Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Calamity Jane (1953)

Having become quite a fan of Doris Day in other movie genres I thought it was about time for me to bite the bullet and attempt one of her musicals. Calamity Jane, made at Warner Brothers in 1953, seemed like as good a place as any to start.

Calamity Jane was an actual historical figure but don’t panic - this movie is not going to bother with anything as tiresome as historical accuracy. And in any case it appears that the real Calamity Jane was not exactly a sticker for accuracy when it came to recounting her adventures.

As the movie opens Calamity is saving a stage coach under attack from a Sioux war party. The stage coach is on its way to Deadwood in the Dakota Territory. Calamity’s account of the attack is embellished a little in the telling but it seems that the people of Deadwood are used to this. Wild Bill Hickok is particularly sceptical, which doesn’t prevent him from being a close and devoted friend to Calamity.

There is trouble brewing in Deadwood. The manager of the town’s only theatre has announced, with much ballyhoo, that he was importing a famous (and glamorous) actress from New York City. Unfortunately there was some confusion on the subject of gender and the actress who arrives is in fact an actor. The townsfolk (almost all of them men and exceptionally starved of female company) are most displeased and are about to trash the theatre when Calamity steps in. She will go to Chicago and bring back a real actress, a major star, the famous Adelaid Adams.

Calamity is not the most feminine of women and she’s a bit of a rough diamond. And her knowledge of the theatre is non-existent. She mistakes the great actress’s maid for the actress herself. The maid, Katie Brown, has always nourished the dream of a career on the stage and now sees her opportunity. She neglects to tell Calamity that she isn’t the great star.

As you might expect, her theatrical debut in Deadwood is somewhat eventful. The audience is initially pleased, Katie being an actual female and a fairly attractive one. When she tries to sing in the style of Adelaid Adams it becomes evident that she is an impostor. Once again Calamity comes to the rescue and when Kate is persuaded to simply be herself she becomes a surprise hit.

Katie and Calamity set up housekeeping together but there are complications. Both women are madly in love with a handsome young lieutenant. Of course you know that somehow or other true love is going to triumph.

Allyn McLerie, an actress I’d never heard of, is extremely good as Katie. Howard Keel is Wild Bill Hickok, and I’m afraid I’m not a fan of either his singing or his acting.

Doris Day on the other hand is a delight. She’s funny, she’s feisty, she’s convincingly butch  as the tomboy Calamity.

The movie has a very very artificial feel to it, which I like. It looks like it was filmed entirely on a sound stage and that gives it a very appealing unreal feeling. You don’t want anything as tedious as realism in a musical. It’s amusing, the sings are a bit uneven but they have their moments, it’s outrageously romantic and it’s just generally fun.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I’m a convert to 50s Hollywood musicals but I’ve now come across a couple that I’ve liked a good deal. Calamity Jane is recommended.

Monday, December 16, 2019

Viva Las Vegas (1964)

Viva Las Vegas is a pretty lightweight movie. Which is OK. It’s an Elvis Presley movie so you’e not going to be expecting Citizen Kane. The important thing is that it’s a great deal of fun. And unlike some of Elvis’s movies, it’s well-made stylish fun.

The plot is thin, and that’s putting it mildly. Lucky Jackson (Elvis) is an up-and-coming race-car river who heads off to Las Vegas to win enough money to buy a new engine for his race car so he can enter the Las Vegas Grand Prix. He wins the money at the gaming tables, and loses it in bizarre circumstances (well maybe not so bizarre since he was pursuing a young lady at the time). Now he’s forced to work as a waiter but the upside is that he’s met Rusty Martin (Ann-Margret) and he’s pretty sure that she’s the girl he’s been looking for all his life.

He has a rival both romantically and on the race-track, a suave Italian count Elmo Mancini (Cesare Danova). The count is actually a pretty nice guy but you might think twice about  trusting him with your car or your girl.

