Wednesday, 31 December 2014

An American in Paris (1951)

An American in Paris
In the past I have made no secret of my mixed feelings about the musical genre. When I started this project I was sure that the musicals would be hard to get through, but a streak of excellent musicals in the thirties made me change my mind. They were so good at putting me in a good mood and I still find myself humming the tunes. Later however that magic seems to have faded. Again and again I am reminded of why I initially do not care much for musicals. It is not that I hate them or despise the sentiment. They just bore me.

I find it difficult to give an honest review of a musical because I know that some (many) of the elements that are appreciated by the lovers of the genre just leaves me cold. Nevertheless “An American in Paris” is exactly such a movie.

“An American in Paris” is the second in a streak of Gene Kelly musicals (“On the Town” was the first) and in many ways they are comparable. To a large extent they are showpieces of Kelly’s dancing skills and made as colorful stage shows for the cinema. The stories are secondary to the show and are just vehicles to bring you from one act to the next. That means that we really should not care too much about drama and conflict. Even the hint of it is defused by the jovial attitude of everybody and the audience’s certain knowledge that this is a happy movie and nothing really bad will happen.

Therefore let us jump directly to the essential parts for a musical: the music, the show and the set.

My complaint about “On the Town” was that the music did not really click with me and that is a problem here as well. The only song that made an impact on me was “I got Rhythm”, the rest are quite forgettable. Instead the emphasis is made on the show. And there is a lot of show. Kelly dances and dances and dances. It is almost as if with the lack of Frank Sinatra and his glorious voice the producers thought they might as well compensate with more dancing. If I was a dancing buff I would probably be very excited about that. Unfortunately I am not. In fact my interest only stretches as far as to note that it looks as if the dancers are pretty good at what they are doing. Otherwise I am really not interested. Modern dancing, classic dancing, tap dancing… It is actually fun to dance, it makes you happy, but look at it…? I could not care less. And here comes the bombshell: This movie ends with an 18 minutes modern dancing sequence featuring Kelly and a ton of dancers. If I had been in the cinema I would have been tired before they started this feature and groaning long before they finished. Luckily I watched it here at home so I could check some emails…

The observant reader might now call me an inconsistent hypocrite. Was this not exactly what I liked about the Berkeley musical “Footlight Parade”? Long sequences of show in the end? Well, yes, but the music was better, they were actually singing excellent songs and the dancing was more of a mesmerizing spectacle than and actual dancing stunt.

A large part of the show is the set and here nothing was spared. While “On the Town” displayed an unusually friendly and clean, but undeniably real New York, “An American in Paris” shows us a Paris I think only exists in the mind of dreamy Americans who have never actually been there. It is an odd mix of modern (1950) Paris, 1920’ies bohemian ambience and Belle Époque style. Buildings, rooms, cityscapes all look like pictures and I would be surprised if there was even a single location shot in the movie.

The upside of this very escapist look is that everything can be controlled to give that friendly and happy feel the musical needs and it also makes it look more like a stage and therefore a reasonable excuse for the singing and, particularly, dancing.

Curiously, this “Paris” is stuffed with Americans. Expats and tourists alike living the imagined French dream of carefree bohemian life. I think it is because this is not really a movie which is that interested in France or the French, but merely want to catch the imagined romantic vibe as evidenced by a large number of Hollywood productions featuring Americans in Paris.

I am sorry if I am mocking it a bit. I know that it is all very innocent and probably even necessary for the atmosphere of the movie, but it is just so overdone here that it is a laugh. I read not long ago about psychological therapy offered to Japanese tourists who found Paris not at all what they had imagined. Maybe they had been watching this movie…

There is however no doubt about the production value here. Everything about the movie shouts of all the money spent on making it (the dancing sequence in the end alone allegedly cost half a million dollars!) and it showcases all of what an American musical could do in 1951. It won no less than six Academy Awards including Best Picture and it made a ton of movies at the box office. Clearly this movie struck a chord, and this is also why I find myself excusing for this lackluster review. Somebody liked it a lot more than I did.

I have a feeling it has something to do with Gene Kelly. There is something about him that is putting me off. Fred Astaire never had that effect on me, but Kelly just seem way too… confident I suppose.

In any case, not my favorite musical, but likely one that a dancing aficionado will find great.

Sunday, 28 December 2014

Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (1951)

Pandora og Den Flyvende Hollænder
Merry Christmas to all of you.

In between eating solid Christmas fare and playing with my son and all his new toys I have found time to watch “Pandora and the Flying Dutchman”. This movie was replaced in the Danish edition of the List by the Swedish movie “Hon Dansade en Sommar” and so apparently the editors ranked this movies the least important of the original 1951 picks. I cannot say that I entirely disagree.

Let me start with what is good about this movie: It features Ava Gardner and James Mason.

There is no way around it, Ava Gardner has to be one of the prettiest and most alluring actresses of the era and in this movie everything was done to emphasize all her becoming attributes. That is an understatement really. She is ultra hot. The colors emphasize her luscious lips and makes her flawless face… well flawless. Having her enter the yacht (of the Flying Dutchman) wrapped only in sail canvas is a promise of sex as the ever was one and her manners and acting all the way through the movie backs up this impression. Her role is to drive men crazy and while I often have a problem with female leads supposed to have, but ultimately lacking, this ability, this is one case where it works. The only problem here is that sometimes you can really see how much the director/ cinematographer/ costume department worked to emphasize this point. She always seems to wear dresses that serves her delectable bosom to the men around her and no matter what she does she appears to have just left the cosmetics shop prior to shooting. Yet, I forgive them when the result is so gorgeous.

The selling feature of James Mason is his voice. It is one of those British voices I can listen to for hours and in this movie he gets amply opportunity to exercise it. Frankly, he could read the phone directory and I would be mesmerized. Couple that with his brooding gaze and you have a very compelling man with a very dark secret.

Sounds great, does it not?

Unfortunately this is where greatness ends for this movie. I disliked practically everything else about it.

Part of it of course is the poor state of the print itself. I found it as a Spanish import in bad need of restoration. This is how movies look and sound before the magic restoration process. Grainy picture, faded colors, rusty sound and almost random cutting clearly indicating that somebody has already cut away the worst parts, but not cared overly much exactly where they placed the cut. It is a shame really when you have a master like Jack Cardiff on board that the colors come out so poorly.

But technical state besides those are not the real problems this movie has to struggle with.

The premise of the story is ludicrous to begin with. That a 300 year old ghost of a sea captain shows up on the beachfront as a dashing hunk, his salt spattered merchantman turned into a luxury yacht, on a quest to find his lost love. Match this with the larger than life man-eating femme fatale who in-between munching up men gets ensnared with the captain. Their love, doomed, fatal, but oh, so romantic is given from the start. Frankly this stuff belong on the pink pages of women’s magazines as cheap novellas and not in a big movie production. It is just revulsive.

Add to this that practically all dialogue is framed as declarations or recitations of poetry and we are far beyond fairy tales and long into pretentious bull shit. It is a failed attempt at being high-brow and instead aims at the lowest instincts. Sort of the plebeian impression of what high art must look like. Sticky, nauseating and, yes, stupid.

