Wednesday, 24 February 2016

Ten things I learned about Alfred Hitchcock

This is part of a series that I do now and then.



The near-legendary movie tome, Hitchcock/Truffaut (1967, updated 1983), is the subject of a new documentary, so I thought I better finally read it. It’s a sublime exploration of one virtuosic director by another and essential for anyone with 10 quid and a love of film. It changed many of my thoughts and preconceptions about movies, and about Hitchcock himself, while perhaps underlining some reservations I have about his work (he is both annoyed by and painfully conscious of the “plausibles”, those critics who criticise his work for its lack of believability).

Along the way, the Master explains the thinking – and the technical tricks – behind many of the key sequences in his films, displaying a staggering, hypnotic understanding of the medium and revealing an obsessive attention to detail that went far beyond anything I was expecting, even from a legendary filmmaker. Truffaut argues that Hitchcock is the key visual director of the post-silent era (along with Orson Welles), and describes his predecessor’s work as “pure cinema”, a fascinating distinction that prizes visual storytelling – via imagery and editing – beyond dialogue or performance.

Fascinating stuff, and a mine of Hitchcock trivia too – including some incredible ‘deleted scenes’ that were never filmed, let alone cut. I picked these 10 bits to tell you about:


1. Period drama
Hitchcock hadn’t heard of menstruation until 1925, when he was 26.


2. The problem with killing a child
Hitch regretted that suspenseful but ultimately baffling scene in his British film, Sabotage (1936), in which a child is blown up on a bus. “I made a serious mistake in having the little boy carry the bomb,” he says, with no small understatement. “The boy was involved in a situation that got him too much sympathy from the audience, so that when the bomb exploded and he was killed, the public was resentful”. He suggests that it would have worked better if the villain of the piece had killed the child on purpose – rather than by mistake – giving his sister a stronger reason for revenge, while keeping the audience on side.


3. Technicolor slaughter
Had Foreign Correspondent been shot in colour, the director could have worked in a Holland-set scene that he was never able to bring to fruition: a murder in a tulip field. A Jack-the-Ripper type approaches a girl in a tulip field from behind. As his shadow creeps up on her, the camera pans to their struggling feet, then dollies into one of the tulips, the sound of the struggle in the background. “One petal fills the screen, and suddenly a drop of blood splashes all over it.” Cut.


4. Sal-y sausage (or How Not to Use the Most Beautiful Woman in Hollywood)
Salvador Dali’s original idea for his dream sequence in Spellbound was hilariously impractical, but kind of brilliant. Hitchcock aimed “to convey the dreams with great visual sharpness and clarity … I wanted Dali because of the architectural sharpness of work”. Instead, the legendary surrealist “wanted a statue to crack like a shell falling apart, with ants crawling all over it, and underneath, there would be Ingrid Bergman, covered by the ants! It just wasn’t possible.” Shame.


5. Unstable behaviour
The director had little time for The Paradine Case, his cataloguing of its flaws beginning with star Gregory Peck (“I don’t think he can properly represent an English lawyer”) and ending with the casting of Louis Jourdan as a sexy stable hand, a character that should have “really reeked of manure”. His actor of choice was Robert Newton, whose characterisation would have had “horny hands, like the devil!”.


6. Suspense v surprise
Hitchcock explains his preference for suspense over surprise with the example of a bomb that we don’t know about going off, or a bomb being about to explode at 1pm. “In the first case we have given the public 15 seconds of surprise at the moment of the explosion. In the second we have provided them with 15 minutes of suspense.” In Strangers on a Train he topped a suspense sequence (Farley Granger tackling a threatening dog on the stairs) with a surprise (the identity of the person in the room he’s heading to).


7. Office party
The vertiginous effects in The New Greatest Film Ever Made (TM), Vertigo, were based on Hitch being drunk at my office. This wasn’t exactly new – as we mentioned it in a Film Programme piece last year entitled ‘Hitchcock and the Hall’ – but it’s nice to have the full story. “I always remember one night at the Chelsea Arts Ball at [the Royal] Albert Hall in London when I got terribly drunk and I had the sensation that everything was going far away from me. I tried to get that into Rebecca [in the inquest scene], but they couldn’t do it. The viewpoint must be fixed, you see, while the perspective is changed as it stretches lengthwise. I thought about the problem for 15 years. By the time we got to Vertigo, we solved it by using the dolly and zoom simultaneously.” The effect cost $19,000.


8. Miles from stardom
Vera Miles was the original leading lady in Vertigo, having been fitted for her wardrobe and done final tests, only to be forced to drop out. “She became pregnant just before the part that was going to turn her into a star,” said Hitchcock. “After that I lost interest; I couldn’t get the rhythm going with her again.”


9. Detroitus
One amazing idea that Hitchcock devised for North by Northwest, but never used, was this scene set at the Ford factory in Detroit: “I wanted to have a long dialogue scene between Cary Grant and the factory workers as they walk along the assembly line. They might, for instance, be talking about one of the foremen. Behind them a car is being assembled, piece by piece. Finally, the car they’ve seen being put together from a simple nut and bolt is complete, with gas and oil, and all ready to drive off the lines. The two men look at it and say, ‘Isn’t it wonderful!’ Then they open the door to the car and out drops a corpse.” Sadly he couldn’t find a way to integrate it into the story (that never really stopped him before).


His credits were cool though.
10. Bass, how low can you go
Credits maestro Saul Bass designed the first version of Arbogast’s ascent of the stairs in Psycho, but really badly. Hitch’s explanation explains how he built the tension during the film, and how Bass's ideas threatened to dissipate it: “There was a shot of [Arbogast’s] hand on the rail, and of feet seen in profile, going up through the bars of the balustrade ... it wasn’t an innocent person but a sinister man who was going up those stairs ... We had gone to a lot of trouble to prepare the audience for this scene: we had established a mystery woman in the house; we had established the fact that this mystery woman had come down and slashed a woman to pieces under her shower. All the elements that would convey suspense to the detective’s journey upstairs had gone before and we therefore needed a simple statement. We needed to show a staircase and a man going up that staircase in a very simple way.”

