Saturday, August 28, 2010

Stormy Waters (1941)

Jean Grémillon’s Stormy Waters (Remorques) isn’t quite in the style of the French film noir of the 30s (or poetic realism as it was also known) as I’d hoped, but it does have enough in common with that style to make it interesting. And it’s a good film in its own right.

Although released in 1941 it was apparently shot a couple of years earlier. Given the fact that France was going through the trauma of war and the Occupation at the time we’re probably fortunate the movie was completed and released at all. The plot is extremely simple but that’s one of the movie’s strengths. It’s the response of the characters to events that matters.

André Laurent (Jean Gabin) is the captain of an ocean-going tug, the Cyclone. The salvage and rescue work by which he and his crew make their loving is lucrative but dangerous. André has no real choice though. The sea is in his blood. His wife Yvonne would like him to give up the sea. He keeps promising to do so but of course he never does.

Events come to a crisis for André when the Cyclone attempts to tow in a stricken freighter, the Mirva. The Mirva’s captain is strangely indifferent to the fate of his ship. His wife Catherine (Michèle Morgan) is on board and it appears that their marriage is, like the ship, drifting helplessly towards the rocks. In fact his wife takes to one of the lifeboats and is picked up by the Cyclone.

The attraction between André and Catherine is immediate. Catherine tells André that she and her husband are through. We see to have here a setup for a classic romantic triangle but it turns out to be more complicated than that. There are in fact three rivals for André’s love - Catherine his wife Yvonne, and the sea itself. Yvonne and the sea are very similar - they both demand unconditional love and absolute commitment, and both are capable of overwhelming the unwary sailor and dragging him down into the depths.

Everything in the movie relates to the sea or ships. The Cyclone’s job is to rescue ships that are adrift. The lives of all the major characters are also adrift. They are not unhappy because they are weak or bad or selfish. They’ve simply failed to choose a definite course and to maintain it, and have not realised that without a steady hand on the tiller you will always be in danger of shipwreck.

The attraction between André and Catherine is not quite what you expect, given the conventions of romantic movies. Catherine does not represent the stormy waters of uncontrollable sexual passion; rather she represents for André a safe port. He feels comfortable with her. But to reach that safe haven he will have to navigate his way through some treacherous emotional waters.

The ending is emotionally wrenching and works superbly.

The movie benefits enormously from the extreme underplaying of both Jean Gabin and Michèle Morgan. They had been paired very successfully a couple of years earlier in one of the great masterpieces of French cinema, Marcel Carné’s Le quai des brumes (Port of Shadows). They have a wonderful chemistry that is all the more powerful for not being obvious and overtly sexual.

As you’d expect from a French movie of this period the black-and-white cinematography is very impressive, even in the slightly battered print that was screened on Australian cable TV.

Perhaps not quite in the same class as the very greatest French movies of that era such as Le quai des brumes and Hôtel du Nord but still a wonderful movie. Highly recommended.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

That Touch of Mink (1962)

That Touch of Mink was one of Cary Grant’s last films and it’s not one of his most highly regarded. In fact it’s rather fun although it has its problems.

Grant is teamed this time with Doris Day. She apparently felt during the making of the movie that Grant was rather distant and there’s no doubt that they don’t quite generate the necessary chemistry. Given that Cary Grant himself disliked the picture you might expect this one to be a major disappointment but Day’s exuberance is enough to save it.

Day is unemployed computer operator Cathy Timberlake who meets the fabulously wealthy Philip Shayne when his car splashes her with mud. The attraction is immediate and he asks her to go away with him to Bermuda, and then on to Paris. As is usual in these movies the plot mostly revolves around finding ways to prevent the two of them going to bed together until they can be safely married at the end.

