Archive for Vincent Sherman

Damon and Pythias in Van Nuys

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on December 16, 2020 by dcairns

Guest Shadowplayer Chris Schneider always makes me happy when he writes something for me–

“I thought I knew the wheat from the chaff,” go the words of the song, “what a laugh!” The song is “Can’t We Be Friends.” It can be heard in two Vincent Sherman-directed crime dramas, NORA PRENTISS and BACKFIRE.

NORA PRENTISS is SISTER CARRIE, sort-of, only reworked for a post-war Warner Brothers world of chantoozies and criminal intent. BACKFIRE has other things on its mind.

BACKFIRE, which I saw for the first time a week ago, is more concerned with traumatized WW2 vets and a “Damon and Pythias” friendship — not to mention gambling and alcohol and murders being committed by a hand-with-a-gun-in-it whose identity we’re unable to see. Compare it to DEAD RECKONING for the “Damon and Pythias.” Compare it, too, to Sherman’s earlier THE UNFAITHFUL as an example of b-team noir used as an excuse for location shooting (Glendale, Van Nuys, Olvera St.) and showing off the talents of contract players.

Gordon MacRae, who’s in a Van Nuys hospital, seeks out fellow soldier Edmund O’Brien with the aid of nurse Virginia Mayo. Viveca Lindfors, who appears like a phantom at MacRae’s bedside, encourages this effort. Lindfors, who turns out to be a singer kept in niceties by an unseen gambler, is also concerned about O’Brien. Dane Clark, another friend from military days, looks on from the sidelines.

The main problem with BACKFIRE is that the putative hero and heroine, MacRae and Mayo, are so dull. Lindfors comes off best. She gets star close-ups, a Milo Anderson gown, and a French song. One reads about how, when the film’s release was held back a few years, posters and publicity were finessed so that they favored Mayo. Was the (SPOILERS ahead) off-camera death of Lindfors’ character a hasty reshoot designed to play down her importance?

DEAD RECKONING had Bogart and his soldier pal, and BACKFIRE has O’Brien and MacRae. The question this kind of story provokes — at least in LGBT viewers — is whether things are “homosocial” or actually homosexual. I ain’t sayin’ yes and I ain’t sayin’ no. Let’s just say that MacRae is awf’lly concerned about his absent beloved. Midway through, when a low-level masher keeps asking Lindfors to dance with him, O’Brien asks the guy if he wants to dance with *him*. When the film’s happy end occurs, with a truck riding off into the horizon, that truck contains MacRae and Mayo and O’Brien — like an obverse of the three-way ménage at the end of DARK VICTORY.

Too bad that the Mayo/MacRae relationship is strictly from Snoresville. Also that Dane Clark falls victim to an ill-considered plot-twist and is saddled with an unplayable final scene. Or that a servant played by Leonard Strong speaks in egregious “velly solly”-style Asian Stereotype-speak.

Oh well. At least the post-war Warners zeitgeist is in evidence. And Lindfors, who has a moment or two reminding us that she was capable of MISS JULIE (“Didn’t you know? I like it here. It’s gay and exciting. I have all I ever dreamed of as a girl.”), does look splendid.

Miriam Hopkins, Witchfinder General

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on August 2, 2008 by dcairns

“You’re all against me!”

Warner Bros’ two films that pair Bette Davis and Miriam Hopkins are a remarkably symmetrical set.

Apart from the obvious similarity of title, THE OLD MAID and OLD ACQUAINTANCE both take place over several decades, and in both films Miriam is repeatedly mean to Bette until some kind of righting of wrongs is effected at the conclusion. While MAID was directed by English emigré Edmund Goulding and ACQUAINTANCE by Vincent Sherman, both are examples of the Warners’ house style in its domestic drama mode, which trumps any stylistic fingerprints of the directors (both of whom were highly talented fellows with long lists of excellent films behind and before them).

“Curse you, John Loder!”

Bette, of course, had a tendency to war with any actress cast opposite her (though an exception was made for her good friend Olivia DeHavilland), and Miriam also had a tendency to connive, so neither of these shoots could have been particularly pleasant. While both actresses are equally effective in MAID, in their second collaboration, something seems to have happened to Miriam.

“Aibgagaghfllrgh!”

Admittedly, Miriam did have a tendency to be cast as nags, scolds and neurotic bitches from hell, both before and after this movie (but check out her work for Mamoulian, Lubitsch and Wyler — she could also be sexy, funny, charming or tragic), but she reaches some kind of apogee of shrill, gesticulating ham here. My guess is, Sherman, overcome by the strain of refereeing the two divas, withdrew to Bette’s camp and left Miriam to do as she pleased. It’s certainly a flamboyant display.

“You again!”

The character as written is annoying enough, and intentionally so (the film’s best-known moment features Bette giving her “friend” a good shake, which still provokes cheers from audiences today, or at least it did in our audience of two), but Miriam plays the part to the hilt and beyond. The expression “give it both knees” seems a very apt one here. Miriam gives it her all, knees, heart, arms, teeth. She flails and pirouettes around the set like a palsied ballerina swatting flies. Her voice rises to a SHRIEK on EVERY other WORD. She’s hysterical when she should be restrained, possibly with a straitjacket. “Like a drag queen,” was Fiona’s assessment, although we’ve seen drag queens underplay more than this.

“Ggnnnnnn!”

The film is a good old “women’s picture”, but Hopkins’ thespian malfeasance does have negative effects, enjoyable as it is. How can we feel glad when the two friends are reunited at the end (to spend their latter years “fighting over an ear trumpet,” as Bette predicts, probably correctly) if Miriam is so insanely awful? Burning her at the stake would seem a more upbeat coda.

Too much, even from behind.

Quote of the Day: good stuff

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , on February 22, 2008 by dcairns

good stuff 

Customer gasps in discomfort after drinking bootleg liquor.

Waiter: “Good stuff, huh, bud?”

Customer: “I suppose it’s right off the boat, eh?”

Waiter: “Yeah, they scraped it off.”

Two unknown bit-players in MR. SKEFFINGTON, written by Julius and Philip Epstein, from the novel by Elizabeth Von Arnim. Directed by Vincent Sherman.

LOTS of good lines in this!