Sunday 28 February 2016

All that Heaven Allows (1956)

Med kærlighedens ret
You know those movies that make you roll your eyes? I mean, cry out “Come on!!”, shake your head and roll your eyes. “All That Heaven Allows” is such a movie, at least for me.

I have previously remarked that Douglas Sirk’s movies reminded me of cheap novels from women’s weekly magazines and that is nowhere more true than here with “All That Heaven Allows”. The format, the story, the issues all have that kitschy feel that is just too much. I suspect there is something else somewhere, maybe a critique of mid-fifties values and ideals, but it is very bland.

So let us just say from the outset that I am not impressed, that this is not really a movie for me and that this review may be offensive to fans of the movie.

“All That Heaven Allows” is the story of a woman, Cary (Jane Wyman), who lives alone in her suburban house since her husband died and her grown children moved out. Her husband had money and status and so she is still moving in those circles at the country club. Then Cary meets Ron (Rock Hudson) who shows her an entirely different kind of existence. Ron is a gardener, but more than that he is a free spirit who does what he likes to do and cares little what other people think of him. Cary and Ron falls in love and prepares to get married.

So far all is well and fine. However everybody and their mother seem to have a problem with that marriage. At the country club the all seem to take offense of Cary marrying Ron. They had much preferred that she marry one of their own and cannot relate to a gardener. Maybe it is envy, maybe just juicy gossip or maybe they feel some rules have been broken. They certainly take some glee in spiting Ron and Cary. Worse however is the reaction of Cary’s children. Ned (William Reynolds) is a businessman and is mortified by letting the gardener in as well as the prospect of selling the house and Kay (Gloria Talbott), who is supposed to know everything about people from her psychology classes is so upset about what people will think of her if her mother marries a gardener.

This story in fact resembles that of “Marty”, except that Marty’s friends and family’s objections, though silly, made immensely more sense than those of Cary’s friends and family. Instead of discarding idiot friends like these and telling her children to mind their own business Cary caves in and calls off the wedding. Maybe you can imagine me rolling my eyes at this point. Had there been a single good argument: a dependent child, somebody living at home, a worried professional partner, a real physical risk to this marriage then we may have had a story, but these are all a bunch of busy-bodies who hate to see somebody else doing something unconventional. So fucking what.

True enough, hardly has Cary called off the wedding before it becomes clear that there are no real arguments against the marriage, but now, uh oh, they are estranged from each other because Ron called bullshit and of course telling each other that they do want to marry involves mistakes, accidents and a deer looking into the window of the old mill in the new snow…

Oh my…

Well, there are things I do like here. This is a contemporary movie and that means that everything we see is 1956 and in color too. Cars, phone, houses, cloths and so on, making this a veritable time capsule. I am always a sucker for that stuff. It is also a time capsule in the way it presents the suburban ideal of the mid-fifties, the glorified housewife and all the do’s and don’t’s. I often get the idea that especially in America this period and lifestyle is the ideal for many people. We certainly see it depicted often enough in movies and tv-series. If there is anything subversive in this movie then it is how it refuses this ideal and suggests that life can be lived in other ways. The problem is that that story has been told a million times already, also before 56, so what is the subversive in that?

I did not care much for this film. Somehow I had expected some real crisis to occur, but it is actually quite harmless. At least in “Written on the Wind” there was some real drama, but here it is just blah. Well, on to the next movie, looking forward to that.


Wednesday 24 February 2016

Giant (1956)

Everything is bigger in Texas. THE movie about Texas would have to be a giant among movies and that is exactly what it is. At three hours and fourteen minutes it is a monster to get through (add to that an entire disk of extra material), but also the scope, the lavishness and the all-star cast is just bigger than most other pictures.

“Giant” is in many ways for Texas what “Gone with the Wind” was for Georgia, a portrait of an iconic, if fictional, family on the backdrop of a time and events that changed the land. For “GwtW” it was a plantation through the civil war and the restoration, in “Giant” it is a ranch during the transition from agrarian cowboy land to cosmopolitan oil money. In both cases a transition from conservatism to modernity and I am sure something that was part of forming the American narrative. Yeah, big words from an outsider, but this is not really rocket science.