It’s the sort of movie that tends to get labelled as hopelessly dated by modern critics accustomed to the crassness and obviousness of modern romantic comedies. And as is usual with modern critics, they miss the point of the movie completely. Cathy isn’t battling doggedly to preserve her virginity. She spends much of the movie desperately trying to lose it. The movie makes it absolutely crystal clear that the little getaway that Philip proposes will involve sex and will not involve marriage (we are shown their hotel room and there is a double bed and we are told that that is the only bed in the suite), and it makes it just as abundantly clear that Cathy knows the score and is perfectly willing to accept the arrangement on that understanding.

Even more surprising perhaps is that Philip spends a great deal of money on her without the slightest mention of love. There is certainly at least the implication that Cathy understands that she is offering to have sex with him in exchange for money, or at least in return for some very expensive presents. So much for Doris Day’s reputation as the squeaky clean perpetual virgin.
So the movie is, as much as anything, gently mocking the sexual mores of its time.

Grant may have been going through the motions to some extent but he was a professional and his performance is still reasonable. Day is terrific. Gig Young provides great support as Grant’s neurotic business advisor.

The biggest problem is Audrey Meadows as Cathy’s best friend. It’s one of the most annoying performances in movie history. And we see way too much of her.

It has some quite funny moments, and a couple of amazingly risque gags. Even if it’s one of the lesser Doris Day sex comedies there’s a sufficient quantity of romance and humour to provide perfectly acceptable entertainment.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Twentieth Century (1934)

Since Twentieth Century was directed by the man who went on to become the unchallenged master of the screwball comedy, Howard Hawks, you’d expect that this 1934 Columbia movie might well be a very early example of the genre. And in fact it has most of the features you’d expect from this type of movie. And being a Howard Hawks movie you’d expect it to be very good, and you’d be right again.

John Barrymore is theatrical impresario Oscar Jaffe. He’s had a string of Broadway hits and he’s about to unveil his latest discovery, a young actress named Mildred Plotka (Carole Lombard). Although she’s not Mildred for long - he’s renamed her Lily Garland. Unfortunately she’s absolutely terrible and everyone who works for him is convinced he’s finally taken leave of his senses. They beg him to get rid of her but he stubbornly insists that she has the makings of a great Broadway star, possibly the greatest of them all.

Oscar is in fact quite mad, but he turns out to be correct. Before long Lili Garland is the toast of Broadway. And she and Oscar are lovers. But to say their love is tempestuous would be an understatement of colossal proportions. This is no tempest - it’s a full-blown hurricane. Eventually Lily walks out and then commits the most unforgivable of all sins - she goes to Hollywood.

Oscar’s career takes an immediate nosedive. His attempts to groom new stars fail dismally. He has a string of flops over the next couple of years, which culminates in having to flee Chicago in disguise to avoid his debtors. He boards the Twentieth Century Limited, the most famous train in North America, bound for New York. But as luck would have it, Lily Garland is aboard the same train. His faithful business partners encourage him to make the attempt to patch things up with Lily and sign he to a new contract, this being his only hope of avoiding complete financial ruin. Of course things don’t work out neatly.

Hawks is in complete command. The pacing is frenetic. Having a script by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur certainly doesn’t hurt either. Have much of the action take place on the train is another asset - I’ve always firmly believed you just can’t make a boring movie set on a train.

And then there’s the cast. The supporting players are fine, but the movie’s two biggest assets are Lombard and Barrymore. They’re superb and the sparks fly whenever they’re on screen together. Barrymore is particularly good - it’s an outrageous totally crazed performance and it demonstrates that he was absolutely perfect for the screwball comedy genre.

The theatrical background works nicely since both Oscar and Lily are completely artificial creations - they’re so much a part of the theatre world that they treat the whole of life as a stage performance.

There’s really not a single weakness to this movie. It’s a delight from start to finish.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

The Bear and the Doll (1969)

The Bear and the Doll (L'ours et la poupée) is a 1969 Brigitte Bardot romantic comedy. Like many of Bardot’s movies what it really has going for it is Bardot, but that’s enough.

