Archive for Van Heflin

On the Prowl

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , on January 28, 2022 by dcairns

Revisiting Joseph Losey’s penultimate US film, THE PROWLER, I found it even better than I remembered. Commie filmmakers may not have been allowed to smuggle leftist propaganda into Hollywood (an absurd proposition) but Losey certainly managed to critique capitalism. He called this one a film about “false values” but to the modern eye it’s also about toxic masculinity, daringly embodied by a cop (Van Heflin, really startlingly good).

Called out to investigate the titular peeping Tom (though the title could at times equally apply to him), Heflin becomes obsessed with young married woman Evelyn Keyes (also very strong), whose husband, a DJ, works nights. They start an affair and, yes, things swiftly head in a DOUBLE INDEMNITY direction — but this variation on James M. Cain’s No. 1 plot spins things around agreeably: Heflin doesn’t let Keyes in on his devious plans, and then things unravel spectacularly with a series of disturbing twists.

Heflin is always good, if odd-looking: he resembles a monkey skull eating a child’s spade. Here, he sleazes and skeezes repulsively, gaslights his partner postpartum (with an actual gas lamp in frame), and then melts down spectacularly, Brett Kavanaugh style. We were agape, aghast, agog. Just like watching those damned hearings, where a kind of shrivelled pity vied with revulsion, and lost. Cinephilia meets rubbernecking.

The film has a great climax in a desert ghost town (the remains of the capitalist dream) — it feels positively apocalyptic — but the best locale is the “motor court” Heflin buys with the money Keyes inherits from her husband. His dream of earning money without work is fulfilled, but it’s hellish: the constant rumble of passing cars, the headlights sweeping the rooms, the motel-like shape of the room, with a radio between their beds (symbolism!). A paranoid setting for the disintegrating relationship. Dark, dark stuff. What’s blacker than noir?

Yesterday

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on August 31, 2020 by dcairns

A busy day at Il Cinema Ritrovato online:

LIEBLING DER GOTTER, Emil Jannings in an early German talkie. Surprisingly sophisticated — I guess Europe had a couple of years to absorb the early mistakes and discoveries of American sound film, so there’s immediately an understanding that UNsynchronised sound — separating sound from image — offscreen voices and noises overlaid on top of contrasting images — is one of the most powerful and absorbing techniques, at least as valuable as lip-synched dialogue.

CALIFORNIA SPLIT — I’d seen this years ago and knew it was good — Fiona hadn’t. More sound innovation, as Altman mixes untold layers of overlapping gab, sometimes allowing a clear conversation to emerge from the wordstream, sometimes smothering bits of it in crosstalk, sometimes submerging everying in burbling accretions of babel.

The film itself is terrific. I recall Elliott Gould talking about it in Edinburgh. He was a producer on it and said that the ending was originally supposed to show him and George Segal exiting the casino, filmed from outside: they’re friendship is over.

Altman approached Gould and suggested, it being very late/early and everyone tired, that they could end the film indoors and save themselves relocating and setting up a new shot. Gould agreed, and has wondered ever since if he made a mistake, and if the film underperformed because of it.

Maybe the very end is a tiny bit lacking — but not in a way that hurts your memory of the experience. A good illustration of Kurosawa’s point that, when you’re tired, your body and brain tell you that you have enough footage when you really don’t. The only solution, AK counsels, is to go ahead and shoot twice as much as you think you need.

A hard lesson!

The movie is wonderful — I miss the pre-McKee era when films could shamble along loosely, apparently neglecting all rules of structure, until at the end you realised that everything was there for a reason and an artful design had been functioning all along, UNDETECTED.

We also watched TAP ROOTS (George Marshall, 1948), beautiful Technicolor but by God it was dull.

Apart from Boris Karloff as a Native American with an English accent, and a fairly well-written part for Van Heflin, and the odd political interest of this GONE WITH THE WIND knock-off (Susan Hayward being flame-haired at the top of her voice) in which the South wins the Civil War against itself (a valley of abolitionist Southerners is invaded by the Confederates), the most striking moment was a surely unplanned incident in a river battle where one horse, improvising wildly, mounted another, trapping the hapless actor on Horse (2)’s saddle in a kind of Confederate sandwich with horses instead of bread. Looked painful. I have never weighed a horse but I believe they’re not featherweights.

