A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness
By Charles Matthews


Saturday, November 28, 2015

The Barretts of Wimpole Street (Sidney Franklin, 1934)

This is Norma Shearer as queen of the MGM lot, taking on a role that had been associated with Katherine Cornell, who played Elizabeth Barrett in the 1931 Broadway production of Rudolf Besier's play and then toured the country with it. Irving Thalberg, the head of production at MGM, offered the role in the film version to Cornell, but she turned it down -- as she did all film offers. (Cornell reportedly was afraid of having her performances recorded on film because she feared they would grow dated and ludicrous, as so many performances from the silent era had become.) The logical choice for the movie then became Shearer, Thalberg's wife, who was entering a new phase in her career: Having turned 30 in 1932, she was beginning to outgrow the more lively persona that she displayed in her earlier movies. Unfortunately for her reputation today, most of the films she began to make have effaced the earlier image: She seems distantly "respectable" in them. The Barretts of Wimpole Street was one of her more popular vehicles, and although the film as a whole is stodgy, Shearer makes a credible transition from the oppressed invalid of the early part of the film to the defiant woman who elopes with her lover, Robert Browning (Fredric March), at the end. It helps that Charles Laughton hams it up wonderfully as Edward Moulton-Barrett, Elizabeth's father, who is determined to keep any of his eight children from marrying as long as he is alive. Although the Production Code forbade any explicit mention of either incest or sexual obsession, Laughton's performance makes it clear in the climactic scene not only that he is disturbed by his own sexuality and may have forced himself on his late wife, but also that he has incestuous feelings for Elizabeth . Her horror at this revelation precipitates her elopement with Browning.  

Friday, November 27, 2015

Watch on the Rhine (Herman Shumlin, 1943)

Like Broderick Crawford in All the King's Men (Robert Rossen, 1949) or Cliff Robertson in Charly (Ralph Nelson, 1968), Paul Lukas had the good fortune to land a movie role that won him the best actor Oscar on his one and only turn as a nominee. His competition included Gary Cooper in For Whom the Bell Tolls (Sam Wood), Walter Pidgeon in Madame Curie (Mervyn LeRoy), and Mickey Rooney in The Human Comedy (Clarence Brown). Oh, and Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca (Michael Curtiz), the one performance that everyone remembers. It's not like Lukas hadn't had plenty of opportunities to attract attention before: He had begun acting in movies in his native Hungary in 1915, and after coming to Hollywood had appeared in mostly supporting roles in numerous films, playing Professor Bhaer opposite Katharine Hepburn in Little Women (George Cukor, 1933) and the sinister Dr. Hartz in The Lady Vanishes (Alfred Hitchcock, 1938), for example. He had also played the role of Kurt Muller, the coordinator of resistance movements against the Nazis, in the original Broadway production of Watch on the Rhine in 1941, so he was a natural choice for the film version -- though producer Hal Wallis wanted Charles Boyer instead. As often happens, the Oscar was no step toward better roles in movies, and Lukas spent much of his later career on stage, though he continued to appear on film and TV up till his death in 1971. The play was written by Lillian Hellman, whose lover, Dashiell Hammett, did the screenplay with some input from her. Unfortunately, the result is less a movie than a sermon about doing one's patriotic duty in the struggle against fascism. It didn't help that Wallis hired the play's director, Herman Shumlin, for the film: Shumlin had never directed a movie and had to be assisted throughout by cinematographer Hal Mohr. He was also unable to rein in Bette Davis, who is miscast as the noble and dutiful wife and has a tendency to slip into some of her familiar and caricaturable mannerisms in the film.

The Flowers of St. Francis (Roberto Rossellini, 1950)