The central statement is that love can be measured by what you will give up for it. So, Steven (Nigel Patrick) offers his beloved racing car for Pandora (Ava Gardner), Demerest (Marius Goring) kills himself and Montalvo (Mario Cabre) commits murder for Pandora. Pandora herself must give up her life to be with the Captain while the Captain must give up… no wait, he is not giving up anything. He needs Pandora in order to break the curse on him. If anything he much snatch the blossom, but in the shape of Ava Gardner I think that is a price that most men could live with.

My claim here is that this central statement is another round of romantic bull shit. Hey, everybody wants to be loved and it is kind of flattering that somebody prefers you to something otherwise dear to them, but really, if you loved somebody and not just yourself, would you really want to force that choice? To make them select, to make them loose something precious? Is that not the ultimate cruelty? If you love somebody, you love the package and you love that your sweetheart cares for other things as well, otherwise you are just a succubus, eating you partner dry.

I may be overreacting a bit here. Romanticism loves this premise and audiences at all times have cried themselves senseless over this very issue, but to me it is most infuriating and when a movie is as devoted to this idea as this one is it just makes me mad.  

The funny thing is that I actually like that the movie dares to play with the fantastic. Today every second movie has a fantastic element, but in the early fifties this was a rarity. Of course Hollywood in particular excelled in putting up unrealistic scenarios, but they were generally confined to the real world. Fantastic elements have the ability, like science fiction, to extrapolate ideas so we can consider them in a different and unusual light and in addition, provides some much needed escapism. In that light it just saddens me when the topic under consideration is as silly as this one. It belongs in women’s weeklies in the hairdresser parlour.

Ultimately I ended up disconnecting from the story and resigned myself to watch and listen to Gardner and Mason. They almost make it worth watching this movie and I wonder what it would be like watching these two in a better movie.

Saturday, 20 December 2014

Diary of a Country Priest (Journal d'un Cure de Campagne) (1951)

En Landsbypræsts Dagbog
I will have to make my excuses right away. I feel hopelessly inadequate to review or even comment on “Journal d’un curé de campagne” (Diary of a Country Priest). I did not understand the movie and I am ill-equipped to understand the themes of it. I tried reading the synopsis in the Book, but it just gives me some gibberish about movie art and Christian themes. Wikipedia did not help me much either, so I am really at a loss.

I can try to line up what I did get from the movie, if for no other reason than to point out why this movie baffles me.

We follow a young priest (Claude Laydu) whose name we actually never learn, or maybe we do, but I did not catch it. He is arriving at the start of the film to a small village in the middle of nowhere. The priest is feeling terribly sorry for himself. He is narrating as he scribbles in his diary and this is mostly about how sick he is, how terrible he feels, how he doubt and to a small, but increasing extent about the other people in the village. It is really an obsession with him and he believes that the only thing he can eat is dry bread soaked in wine and only little of it. Frankly if this was all I ate I would feel pretty weak as well.

20 minutes in, this is really all that happens. By 40 minutes he is chatting with some of the villagers, another priest who think he should pull himself together and the local count who may be helping him with some social events. Or maybe not. There is a story or sub-story about the count, his wife, daughter and the daughter’s governess. I am not sure what is going on though. Something about that the daughter is pissed at all of them and want to be free, that the count is having some affairs. And that the wife is obsessing about her dead son to the exclusion of everything else. I did understand that the priest is somehow unlocking the wife’s grief and she then dies a peaceful death.

The villagers start talking about how weird he is and that he is a drunkard, he really has not given them reason for any other impression and fainting in the oddest places does not help. He goes to town to see a doctor and finds out that it is not that noble, intellectual disease tuberculosis that he is suffering from but a much more profane stomach cancer, which I guess is caused by his stupid diet. The priest goes to an old colleague who is priest no more and lives with a girl without being married. Here he dies.


I am sure there is a purpose to the movie and some religious themes, maybe even humanistic themes, but they all escaped me. There is something about the format of the movie that repulses my attention so I was probably not giving it the necessary attention as much as I tried. It is tiring and frankly more than a bit annoying to hear this priest complain about all his suffering. I desperately want to stuff some proper food down his throat and make him lift his gaze from himself. The dialogue is highbrow in a way that makes it sound like reading from a book, even in the English translation. Proper attention would require to pause the movie at every sentence to contemplate the meaning of what is said and as I did not do that I likely missed critical elements of the movie.

Another problem between me and this movie is the religious angle. I am not a religious person and many of the concepts natural for the religious just play no part in my life and I have no relation to it. I feel that there are many references in this movie, allegories, metaphors that simply goes over my head. Is this some sort of Christ story? Is this about saints? Is it about forgiveness and faith? I just do not know. Maybe, is my best answer.

Finally I am just not that interesting. From the beginning I never felt compelled to dig into this story. There was nothing for me to latch onto and I did not feel that curiosity that makes me think about the movie. Two minutes before it ended I was desperately hoping for that epiphany that would open the movie to me, but it never happened. He just died.

I cannot rate this movie. Or rather, I should not rate this movie. That I will leave to those better suited for understanding it. As for entertainment value… It can only really go forward from here.

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

The African Queen (1951)

Afrikas Dronning
This was a movie I have been looking forward to see for some time. It is another famous movie that has somehow been able go under my radar until I started this project, but early on I figured this would be an interesting one to watch.

First, this is an adventure movie with strong elements of romantic comedy, a bit in the vein of Indiana Jones, and that certainly appeals to the boy in me. An adventurous ride in a small boat through the interior of Africa.  Secondly this is a movie with two of my favorite actors, Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart, and directed by John Huston, who I am getting more and more respect for. Finally, as if this was not enough, “The African Queen” was photographed by the king of Technicolor, Jack Cardiff, who blew me away with “Black Narcissus”. Really, what is there not to like about this film?

On most levels this movie actually did live up to the staggering expectations I had. Let me start with all the positives.

It is a beautiful movie. The colors are knife sharp, as only Technicolor could do it, but not the glaring exaggeration of early color films. No, here the colors were just right and amazingly this is done for something like half of the film on location in Africa under primitive conditions. There is wildlife and scenery, drama at the rapids and the tepid gloom in the reeds and the cinematography catches it all. There is also very little embellishment of Bogie and Katie’s appearance. They look their age and get grittier and grittier the further downstream they get. It screams Jack Cardiff all over and imagine that he claimed this was just ordinary photography with none of the blows and whistles of his other movies… If there was nothing else to the movie I could look at the pictures for hours on end.

But there is more to the movie than that. A lot more. There is an adventure, two people stranded in German East Africa (now Tanzania) at the outbreak of WWI who has to get through enemy lines to get to safety in Kenya and in the process battle the river, the weather, the wildlife, some Germans and not least themselves.

However, as Huston seemed to love doing, the adventure was just a pretext to place his characters in difficult situations and then watch them develop. I have mentioned before that he did great things with actors and this is exactly what happens here. Most of the movie is really just Katie and Bogie as the prim spinster Rose Sayer and the grimy boat captain Charlie Allnut acting out a relationship. They start out as stark opposites who are only together out of necessity, but develop into something else and because this movie is also a romantic comedy there is really no do doubt what that something else is, but it is interesting to see none the less. And that is largely thanks to John Huston.

Maybe for a modern audience the adventure part is a little too toned down, but that is actually what I like about these old movies that they take the time to let characters develop instead of rushing them from one danger to the next and frankly I cannot get enough of either of them (with a little “but”, but more on that later…).

