Archive for Secrets

Secrets and Les

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on October 3, 2018 by dcairns

SECRETS (1933), is Mary Pickford’s final film, and a remake by writer Frances Marion and director Frank Borzage of their 1924 drama of the same year, which I only realised after twenty minutes as I felt the deja vu lapping around my ankles.

Leslie Howard is male lead this time, replacing Eugene O’Brien, which helps Act 1 play as a romantic comedy (Norma Talmadge was the star of the original, which I caught in Bologna). Act 2 is a western, Act 3 is a kind of political/society drama, and then there’s a romantic comedy coda with the stars in old age make-up.

I don’t know what drove FB & FM to remake this film, since it never hung together the first time. With rapid course corrections as to tone and genre and location, and the characters aging from young (Pickford plays a teenager at forty-one without straining one’s credulity) to old (the make-up is kept shadowy but holds up well, as do the perfs), the only thing to stop this disintegrating into a bag of bits would be a thematic link, as suggested by the title. But the various story units don’t keep the idea of secrecy in play — it gets produced from nowhere right at the end to con us into thinking we’ve been watching something with connective tissue, cohesion, a reason to be one long film rather than three or four short ones.

That said, the chapters all have merit, and our protags make a sweet couple. Borzage ha become a lot more experimental since the early twenties, though he was always likely to reach for an unconventional touch from time to time, from the early days up until at least MOONRISE. Pickford talks well, and acquires, as Fiona observed, a bit of Howard’s technique — if it IS a technique — of stumbling over words and repeating them, adding naturalism to the theatrical situations. But her best moments are visual, and a tragic sequence where her baby is killed in the midst of a wild west gunfight leads to a masterclass in wordless performance, played out as bullets smash the window panes behind her, unnoticed by the grieving mother,

 

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Forbidden Divas: Jacqueline Bisset in The Sunday Woman

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on April 18, 2016 by dcairns

David Melville Wingrove returns with another in his series, Forbidden Divas, about one of his very favourite stars — can you tell?

FORBIDDEN DIVAS

Always (and Ever So Discreetly) on a Sunday

“Your obsession with being witty at all costs…it just makes you a bitch.”

~ Marcello Mastroianni to Jacqueline Bisset, The Sunday Woman

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For a few short summers in the late 70s, Jacqueline Bisset was the official Most Beautiful Woman in the World. Every hormonally challenged adolescent boy wanted either to sleep with her or to be her – and a few, perhaps, wanted to do both. Nobody even pretended her films were any good. The Deep (1977) was five minutes of La Jackie scuba-diving in a wet T-shirt followed by two hours of…does anyone remember or care? The Greek Tycoon (1978) was the ‘strictly fictional’ story of a US politician’s widow who marries a shipping magnate. It was about as interesting as reading HELLO! magazine with the names changed. Who Is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe? (1978) was a comedy-thriller that was devoid of laughs or thrills – but it did star Bisset as the skinniest dessert chef in the history of haute cuisine.

All these movies were wretched, but the public turned out because Jacqueline Bisset was in them. On a screen ruled by the woeful likes of Sally Field and Marsha Mason and Jill Clayburgh, audiences were starved for a glimpse of a proper old-fashioned star. You know, one with beauty and glamour, style and class. One who wore clothes well but refused – with a frosty ladylike hauteur – to take them off. (In 1978 when Bisset was at the height of her fame, some ungallant souls re-released a sleazy little item called Secrets (1971) where she did precisely that. They did not make as much money as they hoped, perhaps because most of Bisset’s fans were too young to get in to see it.) A star who could even act – when she had to – although that was one secret that Jacqueline Bisset kept largely to herself. Critics used to say she was better than her material. Well, it would take a truly Olympian lack of talent to be worse.

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In truth, a number of films had proved that Bisset could act – but most of them were made in Europe and had titles the teenagers who flocked to The Deep could not even pronounce. La donna della domenica (1975) is a tongue-twister even for native Italian speakers but its literal English translation, The Sunday Woman, will do just as well. It was directed by Luigi Comencini, one of those mid-level Italian auteurs – neither an artist nor a hack – whose work is slick and watchable, but only rarely interesting. It takes place amid the upper bourgeoisie of Turin, a photogenic northern city that was the centre of the Italian film industry until World War I, but has been sadly neglected by movies ever since. You might call it a giallo but it is really too refined and elegant for that. This tale of skullduggery and murder never stoops to a display of severed limbs or spurting blood. There may be some erect penises on show – and impressively large ones, too – but these are sculpted in stone for use as decorative objets d’art. Mind you, they also come in handy as murder weapons…