After his great Neo-Realist films Rome, Open City (1945) and Paisan (1946), and just as he was beginning his relationship with Ingrid Bergman, Rossellini made this sweet-natured film that combines some of his Neo-Realism (the use of non-professional actors) with some of the moral questioning he does in the four Bergman films, especially Europe '51 (1952). Based on two 14th-century books that retold legends of the life of St. Francis and his followers, The Flowers of St. Francis consists of a prologue and nine episodes. The actors, who were Franciscan monks, are not credited, although Francis was played by Brother Nazario Gerardi and the key role of Brother Ginepro by Brother Severino Pisacane. The only professional actor in the film is Aldo Fabrizi, who had worked with Rossellini in Rome, Open City. Fabrizi is the monstrous tyrant Nicolaio, who torments Ginepro until he is won over by the monk's gentle endurance of all the ills inflicted on him -- at one point, Ginepro is used as a human jump rope, then dragged around Nicolaio's camp behind a horse. The title of the film in Italian is Francesco, Giullare di Dio, meaning "God's jester," and the moral lesson constantly taught in the film is that of self-abasement to the point of ridicule. In a key episode, Francis and another friar go in search of perfect happiness. They find it when they go to the house of a man who repeatedly refuses their plea for alms until he finally beats them and kicks them downstairs. Then Francis explains that true happiness is to suffer in the name of Christ, a moral lesson not unlike the one learned by Irene Girard (Bergman) in Europe '51, where it's expressed in more secular terms. (And one that I might use as an excuse the next time I shut the door on a Jehovah's Witness or a Mormon missionary.) The screenplay was written in collaboration with Federico Fellini with consultation from two Roman Catholic priests, though the film is much lighter in tone than that suggests.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Listen to Me Marlon (Stevan Riley, 2015)

It's a truism that Marlon Brando revolutionized film acting. (With a little help from Montgomery Clift and James Dean, and some pioneering by John Garfield.) And it seems that Brando believed the truism himself: At one point in this fascinating documentary he disses such older film stars as Gary Cooper, Clark Gable, and Humphrey Bogart, asserting that they were always the same in their movies. This misses the point about film stardom, I think, which is that everyone who gets established as a film actor carries their image from movie to movie. How much variety, really, is there in Brando's most memorable film performances? Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire (Elia Kazan, 1951), Johnny Strabler in The Wild One (Laslo Benedek, 1953), Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront (Elia Kazan, 1954), and even Vito Corleone in The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972) and Paul in Last Tango in Paris (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1972) are all troubled urban Americans with a rebellious streak. And when Brando tried to break away from that type -- as Emiliano Zapata in Viva Zapata! (1952), Mark Antony in Julius Caesar (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1953), Napoleon in Désirée (Henry Koster, 1954), or Fletcher Christian in Mutiny on the Bounty (Lewis Milestone, 1962) -- the performances leave a lot to be desired. Mind you, I still think Brando was one of the greatest actors in film history, but only when he let himself play roles that suited him -- as Cooper, Gable, and Bogart did. This film, which uses Brando's own tape recordings as its principal source, shows him as a kind of tragic naïf in search of something that would heal the wounds he carried from childhood. He found it in acting when he fell under the spell of Stella Adler, although the Adler shown in this film is given to talking pretentious nonsense about how acting isn't about the words, it's about the soul. Brando also sought healing in sex, in psychoanalysis, in political activism, but the picture that emerges in the film is of a man who never succeeded in escaping his own tormented ego.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Some Like It Hot (Billy Wilder, 1959)

Twenty years ago (!), when I wrote my book about movies that had been nominated for Oscars, I had this to say about Some Like It Hot: "Hilarious farce and one of the sweetest natured of Wilder's usually acerbic comedies, thanks to endearing performances by [Jack] Lemmon and [Joe E.] Brown, [Tony] Curtis' high-spirited mimicry of [Cary] Grant, and [Marilyn] Monroe's breath-taking luminosity." Today, after all we've learned about sexual orientation and identity, after many feminist critiques of Hollywood's depiction of women, and after many explorations of Monroe's tragic history, that comment sounds a little naive. Plumb beneath the surface of what seems to be mere entertainment and you'll find disturbance in the depths. Take the celebrated ending of the film, for example. Sugar (Monroe) gets Jerry (Curtis), but at what price? As he warns her, he's exactly the kind of guy she knows is bad for her. And Osgood's (Brown) shrugging off the fact that Daphne (Lemmon) is a man is one of the funniest moments on film, but in fact, the two men have the kind of chemistry together (as in the tango scene) that works, whereas Curtis and Monroe have no real chemistry. Is the film making a case, well in advance of its time, for same-sex attraction? Probably not Wilder's conscious intention, but what does that matter? As for the difficulties of working with Monroe that Wilder and her co-stars later complained about -- though Curtis eventually retracted the much-quoted (including by me) statement that kissing her was "like kissing Hitler" -- this remains perhaps her best film and best performance. Imagine the movie with Mitzi Gaynor (originally thought of for the part and on standby in case Monroe bailed on it) and you have nothing like the one we now know. In lesser hands than Wilder's the clichés (men in drag on run from gangsters) would have resulted in a second-rate comedy. The real marvel is that Wilder produced something enduring out of clichéd material. Curtis and Lemmon are great, even though their roles are the traditional comic teaming of a bully (Curtis) and a patsy (Lemmon), the formula already worked over by Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, Bing Crosby and Bob Hope, and Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. Sometimes what you have to do is take the formula and transcend it.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