Bardot is, well I’m not sure what she is really. It’s 1969, so she’s one of the Beautiful People. Maybe she’s a model. What Felicia (her character) mostly does is wear gorgeous clothes, go to parties, and divorce husbands. Then one day, while driving the Rolls-Royce belonging to one of her x-husbands, she has a minor traffic accident. Surprisingly, the Roller comes off much wore than the other car, a little Citroen 2CV. The Citroen is driven by Gaspard, a ’cello player. Unfortunately Felicia forgets to obtain Gaspard’s signature on the accident report for the insurance, so now she has to find him.

Tracking him down isn’t too difficult, but there’s something about Gaspard that bothers her. He doesn’t want to sleep with her. All men want to sleep with her, so she takes this as a bit of a personal affront. And a challenge. She manages to manoeuvre him into driving her back to his place. Gaspard lives in a farmhouse in the country (and Felicia had never imagined that the countryside actually existed in reality) with his numerous offspring. But without his wife, who has left him. So he’s basically single, and yet he still doesn’t want to sleep with Felicia! Felicia decides more drastic measures are called for.

That’s pretty much it for the plot - Felicia’s inventive and imaginative ploys to get Gaspard to go to to bed with her.

It’s very very lightweight, and you need to have a fairly high tolerance for the whole Swinging 60s thing (which luckily I do have). This is a very 60s film.

Jean-Pierre Cassel is reasonably amusing as Gaspard. But the movie belongs to Bardot. It’s fairly typical of the Bardot movies I’ve seen in that the character she is playing is a wildly eccentric blonde. You could even describe her as a completely and utterly insane blonde. But she’s definitely not a dumb blonde. And Bardot can take a character who could easily become annoying and make her charming and likeable.

And fortunately, since this is after all a romantic comedy, Bardot is (as always) very funny.

It’s a movie that will most likely only appeal to Bardot fans, but if you fall into that category it’s a good deal of fun.

I’m told that there’s an American DVD release from Koch Vision that is very very poor indeed, with major image quality issues and a very bad English dub. In fact it’s apparently fullscreen and in black-and-white. I saw the movie on cable on World Movies and it looked superb and was presented in French with sub-titles courtesy of SBS Australia, and in very impressive colour and in its correct aspect ratio. So don’t judge this movie by reviews of the American DVD release.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Saint Joan (1957)

An Otto Preminger movie based on a George Bernard Shaw play and boasting a screenplay by Graham Greene has to be interesting, although the danger perhaps is that with three such considerable egos contributing to the mix the results could be a little confused. In fact Saint Joan is a powerful and memorable piece of cinema.

It’s hardly necessary to give a rundown of the plot except to say that the focus of the movie is more on Joan’s trial than on her military successes, and on the sense of disillusionment and betrayal that she suffered when she found the French court turning against her and discovered that she had gone from being the heroine of the hour to being an inconvenience.

The movie does not end, as you might expect, with Joan’s execution. It ends as it begins, with a dream of the elderly King Charles VII, a dream in which the various players in the tragedy including Joan herself discuss the events in which they were involved. It gives the movie a cynical and anti-heroic tone, even veering towards black comedy rather than tragedy.

The movie adopts a sceptical attitude towards the events it describes, and especially towards the miraculous elements of Joan’s achievements. Without exception the miracles and apparently supernatural aspects are given rational explanations. Joan recognises the Dauphin at once even though she has never seen him before and even though someone else has been seated on the throne in order to mislead her, but this is attributed to her intelligence and perceptiveness rather than to any other-worldly guidance.

Which is not to say that Joan’s achievements are belittled. As one character so aptly puts it, if she can turn the Dauphin into a king it will be a miracle of impressive proportions! And as the cynical archbishop of Rheims points out, a miracle is anything that can give people faith, whether it be a natural event or not.

Preminger had a reputation for taking a neutral stance towards his characters, avoiding any attempt to emotionally manipulate his audience into taking either a favourable or unfavourable view of them. This approach is seen to perfection in Saint Joan.