The film opens with Bisset sitting in her stylish Futurist villa, pretending to listen as her industrialist husband drones on about his business. We hear an internal monologue inside her head, saying that “he only ever talks of the economic crisis and his liver.” He also spends most nights away from home with his mistress but Bisset – or her character, Anna Carla Dosio – seems to take that as a point in his favour. Her monologue is addressed, not to herself or to the audience, but to her best friend (Jean-Louis Trintignant) a patrician gay man who rejoices in the name of Massimo Campi. (Let it be said, in fairness, that Trintignant’s performance is remarkably subtle and restrained.) Bisset and her GBF form an exclusive and deeply snobbish clique à deux. They find the rest of Turin society unbearably vulgar and conduct endless debates on the socially acceptable way to pronounce certain words. Their current object of loathing is a fat, lecherous architect who wiggled his tongue at Bisset at an art opening. She is writing a letter to her friend, to decree this man must be eliminated. Things look rather awkward when he promptly turns up dead.

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The problem is not that this letter exists, but that it finds its way into the hands of the police. The morning after the murder, Bisset dismisses her Sardinian houseboy for having the temerity to serve a drink without a tray. He pockets her letter (which she has carelessly left lying about) and takes it to one Inspector Santamaria (Marcello Mastroianni) a down-to-earth Roman poliziotto who finds Turin society too rarefied and snooty for words. The cop may not take the letter seriously as a clue – after all, it is a shade too obvious – but he is intrigued by the woman who wrote it. He tumbles quickly to the fact that she is beautiful and bored. Nor does Bisset entirely mind being dragged into a murder investigation. (Her husband, of course, is aghast.) “This is the most exciting thing that’s happened since I got a flat tyre four years ago,” she says at one point. Most exciting is the close proximity of Mastroianni, an actor known for making every woman in every movie he makes…

Most of The Sunday Woman is a stylish pas de deux of mutual attraction and resistance, between the haughty socialite and the earthy cop. It is one of a very few films that explore Bisset’s gift for high comedy in the manner of George Cukor or Mitchell Leisen. (At least Cukor lived long enough to direct her best Hollywood role in the 1981 Rich and Famous.) Learning that the victim was bludgeoned to death with a large stone phallus, she drives Mastroianni out into the country, to the factory that manufactures these objects in secret. Surrounded by a warehouse full of giant cocks, she must fight the temptation – as Lady Bracknell would say – to “look shocked, which is vulgar, or laugh, which is worse.” When the sculptor unveils his king-size model, her composure threatens to crack. She knows that Mastroianni has something quite similar on offer. How much longer can she pretend not to notice?

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Her scenes with her gay pal Trintignant are played just as smoothly. It would be two decades before Hollywood dared show a similar friendship – between Julia Roberts and Rupert Everett in My Best Friend’s Wedding (1997) – and they did so with all the matter-of-fact sangfroid of Marie Curie discovering radium. The Sunday Woman takes their alliance as a given, as both characters are too intelligent and ultimately too vulnerable for the vacuous cocktail party world they are forced to inhabit. While Everett’s love life would be kept timidly off screen, Trintignant has a cute but far-too-clingy boyfriend (Aldo Reggiani) who wants to protect his lover and starts his own investigation into the murder. Let’s just say he lacks Bisset’s savoir faire and has no sexy police detective to look out for him…so he comes to a bad end. Our delight in The Sunday Woman is not in the plot but in the supreme elegance with which the characters pick it apart.

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Every so often, one grows tired of films that beat the audience over the head with their sheer dogged determination to be Great Art. (The latest Paolo Sorrentino film Youth is an egregious case in point.) The Sunday Woman labours under no such delusions. It confines itself to being witty, sexy, literate, stylish, suspenseful and – once you realise just how arid its characters’ lives truly are – touching in an odd and wholly unexpected way. Jacqueline Bisset has never acted more elegantly or looked more exquisite. She reigns over it all serenely, like a queen to the manner born. Faced with two of Europe’s very greatest actors, she twines each of them neatly round one little finger and then looks about her for more amusement. Did nobody think to impound her passport before she caught that plane back to Hollywood?

David Melville

Intertitle of the Week (+)

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 23, 2008 by dcairns

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“Strong words from a strange man,” as The Simpsons’ Kent Brockman would say. SEVENTH HEAVEN, Borzage’s best-known work from the silent era. Apart from a few very early westerns, this film, STREET ANGEL and the surviving fragment of THE RIVER are the only silent Borzage I’ve seen. A few equally fragmentary thoughts:

Borzage’s silent oeuvre, even on the basis of these few films, looks like a very significant body of work, as major as any American filmmaker’s in this era. The forthcoming Fox box set should shine a light on this neglected area. Following it up with some more of Borzage’s talkies would be a nice idea too. But we should be grateful for what we’re getting: it’s so unusual for an underrated talent like Borz to get this kind of tribute.

