A movie log formerly known as Bookishness / By Charles Matthews
"Dazzled by so many and such marvelous inventions, the people of Macondo ... became indignant over the living images that the prosperous merchant Bruno Crespi projected in the theater with the lion-head ticket windows, for a character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one. The audience, who had paid two cents apiece to share the difficulties of the actors, would not tolerate that outlandish fraud and they broke up the seats. The mayor, at the urging of Bruno Crespi, explained in a proclamation that the cinema was a machine of illusions that did not merit the emotional outbursts of the audience. With that discouraging explanation many ... decided not to return to the movies, considering that they already had too many troubles of their own to weep over the acted-out misfortunes of imaginary beings."--Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude
Thursday, December 31, 2015
Wednesday, December 30, 2015
|Promotional posters for the 1955 American release of Summer With Monika|
Tuesday, December 29, 2015
Le Beau Serge, in 1958, and worked with him again several times during their long careers.) But most intriguing of all to Wolf is Legagneur's pretty young goddaughter, Catherine (Anne Brochet), who Wolf is told is recovering from a serious illness and is quite fragile. It's clear to the audience from Catherine's erratic behavior that she's drugged -- whether as part of her therapy or not is the question raised in Wolf's mind. For no one in this household is exactly what they seem, least of all Wolf, who, when he's alone in his room, removes a gun from his shaving kit and hides it on a shelf. On the shelf he finds a lipstick and with it, murmuring "Madeleine," he writes a large "M" on a mirror, then rubs it out. Madeleine, we will learn, is Wolf's sister, who is said to have quarreled with Catherine and then left on a trip to the Seychelles, which Wolf seriously doubts. Madeleine is also, of course, the name of the character played by Kim Novak in Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958), one of several "Easter eggs" for Hitchcockians left by Chabrol in the film. Legagneur's TV show, for another example, uses as theme music Gounod's "Funeral March for a Marionette," which was the theme music for Hitchcock's own TV show. Masques failed to find an American distributor when it was first released, but is now available on video. It's definitely minor Chabrol, but Noiret is terrific as the affably sinister Legagneur.
Monday, December 28, 2015
Sunday, December 27, 2015
Saturday, December 26, 2015
Chekhov's gun plays a major role in Les Cousins, heightening the suspense about who will use it on whom. But the film isn't a suspense thriller, despite Chabrol's admiration for Hitchcock, so much as it is a deliciously perverse adaption of some classic fables: the country mouse and the city mouse, and the ant and the grasshopper. It also resonates ironically with Balzac's Lost Illusions, the novel that a bookseller (Guy Decomble) allows Charles (Gérard Blain) to "steal" from his shop. In the Balzac novel, a young man from the provinces goes to Paris to seek fame, fortune, and love, and his misadventures wreak havoc on himself and the people he loves. In Les Cousins, country mouse/ant Charles goes to Paris to share an apartment with his cousin, Paul (Jean-Claude Brialy), the city mouse/grasshopper, while both study law. Paul is a somewhat decadent hedonist, who tries to introduce the straiter-laced Charles, who is very much dedicated to his mother back home, to the delights of the city. One of these delights is the promiscuous Florence (Juliette Mayniel), with whom Charles falls in love, only to have things end badly when she chooses to live with Paul instead. Chabrol fills the movie with quirky, somewhat sinister characters, though never turns the film into a clear-cut tale of good vs. evil. Innocence doesn't triumph over cynicism here, though cynicism pays a price, which is what makes Chabrol's film such a grandly satisfying one to watch and to think about afterward. Blain and Brialy (in a suitably Mephistophelean mustache and beard) are brilliant, and the cinematographer, Henri Decaë, gives us a grand evocation of Paris in the 1950s.
