Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)

Syv Små Synder
I get the impression that from the late forties and a long way into the fifties the British Ealing Studios was a greenhouse for British comedy. Looking down the list I see a number of titles hailing from that studio so either that production company was really important or the Book has just fallen in love with it as has been known to do with some directors. “Kind Hearts and Coronets” is the first one of them and since I have bought myself an entire box set I suppose the next few month will tell me which way it is.

“Kind Hearts and Coronets” is very black comedy served with an extreme amount of style and class. Does that sound familiar? This is indeed a very British approach and some of their best comedies, be it movies or television series, use this formula. Selling something morbid or gruesome with almost deadpan elegance is a clash that is absurdly funny.

In this case however I cannot help thinking that this looks very much like Chaplin’s “Monsieur Verdoux”. They have that in common that our protagonist (or is it antagonist?) is a mass murder who is very casual and blasé about the lives he takes and instead of a lowlife thug he is an elegantier who has style and almost perfect manners. It is not entirely a rip-off, but close enough that I think it detracts from the movie.

In “Kind Hearts and Coronets” we follow the gentle Louis D'Ascoyne Mazzini (Dennis Prize), the outcast member of the landed D’Ascoyne family of higher nobility. His mother ran away with an Italian singer and was as a result cut off from the family. Her attempts at reconciliation were scuffed at and she ended up a bitter woman living in poverty. This bitterness was passed on to Louis who took it upon himself to get back at the D’Ascoyne family and since he was only number 10 or so down the list of succession he might himself become duke someday, if, you know, the others on that list should die.

This is the story of Louis life as he recounts it in his prison cell. We know he is convicted for murder and that he is to die at dawn, and now he writes down his life story to pass the time until the executioner arrives. We also know that at this point in life he has become a duke so somehow all those before him must have disappeared.

The story of how that happened is the main part of the film.

Every member of the D’Ascoyne family (except for Louis himself) is played by Alec Guinness, though I would not have guessed since each and every one of them looks and acts very different from the others. They do have that in common that they are a bit on the quirky side ranging from slightly odd to outright insane. Although arrogant beyond measure they are however not the types you would wish death on. Some of them are even quite likable. That does not deter young Louis Mazzini. He is entirely cool about his mission.

Some die directly by his hand. Some act so stupidly that that hand is hardly visible and some, like the admiral does not even need a hand and suddenly Louis is a duke.

Meanwhile Louis has made two female acquaintances. One is Sibella (Joan Greenwood) with whom Louis grew up, flirted with, but ultimately was dumped by in favor of a dull character of a much better position. Of course as Louis gradually increases in rank and gets closer and closer to the dukedom Sibella realizes her mistake and seeks him out. It is a cat and mouse game with the two of them and elegant and polite as they are they match each other very well in being underhanded and deceitful.

The other one is Edith (Valerie Hobson) the widow of Henry D’Ascoyne. She is prudish and elegant and in many ways the opposite of the sensual, but dangerous Sibella. In a sense Edith represents his target: Nobility and honour, while Sibella represents the means to get there: Deceit and crime. Predictably he uses Sibella and then dumps her for Edith. And all hell breaks loose.

So, what does all this mean? Is it an attack on nobility? Or the underhanded intrigues involved with nobility? In olden days the schemes of young Louis were standard fare? I do not really know. What I do know is that this film fits into the category of films where we follow a scoundrel who does hideous crimes, but with so much charm and some measure of justification that we actually like him and are uncertain if we really want to see him punished for his crimes. There are surprisingly many of those films and I am sure I will over time be reverting to that theme again. This is also where the similarities with “Monsieur Verdoux” becomes striking.

And what about that other test of comedies? Did it make me laugh? Hmmm… Surprisingly little. Do not get me wrong, I did like the film, this kind of humor appeals to me, but the jokes are barbed and there is this underlying tragedy that it only rarely becomes laughing out loud funny. I smile, a wry smile, but smile nonetheless, and that is about it.

Having to choose between this one and “Monsieur Verdoux” I would choose “Kind Hearts and Coronets”. It has no use of the self-righteous indignation that is so prevalent in Verdoux and the elegance is a lot better played out. But then, can you really like a cold blooded murderer who kills people whose only crime is the name they carry?

