Friday, March 27, 2015

LE BEAU SERGE (1958)

Francois (Jean-Claude Brialy) returns to his small French hometown after several years away; he has spent some time in a TB sanitarium and is searching for rest, and also, it seems, something to center his life. He is shocked to find that this former best friend Serge (Gerard Blain) has become a drunken wastrel who doesn't even recognize him at first. Serge does menial delivery work and is unhappily married. His wife Yvonne had a stillborn child who the doctors said would have been mentally damaged if he had lived; now she's pregnant again and Serge, convinced that there is "bad blood" in their commingling, is certain that this will result in another tragedy, so he spends every moment that he's not working shitfaced drunk. Francois decides that he can help to rehabilitate Serge, and thinking that Yvonne is to blame for his depression, he suggests that Serge leave her. Soon Francois falls in love with Marie (Bernadette Lafont) who lives with a man who may or may not be her father, and when a (possibly) incestuous attack takes place, he begins to think that Serge's problems may have to do with something about village life itself that takes its toll on everyone.

This film by Claude Chabrol is often considered one of the first New Wave (Nouvelle Vague) film, but unlike other contenders for that title (Godard's BREATHLESS, Resnais' HIROSHIMA MON AMOUR), there seems to be little groundbreaking stylistically here. In fact, it reminded me more of older films set in small French villages, like Bresson's DIARY OF A COUNTRY PRIEST or Clouzot's LE CORBEAU. I enjoyed it, but it doesn't feel "new wavish" to me; there's no chopping-up of chronology or narrative, no camera tricks that call attention to themselves. Where I thought this was going was that the pretentious big-city guy would get his ass handed to him by the sly country folk, but actually it's a little bit like a rustic Peyton Place, and the big-city guy does indeed get to help out, and is helped himself a bit, even though he does have to suffer through a few missteps. Brialy (on the left in the picture at left) is solid as the somewhat bookish, rootless guy who needs to be needed, but Blain (on the right) is even better as the handsome brooder who seems well on the road to self-destruction. Blain was sometimes referred to as a French James Dean though he's got a lighter touch—he is very sexy and seems more natural in his role than anyone else in the cast. It was shot on location in the actual village where Chabrol grew up and actual townfolk have some speaking parts. [TCM]

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

STRICTLY UNCONVENTIONAL (1930)

This remake of the 1925 silent film THE CIRCLE, which I reviewed earlier this month, makes me realize why the original film felt unsatisfying. The earlier movie changed the ending of the original Somerset Maugham play to be more conventional; this version, as the title hints, is perhaps a bit unconventional but more interesting and maybe more realistic. Elizabeth is married to the rich but stuffy Arnold; she's frustrated that he seems so obsessed with his political career, and she finds herself attracted to family friend Ted who is definitely attracted to her. On this day, Arnold's long-absent mother, Lady Catherine, is arriving for her first visit since she ran off with another man, Lord Porteous, years ago, and left young Arnold alone with his father, Clive. Elizabeth is anxious to talk to her and get her advice about running off with Ted. But throwing all plans into disarray is Arnold's father Clive who, by coincidence, also shows up that day for a visit. Actually, they all get along fairly well, but Elizabeth is disappointed to see that Catherine and Clive don't seem particularly happy after all these years, and she begins to question her plan to leave Arnold.

This plays out almost exactly like the 1925 film with the big exception of the ending [SPOILER coming]. In the silent film, the wife starts to run off with her lover, but when her passive husband finally shows some gumption—of course involving the threat of violence—and tries to stop them, she decides to stay. Here, Elizabeth and Ted do leave together, an ending that feels much more organic. When they first appear, Catherine and Clive do seem to be unhappy, sending a signal to Elizabeth that should scare her away from ending her marriage, but as the evening goes on, we see that the old couple still love each other, and Elizabeth is confident in her decision to leave Arnold to find happiness with Ted. The acting is strong across the board: Alison Skipworth and Ernest Torrence seem to be having fun in the roles of the older couple; Tyrell Davis makes a perfect Arnold, being unbearably prim and yet still retaining just enough charm that we have some limited sympathy for him; Catherine Dale Owen (pictured above with Davis) is a fine Elizabeth, and Paul Cavanagh, who tends toward blandness in his later career of supporting roles, is equally good as Ted. Lewis Stone is Clive and Mary Forbes is a family friend. I enjoyed the silent version, but this one is richer and more satisfying. [TCM]