***

Thanks for reading.

Spotlight, Barbara Stanwyck (again) and Ibsen doing funnies - Reviews #227

Another few reviews. The next post will be about Alfred Hitchcock.

FILMS



CINEMA: Spotlight (Tom McCarthy, 2015) - All the Pederasts' Men, with an exceptional ensemble bringing to life this true story of the Boston Globe's investigation into child abuse by the Catholic Church. It makes me proud to be a (lapsed) journo and a Tom McCarthy cheerleader, ashamed to be a Catholic.

The film is grown-up storytelling at its best: a methodical procedural, unglamorous and unsentimental, with a similar '70s Hollywood feel to Fincher's Zodiac - the same great character faces and rumpled outfits - though perhaps a little more sheen in its cinematography.

Everything about the movie is classy and convincing, but particularly the performances from Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo and Liev Schreiber, McCarthy's spatial awareness and use of montage, and his characteristically superb dialogue: memorable without being stylised, realistic without being mundane.

McCarthy, like Alexander Payne, has that rare gift for making films that entertain as you watch them, then reward you a dozen times over in retrospect. This one diverges considerably from the tried-and-tested formula of his first three - and is perhaps more obviously weighty and virtuous - but once more gives the impression of having not just passed your time pleasantly, but left an indelible mark upon you, with its quiet anger, compassion, and hard-won wisdom, never dampened by naïvete or sensationalism.

Occasionally it's too conventional, occasionally it's touched by cliché, occasionally McAdams looks out of depth in a cast this strong, but mostly it's just magnificent.

Imagine being Tom McCarthy - I've seen four of his movies, and the worst one was Win-Win. Win-Win, which was brilliant. (4)

See also: I loved McCarthy's first three films: The Station Agent, The Visitor and Win-Win. I haven't seen The Cobbler yet. Apparently it's... divisive.

***

I'm a bit obsessed with Barbara Stanwyck. But not blind to her failings. I've ranked her movies here (or the 50 I've seen, anyway).


Bit sexist, but OK.

The File on Thelma Jordon (Robert Siodmak, 1950) - This is my 50th Barbara Stanywck movie, but though she’s often associated with the film noir genre – due to Billy Wilder’s darkly coruscating Double Indemnity – I think it’s only the second time I’ve seen her play a femme fatale.

She’s playing one for Robert Siodmak, the noir pioneer and impeccable visual stylist who gave each of his exercises in the genre a frazzled atmosphere and a dazzling chiaroscuro look, but wasn’t the sort of filmmaker to draw great performances from his actors or triumph totally over incoherence or mediocrity. So when the script and the producer were superb (The Killers, Criss Cross), so was he; when they were middling (The Spiral Staircase, Phantom Lady) he could still create passages of intoxicating fear amidst the silliness, but when the writing wasn’t up to scratch (Christmas Holiday, The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry), his films didn’t amount to very much at all.

This one’s an above-par noir that benefits from a surprisingly (and intensely) sexy beginning – aside from some thin ‘lol he’s drunk’ comedy – an unusually fresh later performance from Stanwyck and a twisty-turny narrative that while not entirely novel is still pretty good fun. Wendell Corey is a drunk, married assistant DA who falls in love with the niece (Stanwyck) of a wealthy dowager, only for their affair to lead to lies, mystery... and murder. Obviously, since it’s film noir.

The central section dealing with the crime is weirdly weak, but Corey’s story, placing him between two women that he loves – one crazily, the other fondly but with reservations strengthened by familiarity – is very nicely realised, the legal tricks peppering the climactic trial are neatly done, and there are some brilliant flourishes from Siodmak, including an exhilarating build-up to the verdict, in which a key character leaves their cell in a fug of sympathy and sadism, and marches through the gathering storm of reporters, through the crowded lobby and up the steps of the courtroom. The use of exteriors and intelligent angles, the effortless rhythm of the cutting and the purposeful pacing of the actors creates a dazzling synthesis.

But if there are three problems with old movies – the main offenders being racism and reactionary politics, to be honest – then one of them is undoubtedly the restrictions on criminal characters enforced by the severe application of the censorious Hays Code from mid-1934. The need to punish all wrongdoers (and often to climactically soften their characters) leads either to predictability or simply ludicrous denouements, and here it’s the latter, with the film singularly failing to deal with the constraints of the Code in an ending that we can charitably describe as “fucking stupid”. Cool closing shot, though. (3)

***


What a very shiny face.

No Man of Her Own (Mitchell Leisen, 1950) - A mediocre melonoirma re-teaming the director and star of my favourite film, Remember the Night, to rather minimal effect.

Barbara Stanwyck is a gloomily intoning woman who receives a phone call saying that either she or her husband are about to be booked for murder – then in flashback we learn her story: how she stole the identity of a dead woman so she could move in with rich in-laws and get the best start for her kid.

The voiceover is atrocious and the story no great shakes, but Stanwyck gives one of her better later performances – diverging from the ‘whiny victim’/’one-dimensional strong woman’ stock types she increasingly played – and the ending is oddly and unexpectedly satisfying.

Still, the echoes of the immortal Remember the Night, in which Stanwyck also shepherded a secret while staying with a kind, protective surrogate family, don’t help it, and nor does the fact that its basic framework – a lonely woman poses as a man’s wife after he has an accident, only to fall for his brother – was recycled for the exemplary ‘90s rom-com, While You Were Sleeping.

Here the story just seems far-fetched and, even more problematically, neither particularly affecting nor very enjoyable to watch. (2.5)

***


I think the marketing department may have slightly misunderstood what this film is about.

Trooper Hook (Charles Marquis Warren, 1957) - A wildly, even fascinatingly erratic Western, featuring the twin delights of Joel McCrea threatening to shoot a child in the head and talking about when he once pretended to be a dog for a month – a monologue so silly that you can scarcely believe it’s actually happening.

The mighty McCrea (one of my favourite actors) is the mildly haunted cavalry soldier of the title, who rescues a white woman (Barbara Stanwyck) from a Native American chief, and takes her and her mixed-race (sorry, “half breed”) son back to her husband, the group being joined on their journey by various racists, hypocrites and fugitive Injuns bent on revenge.

