Archive for The Strange Love of Martha Ivers

As if on cue

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 25, 2014 by dcairns

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I confess to mixed feelings about Lewis Milestone’s film of Clifford Odets’ script of THE GENERAL DIED AT DAWN. The orientalism and exoticism (exoticism, remember, is racism’s sexy sister) and yellowface makeups are both seductive and repulsive, and the narrative at times decidedly silly. Rather than playing Odets’ flamboyant dialogue “hard and fast,” as the author preferred, the actors (Gary Cooper and Madeleine Carrol and Akim Tamiroff among others) have a tendency to linger on it, as if they can’t believe they’ve been handed such classy material. Delivered at speed, as in THE SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS, an Odets line *can* sound as if the actor’s just thought of it, the impossible cracked street-poetry tumbling out in a mixture of verbal genius and a kind of fervid desperation to find le mot juste before another millisecond goes by. Hanging about tends to expose just how preciously contrived it is.

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Still, there’s a whole hell of a lot to admire. The Paramount high gloss look, with Travis Banton costumes, gorgeous three-point lighting, elaborate sets and a pulse-pounding score by Werner Janssen combine with Milestone’s atmospheric angles and moves to create a work that’s never less than compelling. It’s a bit like Sternberg with the swooning eroticism blended with a more two-fisted romanticism. The ending is pretty ridiculous, and I find myself agreeing for the first time with Graham Greene, a great film critic but one whose opinions I habitually clash with. He though the ending was silly too — but it’s beautifully staged.

A really interesting moment was point out in the comments section earlier by David Boxwell — a match dissolve between a round doorknob and a gleaming cueball on a pool table. It seems a moment of self-conscious bravura motivated by nothing other than the smooth whiteness of the two objects. But it’s actually a fascinating, odd piece of prefiguring.

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The doorknob is attached to a door through which Gary Cooper has just exited, and the dissolve takes us to a pool hall where Madeleine Carroll is part of a group laying plans antithetical to Coop’s. So arguably the crossfade suggests an imminent connection between the two.

But it’s paid off in grand style later. Carroll seduces and betrays Cooper, rather against her judgement, and doesn’t expect to see him again. When he turns up wounded in the magnificently grotty hotel, he swears he’ll kill Carroll “in half” if he ever sees her again — whereupon Dudley Digges with wax eyelids opens the door to the parlour and reveals the guilty blonde herself, playing pool. She drops the cueball, which rolls up to Coop’s feet. So the connection of door — cueball — Coop & Carroll — is a sort of engram, or compound symbol, carefully planted to prefigure this meeting.

The rare use of match dissolves made me wonder if Milestone had seen and admired my own favourite movie, Victor Sjostrom’s  HE WHO GETS SLAPPED, an early twenties Lon Chaney clown tragedy containing numerous such effects. The match dissolve from a ring of chickens to a circus ring in THE RED PONY made me suspect this even more strongly. When I saw THE NIGHT OF NIGHTS, a fairly undistinguished 1939 Broadway weepie (Milestone’s creative energies were clearly more occupied with OF MICE AND MEN that year), I became fairly convinced I was right —

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Clown-slapping. The slappee is Pat O’Brien, the slapper is Roland Culver.

No wonder I’m so keen on Milestone! We have the same favourite movie.

The play with objects and space relates to another Milestone trick, where he cuts to an object which seems to be part of the scene we’ve just watched, only to reveal that we’ve actually moved somewhere else. A kind of deliberate surprise/confusion generally excluded from the classical Hollywood rulebook at this time, where establishing shots were the order of the day, and obvious scene transitions were insisted upon. In THE STRANGE LOVE OF MARTHA IVERS, the young Martha speaks of fetching candles, we cut to them being lit, only to realise that the candelabra is in the hands of Dame Judith Anderson, downstairs. In OF MICE AND MEN, a tasty-looking dinner is consumed by the ranch-hands, but when we cut to a pie being sliced a sudden feminine hand reveals that we’re now in the home of the rancher himself. And in HALLS OF MONTEZUMA this occasional device becomes a recurring trope, dazzlingly deployed to transition into flashback. Each major character has a sequence showing his life before the war. Milestone will have a character drop something. A closeup shows it land on the floor. But when the character picks it up, we discover, within that same closeup, that we’re now elsewhere and elsewhen.

And this never fails to startle us! Clever fellow, that Milestone.

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Iverstown

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , on January 22, 2014 by dcairns

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Do you think MOLLY LOUVAIN and MARTHA IVERS ever got together to talk about their STRANGE LOVES?

