Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Come Dance With Me! (1959)

My Brigitte Bardot obsession continues to grow. It’s not an easy obsession to follow since her movies are not all that easy to find in Australia, but I do my best. My most recent find was Come Dance With Me! (Voulez-vous danser avec moi?).

Made in 1959, this is a murder mystery but done in a strictly light-hearted way, with generous helpings of comedy and romance.

Bardot is Virginie, a young woman who falls in love with a dentist named Hervé and despite the opposition of her father marries him. They have a silly little lovers’ tiff and he takes refuge in a local bar. He meets a woman there who offers to dance with him, and also offers a shoulder to cry on. He is persuaded to drive her home, and then is persuaded to come in for just one drink. One thing leads to another and pretty soon he has his head buried between her breasts. At which point her co-conspirator snaps some very incriminating photos. Our hapless dentist has been set up by a blackmailing operation.

The unlucky dentist hasn’t really done anything terribly wrong, he hasn’t technically been unfaithful, but such photos are rather difficult to explain away. He confronts the blackmailing woman, but she is insistent, and when he turns up to a second meeting at her dance studio he discovers her dead body, Which is very embarrassing indeed given that he has a very strong motive for wanting her dead.

To make things more complicated for our unfortunate dentist, Virginie has followed him to his meeting with the blackmailer and arrives to find him standing over her lifeless body. Now he has to convince her of his innocence. And having done that, he’s going to need her help in proving his innocence to the police.

Luckily Virginie takes to amateur detective work like a duck to water. And that’s one of the things I like about Bardot’s movies. She might often seem to be set up as a superficially stereotypical movie dumb blonde but her characters generally turn out not to be dumb at all. They’re often wildly eccentric, but never dumb. In this movie she’s rather ditzy but that doesn’t prevent her from being a better crime-solver than the police.

Another thing I like about Bardot’s movies is that she’s usually extremely funny but when we laugh at her it’s always in an affectionate way. We don’t laugh at her because she’s ridiculous or stupid.

Come Dance With Me! is rather racy for a 1959 movie, even for a 1959 French movie. The heroine’s quest for justice leads her to a gay bar in Paris, and we’re treated to a drag show. And there’s no hedging about the subject matter. There’s no subtext here.

Of course what really matters with this type of movie is whether it’s entertaining or not, and this one is very entertaining. It’s a well-crafted murder mystery and it’s a fun romantic farce as well. And Bardot is delightful, as always.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Imitation of Life (1959)

Douglas Sirk’s 1959 remake of Imitation of Life makes quite a contrast with the 1934 version. There’s obviously a huge contrast in the visual style – the 1959 version is not just in widescreen and in colour, it’s in amazingly sumptuous colour. It has a completely non-realistic look to it, a look I rather enjoy.

The other major contrast is in the relationship between the two women. In the 1934 version they’re business partners; in the 1959 version the African-American woman is the white woman’s maid. And whereas in 1934 the Claudette Colbert character was a successful businesswoman, the 1959 equivalent (played by Lana Turner) is an actress. So really it could be seen as a major step backward in terms of both race and gender.

Also, Colbert’s boyfriend in the 1934 movie respects her and seems to be attracted to her because she’s intelligent and independent. The same character (played by John Gavin) in the 1959 film treats Lana Turner as a empty-headed bimbo who needs a man to tell her what to do.

That’s not to say that the 1959 film doesn’t have its virtues. I also think you could argue that it’s reflecting a more racist and sexist society rather than promoting such values. I think we’re meant to be appalled by the behaviour of the men in Turner’s life. Lana Turner does a reasonable job in this film.

Susan Kohner as the daughter trying to pass as white is very impressive. Sandra Dee as Lana Turner’s daughter is terrifyingly perky. Perkiness on that scale should come with a government health warning.