The Seven Year Itch (Billy Wilder, 1955)

Tiresome, talky, and unfunny, this may be Billy Wilder's worst film. Wilder blamed the censors, who squelched all the sexual innuendos that he wanted to carry over from David Axelrod's Broadway play. In the play, the protagonist, whose wife and child have gone to Maine to escape the summer heat in Manhattan, has an affair with the young woman who lives upstairs. The censors insisted that they must remain chaste: She spends the night in his apartment, sleeping in his bed while he spends a restless night on the sofa. The lead of the play, the saggy-faced character actor Tom Ewell, was retained for the film, while the biggest female star of the day, Marilyn Monroe, was cast opposite him. The result is a sad imbalance: Ewell, who is on-screen virtually all 105 minutes of the movie, is allowed to overplay the role as if performing to the rear of the balcony. Monroe, whose role is considerably shorter, works hard at giving some substance to her character, though it's little more than the ditzy blonde she had begun to resent having to play. And the match-up of Ewell and Monroe is entirely implausible. (On stage, the part was played by the pretty but decidedly un-Marilynesque Vanessa Brown.) The film is remembered today chiefly for the scene in which Monroe stands on a subway grate and her dress is blown up by train passing below.

Monday, November 23, 2015

The Night of the Hunter (Charles Laughton, 1955)

Is there another great film so inconsistent in tone and technique? For it is a great film for the most part -- certainly every part that features Robert Mitchum in one of the defining roles of his career. And the central section that deals with the river journey of the two children, John (Billy Chapin) and Pearl Harper (Sally Jane Bruce), has a mythic resonance, enhanced by Lillian Gish's marvelously naive retelling of the stories of Moses in the bulrushes and the flight of the Holy Family from Herod's massacre of the innocents. Director Laughton, cinematographer Stanley Cortez, and art director Hilyard M. Brown give us memorable images like that of the drowned Shelley Winters, hair floating like the underwater weeds, or the one of Mitchum on horseback silhouetted in the distance against the night sky as the terrified children cower in a barn. I particularly love one heart-stopping moment: Lillian Gish has been sitting on her screened porch, shotgun on her lap, protecting the children while Mitchum waits outside. Gish and Mitchum have both been singing the hymn "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms" in an ironically peaceful duet. Then a child brings a candle to the porch and its light is reflected on the screen for a moment, hiding Mitchum from Gish's view. She quickly blows out the candle, but by the time she does, he has disappeared. If Laughton had been able to sustain this sort of tension throughout the film, it would be easier to call The Night of the Hunter a masterpiece. But some of his work is undone by the intrusive score by Walter Schumann. And Laughton, in his only film as director, isn't able to bring off what should be the film's climax: the capture, trial, and threatened lynching of Mitchum's character. As staged and edited, it proves anticlimactic. Nor does the Christmasy happy ending succeed in avoiding sentimentality. Some of the film's flaws no doubt result from the screenplay by James Agee, much revised by Laughton, which occasionally works too hard at being "poetic." But it's criminal that the poor initial reception of the film discouraged Laughton from trying his hand as director again.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Bombshell (Victor Fleming, 1933)

