Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Seattle Opera: Beatrice and Benedict

I went to see the Seattle Opera’s production of Hector Berlioz’s Beatrice and Benedict on Sunday afternoon.  How was it?  A few words immediately come to mind: garbage, rubbish, merde, etc.  Berlioz’s 1862 opera is based on Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing and in this production the Seattle Opera has decided (for some unknown reason) to put the two works together.  It’s a mash-up - we get a scene out of Shakespeare, then some music and singing from Berlioz’s work, then a little more Shakespeare, then back to Berlioz again, and so on.  We don’t really get Berlioz’s opera and we don’t really get Shakespeare’s play.  Instead they’re pieced together, like Frankenstein’s monster or Chucky.  

Berlioz’s opera is in French, but to make it fit the Shakespeare portions it’s now sung in English.  I don’t mind changing a foreign-language opera to English for educational purposes (i.e. The Magic Flute for kids), but I do object to it being done merely to suit the half-baked ideas of opera directors.  

But the meddling doesn't stop there.  Berlioz’s altered Shakespeare's story for his own needs and the two works don’t quite match up.  There are some gaps.  To fill them in, conductor Ludovic Morlot simply pilfered music - an aria here, a chorus there - from the composer’s earlier operas.  So the big loser in all this is Hector Berlioz - it’s not the opera he wrote, it’s not even in the language he wrote it in.  I suppose we should just be grateful that the Seattle Opera at least kept the orchestra and didn’t replace them with two guys on banjos accompanied by washboard and jug.  

This staging is a joint production between the Seattle Opera and ACT Theatre, whose John Langs - along with Merlot - are the parties responsible for this abomination. The only entertaining part of the afternoon were the opera's program notes and their pathetic attempts to justify this monstrosity.  Aidan Lang, the General Director of the Seattle Opera, writes that Morlot, ACT, and SO have crafted “a new version of Berlioz’s work that captures the true spirit of Shakespeare.”  Really?  The "true spirit?"  As if Shakespeare was looking over Much Ado and bemoaning, “Oh, if only there were selections of mid 19th-century French opera in this; only then would the play’s true spirit shine forth.”  Elsewhere in the program notes, Jessica Murphy Moo writes "Morlot admits it took him a little time to come around to the idea of adapting Beatrice and Benedict."  I would advise that in the future Morlot pay greater heed to his instinctive misgivings.  They are very sound.  Later in the same article Moo states “Seattle Opera has never presented Berlioz before.”  Well, Jessica, they haven’t presented him now, either.

Sadly, this thing will run at McCaw Hall through March 10th.

Friday, February 23, 2018

Noir City 2018: The Man Who Cheated Himself/Roadblock

Thursday was the last night of Noir City 2018 in Seattle (sigh).  When I first saw the line-up of films back in January I was as excited and giddy as a five-year-old on Christmas morning.  So many bright and shiny films I haven't seen!  But now it’s over.  So did it live up to my hopes?  You bet it did.  It was fantastic.  Two other things before I get to the movies.

First, Noir City is run by the The Film Noir Foundation and they rely upon public support to carry on their good works - among which was the restoration of The Man Who Cheated Himself (see below).  Go here and give.  

Second, Noir City 2018 has left Seattle but it will be playing in other cities around the country.  Upcoming destinations are Denver, Hollywood, Austin, Boston, Chicago, Detroit, and Washington, DC.  Go here for details.

The Man Who Cheated Himself (1950)
San Francisco homicide detective Ed Cullen (Lee J. Cobb) is having an affair with wealthy socialite Lois Frazer (Jane Wyatt).  When she kills her husband, they try to cover it up.  The problem?  The rookie detective working the case is his own brother, Andy (John Dall), and he’s hot on the killer’s trail.

Directed by Felix Feist (who also did yesterday’s The Threat), this a very good film, although the performances of the two leads may jar with our expectations.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a sedate and calm performance from Lee J. Cobb.  As an actor he was very effusive; you were never in doubt about his character’s mental state.  But he shows tremendous restraint in this movie - maybe too much.  I think he would have been more convincing if he had chewed up the scenery a little - like he did in On the Waterfront.  Wyatt is energetic and slinky as the femme fatale but she too doesn't entirely convince.  After all those years watching her as the Mom on Father Knows Best, I find it hard to believe her as a murderous temptress.  Even after she shoots her husband I expected her to go to the kitchen to get some milk and cookies for Cobb.  Despite these caveats, this film is still good fun.  John Dall delivers a nice performance as the upbeat rookie with the instincts of a bloodhound.  Lisa Howard is equally chipper and convincing as his spouse.  Noir City host Eddie Muller told us all about her life.  It was quite a story.  She became a journalist and got the first interview with Fidel Castro (apparently by sleeping with him).  She would be close to the Kennedy administration and was working on arranging a meeting between Castro and JFK which was abandoned after the latter's assassination.  It sounded like it would make a good movie.  If you could get the casting right. 

