Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Lady Eve (1941)

The Lady Eve is a 1941 comedy from writer-director Preston Sturges. I have mixed feelings about his work although I am slowly warming to him. While I don’t think this movie is quite as good as Palm Beach Story it’s still pretty entertaining.

Charles Pike (Henry Fonda) is the heir to a brewing fortune, but his real passion is snakes. He’s just been on an expedition to the Amazon in search of reptilian marvels and now he’s on his way home on an ocean liner. Unfortunately every female on the liner knows he’s fabulously wealthy and unmarried, and they’re all determined to make a play for him. But none of them stand a chance with Jean Harrington (Barbara Stanwyck) on board.

It’s not just that Jean has beauty and style. She also has focus. And what she’s focused on is money. And she knows how to translate her considerable sex appeal into cash.

She’s traveling with her father, the Colonel. Not that he’s a real colonel. In fact the Colonel and his daughter are crooks. If there’s a dishonest way to make a living, they’ve done it. Their specialty is card sharping, but they’re not looking for just one quick swindle. With mark as rich and as innocent as Charles Pike they want to establish a real relationship with him, so they can fleece him thoroughly.

And Charles is very innocent indeed when it comes to cards and women. Especially women. This looks like it’s going to be easy work for Jean, but a complication develops. Charles is so helpless that she can’t help liking him. And he’s kind of cute. And he’s a nice guy. And he really likes her. Pretty soon Jean has suffered the ultimate catastrophe - she’s fallen in love with a mark. And despite her cynical exterior Jean is the kind of girl who, when she falls in love, falls in love in a big way.

Jean intends to come clean about her criminal past. It would of course be very awkward indeed if Charles were to find out the truth before she has a chance to tell him, and of course that’s exactly what happens. That unfortunate circumstance seems to put an end to their wedding plans but there are more plot twists to come. Jean can’t bring herself to write this whole affair off to experience and hatches an unlikely plan to pose as an English noblewoman to get her revenge for being jilted.

The first half of the film is dazzling screwball comedy; the second half is not quite so strong. There’s also a tendency at times for the comedy to veer a bit too close to slapstick for my liking. Of course if you don’t share my aversion for slapstick you will find this to be less of a problem.

The support cast is generally good with Charles Coburn as the phony colonel being a standout. More problematic is the casting of Henry Fonda as the male lead. He’s an actor I’ve always disliked although he’s more successful in this role than I’d have expected, and even at times almost likeable. His performance still doesn’t erase my doubts about his suitability for screwball comedy.

There are no such problems with Barbara Stanwyck’s performance. She’s terrific although perhaps more convincing in the first half of the movie as the delightfully immoral confidence trickster than as the bogus noblewoman. There’s some remarkably risque dialogue in this movie which she delivers with a good deal of relish.

Despite some minor weaknesses this is mostly enormous fun. Umbrella Entertainment have done a reasonable job with the region 4 DVD release.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Terror Street (1953)

Terror Street (released in the UK as 36 Hours) was one of the many co-productions between the American Lippert Films and British studio Hammer Films. In the early 50s American distributor Robert L. Lippert and Hammer Films made a deal to co-produce cheap crime B-movies. They would take advantage of a British government scheme to prop up the British film industry. This scheme required productions to be predominantly British but with some foreign content, which meant that as long as the rest of the cast and crew were British they could import an American star to play the lead.

The imported American stars were usually either a little past their prime or they were stars of the second rank, but in most cases they were actually pretty decent actors and they gave more than satisfactory performances. In this case the US import is film noir icon Dan Duryea.

Duryea is a US pilot, Major Bill Rogers, who had married a Norwegian girl named Katie in London during the war. It had been a happy marriage until Rogers was posted back to the US for a training course. Katie’s letters had stopped coming and since they had parted on bad terms Rogers figures she may have found someone else. So he gets a 36 hour leave and gets a buddy to smuggle him back into England so he can find out if he still has a marriage.