This giddy screwball comedy is one of the earliest examples of the genre, with a screenplay by John Lee Mahin and Jules Furthman that's wall-to-wall wisecracks and frantic antics. It also has more sexual innuendo than later examples of the genre, since it was released a year before the Production Code began to be enforced by the notoriously blue-nosed Joseph Breen. There's even a joke about the censors in the script, in which the movie star played by Jean Harlow is being called on for retakes on Red Dust (1932), because of objections from the Hays Office, the code's precursors. (Mahin wrote the screenplay for Red Dust and Fleming directed it.) The cast is peerless: Harlow plays Lola Burns, a star said to be modeled on Clara Bow, and Lee Tracy is her hyperactive press agent "Space" Hanlon. Tracy has a way of exploding into rooms that reminds me of Kramer on Seinfeld. Fleming was probably not the ideal director for this fast-paced nonsense, which deserves a looser, lighter touch like that of Ernst Lubitsch or Howard Hawks, but he gives his cast freedom and they're equal to the challenge. Watch the ensemble, for example, demonstrate perfect comic timing in some of the scenes that Fleming films in long takes. Even Franchot Tone, one of the more forgettable leading men of the 1930s, demonstrates unexpected comic skill in the scene in which, as the phony Boston socialite Gifford Middleton, he woos Lola with lines like "I'd like to run barefoot through your hair." Also on hand is Louise Beavers, playing a maid of course, in an exchange that wouldn't get by Breen a year later: When Harlow asks what happened to the negligee she gave her, Beavers replies that "it got all tore up night before last." Harlow observes, "Your day off is sure brutal on your lingerie."

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Their Own Desire (E. Mason Hopper, 1929)

Two years before A Free Soul, Norma Shearer made this rather thin talkie, which shows clearly her evolution from silence into sound. She hasn't yet found her voice level: It was only her third talking picture and she still sounds a bit thin, and her laugh is a little shrill. It probably helped that her brother, Douglas Shearer, was the head of MGM's sound department, and could help her get the right pitch, because her next film, The Divorcee (Robert Z. Leonard, 1930), won her the best actress Oscar. (In fact, the Oscar ballot listed her nomination as for both The Divorcee and Their Own Desire, but the official citation showed her as a winner for only the former. Academy record-keeping was primitive at the time, so no one today knows if the voters indicated a preference for the one film over the other -- as they should have, since her performance in The Divorcee is indeed the better one.) In Their Own Desire, Shearer is playing a post-flapper "new woman," lively and athletic: She plays polo, taking a spill from a horse with no ill effects, and gets the attention of men by doing high dives into the country club pool. The man she attracts is played by Robert Montgomery, who was two years younger than 27-year-old Shearer, and both are convincingly coltish in their infatuation. The plot, from a novel by Sarita Fuller adapted by Frances Marion, is pleasantly nonsensical: Shearer and Montgomery fall in love, not knowing that he is the son of the woman (Helene Millard) whom her father (Lewis Stone) has divorced her mother (Belle Bennett) to live with. (The movie was made, obviously, before the institution of the Prohibition Code's proscription on such goings-on.) It's complicated, as they say. MGM made the most of its entry into sound, including two musical numbers: the songs "Blue Is the Night," played during a dance at the country club, and "The Boyfriend Blues," sung to Shearer by a harmonizing quartet. Director Hopper had been making movies since 1911, but he retired from the business in 1935, leaving an oeuvre of no particular distinction though he lived on till 1967.

Friday, November 20, 2015

A Free Soul (Clarence Brown, 1931)

Norma Shearer made the transition to talkies easily: She had a well-placed voice and, when the role called for it, a natural way of handling dialogue. Unfortunately, A Free Soul doesn't call for much in the way of "natural" for Shearer, and it's one of the films that suggest why, of the major female stars of the 1930s (Garbo, Crawford, Loy, Harlow, Stanwyck, Dietrich, Hepburn, Colbert), she is the least remembered. She works hard at her role as the free-spirited daughter of an alcoholic defense attorney (Lionel Barrymore), but too often her work is undone by a tendency, perhaps carried over from silent films, to strike mannered poses: typically, hands on hips, shoulders back, chin high. She looks great in the barely-there gowns designed for her by Adrian, however. They seem to be held in place by will power (or double-sided tape). The plot calls on her to try to dry out her drunken father by wagering that if he can sober up, she'll give up her relationship with the sexy gangster her father managed to save from a murder rap. That gangster is played by Clark Gable, who got fifth billing (after James Gleason!), a sign of his status at the time. Gable had been making movies, usually in bit parts, since 1923, but this was the film that catapulted him, at age 30, into stardom. He still stands out in the movie as a natural, unaffected presence amid the mannered Shearer, hammy Barrymore, and pasty-looking Leslie Howard. It doesn't even hurt Gable that he's cast as a heel named Ace Wilfong, which brings to mind the insurance salesman in It's a Gift (Norman Z. McLeod, 1934) who annoys W.C. Fields with his search for Carl LaFong, "Capital L, small a, capital F, small o, small n, small g. LaFong. Carl LaFong." The improbable story comes from a novel by Adela Rogers St. Johns that had been adapted into a play by Willard Mack. (Incidentally, the play had been directed on Broadway in 1928 by George Cukor and starred Melvyn Douglas as Ace Wilfong.) Barrymore won the best actor Oscar on the strength of the courtroom speech he gives at the film's end. Barrymore claimed that he did it in one take with the help of multiple cameras, but the logistics of lighting for that many cameras makes his story hard to credit.