Friday, December 25, 2015
National Film Registry of the Library of Congress. And none of them received a single nomination in any category for the Academy Awards. Sweet Smell is, of course, a wickedly cynical film about two of the most egregious anti-heroes, New York newspaper columnist J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster) and press agent Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis), ever to appear in a film. They make the gangsters of Francis Ford Coppola's and Martin Scorsese's films look like Boy Scouts. So given the inclination of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to stay on the good side of columnists and publicists, we might expect it to shy away from honoring the film with Oscars. But consider the categories in which it might have been nominated. The best picture Oscar for 1957 went to The Bridge on the River Kwai (David Lean), a respectable choice, and Sidney Lumet's tensely entertaining 12 Angry Men certainly deserved the nomination it received. But in what ways are the other nominees -- Peyton Place (Mark Robson), Sayonara (Joshua Logan), and Witness for the Prosecution (Billy Wilder) -- superior to Sweet Smell? The best actor Oscar winner was Alec Guinness for The Bridge on the River Kwai, another plausible choice. But Tony Curtis gave the performance of his career as Sidney Falco, overcoming his "pretty boy" image -- in fact, the film makes fun of it: One character refers to him as "Eyelashes" -- by digging deep into his roots growing up in The Bronx. Burt Lancaster would win an Oscar three years later for Elmer Gantry (Richard Brooks), a more showy but less controlled performance than the one he gives here. Either or both of them would have been better nominees than Marlon Brando was for his lazy turn in Sayonara, Anthony Franciosa in A Hatful of Rain (Fred Zinnemann), Charles Laughton in Witness for the Prosecution, and Anthony Quinn in Wild Is the Wind (George Cukor). The dialogue provided by Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman for the film crackles and stings -- there is probably no more quotable, or stolen from, screenplay, yet it went unnominated. So did James Wong Howe's eloquent black-and-white cinematography, showing off the neon-lighted Broadway in a sinister fashion, and Elmer Bernstein's atmospheric score mixed well with the jazz sequences featuring the Chico Hamilton Quintet. Even the performers in the film who probably didn't merit nominations make solid contributions: Martin Milner is miscast as the jazz musician who falls for Hunsecker's sister (Susan Harrison), but he hasn't yet fallen into the blandness of his famous TV roles on Route 66 and Adam-12, and Barbara Nichols, who had a long career playing floozies in movies and on TV, is surprisingly touching as Rita, one of the pawns Sidney uses to get ahead. As a director, Alexander Mackendrick is best known for the comedies he did at Britain's Ealing Studios with Alec Guinness, The Man in the White Suit (1951) and The Ladykillers (1955). His work on Sweet Smell was complicated by clashes with Lancaster, who was one of the film's executive producers, and after making a few more films he accepted a position as dean of the film school at the California Institute of the Arts in 1967, where he spent the rest of his career as an instructor after resigning his administrative position. Sweet Smell currently has a 98% favorable rating on Rotten Tomatoes's Tomatometer and an 8.2 rating on the IMDb.