The basic story is fine – the sort of thing Randolph Scott was currently doing in the seven celebrated Ranown movies – but the dialogue is flat, most of the supporting cast are dreadful and ultimately the low-budget tells, culminating in some farcical back projection.

Despite that, it’s not a film you can dismiss completely: its racial politics are interesting enough, the leads are both pretty good and though the narrative founders for a while following a magnificent opening shot, the arrival of Earl Holliman’s dissolute young cowboy really gets things moving. His character is extremely well thought-out, and his interplay with McCrea is lovely, giving the film the heart it had been missing, and which up until then had been replaced by treacle. (2.5)

***

THEATRE



The Master Builder (The Old Vic, Friday 19 February) - After a long week at work, you don't necessarily feel like an exercise in chilly existential horror from Henrik Ibsen. So David Hare's decision to include a few jokes was welcome, though whether it made the madness and guilty more acute by throwing it into sharp relief, or simply served to undercut it, I'm still not sure.

Ralph Fiennes is the Master Builder, a brilliant but difficult man who refuses to relinquish his hold on his apprentice, Ragnar, or Ragnar's fiancée, Kaja. Is he in love with her, or jealous of his protégé, and just what is the truth of the leggy blonde woman (Sarah Snook) who just appeared in his front room. Fiennes is a fine actor with a remarkable stage presence, though I was surprised - perhaps even a little disappointed - at how similar his performance was to the one he gave in Man vs Superman at the National last year, in what was a very different role, right down to the anguished whispery shouting. We didn't get a breakdown there, though, and the moment in which he collapses to the floor, like a man with an ulcer of the soul, is wrenchingly powerful. In fact, this adaptation does the big moments well, and sometimes just creates big moments for itself, as when Snook's Hilde leaps onto a table to bellow her beliefs, or flies above the stalls on a swing. There's an unselfconsciousness from her in those big moments that compensates for a saminess in her sonorous Scandinavian line readings, and she and Fiennes have great chemistry that gives this production most of its best moments.

Most of the worst ones come from Charlie Cameron as Kaja. She brings an enviable list of credits and an abundance of little girl mannerisms and unbearable stage school inflections, creating a cipher of naivete that could convince an agnostic they hate the theatre within half a minute. As the Master Builder's wife, Linda Emond is quite the opposite of Snook: thoroughly believable but without the flashes of brilliance that can light up a theatre.

Those flashes are spectacular, but between them - and despite them - this production doesn't ever really nail its points: the mystery of love and human connection, the nature of madness, the chasm between what we do and should feel, between what we want and how we feel when we get it, the Rothian idea of man's basic unknowability. It's repetitive, rather than incisive, even if its fatalism does strike one more as grand tragedy than mere predictability.

Beyond Hare's script with its humour, modern vernacular and occasional moments of unforgettable lamenting ("It's like being chained to a corpse"), the play benefits from Simon Baker's familiar but effective use of soundscapes underscoring references to the film's central tragedy - until the idea becomes too literal and obvious - and a striking set of charred wood somewhere between planks and branches: tangled minds and the basis of construction, all touched by fire, a permanent backdrop to the action that will hang there as long as the Master Builder's life lasts. The set is lightly dressed - desks and chairs for an office, tall thin book shelves and a table for a living room, wisps of foliage for a garden - and the lighting sensitively done, most impressive in the climactic coup de theatre, which is nothing groundbreaking yet done with an immense conviction: the denouement this flawed but spirited adaptation needs. (3)

***

Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, 23 February 2016

Basia Bulat, Sunny Afternoon and some fillums - Reviews #226

I've been out and about. Read some books too.

FILMS



The League of Gentlemen (Basil Dearden, 1960)
- A superior, extremely punchy British crime caper from the start of the ‘60s, with Jack Hawkins reacting to being kicked out of the army by recruiting a litany of dishonourable dischargees to rob a bank.

It’s weirdly – even poorly – paced, and only really achieves the desired air of fatalism in its final reel, but the cast is a who’s who of contemporary talent and the film is full of brilliant, stylised Bryan Forbes dialogue, including that famous, rather misogynistic gag about Hawkins’ wife (represented by a portrait of Deborah Kerr from The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp).

Some may struggle to get on board with a movie in which the heroes include a flasher who likes pretending to be a priest (Roger Livesey), but the film’s anti-everything cynicism is actually gloriously refreshing and it all builds to a wonderfully satisfying climax – from the atmospheric, beautifully-photographed heist (Smoke! Gasmasks! Impressive economy!) to a farewell party and beyond. Nigel Patrick is particularly good as Race, a refined former blackmarketeer enlisted for his transport nous. (3.5)

***



20 Feet from Stardom (Morgan Neville, 2013) - Full disclaimer: I was having a bit of a chat while this was on, so I’m even less equipped than usual to offer an opinion.

It’s a heartfelt documentary about African-American backing singers from the ‘60s to the present day, focusing on the likes of Darlene Love, Lisa Fischer and Merry Clayton – all of whom I’d heard, but none of whom I could’ve named, since they’re rather better known for their contributions to other people’s work than on their own terms.

It seemed to me like a worthwhile film – with some great moments – that suffered a little from a jumbled structure and story threads varying in interest. There are many arresting moments and telling anecdotes, though, alongside a neat gimmick isolating the backing tracks to underline their sheer power, resonance and quality, as well as a handful of tall tales that have since been rather comprehensively debunked. I don’t necessarily understand why it won the Oscar, but then I rarely do. (3)

***



The Story of Adele H (Francois Truffaut, 1975) - Francois Truffaut’s passion for making period dramas seems to have completely outstripped his aptitude for them, as this is another prettily-photographed borefest along the lines of Anne and Muriel, with the same uncomfortable bilingual presentation and complete monotony of tone.

Isabelle Adjani is quite good as the title character, the daughter of Victor Hugo, who is driven to distraction and then insanity by her unrequited love for a caddish soldier (the future writer-director of Withnail & I, Bruce Robinson).

