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Thursday, October 30, 2008

A COTTAGE IN DARTMOOR (1929)

Anthony Asquith is best known for straightforward filmmaking in the so-called British literary tradition which served him particularly well in stage-to-screen adaptations of G. B. Shaw & Terrence Rattigan. Letting the writer function as auteur doesn’t win you critical kudos, but films as fine as PYGMALION/’38 and THE BROWNING VERSION/’51 don’t just ‘happen.’ Even so, it’s fun to watch the young Asquith show off, even needlessly, on late silents like this & UNDERGROUND/’28, also out on DVD. You can all but hear him parsing the latest Russian or German import just screened at his CineClub. There’s some strikingly fast montage work and psychological P.O.V. stuff (even a shock flash of red tinting like in the original prints of Hitchcock’s SPELLBOUND/’45), but the main influence is UFA studios with their posh camera moves, rich visual texture, expressionist acting, shadowy lighting & diagonal slashes. The opening works best as Swedish actor Uno Henning (in his only British role, he’s an intriguing mix of Buster Keaton & Conrad Veidt) breaks out of prison in search of revenge. The story flashes back to detail a rather commonplace love triangle that gives Asquith plenty of space for his set pieces (a visit to the cinema, a very close shave, et al.) which tend to run on a bit too long. But no matter, it’s all ravishing to watch and if the characterizations never quite add up, the visual touches are worth the stretch.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

WHIRLPOOL (1949)

Gene Tierney, Otto Preminger & David Raksin, star, helmer & composer of LAURA/’44, had little luck on this return engagement. There’s a lot of hocus-pocus in the mix (hypnosis, kleptomania, Hollywood psychiatry), but the plot remains an unengaging blackmail/murder scam at heart. Scripter supreme Ben Hecht wrote too much purple prose for Jose Ferrer’s conman/mesmerizer and poor Richard Conte, as Tierney’s loyal, but baffled husband, has to work too far behind the beat just to keep the plot functioning. The climax, which is played in front of a portrait of the dead woman in question (just in case you had stopped thinking of LAURA), is borderline ludicrous and shows Preminger's staging techniques at their worst. Only Charles Bickford manages to keep some dignity as the exasperated homicide dick. You'll know just how he feels.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Might as well check out LAURA and see what the model was like.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

BIG BROWN EYES (1936)


Behind the generic title, this snappy Raoul Walsh film is a real find. Where has it been hiding? Joan Bennett only hit her stride when she opted for sultry brunette over sassy blonde, but she's a peroxided knock-out here, playing a manicurist with a nose for news and lots of notorious clients with tales to tell. Cary Grant, also in super form, is her on-again/off-again boyfriend, a police dick who’s bucking to make captain. With her inside info & his knowledge of how to work the system, they make a great team running down a motley gang of jewel thieves. Lloyd Nolan, in an early outing, is a mug with a floral fetish(!), and the young & debonaire Walter Pigeon plays an amoral insurance investigator who’s working both sides of the fence. (No pun intended.) The plotting gets a bit sloppy in the third act, but Walsh keeps it all moving along. You’ll be having too much fun to mind the slap-happy contrivances.

CONTEST: Bennett & Grant reteamed for the strained screwball comedy WEDDING PRESENT/’36 which finished off Grant’s Paramount contract. It’s main interest lies in a trick shot that neatly circumvents the old Hollywood ‘Production Code’ and which would be famously re-used in a later Grant pic. Name the camera trick, the Production Code violation, as well as the later film and Grant’s co-star to win our usual prize, a MAKSQUIBS Write-Up on any NetFlix pic of your choice.

Monday, October 20, 2008

WINGS IN THE DARK (1935)


It took three years & a dozen films, but in 1935 Cary Grant begat ‘Cary Grant.’ The adjustments and refinements in form, attitude & delivery are individually slight, but the cumulative effect is devastating. To compare the Grant persona of 1934 with the man seen in this modest weepie is to sit in on a master-class in film acting & presentation. It’s an astonishing transformation, yet it looks not just effortless, but almost invisible. Smartly helmed by the forgotten James Flood & handsomely shot by William Mellor, the opening two reels are dandy, like some lost Howard Hawks pic with Myrna Loy as an also-ran stunt pilot who’s got an entirely understandable crush on glamorous experimental pilot Grant. Things go from soapy to soggy mighty fast when Grant loses his sight, but it works surprisingly well with the chemistry between these two champs. And if, in the end, the teary plot mechanics are a bunch of hooey, just watch Grant go thru his paces with the seeing eye dog he initially disdains. We get three months worth of conflicting emotional progress in about three minutes of screen time . . . and we believe it. Gladly.

