Archive for To Each His Own

Wooden Double Crosses

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , on March 26, 2015 by dcairns

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An addendum to René Clemént Week.

So, finally I see Clemént’s FORBIDDEN GAMES, and on the big screen — part of Mark Cousins’ excellent Cinema of Childhood season. Unfortunately, the heating in Filmhouse 2 had broken down, so it was baltic, but th cinema compensated by offering free hot drinks and choccy biccies. With the spirit of the blitz in our minds, the substantial audience hunkered down in mufflers to absorb the audio-visual culture being fired at them in sub-zero conditions, like Eskimos listening to a tribal tale, And, since a previous ticket purchase (to INHERENT VICE) had gotten me a half-price deal for the Cinema of Childhood showings, and since I discovered an ancient, crumbling Filmhouse gift voucher at the back of my wallet, the whole experience was effectively free.

Seeing ones breath haloed in the projector beam (I exaggerate a bit for, I think you’ll agree, splendid poetic effect) reminded me of the legends of Jim Poole, Cameo manager or yore, who would turn the heating up or down to enhance tropical or arctic features. Here. the frigidity had no particular connection to the film, but it didn’t spoil our enjoyment. Sharing a little discomfort may in fact have silently bonded us, as this was one of those rare, even endangered, occasions where the presence of an audience really does enhance an experience. In particular the guy behind me who was utterly flabbergasted by each new plot development and would splutter “What the fuck?” every time the children did something shocking, was a genuinely lovely part of the experience. It’s fun to hear someone else being so into something that they spontaneously voice your own emotions.

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Because the thing I hadn’t expected about the film — which deals with two children in WWII France, at the time of the nation’s fall to the Nazis — it looks at death through the eyes of a small child — is how funny it was. Funniest damn film I’ve seen in ages, actually. It’s emotional TOO — devastatingly so, but I expected that (but expecting any kind of pain is never actually a preparation for experiencing it). I didn’t know going in that I would bust a gut.

And here we learn why Truffaut hated the film, because much of the humour is anti-clerical, as with Autant-Lara’s L’AUBERGE ROUGE and others, there’s a gleefully vicious iconoclasm going on. Truffaut’s famed essay A Certain Tendency of French Cinema makes it quite clear that anti-clericalism was something the somewhat right-wing Truffaut wouldn’t tolerate, though he blurs this by claiming that what he’s objecting to is scenarists Aurenche & Bost claiming to respect the spirit of the books they adapted, while hypocritally distorting them to reflect their own depraved atheistic tendencies. It’s an objection that shouldn’t really bother any sensible adult — whether they’re evasive about it or not, the adaptors are perfectly entitled to change anything they like, and the critic can assess whether the meaning has been changed but should only condemn the film if the alteration is ineffective.

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That dot on her nose is a housefly making a walk-on appearance.

Notes — this is one of the most flyblown films I’ve ever seen, with many many shots of insects alighting on the cast and set decor, more even than A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM, my previous reigning champion in this category. All part of the film’s bracing attitude to national nest-fouling, in which rural life in France is persistently portrayed as squalid, brutal and filthy. Amid this muck, the bucolic characters are all still somewhat sympathetic — as in Clouzot, I found that the more vices they were shown to have, the more I regarded them as believable human representatives. We should try to love awful people, especially when they’re just in films and can’t hurt us.

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Movie also guest-stars a 100-year-old owl called “the Mayor,” so what’s not to like?

Five-year-old Brigitte Fossey is terrific, but as she says in the DVD interview (I went home and watched my Criterion extras), little Georges Poujuly is also amazing. Unlike NIGHT OF THE HUNTER (which successfully bundles together a whole panoply of violently clashing thespian styles), there’s no real collision between Fossey’s actual childhood innocence and the twelve-year-old Georges’ presumably more studied performance. Their director was so committed to psychological reality he was able to bring them together in the same space.

Inevitably, unless we’re dealing with Bresson, the adults do have a slightly different performance style, and their characters are a shade closer to caricature, although it’s quite nuanced caricature. This is in keeping with the film’s decision to see the world through the children’s eyes. (I noted with approval that the kids got top billing — I was always outraged that Peter Coyote got first mention in ET. Contractual, I suppose, but mildly obscene, and quite out of keeping with the film’s stated approach.)