It sounds promising and Néstor Almendros’s cinematography is once more sumptuous, but the (true life) story itself is interminable: just the same thing over and over, without wit, respite or even any great insight, not helped by Truffaut’s perverse dedication to the idea that Adele’s meltdown is the only thing worth investigating, not her seduction and not any potential last-act catharsis.

Like Les quatre cents coups, it ends with a monochrome freeze-frame (of a sort), but whereas that film buzzed with life and invention - and bristled with hurt - right up until its final frame, this one just sort of sits there.

***

LIVE



THEATRE: Sunny Afternoon (The Harold Pinter Theatre)
– An entertaining Kinks show that’s at its best when dealing with Ray Davies’ personal issues – artfully integrating his timeless songs into a nicely paraphrased story of sibling rivalry and crippling despondency – or giving us big, stompy musical numbers performed by on-stage musicians, at its worst when whining at length about greedy industry agents (they may have right on their side, but there’s little more tedious than rock stars moaning about money) or going for the purely cartoonish over the authentic or the intelligently heightened.

There’s some dialogue-writing-by-numbers (Ray's wife keeps saying "It's ahright") and musical-writing-by-numbers, as an outfitting results in the group singing Dedicated Follower of Fashion, but mostly it’s deftly done and the delightfully populist presentation of Sunny Afternoon – evoking the summer of ’66 – beautiful lead in to Waterloo Sunset (deftly mythologising its different, complementary, immaculately congealing parts) and crowd-pleasing encore are superbly handled.

The cast is mostly pretty good too, especially Danny Horn as the diffident, difficult but sympathetic Ray, and Oliver Hoare in a more obvious, showboating performance as the hellraising, whisky-swigging, cross-dressing Dave, and while the script sometimes gets lost in self-pity or trades lazily on jokes about events to come (Lennon ‘wouldn’t stay in bed for days’, McCartney ‘wouldn’t let his wife sing on his records’), the overall effect is rather lovely, lit by some conventional but exuberant staging and a frankly improbable number of brilliant songs: taking place chiefly from 1964-7, but integrating more obvious numbers from later on, we don’t even hear from the majestic but relatively idiosyncratic Village Green or Arthur eras. (3)

***



GIG: Basia Bulat (Rough Trade East) – An irresistible mini-gig from Canada’s best half-Polish folkie (and just about my favourite act of recent years), the mellifluous, extraordinarily distinctive Basia Bulat. Ditching her usual autoharp in favour of a guitar and a three-part backing band, she launched her new pop record, Good Advice, with a seven-song set comprising five new songs and two old ones (Heart of My Own and It Can’t Be You) – the oldies, as well as Someday Soon, performed solo. Highlights included an explosive version of the stunning Fool, her vocal modified into something harder from the trilling falsetto on the album due to the battle with the band, and two of the catchiest things Bulat has written – aside from which they could scarcely be more different – the knockabout, self-mocking La La Lie and the plaintive, exploratory In the Name Of. Her London show in September was the best show I saw last year; I’m back for another full-length concert in April, but until then this will do nicely. (4)

***

BOOKS



Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis (1954) - Not a word is wasted in Kingsley Amis’s effortlessly brilliant debut novel, the pungent, uproarious and – for me – alarmingly relatable story of Jim Dixon, a lecturer at a red brick university who is caught between two very different women, and plagued by a litany of unspeakable men, as he attempts to hold on to his job and arrest a casual but definite decline brought on by booze, poor fortune, general confusion and a tragic inability to Play the Game. Barely a sentence goes by without Amis introducing some black, bleak or brilliant idea, revolving on some inspired turn of phrase, and the book’s blending of the cynical, romantic and inutterably, breathtakingly funny is just about perfect. A wonder. (4)

***



Election by Tom Perrotta (1998) – An absolutely exceptional story told from five vantage points, and prefaced with perfection by Irish novelist William Trevor's observation that "the world is the school gone mad". Mr M is a progressive, popular young teacher who becomes rather too involved in the election of the school president, a three-way fight between the high-achieving Tracy Flick, clever, warm-hearted Paul Warren and Mark’s sister: a sarcastic, malevolent, romantic lesbian whose campaign slogans include, “Vote for Tammy, she’s inexperienced and kind of lazy”. The story may be familiar from Alexander Payne’s excellent cinematic adaptation (with Reese Witherspoon a fitting Flick), but the book is rather different: not a vicious, misanthropic satire, but a sharp, dark, extremely and unexpectedly poignant work that cares for each of its characters, making you laugh out loud, rage and broil, then undercutting all of that with moments of desperate sadness. (4)

***

Thanks for reading.

Thursday, 11 February 2016

Woody Guthrie, Point Break and my favourite film - Reviews #225

A handful of new reviews.



*MINOR SPOILERS*
Remember the Night (Mitchell Leisen, 1940)
- I watched this on the big screen for the first time last night. It’s still the greatest movie I’ve seen: a witty, knockabout Preston Sturges comedy (his last script before becoming a director) that slips gently into an extraordinarily powerful articulation of romantic love: romantic love as both the saviour of and ultimate threat to family, career and existence itself.

Fred MacMurray is an assistant D.A. brought in to win a case against shoplifter Barbara Stanwyck. After forcing her case to be postponed till after the festive season (leaving her in the clink over Christmas), he has an attack of conscience and gets her bailed out, and soon they’re travelling to their home state of Indiana together, as their frosty relationship begins to thaw.

Combining Sturges’ comic smarts and sly sentimentalism with the lushness of director Mitchell Leisen’s visual vision, it’s a heady concoction in which the imagery – a Gothic, lamplit house; shooting through streamers at a New Year barn-dance; silhouettes against Niagara Falls – perfectly complements the action, in which each of the supporting players (Beulah Bondi, Elizabeth Patterson, Sterling Holloway) has one truly great scene with which to comprehensively nail their character, and in which Stanwyck exhibits the most refined strain of that incandescent, beguiling sensitivity that for a short time made her the most important actor on the American screen.

