Sunday, May 29, 2011

Boomerang! (1947)

On the commentary track on the DVD release of Elia Kazan’s 1947 film Boomerang! Alain Silver and James Ursini describe it as a docu-noir, which I suppose is a reasonable description.

Based on real events and filmed entirely on location in New England it’s a story of a mysterious and completely inexplicable murder. A much-loved priest, Father Lambert, is gunned down on the streets of a small city in New England. Everyone liked and respected the priest, there are no suspects, and the police are baffled.

The city has recently has a new reform administration elected, replacing the previous corrupt political machine. Now the reform party is under extreme pressure - the major newspaper that supported the previous regime is pillorying them for the failure of the police to solve the case of the murder of the beloved local priest. Robinson, the police chief (played by Lee J. Cobb), is really feeling the heat, as is State’s Attorney Henry Harvey (Dana Andrews). Harvey is closely linked to the reform party and has considerable political ambitions.

Finally the police get a break. A drifter is picked up in a neighbouring state. The case against him seems overwhelming. There’s ballistics evidence and seven eyewitness statements. After a gruelling interrogation he confesses.

It seems straight-forward, but Chief Robinson always had niggling doubts and State’s Attorney Henry Harvey has even more troubling concerns about the case. Harvey must choose between his ambitions and his growing feeling that the accused man may well be innocent. The reform party wants a quick conviction to restore its credit before the upcoming election.

The second half of the movie is mostly occupied with various lengthy and involved courtroom procedures (although one is inclined to be very dubious as to whether any court in history has ever been conducted in the manner portrayed in this film)..

Dana Andrews gives a fine and subtle performance. Lee J. Cobb, an actor I generally dislike, is reasonably good. Karl Malden gives good support as a senior detective. Arthur Kennedy is all tortured intensity as the accused drifter, and perhaps overdoes it somewhat.

The style is an odd and uneasy mix of documentary fashion pseudo-realism and film noir stylisation. It has some good visual moments. The courtroom scenes tend to drag quite badly, as is the case with most movie courtroom scenes.

The movie was shot entirely on location which was unusual for 1947. Kazan wanted to film it in the actual town where the real-life events took place but was advised that legal problems might ensue. It was shot instead in a nearby town. Also unusual was the use of many actual townspeople in supporting roles - apart from the main characters just about everyone else is a non-actor. It’s a dubious technique but Kazan just about gets away with it.

I’ve always had mixed feelings about Elia Kazan. I love his Tennessee William adaptations (especially the gloriously outrageous Baby Doll) but his social consciousness pictures strike me as heavy-handed an overly earnest. But I admit to a personal bias - I really dislike the Hollywood social problem movies of that era.

Boomerang! also suffers from a plot that is much too obvious. On the plus side I like the fact that both sides of politics are portrayed as being equally corrupt. The way the focus gradually shifts from the accused (a man trapped by circumstances) onto the State’s Attorney (who becomes more and trapped himself as he ponders the consequences of doing the right thing) is also quite effective.

Boomerang! is a mixed bag but with enough unconventional features to make it worth a look even if it is at times just a trifle on the dull side.

The DVD, from the Fox Film Noir series, looks glorious. The main extra is the commentary track by Alain Silver and James Ursini.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Les Vampires (1915)

Louis Feuillade enjoyed huge success with his Fantômas serial in 1913. Apart from their commercial success they were immensely influential on the future course of various popular film genres. Fantômas was perhaps the cinema’s first great diabolical criminal mastermind. Feuillade repeated his success in 1915 with Les Vampires.

The ten episodes of this crime/action/adventure epic have a total running time of well over six hours but of course you’re not meant to watch it in one sitting. Spread out over a week or two it remains consistently entertaining and with no danger of boredom.

This is not a supernatural thriller - The Vampires are a vast, powerful and mysterious criminal gang. But nemesis is at hand, in the form of crusading newspaper journalist Philippe Guérande. He will stop at nothing to destroy the gang and finds an unlikely accomplice in a reformed crook named Mazamette.