Terror Street (1953)

All this is revealed in a flashback. Major Rogers is now in London, and discovers that their flat is deserted and Katie is gone. He tracks her down, in a suspiciously expensive West End flat with even more suspiciously expensive furs in the closet. He has a gun with him and he’s more or less convinced himself that Katie has done him wrong. He intends to have it out with her but events take an unexpected turn, he is knocked unconscious by someone who had been hiding in the flat, and when he wakes up his wife is dead of a gunshot wound with his gun lying by the body. He decides that persuading the British police of his innocence is likely to be a futile endeavour so he makes a run for it.

Luckily he encounters Jenny, a kind-hearted young Englishwoman who believes his unlikely tale and agrees to help him out. His advantage is that no-one knows he’s in England, but if he fails to reappear at his air base in the US once his leave is up the game is up, so he has 36 hours to prove he isn’t guilty.

Terror Street (1953)

Steve Fisher wrote some great film noir screenplays but this is not one of his best efforts. The story isn’t wildly original and the plot does have some holes in it. Director Montgomery Tully made countless crime films and manages to keep the action moving along quickly enough that you don’t really have time to notice the creakiness of the plot.

More importantly it has Dan Duryea, and he manages to carry the audience along and make them believe in his performance even when the actions of the characters strain credibility rather severely.

Terror Street (1953)

Swedish actress Elsie Albiin is adequate enough as Katie, and Gudrun Ure as Jenny is reasonable if a little stilted. John Chandos makes a delightfully creepy villain, his performance being a major highlight.

This is very much a B-movie and has no pretensions to being anything else. Judged as such it’s perfectly acceptable entertainment and it does have Dan Duryea after all.

Terror Street (1953)

VCI’s DVD release looks pretty good and includes three short but interesting commentaries by Alan K. Rode on the film, on Dan Duryea and on writer Steve Fisher. Terror Street is paired with Wings of Danger in volume 4 of VCI’s Hammer Film Noir series.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

The High and the Mighty (1954)

The High and the Mighty is the grand-daddy of all disaster movies. It was made in 1954 but every single feature of the disaster movies of the 70s and later is already present here, perfectly formed. It is in effect Airport 1954.

This is one of the many interesting movies made by John Wayne’s production company Wayne-Fellows Productions, later to become Batjac Productions. Their movies were always entertaining well-made quality motion pictures and quite frankly I’ll watch any movie made by Batjac.

The High and the Mighty is an airliner disaster movie, with a screenplay by Ernest K. Gann from his own novel. Gann was a flyer who wrote aviation-themed novels and was also responsible for an earlier Batjac picture, the excellent Island in the Sky.

The High and the Mighty (1954)

Dan Roman (John Wayne) is a veteran pilot who had several years earlier been the only survivor of an air crash, an accident in which his wife and child were killed. This is the reason why despite his vast experience he is now a co-pilot. The accident may not have been his fault but he has to live with it for the rest of his life and potential employers are clearly unsure if his nerve is still sufficiently intact to employ him as a pilot.

The captain of the ill-fated DC-6 about to take off from Honolulu is John Sullivan (Robert Stack), an experienced pilot but one who is troubled by vague premonitions of disaster. And disaster does in fact strike. One of the plane’s four engines catches fire. The fire is quickly extinguished but the crew are left with two major worries - the wrecked engine has been twisted slightly out of position and is now causing extra drag, and fuel is now leaking from the wing tanks. The aircraft can certainly remain airborne on three engines, but will there be enough fuel to reach San Francisco?

The High and the Mighty (1954)

The advantage of such a movie set on board a piston-engined DC-6 rather than a 747 is that we get to know every passenger, since the aircraft is only carrying a couple of dozen people. There is a flight crew of four, plus one stewardess. The stories of the principal characters are recounted in flashbacks. The requirement to make everyone on board the aircraft an individual means that this is a fairly long film, with a running time of 141 minutes. While the pacing is occasionally a little slow in general the film has no problem keeping the viewer’s interest.

