Friday, December 23, 2011

Favorite Films of Favorite Directors

The best films have one thing in common--outstanding direction from remarkable artists who hone their craft over long careers. Overseeing all aspects of film production must be an incredible job. So much to keep a handle on. When they get it right, it's magic. Sure, they miss the mark occasionally, leaving us wondering how so and so made such a stinker, but more often than not they amaze us rather than disappoint. More than a few of the best have a masterpiece or even two on their resume.

What follows are my favorite films from my favorite directors. I planned to restrict it to ten but found that silly and unreasonable. I don't suggest that these are necessarily these directors' masterpiece, though you can often make that argument. Rather, the films are the ones I enjoy the most, for any number of reasons, and the ones I rewatch over and over. Ask me next week and you might get something different, depending on my mood.  But for today, here they are in chronological order:

Frank Capra: It Happened One Night - 1934

Sure he can be overly idealistic, but no one captured Americana quite like Capra. His first big hit is his best because there's little sentiment, just a romantic comedy, a road film about a couple you know are destined to fall in love. The hitch-hiking sequence, the Walls of Jericho, Gable's donut dunking, and best of all, the "Man on the Flying Trapeze" on the bus. A sweet and funny trip in nostalgia. Like all the other films in this list, it has terrific pacing. (Runner-up: It's a Wonderful Life)


Howard Hawks: Only Angels Have Wings - 1939

Hawks credo was that a good film had "three great scenes and no bad ones." Any number of his films meet that test. A versatile director, he excelled at films featuring a small group of men engaged in dangerous work, showing comradeship and bravery in the face of long odds. This aviation drama exemplifies that as well as any. My favorite Jean Arthur film, it has Hawks' signature overlapping dialog and one of Cary Grant's first reach beyond light comedy. Gotta love the Peanut Vendor scene.  (Runner-up: Rio Bravo)

John Ford: Stagecoach - 1939

The American master, Ford set a high standard. Here, he makes John Wayne a star and introduces magnificent Monument Valley to film audiences. The Indian attack is as exciting as any sequence in the genre and includes the remarkable stunt work of Yakima Canutt. Still one of film's best ensemble casts: Mitchell, Trevor, Meek, Devine, Carradine are all great.  (Runner-up: The Searchers)

Billy Wilder: Double Indemnity - 1944

Noir at its best when it comes to a dangerous femme fatale and a sap who can't help falling into her trap. A wickedly entertaining Wilder script and Edgar G. Robinson's finest performance. Stanwyck does sexy trashy better than anyone. The blond wig and ankle bracelet fit her character perfectly and you gotta love the clunky Dictaphone. (Runner-up: The Apartment)

William Wyler: The Best Years of Our Lives - 1946

In the handful of greatest American films ever made, this is as perfect as it gets. The best "coming home" film, I don't know how anyone cannot be moved by the poignant story of three vets trying to assimilate back to civilian life after the horror of war. Gregg Toland's deep focus cinematography is particularly wonderful and the entire cast is outstanding. So many great scenes: Fredric March and Myrna Loy's embrace, Dana Andrews in the bomber graveyard, his phone call to Peggy from Butch's bar, and his father reading his citation for bravery. You can well up just thinking about it.  (Runner-up: The Heiress)   

David Lean: Great Expectations - 1946

Most people think of Lean's big epics when they hear his name but I love his early stuff, particularly his two Dickens' films. This is the best translation of a Dicken's novel to screen and Lean and his actors do a wonderful job recreating some of Dickens' most memorable characters: Francis Sullivan as Jaggers, Finlay Currie as Magwitch, and Marita Hunt as Miss Havisham are terrific. The best scene comes early-Pip and Magwitch in the graveyard. Outstanding cinematography and spooky as hell. (Runner-up: The Bridge on the River Kwai) 


Carol Reed: The Third Man - 1948

Not nearly as prolific as other directors in the list, I have to include him. It's my favorite film, ripe with atmosphere like no other. It's an exciting visual experience the first time you see it and the intrigue is spell-binding. I love the decrepit look of post-war Vienna, the piles of broken bricks, the perpetually wet streets, and the crazy zither. The film is unique. Joseph Cotton is always solid and, like his character Holly Martins, I absolutely fell in love with Alida Valli. Her final long walk down the tree-lined avenue, past Martin without looking, is perfect. The sewer sequence is riveting and Welles' first appearance a wonderful shock.    (Runner-up: The Fallen Idol)      

John Huston: The Asphalt Jungle - 1950

I can't think of a better heist film. Huston puts you in the world of small-time crooks like no one else since and Sterling Hayden's doomed Dix Handley is fascinating. Some great period character actors: Louis Calhern; the marvelous Jean Hagen, who epitomizes all women who love a loser; and James Whitmore. A rotten double-crosser and poor Sam Jaffe, the brain who likes to watch young girls dance. Marilyn Monroe defines sultry with sex appeal that practically oozes off the screen, and darn it, you can almost forgive Calhern's motives.  (Runner-up:The Maltese Falcon)

Yasujiro Ozu: Tokyo Story - 1953

Ozu's simplicity and am amazed how his static camera works for the story. Best of all is Setsuko Hara, one of the world's greatest actresses. The third in the marvelous Noriko trilogy, each film is magnificent. Hard to choose, but this one touched me the most. Hara is less the central character here than in the other two films, but you can't take your eyes off her. (Runner-up: Early Summer)

Fred Zinnemann: From Here to Eternity - 1953

When I think of Burt Lancaster, Montgomery Clift, and Ernest Borgnine, the first film that comes to mind for all is this one. Zinnemann did a great job focusing on the best parts of the novel. One of the reasons I admire the film is the subject--my father was a 21 year old sailor aboard a destroyer in Pearl Harbor on December 7th. Lancaster and Clift did better work elsewhere, but overall this is a terrific ensemble piece. I love Deborah Kerr in anything, and she handles the change of pace here easily. Karen Holmes  is a such a vulnerable character. Watch her eyes as she stares at Lancaster in the bar. She's totally in love and hoping that finally, she's found the man to make her happy. She looks great as a blond too.  (Runner-up: High Noon)