The two movies (available together on a double-sided DVD) are fascinating to watch back-to-back. Both are important historically in the way they illustrate Hollywood’s attitudes towards important social issues. Both are very entertaining movies. And the opening credits sequence in the 1959 film is simply wonderful, and sets the tone of lushness very nicely.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Green Cockatoo (1937)

I’ve seen The Green Cockatoo referred to in several sources as the first British film noir. I was a little sceptical about this, but in fact it does have some fairly impressive noir credentials.

Made in 1937 and based on a Graham Greene story, it was directed by William Cameron Menzies. Menzies is better known as an art director and production designer (and a very good one) but he did direct a number of movies, and he does a fine job with this one. Mutz Greenbaum provides some very noir cinematography, in fact remarkably noir for a 1930s British film. It also features some seriously Expressionist sets.

Jim Connor is a tough guy, and he’s obviously been a bit of a bad boy although he disapproves of his brother’s association with a criminal gang involved in race-fixing. You don’t get many singing, tap-dancing tough guys in movies, but Jim is in fact a singing, tap-dancing tough guy.

John Mills is better than you might expect as Jim. He’s reasonably convincing as a hardboiled character. Jim is actually a complex and somewhat tortured character, as you’d expect in a Graham Greene story.

Robert Newton plays his brother Dave, who has got in way over his head with the gang controlled by Terrell (Charles Oliver) and is now on the run after having double-crossed the gang. He encounters Eileen (René Ray), an innocent young country lass who has just arrived in London. Eileen is bewildered enough already, but she soon finds herself involved in a nightmare, suspected of murder and with gangsters pursuing her.

It’ an entertaining and surprisingly stylish little movie. Unfortunately it’s not in terribly good condition. In many places you can see that the nitrate has started to decompose. It’s a shame, because it’s a movie that deserves a decent restoration and a good DVD release. It’s still very much worth seeing, and really it’s a must for noir fans.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Bob le flambeur (1956)

Jean-Pierre Melville’s Bob le flambeur, released in 1956, wasn’t just a major influence on the French New Wave film-makers. In many ways it is a fully fledged New Wave film.

The title character, Bob the Gambler, is an ultra-cool gangster, gambler and tough guy in 1950 Paris. Or at least he used to be. He still has the pose, and the flash American car, and the clothes, but really he’s just a rather ridiculous old man living on past glories. His last big job was the Rimbaud bank robbery, and that was 20 years earlier. And it was a failure anyway. All he has left is his image, and to maintain that he has to keep gambling. And he’s losing. Losing continuously, and losing big time.

In fact he’s so broke he decides on one last spectacular heist, a last desperate throw of the dice to avoid admitting that he’s over the hill and in serious anger of becoming merely pathetic.

While Bob le flambeur is heavily influenced by American film noir, and shows the depth of Melville’s admiration for American popular culture and for Hollywood movies, there’s nothing even remotely American about the film. This movie is about as French as a movie could possibly be.

While it’s in some respects more morally ambiguous and more cynical than the American crime films of the 40s and early 50s, it’s also a lot more romantic, and even whimsical. The whole exercise is done with tongue planted firmly in cheek, and is absolutely dripping with irony. It’s that blend of romanticism and irony that makes it, for me at least, so overwhelmingly French. It has the fatalism of classic film noir, but with a strongly absurdist edge to it.

Bob likes to imagine that he has assembled an elite team of crooks for the heist of the century, and has drilled them so that they function like a well-oiled precision machine, but they’re like actors who think they’re the heroes of a classic heist movie when in reality they’re merely players in a farce. This is a film noir story, but told as black comedy.

It’s a movie in which atmosphere and tone are infinitely more important than plot. Melville draws us into this seedy world of phoney glamour and cut-rate wannabe big shots, with some glorious location filming. The camerawork as well as the style anticipate the New Wave.

