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.