Battleships

Posted in Dance, FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 25, 2017 by dcairns

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You know you’ve been watching too many MGM movies when the same musical battleship turns up twice.

First instance is as the grand finale of the less-grand I DOOD IT, a very early Vincente Minnelli movie or an archetypal Red Skelton vehicle, depending on how you want to look at it. It is pretty well impossible to contain both those aspects in your mind at the same time without spraining a lobe or two. And the film itself alternates between Skelton schtick, in a plot borrowed loosely from Buster Keaton’s SPITE MARRIAGE (a couple of set-piece routines are ported across in their entirety) and Minnelli ecstasies, with numbers constructed around Eleanor Powell or else guest stars like Lena Horne and Hazel Scott.

(The inclusion of black artists like LH and HS in pop-up numbers easily excised from movies in the South is on the one hand, faintly aromatic of chickenshit, and on the other, slightly more courageous than you would expect from MGM. They could have simply opted not to employ any black stars at all, like every other studio. An unrelated point is that ’40s musicals do suffer from an insane proliferation of completely gratuitous numbers which do not relate to the plot and often retard the development of any narrative to a quite damaging degree. If it’s Lena Horne, one doesn’t mind, but novelty organists and big bands are less acceptable. One thinks of THE GANG’S ALL HERE being the ne plus ultra of this kind of thing, but the tendency was widespread.)

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Poor Eleanor Powell is situated right at the fault-line between the Skelton slapstick and the Minnelli musical. She’s a disastrous partner for Red, who always benefits from a sympathetic female lead to dial down his exuberance. Powell is somewhat lacking in warmth as a screen personality, and her role is an unappealing one (the character in the Keaton original is perhaps his least sympathetic heroine) and she’s not a wonderful enough actress to convince us she’s attracted to this man-cub. On the other hand, she dances up a storm, and her physical prowess comes in very handy in the “putting an unconscious woman to bed” routine reproduced from the silent movie.

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Second instance is a sort of battleship cameo in S. Sylvan Simon’s GRAND CENTRAL MURDER, where the ship pops up as backdrop in a montage showing the rise to prominence of a Broadway star (Patricia Dane, also featured in I DOOD IT, whose interesting bio can be read here). I think she’s actually performing in front of rear-screen footage from I DOOD IT, blocking out Eleanor Powell. The shame of it!

The rest of the movie is a kind of whodunnit RASHOMON, with a roomful of suspects, an apoplectic police detective (inevitably, Sam Levene, though James Gleason would have done just as well) and a private eye and spouse (Van Helflin and Virginia Grey) who appear to be part of MGM’s relentless attempt to spin the THIN MAN formula out beyond one profitable series and have it take over cinema as a whole.

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S. Sylvan Simon of the WHISTLING series directs the gab the way George Sidney would cover a big band number — gliding swiftly from soloist to soloist, elegantly taking in secondary players en route, always managing to either be in exactly the right spot or create meaningful tension about where he’s on his way to. It’s a really magnificent, symphonic example of the filming of dialogue.

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Van Heflin is terrifically enjoyable here, though he does smoke a pipe. So the tendency towards boring patrician roles is already there, but this slight, youthful version of ole babyskull is also very eager to seize on any opportunity to irritate everyone around him, which always seems to make for an enjoyable character. Fiona pointed out that there’s something weirdly OFF about the way Heflin and Grey are introduced — as mysterious members of the shoal of red herrings who shimmer through the narrative. Only gradually does our hero emerge as the narrative’s front-runner, perhaps because director SSS’s handling of the performers is somewhat democratic: Van Hef doesn’t get a “hero shot” right at the beginning, like John Wayne in STAGECOACH, announcing that he’s some kind of big deal in this picture. And since another suspect is Tom Conway, who in other circumstances might just as easily have been the leading man, the first third of the film feels a little uncentered. But that could be a perfectly appropriate feeling to have in a whodunnit RASHOMON.

Endnote: appropriately enough for a piece wallowing in Hollywood’s recycling, I can finish with my belated realisation that the number at the end of I DOOD IT is lifted wholesale from the 1936 BORN TO DANCE, meaning that it is not in fact a Minnelli production, but… a Roy Del Ruth?