It also follows the formula that would later become standard, with many of the passengers played by stars who were perhaps just a little past their prime. Nonetheless Claire Trevor for one gives a sparkling performance.

The High and the Mighty (1954)

The main difference between this and later aviation disaster movies is that The High and the Mighty is much more believable. It’s the kind of mishap that could and did happen, and the crew of the aircraft respond in a realistic manner. There are some great flying sequences but the emphasis is on human drama rather than stunts and special effects.

There’s an interesting parallel set up between Captain Sullivan and his co-pilot. Dan Roman has been the trauma of an air disaster, while Sullivan now faces the same prospect and his nerves are clearly somewhat shaky. Dan obviously empathises with Sullivan but if the captain cannot pull himself together the chances of survival will be slim.

The High and the Mighty (1954)

John Wayne didn’t see having his own production company merely as a way of setting up star vehicles for himself. In fact he often did not appear in these films at all. In this case he makes no attempt to dominate the film - he’s content to be part of an ensemble cast and to let his fellow cast members have their chances to shine. His own performance is extremely good but it’s nicely underplayed. Robert Stack isn’t everyone’s favourite actor but he’s effective here. The supporting cast is uniformly good.

Director William A. Wellman just loved making aviation movies and he’s in his element. This is not only the first movie in its genre, it’s one of the very best, tense and highly entertaining.

The High and the Mighty (1954)

This is a movie that took a long time to reach DVD due to legal wrangles but it was worth the wait and the transfer is superb, preserving the Cinemascope framing and generally looking quite wonderful.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Murder, My Sweet (1944)

In 1942 RKO had filmed Raymond Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely as one of their Falcon B-movies, with Philip Marlowe replaced by the Falcon, Gay Lawrence (played by George Sanders). Two years later they decided on a more straightforward adaptation, and with Edward Dmytryk directing Murder, My Sweet was the result.

With Dick Powell cast as Philip Marlowe RKO recognised they had a problem. Powell was still known almost exclusively as a lightweight star of musicals and there was a danger that audiences would assume that Farewell, My Lovely was a musical. Hence the name change, to make it clear that this was a murder mystery thriller.

Powell was keen to change his image and this movie accomplished that purpose fairly successfully. He went on to make quite a few notable movies in the film noir canon.

John Paxton wrote the screenplay, making some changes to the plot but keeping much of Chandler’s dazzling hardboiled dialogue. Marlowe is hired by Moose Molloy (Mike Mazurki) to find his girlfriend Velma. Moose has been in the penitentiary for eight years and it’s been six years since he had a letter from her. She used to be a dancer at a joint called Florian’s but the bar has changed hands and no-one knows anything of her. Most guys in Moose’s position would have figured out that Velma probably doesn’t want him to find her, but once Moose gets an idea in his head it’s pointless trying to reason with him. This is obvious to Marlowe, but Moose’s money is as good as anyone else’s.

Then Marlowe gets another client, who offers him a large amount of money to accompany him to a rendezvous where he is to buy back a jade necklace stolen from a lady friend. It sounds like easy money but the client ends up dead and Marlowe finds himself drawn into an increasingly complicated web as it becomes obvious that the two cases are linked.

Chandler hated crime stories with genius detectives who know the identity of the murderer almost from the moment they take on a case. He liked to have his detective stumble about in the dark making all kinds of wrong assumptions, often with disastrous consequences, before finally putting all the pieces together. Paxton’s screenplay preserves this approach. A slight weakness of the script is the ending which is a little too upbeat to be truly Chandlerian. It’s not a fatal flaw though.

Claire Trevor is the femme fatale, a type of role she played fairly often and usually pretty well. Anne Shirley is the good girl, in her final film role. There are strong performances from the support cast with Miles Mander and Otto Kruger being particularly good.

But for my money Mike Mazurki steals the picture as Moose Molloy. The former professional wrestler started his film career in the early 40s and was still working into the late 80s. He made countless films playing minor roles as heavies but this was one of the rare occasions when he got a substantial and rewarding part that suited his talents and he certainly made the most of it. He was one of those actors with a very limited range who was extremely effective indeed within that range.