Thursday, December 24, 2015
|Diane Keaton and Woody Allen in Annie Hall|
Annie Hall: Diane Keaton
Rob: Tony Roberts
Allison: Carol Kane
Tony Lacey: Paul Simon
Pam: Shelley Duvall
Robin: Janet Margolin
Mom Hall: Colleen Dewhurst
Duane Hall: Christopher Walken
Director: Woody Allen
Screenplay: Woody Allen, Marshall Brickman
Cinematography: Gordon Willis
Costume design: Ruth Morley
Annie Hall is generally recognized as the movie that took Woody Allen from being a mere maker of comedy films like Bananas (1971) and Sleeper (1973) that were extensions of his persona as a stand-up comedian and into his current status as a full-fledged auteur, with a record-setting 16 Oscar nominations as screenwriter, along with seven nominations as director (the same number as Steven Spielberg, and only one less than Martin Scorsese). It is one of the few outright funny movies to have won the best picture, and also won for Diane Keaton's performance and Allen's direction and screenplay. Watching it today, in the light of his later work, I still find it fresh and original and frankly more satisfying than most of his later films. Marshall Brickman shared the screenwriting Oscar for Annie Hall and was also nominated along with Allen for the screenplay of Manhattan (1979), as was Douglas McGrath for Bullets Over Broadway (1995), one of his most entertaining later movies. Is it possible that Allen should have worked with a collaborator more often? Would that have curbed his tendency to overload his movies with existentialist conundrums and his increasingly creepy fascination with much younger women -- viz., Emma Stone in Irrational Man (2015) and Magic in the Moonlight (2014), Evan Rachel Wood in Whatever Works (2009), and Scarlett Johansson in Scoop (2006) and Match Point (2005)? But it does Allen's achievement in Annie Hall a disservice to view the film in light of his later career (and his private life). He made a step, not a leap, forward from the goofy early comedies by playing on his stand-up persona -- the film opens and ends with Alvy Singer (Allen) cracking jokes and includes scenes in which Alvy does stand-up at a rally for Adlai Stevenson and at the University of Wisconsin. What makes the movie different from the "early, funny ones" -- as a rueful running gag line goes in Stardust Memories (1980) -- is his willingness and ability to turn Alvy into a real person who just happens to be very funny. Keaton's glorious performance also succeeds in giving dimension to what could have been just a caricature. Annie Hall may not have deserved the best picture Oscar in a year that also saw the debut of Star Wars, Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Luis Buñuel's That Obscure Object of Desire, but it's easy to make a case for it.
Wednesday, December 23, 2015
Tomatometer and a 7.8 score on the IMDb rating system. It won Sofia Coppola an Oscar for best original screenplay and a nomination for best director, along with nominations for best picture and for Bill Murray as best actor. But I have to admit that it left me cold when I first saw it, and my opinion of it has warmed only somewhat since then. I grant its originality of concept and its effective use of Murray and co-star Scarlett Johansson, who was only 18 when the film was made, a major step in her career as a film actress. Murray and Johansson have a fine chemistry together that stops short of inducing the queasiness that might result from their age difference. Coppola effectively portrays the melancholy of these Americans lost in a lively, vibrant culture they can only glimpse superficially. But I can also sympathize with the Japanese critics who found its depiction of the people of Japan to be little short of caricature. I felt this most strongly in the scene, early in the film, in which someone sends a prostitute to the hotel room of Murray's character, and she demands that he "lip" her stockings. Much supposed hilarity ensues from the stereotype of the Japanese confusion of "l" and "r," which was funny when the Monty Python troupe performed "Erizabeth L," with such characters as "Sil Wartel Lareigh," but I think it falls flat here. Otherwise, Coppola evokes the experience most of us have felt in a country where we don't speak the language. Murray plays a film star, Bob Harris, in Tokyo to shoot a Suntory whiskey commercial with a Japanese director who gives complicated instructions that are reduced by a translator to little more than "turn and look at the camera." A New York Times article after the film opened revealed what the director is actually saying, but Coppola chose not to provide subtitles, leaving the non-Japanese-speaking audience as much in the dark as Bob Harris -- and in fact Bill Murray himself -- was. Coppola also subtly suggests what her characters might be feeling, without spelling it out for us, as when Charlotte (Johansson), who has been left on her own in Japan while her photographer husband (Giovanni Ribisi) travels about, visits a Buddhist temple in Kyoto where a wedding is taking place. But Coppola's lapses in control of the film's tone, as in the scene with the prostitute, are sometimes needlessly jarring.