Thursday, 24 July 2014

The Heiress (1949)

Welcome to 1949. It is always a pleasure to start a new year and look at all the wonderful (I hope) films before me. I start with “The Heiress” and what a good way to start.

I had been warned. This was supposed to be THE great movie with Olivia de Havilland. Still I am not sure I was entirely prepared for this. She knocked my socks off. Dammit, that was a strong performance. It earned her an Academy Award and well deserved it was. Yet, looking back now at the movie I think the most remarkable element would have to be Montgomery Clift and his character. I will get back to that shortly.

“The Heiress” is in many ways a classic costume drama as they come by the dozen. It is of course placed in the mid-nineteen century, pre-civil war period since this is a period where you can dress up the women in over the top voluminous dresses and the men in tight fitting suits and top hat. A lot of people are suckers for that and it is also the easy way if you are aiming for the Academy’s costume and set design awards. I have simply lost count of the movies I have seen placed in that era.

Never mind, that is not important at all. What is important is the story around the four characters of the film. In the house of Dr. Austin Sloper (Ralph Richardson) lives his daughter Catherine Sloper (Olivia de Havilland) and his sister Lavinia Penniman (Miriam Hopkins). The doctor is well off so they are not lacking anything and more importantly Catherine stands to inherit 30.000 $ per year in income. Yet all is not well. Catherine is a shy woman without confidence and with no prospects of finding a husband (oh horror) and the doctor and his romantic fool of a sister do all they can to encourage her to socialize in the hope that she will find someone.

It is no wonder the girl is like that. Dr. Austin sorely misses his wife, who over the years have grown into an angel with super powers. He keeps comparing Catherine to his late wife and note with visible bitterness how much of a lesser person Catherine is. Of course living in the shadow of such a deity would make any person lose confidence and Catherine is good and proper down beat. She is by all means the most anonymous girl imaginable.

That is the situation when Morris Townsend (Montgomery Clift) appears. No doubt Clift was the teenage idol of the late forties. A dashing young man who only needed to smile to make women feel wobbly in the knees and that is exactly the talent he employs here. In record time he has declared his love for Catherine and charmed her to an extent that she is hopelessly in love. Catherine is deeply flattered by this attention and she is totally defenseless against Morris’ charms. Also Lavinia is infatuated by this man and does everything she can to urge them on. Only the good doctor is not impressed. Or rather, he is a little too impressed. He sees him for what he is, a gold digger, and does all he can to prevent this union.

A few years later and maybe even back in the forties this setup could easily be constructed as a youth rebellion theme. The young people are in the love, the father (or mother) does not approve, but love wins and the young couple finds a way to be together and all ends well. This is how good Clift is. He manages to convince not only Catherine but also us that he is sincere and I had to quickly look in the book to see if there was something I had misunderstood. Dazzling he is.

But the doctor is right of course. The fact that he is destitute might be acceptable, but this guy with his good looks and manners could charm the skirts off any girl and her parents too. Why of all people would he choose someone as anonymous as Catherine Sloper? And why the rush? The doctor sees this and tell her in no uncertain terms. The aunt knows this, but choose to ignore it because the 30.000$ must be her asset and if that can buy love then good for her, and still we doubt them. Only when the young pair decide to run away together and Catherine reveals that her father may disinherit her, we see it. The look of dismay across Morris face. It is only a split second, but in that moment we learn what really matters to him and of course we are confirmed when he shortly after burns her and leaves for California.

That has got to be the second best moment of the movie. The best must be Catherine’s moment of revenge at the end of the movie.

But as I already mentioned a large part of the movie is de Havilland. She undergoes one of cinema’s great transformations as she evolve from shy and self-effacing through silly girl in love to strong and controlled. Anyone who saw “The Snake Pit” would know she could do this, move through different sentiments and states of mind, but the remarkable thing in “The Heiress” is that she can be perfectly believable across that wide a range and still remain true to the character. Although the shy girl and the confident woman is about as different as possible we never doubt that this really is Catherine Sloper and that events, not artifice formed her. I am gaining a lot of respect for de Havilland.