Then there’s Dick Powell, and he has always been the most problematical feature of this movie. The first time I saw this film I felt that he was entirely miscast. On a second viewing his performance was a lot more impressive. He’s not really convincing as a tough guy, but then Philip Marlowe was never really as a tough guy either. That’s part of the essential character of Marlowe. He’s not a Sam Spade. Sam Spade was a real tough guy, and a cynical amoral opportunist. Marlowe on the other hand always comes across as being more like an actor trying to impersonate a tough guy. Sometimes he convinces people. Sometime he convinces himself.

The truth is that Marlowe is too sensitive to enjoy violence and has too active a conscience to be totally cynical. That’s why Bogart was so good as Sam Spade, and (in my opinion) not quite right as Marlowe. And that’s why Dick Powell’s performance does in fact work. The times when his performance falters a little actually work in his favour, making Marlowe vulnerable. The odd thing is that Chandler preferred Bogart in the role, which possibly shows that an author isn’t necessarily the person to listen to when you’re adapting a book. I’m still not sure that Dick Powell was the ideal actor to play Marlowe but he is definitely closer to the Marlowe of the books than most actors who’ve attempted the role. I still think Robert Mitchum in the 1975 Farewell, My Lovely is the definitive Marlowe even if he was a least a decade too old at the time, and I still think it’s a tragedy that Mitchum didn’t get to play this role in the 1940s.

Edward Dmytryk goes all out for atmosphere in this adaptation. Like Howard Hawks with The Big Sleep Dmytryk understands that with Chandler you don’t worry too much about the plot, you worry about getting the feel right. Dmytryk and his director of photography Harry Wild go for shadows in a big way. And fog. Wild would go on to photograph lots more film noir.

The Warner Home Video DVD came out in 2004 but is still available in the first of their film noir boxed sets. It’s a beautiful transfer and includes a commentary track by Alain Silver.

This is one of the movies that defined the film noir visual style, and one of the movies that post-war French critics pinpointed as representing a dramatic new approach to the American crime film when they invented the concept of film noir. As such it’s essential viewing.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Girl Who Had Everything (1953)

While it’s been described as a rather loose remake of the pre-code classic A Free Soul it’s probably better to regard MGM’s 1953 The Girl Who Had Everything as a completely different film.

Elizabeth Taylor had made the transition from child star to adult star in spectacular style in 1951’s A Place in the Sun. Her subsequent movies for MGM were a bit of a mixed bag and The Girl Who Had Everything is certainly not a high point in her career. At the same time it’s nowhere near as bad as its reputation would have you believe.

It’s also notable for being William Powell’s final movie at the studio, and in fact one of his last movies.

Powell is Steve Latimer, a very successful lawyer who is not unduly troubled by a conscience. He treats his profession as a bit of a game; in fact that’s how he treats life in general. He is happy to defend gangsters - it’s all part of the sport. So he has no ethical objections to representing gambling czar Victor Raimondi (Fernando Lamas) before a senate inquiry into gambling and organised crime.

Latimer is a widower who has raised his daughter Jean (Elizabeth Taylor) to approach life in much the same manner. They both pride themselves on being free spirits who regard society’s rules with a certain amount of scorn.

And now the chickens are coming home to roost for Steve Latimer. He’s about to discover that perhaps this was not the ideal way to raise a child. Jean has become infatuated with Victor Raimondi. He’s good-looking and he is even more contemptuous of society’s rules than the Latimers. He’s a handsome sexy bad boy and Jean wants him. And she means to have him.

Now Steve Latimer will find out that when you’ve taught your daughter to make her own decisions she’s likely to do just that, even when those decisions are clearly going to have disastrous consequences. And Jean will find that dating a mobster isn’t always as much fun as she thought it would be.

