Archive for The Snake Pit

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.

L is for Libertad Lamarque in La Loca

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 23, 2012 by dcairns

Delighted to bring you another installment of David Wingrove’s A-Z of Mexican Melodrama —

CINE DORADO 

The Golden Age of Mexican Melodrama 

L is for Libertad Lamarque in La Loca(The Madwoman)

In Hollywood in the late 40s, it was the fashion for soignée and glamorous leading ladies to go slowly but photogenically insane. Notable examples were Joan Crawford in Possessed, Olivia de Havilland in The Snake Pit and Gene Tierney in Whirlpool. The benefits to a star were obvious. She could indulge in the most florid overacting in the name of ‘realism’ and, all going well, be rewarded with a Best Actress nomination into the bargain. (Or even, if she were Vivien Leigh in A Streetcar Named Desire, the Oscar itself!) Clearly, it was a winning formula – and one that was all too ripe for export.

Once it hit Mexico, the Glamorous Star Loses Her Marbles movie got a makeover so torrid it made the gringo prototype look positively tame. La Loca (1951) stars the formidable Libertad Lamarque, an Argentine tango diva who had relocated to Mexico five years before. Driven partly by professional ambition – and partly by the undying enmity of Eva Perón (she had incurred the First Lady’s wrath on a film set in the 40s) – Libertad brought with her a brand of musical melodrama she had pioneered in her native land. One big problem haunts most, if not all, of her films. However overwrought and hysterical the plot and the acting may be, they still cannot match the sheer throbbing emotionalism of Libertad’s voice in song.

A touch of insanity, in that case, was just what the doctor ordered. If La Loca stands today as the ultimate Libertad Lamarque vehicle, that’s not because it’s better made than any of her other films. (Her pet director, Miguel Zacarías, seemed to point the camera at his star and take the rest of the day off.) Rather, it is one film where the operatically unhinged intensity of her performance is justified by a dramatic context. “Loca”, after all, was Libertad’s big hit solo in her first Mexican movie, Gran Casino. Watching the lady self-destruct so melodiously on camera, who would dare to argue with her diagnosis?

The movie opens with a documentary-style peek inside Mexico City’s municipal asylum. We cut, provocatively enough, from a violent schizophrenic throttling his cellmate to a judge passing the death sentence on some hapless offender. Next, from an epileptic in the throes of a fit to some beatniks contorting in a nightclub. (Epilepsy, of course, is a physical and not a mental condition – but at least we know early on that clinical accuracy will not be La Loca’s strong point.) Out on the streets, meanwhile, a disturbed Libertad is wandering with her pet parrot, Archibaldo, perched on her shoulder. She wears a Jazz Age gown that was the last word in chic, circa 1926.

Some idlers in the park hail her arrival, so she obligingly stops and sings her first solo. As a pretext for Libertad to sing, this is no more ludicrous than similar moments in her other movies – and her 20s wardrobe clashes eerily with the 50s ambience all around her. (In a later song-and-dance routine, she’s a dead ringer for Jack Lemmon in Some Like It Hot.) Sharp-eyed viewers may be reminded of Julieta Serrano, the deranged mother in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, sporting her 60s fashions in 80s Madrid. Fuel to my suspicion that most of the good ideas in most of Pedro Almodóvar’s films are, in fact, stolen.

No sooner has she finished her solo than the police arrest her for causing a public disturbance. She comes to the attention of a handsome young psychiatrist (Rubén Rojo) who identifies her – with a speed and efficiency that are truly remarkable – as a long-lost heiress from Buenos Aires. Disowned for marrying against her father’s will, she went mad in 1936 when her father and her husband both died – and her three-year-old daughter vanished, never to be seen again. Unwilling to commit her to the municipal asylum, the doctor reunites her with some rich but shady relatives, who just happen to live close by in Mexico City.

The family takes her in, but only so they can get their paws on her inheritance. The pater familias – her first cousin by marriage – wants to claim the money on her behalf and then shut her up in a private madhouse. (He’s a crooked psychiatrist, so he owns one.) It’s no surprise that he has a beautiful adopted niece (Alma Delia Fuentes) who feels a close bond with Libertad, and promptly falls in love with the young doctor. The family, meanwhile, wants to marry her off to their son – an oily pseudo-Parisian fop who has, we suspect, only a scant interest in women, but a great and consuming interest in vintage Scotch whisky. “If we win,” he says, “I can get drunk elegantly for the rest of my life.”

Naturally, it will take a few more plot-twists (not to mention some impassioned musical numbers) to bring mother and daughter to a final tear-stained clinch. The standout is a lavish soirée, thrown by the family to reintroduce Libertad to ‘high’ society. (“We have to invite some aristocrats,” the son quips. “That’s the only way her madness won’t show.”) For this one scene, la loca throws off her 20s garb and dons a sheer black evening dress with a shoulder-bow roughly the size of the Hindenburg. Led down the grand staircase by her daughter-who-doesn’t-know-it-yet, Libertad sings a heart-rending version of the Carlos Gardel classic “Volver”. This song, too, shows up in an Almodóvar film (alas, in a dubbed performance by the talent-free Penélope Cruz).

Like all the best melodramas from Mexico and beyond, La Loca has the courage of its own absurdity. Every detail of it is unbelievable and overblown, yet its power can move even hardened cynics to tears. It’s beyond even Almodóvar to copy that.

David Melville