Even the least sympathetic characters are three-dimensional, and any evil that they do is done for reasons that seem perfectly acceptable to them. The Earl of Warwick and John de Stogumber adopt very dubious means to bring about Joan’s death, but they do so for reasons of state. Warwick feels no personal animosity towards her; he merely feels that her death is a political necessity. And he’s a likeable and engaging personality.

The Dauphin is cowardly, manipulative, selfish and sly. But he’s very human. Like everyone else who plays a part in Joan’s downfall his actions are motivated by human weaknesses rather than by malice or evil.

Preminger assembled an impressive cast for this production. Some of his casting decisions were extremely bold but they worked. Richard Widmark would not have an obvious choice to play the Dauphin, later to become King Charles VII, but his shifty, twitchy, jumpy performance is absolutely perfect. John Gielgud is all reptilian charm as the Earl of Warwick. Felix Aylmer, always one of my favourite British character actors, gives what is possibly a career-best performance as the Chief Inquisitor. He feels great pity for Joan, he wants to give her every chance to avoid the stake, but at the same time he takes his duty to stamp out heresy very seriously and believes that the dangers of heresy are so great that one must be very reluctant to show mercy. He’s a complex and conflicted character, a man doing an unpleasant job that he believes to be absolutely necessary.

Harry Andrews, Richard Todd and Anton Walbrook also give fine performances in supporting roles.

And then of course there’s Jean Seberg as Joan. Preminger was very excited by his new acting discovery and it’s easy to see why. She’s tough, determined, naïve, headstrong and exasperating. This is a Joan who to a certain extent brings about her own downfall. Having tasted the heady wine of power and adulation she finds she cannot give them up, and this leads her on to destruction. She admits from the beginning that the voices she hears in her head are probably the products of her own mind, but then perhaps only madness can ever give a person the supreme self-confidence to achieve heroic deeds.

Preminger keeps the feel of the movie rather stagey, as he had done earlier in The Man with the Golden Arm. He clearly wanted to avoid an epic treatment, and chose not to shoot the film in Technicolor or Cinemascope as would have been expected in a movie of that era dealing with such heroic subject matter. The movie was a commercial failure at the time. Movie audiences in 1957 were not ready for such a cynical view of heroism.

A great film by a great director, and an absolute must-see.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Emperor's Candlesticks (1937)

Any movie with William Powell is probably going to be worth watching, and a spy movie with a large dash of romance sounds pretty promising as well so I had high hopes for the 1937 MGM film The Emperor's Candlesticks.

And were those hopes fulfilled? Basically, yes. This is not a serious spy movie in the style of Hitchcock’s Secret Agent and Notorious or Michael Powell’s The Spy in Black. It’s more of an adventure romp combined with a love story, plus some great sets and costumes. It was based on a story by Baroness Orczy. She wrote The Scarlet Pimpernel so she certainly knew a thing or two about writing adventure stories.

William Powell is Baron Stephan Wolensky, a Polish nobleman who also happens to be a spy. When Polish nationalists kidnap the Russian Grand Duke Peter and hold him to ransom, demanding the release from prison of a Polish activist, Baron Wolensky is given the dangerous task of taking the ransom note to the Tsar. He must travel across country to St Petersburg. He gets what seems to be a lucky break when an acquaintance, Prince Johann, asks him to take a pair of antique candlesticks with him. They are intended as a gift to a lady but the candlesticks conceal a secret - they have a hidden compartment built into them. The Baron decides this wold be an ideal place to hide the ransom note.

Things start to get complicated when the glamorous Countess Olga Mironova (Luise Rainer) persuades Prince Johann to allow her to deliver the candlesticks instead. She also intends to use the secret compartment to hide an important document. The Countess is also a spy, but she works for the Russian secret police, the Ochrana. She is therefore a deadly enemy to the Baron Walensky. What follows is a total romp as the two of them battle to gain possession of the candlesticks after they are stolen. And of course they fall in love, but they are on opposite sides in a deadly game of espionage.

