Archive for Van Heflin

Deathwatch UK

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , on October 20, 2022 by dcairns

This is very distracting. We’ve all seen the front door of 10 Downing Street multiple times recently, so we know it’s not of the revolving variety. But the occupants of the building sure behave as if it were. Perhaps there’s an ejector seat behind the PM’s desk? Liz Truss is now gone after a mere six weeks in the job, the shortest premiership in British history, making Boris Johnson look like Thatcher or Blair. The previous record-holder had to drop dead to get out of the position.

Still, Truss was at least consistent in her inconsistency — having U-turned on every promise made, she departs a day after quoting Labour spin-doctor Peter Mandelson’s famous and derided “I’m a fighter, not a quitter.” Her time in office shorter than the leadership contest that put her there.

Apparently there are a set of rules about how you get to be pm, but having put the matter to a party-wide vote last time, this time they’re going to elect the leader with just m.p.s voting, since the party as a whole has apparently gone insane. It seems like a conclusive defeat for government by fantasy wish-fulfillment. But maybe not. Where politics is concerned, my motto is, “Things can always get worse.” I just realised it’s an inversion of New Labour’s slogan/theme song “Things Can Only Get Better.” Should have noticed that.

(Since I typed that five minutes ago, I’m hearing that the party membership WILL be voting. I should join.)

It’s distracted me, this chaos, from finishing the monographs I’ve accidentally started writing on THE GREAT DICTATOR and ALIAS JIMMY VALENTINE. And the one I’m reading on SHANE, the BFI Classics edition by Edward Countryman & Evonne von Heussen-Countryman (BFI Film Classics). it’s quite enjoyable and I’m learning things, but I’m surprised by what it leaves out. No mention of the wirework yanking Elisha Cook Jr out of frame when he’s shot, a movie first. No mention of the exaggerated shatter glass sounds during the bar fight. Discussion of the amplified gun shots and echo effects is welcome, and there’s some medium-close analysis here and there, counting shots and minutes devoted to specific sequences.

I was confused by the line “On the first day of filming Stevens managed to get eighteen takes with nine set-ups […] That sounds like two takes per set-up, a very low average, and not what one would expect from the meticulous Stevens. I would like to see set-ups listed first, and then a clear statement about the average number of takes, although in fact the number of takes isn’t very important to the point being discussed, which is GS’s rate of progress. Nine set-ups is not TOO bad for a day interrupted by bad weather, though given the way Stevens liked to cover his action from every possible angle and distance, his crew may have already started wondering if the job would ever be finished.

My mum, going from memory, actually came up with something the book leaves out, the other day. She liked Van Heflin more than Alan Ladd, and she noted that when the two men are chopping wood, Ladd is shirtless and oiled with sweat, and Heflin’s torso is sheather by the upper half of his long johns. To handicap him, to give Laddie the erotic advantage. She thought that was unfair.

But I’m enjoying the book — Stevens, a fascinating figure, doesn’t get written about much — oh, I see that my man Neil Sinyard did a book on him in 2019. I should get that. Maybe you should too?

Bar Sinister

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 9, 2022 by dcairns

Ominous watering holes: one from BLACK WIDOW, one from THE THIRD DAY.

BLACK WIDOW is a mystery-thriller from writer-director Nunnally Johnson in Gorgeous Lifelike Color by Deluxe, Cinemascope, and Stereophonic Sound. It’s a reasonably well-conceived puzzle with an ungainly structure — it takes forever to arrive at the stage where a who has dunnit, and we have to sit through a long flashback that introduces a shoal of red herrings to occlude a crime yet to occur. All with a Broadway backdrop. “Write ALL ABOUT EVE as a murder mystery!” seems to have been the command from Zanuck or whoever.