Alfred Hitchcock: Vertigo - 1958

If there's any director in this list I could select any number of films as a favorite, it's Hitchcock. Easily my favorite and most-rewatched director. I pick Vertigo because it is his most complicated and layered film. We are all obsessed with something, or someone, at some time in our life and Vertigo takes obsession to a scary place. It interests me that upon release it apparently was not all that well received, while it now ranks with the best American films ever made. Perhaps Stewart's best performance, which says a lot; that memorable and wonderful Hermann score; the Saul Bass title sequence; and the gorgeousness of San Francisco.  (Runner-up: The Thirty-Nine Steps)

Orson Welles: Touch of Evil - 1958

A story of corruption and distrust that is signature Welles. Lots to love here: the fantastic long single-take opening sequence, unusual camera angels, Mancini's unnerving score, Joseph Calleia, unexpected cameos, Welles' as the repulsive but sympathetic Hank Quinlan, and Janet Leigh in a nightie.  My favorite line is a leeringly butch Mercedes MacCambridge saying "I want to watch!" This one more than Citizen Kane reveals what Welles could have achieved had he been left alone.  (Runner-up: The Lady from Shanghai)

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Far From the Madding Crowd (1967) - John Schlesinger

Bathsheba Everdene (Julie Christie), a beautiful young woman, unexpectedly inherits a substantial farm and wealth. Independent of will and vivacious, she soon has charge of the place, dispensing with her thieving foreman. She quickly attracts the amorous attentions of three men: Gabriel Oak, a poor but hard-working sheep farmer; William Boldwood, a bland but prosperous man in his early forties and a confirmed bachelor; and Sergeant Frank Troy, dashingly handsome and reckless and given to sudden fits of temper. 

A rustic farm house in Dorset, England. 

Based on Thomas Hardy's wonderful 1874 novel, the film centers mainly on the romantic life of Bathsheba, and gives shorter shrift to the class distinctions aspects of the book. Still, it is a fine adaptation. What strikes you first is the gorgeous cinematography of the lush Dorset countryside by Nicolas Roeg. This is a beautiful film to look at. Roeg captures the rolling hills of the bucolic setting and the farmhands at work in muted earth tones. The color is reminiscent of certain Impressionists: Van Goth's wheat fields and hay stacks and Monet's poppy fields. Roeg's previous work included Fahrenheit 451 as director of photography, and he served on the camera crew for Lawrence of Arabia , Doctor Zhivago, and The Sundowners.

Having Julie Christie as your main subject certainly helps. Twenty-six here, she looks stunning against the rural landscape. Director Schlesinger wisely dons her in simple white and brown dresses for the most part, and gives her plenty of closeups.

Julie Christie as Bathsheba.

Christie gives a fine performance. She takes her flirtatious character from poor beginnings and evolves into a strong-willed, confident business woman as she deals with matters of the heart and overcomes some serious lapses in judgment. She treats her farmhands well but expects hard work in return, saying:

"Don't anyone suppose that because I'm a woman, I don't understand the difference between bad goings-on and good. I shall be up before you're awake, I shall be afield before you're up, and I shall have breakfasted before you're afield. In short, I shall astonish you all."

If a tad self-centered at the start, Bathsheba undergoes a maturation over the course of the story. Among her three suitors, Gabriel Oak (Alan Bates), the first, is the one you root for. His name is suggestive; throughout the story he is the most practical and sensible character. An early incident reveals his kind nature--he interrupts a journey to help extinguish a dangerous fire, threatening to destroy ricks of hay. Panicked farmhands are disorganized. Oak takes over and gets the blaze under control. Surprisingly, the farm belongs to Bathsheba, a girl who earlier rejected his marriage proposal. Thankful for Oak's assistance, she now offers him the job of foreman, with the understanding that theirs is strictly an employer/employee relationship. He accepts, in part because he still loves the girl "far more than common."

Alan Bates as Gabriel Oak.

One of the best scenes in the film occurs early, before Oak's reappearance into Bathsheba's life. You get a good idea of how life was during the time. Oak lives alone, in a small hut with insufficient heat. He toils trying to establish himself as a successful farmer, but when one of his dogs chases his sheep herd over a cliff, he is left destitute. It is a sad moment, and a shocking one. He reluctantly puts the dog down and we understand that he is essentially a good, caring man, no-nonsense in his approach to work and self-sufficient. He'll do what needs to be done. His hopes dashed, he takes to the road in search of work. Bates, in his most handsome and likable role, is wonderful.

Peter Finch plays the love-sick Boldwood. He falls in love with Bathsheba at first sight and later misinterprets a flippant valentine. His relentless pursuit thereafter becomes a little pathetic, but Finch captures the man's uncontrolled crush perfectly. Obsessed with the woman, he lets his own farm go downhill, and he even goes so far as to try to buy off a rival. By the end, consumed by jealousy, he loses all control of his actions to disastrous results.

Boldwood bribes Sergent Troy.
Though Boldwood offers security, Bathsheba has unwisely lost her own heart to a rakish soldier, Sergeant Troy (Terence Stamp). Troy, handsome and romantic, is also an untrustworthy cad. More troubling, he seems mentally and emotionally unstable, as revealed when another girl unavoidably arrives late for their planned wedding. Troy is humiliated and unforgiving. He summarily rejects the girl, whose later death, along with a stillborn child, will have consequences for them all.

When it comes to Troy, Bathsheba is as smitten as Boldwood, and acts nearly as foolishly. After having turned his back on his fiance, she becomes the object of Troy's charms. They marry. He likes to gamble and isn't very good at it, and it takes a while for her to realize he is interested only in her money. Even then, she is too forgiving. All the while, the faithful and knowledgeable Oak waits in the wings. When everyone gets drunk after a harvest, a storm threatens to ruin the crop. Only Oak comes to the rescue in a dramatic scene, the wind whipping canvas and the rain pelting him and Bathsheba. Later, he saves her sheep from bloat.


It is a long film and for good portions it meanders at a leisurely pace. No doubt this was a conscious decision by Schlesinger, and a good one as it suits a story set in the countryside during this period. "Madding" of the title means frenzied, author Hardy's description for urban life. And indeed, life on the farm is anything but frenzied. The love affairs of the principal characters are another matter.

