Monday, May 31, 2010

Front Page Woman (1935)

Front Page Woman sees Bette Davis and George Brent as rival newspaper reporters who are also sweethearts.

Devlin (Brent) wants to marry Garfield (David) and naturally wants her to quit her job, since being a newspaper reporter is no job for a woman. They make a bet - if he can prove that women are no good as journalists, she’ll marry him. Which of course makes sense - why wouldn’t a woman want to marry a man who has publicly humiliated her and demeaned her and spends most of his time making snide remarks about how stupid women are?

This is 1935, the Production Code is in force, and it’s time for uppity women to be put in their place. And if you need an actor to portray an arrogant sexist pig, who better than George Brent? He made an entire career out of playing obnoxious pigs. Of course Garfield doesn’t really mind being treated like an idiot, because she doesn’t really want to be a reporter. She wants to get married.

If you can sit through 80 minutes of George Brent being insufferable and annoying, you do get to see Davis finally get the upper hand. Sort of. But of course, after he’s systematically sabotaged her career and engaged in every kind of underhanded trick to make her look like a fool, she realises how much she really loves him and how much she wants to marry him.

You also have to endure the unbelievably irritating Roscoe Karns as Devlin’s offsider.

Apart from His Girl Friday I’m not really a fan of newspaper movies, and Front Page Woman did nothing to make me alter my views on the genre. At this stage it’s clear that Warner Brothers still didn’t have any clear idea what to do with Bette Davis, and she’s wasted in this role.

This not a movie I’d particularly recommend. It’s a good example of the less obvious sort of damage done by the Production Code. And it's disappointing because Bette Davis as a feisty woman reporter could have been a real winner in the pre-code days.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

The Tarnished Angels (1958)

Douglas Sirk’s 1958 movie The Tarnished Angels was based on a minor novel by William Faulkner.

Alcoholic newspaper reporter Burke Devlin (Rock Hudson) thinks he’s found the ultimate human interest story when a group of barnstorming pilots arrive in New Orleans in the early 1930s for an air show. Devlin sees former First World War air ace Roger Shumann (Robert Stack), his stunt parachutist wife LaVerne (Dorothy Malone), their young son Jack and their faithful mechanic Jiggs (Jack Carson) as modern gypsies.

This could be the story that makes him the great journalist he always believed he could be, but never quite became. He discovers that underneath the glamour of air races and stunt flying there’s absolutely nothing. These people are dead inside. If they ever knew how to be happy it’s something they’ve long since forgotten. There’s a particularly unhealthy romantic triangle going on between Roger, LaVerne and Jiggs, and it’s festering because their way of dealing with emotions is to pretend they’re not there. There are things that all three desperately need to say, but none of them are saying anything at all.

Sirk uses the background of mardi gras in New Orleans subtly but effectively, with masks being used to suggest the alienation and the falseness of the lives of the protagonists. Devlin finds himself drawn to these people even as he’s appalled by them (and presumably appalled also by the parallels to his own life and his own broken dreams).

Rock Hudson is amazingly good as Devlin. He was simply the perfect actor for Sirk’s purposes. Dorothy Malone gives another powerful performance, similar to the one she gave in Sirk’s Written on the Wind – she’s all suppressed hysteria and emotional and sexual frustration. Robert Stack was a terrible actor, but he also found his niche in Sirk’s films and his performance works. Jack Carson is terrifyingly hopeless and helpless as Jiggs, a man whose entire life has amounted to nothing at all.

The black-and-white cinematography is absolutely stunning. Sirk’s movies always looked fabulous but the use of black-and-white instead of the incredibly lush Technicolor palette usually associated with his 1950s output is a surprising but very effective choice here.

Of the various Sirk movies I’ve seen (including Written on the Wind which is generally regarded as his masterpiece and is certainly a magnificent film) this may well be the greatest of all. It’s melodrama, you can see the plot unfolding with a certain degree of inevitability, and the dialogue is gloriously overwrought and overheated. In the hands of a lesser film-maker it could have been a disaster; in Sirk’s hands it’s a masterpiece. A must-see movie.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Romantic Englishwoman (1975)

Joseph Losey’s 1975 film The Romantic Englishwoman, with a script by Tom Stoppard and Thomas Wiseman, is one of those movies that seems to have disappeared into obscurity. It’s actually a rather interesting film.