Tuesday, December 22, 2015
Monday, December 21, 2015
Sunday, December 20, 2015
Saturday, December 19, 2015
Come, gentle night, come, loving black-brow'd night,And when Juliet is preparing to drink the potion that will simulate death, we get none of her terrors of being sealed in the Capulet tomb. Zeffirelli's version is a safe compromise between the too-reverent George Cukor production for MGM in 1936, and Luhrmann's souped up modern version, but Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey are preferable to the aging Norma Shearer and Leslie Howard, and they handle the verse better than Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes did in Luhrmann's film. One thing the Zeffirelli film also has going for it is Nino Rota's score, which grew over-familiar when it became a best-selling LP but is still evocative today. And there are some good actors in the cast, including Michael York's Tybalt, Pat Heywood's Nurse, and Milo O'Shea's Friar Lawrence, not to mention Laurence Olivier's uncredited narrator. (Olivier also supplied the voice for the Italian actor playing Montague.) But I still want to see Renato Castellani's 1954 film version again -- it's been so long since I saw it that I had forgotten it was in color, and I may in fact have only seen it on a black-and-white TV -- before pronouncing Zeffirelli's film the best movie version.
Give me my Romeo, and, when he shall die,
Take him and cut him out in little stars,
And he will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night
And pay no worship to the garish sun.
Friday, December 18, 2015
Thursday, December 17, 2015
Wednesday, December 16, 2015
Tuesday, December 15, 2015
Mr. Miniver, Mr. Parkington, and M. Curie -- they made nine films together, if you count their cameos as themselves in The Youngest Profession (Edward Buzzell, 1943). So it's interesting to see him on his own in a 20th Century-Fox film, playing an action hero, the big-game hunter Alan Thorndike, who nearly assassinates Hitler, is beaten by the Gestapo, is pushed off a cliff and survives, escapes to a seaport where he boards a freighter for England, eludes his relentless pursuers, goes to ground in a cave, survives by killing his chief antagonist, and at the film's end parachutes into Germany, presumably to start it all over again. In fact, Pidgeon is a little too starchy for the role, which was better suited to someone like Errol Flynn or Tyrone Power, and he's upstaged (as who wasn't?) by George Sanders as the villain. Joan Bennett gives a nice performance as Jerry Stokes, the cockney "seamstress" (read: prostitute) who helps Thorndike escape. There's an entertaining scene in which Jerry encounters Thorndike's snooty sister-in-law, Lady Riseborough (Heather Thatcher). Roddy McDowall makes his American film debut as the cabin boy Vaner. This was the first of four films Bennett made with Fritz Lang as director, and they remain probably the highlights of her long career. Although Lang's American films never reached the heights of the ones he made in Germany, such as M (1931) and Metropolis (1927), he had a sure hand with the kind of suspense on display in Man Hunt. Dudley Nichols did the screenplay based on Geoffrey Household's novel Rogue Male.
Monday, December 14, 2015
|Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver|
Sunday, December 13, 2015
After George Cukor's 1935 David Copperfield, I think this is my favorite adaptation of Dickens for film or TV, and god knows there have been plenty of them. What Lean does right is to treat the Dickens book as a fable, not a novel. A novel takes its characters seriously as human beings; a fable sees them as embodiments of good and evil. And there's plenty of evil on display in Oliver Twist, from the brute evil of Bill Sikes (Robert Newton) to the venal evil of Fagin (Alec Guinness) to the stupid evil of Mr. Bumble (Francis L. Sullivan) and Mrs. Corney (Mary Clare). Oliver (John Howard Davies) is innocently good, whereas Mr. Brownlow (Henry Stephenson) is a man of good will. Nancy (Kay Walsh) and, to a lesser extent, the Artful Dodger (Anthony Newley) are potentially good people who have been corrupted by evil. We need fables like this from time to time, just to keep ourselves from despair. The performers are all beautifully cast, especially Davies as Oliver: He's just real-looking enough in the role that he doesn't become saccharine, the way some prettier Olivers do. This is Lean in what I think of as his great period, when he was making beautifully filmed movies with just the right measure of sentiment: Brief Encounter (1945) and Great Expectations (1946) in addition to this one. But he would be bit by the epic bug while working on The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), and its success would betray him into bigger but not necessarily better movies: Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Doctor Zhivago (1965), and the rest of his later oeuvre would have the same attention to visual detail that make his early movies so rich, but they seem to me chilly in comparison. Here he benefits not only from a perfect cast, but also from Guy Green's photography of John Bryan's set designs. There are probably few more terrifying scenes in movies than Sikes's murder of Nancy, which sends Sikes's dog (one of the most impressive performances by an animal in movies) into a frenzy. Running it a close second is Sikes's death, seen from a vertiginous rooftop angle. We don't actually see the death, but only the swift tautening of the rope as he plunges, punctuated by a sudden snap. The film is not as well known in America as in Great Britain, where it engendered controversy: Guinness's portrayal of Fagin elicited charges of anti-Semitism, especially since the film appeared so soon after the world learned about the Holocaust. The truth is, Guinness doesn't play to Jewish stereotypes, but Fagin's absurdly exaggerated nose (which makeup artist Stuart Freeborn copied from George Cruikshank's illustrations for the novel) does evoke some of the caricatures in the Nazi newspaper Der Stürmer. The film was edited to remove some of the shots of Fagin in profile, and was held from release in the United States until 1951.
