great Actress as well as a Great Star. Does anyone really need to ask which of her two co-stars she winds up marrying? Here’s a clue…she married him in real life as well, only he drank and beat her up and the whole thing was a disaster and did not last. The nickname ‘Jawbreaker’ was all too horribly prophetic. Like most of the iconic stars, Joan was far happier on the screen than off. Perhaps it was safer that way.

David Melville