Friday, January 29, 2010

Flamingo Road (1949)

While it’s not usually thought of as an example of film noir, Flamingo Road (directed by Michael Curtiz and released in 1949) is actually more noir than many of the movies that have been issued on DVD recently with that label. It has the background of corruption and abuse of power, it’s really quite remarkably pessimistic and cynical about both American politics and human nature in general, and it has no less than three protagonists who could qualify as typical noir doomed heroes. And while it doesn’t have a big city setting, it shows us small-town life as something much more frightening than the mean streets of the big city. It’s very much a movie that looks at the dark side of the American Dream. If Sunset Boulevard and Mildred Pierce can be noir, then I think Flamingo Road can as well. I don’t think the fact that it’s also a romantic melodrama disqualifies it.

Joan Crawford is Lane Bellamy, a carnival dancer. She’s clearly led a colourful and not always entirely respectable life. When the carnival is closed down yet again she decides this life is no longer for her, and when she befriends deputy sheriff Fielding Carlisle of the town of Boldon and he offers to get her a regular job she jumps at the chance. It soon becomes clear that romance is blossoming between Fielding and Lane. Unfortunately Sheriff Titus Semple (Sydney Greenstreet) has other plans for Fielding. Titus isn’t just the sheriff; he runs Boldon. He runs the town as a private business and as a power base for his crooked political machinations, and he has plans to set Fielding up in the state legislature as his puppet.

These plans require Fielding to have a respectable wife, not a carnival dancer (to the small-minded inhabitants of the town not a carnival dancer is obviously regarded as not much better than a whore), so Titus decides to run Lane out of town. But Lane is not the kind of girl who takes kindly to being pushed around. She tends to push back. Hard. Lane is not only determined to stay put, she also intends to find herself on Flamingo Road one day, Flamingo Road being the street where the wealthy of Boldon live. Within a short time she has acquired a powerful and wealthy husband, and the stage is set for a showdown between her and Titus.

Crawford was really too old for this role, but she carries it off by sheer bravado. Sydney Greenstreet overacts outrageously and creates a memorably hateful screen villain. Zachary Scott plays Fielding Carlisle, a basically decent but extremely weak man, a man who just can’t find either the courage or the motivation to stand up to the sheriff. His willingness to allow himself to be used by Titus makes him a typical noir doomed hero, a man slowly but surely sliding into degradation and ruin. The case of Dan Reynolds (played by David Brian) is slightly different, but in his own way he’s another doomed noir protagonist. He discovers that once you become involved in corrupt politics there’s no going back, you just have to live with the growing sense of self-disgust, and you can easily find yourself getting in deeper and deeper and without any means of escape.

Lane is the third noir protagonist, and she faces the prospect of destruction partly through simple bad luck but partly because she fails to understand just how high the stakes are in the game she is playing, and just how serious the consequences can be if she loses.

While it’s all very melodramatic and overheated it’s also highly entertaining, and a great example of the gritty Warner Brothers style at its best. A must for Joan Crawford fans, and well worth a look for any classic movie fan with a taste for the darker side of 1940s American cinema.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Magnificent Obsession (1954)

Even by the standards of Douglas Sirk’s 1950s Hollywood movies Magnificent Obsession is an outrageous concoction. Based on a novel by Lloyd C. Douglas, a novel described by Sirk as trash, it may well be the ultimate in cinematic high camp.

Rock Hudson is wealthy playboy Bob Merrick who is injured testing his high-powered speedboat. The resuscitator used to save his life belonged to a saintly doctor with a heart condition, and just at the moment the machine was being used to save Merrick’s life the saintly doctor has a heart attack and dies, so saving Merrick’s life has cost him his life. The saintly doctor’s wife Helen (Jane Wyman) and daughter Joyce and his faithful nurse (Agnes Moorehead) blame Merrick for his selfish hedonistic lifestyle. Merrick is consumed with guilt, and while trying to make amends he falls in love with the doctor’s widow. Unfortunately he is the unwitting cause of another accident, an accident that costs Helen her sight.

But all this was somehow destined to be, and it leads Merrick to local artist Edward Randolph (Otto Kruger). It turns out that Randolph and the saintly doctor both followed the same semi-mystical cult, a cult based on service, self-sacrifice and huge quantities of smarmy self-satisfaction. Randolph assures him that this philosophy will become a “magnificent obsession” for him as well. Merrick changes his ways and becomes a dedicated doctor, but what he really wants is Helen’s love. Fate has a surprise in store for him, when all the threads of his life will converge.

Reading some of the online reviews of this movie I’m staggered that so many people have so spectacularly missed the point of this movie, and really believe Sirk expects us to take all this at face value. The outrageous use of unlikely coincidences, the weird cultism, the truckloads of saccharine sentimentality, the cloying acting styles of Hudson and Wyman, the bizarrely over-ripe performance of Otto Kruger, the chocolate box visual style - apparently none of these things was enough to indicate that perhaps Sirk’s intentions were ironic. And the music! More strings and angelic choir voices than you’ve ever heard in one movie!

But of course this is also melodrama. Not a movie with melodramatic tendencies, but pure melodrama and it adhere rigidly to the rules of melodrama. There are no coincidences in melodrama - it’s all the inevitable working out of one’s fate. Merrick and the saintly doctor have their encounter with death at the exact same moment because Fate (or possibly a Higher Power) has ordained it. And Merrick had at one time been studying to become a doctor, so it’s no accident that the man whose life intersects his at this fateful moment is a doctor. And Edward Randolph is a painter, also no coincidence. As a painter he is a creator, so is he ideally suited to being an emissary (or possibly even an avatar) of an All Powerful Unseen Creator. And the last thing you want in melodrama is for the actors to attempt anything resembling real acting - these are not real people, they are stock characters, and they’re meant to be played as stock characters. There’s the Selfish Playboy, the Faithful Nurse, the Devoted Wife, etc. Whether by accident or design Sirk found himself with the ideal cast for his purposes.