Lee J. Cobb, corpse (Harlan Warde), and Jane Wyatt in The Man Who Cheated Himself

The climax, in which Cobb and Wyatt attempt to hide from a pursuing Dall at Fort Point in San Francisco, is beautifully done.  Feist drops the music so that all we get are the sounds of wind and footsteps on gritty concrete as the characters wind their way through the abandoned labyrinth of the fort.  There’s a moment in the scene - and I don’t want to give it away, but it involves a scarf - when the tension and suspense rise to levels reminiscent of Hitchcock (who also did good work at Fort Point).

Roadblock (1951)
Charles McGraw plays honest insurance detective Joe Peters (wow, even his name is clean-cut) who breaks bad after falling for sultry gold-digger and model, Diane, played by Joan Dixon.  

This B film is a gem.  If the night’s first movie is an example of casting gone wrong, this one is an example of casting gone right.  McGraw and Dixon are both perfect.  He is as dogged in his pursuit of uncovering insurance fraud at the beginning of the movie as he will be in committing it himself later.  McGraw makes Peters’s journey into doom totally believable.  He can convey desire and insecurity with the slightest of means.  Dixon is delicious as the film’s femme fatale.  When she falls for Joe and marries him out of love we believe her, but, like him, we suspect that once her gold-digger instincts kick in she’ll be out the door.  And it’s this fear that drives Joe to destruction.  

Joan Dixon and Charles McGraw in Roadblock
Fear, lust, money, doom - what more do we need for a great noir?  Snappy dialogue.  And this film is brimming with it.  “Someday you’re gonna want something nice and expensive that you can’t afford on a detective’s salary,” the money-grubbing Diane tell Joe when they meet early in the film.  “Like what?” he asks.  “Like me,” she replies.  Later on she taunts him by asking whether “happiness can buy you money.”  After Joe beats up a suspect in an interrogation room (hey, this is a Charles McGraw movie), someone says about him: “I thought he was an easy-going guy.”  Joe’s partner replies, “He was - until he got married.”  

The climax of this film plays out in the LA river bed - itself as cinematically iconic as Fort Point.  And the last shot of the film, and of the festival, was pure noir: a lonely and heart-broken figure slowly walking away from us and into the distance while the music swells and the title announces “The End.”

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Noir City 2018: The Accused/The Threat

Wednesday was day six of Noir City 2018 - the penultimate day.  Two very different films, but both good.

The Accused (1949)
Dr. Wilma Tuttle (Loretta Young) is a tight-laced yet beautiful psychology professor.  When she reluctantly goes on a date with one of her smitten students, the lad tries to rape her.  During their struggle, she kills him - and flees the crime scene after making his death look like an accident.  Soon she has to deal with the boy’s uncle (Robert Cummings), who falls for her, as well as pesky homicide detective Lt. Ted Dorgan (Wendell Corey), who doesn’t believe that the boy’s death was an accident at all.  William Dieterle directed this well-made and gripping noir.  

There are three important points to make about this movie.  First, women weren’t usually in the lead in these kind of noir tales, so that’s an intriguing twist.  And that the lead should be played by lovely, doe-eye Loretta Young makes it doubly intriguing.  

Loretta Young and Douglas Dick from The Accused
Second, this role must have had a special poignancy for Young.  As festival host Eddie Muller explained before the movie, Young was the subject of one of classic Hollywood’s biggest scandals: in the 1930s she had child out of wedlock.  In addition, it was rumored - and is now largely accepted as true - that the girl’s father was Clark Gable.  In the 1990s, when she was an old woman, Young heard the phrase “date rape” on Larry King Live but didn’t understand what it meant.  When a friend explained it to her, she immediately responded that that is what Gable did to her in her train compartment back in 1935.  This added a new - and timely - perspective to viewing her performance, which, let me note, is excellent.  Also striking a chord was the persistent misogynistic stereotyping throughout the movie.  References are made to women - and in this case Young - being chatterboxes or never being dressed on time for a date.  At one point, Cummings, seeing her dressed up prettily, says “It’s remarkable!  Your brains don’t show a bit.”  I’d like to say that this kind of stuff was normal in those days, but after sitting through almost a full week of 1940s films, none of which showed the sort of flagrant misogyny on display in The Accused, I’m not so sure.  I don’t doubt that men in the 40s held those opinions - they most certainly did - but it’s worth noting that they’re most strongly expressed in a movie which features a woman as a professional in the lead role. 

