Tuesday 24 February 2015

The Big Sky (1952)

With ”The Big Sky” I am getting two in a row with Kirk Douglas. Apparently he was a very popular guy during this period in Hollywood. “The Big Sky” however is a very different film from “The Bad and the Beautiful”. A more fitting name would be “Beavis and Butthead in Injunland”. I will get to the explanation soon enough, but let me just state right away that this is not my favorite movie on the list.

This is a big open-sky film about the opening of the frontier in the nineteenth century. An epic scale tale of a trade expedition up the Missouri river that would break the fur company monopoly and open the way to those who followed in the decades to come. Thus the stage is set for heroes braving danger from man and nature with plenty of scenery and real, grimy and sweaty men.

We follow two young men, Jim Deakins (Kirk Douglas) and Boone Caudill (Dewey Martin) who are looking for Boone’s uncle Zeb Calloway (Arthur Hunnicutt) in St. Louis in 1832. They find him just as he is about to embark on a momentous journey up the Missouri on a keelboat and decide to join the expedition. Zeb’s partner on the expedition is “Frenchy” Jourdonnais, the captain of the boat. He and his crew are a colorful French speaking lot, which is probably quite authentic as there were still a French influence on the Mississippi (old French Louisiana).

The expedition crawls its away upstream through a combination of rowing, pushing and towing and faces a number of natural challenges. Soon however man-made challenges appear. The expedition seeks to break a monopoly held by a nefarious organization named “The Fur Company” by trading directly with the Blackfoot Indians. These have a reputation of being hostile, but the Zeb and Frenchy has a secret weapon: an Indian princess (Elizabeth Threatt). They are bringing her back to her tribe and are counting on that that will make them receptable for some trading.

First however they need to get around the Fur Company and that is not so easy. They have a bad guy called Streak (Jim Davis) who are up to bad tricks including stirring the Crows, but Zeb has a tame Injun named Poordevil who helps them out and soon the expedition is a great success.

It is clear that Howard Hawks with this movie wanted to play for the big epic and at 2 hours playing time he is certainly stretching it enough. The problem is just that the film generally leaves me cold. This has much to do with the characters and certainly a lot to do with the general attitude of the movie. Both of which largely products of its time.

Jim and Boone are two boneheads who over the course the movie’s two hour running time continuously make wrong or bad decisions. They are presented as hero types that we are supposed to root for but they are little more than hillbillies. Boone has a deep-felt hate for Indians and walk around with the scalp of some Indian his brother killed. That is exactly the kind of guy you do NOT want to bring on a risky expedition that requires delicacy towards the Indians.

The crew are all a bunch of tough nails, which makes it tricky to bring along a single woman. We see how Frenchy disciplines one of the crew members for making advances towards her, but that does not keep our two “heroes” from making their advances. Stupidly, but they get away with it. The privilege of being a lead.

Our two idiots also keep making their own decisions, often in direct violation of their orders. Something which on such an expedition should be entirely out of the question. The success is entirely depending on the discipline of the crew. One wrong step at the wrong time and it all falls to pieces. However command structure does not seem to concern Jim and Boone and Zeb is a very forgiving uncle when it comes to his favorite nephew. Frankly it just does not make sense, except that a Hollywood production in 1952 cannot have two young men star without letting them show some initiative.

Then there is the attitude towards the Indians. This is definitely a product of its time. Poordevil is a brave idiot to look at, almost degenerate and the tribes are described somewhere between proud savages and barbaric beasts. Alien, primitive, uncivilized. All the while these are exactly the words I would use to describe Zeb and Frenchy’s band of hillbillies. I know there is a lot of historic truth to the transactions of pelts for trinkets and beads and that these items were probably valued by the natives (and a lot safer than guns and whiskey), but you cannot help feeling that they are being cheated outrageously.

Near the end it is almost as if Hawks is regretting the sentiments displayed so far in his film, when the Indians actually turn out smarter than they are given credit as Boone gets married to the Indian princess for transgressing her privacy, but is allowed to “buy” himself free because they know he is fickle and will not be staying. Boone himself also experiences a change of heart when his passion turn from hate to love and the natives become real people to him. These turns came as a surprise to me because the movie seemed so set in its ways and now seemed to say: “ hey, look, I know this was pretty stupid, but I am not really that dumb”.