Incredibly, MacMurray matches her every step of the way, the pair generating an intense chemistry of which most screen couples can barely dream – no wonder they were re-teamed for Double Indemnity, many film fans’ contender for the title of Best Noir Ever Made (I’m more of an Out of the Past man, myself).

Every time I watch it, I find something new to make me laugh or cry. Here it was MacMurray’s petulant cry of “Those jurors are gabbing again” (laugh), as he takes an unusual approach to the climactic court case. And then there are all the elements that reward time and again: former lawyer Willard Robertson as a ridiculously OTT defense attorney; Stanwyck and MacMurray’s meeting in the apartment, her very genuine sardonism put to great use; the running gag about her defence of ‘hypnosis’; her heartstopping “You bet”, when he tells her he’s a lucky man to have the family he does, huh; the musical interlude in the parlour; Patterson’s line about her engagement; the moment when it dawns on you that Sturges is preaching on the malleability of human behaviour, one of my pet themes; and the night-time chat between Bondi and Stanwyck – a raw, captivating, unusually mature and effortlessly judged piece of cinema. And then there is the denouement, a Niagara Falls/courtroom one-two that sees Sturges take every duplicitous restriction of the Hays Code and works it in his favour, as only he could.

There’s a black valet who’s a bit thick, a running joke about Sterling Holloway yodelling and an oft-maligned hair bow for Stanwyck, and you’re welcome to sneer, smirk or raise alarm at them all you want, but - for me - everything that happened in cinema up to Remember the Night was just a rehearsal, and nothing that’s happened since has been half as good. (4)

See also: I wrote about my other nine favourite films here.

***



Bound for Glory (Hal Ashby, 1976) - A brilliant – and for the most part brilliantly unconventional – biopic of the legendary protest singer Woody Guthrie, which until its final 30 provides no stock storytelling, no obvious Hollywood moments and no real antagonists aside from the system itself, just the man with his great flaws and virtues, and a succession of episodes within a spellbinding evocation of Depression-era America, in all its grim beauty and despair.

The cinematography by the late, ludicrously great Haskell Wexler is as stunning as any you will ever see – the plains and valleys Guthrie wrote about, the Dust Bowl too – the editing by Ashby (one of the finest in cinema) is predictably astute and inspired, and, asked to carry the piece, Carradine is utterly authentic as Woody, underplaying at almost every turn. Supporting actors turn up for a while, then disappear, as characters will in the life of an itinerant, itchy-footed drifter, and though Randy Quaid’s role is a bit too obvious, ushering in a more schematic denouement than might be welcome, the ensemble does its job well, adding to the film’s hefty cumulative impact.

Slow, meditative and shot through with anger and a painterly poeticism, it’s something like The Grapes of Wrath, filtered through Altman’s Thieves Like Us, and if it doesn’t necessarily bother with the facts, it does get at an important truth about Woody and his work: that he was a man shaped by his times, and by the overtness and extremity of human suffering there, but that his legacy was as someone who spoke truth to power, whose personal failings paled alongside the immensity of his message, and who used the tools he had to make the world a fairer place. (4)

***



Point Break (Kathryn Bigelow, 1991) - This high-octane, New Age actioner is easy to mock but even easier to enjoy, with FBI agent Keanu Reeves going undercover in a group of bank-robbing surfers as he tries to get his man (Patrick Swayze). Arguably in more ways than one – despite an unconvincing subplot featuring an androgynous Lori Petty, it’s quite possibly the gayest film I’ve ever seen, with the Reeves-Swayze interplay making the beach montage in Rocky III look like Battleship Potemkin.

Yes, there’s more cheese than you can shake a cracker at and Reeves’ line-readings are abysmal, but it’s a distinctive, original movie with dialogue that’s just stylised enough not to be embarrassing, an atmosphere of heightened, sunlit Zen homoeroticism, and a succession of adrenalised action scenes from Bigelow that are nothing short of astounding. Our hero’s pursuit of a bank robber dressed as Ronald Reagan at the midway point, shot largely as PoV, is one of the most frenetic, immediate and masterfully-filmed chase sequences I have ever seen. (3)

***


There's quite a bit of this sort of thing.

Burn After Reading (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2008) - A disposable Coens film about adulterous adults and how the missing memoir of CIA analyst John Malkovich (catchphrase: “What the fuck?!”) impacts on their lives, leading to extortion, blackmail and murder. Beginning as a cartoonish black comedy, it balances its stories well and generates some tense moments as it segues into a thriller, but it’s rarely funny and ultimately means nothing – a problem it seeks to alleviate through overt acknowledgement, with little success. It’s ultimately just a spiteful assault on most of its characters (see also: A Serious Man, one of the more troubling films of recent years), though the scene in which Clooney rings his wife and then confronts the mystery man who’s tailing him is – for all its nastiness – an interesting, intelligent and telling vignette.

***

Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Truffaut, Inside Llewyn Davis and the Singing Sweethearts' swansong - Reviews #224

INTRO



Greetings from my desk, as I upload this blog before going to the staff quiz night. Sometimes it's good to turn off the TV and be sociable. Apparently. Yes, hello.

Last night I saw Eileen Atkins doing her Ellen Terry show, which was wonderful, despite my tummy ache.

As well as mining my brain for a piece on the history of Westerns, I'm currently exploring the lesser-known movies of Francois Truffaut, one of my favourite filmmakers. I have seven remaining. The first three were... a little underwhelming.

FILMS

Truffaut special:




Anne and Muriel (1971) - Truffaut’s second adaptation of a Henri-Pierre Roché novel is even worse than the mystifyingly lauded Jules et Jim, with the director essentially just reading out the book to provide exposition and motivation, as his cast acts out a succession of short scenes. In the lead, his frequent alter-ego, Jean-Pierre Léaud, is limp and bland as the young Frenchman espousing free love whilst romancing two English girls, the spirited, progressive Anne (Kika Markham) and her sister: taciturn, haunted, ginger Muriel (Stacey Tendeter).