Glenda Jackson is Elizabeth, an Englishwoman who feels the need to escape from her marriage for a time. She goes to Baden Baden, makes a very brief acquaintance (nothing even approaching an affair, just a few words exchanged in a lift) with a handsome young man, and returns to her husband. Her husband Lewis (played by Michael Caine) is a writer. He imagines that she has had an affair, and this imagined affair finds its way into the book he is writing. Then, out of the blue, the young German man (played by Helmut Berger) turns up in England. The husband invites him for lunch, and soon the young man is ensconced in the spare room.

It starts as a game, with the husband trying to discover if something really did happen between Elizabeth and the young man. The young man, Thomas, appears to be completely free while Elizabeth and Lewis in their different ways seem to be captives of the lives they lead with the responsibilities and the ties that go with those lives. Elizabeth is tempted by the freedom that Thomas seems to represent, but does she really want freedom? What price would it entail? Would she be prepared to pay that price? And is Thomas really free or is he a captive of his shady past? And can Lewis disentangle truth from fiction, and can he offer Elizabeth enough to keep her? As Thomas says, Englishwomen are the most romantic. They want everything.

Jackson, Caine and Berger are all superb. It’s a rather low-key but engrossing movie with some rather acerbic humour. It’s romantic without a trace of sentimentality. I enjoyed it.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Rome Express (1932)

It’s always been my firm belief that you can’t really go wrong with a suspense movie set on a train. If the train happens to be an old-fashioned one with compartments and it happens to be travelling through several different European countries and there’s a hint of international intrigue in the air, then you have a sure-fire winner. Rome Express is a movie that provides ample confirmation of this theory.

This stylish 1932 British thriller pretty much establishes the formula for all subsequent suspense-on-a-train movies. It mixes mystery with humour, and a dash of romance. It has the requisite assortment of passengers. There’s a movie star, a gang of international art thieves, the obligatory garrulous bore for comic relief and the equally obligatory eccentric old lady. There’s a mild-mannered entomologist who turns out to be something quite different, and a couple of lovebirds heading off for a weekend of adultery in the sun.

The strong cast is headed by Conrad Veidt as an archetypal charming but sinister villain, and very entertaining he is too. Frank Vosper is delightful as M. Jolif, a dapper and deceptively efficient French detective. It will require all his resourcefulness to untangle the complex web of lies told by the various passengers on the Rome Express. Even the law-abiding passengers have their own reasons for being economical with the truth.

The plot involves a stolen painting, and attempts by the thieves to double-cross each other, attempts culminating in murder. Meanwhile two young couples find themselves mixed up in complicated romantic entanglements, while other passengers find themselves re-assessing their lives and hoping for an opportunity to make fresh starts.

The pacing is taut and the tension is ratchetted up by constant cross-cutting. The screenplay is by Sidney Gilliat, who also worked with such luminaries of the British film industry as Alfred Hitchcock (on another illustrious train movie, The Lady Vanishes) and Sir Carol Reed.

This is a movie that looks surprisingly modern, with Walter Forde directing with flair and confidence, and coming up with some nifty camera angles. A very entertaining and thoroughly enjoyable movie. Highly recommended.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Inside Daisy Clover (1965)

Inside Daisy Clover, directed by Robert Mulligan, follows the adventures of a teenage girl from Angel Beach, California, as she becomes Hollywood’s newest singing star. It’s set in the 1930s but this is a 1960s vision of the 1930s. Daisy’s costumes are like a Carnaby Street re-imagining of 30s fashions. Oddly enough, the blending of 1930s and 1960s sensibilities works quite well once you get used to it.

Natalie Wood was much too old to play the teenage starlet Daisy Clover. She just about gets away with it, although she’s perhaps just a touch too knowing and too sophisticated to really be convincing. Christopher Plummer is a charming but ruthless producer who makes Daisy a star, and Robert Redford is a handsome young star who falls for Daisy – a match made in heaven, if only Daisy had been a boy rather than a girl.

