Archive for Tell Me Tonight

More love for Litvak

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 20, 2020 by dcairns

NIE WIEDER LIEBE! (NO MORE LOVE, 1931) is the earliest Litvak directorial work I could get my mitts on. The success of this light romantic comedy enabled Litvak to get the job of doing COEUR DE LILAS (1932) which is the other earliest AL film I’d seen (in Bologna).

This is a frivolous film, typical it seems of Litvak’s early work, but very stylish — the tendency is to extend shots for whole sequences, zip-panning (a persistent Litvak trope) rather than cutting, roving ceaselessly. Litvak was known for his long traveling shots later, but I sometimes wish they could be longer. This time, I get my wish. Very Ophulsian — and in fact it turns out that Max Ophuls was the assistant director. Fun to realise that Litvak worked for Gance, Pabst and Tourjansky and Ophuls worked for Litvak… so did Don Siegel. You can’t make it prove anything, it’s just fun.

We begin in a fantastic, fog-and-light Manhattan, the camera gliding through a miniature, neon-sparkling cityscape, then through a life-sized window into scene one, where hero Harry Liedke is being fleeced by a seductress. He’ll swear off women, on a bet, but just before his five-year abstinence is over, he’ll meet Lillian Harvey. You’ll see how that could complicate things. Harvey has no tits hardly at all but is extremely vivacious, and that can be a powerful combination. She’s certainly a funny kind of girl for a fella to meet who’s been up the Amazon for a year. Harry has been sailing round the world for FIVE…

A youngish Felix Bressart (NINOTCHKA, TO BE OR NOT TO BE) is a fine dry comedy manservant, longsuffering variety. It’s strange to hear the familiar voice speaking its native German. He’s no longer a funny foreigner. He’s just funny.

Margo Lion, chanteuse (Pabst’s THREEPENNY OPERA) sings a song on top of a piano, Dietrich-style, in a ridiculous version of a New York waterfront dive, but it’s full of black and white people getting sloshed together, so that’s nice.

As with all the early Litvaks, this one is co-written by the director and the splendidly-named Irma von Cube, who would also go to Hollywood, become Irmgard von Cube for some mysterious reason, and write JOHNNY BELINDA with a couple of male collaborators.

This was also made in a French version, CALAIS-DOUVRES, starring the trilingual, London-born Harvey, with André Roanne (DIARY OF A LOST GIRL) and Armand Bernard (THE CHESS PLAYER).

Litvak also supplies some rhythmic montages so the long take style never gets stale. These are sometimes partly made up of moving machinery, and one senses either the influence of Lang or some zeitgeisty Germanic thing that just loves fetishised close-ups of machine parts. Here, the hero sails off on his ship with his crew singing a jaunty march celebrating their new-found celibacy and misogyny as the pistons pump, the water rushes by, the mouths sing…

Then there’s a lovely comedian-harmonists type number, once the men have all gotten lovesick. You’ll like this —

And the climax is at Nice amid big carnival heads and so on. Hero Harry Liedke isn’t as appealing as Ms. Harvey, but I don’t think he deserved to be kicked to death by invading Russians at the end of WWII, though I guess his presence on German soil made him a Nazi by default. But a light musical comedy Nazi. Surely other men deserved death more.

I was also able to see LA CHANSON DE LA NUIT (1932), which is the French version of DAS LIED EINER NACHT, also made in English as TELL ME TONIGHT. All three versions star Polish opera singer Jan Kiepura and Magda Schneider (Romy’s mum, star of Ophuls’ LIEBELEI). The third lead/comic relief is a young and strangely fey Pierre Brasseur, a long way from EYES WITHOUT A FACE, in a role taken by Sonnie Hale (SABOTAGE, Mr. Jessie Matthews) in the UK version and Fritz Schulz (don’t know him) in the German. Most intriguingly, Henri-Georges Clouzot gets a script credit on this frothy Riviera-set quasi-musical, but it seems his job was just translating Litvak and von Cube’s original, rather unmotivated farce.

But there are some good gags! Mostly in the bravura opening sequence, which shows the voice of its star blasting out over the airwaves, to be received by a series of beautiful vintage wireless sets and assorted vintage listeners. Big laughs! You can watch it!

ACK! It’s gone! This was on the YouTube, now it has vanished, leaving only a scene —

Litvak Lit

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 19, 2020 by dcairns

“I may not be talented, but I am very, very intelligent!” yelled Anatole Litvak in an argument with his screenwriter, Peter Viertel (according to Viertel).

