Archive for Evelyn Keyes

Up, skirt

Posted in Fashion, FILM, literature, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 1, 2018 by dcairns

Strange that THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH should be this famous thing, despite being one of the weaker Billy Wilder films of its era. (Arguably, all six Wilder films made between ACE IN THE HOLE and SOME LIKE IT HOT are minor work, but minor Wilder ain’t nothing, and some of them are favourites of mine, whatever their flaws.) He never co-wrote with George Axelrod again, and would later say the one-off collaborations were the ones that didn’t work. Axelrod said that the play was about a man who commits adultery and feels guilty about it, but censorship forbade the sex from actually occurring so the movie is about a man who DOESN’T commit adultery and feels guilty about it — a somewhat trivial complaint.Also, Wilder had wanted to cast Walter Matthau. Imagine THAT film. Tom Ewell is skilled, but he has a truly sinister smile and is never what you’d call pleasant to look at. Calling him “Tommy” in the Saul Bass titles doesn’t make him any more boyish. There’s a reason why Skelton Knaggs never played lead in a romantic comedy. (Matthau’s shall-we-say unconventional looks never seem to be a problem — except when he takes his shirt off — and he eventually acquired leading man status and became a fixture in Wilder’s films.)

The film’s balancing act begins at the beginning, with a history of Manhattan in which the voiceover man has to sound like a classic fifties narrator-dude but also break character with casual jokes. The uncredited voice artist isn’t quite up to the second task.The island of Manhattan, as viewed from a nearby hill.

Having packed wife Evelyn Keyes and space cadet son* off to cooler climes for the summer, Ewell starts fantasising, which is most of the film.

This is Wilder’s first ‘Scope production, in some ways a counterintuitive format for a movie consisting largely of a guy alone in his apartment. In New York, yet. A city that seems to invite the filmmaker to rotate the anamorphic lens 90º and make the vertical horizontal, like with a camera phone. (I think I’d seen this movie in every ratio except the right one, until now.) But it’s a Fox pic, so the frame shape was compulsory. And Wilder finds an interesting use for the width when mixing into flashback. The long slow dissolves, in which the foreground stays solid for ages as a new background bleeds through, must be influenced by CITIZEN KANE, but the 1949 stage debut of Death of a Salesman, with its lighting-change time-shifts, may have influenced Axelrod in the first place. (Hmm, I seem to recall another Arthur Miller connection here, but I can’t quite put my finger on it.) Preston Sturges said he wanted the fantasies in UNFAITHFULLY YOURS to look as if they were written and directed by the protagonist, who is neither a writer nor a director, Wilder’s treatment of Ewell’s nocturnal thoughts really takes this idea further. Ewell’s job, publishing sensational literature (a milieu already explored by Danny Kaye in THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY), further inflects his lurid imaginings. Wilder frames stagily and Ewell aims his performance at the camera rather than his co-stars (who include the great Carolyn Jones as a passion-crazed nurse) and the effect is as much soap opera as it is pulp magazine. The spoof of FROM HERE TO ETERNITY (whose director, Fred Zinnemann, was a friend, fellow Austro-Hungarian, and former collaborator of Wilder’s) got the biggest laugh from Fiona, due to Ewell’s disabled sprint along the shore. It’s not the most sophisticated bit of comedy, but this isn’t exactly Wilder’s most sophisticated film.**