The things that make Inside Daisy Clover a failure are actually the things that make it a rather interesting failure. Made in 1965, it’s not quite sure if it wants to be a Hollywood movie or a European art film. There are moments that are almost surreal, but they’re not pushed far enough to make it a Hollywood version of , but the narrative is too loose to really make it work as a conventional Hollywood product. There are several sub-plots, but no real main plot, and the sub-plots don’t really go anywhere.

The relationship between Mrs Clover (Ruth Gordon) and Daisy is interesting but undeveloped. We get the feeling that there’s an interesting story behind Baines (Roddy McDowell), the enigmatic assistant of the big-time producer, but we never find out what that story is.

Nonetheless it’s a fascinating movie and as an expose of the emptiness behind the glitter, the cynicism behind the façade of the Dream Factory, it works quite well.

The early to mid 60s is a very underrated period of Hollywood history and this is a fine example of the kinds of quirky movies that were made at that time.

It would make a good double-feature with Vincente Minnelli's similarly underrated (and equally cynical) 1960 movie about movie-making, Two Weeks in Another Town.

I caught up with this one on TCM. Both the Region 1 and Region2 DVDs are unfortunately out of print, but it's still available on DVD as part of a Natalie Wood boxed set.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

The Petrified Forest (1936)

The Petrified Forest was the movie that finally put Humphrey Bogart on the map as an actor. In 1936 his career was going nowhere fast until Leslie Howard persuaded Jack Warner to give him his chance in this movie, and the rest (as they say) is history.

Leslie Howard is penniless drifter Alan Squier, a failed writer and intellectual whose wealthy wife has finally tired of him and found herself a new pet, a promising young painter. Hitch-hiking through the Arizona desert he stumbles into a gas station and diner in the middle of nowhere. The daughter of the proprietor is Gabby Maple (Bette Davis) and her dreams are all of escape to France, to civilisation. She is immediately infatuated by Alan’s charm and his intellectual pretensions. She wants to go to France with him. Alan is suffering from a very severe case of world-weariness and self-pity and doesn’t want to inflict himself on a woman. He is humiliated enough when she has to pay for his meal, and decides to skulk off into the desert to continue his wallowings in self-hatred.

At roughly the halfway point of the movie the tome changes from philosophical musings and romance to suspense and suppressed violence, with the arrival of notorious gangster and killer Duke Mantee (Bogart). They’ve stolen a car from a rich couple who find themselves held hostage at the diner, along with their chauffeur, Alan, Gabby and Gabby’s her drunken old grandfather who is always boring everyone with his stories of his supposed youthful encounter with Billy the Kid. While Alan and Duke Mantee appear on the surface to have little in common, one being a passive over-sensitive intellectual and the other being a desperate and vicious man of action, Alan believe they are kindred spirits. Both are doomed, both are outsiders, both are in love with death. It appears that for both men this love affair is about to be consummated.

Seen today this movie seems incredibly stagey and outrageously talky. That it works is due almost entirely to the three leads. Leslie Howard makes Alan likeable and sympathetic when he so easily have been annoying and pompous. Bette Davis is touchingly naïve, high-spirited and amusing. Bogart, whose performance apparently owed a great deal to Leslie Howard’s advice on toning down his acting, gives us the first glimpse of the characterisation he would later perfect and which would make him a bona fide star.

The philosophising about the conflict between civilisation and nature, between the Old World and the New, between refection and action, life and death, etc, would have been little more than the 1930s equivalent of pop psychobabble if delivered by anyone other than Leslie Howard, It makes it sound almost profound. There’s a very 1930s atmosphere of impending chaos and social collapse, of civilisation at the end of its tether.

The extreme staginess, the obviously fake backgrounds to the outdoor scenes shot on a sound stage, the confining of the action to a single room, all these things could have counted against the film but in fact they enhance its impact, giving it a stifling and artificial feel that complements the theatrical performances.

And while there’s very little action, when it does come the sudden outburst of extreme violence has a tremendous impact.