And third, Wendell Corey is exceptionally good in this movie.  I liked him in I Walk Alone, but he’s even better here - tough, relentless, stone-faced but wise-cracking.  In one scene a colleague hands him a file and says “Good job, boss.”  “Shut up,” Corey mutters as he closes the door on him.  Awesome.  As for Robert Cummings, I’ve never been a fan of his but I’ve never disliked him either - I’m a strong meh.  After watching him in this film, I see no need to change my opinion. 

The Threat (1949)
Stone-cold killer “Red” Kluger (Charles McGraw) busts out of Folsom prison.  His goal - to get even with everyone who sent him up.  

How violent and action-packed is this movie?  The title sequence plays over machine-gun fire.  Felix Feist directed this taut and brutal B film, but it’s McGraw’s movie.  With his gravelly voice and slightly rugged face, he takes full possession of this movie the moment he enters it.  The beautiful Virginia Grey plays a gun moll he takes hostage.  In real life she and Clark Gable were lovers.  Their affair was an on-again-off-again thing over the years.  She always carried the torch for him but he’d drop her for others, knowing she’d be there for him whenever he wanted.  What a bastard.  I don’t have anything more to say about this movie - except that maybe one day, when I’m home sick, laying on the sofa, I’ll put on TCM, and this film will be playing - and that will cheer my spirits.          

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Noir City 2018: I Walk Alone/Bodyguard

Tuesday was day five of Noir City 2018 and that night's double feature was exceptionally good.

I Walk Alone (1947)
While driving a truck full of hooch across the Canadian border, two bootleggers, Frankie and Noll (Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas, respectively) are spotted by the police.  In the ensuing chase Noll gets away, Frankie doesn’t.  Fourteen years later Frankie is released from prison and Noll is now the owner of a successful nightclub.  Frankie wants his share, Noll doesn’t think so.  Mayhem ensues.

This is a fantastic punch of a movie.  It’s tight, fast-paced, and unrelenting.  It was originally a play but the adaptation has stripped out all that talkiness which you usually find in a play.  The dialogue is deliciously sharp and crisp.  Here's an example: Kristine Miller plays a glamorous, horny socialite and when she introduces herself to Lancaster with a stately “I’m Mrs. Alexis Richardson,” he replies “You say that like it was spelt in capital letters.”  Later on at dinner, a waiter shows Lancaster a bottle of champagne from 1933.  “That was a good year,” the waiter comments.  Lancaster barks back: “For who?”  This was Lancaster’s first film and it’s required viewing for any fan of his.  You’ve never seen him like this: angry, furious, chewing up the scenery (and his cast mates), punching at the slightest provocation, rage personified.  It’s great.  At times, I swear he’s baring his teeth primate-style while issuing threats.  In his introduction to the movie, Eddie Muller rightly observed that when Kirk Douglas is the calm one in a movie you’ve truly got something special. 

Douglas is also very good as the treacherous Noll.  He and Lancaster have a natural chemistry together that would sustain both men over the course of their careers.  In this film he knows exactly when to lay back and let Lancaster run wild and when to push forward to increase the tension.  Lizbeth Scott plays a nightclub singer (when does she not*) and is the source of the romantic intrigue in the story.  I realize that there’s a revival of interest and appreciation for Lizbeth Scott, but, frankly, I don’t share it.  To my mind she’s simply not a good actress.  Movie stars need to have a certain “It” quality, and that’s exactly what she lacks.  Her performance here is passable, but nothing special.  Wendell Corey, though, does an outstanding job playing one of Lancaster’s old gang whose only function now is to be Douglas’s crooked bookkeeper.  He’s like a lion or tiger in the zoo, passive, worn down, all quiet desperation, but look into his eyes and you know that if the cage doors ever opened he would revert to type.

In one of the best scenes in the film Lancaster gathers his gang together and they burst into Douglas’s office to extort their percentage out of him.  It turns out, though, that the nightclub (at least in the set of books which they show Lancaster) is owned by a jumble of corporations, holding companies, and pass through entities.  One corporation owns the silverware, another pays salaries, a third one covers alcohol, etc.  Every time Lancaster tries to get his cut some corporate by-law or charter clause stops him.  It’s Raymond Chandler meets Franz Kafka.  “Stop tryin’ to dizzy me up!” Lancaster yells in confused frustration.  But it’s useless.  He soon falls into a defeated, if smoldering, silence.  At least for the moment.

