Archive for Maurice Tourneur

Frankie and Trevor

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on November 5, 2022 by dcairns

I had vague positive boyhood memories of VON RYAN’S EXPRESS — it turned out I had slightly conflated my memory of Frank Sinatra running for a train with a scene from THE 5-MAN ARMY, the Argento-scripted spaghetti western in which Tetsurô Tanba runs for a train FOR A LONG TIME. You couldn’t possibly get Frank Sinatra to run that long. This meant that the film’s surprising and effective ending was surprising and effective all over again. You wouldn’t get an ending like that now. Already, in 1965, US cinema is groping towards the downer endings of the 70s.

This may be Mark Robson’s best film after his Val Lewton phase. (Or maybe CHAMPION, PHFFT or PEYTON PLACE?) It’s THE GREAT ESCAPE on a train, basically. And I guess TGE made that ending conceivable. It even has John Leyton in it, and he doesn’t go everywhere, you know.

WWII prison camp films seem to capture the spirit of school — the secret activities, the getting away with stuff — it all becomes hi-jinks. Helped along here by Jerry Goldsmith’s score, which apart from a few lamentable comedy noises is inventive, sprightly, distinctive — it has a theme you can whistle (important for a GREAT ESCAPE knock-off) but lots of other fun elements too, plus the snare drums Darryl Zanuck would have insisted upon.

The scourge of war films — and they are a bit of a scourge, however nostalgic we might feel about some of them — all comes from WWII. If you look at First World War films, they made propaganda movies while the war was on, then largely stopped talking about it, and then when they returned to the subject it was to talk about how dreadful war was. THE BIG PARADE, WINGS, ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT. You could lighten the mood with a romance or a bromance, but that was mostly to contrast with how dreadful the war was. Not too many exceptions.

“You said it, miste – oh, wait”

But with WWII the propaganda continued even after the end of hostilities, as if we had to carry on convincing ourselves that it was a noble venture. Britain became hopelessly locked into war nostalgia, as did 20th Century Fox, the studio that came to embody Zanuck’s mid-life/late life crisis of masculinity writ large.

Does VRE get away with turning the war into a school romp just by slapping on a moment of tragedy? Does THE GREAT ESCAPE? My point is not that we mustn’t enjoy them, but that we should remain aware that they’re slightly poisonous.

Anyway, Sinatra is an American airman, Ryan, who becomes the ranking officer in an Italian prison camp where he’s mostly surrounded by Brits including Trevor Howard. He aquires the “Von” nickname by standing up against murdering camp commandant Adolfo Celli. But then he masterminds a daring takeover of the prison train carrying the men towards Germany, rerouting it to Switzerland. It’s faintly preposterous but done with panache.

There he is, doing his running!

Robson, a former editor, gets most of his effects by intercutting straightforward shots. The first reveal of Sinatra is beautifully staged in a Maurice Tourneur-style blocking reveal, though. The direct cutting of the nouvelle vague had found its way into LAWRENCE OF ARABIA but Robson is having none of it. I like dissolves personally but an elephantine thing like this might benefit from more nimble and surprising transitions. Robson is surprisingly flatfooted about scene endings, even when the script supplies him with zingers. He also says things like “Clue me,” which didn’t strike me as period-accurate, but I could be wrong.

The Italian war was all about male nudity: see also CATCH 22.

VON RYAN’S EXPRESS stars Frankie Machine; Captain Bligh; Princess Salirah; Harry Luck; Teocrito; Willie ‘Tunnel King’; Capt. Daniel Gregg; Dr. Mabuse; Clark Gable; Bertram Garvay; Emilio Largo; Nazorine; Don Jarvis; FBI Director Denton Voyles: and King Minos.

Valentine’s Day

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on October 26, 2022 by dcairns

As leading man, Robert Warwick has the disadvantage that his husky build makes him look uncomfortably bulky in a suit. Get him in a toga and he’s amazing, even twenty years after ALIAS JIMMY VALENTINE. His other problem is his sneer, but I think he’s using that intentionally to show Jimmy’s arrogance.

The plot is effectively contrived, with everything building to a neat climax, but it’s also very much CONTRIVED — no logical reason dictates that Inspector Doyle’s arrival to beard Jimmy in his den/bank, should coincide with a child getting trapped in the safe, necessitating that our hero incriminate himself by “cracking” the lock. But we’ll let it go. The movie needs a sense of cat and mouse to propel us into this, the third act.

Different career arcs: Maurice Tourneur attracted negative attention in his native France for leaving at the start of WWI, for a lucrative movie career in Fort Lee, New Jersey. Warwick joined up when America entered the war, which took him away from his film career — I wondered if it adversely affected his progress, but he seems to have not missed much, his time away being equivalent to that of Buster Keaton’s military service. For a lot of Americans, the war was over before they saw action.

Anyway, asides from being patriotic, Warwick strikes me as one of the best silent leading men of the age. He’s great later on in IN A LONELY PLACE, too, as the Barrymore-like drunken thesp.

Jimmy’s ability to prove he’s not himself doesn’t make a lick of narrative sense, or if it does the secret eludes me. Doesn’t the governor (a supposedly unimpeachable witness) know who he is? And so does Inspector Doyle, and we know whose word a jury would believe.

Still, it gets us to the point where, like that other Jimmy, Mr. McGill of Better Call Saul, our hero has an escape from justice within his grasp, but he has to give it up to retain his humanity. A powerful story idea.

