Saturday, April 21, 2012

Papillon (1973) -- Frank Schaffner

Convicted of murdering a pimp, in 1931 Frenchman Henri Charrieri is sent to the infamous prison in French Guiana. Amidst the jungle with its disease and dangerous predators, and surrounded by shark-infested ocean, escape is thought impossible, but Henri spends the next fourteen years plotting and executing several attempts at freedom.

Based on a 1969 bestseller, initially marketed as non-fiction but since considered more accurately a novel based on Charrieri's prison experiences, Papillon tells a story of perseverance. Even if events are embellished, it is a remarkable tale. The film joined perhaps the two biggest Hollywood stars of the day. Steve McQueen plays the title role, which in French means "butterfly," a tattoo of which adorns his chest. Dustin Hoffman plays Louis Dega, a fellow convict and notorious counterfeiter who befriends Papillon on the steamer from France. In exchange for protection against other convicts, Dega promises to finance Papillon's escape attempts.

Papillon and Dega witness a prisoner shot by guards.
I remember reading the novel upon its initial release, and its surprising revelation that prisoners hid money, drugs, or other small valuables in small canisters that they shoved up their rectum. Thankfully the film doesn't depict any insertions but the dialog makes its clear that that practice was a routine one. Authenticity was an aim of director Schaffner, who does a marvelous job depicting the miserable conditions under the brutal French penal system of the day. In one memorable moment the convicts get to witness an execution by guillotine, likely the most realistic sequence of its type ever put on screen. Guards lead a frantic prisoner to the mechanism, push him onto an inclined board that positions his head in the device (lunette) directly beneath the blade. He strains to turn his head upward, the blade comes down with a whomp, the head drops, and the camera is splashed with blood.

Losing one's head in French Guiana. 

Some of the best scenes, and McQueen's best acting, occur with Papillon in solitary confinement. It's an awful place, entered with this advice from the warden: "Put all hope out of your mind. And masturbate as little as possible, it drains the strength!" Absolute silence was the rule amongst prisoners, a circumstance that fits perfectly with McQueen's acting style. Throughout his career he favored as scant a script as possible, relying on expressions and body language to do the work of the character.

In Charrieri's book and the film, Papillon serves two such sentences for failed escapes, the first for two years, and the second for five (in the book, the term is shortened). It's a small cell, just five steps across. Food--an exaggerated characterization to be sure--and water are passed through a small door in pails and a bucket, and periodically the prisoners are inspected for head lice and receive a hair cut by sticking their head out a small trap in the wall. The warden explains that they aren't interested in rehabilitation, just punishment. How any man could withstand such isolation is amazing.

When Dega sneaks Papillon some coconuts to supplement his meager food, the warden puts the prisoner on half-rations for six months because he refuses to disclose who sent them. Papillon never breaks, though it is difficult. He resorts to eating vermin that crawls across his floor. One shot shows him dropping three bugs into his weak soup to give it some substance, including a disgusting looking centipede he cuts in half. The film's best moment occurs as McQueen almost rats out Dega. At the last moment he changes his mind, feigning dementia. McQueen then turns to the camera and eats the message with Dega's name on it.

Though they do a wonderful job on the actor's face to convey the deprivations--dark circles under the eyes, greying hair, teeth ravaged by scurvy--McQueen looks too robust and healthy under his ragged uniform.

A fine example of the actor's accomplished use of non-verbal acting comes as Papillon is released the last time from solitary confinement, his debt to France paid. His shuffled stiff walk across the yard seems perfect for a man made old before his time.

Solitary confinement.

There is some terrific camera work in the film, some high crane shots of the execution and earlier as the prisoners stand in the yard, and of the beautiful blue of the ocean (actually either Jamaica or Hawaii). And the action sequences are well done, particularly one escape attempt with McQueen running through the jungle, pursued by natives with blowguns and darts.  He and Hoffman wrestle with a crocodile in another good scene, arguing over which is the head and which the tail in the muddy water. (Look closely and you might notice the reptile's mouth is tied shut).

There are also a few awkward moments in the film that feel out of place or disrupt the pace. Schaffner inserts two short dreams or hallucinations in the solitary confinement sequences that are jarring, and a longer piece where Papillon spends an unspecified time with a native tribe during one breakout. Totally tangential to the main story line, it emphasizes McQueen's true physical condition as he appears shirtless. Apparently the studio commissary was well-equipped.