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The irreligious comedy kicks in when the children start assembling their own graveyard, built around little Brigitte’s dead puppy (slain in a shockingly realistic bombing raid that has some viewers yelling “animal abuse!” online — it seems to be the case that the pup was merely anesthetized). Firstly, the kids are inventing their own faith, based on clues from the outer world, in much the same way as cro-magnon man may have done, and it functions as a kind of parody of “grown-up” religion. This leads to the stealing of crosses from the cemetery, which ignites the conflict between two feuding families, who now suspect each other of sacrilege. One of the funniest lines, to me, was one patriarch yelling “Vampire!” at another. Stuck for a response, he comes back with the sublimely irrelevant “Landru!”

My eyebrows shot up when I discovered the deleted opening and closing sequences on the DVD. I’ve wondered if Clemént, brilliant though he was, was a bit of a fumbler when it came to endings, and here I suspect he proves me correct. He seems to have chopped the framing structure at the last moment — possibly even after the prize-winning screening at Venice (the titles have been adjusted to accommodate mention of the award). I think they’re beautiful and make the ending even more unbearable (and it’s already super-powerful. It will fuck you up). The abruptness of the conclusion as it stands is quite effective, and when the lights come up you haven’t had a chance to compose yourself. But I don’t believe the coda planned would lessen that effect, and it makes a much more elegant outro.

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I’m reminded of the story Mitchell Leisen told about his wartime weepie TO EACH HIS OWN, one of the most gloriously manipulative four-hankie jobs ever perpetrated. Leisen was actually approached by exhibitors requesting him to tack some more footage onto the end of the movie to give the audience a chance to get their shit together before the house lights went up, because people were staggering up the aisles, blinding by tears, and gashing their foreheads on columns.

Leisen refused to adjust his concussion-inducing emotional climax. Quite right.

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All At Sea

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 22, 2009 by dcairns

After the blasting Hugo Friedhofer score, and titles which weirdly assert “By John Steinbeck” and “Screenplay by Jo Swerling,” we get a moody shot trawling the misty Atlantic waters of the 20th Century Fox studio tank, alighting upon curious and suggestive items of flotsam, or do I mean jetsam?

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The hand of cards Hitch was seen playing in his last movie, SHADOW OF A DOUBT? If so, this would be a sort of phantasmal cameo appearance, the shadow of a previous walk-on.

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This copy of The New Yorker makes me wonder if each piece of floating detritus stands for a different character in the film? This would be Tallulah Bankhead, photo-journalist and society lady. But I’m not sure I can be bothered stretching the metaphor all the way to include every last but of bobbing debris. Let’s just say the bobbing apples are a reminder of Hitch’s upbringing.

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“What are those letters on your diaphragm?” Tallulah Bankhead drawls to John Hodiak, and indeed, he is a heavily initialed sailor man, with a prominent “B.M.” on his chest. Who might those letters belong to?

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Barbara Morton — Pat Hitchcock’s character in STRANGERS ON A TRAIN?

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The Bald Mexican — Peter Lorre in SECRET AGENT?

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Bob Montgomery? We never do find out.

LIFEBOAT, while very enjoyable, seems strangely divided between propagandistic, artistic and genre tendencies. While savagely anti-German, it also portrays the jolly Nazi captain Walter Slezak as the only competent and committed man on board, and as Hitchcock and Truffaut agreed, during the moments when the other passengers are plotting against him, they appear quite monstrous. Then again, Slezak’s character really is the embodiment of evil, picking off the weakest of his fellow survivors by way of psychological manipulation techniques bordering on hypnosis.

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What Slezak brings to the role, apart from his authentic accent, is a rather chummy, guy-you-can-trust quality, which colludes with his cherubic (and slightly Hitch-like) appearance to create a nice complexity of effect. In many ways, this guy would make a great captain of the lifeboat, were it not for his tendency to dispose of the weak.