The setting is left rather vague but it’s obviously some time before the First World War, probably in the closing years of the 19th century. Being an MGM movie you’d expect the costumes and sets to be impressive, and they are.

Luise Rainer is the only member of the cast who makes a serious effort to sound eastern European. She’s delightfully glamorous, and just a little bit wicked. Powell makes no attempt at an accent but his natural charm and confidence make him a convincing enough nobleman. Robert Young is fairly subdued as the kidnapped Grand Duke.

You’re not going to get spectacular action sequences in a 1937 MGM spy film but it does have numerous plot twists, there’s quite a bit of tension, there’s plenty of fun, and there’s an unlikely and apparently doomed romance.

George Fitzmaurice was a very experienced director and he handles proceedings with a very sure touch. This is a movie that achieves exactly what it sets out to achieve, and does do with style and panache. Recommended.

Friday, August 13, 2010

They Live by Night (1949)

They Live by Night was the first film made by Nicholas Ray. It was made in 1947 but was apparently held back by RKO for a couple of years. This story of doomed young lovers on the run is both a film noir and a romantic melodrama.

Bowie is a naïve young man serving a life sentence for murder. He breaks out of prison with two older men, hardened bank robbers. He meets an odd and equally naïve young woman and falls in love, but although the criminal life is something he didn’t choose he can find no way of escape from it. It is clearly going to lead him to destruction, but he knows no other life.

I can see why some film noir fans might have reservations about this one – it has a level of sentimentality that you don’t normally find in noir. It’s probably the least hard-boiled film noir you’ll ever see. I think you’re more likely to enjoy this film if you accept that what Nicholas Ray was really trying to do was to make a love story rather than a crime story. At times it is perhaps just a little but too sentimental, but it does have some very considerable strengths.

Stylistically it’s inventive and energetic, and it has a freshness and a vibrancy, and a feeling of immediacy and spontaneity that made it a favourite of the French film-makers of the New Wave a decade or so later. Ray makes very effective use of aerial shots which really gives the movie a feel of the open road. Ray also manages rather neatly to thoroughly subvert the Production Code – how on earth he managed to get way with a movie that is so sympathetic to criminals is truly a source of wonder. At one point he even has a cop admitting that it was society and the law that were at fault! How did he get that past the Code watch-dogs?

I'm not generally a fan of Nicholas Ray's films, and I've been particularly disappointed by some of his most praised efforts such as Rebel without a Cause. Of the ones I've seen I'd definitely rate Rebel without a Cause as my favourite, by quite a long margin.

Farley Granger and Cathy O’Donnell are likeable and sympathetic as the doomed young lovers. As a film noir They Live by Night is interesting; as a love story it’s terrific.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Princess Comes Across (1936)

I’m now more than halfway through the Carole Lombard Glamour Collection boxed set and I’m totally hooked on Lombard. Even in a movie as flawed and as odd as The Princess Comes Across her magic shines through.

This time she’s a Swedish princess, Princess Olga. Yes, Carole Lombard as a Swedish princess is a bit of a stretch but if you keep watching you’ll find that things are not quite as they appear. Lombard seems to be giving a good-natured impersonation of Greta Garbo which adds to the fun. Princess Olga is setting off on an ocean liner on a voyage to the United States where is to sign a contract to make motion pictures. The combination of royalty and Hollywood has endured a huge crowd to send her off and an equally enthusiastic reception is expected at the other end of her voyage

And she’s once again teamed with Fred MacMurray. The more I see of his guy’s early movies the more I like him. He really was a gifted comic actor and he and Lombard always have great chemistry. MacMurray is a band leader named King Mantell who takes a shine to Princess Olga. He serenades her with his concertina. And what girl can resist a man with a concertina?

The movie starts out as if it’s going to be a screwball comedy and then suddenly becomes a murder mystery. There’s nothing wrong with combining those two genres, it was done with outstanding success in The Thin Man (and Paramount were clearly hoping to emulate the success of that film) but in this case the results are awkward. It doesn’t quite make it in either genre.

