Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Gaucho (1927)

The Gaucho, directed by F. Richard Jones in 1927, probably won’t be found in many people’s lists of cult movies, but it deserves to be. It’s a truly strange movie, an odd but intriguing hybrid. I’m really becoming a major Douglas Fairbanks Snr fan. I saw The Thief of Baghdad a while back and was totally blown away by it (that’s another one that deserves cult status). The Gaucho was another highly original and offbeat Fairbanks vehicle.

It’s a swash-buckling tale of a dashing outlaw combined with a love story combined with a story about religious faith and miracles combined with a story about a fight against a tyrannical and corrupt political leader. And this strange mixture works. If, like me, you generally run a mile from anything involving religion don’t panic – the religious angle doesn’t become oppressive and shouldn’t stop you enjoying the picture. It certainly didn’t stop me from enjoying it. The stuff about the plague-like disease, the Black Doom, added yet another layer to the movie.

Fairbanks wrote the screenplays for his own movies and produced them as well as starring in them. And did his own stunts. He was 45 when this film was made – if he was this athletic at 45 I shudder to think what he must have been like when he was 25. The stunts are not only impressive, they’re also clever. Lupe Velez, looking gorgeous as always, provides the romance angle. The scene where they’re dancing together while tied together is pretty sexy even by today’s standards.

You also get to see Mary Pickford doing a cameo as the Virgin Mary!

The Gaucho is a highly entertaining movie with a serious side, and a rather dark side as well. It has a definite hint of the bizarre to it.

My only complaint is that it’s presented on DVD in straight black-and-white – I’m pretty sure it was originally tinted. Highly recommended.

Unfortunately the ridiculously cheap Region 4 DVD seems to be no longer available.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Stage Fright (1950)

Stage Fright, made in England in 1950, is usually considered to be one of Alfred Hitchcock’s minor films. If you compare it to the movie he made next, Strangers on a Train, that’s probably a fair assessment.

Having said that, there’s an awful lot to like in Stage Fright. For one thing it has one of the strongest casts Hitchcock ever got to work with. Jane Wyman, an actress I’ve never taken much notice of, is both likeable and delightfully kooky as Eve, the heroine. Marlene Dietrich is simply fabulous as Charlotte, an actress/singer whose husband has been murdered.

And there’s a veritable galaxy of British acting talent. Richard Todd gives a powerful performance as Johnny, the man accused of murdering Charlotte’s husband. Michael Wilding is likeable as the police detective hunting him down. Alastair Sim and Sybil Thorndyke are great fun as Eve’s eccentric parents. And there’s an uproarious cameo by the fabulous Joyce Grenfell.

The emphasis is on fun in Stage Fright. It’s very much a comedy thriller, and with so many people in the cast who are so good at comedy it works very well on that level. Here aren’t too many spectacular Hitchcock set-pieces, but there are some superbly filmed scenes demonstrating Hitch’s mastery of atmosphere as well as technique – especially a scene late in the picture between Richard Todd and Jane Wyman, a scene that is an object lesson in the use of lighting.

All the scenes involving Marlene Dietrich are magnificently filmed, particularly another crucial scene late in the movie just after Charlotte has been confronted by Eve. It’s a role tailor-made for Dietrich - she gets to sing, she gets to be glamorous, she gets to show her serious acting chops and she gets to be funny, and she does it all with tremendous style. Not too many Hitchcock films feature show-stopping musical numbers, but this one does – Dietrich singing I’m the Laziest Girl in Town.

Stage Fright might not be one of Hitchcock’s great films but it’s fantastic entertainment, an underrated movie that is very much worth seeking out.

Warners Region 4 DVd includes a documentary on the film, and the movie itself looks terific.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Mississippi Mermaid (1969)

Louis Mahé owns a tobacco plantation Réunion Island, a French possession in the Indian Ocean. Resolving that it’s time he got married, but being rather unsure of himself with women, he resorts to newspaper classified ads. He makes contact with a woman who is looking for a husband, they exchange letters and photos, and eventually decide to marry although they have never actually met. Strangely enough, when his new bride-to-be Julie arrives at Réunion she doesn’t look anything like her photo. She explains that being rather shy and uncertain about answering an advertisement she’d sent him a photo of a friend of hers. Julie is, however, beautiful and charming, and the wedding goes ahead.

François Truffaut’s 1969 film Mississippi Mermaid (La Sirène du Mississipi) was based on a Cornell Woolrich novel, and anyone familiar with Woolrich’s work (which provided the basis for a host of classic Hollywood movies in the film noir and suspense genres, including Hitchcock’s Rear Window) will not be surprised to learn that things and people are not what they seem, and that events soon take a variety on unexpected turns. This is a typically twisted and perverse Woolrich plot, but to say any more would be to give away spoilers.