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Do we believe, necessarily, that William Bendix is a jitterbug champion? I wonder if Hitch had a strong idea in his mind of what jitterbuggery actually consists of? I guess WB would be good and hoisting his partner through the air, but I can’t quite picture him cutting a rug. Trampling it into dust, perhaps. Still, Bendix makes a fine lumpenproletariat, even if he does tend to overdo his William Bendix impersonation at times. My favourite Bendix is DETECTIVE STORY, in which he pulls off the impossible feat of out-over-acting Kirk Douglas, going so far over the top he comes out the bottom into a new form or underplaying. It’s like William Bendix parodying William Bendix parodying William Bendix, and it’s a beautiful thing. You won’t believe me but, I’ll say it — moving.

Hitchcock’s cameo, in a newspaper ad for a miracle weight-loss product (or “obesity slayer”) is one of his wittiest, nicely solving the problem of how to do a walk-on in a tightly contained narrative (floating past as a corpse was briefly considered) as well as a chance to show off the results of his recent diet. Many viewers wrote in asking where they could be Reduco, we are told.

If Reduco is Hitchcock’s diet pill, then presumably Emerg-O is William Castle’s personal brand of Viagra.

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I don’t mind John Hodiak in this! He still looks a bit like a Tex Avery wolf, but his slight lack of leading man charisma seems to work neatly in what is basically a group jeopardy picture. A Cary Grant figure would overbalance the thing.

Just realised that not only does Henry Hull advocate the extermination of all Germans in this movie (an awkward moment — had Hitch started editing footage of concentration camps yet? At least the other characters don’t all rush to voice agreement), but he was also the character in OBJECTIVE, BURMA! who advocated extermination of the Japanese. Is there any race on Earth who haven’t been threatened with extermination by Henry Hull? I guess English werewolves get a free pass.

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Hume Cronyn is lovely, however it should be observed that his cockney accent is among the worst on record. Dick Van Dyke is a regular Meryl Streep by comparison. Since Cronyn was so good in SHADOW OF A DOUBT, and since he could undoubtedly adapt to many unlikely characters (see his sadistic gay prison warden in BRUTE FORCE for an eye-popping example), he must have seemed like a safe bet, but there are limits to his versatility. I’m surprised he couldn’t just mimic Hitch’s Leytonestone vowels. It took us ten minutes to decide if he was actually doing an accent, or was just suffering concussion or a head cold.

I was trying to work out what I’d seen Mary Anderson in, then I realised it was TO EACH HIS OWN, which is one of the greatest of all near-unknown Hollywood films of the ’40s, but in that one Mary is up against Olivia deHavilland in full Oscar-worthy rampancy, so she doesn’t have much chance of making an impression. Most of her best scenes also feature a very cute and talented child actor. She’s screwed. Nevertheless, Shadowplay salutes her!

No doubt due to the John Steinbeck influence, there’s plenty of “premature anti-fascism” to enjoy here, with Hodiak as the leftie hero who gets Bankhead’s back up, until she decides she likes a bit of rough, and he wins enough money from Hull to becomes a capitalist in his own right, which is probably a Hitchcock-Swerling addition.

Tallulah Bankhead is Tallulah Bankhead, which is fine by me. “Some of my best friends are women,” indeed!

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Canada Lee, an important figure in American film, gets little to do but cook, although the revelation that he’s an accomplished pickpocket is actually a relief, since it lifts him slightly from the status of token black or Uncle Tom. The most uncomfortable moment is right at the start, when Tallulah asks if Hodiak has seen anything “charcoal” floating in the water, meaning Lee. But that is, at least, in character for her.

Ironic that Hitch apparently never faced any difficulties from HUAC for making this seemingly rather leftwing film, but Lee was, essentially, blacklisted to death.

One thing that’s kind of good about the film, and complicates it out of straight war propaganda, is that all of the characters have good and bad points. Bankhead grumbles, but she sacrifices for the others whenever she has to. Everybody makes stupid mistakes, and not s0 stupid mistakes, in their reaction to the German. And Slezak’s German is given a genuine point of view, nauseating as it often is.