A nice scene with Bathsheba and her farmhands, enjoying a celebratory picnic, is a good example of mid-18th Century life in the English countryside. The characters enjoy an amiable moment, Christie sings a traditional folk song, Bushes and Briers, and we are transported to a different time and place. The cast of farmhands and maids look perfect: rough and weathered faces from a life of labor outdoors, and costumed as we expect such simple folk would be. Unlike the ambitious Bathsheba, they accept their lowly place in society, and only aspire for a warm ceiling overhead and a glass of beer after a hard day's work. Boldwood arrives uninvited and Bathsheba invites him to sit. He looks longingly at her. So do we.

This marked Christie's 3rd Schlesinger film, following Billy Liar (1963) and Darling (1965), for which she won the Oscar as Best Actress. Richard Rodney Bennett received an Oscar nomination for his score. It fits the pastoral scene nicely and feels right for Victorian England. Otherwise the film was ignored at Oscar time, somewhat understandable given that year's competition. Hollywood was in a transition, and films like Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate, and In the Heat of the Night were that year's popular attractions. Still, it seems a far worthier candidate for recognition than the silly Doctor Doolittle. Besides the aforementioned cinematography, the costumes are terrific and the set design impeccable.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Psycho (1960) -- Alfred Hitchcock

An iconic image from Psycho.
Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) loves Sam Loomis (John Gavin), a recent divorcee with all of his money tied up in alimony and a hardware store. Marion lives in Phoenix and works in a real estate office while Sam lives in Fairvale, California. The couple must sneak an hour together here or there during Marion's lunch breaks to meet at a downtown hotel when Sam visits. Fed up with the arrangement, Marion makes a rash decision and takes $40,000 from her employer and skips town, planning to pay off Sam's mortgage so they can start a new life together. Tiring after a long drive and worried about road conditions, she stops at the Bates Motel as she nears her destination. There she meets the owner, Norman (Anthony Perkins), a strange young man who practices taxidermy and is not who or what he seems. 

Mother! Oh God, mother! Blood! Blood!
Director Alfred Hitchcock shocked movie audiences with his tale of a mentally disturbed man fixated on his mother. It took the suspense genre to a new level and changed women's bathing habits. All slasher movies since are derived from this seminal work, rightly considered a masterpiece of horror and suspense. It is not possible today to fully appreciate how revolutionary this film was in 1960. It is an unconventional one, divided into two distinct parts: the tale of Marion Crane's crime and punishment, and the tale of Norman.

The film starts with a high view over downtown Phoenix. The camera slowly pulls into a hotel window where Marion and Sam have just made love. Hitchcock cleverly uses the color of Marion's undergarments to symbolize her nature; here, still a "good" woman, she wears a white brassiere and slip. Later, after her theft, she has lost the veneer of honesty and appears in a black brassiere. The tryst with Sam establishes that Marion is unhappy and frustrated. Later, back at work, she feigns a headache. Her employer sends her home, but on the way, asks her to make a bank deposit. The temptation is too great. She steals the money and heads for Sam.

A wonderfully tense sequence follows where Marion, beset by paranoia, encounters a motorcycle cop. He finds her napping on the side of the road. It's a routine check, but because she acts nervous, he grows suspicious. He watches her later as she exchanges her car at a used-car lot, paying cash without haggling with the surprised dealer, even refusing to take the new car for a test drive. Longtime Hitchcock collaborator, Bernard Herrmann, overscores much of the driving sequence with tense strings, similar to that used for the opening credits. It's unnerving, allowing the audience to share Marion's mood of disquiet and guilt. Hitchcock famously had a fear of the police in real life, and he hides the officer behind a pair of dark glasses to give him an ominous look.    

Mort Mills as the highway patrol officer.

Marion drives into the night but runs into fatigue and a rainstorm; somehow she has gotten off the main road. She pulls into a roadside motel, planning to sleep a while before continuing on. The place is run by Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), a man in his late 20s. She rents a room and he invites her to the office for a bite to eat. Marion overhears an ugly argument between Norman and his mother, who seems a dominating, complaining nag, a suffocating burden for Norman to bear. For his part, Norman seems a pathetic beaten-down weakling who's put his life on hold to care for his ailing mother. When asked if he has any friends, he replies, "Well, a man's best friend is his mother."

The two share an odd conversation, surrounded by Norman's stuffed birds, talking about the traps people get into, and we get the first hint that Norman is a little off. He's quick to anger for one thing. Marion realizes her life is not so difficult in comparison, and she comes to believe she's made a terrible mistake. She decides that tomorrow she will return to Phoenix to accept the consequences of her actions.

While their conversation gives plenty of clues that Norman may be unstable, because it is so innocent and because he appears so harmless, Marion doesn't quite see him for who he is.  

Norman: It's not like my mother is a maniac or a raving thing. She just goes a little mad sometimes. We all go a little mad sometimes. Haven't you?
Marion: Yes. Sometimes just one time can be enough.

Marion: Wouldn't it be better if you put her... someplace.
Norman: You mean an institution? A madhouse?
Marion: No, I didn't mean it like...
Norman: [suddenly angry] People always call a madhouse "someplace", don't they? "Put her in someplace!"
Marion: I'm sorry. I didn't mean to sound so uncaring.
Norman: What do you know about caring? Have you ever seen the inside of one of those places? The laughing, and the tears, and those cruel eyes studying you? My mother there?
[subdued tone]
Norman: Oh, but she's harmless. She's as harmless as one of those stuffed birds.
Marion: I tried to mean well.
Norman: People always mean well. They cluck their thick tongues, and shake their heads and suggest, oh, so very delicately!

The most famous scene in Hitchcock's entire canon soon follows, a masterpiece of editing and sound. George Tomasini served as editor. He knew what he was doing and would collaborate with Hitchcock on nine films, including Vertigo and most recently, North by Northwest. Hitchcock lets the viewer's imagination do the work here, a daring choice by the director. It works beautifully. 

Arbogast. Hired by Marion's sister, Lila (Vera Miles), to investigate Marion's disappearance, he stops at the Bates Motel. Arbogast grows suspicious upon questioning Norman, who acts peculiar and evasive. Watch Perkins' eyes and gestures during the interrogation. He's still popping that snack, but now he's a bundle of nerves. He stutters, trying his best to act nonchalant, but the detective keeps tripping him up.

