I've been to an exhibition, to the theatre and to my bed, where I reclined whilst watching the following movies...
BETTE DAVIS TRIPLE-BILL
I'm starting to acquaint myself better with the movies of Bette Davis. The big-name highlights - All About Eve; Now, Voyager; Jezebel - I know, and I'm au fait with a lot of her earlier work at Warner's... but her less high-profile star vehicles have thus far eluded me, and seem a suitable subject for my next obsessive venture in the world of classic film. I revisited All About Eve - because why wouldn't you? - and then made in-roads on this rather attractive box-set.
*I'VE TRIED TO AVOID SPOILERS, BUT TAKE CARE JUST IN CASE*
All About Eve (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1950)
“How about calling it a night?”
“And you pose as a playwright? A situation pregnant with possibilities and all you can think of is ‘everybody go to sleep’.”
The greatest film ever made about the theatre (or the best I’ve seen, anyway): a movie I love still more every time I watch it, whilst wrestling with my continuing astonishment that anyone could write anything this good. That anyone was Joseph L. Mankiewicz, the verbose writer-director responsible for such enchanting, weighty and ominous fare as A Letter to Three Wives and People Will Talk, before he rather forgot what his strong suit was and started adapting other people’s work.
In arguably her definitive role, Bette Davis is seasoned Broadway star Margo Channing, whose mentoring of mousy, stage-struck kid Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter) inflames her demons whilst causing small explosions in the lives of her boyfriend Bill (Gary Merrill), a playwright and his wife (Hugh Marlowe and Celeste Holm) and an acidic, vicious but extraordinarily charming columnist by the name of Addison DeWitt (George Sanders).
The script is as good as any ever written. It’s steeped in the theatre, in a hypocrisy and misery and masochism offset by the electrification of applause. It’s wise yet devilishly witty, giving as many unbeatable lines to its villains as its heroes. It’s about love and ambition and mistakes and chance and the cleansing power of celebrity. Its story – of effortlessly shifting fortunes and sympathies, of breakneck turns – is timeless, full of surprises and grips like nothing else: the fate of its villainess as chilling as a man being bricked up alive in a Val Lewton horror.
The cast, too, could scarcely be better, with career-best turns from everyone involved, aside from perhaps Thelma Ritter, who’s characteristically superb, but had rather more to do in The Mating Season and Pickup on South Street. In a characterisation stripped of glamour, playing a bitter, bitterly funny heroine, caked in make-up remover, drenched in self-pity and marinated in booze, Davis is the last word in fading stage stars. As her potential replacement, the bright-eyed Baxter gives a performance that came from nowhere and which she never approached again, nailing a succession of chilling, unforgettable scenes to which the word ‘ruthless’ really doesn’t do justice. Marlowe was always a little bland, but Merrill shows an unexpected force and conviction as Davis’s patient – but not limitlessly patient – beau, tiring of her complexes, Marilyn Monroe has a hysterical bit as a savvy starlet, while Holm is simply the archetypal Mankiewicz character: sad-eyed, good-hearted and ultimately omniscient, but entirely shorn of the power to act.
Sanders, meanwhile, is just... wicked.
From the astute, literate voiceover and classic freeze-frame that launches the story, via stinging one-liners, sublime reaction faces and a litany of unimprovable set-pieces, to one of the most memorable, satisfying (and scary) endings in the history of movies, All About Eve is a landmark of Hollywood’s Golden Age: an unassailable classic with the kind of dialogue that a moviegoer dreams about. (4)
The Old Maid (Edmund Goulding) - A somewhat far-fetched but moving story of warring Southern cousins Bette Davis and Miriam Hopkins, and the four weddings and a funeral that define their lives. Adapted from a Pulitzer Prize-winning play, it's extremely episodic but very entertaining and sometimes artistically valuable, lit by Davis's star turn, as she ages from a bright-eyed belle to a harsh, scolding shrew alienated from her beloved daughter, aided by atypically convincing make-up, characteristic charisma and that ability to immerse herself within the particular, peculiar minutiae of a role, without forgetting to emotionally connect. She has one line near the end that is liable to absolutely floor you.
The supporting cast is variable: George Brent is better than usual, but only as good as George Brent can be, which is not very; his principal mannerism being sighing and looking down (like Mark Kermode says that Richard Gere does), while Jane Bryan is too vague and broad as Davis's grown-up daughter, though there are decent performances from former silent star Louise Fazenda, and veteran Scottish character actor Donald Crisp.
Really, though, it's about Davis and to a lesser extent Hopkins, their convincing characterisations housed in a good-looking, sensitive and sometimes bitterly explosive movie that throws the stereotype of the 'old maid' askew, whilst delivering some universal truths about love, happiness and self-sacrificial devotion. The stars reteamed for Old Acquaintance, which was altogether lacking in nuance, with Hopkins cast as one of the most annoying characters in the history of anything.
In This Our Life (John Huston, 1942) - Bette Davis and Olivia de Havilland play sisters named Stanley and Roy (what is going on?) in this excitable melodrama, which sacrifices truth for dramatic dynamism.
