Archive for Elia Kazan

Jazz Paroxysm

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on November 24, 2020 by dcairns

BLUES IN THE NIGHT feels to me like one of the fastest films ever made, not only for the typical rat-a-tat of Warner Bros dialogue, aided by a large cast (a jazz band and various associates) but because of the hopped-up dynamism of Litvak’s camerawork and cutting, and Don Siegel’s furious, hallucinogenic montages (Vorkapich on steroids). Half jazz musical, half noir, it’s not well-known because the stars are Richard Whorf and Priscilla Lane and Jack Carson and Betty Field and Lloyd Nolan and Wallace Ford. Personally, I never knew Elia Kazan had a brief career as a Warner character player. All of them are terrific, but none is a headliner.

Though much less generic than Litvak’s CITY FOR CONQUEST, on which screenwriter Robert Rossen also worked, this one shares its surprising downbeat tendencies — the characters are all bound for fame and fortune but don’t get there, and in this film never even smell the big time. Plus crime and scheming and madness get in the way — just as the band have walked from the cattle-car they rode in on towards the latest dive venue, singing brightly together — the closest we get to full-on musical cinema fantasy — the exterior set is suitably unconvincing — things suddenly take a turn for the horrible. Field, the trampy girl from OF MICE AND MEN, who always seems to be angling for a strangling in a barn, hangs around in a barn A LOT. Lloyd Nolan plays a vicious heister who’s all the more alarming because he likes our innocent musicians. Like Kirk Douglas, so terrifying in OUT OF THE PAST, he’s PLEASANT. Wally Ford is a boozy gambling addict with a gimpy leg, and Howard da Silva is just Howard da Silva, with the face of a suspicious egg, polishing glasses and glowering with ball-bearing eyes.

Amazing stuff — a jazz riot provoked when Frank McHugh’s uglier brother pugnaciously requests “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles” (good thing Sam Fuller never met this band) — jazz jail (Jazzcatraz?) where we glimpse some actual black people, so at least the movie acknowledges where the music comes from — and TWO jazz nightmares as Field tries to become a chanteuse — Susan Alexander Kane histrionics and Dali-meets-Busby-Berkeley optics — and then Whorf (a successful art director who decided to branch out — really rather good in this!) suffers a mental breakdown and things get fully Freddy Krugerish. The dollarbook surrealism of the imagery is slashed to bloody shreds by Don Siegel’s aggressive cutting (were his films as director so beautifully stark because he’d gotten all the flamboyance out of his system sweating over the Warners optical printer?)

At his lowest ebb, or on his way to it, Whorf finds himself in a candy-ass monkey suit tickling ivories with “Guy Heiser and his band,” a really vicious parody of Kay Kyser’s novelty act. I don’t know where they found the girl singer but Wally Ford may have drawn on some of his FREAKS connections…

Lowered expectations — CITY and BLUES both beat up their characters to such an extent that circumstances they’d have seen as tragic at the films’ outset come to seem like ecstatic happy endings after the pounding they’ve had. When its relentless pace and careening tonal shifts finally screeched to an end title, we were relieved too, and elated.

Melodrama at lightspeed.

BLUES IN THE NIGHT stars Jean Sherman; Mae Jackson; Sam Harris; Michael Shayne; Gooper; Phroso; ‘Googi’; Mert Fleagle / Bert Fleagle; Soapy; Dixie Belle Lee; Dad Fitchitt; Hamilton Burger; Butts McGee; ‘Hot Garters’ Gardner; Ham; Prof. Lesley Joyce; Irana Preveza; James Kirkham; and Sgt. Dickens.

Angles and Dirty Phases

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 30, 2020 by dcairns
A striking inverted angle from CASTLE ON THE HUDSON

Lesser Litvaks —

CASTLE ON THE HUDSON is a remake of Curtiz’s 20,000 YEARS IN SING SING, which I’ve never seen, though the title fascinated me as a kid. I ought to do a compare-and-contrast. I found this one a bit by-the-numbers with John Garfield as a Cagney clone. (He’s better as a complete swine in OUT OF THE FOG, his other role for this director.) It’s got a lot of punch, but lacks Litvak’s usual fluidity: too many close-ups.

It really comes alive, though, during the few minutes when Burgess Meredith comes in takes it by the throat. I’m guessing Litvak admired OF MICE AND MEN since he snapped up Burgess here and Betty Field for BLUES IN THE NIGHT.

CITY FOR CONQUEST —

“That was a book by Aben Kandel that was quite successful at the time, a book very difficult to adapt into a motion picture, because it dealt with
as enormous a city as New York is I was fascinated by the book, and had a terrible feeling, a kind of horrible ambition, about doing a picture about the city of New York that I was so terribly· impressed with from the moment I came here. It was a challenge to me, because basically I still was quite a foreigner at that time. I spent quite a while in New York, just for my basic acquaintance with the city, and the people of the city, before I started on the story.”

