Archive for John Alton

Leftward, ho!

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 21, 2019 by dcairns
The very welcome return of Chris Schneider to Shadowplay's pages -- he's been looking at THREE FACES WEST, directed by Bernard "Mad" Vorhaus, and he's dug up some interesting stuff...

One thought that occurs while watching the good-looking, if not exactly compelling, THREE FACES WEST is “What does this Republic Pictures drama of dust-bowl farmers have in common with the Billy Wilder SUNSET BOULEVARD? The answer? Both of ‘em allude to the luxury car Isotta Fraschini.

Only in SUNSET BOULEVARD the car, which belongs to silent star Norma Desmond, is real and rentable, whereas in THREE FACES WEST it’s an impossibility, the stuff of foolish jokes. The daughter of a refugee Viennese doctor (Sigrid Gurie), who has been sent with her father (Charles Coburn) to bring medical aid to a North Dakota full of dust and influenza, thinks that when John Wayne says “jalopy” he’s referring to a make of Italian car. “First cousin to an Iscotta Fraschini,” chuckles Wayne — who’s a local leader. The word “Anschluss,” meaning Nazi Germany’s overtaking Austria, is soon to follow.

This is 1940, you see, the year GRAPES OF WRATH was released. The director and cinematographer are Bernard Vorhaus and John Alton, the pair who later made notable noirs THE AMAZING MR. X and BURY ME DEAD. Wayne, the male lead, has already appeared in his star-making STAGECOACH role, but the John Ford cavalry films are in his future.

The phrase “left-ish” — or, at least, “Popular Front” — comes to mind … and would even if first googling *didn’t* produce a Vorhaus bio in Spartacus Educational. Vorhaus had just made a Dr. Christian film, with script by Ring Lardner Jr. and Ian McClellan Hunter, concerned with medicine for the indigent. But it’s startling, in any case, to see Wayne in this context, the man who later would walk away from the family at the end of THE SEARCHERS involved in anything as communal as creating an Exodus-like convoy from the Dust Bowl to humid Oregon.

It seemed to indicate the writers’ left-wing cred that the radio show which connects Wayne with Coburn and Gurie is called We The People. But nah. This show actually existed, was broadcast on CBS from 1937 to 1949. Still, the name allows Wayne to say “We The People — left holding the bag!”

THREE FACES WEST is built around the equation of old-time pioneers with present-day (read early-‘40s) refugees. Pre-echoes of CASABLANCA occur when Gurie’s loyalties are torn between a fiancé in Vienna, who saved her life and turns out not to have died, and the more immediate Wayne. Not much suspense there. Not many of the Expressionist gestures I was hoping for, either, from director Vorhaus, although several gorgeous night shots with blowing wind and a single light-source indicate the hand of the d.p. who later shot T-MEN.

Coburn probably comes off best among the performers, although Gurie is affecting. Wayne has an unconvincing drunk scene, and another director might’ve advised him not to make a fist when talking about his desire to fight. Still, the camera loves Wayne’s *jeunesse doree*. As his recent costar Louise Brooks wrote, a shade backhandedly, “This is no actor but the hero of all mythology brought to life.” (Voice off: “No actor, you say?”)

There’s a chase, a wedding. Wayne gets handed an awkward line or two like “It was I who argued we stay here and fight.” A salient phrase of Victor Young’s score keeps sounding like the Warren & Dubin song “I’ll String Along With You” … although that’s probably because the words “Three Faces West” and “You may not be an angel” have the same rhythm. Not compelling, on the whole, but a film that’s historically notable and displays signs of virtuosity — says the writer before slamming the door and driving off in his imaginary Iscotta Fraschini.

*

The cast, as David Cairns might say, includes Ethan Edwards, Marya Volny, Benjamin Dingle, Pa Joad, Connolly the Barman, plus a cameo by Charles Foster Kane III.

The People Against The Thing From Another World

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on September 3, 2019 by dcairns
Called to the bar.

Casting Spencer Tracy as an alcoholic is a bit nervy… a scene showing him engaging in a sketchy interaction with Eduardo Ciannelli in the men’s room may be dicier still. THE PEOPLE AGAINST O’HARA (1951) has moments of subversion and dissonance unusual in an MGM picture.

Tracy plays a retired criminal lawyer and reformed boozer driven back to the bottle by his struggle to win the case of a young man (James Arness, THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD himself) accused of murder. John Sturges directs — his early thrillers aren’t as noirish as Anthony Mann’s, but he does have cinematographer John “single-source” Alton on his side so the movie is beautiful.

I must have looked away during the credits because I missed Alton’s name, but the suspicion gradually donned on me as the film went on that I was seeing his work. One of the few DoP’s with such a distinctive style.