Saturday, December 12, 2015
Friday, December 11, 2015
Thursday, December 10, 2015
IMDb and a 93% favorable critics' rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Which surprises me, because I don't think it works. By this point, Allen had learned his lesson about trying to emulate Ingmar Bergman with such flops as Another Woman (1988) and September (1987), but he hadn't yet got Bergman out of his system. So what he does in Crimes and Misdemeanors is to try to make a "cinema of ideas" -- in the manner of Bergman or Robert Bresson or Roberto Rossellini's Europa '51 -- while at the same time mocking his own effort to do so. He tells the story of the ophthalmologist Judah Rosenthal (Martin Landau), who hires a hit man to kill his mistress (Anjelica Huston), who is threatening to expose their affair to Judah's wife (Claire Bloom). At the same time, Allen also tells the story of Cliff Stern (Allen), a documentary film-maker who wants to deal with serious subject matter but instead is forced to make a movie about his brother-in-law, Lester (Alan Alda), a glib, womanizing TV producer. Both Judah and Cliff are wrestling with the existentialist dilemma: In the absence of God, how do we determine what is right? Judah suffers pangs of guilt for his crime, recalling the fear of God placed in him by his Jewish upbringing, but he gets away with the murder and has evidently smothered his guilt by intellectually justifying it. Cliff meets and falls in love with Lester's charming associate producer, Halley (Mia Farrow), who is enthusiastic about the project Cliff has been working on: a profile of a philosopher, Louis Levy (Martin Bergmann), who has experienced suffering and worked his way to an apparent affirmation of life. But Cliff is fired after submitting a scathing first cut of the film about Lester, in which the producer is portrayed as Mussolini and as Francis, the talking mule. Then the life-affirming philosopher commits suicide, putting an end to Cliff's "serious" project. Judah and Cliff come together at the wedding of the daughter of Cliff's other brother-in-law, a rabbi named Ben (Sam Waterston), who happens to be one of Judah's patients and has been going blind throughout the film, accepting it as God's will. After telling Cliff his "idea" for a film -- essentially his own story -- and discussing the moral implications, Judah walks off happily with his wife, leaving Cliff, who has just heard Lester announce his engagement to Halley, very much alone. Yes, the ironies are as thick and heavy as that. There are strong performances from all the principals, including Jerry Orbach as Judah's brother, who arranges the hit, and Landau received a well-deserved supporting actor Oscar nomination. Allen's nominations as director and screenwriter are more iffy: He seems to me more an animator of ideas and ironies than a creator of living human beings.