Monday, March 23, 2015

LET'S BE HAPPY (1957)

In the quaint little village of Heatherdale, Vermont, Jeannie (Vera-Ellen)—and yes, she has light brown hair—is struggling to make ends meet after the death of her Scottish grandfather. She finds out that she has been left a small sum in his will, and though it's only a few thousand dollars, she thinks of it as a fortune and makes plans to take a month-long trip to see her ancestral home in Edinburgh, by way of Paris. On a flight to Europe, she meets cute (sort of) with an inventor from Idaho named Stan (Tony Martin) who is signing a deal to manufacture a combo washing, drying, and ironing machine—as Jeannie notes, "You just press a button for happiness!" He gets her out of a number of minor jams and they (sort of) start to fall for each other until a British Lord named Jimmy (Robert Flemying) comes on the scene; he's one of those lords with a castle but not enough income to take care of it. When she talks about her "fortune," he assumes she's rich and makes a play for her and they (sort of) fall for each other. When Stan sees them making romantic sparks, he tries to make her jealous by hooking up with a busty French redhead (Zena Marshall). How *will* it all turn out?

Predictable as it is, there's nothing wrong with the plot of this grade-B musical that some sparkling performances and fun songs couldn't help. Sadly, very little sparkling fun is to be had here. Vera-Ellen was in her late 30s and is completely wrong for the part of a young naïve girl who passes herself off to Stan as in her early 20s. After her big breakthrough in WHITE CHRISTMAS, her movie career went nowhere—this was her last film—and she apparently had a sad life, suffering for much of her dancing career from anorexia. She dances well but is totally at sea trying to inhabit her character. Tony Martin is an unattractive blowhard; he would have been better cast as the jackass cad. In fact, Flemying as the cad is much more sympathetic than Martin as the hero; he is modestly attractive and charming, and his mercenary interest in Jeannie is not played as sinister; in fact, when he discovers that she's as poor as he is, he comes clean to her, says he's actually fallen in love with her, and keeps his marriage proposal on the table. The songs are bland and the production numbers unmemorable except for one scene in which Jeannie attends a ballet and imagines herself as the lead in a playing card-themed dance. The film was shot in England with what looks like a couple of hours of location shooting in Scotland, including a brief shot of the fabled Loch Lomand. The movie was shot in Cinemascope but the only print available is pan-and-scan, which just adds to the nightmarish qualities of this misbegotten musical. [TCM]

Friday, March 20, 2015

VIOLENCE (1947)

"America needs True Dawson!" is the slogan of the post-war political group United Defenders, supposedly a veterans' rights organization but actually a fascist group using the threat of violence against corporations to get extortion money. Ann (Nancy Coleman) is the UD secretary in Los Angeles but she's actually an undercover reporter from Chicago looking to break a big story on the group. She's called back to Chicago just as some UD members are getting suspicious of her, gets in an auto accident when her cab is followed, and winds up with amnesia: she remembers that she works for UD but forgets that she's a reporter. Her fiancé Steve (Michael O'Shea) arrives to take her back to L.A., but in reality he's an FBI agent who has also been investigating UD. By the time she gets her memory back, she and Steve are both in danger from Dawson's thugs who know the truth about them. This B-thriller has an interesting premise and begins well, but the weak script and so-so acting bring it down to average. Coleman and O'Shea (pictured at right) are OK, and Sheldon Leonard does his thug bit quite well. Emory Parnell is a colorless True Dawson, never making the character rise above mildly menacing—I'd like to have seen someone like Tom Neal or Lawrence Tierney give this part some teeth. UD's philosophies remain vague, and more concrete political content might have made things more interesting. Made by Monogram, a Poverty Row studio, it looks more like Warner Bros. B-movie with its fairly high production values—though some of the action scenes are sloppily handled—and the print from Warner Archive is very nice. [Warner Archive Instant]