This is in many ways a landmark movie, a link between the Hollywood movies of the 30s and those of the following decade, and to a certain extent an anticipation of the American style of film noir that emerged in the 40s. And the three central acting performances are more than sufficient reason to make this a must-watch movie.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Port of Shadows (1938)

Marcel Carné’s 1938 production Port of Shadows (Le Quai des brumes) belongs to the “poetic realism” school of French cinema of the 1930s. It’s often regarded as a precursor of film noir. In fact it’s very film noir indeed.

It tells the story of a man who has deserted from the French army. We’re never told his reasons, although he does admit to having done terrible things in anger. It’s likely he has also been scarred by his experiences in Indo-China. He finds himself in a seedy waterfront bar, where he meets a girl Nelly, who is as alone and despairing as he is.

He also crosses the path of a painter whose despair has gone even further, and who bequeaths him his identity. More ominously, he also encounters Lucien, a cowardly but vicious small-time gangster, and Zabel, Nelly’s sleazy and creepy guardian. He and Nelly fall in love, but they never for a moment believe that they have a future.

The air of fatalism in this film is overwhelming. Not one of the characters has the will to avoid their fate. The fact that the movie was made in France in 1938, with Europe heading inexorably towards a cataclysm that no-one seemed to have the will to avoid, is undoubtedly very significant.

Jean Gabin brings a certain dignity to the role of the deserter Jean. Michèle Morgan is superb as Nelly. The acting in general is low key, which also add to the feeling of inescapable doom. The cinematography is moody and anticipates much of the feel of film noir. Lots of fog. The ending is predictable but then tragic endings are tragic because you can see them coming but somehow the characters are unable to do anything to avert their fate.

Compared to Hollywood films of the same era Port of Shadows is much more sexually frank, and much more grownup. There are no phoney tacked-on happy endings, and no tedious moralising at the end, in this movie. No-one deserves their fate, justice has not been done, life has simply crushed a few people because that’s what life does. A cynical but also a very romantic movie. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967)

By 1967 The Production Code was starting to crumble and it had already been watered down in several important respects. Homosexuality was no longer a forbidden subject. It still had to be approached obliquely, but that actually works to the advantage of John Huston’s Reflections in a Golden Eye. Based on a scandalous 1941 Carson McCullers novella, it is after all a movie about repressed homosexuality. The indirect approach to the subject matter perfectly captures the mood of repression, of secrecy, of forbidden desires and hidden passions.

Marlon Brando plays Major Weldon Penderton, a lecturer in military tactics and leadership at an unnamed military base somewhere in the US South. His homosexual tendencies are so deeply buried he’s almost succeeded in hiding them from himself. He certainly hasn’t been able to hide his sexual problems from his wife Leonora (Elizabeth Taylor) and his failure to perform in bed is causing steadily escalating tensions. Penderton’s repressed homosexuality hasn’t just made him shut down sexually, it’s made him shut down emotionally as well. Leonara taunts him not so much because of sexual frustration, but simply because she wants to get some kind of response, any kind of response, from him. She can’t even get him to hate her.

The lack of sex isn’t a problem for her, because she’s getting plenty of that from Penderton’s best buddy, Colonel Morris Langton (Brian Keith). But he has his own problems. For one thing, he’s too obsessively masculine, too afraid of his emotions, and he’s clearly very uncomfortable around his wife’s very gay Filipino houseboy. His wife has repressions of her own, which led her to cut off her own nipples with a pair of garden shears.

And then there’s Private Williams, who cares for Leonora’s horse. He’s apparently a virgin, and he’s taken to sneaking into her house to watch her sleep while fondling her lingerie. But is it Leonora he’s obsessed with, or does he want to be Leonora? And Major Penderton has developed his own obsession with Private Williams, especially after seeing him riding in the woods naked.

This isn’t so much a movie about repressed homosexuality as it is a movie about repressed sexuality and repressed emotions in general, and in particular with the severely abnormal atmosphere of a military camp. The fact that Huston can’t confront the issues directly makes it impossible for him to present any of the characters or relationships in a simple straightforward way. Again this turns out to be a plus, adding layers of complexity and subtlety. The viewer really does inhabit this strange military world in which nothing can be stated openly and nothing can be felt directly. Huston’s approach may be indirect, but the movie certainly doesn’t avoid the issues. There’s no subtext here. Huston decided to use an odd sepia wash on the film that mutes and transforms the colours. This was lost in earlier releases but has been restored for the DVD release, and it adds to the feel of an unhealthy distorted reality.