Guérande and the vampires do battle through the course of numerous ingenious plots and subplots.

The great stroke of genius that Feuillade came up with for Les Vampires was the character of Irma Vep. Irma Vep, an anagram of vampire, was possibly the screen’s first great femme fatale (although Theda Bara stared her Hollywood career in the same year so it could be argued that the screen vamp was invented simultaneously and independently at the same moment in France and the US). Irma Vep is a wonderful character - she’s sexy, glamorous and delightfully wicked and she rapidly comes to dominate the serial.

Both Philippe Guérande and Irma Vep adopt a series of disguises so you need to be on your toes.

When he made Fantômas film technique was still quite primitive. There was comparatively little editing, close-ups had not yet been thought of and the camera remained stubbornly static. Even worse, camera setups were standardised - almost everything was filmed in long shot or medium long shot. The result could be visually very dull (which is a major problem in Theda Bara’s one surviving movie A Fool There Was).

Feuillade came up with several solutions to this problem. He composed his shots with considerable flair and usually in depth. There are often three distinct visual planes, and something is happening in each one of them. There are doors everywhere, with characters constantly entering and exiting. As a consequence there is always much more of a sense of dynamism and movement than you might expect.

By the time he made Les Vampires just two years later technique had advanced quite a bit. There are occasional close-ups, there’s a lot more editing, there are pans and there are several quite ambitious tracking shots. Camera setups are much more varied. At the same time Feuillade has not abandoned his penchant for composing shots in depth. Les Vampires feels exciting and dynamic.

The acting is melodramatic, but that suits the material. The undoubted star is Musidora as Irma Vep. It’s a spirited and energetic performance. Irma Vep was not just one of the first legendary movie bad girls, she remains one of the best.

Les Vampires has enormous historical significance and it’s terrific fun. Is it a must-see? I would have to say that yes, it really is.

There have been a number of DVD releases. The Artificial Eye Region 2 release is the one I have - it might not be the best but it’s relatively easy to obtain and not too expensive. Picture quality is generally very good indeed for the age of the movie.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

A Stolen Life (1946)

A Stolen Life, released by Warner Brothers in 1946, is not just a Bette Davis melodrama, it’s also her first film as a producer so one assumes it was a personal project. And it’s certainly ideal Bette Davis material.

Davis is Kate, a rather shy woman who spends her leisure hours painting. We will shortly find out that she has a twin sister, a sister (Patricia) who has always gained whatever whatever she wanted, often at the expense of Kate. Kate has never had the confidence to fight for what she wants.

Quite by accident, Kate has tumbled upon something that she thinks she might be able to keep for herself. This something is a man. His name is Bill (Glenn Ford), and he’s a lighthouse keeper’s assistant. He understands loneliness, and he’s kind and sensitive and really he’s the man Kate has been waiting for her whole life. But of course Patricia finds out, and wants Bill for herself.

The plot from this point on becomes increasingly and outrageously melodramatic. Patricia seems to have won, but there are many plot twists still to come. Some of the twists are obvious (such is the nature of melodrama) but there’s a major one towards the end that is both unexpected and deliciously ironic. I won’t spoil any of the fun for you.

There’s a slightly inconsequential sub-plot involving Kate’s ambitions as a painter. She meets a real artist. We know he’s a real artist because he’s rude, selfish and boorish. But of course he sees things as they really are, and understands Kate’s problems in a way that she doesn’t. She lacks confidence and a willingness to take risks, especially sexual risks.

This is the kind of role that gives Bette Davis rein. And she makes the most of it. Davis understood melodrama and she understood the type of acting it demanded, and she was happy to oblige. And she eagerly accepts the challenge of playing two roles, the good sister and the bad sister. What makes things interesting is that the good sister is the more complex and demanding role and Davis recognises this. Davis is at her outrageous best.

Glenn Ford naturally gets overshadowed but he delivers a solid enough performance. Walter Brennan is amusing as the crusty lighthouse keeper. Dane Clark is suitable obnoxious as the artist Karnock.