Here he takes a lover and inks a tattoo on the chief (played by Victor Joey of all people, who has nary a line of dialog). This excursion ends with the tribe disappearing during the night with no explanation, Papillon seeking sanctuary with some nuns, who promptly turn him over to the authorities for re-incarceration. One wonders if author Charrieri had something against religion.
Prisoners stand naked receiving instruction.
In any case, by the end, the film makes a magnificent recovery as Papillon finally is released from jail. But having completed his sentence, he is still not allowed to return to France. Instead, he gets the choice of working at the prison or spending the rest of his days on Devil's Island in a simple cottage. He opts for Devil's Island, where we are re-introduced to Dega, who now tends a garden and looks after his hogs. The old friends have not seen one another for at least five years. By now, each actor looks to have aged considerably more than would be expected under a civilized fourteen-year period. The makeup and physical movements are outstanding.

Papillon has not given up his quest for freedom and builds a small raft of coconuts, which he throws off a cliff into the sea, timing the perfect wave to pull him free of the coast. In an overhead shot from a helicopter, we see McQueen lying on his back, a big grin on his face. He calls out triumphantly in a perfect Hollywood ending: "Hey you bastards. I'm still here!"  

A commercial success, the film made the year's top five in gross receipts, it was largely ignored by the Academy, with only one Oscar nomination coming its way, that for Jerry Goldsmith's score. McQueen at least earned a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor. It's arguably his second best career performance, after Jake Holman in The Sand Pebbles.  In a baffling move, Academy members thought more highly of Robert Redford's pedestrian work in The Sting  than McQueen's performance. 

Charrieri served as a consultant on the film, but died five months before its release. He was 67.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The Fallen Idol (1948) -- Carol Reed

The Fallen Idol is a film about secrets, and lies and their consequences, and people hiding behind curtains eavesdropping. Baines (Ralph Richardson) is the efficient butler at a foreign embassy in London. His is a loveless marriage. The ambassador's son, six-year old Phillipe (Bobby Henrey), adores the man, staring in wonder at his tall tales of his time in Africa where he supposedly killed a black man who charged him with a spear. When Phillipe asks if it was murder, Baines explains it was an act of self-defense.

Baines feels a kinship with the boy; like himself, Phillipe is lonely. At one point he shares some advice, telling Phillipe "it's a great life if you don't weaken."

The boy's mother has been away sick, and the father is undoubtedly too busy to give his son much attention. As the film opens the ambassador leaves for a few days to retrieve his wife, apparently from a hospital or a sanitarium. In the giant diplomatic mansion, Baines is the boy's only friend, and hence his idol.

Mrs. Baines (Sonia Bresdel) is an unhappy woman. We don't know why, but she and her husband have lost any feeling they had for one another somewhere along the way. She is mean to both Baines and Phillipe, chiding her husband for spoiling the boy. A strict disciplinarian, she allows Phillipe no fun.

The first secret is revealed to us as from his balcony high above the street, Phillipe spies Baines leaving the embassy. Mrs. Baines has previously refused to allow Phillipe out of the house for a walk in the park. Phillipe sneaks out, using the outside fire-escape and races after Baines, who has a head-start. The boy finally spots his friend in a small cafe, sitting with a pretty woman. This is Julie (Michele Morgan), who serves a clerical function at the embassy.

In a beautifully acted and subtle scene, Baines and Julie are in hushed conversation. Phillipe has startled them. Baines tries to divert the boy's attention by giving him a pastry. They pretend they are talking about a "friend" of Julie's who is about to make a decision--she is leaving tomorrow on a boat, convinced that there is no hope for happiness with the man she loves, who is married. They are of course, talking about themselves.

Julie and Baines are startled in the cafe.

The dialog here is terrific, and the awkward glances and frustration of Richardson and Morgan perfect. It's clear the two lovers are feeling great sadness. Baines borrows Phillipe's handkerchief to dry Julie's eyes. The acclaimed novelist Graham Greene wrote the screenplay, based on his short story, The Basement Room. Lesley Storm and William Templeton are credited with additional dialog.

The two adults part, with Julie promising to meet Baines again tomorrow. He tells her that he will talk to his wife that night. Baines tells Phillipe that Julie is his niece, and asks him to keep the meeting a secret from Mrs. Baines.