Van Heflin is OK as the hero caught in a web of deceit — Gene Tierney has a nothing role as his wife. Ginger Rogers and Reginald Gardiner — Schultz from THE GREAT DICTATOR — make an improbably couple, but it works storywise. Ginger overplays her bitch-queen of Broadway character horribly but then pulls off a bit of a triumph at the end, proving again that “Ginger can play anything she can understand.” It takes so long for a murder victim to step forward that it feels like a spoiler to tell you that it’s Peggy Ann Garner, who is excellent, she makes you want more flashbacks.

You also get George Raft and Virginia Leith (Jan in the Pan from THE BRAIN THAT WOULDN’T DIE) and Skip Homeier, the creepy psycho kid from THE GUNFIGHTER. So you can’t complain. The best perf, however, is from Hilda Simms (above right), who got her one big break in THE JOE LOUIS STORY and has a couple of brief expository scenes which she delivers with such honest simplicity as to steal the show.

Kind of want to see THE JOE LOUIS STORY now.

In theory this is a Hitchcockian subject but there are few sequences of visual suspense, just a nice paranoid feeling of a trap closing in. Nunnally J. favours beautiful, theatrical wides, which look nice especially when there’s a scenic artist’s rendition of New York out the window. They’re not exactly fraught with tension but they work for the swellegant theaterland atmosphere.

What BLACK WIDOW has in common with THE THIRD DAY is that they’re both undemanding, time-passing, underpowered thrillers. They kind of forget to be thrilling, or else they don’t know what thrilling is. And yet they’re crowded with talent.

In THE THIRD DAY, George Peppard has total amnesia, and yet there’s no narrative reason for this except to make an excuse for exposition — the audience gets fed the plot and character set-up along with George. The story only really needs him to have amnesia with regard to the Chappaquidick-style car crash in which his companion of the night, Sally Kellerman (in flashback), perished.

But IS there a story? Too many stories, perhaps. There are business wheelings and dealings with conniving relative Roddy McDowall, there’s the crusading DA Robert Webber who wants to nail George for murder, there’s his estranged wife Elizabeth Ashley to be unestranged, and there’s Kellerman’s vengeful piano-playing cuckold husband, the remarkable Arte Johnson. I remember him as one of the sinister CEA agents in THE PRESIDENT’S ANALYST, who are all comically short. It’s quite strange to have a fight to the finish between little Arte and big George as the climax to this thing, but they do give AJ a gun. And what he lacks in height he makes up for in sheer malevolence.

I was interested in Elizabeth Ashley since we’ve loved her in Russian Doll, and I read about her in Mark Harris’ magnificent Mike Nichols bio, but I’d never seen her young. She’s striking. Very mobile face, making her hard to framegrab without making her look like a deranged mutant, but when you’re actually watching she’s fascinating and doesn’t seem remotely grotesque. I feel actors in general could get away with more facial movement. We also get Vincent Gardenia and Mona Washburne, which is a nice surprise, and Herbert Marshall, playing a guy with total paralysis to match Peppard’s total amnesia. This movie doesn’t do anything by halves, except everything.

This is Herbert Marshall’s entire performance:

Both these films needed Hitchcock but they have Nunnally Johnson and Jack Smight, preposterously unsuitable substitutes. Smight attempts some psychedelic transitions into the fatal crash flashbacks, but given the hero’s supposedly disorientated condition he could have tilted the whole thing much more into delirium. Robert Surtees’ photography is lovely and I liked the score by Percy Faith, with its emphasis on dreamy harp glissandoes.

BLACK WIDOW stars Kitty Foyle; Charles Bovary; Martha Strabel Van Cleve; Spats Colombo; Jane Eyre as a Child; Schultz; Jan in the Pan; Jules Amthor; Julia Rainbird; Marva Lewis; and Mr. Fearless.

THE THIRD DAY stars Paul Varjak; Ruth Brenner; Cornelius; Parnell Emmett McCarthy; Frau Lang; Gaston Monescu; Juror 12; Dr. Raymond Sanderson; Maj. Margaret ‘Hot Lips’ O’Houlihan; Reverend Sykes; Mushnik; 1st ‘Nameless Broad’; Hedda Hopper; and Spanky’s mother.

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?