Bette's an amoral, husband-stealing whirlwind who takes after her ruthless capitalist uncle (Charles Coburn), Olivia's more like her softly-spoken, kind-hearted father (Frank Craven), at least at first, though both women are entirely free spirits, a pleasant antidote to the conformity peddled so frequently during Hollywood's Golden Age.
As is Ernest Anderson's character, a young black trainee lawyer who gets a stirring but understated speech about the lack of promotion or recognition typically offered to African-Americans. Meanwhile, Dennis Morgan - as an unhappy puppet of lust - and the ever-wooden George Brent, playing a lawyer made of wood, are your male leads this evening.
The plotting becomes increasingly unrealistic in the second half, but a strong cast helps (including an uncredited cameo from Walter Huston, the director's father), as well as Ernest Haller's atmospheric photography. Just try to take your eyes off Bette. (2.5)
(Incidentally, movie folklore has it that John Huston - directing this, his second film - included most of the cast of his debut, The Maltese Falcon, in walk-ons: Bogart, Mary Astor, Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet. Sadly it's not the case.)
The Big Parade (King Vidor, 1925) - King Vidor's emotionally overpowering WWI film - of layabout aristo John Gilbert going off to fight in a fug of patriotism, falling in love with French farmgirl Renée Adorée, then finding that war is hell - was a critical and box-office sensation in 1925, and remains unsurpassed in the genre.
With a lighthearted first half followed by a brutal second, it's a seamless whole formed of countless unforgettable vignettes, its knockabout comedy and beguiling romance giving way to taut, then horrific action sequences emphasising the brutal lottery of battle.
Adorée learning to chew gum; Gilbert arsing about with a barrel on his head, then later sharing a shellhole with the dying German he's just shot; that astonishing ending - its classic scenes are legion, each blessed by an astounding visual poetry.
Best of all is the lovers' devastating farewell, one of my favourite scenes in movies, in which a departing Gilbert - finally prised from Adorée's grip - flings his treasured possessions at her from the back of a truck. Finding that he has nothing else of value to throw, he takes off a boot, and chucks that instead. She cradles it in her arms, before collapsing on the road, alone.
She's great, as the sexy, pure-hearted, then bereft love interest. And Gilbert's excellent too: this is Exhibit A for the case that his damaged reputation is ill-deserved. The Big Parade made a star out of him, and made the career of Vidor, who would create another contender for 'finest film of the silent era' - The Crowd - and then the first great American talkie (and singie), Hallelujah! (4)
(Thanks to DirectorsCut for suggesting that I pick up the recent Region 1 Blu-ray of The Big Parade, which is surely a high watermark in terms of print, music and presentation.)
CINEMA: Inside Out (Pete Docter, 2015) - This is a major return to form for Pixar: an extremely creative, wilfully different movie that draws on inspirations as diverse as The Beano’s Numskulls, Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth and Disney’s Wreck-It Ralph, but has an existential imagination and emotional sensibility more akin to an arthouse movie.
The film takes place largely in the brain of 11-year-old Riley, who moves from an idyllic existence in Minnesota to a cripplingly different one in San Francisco, where her ties to friends and family start to sever. And that’s about it.
Within her brain, the emotions of Joy, Sadness, Fear, Disgust and Anger try to restore equilibrium (or merely fight for supremacy), abetted or distracted by a litany of imaginative - even imaginary - supporting characters, as they carry core memories, brave the subconscious or ride the Train of Thought.
A few of the jokes are broad or bad – didn’t Toy Story 2 teach Pixar that incongruous movie spoofs are far beneath the standard that the studio prizes and so often meets? – and it seems odd that the script feels it needs to explain gags about broccoli but not about neurological functions.
On the whole, though, it’s a triumph: extremely funny and intensely moving (oh Bing Bong!), with superb animation, apposite voicework from the likes of Amy Poehler and Phyllis Smith, and a melancholy disposition that punctures and subverts the appealing but naïve character of Joy, who regards putting a brave face on a situation as a universal panacea.
(Stay around for the credits too, the cat joke is amazing.) (3.5)
CINEMA: Mistress America (Noah Baumbach, 2015) - After a little while apart so he could make the patronising misstep, While We’re Young, Noah Baumbach is reunited with Greta Gerwig, the stunningly gifted comedian who is to screen humour what Michelle Williams and Jennifer Lawrence are to drama – i.e. better at playing it than anyone else on the planet. And for Mistress America, the director has reinvented himself as Howard Hawks for a fast-talking, ultimately old-fashioned screwball comedy of absurdism and interruption in which Gerwig is essentially his Ros Russell.
Lola Kirke is college starter Tracy, for whom campus life is not really that much fun. Enter her new big step-sister Brooke (Gerwig), a shimmering beacon of compulsive likeability, spurious theorising and increasingly apparent neuroses, who envelopes and enraptures the strait-laced, closeted Kirke, her influence unlocking a side of ‘baby Tracy’ that didn’t necessarily need to be seen. The first half is fairly Baumbachian in structure – with his usual slight self-satisfaction and spirited subversion of genre cliches – before he kicks off his shoes, rolls up his sleeves and essentially slips in a disc of ‘30s screwball mayhem, Hawksian in pace and volume, but inhabiting the ‘wacky family’ world of something like Merrily We Live.