The relationship between butler and the boy is a touching one, best shown in a simple but important gesture by Baines. Phillipe has come to the basement, the butler's quarters where Baines and Mrs. Baines will soon share breakfast. His pet garden snake is safely in hand. Phillipe normally keeps the reptile behind a loose brick on his balcony, knowing Mrs. Baines would not allow such a dirty creature about. He asks Baines for a box to keep it in. When Mrs. Baines arrives she rebuffs the boy's desire to go outside for a walk in the park. Angry, Phillipe tells her he hates her and she banishes him to his room. As he goes to leave, Baines discretely pushes the box with the snake across the table so the boy can take it without his wife seeing what he's doing. 

Later, the snake comes into play again to acutely contrast the character of man and wife. Mrs. Baines finds it behind the brick. Disgusted, she wraps it in a towel, and passing Phillipe on the stairs, she ignores his apology for his earlier hard language before she stuffs the towel into the fiery stove.

Director Reed and the writers include an earlier scene that reveals how different these two adults are when it comes to their feelings for the boy. Mrs. Baines can't abide his lying. Baines is untroubled, saying:

Baines: There's lies and lies.
Mrs. Baines: What do you mean by that?
Baines: Some lies are just kindness.

Philippe hides his snake.

Like any child, Philippe is easily confused; and when Mrs. Baines finds crumbs on his shirt, she scolds him about eating between meals. When questioned, he says "they" instead of "he" gave it to me. Now suspicious about what her husband has been up to, and with whom, she concocts a scheme to catch him in the act. She pretends to visit a relative the next day, and Baines takes the opportunity make a day of it with Julie and Phillipe. They go to the zoo. Some nice editing takes place here as the camera cuts back in forth between Phillipe looking at the animals and calling for Baines to join him, and the two lovers, off to the side in whispered conversation. They all  return to the embassy for a picnic on the patio and a game of hide and seek, unaware that Mrs. Baines is hiding in the house. And she has set Baines' mind at ease by leaving a false telegram, supposedly sent from out of town indicating she won't be home for a few more days.

When all is later quiet, she slips out of her hiding place to confront Phillipe, asleep in his bed. When he is unable to tell her, she gets angry and slaps him. Baines hears the ruckus and comes out of a bedroom to intervene. Shocked to find his wife, who's now hysterical, he must forcefully stop her from confronting Julie. For a few moments they wrestle at the top of a long winding marble staircase. She calms down a little and he asks her to go downstairs where he will meet her shortly.

Phillipe's viewpoint through the window.

All the while Phillipe has seen the struggle through a window, standing on the fire-escape outside. He climbs down to the next level to what will happen next, momentarily losing sight of the action. As Baines disappears back into the bedroom, apparently to explain the situation to Julie, Mrs. Baines walks out on a narrow ledge with potted plants to see if she can enter the bedroom from another direction. When she opens a window she loses her balance and falls to her death at the bottom of the staircase just as Phillipe has re-positioned himself below. To his eyes, it seems as if Baines has knocked her down the staircase.

The best part of the film follows the arrival of police and their investigation. They are quietly efficient, yet disquietly menacing. Richardson is terrific here. Baines is in shock, and we can easily imagine his mixed emotions. On the one hand he feels guilt at his wife's death.

Baines: There are faults on both sides, Phile. We don't have any call to judge. Perhaps she was what she was because I am what I am. We ought to be very careful, Phile. 'Cause we make one another.
Phillipe: I thought God made us.
Baines: Trouble is, we take a hand in the game.

A chalk outline at the bottom of the stairs. 

On the other hand he must feel elation that he is now free to pursue life with Julie. But he foolishly tries to keep her out of it, rushing her away before the police arrive, and lies about his wife--lies he retracts under questioning. All in all, to the police, he paints the picture of a confused murderer. The position of the body and nature of injuries are evidence that she did not slip on her own. Complicating matters further is Phillipe. The police overhear him asking Baines "if like Africa, this was self-defense?" And he lies too, even convinced his idol did kill the woman. He tells Baines: "We've got to think of lies and tell them all the time. And then they won't find out the truth."

The story and Richardson make it easy to sympathize with Baines. We can see the panic slowly build in his face. Caught in his own deception, it looks bleak indeed. The end comes far too quickly, prompted by a tell-tale footprint.