The Brando role was originally intended for Montgomery Clift. Personally I think that would have been far too obvious a piece of casting for such a movie, and I think Brando’s macho but tortured performance is perfect. When you see him start to disintegrate in the middle of a lecture you’re seeing a touch of Brando brilliance. Elizabeth Taylor gives Leonora considerable complexity as well. She doesn’t play her as an emasculating bitch. She can be cruel certainly, but her pain and confusion over her loveless marriage are obvious and she shows unexpected moment of sensitivity. Taylor’s performance once again highlights just how bland and uninteresting most modern actresses are. Brian Keith is the real surprise. His performance is absolutely superb.

This is an odd movie, a movie that contemporary audiences and critics (and sad to say some modern critics as well) found too perplexing and too unconventional. It’s an odd mix of subtlety and outrageousness (Taylor publicly horse-whipping Brando certainly qualifies as outrageous). A strange and unusual piece of cinematic magic.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Nightmare Alley (1947)

In the late 1940s Tyrone Power was trying desperately to move away from his matinee idol/swashbuckling hero image. Nightmare Alley in 1947 took him about as far from that image as possible. It’s the story of the rise and fall of a carnival mentalist who becomes a highly successful phoney spiritualist. It was based on an extraordinarily bleak and powerful novel by William Lindsay Gresham.

This was very much a personal project for Tyrone Power, who was a big enough star to get the picture made despite the opposition of Darryl F. Zanuck who thought it was far too bleak for 1947 American audiences. It turned out that Zanuck was right. Zanuck insisted on changing the ending (and very nearly ruined the movie and destroyed the whole point of the story with a contrived sentimental ending) but the movie was a box office disaster anyway.

Despite the terrible ending it’s still a powerful and extremely dark movie. The world of the carnival is based on cynical deception of the rubes, but the world outside the carnival is even more corrupt and people outside the carnival crowds are just as gullible as the rubes. The plot of the novel follows a beautifully planned out and executed ironic trajectory, which Zanuck managed to wreck almost entirely.

Tyrone Power’s performance is superb. His character, Stan Carlisle, is both an innocent and a corrupt cynical operator lacking entirely in moral scruples. Joan Blondell is magnificent as Zeena, a mentalist who teaches Stan the ropes. Blondell was always terrific at comedy but here she’s given the oppprtunity to shw her serious acting chops and she grabs that opportunity with both hands. Helen Walker is very good and rather unsettling as a psychologist who turns out to be even more corrupt than Stan.

The movie is totally noir in its visual style – this is one of the most impressive features of the film. The carnival background and the techniques of deception are explained in fascinating detail. The commentary track is by James Ursini and Alain Silver, noted writers on film noir. They make the claim that Stan’s psychic powers aren’t completely bogus, that he seems to have some real powers. I’m very sceptical of that claim. Stan obviously is very very good at reading people. They also make the claim that because Zeena’s tarot cards seem to tell the truth that the film is suggesting that some psychic powers are real. Again I disagree. Zeena is extremely perceptive, she understands people (that’s why she can con them so effectively) and to be honest you don’t need to have psychic powers to see where Stan is headed. Their points about Stan’s being unscrupulous but not really evil are more valid. He is an interesting and complex character – he will sacrifice people to get what he wants but he isn’t really malicious.

If you can ignore the last scene it’s a great movie. Just pretend the film ends (as it should have) with the line, “Mister, I was born for it.”

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Follow Me Quietly (1949)

Follow Me Quietly is a 1949 RKO programmer that sometimes gets listed as an example of film noir, probably on the strength of boasting Anthony Mann as one of the writers. It’s not film noir at all, but in its own way it’s an interesting little movie, mostly because the plot is completely insane.

A crazed vigilante killer known as The Judge has committed a series of murders, always on rainy nights. Detective Lieutenant Harry Grant (William Lundigan) is baffled. To add to his problems, he has a Feisty Girl Reporter (Ann Gorman, played by Dorothy Patrick) following him around trying to get a story. He doesn’t like reporters, not even attractive Feisty Girl Reporters. But of course you know the big lunk will fall for her in the end, because the Hardbitten but Dedicated Cop and the Feisty Girl Reporter always have to get together.

