Archive for Sam Levene

Night of the Roberts

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 27, 2018 by dcairns

Watching lots of RKO films for a project which may or may not happen, but the research is fun anyway.

If you’re ever caught up in an argument about which is the true auteur, Val Lewton or Jacques Tourneur, you can always bamboozle both sides by plumping for Nicholas Musuraca, who shot not only CAT PEOPLE but several other Lewton horrors, as well as OUT OF THE PAST, THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE, DEADLINE AT DAWN, THE LOCKET and STRANGER ON THE THIRD FLOOR (the first film noir?) giving them all the same beautiful, shadowy look.

CROSSFIRE is an interesting one. It’s a sort of knock-down fight between studio boss Dore Schary’s social conscience cinema, Dmytryk and Musuraca’s noir dramatism, and Richard Brooks’ source novel. The novel’s victim was killed because he was gay — a startling story element for the time, which would have surprised readers. The movie’s victim, Sam Levene, is killed because he’s Jewish, and the moment Robert Ryan is heard to say “jewboy,” all pretense of mystery disappears and it becomes incredible that Robert Young doesn’t put two and two together.

Robert Mitchum is the third Robert, and has all the best lines, making me wonder if he wrote them, as he occasionally did at this time (HIS KIND OF WOMAN, THE LUSTY MEN).

But a surprising number of Brooks’ homosexual hints remain, flapping loose ends attached to nothing at either end. Ryan takes special note of Levene talking to his “sensitive artist” friend George Cooper, and it’s made to look like a pick-up, viewed in covert POV across the bar top. The whole set-up, with Levene randomly inviting strangers back to his pad, is slightly odd.

The film benefits from a wild, shape-shifting structure that leaps between viewpoints, so that Mitchum, Young, Cooper, his wife Jacqueline White, and even Ryan take turns as our principal, point-of-view character. The film seems to take its form from the drunken binge that initiates the action, veering about through time and space, doubling back on itself picking up false trails and introducing characters who go nowhere.

Best of these is Paul Kelly, with his face of a cork golem and his body shaped like a sandwich in a suit, staring dead-eyed at Cooper as he wantonly freaks him out with lies and non-sequiturs. Who is he and why is he here? We never quite learn, though “pimp” is the most obvious explanation for his presence in Gloria Grahame’s bijou apartment (the kitchen is a wall behind a curtain). He’s just very strange. If he was Dan Duryea, we’d say “pimp” and shrug it off. But Kelly seems to lack the confidence for that. Even he doesn’t seem to know who he is.

The film’s good-hearted ambitions mean Young has to provide protracted expositions on the evils of antisemitism (but with no mention of the recent Holocaust, strangely enough), which are quite well written (adaptation by John Paxton) but the purpose is better served by Ryan’s pathological hate speech. He’s clearly enough positioned as the heavy so that explaining why is redundant. But the most evocative stuff is the unexplained and unexplainable, the lacunae of Brooks’ deleted story and the walking lacuna that is Paul Kelly.

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Battleships

Posted in Dance, FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 25, 2017 by dcairns

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You know you’ve been watching too many MGM movies when the same musical battleship turns up twice.

First instance is as the grand finale of the less-grand I DOOD IT, a very early Vincente Minnelli movie or an archetypal Red Skelton vehicle, depending on how you want to look at it. It is pretty well impossible to contain both those aspects in your mind at the same time without spraining a lobe or two. And the film itself alternates between Skelton schtick, in a plot borrowed loosely from Buster Keaton’s SPITE MARRIAGE (a couple of set-piece routines are ported across in their entirety) and Minnelli ecstasies, with numbers constructed around Eleanor Powell or else guest stars like Lena Horne and Hazel Scott.

(The inclusion of black artists like LH and HS in pop-up numbers easily excised from movies in the South is on the one hand, faintly aromatic of chickenshit, and on the other, slightly more courageous than you would expect from MGM. They could have simply opted not to employ any black stars at all, like every other studio. An unrelated point is that ’40s musicals do suffer from an insane proliferation of completely gratuitous numbers which do not relate to the plot and often retard the development of any narrative to a quite damaging degree. If it’s Lena Horne, one doesn’t mind, but novelty organists and big bands are less acceptable. One thinks of THE GANG’S ALL HERE being the ne plus ultra of this kind of thing, but the tendency was widespread.)

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Poor Eleanor Powell is situated right at the fault-line between the Skelton slapstick and the Minnelli musical. She’s a disastrous partner for Red, who always benefits from a sympathetic female lead to dial down his exuberance. Powell is somewhat lacking in warmth as a screen personality, and her role is an unappealing one (the character in the Keaton original is perhaps his least sympathetic heroine) and she’s not a wonderful enough actress to convince us she’s attracted to this man-cub. On the other hand, she dances up a storm, and her physical prowess comes in very handy in the “putting an unconscious woman to bed” routine reproduced from the silent movie.

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Second instance is a sort of battleship cameo in S. Sylvan Simon’s GRAND CENTRAL MURDER, where the ship pops up as backdrop in a montage showing the rise to prominence of a Broadway star (Patricia Dane, also featured in I DOOD IT, whose interesting bio can be read here). I think she’s actually performing in front of rear-screen footage from I DOOD IT, blocking out Eleanor Powell. The shame of it!