Bodyguard (1948)
Legendary Hollywood badass and hell-raiser Lawrence Tierney plays Mike Carter, a Los Angeles homicide detective who gets kicked off the force for engaging in the kind of rowdy behavior one would normally associate with people like legendary Hollywood badass and hell-raiser Lawrence Tierney.  Hired as a bodyguard for the elderly owner of a meat processing company, he soon finds himself trapped in a sordid world of bribery, corruption, and meat inspection.  Oh, and someone’s trying to frame him for murder, too. Directed by Richard Fleisher, this beaut has a story by, among others, a young Robert Altman.

Tierney is compelling on screen: tight-lipped, barrel chested, volatile, comfortable on either side of the law as long as there’s a head to break - even if it's his own.  And he likes to mouth off.  A lot.  He’s very much at home with verbal aggression.  And this well-made noir gives him the opportunity.  When an employee at the meat processing plant asks him what his job is there, he replies “I keep the meat warm.”  Helping him to clear his name is girlfriend Doris Brewster, played by Priscilla Lane.  She and Tierney make a winsome onscreen couple.  She’s chipper, friendly, and effusive - a perfect contrast to Tierney's overall abrasiveness.  She's a cold glass of lemonade to his jugful of vinegar.
*  No, really, it’s true.  No other Hollywood actress has ever played a nightclub singer more (four times).  We know this for a fact; this has actually been researched.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Noir City 2018: Kiss of Death/Blind Spot

Monday was day four of Noir City 2018.  We’re now at the half-way point.  As any regular attendee of films festivals can tell you, they can be a marathon.  A good one, but a marathon nonetheless.  To my mind, though, the real gems of Noir City are usually screened in the latter half of the week.  

Kiss of Death (1947)
Victor Mature plays Nick Bianco, a New York hood who gets caught robbing a jewelry store.  When the assistant DA offers him a deal if he’ll talk, Bianco turns him down.  In prison, he learns that his wife has committed suicide and his two young girls are now in an orphanage.  That breaks him; now he’ll talk.  The only problem is that he needs to turn stool pigeon on the psychotic Tommy Udo, played by Richard Widmark. 

And, yes, this is the movie where Widmark throws the old lady in the wheelchair down the stairs.  So how does that scene play seventy years after it first hit movie theaters?  It’s still good but it’s lost a lot of shock value.  In 1947 American filmgoers had never seen such a display of psychopathic brutality (on the screen, at least).  We’re used to much worse in our movies now.  In fact, psychopathic brutality has really developed into its own film genre, its own niche  Still, with his bulging eyes and nasal giggle, Widmark’s over-the-top crazed performance was a landmark and paved the way for Jack Nicholson, Bruce Dern, Dennis Hopper, Joe Pesci, and many others.   

Directed by Henry Hathaway from a script by Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer this movie is an excellent example of the sub-genre of “docu-noir,” which were noir films that had a documentary feel to them.  They were usually shot on location to give them an air of gritty verisimilitude.  Sometimes they were more "procedural" than a regular noir or there was a sociological aspect to the story.  In his introduction to Kiss of Death, Eddie Muller emphasized that it’s this film, rather than The Naked City, which was the first one to be shot on location in New York City.  Mark Hellinger, Naked City’s producer, was a native New Yorker and more adept at working the hometown PR to get his film that honor.

Despite my best intentions (and my comments in the preamble above), I did not like this movie.  It was dull.  And slow-paced.  And very implausible at times.  And unsuspenseful.  And I didn’t really care for the characters.  But I have nothing bad to say about the acting.  Brian Donlevy was good as the the driven but doltish assistant DA.  Colleen Gray made a fine romantic lead.  And if you need a sympathetic big lug, you couldn’t do better than Victor Mature. 

Blind Spot (1947)
Holy Toledo!  What a fun movie!  Chester Morris (I like it already) plays a drunken author who concocts a tale about a man killed in a locked room.  When a few hours later his detestable publisher shows up murdered in a locked room he’s suspect number one.  Can he prove his innocence?  This is an ingenious combination of a “wrong man” story combined with a “locked room” whodunit.