The Blackbird (Tod Browning, 1926)

The Blackbird begins with an atmospheric re-creation of Victorian Limehouse, with set designs by Cedric Gibbons and A. Arnold Gillespie impressively lighted and shot by cinematographer Percy Hilburn. But it turns into a routine melodrama showcase for Lon Chaney, who plays both the title character, a thief, and his alter ego, the Bishop, who pretends to be a missionary in the district. No one seems to suspect that the Blackbird and the Bishop are the same person, because in the latter persona Chaney contorts himself, holding one shoulder higher than the other and twisting one leg into an impossible position. Eventually, this masquerade will prove the truth of your mother's adage that if you keep contorting your face or body like that, it'll freeze that way. But in the meantime, the Blackbird falls for a music hall performer, Fifi Lorraine (Renée Adorée), who is also being pursued by a society toff (Owen Moore) known as West End Bertie. He's a thief, too, but in his case love for Fifi proves stronger than larceny. Browning, who also wrote the story (with Waldemar Young), handles this nonsense well. Adorée is charming, and her slightly risqué puppet show is fun, but the only real reason to see this movie is to admire Chaney's unfailing commitment to his considerable art.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982)

I had forgotten that Blade Runner, with its flying cars, ads for Atari and Pan Am, and rainy Los Angeles, was set in the year 2019, which unless things change radically in the next four years puts it on a par with 1984 (Michael Anderson, 1956) and 2001 (Stanley Kubrick, 1968) for missed prognostications. Yet despite this, and even more despite the great advances in special effects technology, this 33-year-old movie hardly feels dated. That's because it isn't over-infatuated with the technological whiz-bang of so many sci-fi films, especially since the advances in CGI. Its effects, supervised by the great Douglas Trumbull, have the solidity and tactility so often missing in CGI work, because they're very much  in service of the vision of production designer Laurence G. Paull, art director David L. Snyder, and especially "visual futurist" Syd Mead. But more especially because they're in service of the humanity whose very questionable nature is the point of Hampton Fancher and David Webb Peoples's adaptation of the Philip K. Dick novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? It also helps that the film has a terrific cast. Harrison Ford can't help bringing a bit of Han Solo and Indiana Jones to every movie, but it's entirely appropriate here -- one time when a star image doesn't fight the script. Rutger Hauer's death scene is memorable, and even Sean Young, a problematic actress at best, comes off well. (I think it's because when we first see her, she's dressed and coiffed like a drag-queen Joan Crawford, so that when she literally lets her hair down she takes on a softness we're not accustomed to from her.) And then there's the enigmatic origamist Edward James Olmos, Daryl Hannah, William Sanderson, and especially Joanna Cassidy, who manages to achieve poignancy even wearing a transparent plastic raincoat. I only wish that HBO would scrap its print of the "voice-over" version of the film, with Ford's sporadic narrative and the happy ending demanded by Warner Bros., and show director Scott's 2007 "Final Cut" version instead.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Norma Rae (Martin Ritt, 1979)