Grant comes up with an ingenious scheme to trap the killer. They will prepare a dummy that looks just like The Judge. Except they have no idea what The Judge looks like, so the dummy has no face. Luckily witnesses in crime B-movies can easily recognise killers by looking at photographs of faceless dummies.

And it turns out The Judge reads the same true crime magazine that the Feisty Girl Reporter works for! This is indeed a lucky break. After all the magazine only has a few hundred thousand readers, so now finding the killer will be easy. And this connection will help to bring the Hardbitten but Dedicated Cop and the Feisty Girl Reporter together.

Dorothy Patrick is quite good. She doesn’t take the material too seriously, and she has fun being plucky and smart and determined. But not too smart, because she knows that girls who are too smart risk losing the Hardbitten but Dedicated Cop. And she doesn’t really want to be a Feisty Girl Reporter - she really wants to find a nice guy with whom she can settle down and get married. William Lundigan takes it all very seriously, but that kind of works with Dorothy Patrick’s slightly tongue-in-cheek performance.

The plot is amazingly silly but if you accept this as being a pure B-movie then it’s fairly entertaining. And it has some great cliche-ridden hardboiled dialogue.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Saint Takes Over (1940)

The Saint Takes Over, released in 1940, was the fourth of the popular RKO B-movies featuring George Sanders as amateur crime-fighter Simon Templar. It was the first of these movies not to be based on one of Leslie Charteris’s stories.

What makes The Saint so successful as a literary character is that he has a dark side and he has a shady past. He was in fact a successful criminal, but a criminal with a strong moral code. This moral code has caused him to switch sides and he’s now more or less on the side of the law, tracking down evil-doers as a kind of hobby. He can afford to do this because his own criminal activities were profitable enough to leave him financially secure. But he’s still not averse to making money in slightly dubious ways, and he’s still regarded by the police as a criminal.

When it came to both the RKO movie series and the later 1960s British TV series this dark side had to be toned down somewhat. This weakened the character a little, which made it very important to have the right actor playing the role, someone who could still suggest a certain degree of moral ambiguity and not make The Saint too virtuous. George Sanders was of course an absolute perfect choice, and with all due respect to Roger Moore Sanders remains the best-ever Simon Templar.

The Saint Takes Over opens on an ocean liner, with Templar rescuing a woman who was about to be fleeced by a group of card sharks. Simon is rather taken by the woman, but when the ship docks she disappears. But she will re-appear. Arriving in the United States The Saint finds himself drawn into a mystery involving a series of murders of prominent racketeers. The Saint’s old acquaintance Inspector Henry Fernack has been set up by these gangsters and thrown off the police force for accepting bribes. Templar finds the situation both intriguing and amusing, in fact just the kind of adventure he enjoys.

RKO always did crime B-movies particularly well. They had a team of solid technicians who could produce exactly the right kind of gritty feel, and the right mix of the sordid, the sleazy and the glamorous.

Sanders is of course superb.

The plot doesn’t try to get too clever, which would distract from the atmosphere and from the brilliance of Sanders’ performance. There’s enough hardboiled dialogue to keep any crime movie fan happy.

And the great secret of the classic Hollywood B-movie was that the requirement to keep the running time below 70 minutes meant that the pacing had to be brisk, and the lack of padding makes it easy to maintain the right level of tension.

The Saint Takes Over is undemanding light entertainment, but with more than enough style and wit to provide plenty of entertainment.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Belle de Jour (1967)

Luis Buñuel’s 1967 film Belle de Jour is the story of Séverine (played by Catherine Deneuve) and her double life.

The subject matter could easily lead you to expect a soft porn film, but Belle de Jour is nothing of the sort. If you’re expecting lots of nudity or graphic sex you’ll be very disappointed – this movie actually manages to be extremely coy while dealing with very adult subject matter, but then Buñuel understands that sex is very much a mind thing. What we imagine is more exciting than what we see.