Already jolted by one shocking death, the audience soon gets another. Convinced that the man is hiding something, Arbogast sneaks into the Bates house with the intention of questioning the mother, whose silhouette he believes he caught a glimpse of below. It's wonderfully suspenseful. He slowly ascends the stairs, careful to keep quiet, looking about to make sure Norman isn't about. Suddenly, in a high shot above the action, a figure darts out of a room onto the landing, clad in an old woman's robe. It holds a knife high overhead. Down it comes. The camera cuts to the detective's face as he stumbles backward, struggling desperately to keep his balance down the stairs. It bears a large gash and utter astonishment. Herrmann's frightening score adds immensely to the mood of the scene.

Arbogast is victim number two. 

At this point you might wonder where Hitchcock is taking you. Psycho contains considerably more graphic violence than any of his previous work. Of course, that's one reason it is so shocking upon first viewing.

Arbogast's death proves to be Norman's undoing as it brings Sam and Lila to the scene, where they unravel the mystery in a famous encounter in the basement of the Bates' home. There's a spooky exchange with a local sheriff when they are told that Norman's mother died ten years ago. Some critics don't like the denouncement/explanation by a psychologist at the end of the film, but it sets up the terrific final shot of Norman in jail. Thanks to the voice-over and Perkins' creepy smile, you know he's come completely unhinged.

He wouldn't hurt a fly!

The film earned 4 Oscar nominations, including Best Director, Best Set Direction, Best Cinematography, and Best Supporting Actress (Leigh). It won none, though Leigh did take home a Golden Globe for her work. It was named to the National Film Registry in 1992.

Arguably Hitchock's best work, it is certainly his most shocking. With superb pacing, the mystery is unraveled slowly to keep the suspense high. For anyone lucky enough to have seen it upon its initial release, it surely burnt a permanent scar into their brain.   

Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Maltese Falcon (1941) -- John Huston

An attractive woman, Ruth Wonderly, (Mary Astor), comes to the offices of Spade (Humphrey Bogart) and Archer, a private detective agency in San Francisco, with what looks like a routine case--she wants them to locate her sister. Wonderly claims the sister is involved with a man named Thursby, whom she plans to meet that night in an attempt to bribe him to abandoned the girl. Archer volunteers to track Thursby, hoping that he will lead them to the missing girl. When both Archer and Thursby are killed that night, the case takes on an ominous tone, and the next morning Spade is visited by a strange little man looking for a long-lost statue of a falcon. Is there a connection? Spade soon finds himself dealing with three unscrupulous adventurers competing for the priceless falcon as he tries to uncover the truth about the death of his partner.

Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade

Filmed twice before, Director John Huston's version of mystery writer Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon, makes the first two efforts pale in comparison. It is simply one of the best films of its genre, and the film that solidified Bogart's stardom. Many consider it one of the first Film Noirs, but I don't classify it as such. Yes, it has a femme fatale, but you never seriously believe that Bogart as the protagonist is in real danger or in trouble. And it lacks the shadowy photography that I associate with the best noirs. Still, it set the bar high for entertaining detective films that followed for the next fifteen years or so.

It's hard to find fault with the film. Precise direction, a genre-defining script, stellar cinematography, and one of the best ensemble casts ever assembled; it's a great story of intrigue. Bogart may star, but the memorable collection of eccentric villains is what makes this so much fun to watch. Sydney Greenstreet (in his first film) plays the rotund Kasper Gutman; Lorre is the effeminate Joel Cairo; and Astor the beautiful femme fatale. A dedicated bunch--Gutman has been chasing the falcon for 17 years--they are more dangerous than they appear. Still, the group seems slightly out of their element, and we can't help but like them for it. Of course, Spade will outwit them all by the end.

The film opens with a screen card that provides the backstory:
In 1539 the Knight Templars of Malta, paid tribute to Charles V of Spain, by sending him a Golden Falcon encrusted from beak to claw with rarest jewels——but pirates seized the galley carrying this priceless token and the fate of the Maltese Falcon remains a mystery to this day——[
The character of Joel Cairo is a long way from Lorre's infamous child molester, Hans Bekert, in Fritz Lang's 1931's M. This is one of his first American films that became well known. Impeccably dressed and smelling of gardenia, Cairo pulls a gun on Spade, intending to search the detective's office for the Falcon. Spade easily disarms the smaller man, telling him "when you're slapped, you'll take it and like it." It's through Cairo and Miss Wonderly, whom Spade has learned is really Brigid O'Shaughnessy, that we meet the "Fat Man," Kasper Gutman. It is now clear that three people are after the elusive statue, and that O'Shaughnessy's first story was a bogus one. 

Gutman employs an inept underling, Wilmer (Elisha Cook Jr.), who thinks he is a tough guy. Spade's interaction with this character is one of the joys of the film--he continually gets the upper hand of the punk. Cook is one of those frequent character actors who enhances every film he's in, seemingly without effort. His best decade is the 1940's where roles included Lawrence Tierney's sidekick in the brutal Born to Kill, and again with Bogart in The Big Sleep. But his most memorable performance is as a stubborn Southern homesteader gunned down by Jack Palance in 1953's Shane.  Here he plays Gutman's muscle, and not so subtle "boy." Wilmer does Gutman's dirty work, and is in fact a murderer, but he is no match for a professional like Spade, The detective is dismissive, calling him a gunsel, slang for homosexual.   

The mountainous Kasper Gutman

One of the best scenes in the film occurs when Spade first meets with the mountainous man. Director Huston keeps his camera low when Gutman is on screen to emphasize the man's immense size. (Greenstreet's weight topped 350 pounds). Greenstreet's performance exudes a cultured menace, with a deep guttural laugh and confidence. He and the detective verbally spar with one another, and though Spade doesn't have the whole story, he now understands that the falcon is priceless and worth considerably more than Cairo first intimated. Spade hints that he possesses the bird and storms out of the room when Gutman is evasive. In the hallway outside Spade breaks into a broad smile, pleased with his performance. At this point he also guesses that one of these suspicious characters is responsible for Archer's murder, though he doesn't know which, and because the police consider him a suspect--they know he has had an affair with Archer's wife--Spade hopes to entice the culprit to reveal himself , using the falcon as bait.   