Tourneur starts his weird intercutting again, dropping in shots of the little girl, Madge Evans, at play in the strongroom. This is bold stuff for the period, showing the audience a scene which initially appears to have no relevance to what’s going on. I think the idea is that the bafflement this produces becomes a kind of tension that has to be resolved by a narrative explanation. Tourneur banks on getting the viewer a little frustrated and uncertain.

As the intercutting continues, the fact of the kid being close to the open bank vault may well start alert audience’s anticipating tragedy, just as they would if she were, say, playing by a dark and lonely body of water, as in DON’T LOOK NOW (where again intercutting creates creeping anxiety by seeming not to be adequately motivated by the usual narrative goals.)

Anyway, Jimmy flummoxes Doyle with a dated photo supposedly proving he was never in Sing Sing.

The trap is spring! And it’s the little boy who closes the safe door. Wee bastard.

Having very deliberately locked his sister in, he gets cold feet and goes for help. It was merely high spirits. Who among us has not, at a tender age, entombed a sibling or two?

At the very moment of his triumph, gaslighting Doyle into accepting he’s not who he transparently is, Jimmy is interrupted by his buddy Red, the security man. What with the bank vault being new, it hasn’t had its combination set, so nobody can open it. This is also an unlikely proposition, but not as improbable as the timing. Both can be accepted in a melodrama because they make the drama more melo. What we want in a drama is a graph where the highs and lows get closer together and higher and lower — Jimmy’s triumph is followed IMMEDIATELY by his greatest crisis. We might prefer it all to seem more lifelike, but the plot certainly fulfills its first obligation, which is to be interesting.

Brilliant staging, too: as Jimmy, Red and the boy rush to the rescue, the kid pulls the door shut after them, revealing, as it closes, that Doyle hasn’t left: he’s lurking in a doorway of his own, having clearly heard all.

Like all the best crime movies, AJV is shameless about giving us useful information about how to do crimes, so we see Jimmy sandpapering his fingertips to increase their sensitivity — he has to be able to sense the tumblers in the lock by touch alone. Stick with me, kids, it’s not much fun but it’s educational.

While a lot of his contemporaries subscribed to the principle of one scene = one shot, Tourneur gives us a bold axial cut straight down the line, enlarging the safe and our protags as they struggle.

Then a new angle as Jimmy blindfolds himself to enable him to concentrate entirely on tactile experience, and Doyle sneaks up on them…

Warwick and Johnny Hines as Red do great work with their VERY DRAMATIC MOVES, but their director is crafty too. This is Hitchcock material, where the choices of angle and rate of cutting can work marvels, and even at this early, well-before-Hitchcock period, Tourneur seems up to the task. He moves closer, which means he now has to cut to Doyle in his own frame, and so it’s a montage.

The wide shot has established a stairway, and now down it comes Ruth Shepley, mother of the canned child. Not knowing the set-up, she thinks Jimmy is burgling the bank for nefarious rather than humanitarian reasons. The zigzag of dramatic tension is almost zigging and zagging at the same time.

Then she sees Doyle, who signals to her not to disturb the crims at work.

The strategy has been to go closer and closer, and so now it’s just HANDS.

Tourneur is also flashing up the numbers as Jimmy decodes the combination. Red is striking a match on cue each time — I don’t quite get this, but maybe somebody can explain? I dig the embossed intertitular numerals, though — they are tactile!

The emotional climax of the film requires Ruth S. to be remarkably unconcerned about her half-asphyxiated offspring, in favour of Jimmy and the question of his possible incarceration. I do think a dramatic beat has been skipped.

Doyle, hitherto an unbending Javert, shows mercy: in proving himself a former safecracker, Jimmy has also shown that he’s reformed. But the fake Robert Cummings warns Jimmy:

I certainly seem to have fallen for THIS fake picture, though! I love it madly.

Quick freezeframe and fadeout — I suspect a final clinch has been lost to history.


The Sunday Intertitle: I was never Jimmy Valentine

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on October 23, 2022 by dcairns

Jimmy’s respectability is ruffled slightly by the arrival of his old lookout, Avery, now released from Sing Sing (into the same wintry cityscape Jimmy emerged into years before — it’s always snowy at Sing Sing). The reprobate urges him to recall the thrills of his earlier lifestyle, and he does, via vignette:

Ah, the excitement and romance of emerging from small windows, in a blue-tinted iris effect!

Other little flashbacks show the gang emptying a safe, lurking, and enjoying fine wines. It was a rare old life, indeed.

This larcenous nostalgia soon has Jimmy whipped into a frenzy of overplaying, interrupted by the arrival of the governor’s daughter. Jimmy’s recidivist caller strikes a pose, apparently making him invisible to her eyes. The eyes of a leading lady in 1915 respond only to movement, like the JURASSIC PARK tyrannosaur.

Ruth Shepley still has on the awful combo she sported two years ago, with the addition of a fox corpse over one shoulder. But her appearance breaks the spell, and Jimmy/Lee sends his former accomplice off with a letter of recommendation for a straight job in a factory.

More cuteness with dollies, and Detective Doyle (the false Robert Cummings) is back on the case. A police chief has written to Sing Sing about another job Jimmy is wanted for.

Things are now being set up for the big finish: the bank has a new vault, and a temporary combination; our heroine has turned up, bringing her little girl (future Cagney co-star Madge Evans); the stage is set.

Jimmy is revisited by recidivist Avery, who’s rejected factory work. Jimmy leaves him alone with a tray full of cash-wads, to prove to him he’s a better man than he thinks. Risky. Then we have some missing footage.

Poor Avery (Alec B. Francis)! His reformation lost to history.

Doyle is at the door — Jimmy still hopes to escape justice — one more episode should finish this thing —