Lately I have watched a lot of Katharine Hepburn. She had a theme going with Spencer Tracy where she would always play this headstrong modern woman against Tracy’s old school charm. In these movies we would always find that inside the iron lady there was a soft woman’s heart. In “The African Queen” we see another Hepburn, the middle-aged prim spinster who is coming out of her shell. Under the fragile Victorian exterior she has some real backbone and a fighter’s will if not common sense. In a sense the opposite development of the typical Hepburn character.

Bogart is almost always a tough guy. Gangster tough, detective tough, badass tough or just mad. In “The African queen” he is soft as a lamb, comfortable in his little boat with his steam engine and plenty of gin. He is the nay-sayer to all of Rosie’s wacky ideas and he is almost sheepish when he approach her. Almost, because this would not be Bogart if he did not rise to the challenge and got things done. It is a bit odd to see him like this, but also a demonstration of his true range. Bogie got himself an Oscar for this role (in front of Marlon Brando) and although he is good I think this is far from his strongest performance. That would have been in “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” where he was robbed while “In a Lonely Place” Casablanca” and “High Sierra” could and maybe should have landed him an award as well. I cannot help thinking that he got it for “The African Queen” A) because it is a more sympathetic character in a beautiful film and B) as compensation for all the times he was robbed. Still I have nothing bad to say about his performance in the African Queen, he did his part very well. I just like his wild side better.

On the negative, because yes, not everything works here, there are a number of silly elements. Beside the absolutely ludicrous idea of sinking a German gunboat with a home-made torpedo there are all these silly small things. Charlie gets bitten by leeches on his chest and ankles, but only as far as Rosie can reach. There are no leeches under the trousers… The two of them spend a lot of time in the water although the actual water where they filmed was practically poisonous and they are just silly lucky at all the right places. In this type of film it is actually okay. Nobody claims this is realism, but at times it is almost tilting over. Secondly, and that is more serious, is the romance between Rosie and Charlie. I loved them when they fought. That was funny and exciting and there was so much energy in those scenes. Then they fall in love and after 10 minutes I get sick from hearing them calling each other Rosie dear and Charlie dear. I understand that they have to be clumsy and unaccustomed to their roles as lovers, but that part just does not work for me.

Yet, I cannot help thinking that it is a bit unworthy of me to crack down on such perceived faults in an otherwise excellent movie, but that is how it is when expectations are high. Also when a movie looks so fresh and modern as this one does I tend to forget that this is an old film and judge it instead by a modern standard. Honestly, this movie looks at least 10, maybe 20 years ahead of its time.

“The African Queen” is a good time in the cinema or a great afternoon in the sofa. Next time I will bring in the family to watch it. I think they will like it too.

Thursday, 11 December 2014

One Summer of Happiness (Hon Dansade en Sommar) (1951)

Hun Dansede en Sommernat
Here is another special entry from the Danish edition of the book. Curiously it is not even a Danish movie, but a Swedish one. Either the editors figured that there were not enough good Danish movies to pick from or, more likely, that from a Danish perspective Scandinavian movies were under-represented on the List. So, apparently they figured this one is a film you should not miss. I have some trouble understanding why.

“Hon Dansade en Sommar” (English title: One Summer of Happiness) is a heavy, heavy Swedish story of forbidden love in the Swedish Bible belt. It is one of those movies where an hour and forty-five minutes feels like an eternity and where the weight of the movie leaves you crushed and tired. Needless to say I was unimpressed with this one.

Its claim to fame is nudity in a bath scene, something that caused the movie to be banned in a number of countries and delayed its release in others and as a bonus started the (somewhat undeserved) Swedish reputation of being a sexually liberal country.  In an otherwise dull film I was starting to wonder if this really could prove so interesting that it would save the film, but when the famous scene finally arrived I had to laugh. It is just about as innocent as it is possible to get: Two nude bodies in stark silhouette playing in the water and then a glimpse of Ulla Jacobsson’s breast as they lay on the ground. People must have been such prudes back in 1951 to have thought this daring or offensive. Oh dear oh dear.

With that out of the way let us focus on the story. Göran Stendal (Folke Sundquist) is a young man who has just graduated from high school and is spending the summer on the countryside until he has to start on university. He is a city boy and staying at his uncle’s farm in the middle of nowhere is not his idea of a good time. That is, until he meets Kerstin (Ulla Jacobsson). She is 17 years old and admittedly a very pretty girl. Suddenly Göran is interested in everything that will bring him close to Kerstin. Göran is a bit of a ladies friend and being from the city makes him doubly interesting for the farm girls, but Kerstin is different and therein lies the problem.

This outback location is also the Swedish Bible belt and the local minister (John Elfström) holds the congregation in an iron grip based on a particularly strict, conservative and frankly viscous interpretation of the scriptures. Kerstin’s family is very religious and close to this ayatollah and so Kerstin is afraid for good reason to involve herself in anything that might be considered frivolous behavior, such as dancing, theater or, worst of all, hanging out with boys.

Göran’s uncle, Anders Persson (Edvin Adoplhson) is a lot more open-minded and runs his own low key rebellion against religious dogmatism and Göran himself could not care less. He just want Kerstin and does not really care that he is getting her in trouble.


Of course this will eventually come to a head. First Kerstin is sent away and Göran is sent back to town to start university and then, when that cannot keep them apart, Göran and Kerstin drive away together on his motorbike only to be torpedoed by the minister’s car (the minister is for all his raging on the corruption of modernity quite a reckless driver) causing injury and death.

Kerstin was a flower that bloomed and danced for a single summer before her life was snuffed out.

At the funeral the minister has gall to call her death a lesson and punishment for frivolity, although he himself caused the accident, while Anders Persson, Göran’s uncle gives a speech about how nobody can judge another person and that love is the greatest gift.

-------End of spoiler----

This all sound awfully familiar. I cannot work out if this movie just follows the template or if it is the original movie, but I would probably put my money on the first option. Youth rebellion in a conservative environment. The bittersweet blossoming of a one-year flower. Trouble is this is not even close to the best rendition of the theme. Even among the special Danish entries to the list I think this is the third movie to use these themes and not the best one.

I have no problem with the acting itself. It feels quite natural and realistic and there is a very rural feel to all these characters. They are also not without charm, many of them are even quite likable. Unfortunately I never come to terms with Göran, he is just too much of a spoiled and selfish ass, a little too smart. In more modern movies you know that the prettier the actors and actresses are where it is not really necessary the cheaper the production is and that also counts for older movies. While all the other characters are well casted Göran is not and that detracts from the movie experience.

It is also unfortunate that the quality of my copy is not particularly good. Grainy and often unfocused and with mediocre sound quality it look older that it really is.

“Hon Dansade end Sommar” won a number of prices and was something of an international hit at the box office, but it has not aged well and I cannot say that it stands out among the movies on the List, except maybe in boredom. It can be seen as a post-war youth rebellion movie or a critique of dogmatic religion, but the message I take from this movie is this: Beware of speeding priests!