It’s a terrific looking movie, and the Region 2 DVD from Optimum Home Entertainment boasts a superb transfer (and is less than half the price of the Criterion DVD). The movie looks like it was filmed yesterday rather than half a century ago. Highly recommended.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Under Capricorn (1949)

Under Capricorn is a movie that even Alfred Hitchcock’s most fervent admirers seem to dislike. It cost a fortune to make in 1949 and was a financial disaster for Transatlantic Pictures which went bust as a result. It was certainly not what most people expected from Hitchcock at that time, although it was by no means his only non-suspense film. He had made several non-suspense movies early in his career, including the fascinating Rich and Strange. And it was one of his very few attempts at a costume picture (the other notable example being Jamaica Inn, which is almost as reviled as Under Capricorn. It’s also worth noting that it was one of several British films he did at around this time (Stage Fright was another).

The only fair way to approach Under Capricorn is to take it on its own terms. It’s unashamedly and unequivocally a romantic melodrama. A feckless young nobleman, the Hon. Charles Adare (Michael Wilding) arrives in Sydney in 1831, hoping to make his fortune. He becomes involved in a slightly dubious deal with Sam Flusky (Joseph Cotten), an ex-convict who is now a wealthy businessman. And he discovers that Flusky’s wife Henrietta (Ingrid Bergman) is an old acquaintance of his, a childhood friend. She was a noblewoman and Sam was a servant with whom she fell in love and eloped, but her brother tracked down the lovers and was subsequently shot, a crime for which Sam was sentenced to seven years’ transportation to the penal colony of New South Wales. She followed him to the colony, but the marriage is an uneasy one. The household is ruled by the housekeeper Millie (Margaret Leighton), not quite as sinister a character as Mrs Danvers in Rebecca but she’s certainly sinister enough.

Of course young Charles falls in love with Henrietta. She has taken to the bottle, but he is determined to save her from what he has decided is a totally unsuitable marriage to a totally unsuitable husband. The usual plot complications ensue.

The movie cost a fortune to make and once the production company went belly-up it never really had a chance commercially. No-one was interested enough to promote the picture properly, and it flopped. I’m not going to claim it’s one of Hitchcock’s masterpieces, but it’s actually not a bad movie. Hitchcock was still obsessed with his experiments with using very long takes (this was only a year after Rope), and they work quite well. The camera roams about restlessly, follows the action through doorways, down corridors, up staircases and through windows, and jumps from one scene of action to another. It helps to build the atmosphere of frustration and sexual tension. The three leads, Ingrid Bergman, Joseph Cotten and Michael Wilding, are all good, especially Bergman (and her Irish accent is better than one might have feared).

In some ways I think it suffers from having been perceived as a women’s picture (I think Rebecca has suffered from this as well to a lesser extent) at a time when that label was very nearly the critical kiss of death. Its reputation has not been helped by Hitchcock’s own unfortunate tendency to turn against any of his own movies that failed to find favour with the public and the critics. It’s also, like several of Hitchcock’s early films (notably The Skin Game) very concerned with class.

If you can forget its poor reputation and approach it with an open mind and accept it as a romance rather than a suspense film it’s definitely worth a look.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Black Narcissus (1947)

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s Black Narcissus is a movie that overwhelms the viewer with its visual magnificence. It’s a staggeringly beautiful film, and one can only gaze in awe at the lusciousness of the colours. Cinematography Jack Cardiff was nothing short of a genius and this is arguably his masterwork (for which he picked up an Oscar).

The plot is close to non-existent, but such as it is it involves a group of Anglican (not Roman Catholic) trying to establish a convent including a school and a hospital in the Himalayas in British India. The convent is set up in a palace formerly reserved for the women of the local rajah and is decorated with some rather stunning and outrageous erotic art. The nuns begin to self-destruct almost immediately.

The visuals overshadow the story, but they’re meant to. What this film has to say it says by way of a succession of images. Plot, dialogue and acting are more or less irrelevant. Colours are more important than acting. For a 1947 British movie this approach is extraordinarily bold and unconventional. And not one scene of Black Narcissus was filmed in India. The Himalayan scenes were all done in the studio. It’s a completely artificial world, but then of course so is a nunnery.