Possibly not, the one film being a Curtiz precode and THE STRANGE LOVE OF MARTHA IVERS being a classic post-war noir. But not one that seems to get discussed a whole hell of a lot — I looked through a whole shelf of noir textbooks at the Edinburgh University Library without finding more than a passing mention. Still, along with ALL QUIET and OF MICE it’s the most admired Milestone film — OCEAN’S 11 and MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY are well-known, but LM gets no respect for those.

The film does get referred to as a female-centred noir, which strikes me as slightly misguided. Van Heflin is very much the lead character, and Stanwyck only starts to assert a major share of the screen time in the last half. Her snarky scene with Lizabeth Scott is a joy though.

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TSLOMI is a notably scabrous and acerbic picture, even for a noir. It’s one of Robert Rossen’s best screenplays before his directing career began (he screwed up Polonsky’s script for BODY AND SOUL) and has a fascinating sub-theme about snitching — several of the characters’ have their integrity tested by the demands of authority figures (dads, DAs) that they betray confidences. Poignant, considering that Rossen ultimately suffered considerable intimidation by HUAC — and eventually sold out.

The structure is weird, too, beginning with the three main characters as teenagers (played by kids who in no way resemble the adults, though where you might find pubescent versions of Stanwyck, Douglas and Heflin I don’t know. At any rate, Darryl Hickman can thank his stars he grew up quite differently.). It might have been nicer (and more noirish) to fold this sequence into the story via a flashback or two, but that would have accentuated the problem of kid-adult mismatch. You shrug it off. There’s a killing in the first fifteen minutes that the whole plot will turn upon — and I don’t mean the poor cat, clubbed to death by a rampant Judith Anderson.

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Now it’s the present day, and Van Heflin, with his weird putty starchild face finds himself back in the town he grew up in, and meets sexy Lizabeth Scott. She’s a thief fresh from the joint, he’s a gambler — also a war veteran, but this fact is only mentioned by the cops, who treat him with contempt.

Visually, Milestone’s direction isn’t at its showiest — there’s a murder by montage, which doesn’t quite convince (cut too slow) — modern audiences would laugh — but some nice gliding movement up and down a grand staircase and into bars. The casting of faces in smaller roles is wonderful, and a Milestone speciality — THE RACKET seems to anticipate SCARFACE with its grizzled gangster mugs, and here the array of gnarly character types creates a whole world of vice.

Good violence too — Van giving a PI a dead arm as he reaches into his jacket — something you just don’t see!

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Iverstown, inherited by Stanwyck after the opening murder, is industrial, booming, deeply corrupt. The cops we meet are sneering thugs, there are brutal private eyes, the DA knowingly sent an innocent man to the death house, and the real power is robber baroness Babs Stanwyck. Van Heflin’s innocent, chance arrival will stir things up and bring old secrets bubbling to the surface.

Ultimately, the grim view of the postwar American heartland is only background, and the film is about amour fou, exerted by Stanwyck over VH and the young Kirk Douglas (startlingly cast as a drunken milquetoast). There are enough balls in the air and enough dodgy behaviour even from the more likable characters (the gambler and the thief!) to keep us guessing where things are going to end up, even if we know that crime must not pay as long as the Breen Office reigns. Or, it CAN pay, but eventually you’ll pay it back, possibly with a slug in the guts.

Millie

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 21, 2014 by dcairns

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Paramount star George Raft visits Lewis Milestone and “General Pappy” on the set of THE GENERAL DIED AT DAWN, in which GP has a featured role, though not the title part.

What this is, is a kind of biography-critical overview, to be expanded upon in a further piece on Milestone’s war pictures. Where I’ve written about a film more extensively in the past, I link through to it.

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Lewis Milestone was a pretty funny guy. There’s the famous exchange of telegrams when he was filming THE CAPTAIN HATES THE SEA on location on a real ship in bad weather with a cast including John Gilbert and some other serious drinkers. “HURRY UP THE COST IS STAGGERING” wired the producer. “SO IS THE CAST” replied Milestone.

Earlier, on ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT, “Millie” replied to a request by studio boss Carl Laemmle (“Uncle Carl Laemmle/Has a very big faemmle”) to provide the film with a happy ending by offering to let the Germans win the war.

Late in his career, Milestone adventurously went into television, “to see how it works.” His verdict: “Slavery.”

I’m not actually sure that one is a joke.