If Norma Rae were made today (which it wouldn't be), it would have to end with the owners closing the textile mill after the pro-union vote and shipping the jobs to Sri Lanka. Only two years after the movie was released, Ronald Reagan fired the striking air traffic controllers, giving impetus to the anti-union movement that persists to this day. Which is not just to say that Norma Rae is dated -- it was a bit that way at the time -- but that it persists in the memory largely because of Sally Field's breakthrough performance. It won her her first Oscar, and a well-deserved one: She carries the movie as few actresses have done before or since, freeing her from the trap that the TV series Gidget (1965-66) and The Flying Nun (1967-70) had caught her in. She had proved herself with the 1976 TV miniseries Sybil, for which she won an Emmy, but nothing demonstrated her ability to hold an audience in her grasp like Norma Rae. The screenplay by Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank Jr. also earned an Oscar nomination, but it's scattered and sketchy, only touching lightly on the many elements of union organizing in the South -- racism, political chicanery, violence -- which are probably more important to understand than what the film focuses on: the grit and determination of one young textile worker and one stereotypically lefty Jewish organizer (Ron Leibman). Field has spoken of the difficulty faced by an actress even after she has won two Oscars -- her second was for Places in the Heart (Robert Benton, 1984) -- in finding challenging roles, and the career of Hilary Swank is a solid confirmation of that.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Once (John Carney, 2006)

Once is an entirely likable little movie with some good music, pleasant performances by unknowns, and a setting (contemporary Dublin) that hasn't been overworked into familiarity. It's also a film with a 97% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, which means that out of 154 reviews surveyed by the site, 149 of them were favorable. That gives it a higher rating on the Tomatometer than No Country for Old Men (Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, 2007) which won the best picture Oscar the same year that Once just took home the Oscar for best original song ("Falling Slowly"). It's also a better ranking than last year's critical hit and Oscar winner Birdman (Alejandro González Iñárritu), and is right on par with the current critical favorite, Spotlight (Tom McCarthy). Once currently has a 7.9 ranking (on a scale of 10), and is the 1,651st most popular film of all time.  I mention all this because we seem to have gone a little crazy with critical ranking systems. Sometimes films come along that capture critics' hearts because they are simpler and don't mount an assault on the senses that the effects-laden blockbusters the critics are obligated to watch do, which is why Once succeeds for them. But is Once a great picture just because it asks less of a viewer? Criticism today is part consumer guide and part serious analysis. So as a consumer guide, I would have no hesitation recommending Once to anyone who asked if I'd seen anything good lately, but it's a nice little movie that does nothing challenging to its viewers, which is why I will probably have forgotten it by the time someone gets around to asking me that question. On the other hand, I would hesitate to recommend to just anyone some of the movies I've watched lately that will stick with me for a long time  -- I mean films like A Man Escaped, Andrei Rublev, Fists in the Pocket, Jeanne Dielman, Leviathan, or Mamma Roma.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Bernie (Richard Linklater, 2011)

Imagine Bernie without Jack Black, but with, say, Philip Seymour Hoffman in the title role. Hoffman would have played the hell out of the part, which is one of the reasons he is so sorely missed, but the tone of the film would have been very different. What Black brings to the role is a very familiar image, that of a scamp, a mocking presence in almost all of his previous movies. But here he's cast against type, as a sweet-natured possibly gay man who manages to capture the hearts of a small East Texas town, and more particularly the shriveled heart and deep needs of a wealthy widow (Shirley MacLaine). It's the tension between the manic imp of his earlier films and the good-hearted (if naively lethal) Bernie that gives this movie its acerbic tone. I had forgotten that Richard Linklater also directed School of Rock (2003), Black's first big hit in a starring role after stealing High Fidelity (Stephen Frears, 2000) out from under the nose of John Cusack. It's to Linklater's credit that he sees more in the actors he works with than others do. Small town East Texas is an easy target for satire, and I understand the critics who liken Bernie to Fargo (Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, 1996), which did similar things with the easily caricatured accents and mannerisms of the deep plains states. Having grown up in the South and lived in Dallas, on the fringe of East Texas, I have known a few Bernies: somewhat effeminate men who don't fit the good-ol'-boy stereotype of the region, but are tolerated by the good-ol'-boys and especially doted upon by their wives and mothers. Black captures the Bernies to perfection, perhaps because Texan Linklater and his co-scriptwriter Skip Hollandsworth, who wrote about Bernie Tiede first for Texas Monthly, know them well, and know how (as the Coens likewise did in Fargo) to transcend the merely satiric for something more humane and interesting.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Two Norma Shearer Silent Films