This movie is absolutely dripping with sexual and emotional repression. The unhealthiness of the atmosphere is overpowering. This is an attack on the celibate religious life that is in its own way every bit as savage as Ken Russell’s notorious 1971 film The Devils, and it’s truly amazing that they got away with it in 1947. Particularly telling is the scene in which one of the nuns, who has renounced her vows, sits opposite the head of the order whilst applying astonishingly lurid red lipstick.

The madness of the nuns is portrayed mostly by visual means, by colour and by composition, rather than by the acting, despite Kathleen Byron’s scenery-chewing but nonetheless effective performance. Deborah Kerr as the Sister Superior is good, but it’s mostly the way she’s photographed that conveys the nightmare of a control freak slowly losing control.

This is a very un-British movie, and it demonstrates that Michael Powell was a disturbing influence in British cinema long before making his infamous Peeping Tom in 1960. Black Narcissus is a strange and brilliant movie.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Written on the Wind (1956)

I’ve now seen two Douglas Sirk movies in two days, firstly Imitation of Life and now Written on the Wind. I had mixed feelings about the former but I absolutely adored Written on the Wind. It’s just so outrageous. It’s like a cross between Dallas and Valley of the Dolls.
And it looks so gorgeous. How did he get such amazingly vivid colours? Even by the standards of Technicolor the colours are dazzling. Everything has an air of unreality, of staginess. The sets are expensive, but they don’t look real. They look like incredibly expensive film sets.

The dialogue is so overheated. The acting is exaggerated almost, but not quite, to the point of parody. But somehow it works. It’s pure melodrama, but it does deal with real issues and real emotions. It deals with them in an exaggerated and heightened way, with more symbolism than you can poke a stick at. The scene with Dorothy Malone stroking the model oil derrick has to be seen to be believed.

All four main actors give the same types of performance, so one has to assume that these were exactly the performances that Sirk wanted. Robert Stack plays Kyle Hadley, a sexually insecure alcoholic oil tycoon. Rock Hudson is his best friend, Mitch Wayne (wonderful character names in this film), who happens to be in love with his wife. Lauren Bacall is Stack’s wife Lucy , while Dorothy Malone is Kyle’s sex-crazed younger sister Marylee.

The actors focus obsessively on one aspect of each character – Kyle’s fears of sexual inadequacy an failure in general, Mitch’s divided loyalties, Lucy’s determination to somehow make her husband happy, Marylee’s sexual frustration. The performances make fascinating contrast to the Method acting that was becoming so fashionable at the time. Although the performances are artificial they do achieve a kind of intensity that is actually more effective than the mumbling incoherence of the Method.

There are also some sharp observations on the emptiness of life in 1950s America. These people have everything, but they’re absolutely miserable. Written on the Wind is insanely entertaining, it looks magnificent, it’s like eating too many overly rich chocolates, but it’s addictive. I loved it. It’s soap opera, but it’s the Citizen Kane of soap opera.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Illicit (1931)

Illicit, in 1931, gave Barbara Stanwyck her first starring role. She plays a young woman, Anne Vincent, who doesn’t want to marry her boyfriend. She wants to keep living in sin, because that’s what they’ve been doing and she’s been thoroughly enjoying it, and because she believes marriage kills romance, and also because she doesn’t want to become a man’s property.

As events unfold, and she finds herself pressured into marriage, it becomes obvious that most of her fears were justified. This is very much the kind of movie that the tightening up of the Hollywood Production Code in 1934 was intended to stop, with its guilt-free attitude towards sex and its very independent heroine.

Stanwyck is delightful – funny and feisty and sweet and likeable an sexy at the same time. James Rennie is OK as her boyfriend, who turns out to be rather conventional. Ricardo Cortez is suave and slightly sinister as one of Anne’s ex-boyfriends who is still intermittently pursuing her.

Joan Blondell, as so often, plays the heroine’s best friends and, as always, she lights up the screen. Charles Butterworth plays an amusing perpetually drunken friend, the kind of role that is often annoying in these early sound pictures but Butterworth is quite wonderful, with a superb very dry wit and an air of dazed benevolence.