Just before meeting Marilyn’s “The Girl,” Ewell slips on his son’s roller-skate and spills raspberry soda all over his pants. (The second skate will slide, sharklike, silent and seemingly under its own will, to trip him again much later. No explanation offered for its cartoon self-propulsion: either the family home is poltergeistically punishing him for thoughts of infidelity, or it’s acting as psychic familiar for his son, junior member of the Anti-Sex League. Note how the lad used his space helmet to escape a fatherly kiss. No affection is allowed. The child’s role in marriage is to cockblock the parent, right?) Seconds later, speaking to Marilyn, Ewell is dry of trouser. I guess the detail of the soda spatter was impossible to reproduce, though the appeal of Ewell grinning after the leading lady with a sodden crotch strikes me as a detail worth pursuing.Monroe is so artificial a performer when she’s doing her thing (the carefully arranged grin, lips pulled tight to hide gums), that it’s hard to assess her performance, especially when playing such an obvious fantasy figure. It IS nice to see her playing Chopsticks, though, with a different kind of smile, one we aren’t used to seeing on her, one that seems real. Or at least unfamiliar. It’s the shape her face makes when she smiles, sings “pop-pop-pop” along with Chopsticks, and keeps her gums hidden. It’s a good face. I guess the scene’s other purpose is to make her tits jiggle. Trevilla’s costume designs emphasise the natural squishiness of body fat and avoid bullet-bra rigidity.

“What IS this relationship?” asked Fiona as the film ends. What has the film shown us, in fact? Ewell enjoys (and is tormented by) a flirtatious friendship, and this is somehow going to reinvigorate his marriage, though it’s not quite clear how. His wife is unaware of everything that happens, and isn’t aware of any marital problem either. The problem The Girl diagnoses is that his wife trusts him: not the worst problem to have.There’s also a half-hearted attempt to make something out of The Sonny Tufts Subplot, with Ewell becoming jealous about his wife (obviously a feat of projected guilt) and the aforementioned Tufts, whom he will eventually slug. Since Tufts is blameless in reality, this bit of gratuitous violence seems to stem solely from Wilder’s assessment that Tufts is the kind of guy we would like to see punched, an assessment I cannot honestly fault. There’s a fine German word, Backpfeifengesicht, for Sonny Tufts’ face.There’s also a very weird, broad, Neanderthal performance from one Robert Strauss, who inexplicably doesn’t get punched. I guess we could say he has the Cliff Osmond role. And a VERY funny perf by Oscar Homolka as Dr, Brubaker, psychologist, who proves himself a fine conduit for the Wilder style. As we’re told Wilder dictated every pause and gesture, I assume he also gave indications of timing/delivery, or maybe it’s just his writing that offers to the sensitive actor a suggestion of what to stress and what to throw away. At any rate, Homolka proves himself the funniest headshrink in Wilder’s long parade of nerve specialists (certainly more amusing than Martin Gabel or Klaus Kinski).The removal of the act, or even the suggestion of the act, of consummation, does more than turn the movie into merely an exploration of male fantasy (something it would need to employ Dr. Brubaker fulltime in order to get to the bottom of). It sadly turns it into a disconnected bag of bits, blackout sketches without a real final punchline. Some very funny bits, some stylish filmmaking, and a strong sense of the specific weirdness of its time and place. All accidentally elevated to classic status by a scene where a skirt blows up, and the girl enjoys the sensation.**** See also Fred MacMurray’s moon-mission aspirant offspring in THE APARTMENT. Admirable efficiency of American society: as soon as they got a space program, they started giving birth to would-be astronauts.

** Wilder has the fantasy female in this segment declare “from here to ETERNITY!” to make sure we get it, but also to make a joke out of the making sure. Later he has Ewell mention the famous actress Marilyn Monroe — evidently she was already too iconic to be wholly enveloped in the story as a fictional presence. The most amusing in-joke, however, is the reference to one “Charlie Lederer” — the name of a fellow screenwriter irl — going crazy last summer and getting tattooed.

***Was the scene perceived as a triumph of eroticism because it shows us legs, and shame-free exposure, or because it makes us FEEL the sensation of cool air on bare skin?

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Home Service

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 24, 2017 by dcairns

Huge gratitude to Talking Pictures TV for screening ENCHANTMENT (1948), which I don’t think I’d ever heard of, directed by Irving Reis, who was merely a name to me. It’s been a while since I discovered a 40s Hollywood film that was a revelation to me.

It’s based on a Rumer Godden novel — one might think her an extraordinarily fortunate author in her adaptations, except I don’t think she liked any of them, certainly not BLACK NARCISSUS, which maybe affirms some part of the auteur theory by transmogrifying wholly into a Powell & Pressburger joint. Though it’s certainly possible to like both book and film. But Rumer didn’t, is my point.