He was born Lev Milstein in Russia. While in away in high school, he received money for his father for a Christmas trip home, and instead used it to go to America. He had an aunt in New York. When she was unable to help him, he wrote to his father optimistically asking for more money. The reply: “You are in the land of opportunity–use your own judgement.”

Milestone did odd jobs and enlisted in WWI, where his duties included gathering and photographing severed body parts. He also shared a unit with Frank Tuttle and Josef Von Sternberg.

Entering the movie business, he swept floors for Sennett and Ince and became an assistant editor, editor and assistant director to William Seiter. Seiter preferred playing golf to directing so Milestone had ample opportunity to study his craft.

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The ‘twenties: one important job was cutting WHERE THE NORTH BEGINS in 1923, the first major Rin Tin Tin movie. Huge amounts of location and dog footage was pouring in, from two units who were working from different scenarios. Milestone screened all the material for weeks and eventually cut the film like a documentary, building a story from the footage rather than fitting the shots into a story. The film was tested and went through the roof. All three Warner Bros congratulated Milestone for saving their investment. But when Lee Duncan, the dog trainer, was seen shaking hands with most of the audience as they left, they asked him what was up. “Well, this is my home town, so naturally a lot of these people know me.”

The film was re-tested further afield — and was an even bigger success.

After a row with Gloria Swanson, Milestone walked off FINE MANNERS and began work on THE KID BROTHER for his friend Harold Lloyd, but Warner Bros kicked up a stink about his contract violation and he was forced to quit that one after maybe only a few days. Somewhere in there he’s supposed to have contributed to TEMPEST too.

Milestone’s first big hit was TWO ARABIAN KNIGHTS, or at least it’s the earliest one anyone remembers. Something of a carbon copy of Walsh’s WHAT PRICE GLORY? it made a star of smush-faced Louis Wolheim and made fine use of rising star William Boyd, before he became Hopalong Cassidy.

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Milestone directed THE RACKET for Howard Hughes but heard, when shooting was complete, that HH was recutting it. Furious, since he had legal right of final cut, Milestone confronted his boss, catching him in flagrante with the cutting copy and dragging him from the building. To calm his director down, Hughes got him into his limo and drove at terrifying speed until Milestone lost the edge of his rage and began instead to fear for his life. Then Hughes announced that the film was being released just as Milestone left it. Out of his own personal curiosity, he had wanted to see what would happen if he reduced each scene by ten per cent, so he had been tinkering just for the sake of it.

(An interesting insight into Hughes, who also took a projector to pieces to see how it worked, thus delaying a screening of rushes. Cutting everything by ten per cent is a very obsessive-compulsive trick to try. It’s also an amazingly uncreative approach to a creative job. Don’t try to make each scene work as well as it should. Don’t try to balance the length of the scenes to create a satisfying structure. Just take ten per cent out of everything. Boneheaded.)

Milestone’s first talkie, NEW YORK NIGHTS, is a gangster picture with an unconvincing gangster, John Wray, and the director thought it a disaster, trying unsuccessfully to take his name of it. Largely forgotten, it’s pretty interesting — Milestone shoots from a real car on real streets (rear projection hadn’t taken off yet), tracks energetically all over the place, and even puts the camera inside a dumb-waiter and rides it between floors.

RAIN is even more experimental, and THE FRONT PAGE, again made for Hughes, satisfied Milestone that a talkie could combine the qualities of a good stage play with cinematic values. But ALL QUIET is where he’s able to minimize dialogue for much of the picture and exploit purely audio-visual means. A tough, uncompromising film, a troubled shoot, and a colossal critical and commercial success, it became Milestone’s millstone — he grouched to the end of his days about the tendency of the ignorant to think of it as the only film he ever made.

The ‘thirties:  Milestone experiments zanily, restlessly. HALLELUJAH I’M A BUM is a jaw-dropper, and even a rather weak project like ANYTHING GOES has moments of visual energy, wit and imagination. THE GENERAL DIED AT DAWN is a Sternbergian melo with socialistic tendencies and baroque poetry-of-the-streets dialogue by Odets.

It doesn’t make any sense to blame Milestone for his inconsistent career — it’s full of false starts, aborted projects, and movies he walked off of rather than make intolerable compromises. But this sometimes paid off — when Hal Roach fired him from ROAD SHOW, Milestone sued, and as settlement, Roach agreed to finance OF MICE AND MEN, which became Milestone’s most acclaimed film of the decade. Milestone bagged the great reviews, Roach carried the can financially, and audiences stayed away. Justice! But the audience’s loss.