Peter Lorre as Joel Cairo.

At a second meeting Gutman spikes Spade's drink, leaving him unconscious. When he wakes, he finds a newspaper clipping noting the arrival in town of a ship, the La Paloma.  He hurries to the dock but finds the ship ablaze. Back at his office, a dying man staggers in clutching a bundle wrapped in newspaper. It is the falcon and a search of the man's wallet reveals him to be the captain of the La Paloma. The captain is played by the director's father, Walter Huston   

A final confrontation occurs between all the players. Gutman and Cairo have joined forces. In a long tense scene Gutman offers Spade $10,000 for the falcon. Spade agrees, provided they give him a fall guy for the police--he needs someone to pin the murders on to deflect attention from himself. Gutman reluctantly offers up Wilmer. Spade instructs his secretary to bring him the falcon. Upon inspection, it's discovered to be a fake.

The direction in this scene is terrific and a highlight of the film. At nearly twenty minutes it is extraordinarily riveting. Huston lets the camera in turn capture the reaction of each adventurer as a knife reveals nothing beneath its outer coating of black paint; Gutman sputters, looking like he's about to have a stroke as Cairo berates him for letting the real bird slip through their hands. When the two leave to continue their pursuit of the statue, Spade calls the police and tells them where to pick up the pair. He then confronts Brigid, telling her he knows she killed Archer to implicate Thursby, her unwanted accomplice. Brigid, shocked that Spade would turn her over to the police, tries to work her wiles on the up-till-then plaint detective--there is a strong suggestion that the two have become lovers. But Spade follows the private eye's code, telling her "You killed Miles and you're going over for it."

The falcon isn't what it seems. 

Director Huston penned the sharp screenplay. He gives each villain ample screen time to develop their character, and.has paced the film with wonderful dialog. Here's a sample:

Spade: We didn't exactly believe your story, Miss O'Shaughnessy. We believed your $200. I mean, you paid us more than if you had been telling us the truth, and enough more to make it all right.

Wilmer: Keep on riding me and they're gonna be picking iron out of your liver. 
Spade: The cheaper the crook, the gaudier the patter.

Gutman: You're a close-mouthed man?
Spade: Nah, I like to talk.
Gutman: Better and better. I distrust a close-mouthed man. He generally picks the wrong time to talk and says the wrong things. Talking's something you can't do judiciously, unless you keep in practice.

Spade: I hope they don't hang you, precious, by that sweet neck. Yes, angel, I'm gonna send you over. The chances are you'll get off with life. That means if you're a good girl, you'll be out in 20 years. I'll be waiting for you. If they hang you, I'll always remember you.
The stuff that dreams are made of.

The film was among the first named to the Library of Congress' National Registry in 1989. Oscar nominations included for Best Picture (it lost to John Ford's How Green Was My Valley), Best Script, and Best Supporting Actor (Greenstreet). As a testament to its popular longevity, it is likely the most famous role of several of its performers: Greenstreet, Lorre, and Astor. As for Bogart, his signature role came just one year later, as Rick in Casablanca, the first film in which he received an Oscar nomination.

Author Hammett says of his character:
Spade has no original. He is a dream man in the sense that he is what most of the private detectives I worked with would like to have been and in their cockier moments thought they approached. For your private detective does not — or did not ten years ago when he was my colleague — want to be an erudite solver of riddles in the Sherlock Holmes manner; he wants to be a hard and shifty fellow, able to take care of himself in any situation, able to get the best of anybody he comes in contact with, whether criminal, innocent by-stander or client.

Friday, November 11, 2011

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) by Powell and Pressburger

Clive Wynne-Candy's dedication and commitment to the British Army is displayed in several incidents over a forty-year career, from the Boer War in Africa in 1902 through the beginning of World War II. Along the way, he befriends a German officer, Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff, whom he meets while on a diplomatic mission to Berlin, and three women who bear an uncanny resemblance to each other.

Directors Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's warm-hearted ode to the British military is a wonderfully inventive film, bearing their signature style: keen use of vivid color, witty dialog, and memorable, likable characters. Told in flashback, Blimp starts in 1942 as portly, walrus-mustachioed, old Major General Candy (Roger Livesy) is enjoying a nap at his London club. War games are scheduled to commence at midnight as part of a training exercise for the Home Guard, but an ambitious young officer wants to get a jump on things by "capturing" the commanding general beforehand. His unit raids the officers' club that afternoon, catching the old man asleep after a steam bath, wearing nothing but a towel. Candy, red as a boiled lobster and sweating profusely, is flabbergasted at the officer's effrontery. He wrestles the much younger man into the Swedish pool. When Candy emerges at the other end, it is 1902, and the pudgy general is a dashing, young colonel, as clever a use of any flashback you will ever see.

"But the war starts at midnight!"

As the story continues Clive Candy is back in England for some R&R, having seen duty in Africa during the Boer War. When he hears that a German officer he knew there is spreading malicious lies and attributing atrocities against the natives by the British, Candy goes to Berlin to confront the culprit. Here he meets an English schoolteacher, Edith Hunter (Deborah Kerr in the first of three roles). Together they go to a beer house where an amusing confrontation with the propagandist results in Candy insulting the entire German Army. The military code of the day demands satisfaction in the form of a duel. The German officers draw lots and Candy finds himself up against Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff (Anton Walbrook). Both men are wounded fencing, Candy above the lip, causing him to grow a mustache to hide the scar. Over the course of the film it grows bigger and bigger. The two soldiers become friends as they recuperate together in the hospital, attended to by the beautiful Miss Hunter. Theo only knows two phrases in English: "very much," and "not very much."

Clive Candy and Edith Hunter in Berlin.

En garde!

The dueling scene is quite interesting as it reveals the protocol of such engagements: a neutral referee, in this case, a Swiss officer; the seconds; the choice of weapons. All the accompanying participants bear their own dueling scars on their cheeks. The tension builds slowly, then the duelists take their positions. We don't get to see the actual combat; however, as the camera pulls out a window to Edith, waiting patiently in a hansom cab, but we soon learn the results. In fact, there is no on-screen violence at all in the film.