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

THE MAN WHO CHEATED HIMSELF (1950)

In her San Francisco mansion, Jane Wyatt, a rich and nasty piece of work, has a scene with her miserable husband; she's seeing someone on the side and has decided to divorce him, leaving him without a penny. When he asks her how long she's had her new boyfriend, she says, "Three years of misery too late!" He claims he's flying out of town that night, but we saw him earlier loading a gun and making elaborate plans—he returns after his exit to pull off a staged robbery so he can get some loot out of her. But when he's caught by Wyatt, she shoots him dead. As it happens, her new boyfriend is present: a veteran police detective (Lee J. Cobb). Cobb and Wyatt conspire to hide her crime; he takes the dead body to the airport and dumps it, making it look like he was the victim of a robbery, and later dumps the gun over the Golden Gate Bridge. Soon, as this is a film noir, fate takes a hand: first, Cobb's car is seen by an elderly couple, though they're a bit vague on the description; second, Cobb's younger brother (John Dall) is put in charge of the case along with him. Cobb gets a lucky break when a young crook, implicated in a robbery, is tied to the gun; he found it under the bridge and used it to commit the robbery, so Cobb insists that the boy must have killed Wyatt's husband. But just when it seems like Cobb and Wyatt might get away with it, Dall gets nosy and starts digging things up.

This is a solid film noir with an interesting cast. Cobb, who would move from B-films to A-films soon (ON THE WATERFRONT, 12 ANGRY MEN), is very good; Dall (best known for Hitchcock's ROPE and the noir cult classic GUN CRAZY) is more problematic—he seems like a lightweight out of his element next to Cobb. Wyatt, best known as the perfect suburban mom on Father Knows Best, is cast against type as the femme fatale; the critical consensus is against her, but I thought she was completely believable, and even creates the sense of a fuller character than the typical noir bad girl. Many critics also note that Wyatt's husband was planning to kill her and make it look like a robbery, but I must have missed that plot point. This B-production is well-paced and benefits from some location shooting in San Francisco. There's a nice little twist in the last scene that gives Cobb a kick in the gut. Recommended, though the public domain prints available aren't in the best shape. Pictured above are, left to right, Wyatt, Cobb and Dall. [DVD]

Monday, March 16, 2015

OF LOVE AND DESIRE (1963)

Steve Corey (Steve Cochran) is an engineer who is in Mexico to work on a project for Paul Beckmann (Curt Jurgens). When he arrives at Paul's home, a fancy cocktail party is in full swing and Steve feels out of place until he is befriended by Katherine (Merle Oberon), Paul's somewhat tightly-strung half-sister. They hit it off, but in a private moment when Katherine tells Paul that Steve reminds her of her former boyfriend Gus, Paul flies off the handle and we don't know why. In the worst "day-for-night" scene ever, Katherine walks Steve to the guest house on the estate, then he walks her to her lavish home a few blocks away. He kisses her, she tears at his clothes, he freaks out for a minute, but they eventually give in to their desires. The next deay, when Paul realizes they've slept together, he becomes jealous (eww) and invites her ex-lover Gus (John Agar) along on a boat party. Sure enough, Gus and Katherine get up to their old tricks, though what Gus does verges on rape—an example of his sweet talk: "I wanna press the button and watch you melt"—and the next morning, when Steve arrives on the boat, she slashes her wrists. After she's patched up, Paul explains to Steve that Katherine's nymphomaniacal behavior is because she's searching for the lost passion she had with her first lover Richard who died in the war. But is there more to it than that? And what's behind the rather perverse jealousy that Paul feels for Katherine?