The remaining question is whether I liked this film. No doubt I am in awe of the acting of the two leads, but that does not make a movie on its own. Well, this is not a movie with a big story. It actually feels a bit drawn out with very long scenes and that pacing may be a bit of a problem. Also I am getting sick of these period pieces whose only real excuse is that the need to show off some big gowns and let people feel guilty for their feelings. Yet despite all this I find that I liked this film and that is a lot down to the turn it takes under way. You might say in retrospect that Morris deception was telegraphed and frankly it ruined it a bit for me that I had already read about this in the Book, but Clift is so damn convincing that even I wanted him to be true. Up to the point of his retreat we are led to think that this is one kind of story (parents in the way of a marriage) and then it slaughters that theme in an eye blink and becomes a story of revenge. That clarity that Catherine experiences when the world suddenly falls into place is just brilliant.

What a delightful revenge. Hammer away, Morris, you asshole.

Saturday, 19 July 2014

Louisiana Story (1948)

En Louisiana Fortælling
”Louisiana Story” is a ”documentary” about oil drilling in the Louisiana bayou area. It is special in the sense that instead of giving a dry or factual description of the bayou or of oil drilling we see both with the eyes of a 12 year old Cajun boy. He moves around the wetlands in his canoe, do some fishing, plays with his raccoon and has a fight with an alligator. Then the oil people move in with a floating derrick and he watches with wonder this monstrosity, which is for now is the most interesting thing in the neighborhood. The drilling suffers a blowout and seems to have failed, but the boy pours some magic salt into the well and soon the well pours oil out to all the happy consumers.

That is about it.

This is a pretty enough film and clearly the aim was to capture some moods and some magic, but the result is unfortunately rather dull. At 78 minutes this movie is about 50 minutes too long. That may sound a bit harsh, but I am quite frank here. The purpose of a documentary is to document something, to relate some facts or at least present us with a reality. There is no facts here. In fact it is all fiction. What we get is a number of tableaux of what the bayou looks like and how from the eye height of a child this can be a magic place. We see some pictures of some birds, a (tamed) raccoon and a vicious alligator (that must die for its suspected transgressions). This same imagery could easily have been compressed to 10 minutes. The 15 minute drama with the alligator seems entirely unnecessary. It is almost as if they were thinking hardly what sort of drama they could cook up and this was all they could think of.

Then there is the oil drilling. Again we learn absolutely nothing except getting some nice pictures of engines and drills and what looks like terribly dangerous work. The blowout is impressive, but we never learn why it happened or if this was really a bad thing. Apparently they just angle the drill a bit and so they get down to the oil. What we do get is a lot of pictures of the boy crawling around on the derrick and that is just super interesting…

As you may well have gathered by now I was not terribly impressed with this film. That the copy I watched was in a poor condition with blurred pictures and poor sound did not help much. I feel I got a snapshot of what looks like an interesting environment, but that I learned very little from it. I know the intent was to create a magic firsthand view, but that was ultimately rather boring. Sorry.

This is a movie by Robert J. Flaherty, the renowned American documentarist, known to readers of this blog from the movies “Nanook of the North” and, at least nominally, “Tabu”. I have the editors of The List suspected for adding this film simply to give Flaherty another entry. Frankly I find “Nanook of the North” a far more relevant entry and “Louisiana Story” rather inconsequential. That Flaherty had a habit of editing the reality to his liking eventually making his “documentaries” pieces of fiction rather that reality does not exactly help.

What is interesting about this film is all the things it does not show and what that say about the mentality and attitude of the age.

Where the 1948 audience saw the modern world and its progress and wealth arriving in a backward region promising prosperity and happiness, a modern viewer may see something else. What I saw was heavily polluting oil industry intrusion into an un-spoilt and delicate ecological zone.

In these post-Deepwater Horizon days it is difficult not to get that creepy cold feeling of foreboding down the neck when the derrick comes floating down the river. The blowout just seems to confirm it. We have just seen all that wildlife and now it may be all over, coated in thick crude. Oh dear.