Theo falls in love with Miss Hunter, who stays behind in Berlin to marry him, while Candy returns to England, realizing too late that he too loves the girl. Livesy does a fine job revealing the character's loneliness and distress. He has the army to occupy his thoughts, but he will admit later in the film that he never managed to get over Edith, his ideal woman. It's a poignant reminder to us all that an opportunity not taken, seldom comes around again.

In a clever sequence to connote the passage of time, separate animal trophy heads appear on Candy's wall following gunshots to show how he diverted his attention during this period. Today, organizations like PETA would be aghast at the technique, but circa 1940, it was an acceptable approach in film. We next pick up the story in November 1918, amidst the battle-scarred landscape of the Western Front in World War I. Whereas before, the film's action was bathed in brilliant color, the scenes here are washed in browns and ashen to denote the tragedy and dehumanizing nature of war. 

This sequence better than any other in the film shows Candy's antiquated ideas about war. His is an out-dated code of honor, where soldiers act like gentlemen. He expects prisoners to respond honestly when interrogated. I'm not sure this was ever the case, but the directors get their point across: Candy is fast becoming an anachronistic fool when it comes to modern warfare. His life is about to change when he meets a Red Cross nurse, Barbara Wynne (Kerr, again), who he'll marry upon his return to England after the armistice.

The WWI outdoor scenes are done on a soundstage, with the backdrops and sky clearly paintings. Still, it is cleverly done--a jeep and motor cycle with side car even ride through mud and puddles.

Candy on the Western Front.

The film jumps to World War II. Both men's wives have long since passed away. Theo hopes to emigrate to England to escape the Nazi party, which he abhors. Candy vouches for his friend's character, enabling him to receive asylum. The best acted scene in the film takes place here as Walbrook explains to a government official his reasons for coming to England. The camera doesn't move, and in a long soliloquy, Theo laments his wife's death, and the fate of his children, who have joined the Nazi party. He is a man defeated by life and feeling alone and useless. Walbrook speaks in a low monotone, his eyes vacant and sad. You understand that his mind has taken him somewhere else, far away into past. This sympathetic portrayal by the directors understandably garnered Winston Churchill's ire. Amidst war, and with the terror of the London Blitz still fresh, he wanted no German portrayed favorably.

Theo: You know that, after the war, we had very bad years in Germany. We got poorer and poorer. Every day retired officers or schoolteachers were caught shoplifting. Money lost its value, the price of everything rose except of human beings. We read in the newspapers that the after-war years were bad everywhere, that crime was increasing and that honest citizens were having a hard job to put the gangsters in jail. Well in Germany, the gangsters finally succeeded in putting the honest citizens in jail.
Anton Walbrook as Theo.

Despite Churchill's reservations, the film served as fine propaganda. Theo voices the film's main message to British audiences when in a later scene he gently scolds his old friend, telling Clive he's not realistic about Hitler's intentions. To defeat the Nazis, he says, Britain must fight just as dirty as the enemy. Referring to the First World War:
Theo: I don't think you won it. We lost it--but you lost something, too. You forgot to learn the moral. Because victory was yours, you failed to learn your lesson twenty years ago and now you have to pay the school fees again. Some of you will learn quicker than the others, some of you will never learn it - because you've been educated to be a gentleman and a sportsman, in peace and in war. But Clive!
At this point, Candy, too old to actively serve, keeps his hand in the new war effort in a leadership position in the Home Guard. His driver is Angela Cannon (Kerr, again).

It's easy to see that the camera loves Kerr, and the directors give her plenty of closeups. She is quite lovely. Just 22 at the time of filming, it is a wonderful performance, requiring three different accents. Kerr's first of six Oscar nominations for Best Actress wouldn't come for another six years, but her work here was worthy of consideration for a supporting award, but she was passed over. A greater omission, however, would occur three years later when the Academy neglected her outstanding work in her second Powell and Pressburger film, Black Narcissus.

One of the film's pleasures is its costumes. Kerr as Edith wears elegant Victorian-era attire: colorful dresses with fur collars, hats with exotic plumes and feathers, lace facings; and in one scene her wide-brimmed hat bears a stuffed black bird. Her spectacular red hair is curled and pushed up on her head. As Angela she wears smart khaki. And both Livesy and Walbrook look magnificent in their pre-WWI uniforms, festooned with medals, red piping, epaulets, capes and helmets.

Kerr as Edith Hunter.

Kerr as Barbara Wynne.

Kerr as Angela "Johnny" Cannon.

There script contains several moments of witty dialog, usually involving Candy. Here's just one example:

Candy: The Kaiser spoke - and the Prince of Wales spoke ...
Edith: Spoke about what?
Candy: Nobody could remember.
Livesy would star in two future Powell and Pressberger films: I Know Where I'm Going and A Matter of Life and Death. But the role of Clive Candy would be his career best. Both he and Walbrook "age" wonderfully in the film, capturing the mannerisms and walks of old men. And the transitional makeup for both characters is perfect. 

Powell and Pressberger would do better work later, more challenging and more powerful, but Blimp is a wonderfully fun film, and the first to really showcase the lovely Kerr.

The Home Guard:

The Home Guard was a defense organization of the British Army comprised of nearly 1.5 million volunteers, mostly men unfit or too old for regular military service. It was initially formed to act as a secondary force in case of German invasion to the British Isles.  Following the London Blitz (September 1940 to May 1941), the threat of invasion subsided, allowing The Home Guard to relieve  regular army personnel for duties in France and elsewhere. It took over guarding airfields and factories. Initially ill-equipped, it eventually received arms and uniforms as depicted in the Blimp film. It effectively lasted from about May, 1940 until the end of 1944.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Johnny Guitar (1954) - Nicholas Ray

Two women vie for dominance on the frontier. Vienna (Joan Crawford) is a sharp businesswoman who has built a gambling house and saloon in anticipation of the railroad coming. Townsfolk and cattlemen, led by a jealous rival, Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge), want her gone from the territory. When a gang of outlaws hold up a stagecoach and kill Emma's brother, Emma and a posse come to Vienna's place looking for the Dancin' Kid, who they target as the culprit, and who may have once shared Vienna's bed.