DEKALOG : I-X (1989)

Krzystof Kieslowski gets the Gold, Silver & Bronze medals on this wonderfully involving series of ten short films loosely inspired by the ten commandments. (Half of the stories deal with coveting something or somebody.) It sounds like heavy lifting, but is anything but. In general, KK likes to set up the themes & moral dilemmas of his compact stories in broad strokes, and then confound our expectations with sly reversals of logic, fortune or character identification. Major themes such as illness, fidelity, love & death, are delineated in microcosm, but resonate beyond the confines of the modern Warsaw housing complex where these lives intersect. Careful attention reveals characters & bits of plot breaking in and out of episodes that don’t directly concern them. The least of the stories are no more than pleasant moral diversions with O’Henry-like twists at the end, but the best of the films go topsy-turvy halfway in and leave us panting from alternating sympathies. You’ll find your own hits & misses (a philately caper overdoses on whimsy), but you may wish to skip Episode 6 which Kieslowski expanded slightly into A SHORT FILM ABOUT LOVE. It’s available separately and is worth every extra minute.

Friday, October 17, 2008

THE COLOSSUS OF RHODES (1961)

Sergio Leone got his first solo directing credit on this Italian swords & sandals epic, but you’ll have to squint hard to find evidence of the Spaghetti Western master soon to emerge. Rory Calhoun, of all people, is the token American marque name, and if his acting is no worse than the dubbed Italians surrounding him, at least the latter match up stylistically. The Colossus has already been erected when the film starts, but it’s no normal eight-story statue. It’s a hideout, a research lab, a prison, a dungeon, even a weapon; talk about your Seven Wonders! It’s all very silly stuff. To be fair, Leone does stage a few horse chases in Spanish landscapes that prefigure better movies to come (if only an Ennio Morricone score were in place).  And watch for a couple of spectacular shots of massed soldiers on the march, plus a few knowing visual winks at films Leone admired. But the basic story, dialogue & acting remain clunky beyond belief.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

THIRTY DAY PRINCESS (1934)


This better than average formula pic from Paramount stars Sylvia Sidney as a mittel-Europa Princess who gets the mumps on an official visit to NYC. Financial wheeler-dealer Edward Arnold (in likable mode, not like his later Capra villains) needs some royal glamour to put over her country’s big bond issue, a scheme opposed by sharpie newsman Cary Grant, so a lookalike is needed. When a perfect double is found (Sylvia Sidney, natch, as a struggling actress), complications ensue. Fortunately, no one pushes the gags too hard and the hand of co-scripter Preston Sturges is not only happily felt thru-out, but thematic & structural intimations of THE LADY EVE/’41 add an extra kick to this film’s quiet charms. Grant is still working out his screen persona, but he’s already quite the dashing presence and under Marion Gering, Sidney’s house director, the scene where the two Sidney’s finally meet makes for wonderfully grown-up character comedy.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

IL SOSIA / PARTNER (1968)

Bernardo Bertolucci had the luck to be filming his one nouvelle vague piece of leftist political theater, using a band of socialist student activists, no less, just as thousands of socialist student activists were hatching the Paris riots of 1968. Talk about perfect timing! The film, which is like a genial cousin to one of Jean-Luc Godard’s didactic screeds, seems perfectly content to play loosely with threads of ideas about sanity, entitlement, politics, art and a nagging doppelgänger without adding up to much of anything. Though it’s equally possible that the pic’s charismatic star, Pierre Clementi at his most Mick Jaggarish, had little but gibberish to offer in the largely improvised script; he yells and repeats to diminishing effect. But Bertolucci, in a sort of adolescent fare-thee-well, displays such an embarrassment of visual pizzaz you hardly mind the barrage of dated sloganeering and jejune intellectualism.

NOTE: In an unusually absorbing Extra, Bertolucci goes into a few technical details. He bemoans the cut-rate Italian CinemaScope knockoff which is not an anamorphic process, but a bifuircated 35mm frame. And that may explain why he took the trouble, on the trick shots for Clementi & his double, to reach all the way back to the silent cinema days and precisely rewind the negative for all the double-exposures. Properly handled, this can still produce astoundingly believable alter-ego stuff, and the ones in PARTNER look great.