James Cagney called Litvak “a natural-born asshole,” and the seeds of his early retirement were sown in the making of Litvak’s CITY FOR CONQUEST. They just took a while to sprout.

Elia Kazan, directed by Litvak twice in his brief stint as a WB character mook, pondered, as Richard Schickel put it, “if this character could be a director, why not him?”

Trying to research Litvak a little, I find there’s one book, but rather expensive (but can anyone recommend it?) and most of the references I find in the university library system are about things like income tax, poker games, horse racing…

There’s an anecdote somewhere about Hall Wallis being furious because Litvak shot twelve takes of a close-up of Bette Davis and printed the worst. He was sure by take 12 Bette had forgotten what the scene was and why she was in it.

Bette herself, who was Litvak’s lover when they made THE SISTERS and ALL THIS, AND HEAVEN TOO, called him “a slave to his preconceptions.”

Arthur Laurents rewrote “every line” of THE SNAKE PIT, he claimed, and seemed a bit annoyed that Litvak was “too busy” (shooting the film, in fairness) to come to the arbitration hearing, with the result that Laurents received no credit.

Litvak does not rate a mention in Sarris’s The American Film. Well, he had to find room for Theodore J. Flicker, get in on the ground floor of THAT major filmography-to-be. (THE PRESIDENT’S ANALYST is one of my very favourite films, but still…)

So, Litvak or shit-sack?

Bertrand Tavernier claims a degree of shame for his neglect of the Russian/Ukrainian filmmaker: “we let somebody like Anatole Litvak die without ever meeting him – and he lived in Paris! Litvak is somebody whose films I’ve since discovered from the Thirties and Forties, as well as his documentaries for Capra: Litvak made the best of the Why We
Fight
series. But in the Sixties, Truffaut, in order to boost Bonjour Tristesse
(Otto Preminger, ’58), which he loved, knocked other directors who had
adapted Françoise Sagan. One of them was Litvak [Goodbye Again]. And stupidly, we followed Truffaut. Because Litvak s last films were bad, we refused to investigate his career. And his career had started in Russia; then he went to Germany and France, where masterpieces in the Thirties like Coeur de Lilas (’32) which contains scenes and a use of sound as imaginative as Renoir- as well as interesting films like L’Equipage…”

The late films aren’t even bad, I think. As with a lot of late work, familiarity with the earlier films and a bit of sympathy go a long way.

The Russian work Tavernier refers to is unlisted on the IMDb and because nobody thought to ask Litvak about it when he was alive, I’m uncertain we can know much about it. (Here’s where I wish I owned that expensive book.) The Encyclopaedia Britannica confirms that Litvak, after fighting in the Russian side in WWI, “began acting in his teens at an experimental theatre in St. Peterseburg,” then directed several short subjects for Nordkino studios, before he left for a career shuttling between Paris and Berlin in 1920. The earliest credits we have are as assistant director for fellow emigres Tourjansky and Volkoff, and on Abel Gance’s NAPOLEON, as well as editor on Pabst’s JOYLESS STREET, but there must be other credits we don’t have — he couldn’t, surely, have become an editor without first being an assistant. Still, those remarkable stylists must surely have exerted powerful influences on the budding director, adding to anything he’d soaked up from whatever Russian filmmakers he worked with.

“Tola” is often attributed with expressionistic tendencies, which is true enough. It’s assumed these were absorbed in Germany, but they might also come from Russia and France — one reason NAPOLEON is such a stonking piece of cinema is because Gance had seemingly absorbed every stylistic tendency the medium had thrown up.

Since none of Litvak’s Russian work is available or even identified to me, his first German film, DOLLY MACHTE KARRIER (1930) is unavailable, and frustratingly, though I’ve been able to see a sampling of the early French and German movies, I haven’t located two British versions of German and/or French originals, TELL ME TONIGHT and SLEEPING CAR, which feature interesting people like Magda Schneider, the awful Sonny Hale, Edmund Gwenn, Ivor Novello and Madeleine Carroll.

There are also odd bits of TV work and a short documentary about refugees that remain stubbornly buried. But all the films from Litvak’s US period on are accessible, which puts him ahead of the Cromwells and Milestones of this world. I won’t be writing about, or probably even seeing, ALL of them. But I aim to provide a bit of an overview of the man’s skills and incredible dynamism.