Wednesday, December 9, 2015
|Soumitra Chatterjee in The World of Apu|
Aparna: Sharmila Tagore
Pulu: Swapan Mukherjee
Kajal: Alok Chakravarty
Sasinarayan: Dhiresh Majumdar
Landlord: Dhiren Ghosh
Director: Satyajit Ray
Screenplay: Satyajit Ray
Based on a novel by Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay
Cinematography: Subrata Mitra
Music: Ravi Shankar
The exquisite conclusion to Ray's trilogy takes Apu into manhood. He leaves school, unable to afford to continue into university, and begins to support himself by tutoring while trying to write a novel. When his friend Pulu persuades him to go along to the wedding of his cousin, Aparna, Apu finds himself marrying her: The intended bridegroom turns out to be insane, and when her father and the other villagers insist that the astrological signs indicate that Aparna must marry someone, Apu, the only available male, is persuaded, even though he regards the whole situation as nonsensical superstition, to take on the role of bridegroom. (It's a tribute to both the director and the actors that this plot turn makes complete sense in the context of the film.) After a wonderfully awkward scene in which Apu and Aparna meet for the first time, and another in which Aparna, who has been raised in comparative luxury, comes to terms with the reality of Apu's one-room apartment, the two fall deeply in love. But having returned to her family home for a visit, Aparna dies in childbirth. Apu refuses to see his son, Kajal, blaming him for Aparna's death and leaving him in the care of the boy's grandfather. He spends the next five years wandering, working for a while in a coal mine, until Pulu finds him and persuades him to see the child. As with Pather Panchali and Aparajito, The World of Apu (aka Apur Sansar) stands alone, its story complete in itself. But it also works beautifully as part of a trilogy. Apu's story often echoes that of his own father, whose desire to become a writer sometimes set him at odds with his family. When, in Pather Panchali, Apu's father returns from a long absence to find his daughter dead and his ancestral home in ruins, he burns the manuscripts of the plays he had tried to write. Apu, during his wanderings after Aparna's death, flings the manuscript of the novel he had been writing to the winds. And just as the railroad train figures as a symbol of the wider world in Pather Panchali, and as the means to escape into it in Aparajito, it plays a role in The World of Apu. Instead of being a remote entity, it's present in Apu's own backyard: His Calcutta apartment looks out onto the railyards of the city. Adjusting to life with Apu, Aparna at one point has to cover her ears at the whistle of a train. Apu's last sight of her is as she boards a train to visit her family. And when he reunites with his son, he tries to play with the boy and a model train engine. The glory of this film is that it has a "happy ending" that is, unlike most of them, completely earned and doesn't fall into false sentiment. I don't use the world "masterpiece" lightly, but The World of Apu, both alone and with its companion films, seems to me to merit it.
Tuesday, December 8, 2015
|Smaran Ghosal in Aparajito|
Apu as an adolescent: Smaran Ghosal
Harihar, Apu's father: Kanu Bannerjee
Sarbajaya, Apu's mother: Karuna Bannerjee
Bhabataran, Apu's great uncle: Ramani Sengupta
Nanda: Charuprakash Ghosh
Headmaster: Subodh Ganguli
Director: Satyajit Ray
Screenplay: Satayajit Ray, Kanaili Basu
Based on a novel by Bibhutibhushan Bannerjee
Cinematography: Subrata Mitra
Music: Ravi Shankar
As the middle film of a trilogy, Aparajito could have been merely transitional -- think for example of the middle film in The Lord of the Rings trilogy: The Two Towers (Peter Jackson, 2002), which lacks both the tension of a story forming and the release of one ending. But Ray's film stands by itself, as one of the great films about adolescence, that coming-together of a personality. The "Apu trilogy," like its source, the novels by Bibhutibhushan Bannerjee, is a Bildungsroman, a novel of ... well, the German Bildung can be translated as "education" or "development" or even "personal growth." In Aparajito, the boy Apu (Pinaki Sengupta) sprouts into the adolescent Apu (Smaran Ghosal), as his family moves from their Bengal village to the city of Benares (Varanasi), where Apu's father continues to work as a priest, while his mother supplements their income as a maid and cook in their apartment house. When his father dies, Apu and his mother move to the village Mansapota, where she works for her uncle and Apu begins to train to follow his father's profession of priest. But the ever-restless Apu persuades his mother to let him attend the village school, where he excels, eventually winning a scholarship to study in Calcutta. In Pather Panchali (1955), the distant train was a symbol for Apu and his sister, Durga, of a world outside; now Apu takes a train into that world, not without the painful but necessary break with his mother. Karuna Banerjee's portrayal of the mother's heartbreak as she releases her son into the world is unforgettable. Whereas Pather Panchali clung to a limited setting, the decaying home and village of Apu's childhood, the richness of Aparajito lies in its use of various settings: the steep stairs that Apu's father descends and ascends to practice his priestly duties on the Benares riverfront, the isolated village of Mansapota, and the crowded streets of Calcutta, all of them magnificently captured by Subrata Mitra's cinematogaphy.