I am a geologist, many of my friends work in the oil industry and although I am in wind energy I am intimately familiar with the problems of exploiting resources in pristine areas. There is a very good reason why EIA’s are made before drilling, digging or building. In many places the impact can be contained and the risk is low as long as you are aware of them, but some areas are just too sensitive and this area in the film is exactly such a place. The odd thing is that the film actually makes a point of saying exactly that, but then moves along with a great welcome to the oil industry, entirely blind to the hazards. The concern of the landowner is not a spill or the intrusion, but that they simply will not find any oil. We truly live in a different age.

Then there is modern-world-meets-indigenous-people issue. In this case the Cajun are locals. They a curious to the drillers, but that is about as concerned as they are. I have no idea what the contact said, but in return of the oil wealth underneath their land the Cajun family now gets a new pot and the child gets a new rifle. A minor upgrade from glass beads and mirrors. I may be exaggerating here, but just for comparison I went last year to Brazil to a region called Rio Grande del Norte. This is a place where the countryside is very poor, I mean African poor, both in terms of land and people. Really, it is a place that breaks your heart. But it is an extremely windy region and the area is now being developed for wind energy. I doubt these villagers actually owns the land, but all the villages I went through were getting sidewalks, sanitation, power and jobs and that despite none of the turbines were really close to the villages (well, in relative terms). The bead and mirrors had become wealth that actually increased the quality of life in return for an impact that had no practical consequence for the villagers or valuable ecological zones.

I digress, but those were my thoughts watching this film. Too little happened to keep my attention on the screen and instead I was left to wonder what these people would be thinking if the oil found its way into the wilderness. Now there is an adrenaline kick.   

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)

Tre Mand Søger Guld
How often do you see the leading actor of a movie be transformed from likable to tough guy to paranoid lunatic and finally die? Not that often I gather. But this is exactly what happens to Humphrey Bogart in “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre from 1948. Bogart had made a name for himself up through the 40’ies as a tough, but fundamentally good guy in movies such as “The Maltese Falcon”, “Casablanca” and “The Big Sleep” and to see him fall to pieces as Fred C. Dobbs (Dobbsie) in “The Treasure…” must have been a near-traumatic experience for many moviegoers in its day. Yet Bogart was not unfamiliar with these roles. He started out as badass villain in movies such as “The Petrified Forest” and was part of Warner’s list of usual suspects. To see him return to scum was almost like watching him come home. He was an excellent villain.

“The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” was a ground breaking movie in several ways, not just for destroying its “hero”. As something entirely new it was filmed almost entirely outside the US on location in Mexico. Imagine this is a time where moving out of the sound studio and into the street was considered a daring move, which could usually be avoided with some back projection in the studio. But John Huston took his entire crew into the field and outback of Mexico and was rewarded with a gritty and dusty and most importantly an authentic feel. You can almost smell the grimy sweat of these characters and seeing real Mexican villages makes you wonder why anybody would put up with a studio creation. I have Huston suspected of watching some Italian neo-realism and wanting that same feeling of authenticity, but more likely it is simply a natural consequence of his general move towards on-location filming in his westerns and since this takes place in Mexico, well, that is where he had to go.

Huston also managed to spend some 3 million dollars on this film. A truly staggering sum of money in 48 and the studio, when they saw the result, thought the movie was doomed to absolute disaster. However everybody else seemed to like it and the movie earned itself back and was awarded 3 Academy awards (Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Direction and Best Supporting Actor (Walter Huston). I understand why. This is a great movie.

We start out following Bogart’s Dobbs bumming it in Tampico, Mexico in 1925. He is not alone there. Apparently there is an entire colony of expats bumming it in Mexico looking for odd jobs (there is a strangely familiar ring to that…) and he meets Bob Curtin (Tim Holt) and so they bum it together. At this point Dobbs may be gruff and useless, but he is not unlikeable and the way the camera follows him we understand that this story is centered on him. Curtin is merely a sidekick.

At the cheap dorm, they are staying at, they overhear an old man talking about prospecting for gold. This is no other than Walter Huston, John Huston’s father as old man Howard. He has been digging gold everywhere. Found it and lost it probably several times and gained an expert knowledge on prospecting. Now he is looking for someone to join him on one final attempt at striking gold. Dobbs and Curtin are game and with a lottery ticket win they are stocked and ready to head into the wilderness of the Sierra Madre.