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

The Lavender Hill Mob (1951)

Masser af Guld
There is an entire subcategory of films devoted to heist comedies. It makes for a very entertaining movie experience to watch a group of people trying to get away with “the big coup” and even more entertaining if comedic elements are thrown in. I suppose it is the cat and mouse chase and the execution of a wild and daring plan that makes it interesting and the charm and/or silliness of the perpetrators that makes them likeable and harmless enough that we may root for them. In any case the formula works and I have lost count on how many of them I have seen. Even here in Denmark we had a very successful series of movies in the seventies about “Olsen Banden” using this exact template.  Highly recommended, by the way.

“The Lavender Hill Mob” is exactly such a movie and it got the formula pat down. What makes it noteworthy is that this is another Ealing film and therefore full of the witty charm that was the trademark of that studio. In my opinion it does not come close to “Whiskey Galore!” but that was also exceptionally good. It is however on par with the other Ealing films I have seen and contains some hearty laughs especially in the second half of the film.

At the center of the film we find Alec Guinness as Henry Holland, a dry and dull bank clerk who thanks to his diligence, attention to detail and general lack of imagination is in charge of gold transports for a London bank. I have now seen Alec Guinness in a number of Ealing films and it is really amazing the range that man had. In “The Man in the White Suit” he was a young and energetic chemist, In “Kind Hearts and Coronets” he was, well, eight different roles including a woman! And here in the Lavender Hill Mob he does the middle aged boring and nerdy clerk to perfection. Yes, and I do hear Obi-Wan Kenobi when I close my eyes and listen to his voice.

The movie opens in Rio de Janeiro where Holland is busy giving money away while he is recounting how he became rich to a fellow Englishman. The main part of the movie is that story.

Back in England Henry Holland was a boring bank clerk. While Holland to all appearances is the perfect pedant to run the gold transports he was in secret planning to rob such a transport. He just needed the right way to get the gold out of the country. That solution came when the flamboyant and distraught (great combination) artist Alfred Pendlebury (Stanley Holloway) moved into the boarding house where Holland lived. Pendlebury makes tourist souvenirs of the Eiffel Tower in lead covered with thin gold. The right weight, appearance and destination to get a lot of gold out of the country. Holland gets Pendlebury on board and now they just need a crew. How do you find qualified labor for such a job? Holland and Pendlebury come up with an ingenious plan so typical for the movie. The go around in town to crowded places while having a very load conversion on how much value they have lying around in their workshop practically unprotected. Then they hide out in the workshop waiting to see who shows up. As it happens two burglars show up, one they surprise when he enters and the other surprise them as he was there already when they came. They also seem very familiar with each other and are clearly professional types, especially when they learn that this essentially a job interview.

The heist itself is funny. There is the usual inventive complications that threatens to throw the project off track, but they pull it off and Holland is now a public hero helping the police (unsuccessfully) track down the gold thieves. It is however the aftermath that wins the price. Henry and Pendlebury head to Paris to receive their gold only to find that it is being sold as souvenirs at the Eiffel Tower itself. While they would do fine without a few of them the pedantic Holland insists that there must be no trace leading back to them so they throw themselves into a head over heels chase of the English schoolgirls who bought the golden souvenirs. This chase just gets more and more insane. Boarding the boat in Calais, hunting the reluctant girl into a police exhibition and leaving it with a tail of enraged and very confused policemen are just tight-slapping-laugh-out-loud funny. By stealing a police car and sending in false report they manage to throw the entire chase into disarray and that pile of police cars in the end is just classic. You may think that “The Blues Brothers” invented the police car pile, but it happened long before that. This is comedy of Keaton or Chaplin proportions.

So did they get away with it in the end? The interview in the beginning seems to indicate it, but as we cut back to Rio there is a little surprise in store for us. That is also perfectly in line with the formula but it is actually the only way it could go given this is a 1951 movie.

A young Audrey Hepburn has a small part in the movie, but it is so tiny that I actually missed it and only noticed when I read the titles in the end.

As always those Ealing blokes manage to pull off a charming and funny comedy that will not revolutionize anything, but is endearing and achieves its purpose: to make us laugh.

Sunday, 30 November 2014

Strangers on a Train (1951)

Farligt Møde
I know Hitchcock is a bit of a one-trick pony and that if you try long enough eventually you will get it right, but there is just no way around it, ”Strangers on a Train” is the most effective suspense thriller on the List so far. No exaggerations are needed in describing this movie, it is literally a film that finds me at the edge of my seat, a film that forces me to look away when the suspense is peaking, a film that is daring me to continue. This is a film from a Hitchcock in top shape.

Farley Granger, the accomplish with second thoughts in “Rope”, is back as a professional tennis player, Guy Haines, who again is faced with a lunatic dreaming of perfect murders. This time it is not a facistoid student with ideas of superior beings but a true and very entertaining nutcase, Bruno Anthony in the shape of Robert Walker. Guy is riding on a train when he is approached by Bruno. Bruno seems to know all about his private life and the particular predicament he is in. Guy is having a not so secret relationship with Anne Morton (Ruth Roman), a senator’s daughter while being unhappily married to the promiscuous Miriam Haines (Laura Elliott). Bruno is presenting him with a fantastic plan where he kill Miriam in return for which Guy will kill Bruno’s father. Guy is laughing it off as a (tasteless) joke and thinks no further of it until Miriam is found dead and Bruno seeks him out to fulfill his part of the deal.

Bruno Walker is a great character. Imagine Bill Murray transplanted back to 1951 being his usual underplayed crazy self. Something like “What about Bob?”. Robert Walker is so similar to Bill Murray that I would not be surprised if somebody told me they were somehow related. And Bill Murray is my favorite actor ever. End. Bruno Anthony is clearly a mental case, but with rich parents he is also privileged and does more or less what he feels like. He is charming and fun and very clever but also a total psychopath. In a scene we see his loving mother deriding him for his funny ideas like blowing up the White House, so we know he has a history of mad stuff before this round. When Guy does not follow through with his end of Bruno’s brilliant plan he first decides to remind him a bit and when that is not enough he starts pestering him and keeps showing up at the most inconvenient moments.

From Guy Haines end this is a nightmare. Yes, he hated his wife, but he would never have killed her. Or would he? That is what people around him are starting to think. And the fact that he did have that conversation with Bruno. Does that not make him an accomplish? That is what Bruno is trying to impress on him and he half think it himself. With one hand he is a public figure about to be married into an even more public family and with public aspirations in politics. On the other hand he is being stalked by this mad person who is trying to drag him into some crazy murder scheme. Suddenly he is very much alone.

Hitchcock has created a very clever movie where he balances the very morbid suspense theme with a very dark comedic theme. He has certainly done this before, numerous times, so often in fact that you could blame him for making the same movie over and over and with some right. In the case of “Strangers on a Train” he just manages to get that balance exactly right so that we feel the nightmare of Guy Haines and still can be amused of that lunatic Bruno Anthony. This could so easily have gone over the top and become an outright comedy. Not just because of Robert Walker’s character, but also because of the crazy stunts this forces the Anne Morton and her sister Barbara (Patricia Hitchcock, Alfred’s daughter) into. In a less expert hand it probably would, but Hitchcock manages to maintain the balance, even in the final and almost ridiculous showdown on the carousel. That is no simple feat.

At first I was a bit disappointed that Hitchcock had gone back to black and white considering how well he made the colors work in “Rope”, but in fact “Strangers on a Train” has so many noir elements going that this movie just had to be made with lots of dark shadows. Guy Haines has to feel that Bruno is some sort of dark alter ego, a crazy child within himself that is haunting him. That just would not work half as well in color.