Is it enough to save the movie? I doubt it. In 1952 this was probably the right movie but today it feels terribly dated. Also Howard Hawks is usually better than this. Better luck next time.

Thursday 19 February 2015

The Bad and the Beautiful (1952)

Illusionernes By
The first thing I noticed about ”The Bad and the Beautiful” was the cast. Kirk Douglas, Lana Turner, Dick Powell and Gloria Graham. Those names alone was enough to make me very interested. Each one has starred in excellent films and indeed made them excellent, so setting them up together can only be interesting… with a considerable chance of too many chefs…

The next thing I noticed was that this was an inside film on Hollywood. I cannot say that made me as excited. The theme du jour of the early fifties seems to have been inside Hollywood films. Although I am not complaining, the films so far have been outstanding, I do think this theme is starting to get a bit old on me. There was therefore a cause for concern here. Was this starting to be like the introspect musicals about setting up a musical from the early thirties?

No need to worry though. This may be an inside story and it may help if you know something of the background of notorious Hollywood celebrities, but even coming in blank this is a most entertaining movie carried not just by strong acting performances, but also by an interesting and in many respects novel story. The closest thing I can think of is “Citizen Kane”. If you do know a bit about the personalities in Hollywood you will recognize the types portrayed in this movie.

Like “Citizen Kane” The Bad and the Beautiful” is a portrait of a notorious person through the testimony of those who know him and like Kane they all detest him, but also respect him and if they had to be entirely honest with themselves they would probably have to admit that they also care for him.

The man is Johnathan Shields (Kirk Douglas). His trademarks is to burn with passion for his projects, to always get what he wants and a charming personality that moves people to do what he wants. He is manipulative and entirely without scruples, and if he has to sacrifice somebody on the way so be it. It is not money he wants, but something bigger, to create greatness on film. It is easy to name a number of Hollywood producers that fits the bill and David O. Selznick’s name keeps popping up the same way as William Hearst did for “Citizen Kane”. Certainly there are some bloated egos to choose from.

The story of Johnathan Shields is told by three characters he burned on the way. The have all been called in to a meeting with Harry Pebbel (Walter Pidgeon) who represents Johnathan and wants them to answer a long distance phone call from him. Each of the three in turn tell how they got backstabbed by Johnathan and why they would never ever consider working for him again.

First is Fred Amiel (Barry Sullivan), the director. He met Johnathan when he was entirely blank at Johnathan’s father’s funeral. The father was an extremely unpopular head of a film studio who managed to ruin it. Johnathan takes up the gauntlet and wows to create his own name as producer. Together Fred and Johnathan learn the trade making shorts and B-movies on non-existing budgets, but when time comes for the big break Johnathan take Fred’s screenplay and not only takes credit for it but also hand it over to another, established director. Fred is understandably bitter and leaves Johnathan to become an Oscar winning director in his own right.

Next is the actress Georgia Lorrison (Lana Turner). She is the wrecked daughter of a dead movie star. Although she is dabbling herself in acting, her lack of confidence and considerable alcohol abuse is preventing her from taking it anywhere. The shadow of her father is simply too big. Johnathan changes that. He sees star quality in her and insist on making her his star. The angle he chooses is to seduce her. With his overwhelming charm he has no problem convincing her that they are in love and this carries her through and makes her deliver top performance. But on the eve of the premiere he burns her and tells her it was all a scam when she finds him with another (cheap) bimbo. Georgia wows to never work for him again but moves on to become one of the greatest of Hollywood’s stars.

Last is the screenwriter James Lee Bartlow (Dick Powell). He started out as a college professor in Virginia where he was discovered by Johnathan. Johnathan lures him to Hollywood where he grudgingly accepts a job as screenwriter for Johnathan. James has a pigeon brained, but sweet wife, Rosemary (Gloria Graham) who keeps interrupting his work and Johnathan realizes that he has to get her out of James hair if he wants any work out of him. He charges his Latin lover star Ribera (Gilbert Roland) with the job to entertain her and this works brilliantly. Finally James Lee becomes the screenwriter Johnathan knew he would be. Unfortunately Ribera also outperformed himself and ran away with Rosemary only to crash in a plane on the way to Mexico. When James find out Johnathan is behind this he leaves him for good and becomes in turn one of the highest paid of Hollywood’s screenwriters and a Pulitzer Prize winner.