What happens next is a sort of “Lord of the Flies” for adults. The three men leave civilization to live in a place where they only have themselves for company. Left to the rigors of the mountains their true characters start to reveal themselves. Curtin is the positive dreamer. He is looking for something, but do not know what, and through the experience in the mountain he gains integrity and confidence to reach out for that dreamy goal. Howard may start out as the natural leader with his massive experience, but it is his human skills as a diplomat we get to see. He understands people, not least his two companions and he becomes the oil that make this entire venture work. Without him Dobbs and Curtin would simply have imploded.

Dobbs is also developing, but entirely the other way. He develops a paranoid streak that only gets worse as their hoard of gold grows taller. It is obviously a trait that has been dormant with him for a while, but the stress and the loneliness triggers it and makes him see his partners as competitors rather than allies. He start to talk with himself and gradually sinks into a world where everybody is out to get him and his gold. Where the two other characters evolve Dobbs is consumed.

This is hard to watch. We do not like such behavior from Bogie, but without being able to say exactly where we realize that the biggest threat to this expedition is not bandits, competitors or starvation, but the gold itself, or rather the influence it has on Dobbs and he has become the villain. It is a very interesting and smart move, but also gutsy. If this is not handled well you risk losing your audience. But Huston plays his cards exactly right. Curtin and Howard are the men worth rooting for in the end and, when we have finally accepted Dobbs deroute, it is a joy to watch Bogart’s acting.

It was, however, not Bogart who got an acting Oscar, but Walter Huston and the reason must be that Bogart was billed as the lead actor and therefore not eligible as supporting act. I would have had a hard time choosing between these two. Do not get me wrong, Huston’s Howard is marvelous and a bliss to watch and listen to, but put a gun to my head and I would pick Bogie. Dammit he is good.

The theme of the movie is not so hard to decode. The treasure of the mountains is not the real goal, but merely the challenge to send the character on the voyage towards their real life’s goal. Material wealth is empty and corruptive while the social wealth in relation to other people is the real treasure at the end of the rainbow. It is a very banal story, but this retelling of it is damn good.

Thursday, 10 July 2014

The Red Shoes (1948)

De Røde Sko
”The Red Shoes” is a romantic ballet movie based on a romantic ballet fairy tale. If you think this sounds like a drag I would not blame you. This is however no drag, but in fact an excellent and beautiful movie certainly worthy of attention.

The story is based on a fairy tale by H.C. Andersen. I am afraid I do not know that fairy tale, though I do know that he had some sort of crush on a ballerina called Louise Heiberg, so a story about ballet shoes is probably to be expected. This one is a about a girl who wears some red ballet shoes that makes her dance till she dies.

I am not particularly fond of ballet. Actually I could not really care less. I like the music and I do enjoy opera, but dancing is something I prefer doing rather than watching and I am pretty sure nobody would enjoy watching me dance as that is a truly horrifying to behold. Had this movie actually been a ballet I doubt I would have enjoyed it. But, alas, this is not a ballet film, but a film about ballet and, more importantly the people involved with ballet.

In this movie we find Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook), the manager or impresario of The Ballet Lermontov. He is the despotic king of his ballet company and acts the part. Ruthless, arrogant, egomaniac and driven and always surrounded by style and luxury. Lermontov is obsessed by the idea of living for the art, to dedicate your entire being to achieve artistic perfection and his position grants him the freedom to pursue this obsession and the arrogance to demand and expect it from his underlings. Lermontov is a character that you have to hate and despise, but also find it difficult not to admire or envy. Total power, total dedication and total egocentrism. Anton Walbrook is at his best in this part and he is perfectly believable.

Such a character fits the ballet world of the Lermontov Ballet. Everybody involved are terribly dramatic creatures. All big words and gestures, tons of arrogance and ego, but also hard, hard work and ambition. Powell and Pressburger (yup, they are back, this is another one of their movies) could have used actors with stand-ins for the dance scenes, but instead they opted for the real thing. All these people are real, professional dancers, and not just anybody. The lead dancers Grischa Ljubov (Léonide Massine), Ivan Boleslawsky (Robert Helpmann) and Irina Boronskaja (Ludmilla Tchérina) were all giants in the ballet world at the time and it shows. I suppose the primadonna airs had a level of reality to them.