My DVD comes with a British release version that should make Bruno even more of a lunatic and one of these days I will try that version. Certainly this is a movie that can handle a re-watch.


Thursday, 27 November 2014

A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)

Omstigning til Paradis
One of the problems early cinema faced was to translate acting on a stage to acting on a screen without sound. In the beginning movies were simply filmed theater and the only concession to the film media were excessive nonverbal acting and intertitles en masse. It took a while, but eventually filmmakers learned to make use of the special possibilities the media gave and created a unique art form. Fifty years later we are right back at the beginning. “A Streetcar Named Desire” is simply filmed theater with the difference from fifty years earlier that no concessions are necessary.

Elia Kazan, a true actor’s director, staged “A Streetcar Named Desire” on Broadway and when he translated it to the silver screen he hardly changed anything. Even the actors were mainly the same. There are a lot of good things that can be said about a faithful adaption, especially if the story is strong enough as it is. In this case two things are bothering me. By simply translating the movie the possibilities of cinema are practically ignored, like in those early movies. That means that everything hinges on the acting and dialogue of the characters. To last two hours that better be good, or this is going to be a long and boring film. Both are excellent, I just wonder if the story is strong enough.

The second problem is the manner of acting. On the stage all acting and dialogue are loud, clear and very pronounced. Exaggerated, so the audience has a chance of following the play. I understand the necessity, but I always found it a trifle annoying because it made the characters almost caricatures. What Kazan did here was that he let the actors act out the play as if they were of a stage, which to a large extent makes them, well, very theatrical and frankly annoying. For these two reason I probably liked this movie less than it deserves.

This is the story of three characters, Blanche, Stan and Stella. Stan (Marlon Brando) and Stella (Kim Hunter) are married and live in a small, cramped and way too hot apartment in New Orleans when Stella’s sister Blanche (Vivien Leigh) moves in.

Blanche and Stella are of some old school southern pedigree and where Stella has put that behind her for a normal and realistic life, Blanche still cling to it. All that pedigree, style, manner and fancy is a shield she uses to protect herself against the outside world. She measures her own worth on that scale and desperately needs confirmation that she is a young, beautiful and sophisticated southern belle. The more she crack up on the inside the more her shell becomes her reality and, frankly, she is totally cuckoo. It is curious to see Vivien Leigh in this role 12 year after she played the most famous of all Southern belles in Gone with the Wind. Here are all the manners, arrogance and speech but nothing of the steel and backbone of Scarlett. Blanche is entirely hollow.

Stanley is the absolute opposite. He is a Man (capital intended) in the most basic and archetypical form. His appearance exudes masculinity as he walks around in a sweaty t-shirt. He is no-nonsense and takes no shit from anyone and anybody who challenge him are met with fury. Stanley is the king in his own house. He holds poker nights, drinks, smokes and shouts exactly as he pleases and anything happening to him and his wife is his business. There is absolutely no restraint on him, no form or code that he follows or respects. Instead he is honesty in its most raw and animalistic form. This is only Marlon Brando’s second movie, but a massive breakthrough for him. The first thing I thought when he first appeared was that this was Brad Pitt somehow sent back to 1951 and I can certainly see how and why he became a massive sex symbol.

The plot is essentially the clash between these two characters. They are at every turn able to bring out the worst in each other. The more airs Blanche put on the more provoked and aggressive Stanley gets, which in turn makes Blanche retreat even further into her fantasy world of being a refined lady. Both of them are absolutely insane and cut off from any sort of normality, but they are also both right about the other. Stanley is calling Blanche’s bluff every time, he understands more than anybody that there is absolutely nothing underneath the shell and he is right, in principle at least, about protecting his friend Mitch and Stella against this fake woman, but his behavior is so atrocious and brutal that he does a lot more harm than good and only manages to burn his bridges.

Blanche on the other hand is entirely right when she exposes Stan as a beast of a man with no control, hardly better than an animal, and a man who is unsafe for Stella to be around. But Blanche is just so lunatic that coming from her the accusations sound weak.

Caught in the middle of these to opposite poles is Stella. She is supposed to be the pillar of sense in this game, but her oddity is that she is hanging on to these two loonies despite their obvious insanity. The why of that may be difficult to grasp until you catch the underlying current of emotion in the film. The steamy heat of New Orleans and the sensual music play on basic emotions and it is clear that raw sexual desire is what is keeping Stella and Stanley together. It is also clear that desire plays an important part in Blanche mental state. She desires to be wanted so bad that it is literally driving her crazy. What keeps her and Stella together is almost an opposite compassionate sisterly love, but that emotion has very hard conditions in this raw environment.

In the end however it is her baby that saves Stella from this madhouse. Here is a clean and true emotion and in that there is no room for Stan and Blanche.

This is an actor’s movie. Overacting maybe, certainly to my taste – there is a long way from northern Jutland to The French Quarter in New Orleans, but nevertheless strong performances. Vivien Leigh, Kim Hunter and, surprise, Karl Malden as Mitch, all received an academy award for this movie, though the one that really deserved it, if only for his sheer presence and shout of “STELLA!!!!”, Marlon Brando did not.

I understand the movie and I understand why it is famous, but it did not appeal very much to me. I disliked every one of the characters and was just waiting to the whole thing to blow up. Dysfunctional relationships is not my favorite topic and I generally try to avoid that sort of films. I do respect this one though and I certainly foresee a lot of interesting movies with Marlon Brando.  

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Ace in the Hole (The Big Carnival) (1950)

Ace in the Hole
Watching movies long after they are made allows us to look at them in ways contemporary viewers could not. A point in particular is that we can recognize a movie for being ahead of its time. This is certainly the case with “Ace in the Hole”.

This is a story about news people who go far outside what is morally and ethically right to boost a news item for maximum return. The item becomes worth much more than the people at the heart of it while the media have their own corrupt agenda that has nothing or little to do with the actual crisis. It is a very modern story and one that is very relevant today where media often are willing to go far out of their way to score points on a story.

The surprise here is that “Ace in the Hole” was made at the height of the McCarthy inquisition where anything that could be read as a criticism of American values would get a harsh reception, both in the legal system and in the public. Billy Wilder as both screenwriter, director and producer delivers a merciless criticism of journalism as sensationalist entertainment and thereby put a big, fat question mark on the integrity of a national institution. How did he dare? And how did he get away with it?

Well, the answer to the first question is simple: He was Billy Wilder, and he was scared of nobody. To the second question the answer is that Wilder had secured so much control on the movie that he could practically get away with anything. However the movie did not do well at the box office. Not in America, though it did do quite well in Europe, and the reason is probably that the public at this time was not ready for this kind of sarcasm.

It is a shame really because this is the kind of movie that, exaggerations aside, points out a real issue that the public has to deal with or at least be aware of, namely that of unethical journalism.

Anyway, I am way ahead of myself. “Ace in the Hole” is the story of newspaper journalist Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas) who, having been fired from quite a few newspapers, finds himself begging for a job at a local newspaper in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Tatum is a self-centered asshole who clearly thinks that he is too big a star for this place, but to my surprise he actually lands the job. Fast forward one year and Tatum is getting out of his mind with boredom. He is desperately waiting for that break that will give him fame and bring him back to the big city.