The rest of the movie is a kind of whodunnit RASHOMON, with a roomful of suspects, an apoplectic police detective (inevitably, Sam Levene, though James Gleason would have done just as well) and a private eye and spouse (Van Helflin and Virginia Grey) who appear to be part of MGM’s relentless attempt to spin the THIN MAN formula out beyond one profitable series and have it take over cinema as a whole.

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S. Sylvan Simon of the WHISTLING series directs the gab the way George Sidney would cover a big band number — gliding swiftly from soloist to soloist, elegantly taking in secondary players en route, always managing to either be in exactly the right spot or create meaningful tension about where he’s on his way to. It’s a really magnificent, symphonic example of the filming of dialogue.

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Van Heflin is terrifically enjoyable here, though he does smoke a pipe. So the tendency towards boring patrician roles is already there, but this slight, youthful version of ole babyskull is also very eager to seize on any opportunity to irritate everyone around him, which always seems to make for an enjoyable character. Fiona pointed out that there’s something weirdly OFF about the way Heflin and Grey are introduced — as mysterious members of the shoal of red herrings who shimmer through the narrative. Only gradually does our hero emerge as the narrative’s front-runner, perhaps because director SSS’s handling of the performers is somewhat democratic: Van Hef doesn’t get a “hero shot” right at the beginning, like John Wayne in STAGECOACH, announcing that he’s some kind of big deal in this picture. And since another suspect is Tom Conway, who in other circumstances might just as easily have been the leading man, the first third of the film feels a little uncentered. But that could be a perfectly appropriate feeling to have in a whodunnit RASHOMON.

Endnote: appropriately enough for a piece wallowing in Hollywood’s recycling, I can finish with my belated realisation that the number at the end of I DOOD IT is lifted wholesale from the 1936 BORN TO DANCE, meaning that it is not in fact a Minnelli production, but… a Roy Del Ruth?

Bare-ass in the Park

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on November 10, 2015 by dcairns

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I’m slowly polishing off the Otto Preminger filmography. Chris Fujiwara’s career study names SUCH GOOD FRIENDS, scripted by a pseudonymous Elaine May, as the best of the late-period Premingers, and I have to agree. As he says, following a rocky opening, the film “starts to work,” though its tone is so weird it can be hard to be sure at times. If DAISY KENYON is a miraculous film for its era, avoiding telegraphing its views of its characters to a staggering degree — Preminger is often praised for his impartiality — SUCH GOOD FRIENDS takes things to an extreme only possible in the seventies. Tonal markers are absent, so that vicious humour can alternate with sincere emotion, but you’re not even sure the humour is humour, the emotion emotion.

Things sure do start rocky, though. Glenn Kenny pinpointed the most jarring and repulsive moments, which climax with sixty-four-year-old Burgess Meredith’s nude scene. Unlike Glenn, I won’t reproduce a frame-grab of that moment. But this is Fiona’s reaction  ~

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Fiona points out that Meredith was hanging out with John C. Lilly and was kind of a counter-culture guy, so letting it all hang out, or most of it, was probably a political statement for him. But Nobody Wants To See That, Burgess. Not even if you were TWENTY-four.

More damaging, for me, was a throwaway line by Dyan Cannon’s lead character, dealing with an inefficient (black) maid: “Jesus, why did they abolish slavery?” Making the audience despise your main character in the first five minutes of your movie seems unwise, unless there’s a definite strategy at work. Not all of us are as impartial as you, Otto.

Another uncomfortable moment: Cannon narrowly avoids being slammed by a speeding yellow cab, a fate which actually befell the director a few years later, resulting in brain damage similar in effect to Alzheimers. Eerie.

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As ever with Otto, shooting was NOT FUN. Cannon got a bollocking from Otto for laughing during a sad scene — but with an insensitivity not foreign to his nature, he was missing the fact that the laugh was IN CHARACTER. Cannon does hysterical laughter in THE LAST OF SHEILA after narrowly escaping death. As Fiona says, the quirky and unexpected moment is Cannon’s stock-in-trade. It’s what you hire her for. Maybe it’s Otto’s method at work, but her best moments in this one are portrayals of dazed shock and depression.

Lots of funny lines — a foot specialist at Elizabeth Arden’s (Fiona was thrilled to see the inside of the real place) droning on, “The trouble with most women is they don’t realize the foot is part of the body.” A few funny situations and a lot of impressively ghastly ones. “Please don’t let anything sexual happen with James Coco,” prayed Fiona, and right on cue it does, and Preminger, in prolonged takes, milks agonizing suspense from the humiliated fatty’s desperate attempts to conceal his corset from his surprise paramour as she undresses him.

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Is the movie mean? A lot of people seem to think so. I kind of felt it was compassionate on some deep level. All these people are running around being petty and sharp-witted and jagged and unfaithful. The death arrives and blows a hole in this vanity fair and shows what’s important. And then the film ends, because there isn’t really room in these crowded frames for what’s really important. But we get the point.