And then there is the woman at the center of the entire film; Moira Shearer as Vicky Page, the talented girl who develops into a star. Shearer was a renowned ballerina already and according to the story around the movie not even particularly interested in accepting the role. I am happy she did though because not only does her dancing looking authentic she also has a presence in the movie like a natural actress.

Vicky Page becomes the protégé of Lermontov who somehow projects himself onto her. She is in a very real sense his tool to accomplish the artistic success he is craving. It is clear he is a jealous master. There is no room for external distractions such a family and a private life outside the ballet. I was wondering throughout if there is a sexual element as well and I am still not sure. I think possession is more precise.

This is where the movie links to the fairy tale. In Lermontov’s world there is only room for dancing and because of that eventually the red shoes aka Lermontov will kill Page. To highlight this theme the ballet company is performing the red shoes story as a ballet itself so that this story is both a story within the story and the overall theme for the movie itself. The movie is famous for its 20 minutes sequence of ballet where Shearer is actually dancing this performance together with Massine and Helpmann. Even I, an ignorant and plebeian, can see that this is a beautiful and well-made piece and although 20 minutes seem long it actually works rather well. I dare any modern film to insert a sequence of 20 minutes of ballet.

In a parallel storyline Lermontov has taken another protégé as well; the young and talented composer Julian Craster (Marius Goring). For large parts of the movie he is our eyes and ears at the opera company as he is the outsider who enters this foreign world. His assent to fame is by composing excellent scores for the ballet performances and indeed an original score was composed for the “Red Shoes” performance we witness. Craster however only becomes important in the end as he becomes the lover of Vicky Page and therefore a rival to Lermontov. In this final part Page is confronted by the choice of artistic excellence or the love of a man. Page who is devoted to both has a hard time deciding.

This last conflict is at the core of the film and in all the material I have found about it, it is interpreted as the price of ultimate art. A sort of romantic sacrifice for an artistic goal. I have a slightly different take on it. To my mind it is the choice most women eventually face between their professional life and family life and I think the films message is that it is terribly frustrating and unfair that such a choice needs to be made, that somehow it ought to be possible to embrace both. Yet how many women have not sacrificed one or the other as an ultimate “either/or”? The Second World War was a time of emancipation as thousands if not millions of women entered the workforce as replacement for the men needed in the war. For most of these women it was a challenge to juggle job and family responsibilities, but what if the job was not just a job, but a career? Something only men had been able to aspire to until then. Could you pursue that and also have a family?

Maybe my imagination is running away with me and this film is just what it is, a story of the sacrifice of ultimate art, but I think this analogy is very tempting and certainly it has not lost its relevance. Shearer herself faced it only few years later when she retired her active career to devote herself to husband and children.

I enjoyed this movie a lot more than I expected. You can see this for the ballet, or just enjoy the marvelous Technicolor of the newly restored version, but you can also simply enjoy it as a good and very well-made film with a solid story and some very interesting if not always likable characters. I liked it all.

Saturday, 5 July 2014

The Paleface (1948)

Comedies are under-represented on the List’s postwar segment.

If “The Paleface” is representative of the genre in that period that would hint at comedies simply not being that good. It is almost as if the age of the screwball comedy is over and Hollywood is waiting and looking for the next big thing. “The Paleface” is in my opinion a dud and the only thing securing is a place on the list must be the beautiful color photography. And then perhaps to make up for the curious absence of comedies in this segment.

The biggest problem with “The Paleface” is that it is just not funny. That is pretty critical when you hinge everything on the comedic elements. I only recall laughing a single time when the jokes became so absurdly predictable that that itself became a laugh. Talk about laughing for the wrong reasons.

I have been thinking hard about why it is that the comedy does not work here and I am not sure I have a solid explanation, but I will give it a shot.

A lot has to do with this being a spoof movie. I am not too keen on spoofs mostly because they do not take their own world serious but mainly uses it a backdrop for firing off lame jokes. The best of the Marx Brothers movies were when the clown were roaming a “realistic” world and the same with Keaton and Chaplin. In that process they may reveal that the “real” world is just as lunatic as they are, but on the way there the contrast is what makes them funny.