Illicit is always entertaining and provides a nice mix of humour and romance. It’s also nice to see a movie which doesn’t make judgments on any of its characters. Even the “other woman” isn’t demonised. Recommended. And if you’re a fan of Barbara Stanwyck (and what right-thinking person isn’t) I recommend it even more highly.

It was released on VHS in the celebrated Forbidden Hollywood series but sadly does not appear to have ever received a DVD release.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Blood and Sand (1922)

Blood and Sand was based on a book by the Spanish writer Vicente Blasco Ibáñez, whose novels provided the basis for surprisingly large number of Hollywood silent movies (the Greta Garbo vehicles Torrent and The Temptress and another Valentino movie, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse). The novel was apparently an impassioned attack on bull-fighting. This was watered down somewhat in the 1922 movie, although it’s still there in the background.

Rudolph Valentino plays Juan, a young man from a poor family who achieves spectacular success as a matador, but his success does not prove to be the uncomplicated blessing he expected. He loves his wife Carmen, but as a successful matador he meets a lot of charming women, and unfortunately he is quite unable to resist the charms of one in particular, the beautiful but wicked Doña Sol.

The plot contrasts his career with another career, that of the notorious bandit Plumitas, who becomes Juan’s friend. Plumitas points out that they’re both killers, but Juan gets fame and money from killing while he is an outlaw who expects to end his life being “shot down like a dog.” We also get strange little linking pieces, in which an elderly philosopher philosophises about violence and cruelty.

Fred Niblo’s direction is unexciting, but this turns out to be an unexpected asset – it puts the focus on character rather than spectacle. This places great demand on the actors, especially Valentino. Valentino is more than equal to the task, giving a portrayal that is subtle and complex of a man who is neither hero nor villain but contains the seeds of both qualities. Nita Naldi makes a wonderful wicked woman as Doña Sol. Lila Lee has the relatively thankless role of Juan’s virtuous wife, but she does a competent job.

While the direction is static there are some images that have a certain sombre tragic quality to them. The bull-fighting scenes are (mercifully) very brief, and consist mostly of stock footage intercut with a few close shots of Valentino. The editing of the bull-fight sequences was done by Dorothy Arzner, who went on to become one of Hollywood’s very very rare women directors. If you’re a Valentino fan you’ve already seen this one. If you’re not a Valentino fan this movie could well be the one to convert you.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Moonfleet (1955)

A Fritz Lang movie in colour, and in Cinemascope? And it’s an adventure movie for children? That couldn’t possibly have worked, could it? But somehow Moonfleet does work. Yes, it really is a kids’ adventure movie, and on that level it works very well. But it’s also an adventure movie by a master film-maker, and it is still very much a Fritz Lang movie, with plenty of characteristic touches. It also gave Lang the opportunity to go for a more overtly Expressionist and gothic look than was the case in most of his Hollywood movies, and it’s a bit reminiscent of his early silent masterpieces in that respect.

It’s 1757, and a wicked squire (Jeremy Fox, played by Stewart Granger) is masterminding a smuggling operation somewhere in southern England. If you think that sounds a bit like Hitchcock’s Jamaica Inn, you’re dead wrong – the feel of the two movies couldn’t be more different. There’s nothing remotely camp about Moonfleet. Lang plays it straight, and he gets away with it.

One day a small boy turns up bearing a message for Fox, a message from his past, a message that requires him to take responsibility for the boy. All very inconvenient for someone who divides his life between criminal activities and a life of sensual indulgence. There’s a local legend about the boy’s family, with an evil long-dead ancestor (known as Redbeard) reputed to still roam the village churchyard at night, and the legend also speaks of a fabulous diamond. Many have sought the diamond, but in vain. Numerous complications naturally ensue.