Each of the stories are told with a great deal of bitterness, but there is no denying that Johnathan created them. When Johnathan who crashed big time after trying his own hand at directing asks his three creations to help him start a new project the answer is an immediate no. Yet hardly are they out of the door before they eagerly have to hear Johnathan describe this new project.

The greatness of this movie is the complexity of the portrait of Johnathan Shields. It is both condemning and glorifying him and the amalgamation is a person of both black and white. Johnathan Shields is a devil and a hero, an genius and a self-obsessed bozo, but most of all a man with a burning passion for making film, what we in Danish call an “ildsjæl” (fire-soul). This movie could easily have landed on each site of the road and have created a monster or a saint, but it manages to stay on the road throughout, in fact better than “Citizen Kane” did, and gives us a whole, but exceptional person.

This is by far the best movie I have seen so far by Vincente Minnelli. In my mind he is synonymous with pretty, but ultimately mediocre musicals and this movie is so far from that comfort zone that I had to look twice. He did pretty well with this one and I should not write him off so early.

The cast as I mentioned in the opening is outstanding and I am especially pleased to see Dick Powell again. “Murder my Sweet” was a rebirth for him and I enjoy what he became in this part of his career. Because the story is told in three separate acts all these stars avoid being in each other’s way, but are allowed to shine in their own right.

I think this movie is more a character study than a portrait of an industry and that is why it should be seen. Johnathan Shields is an interesting character type. Insufferable yes, but interesting, and certainly big enough to warrant a movie.

Thumbs up from me.

Saturday 14 February 2015

To Live (Ikiru) (1952)

Ikiru - At Leve
”Ikiru” is the second Akira Kurosawa film on the list (after ”Rashomon”). It is no secret that I was looking forward to this one with great anticipation. Kurosawa started strongly with “Rashomon, but according to the extra material on “Ikiru” Kurosawa said when he received the Venice golden lion for “Rashomon” that he could do better with a contemporary film and went on to make “Ikiru”. So. yes, staggering expectations indeed for “Ikiru”.

Is “Ikiru” then better than “Rashomon”?

The jury is still out on that question, but we certainly got something different from Kurosawa, or maybe not. There are structural parts that built onto the groundbreaking storytelling technique Kurosawa introduced with “Rashomon”.

“Ikiru” takes place in modern day (1952) Japan. We meet Watanabe (Takashi Shimura), a middle-aged town hall bureaucrat who has been swinging his rubberstamp for thirty years and not really much else. One day he finds out that he has stomach cancer and maybe half a year left to live. This is quite a shock and he realizes to his horror that he has wasted away a large chunk of his life on essentially nothing. His son is estranged from him and mostly interested in his inheritance and work at the town hall is about as unfulfilling as can be.

His reaction goes through three phases. First despondency. With his head bowed and an empty expression in his eyes he looks ready to jump from the nearest bridge. Upon meeting a younger writer of cheap literature he changes direction and seems hell-bent on wasting away as much of his savings as possible on entertainment. It is futile and does not change anything. It is not even fun, just pathetic. Watanabe then meets Toyo, one of his employees from the Public Liaisons office. That opens his eyes for what his life could have been. He clings to her, seemingly to get an answer to his own problem from her, but she is getting increasingly freaked out by this weird old man. Before they part however he has an epiphany and realizes there is something he can do. He returns to his office at Public Liaisons, grab the first petition from the stack and decides to do something revolutionary. Instead of the customary procedure of passing on the petition to another department, he decides to follow the thing through and actually make it happen.

At this point the movie changes character entirely and we are at the wake after Watanabe died. His family, colleagues and peers from the town hall are gathered in his memory and discuss the peculiar last half year of his life. His project, the playground, got built and at the outset there is general agreement that the deputy mayor is to thank for that. However as the attendants at the wake get increasingly drunk they remember details about Watanabe that places him in a different light. Their individual memories play out as flashbacks and soon Watanabe is the closest thing to a saint, a revolutionary who managed to challenge the system and get something done. They all promise each other to follow his example, but, alas, first day back in the office everything is back to normal.