Rusty falls for Lucky just as hard as he falls for her but there’s a snag. She’s worried about his driving. She doesn’t want to be the widow of a race-car driver. Lucky is equally determined not to give up his dream of success on the race-track.

Lucky’s immediate problem is how to find the money for that engine he needs but at the same time he’s not going to give up on Rusty. That’s pretty much it for the plot, and for the type of movie this is it’s perfectly adequate. There’s the right mix of humour and romance. The humour isn’t overdone. The temptation to resort to overly broad comedy or slapstick is resisted, and quite rightly.

However slight it might be plot-wise and thematically this movie has several very big things in its favour. Firstly there’s Elvis. It’s not a demanding rôle (he was a decent actor and could handle more ambitious parts) and mostly what he has to do is to be charming, likeable, sexy and charismatic. All of which he manages with ease.

Secondly there’s Ann-Margret. She’s the perfect leading lady for him. She can match him charisma for charisma and star quality for star quality and she seems like exactly the sort of gal that a character played by Elvis would fall in love with. She gets to do several songs including a showstopper Las Vegas-style big production number. Her acting is more than adequate, she makes Rusty feisty but cute and she looks stunning. And she gets a memorable entrance that lets us know we’re in the presence of a star.

Thirdly there’s the fact that MGM spent some serious money here and they hired some very competent people. Screenwriter Sally Benson had written Shadow of a Doubt for Hitchcock and she wrote the screenplay for Anna and the King of Siam. Director George Sidney had helmed a string of classic musicals such as Anchors Aweigh, The Harvey Girls, Annie Get Your Gun, Show Boat. Viva Las Vegas is a slick, polished well-crafted musical and Elvis’s performance of the title tune in the talent contest is a highlight.

And lastly there’s the other major star of the movie - Las Vegas itself. There’s quite a bit of location shooting, in places like the Flamingo Hotel and the car race through the city. This was the old Vegas - brash, vulgar and pulsating with life and excitement.

This is also a very good-natured movie. There’s no villain. Count Elmo will try his darnedest to win Rusty but he won’t cheat to do it and he won’t cheat to win the Grand Prix either. He’s a sportsman. His rivalry with Lucky is a friendly rivalry.

Then there are the songs and on the whole they’re pretty good.

The Deluxe Edition DVD offers a very good 16:9 enhanced transfer, an audio commentary and an excellent documentary on Elvis in Vegas.

Viva Las Vegas is immense fun. Very highly recommended.

You might also be interested in my review of Jailhouse Rock.

Sunday, December 8, 2019

The Third Man (1949)

The Third Man, directed by Carol Reed and released in 1949, is generally recognised as not just one of the greats of film noir but as one of the greatest movies of all time. I’ve seen it a couple of times and it would make my top ten list. Now I’m about to revisit it. Will I be as impressed this time as I was last time? We will see.

Despite the international cast The Third Man was a British production. The location shooting (of which there’s a great deal by the standards of 1949) was done in Vienna. Although there was not only a second unit but a third as well Reed in fact directed almost everything himself.

Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten), a popular American writer of westerns, arrives in Vienna shortly after the end of the Second World War. The city is occupied by the armies of the British, the Americans, the French and the Russians. Holly is broke but his old friend Harry Lime has tempted him to Vienna with the promise of work. Unfortunately by the time Holly arrives Harry Lime is dead, run over by a truck.

There were several witnesses to the accident but they all tell slightly different stories. Harry was killed instantly. He lived for just a short time. He lived long enough to pass on an important message. Holly has a bit of an over-active imagination and this combined with the odd discrepancies in accounts of the incident arouses his suspicion. British military policeman Major Calloway (Trevor Howard) advises him to leave Vienna but Holly is now determined to find out what really happened. Two men carried Harry’s body to the side of the road after the accident, but some accounts mention a mysterious third man. Holly is particularly keen to find this third man.