Writer Aben Kandel came to my attention for his involvement as screenwriter in the rather drole SING AND LIKE IT (1934) but later was mixed up in TROG and CRAZE, two ghastly low-budget horror affairs made in Britain. How he descended from being an acclaimed novelist to that dreck is an unknown but no doubt depressing story.

CITY FOR CONQUEST stars the actual Cagney, along with Ann Sheridan again, and a young and unusually appealing Arthur Kennedy. Plus Elia frickin’ Kazan, during his brief stint as a Warners character player. Both his big roles were for Litvak (BLUES IN THE NIGHT is the other) and he tears up the screen. But all the characters are from stock, and typecast accordingly. One is happy to see Frank McHugh as a sidekick, but not exactly surprised. Warners specialised in cramming the screen with yammering cut-outs, but somehow in this case thing feel thin.

Cagney & Kazan!

Cagney threw himself into training to play a boxer and really felt they were adapting a great book, but he was bitterly disappointed by the end result. “I worked like a dog on City for Conquest,” he wrote, or dictated, in Cagney By Cagney, “There were some excellent passages in Kandel’s novel, and all of us doing the picture realized that retaining them (as we were doing) would give City for Conquest distinction. Then I saw the final cut of the picture, and this was quite a surprise. The studio had edited out the best scenes in the picture, excellent stuff, leaving only the novel’s skeleton. What remained was a trite melodrama.”

He’s not wrong. Worse, you can see the trailing stumps of scenes and characters that clearly needed further development for the thing to make structural sense. Frank Craven as “the old timer” is set up as a Greek chorus, an old hobo who talks to the camera, but he only appears a couple of times. I think a lot of it might still have been corny, but it could have hung together.

Litvak: “I was crazy about Jimmy Cagney, and Warner Bros. was crazy about him because he was a big star. This is for the first time when Jimmy Cagney played the part of a weak man. As you know, Jimmy Cagney mostly played — particularly at that time — tough guys, dominating tough guys. I thought — I always felt– that Jimmy was a great actor, and didn’t have to do this stereotyped kind of a fellow, this gangster he had played for years. I came with this proposition to Warners and finally they accepted it. I found that Jimmy Cagney was a bit scared of this picture. I would say that in all my career this was one of the few times when I had trouble with an actor. I explain it to myself as a strange feeling Jimmy had about the part. He was not quite sure what he was doing. But I must say that I feel (and I think the public agreed with me too, and the critics) that it was probably one of the
best things Jimmy Cagney did on the screen.”

Maybe Cagney just didn’t have the weakness in him? What co-star could convincingly intimidate him?

Cagney did ruefully note the picture’s box office success, but strongly implies that the public was wrong. I am unable to find an original source for the star’s description of Litvak as “a natural born asshole,” but going by both men’s recollections it does seem quite possible that he said it at some time. Cagney always admitted to being difficult, but only when he was trying to give a good performance and felt he was being hampered.

Interesting that Litvak doesn’t mention the film’s truncation, which he SHOULD have been unhappy about, since the mutilation is hardly invisible.

Cagney as the blinded boxer redeems it a little with his convincing physicality both as prize-fighter (his dancing background pays off) and blinded newsie — he really tries to look properly, unphotogenically disabled. And Kazan is a knockout. He’s obviously intended to form the fourth corner of a structure that interleaves Cagney, Sheridan and Kennedy’s struggles, and the reduction of his role is really frustrating because he’s so bloody good, damn him.

“I coulda been a contender, Tola…”

I’m not sure if anyone ever asked Kazan about working for Litvak. He must have learned SOMETHING about screen acting from the experience.

CASTLE ON THE HUDSON stars Porfirio Diaz; Nora Prentiss; Hildy Johnson; The Penguin; Miles Archer; Kewpie Blain; Carson Drew; Lady Macduff; Danny Leggett; Pete Daggett; Michael Axford; Bim; Detective Bates; Egeus – Father to Hermia; Louie the Lug; Dr. Leonardo; Noah Joad; and Cueball.

CITY FOR CONQUEST stars George M. Cohan; Nora Prentiss; Jackson Bentley; Battling Burrows; Asa Timberlake; ‘Spud’ Connors; ‘Pusher’ Ross; Nickie Haroyen; Alexis Zorba; Effie Perine; Madame Therese De Farge; Dixie Belle Lee; Inspector Crane; Detective Bates; El Gringo; Bim; The Obtrusive Gentleman; Max Jacobs; and Cueball.

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.