The film's title, of course, refers to Baines. But the "fallen idol" is not so much from Phillipe's point of view--he still loves his friend. Rather it refers to Baines' opinion of himself. He must see himself as something of a lesser man, no longer the hero he likely thought himself to be for the boy. If so, it is too harsh. After all, he is merely human, not above a little lie for kindness. 

Richardson's next role would be his best film appearance: as the hard father to Olivia de Havilland in the remarkable The Heiress (1949). For his work there he'd receive an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor.

The Fallen Idol was sandwiched between two other memorable Carol Reed films: the stylistic Odd Man Out (1947) with James Mason, and the great The Third Man (1949). He was a three-time Oscar nominee for Best Director: The Fallen Idol, The Third Man, and the 1968 musical, Oliver, for which he won. His collaborator here, Graham Greene, would also receive a nomination for Best Writing.

Director Carol Reed.
.  .

Monday, April 9, 2012

Deborah Kerr

Deborah Kerr is my favorite actress. Extremely talented and stunningly beautiful, she appeared in some of my favorite films. Of course, they may be favorites because she was in them. A six-time Best Actress nominee, she never won a competitive Oscar. That's the record for women, surpassed on the men's side by only Peter O'Toole with eight unsuccessful nominations, and Richard Burton with seven.

Kerr was much sought after. She always added prestige to a film, appearing in 7 over the course of her career that were nominated for Best Picture, and several others that could have been. She worked with the best directors and most of the best actors--the lucky ones at least. She never had to rely on just her beauty to get through a performance and could show great expression and emotion with her eyes. Best of all, she just seemed nice. You always left a film of hers with the thought that there is a person I wouldn't mind knowing in real life. And there's that gorgeous red hair.

Deborah Kerr 

I've never paid much attention to Oscars. At the core, the awards are out of the actor's control; and how do you really compare performances across different genres anyway? They're subject to all kinds of influences that shouldn't play in the vote at all, but do. Too political, often reliant on timing or the issue of the day, and maybe most egregiously, too dependent on how the studios try to manipulate the outcome with publicity campaigns and such. That last factor seems especially prevalent during the Classic Film era. Still, you'd like your favorites to get the recognition.

Anyway, here's a review of each of Deborah Kerr's nominated roles.

Already a rising star thanks to terrific work in Black Narcissus (1947), Kerr secured her first nomination in 1949 as Evelyn Voult, the mother of an irresponsible son in George Cukor's Edward, My Son. Her husband is played by Spencer Tracy, an unlikable scoundrel, an adulterer who too easily engages in insurance fraud to finance an operation for their spoiled son. Evelyn soon is unhappy, unloved, and eventually struggles with alcohol as her husband's behaviour grows more nasty.

Of her six nominations, this is easily my least favorite film of the bunch. Her performance seems over-wrought at times, especially when slurring words as a sloppy drunk at the end. She had plenty of far better work in films that were not nominated. Tracy gets the lion's share of screen time here. Overall, the whole thing is too melodramatic and unsatisfying.   

It wouldn't have mattered anyway. Being a first-time nominee is always difficult, but more importantly, Kerr was up against one of the greatest performances in American film history, that year's winner, Olivia de Havilland from The Heiress.

Kerr's second chance for an Oscar--and maybe her best--came in 1953 with one of her signature roles. As Karen Holmes, she is the unloved and ignored wife of a philandering Army officer in Fred Zinnemann's From Here to Eternity. Her scenes with co-star Burt Lancaster are the best in the film. Achingly lonely, beset by nasty rumors, she's suspicious of his motives when he makes a pass in that terrific scene in her kitchen with the rain pelting down outside. She tries to maintain a hard exterior but you know it's a defense mechanism because she's been hurt too much in the past. Yet she admits she isn't sure if she wants him to leave. It's a remarkable display of vulnerability.

And watch her eyes when the couple first dine clandestinely at the restaurant. Captivated by the handsome sergeant, a good man who finally loves her, she's unaware of what he's saying as she stares in wonder. Later, on the boat with Donna Reed's character, she knows the girl is lying about Private Prewitt's death. You can see the sympathy in her face, knowing here's another woman who's been hurt in love.