This is one of two movies Truffaut made from Woolrich novels, the other bring the wonderful The Bride Wore Black, and both movies show very clearly the extent of the influence of both film noir and Hitchcock on Truffaut.

With leads as charismatic, sexy and likeable as Catherine Deneuve (who plays Julie) and Jean-Paul Belmondo (as Louis) it’s hard to see how this movie could lose, but in fact it was a box-office disaster. Which is a great pity, since it’s actually an extremely good movie. It’s as much a love story (albeit a rather perverse one) as a suspense movie, and perhaps its commercial failure resulted from the difficulty of neatly slotting it into an accepted genre.

Deneueve and Belmondo really are superb, and their intricate and convoluted relationship is depicted with sensitivity and a lack of moral judgments. A very underrated movie, and the MGM DVD release looks sensational as well. Highly recommended!

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Spy in Black (1939)

For a movie made right on the eve of the Second World War The Spy in Black is a rather bold endeavour. And coming as the first of many celebrated cinematic collaborations between director Michael Powell and screenwriter Emeric Pressburger it’s an even bolder choice of material.
This is a spy movie, and a very entertaining one. The twist is that it’s told from the German point of view, and the main German spy is a very sympathetic character.

Captain Hardt (Conrad Veidt) is a U-boat commander assigned to a dangerous secret mission on enemy soil. A German agent has managed to infiltrate herself into a position very close to Britain’s main naval base at Scapa Flow in the Orkney Islands. She has also managed to make contact with a disgruntled alcoholic Royal Navy officer, and making use of a mixture of sex and his resentment at his supposed bad treatment by the Navy she has persuaded him to betray some vital naval secrets. And an audacious plan is hatched, to sink the British Grand Fleet in its achorage.

Captain Hardt lands in the Orkneys, in northern Scotland, and makes contact with the German spy. Like all good movie spies, she is young, female and glamorous.

Of course things aren’t as simple as they seem on the surface, and the double-crosses have started right at the beginning of the film although we aren’t aware of them at that stage. And there are plenty more plot twists to come. Powell and Pressburger have created an exciting tale of espionage and intrigue, but (as you’d expect from these two) there’s a good deal more to the film that that.

Captain Hardt is basically a nice guy. He’s not at all a typical movie villain; in fact he’s much closer to being a typical movie hero. He’s brave and resourceful, and he’s a decent human being. And he’s likeable. And of course he’s not really a spy. He’s simply a German officer carrying out his orders. Although he is operating in the British Isles he insists on wearing his German officer’s uniform, to emphasise that he is no traitor, but a man serving his own country. His female compatriot is in a more awkward position, as she points out to him. If captured she will be simply be shot out of hand as a spy. And yet she is also a German doing her duty as she sees it.

The fundamentally false position of anyone involved in espionage or counter-espionage work, the fact that they are courageous and dedicated and yet the very nature of the work they do is based on deceit and often involves murder, is very much the theme here. As it also is in another celebrated British spy movie, made three years earlier - Alfred Hitchcock’s Secret Agent. Is it possible to do this kind of work and yet remain honourable? What makes this particular movie so radical is that the German spy in question does keep his integrity, perhaps more so than some of those who are opposing his efforts.

In fact Hardt’s tragedy is perhaps his own integrity. He lacks the utter ruthlessness and lack of scruple to be a completely successful spy.

Valerie Hobson is very good as the German agent in the Orkneys. Sebastian Shaw is adequate as the traitorous British officer. But the film belongs to Conrad Veidt as Captain Hardt. Veidt rarely turned in anything less than an impressive performance, as he makes Captain Hardt disturbingly human. You can’t help hoping that he gets away with it!

But the movie doesn’t make a simplistic case for either side. The morally dubious methods of submarine warfare practised by the Germans, including Captain Hardt, are not glossed over. And he is a man who is not entirely easy with his conscience.

Even this early in their careers Powell and Pressburger were making it clear that they were going to be a force to be reckoned with in the film world, and The Spy in Black is a commendable debut.

Monday, April 19, 2010

The Night of the Iguana (1964)

The Night of the Iguana, based on Tennessee Williams’ play, was directed by John Huston and released in 1964.