This change in narrative is in itself very interesting. From a normally progressing narrative it makes the switch to something very similar to “Rashomon” and the story becomes very subjective. We do not know exactly what happened, only what different people think happened.

But there are other things that are interesting here. Kurosawa is trying to cope with one of the biggest questions of all, the meaning of life. Or maybe rather, what makes life meaningful. He is in a sense rebelling against the East Asian group mentality by saying that as an individual we have to make a difference. Being a keg in the wheel of the big machine that is civil administration is simply not enough. Watanabe only realizes this when he gets his death sentence and then he gets busy and manages to die content with his final achievement. This message may seem trivial in western eyes, but not in the east. This is quite revolutionary.

Then there is a critique of bureaucracy. Of course Watanabe’s life has to be described as totally useless, but the portrayal of bureaucratic inefficiency is a lot more than a tool. The office of Public Liaisons is straight out of Kafka with stacks upon stacks of documents and case files. The office is one big and seemingly chaotic archive and it is easy to see that a petition is essentially lost in this paper hell. In the opening of the film we follow a petition from a group of citizens being sent from department to department just to return to where it started. The very petition Watanabe decides to take up. Obviously Kurosawa see a parallel between useless living and bureaucracy and also want to show that this big monster may loose a battle but it will always win the war. A single revolutionary cannot change that.

A contemporary movie always has that added quality for me that we get some insights to life in general at the time of the movie. In this case Japan of 1952. It is interesting to see this country defeated in the war and now trying a new way heavily influenced by America. That creates that strange fusion of Japanese and Western culture that even today can be found in Japan and is described so well in “Lost in Translation”. It is so curious to see what they have chosen to adopt and what they discarded. I think you have to be Japanese to be able to fully understand it.

I always have that problem that although I have traveled a lot in the East I am constantly mystified by Eastern culture. I keep getting that feeling that I am missing details or maybe misinterpreting them. There are parts of the movie that seem almost comical, like the guests at the wake. As they get seriously intoxicated they sound like nothing so much as a group of wookies. The mumbling and cries and arguments… well, I got a lot of respect for the translators of the film. This cannot have been easy. I wonder what a Japanese audience would think of the late hours of a Danish corporate Christmas lunch… Same thing with family ties and social structures. I know these things are important and decides a lot of the actions and reactions of the characters, but I feel I am missing things.

“Ikiru” is a very slow film. At times it creeps along and at 2 hours and 17 minutes it is easy to make the argument that the story could have been told in an hour and a half. But Japanese movies tend to be slow, just think of Ozu and Mizoguchi, and I actually like that. It gives the movies an almost zen-like feel that allows you to get into the moment. In the case of the first half of the movie the pace underlines the futility of Watanabe’s life and his effort to cope with it. His depression is deepened by the long shots of him just doing nothing or staring at something. A clever move, but still a challenge for the modern viewer. You have to want to see it, but if you do you are also amply rewarded.

Okay, now, give me some Kurosawa samurai films! Yeah, it is time. I am ready.

Wednesday 4 February 2015

Singin' in the Rain (1952)

Syng i Sol og Regn
Lately I have been less than impressed with the musicals I have been watching. They have been, almost exclusively, with Gene Kelly and I was starting to wonder what made these musicals so famous. However, I kept being told that I just had to wait for “Singin’ in the Rain” then I would get my money’s worth.

Well, here I am, just through my first ever watching of the famous “Singin´ in the Rain”. And guess what? It was worth waiting for. “Singin’ in the Rain” is, simply put, an almost perfect musical. Here everything comes together and the total is more than the sum of its parts. Of course, a story about the transition from silent to sound movies would strike a chord with me, but even without that personal affinity this is here a much stronger story than we are used to in musical. Although this is essentially a love story as usual the sound transition gives it an interesting backdrop and provides angles worth exploring. I love the story of the vicious blonde actress with a shrill voice who has no clue that her voice is a disaster. It is comedy and drama in one package and Jean Hagen pulled it off as the funniest character in a hilarious movie.

That is the second element that really works here. Musicals are all about happy times and for ones it really comes across. I felt happy watching this movie. Not just laughing at the jokes, but genuinely happy. You cannot point at individual elements and say it is this or that that does it, but it is an undercurrent that goes through the movie. I laugh and I smile and I cannot let it go, but must see a bit more. That is a good time. I rarely if ever felt like that through the other Gene Kelly musicals.