Having one actress play two roles has been done many times but technically A Stolen Life manages the feat remarkably effectively.

The plot is of course ludicrous but that’s hardly a problem in the world of melodrama. Just forget logic and enjoy the ride. The whole thing is gloriously overdone and over-ripe.

I saw this one on cable TV but it is available on DVD, and it’s a must for any self-respecting Bette Davis fan.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

The Big Heat (1953)

Since I’ve been reading about him recently it seemed like a good time to revisit Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat. This 1953 movie is one of Lang’s most admired American films, and with good reason.

Detective-Sergeant Dave Bannion is a good cop and a loving family man. He enjoys his job, he has an unpretentious but comfortable house, his marriage is happy. He is living the American Dream. Until he has to investigate the suicide of a fellow cop. The case will lead him into a world of high-level corruption and gangsterism and threaten to destroy everything he has.

Mobster Mike Lagana runs the city, with Vince (Lee Marvin) to enforce his will on anyone who doesn’t like it. Vince is not just a thug. He has a streak of genuine sadism and a temper that is beyond his control. Vince is in some ways an accident waiting to happen - sooner or later his temper will cause him to make an error of judgment that may well bring the whole house of cards crashing down.

Bannion has a tendency to step on toes at the best of times and when he steps on Mike Lagana’s toes he feels the full force of the gangster’s wrath in a terrifying moment of violence that leaves Bannion with nothing but a steely determination to bring Lagana down.

Rather typically for Lang, Bannion is drawn into a nightmare partly by sheer chance (he just happened to be the detective assigned to the cop suicide case) and partly because of his own personality (that tendency to step on toes).

Bannion finds an unexpected ally in Vince’s girlfriend Debby (Gloria Graham). Debby has felt the force of Vince’s temper once too often, with disastrous consequences not just for herself but ultimately for Vince and Lagana.

This seems to me to be almost a perfect movie of its type. Everything works just as it should. Everything is precisely balanced. There are devastating emotional moments but both Lang and his cast avoid the pitfall of sentimentality. Sydney Boehm’s screenplay is well-constructed and ideal for Lang’s purposes. The characters are finely drawn.

Glenn Ford does not succumb to the temptation to overplay Dave Bannion. Instead he plays him with ice cold control, making a perfect contrast Vince’s out-of-control red-hot violence. Lee Marvin is superbly vicious. Gloria Grahame is outstanding, playing Debby as a bubbly good-time girl who is not only not as dumb as she looks (in fact not dumb at all) but is also possessed of the strength of character to deal with her own personal tragedy. Debby always knew she was playing a dangerous game being with Vince but she gambled that she would always be smart enough to avoid the consequences.

I cannot accept the theory (quite common in some circles) that Bannion is the agent of destruction bringing about the doom of all the women he encounters. Anyone who watched the movie without trying to impose trendy postmodern political subtexts upon it would have noticed that in fact the women are all destroyed by mobsters. It’s crime that destroys them, not Dave Bannion. Crime destroys guilty women and innocent women. Lang was always fascinated by crime but he lacked the illusions that many modern intellectuals have on that subject.a Lang always understood that crime destroys.

I also cannot accept the popular view that the cop is always the bad guy and the criminal is always the victim of poverty. I don’t think Lang was ever naïve enough to believe that. Even when, in a movie such as M, he makes us feel empathy for the criminal monster, the monster is still a monster.

Lang believed that everyone had the potential to be a murderer, but that doesn’t make every Lang hero a murderer. And Lang was always aware of the evil behind the most glamorous of master criminals. Mike Lagana is a descendant of Dr Mabuse, a spider sitting in his web manipulating and destroying people. Dave Bannion, Katie Bannion, Lucy Chapman, Debby Marsh, are all drawn into his web. Dave Bannion and Debby find the courage to fight back.

Of course what makes it a truly great movie is that it is open to interpretation and I have to admit that my interpretation may be considered slightly eccentric by some people!