Not so with “The Paleface”. It has already decided to laugh at the western genre as a whole and so the “reality” is a mockery of reality.  You are half expecting the actors to smile and wink to the audience and, hello there, Bob Hope does exactly that in the end.

In such a setting a clown figure like Painless Potter is just not funny. He lacks that contrast. Instead he comes about rather forced as he seems to be aiming at the world record for jokes per minute. I make the claim that this is a difficult environment to be funny in, but maybe that is just an excuse. Maybe he is just not funny. Or maybe he was funny, this movie did quite well at the box office after all, and it is just me who is jaded by the countless of good to stellar comedians I have watched and listened to.

An amateur dentist with no clue what he is doing should be funny. I can imagine the terror of the patient who sees his doctor looking in the manual for even the simplest of proceedures, but I have seen this done far better (Matthew Perry in "The Whole Ten Yards" for example). Speaking of dentists, I wonder if Quentin Tarantino thought of “The Paleface” when he made Christoph Waltz drive around in a dentist wagon in “Django Unchained”.

In any case, Bob Hope is a very big part of the movie and if his fooling around does not click with you there is not much left.

Painless Potters partner is Calamity Jane a.k.a the voluptuous Jane Russell. She is a hardboiled tough girl, who is doing a job for the government to save herself from an extensive visit to the penitentiary. The job is to root out a gang of gun-runners who are arming the Indians. To that purpose she is using Painless as a screen and poses as his wife. She is obviously the one carrying the story, but unfortunately there is not much to carry. By the time Bob Hope is done telling jokes there is about as much room left for the story as in an average W.C. Fields film. Add to that that this is not exactly Jane Russell’s best acting performance ever (she looks more like she is sulking than being tough) and she ends up merely as an appendix to Bob Hope, a target for his lame jokes.

Jane Russell became famous as a pin-up during the war. The tableau from her earlier film “The Outlaw” where she is reclining in the hay revealing a shoulder and the fact that she was well proportioned indeed, had made her a sex symbol before that term was probably even coined. Those good looks were however entirely wasted on Calamity Jane. Dressed up in big demure gowns of the 19th century she could as well have worn a burka. Even in the “naughty” scene in the bath house she is wearing underwear so elaborate that in constitutes a gown all on its own (curious how all the women were actually showering in these outfits. I thought the idea was to get the body clean, not to clean the underwear…). Jane Russell’s tough girl scowl and sulking did not really help either, she came through rather flat.

There are scenes with Indians that today would feel rather racist, but I understand that in the name of comedy you are allowed some manipulation and times were different then. The problem however is that they act almost like cartoon characters which both make them less fearsome and add to the general silliness of the world in which Bob Hope is working. If this sacrifice to comedy had worked as intended, making the Indians funny I might have been more forgiving, but, alas, no, they are not.

By far the best part of the movie was the Technicolor. It was beautifully filmed and color starved as I am I do appreciate it. Typical for early color filming the contrasts are on full volume, but there is a pastel element that makes it very pleasant to look at, not unlike “Black Narcissus”. Color however can also be rather unforgiving and in this case I think it makes the movie look more staged than black and white photography would.

This was an easy film to see. No complicated plots, no big drama, nothing to make me anxious and, sadly, no laughs. I do like my comedies, I do love a good laugh and I do hope for something better in that direction on the List soon.

Tuesday, 1 July 2014

The Lady from Shanghai (1948)

Kvinden fra Shanghai
Orson Welles is back!

After the mediocre ”The Stranger”, which supposedly was an attempt at making a mainstream film, Orson Welles returned to form with ”The Lady from Shanghai”. No more pleasing the public, no more pleasing the studio. Welles returned to making movies essentially to and for himself.

While this sort of cinematic masturbation often leads to horribly introspect films or artful obscurity, Welles… well, yes, this film is terribly introspect and almost impossible to work out, but he manages to invite us inside his world and shows us its wonders and so I, for one, can only enjoy it and wonder that he got away with it (which in a sense he did not, but more on that below).