The film isn’t in the same league as Frances Ha, the monochrome masterpiece that established Gerwig as an actress of almost unparalleled if strictly parametered ability, but it is full of great ideas and one-liners - from “’Adultery’? Since when do you have such grown-up ideas about morality. You’re 18, you should just be touching each other all the time” to "I like compressed MP3s", a perfect, contrarian rebuke to the tiresome fetishisation of vinyl in indie cinema - as well as rug-pulling twists that consistently brook convention. It manages to be extremely touching whilst refusing to fall back on almost any of the stock scenarios that even independent movies lean upon to generate emotion.
Particularly welcome is Tracy’s pathological lack of remorse when she does what’s widely agreed upon to be A Very Bad Thing. Like Whiplash’s Neimann, she just doesn’t really care, an approach borrowed from a sublime exchange earlier in the movie where Brooke encounters a girl she bullied at school, refuses to apologise and still come out on top.
It’s that kind of moral and narrative daring that sets the film apart and sustains it even when the frantic, frenzied exchanges risk degenerating into shrillness or pastiche. That, a vivid NY atmosphere and a pair of exceptional performances: Kirke’s pretty, pretty lost freshman holding her own against Brooke, another superb entry in Gerwig’s gallery of appealing, aimless young women, drifting attractively towards oblivion. (3.5)
WENDY HILLER DOUBLE BILL
... in which I investigate some more obscure entries in the sporadic, highly odd career of screen legend Wendy Hiller, whom I adore.
Sorry about the watermark, but you try to find a picture of Hiller in this film.
Something of Value (Richard Brooks, 1957) - A sincere but muddled movie about the Mau Mau uprising in colonial Kenya, with Rock Hudson and Sidney Poitier as childhood friends caught on opposite sides of the conflict. It's a gruelling watch and its narrative flaws are legion, but there are some very powerful moments, Poitier is superb and Wendy Hiller steals the film (doesn't she always?) being variously sexy and transcendent and covered in blood and shooting a gun. Phwoarr. (2)
Same deal with this pic.
Toys in the Attic (George Roy Hill) - Toys in the attic and skeletons in the closet: a very entertaining slice of Southern Gothic from commie playwright Lillian Hellman: a little ripe, a little familiar, but extremely well done.
Geraldine Page and Wendy Hiller are spinster sisters in New Orleans whose sheltered life is shaken by the return of ne'er-do-well brother, Dean Martin, suddenly flush with cash but somewhat reticent to say why. In his company is his neurotic young wife (Yvette Mimieux), whose harsh, strident mother (Gene Tierney) may have made the match.
It's largely shot on one set, but future New Hollywood hero George Roy Hill directs it all extremely nicely, and much of the acting is an absolute treat, with Page and Hiller dominating in two mesmerising characterisations.
Both play women who are blind and deluded, though in quite different ways, Page hitting a peak of quivering self-loathing, Hiller shuffling the moods as she did so superbly in these mid-career characterisations that she loved to (infrequently) take on: not the shimmering archetypes she had embodied in Bernard Shaw plays, but starkly real characters made beautiful by their flaws and contradictions. Though billed fourth, it's actually a rare instance during her postwar career that she was front and centre, and the results are simply sublime. (3.5)
The Bad Sleep Well (Akira Kurosawa, 1960) ... whereas Toshiro Mifune's mysterious, whistling avenger is up till all hours.
Kurosawa's homage to '40s Warner gangster movies is long and mostly enthralling, doubling as a furious indictment of corporate corruption, as Mifune goes undercover in a crooked administration, then finds himself tormented by love, his own growing cruelty and the stone cold psychopaths he's dealing with.
The plotting wobbles a bit here, especially in the second half, but it's tough, intriguing and - as usual with AK - provides an insightful look at the structures and strictures of Japanese society.
It's also quite brilliantly directed, distinctively shot in widescreen Tohoscope and showing both another side and the very definite fingerprints of a master filmmaker.
The first half hour, as Scorsese observes on the DVD case, is an absolute knockout. (3)
The Two Mrs Carrolls (Peter Godfrey, 1947) - Silly, joyless thriller about psychotic painter Humphrey Bogart offing his first wife and trying to do the same to his second (Barbara Stanwyck). It's derivative, particularly of Gaslight, and frequently makes no narrative sense, though there are lolz to be had from a terrifying villain being called Geoffrey, and Alexis Smith is really rather hot as Bogie's mistress. She transmitted complete horniness better than anybody in classic Hollywood, except for perhaps Mary Astor. You can kind of see why Bogart's poisoning his wife for her, especially as Stanwyck is being so very shrill. (1.5)
See also: To read about Bogart being rather more in his element, here's my piece on the original cut of The Big Sleep, complete with graphic I made on MS Paint.
Thanks for reading.