The title characters – and the actresses playing them – are sufficiently distinctive to stick with you after the credits roll, and Néstor Almendros’s cinematography is absolutely gorgeous, but this is no way to adapt a novel, and an object, abject lesson in why filmmakers shouldn’t direct scenes in their second language: Mark Peterson’s line readings as Mr Flint are absolutely atrocious. There’s a reason why he only ever made one other film, and it was called Terror in the Swamp. Philippe Léotard, who was such a disaster in Truffaut's next film (see below), is unexpectedly good here, in a barely written role.

All in all, it just seems an odd project for Truffaut to choose and one upon which he never quite gets a handle. I would advise that you watch Polanski’s not dissimilar Tess, but unfortunately he’s a convicted paedophile who refuses to serve his sentence, so I won’t. (2)



A Gorgeous Girl Like Me (1972) - A sociologist (Andre Dussollier) interviews a criminal (Bernadette Lafont) about her past conquests and falls under the same spell as the other men, in this little-known Truffaut movie, which is brilliantly filmed but sadly wastes its promising premise with a narrative - and performances - that unfortunately recall the Confessions series, that '70s sex-comedy nadir of British cinema.

The caricatured, charmless performances and flashes of flesh are about as arousing as TB and for all the gushing reviews eulogising the film's "jet black comedy", it's simply a one-joke affair, the one joke being that Dussollier sees Lafont as a victim, rather than a calculating nymphomaniac.

But what sounds on paper like the set-up for a dazzling psychodrama or subversive satire doesn't even have the precision of character to work on its own terms. Despite that, the tracking shots, elegant zooms and explicit nods to past works do at least remind you - however fleetingly - of the movies which assured Truffaut's reputation as one of the greatest filmmakers who ever lived, while the "Mr Farrell" sequence and the offbeat final shot call to mind my own very personal relationship with his work. (1.5)



Finally, Sunday! (1983) - Truffaut’s swansong is a gentle (though not particularly funny) comedy-murder mystery, with Jean-Louis Trintignant playing a real estate broker suspected of murder, and Fanny Ardant as the stoic, lovelorn secretary seeking to clear his name (shades of Mark Stevens and Lucille Ball in The Dark Corner).

The movie rarely evokes the Old Hollywood tone for which it strives, but Ardant is charming and truly touching, Nelson Almendros’s monochrome cinematography shimmers and beguiles, and the movie’s rather shapeless, unsatisfying narrative does end up somewhere both philosophically interesting and reasonably tense.

The whimsical final image, shot through with Truffaut's familiar love of children, is just about the perfect sign-off for this giant of cinema, unwitting though it was. (2.5)

***



Inside Llewyn Davis (Joel Coen, 2013) - I have an uneasy relationship with the Coen Bros. I watch most of their films and like many of them, but I also find them frustrating and difficult to love, their movies aloof, smugly self-involved and with a fatal lack of heart, along with a fondness for perverse, self-satisfied twists that take you on the road less travelled to nowhere in particular.

This, though, is my favourite so far.

It took me a while to get around to it (for those reasons I just mentioned), but the lure of the leads and the attraction of the Village milieu that has tantalised me since I was a kid finally got me there. Sometimes its self-conscious oddness (hello John Goodman) and wilful, spiteful unsentimentality (hello a man shitting himself to spoil a potentially moving sequence about dementia) grates, but for the most part this sad, whimsical and purposefully baggy story of missed opportunities and shambling urban alienation is an extraordinarily special piece of work, and one which avoids cliché not because it thinks it’s clever to do so, but because this is how things would be, how the characters would behave.

So Oscar Isaac’s titular folk-singer – shuffling around Greenwich Village in the desperate calm before the coming folk boom – doesn’t visit his young son (because he can’t face it); can’t channel his anger into his music when faced with genuine social ills (whereas Dylan wrote When the Ship Comes In after a receptionist was rude to him at a hotel); and fails his audition for a kingmaker agent through no real fault of his own, certainly no disaster. It simply happens – the try-out doesn’t quite work, perhaps a matter of taste. Nor, indeed, does Llewyn’s dubious novelty record explode in some echo of O Brother Where Art Thou? It doesn’t even come out during the film.

Isaac and Carey Mulligan (as his sometime girlfriend) are both utterly superb – the former better than I have ever seen him – and the music, the cinematography, the explosions of regret and rage are note-perfect. I found the film as a whole unusually and arrestingly affecting. And the cats are wonderful too. Perhaps my relationship with the Coens could yet blossom - this could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship. (3.5)

***



I Married an Angel (W. S. Van Dyke, 1942) - On the one hand, it’s nice that this Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald musical tries something new, but, on the other, it’s an almost complete disaster. The pair made their name as the ‘Singing Sweethearts’ with formulaic but wonderfully, peerlessly escapist period movies like Naughty Marietta, Rose Marie and Maytime, in which their characters fell in love and sang together, while one, the other or both were pursued by villainous forces (including, memorably, Maytime’s John Barrymore). Only one of the six movies they made with that template – a bastardised version of Noel Coward’s Bitter Sweet – failed to work the requisite magic.

This, their last film – and the second to deviate from the tried-and-tested formula, following 1938’s Sweethearts – goes off the deep end with a flamboyantly original storyline that is sadly also completely incoherent, and consists principally of one long, bafflingly misguided dream sequence. Eddy plays a carousing banker oblivious to the unrequited love – and indeed the existence – of his patient, doting secretary (MacDonald). After getting hammered at his fancy dress party, to which she’s come badly dressed as an angel, he falls asleep and dreams of a genuine celestial being (again MacDonald) who comes down to Earth to marry him, only for her innocence to prove their undoing. Sort of. It’s not very well conceived.

Neither performer is at their best here, with Eddy in particular merely going through the motions, devoid of his usual energy and vigour, while the ambitious narrative flits from one half-baked scenario to another, arbitrarily crowbarring in the disparate numbers. Despite said that, there are some minor pleasures: a handful of excellent Rodgers & Hart songs, the imaginative rendering of both the angel’s arrival and the I’ll Tell the Man in the Street number, and MacDonald vamping it up as a fallen angel: in her somewhat naff, slightly embarrassing and dated way, I’ve always found MacDonald weirdly sexy (especially in black and white), so that sequence was particularly… involving.