This is a cheaply-made, poorly-shot melodrama with bad sound that I still managed to enjoy for its occasional campy histrionics. Cochran and Oberon have no chemistry, partly because their acting styles clash (she's doing soap opera acting, he's going more naturalistic), but I liked each one individually. And it was nice to see two middle-aged people engaged in an affair, rather than the older-man/younger-woman pairing that we so often. Jurgens is very good in his climactic declaration to Oberon—I don't think it’s really a spoiler to note that there are incestuous feelings at play—and when she runs away from him, she winds up in a campy scene in which the streets which are filled with men seemingly clutching at her, a moment which reminded me of a scene in L'AVVENTURA, though Antonioni pulls it off with more class and subtlety. Steve Brodie has a small role as another old lover of Oberon's. My last comment: at 46, Cochran still looked good in skimpy bathing trunks (see picture). [FMC]

Friday, March 13, 2015

KNIGHT WITHOUT ARMOR (1937)

In 1913, British journalist Robert Donat is on a train to Russia to take a job translating novels. On the same train is Marlene Dietrich, a Russian countess who has been visiting England and is now returning home to get married. They don't know each other and they don't interact, but their destinies are intertwined. Donat is threatened with expulsion from Russia for writing an article critical of the government, but he gets a job as a British spy, growing a beard and taking on a new identity. However, when a revolutionary friend of his tosses a bomb at some carriages (as it happens, in Dietrich's wedding procession), Donat is arrested as a political prisoner and sent to Sibria. By the revolution of 1917, Dietrich's husband is dead and she is taken prisoner by a mob of former servants and serfs; Donat has been freed and is now a trusted second-tier revolutionary. Their paths finally cross when Donat is enlisted to accompany Dietrich to Petrograd to stand trial for crimes against the people. Of course, he is actually in sympathy with her, so he risks his own neck to take her to safety.

This movie has generally received positive critical comments, though I found it fairly tedious for the first half, composed as it is of short, choppy scenes that seem designed to get exposition out of the way. It is beautifully photographed by Harry Stradling and the sets and décor are occasionally striking. Donat is his usual passive self and Dietrich doesn't have much to do until the last half; the scene where masses of workers move in on her is especially good—with almost no dialogue, she does the acting with her eyes. The movie generally picks up in the last half hour, and one extended sequence near the end almost makes it worth watching the entire movie: at one point, when Donat and Dietrich are in danger of being exposed, they are saved by a sympathetic Red Army commissar (Lawrence Baskcomb) who accompanies them on a train toward freedom. The three share a lovely nighttime scene together before the commissar meets a sad fate the next day. Baskcomb is very good, and even Donat rises to the occasion here. Making it through the first half of the film is dicey, but if you do, it's worth sticking with it until the end. [Criterion streaming]

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

THE CIRCLE (1925)

This silent romantic comedy based on a play by Somerset Maugham begins with this bit of wisdom: "A man may select a wife—but he should be careful whose wife he selects." At Cheney Castle, Lady Catherine, wife of Lord Clive, is entertaining their friend Lord Hugh whom, we are told, was best man at their wedding "and still was as far as Lady Catherine was concerned." In fact, the two run off together, leaving her young son Arnold with the forlorn Clive. Thirty years later, Arnold lives at the Castle with his wife Elizabeth. He has grown into a rather droopy, stuffy man—his wife calls him a "thorough old woman," and it seems as if history is about to repeat itself as Elizabeth is considering running off with a handsome admirer named Teddy. On this day, Catherine is returning for a visit for the first time since she left, and bringing Hugh. Elizabeth is anxious to find out from her if "runaway love" can last. As fate would have it, Clive picks the same day to visit. At first, they all think there will be trouble, and in an almost slapstick scene, they try to get Clive's hunting gun away from him before he sees Catherine. But everyone is very civilized, and despite constant bickering between Hugh and Catherine, Elizabeth discovers they have actually been very happy. But does that mean Elizabeth and Teddy should be together? And will Arnold ever stand up for himself?

For a story that is heavily reliant on dialogue, this works surprisingly well as a silent movie, though I did miss hearing the sarcastic intonations that would have been appropriate for some of the lines. For the most part, the acting is subtle with much less gesturing and eye-rolling than you might expect in a silent comedy. The big draw here for some will be a very young Joan Crawford in the small role of Lady Catherine in her youth, but Eleanor Boardman and Malcolm McGregor (pictured above) are very good as Elizabeth and Teddy. I found the ending unsatisfying in a number of ways [SPOILER ALERT!]: Clive (Creighton Hale) is never portrayed sympathetically yet it's when he acts like a brute near the end to get Elizabeth back that he succeeds, though honestly she doesn't seem completely certain that she wants him, and I like to imagine that the next day, she comes to her senses and goes back to Teddy. Still, an enjoyable comedy. [Warner Archive Instant]