The murder mystery plot concerns an escaped convict who has somehow found his way on to the ocean liner. He’s a master of disguise so he could be anyone. Conveniently the passenger list just happens to include five famous detectives from various parts of the world. They don’t make much headway catching the criminal and soon a corpse turns up so now things are getting very serious.

While all this is going on the band leader continues his romancing of the princess. There’s also a blackmail sub-plot, and it transpires that they both have something to hide.

It all sounds like it could work rather well but unfortunately there are problems. Neither the mystery sub-plot nor the romantic sub-plot are fully developed, and the mystery angle isn’t done with sufficient skill to really capture the viewer’s interest. There’s also not enough scope given to develop the romantic chemistry that Lombard and MacMurray demonstrated with so much sparkle in Hands Across the Table a year earlier.

So it ends up being a movie with very little going for it. But it does have Carole Lombard, and that’s enough. She has to more or less carry the movie single-handedly and she’s equal to the challenge. It’s a delightful performance and she makes this slightly odd movie well worth watching.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Don't Bother to Knock (1952)

Don't Bother to Knock is an interesting and highly entertaining 1952 thriller featuring possibly Marilyn Monroe’s finest ever dramatic performance.

Monroe plays a young woman with problems who gets a job as a babysitter in a New York hotel. Richard Widmark is also good, as a man who tries to make an assignation with her but gets more than he bargained for. Anne Bancroft, in her first film role, is very good as Widmark’s torch singer girlfriend who has just told him it’s all over between them. And the always entertaining Elisha Cook jr is extremely entertaining as Monroe’s uncle who works as an elevator operator at the hotel.

Monroe’s performance is exceptionally subtle and very moving as she gradually loses her grip on reality, and it’s free of those annoying mannerisms that she adopted in so many of her movies. Versatile and underrated British director Roy Ward Baker does a solid job and the tension is maintained very effectively.

One of Monroe’s less known films, but one of her best. Not quite a film noir but very close to it in style and substance. Highly recommended.

This movie and Niagara (which is certainly a film noir) gave Monroe her strongest straight dramatic roles and in both cases she acquits herself admirably.

Interestingly enough Monroe doesn’t sing, but Bancroft does. Well her character does anyway although the voice was dubbed.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Their Own Desire (1929)

I generally enjoy Norma Shearer’s movies but Their Own Desire is definitely not one of her best pictures.

This overheated 1929 MGM melodrama just doesn’t quite make it. I think my biggest problem with this one is that I found it impossible to care very much about any of the characters, even when they find themselves in situations that should evoke sympathy.

Shearer is Lally Martlett, a rich and slightly wild young woman who is devoted to both her parents. Her life is carefree and blissful until a certain Mrs Cheever enters the picture. Lally dislikes her, and her suspicions turn out to be well-founded. Her father is having an affair with Mrs Cheever, an affair that leads inevitably to divorce, and to a suicide attempt on the part of Lally’s mother.

Things get complicated when Lally meets a rather nice young man. Jack is totally smitten by her and Lally is inclined to return his affections. Wedding bells seem to be in the offing until the young lovers make a dreadful discovery. Jack is Mrs Cheever’s son! How can she marry the son of the woman who wrecked her parents’ marriage?

Lally is torn between love and her duty to her mother, or what she sees as her duty to her mother. Jack is however unwilling to give her up.

Robert Montgomery isn’t one of my favourite actors but he’s reasonably good as Jack. Lewis Stone does his usual fatherly turn as Lally’s dad. I found Shearer to be just a tiny bit annoying in this movie. That may be because the sound quality is not the best on this very early talkie and her voice seems a little shrill at times.