Monday, December 7, 2015
Saturday, December 5, 2015
Cinema Paradiso (Giuseppe Tornatore, 1988), The Name of the Rose (Jean-Jacques Annaud, 1986), and The Godfather: Part II (Francis Ford Coppola, 1974).
Friday, December 4, 2015
Thursday, December 3, 2015
|Gregory Peck and Jennifer Jones in Duel in the Sun|
Lewt McCanles: Gregory Peck
Jesse McCanles: Joseph Cotten
Senator Jackson McCanles: Lionel Barrymore
Scott Chavez: Herbert Marshall
Laura Belle McCanles: Lillian Gish
The Sinkiller: Walter Huston
Sam Pierce: Charles Bickford
Lem Smoot: Harry Carey
Mrs. Chavez: Tilly Losch
Vashti: Butterfly McQueen
Director: King Vidor
Screenplay: David O. Selznick, Oliver H.P. Garrett
Based on a novel by Niven Busch
Cinematography: Lee Garmes, Ray Rennahan, Harold Rosson
Production design: J. McMillan Johnson
Film editing: Hal C. Kern
Music: Dimitri Tiomkin
This is a bad movie, but it's one distinguished in the annals of bad movies because it was made by David O. Selznick, who as the poster shouts at you was "The Producer Who Gave You 'GONE WITH THE WIND.'" Selznick made it to showcase Jennifer Jones, the actress who won an Oscar as the saintly Bernadette of Lourdes in The Song of Bernadette (Henry King, 1943). Selznick, who left his wife for Jones, wanted to demonstrate that she was capable of much more than the sweetly gentle piety of Bernadette, so he cast her as the sultry Pearl Chavez in this adaptation (credited to Selznick himself along with Oliver H.P. Garrett, with some uncredited help by Ben Hecht) of the novel by Niven Busch. Opposite Jones, Selznick cast Gregory Peck as the amoral cowboy Lewt McCanles, who shares a self-destructive passion with Pearl. Both actors are radically miscast. Jones does a lot of eye- and teeth-flashing as Pearl, while Peck's usual good-guy persona undermines his attempts to play rapaciously sexy. The plot is one of those familiar Western tropes: good brother Jesse against bad 'un Lewt, reflecting the ill-matched personalities of their parents, the tough old cattle baron Jackson McCanles and his gentle (and genteel) wife, Laura Belle. Pearl is an orphan, the improbable daughter of an improbable couple, the educated Scott Chavez and a sexy Indian woman, who angers him by fooling around with another man. Chavez kills both his wife and her lover and is hanged for it, so Pearl is sent to live with the McCanleses -- Laura Belle is Chavez's second cousin and old sweetheart -- on their Texas ranch. It's all pretentiously packaged by Selznick: not many other movies begin with both a "Prelude" and an "Overture," composed by Dimitri Tiomkin in the best overblown Hollywood style. It has Technicolor as lurid as its story, shot by three major cinematographers, Lee Garmes, Ray Rennahan, and Harold Rosson. But any attempt to generate real heat between Jones and Peck was quickly stifled by the Production Code, which even forced Selznick to introduce a voiceover at the beginning to explain that the character of the frontier preacher known as "The Sinkiller" (entertainingly played by Walter Huston) was not intended to be a representative clergyman. There are a few good moments, including an impressive tracking shot at the barbecue on the ranch in which various guests offer their opinions of Pearl, the McCanles brothers, and other things. Whether this scene can be credited to director King Vidor, who was certainly capable of it, is an open question, because Vidor found working with the obsessive Selznick so difficult that he quit the film. Selznick directed some scenes, as did Otto Brower, William Dieterle, Sidney Franklin, William Cameron Menzies, and Josef von Sternberg, all uncredited. The resulting melange is not unwatchable, thanks to a few good performances (Huston, Charles Bickford, Harry Carey), and perhaps also to some really terrible ones (Lionel Barrymore at his most florid and Butterfly McQueen repeating her fluttery air-headedness from GWTW).