When a local fellow gets stuck in an old Indian cave Tatum sees his chance. This is the break he has been waiting for if he can just make the story big enough. Tatum is like the energizer bunny as he orchestrates the biggest story in years and soon he has the attention of media and public from all over the country who follow him and the story of poor Leo stuck in the mine.

It is very clearly wrong what Tatum is doing. They could have gotten Leo out in less than a day by shoring up the walls with timber, but instead they insist on a ridiculous drilling project from the top of the hill because this story need to last for a week. A single day simply will not do. Tatum get the law on his side by convincing the corrupt sheriff that this spectacle is just what he needs to get reelected and thus he cajole, tease or threatens everybody to work with him on this show. And a show it is. Soon the fields in front of the cave is a fairground with rides, music and food and none of it of course will help Leo a bit, but make Tatum fly plenty.

In all this hubbub we can almost forget that Tatum is an asshole. The energy he exudes is contagious and we almost admire him as does the young photographer Herbie (Robert Arthur) who becomes something of a fan. Tatum is driven and ruthless, but he is also capable and making it happen and is thus both hero and villain in one person.

Leo’s wife Lorraine (Jan Sterling) is just as rotten. She has stayed for five years in the middle of nowhere and just want to get out. She quickly finds out that the spectacle will give her lots of dough and thereby the means to get away in style. She cares nothing for Leo, but takes a liking to Tatum. Tatum will have none of that. To him she is a pawn who has to play her piece in the spectacle and that is all. It is easy to despise Lorraine, but she is also a person he is stuck in a place and marriage she does not want and so grabs the opportunity to fix that situation. That is not entirely unsympathetic.

And so everybody are lined up to milk this event to the max.

But then, at the crest of the wave, disaster strikes. Inside the cave the man whom we have almost forgotten is about to die and will not last till the drill reach him. It is also too late to go in the easy way. The entire spectacle comes crashing down around Tatum and he realizes that he with this project of personal fame has killed the very man he exploited. To make matters worse Leo never realizes that Tatum has fooled him, but to the end believes him his friend. The self-destruction of Chuck Tatum is spectacular.

Kirk Douglas is given a lot of great lines and he is the spokesman of the cynicism Wilder seems to have about media. For example he emphasizes the human interest angle and points out that people cannot relate to hundreds or thousands of dead, but one person in danger, that grabs the imagination of people. It is sad but true, even today. I think Wilder may be thinking with some bitterness about the holocaust where he lost family members, and object to how the media in that light can go overboard when it is just a single person who is in trouble. In line with Tatum’s role as both protagonist and antagonist he voices arguments both for and against what he as representative of the media is doing. At times emphasizes the greatness of the show while at others cynically mock it.

Finally, and perhaps most surprisingly, the film actually follow many of the Film Noir tropes. Tatum is the anti-hero who through personal failings rides towards his doom, helped on the way by a vicious femme fatale. The hard, cynical tone is also in line with film noir and so is the gritted dialogue.

Billy Wilder’s charge against media abuse is witty, intelligent and biting in its sarcasm, but it is also a damn good movie and one that has not gotten old. Wilder, you old fox, you have done it again.   


Thursday, 13 November 2014

In a Lonely Place (1950)

Manden Uden Hæmninger
It is an interesting day today. I am writing this review on “In a Lonely Place” with half an eye on live streaming from the landing on a comet. Two things that have absolutely nothing to do with each other but the name. Philae and Rosetta are truly in a lonely place as well. If the landing succeeds I will likely mention it further down in my review. Meanwhile I will try to focus on the movie.

“In a Lonely Place” is a bit like an anecdote in Hollywood history. Squeezed in between some of Bogart’s great performances like “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” and “The African Queen” “In a Lonely Place” is a much smaller movie and maybe overlooked for that reason. It is subdued and smaller in scale and that may in fact be its strength, because everything feels tight and claustrophobic to the extent that we as a viewer feel trapped as much as the characters. It may be a lonely place but it is also a very uncomfortable place and Nicholas Ray, the director manage to create a confined space from which there is no escape.

This is a portrait of a man with some serious mental problems. Humphrey Bogart’s Dixon Steele suffers from what I would guess would be bipolar disorder or manic-depressive illness. He moves from manic obsession with his work to depressive stupor, from being the nicest guy around to a violent maniac and when he is having his fits, whether one way or the other he lives in his own pseudo reality where the world is at his feet / conspire against him. I have seen people being manic and even when it is in positive direction it is pretty scary. In this case it is scarier still because in many ways Dixon Steele is the same Bogart character he is in so many other of his movies. Same ticks, same look, same lines except here he spins entirely out of control. The amazing thing is how well Bogart does it. You would almost believe it is really him, which for the sake of Lauren Bacall, I hope it is not.

Gloria Grahame is the woman, Laurel Gray, who tries to live with him. He is easy enough to love when he is normal and his strangeness is at first is what makes him interesting, but soon enough she has to cope with his lunacy and that is not so fun at all. How can you love a man who can turn deeply paranoid and violent, who at the slightest trigger may have it in him to kill someone? The answer is of course that despite all the understanding in the world it is just not possible. In fact it quickly turns into a nightmare of fear and worry.

Dixon Steele is in a lonely place because he disappears into that paranoid world of his where nobody can follow him, but also because his actions makes people flee from him. His only friends are his agent, who needs him as a client and a drunken actor, who has nobody else. But Laurel Gray also finds herself in a lonely place fighting a one-woman battle against Dixon Steele’s illness. The sad thing is that her company may be the only thing that can help him, yet he makes it impossible and so there is only one way it can go.

The story is wrapped up in a noir framework with a murder and a nagging suspicion. The police suspects Steele to have killed a woman and we just do not know if he really did it, nor do any of the characters involved. It is a neat whodunit story and there are many beautiful noir elements, but they are only wrapping to the real sorry about the horror of mental illness. The seemingly aimless drive in the night that opens the movie is very symbolic for the lonely existence of Dixon Steele, in his mental illness.

This is also another skewering of Hollywood, which seems to have been the theme of 1950. Most of the characters are living on the fringe of glamorous Hollywood, but in circumstances not particularly flashy. It portraits people who sacrifice their creativity in order to produce inane scripts for inane movies in order to make a living. These are the actors who never quite made it and a manager grasping for straws. It is the Hollywood of lost dreams. To me it does not feel so much like a skewering. This is more or less what we have come to expect for most people who battle it out in the film industry, but I suppose in 1950 this was a bucket of cold water on all those hopefuls who dreamed of a career there.

The movie is produced by Bogart’s own production company Santana Productions and it is curious that Bogart chose this story considering how unflattering it is to his character. He is essentially showing a dark flipside to all the heroes he has played. But maybe it was the challenge in it, the chance to do something different with a role that appealed to him and certainly Bogie nails it here. Watch this movie for Bogie and the cinematography if not for the rather depressing story. This is the performance of a real star.

In the meantime Philae has landed on the comet. They are not entirely sure how it has fared yet, but it seems to be okay. I could not help cheering with the staff in the control room, it is quite amazing when you think about it. I read that somebody suggested that Bruce Willis could go and fix the harpoon, he should have some experience with drilling on a comet… But this is a story that needs no extra Hollywood glamour. Sometimes reality is pretty cool.