Monday, March 09, 2015

THE SILVER HORDE (1930)

In the small salmon fishing town of Kalvik, Alaska, independent fisherman Boyd Emerson (Joel McCrea) and his buddy Fraser, cold and hungry, are turned away from every home until they're finally taken in by good-hearted Cherry Malotte (Evelyn Brent), a former chorus girl and now owner of a copper mine, and her friend and protector, the roughneck Balt (Louis Wolheim). The town is largely run by Fred Marsh, owner of a salmon fishery business who wants no competition and who ruined Balt's livelihood. Boyd is trying to make money so he can marry Seattle socialite Mildred (Jean Arthur), and Cherry, though by now a bit in love with Boyd, decides to help him by sending him to a banker in Seattle who will back his new fishing venture. But things don’t go well: Mildred seems to have become Marsh's lover, and Marsh manages to get Boyd's bank loan stopped. Cherry steps in and sacrifices her copper mine to get Boyd his money; for a time, Boyd and Bolt build up a good business involving catching and canning fish, but Marsh's men start bullying Boyd's workers leading to a couple of confrontations that threaten to turn deadly.

This pre-Code melodrama takes a while to get going, but it becomes worth watching, partly for the acting surprises. Jean Arthur, who I usually like, is only fair to middling here. She's playing against what became her type; instead of the down-to-earth, slightly screwballish best gal pal, she's a haughty, cold-hearted shrew, and that role just doesn't fit her—she's wooden and obvious. Better is Evelyn Brent whose career never took off like Arthur's did, though she's subtle and complex as the rough woman with the heart of gold. McCrea (pictured), only 25, is young and handsome, and though not beefy or particularly butch, he does display an admirable fortitude in his attempts to make good—though it takes him a little too long to see through the unworthy Mildred. The scrunch-faced Wolheim is fine. There’s a deus ex machina gimmick in the end involving the sudden importance of a heretofore minor character that's a bit hard to swallow, but the pre-Code morality leads to a fairly big surprise twist in the finale. Not for all tastes, but watchable. [TCM]

Wednesday, March 04, 2015

PHAEDRA (1962)

Phaedra (Melina Mercouri) is the second wife of Greek shipping magnate Thanos (Raf Vallone); when we first see her, she is at the christening of a new ship named for her. Thanos is upset that Alexis (Anthony Perkins), his son from his first wife, is wasting his life in London trying to be a painter and he sends Phedra off to bring him back to Greece and get him into the family business. Phaedra's companion Anna predicts trouble, and sure enough, when Phaedra meets Alexis, there are sparks and soon the two of them are lovers. As part of a bribe to get Alexis home, Thanos promises to buy him an Aston-Martin sports car, so Alexis and Phaedra return to Greece where things begin to go wrong immediately as Thanos tries to marry Alexis off to the daughter of another shipping millionaire to forge a strong connection between the two companies. When the S.S. Phaedra goes down at sea with much loss of life, it seems to be a portent of things to come for the flesh-and-blood Phaedra.

If you know your Greek mythology, you will know from the beginning that this is going the way of all Greek tragedy: Phaedra, wife of Theseus, falls in love with her stepson Hippolytus and bad things happen. Because the narrative is overdetermined, you can sit back and enjoy the overheated soap opera machinations and the lovely black and white cinematography. Mercouri is gruff-voiced and striking looking, and is perfect for Greek tragedy. Some critics have said that Perkins is in over his head here, but I think he's fine as the sleek, callow, puppy-dog boy who doesn't really know what he wants. Their first lovemaking session is filmed in front of a fireplace through hazy glass with rain pouring over it, and though not explicit by today's standards, it gets the point across that these two in are in lust. Vallone is, surprisingly, a largely sympathetic figure and gives a strong performance. At two hours, this drags a bit near the end, especially since you know what's going to happen, but for fans of this kind of melodrama, it's worth seeing. [DVD]