Archive for Dennis O’Keefe

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.

The Mildreds

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 23, 2016 by dcairns

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OF HUMAN BONDAGE is, I guess, the first kind of classic John Cromwell film, in that it’s well-remembered and has a classic source (Somerset Maugham) and iconic stars. And it’s compelling. Leslie Howard plays the mug of a hero beautifully, and Bette Davis, who invents the Dick Van Dyke cockney accent, gives a fearless, fiercely committed performance free of vanity. Though her attempt at being a Londoner is somewhat hilarious, it’s detailed enough to contain hints of Mildred Rogers’ social aspirations.

Cromwell was brought to Hollywood for the talkies, his theatre experience judged useful to help with actors who hadn’t been on the stage — for his first movies, he was paired with Edward A. Sutherland, the former Mr. Louise Brooks, who was judged in need of dramaturgical support. Those early movies fairly creak — VICE SQUAD is all but unwatchable, DANCE OF LIFE seems to have been photographed from the stalls (but worth it to glimpse a nubile Oscar Levant) and CLOSE HARMONY has been lost, for now, apart from its Vitaphone disc soundtrack. But somewhere in there, maybe making THE WORLD AND THE FLESH as an excercise du style with Karl Struss lighting and framing for expressionist values, Cromwell became more visually sensitive, and OHB is full of slick effects and interesting approaches. Not all of them come off — the phantasmal visions of Bette that plague Howard are hammy and stoopid — but on the other hand the Ozu-like dialogue delivered straight down the lens is extremely effective. Maybe he got that from Mamoulian’s DR JEKYLL AND MR HYDE, but if so, he refined it.

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“I think she’s the worst woman I’ve ever seen,” said Fiona, adding that she felt she SHOULD be able to find some redeeming traits in the “contemptible and ill-natured” Mildred, but she just couldn’t. Davis plays it to the hilt as only she could, and Howard makes you believe in his masochism. There are lovely turns from Kay Johnson (a Cromwell favourite — his first wife) and Frances Dee as the other women in his life. This Mildred creature is one of a small regiment of monstrous women in Cromwell’s pics — usually the story resolves with the beastly female being found out by those she’s deceived about her true nature (THE SILVER CORD, THIS MAN IS MINE, IN NAME ONLY) but here, Howard is fully aware of her perfidy from the start. It’s his own masochism he has to wise up to.

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Another Mildred turns up in THE COMPANY SHE KEEPS, played by another Bette, this time Jane Greer (AKA Bettejane Greer). Her first scene with the parole board has you rooting for her as she pleads with her big, doll-like eyes — then we find out her parole officer is Lizabeth Scott, which seems like an interesting concept — what if your parole officer was a noir femme fatale? But we quickly learn that Greer’s innocence is an act, while Scott is a caring professional who wants the best for her. Things take another turn when Greer sets her sights on Scott’s man, Dennis O’Keefe — and gets him.

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It’s a highly unusual drama, scripted by the interesting lady noir specialist Ketty Frings. Cromwell made it right after the masterful CAGED, and it could almost be a sequel.

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Picked up when a fellow parolee is nabbed for stealing, Greer endures a night in the cells and a humiliating police line-up which have the same noir-sadeian tint as the earlier film, aided by chiaroscuro cinematography by Nicholas Musuraca (OUT OF THE PAST, CAT PEOPLE) and a fierce bunch of co-stars including Theresa Harris, uncredited again (see Wednesday’s post).

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The Lizabeth Scott view from the floor again (see yesterday’s post): not literally, this time, but pleading Greer’s case before a swarm of unfeeling authority figures, she might as well be flat on her back.

The particular aspect of Cromwell’s talent in operation this time, asides from his steady hand with actors, is his compositional gift — the parole board scenes are particularly sharp. Maybe it’s because I haven’t slept in 72 hours, but I think this one is a little masterpiece, and ought to be better known. Eschewing overt melodrama, making strong use of real locations in the manner that was just coming into fashion at the time, and giving Greer probably the meatiest and realest role of her somewhat truncated career, it’s mature, unpredictable and impressive on all levels (down to the unusual score by the underrated Leigh Harline).

Also: Kathleen Freeman as a young woman, and Jeff Bridges as a baby!

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“Well, that’s just, like, your opinion, man.”