Saturday, 8 November 2014

The Young and the Damned (Los Olvidados) (1950)

Fortabt Ungdom
Ah, Bunuel, Bunuel, what to do about you?

No doubt Luis Bunuel is something of an enfant terrible among directors and this, his fourth movie on the List, only confirms that position. After years out of the spotlight Bunuel pops up in Mexico doing his own version of realism. Note that this is the guy who practically invented cinematic surrealism and is known to have a rather… subjective… attitude towards realism and documentarism. So, what is such a fellow doing in this new realm of realism? And what sort of realism is this?

To answer this you need to know that Bunuel was politically somewhere to the left of Lenin and very much a political person. Combine this with an anarchistic urge to provoke and you have… a modern artist I suppose. Well, what you get is a movie who will highlight a social issue and not pull any punches in driving home the points. In fact it is likely to manipulate you as viewer to react to it and this is exactly the kind of movie “Los Olvidados” is.

“Los Olvidados” means “The forgotten ones” and the English title is “The Young and the Damned” and that sums it up pretty neatly. It is essentially a portrait of poverty in Mexico City in the eye height of big children and teenagers. Not so much a list of all the ailments of these people but more the catch 22 the youngsters are caught in where the dynamics of their poverty is generating the very things that bring them down and ruin them not just economically but also morally.

There is an excellent featurette included on the DVD with Derek Malcolm, who describe it as a boxing match where you are hit in the stomach every two minutes and a movie with only one good person, a person who is essentially outside the story. All the characters in this dismal place are morally ruined by their poverty and do horrible things to each other.

We follow the boy Pedro (Alfonso Mejía), though it takes a while before we realize that we are following him, who really wants to do good, to be a better person, but he keeps running into a wall and is back worse than he started. His father is long dead and his mother (Stella Inda) is working all day to put food on the table for the crowd of children she has. She has practically and certainly emotionally cut off Pedro because he hangs out with the other street children. This throws him into the arms of the leader of the street gang, an older boy/young man Jaibo (Roberto Cobo). He is a true asshole. He has escaped from juvenile prison and now enjoys the awe and admiration from the younger boys. He steals, assaults and extorts people as if it was his birth right and he is the father figure Pedro is missing. Could you possibly think of a worse role model?

We see some truly horrible scenes where the gang assaults a cripple and a blind man and Pedro witnesses Jaibo kill Julian, one of the few teenagers in the neighborhood who actually tries to get out of the slum. Jaibo accuses Julian of telling on him and for this he has to be brought down. Jaibo’s reign of terror demands that people are more afraid of him than the police. Sounds like Mexico today if you ask me. Jaibo is also the wall that Pedro keeps running into. Pedro misses his mother, especially after the murder on Julian has shown him where his path is leading him and he decides that he will reform and be a person his mother can be proud of, but every step of the way Jaibo shows up and ruins things. Jaibo is probably thought of as the symbolic rope that prevents the poor from escaping their fate. In fact you will probably do well looking for symbols in this film, this is Bunuel after all.

But Jaibo is not the only asshole in this movie. Everybody do terrible things. Pedro’s mother is no saint. Besides cutting off a son who needs her she is also a whore who sleeps with Jaibo of all people and, it turns out, does not know the fathers of her children. The blind man is a terrible task master for the lost child Ojitos. Ojitos himself encourage the killing of the blind man and the “angel” girl Meche helps her father get rid of the body of her friend by dumping him on a landfill to avoid the police. As a viewer you cannot latch on to anybody because they will all let you down and the message is clear, left to their own the poor will never break free, but keep being stuck in the muck. Admirable message, true, but it makes for a very difficult watch. If I compare it to “Ladri di Biciclette” there was also a film where the world is cruel to father and son and no immediate hope of absolution, but in contrast to that film we have nobody to sympathize with. Pedro is the closest one, but do we really want to root for him? Yes, in the end we do, because we feel the sincerity in him. He wants to be trusted. His mother did not give him that trust, but he finally finds one and, bang, Jaibo ruins it all again. We are as frustrated as Pedro and I know why Pedro just want to beat the crap out of Jaibo. In a standard movie he would do exactly that, but this is Bunuel and he does not like to give you what you expect. That would be against his message.

I am not masochist enough to like this movie. It hurts too much. I also understand why it did not work at the box office. This is a movie that the audience hated but the critics love and true enough, despite being withdrawn after only three days in Mexico it went on to win Best Director in Cannes and currently has a rating of 94% on Rotten Tomatoes. So Bunuel manages again to provoke and throw a social issue in our face. It works, I have to give him that, you understand that we need to do something against poverty (surprise!), but man, I feel terrible watching this.

Sunday, 2 November 2014

Sunset Boulevard (1950)

Sunset Boulevard
”Sunset Boulevard” is a movie I have been looking forward to a long time. It is one of those I have heard spoken of with great admiration, but never actually seen before. That is a line that I have come to repeat a great many times over the past few years and this is certainly a case in particular. I am not sure what I expected, maybe a harsh critique of Hollywood or some spectacular performances, but I certainly did not expect this to be a film noir. But film noir it is and very much so.

We have a story narrated in flashback with an opening scene revealing that something is terribly wrong. The male lead is heading for his doom through a combination of ill fate and personal failings and we have the most sublime and extravagant femme fatale in movie history. Add to that a black and white cinematography that emphasizes the dark, derelict and, well, bizarre and we are in solid film noir land. I am not complaining, to me that is an added bonus, I love noir.

As a noir “Sunset Boulevard” is interesting, even captivating, and as a viewer it keeps me at the edge of my seat, not through some criminal scheme but with the tension between the characters and the weirdness that seem on the edge of exploding into a monumental disaster. When the disaster does happen, cause it does indeed, it still feels unexpected and surprising and yet the most logical and fitting conclusion to the story. That is not small feat. Billy Wilder has shown again and again that can make excellent film noir (“Double Indemnity” for instance) and I suppose it was a fitting framework for the movie.

Framework is actually not a bad term, because the film noir cinematography and storyline is not the main feature of this film. The main feature is Norma Desmond and all she represents. Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) is an aging woman who used to be a megastar back in the silent era. In the transition to sound she got left behind like so many others of Hollywood’s great, but Norma Desmond remained in the dream of her greatness unwilling and unable to face the reality that she is not 25 years anymore and that her career is over and gone. Even the mansion she lives in cries of has-been. When the male lead Joe Gillis (William Holden) first arrives at the house he compares it to Miss Havisham’s mansion in “Great Expectations” and that is truly a fitting comparison. Where Havisham stopped time at her wedding Desmond stopped time when her career ended.

In a sense the movie is a portrait of Norma Desmond and it is not difficult to imagine this portrait being based on some real characters in Hollywood. Maybe Billy Wilder had even been contacted by a Norma Desmond the way she contacts Cecil B. DeMille. Who knows? It is through the eyes of Joe Gillis we see this woman. He is down on his luck and with no small amount of sarcastic bitterness himself, so when he describes her manners, gestures, ludicrous manuscript and raving insanity it is both funny and immensely tragic. Should we laugh or cry at this woman who fools herself and makes a laughingstock of herself in the eyes of everybody else? Gillis despise her but he also pity her and so helps uphold her illusion. Of course it helps that he needs her money and she still have loads of it. In fact everybody around her helps her maintaining her illusion. Some for her money, at the studio out of respect for what she used to be, her card playing friends because they are of the same stock and some like Max, the butler, (Erich von Stroheim) out of love.

