Archive for Howard Duff

For Art’s Sake

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on May 27, 2017 by dcairns

Have I ever watched a whole Robert Benton film? Maybe BAD COMPANY? It’s not from any great antipathy, honest.

THE LATE SHOW is, in Sarris’ useful kiss-off phrase, Lightly Likable. I was trying to work out who should have been cast. They must surely have wanted some RESONANCE, since it’s a variant of THE LONG GOODBYE’s gimmick of 40s P.I. meets 70s L.A. (Altman was a producer on it). But who was around who would have been good — Mitchum would have seemed too cool and tough, no matter what you did with him. His hangdog perf in THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE is great, but it relies on a dopey melancholia that’s different from the quality needed here — a tough old scrapper on his uppers. in fact, Art Carney is perfect. He just doesn’t call to mind 40s movies, which is a shame. Burt Lancaster wouldn’t have worked, Kirk Douglas didn’t think he was old, Tony Curtis was still trying to look like the kid with the ice-cream face, only the cream had not only melted but curdled. Everyone else was dead (Bogart), drunk (McGraw) or just wrong (Elisha Cook Jnr.) Art Carney is perfect.

But the normally magnificent Lily Tomlin isn’t perfect. I think they got the wrong one by mistake — I think they thought they were hiring Goldie Hawn. Tomlin can’t play scatterbrained, or she can, but she doesn’t make it in any way charming. It took me half the movie to work up a tolerance to her. By the end, I was OK with her, but I never had that kind of difficulty with the Divine Miss T before.

Best perf in the film may be Bill Macy, but Eugene Roche and John Considine make good baddies, and Joanna Cassidy confirms her status as a queen of neo-noir. Howard Duff, making a brief cameo at the start (he’s the Inciting Incident), is the only one with actual resonance from golden age Hollywood.

As director, Benton never gets excited by his own material, which makes it feel a bit Rockford Files — not a bad thing, if it were a piece of television. He milks outrageous suspense with a corpse in a Frigidaire, before blowing the pay-off in disappointing fashion. And the generational clash depends on caricaturing both leads in unconvincing ways (the way he keeps calling her “doll”) which would maybe work better if the film had a handle on how to behave or look like a film noir.

Still, I picked up a copy of Benton’s vampire-free TWILIGHT in Bo’ness a year or two ago, maybe I’ll finally watch it — this was enjoyable enough.

 

W.I.P. marks

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on February 15, 2011 by dcairns

WOMEN’S PRISON, a 1955 melo from director Lewis Seiler, follows the same formula as BRUTE FORCE, only with women and more conventional 1950s attitudes. Thus, Ida Lupino plays the sadistic warden, a hissable hate figure, but the politics have been stripped away. Howard Duff, who played an ex-soldier con in BF, here plays a sympathetic prison doctor, devoid of any credible personality, whose role is to reinforce the patriarchy and make it clear that the film doesn’t criticise the powers that be, just uppity, loveless career women and the practice of imprisoning men and women in adjacent buildings.

While Jules Dassin’s 40s minor classic gives us Sir Lancelot singing most of his dialogue in calypso style, here we’re introduced to Juanita Moore scrubbing floors on her knees while singing “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” The prison is obviously segregated, with all the black prisoners in their own cell, but no comment is made on this. The cigar-smoking diesel dykes stomping around in the pre-code Stanwyck WIP film LADIES THEY TALK ABOUT are long gone, of course, and even the frigid Lupino is judged straight by Duff, the voice of authority. (After introducing the lesbian quotient, that pre-coder even has the nerve to fade the scene out with “I Wonder Who’s Kissing Her Now” on the soundtrack…) Duff deduces that Lupino’s unloving, career-chasing personality repels all right-thinking men, and she’s now eaten up with jealousy for the women in her charge, “every one of whom has known love.” An inanely 50s approach to dollarbook Freud pop psychology.

Even without that sexist subtext, the continual provocation to despise Lupino and root for her to get killed  would be a little disturbing. When she’s pursued by an avenging male prisoner at the end, the movie seems to realize it’s gone too far and starts backing away from its own bloodlust. I doubt a modern film would bother.

But entertainment value comes from Lupino’s frosty sadism, and the wealth of female talent in support. Phyllis Thaxter seems like the lead character at first, but goes to pieces under the strain of confinement and is forced to sit out most of the action in a padded cell. No clear decision has been made as to the lead character, but Cleo Moore and Jan Sterling dominate, with great back-up from Vivian Marshall, a stripper who wanted to be a professional mimic, couldn’t get the breaks, and shot her agent (Jennings Lang?).

Fiona enjoyed this big load of tosh, which I might have given up on. Yet, as a bad taste spectacle of melodramatic baloney, it’s actually pretty enjoyable. We don’t get to see Marshall do a striptease with impersonations thrown in, but she does a great Bette Davis, and later turns her talents to plot-advancement when, by way of dubbing, she puts on Lupino’s voice and bypasses security. A shame they had to cheat and loop her, but her body language is still impressive: the precision of Ida’s drama-queen gestures is amped up to 11. Poor Marshall never got a better role — if she didn’t shoot her agent for real, she should have.

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