When Steve discovers that Jean and Raimondi are lovers and that they intend to get married he decides the time has come to take drastic action. He resolves to destroy Victor Raimondi before Raimondi destroys his daughter. Of course destroying a gangster who has never had any qualms about committing murder is liable to be a dangerous undertaking.

Fernando Lamas is adequate as Raimondi. Gig Young plays Jean’s very respectable former boyfriend but is given very little to do. William Powell was 61 but the charisma and the charm are still there and he’s extremely good. The 21-year-old Taylor is in complete control and could already play this sort of role with effortless ease.

This is by no means a great movie but Powell and Taylor give it a touch of class. It has the feel of a B-movie with A-movie stars.

It’s hampered to some extent by the Production Code but it still manages to make it clear that Jean and Raimondi are sleeping together. It’s the father-daughter relationship that is the key, and the conflict between being a free spirit and being a responsible adult. Both Steve and Jean have to learn to grow up, fast. The movie handles this reasonably well.

Adequate entertainment, worth seeing for the performances of William Powell and Elizabeth Taylor, and for the opportunity of seeing Taylor at her most breathtakingly beautiful (and wearing some truly stunning clothes).

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Scarface (1932)

Gangster movies were major money-spinners during Hollywood’s pre-code era, benefiting from lax enforcement of the Production Code. These early 30s gangster movies were breathtakingly violent and supremely stylish exercises in mayhem. Three of these movies stand out above all the others and remain the most iconic of all movies in this genre - Public Enemy (directed by Wiliam Wellman), Little Caesar (directed by Mervyn LeRoy) and Scarface (directed by Howard Hawks).

With a strong script by Ben Hecht and with Hawks as director Scarface had the potential to be the greatest of them all. In fact it was the least influential of the three. This was to a large extent because it ran into serious censorship problems. The Production Code was not yet being enforced strictly but there was still the problem of the state censorship boards which seemed likely to prevent the release of the movie in those states afflicted with such bodies. And the level of violence in Scarface was so extreme that even the relatively easy-going pre-1934 Production Code Authority baulked at allowing its release.

Scarface (1932)Scarface was rarely seen.

The title character, Tony “Scarface” Camonte, bears more than a passing resemblance to the most notorious gangster of them all, Al Capone. At the start of the movie Camonte is the bodyguard of racketeer Louis Costillo. Chicago crime is well-organised but still fairly civilised. Mobsters like Costillo are happy to make good money but they don’t want to make waves. This is about to change as a new breed of more violent, more vicious, more ambitious gangster emerges. Camonte is at the forefront of this new wave. He gets rid of Costillo and puts Johnny Lovo in his place, but Camonte is now the real organiser of the south side liquor rackets. Camonte regards Lovo as weak and it will only be a matter of time before Camonte emerges into the open as the real leader and makes a play to control crime in the whole city, not just the south side.

Scarface (1932)

A gang war erupts, and this is a real war with mobsters armed with submachine guns gunning each other down on the streets. Nothing can stop Tony Camonte’s rise, but while he has the ruthlessness to get to the top he has his weaknesses as well. Tony Camonte’s big weakness is women. He understands nothing about them but he wants them with the same moronic enthusiasm that he wants money, power and guns. His desire to take Johnny Lovo’s girl Poppy (Karen Morley) away from him will make him a deadly enemy but it’s his relationship with his sister Cesca (Ann Dvorak) that will get him into real trouble. Oddly enough while the censors objected to so much in this movie they apparently failed to notice the strongly incestuous nature of this relationship.

Tony is insanely possessive where his sister is concerned. The idea that she might want to meet other men drives him into a jealous rage. Cesca is the only person Tony cares about apart from himself, and there is nothing remotely healthy or natural about his feelings for his sister. When she falls in love with his most trusted henchman, Guino Rinaldo (George Raft) you know there’s going to be trouble.

Scarface (1932)

This is almost the ultimate gangster movie, but for me it has one major failing - Paul Muni in the title role. Edward G. Robinson and Jimmy Cagney both went somewhat over the top in their own iconic gangster performances but there’s still a kind of truthfulness there that makes the characters seem alive. Muni by comparison is simply a ham. It’s difficult to understand why he was at one stage so highly though of as an actor. His portrayal is occasionally amusing but is much too close to caricature.