The male subject matter, reinforced by strong work of Montgomery Cliff and Lancaster, likely lessened appreciation for Kerr's performance. Audrey Hepburn won that year for Roman Holiday. She's delightful, but it hardly requires the subtle acting Kerr displays. Maybe Hepburn was helped by her association with director William Wyler, an Academy favorite. And there's always the chance that voters wanted to spread the love: Kerr's film won 8 Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director and both supporting awards. None of the three major actors won (Lancaster, Clift, and Kerr).

Next came a three-year run starting with the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical The King and I in 1956. Kerr looks lovely in Irene Sharaff's stunning gowns and gives a nice performance as Anna Owens, a widowed English school teacher who comes to Siam to teach the King's children. They capture her heart, and so does the King. It was Yul Brenner's film all the way. He'd already won a Tony for the Broadway smash. Kerr had replaced Gertrude Lawrence, Brenner's Broadway co-star, who'd also won a Tony. Besides, Kerr's singing was dubbed.    

Ingrid Berman won her second Oscar that year for Anastasia. Hollywood was ready to forgive her for ditching her husband for the Italian director, Roberto Rossellini. In any case, it was a strange year in retrospect. The bloated Around the World in Eighty Days took Best Film.

The next year Kerr appeared as Sister Angela, a Catholic nun, in John Huston's Heaven Knows, Mr. Alison. Shipwrecked with an American soldier, Robert Mitchum, the two must elude the Japanese and resist succumbing to their mutual attraction. The rough and ready Marine soon falls in love and thinks because Sister Angela has not yet taken her final vows, he may have a chance to change her mind. It's fun watching these two interact--they have wonderful chemistry, but the story is a simple one that doesn't require either actor to stretch themselves.

Kerr lost to Joanne Woodward that year for her fine work in The Three Faces of Eve, that film's only nomination. It's one of those ground-breaking performances that Academy voters tend to admire, one that features a person with a disability.

Delbert Mann's adaptation of the play Separate Tables came in 1958. Kerr is the repressed and mousy Sibyl Railton-Bell, a naive young woman whose dominating mother (Gladys Cooper) is a pain in the butt. Along with several other vacationers they are on holiday at a seaside hotel in Bournemouth, England. Sibyl is attracted to a dashing retired army officer, Major Angus Pollock (David Niven). But he's a phony whose nasty secret proves to be a crushing embarrassment for the poor girl. An ensemble piece to be sure, Kerr is magnificent. Her near breakdown is painful to watch. Perhaps voters didn't think Kerr had enough screen time on her own. But her co-star, Niven, took home the award for Best Actor, and Wendy Hiller won for Best Supporting Actress. In another year, the beautiful actress might have earned votes for bravely taking on a role that showed her as unattractive. 

She lost to Susan Hayworth that year for I Want to Live. A good performance for a long-time Hollywood actress who had paid her dues. The film was based on a true story, though took some liberties. It shows her character, Barbara Graham, a convicted killer, in a sympathetic light, suggesting perhaps she was even rail-roaded. No doubt seen by many voters as an "important" film, it's clearly a strong statement against capital punishment. The execution scene was shockingly realistic for its day, and likely cinched the award for the actress. I'd of given the award that year to Liz Taylor for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Taylor's omission would come back to haunt Kerr and Shirley MacLaine two years later.

Kerr's final chance came in 1960, again working with Zinnemann and Mitchum; this time in the The Sundowners, the story of a nomadic Australian family. Ida Commody is tired of the constant traveling that comes with her sheep-herding husband. She dreams of settling down and owning a farm. She and Mitchum have great chemistry again, conveying their love for one another through hard times with simple gestures and looks. There's a wonderful shot of Kerr, watching a train pull out of a station. She sees a woman through a window. The camera lingers on her face and you can feel the character's desperate envy.

She lost that year to Elizabeth Taylor for Butterfield 8. Consensus at the time was that Taylor won because she had just survived a life-threatening illness. It was her fourth nomination in successive years. While a better performance than given credit for, she surely captured the sympathy vote. Moreover, some voters likely cast a make-up vote for her loss the three previous seasons. Shirley MacLaine should have won for The Apartment.

I'm surprised that Kerr didn't get a 7th nomination the next year for her highly effective performance in The Innocents, a tense horror classic in which she dominates the screen and captures a woman becoming unhinged wonderfully well. Sophia Loren took the award for Two Women, but Audrey Hepburn was among the less deserving nominees for Breakfast at Tiffany's, an undemanding role in a light comedy, and Piper Laurie, for The Hustler.