A stylish and complex movie by a master film-maker.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Shall We Dance (1937)

Shall We Dance was the seventh of the Astaire-Rogers musicals and more or less follows the formula that had proven itself so successful up to that time. The plot is thin, there’s plenty of romance, great music and stunning dance sequences. What more could you want?

This one boasts music by George Gershwin. Gershwin of course was a composer who tried to straddle the worlds of popular music and symphonic concert-hall music, combining jazz with the influence of avant-garde composers like Debussy. This didn’t prevent him from writing dazzlingly catchy popular music and the score is certainly one of the film’s strengths.

Fittingly, considering Gershwin’s ambitions, the storyline also involves a collision between the worlds of high art and pop culture. Astaire is Petrov, the illustrious Russian ballet dancer. In fact he’s an all-American boy named Peter P. Peters, but he is one of the supreme stars of the ballet. He has decided to get married. His chosen bride is musical comedy star Linda Keene. He’s very pleased with this proposed marriage, but there’s one slight snag. He has never actually met the lady in question.

The great Petrov is not a man to be deterred by such a trifling detail. When he does meet her, as is the usual pattern in the Astaire-Rogers films, she takes an immediate and very strong dislike to him. She dislikes him even more when she discovers that someone has started a rumour that they are already secretly married, and her annoyance grows even more extreme when she finds that he’s aboard the same ocean liner that she is, en route from France to New York.

There are the usual romantic complications. There’s a prima ballerina who is plotting to get Petrov for herself (despite the fact that she is already married to an English aristocrat). There are endless breakdowns involving Petrov’s manager (played by Edward Everett Horton), the hotel manager in New York (played by another regular in these films, Eric Blore), Linda’s manager and Linda’s fiance.

Again following the established pattern of the Fred and Ginger movies the main romantic plot is advanced almost entirely by their dance duets. Astaire preferred to dispense with actual love scenes on the grounds that their dance duets were the love scenes and he was quite correct. Their first dance together occurs in a night-club when Linda is ambushed into dancing with him but as the dance progresses she is caught up by the dance and by the chemistry between them and by the time the dance is over she has started to feel at least the beginnings of an attraction towards him.

That use of the dance duet to establish the romantic connection between the lead characters is one of the ingredients that makes these movies so magical.

The dance duets in this outing are, as usual, stunning. And again precisely according to the established formula there is a spectacular Astaire solo dance, this time with Fred dancing in rhythm to the ship’s engines.

The audio commentary on the DVD is overly chatty and not very illuminating but a couple of good points are made. The superb visual style of these films was to a very large extent the work of RKO’s brilliant production designer Van Nest Polglase. He was responsible for the look of most of the Astaire-Rogers films and in Shall We Dance his response to the emergence of Technicolor was to heighten both the blacks and the whites to give the black-and-white image a more dazzling look.

One thing that occurs to me is the Fred and Ginger movies were all about glamour but neither Fred Astaire nor Ginger Rogers could be described as being inherently glamorous or as having classic matinee idol looks. But put Fred in a top hat and tails and put Ginger in the sorts of gorgeous dresses she wears in this movie and with their natural grace and class they become glamorous. Maybe it’s an illusory glamour, but that makes it even more appealing. After all these movies are not exactly about real life (thank goodness), they take place in a glorious fantasy world where glamour can be created at will.

Shall We Dance might not be the greatest of their movies but it’s a very worthy entry in the cycle and a thoroughly enjoyable treat.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

High Sierra (1941)

In 1941 High Sierra made stars of both Humphrey Bogart and Ida Lupino and it was one of the movies that started the trend later to become known as film noir.

Bogart is Roy Earle, a bank robber who has just been released from prison after a pardon was issued, apparently organised by his former underworld colleagues. His old crime boss ants him for a major job on the West Coast, an ambitious hotel robbery. Roy heads west to meet up with the rest of the gang.

On the road he encounters a family who seem to have stepped straight out of John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath. The family includes an attractive girl with a club foot. The girl is named Velma (Joan Leslie) and this is the first sign that Roy Earle isn’t a mere thug. He helps out the grandfather after a traffic accident and he ends up paying for an operation to fix Velma’s foot. And he falls for Velma.