Epic tales are usually problematic in movies because the medium does not really lend itself well to that sort of story. You need a television series or a book format. In a movie the story is truncated by how long you can keep people in the cinema and usually end up mutilated through abbreviation. I would say George Stevens, the director, did a decent job here, but that abbreviation is still the weakness of the film.

We follow Bick Benedict (Rock Hudson), third generation owner of the enormous Reata ranch in Texas and Leslie Benedict (Elizabeth Taylor) of green and verdant Maryland from their brief courtship in their youth to their middle age thirty years later. They represent two very different points of view, ultra conservative Bick and progressive and liberated Leslie, and they could hardly be more different. In fact if you ever needed an argument against quick and spontaneous weddings this would be it. They practically come from different planets and had they known each other a little better I doubt they would ever have married.

The conflict between them is very much the fuel of the movie. As they approach each challenge from their own end of the spectrum we get an issue out of practically everything. It is tempting to see Bick’s conservatism as little more than the right to be an asshole and Leslie as the one bringing some common sense to this backward place, but it is not the entire story. Particularly in the beginning we see Leslie losing the sense of the situation in her eagerness to bring on modernity. Yes, it is terribly old fashioned to exclude women from politics, but sometimes men just like to have their own thing and we still do.

As Bick and Leslie grow older they converge as a symbol of modern Texas I suppose. Leslie gets to like the Texas freedom and Bick embraces modernity, both of them swallowing a few camels on the way. I think we are supposed to like both of them from the beginning, but maybe I am just not attuned to the Texas way of doing things. In the name of his conservative heritage Bick is being a dick again and again. Whether it is against the Latinos, women, his children or Jett Rink, Bick is a bigot. It earned him a hearty dislike from me that was only reluctantly lifted near the end. I think the final compromise is still fairly to the right of my preferences.

What saves the film from being tedious family drama is the character of Jett Rink (James Dean). Jett is the personification of outside pressure on the family. From start to end he is the one poking at the family through his crush on Leslie, his carving out a piece of Reata land and by bringing in oil millions and a possible end to the old way of life. Jett is progress in the fast lane, the energy the tears up old bond, but he is no less a bigot than Bick. However without scruples and conscience he is also the more dangerous of the two. In a sense he is Texas without restraint. The manner in which the Benedicts deal with Jett Rink is a reflection of their own development.

For me the single most interesting element of “Giant” is the treatment of racism. That is done in a very modern way, especially when you consider this is 1956 and as far as I understand it years before the civil rights movement. The movie highlights the conditions the Mexicans, or Hispanics are living under and especially the offhand way they are treated by whites. They are very literally second class people and even talking to them as normal people is frowned upon. Of course when Leslie’s and Benedicts son, Jordy (Dennis Hopper) marries a Latino that really set the issue on the edge. Seeing Bick smiling at his white grandson and frowning at his mixed-blood grandson was infuriating. My own son is in a sense a mix and seventy-five years ago I would have been Jordy.  

This is definitely a movie with an excellent cast and an interesting use of it as well. Instead of making old actors look young, the principal actors here are all young and made to look older as the story progress, something I think works better than the other way around. Hudson, Taylor and Dean all pull that off beautifully. This was the last movie James Dean did, he died before shooting was over, and it is by far the most tempered performance of his. The mannerism that tended to annoy me in his two other movies is not gone, but toned down and that suits him. Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor still had many movies to come and they both deliver very mature performances here.

When it comes to “Giant” whether I like it or not feels irrelevant. This is a big movie and very impressive at that and actually quite interesting beyond all the dazzle.


Sunday 14 February 2016

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)

Manden der vidste for meget
As I progress through the list it happens with increasing frequency that I encounter movies I have previously watched. This is usually because they are classics and so I do not mind the re-watch. That is certainly the case of today’s film “The Man Who Knew Too Much”. I even think I have watched it multiple times, but last time (before this one) must have been at least a decade ago and I found I had forgotten more than I remembered, which mostly amounted to the Moroccan restaurant scene and the lost child theme.