The Academy finally made amends to Kerr in 1984 with an Honorary Oscar. The citation read: An artist of impeccable grace and beauty, a dedicated actress whose motion picture career has always stood for perfection, discipline and elegance. Apt words to be sure.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Sorry, Wrong Number (1948) - Anatole Litvak

Bedridden and alone for the evening, Leona Stevenson tries to call her husband, Henry, at the office, but the lines get crossed and she overhears a disturbing phone conversation between some men planning a murder of an unidentified woman. The details are sketchy, but the crime will occur that night at 11:15. Already nervous at her husband's absence, she grows increasingly unnerved as she soon hears more troubling news from a old flame of Henry's and from a mysterious Mr. Evans who tells her that Henry has been stealing from her father's company.

A claustrophobic film noir, Sorry, Wrong Number's action takes place nearly in real time with the exception of flashbacks that effectively provide the back story and reveal what's behind that mysterious phone call. It's soon apparent that Leona (Barbara Stanwyck) is a bit of a dominating shrew who keeps her husband, Henry (Burt Lancaster), firmly under her thumb. Like her excessively doting father who owns a big drug company and for which Henry is buried as a lowly vice president in charge of accounts, she works hard to neuter her husband. An apparent heart condition gives her a ready excuse, and she suffers an attack to manipulate Henry whenever he begins to chafe at the suffocating life he's found himself in and shows a little independence.

Stanwyck does a wonderful job to make you dislike her overbearing character with just little gestures: she doesn't allow Henry to enjoy a glass of champagne at their wedding reception, and turns away when he tries to kiss her on the deck of their cruise liner at the start of their honeymoon. Her attacks of illness seem overly dramatic and too convenient. By the end of the film, however, you are likely to feel differently toward the woman. An unsettling feeling of dread builds as she unravels as 11:15 approaches. If you don't quite sympathize with her plight, you can empathize with her when she is gripped by real terror. She is no longer irritatingly petulant, but a helpless person, crying and unglued as she hears the tell-tale click of the extension phone downstairs, maybe the first "someone is in the house!" horror moment on film. A fabulously versatile actress, Stanwyck is one of the genre's most accomplished performers. Her character's arc here is perfect. For her performance, she earned the last of her four Oscar nominations.

Barbara Stanwyck grows increasingly desperate. 
Her behavior is not all Leona's fault, of course. Since her mother died in childbirth, her rich father has spoiled her rotten. At one point a doctor tells Henry that her attacks are real enough, but psycho-somatic, or self-induced. Panic has a way of doing that--she believes she's really ill. But that little bit of information sends Henry over the edge. He's already involved in a scheme to slowly pilfer a bit of drugs, fence the stolen goods through the mob, and accumulate enough money to break away from the father-in-law. For help, he's recruited Waldo Evans (Harold Vermilyea), a unassuming chemist with the company. When Henry tries to cut out the middle man, the mob comes calling in the form of the menacing William Conrad, who demands an IOU to produce $200,000, suggesting that Henry's sick wife's life insurance might be an option.

If ever a couple was a poor match, it's Leona and Henry. He's far too weak for Leona, and from the poor side of the tracks. The only apparent attraction for Leona is that he's handsome. But he also represents a way for her to put some distance between herself and her father. In one flashback, Leona tells her friend, Sally Hunt, that she usually gets what she wants. Well, she inexplicably wants Henry, and takes him from the girl. Even Henry finds it odd, asking "What does a dame like you want with a guy like me?"

This would be the only time the two stars were paired in a film. Stanwyck, of course, was a great star, and Lancaster not yet hitting his stride. She seems in full control in their brief scenes together, which works perfectly for the characters and story, though it likely reflects their relative skills as actors at that point in their careers. While she shines throughout, Lancaster is merely adequate. His best scene comes at the end, on the phone with his frantic wife, when he gets to show some emotion, realizing what he has set in motion.

An unlikely and unbalanced pairing.

But the best moment in the film features noir at its best. Mr. Evans calls the Stevenson residence. He's been trying to reach Henry all day. He appears shaded so you can't see his features. He tells Leona to pass along some important information: 1) he has burnt down a house on Long Island (presumably to destroy evidence) and escaped; 2) Mr. Moreno (Conrad) has been arrested, so there's no need to follow through on the IOU; 3) Evans is presently at the location in Manhattan but will be leaving soon; and 4) if Henry needs to contact him later, he might try Bowery 2-1000. When Leona presses him about Henry's whereabouts, Evans tells her he doesn't know but perhaps Henry is already at that number.