His rendezvous with the other hotel robbers (Babe and Red) is a fateful one, since he also meets Marie (Ida Lupino). Both Babe and Red want her and Roy is initially inclined to send her back where she came from. He has no problem with dames but he can see that there’s going to be big trouble between the two men over her and someone is likely to get shot. Marie manages to persuade him to let her stay however, our second sign that Roy is a very soft-hearted hoodlum.

In fact it’s soon pretty obvious that Marie is more interested in the middle-aged Roy than she is in either of the two young punks. And he’s getting to be interested in her.

Of course you know the robbery isn’t going to go smoothly, and Roy and Marie end up on the run. Accompanied by an engaging mutt named Pard. Roy was also too soft-hearted to leave the dog behind. You’ve heard of the Whore with a Heart of Gold. Well Roy Earle is the Gangster with a Heart of Gold.

Stylistically it’s perhaps more like a western than a film noir with most of the crucial scenes, including the climactic ones with Roy and Marie on the run, taking place in the great outdoors, in the foothills of the Sierras. Raoul Walsh was an ideal director for this type of movie and does his usual very fine job.

The script (by John Huston and W. R. Burnett based on Burnett’s novel) stretches credibility quite a bit. It has the kind of noir cynicism mixed with romanticism that you get in several of Huston’s noirish movies, especially The Asphalt Jungle (also based on a W. R. Burnett novel).

The problems with the script don’t really matter with both Bogart and Lupino in great firm. Bogart’s career had taken years to take off with several false starts but by the beginning of the 40s things were finally falling into place for him. Perhaps most importantly, Warner Brothers were starting to make movies that were tailor-made for him. Lupino had had similar problems. She’d been making movies for a decade (she was 13 when she scored her first movie role in Britain) but had failed to find her niche. In 1940 Bogart and Lupino both landed great roles in They Drive By Night which set them up for their breakthrough in High Sierra.

Bogart is extremely impressive, especially given that the character as written is scarcely believable. But Bogart makes us believe in him.

One of the more interesting aspects of the movie is that we have Joan Leslie as Velma set up to be the good girl and Lupino as Marie set up to be the bad girl, but that’s not how it pans out. Marie is as complex as Roy Earle but she’s more convincingly written. Lupino is superb.

It’s only real claim to noirness is that we have two sympathetic protagonists who clearly have the odds stacked against them. If it isn’t a real film noir it’s still a fine example of 1940s Warner Brothers film-making.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

We're Not Dressing (1934)

If you were trying to come up with a really dumb idea for a movie then I think this one would be hard to beat. How about a romantic pairing of Bing Crosby and Carole Lombard in a musical version of J.M. Barrie’s play The Admirable Crichton? The strangest thing is, back in 1934 Paramount actually did it, under the title We're Not Dressing.

And it works in practice just as badly as you might anticipate.

Doris Worthington (Carol Lombard) is rich heiress Doris Worthington, cruising about on her luxury yacht with her dissipated Uncle Herbert. She has two princes (in reality little more than aristocratic gigolos) both wanting to marry her, but in fact she’s consumed with lust for one of the sailors (played by Bing Crosby).

The yacht is shipwrecked and the rich passengers find themselves dependent for survival on the sailor (Crosby). But there are several major variations from Barrie’s play. The humble sailor isn’t really a humble sailor, and Doris doesn’t really need his help to survive since she’s discovered the island is not uninhabited. There are two naturalists on the island (played by George Burns and Gracie Allen) and they supply her with the necessities for survival.

Where to start with the problems that afflict this picture? The first and most obvious one is that it’s a musical but Carole Lombard doesn’t sing. That means that every time there’s a moment when you expect the female lead to join the male lead in a duet Lombard is left looking like a fifth wheel because she can’t sing. At this stage Paramount clearly did not understand that Lombard was not an all-round actress who could be cast in any kind of picture. She had a peculiarly narrow talent that only bloomed when given the right kind of material. When she was given a suitable vehicle that talent bloomed spectacularly and delightfully, but this was most emphatically not the right vehicle.