Sadly none of those compensations come close to rescuing this unworthy swansong for one of cinema’s most charming couples, a film so poorly devised that even Edward Everett Horton isn't good in it. (1.5)

***

Thanks for reading.

Thursday, 4 February 2016

Lillian Gish, Henry V, and Woody Allen in 2015 - Reviews #223

A few reviews. Next time: a journey through the back catalogue of Francois Truffaut.

FILMS



*MINOR SPOILERS*
Irrational Man (Woody Allen, 2015)
- In 1989, Woody Allen created one of his greatest movies, Crimes and Misdemeanours: a bleak, gently blistering drama in which Martin Landau kills his mistress then tries to deal with the guilt of it all. Since then, Allen has made three serious crime movies and, to a greater or lesser degree, they are all terrible. This latest one is perhaps the least terrible of the three (the others are the tone-deaf Match Point and the brain dead Cassandra’s Dream), but it still falls down an elevator shaft after 50 minutes.

Joaquin Phoenix is a brooding cliché of a philosophy professor – dark, sexy, dangerous – who attracts the attention of both an unhappily married lecturer (Parker Posey) and a guileless student (Emma Stone) while toying with the idea of murder. At first you can forgive the film its flaws: lazy exposition, laughable lines and erratic performances (often helpless in the face of the dialogue), because the story is surprisingly involving and watchable, but after a while even that starts to go wrong, and there’s nothing left to cling to.

The movie’s conformity is a problem for me: it purports to wrestle with serious philosophical quandaries (albeit like a low-rent Rope), then goes for the easiest possible way out. And it conforms in its characterisation too. Phoenix’s professor disastrously calls to mind Half Nelson, a film against which almost everything looks unoriginal and somewhat pathetic. In that movie, Gosling’s crack-addicted teacher tries to impress his sister-in-law with his magnetic brand of nihilism and she literally laughs in his face. Here, no-one laughs in Phoenix’s face, they just want to boff him.

In the one interesting choice Allen makes, he has Joaquin’s penis misfiring early on, but when he gets the chance to build on this later, he falls short of pushing the character as far as it will go – they both do – and the results are just unbelievably frustrating. Watch the end of Peter Medak’s The Ruling Class for an example of how you kick your film into another gear, with a seductive, beguiling paragon of evil.

As I have said at least once before, I prefer the ever-underrated In My Father’s Den to the widely-praised You Can Count on Me because the muscular, avenging angel of an anti-hero gets kicked down some stairs and called a prick when he tries to do the right thing, rather than winning out in some pyrrhic but vital way. I prefer Half Nelson to Irrational Man for about 800 reasons, but it starts with Phoenix’s drab if extremely charismatic caricature, and the hypnotic effect his character has on everyone, with his hilariously stupid malt-swigging.

He is also the only actor I’ve ever scene who has scenes stolen from him by his own tummy, Phoenix’s funny little pot belly arriving in the room shortly before him, with a kind of scene-stealing grace that Peter Lorre might have admired. Stone, meanwhile, does her best, and has a handful of truly, unexpectedly impressive moments (considering she’s in a film that simply doesn’t work), but more often than not she is – well – powerless to act, her line readings sounding like something from a 1930s B-movie actress. Or a porn star.

Another problem with the film (and there are many) is Allen’s superficial understanding of philosophy, which both undermines the serious message he is attempting to impart and, more prosaically, means that his brilliant professor is often just spouting rubbish, or paraphrased platitudes. Allen has read the chapter headings in his textbook, it seems, but gone no further epitomised by the frankly embarrassing scene in which Phoenix says the class will consider “Sartre’s classic line, ‘Hell is other people’”, which is as much Sartre as we get. Woody also has no idea how to build a crime narrative, as evidenced by the sequence in which Stone explains that everyone a murder victim knew “couldn’t have done it” – an equivocal shorthand that is frankly insultingly stupid.

I suppose he is 80 now.

At this stage in his career, Allen is desperately in need of a script editor who can tell him: a) You don’t know how teenage girls speak; b) You can’t write working class characters in a contemporary setting; c) You’ve forgotten how to subtly interweave exposition; d) Your plotting is built on contrivance and coincidence, not anything that resembles real life.

In the excellent 2012 documentary detailing his life and work, Allen fascinatingly reveals how he decides which film to do next, emptying a drawer onto his bed and then searching through scraps of paper on which are written one-line summaries of possible projects. He used to dress and augment these frameworks, until the incidental joys were as great as the story they adorned. Now – with the exception of Midnight in Paris and perhaps Blue Jasmine – that isn’t really true: from photography to performance to dialogue to sound, it all feels perfunctory: we simply travel from A to B, his hand revealed well in advance, the minor pleasures few and far between, if they are there at all.

As far as bad dialogue goes; well, it simply doesn’t get any worse than this:
Phoenix: “I’m just… too far gone.”
Stone: “I’m going to be late for my piano lesson.”

And then there are the Allenisms that pepper his work: stock phrases that emerge from the mouth of so many of his characters, no matter how different they are supposed to be. Will he ever again make a film in which someone doesn't say, "This is cra-zy."

The film isn’t funny, either. Not in the way that the first hour of Magic in the Moonlight isn’t funny: this one isn’t even supposed to be. In Crimes and Misdemeanours, among his greatest masterstrokes was to run a hysterically funny narrative in parallel to the main affair, with Allen’s self-righteous documentary maker outfoxed by his insufferable rival (Alan Alda), his character receiving a devastating final sting that threw him and Landau together, and cast the central story into a different light. Here, everything is in the same tone – visual, verbal and philosophical – with no wit or nuance to leaven the po-faced, self-serious quasi-moralising.

These problems are epitomised by a potentially interesting scene near the close, which somehow manages to be taut and tense but also completely embarrassing, with apparently improvised dialogue that has to be heard to be believed, and an action pay-off that’s like a Byker Grove outtake. It’s a fitting climax to an unredeeming, tacky and obvious third act that just about explains itself but is as uninteresting as Allen has ever been. Except for Cassandra’s Dream<, which is the caveat that keeps on giving, and the worst film that Allen will ever make.