Jeremy Fox is a nicely ambiguous character who wouldn’t be out of place in a Lang film noir. Stewart Granger is well cast and does a solid job. George Sanders is suitably corrupt and creepy as a dissipated and vicious nobleman involved in various schemes with Fox. Joan Greenwood is delicious as his beautiful but even more depraved wife. Jon Whiteley as the boy manages not to be annoying, a rare feat for a Hollywood child actor in this era (or any era for that matter). The movie has a very gothic look indeed, with manages to look wonderfully gloomy and foreboding despite the use of colour. Colour is in fact used with great skill in this movie.

The basic story may be an adventure yarn for kids but there’s more than enough in Moonfleet to provide intelligent and entertaining viewing for audiences of any age. I believe it’s only available on DVD in France (where it’s very highly regarded) but apparently it turns up on TCM from time to time. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Sky West and Crooked (1966)

In a village in England two children, a boy and a girl (Brydie), are playing with the boy’s father’s gun. The gun discharges. The boy is killed, the girl is injured and never entirely recovers from the shock. Now she’s all sky west and crooked. At age 17, still in many ways a child herself, she has become a kind of leader to the village children. Obsessed with death, she soon has the children digging up the church yard to bury dead animals. After a confrontation with the father of the boy who was killed Brydie is pulled from a river by a young man, a gypsy.

Sky West and Crooked (released in the US under the inaccurate under far less interesting title Gypsy Girl) was the only film to be directed by Sir John Mills. It’s based on a story written by his wife, Mary Hayley Bell, and stars his daughter Hayley Mills.

Hayley Mills had become a major child star in Disney movies but the movies she made in Britain during the same period were far more interesting, including the excellent Whistle Down the Wind and Tiger Bay. Her performance in Sky West and Crooked is superb, sensitive without being sentimental.

Sir John Mills does a fine job as director. The marvellous supporting cast doesn’t hurt either, with standout performances by Annette Crosbie as Brydie’s mother and by Geoffrey Bayldon as a somewhat bewildered but basically kind vicar.

Sky West and Crooked is a love story and it’s a story about guilt and the need for forgiveness, and the difficulty we have in forgiving ourselves. It’s also a movie about being different and about people’s narrow-mindedness when confronted by anyone who is different.

One of the things I particularly like about this film is the way the people who are narrow-minded are not demonised; they are not portrayed as bad people. It’s their own fears and anxieties, their own shame and guilt, that cause them to behave in an intolerant manner. They’re ordinary and in many ways decent people. They’re just scared, and they’re weak people. It’s also clear that the anxiety the villagers feel about Brydie is at least partly a fear of Brydie’s awakening sexuality. It’s an anxiety that Brydie is becoming a woman but she doesn’t have the necessary array of repressions to go with it.

Sky West and Crooked is a superb example of British movie-making at its best.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Hotel Reserve (1944)

Hotel Reserve is a 1944 British spy thriller somewhat in the mould of 1930s Hitchcock thrillers like The Lady Vanishes. It combines suspense, some tongue-in-cheek comedy and a little romance.

A young Austrian, Peter Vadassy (played by James Mason), finds himself accused of espionage in France in 1938. On a seaside holiday at the Hotel Reserve he is indulging himself in his favourite hobby, photography, but unfortunately the gendarmes discover photographs of secret military installations on a roll of film he has left at the village store for processing. He is innocent, but must somehow find the real spy in order to clear his name.

The movie benefits from a fine cast, with especially entertaining performances by Julien Mitchell as the French intelligence chief and Herbert Lom (always a delight) as one of the guests at the hotel. Mason is superb, a mixture of boyish charm, naivete, injured innocence and surprising resourcefulness.
Hotel Reserve is sometimes mentioned as an example of a British film noir, and it does have some definite noir features. The second half of the movie becomes progressively darker in tone, and the photography starts to take on a very noirish look. The closing sequences in particular are all shadows and low-key lighting, and are very effective. Any movie based on a novel by Eric Ambler (a shamefully neglected and underrated writer today) is almost inevitably going to have an atmosphere conducive to film noir, Ambler’s specialty being the ordinary person caught up in a nightmare world of suspicion, danger and intrigue, a world in which no-one is quite what they seem to be and no-one can be trusted.