Secondly, while Crosby and Lombard are quite good together when they’re just indulging in verbal sparring there is zero sexual chemistry between them. And Lombard was always at her best when there was a real spark between her and her leading man.

Thirdly, George Burns and Gracie Allen have been added for extra comic relief but they’re the most unfunny and most annoying comedy team in cinema history. When they’re onscreen the movie becomes almost unendurable. It’s a measure of just how irritating they are that Ethel Merman (as a gold digger hoping to snare rich Uncle Hubert) seems quite innocuous by comparison.

There’s also a pet bear who follows Bing Crosby about he’s still not enough to save this picture.

Cecil B. DeMille had made a terrific silent adaptation of Barrie’s play in 1919 with Gloria Swanson as the female lead, under the title Male and Female . DeMille’s film has all the wit and lightness of touch that We're Not Dressing so conspicuously lacks. The basic idea calls for a sophisticated comedic approach which is precisely what DeMille delivers in his movie and is precisely what We're Not Dressing fails to deliver.

There are occasional good moments and Lombard shows flashes of her special magic but the whole project is so ill-conceived that her best efforts are doomed to failure.

This is a pre-code movie and there’s some pre-code naughtiness, notably involving Carole Lombard’s underwear and a scene where Bing Crosby in a fit of sexual frustration and anger resorts to handcuffing Lombard to the wall of her hut, but somehow it still manages to fall rather flat. Mind you, the biggest problem I had was with George Burns and Gracie Allen who managed to ruin any enjoyment I might have got out of this picture. That may of course be merely a matter of personal taste.

The good news is that it’s a fairly short movie but this may well be the longest 74 minutes of your life.

It is at least different, and it's an interesting oddity.

The other good news is that the movie is included in the Carole Lombard Glamour Collection which includes some truly superb movies that make it a must-buy DVD set so you can regard We're Not Dressing as a bizarre bonus.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Road to Bali (1952)

I’d personally be inclined to rank Bob Hope and Bing Crosby as one of the all-time great comedy teams, on the strength of their Road pictures. Road to Bali was the sixth of the seven movies in this series, all of which are worth seeing. I hadn’t seen this one for years and it still stands up remarkably well.

While the names changed from movie to movie the characters remained the same, two likeable rogues on the make in various exotic locales (or at least on the Paramount backlot dressed up as various exotic locales). They always spent most of the movie trying to outsmart each other but Bing’s character always had a slight edge in cunning. And of course Dorothy Lamour always turned up somewhere.

This time George Cochran (Crosby) and Harold Gridley (Hope) are recruited as deep-sea divers employed by an island princeling to retrieve a sunken treasure. Needless to say Harold ends up doing the actual diving. Lamour is a princess with whom they both fall in love. They are forced to flee from the prince’s treachery and end up in Bali, where both are expecting to marry the princess.

The comedy is the same anarchic brand as in their other Road movies. The most evolutionary feature of these movies was their continual breaking of the fourth wall and their extreme self-referentiality. On the run from the evil prince they encounter Humphrey Bogart dragging the African Queen through the swamp and Harold finds Bogart’s Oscar which he’s misplaced.

There are one or two surprisingly risque moments, and there are more than enough laughs to keep anyone happy.

I’m not the biggest fan of either Crosby or Hope in other vehicles but somehow the two of them together just click perfectly.

Sadly the Region 4 DVD is rather poor, in fact extremely poor, but it’s a fun little movie.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957)

Frank Tashlin had a major hit in 1956 with The Girl Can’t Help It so making another film the following year with star Jayne Mansfield must have seemed like a great idea. And it was. In fact Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? is possibly even better than The Girl Can’t Help It.

