Archive for The Search

The Final Shot

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , on December 6, 2017 by dcairns

Thanks to Matthew Wilder for alerting me to W.S. “One-Take Woody” Van Dyke’s final film. I’m a fan of the THIN MAN films and have delved lightly into his other ’30s work, particularly the first two TARZANs and SAN FRANCISCO, but I haven’t been systematic and I didn’t even know JOURNEY FOR MARGARET (1942). It’s basically the film that properly gave us Margaret O’Brien, phenomenon.

The movie is MGM’s first “children in war” drama of WWII, predating Zinnemann’s emotional THE SEARCH, but giving the subject a soupier, more Hollywood approach. It’s really good, though. The great Franz Waxman’s score is really the most problematic part, suffering from a literalism that didn’t usually afflict this composer — the little boy with the toy lamb is accompanied by lachrymose variations on Baah Baah Black Sheep wherever he goes. Awful.

Woody, credited as MAJOR Van Dyke here, handles the action with his trademark efficiency, though the fast cutting of disparate talking heads which predominates each THIN MAN denouement has now spread to most of the film. Considering the director was, apparently, in constant pain at this time, he does great.

Robert Young and Laraine Day are an attractive couple of Americans in London during the Blitz. He’s a journalist. They’re smart and witty and she’s even called Nora, so there’s a strong tie to Woody’s earlier (in fact, ongoing) work. However, there’s no Asta here — Day is expecting a baby, but she loses it in a bombing, and loses also the ability to have more kids. As she’s passing out under sedation, she intuits everything that’s happened to her even though Young has been told (appallingly) to keep it from her ~

 

“They’ve killed our baby. All our babies. Tomorrow’s baby. The day after tomorrow’s. All our babies. Forever dead.”

“Who told you such nonsense?”

“No one told me. It’s true.”

“Please, darling, go to sleep now.”

“What did I want babies for? I’ve been a bad wife. Trying to hang on when there wasn’t any use trying. Making snug little homes in the midst of hell. I’ve been a bad wife because I’ve been a good one.”

“[…] Think about going home to Connecticut. The leaves will be turning, and snow on the ground… Think about that, and -“

“OH NO! That’s not my life! […] I’ll be a ghost. You’ll be a ghost. The whole world, crawling with ghosts…”

David Hertz & William Ludwig scripted this from William L. White’s novel, and Day puts it over powerfully. It’s a remarkable transformation for a typically bright, light, starry performer.

Now the pair embark on a months-long bender, going about their lives merrily squiffled, a tragic version of Nick & Nora (though he’s called John). Best friend Nigel Bruce tries to give Nora a wake-up call, a pep talk on the subject of pain.

“I have known soldiers after they’ve left hospital with a bad wound, they’re so dazed they can’t even sign their names the way the used to. Perhaps it’s nature’s way of escaping pain. They think some other fellow got hit. Not them.”

The cure arrives in the form of the little lamb boy (William Severn) and O’Brien, Hollywood’s best weeper. The bereaved couple’s best course of treatment is to get involved in the lives of other people whose need is greater, and so they adopt this waifs and must now get them to America somehow. Surprisingly, the structuring principle of the film is not the kids’ trauma (MO’B doesn’t appear until midway), but the parents’.

The ending has the kids arriving in New York just as a blackout is tested, and the Manhattan skyline goes dim. Cue inspiring speech about turning the lights back on for the next generation. It’s sentimental and manipulative but effective. I seem to be hardwired to respond emotionally to the Blitz. I have a queasy love of Hollywood effects shots of searchlights panning dark skies.

Van Dyke became seriously ill — cancer and heart disease. And, as a good Christian Scientist, he forbade himself pain relief. In 1943, he put his sidearm in his mouth and shot himself through the head.

Woodbridge Strong Van Dyke, 1889-1943.

Tales of the Riverbank

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on October 20, 2011 by dcairns

Fred Zinnemann Week was never planned as a chronological rundown, but it’s rather oddly turning out that way. It also feels like it could overspill its banks into next week, when Shadowplay will be coming live from Hollywood but I’ll be too busy to write about my experiences until I get back…

This week’s The Forgotten, over at the Daily Notebook, deals with TERESA, one of several Zinnemann films to deal with post-war malaise. ACT OF VIOLENCE frames the issue in exciting, feverish noir terms, while THE SEARCH, THE MEN and TERESA form an informal trilogy of realism emotional dramas using unfamiliar actors and non-professionals on location to create a pseudo-documentary feeling. Despite my love of the fantastic and exaggerated, I find these films powerful and highly filmic.

Here’s a moment from THE SEARCH, which deals with displaced children, and in particular one, Ivan Jandl.

Rivers (and fishing) are important in Zinnemann (so are mountains), and here the moving water, earlier associated with death, comes to feel like a representation of the continuity of human life. I’m touched by Clift’s quiet, sensitive performance, but also by what he actually says, and normally attempts to comfort in the face of death fall flat for me. Truffaut’s character has that line to the priest in THE GREEN ROOM, that if he can’t provide immediate resurrection of the departed one, he’s no use whatsoever. It’s kind of true. And with religious stuff, I always just think, “Nope. That can’t be right.” What Clift says here does offer some limited comfort — because it’s clearly TRUE, and it also acknowledges the bleakness of irreparable loss.

Zinnemann’s choice to shoot from the back makes the river a character and also saves him having to ask a small child to act something few adults could pull off. As Joseph H Lewis said of a comparable moment in SO LONG THE NIGHT, “How the hell do you film that?” The best choice is to withdraw and let the audience imagine it.

THE SEARCH led indirectly to THE MEN, F.Z.’s first collaboration with producer Stanley Kramer. It’s also Brando’s first film — his persona must have been a shock to audiences at the time, he’s aggressively proletarian and sullen. What stops this one being as good as THE SEARCH is, to a small degree, Teresa Wright, whose acting style is somewhat too sugary to pair with Brando’s, and to a much greater extent, Dimitri Tiomkin’s score. Zinnemann was shooting TERESA in Italy when the film was post-produced, and by the time he heard the hectoring, banal, shouty music it was too late to change anything. Tiomkin’s decision to score the death of a Latino soldier with Spanish guitar seems particularly offensive.

On the plus side, Everett Sloane gives a restrained perf — he manages to stop his eyebrows squirming all over his head for the most part, and his natural gifts for acerbic wit and uningratiating bluntness shine. Of all the actors, Jack Webb does the best job of blending in with the real disabled veterans who populate the smaller roles — Webb’s version of not-acting comes closer to actual not acting than Brando’s by a country mile.

And so to TERESA, which Zinnemann felt had some structural defects and some issues with the balance of the performances — these problems, if they even are problems, seem to add to the film’s convincing evocation of real-life emotional mess.