Archive for Paul Muni

Juarez: What is it good for?

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , on January 12, 2019 by dcairns

I can’t believe we watched JUAREZ right after NICHOLAS AND ALEXANDRA. How many films about impotent yet oppressive emperors can a person’s system withstand? We were about to find out.

The film is turgid, uniting the occasional leaden tendencies of director William Dieterle (exemplary in his fleet-footedness when Jack Warner cracked the whip or when entrusted with taut thriller material, fully living up to his German nickname “The Iron Stove” when pursuing some dim idea of “quality”) with the dullness of the standard biopic, the worthy period drama, and the “prestige” super-production. Co-writer John Huston blamed Paul Muni, cast as Juarez himself, for insisting on more lines. Muni talks slowly and low, which would work if he said little, but he’s dragging out great long speeches. “It was always heavy weather with Muni.”

Muni also seems to be wearing a FALSE HEAD, something like a Klingon.

In terms of performance, up-and-comer John Garfield and flatliner Brian Aherne (as the hapless Emperor Max) do best. Brian has to act through a ludicrous whorly beard. I think they should have abandoned historical likenesses for this movie, though they needed someone who could more plausibly suggest Indian heritage than Muni. Of course, we were watching for Bette’s mad scenes, which are indeed OTT, but not as hysterical as we’d hoped. But her character’s slide into insanity does give the film it’s best, by far, cinematic moment. After arguing her husband’s case with Napoleon III (an oily Claude Rains, always welcome), building into greater and greater frenzy of emotion, she breaks down completely, her hold on reality snapping. Claude turns into a Halloween devil, lit from below, which is slightly absurd (he’s already got the melodramatic villain’s twirly waxed mustache) —

And Bette flees the room —

Into OUTER DARKNESS. A completely black void, extending in all directions forever. Into this abyss she runs, and Dieterle’s camera plunges madly after her, and we’re swallowed up.

Now THAT’S expressionism. I can say it made the film worthwhile, though if I’d seen the clip in isolation that would have served me just as well. But then that would have made me watch the whole film, which would have been an even more unrewarding experience if I’d already seen the good bit.

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The Sunday Intertitle: A Devil’s Carnival

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on May 29, 2016 by dcairns

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Josef Von Sternberg’s UNDERWORLD (1927) brought the gangster picture back from obscurity — if Griffith’s MUSKETEERS OF PIG ALLEY is the first wave, and Walsh’s REGENERATION inaugurates the second, this one starts another torrent which continues almost unbroken into the Warner Bros talking era.

Now that great confabulator Howard Hawks, a quasi-friend and sometime collaborator of Sternberg’s (they shared the screenwriter Jules Furthman) claimed that when he proposed a gangster pic to Ben Hecht, Hecht wasn’t interested because he felt the genre was played out. Hawks pitch of “the Borgias in Chicago” is said to have changed his mind. But if Hecht was afraid of repeating himself with SCARFACE (1932), would he have reprised so many of the earlier film’s tropes?

Bull Weed (the repulsive George Bancroft) looks up at a neon advertisement promising “The City is Yours.” Tony (Paul Muni) admires a sign which declares “The World is Yours.” Arguably, the second version is an improvement: Bancroft feels vindicated by a statement which is practically true, or feels true. Muni sees an unfulfillable promise, the lie of the American dream, of life.

Hawks stages a party aftermath strewn with streamers which closely matches the dying hours of the ball which Hecht had concocted for UNDERWORLD. Though I’m inclined to give Sternberg a little credit here — the idea of a society engagement for the underworld is delightful, whimsical. Hecht knew gangland from his newspaper days. Sternberg decried research and liked to work from a position of romantic ignorance.

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There’s a contest for moll of the year. I love all the nicknames.

Hawks also claimed to have suggested Dietrich’s tuxedo in MOROCCO, which is possible, I guess. But, though some rumours suggest Hawks was bi, and he gave several of his leading ladies a masculine edge, perversity is really more of a Sternberg thing, and Dietrich’s girl-girl kiss would seem more up his street. But who knows? Hawks’ anecdotes all revolve, in a way that would be monotonous if he wasn’t such a good storyteller, around his own mastery of every situation, his brilliant creative decision-making and his ability to get everybody to do exactly what he wants. Then again, his films are usually good enough to make you believe he really was that proficient.

Did Hawks invent the money thrown in the spittoon in UNDERWORLD? Is that why he felt entitled to basically just steal it for RIO BRAVO? Or did he just figure it was worth doing again, thirty years later, since the audience has a short memory? At any rate, RIO BRAVO improves on the idea since it gives John Wayne more motivation to intervene in Dean Martin’s alcoholic degradation than George Bancroft had in pulling Clive Brook out of the gutter.

Funny, Fiona hates stuffed shirt Brook in SHANGHAI EXPRESS (“He’s a chin,” explained Sternberg to Dietrich, when she asked what he new leading man was like), but since enjoying his one directorial effort, ON APPROVAL, she is open to liking him. She liked him in this, and was rooting for him and Evelyn Brent (as “Feathers”). It helps that George Bancroft really is disgusting.

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