The most interesting aspect of the movie is the behaviour of Lally’s mother. Is she the victim, or is she a manipulative and clinging woman who is prepared to sacrifice her daughter’s happiness on the altar of her own bitterness? I’m not sure how we’re expected to view the mother. It might be a case of social attitudes having changed so much since 1929 that a character who was intended to provoke feelings of pity in the audience now comes across as being rather suffocating and dependent and even manipulative.

I suspect that audiences at the time would also have judged the father more harshly than an audience of today. The movie does at least raise the issue of the difficulty of reconciling the search for individual happiness with loyalty towards family.

There’s not very much pre-code about this movie apart from a recognition that the reality of marriage doesn’t always live up to our ideals or our fantasies.

I couldn’t really warm to this movie but it’s probably worth a look if you’re a Norma Shearer fan.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Accident (1967)

Joseph Losey's 1967 film Accident opens with a fatal car accident. The events leading up to the accident are then recounted in flashback. We see Stephen (Dirk Bogarde), who seems to be a rather shy and retiring Cambridge don and also seems to be a happily married man, a sensitive caring family man. We meet Charley (Stanley Baker) who appears to be much more a man of the world. Charley thinks of himself as a bit of a ladies' man, a bit of a rake. We meet Stephen's wife, who appears to be a rather self-effacing housewife type. And we meet Anna, a young Austrian student who seems to be really just a rather innocent young woman. And William (Michael York), an aristocratic student of Stephen's.

But in this film appearances can be very deceptive indeed. These people are all playing games, sexual and emotional games, and the most dangerous players aren't necessarily the ones who seem the most dangerous. In this movie the information conveyed by the dialogue doesn't tally at all with the information conveyed by body language and doesn't tally with the characters' actual behaviours.

These people use language not to reveal things about themselves, but to conceal them; not to clarify situations but to cloud them.

Director Joseph Losey and his cinematographer, Gerry Fisher, emphasise the disjuncture between what these people say and what they do with a extraordinarily unsettling though rather subtle visual style. Everything seems enclosed, and slightly distorted. Places seem more enclosed than they should be. Scenes are shot through doorways, down stairwells, from disturbing angles, and there seem to be barriers everywhere – fences, gates, doors, everywhere. Stephen and Anna go for a walk in the woods, but rather than open and picturesque English open woodland they find themselves in a thicket that encloses them like a cage.

It looks like they've used a wide-angled lens much of the time to give the slightly distorted feel and the sense that the depth and the scale of the spaces aren't quite right, that things are more claustrophobic than they should be.

Dirk Bogarde and Stanley Baker are outstanding. Bogarde in particular gives an exceptional performance – there are just so many layers to the character of Stephen, a character so accustomed to living a life of deceit that you wonder if he himself could ever unravel the truth.

Harold Pinter's script is delightfully cynical and deceptive. It combines with Losey's disturbing direction and Bogarde's masterful acting to produce one of the finest British films of the 20th century. You must see this film!

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Lover Come Back (1961)

Lover Come Back was the second of the Rock Hudson-Doris Day romantic comedies. It follows the same formula that brought them so much success in Pillow Talk. In fact it follows the formula so closely that it’s more or less a repeat of the first film.

The surprising thing is that it doesn’t really matter. The formula works almost as well he second time around.

Once again Doris and Rock are people who have taken an intense dislike to each other without having ever actually met. And once again we have Rock’s character romancing Doris’s without Doris knowing who he is. And once again Rock’s romantic pursuit starts out as a cruel joke but ends up as true love.

Rock is Carol Templeton, a hard-working and brilliant Madison Avenue advertising executive. She’s got to the top through determination and integrity. Rock is Jerry Webster, an equally successful adman from a rival firm. He’s got to the top by using every sneaky underhanded method in the book. When he steals a rich account from Carol she decides to get revenge, and when she tries to do this he then tries to turn the tables on her. He ends up being mistaken by her for an eccentric but brilliant scientist developing a new miracle product that will prove to be a very rich advertising account indeed. You can pretty much figure out the rest of the plot from there.