LIFEBOAT cost a lot to make, which disappointed 20th Century Fox: impressed by Hitch’s talk of “cutting in the camera,” Zanuck was expecting this single-set movie to be  quick job. But Hitch refused to shoot in the most seemingly efficient way (Shoot everything looking forward; then everything looking back; then left; then right), which drove Zanuck crazy. But looking at the movie, at the way the characters gradually become more bedraggled and filthy, it’s impossible to see how Hitch could have worked, save scene by scene, as is normal. Years later, Sidney Lumet would shoot 12 ANGRY MEN at high speed by basically filming each actor’s entire part in one go, but that could not be done on LIFEBOAT. As he had with Selznick, Hitch had held out a false promise of super-speed. His reputation for efficiency would only slowly be made in America.

From Boom to Bust

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 29, 2008 by dcairns

Like probably a lot of people, the first thing I knew about Mitchell Leisen was that Billy Wilder was unhappy with Leisen messing with his scripts. And since Wilder was the legendary director of numerous clever and beautiful films, I assumed Leisen was a Hollywood hack.

The first person to correct this impression was my friend Lawrie Knight, who was old enough to have seen Leisen’s films from the ’30s, ’40s and 50’s when they were new. He may even have seen, as a child, some of Leisen’s work as designer for Cecil B. DeMille, or on Raoul Walsh’s Douglas Fairbanks epid THE THIEF OF BAGDAD. He suggested that Leisen had made some beautiful films, and we managed to get hold of some. In particular, HOLD BACK THE DAWN made me realise that Leisen had certainly not trashed Wilder’s work, while TO EACH HIS OWN showed that Wilder’s writing partner, Charles Brackett, had respected Leisen enough to hire him to film one of his best scripts. And EASY LIVING and REMEMBER THE NIGHT, discovered in the Lindsay Anderson Archive, showed that Leisen could also do great work with Preston Sturges’ scripts. The two films are maybe not quite as great as SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS or THE PALM BEACH STORY, but they’re probably better than CHRISTMAS IN JULY or THE LADY EVE, and that ain’t bad.

David Wingrove opened my eyes further. He’d seen a Leisen retrospective at San Sebastian, and ended up writing the best overview of Leisen on the web, here. He had copies of FRENCHMAN’S CREEK and the excellent noir NO MAN OF HER OWN.

Then the Edinburgh Film Festival shows its own retrospective, curated by the then-director Shane Danielsen. It wasn’t a complete retrospective, and rather than attempting an overview of all Leisen’s styles, it concentrated on his comedies and melodramas, largely ignoring his musicals and period movies, the more “camp” side of the oeuvre — stuff like MURDER AT THE VANITIES that seemed to make Danielsen uncomfortable. But it allowed me to see SWING HIGH, SWING LOW, which became my favourite Leisen of all, perhaps because it combines both his comic and his romantic-tragic side so boldly.

So, as a huge Leisen fan, I was delighted to get my hands on two more of his films. BRIDE OF VENGEANCE was first into the player. Fiona has just quit her job and needed cheering up. I suggested this film.

“What’s it about?”

“Paulette Goddard is Lucrezia Borgia.”

“YES!”

Superb looking but appallingly acted and rather stodgily directed piece of historical melodrama. Totally studio-bound, but one of these days it could find a sympathetic audience. ~ Halliwell’s Film Guide.

Reader, we were that audience!

I admit, I quailed slightly at the prospect of John Lund as the Duke of Ferrara. In my view, any film with someone called Lund or Lundigan has a humanoid hurdle to get over. Ray Milland was supposed to take the part, but went on suspension at Paramount for the only time in his career rather than be associated with what seemed to him a dreadful script. When the film came out, the critics’ comments so resembled Milland’s criticisms, the producer suspected him of being in league with the reviewers.

A hero disguised as a fop — a sort of rennaissance Pimpernell.

But I needn’t have worried — Lund is actually pretty good in this. He was always a fine actor, he just slightly lacked charisma, or gravitas. His lightweight character actually adds tension to the story, since he seems but a slight threat to the advancing invader Caesar (sic) Borgia. He makes an able Ferrara. He also helped out by rewriting a lot of Clemence Dane’s unspeakable blank verse dialogue.