George Raft on the other hand underacts, and does so very effectively. Karen Morley is reasonably good as Poppy. Ann Dvorak always had a tendency to inject a note of hysteria into her performances but in many cases it worked quite well, as it does in this film.

Scarface (1932)

The Region 1 DVD includes the alternative ending shot to placate the censors, and it demonstrates just how much better the original ending is.

A good movie on the whole, stylish and fast-paced, but with a better actor in the lead role it could have been a great one.

Friday, September 16, 2011

The Four Feathers (1939)

The Four Feathers was one of the most spectacular productions of the 1930s British film industry. It’s a rousing and highly entertaining tale of imperial adventure.

Hungarian-born producer Sir Alexander Korda was one of the boldest figures in Britain’s film industry. He was a man who believed in thinking big. If a project was going to require a big budget then he would back his judgment and take the risk. In most cases his judgment proved to be sound.

Based on a very successful novel by A. E. W. Mason and with a screenplay by R. C. Sherriff, this 1939 version (there have been several others) was directed by Sir Alexander Korda’s brother Zoltan Korda, with production design by yet another Korda brother, Vincent.

The Favershams have ben a military family for generations. One Faversham after another has served his country on battlefields all over the globe. General Faversham was in the Crimea in 1854 with the Thin Red Line. It is now 1885 and General Gordon has just been killed at Khartoum. The Empire will soon need to call on the services of yet another member of the family, young Harry Faversham. The General feels it is time for the 15-year-old Harry to start taking an interest in his future career, which will of course by the army, and will of course be a commission in the General’s old regiment, the 68th Regiment of Foot.

Unfortunately young Harry is not made of the same stern stuff as earlier scions of the Faversham family. His dreams are not of military glory. But being a Faversham he has no choice in the matter.

Just over a decade later the 68th is about to set off to join Kitchener’s army in the Sudan. Gordon is to be avenged at last. The men of the 68th are excited by the prospect. Harry Faversham’s friend Captain John Durrance is certainly excited. He is keen for something to take his mind off Ethne Burroughs. He had hoped to marry this young lady, but she chose another man. In fact she chose Lieutenant Harry Faversham.

One man however is not eager to set off - Lieutenant Harry Faversham. The day before the regiment is to depart for Egypt he resigns his commission. He has decided that he should devote himself to the management of the family estate and to his new bride, and that the pursuit of military glory is mere futility. The following day a package arrives for Harry. It contains three white feathers, a clear accusation of cowardice. The look on Ethne’s face causes Harry to remark that should have been four feathers, since her look plainly conveys her own belief that her husband is indeed a coward.

The problem for Harry is that he knows in his heart of hearts that the accusation is quite just. He is a coward. Now he has two honourable choices left to him. He can blow his brains out, or he can find a way to redeem himself. He chooses the latter. He travels to Egypt, adopts the disguise of a Sudanese tribesman and sets off into the desert to find his regiment, and thence to find either death or redemption.

Stirring tales of manly adventure and heroism are out of fashion these days, which is one of the many things wrong with the modern world. This is a great story, superbly told.

John Clements plays Harry and he’s quite adequate although inevitably overshadowed by Ralph Richardson as John Durrance. It’s a role that gives Richardson plenty of opportunities for scenery chewing, a temptation he never could resist. C. Aubrey Smith can be annoyingly pompous but in this case he’s perfectly cast as General Faversham. John Laurie, a Scottish character actor who appeared in countless movies in a lengthy career, is an odd choice to portray the fanatical Moslem leader, the Khalifa. Somehow he manages to suppress his extremely broad Scots accent and he’s quite good.

The movie’s great strengths though lie in the visual department. The battle scenes are spectacular. Korda’s movies always looked handsome and this is no exception.