Given the rest of his canon, it might seem strange that director Nicholas Ray would make a Western. Best known for noirs like They Live by Night, In a Lonely Place, On Dangerous Ground, and urban dramas like Rebel Without a Cause, Ray seemed out of his element here. Maybe that's why Johnny Guitar is such an unusual film, one over which few people seem ambivalent. For some it's a classic, for others it's so far removed from the traditional Western form it's a mess, riddled with over-the-top performances and cringe-worthy dialog. I suspect it may be one of those films that takes a while to warm up to, requiring more than one viewing to form a solid opinion. For me, something about it is dreamlike and mesmerising, as if formed one night in the director's sleep, and the movie is Ray's attempt to translate the murky story into a very stylized film.

We are introduced to Vienna in one of the first scenes as Emma and a group of men come to threaten her. Crawford appears at the top of the stairs, all in black except for a bluish string tie and flaming red lipstick. A gun belt is slung at her waist. She is not frightened, saying "Down there I sell whiskey and cards. All you can buy up these stairs is a bullet in the head. Now which do you want?"

Joan Crawford as Vienna.
It's not positively clear what prompts Emma to so fiercely hate Vienna. Vienna suggests she wants the Kid for herself (though some critics of the film like to promote the silly idea she lusts after Vienna). Judging by how she later reacts when the Kid dances with her, Vienna is likely right, but Emma also considers Vienna a threat to her own financial interests in town. In any case, this unconventional Western pits two strong-willed women against one another instead of the usual male protagonists. Emma has a strange hold over the men in the posse, who defer too easily her lead. She either wields considerable financial power in the community, or is just too troublesome to oppose. Hell-bent on running Vienna out of town, she calls her a "railroad tramp," and warns that the railroad means squatters, farmers, thousands of new people from the east, and ranchers who will fence in the open range. McCambridge is a hard ball of mean energy, taking the character to a maniacal pitch. She vows to kill Vienna, and you know the two will eventually clash with deadly results. For the moment, Vienna stands them down.

Ray has made both women similar in appearance in certain scenes, with short black hair and that dark red lipstick. Perhaps he is implying that the characters represent the dual personality in all of us, good and evil.

Sterling Hayden is Johnny Logan, now going by the name of Johnny Guitar, trying to break with a violent past. Vienna once loved him but he ran out of her life five years earlier, afraid to settle down. She tells him her love for him is now just ashes. Though a woman scorned who still bears scars, she's invited Johnny back to help her build a new town. No one quite knows what to make of him. Why would a gunfighter of repute hang up his guns for a musical instrument? 

The Dancin' Kid (Steve Brodie) arrives with his gang (including Ernest Borgnine), charging the atmosphere even more. Johnny makes a dramatic appearance, catching a shot glass before it rolls off the bar. He diffuses the tension when he plays a lively tune and the Kid grabs Emma to dance. If any scene defines the strangeness of Johnny Guitar, it's this one. The tension has built steadily; we expect an eruption, possibly with gun play. Instead, a group of supposedly tough cowboys stand about glaring at one another while the biggest man strums his guitar and the supposedly most dangerous man waltzes. A weird exchange takes place between Johnny and the Kid as they size each other up.

Kid: I didn't get your name stranger.
Johnny: Guitar. Johnny Guitar.
Kid: You call that a name?
Johnny: Care to try and change it?

The Dancin' Kid struts his stuff with Emma.

The posse gives Vienna and the Kid an ultimatum--leave town within 48 hours. They and the Kid soon, leaving Vienna alone with Johnny. It's soon evident that they still love one another, despite the following melodramatic exchange:

Johnny: How many men have you forgotten?
Vienna: As many women as you've remembered.
Johnny: Don't go away.
Vienna: I haven't moved.
Johnny: Tell me something nice.
Vienna: Sure, what do you want to hear?
Johnny: Lie to me. Tell me all these years you've waited. Tell me.
Vienna: [without feeling] All those years I've waited.
Johnny: Tell me you'd a-died if I hadn't come back.
Vienna: [without feeling] I woulda died if you hadn't come back.
Johnny: Tell me you still love me like I love you.
Vienna: [without feeling] I still love you like you love me.
Johnny: [bitterly] Thanks. Thanks a lot.

Johnny Guitar and Vienna.

The best action sequence comes when the posse returns a second time to Vienna's, this after the Dancin' Kid and his gang have robbed the bank. Vienna happened to be there at the time and is guilty by association. She's is wearing white now, calmly playing the piano. Convinced she's working with the Kid, they arrest her and take her out to hang. Emma seizes the opportunity to shoot down a chandelier, starting a blaze which consumes the saloon in a fiery conflagration.

The film, awash in vivid, almost garish colors, reflects Ray's attempt to infuse the film with passion. The visual boldness is one of its most memorable features.  In this scene the color is fantastic, the bright orange flames engulfing the building in the background, contrasting with McCambridge standing out front. Her gleeful reaction as she admires her work is wonderful fun to watch. The character is pure evil, thinking she's finally got the best of Vienna. Reportedly, in real life the two actresses felt contempt for one another, so it's easy to believe that McCambridge incorporated such feelings into her terrific performance.  

The Wrath of Emma Smalls.

The posse, propelled into action by Emma, goes so far as to drop a noose around Vienna's neck. But the men have no stomach for killing a woman and they finally resist Emma's rabid pleas, forcing her own hand. Johnny comes to the rescue just in time. Vienna leads them to the Kid's hideout, with the posse close on their heels. The dramatic, inevitable shootout follows with Vienna facing off with her nemeses, Emma.

Crawford in one of her many primary color costumes.

The end finds Johnny and Vienna holding each other in their arms as Peggy Lee's haunting rendition of the theme song plays over the curtain. Lee wrote the lyrics.

Play the guitar, play it again, my Johnny
Maybe you're cold, but you're so warm inside
I was always a fool for my Johnny
For the one they call Johnny Guitar

Play it again, Johnny Guitar

Whether you go, whether you stay, I love you
What if you're cruel, you can be kind I know
There was never a man like my Johnny
Like the one they call Johnny Guitar

Frequent Western supporting players Ward Bond, Borgnine, Royal Dana, John Carradine, Paul Fix and Frank Ferguson add color to the cast. Victor Young scored the film. The cinematography was handled by Harry Stradling, a 14-time Oscar nominee and 2-time winner. Among his most successful films are Streetcar Named Desire and My Fair Lady.