Wednesday, December 2, 2015
Film firsts are usually worth checking out, and this one is a double first: It's the first appearance of the title character on-screen, and it's the first of the genre of films for which Fairbanks remains best-known, the swashbuckler. Since Fairbanks and co-scenarist Eugene Miller adapted Johnston McCulley's 1919 magazine story, "The Curse of Capistrano," the masked hero has been played by Tyrone Power, Guy Williams (in the Disney TV series), Frank Langella, George Hamilton (in a spoof featuring Zorro's gay twin brother), Anthony Hopkins and Antonio Banderas (as the aging Zorro and his hand-picked successor), and appeared in numerous Mexican and European films, including one starring Alain Delon. The trope of the do-gooder who pretends to be a wimp but turns into a force for justice when he hides his identity behind a mask is seen in countless superhero tales, most notably the Clark Kent/Superman story. As the languid fop Don Diego Vega, Fairbanks affects a weary slouch and spends his time doing tricks that involve a handkerchief. When he turns into Zorro, with mask and scarf over his head, he pastes on a little mustache oddly reminiscent of Boris Badenov, but he succeeds in taking on the villains with great élan. The film itself begins slowly, with too much exposition crammed into the intertitles, but eventually Fairbanks gets his act together, and the climax of the movie is a hilarious showpiece for his acrobatic moves. He leads the Capistrano constabulary on a merry chase over walls and across rooftops, inevitably tempting them into disaster: He leaps over a pigsty, for example, whereupon the pursuers fall into it. At the end, revealing his secret identity, he wins the hand of Lolita Pulido (Marguerite De La Motte), by saving her family's estate from the clutches of the evil governor (George Periolat) and his henchmen, Capitán Juan Ramon (Robert McKim) and Sgt. Pedro Gonzales (Noah Beery), both of whom get branded with the emblematic Z (though the sergeant gets his only in the seat of his pants). Good fun, once it gets going.
Tuesday, December 1, 2015
Babel (Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2006) for trying to tell three or four very promising stories all at once, and not doing a satisfactory job of telling any of them, and for distracting attention away from the work done by less-well-known foreign actors by casting two movie stars (Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett). It turns out that the kind of movie I was looking for had been done two years earlier: Maria Full of Grace features a then-unknown Colombian actress, Catalina Sandino Moreno, in the first feature film by writer and director Joshua Marston. It tells the story of a pregnant Colombian teenager, Maria (Sandino Moreno), who agrees to become a "drug mule," being flown to New York after swallowing small boluses of drugs encased in plastic; the drug-runners retrieve the packets after she excretes them. It's one of those behind-the-headlines stories that can easily turn melodramatic or preachy, and it's to Marston's and Sandino Moreno's credit that it never does. Her creation of the resourceful, rebellious, determined Maria, who keeps her head when things go seriously wrong, earned Sandino Moreno a nomination for the best actress Oscar in her film debut. She lost to Hilary Swank in Million Dollar Baby (Clint Eastwood, 2004), but has worked regularly since then: I saw her just the other night as Luisa, the girlfriend of Cole (Joshua Jackson) on the Showtime series The Affair.