Norma Shearer meets Norma Shearer in Lady of the Night
Lady of the Night (Monta Bell, 1925)
A Lady of Chance (Robert Z. Leonard, 1928)
I confessed in an earlier post that I really like the young Norma Shearer, especially in her silent films. But I can see from these two movies what led her astray in her later films: She loves the camera too much -- more than she does her leading men. Granted that neither Malcolm McGregor (Lady of the Night) nor Johnny Mack Brown (A Lady of Chance) is much more than a handsome presence on the screen, not quite enough to act with when you've got Shearer's talent, she still seems to hog these pictures, especially when she's playing tough girl. In Night she has a double role: the hard-bitten Molly Helmer and the sweet rich girl Florence Banning. She's surprisingly good as Molly -- and totally unbelievable as Florence, who decides to sacrifice her chance at marriage with inventor David Page (McGregor) because Molly had him first. But the incredible part is built into the story by Adela Rogers St. Johns, who churned out this sort of stuff for movies on a regular basis. In Chance, Shearer has a role that would later be perfected by Barbara Stanwyck: the tough grifter with a soft heart. The story is nonsense again: She falls for her mark, a Southerner she thinks is a rich man, even after he takes her home to Alabama and she learns that she has jumped to the wrong conclusion. Stanwyck does it better in Ball of Fire (Howard Hawks, 1941) and The Lady Eve (Preston Sturges, 1941), but Stanwyck also had better directors than the prolific but undistinguished Robert Z. Leonard. He allows, or perhaps encourages, Shearer to mug and pose endlessly; at first she's delightful, but a little of that sort of thing goes a long way. A Lady of Chance also contains an embarrassing heap of period racism, when Shearer and Brown are being wheeled along the Atlantic City boardwalk by a singing black man, and Brown remarks that it reminds him of "the darkies singing on the plantation back home."

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Fists in the Pocket (Marco Bellocchio, 1965)

In other hands than Bellocchio's, Fists in the Pocket could have been a horror movie, or perhaps a black comedy. (Push Momma From the Cliff?) Instead, it's a bit of both, but much more. Alessandro  (Lou Castel) is a psychopath, but his family isn't much better: Only his mild-mannered retarded brother, Leone (Pier Luigi Troglio), seems to be blameless. Like Alessandro, Leone has a neurological disorder that causes seizures. Both keep them under control with medication, but Leone needs constant attention to make sure he stays on his meds, whereas Alessandro sometimes goes off of them just for the hell of it. Their sister, Giulia (Paola Pitagora), is just unstable, while their older brother, Augusto (Marino Masé), approaches normality, but with a weary cynicism that makes him ineffective. All of them are in service to their blind mother (Liliana Gerace), with whom they live in a shabby-genteel villa in Northern Italy. We get an efficiently presented glimpse of the family's various modes of dysfunction in a dinner table scene near the beginning of the film. Bellocchio uses this family as a vehicle for satire on the pieties surrounding the family, including reverence for ancestors and for the church. It's one of the most effective attacks on sentimental portraits of family life this side of Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury, which in many ways it resembles.

Friday, November 13, 2015

The Crowd (King Vidor, 1928)

The Crowd begins with the birth of John Sims (James Murray) and the prophecy that he will be somebody, a belief that he clings to 12 years later, on the day his father dies suddenly. And then there's a jump to 21-year-old John arriving in New York City, still fired with ambition. The jump leaves an odd hole in the narrative: We expect his father's death to have made an impact on his expectations -- to have shown him, for example, the threat of the unexpected or the value of hard work. But 21-year-old John is a bit feckless, a dreamer who can't quite get in gear to succeed. He falls in love too easily, and is soon married to a woman named Mary (Eleanor Boardman), because the John-and-Mary trope is a little too hard for Vidor and his co-scenarists John V.A. Weaver and Harry Behn to resist. This is a 20th-century Everyman story. If the hole in John's backstory is obvious, however, Vidor makes the father's death a visual motif by an expressionistic shot of young John in the stairwell of his house when he learns of the death, a remarkable image of entrapment that Vidor echoes throughout the film: The skyscrapers of New York, for example, loom in the same funnel-like way as the stairwell. But most celebrated image of entrapment in The Crowd is the web-like rows of desks in the insurance office where John finds work but not fulfillment -- an image frequently imitated, most notably by Billy Wilder in The Apartment (1960). (It's worth noting the work of cinematographer Henry Sharp here, as well as the set designers Cedric Gibbons -- who may or may not have done actual work on the sets, since as head of MGM's design department, Gibbons had his name put on every film -- and A. Arnold Gillespie.) As a parable about modern work, The Crowd is an enduring film. John gets what little satisfaction he has from creativity -- in his case, entering contests to write advertising slogans -- and not from what he has to do to earn a living. Murray turned out to be a case of life imitating art: He was an alcoholic who, like John Sims, had trouble staying employed, but while the movie ends on an optimistic note for the character, the actor died at age 35, in a drowning that was possibly a suicide.
John Sims, age 12 (Johnny Downs), learns of his father's death.
A skyscraper echoes the stairwell scene in The Crowd.
The insurance office in The Crowd.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Away From Her (Sarah Polley, 2006)