Paulette Goddard is, I suppose, too old, and Milland thought her too worldly. The film casts Lucrezia as something of an innocent, to the dismay of audiences but with some degree of historical accuracy. Leisen found he couldn’t get the performance he wanted from P.G. so concentrated on her looks, co-designing the costumes with Mary Grant (Mrs. Vincent Price). Particular care was taken in diminishing her eighthead (like a forehead, but twice the size). This is kind of a shame as I have long admired Paulette’s towering blind wall of a brow, which looks as white and fragile as eggshell.

MacDonald Carey as Borgia, the part Lund was originally to play, gets spectacular muscly armour, practically a bat-suit. All the costumes aimed for an unusual period verisimilitude, although the studio forbade Leisen from codpiecing the men. “He’s gay! We can’t let him get his hands on codpieces!”

Best performance of all is Raymond Burr as a Borgia thug. Even though it’s only 1949, Burr seems to have fully absorbed the influence of Marlon Brando, who had not yet made a film. He swaggers about with a nasal whine in his voice, cramming food into his face so he can hardly speak his lines. Also, he makes no effort not to be American. It’s a hilariously disruptive performance that the film nevertheless manages to contain — Burr shakes things up, but not to the point of damaging the story. It’s a wonderfully bold and fruity bit of showing-off, and it hereby earns Burr a coveted posthumous Shadowplay award for services to discombobulation. OK, it’s just an old golf trophy with “GOOD WORK FATTY” scratched on it with a key, but it’s the thought that counts.

Raymond Burr attempts that tricky “Gomez Addams look”.

Ah yes, the plot. “That was a lousy story about a big cannon that went boom,” observed Leisen in David Chierechetti’s essential study, Hollywood Director. Leisen told his producer, “You’re an ass to think anybody would care about this after the atomic bomb.” At this greater historic distance, the weapon of mass destruction makes a decent plot device, and Leisen seems well aware of it’s potential as a phallic symbol. Lund even has to abandon Paulette on their nuptial night to help Albert Dekker with his throbbing great piece of artillery. And then, weakened by Borgia poison, he RIDES IT INTO BATTLE.

“Get your farting gear around THIS!”

Ferrara is building the gun in secret, like Saddam (those W.M.D.s really were awfully well hidden, weren’t they? When Tony Blair swore he had absolute proof of their existence, you’d think some of that proof might pertain to their location. But no), while pretending he’s casting a giant statue of Jupiter. “You must come and see my big Jupiter,” he suggests to Paulette, before snogging her violently. “That was disturbing,” she observes. Fiona resolved to try this line next time I go for her.

Despite everybody’s harsh words about the story, it has some surprises, it’s played in a lighter vein that one would expect (I disagree with Halliwell’s “stodgy” crack) and the marriage is an exact match to the one in Leisen’s next-again film, NO MAN OF HER OWN — a bride takes her husband with the intention of killing him (“I will,” smiles Stanwyck, chilling the blood pleasurably).

There’s a very well plotted moment when Paulette realizes that her brother (rampantly incestuous, which is a surprise in 1949) has framed Ferrara, and her vengeance is misguided — it’s all done through three paintings knocked up by Titian (Don Randolph). “Why have you painted a demon with my brother’s face?” gasps P.G., seeing a likeness of Caesar. “I paint what I see.”

Fiona guffawed: “That’s what I used to say. I was probably five, and I drew our neighbour. ‘You’ve made me look all old and wrinkly.’ ‘I draw what I see.'”

No wonder she’s out of a job.

BRIDE OF VENGEANCE has been dismissed for too long. It’s campy and daft, looking ahead to Sirk’s SIGN OF THE PAGAN and countless Italian peplum films, but also smart and witty, beautifully designed and shot, and we get the vicarious pleasure of watching Raymond Burr stuffing his face. I call that A GOOD NIGHT IN.

Now we have Leisen’s KITTY to watch. It’s supposed by some to be his best film. I’m almost afraid to look.

My cinematic Babelfish translates this as: “Caesar or nuthin’!”