I caught this on Australian TV but I believe it’s available on both DVD and Blu-Ray. It’s one of those rare movies that really would justify the existence of the Blu-Ray format. A fine movie for those who enjoy historical epics. Recommended.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Set-Up (1949)

The Set-Up (1949)

Although I’ve owned a copy of years I had never bothered to sit down and watch Robert Wise’s 1949 film noir The Set-Up. Blame my prejudice against boxing movies. But tonight I did watch it. And it’s magnificent.

It’s one of the few movies in any genre take place in real time. The 73-minute running time covers 73 minutes in the life of a broken-down boxer. Wise actually manages to avoid having the real time idea look like a gimmick. It gives the movie a real immediacy and a sense of urgency.

Robert Ryan is boxer Stoker Thompson. After 20 years as a fighter he’s scheduled to fight a support bout in a sleazy joint in Paradise City. This is about as low as you can get in the fight game. Despite this he feels good about tonight’s fight. He has a feeling he can win this one. It just takes one good punch, and then he could find himself fighting in the top slot again.

The Set-Up (1949)

Unfortunately Stoker has been one good punch away from the big time for his whole career. His devoted but long-suffering wife Julie (Audrey Totter) can see this but Stoker cannot. It’s not that he isn’t prepared to think about quitting, but unless he can get a break and pick up some decent purses he can’t see any alternative to the fight game. It’s all he knows.

His manager Tiny certainly has no illusions about Stoker’s future. He’s been offered money by a mobster known as Little Boy to have Stoker take a dive. Little Boy is grooming a fighter named Tiger Nelson for the big time and Nelson needs some easy knockout victories to establish his credentials for a shot at a title fight. Tiny is so convinced that Stoker is finished that he doesn’t even bother telling Stoker he’s supposed to throw the fight. Stoker’s such a has-been that Tiny figures he’s absolutely certain to get knocked out anyway, so why bother splitting the bribe with him?

The Set-Up (1949)

Julie now has to decide if she’ll be there for this fight. She’s told Stoker she’s not coming because she has a headache but thats not the reason for her reluctance. She has been at all his fights, but she’s just not sure she could stand seeing him get yet another beating. She has no intention of leaving him, she loves him deeply, but a woman can only watch the man she loves take a pummeling so many times. As the time for the bout approaches Stoker keeps looking uneasily out the window at the seedy hotel across the street where he and Julie are staying, hoping to see that she’s changed her mind and is on her way.

Of course, given the way the story has been set up, you know the fight is not going to turn out the way Little Boy and Tiny expect. Stoker is old and broken-down but he still packs a pretty good punch and he can’t shake the feeling that tonight he’s going to take Tiger Nelson. If he does succeed in doing so then it’s likely he will face a grim reckoning with Little Boy.

The Set-Up (1949)

This is a movie that is just about without faults. Wise’s direction is spot-on. The editing is exceptionally good. Roland Gross was the editor but Robert Wise had started out as an editor and certainly spent some time in the editing room on this picture. The photography is perfect, capturing the seedy despair of the fighters at Paradise City. It has a nicely stylised feel to it - everything looks like it was shot on a sound stage or on the backlot which of course it was. This slight artificiality heightens the intensity of the drama.

Robert Ryan had been an intercollegiate boxing champion and the actor playing Tiger Nelson had been a boxer as well. The fight scenes are extraordinary in their ferocity and in their sheer desperation. Ryan of course was a great actor and he’s superb here. Audrey Totter is extremely good as Julie. Both Ryan and Totter were capable of playing very dark roles indeed but this time around they both play very sympathetic characters. As the movie progresses it’s difficult to see turning out well for them but we desperately want them to make it.

The Set-Up (1949)

Apart from everything else it’s also sensitive depiction of a marriage, a marriage that is basically a good marriage. The affection that Stoker and Julie have for one another is portrayed poignantly but without sentimentality. The support cast is outstanding - there are so many wonderfully acted minor parts.