Séverine is married to a wealthy, handsome, young doctor. She loves him, but she can’t bear to have sex with him. The film continually cuts between Séverine’s real life and her fantasy life, and her fantasy life makes it clear why she won’t have sex with him – Séverine wants to be dominated and humiliated, and her husband is just too nice and too clean to turn her on. Her name is obviously a reference to Severin, the hero of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s “Venus in Furs”.

She lives a double life in the sense that her fantasy life is more real and more fulfilling to her than her real life, but then after a chance remark by a friend leads her to a Paris brothel she starts living a real double life – prostitute by day, virtuous wife by night. Inevitably she finds that eventually her two lives collide. If this was a Hollywood film you could pretty much predict the ending, but this is most definitely not a Hollywood film.

Buñuel is not interested in moralising (and he has some fun satirising the hypocrisy of middle-class morality), he simply views his subject matter with amusement. Catherine Deneuve is superb, and manages to make Séverine completely believable.

This is an intelligent, incisive, amusing and non-judgmental look at sex, and it’s a very entertaining film. Highly recommended.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Two-Faced Woman (1941)

Given that it marked her final screen appearance Two-Faced Woman is generally regarded as the box-office bomb that sank Greta Garbo’s career. While it’s certainly a long way from being her best movie it’s actually nowhere near as bad as its reputation would suggest.

The big problem for both Garbo and MGM was that Garbo’s movies had always been much more popular in Europe than in the US. They did reasonably good business in the US but it was their huge success in Europe that made them major money-spinners for the studio. The outbreak of the Second World War effectively cut off the European market for Hollywood movies. MGM managed to persuade themselves that they had to change Garbo’s image and change the type of movies she made. Garbo’s somewhat unexpected comedy success with Ninotchka in 1939 led them to believe that comedy was her future. And teaming her up once again with her Ninotchka co-star Melvyn Douglas seemed like an even better.

Unfortunately Two-Faced Woman failed to repeat Ninotchka’s success. Garbo became convinced she was destined to spend the rest of her career in second-rate comedies and that she just wasn’t going to get the roles that really suited her any more, and decided that she’d prefer not to make any films at all. She was always willing to make a comeback if offered an interesting enough part but it just never happened. But if you can forget that this is the movie that ended her career, and if you avoid comparing it to Ninotchka, then there’s actually quite a lot to enjoy in Two-Faced Woman.

The basic idea is certainly promising. Melvyn Douglas is wealthy magazine publisher Larry Blake. While on holiday he has a whirlwind romance with his ski instructor Karin (Garbo). They marry, but almost immediately it becomes apparent that they want very different things out of life. She wants the outdoor life, he wants New York. She craves a quiet life while he craves excitement and constant activity. They quarrel, he departs for New York, and although he promises to return he finds more and more excuses not to. Finally she sets out for New York herself, and inspired by an idea planted by his assistant Miss Ellis she changes her look and pretends to be her own twin sister. A twin sister who is the complete opposite of Karin - a fun-loving party girl. Naturally Larry falls in love with the sister not realising it’s his wife. There are more plot twists as the deception shifts from one party to the other.

It was surprisingly very controversial at the time, being condemned by the Catholic Legion of Decency for its somewhat irreverent attitude towards marriage. There’s also at least a suggestion that the twin sister is not just a party girl but may in fact be the kind of woman who sells her sexual favours for money. Not exactly a hooker, but possibly more like an old-fashioned courtesan.

Garbo handles the comedy reasonably well. It’s not an outrageously funny movie, but it’s pleasant and amusing. The studio’s attempt to give her a less exotic and more American image was probably their biggest mistake. Ninotchka worked because it used Garbo’s exoticism to its advantage. But Two-Faced Woman is certainly harmless fun and it’s worth a look.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934)

Having decided that I my have sadly underestimated Leslie Howard as an actor I’m now watching anything of his that I can get my hands on. Starting with The Scarlet Pimpernel. This was the the first of countless TV and movie adaptations of Baroness Orczy’s classic tale of adventure and heroism, and I don’t think it’s ever been bettered. By the standards of the 1930s British film industry it’s a lavish production with a strong cast.

This is pure melodrama, and if you’re going to enjoy it you have to accept that. You’re supposed to boo whenever the dastardly Chauvelin makes an appearance. You’re also supposed to feel that by Gad, it makes one proud to be an Englishman. Which can be difficult if you’re not an Englishman to start with.