It’s the story of drunkard defrocked clergyman Rev. T. Lawrence Shannon (played by Richard Burton) who works as a tour guide in Mexico. His life reaches a crisis as he’s escorting a busload of female Southern Baptist school-teachers. Unfortunately for Shannon one of the teachers is chaperoning Charlotte, an under-age girl who has even more unfortunately decided that she’s madly in love with the reverend. And more unfortunately still the teacher who is chaperoning Charlotte already hates Shannon and is determined to see him fired from his job, and preferably gaoled for sexual misconduct with a minor.

He finds refuge in a seedy hotel run by an old friend of his, the colourful Maxine Faulk (Ava Gardner). Maxine has problems of her own to grapple with, most notably her severe and chronic lack of a bed partner after a sexless marriage. At this point Hannah Jelkes (Deborah Kerr) and her elderly grandfather, who eke out a living giving poetry recitations and doing sketches, arrive. Hannah Maxine has the opposite problem to Maxine – she’s severely sexually repressed.

So what we have are exactly the sort of characters we expect from Tennessee Williams, and an ideal line-up of actors to play them.

Deborah Kerr is terrific as always. Sue Lyon is unexpectedly impressive as Charlotte. For Richard Burton it’s an ideal role, the kind of thing that gives him the opportunity to overact outrageously but effectively, and he makes the most of it.

But it’s Ava Gardner who steals the picture, giving the performance of her career.

The end result is a very fine movie. In fact it’s the best ever movie adaptation of a Tennessee Williams work, and one of Huston’s two or three best pictures.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948)

Letter from an Unknown Woman was one of the three movies Max Ophüls made in Hollywood in the late 40s. All three are wonderful in their own ways, but this may be the greatest of them.

The movie follows a circular path, as fate inexorably closes in on the leading characters. It starts with somewhat dissipated pianist and man-about-town Stefan Brand (played by Louis Jourdan) being reminded that the next morning he is to fight a duel, a duel he is unlikely to survive. But Stefan has rarely accepted responsibility or anything, and intends to flee the city before morning. His preparations for flight are delayed by the arrival of a letter, a letter from a woman. He does not know her name, and has no recollection of her at all, but as he reads he discovers that their paths have most certainly crossed and in a most fateful fashion.

In 1900, as a romantic and somewhat dreamy schoolgirl in Vienna, the woman (Lisa, played by Joan Fontaine) had become obsessed by the handsome and charming pianist who lived in the apartment upstairs. On several occasions over the course of the next few years fate has drawn her to make attempts to meet this man. Finally she succeeds, they have a brief but idyllic love affair, but while this is the great love of Lisa’s life for Stefan she is merely another sexual adventure. This has tragic consequences for Lisa, and equally tragic consequences for Stefan as he realises much too late that she could have been much more to him than a casual conquest. She could have been not only the woman with whom he might have found genuine love, she could also have saved him from throwing away his talent.

Joan Fontaine, in her usual self-effacing but oddly compelling way, totally dominates the film. Her understated performance (and of course the consummate skill of Ophüls as a fim-maker) saves it from the danger of maudlin sentimentality. It’s still an emotionally draining experience but there’s nothing false or contrived about the emotion.

A magnificent example of what could be achieved in Hollywood during the 1940s, and one of the great cinematic love stories.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

The Company She Keeps (1951)

With a cast that includes a couple of major film noir icons, Lizabeth Scott and Jane Greer, and with Dennis O’Keefe (who also did some classic noirs including the underrated Raw Deal) as the male lead, and photographed by by one of the great masters of noir cinematography in the person of Nicholas Musuraca, you could be excused for expecting John Cromwell’s The Company She Keeps to be a film noir.

In actual fact it’s a drama/romance, although it does have quite a bit in common with Caged, an excellent women’s prison drama made a year earlier by the same director. The Company She Keeps follows the story of Mildred Lynch, a woman prisoner out on parole. Things get complicated for her when she falls in love with her parole officer’s boyfriend. It makes a fascinating companion piece to Caged. And like that movie, its attitude towards the criminal justice system is a quite a bit more sceptical than you’d expect in a 1951 movie. Although the parole officer is somewhat idealised, the other members of the parole board are portrayed as being rather petty and the police are shown mostly as petty tyrants who enjoy harassing ex-cons. On the other hand there’s also a sympathetic cop willing to give Mildred a break.

The movie’s strong suit is its avoidance of a simplistic good girl/bad girl conflict between the two romantic rivals. Both women are more complex than that. Jane Greer is superb as Mildred. I like the fact that she’s not depicted as an innocent victim. She was guilty of the crimes for which she was sentenced, and had a lengthy record of petty crime before that. Her natural inclination is to return to her previous life, and she’s bitter and suspicious, and tends to lie as a matter of course, and certainly not scrupulously honest. Despite all that, she’s basically a sympathetic character and is making a genuine effort to keep out of trouble.