THE RIVER is an intensely sexy experience. Unusually, the vamp (Mary Duncan, the uber-vamp in SUNRISE) who seduces a youth is here a sympathetic character, assisting his passage to manhood. (The movie has a broadly allegorical sweep, with the titular waterway representing life.) Farrell’s swim is one erotic moment (how rare to see a naked man and a clothed woman!), but our favourite was the scene where Duncan suddenly gets very interested in comparing her height to Farrell’s, standing close beside him, her bottom touching his pelvis — no wait, let’s try it this way round…

F.B. is also a brilliant example of a filmmaker making the leap to talkies — speech adds a further layer of sophistication to his already delicate and nuanced approach. And since he always favoured subtlety and understatement in performance, and had a fantastic sensitivity to human emotion, he seems to have had little difficulty adapting to the different performance style of talking cinema. All the more impressive since Borzage does not appear to have had much, if any, stage experience (but arguably stage directors coming to the new talking pictures tended towards a more rhetorical style of playing perhaps less effective than the informality of those directors who had come from silent cinema).

Oops! Here’s a clip from LILIOM Borzage’s remake of Lang (!) — I’m absolutely ulcerating to see this film. It does reveal a good bit of that dreamlike clunk, crackle and pause of early sound cinema. Everybody seems to take a long time to respond to everyone else, giving the warm sussuration of audio hiss plenty of silence to fill. And dig those crazy sets! Boy!

(Maybe don’t watch the whole bit if you’re afraid of “spoilers”. But if you’ve seen the Lang, you’re safe.)

Here’s another example of a Borzage chime, where a moment in one movie recalls one in a previous:

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Ascending to SEVENTH HEAVEN, Charles Farrell and Janet Gaynor, followed by Borzage’s camera crane.

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Ascending through the circles of hell, on Hester Street, Joan Crawford in MANNEQUIN.

Both shots are elegant upward cranes, with a side-to-side shimmy following the spiralling of the stairs, though MANNEQUIN doesn’t rate quite as excessive a stylistic flourish as its predecessor. But instead we get a powerful sound mix of barking dogs, crying babies, elevated trains and other oppressive proletarian din — this is a place from which a person with feelings must escape.

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We were so impressed by this film, which despite being from MGM (the Vatican of poshlust), had a genuine Warner Bros grit. Despite the title, Joan C is a fashion model for about five minutes, long enough to cram a parade of “gowns by Adrian” into the proceedings, but mostly she’s struggling to escape the slums, vividly embodied by her family and her no-goodnik boyfriend. I liked Leo Gorcey’s casting here as the kid brother: the unacceptable face of poverty, he’s possibly the vilest character in any Borzage film, although the boyfriend is only superficially better (I also liked that the bf manages a fighter called Swing Magoo).

Best of all, Joan Crawford and Spencer Tracy are just amazing here, empathic and charming and sincere in ways we tend not to find them. Two actors we often don’t admire, giving wholly admirable performances: proof of Borzage’s superior talent, as far as we’re concerned. The fact that Borzage was apparently screwing Crawford maybe helped, I don’t know. Maybe Tracy is mirroring Borzage’s own feelings. At any rate, Tracy’s adoration of his co-star is palpable.

In 1933, Borzage had the honour of making Mary Pickford’s last film, SECRETS. He also had the honour of making Mary Pickford. I was fascinated to note that this movie begins with a similar conjunction of the “real” and the utterly artificial as F.B.’s FAREWELL TO ARMS. We pan across a miniature countryside, rendered in detail so tiny that the roving lens can’t get everything in focus. The foreground fence is a soft blur, the tiny matchstick church in the background is mostly sharp, and the mountain range in the far distance is another gauzy smear. Then the view disappears behind some dark foreground shape, and when we emerge from the other side, we’re in a life-sized location. A life-sized horse stares straight at us.

THE DAY I MET CARUSO is a “charming” television film made for Screen Director’s Playhouse, whose charm is mainly delivered by Borzage’s appearance right at the start. The little girl in it is lovely, and there’s plenty of authentic Caruso on the soundtrack. There’s discussion of religion, as a little Mormon meets a big Catholic, and the Mormon faith’s dislike of luxury is found to be without real merit. not a major work by any means, but like CHINA DOLL, it’s recognisably a work of it’s maker. I liked the line “There was a terrible thing called war, and a wonderful thing called opera,” in the VO, and Caruso’s dialogue: “Enough about war, let’s talk about me,” and “When I sing, my shirt, she becomes attached to my skin.” Not something he should really be sharing with a little girl, but oddness is always part of The Borzage Effect.

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Bye, Frank!