In Allen’s hands, it seems that fatalism – predicated on chance – has none of the danger, cynical humour or dark poetry of noir, it’s merely predictable coincidence, playing out in bright colours and dull words. (2)

***



The Scarlet Letter (Victor Sjöström, 1926) - A year before their towering masterwork, The Wind, director Victor Sjöström, writer Frances Marion, and stars Lillian Gish and Lars Hanson made another film – The Scarlet Letter – a flavourful, somewhat fanciful adaptation of the Nathaniel Hawthorne novel. Miss Gish is ideally cast (though perhaps wearing a bit too much make-up, historical accuracy fans) as Hester Prynne, whose illegitimate child outrages Puritan, 18th century New England, visiting tragedy upon her restrictive community. Hanson is her troubled lover, the outwardly respectable Rev Arthur Dimmesdale.

MGM’s films from this period never quite seem to match – say – Fox’s in terms of their scale or authentic set design, and the plotting sometimes comes off as forced or convenient, but Sjostrom's imaginative staging leads to a succession of visually striking passages (he was a great director of shadows and of feet) and the acting grabs your attention and holds it, with Gish’s inventive, intuitive gesturing creating a Hester who’s flirtatious, resolute and also feels intensely, every thought transmitted by the actress’s peerless evocation of the inner life.

Her innocent seduction of Hanson is the sort of scene she so rarely got to play - not that you'd know it from her effortless, uncompromised sensuality - while the sequence in which she reveals the scarlet letter, if plumb in the centre of her comfort zone, is a masterpiece of subtle expression and heart-wracking poignancy. (3.5)

A thousand thanks to Owen for getting hold of this one for me. I’ve been after it for years.

***



Henry V (Laurence Olivier, 1944) - Olivier’s near-mythic adaptation of Henry V is a film of dazzling, bravura moments, but not altogether a great film. Beginning with a brilliant gimmick – a framing device that presents the action before an audience at The Globe in 1600 – it then abandons the conceit at exactly the right time, with a staggering fade that takes us from London to the sky above the ocean, where a swelling British fleet is moving stealthily, hazily towards France. Once they get there, though, we face a world that lurches weirdly from fantastical castles to earthily realistic battlefields, as the narrative mixes Henry’s rousing speeches and introspective ruminations with some of the broadest, most unbearable comedy imaginable (at one point a Welshman wears a leek on his head while ending every sentence with the words, “Look you”), culminating in a wooing scene that seems to go on for ever.

Despite those shortcomings, there are scenes as rich in beauty and emotion as just about anything British cinema produced in the ‘40s, thanks in no small part to the sumptuous Technicolor photography and Olivier’s astounding performance, which – despite the occasional recourse to simply yelling – is full of tenderness, steel and imperious regality, while exhibiting his unique gift for Shakespearean delivery: his understanding so rich, his interpretation so clear, that the dialogue could just as well be in modern slang, were it not for its power, its consequence and its ability to stir anyone with a pulse, an English birth certificate and, ideally, a sword. He also has one hell of a way with a battle sequence: the long take of advancing French cavalry moving from a trot to a murderous gallop is just an astonishingly exciting piece of action cinema.

Olivier adapted two further Shakespeare plays as director and star – Hamlet and Richard III – and while both are better than this celebrated first effort, Henry V still has moments that simply take the breath away. (3)

***



All Through the Night (Vincent Sherman, 1941) - This is the other film in which insular isolationist Humphrey Bogart has a change of heart to battle despicable Nazi Conrad Veidt. But unlike in Casablanca, he’s a gangster who gets in over his head while searching for the killers of his favourite cheesecake supplier.
This weirdly pitched yarn is a curious mixture of heavy-handed propaganda, mannered dialogue and variable suspense: a melange of Hitchcock, Damon Runyon and what we now recognise as ‘WWII Warners’, as the studio warms to the cinematic possibilities of the conflict. It starts oddly and ends badly, but what’s in between is often good fun, with a frankly astonishing cast doing what it can with a peculiar script that promises much but delivers relatively little.

Though he’s given rather too many visual gags for a performer whose talents lay elsewhere, Frank McHugh’s line deliveries are – of course – an utter joy, while Peter Lorre is perfect as the mirthfully malevolent gunman, Pepi, the diminutive, sleepy-eyed legend having turned this type of playful, cigarette-led scene-stealing into nothing short of an artform. (2.5)

***

BOOKS



The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark (1965) – This story of a Scottish schoolteacher engaging her charges in twisted adult games is slim, spare and economical, warped, waspish and filled with malevolent, brilliant throwaway jokes, its nastiness masking a poignancy and perception that linger, along with the bitter taste of betrayal. When Spark’s Sandy talks about the virtue of economy, as a way to live and to create art, she may as well be commenting on the book in which she finds herself. (4)



Orson Welles: One Man Band by Simon Callow (2015) – The third volume of Callow’s biography is another stunning achievement: fast-paced, fascinating and immensely readable, the author expertly juggling disparate sources to not only document and explains Welles’s triumphs and disasters, but also to discern the truth behind his endless self-mythologising, coming as close as anyone has to explaining who Welles was, and why he was like that.

Dealing with Welles's life between his estrangement from Hollywood in 1947 and the release of his intensely personal Chimes at Midnight in 1964, it’s often sad, occasionally punch-the-air inspiring and - for the most part - wonderfully written, with Callow a fond but wise and moral adjudicator with a rare insight into the art of acting. And for that, we can forgive him some excessive use of Latin, an occasional recycling of his pet theories and the suggestion that classic ensemble dramas include “Casablanca and Four Weddings and a Funeral".

Sometimes I did wish we could linger longer on the majesties of those things that work - Othello, Touch of Evil, et al - before moving onto the next backstage debacle, but by any standards it's an exceptional work, and for fans it's pretty much essential.

I'm not sure I will ever get over not seeing Welles's stage play of Moby Dick. (3.5)

***

Thanks for reading.