Then there is a stellar cast. I already mentioned Jean Hagen, but also Donald O´Connor as Cosmo Brown is a revelation. He serves as a partner for Kelly, a role typically allocated Frank Sinatra, and he manages to keep up with him and more than that. Often I would say he even steals the show from Kelly and that is largely because of the wave of exuberance that come from him. I can easily imagine that he would be too much for some, but for me he manages to walk the line just right. Debbie Reynolds as the new girl Kathy Selden of course got her breakthrough with “Singin’ in the Rain” as a love interest, comedic timing and sheer quality she is way ahead of Leslie Caron from “An American in Paris”. The scene when she jumps out of the cake is just priceless and so is her drive with Kelly in the opening of the film. And Gene Kelly himself? He shows us that with the right production and the right people around him he was a megastar. It almost feels like he is kept on a leash in this film and so, in smaller doses, he works so much better.

The music of course is outstanding. Those songs are famous all the way up there with “The Wizard of Oz” Everybody, and I mean even children, know “Singin’ in the Rain”, the song, and this musical is so stuffed with high quality songs that it is a true horn of plenty. Of course there is a level of suspension of disbelief when a song starts, but we are used to that in musicals. Here it is just less annoying and often it seems even natural. Well, as natural as you can be with an acrobat like Kelly. Many of the songs are famous because of this musical, but actually most if not all the songs are recycled from earlier productions. A good example is “Good Morning”, which is originally from the otherwise lousy “Babes in Arms”. In this rendition it may not be Judy Garland singing it, but in every other way I prefer it to the original. Even the titular “Singin’ in the Rain” is from “Hollywood Revue of 1929”. I do not think that detract from the music or the musical. They got a new life here and frankly this musical owns those songs.

There are all the other things this musical does right: The 1920’ies vibe, the beautiful colors, blue-screen filming that actually works and a wonderful pace. This may well be the best musical I have seen so far on the list and somehow I doubt it will be topped as musicals as a genre generally went downhill from this point.

In fact I feel rather honored that I get this chance to see this musical for the first time. I get the impression that most people have seen it a million times or so, but I who hardly knew older pictures before this quest get the same overwhelming experience as people got when they saw it back in ’52. That is really special.

I mentioned in the opening that this musical is almost perfect. Almost. Gene Kelly just had to repeat the mistake from An American in Paris and include a very long dance/ballet sequence near the end. I did not keep check, but I believe we are talking 10+ minutes. It was the only time I got impatient with “Singin’ in the Rain”. For a person where dancing on it’s own has no inherent value such a sequence is quite an ordeal. To the musical’s defense it was lighter fare than in “An American in Paris” and it did not form the conclusion of the movie, but was instead an interlude, so my misery passed quickly.

It does however not detract from the general impression that this is about as good as musicals get. It is a musical I will definitely watch again and I might even manage to talk my wife into watching it with me.

A lot has been made of how this was robbed at the following Academy Awards, likely because “An American in Paris” won Best Picture the year before. I can only agree. Had the order of the two been reversed this one would surely have won, but as I remember it “Singin’ in the Rain” was not that well received when first released. Maybe the audience and the critics were exhausted. But time have proved the superiority of this musical. This is the one you remember and the one that is referenced again and again, over and over. “Singin’ in the Rain” rules!    

Sunday 1 February 2015

Angel Face (1952)

Blindt Begær
If ”Angel Face” had been made, say, six year earlier, in the mid-forties, I would not have hesitated calling it a masterpiece. As it is I will just say that it is a very clever and effective implementation of the film noir genre.

The trouble is that I feel we have already been here before. “Double Indemnity” springs to mind, but really, I get this nasty feeling that Otto Preminger, the director, had been watching a lot of film noir, decided that this was the recipe and then set out to make a movie strictly adhering to said recipe. This sort of thing happens all the time in Hollywood, before and since, so there is nothing new or even wrong with that. That just means that you cannot take credit for being original and that you have to make it even better in order to justify the movie and be noticed.

While I do not think “Angel Face” is on par with the best film noir it is a solid effort and you can at least say that he stuck to the recipe to an extent where you could probably use this movie as a case example of the genre. It is a good place to start, but probably not fair to the movies that broke the ground.