Friday, October 10, 2008

LES MISERABLES (1933)

Raymond Bernard needed a suitably grand subject after WOODEN CROSSES/’31, his fine and sorrowful WWI epic, but Victor Hugo’s extravagant plotting and romantic fatalism ill suit his strengths. It’s all handsomely produced and easily fills the three part/five-hour structure, but the characterizations have been flattened out in comparison to so many other versions. The 1935 Hollywood version has its appeal, but sadly two superb French silents, one from 1913 (at nearly the same length) and 1925 (at a full seven hours with heaps of narrative missing elsewhere) are all but impossible to get hold of. (Don’t forget Orson Welles’ fine 3.5 hour radio spectacular which is out in a CD edition.) Scene by scene, there are many fine things here, especially in the Paris riots in Part Three, but Bernard doesn’t seem to be one of those directors who can hold a convoluted, combustible plot in one hand while pulling off filigree work with the other. The film is worthy, but tame.

HARRY POTTER AND THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX (2007)

The fifth Harry Potter pic was the first without ‘Quidditch,’ the sport of Wizards which is something like a free-for-all game of polo on broomsticks that comes to nought since snatching the 'snitch' wins it all. The game never did make much sense, but under David Yates megging it’s the whole picture that doesn’t make much sense . . . and he’s already signed up to make the last three entries. Quick, somebody, snatch the snitch!  (Just for the record, Imelda Staunton makes a plus-perfect Dolores Umbridge.)

Sunday, October 5, 2008

LOVE BEFORE BREAKFAST (1936)


It took over a decade for Carole Lombard to fully hit her stride in the superb MY MAN, GODFREY/’36. And you can actually feel her reveling in her new found cinematic command even in this routine screwball romance from the same year. Suddenly, she can’t put a foot wrong. Hell, she can’t put an eyelash wrong. If only the film were a more worthy vehicle. The man in question, Preston Foster, simply hasn’t the star wattage to get away with his character’s creepy behavior, he comes off as a rich, manipulative stalker. Even taking into account the changing mores of sexual pursuit, there’s not much fun in watching these two trade humiliation gags before the eventual capitulation. Try Lombard's third pic from this year, THE PRINCESS COMES ACROSS/'36.  It's no MY MAN, GODFREY, but it's almost worthy of her.

WE’RE NOT DRESSING (1934)



This loosey, goosey adaptation of THE ADMIRABLE CRICHTON, the old standby socio-political dramedy about shipwrecked Brits where the servants & the masters trade roles, works pretty nicely as a coverlet for a Bing Crosby songfest that nears Dadaist lunacy. Hey, this is Paramount, home to W. C. Fields & the Marx Bros., so it’s hardly a surprise to find George Burns & Gracie Allen working (as scientists!) on the other side of the isle. Carole Lombard is the spoiled heiress Crosby aspires to, and somehow megger Norman Taurog managed to cram in eight Revel/Gordon songs for him in the zippy 77 minute running time; plus a couple more for a young, hot-to-trot Ethel Merman, with a face like a flat disc. You'd never think that a conventional romantic beach scene could work its way in here, but Bing & Carole pull it off without a strain. Nice going.

THIRST (1949)

Hard to take early Ingmar Bergman pic features the sort of simplistic Freudian dramatics he would refine and eventually (thrillingly) outgrow. It’s right after WWII, and both Europe and the couples we meet need to heal themselves. Alas, in Bergman’s spin the women are all hysterics and the men are self-centered bastards. The theme may be how can love survive, but the question feels irrelevant with a cast of characters you’d flee from. (Our lead is a ballerina too injured to dance. 'Nuff said.) A ‘daring’ for its time lesbian seduction adds nice period flavor (she’s the film’s one possible temptation) and a technically dazzling sequence through the aisles of a train stand out amongst all the neurasthenia, but it's hardly enough to offset the company you’re asked to keep.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

MAN OF THE WORLD (1931)

William Powell & Carole Lombard made two mediocre films during their brief marriage, and a classic after their amicable divorce, MY MAN GODFREY/’36. Go figure. This early effort enjoys the tart romanticism of writer Herman J. Mankiewicz and has reasonably lively direction for 1931 from Richard Wallace, but few surprises. Powell is a Paris-based conman who dupes naive Yankee tourists by keeping scandalous personal tidbits out of the press. Easy for him, he’s also the publisher. Then he falls for the niece of one of his victims (Lombard, natch) and vows to ‘fess up’ and go straight. But Wynne Gibson, once his main squeeze, and still his partner in putting on the squeeze, wises Powell up to himself. Will he make the big sacrifice? Will Lombard believe his new act. (These plot mechanics are right out of LA TRAVIATA: Act Two!) Lombard wasn’t much of an actress in ‘31, and Powell hasn’t purged himself of his stage diction, but it’s easy enough to watch and has a pleasing share of Paramount’s continental manner.