Tony Randall is in this one as well, playing Jerry’s boss Pete Ramsey. Pete lives under the shadow of his father who built the business in the first place, suffers from indecisiveness and a lack of self-confidence and has been in analysis for pretty much his whole life. He doesn’t really serve much purpose in plot terms but he’s extremely funny so no-one is likely to complain.

The two main stars develop the same chemistry they displayed in Pillow Talk, and they’re both skillful comic actors who make the most of a clever and witty script.

Again, as with Pillow Talk, I found myself surprised at just how risque this movie was for its era. We have Doris taking Rock to a strip club, we have drug references, we have girls who are fairly obviously hookers being used as bribes to win advertising accounts. And we have Doris obviously quite willing to indulge in some unmarried sex with Rock. So much for the image of Doris Day as the perpetual virgin.

There’s romance, there’s sparkling dialogue, there are some great visual gags, and there’s non-stop entertainment.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

The Ghost and Mrs Muir (1947)

I have dim memories of seeing the much later TV series of the same name, but until tonight I’d never actually seen the original 1947 movie version of The Ghost and Mrs Muir.

The first difference I noticed was that Gene Tierney was much younger and much more glamorous than Hope Lange. Which is no shame for Hope Lange, since very few women have ever possessed the degree of glamour that Gene Tierney possessed. And Gene Tierney was a decade younger than Hope Lange when she made the movie.

The movie wasn’t quite what I expected. I suppose I expected more of a lighthearted romantic comedy. It certainly has plenty of that, but it has a bit more besides.

Mrs Lucy Muir (Gene Tierney) is an attractive young widow who gets fed up with living with her obnoxious sister-in-law and her equally obnoxious mother-in-law and decides to rent a little house of her own, along with her young daughter and her faithful housekeeper. Since these are the very early years of the 20th century this is a slightly bold movie, but Mrs Muir is a fairly bold woman in her own quiet way.

She soon discovers why Gull Cottage was so cheap. It’s haunted by the ghost of its previous owner, a sea-captain of slightly dubious moral reputation, a Captain Gregg. The ghost is initially hostile, but when he discovers that Lucy Muir is a very strong-willed young woman who has no intention of being frightened out of her new house he decides he rather likes her. And despite (or possibly because of) his colourful past and his rough-and-ready manners, she decides she rather likes him as well.

Predictably, their friendship develops into something that is perhaps a little more than friendship, but there is a very big obstacle standing in the way of true love, since one of the partners is in fact dead.

What’s most surprising is that the movie deals sensitively and intelligently with this rather difficult problem. This is a love story, but while Hollywood love stories are usually complicated this one is very complicated indeed. It becomes even more complicated when Captain Gregg finds he has a rival (George Sanders), who has the considerable advantage of being alive.

Even more surprising for a 1947 movie is the fact that the movie has some definite risque moments. Captain Gregg and Mrs Muir decide that not only are they prepared to share a house, they’re also prepared to share a bedroom. Captain Gregg assures Mrs Muir that this won’t be a problem, since he’s a bodiless spirit, but while he’s bodiless he does have the power of sight, on her first night in the house it is obvious that he has watched her undressing for bed, and has watched with considerable admiration. Perhaps the most surprising thing in a 1947 movie is that Lucy Muir doesn’t appear to mind!

The difficult with a plot like this one, given that the movie is essentially a romance, is how on earth do you give it the required happy ending? The actual ending seems, with the advantage of hindsight, to be the only possible ending. And it works extremely well.

The casting of his movie was rather bold. Rex Harrison was not an obvious choice to play a salty sea-captain but he does very well. And Gene Tierney usually played troubled women, so it’s refreshing to see her playing a woman who is free of weird hand-ups, and it’s pleasing that she manages to make Mrs Muir not only very likeable but also not the slightest bit bland. It’s a completely delightful performance.

And it’s a completely delightful movie. Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, with a great score by Bernard Herrmann, this is a classy and highly entertaining example of the best of 1940s Hollywood movie-making.