It's a confusing phone call, one that fuels Leona's anxiety. Earlier that evening, she had had one from Sally Hunt, who's husband works for the DA. Apparently Henry is in a bit of trouble and the police are on to him. Upon hanging up with Evans, Leona immediately calls the number he gave her. Her fingers shake uncontrollably as she dials. The voice at the other end tells her she has reached the city morgue. Franz Waxman wrote the film's effective score, which keeps the tension going nicely throughout. The morgue line brings an appropriately dramatic flourish.  As Leona collapses on the bed, the camera pulls out of the room through the window and pans down to the ground floor where the silhouette of a man appears on the wall. It is nearly 11:15.

The final scene is a chilling one. Henry calls. An hysterical Leona passes along Mr. Evans' information. Henry is stunned. Standing outside the phone booth, police wait to make an arrest. He hears his wife scream.

The film has a lot more going for it. Stanwyck's terrific wardrobe is thanks to designer Edith Head, who had thirteen separate credits for 1948 alone. Even Leona's night gown looks expensive. But it is the several fur-collared numbers, fancy hats, and big jewels that she wears in flashbacks that look great and tell you plenty about the character.

The astounding coincidences of Leona's accidentally overhearing the initial phone call and of Sally Hunt being married to a law enforcement official who's investigating Henry aside, Sorry, Wrong Number is great.

Director Litvak deftly captured the right mood of desperation and inevitability in the story. He had Louise Fletcher's 1943 acclaimed radio program to work with, starring the great Agnes Moorehead. A link follows here: Radio Play 

Besides Sorry, Wrong Number, Litvak had an even bigger hit that year, The Snake Pit with Olivia de Havilland. For that he was nominated for best director and de Havilland competed with Stanwyck for Best Actress. Neither actress won, losing to Jane Wyman for Johnny Belinda, and John Huston took the director statue for The Treasure of Sierra Madre.

Monday, April 2, 2012

In Harms Way (1965) - Otto Preminger

Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor Captain Rockwell Torrey takes a convoy in harm's way to supply US Naval forces and Marines battling the enemy, and later participates in Operation Skyhook, an offensive to secure an island to support air operations in the South Pacific. Complicating matters are unresolved issues with his estranged son, Jeremiah, a young snot-nosed ensign; his unreliable executive office, Commander Eddington; an incompetent congressman and ambitious admiral; and a nurse named Maggie.

Director Otto Preminger's best 1960's film and with one of John Wayne's finest performances, In Harm's Way is a satisfying World War II naval story that rises above its melodramatic subplots. As Torrey, Wayne's understated acting works perfectly with Patricia Neal, as nurse Maggie, and with Burgess Meredith, a reserve naval intelligence officer and roommate.

The best moments involve Wayne and Neal, whose scenes are wonderful, feeling authentic and natural for two people attracted to one another but with little time to act as the war calls them to duty. They develop an instant liking for one another and their conversations are to the point, honest, and filled with friendly ribbing. Maggie sizes up Torrey right away, telling her roommate: Annalee dear, past a certain age, men are apt to avoid making sudden moves where women are concerned. The women have to do the sudden moving, or else everybody stands still until it's too late. It gets late fast in these times. I like this man, and I want him to know it - now.

John Wayne and Patricia Neal 

When they meet later in the film, after Torrey is promoted, they have this exchange:

Nurse Maggie: How do admirals feel about nurses?
Rear Admiral Torrey: The same way captains did.

Wendell Mayes wrote the screenplay, which seems pitch perfect for the couple. Mayes was good at adapting best-selling novels to the screen, having worked with Preminger before on Anatomy of a Murder and Advise and Consent. With the exception of the character of Eddington (Kirk Douglas), the writing is strongest part of the film.

The film opens with an officers' dance. Preminger unnecessarily lets you know it's December 6th, 1941 by showing the date on a chalk board as the camera pans the revelers. A tipsy woman dances provocatively before being led away by an officer who is not her husband. The couple make love on the beach before falling asleep. It, like other sexual encounters in the film, appear off-screen as Preminger relies on the power of suggestion.