Helping him along the way is the lovely Constance Dowling (below), who plays the publisher’s secretary.  I don’t know if she ever played a femme fatale onscreen, but she did in real life.  In the late 40s, she had a tempestuous love affair with director (but, thank God, not of this film) Elia Kazan.  And in 1950 the Italian writer Cesare Pavese killed himself after she rejected him.   
Like so many B movies, Blind Spot is raunchier, or more overt, than an A movie.  When Dowling gets called into her boss’s office, she grabs a pen, opens her notebook, and goes to the door.  After looking into the office - we don’t get her point of view shot - she closes the notebook, goes in, and shuts the door.  Later, we see her dress is torn.  That certainly has relevance today.  What doesn’t have relevance today, though, is the film’s view of drunks as funny.  Back in the 40s and 50s every comic had a “funny drunk” routine and Morris does his for the first fifteen minutes of the movie.  Back in the day, audiences used to find these “bits” hilarious - probably because most of them were alcoholics - but they have not held up over the years.  So how many laughs did Morris’s drunk schtick get from an audience in 2018?  Zero.  Nevertheless, this film is a true delight.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Noir City 2018: Jealousy

Day three of Noir City 2018 was Sunday and it was a cavalcade of film noir classics.  First off was Mildred Pierce, Michael Curtiz’s adaptation of James M. Cain’s 1941 novel, with Joan Crawford delivering an amazing performance in the lead role.  Later in the day The Blue Dahlia starring Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake, screenplay by Raymond Chandler.  After that The Big Sleep, directed by Howard Hawks, starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, based on Chandler’s novel, screenplay by, among others, William Faulkner.  

I missed them all.  Sorry.  But I did see…

Jealousy (1945)
Janet Urban is an LA taxi driver married to Peter, an emigre writer prone to anger, alcoholism, and unemployment.  His genius, apparently, is not appreciated in the US.  One day Janet meets Dr. David Brent (oh, what a fine name for a doctor) and they become friends.  Soon they’re in love with each other.  But, unknown to him, Dr. Brent is already loved by his colleague, Dr. Monica Anderson (another solid doctor name), and she’s not going to give him up.  Throw in a gun and you’ve got murder.  

Directed by Gustav Machaty, this little B movie isn’t much on first viewing.  But it grows on you.  I have a feeling that this will be the one film from the festival that I’d most like to see again.  It’s pure B - tight story, no big name actors, the sets look recycled, and you wonder if some of the props didn’t have an odd smell.  The actors - in order of the summary above, Jane Randolph, Nils Asther, John Loder, and Karen Morley - all do a good job.  But there’s a quiet weirdness to this film that lodges in the memory.  For example, in one scene Janet and Peter are at the beach.  He begins to throw pieces of bread into the air for the seagulls.  But when we see the flying seagulls grabbing the bread it’s in slow motion, giving the whole action a strange and hypnotic effect. 
John Loder, Karen Morley, and Jane Randolph

One of the thrills of Noir City is the chance to see rare films.  And this one fits the bill.  According to festival host Eddie Muller, this is the only extant print of Jealousy.  (Thank you for sharing, British Film Institute.)  The print is missing some of its opening titles and its ending sequence.  But I think that adds to its appeal.  There’s no reuniting of lovers while the music builds to its “The End” crescendo.  Instead the killer reveals him or herself (I’m not saying which - but the confession is awesome), a character leaves the room, walks down a corridor and suddenly the sound system emit that loud “Pft” noise as the soundtrack ends and the whole audience is plunged into darkness.  It was chilling - as if the film itself was suddenly murdered.  It gave me goosebumps.  And it gives me goosebumps again just to recall it.  Now that’s a movie.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Noir City 2018: Address Unknown/Flesh and Fantasy/Destiny

Saturday was day two of the Noir City 2018 festival here in Seattle. Unfortunately, I was unable to see the first film of the day, Shadow of a Doubt, one of Alfred Hitchcock’s many masterpieces, so let me focus instead on the ones I did manage to view. 

Address Unknown (1944)
This is a powerful piece of war-time propaganda.  William Cameron Menzies directed this story about Martin Schultz (played by Paul Lukas), a German-emigre art dealer in San Francisco who returns to Germany in the late 30s.  With him is Griselle (K. T. Stevens), the daughter of his Jewish partner back in the US.  Soon Schultz is caught up in the Nazi fever, spouting the platitudes, and ultimately accepting a job as an official in the Third Reich.  Only when Giselle is killed does Martin realize the error of his ways.  But by then it is, of course, too late.  