While the essence of the classical Hollywood cinema is the suspension of disbelief, the appearance of reality, in melodrama you’re not supposed to suspend your disbelief. You’re supposed to be aware of the story telling structure. And that’s the way this movie works.

In its own way it’s even more over-the-top than Written on the Wind. The weird Oprah-like cultism adds a delightfully strange touch. It’s lush, gorgeous, campy and magnificent, and I adored it.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964)

If you’re accustomed to the Hollywood way of doing musicals then Jacques Demy’s decidedly unconventional 1964 musical The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Les Parapluies de Cherbourg) may seem rather surprising, although if you stick with it you’ll find it to be a delightful and oddly affecting surprise.

The plot is extremely simple, deceptively so, and the ending is both unexpected and yet feels absolutely right (and I’m not going to give you even a hint of the way the film ends). It is 1958, and Geneviève (Catherine Deneuve) is 17 and working in her mother’s umbrella store in Cherbourg. She is in love with a handsome young garage mechanic named Guy (Nino Castelnuovo). He lives with his aunt, who is being cared for by a girl named Madeleine. Guy is drafted and sent off to the war in Algeria. The young lovers spend his last night in France together, and of course Geneviève falls pregnant.

At first the most unconventional thing about the film seems to be the way music (composed by the great Michel Legrand) is used. Every single line of dialogue is sung, but there are no songs in the usual sense of the word, and the singing is more like a kind of declamation set to music than actual singing. It sounds bizarre, but the most bizarre thing about it is that it works, and that despite the strangeness of the method the viewer is still drawn in by the characters and believes in them. But it’s not just the way music is utilised - this movie also overturns our expectations of musicals in other ways, especially in regard to plotting.

The tone of the movie is distinctly odd. It looks fluffy and light, all pastels, but it combines this with a surprising degree of emotional realism and a mood of wistful melancholy.

It all comes together beautifully, a love story that isn’t the love story we thought we were getting but that is still completely satisfying. And Catherine Deneuve (of course) looks gorgeous. I highly recommend this one.

Friday, January 8, 2010

A Free Soul (1931)

A Free Soul stars Norma Shearer as Jan Ashe, daughter of famous (and famously drunken) defence attorney Stephen Ashe (Lionel Barrymore). He’s brought her up as a free spirit, oblivious to the petty rules of respectable society. So when she meets the good-looking, sexy and very wicked mob boss, played by Clark Gable, her father has just successfully defended in a murder trial, it doesn’t take much to persuade to dump her decent but irredeemably dull boyfriend (Leslie Howard). She moves in with her handsome gangster boyfriend. Her father enjoys hanging out with mobster Gable and getting drunk in his gambling club, but when Gable announces he’s going to marry Jan dear old dad nearly has apoplexy.

Jan promises to give up her gangster if dad will give up the booze, but he soon starts to backslide, and Jan discovers that while slumming it with bad boys can be fun they can be extraordinarily difficult to get rid of when the novelty wears off. She finds her situation rapidly spiralling out of control, and tragedy naturally ensues.

Barrymore overacts outrageously throughout the film, and even more outrageously in the climactic courtroom scenes, and picked up an Oscar for his performance. Gable’s performance is both menacing and smoulderingly sexy. Shearer is equally sexy, and very convincing in a fairly difficult role. She also gets to wear some extravagantly gorgeous clothes.

The character of Stephen Ashe was based on real-life attorney Earl Rogers, a legend for both his boozing and his courtroom antics. It’s a movie that deals with sexuality, and particularly female sexuality, in a very grown-up and complex way, something the Production Code would soon put a stop to. Despite some excessively melodramatic moments it’s an effective movie that mostly avoids getting bogged down in moral platitudes, and Gable and Shearer certainly sizzle.

Barrymore’s performance is a delight for connoisseurs of over-the-top but gloriously entertaining bad acting. Opinion is divided over the merits of Norma Shearer, but I’m becoming more and more of a fan. An enjoyable pre-code treat.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The Saturday Night Kid (1929)

The Saturday Night Kid was one of Clara Bow’s first talkies, a breezy and slightly naughty little romantic comedy released in 1929.

Her talkies are mostly very difficult to get hold of, which has encouraged the old legend that she was unable to make the transition from silent films to talking pictures. She did have problems at first, but no-one who has seen the brilliant Call Her Savage could doubt that she did eventually adapt extremely well to the new form. And in The Saturday Night Kid there are no apparent problems at all with her performance.

Clara Bow plays Mayme, who works in a department store with her sister Janie (Jean Arthur). Mayme is sweet on Bill, newly promoted to floor-walker, but Janie has her eye on him as well. Mayme is a bit wild but she always looks out for her sister; sadly the same cannot be said of Janie. Janie will stop at nothing to steal Mayme’s man, and she also gambles and steals money from the store’s benevolent fund. And then places the blame on Mayme!

The plot is fairly thin, but with Clara Bow and Jean Arthur both in sparkling form it doesn’t matter at all. They’re helped by some snappy (and on occasions incredibly risque) dialogue. Edna May Oliver has fun as the girls’ supervisor, the terrifying Miss Streeter.

The scene with all the employees attending the morning inspirational meeting at the department store is an outrageous highlight. The movie is fast, amusing and a little bit wicked, and it’s great fun. Jean Arthur is superb, but as good as she is she’s still overshadowed by the great Clara Bow. Bow is very sexy, totally adorable, funny and in complete control. Look out for Jean Harlow in a bit part.