This is the shot that made me first glimmer and glom.

“Spencer Tracy’s always good as a lawyer. He’s so solid,” said Fiona. “He’s an immovable force.”

“I think you can have an immovable object or an unstoppable force…” I suggest, but then come to think she’s right. Spence is an immovable force. Or possibly an unstoppable object.

The film is very well cast — Diana Lynn has one terrific scene, John Hodiak is fine in his natural environment as third lead, Pat O’Brien fades into the furniture, Ciannelli and William Campbell are great nasties, and if you enjoy the look, sound and feel of Emile Meyer as much as I do, you will enjoy seeing, hearing and touching him here.

This is sort of a noir — there is some surprising stuff, including the ending. But the ultimate message of just about any MGM film is that the system works, so you don’t get a real sense of subversion and malaise, but then, maybe you already have enough of that in your life.

THE PEOPLE AGAINST O’HARA stars Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; Hildy Johnson; Emmy Kockenlocker; John Kovac; Dr. Satan; the Thing from Another World; Cimmaron Rose; Walking Coyote; Concho; Chief Quinn; Reverend Cyril Playfair; Mrs. Carol Stark; Lt. Harry Kello; Chief Inspector Bernie Ohls; Paul Kersey; Molly Molloy; Mr. Rafferty; and the voice of Colossus.

Good start

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 26, 2016 by dcairns

casque

On Friday, saw Jacques Becker’s CASQUE D’OR in the Piazza Maggiore. Looked up and could see the rays of the projector beam spreading across the stars. If I were the hardcore cinephile you all expect me to be I would have seen Bertrand Tavernier’s 3hr+ documentary on French cinema also, but the trip had been somewhat strenuous.

Today the screenings started at the civilized hour of half past two in the afternoon (or 14:30 as these crazy continentals call it) and I saw four shorts by Slovenian filmmaker Karpo Godina, all recently restored, then a recently rediscovered Argentinian slice of poetic realism from the thirties, then a silent French film by Marie Epstein and Jean Benoit-Levy, then MODERN TIMES in the Piazza, crammed full of people as never before, as Timothy Brock’s reconstruction of Chaplin’s score was played live by a 65-piece orchestra.

  1. Cinema Ritrovato’s lavish program book quotes Lindsay Anderson on Jacques Becker, which made me smile as I first saw CASQUE D’OR via the critic/filmmaker’s personal VHS recording. It’s a lot better on the big screen!
  2. Godina’s films were ALL suppressed by the Yugoslav government, and he was nearly jailed for one of them. He is a cinematic hero! Using static shots as a formal restraint and sometimes as a formal joke, he gets unexpected laughs and sews indefinable disquiet. One film was banned purely for this sense of not being quite sure what he’s up to. More on him soon.
  3. A season of Argentinian oddities opened with ESCALA EN LA CIUDAD, whose most famous crewmember was ace cinematographer John Alton (here “Juan”) — Alton spent 8 formative years shooting in South America, but little of this work survives. This one had profoundly amateurish acting and dialogue, weirdly messy sound (mixing was apparently nonexistent in Argentina), but a touching story showing the influence of Carné, and fine work from Alton, though the master had not yet fully learned to limit his light sources to create his trademark source-lit chiaroscuro. Some lovely camera moves and a gorgeous score by various artists.
  4. PEAU DE PECHE gets rediscovered partly because co-auteur Marie Epstein is a valuable addition to the pantheon of female cineastes, but her work with Benoit-Levy is so moving, eloquent and innovative it would be deserving of celebration even if she had been a mere man. If her gender forms a convenient peg to hang the film from, so much the better. I already admired LA MATERNELLE by the same pair, and I will try to see more in this season. Also of note: charismatic child star Le Petit Jimmy, who does a hilarious Chevalier impression. (This film, accompanied by John Sweeney on the piano, brought a fat tear to my right eye.)
  5. MODERN TIMES? What is there to say? With live score, it’s different but the same — the most notable departure was the singing waiters’, who are now mute, making Chaplin’s the first voice we hear which is not a mechanical reproduction (all the other speakers are on closed-circuit TV, gramophone or radio). Arguably an improvement, but a slight distortion. The music sounded pretty great, though, as did the five thousand or so people laughing and applauding.

Chaplin_-_Modern_Times

Last time I was in Bologna, I never seemed able to fit in five shows in a day, because I had a half hour trip in to town every day and a half hour trip back at night, so my energy didn’t sustain. This year, I’m in a hotel five minutes from the Piazza and fifteen from the Cinemateque, though in this 38° heat every Google Maps estimate is somewhat optimistic. At any rate, four shows in a day that only started in mid-afternoon strikes me as a promising start. Tomorrow I’m aiming to start at 9 a.m. and finish around midnight.