Who are Billy Wilder after in this movie? Is it the aging stars who will not face reality who he intends to expose? Or is it the movie industry and all that surrounds these stars that he is aiming at for their hypocrisy and leeching on the poor insane? Probably both, but as much as Norma Desmond is revealed as a delusional and dangerous spider queen there is also not a small amount of love for her and her kind as if they were unjustly forgotten. Certainly it is a very intelligent script and a stark portrait.

In hindsight Gloria Swanson is the most unforgettable feature of the film. She was not anywhere close to the first pick for the role, but I could hardly think of anyone better. In some ways she was a Norma Desmond, having experienced the stardom and adoration as a silent star, but failing to make the transition to sound. The difference was that she had accepted her fate and was quite lucid about it, yet I am sure it was not difficult to identify with Norma Desmond. When she enters the gates of Paramount studios in her old car and relish at her return it was also Swanson’s glorious return and Cecil B. DeMille was also her old director with whom she had her great successes. Norma exclaims that without her there would not be a Paramount and that too could be said of Gloria Swanson. But similarities aside Gloria Swanson is magnificent as Norma Desmond. This is Oscar awarding performance as I ever saw it. Wow! She steals the picture in every sense of the word and without having seen Judy Holiday who actually won the award I would still claim she was robbed. A statue for Swanson would have had the added benefit of being a fitting lifetime achievement considering that her career basically ended before she had a chance to win any (though she was nominated twice before her career faded during the transition).

Billy Wilder has included a ton of references, which makes this a great movie for film nerds as well. Making Erich von Stroheim Desmond’s butler, first director and first husband is both really weird and telling of the characters of Max and Norma, but also fitting in the sense that Stroheim was also a “broken” director (though he, once he gave up direction, became an excellent actor), he directed Swanson in some of her most disastrous movies and the one they screen in the movie was essentially the one that broke them both: “Queen Kelly”. Norma’s card playing friends, the waxworks, as Gillis calls them, were in reality all stars that did not make the transition, most notably Buster Keaton. Their inclusion in the film is like an afterthought, but a very poignant one. There are many more references and I can only recommend the extra material to the DVD which revels in them and rightly so.

All this fails to emphasize the brilliant script. Apparently Wilder did not allow a single change to the dialogue and yet it is spot on. This movie is as stuffed with quotable lines as “Casablanca” and many have entered the pop-culture since. In fact the movie would be great if it was just Swanson saying her wonderful lines. Just awesome.

I have not mentioned Nancy Olson as Joe Gillis love interest although she was nominated for an Academy Award. The reason is simply that apart from filling her role well, she is quite forgettable next to the massive presence which is Gloria Swanson.

Yes, I loved this movie, no doubt about it. I think moviegoers where spoilt in 1950 having both “All about Eve” and “Sunset Boulevard” to watch. Two phenomenal views on the entertainment industry and both with something so rare as excellent female roles and truly original stories.

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

All About Eve (1950)

Alt Om Eva
Among the meager extra material for my ”All About Eve” DVD there is a trailer for the movie. In this trailer, which is more confusing than normal, it is claimed that this is a movie “About women – and their men”. Few things are further from the truth. This is not a traditional story of relationships and love interests. No dear, this is about ruthless ambition among actresses on Broadway. Funny that a movie with so unusual and interesting story had to be sold as an old school cliché drama.

Cinema has always loved movies about cinema or at least about show business. I suppose people usually know their own métier better than anything else so it should come as no surprise that those of the entertainment business would love to make movies about the entertainment business. The classic story is about putting on a show, but there is another thread that is more concerned with the microcosm in which show business people live in. It is not a coincidence, the lives of particularly actors and actresses is just a lot more colorful than the lives of just about anybody else. The List has two such movies back to back, “All about Eve” and “Sunset Boulevard”.

In “All about Eve” we start out at an award ceremony for theater. Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter) has won the big award and within the few seconds it takes for her to receive the statue those who know her reflect on her story, all looking very gloomy. Obviously they are no fans of hers.

Eve was a starstruck nobody who managed to ingratiate her way into the life of stage mega star, Margo Channing, played by no other than Bette Davis. Margo is every bit the prima donna. Magnanimous when it suits her, bitchy when she has her moods and totally obsessed with herself and how she is perceived. Eve on the other hand appear humble and gracious, every bit the good girl who is pleased to just be in the shadow of the idol.

At least that is what she leads everybody to think. Beneath that good-girl exterior is an unscrupulous woman of pure ambition who intends to take over Margo Channings life, boyfriend and career. At first we see just small signs that all is not right, she starts arranging things without consulting Margo first, but her winning personality helps her get away with it. Everybody are dazzled by her and Margo finds little support among her friends. This is largely because Margo always throws a tantrum and loudly obsesses about everything and everybody. Who would not prefer to believe the self-effacing and modest girls to the paranoid and obsessive prima donna?

Part of the story is told by Karen Richards (Celeste Holm), a common sense woman who has access to the theater circles through her husband Lloyd, a famous playwright. She is the one who found Eve in the beginning and called her friend, but also one of those who got exploited by Eve and finally came under direct attack when Eve went for her husband.

Another notable character in this almost ensemble movie is George Sanders as Addison DeWitt, a famous critic and columnist who also movies in the theater circles, observing and remarking on anything. It is difficult to see his purpose, though we always see him with one or another young actress as if he is looking for a protégé. At one point it is a girl played by Marilyn Monroe. George Sanders plays his role with perfect suave and arrogance, the epitome of upper class English disdain. In Eve his finds the protégé he has been looking for and while Eve uses him, he also uses her and so he becomes both Eve’s ladder and her doom.

Bette Davis was a perfect choice as Margo Channing. It would seem the role was written with her in mind and the thought is close that Davis may not even be acting that much, that this could really be her. I was therefore surprised to learn that she was not even close to first pick, but only got the part because Claudette Colbert had to turn the part down. I doubt any other than Bette Davis could have given Margo the vitriol and paranoia her character possesses and still not make her entirely unlikable.

There is very little filter in this movie. Few of the characters and character types are protected from disgrace and so the film feels a lot more like an open door into the world of theater than any earlier movie. The fact that the location is the theater and not Hollywood is likely because it would hurt too much. Then better to distance yourself a bit from it by letting it be theater. That also makes the arrogance of these stage folk towards the movie industry self-deceived and just a bit ridiculous.

Anne Baxter’s succubus of a character, may not be as colorful as Bette Davis, but that is intentional. She has to be likeable and blend in till you almost forget her. Even when she steps into action and makes her moves she tries to keep up the façade and only in glimpses do we see the cold and cunning woman beneath the entreating and apologetic demeanor. But in those moments we seem to see a monster. Not because of her ambition, but because of the coldness with which she exploits her surrounding and people who calls her friend, to get what she wants.

“All about Eve” ended up getting 6 Oscars and 14 nominations, but although Anne Baxter got a nomination she did not get one of the prices. Too bad, it would have been interesting to compare her two speeches. An award winning movie about striving for and getting an award… Yup, there is something to think about.