The Japanese attack occurs the next morning, and while trying to drive back to his duty station, the officer and woman are killed in a car accident. We later learn that the woman is Commander Eddington's wife. Eddington (Kirk Douglas) is Torrey's right-hand man, and throughout the film, Torrey rescues the troubled officer from various self-induced scrapes. He doesn't handle his wife's infidelity well and likes to drink too much. Douglas' performance is fine, but the character is all over the place. Toward the end he inexplicably rapes a young nurse, a crime for which he seeks redemption by flying a suicide mission to locate an enemy fleet. His fiery death is well done, and not regretted by the audience. In any case, the rascal is far from admirable and it stretches belief that a by-the-book Navy man like Torrey would have kept him on staff.

Wayne (right) in action as Rear Admiral Rockwell Torrey.

Not long on action until the end, Preminger does a nice job of spicing the film with behind-the-scenes operations to give a flavor of authenticity, demonstrating the importance of support work for the ships and soldiers on the front line: plane and coastal spotters, reconnaissance, intelligence briefings, field hospitals. There's a good sequence showing how officers communicated between ships using megaphones. In one quiet moment Wayne displays some subtle acting, informing a wife that her husband is missing. You can see by his face that it's hard on him too, a duty that no officer wants. Wayne's haggard features works especially well here. Already suffering from the cancer that would soon cost him a lung, he looks tired and older than his 58 years.

Wayne would undergo cancer surgery within weeks of the rapping up production on the film. Like his character in In Harms Way, who Admiral Nimitz astutely observes is a hard man to kill, he wouldn't miss a beat, staring work on his next film within months. Neal wasn't so lucky. She'd suffer a series of life-threatening strokes shortly after this film's release and not re-appear in a film until The Subject Was Roses, three years later. Her absence from acting was the audience's loss.

Douglas gets the best line. Torrey's son understandably resents the father who dropped out of his life eighteen years earlier. He's tagging along with a jerky congressman who's using the Navy to further his political career, and secretly funneling information to Torrey's nominal superior, Admiral Broderick (Dana Andrews), an incompetent officer and rival. Douglas warns the ensign to steer clear of  the congressman. When the boy takes offense at Eddington's opinion of the congressman, Eddington retorts: Well , I'm afraid I cannot accept you as Rock Torrey's son. I think somebody got in there ahead of him.

Wayne gets a good one too: All battles are fought by scared men who'd rather be someplace else.

Proof that there are only so many variations of plot in Hollywood and novels, the film is reminiscent of two earlier Wayne films: the relationship of father and estranged son is similar to that depicted in the 1950 Western Rio Grande; and PT boat duty was the focus of the 1945's They Were Expendable, though there Wayne himself served on the boats; here it is Jerr, the son.

Much has been made of the large-scale models used for battle scenes. I didn't find them distracting, though it's odd in some silhouetted ship close-ups that no sailors are seen on deck. Explosions and smoke are dramatic, and you get a good feel for the power of big Naval guns.

American destroyers being pummeled during the big battle scene.

The great Saul Bass did the title work, whose poster is shown above, a Naval officer's arm pointing toward the enemy. Preminger made an interesting decision to place the titles at the end of the film rather than the beginning. And with Jerry Goldsmith's rousing score as a compliment (here's a link to a small part), it is wonderfully effective. The film closes with Wayne lying wounded on a hospital ship, tended by Maggie. The screen fades to black before waves washing ashore appear, which grow steadily more violent until they meld into explosions, ultimately into an atomic bomb mushroom cloud, and finally, back to a gentle tide coming in on a beach. The sequence represents the War in the Pacific.

Henry Fonda makes a fine appearance as Admiral Nimitz. If there was ever a better actor for such a part, I haven't seen him. Fonda reeks of authority and military bearing. His accent seems a little off though; Nimitz was from Texas. Fonda's heavy drawl seems more apt to Georgia.

Other familiar actors from the era pop up in small supporting roles: George Kennedy, Carrol O'Conner,Slim Pickens, Stanley Holloway and Larry Hagman.

Loyal Griggs served as cinematographer and earned the film's only Oscar nomination for his fine black and white work. He had an odd career, with some terrific films to his credit and some cheese sprinkled throughout. He won an Oscar for his esquisite work on Shane and was nominated for The Ten Commandments. But he also handled the camera for three Elvis Presley features.