It was such a joy to watch it again and I feel I can finally appreciate it for the great achievement it is. I will be much surprised if this will not be among my top watches of 1956.

Most readers of this blog will recognize the movie immediately. If you do not the only explanation I can see is that you, like me, insist on doing the List chronologically and so have saved this one for some time in the distant future. You will know that this is of course Alfred Hitchcock and that it belongs to his golden period, the time where Hitch could do nothing wrong. A presentation of the story is therefore deeply unnecessary. Instead I would like to talk about all the things I love about this picture.

First of all there is the format of the story. It takes us along on a journey with the McKenna’s (James Stewart, Doris Day and Christopher Olsen as their son Hank) from Morocco to London and from unconcerned leisure to anxiety, suspense and finally release. It is almost Indiana Jones as we get around, meeting strange characters and odd places and I love it. It is going too far to say we have character development, but these fairly ordinary people (who are as a matter of fact not so ordinary) takes a ride on the emotional rollercoaster and we see them from all angles as they deal with the crisis. Maybe I am not so taken by Jimmy Stewarts Dr. Ben, he is a little too aggressive and self-satisfied in a small town sort of way for my taste, but Doris Day is amazing and she reveals sides of herself you may not expect at the opening.

Secondly I am very impressed with the sets. It would have been easy to just stay at home and build everything in the studio, but so much of the film is made on location, both in Marrakesh and in London. This is a real market in Marrakesh and this is most certainly the Royal Albert Hall in London. The authenticity this lends to the movie is immense and you can tell that every scene is though through in every detail.

This would not be a Hitchcock movie however if the suspense element was not central to the production. I doubt there is ever any question that we are in for a happy end, but that does not ruin it one bit. Suspense is build up slowly with small odd happenings, remarks, people throwing glances, until the McKenna’s are finally convinced that something fishy is going on and when suddenly a French agent in native disguise dies in Ben McKenna’s arms they are thrown into the deep end and their world is turned upside down. Of course with their child missing they are facing any parent’s worst nightmare and that means that anybody and everybody are potentially dangerous to them. I doubt they really care that some statesman’s life is at stake. To them it is all about getting to their boy without endangering his life and that means keeping the police out of it as long as possible. It is logical that their situation is suspense in itself, but Hitch plays the theme again and again in different variations interspersed with relief breaks, almost funny, but not enough to break the spell. The scenes in the Royal Albert Hall are famous and for good reason, but my favorite scene for suspense is when the McKenna’s walk in to the Chapel in the middle of service and stand there in the back while the kidnappers are performing the service. Not much is said verbally, but the eyes, oh dear, they speak volumes.

Hitch clearly knew his way around London and I think he took a special joy in presenting the American couple as fishes out of the water here, maybe payback for his own life in America, but there is also some zeitgeist in Americans coming to England to fix things. The interesting thing here is that this is actually a remake of Hitchcock’s own film from 34 (which I have not seen) so this is either a new element or something already incorporated in the prewar setting.

A final element I have to mention is the music. The score have two prominent themes and I cannot decide which is the more striking. The climax in the Royal Albert Hall is totally submerged into a magnificent rendition of Arthur Benjamins’s “Storm Clouds Cantata”. It is firing on all cylinders with symphonic orchestra and a massive choir and just begs to be experienced in a modern theater with a top notch sound system. The other is Doris Day singing “Que Sera, Sera”, which is a lot more subdued, but not less gripping. Of course this song became a monster hit and so has long since entered pop culture history as one of those songs everybody knows. Incidentally it also gave “The Man Who Knew Too Much” its only Oscar.

Was this the best Hitchcock ever? I think I will leave that decision until I have covered all his entries, but for me this is definitely top tier along with “Rear Window”, “North by Northwest” and “Vertigo”.