There are lots of nice little touches - the blind man who has his friend describe the fight to him, the middle-aged lady who keeps yelling for blood, the guy watching the fight while listening to the ball game on his radio. They add to the atmosphere of voyeurism, to which we as viewers of course add.

The Set-Up (1949)

The ending neatly avoids all the obvious pitfalls and is completely satisfactory, something that can’t always be said for film noir.

The Warner Home Video DVD release, which came out quite a few years ago now, looks fantastic. There’s a commentary track featuring both Robert Wise and Martin Scorcese (whose enthusiasm for this movie knows no bounds and he makes some perceptive observations as well). Even if you hate boxing movies as much as I do this is a must-see movie.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Heaven Can Wait (1943)

I hate to say this about an Ernst Lubitsch film but I was just the tiniest bit disappointed by Heaven Can Wait (1943).

It’s not that there isn’t a great deal to enjoy here. But it drags a little in the later stages. It’s just a bit too long, and a bit too sentimental. The last half-hour in particular is heavy going. The famed Lubitsch Touch becomes at times a little heavy-handed.

Perhaps the problem is that I'm mostly familiar with Lubitsch for his pre-code movies such as Design for Living and Trouble in Paradise. Aside from that I've seen a couple of his early German movies and I've seen Ninotchka but that was so many years ago that my memories of it are rather hazy.

Henry van Cleeve has just died, at the age of 70. He assumes they’ll be waiting for him in Hell. While he’s unquestionably spent much of his life pursuing the ladies the manager of Hell (or His Excellency as he’s referred to in these modern times) is a trifle confused. He hasn’t received the paperwork so he invites Henry to tell him why he deserves eternal damnation. The bulk of the movie then consists of flashbacks covering Henry’s lifetime.

Henry was born into a prosperous New York family and has never had to face the disagreeable necessity of working for a living. He has devoted his life to pleasure. At the age of 16 the French maid introduced him to the pleasures of drunkenness and women and he’s never looked back.

Henry’s pursuits of sensual pleasures has not stopped him from falling in love. For Henry this was a once-in-a-lifetime thing. Martha (Gene Tierney) was engaged to be married to Henry’s virtuous cousin Albert but Henry persuaded her to elope with him. The marriage had its problems (mostly caused by Henry’s weakness for the ladies) but against the odds it’s been quite successful. While he’s never been able to renounce philandering Henry has been, in his own way, a devoted husband and a good father to their son.

The real masterstroke in this movie is the casting of Don Ameche. The fact that he was never more than a very minor star proves to be an asset. It makes the character more believable as an essentially mild-mannered amiable nonentity.

Henry has spent his whole life trying to be wicked. He has been at best moderately successful. We can be sure that he has over-indulged in alcohol but he’s undoubtedly proved to be a harmless and even rather likeable drunk. And while he’s almost certainly been unfaithful to his wife we can be equally sure that he hasn’t been unfaithful as often as he’d have liked to be. He’s too nice a guy to be entirely successful as seducer, and he’s the sort of guy who hates the idea of actually hurting anyone. Which does tend to cramp your style if you’re trying to be wicked.

And we can be absolutely certain that while he might have betrayed his wife sexually he has never done so emotionally. He’s always been hopelessly in love with her. He just has this idea of himself as being rather wicked. Chasing chorus girls is simply something one has to do in order to maintain such an image. Don Ameche captures this quality of striving for the appearance of wickedness without ever quite achieving the substance exceptionally well.

Unfortunately the other characters remain very two-dimensional. Gene Tierney does her best but Martha is a rather insipid character and there’s not much for her to get her teeth into.

Laird Cregar is great fun as the Devil. He’s very civilised and runs Hell more like a rather fancy hotel. Unfortunately his role is all too brief.

Lubitsch was often credited with bringing a sophisticated European sensibility to Hollywood movies. This movie does take a rather tolerant view of infidelity so I suppose that qualifies as sophistication. There’s much gentle amusement to be found here but perhaps I was just expecting too much. It’s worth seeing, but can't compare at all to masterpieces like Trouble in Paradise.