Johnny: There's only two things in this world that a 'real man' needs: a cup of coffee and a good smoke.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Lady Vanishes (1937) - Alfred Hitchcock

Iris Henderson (Margaret Lockwood), a young socialite on vacation in Mandrika, a fictional European country, is on her way back to England to be married. Waiting to board a train, she strikes up a friendship with elderly Mrs. Froy, another English woman, who later helps Iris after she is injured by a falling flowerpot. On board, Iris awakes from a nap to find that Mrs. Froy has mysteriously disappeared, and none of the other passengers admit to having remembered seeing her. A psychiatrist on the train wonders if the head blow has affected Iris, but she is convinced something sinister is afoot. Gilbert (Michael Redgrave), a musician she previously encountered and found irritating, offers his help. He doubts her story but is attracted to the girl. Hitchcock's penultimate British film before relocating to America in 1940, The Lady Vanishes is one of the best of his early canon. Characteristically, innocent people get caught up in intrigue.

Where's Mrs. Froy?
But it is an odd film, one that isn't quite so easily categorized. It starts with most of the cast gathered together at a crowded inn, snowed in over night, waiting for tomorrow's train. Comedy dominates this segment, the first twenty minutes or so, leaving those used to Hitchcock's more traditional suspense productions scratching their heads, wondering if indeed this is a Hitchcock film.

Hitchcock, like another director he admired, John Ford, often infused comedy into his films, however serious they might be. The Lady Vanishes has more than usual. The dialog during the inn sequence and throughout the film, co-written by Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder, is wonderfully witty and shows off the personality of the characters. Because it is so entertaining, we don't mind waiting for the suspense payoff, sure to come later. Among the passengers will be two friends, Caldicott and Chalmers. They are worried they won't get back to England in time for an important cricket match. Delightfully droll and intensely focused on their task, they'll feign ignorance of Mrs. Froy's existence for fear that the train will be stopped for a search, delaying their journey. In one funny moment, they use sugar cubes to replicate the players on a cricket field.

Caldicott and Chalmers: two cricket enthusiasts. 
Here's a snippet of dialog between the two earlier:

Caldicott: [because the hotel is full, Charters and Caldicott have been forced to share the maid's room] They might at least have given us one each?
Charters: What?
Caldicott: The room at least.

We are also introduced to Iris, Gilbert and Mrs. Froy at the inn. Iris and Gilbert have an immediate dislike for one another. Gilbert sizes Iris up as a spoiled rich girl, while she finds him a contemptible bore. (Somehow we know these two are destined to fall in love). The tone of the film turns abruptly as Mrs. Froy stands at a second story window listening intently to a man serenading her from below. Just as he completes the tune, and unseen by Mrs. Froy, the shadow of hands reach out and he is strangled. More violence follows the next morning as everyone gathers outside to board the train. Iris stands next to Mrs. Froy and an unknown hand pushes a flowerpot out a window. It falls, just missing Mrs. Froy, but striking Iris on the head. Seemingly a freak accident, nothing more. Iris is woozy as Mrs. Froy helps her aboard.

The lovely Margaret Lockwood

Later, Froy has disappeared and Iris grows frantic, wondering what happened to her new friend. No-one appears to believe her story. The audience knows she is telling the truth, and true to director Hitchcock, we identify with the main character, sharing Iris' confusion. She suspects (we know) that everyone is lying. Our attraction to Iris is enhanced by Lockwood's fine performance and beauty. Hitchcock would famously move on to blond actresses in the fifties and sixties, but Lockwood is a stunning brunette.

Redgrave, Dame May Whitty (Mrs. Froy), and Lockwood.

Hitchcock used a successful formula for his male protagonist. Redgrave as Gilbert gets most of the funny lines. He's reminiscent of Robert Donat's character, Hannay, in the superior The 39 Steps, filmed three years earlier. It's easy to believe that Iris would eventually find him charming, and one of the film's endearing aspect is how the characters grow in fondness for one another.

Gilbert: Can I help?
Iris: Only by going away.
Gilbert: No, no, no, no. My father always taught me, never desert a lady in trouble. He even carried that as far as marrying Mother.

Gilbert: What was she wearing? Scotch tweeds wasn't it?
Iris: Oatmeal tweeds.
Gilbert: I knew it had something to do with porridge.

Dr. Hartz: And I am Dr. Egon Hartz; you may have heard of me.
Gilbert: Not the brain surgeon?
Hartz: Yes, the same.
Gilbert: Yes, you flew over to England the other day and operated on one of our cabinet ministers.
Hartz: Oh, yes.
Gilbert: Tell me, did you find anything?

While on the train they meet a psychiatrist, Dr. Hartz. While suave and clearly intelligent, Hartz seems too dismissive of Iris's story. The discovery of a tea package wrapper, convinces Gilbert that Iris is telling the truth and something is indeed awry. They conduct a more thorough search of the train. A funny fight scene takes place in the baggage compartment between Gilbert, Iris, and a swarthy Italian magician, who we later learn is in cahoots with Hartz.

A mysterious patient. 
Hitchcock devised a clever "hiding place" for Mrs. FroyHartz is trying to stop her. Like a lot of the director's set pieces, it has since been copied by others. 

The mystery is quickly cleared up with some bright deducing by Gilbert. A somewhat silly shootout takes place in the woods, the train momentarily stopped and beset by soldiers/police in uniform, and Mrs. Froy makes an implausible escape out a window while the others fend off the enemy. It is not a particularly exciting action sequence, but may have been considered so seventy years ago. The tune Mrs. Froy heard at the beginning of the film is reintroduced as Hitchcock ties up the loose ends.

If not on par with his later American films, The Lady Vanishes is a fine film, whose charms include an anachronistic model sequence for the opening scene, some quirky characters, and a terrific blend of suspense and  humor. The director makes his trademark cameo near the end, walking through Victoria Station.

The Hitchcock cameo in The Lady Vanishes.