It’s also a Goldwyn production, and stuffed full of his favourite talent — not Danny Kaye and Virginia Mayo, you understand, but David Niven (DODSWORTH, WUTHERING HEIGHTS), Teresa Wright (THE LITTLE FOXES, THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES) and Leo g. Carroll (WUTHERING HEIGHTS again), the whole being shot by Gregg Toland (most of the above). It’s basically a William Wyler movie without Wyler, which might be useful in assessing his contribution to the films he made for Goldwyn, except I’d rather just rave about this one.

Oh, and the cast also includes Evelyn Keyes, who is delightful, and Farley Granger, almost equally so only in a moustache. I’m not always anti-whiskers — David Niven doesn’t seem complete without his lip-caterpillar, for instance, but the more hair you put on Farley’s face, the less of Farley’s face you see, and that has to be counted as a loss.

For some reason the Blitz seems a time of romance, which is crazy — bombs falling from the sky onto human habitations are not romantic — but there it is. I’ve been reading Connie Willis, who suffers from the same inappropriate yearning for tumbling ordinance. This movie is framed by the war, but glides from thence into flashbacks going back to Victorian times.

Niven is barely recognizable (save for that lightbulb cranium) in the contemporary sections, wrapped in a rather convincing make-up and giving a thoroughly convincing performance of old age. His voice is completely unrecognizable, save for a few moments when his distinctive way with a line creeps through.

     

The leaping about in time is accomplished with a lot of adventuresome skill, some of which may be accredited to Toland, who after all had CITIZEN KANE to his credit. And so we get temporal shifts delivered with lighting changes (before Death of a Salesman) , and one extraordinary bit where the camera pans out of flashback into present tense in a single unbroken shot, the kind of thing very rarely seen in the forties — THE LIFE AND DEATH OF COLONEL BLIMP is the best-known example. And a lovely moment where we a scene fades out except for a character’s hand, which lingers momentarily like the Cheshire Cat’s grin or the blind hermit’s cross in BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, then dissolves to another image of a hand, and irises out in a new scene. That trick turns up in HE WHO GETS SLAPPED, but practically nowhere else in screen history.

Evocative effects-work for the Blitz scenes.

Also, for fans of eccentric forties storytelling (David Bordwell), it’s narrated by a house. That would have been enough to make me love it, but there’s so much more.

What other Reis ought I to see? I’ll be all over THE BACHELOR AND THE BOBBYSOXER, of course, but are there other gems?

Fiends Without Faces

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 7, 2008 by dcairns

A Fever Dream Double Feature

Without any conscious planning, we watched George A. Romero’s BRUISER and Robert Florey’s THE FACE BEHIND THE MASK in quick succession, two films feature blank-faced masks transfiguring criminal heroes. Both heroes also spend a bit of time standing around the docks of New York too, but that’s less significant than the thematic idea, expressed most articulately in Paul Verhoeven’s otherwise inane HOLLOW MAN: “It’s amazing what you’re capable of when you no longer have to look at yourself in the mirror.”

BRUISER was Romero’s comeback film, in a way, a small-scale and simple project that got him back in the game and led to the enjoyable and political LAND OF THE DEAD and DIARY OF THE DEAD. He’s making another zombie film now! So the film is a success purely in terms of delivering a valuable filmmaker back to productivity. But is it an artistic success?

BRUISER, which takes its name from the glamour magazine the hero (Jason Flemyng) works for (and that DOES seem rather an improbable name for a mag), as befits its style-mag subject, is possibly Romero’s mostly slickly handsome film. Lots of macro closeups of the hero’s appliances, like product shots in TV ads. Attractive, but also apt.

Flemyng, sporting a transatlantic accent that doesn’t quite gel, but suits his nonentity character, plays a put-upon shmoe who fantasises about killing his rivals and enemies (a repeat of the homicidal Walter Mitty motif from CREEPSHOW), then one day wakes up to find his face replaced by a white, blank mask. A lovely bit of acting from Flemyng — on discovering this facial erasure, he paws and tugs at his new white visage, then attempts to brush his hair. Cause that’ll fix things, yeah.

