Archive for To Each His Own

FORBIDDEN DIVAS RIP

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 3, 2020 by dcairns

Certainly, what we’ve been missing here at Shadowplay is an Olivia de Havilland appreciation, and who better to provide it than David Melville Wingrove?

Who Killed the Black Widder?

“A halo can be a lovely thing – but you must be able to take it off now and again.”

  • Olivia De Havilland, My Cousin Rachel

In 1952, Olivia de Havilland stood at the pinnacle of everything an actress in Hollywood could reasonably hope to achieve. She had made her screen debut at eighteen in the classic Warner Bros extravaganza A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935) and was the one actress in it not to be upstaged by the costumes. In her eight films with Errol Flynn, she had formed half of the most enduringly popular on-screen couple of the 30s. She had played a leading role in Gone with the Wind (1939) – the most commercially successful film of all time – as the ‘good girl’ Melanie Hamilton to Vivien Leigh’s ‘bad girl’ Scarlett O’Hara. When Warner Bros tried to prolong her contract illegally, she had taken the studio to court and won her freedom. She had rounded out the 40s by winning two Oscars for Best Actress, one for To Each His Own (1946) and one for The Heiress (1949). She was not, to put it mildly, what anyone could ever call an underachiever.

On a personal level, de Havilland had grown out of the shadow of her loving but controlling mother and her jealously competitive sister Joan Fontaine. Having been linked romantically to James Stewart and Burgess Meredith, John Huston and Howard Hughes, she had finally got married at the age of thirty to the writer Marcus Goodrich. In 1949, she had given birth to her son Benjamin and taken three years off from movies. Not that she had stayed at home washing nappies. Instead she had fulfilled a lifelong ambition by appearing on Broadway in Romeo and Juliet, in a 1951 staging that can be described politely as a succès d’estime. Apart from her on-and-off feud with her sister, she had lived with consummate discretion and good taste. Unusually for a Hollywood star, there had been no sleaze, no scandal and no dirty rumours of any sort. At the age of 35, Olivia de Havilland was a woman who had very little left to win. Her only wild card was how much she might have to lose.

Whatever she might have chosen to do in the early 50s, it was bound to involve a high level of risk. She had famously turned down the role of Blanche du Bois in the film of A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) stating that “a lady doesn’t say or do those things on the screen.” Her dilemma, in that case, was how to remain a lady while expanding her range as an actress into a new decade. That may have been part of what drew her to My Cousin Rachel (1952). The heroine of Daphne du Maurier’s novel is neither a ‘good girl’ nor a ‘bad girl’ but a woman who may be an angel or a demon. She is a glamorous and sophisticated Anglo-Italian countess of the 1830s who finds herself widowed and penniless and burdened by debts. She marries a wealthy Cornish gentleman who dies of unexplained causes just a few months after the wedding. But his estate does not go to his widow. It passes instead to his callow and naive young cousin, Philip Ashley. It is not wholly a surprise when Rachel shows up on his doorstep – and the young man starts to fall irresistibly under her spell.

At no point in the novel do we get any clue as to what Rachel is thinking. As in du Maurier’s most famous book Rebecca – the Alfred Hitchcock film of which had made a star of Joan Fontaine in 1940 – we know the title heroine only through what the other characters say about her. The novel is narrated entirely by Philip, who falls obsessively in love with Rachel although he suspects – and with good cause – that she may have poisoned his cousin. Soon enough, she starts brewing Philip her special herbal tisanes and he has every reason to suspect she is trying to poison him. That does not dim his ardour one bit. Our hero falls in love with Rachel, not despite the fact she may be a murderess but, more likely, because of it. It is even possible that Rachel poisoned one or both of her previous husbands, but still feels genuine love for Philip. The depths of masochism in this story are profound; its central love affair makes any film noir of the 40s look like a model of domestic bliss.

The question of Rachel’s innocence or guilt – which the book leaves unanswered – presents any film-maker with a dilemma. It is similar to the one faced by David Lean in Madeleine (1950) another film about a genteel Victorian lady who may or may not have poisoned her lover. “The public wants to know if she did it,” said Noël Coward bluntly, “and you don’t tell them.” There are levels of ambiguity we can accept more easily in a novel than in a big-budget movie. But these are the levels of ambiguity de Havilland serves up with such lethal but seductive expertise. She makes her entrance robed entirely in black and photographed from behind so we do not see her face. (She is bit like Count Dracula, fresh off the boat from Transylvania.) Once she lifts her veil, we are won over by her angelic expression and her mellifluous purr of a voice – but alarmed at the same time by her cold, hard, watchful eyes. It is obvious from the first that she is playing Philip (Richard Burton) the way a virtuoso pianist might play a baby grand. But that does not make her a killer. Or does it?

In her early scenes, her dark widow’s weeds are demure almost to the point of bring dowdy. But as she gains in her ascendancy over Philip, her gowns (although they are still black) become gradually more décolleté. Her most alluring dress is off-the-shoulder and topped with lace that suggests a black spider’s web. (The costumes by Dorothy Jeakins are a film unto themselves.) Before too many scenes have elapsed, My Cousin Rachel starts to revel in one of Hollywood’s most ill-kept secrets – namely that Olivia de Havilland, for all her gentility, was a stylish and extremely sexy woman. Her performance here owes mercifully little to Terry, the Psycho Bitch Sister from Hell in the ‘identical twins’ melodrama The Dark Mirror (1946). It is a fascinating foretaste of her role as Cousin Miriam in the campy Southern Gothic gore fest Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964). There is no way to separate the light and dark facets of either Miriam or Rachel. This woman is charming because she is deadly and deadly because she is charming. Her allure turns the entire audience into the hapless Philip. Had this film only been made in 3D, we too might be stretching out our hands and begging for a cup of tisane.

Nothing and nobody else in My Cousin Rachel ever rises to the level of its lead performance. Initially, de Havilland had hoped for either George Cukor or Mitchell Leisen to direct it. But Cukor decided ungraciously that she was “an actress without a secret” – and sought to cast Vivien Leigh or Greta Garbo instead. Leisen had directed her with triumph in Hold Back the Dawn (1941) and To Each His Own. Better still, he was a close friend who knew Olivia’s secrets as well as anyone in Hollywood ever could. Alas, he was under contract to another studio and 20th Century-Fox was unwilling to pay the money it would have cost to borrow him. Hence the director of My Cousin Rachel is the competent but wholly uninspired Henry Koster. Richard Burton – whom de Havilland described as “a rather coarse-grained gentleman with a rather coarse-grained talent” – does well by a role that consists of glowering and looking glum for the best part of two hours. In some shots, the backs of his hands are so hairy that we wonder if he will turn out to be the Wolf Man. His co-star cannot have been pleased when Burton got an Oscar nomination and she did not.

A good film that should have been a great one, My Cousin Rachel turned out to be Olivia de Havilland’s last role as a major Hollywood star. She divorced her husband, married again and moved to Paris. She played her last movie role in the schlock killer bees epic The Swarm (1978) but stayed active on TV for another decade. For years after she retired, there were rumours she was planning a comeback – most recently in a James Ivory film of the Henry James novella The Aspern Papers. But this and any number of other projects failed to happen and her status in later years was largely symbolic. The last surviving star of the pre-war studio era, she lived on as a gracious, witty and unfailingly articulate emissary of a bygone age. She became Hollywood’s own far more glamorous answer to the Queen Mother.

But no, she never did tell us if Rachel did it or not.

IN MEMORIAM DAME OLIVIA DE HAVILLND (TOKYO 1916-PARIS 2020)

David Melville

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.

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.