Rockwell Hunter (Tony Randall) is a Madison Avenue advertising man. He’s a fair way down the pecking order. He writes lyrics for singing commercials but his boss is convinced that singing commercials have had their day. In fact he is convinced that the agency has had its day since it’s on the verge of losing its biggest account, the Stay-Put Lipstick account. That means Rockwell Hunter will soon be out of a job, unless he can come up with a sensational idea.

And he does. His teenage daughter is president of the local branch of the Rita Marlowe Fan Club. Rita Marlowe (Jayne Mansfield) being the biggest movie star of the moment. Rita’s second most spectacular assets are her famous kissable lips, so a campaign featuring her might well save the agency and Rockwell’s job. Of course the difficulty is that Rita is currently in hiding in New York, but Rockwell’s teenage daughter happens to know where she is. But will she agree to be the Stay-Put Lipstick girl?

As it happens, at the exact moment Rockwell walks into her hotel suite Rita Marlowe needs a man desperately. She needs a man to make her boyfriend Bobo (Mickey Hargitay, soon to become Jayne Mansfield’s real-life husband) jealous. Bobo is the star of a jungle boy TV series, but he walked out on her, and nobody can walk out on Rita Marlowe. So, in exchange for her doing the lipstick campaign, Rockwell pretends to be her new love. This turns out to be a rather exhausting occupation. Apart from the fact that after kissing Rita Marlowe’s famous kissable lips he really needs a week in intensive care there’s the added hazard of Rita’s fans who now pursue him in the street believing him to be the world’s greatest lover.

There’s also the problem of the nice girl at the office Rockwell is intending to marry. Rockwell, or Rock as he is no universally known in keeping with his world’s greatest lover reputation, is now internationally famous as Rita’s Lover Doll.

Rock has now achieved success. Not only has he saved the agency and gained a vice-presidency, he has achieved the goal that he has always dreamed of - the key to the executive washroom, the ultimate symbol of success. But strangely enough, success isn’t what he expected. And he discovers that success isn’t the guarantee of happiness for anyone. Even the owner of the agency, Irving La Salle Jr himself, has found success to be a disappointment. He just wanted to grow prize roses. Could it be that success is not all it’s cracked up to be?

What makes writer-director Tashlin’s satire work so well is that while he is appalled by the vulgarity of Madison Avenue he is also clearly fascinated by it. He has a love-hate relationship with popular culture and with America in the 50s. But even the hate part of the equation is untainted by vindictiveness. And the love part is a string as the hate part. He doesn’t hate his characters. They’re all quite nice people. They’re living crazy lives, but they’re not monsters.

Tashlin started out in the film business making cartons and he has an extraordinary knack for capturing a cartoon feel in his live-action feature films. It’s not just the garish colours and the general zaniness, it’s the way he structures his visual gags. And given the right subject matter, as in Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? and The Girl Can’t Help It, it’s an approach that works superbly.

Tony Randall is perfect casting and handles his role every bit as well as you’d expect. He considered this movie to be the funniest he ever made. Joan Blondell and Henry Jones provide great support.

But it’s Jayne Mansfield who steals the picture. Her talent may have been a very limited one, but within those narrow limits she had few equals as a comic actress. She plays Rita like a cartoon character which of course is exactly what Tashlin wants. And of course she’s also essentially playing herself, or an exaggerated version of herself (arguably she spent her whole life playing an exaggerated version of herself).

Very few film-makers captured the feel of the 50s as sublimely as Frank Tashlin. Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? is very funny and it’s a delight from start to finish.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Female on the Beach (1955)

Female on the Beach might not make most people’s list of Joan Crawford’s best movies but it’s an entertaining crime thriller with a definite tinge of camp.

Lynn Markham (Joan Crawford) owns an expensive beach house (you have to wonder where would crime movies of that era have been without beach houses). She inherited it from her late husband. We will later learn that Mrs Markham had been a showgirl and that her marriage was more about her husband’s money than anything else. Now she’s decided to move into the beach house.

It had been rented out to a Mrs Crandall, who dies in mysterious circumstances. She want straight through the railing on the balcony and fell to her death. But did she fall or was she pushed?