Lizabeth Scott has the less rewarding role as the parole officer, Joan Wilburn. The part is somewhat underwritten. She doesn’t get enough screen time, and we don’t get sufficient insight into her emotional reaction to the betrayals she suffers. Lizabeth Scott does the best she can with what she’s given, and I like the way she underplays the role. She’s a woman trying to make it in the very male-dominated world of the 1950s prison system, and it makes sense that she would have developed a habit of hiding her emotions. She’s not a paragon of virtue either - she’s aware of the temptations inherent in the power she holds over Mildred, and she doesn’t always resist those temptations. So again we have a character who is not simply black or white, good or bad, but is essentially good with the usual human weaknesses.

Dennis O’Keefe is the man loved by both women. The focus is very much on the two women, but he gives a nicely understated performance.

Overall this is a movie that offers a lot more than you might expect. It’s a good example of a quality B-movie that deals with serious subject matter in a surprisingly subtle way, without resorting to cliches or being excessively obvious. With fine acting, with the very competent John Cromwell directing and with Nick Musuraca’s cinematography it’s a movie that looks good and works rather effectively. This one is well worth a look.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Dr Monica (1934)

Sometimes, after watching an old movie, one simply doesn’t know what to say. One can only stare at the screen in horrified fascination, mumbling to oneself, “These people were not like us. The past truly is a foreign country.” Such was my experience with the 1934 Warner Brothers picture Dr Monica.

To dispose of the easy stuff first. Kay Francis plays a successful obstetrician (the Dr Monica of the title) with a wonderful husband named John (played by Warren William). Her happiness would be complete if only they could have a baby. What Dr Monica doesn’t know is that her perfect husband has been fooling around with a young pilot named Mary. And while Dr Monica is unable to conceive a child, Mary not only can conceive, but has done so, and yes, the baby is John’s.

It’s the resolution of this romantic triangle complicated by the presence of the child that left me speechless, but you’ll have to watch the movie to make up your own mind. To say more would be to reveal spoilers. This is a pre-code movie, and while it does deal openly with the subjects of adultery and children born out of wedlock, and even with the even more taboo subject of abortion, I’m not sure if one could really say that it deals with these subjects intelligently, or even sanely.

While it doesn’t resort to the hypocritical denial of reality that became the hallmark of post-code Hollywood, it has its own truly bizarre moral solutions, and seems to enshrine a weird belief in the healing power of lies and deceit. And it applauds a kind of feminine self-sacrifice that I find utterly chilling. It just shows the many strange and twisted (and in this case bizarre and imaginative) ways in which conventional morality could destroy lives.

Kay Francis and Warren William are both very good, while Jean Muir gives an extraordinarily annoying performance as Mary.

It’s one of those very odd pre-code movies that you really have to see for yourself!

Saturday, April 10, 2010

All That Heaven Allows (1955)

After seeing, and falling in love with, Douglas Sirk’s Written on the Wind I just had to see more of his 1950s melodramas. While All That Heaven Allows isn’t quite as fabulous as Sirk’s Written on the Wind, it’s still pretty wonderful.

It’s the story of middle-aged widow Cary (Jane Wyman) living in a small town who falls in love with her gardener, played by Rock Hudson. Not only is he considered by the county club set (to which the widow belongs) to be a mere tradesman, which is scandal enough, he’s only much younger. And extremely handsome. Scandal piled upon scandal.

And it soon becomes obvious that her children (her truly appalling children) are as narrow-minded as the rest of the town. Early on Cary has a discussion with her daughter (played in outrageously over-the-top style by Gloria Talbott) about the Egyptian custom of walling up widows alive, and remarks that it’s a custom that is no longer followed – not in Egypt, anyway. The custom seems to be alive and well in this small town though.

Photographed by the great Russell Metty, this movie is visually luscious – I can’t think of a better word to describe it. The colours! There’s just so much to take in visually. A very lush score adds to the overheated atmosphere. Wyman is an actress I’ve never liked, but she’s reasonably effective. And while it's not likely that anyone would claim that Rock Hudson was a great actor, he is quite perfect for Sirk’s purposes, and his performance works to perfection.

Sirk was regarded with scorn by serious critics at the time, but his reputation has grown steadily since then. His mastery of visual style is clearly one reason for this. His movies are also admired for their irony, and as scathing criticisms of the emptiness and hypocrisy of the American consumer society of the Eisenhower era. And they are indeed scathing; in fact they’re absolutely savage. You have to wonder how American audiences at the time could have seen these films and not noticed their merciless dissection of the most cherished values of Middle America. What’s really interesting about Sirk’s movies, though, is that he takes his characters seriously – their pain is real, the dilemmas they face are real, and although he mocks the society in which they live he doesn’t mock their suffering.