Menzies, cast, and crew did an excellent job with this movie.  Even though we know where the story is going, we never lose interest or sympathy for the characters.  And it was fascinating to see how honestly and directly a Hollywood movie could deal with Nazi anti-semitism.  Although on the surface it may not seem like a true noir, the film’s harsh, unremitting depiction of Schultz’s entrapment and doom is in the vein of noir.  Additionally, to convey Schultz’s increasing Nazification Menzies uses the cinematic techniques of German expressionism, which is itself the source of film noir’s unique visual style.  

The best scene in the film is the one in which Griselle disobeys the Nazi censor (Paul Halton, with bad teeth) by reciting passages from the Sermon on the Mount during a play.  The censor stops the performance and unmasks her as a Jew to the audience by making her admit that her name is not Griselle Stone but rather Griselle Eisenstein.  At this, the play’s spectators go insane with anti-semitism and Griselle is forced to flee for her life.  It’s intriguing that Hollywood would use the revelation of a Jewish name as a way to convey the evils of anti-semitism.  Name changes were common in the film industry at the time and some of the studio heads, who were themselves Jewish immigrants, had changed their names on arriving in the US.

Flesh and Fantasy (1943)
Directed by Julien Duvivier this film is a collection of three different tales of the uncanny.  It’s sort of a 1940s “Twilight Zone” compilation.  The first tale is set during Mardi Gras and features Betty Field as an ugly young woman in love with a local boy played by Robert Cummings.  At the prompting of an old man in a mask shop she purchases the mask of a beautiful woman so that she may pursue her love.  No spoilers, except to note that this mask ultimately will transform both her and Cummings.  In the second tale, based on an Oscar Wilde short story, Thomas Mitchell plays a palm reader who tells a skeptical client, played by Edward G. Robinson, that he will murder someone in the future.  Robinson is driven mad and ultimately homicidal by this knowledge.  And in the final segment, Charles Boyer (who also co-produced the movie with Duvivier) is a circus tight-rope walker who has a nightmare of falling off the wire during his act and landing on an unknown woman in the audience.  The unknown women is played by Barbara Stanwyck.  When Boyer later meets her on an ocean liner the two fall in love.  But soon the prophetic power of dreams pulls them apart.   
Robert Cummings with a masked Betty Field from Flesh and Fantasy

I love this film.  The images are gorgeous and lush, the uncanny being evoked in the visuals as well as the stories.  Like his French countryman Jean Cocteau, Duvivier is a poet of the cinema.  Before the film, festival host Eddie Muller told us the sad tale of Duvivier’s professional fate.  A successful director in France during the 30s - his Pepe le Moko is a masterpiece - Duvivier fled to the US with the rise of the Nazis.  He had only some modest success in Hollywood and was soon sidelined.  On returning to France after the war, he attempted to resume his career but soon found himself regularly savaged by the film critics writing for Cahier du Cinema and never recovered his former prominence.   

If I may digress, one of the many accomplishments of the folks over at The Criterion Collection has been to revive and showcase the films of French directors from the 30s and 40s who were ignored or belittled by those New Wave connards* in the 50s and 60s.  You can get box sets of Duvivier’s films from the 30s, as well as collections of movies by Sacha Guitry and Jean Grémillon.  And, just recently, they’ve added a box set of the films Claude Autant-Lara made during the German occupation.

Destiny (1944)
Destiny was originally supposed to be a fourth tale told in Flesh and Fantasy but Universal cut it out of the final version.  In it, Alan Curtis plays an escaped robber who hides out at the home of a blind girl (Gloria Jean) and her father (Frank Craven).  They take him in to work as a farmhand and soon he falls in love with the beautiful girl.  But can he overcome his own cruel and criminal nature to be worthy of her love?  I won’t spoil it for you.  

After removing Duvivier's half hour sequence out of Flesh and Fantasy, Universal then decided to add some backstory and release it as a separate B film.  Reginald Le Borg was brought in to direct an additional thirty or so minutes which were tacked on at the front and back ends of Duvivier’s work.  The transition is not smooth.  It’s no exaggeration to say that you can tell the exact shots when Duvivier’s segment begins and ends.  