Inevitably, because both films deal with Alzheimer's, I want to compare Away From Her to Still Alice. Both contain extraordinary female performances: Julianne Moore won an Oscar for the latter and Julie Christie was nominated for the former -- she lost to Marion Cotillard for La Vie en Rose (Olivier Dahan). Of the two films, I think Away From Her is superior, in large part because its screenplay (by Polley, who was also nominated for writing it) has a strong source: Alice Munro's story "The Bear Came Over the Mountain." It also has a remarkable supporting cast: Much of the movie is carried by Gordon Pinsent, a Canadian actor not well known enough in the States, as Grant Anderson, whose wife of 40-plus years, Fiona (Christie), insists on being institutionalized when the symptoms of the disease become too pronounced. But he is not allowed to see her for 30 days after she enters the nursing home: It's explained to him that the patients need time to adjust to their new surroundings, but a sympathetic nurse (Deanna Dezmari) suggests that this policy is more for the convenience of the staff than for the patients. I don't know if it's an actual policy in nursing homes for Alzheimer's patients, but it proves disastrous for Grant because by the time he is able to see Fiona again, she has formed an attachment, perhaps as more caregiver than lover, to a fellow patient, Aubrey (Michael Murphy), and treats Grant as if he's an acquaintance she can't quite place. It's an interesting if somewhat contrived situation, especially when Grant seeks out Aubrey's wife, Marian (Olympia Dukakis), who not only resents the relationship of Aubrey and Fiona but also removes him from the nursing home to care for him herself, partly because she is unable to cover the expenses. Dukakis gives a fine, astringent performance as the initially hostile Marian. ("What a jerk!" she says after Grant visits her.) It helps to undercut the drift toward sentimentality that could so easily swamp such a movie. Christie is, as always, impossibly beautiful, and her careful delineation of Fiona's initial distress and disorientation, and her eventual decline, is easily as good as Moore's in Still Alice. I have the same reservations about Away From Her that I did about that film: that Alzheimer's is portrayed as a problem particularly hard on affluent, educated white people, though this movie does touch on the financial difficulties that apparently even Canadians face because of it.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

An Angel at My Table (Jane Campion, 1990)

Three years before The Piano (1993) earned her critical acclaim and an Oscar for screenwriting as well as a nomination for directing, Campion made this film, originally as a TV miniseries. It's an account of the life of New Zealand author Janet Frame, told in three segments. Writers' biopics are difficult to bring off, in large part because writers' lives are usually less interesting than the things they write. Their chief function is typically to give us insight into the personal experiences that shaped their art, which in Frame's case included growing up in a working-class family in rural New Zealand, having a mental breakdown while she was at teachers' college, and being misdiagnosed as schizophrenic and being institutionalized at an antiquated mental asylum for eight years where she was treated with electroshock therapy. But during her stay at the hospital she wrote a series of short stories that were collected and published, receiving acclaim that eventually resulted in her release. Campion's film is based on three volumes of autobiography that Frame wrote. I have to admit that I've not read any of Frame's books or stories, so I'm not qualified to judge whether the film adds substance to either the autobiography or the fiction, but the screenplay by Laura Jones and the performance by Kerry Fox as the adult Janet Frame (she is played by Alexia Keogh as a teenager and Karen Fergusson as a child) are compelling enough in themselves. I also admit that I had trouble understanding the New Zealand accents, so I lost track sometimes in the dialogue.