This is a well-crafted and thoroughly enjoyable little movie, a fine example of the superb mystery thrillers that the British film industry seemed to be able to turn out in abundance in the 1940s and 1950s.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Blonde Ice (1948)

Blonde Ice is a film noir B-movie that was apparently thought to be lost for many years. It’s been restored and released by on DVD by VCI Entertainment, at a very attractive price and with a host of extras. This is what classic movie DVDs should be like.

The movie itself is very much a B feature, but it’s a very entertaining one. Claire Cummings is a society columnist on the make. She wants money and she wants position, and she uses men to get both. She’s one of the great femmes fatales. As the tagline says - ice in her veins, icicles on her heart. Leslie Brooks plays Claire as a larger-than-life character and on the whole does a great job.

The rest of the cast are solid, with Robert Paige giving some unexpected depth to the role of the one man that Claire actually feel something for, or at least appears to feel something for.

Director Jack Bernhard and cinematographer George Robinson attempt some surprisingly ambitious shots, including a couple of very well executed long tracking shots, that give the movie the feel of something that was made on a Poverty Row budget but by people who were genuinely trying to make a good movie.

Blonde Ice is entertaining, and it has that edginess to it that you get in the better B noirs. And it’s worth it just for Leslie Brooks as the scheming, ruthless but utterly fascinating Claire.

The extras include a commentary track (and a pretty good one too) by film restoration consultant Jay Fenton, an interview with Fenton (who has some extremely interesting things to say about film restoration), a truly bizarre little 1940s musical numbers called “Satan Wears a Satin Gown” and an episode of what was apparently an early 1950s film noirish TV series.

This is a great package, for which I paid a mere six bucks. I recommend it very highly.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (1951)

Every now and than an executive from a major movie studio has a moment of temporary insanity and gives the go-ahead for a movie like Pandora and the Flying Dutchman, a movie that is going to cost the studio a lot of money but has no chance of mainstream success. We should be grateful for those moments of temporary insanity, because otherwise we would never get odd, quirky and rather magical movies like this one.

I’ve seen a lot of criticism of Ava Gardner’s performance as Pandora, which leavers me mystified. I think she’s perfectly cast, and I think her performance is spot on. She’s not supposed to be an ordinary everyday person. She’s the sort of woman who can turn down a marriage proposal by telling the man that she’s already in love, but she can’t tell him who the man is that she’s in love with because she hasn’t met him yet.

This is not a realist movie about real people, it’s a piece of story-telling, it’s a legend, and she’s a woman of legend. Early on she asks Stephen, who loves her, to push his car over a cliff to prove his love. This is a car he’s built himself and devoted several years of his life to, a car in which he hopes to break the Land Speed Record. Gardner has established Pandora’s character so well that you know she really does intend to let him do it. If you want to win a woman like Pandora you have to be prepared to pay a price. In fact you have to be prepared to pay any price she asks.

I had no difficulty in accepting that she would ask something like that. And I had no difficulty in believing that the price was worthwhile. Reggie, who also loves her, pays an even higher price, a much higher price.

The movie is told in flashback, which enhances the feeling that this is a tale we’re being told, and whether we believe it to be true or not is up to us. A Dutchman (played by James Mason) arrives at a Spanish seaport in the 1920s. Geoffrey, an antiquarian who tells the story, comes to believe that this Dutchman is in fact the Flying Dutchman, condemned to wander the oceans of the world for all eternity, and who can be released from his curse only if he can find a woman willing to die for him.

It’s gorgeously photographed by master cinematographer Jack Cardiff. I loved the statuary on the beach, and they’re used to great effect to achieve the feeling of the mundane world intersecting with the world of myth and legend. It’s also an incredibly romantic film – it’s all about love, and the price we’re willing to pay for it. It’s an unusual movie, but if you accept it on its own terms it really is a magical one. I loved it.

Pandora and the Flying Dutchmanis available on DVD, and is about to be released on Blu-Ray (if you don’t mind paying the extortionate prices being asked by Kino).