Mrs Markham soon makes the acquaintance of Drummond Hall (Jeff Chandler). Drummy (as he’s known) is always hanging around. He owns a boat but doesn’t seem to work. It doesn’t take long for Mrs Markham to realise he’s a gigolo and that the nice aunt and uncle he lives with, Osbert and Queenie, are actually his pimps. They also operate a sideline in card cheating. Mrs Crandall had been Drummy’s previous project but she’s become too clingy and demanding.

Lynn Markham knows the score and knows all about men like Drummy, but at the same time she’s a lonely woman and she has a bit of a taste for handsome studs like Drummy. She’s willing to marry Drummy who claims to have fallen in love with her. She’s happy to let herself believe it. And to ignore the warnings of the detective investigating the demise of Mrs Crandall.

Crawford is never less than entertaining and she captures Lynn Markham’s mix of cynicism and desperate longing for love rather well. Jeff Chandler is all oily charm as the gigolo Drummy. Cecil Kellaway as Osbert and Natalie Svchafer (best known as Mrs Howell from Gilligan’s Island are delightfully immoral and scheming.

There’s enough overheated melodrama to provide plenty of enjoyment. It’s all great fun.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Johnny Guitar (1954)

The Hollywood western produced some strange mutations during the 1950s (Sam Fuller’s Forty Guns comes to mind) but surely there were none stranger than Nicholas Ray’s 1954 Johnny Guitar.

Vienna (Joan Crawford) runs a saloon on the outskirts of a cattle town. A railroad is going to be built in the not-too-distant future at which point Vienna is going to make a killing. She’s friendly with the Dancing Kid and his gang, but she has an arch-enemy in the form of Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge). When the stagecoach is held up and Emma’s brother is killed the Dancing Kid’s gang are prime suspects but Emma has no doubt that Vienna is really behind it. Then a mysterious stranger rides into town. He doesn’t carry a gun, but he does carry a guitar. This is Johnny Guitar (Sterling Hayden).

You may have noticed that so far the plot doesn’t seem to make a great deal of sense. If you watch the movie you’ll find that in fact it makes no sense at all. Emma is in love with the Dancing Kid. He makes her feel like a woman, so she wants him dead (no, I don’t understand it either). The Dancing Kid prefers Vienna, but this seems to be just a small part of the extraordinary hatred that Emma feels for Vienna. And it soon transpires that Vienna and Johnny Guitar are old flames, so the Kid gets his marching orders. The kid is so annoyed at being unjustly accused of robbing the stagecoach that he decides to rob the bank. No, I don’t understand that either.

A posse is formed, and they’re out to get the Dancing Kid and Vienna. We’re also bout to learn that Johnny Guitar isn’t what he seems. The plot lurches to an insane and extravagantly strange finale.

This is a Nicholas Ray film. I haven’t been impressed by any of his films and his reputation among European intellectuals seems to me to be a good reason for doubting the sanity of European intellectuals. Johnny Guitar may well be his worst movie. It may also well be his best movie. It’s such a bizarre train wreck that it becomes truly fascinating, and (unlike other Nick Ray films) it becomes weirdly entertaining. They don’t make movies like this any more.

The plot appears to be a very clumsy statement about the McCarthy witch-hunts, a subject that rapidly becomes tiresome. There’s also some distinctly odd sexual politics but disentangling the actual intentions of this movies is beyond my humble abilities.

Joan Crawford gives one of her oddest performances. It’s not exactly a bad performance but it’s clear she has no idea what the movie is supposed to be about. Nor does anyone else. Mercedes McCambridge doesn’t just chew the scenery, she swallows it whole. Sterling Hayden is entirely wrong as a leading man for Joan Crawford, which in the context of this movie makes him just right. Ernest Borgnine does his best in a supporting role.

Martin Scorcese provides a brief introduction on the DVD. His most interesting point is Ray’s odd use of colour, with very few blues. Why are there so few blues? If Scorcese knows, he’s not telling.

This movie is so weird that I think it’s fair to describe it as a must-see movie, if only because you just won’t believe it unless you do.