The story is maybe even more bleak than usual. Frank Jessup (Robert Mitchum) is the solid, hero-material guy who gets ensnared by the beautiful, manipulative and seriously disturbed Diane Tremayne (Jean Simmons). He meets her when he as an ambulance driver visits the Tremayne building on what may or may not be an attempt on Catherine Tremayne’s (Barbara O’Neil), Diane’s stepmother’s, life. Diane quickly finds out that Frank may be a tough guy, but with a backbone made of rubber when it comes to women. Suddenly Diane is everywhere in Franks like and although he consciously resent it, it is not difficult for Diane to manipulate him. A sweet smile and a kiss seems to do the trick.

Diane has an agenda. No surprise there, we know early on that she is up to something and that it concerns her stepmother. See, Diane has something Freudian going on with her father. She sees Catherine as competition to her father’s (Herbert Marshall) affection and blames her for everything wrong in her life. This is despite the fact that Catherine is the source of wealth in the family, while her own father in an author who does nothing but play chess and drink brandy. Or maybe be this is why. Diane is a truly idle woman. Her only apparent activity outside of plotting against her stepmother is playing the piano and that we only see in the opening of the movie. With all that time on her hand it would be a wonder if she stayed normal.

Diane needs an ally against her mother and this is where Frank comes into the picture. It is unclear exactly what she has in mind for Frank because he calls her bluff early on and will have nothing of it. Therefore instead his help becomes indirect as he inadvertently gives her the means to kill her step mother through some tampering with the car.

Unfortunately for Diane her father perishes as well in an unplanned complication of the assassination. This is a big wake up call for Diane who is ready to confess it all. Her defense lawyer (Leon Ames) however will have none of that. He never lost a case and is not about to. Besides losers pay poorly and he is better off with the Tremayne estate intact. As a star defense lawyer he could have cleared Attila the Hun and he employs all his tricks including getting Frank and Diane married to get her off the hook. Somehow Frank and Diane are talked into this plot so we get an impromptu wedding in the hospital.

The two of them are hardly back from court before Frank’s better senses gets him to quite the farce and leave. Diane however have now exchanged her love for her father onto Frank and if he will not have her in life then she will make sure that they will stay together… in death.

Diane is of course the femme fatale who very literally lures men into her net and their doom. Frank is the flawed hero, whose flaw sends him to his doom. And the Lawyer, Mr. Barrett, is maybe the biggest asshole of them all and in that function represents the dark and rotten circumstances, the underbelly of society, that stage the tragedy.

In this analysis it all look routine and predictable and I suppose it is when you have watched your share of film noir, but given that all this is a set stage it is still beautifully done.

Frank is really the kind of guy who on the one hand has integrity enough to say and do the right thing, but also fall for a sweet smile. His dopiness is believable, it speaks to his male vanity. It also helps that I love watching Robert Mitchum on the screen. He has a presence and a voice that is as made for film noir.

Jean Simmons is a bit more problematic. Her character is completely mental, that she does very well. There is a broodiness to her that fits that state. My problem is that she is not good enough to disguise that inner snake when she is around Frank. We know and Frank knows very well that she is up to no good and I would have loved if her “special power” had had a little more weight. As it is it is only Frank’s flaw that makes her scheme works, but we are told that she can run that trick on anybody and that I just do not believe.

The lawyer, Mr. Barrett is as mentioned a real ass and I get the feeling that someone in the production have very low feelings for lawyers and the justice system. It seems almost a given that with the right money and the right lawyer you can get away with anything and that truth is the first victim to sophism. Also the lawyer primarily suits his own interests and less those of his client. Certainly the film fits all the prejudice against that stand. The court as a game where the clever (and rich) wins is a common theme and one that in general makes me sick of courtroom dramas.

It was fun to see Herbert Marshall again. It has been a while and he has grown older, but he is still a man of suave elegance and a pleasure to watch. Only we see too little of him

“Angel Face” was a movie I enjoyed almost despite itself. I think it would have worked better had I seen it earlier on, but I like film noir in general so I can live with all the tropes and the giveaways and, and that is not a small point, I like a movie that takes place in the present of the time it was filmed. The cars, the phones, the cloth, it is all so 1952.