Going on a killing spree, as any of us might under such circs, our hero eventually wins back his identity by destroying everybody who’s made his life miserable (plus his Mexican maid, who’s stolen a few bills from his wallet). The whole theme seems somewhat corrupt and sinister.

Flemying’s house struck Fiona: “It’s like the house Petrocelli was building. It’s got that horrible ‘new house’ feeling. It’s like HIM! All characterless facade.” Especially after Flemyng’s metamorphosis moment. Trying to “blend in”, he applies his cheating wife’s makeup (he will kill her), which still looks weird. Then he puts on a cap.

And turns into Ron Howard.

The movie survives the transmogrification for a little while, but soon the paucity of plot becomes painfully apparent. All the movie has left to do is to kill the obnoxious supporting cast, led by the super-obnoxious Peter Stormare. I mean, he’s meant to be vile, like the psycho military leader in DAY OF THE DEAD. We’re meant to crave his destruction. Not the noblest of emotions to encourage in your audience. But Stormare is so full-on that he’s impossible to enjoy on any level —  he’s been giving persistently horrible perfs since FARGO. Remember THE BROTHERS GRIMM? I could not believe he was still alive at the end of that one, I assumed the only excuse for his performance would be to gratify the audience by giving his character a lingering demise.

Weirdly, BRUISER also lacks memorable mayhem — the characters build up to their deaths by acting spectacularly vile, then pfff. Nothing. A little hole in the head. Is it hypocritical of me to decry the film’s viciousness and then complain it’s not violent enough? I think I’m just trying to judge it on its own level.

Another layer of obnoxiousness is added by the gratuitous nudity, which almost manages to be embarrassing in Romero’s films. He has a very glam bitch-goddess in Nina Garbiras, whose body is worth celebrating in song and skin-flick, but he ruins things with self-consciousness and a sense that flesh is being SERVED UP to a moronic public (this means us, and we resent it).

Much more fun, and much more honorable, was THE FACE BEHIND THE MASK. Perhaps not on the same level of ecstatic delirium as THE BEAST WITH FIVE FINGERS, the other great Florey-Lorre collaboration, but fun. Peter Lorre plays a cheerful immigrant in New York (yes, Lorre can be cute) who is disfigured in an Improbable Hotel Fire of the kind which once plagued the metropolis, this one caused by a roomer stashing his illicit cooking in a chest of drawers. This is the film that dares to say “Don’t stash your illicit cooking in a chest of drawers! What are you, nuts?” 

His face a hideous, convincing burns makeup, which Florey withholds from view apart from a few glimpses, Lorre turns to crime so he can afford surgery (which later proves hopeless), Lorre buys a fancy rubber mask for four hundred bucks. When worn, it gives a remarkable impression of being Peter Lorre’s real face with a little makeup on it. With this new persona, the embittered Lorre joins a gang of hoodlums, turning his mechanical skills to safe-cracking.

This being a 1941 movie, Crime Must Not Pay, and Lorre pays a terrible price, losing the impossibly chirpy blind girl (Evelyn Keyes, startlingly perky) whose heart he has won — this was in the days when Hollywood matrimonial agencies did storming business pairing lugubrious mutants with visually-impaired optimists — when his former cronies try to off him with a car bomb. Unlike Jason Flemyng’s wimpy Jacobean antics, Lorre’s revenge is dramatically satisfying and achieved at the cost of his own life, so nobody profits from the criminous misdeeds on view, except the audience.

Worth seeing because it’s a better version of DARKMAN than DARKMAN, because Florey is a suave director, especially paired with a glossy cameraman like Franz Planer, and because Lorre is never less than insanely compelling. In his rubber mask he’s just BEAUTIFUL.

Screenwriter Paul Jarrico was run out of town by the blacklist, and had an itinerant writing career in Europe for some time. His credits have now been restored to films he wrote pseudonymously during the McCarthy era.