The story of course concerns a foolish and foppish Englishman, Sir Percy Blakeney, who is in reality the Scarlet Pimpernel, a dashing and terribly brave hero who rescues doomed aristocrats from the clutches of the wicked French revolutionaries. His beautiful wife Marguerite is a Frenchwoman who has a mysterious involvement with the cruel and villainous Citizen Chauvelin (Raymond Massey giving an entertaining pantomime villain performance). Sir Percy is assisted by a group of brave and devoted English noblemen, all determined to show these damned foreigners a thing or two.

Leslie Howard gives a bravura performance as the Pimpernel. Nigel Bruce is delightfully vain, pompous and foolish as the Prince of Wales. Raymomd Massey doesn’t actually twirl his moustaches as the perfidious Chauvelin, but you know he would if he could.

It’s the sort of thing that just begs to be sent up, and was in fact sent up very successfully in 1966 in one of the best of the Carry On movies, Don’t Lose Your Head. It’s all very silly, but it’s done with panache and it still works as a ripping Boys’ Own adventure yarn with some romance as well.

I got this movie as part of a three-movie DVD of of 1920s and 1930s adventure movies. It’s an OK DVD transfer, but not fantastic.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Night Nurse (1931)

Night Nurse is a very early Barbara Stanwyck pre-code film, with Stanwyck playing a woman who talks her way into a job as a nurse, with some help from the kindly doctor she (literally) ran into on the doorstep of the hospital. After completing their training Lora Hart (Stanwyck) and her best pal Maloney (Joan Blondell in yet another best friend of the heroine role) land a job nursing two sick children in a private house. The children appear to be suffering from malnutrition, and the their doctor has a rather odd treatment for this condition, which involves not feeding them.

As the health of the children steadily declines Lora becomes more and more suspicious of the set-up at the house. The house seems to be the scene of a continuous party, the doctor is evasive and hostile when questioned, the mother is permanently drunk and the chauffeur (Clark Gable) seems to be the on in charge. She starts to suspect some sinister plot. Fortunately she has one useful ally, a bootlegger she patched up with no questions asked when he turned up at the hospital with a bullet wound. He might be a gangster, but he never forgets a pal, he’s rather sweet on Lora, and really he’s a big old softie. He doesn’t even like killing people, so he always gets someone else to do it for him. But can Lora act quickly enough to save those kids?

Unlike Stanwyck’s other notorious pre-code movies, such as Baby Face and Ladies They Talk About, Night Nurse doesn’t make the pre-code content too overt. It’s more that the whole tone of the film is pre-code. It’s the sort of movie that the Code wouldn’t have forced cuts on - they’d have simply told the studio the entire movie was unacceptable! The heroine has to rely on a bootlegger to save the day, and he’s not a reformed bootlegger. And she’s pretty keen on him too, and she doesn’t mind that he’s a criminal. The expose of outrageous medical malpractice is also something that would probably not find favour in the post-code days.

The whole atmosphere of the film is wonderfully sordid and corrupt, and the legitimate authority figures are mostly ineffectual and unwilling to get their hands dirty. If a girl gets in a jam she’s better off turning to her hoodlum boyfriend for help than to the authorities. Stanwyck is always fun in her pe-code movies, and she and Blondell are delightful together. Gable isn’t the lovable rogue this time, just a vicious thug with a sadistic streak.

One of the elements in pre-code movies that the Code cracked down on was gratuitous undressing scenes used as an excuse to show actresses in their underwear, and Night Nurse includes one of the all-time classic gratuitous undressing scenes, and manages to combine it with just the faintest hint of additional wickedness by having Joan Blondell (playing the heroine’s best friend as usual) always willing to lend a hand to a pal by helping her to get undressed! It’s the kind of delightfully salacious scene that makes pre-code movies so much fun.

Night Nurse is another pre-code gem, and of course it’s a must for Stanwyck fans.

Night Nurse is included in the TCM Archives - Forbidden Hollywood Collection, Vol. 2 DVD boxed set, although I caught up with it on TCM in Australia.