Holly tracks down Harry’s girlfriend Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli), Harry’s doctor and several of the witnesses, none of whom are very coöperative. He begins to suspect that Harry was actually murdered. Holly is right about the accident not being what it seemed to be but his theory as to what happened is quite wrong. Holly will find out the truth, but do we always want to know the truth? Does it actually help us?

When Greene was hired to write the screenplay he first wrote the story out as a novella which was later published (and the novella differs from the movie in several key points). This was one of the three collaborations between Greene and Carol Reed (the others being The Fallen Idol and Our Man in Havana) and those three movies are close to being Reed’s best work. Greene was quite lucky when it came to move adaptations of his stories. Apart from the lamentable 1958 version of The Quiet American most have been pretty good and several have been superb (not just the three films with Reed but also Brighton Rock and This Gun For Hire). Greene was a naturally cinematic writer, possibly the first great novelist to have a natural affinity for movies.

The Third Man has three huge claims to cinematic greatness. Firstly there’s the story. The screenplay was written by Graham Greene from one of his own stories. With Greene as the writer you know you’re going to get a tale that is literate and intelligent with a dash of black humour, deliciously twisted, and highly entertaining. There are plenty of typical Graham Greene obsessions in this tale. Betrayal of course. Not just betrayal of love, but betrayal of illusions. The idea that knowing the truth doesn’t necessarily make a person better off.

Its second claim to greatness is the cast. There’s Orson Welles, at the peak of his powers and in the rôle of his career. But he’s not directing so his performance is more disciplined that usual. Then there’s Joseph Cotten, a good actor who is well cast and gives his career-best performance. And then there’s Trevor Howard, again perfectly cast and in top form. Alida Valli is excellent as Harry’s girlfriend. The supporting cast is equally impressive, with Bernard Lee especially good as Calloway’s sergeant. And there’s an aded bonus - the always delightful Wilfred Hyde-White.

Its third claim to greatness is its stylistic brilliance. It’s so stylish that there have been rumours that Welles took a hand in the directing. No-one familiar with Carol Reed’s career as a director would believe this for a moment. Style was Carol Reed’s middle name. And if you compare it to other notable Reed films such as Fallen Idol and Our Man in Havana you will see exactly the same visual flourishes that you see in The Third Man. Carol Reed didn’t need anyone’s help to direct a masterpiece. And in The Third Man he’s on fire. Reed used visual tricks when they were needed. This was a movie that lent itself to a bravura approach. This is the world of Harry Lime and nothing is straightforward.

Apart from the absurd claim that Welles had a hand in the directing there’s the equally nonsensical claim that he contributed in a major way to the script. In fact he contributed one line. These silly claims seem to have originated with Welles. Welles’ career as a director ended up amounting to virtually nothing and his one really memorable acting performance, in The Third Man, was a supporting rôle in someone else’s movie. This must have rankled with him and may have led him to make these ridiculous wildly exaggerated claims.

Every single shot in this movie is exquisitely composed and photographed. There’s not a single moment that hasn’t had care and attention lavished on it. Cinematographer Robert Krasker won an Oscar for his work on this film. If it’s film noir visual style you’re after then this movie has it in abundance. In fact it’s hard to think of any movie that is more visually film noir than this one.

Mention must also be made of the famous zither soundtrack. l disliked it the first time I saw the movie but now I realise Reed was quite right in his judgment. It adds to the unique flavour of war-torn Vienna.

The StudioCanal Blu-Ray offers an excellent transfer and a host of extras. There have been many DVD releases of the film, some good and some terrible. This is one instance where, if you’re a fan of the movie, it probably is worthwhile upgrading to the Blu-Ray.

The Third Man may not be a perfect film but it’s about as close to perfection as you’re ever going to get. There’s not a single false note, not a single weakness. I said at the beginning that it would make my list of the ten greatest movies of all time and I’m now more convinced than ever of this. A truly great movie. Very very highly recommended.

You can find my review of Greene's novella The Third Man here.