The really subversive thing about Sirk’s melodramas is that they belonged to a genre, the so-called women’s picture, that was regarded with contempt (and still is when you consider the way “chick flick” is used today as a term of derision), but he was a serious film-maker making serious films. The irony in his movie does not in any way diminish Sirk’s seriousness of purpose. They may be in many ways high camp, but they’re made by a director with a high art sensibility, and they manage to be high camp and high art at the same time. Like the Pop artists who were emerging at the same time, he blurs the line between trash and art.

Now I simply must track down copies of all of Sirk’s other movies!

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Ossessione (1943)

Luchino Visconti’s first feature film, Ossessione, was an unauthorised version of James M. Cain’s novel The Postman Always Rings Twice. Cain’s gritty 1934 novel was ideally suited to the Italian neo-realist style of film-making. I’ve always felt that the 1946 Hollywood movie version suffered from being too clean, not seedy enough, and definitely not desperate enough. And Lana Turner, although she projects the necessary sensuality, looks too much like a Hollywood starlet.

Clara Calamai in Visconti’s film is a lot more earthy than Turner, and seems more authentically working class. She gives a great performance as Giovanna, conveying her mix of calculation and desperation. Massimo Girotti as Gino, the drifter, is more of an innocent. He seems totally unable to make decisions, and gets swept along by events. The uncontrollable lust that draws these two characters together is conveyed extremely well and extremely economically.

The film is much more aware of class, and of the degradations of poverty, than the Hollywood version. There are a few changes from the book, but the essentials of Cain’s plot remain. The photography has a stark beauty to it. The movie also touches on wider issues involving sexuality, with Gino’s relationship with a prostitute, and his friendship with another drifter, Lo Spagnola, which has definite homosexual overtones (Visconti himself was of course gay).

While the movie is uncompromising in its treatment of the actions of Giovanna and Gino it steers way from simplistic moralising. It’s made clear that women like Giovanna were left with few options if they wanted to escape from grinding poverty, and it’s made clear that they were often forced by circumstances into loveless marriages that were little different from prostitution.

Ossessione represents an intriguingly different approach compared to the two American versions of this story, and it’s an excellent film in its own right. It remains the definitive movie version of Cain's novel.

While it lacks the opulence and obvious decadence of late Visconti, it’s still visually impressive. Visconti was discovering his political consciousness, but the left-wing political slant isn’t overly laboured.

The Region 4 DVD is not a fantastic print at all, but it’s worth picking up if you can find a cheap enough copy.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Why Change Your Wife? (1920)

In Cecil B. DeMille’s 1920 comedy Why Change Your Wife? Gloria Swanson (DeMille’s regular leading lady of this period) as Beth, a respectable and rather prim wife who discovers that husbands don’t necessarily want their wives to be respectable and moral. It’s not that he doesn’t love her; he just wants a little romance in his marriage, and when another woman comes along who offers him the excitement he craves, he inevitably strays. And divorce inevitable follows.

Beth then has a sudden revelation – maybe it’s not only true that men like shameless hussies, but maybe it’s also true that shameless hussies have quite a lot of fun. So she decides to transform herself into a sexpot. This is a typical early DeMille comedy. His comedies are as far removed from the stereotyped idea most people have of silent comedy as it’s possible to get. You won’t find any slapstick in his movies. His comedies are sophisticated, witty and cheerfully immoral. The message in this one is that if you want a happy marriage, forget virtue – it’s love and sex and fun that makes for matrimonial bliss.

Swanson is, as always, delightful. She manages the transition from dowdy housewife to vamp with ease. Thomas Meighan as the husband and Bebe Daniels as the woman who steals him both provide great support. And the 1920s women’s outfits are outrageous and gorgeous, especially Swanson’s scandalous (and by today’s standards charmingly bizarre) bathing suit. It’s a movie that captures the spirit of the 1920s rather wonderfully, and it’s great fun.

Passport Video’s Gloria Swanson Collection was much criticised on its release, which I think was a little unfair. The transfers are certainly variable in quality, but these are great movies made available at a ridiculously low price, and I think it’s an absolute must-buy for any silent cinema fan.

And it provides an introduction to a world of silent movies that is unfamiliar to most people, a world of elegant comedies of manners, and at times surprisingly risque sex comedy. DeMille’s silent comedies are an absolute joy.