Eddie Muller mentioned (rather tentatively) that efforts are underway to see if Universal would restore Duvivier’s portion of Destiny back into Flesh and Fantasy and re-release it.  Let me say that I support that effort 100%.  However, I understand why the studio cut the segment at the time - it just doesn’t fit with the Flesh and Fantasy material.  The stories in the earlier film are about the supernatural and the uncanny, they’re akin to ghost stories.  But the Destiny segment is distinctly religious, and specifically Christian, in nature.  Jane, the blind girl in Destiny, is a creature of purity and innocence, there is something mystical and even holy about her.  Though blind, she can find her way around the house without a problem.  She can farm and even harvest honey from beehives without a hitch.  Squirrels climb onto her shoulder and birds perch on her head - whether she communes with them in the manner of St. Francis of Assisi is not clear.  When she prayerfully folds her hands (and she does this a lot), the weather changes.  When she walks past flowers and trees they bend towards her.  It was hilarious.  

Gloria Jean and Alan Curtis in Destiny
Eddie called it “Snow White noir” and warned us that there was something “pervy" about the Duvivier sequence in Destiny.  He was right.  Though clean as a church social, there was a distinctly sexual - and perverted - vibe in Duvivier’s depiction of Jane.  It was not just “Snow White noir,” it was “Snow White porn.”  The camera doesn’t just follow Jane, it practically leers at her.  Whenever Christians start to create idealized figures of female innocence it’s not uncommon for a kinky sexual element to creep in.  On one level that’s understandable - the more innocent and pure, the sweeter the deflowering.  It adds a nice frisson (oh, I’m just full of French words today) to one’s lusts.  I recall the Spanish filmmaker Luis Buñuel recounting how in his youth he and his friends would form masturbatory circle jerks around statues and images of the virgin Mary.  There’s nothing like that in this film, but I can understand why the religiosity and pervy-ness of the segment compelled Universal remove it from the earlier film.  Nonetheless, Duvivier’s vision should be respected and the sequence returned to Flesh and Fantasy.  It's time for Hollywood to do right by him.  

*  assholes (Fr.)

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Noir City 2018: The Maltese Falcon/Quiet Please, Murder

On Friday night Noir City 2018 rolled into Seattle - one solid week of classic, well-known, and rare film noirs from the 1940s and 50s.  Eighteen films in all, featuring the likes of Joan Crawford, Humphrey Bogart (twice), Edward G. Robinson, Lauren Bacall, Peter Lorre, Joseph Cotton, Sydney Greenstreet, Barbara Stanwyck, Mary Astor, Jane Wyatt, Charles Boyer, George Sanders, Loretta Young, Alan Ladd, and Veronica Lake.  No Dan Duryea (sigh) or Ida Lupino (double sigh), but you can’t have everything.  And behind the camera there's Alfred Hitchcock, Michael Curtiz, Howard Hawks, John Huston, Henry Hathaway, Julien Duvivier, Raymond Chandler (twice), Robert Altman, and William Faulkner.  You can see the full line-up of films here.  

In attendance was Eddie Muller, the Czar of Noir (I feel there should be a little trademark symbol after that), host of TCM’s Noir Alley, as well as founder and president of The Film Noir Foundation, an organization dedicated to preserving, discovering, and showcasing the movies of this quintessential American genre.  Have you made a donation to them?  I didn’t think so.  Go to their website and do so now.  I’m going to cover as many of these films as I can.  Sadly, I will not be able to see them all.  When I discuss a film I may give fascinating bits of information and trivia about it.  All of this info, it should noted, is not my own - I am generously filching it from Eddie Muller and the introductions he gives to each of these films.

The theme for this year’s festival is “Film Noir A to B - 1941 to 1951: Classy As and Trashy Bs!”  (Hmm…if you turned that “and” to “on” you would also have another interesting film noir theme.)  Just as on their original release the films are shown here as double features.  The first, the A film, usually features big stars and runs about an hour and a half.  The B film follows; it’s much shorter and has lesser names.  Eddie was emphatic that the ranking doesn’t refer to film quality, many of the B films are outstanding.  I agree.  In fact, I often prefer the B films.  They can be a lot riskier than the As and are often more memorable.  In addition, this year the films will be shown in chronological order, giving us a sense of the development of the genre over time.

The opening night of Noir City is typically quite festive.  People dress up in period clothing.  This year there was a band before the first show playing music from the 30s and 40s.  Also, there are now trivia contests held each night just before the B film.  Eddie selects someone from the audience and they have to "Name That Noir" based on the clues he gives.  I love it.  Back in the 40s movie theaters would show shorts in between the films, sometimes there would even be raffles.  You didn’t just go see the movie, you went out for “a night at the movies,” it was an evening of entertainment.  And here we are replicating that.  Perfect.