This time Orson Welles has dived into the film noir genre. If you want to make something mysterious and obscure that is an excellent place to go. Granted, Welles invented many of the tricks and tools of the genre with “Citizen Kane”, but this is the first time I see a full blooded film noir from his hand. As should be expected Welles embraces the genre, but also makes it entirely his own.

The story is (of course) told in flashback by Michael O'Hara (Orson Welles himself), a sailor who has been around the world and done and seen things to make him a wise person. Despite this and his knowing better he is sucked right into an obscure plot revolving around two lawyers, George Grisby (Glenn Anders with an insane giggle), his partner, Arthur Bannister (Everett Sloane) and not least Bannisters wife, Elsa Bannister (Rita Hayworth). The lawyers are loaded and full of tricks and something strange is going on among them.  Add to that a few obscure retainers and Michael knows this is a mess he should stay out of. Except he cannot. Elsa is the femme fatale that has lured Michael into her net and because of that he cannot leave them, but accepts hire on board their luxury yacht on a voyage through the Caribbean, the Panama Canal and up the coast to San Francisco.

They all want Michael for something. Arthur hired him for his own reasons, which may or may not have to do with Elsa, George wants Michael to fake a murder on him and Elsa is ostensibly in love with Michael. Of course none of those are their real reasons. As events unfold it becomes clear that nothing is clear, nobody really knows what the others are doing or why and Michael ends up accused in court for two murders, his only chance is to be defended by Arthur Bannister, who incidentally has decided that this should be the first case he would ever want to lose.

There is a resolution to the story and there is some satisfaction to the resolution, but it is not simple and it does not answer all the questions. Rather it is the kind of solution that you know nobody will ever get to the bottom of so you better just walk away and leave the mess. However those last ten minutes is probably the coolest resolution of a film noir I have ever seen. In a movie of illusions, mirages and twisted realities it is fitting that Michael finds himself dazed by an overdose of medication in a crazy house of a closed up amusement park. The mirrors and multiple distorted images are an excellent metaphor for the convoluted plots being played out. Yeah, it is just perfect.

Orson Welles apparently likes to put himself in the center of things. It seems a very narcissistic trait and this time I think he did himself a disfavor. I know that his Irish sailor is supposed to be gritty and brooding, but Welles countenance fits better to a villain. His pig face does not exactly make you trust him and I dare say that he makes a terrible first lover. Elsa’s infatuation in him seems less plausible because Michael carries Welles face. I would have much rather seen somebody like Robert Mitchum as Michael O’Hara. But that is also the only fault I can see in this film.

Rita Hayworth on the on the other hand is a perfect cast. I have in the past been lackluster about her acting abilities, but this role suited her perfectly. Welles, married to her at the time of filming, but divorced by the time of the release transformed her look from 1940’es pinup to something that frankly looks more like a 1950’ies Monroe. She looks cool and sleek, sexy but dangerous. In short, a perfect femme fatale. As the story goes Welles got into trouble with the studio for that stunt, but I think it was a clever move.

A lot of the movie relies on Hayworth’s Elsa character. It is clear that she is the anchor that keeps Michael in the story, but is she a victim and a spectator on the sideline or is she a player? And what exactly is the game? Michael seems undecided on these questions. He is perceptive enough to liken the group with bloodthirsty sharks tearing each other to pieces, but he is not sharp enough to figure out his own role in the implosion and as the saying goes, if you cannot spot the sucker it is because it is yourself.  In all this Elsa keeps all options open. We learn that she has a disreputable history in the Far East and the coldness is a giveaway too, but her magnetism is undeniable and clearly she can drive men insane.

But then again, is this about sex and possession, or is it power and money? We are never entirely sure.

From the extra material on the DVD I learned that Welles original version was 2:30 hours long, but that the studio had it reduced to less than an hour and a half and that Welles had no influence on the editing. In fact his memo with instructions was entirely ignored. I really liked what I saw here, it is an excellent movie as it is, but would the 2:30 hour version have been truly magnificent? Or would it have been a disaster a la von Stroheim’s “Greed”, only saved by miraculous editing? We may never actually know what Welles really intended with the movie or how close this version is to the original, but it certainly makes me curious.