Sunday 7 February 2016

Written on the Wind (1956)

Dårskabens timer
I guess I am a bit stupid. I read the comments on “Written on the Wind” about how this is a subversive and clever movie, appreciated belatedly by critics some time in the seventies, but I do not get it. “Written on the Wind” is “Dynasty” set and made in the fifties. It is soap. Funny and witty at times, melodramatic at others, exaggerated, trashy and flashy. To me it reminded me more than anything about the cheap novels mass produced for women. Subversive and clever? Hmmm… help me out here, please.

Lucy Moore (Lauren Bacall) is working in advertisement for Hadley Oil when she is discovered by Kyle Hadley (Robert Stack), a rich playboy who wows to give up his lifestyle if that will win her over. Lucy is generally unimpressed, but ends up sympathetic to Kyle and voila, they are married, much to the chagrin of Kyle’s childhood friend and buddy Mitch (Rock Hudson), who has also taken a liking to her.

Kyle is a bad boy, or at least makes a show of being bad. Actually he is terribly weak and always feel inferior to smart, controlled and handsome Mitch. All Kyle has is his money. As son and heir of Hadley Oil that amounts to a lot of money. Lucy is about the first real success he ever had that was not due to his money.

Marylee Hadley (Dorothy Malone), Kyle’s sister is really badass, vicious, scheming and not bothered by trivial things like conscience and common sense. But then again she is also terribly childish and weak. Her viciousness is primarily a means to get attention and out of bitterness that she cannot have Mitch. As a result she tries to ruin everything for everybody, her father, brother, Mitch and Lucy and she is largely successful.

Things fall apart for Kyle when he finds out he cannot get children. Maybe a final failure too many, maybe his life in a nutshell. Anyway, he cracks up and starts drinking again. When Lucy then gets pregnant after all he is sure Mitch is the father and he decides Mitch is to blame for all his failings. Actually Kyle is the father, but he is too far out to realize that. In his raging madness he hits Lucy into a miscarriage, estranging her and ends up shooting himself. That is actually what we see in the opening sequence. The rest is a court drama to see if Marylee will point a finger at Mitch or tell what really happened.

There is not really that much to it. The rich are corrupt and the real hero is the hard working guy who did not have the advantage of money, but instead tons of integrity. When the family implodes he is the only one left standing. Give him Rock Hudson’s physique and this is fast becoming very predictable.

I am unimpressed with the story and even less impressed with the script. Especially the first half is artificial in the extreme. Nobody speaks like that outside a telenovela, not even in “Dynasty”. Fortunately the acting on the most part compensates for that. Rob Stack and Dorothy Malone both put the pedal to the metal and take rich kid lunacy to new heights. It did earn Malone an Academy Award for Supporting Actress and it was a deserved one. Rock Hudson is just being a picture of himself, strangely anonymous, but worst is Lauren Bacall. I had so looked forward to see her again, but I suppose there was a good reason why her career was slumping. Her performance is incredibly wooden and cold as if she is not really there. She is supposed to be tough and the common sense outsider to watch the Hadleys implode, but she appear to be the resident valium addict and almost disappears out of the story after the initial courtship.

As you probably have guessed soaps are not really my thing. Romances can be intriguing and moving, but the escapades of the rich is just uninteresting and blown up as it is here I just cannot get sold on it.

What is worse, I cannot figure out what is that special value of the movie. What am I missing here?

Maybe if Lucy combined with Marylee and Mitch with Kyle we would have two characters that were both alive and equipped with a modicum of integrity. Then they would be almost normal.

Tuesday 2 February 2016

East of Eden (1955)

Øst for paradis
When I was a student in the nineties one of the cooler things to do in Århus was to watch art movies at the “Øst for paradis” cinema. I watched many memorable movies there (it still exists) and the place was really old school with none of the whistles and bells that became an integral part of cinemas during that decade. I never understood the name though. It translates to “East of Eden” and in my total ignorance I did not understand the reference. Until now.  

“East of Eden” is most commonly known as the first major movie James Dean starred in. It is also, but lesser known as, a terrific movie. As such I am surprised that it is not of the List, the only explanation I can see being that the other two James Dean movies, “Giant” and “Rebel without a Cause” are already there and three would be too many. That is a damn thin argument, but it is the only one I can find. Therefore I will add it to my list of movies that should be on the List and reward it with a review.