The Maltese Falcon (1941)
A classic.  Directed by John Huston and based on Dashiell Hammett’s novel of the same name, what can I say about this film that hasn’t already been said, excect that with every viewing I appreciate it more, I discover something new to admire in it.  To judge by the packed house on Friday night, I’m not alone.  After the screening someone near me commented to a friend “I always forget how tightly made this film is.”  That came through to me as well; there’s not a wasted scene in this movie.  This movie grows on you; with each viewing I get more and more goosebumps when Bogart says to Mary Astor “I’m sending you over, Angel.”  The final shot of her behind metal grates as the elevator door closes on her also gives me chills.

What stuck out for me on this viewing - and it may seem strange, but so what - is the expert use of hands in this movie.  The first time Humphrey Bogart kisses Mary Astor he grabs her face between his hands and when he breaks the kiss he holds onto her face and gently caresses her cheeks with his thumbs.  In hard-boiled-PI-land this is the equivalent of sending a woman love poems.  Why does Peter Lorre wear only one white glove - a la Michael Jackson?  (Or was Michael Jackson imitating Peter Lorre?  We'll never know.)  When the statuette is revealed at the end of the film, Lorre, now totally ungloved (why?), will briefly and hesitantly stroke the item - rather like the apes with the monolith in 2001.  When Sydney Greenstreet first meets Bogart they shake hands.  Then Greenstreet moves in and wraps his other hand around Bogart’s elbow so that Bogie’s entire right forearm is in Greenstreet’s grasp.  It’s a perfect expression of the latter character’s eccentricity and malevolence.  And in the final scene when Greenstreet realizes that the statuette is a fake his fury begins to overwhelm him until he puts his hand on the back of his neck to calm down.

This film holds a special place in my heart because it was the first classic film I ever saw on the big screen.  Back in the 1970s some film buff in Ridgewood, NJ, ran it for a week at a local movie theater, and a group of us Bogart-besotted 13-year-olds hauled off to see it.  I liked it, but I found it strange.  I'd never seen anything like it before.  The aesthetics of classic films were new to me.  The Maltese Falcon was lean and spare.  It didn’t try to make you feel good at the end.  It told its story and just finished. Now, of course, my aesthetics have entirely flipped.  The films of Hitchcock, Ford, Huston, et. al. are my models for good film-making and whenever I’m sitting through some contemporary movie (usually clocking in at two hours and twenty minutes) my inner mogul starts thinking “Too many irrelevant scenes! Cut, cut, cut!”

Quiet Please, Murder (1942)
A rarity.  George Sanders plays a murderous book forger trying to pull off the heist of a rare book in the Los Angeles Public Library.  The premise is odd but this film is actually quite good.  Along the way Sanders has to deal with a nosy private investigator, a femme fatale played by Gail Patrick, and his homicidally angry swindled customers.  Oh, and Nazis, too.  This is the first film in the festival to be shot after WWII began so it’s filled with wartime propaganda.  The bad guys are in some shadowy way connected to “that Hitler crowd.”  There are air raid blackouts.  Even the romantic plot was switched to serve wartime purposes.  Instead of “Boy meets girl” it becomes “Boy meets girl who already has a boyfriend in the army so the first boy backs off because he knows there’s a lotta guys out there fighting this war, mister, and they need to know their gals back home are waiting for them.”  Yeah, that old chestnut. 

But the main attraction here is, of course, the debonair and evil George Sanders.  In this film he plays, and there’s no other way to put it, a sexual masochist.  How some of this dialogue got past the censors is a mystery to me.  The S and M references are overt for 1942.  Equally amusing are his character's attempts to explain his kinky predilection using the psychoanalytic babble so popular in his day.  Nothing quite gets a laugh nowadays like some duffer earnestly invoking concepts like the super-ego, id, etc.  How quaint.

Why, oh why, hasn’t a biopic been made of the life of George Sanders?  His autobiography, Memoirs of a Professional Cad (now back in print!), is well-written, funny, and has rightly developed a cult following over the years.  It’s full of attitude and wit.  True, his view of women is antediluvian - he notes that you may need to slap them around from time to time - but when he starts giving detailed advice on how to hire and interact with a proper manservant, you start to wonder how much of this is real and how much is schtick.  His life was certainly eventful.  He had a tempestuous marriage to Zsa-Zsa Gabor (who emotionally slapped him around from time to time).  And in his final years he suffered from dementia, at one point dragging his grand piano onto his front lawn and attacking it with an axe.  Surely, that has cinematic possibilities. The big question, though, would be who to cast in the lead role.  What actor today could capture Sanders's suave malignity?  Colin Firth?  Christian Bale?  Daniel Day-Lewis?