The ‘forties: an erratic period for Milestone, but I like a lot of the films nobody else including their director seems to care for — LUCKY PARTNERS, NO MINOR VICES. ARCH OF TRIUMPH was supposed to be the blockbuster, but the mob found it turgid. Milestone’s wartime output was geared to propaganda, and the skills used to make a pacifist point in ALL QUIET could be turned just as easily, it transpired, to stir the blood and encouraged enlistment. Some of these films are good, some are very problematic indeed, especially if one wants to see Milestone as an auteur. I’ll be talking about some of these films in more detail later.

Attempts to propose a consistent subject or theme for Milestone founder. Some have argued half-heartedly that he is obsessed with groups of men on missions, like Hawks or Ford, but this forces us to ignore most of his output. I have no trouble seeing him as a man interested in many things, and I don’t think that makes him less interesting than those filmmakers who pursued a more narrow range of subjects in their work. Are conversationalists who can only deal with one topic more interesting than those with eclectic tastes?

Milestone’s fluctuating view of war is a bigger issue, because one does want integrity in ones artists. I think the fact that he pursued a left-wing agenda and tried to smuggle in thoughts about group unity and responsibility does give his work the consistency we look for.

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As soon as the war was over, A WALK IN THE SUN took a more considered view of the conflict, and his sole noir, THE STRANGE LOVE OF MARTHA IVERS, partook freely of that post-war malaise everyone is always talking about with regards to this genre. The references to Van Heflin’s military service are brief, but pungent — nobody respects him for serving his country, not even the cops.

The ‘fifties: Milestone’s leftist connections brought him under the eye of HUAC — he was protected somewhat by Zanuck, the studio boss least hospitable to the blacklist, who sent him abroad to work. (Fox exec Raymond Griffith, the former silent comic, played his last acting role in ALL QUIET.) Fox had money tied up in Australia that they wanted to spend, so Milestone shot KANGAROO, the most faux-Australian film imaginable. Before the credits are over we’ve enjoyed the titular marsupial hopping all over the frame, koalas in trees, and then we repair to the office of a policeman, who promptly brushes the monitor lizards off his desktop to make room for his boomerang.

In England, Milestone shot THEY WHO DARE, a run-of-the-mill Technicolor war movie with Dirk Bogarde and Denholm Eliot stiffening their upper lips in Greece, and a rather interesting, unfaithful and truncated film of LES MISERABLES. “It had been done before. I hope it will never be done again.”

I haven’t been able to see Milestone’s Italian film, LA VEDOVA X (THE WIDOW) — if any reader has a copy, let me know.

The ‘sixties: Returning to the states, Milestone made a Korean was drama for Gregory Peck, PORK CHOP HILL, which Peck recut and subverted to add patriotism. Milestone walked away, straight into OCEAN’S 11, a big hit but an unhappy experience. I see Milestone in the figure of Akim Tamiroff in that film (an actor who had worked with Milestone several times before) — saggy, grumpy, melancholy, droll, tired, ignored or slighted by his rat pack collaborators. But he did deliver the coolest last shot in cinema history.

Milestone then sensed the chance to get rich with MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY. The production had rumbled on for a year, Carol Reed had just walked off, and Milestone thought he could polish it off quickly. In fact, almost nothing had been shot, and Milestone was unable to accelerate the production, which was at the mercy of Marlon Brando. Brando didn’t take direction, and had his own set of signals to communicate with the cameraman, cutting the credited director out of the loop. Incidentally, I like the film a good deal.

The ‘seventies: Ill health kept Millie from working further. Somebody stole his two Oscars, which were only retrieved after his death. He spent ten years in a wheelchair.

Milestone on Hollywood: “A fear and psychosis pervades the town, engendered by the recent witch hunts on the national, state and community level. Producers are asking for and getting pictures without ideas. In the frantic effort to offend no one, to alienate no groups, to create no misgivings in Congressional minds, studios are for the most part obediently concentrating on vapidity. The public… did not not ask that pictures be sterilized of ideas; the notion was self-imposed.”

From Wikipedia: “Lewis Milestone’s final request before he died in 1980 was for Universal Studios to restore All Quiet on the Western Front to its original length. That request would eventually be granted nearly two decades later by Universal and other film preservation companies, and this restored version is what is widely seen today on television and home video.”

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Principle sources: Kevin Brownlow’s interview with Milestone. Philip Kemp’s profile in World Film Directors Vol 1. Richard T. Jameson’s piece in Richard Roud’s Cinema A Critical Dictionary (better than David Thomson’s book, fine though that is). And thanks to Phoebe Green!