“East of Eden” is in some ways the opposite of “Rebel without a Cause”. It is a large movie, spanning a fairly long period, covering ground and a storyline with many elements, clearly an adaption of a book, whereas “Rebel…” was barely more than 24 hours and a story thin enough to be a short story. It is also a period piece where “Rebel…” was contemporary. The scale, threatening to become epic, is both a strength and a weakness. Weakness because I clearly sense there is a lot more in the story which is not told, background hinted at and gaps where something took place, the compromises movies always face when adapting a novel (in this case Steinbeck’s). But it is also a strength because it allows characters to develop and what is happening change them and that is critical in this movie. It is all about the characters.

This should not really come as a surprise. This is an Elia Kazan movie after all and he was more than most directors an actors director. All the principal characters are well rounded and allowed to develop, take a journey if you will, into something else and that transition is the real sell of the movie.

Very clearly this is meant as a Cain and Abel story, of a son vying for his father’s love and killing the loved one in the process. The fable is referenced so often and clearly during the movie that there is no doubt on that. However I am not so strong on Biblical fables, so I took another viewpoint (which may in the end turn out to be the same thing). As I see it this is about the conflict between what is considered right and what is really right. Or in a clearer phrasing: the conflict between adhering to rules for what is good and correct as opposed to recognizing other people, accepting and loving them for what they are. This may seem like the same thing, but they are radically different.

Adam Trask (Raymond Massey) is a California farmer who lives by the book, literally. He is good, does all the right things and adheres strictly to those. His manual is the Bible and it gives him confidence to know he is doing the right thing. Adam has two sons, Aron (Richard Davalos) and Caleb (James Dean). Aron is the good son who follows the same rules as his father and for that reason is his father’s favorite. Cal on the other hand frets under these rules. He is a rebel who goes his own ways and does not accept the rules as rules. Consequently he is bad. Not because what he does is so bad, but because he refuses to adhere to the rules.

Cal is constantly aware that he is deficient and unable to gain his father’s love. He suspect it is a trait inherited from his mother. Though presumed dead he finds her, now the wealthy proprietor of a brothel, and we learn than she too objected to the bondage of the rules Adam had set up. Adam preferred his rules to accepting and loving who she was and so she quit.

This somehow helps Cal and he sets out on a mission to win his fathers love. He works extra hard, devotes himself to support Adams dream and when that dream fails, to recover the loss. Cal is resourceful, but his project is in vain. He does not play by the book and so Adam cannot accept him. This reaches a climax with one of the most disastrous birthday parties in cinema history. Failing this project Cal in desperation opt for another approach and crashes the illusions Adam and Aron has built around them. It is dramatic and fatal, but it works. Finally he is through, but maybe too late.  

Aron’s girlfriend Abra (Julie Harris) is the one who can recognize other people and love them for who they are and she is the only one who sees Cal that way, although I suspect a few others, in particularly the Sheriff, in town do as well. In any case she becomes a counterpoint to the wall Cal keeps hitting.

What I really like here is how these people develop and how what they do lead them through this transition. Abra is growing up and her eyes open. Cal gains focus, Aron’s self-righteousness becomes more and more shrill until it is a crutch and Adam as the most extraordinary character struggles to escape his moral prison and understand his own son. This is all gold.

It is impossible to discuss “East of Eden” without talking about James Dean. He is very much the picture of James Dean here, at least I recognize so much of him from “Rebel…”. That is both good and bad. Clearly Kazan gave him free reins and so he does his things so much that he appears borderline retarded. I am not sure that is such a good thing. There is a little too much pent up emotion here, a little too raw a performance. It is clear to see why this made him iconic, but it is not always working for me. Dean is best when he is angry and less good when he is “lost for words”.

I liked “East of Eden” and I understand why it is a classic. What I do not understand is why the editors of the List did not see it that way.

Oh, and do look out for the most annoying nurse in cinema history.