Friday, October 26, 2012

Seance on a Wet Afternoon (1964) -- Bryan Forbes

Myra Savage is a would-be medium with a clever scheme to increase business. She holds seances in her London home for desperate people looking to connect with lost loved ones. Attended to by her by dutiful and devoted husband, Billy, Myra regularly talks with her dead son. Billy humors his wife but knows that she is emotionally unstable. He soon learns how seriously.

One of the best acted films of the 1960s and superbly directed by Bryan Forbes, the black-and-white cinematography makes Seance wonderfully atmospheric and creepy. The streets seem permanently wet and the air damp and depressing, much like Myra's own mental state.

A long scene introduces the couple, middle-aged and looking about as weary as their furniture. They converse quietly in an upstairs room of the house. We soon understand that finances are tight; and while we can't quite figure out what they are talking about, something is afoot. Something ominous. A highlight of the film is its pacing and Director Forbes builds our curiosity as he takes his time revealing Myra's plan -- to kidnap the young girl of a wealthy family and demand a ransom. She doesn't want the money, but the opportunity to make a name for herself as a reliable psychic. After Billy has taken the girl and hidden her in the woods, Myra intends to offer her services to police to locate the victim.   

Kim Stanley as Myra.
Acclaimed stage actress Kim Stanley is Myra. Nominated for an Oscar as Best Actress, her performance is remarkable. The difficult role alternately requires tense restraint and emotional release -- clearly one significantly more challenging than that year's winner: Julie Andrews for Mary Poppins. Andrews as Poppins was delightful but the two performances are hardly comparable. At times seemingly normal, if not dominant in her relationship with her spouse, Myra can quite suddenly change, appearing fragile and on the verge of full-blown hysteria. Still, you aren't certain if she isn't just a highly effective manipulator.

Richard Attenborough is similarly terrific as Billy, easily the best performance of his career. Initially we see him as a milquetoast, completely subservient to his wife's wishes. As the plot unfolds, we get a clearer picture of this man's silent torture, and Attenborough handles it beautifully. Living with Myra obviously requires great sacrifice. He know his wife teeters on the edge. Though he considers her plan is dangerous, he loves her dearly and can't bring himself to object too strenuously.

Attenborough gets two choice scenes, the first the actual abduction as he waits in the trees for the girl to appear outside her school, his face etched with anxiety. He nabs her, steals the chauffeur's car, and quickly eludes pursuit, switching vehicles at an abandoned site. It is tense and scary. Later, he and Myra arrange for a money drop where he barely escapes capture by police waiting in the subway.

When the father of the girl rejects Myra's advances, suspecting her of nothing more than a opportunistic con woman. It is a devastating blow to Myra and the film's mood suddenly changes, along with her dark scheme. For the first time, the audience begins to fear for the girl's safety. Later, the grief-stricken mother shows up to take part in the weekly seance Myra holds for her small group of sad clients, a turn that exacerbates Billy's fear of detection and guilt.   

Attenborough as the beleaguered Billy Savage.
The film ends as it began, with Myra conducting a seance. The police have finally come, ostensibly seeking Myra's help in locating the girl. It is a dramatic scene, perfectly acted and lit, as Myra goes into a trance and speaks with her dead son. The fate of the stolen girl hangs in the balance, and Myra and Billy's relationship comes to a head.

John Barry's score, one of his earliest, enhances the uneasy mood of the film and demonstrates how vital music is to a story. It is particularly effective during the abduction and gives an appropriate feeling of suspense throughout. Barry had already worked on the first two Bond films and was about to make a big name for himself on the third, Goldfinger.

The similar theme of a lost child haunting a mother appeared more famously in Edward Albee's play, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, which opened in 1962. The child there, of course, never existed and was merely a "game" played between the two protagonists, George and Martha.   

Stanley's work here was recognized by the New York Film Critics. And her voice might sound familiar to those unfamiliar with her acting: she performed the opening and closing narration of To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) as an adult Scout.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Film Villainesses

There's something about a woman as the antagonist in a film that packs a special punch and makes a story especially fun to see unfold. Being a bad girl must be great fun for an actress. It's also a good career move, as the Academy apparently loves a bitch.  Hopefully none of these girls were anything like their character in real life, though I suspect it wasn't such a stretch for some. In any case, their performances sure were convincing. Here is a group of ladies you'd want to avoid, or at least not accept an offered beverage from.  

Bette Davis, The Little Foxes (1941) -- William Wyler

Davis is Regina Giddens, a loveless shrew obsessed with money. She ruthlessly outwits her two scheming brothers and loathes her husband (Herbert Marshall) for refusing to share her lust for wealth. Lesson learned: don't expect her to retrieve your heart medicine. Nominated for Best Actress.   

Louise Fletcher, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975) -- Milos Forman

Don't let the starched white outfit fool you. Authoritarian Nurse Ratched rules the nut ward with an iron fist and is more than a match for rebellious R. P. McMurphey (Jack Nicholson). Noncompliance is unacceptable. If drugs don't bring her patients into submission, there's always electro-shock therapy and lobotomies. Fletcher did Davis one better and won Best Actress.

Bette Davis, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) -- Robert Aldridge

Davis makes the list again as Jane Hudson, a former child star who's a little demented and a whole lot jealous. She makes her sister's life a living hell by the end of the film. Blanch (Joan Crawford),  confined to a wheelchair, is served rare delicacies for lunch. And a trip to the beach is no picnic. Davis secured another nomination for Best Actress.  
Ruth Chatterton, Dodsworth (1936) -- William Wyler
Self absorbed Fran Dodsworth convinces her good-natured husband, Sam (Walter Huston), to retire and take a European vacation. She thinks she can recapture her youth with an affair or two, and after betraying him tells Sam she wants a divorce. When the shallow woman is later rejected by a would-be suitor, she comes crawling back to guilt him into a reconciliation. Thankfully, Sam refuses to play the patsy and opts to remain in Italy with Edith (Mary Astor), a divorcee he now loves.
Mercedes McCambridge, Johnny Guitar (1954) -- Nicholas Ray
Emma Small tells Vienna (Joan Crawford) she's nothing but a railroad tramp. Is it jealousy or spurned love that drives her hate? Hard to tell in Nicholas Ray's unusual Western, but Emma has a mean violent streak. She gleefully burns down Vienna's gambling house and almost gets her enemy hung before confronting her in a gunfight in the film's climax.
Gene Tierney, Leave Her to Heaven (1945) -- John Stahl
Tierney is Ellen Harland, a cool psychopath who wants her husband all to herself. When little brother gets too much of Cornel Wilde's attention, Ellen takes Danny swimming in the lake. Should have brought a life preserver. Ellen deliberately tumbles down the stairs to induce a miscarriage, and later tries to frame her husband for murder, believing he now loves her sister. Tierney snagged her only nomination for Best Actress.
Leopoldine Konstanin, Notorious (1946) - Alfred Hitchcock

Mothers-in-law were given a bad name as Konstanin plays a cold-blooded Nazi who keeps her submissive son on a short leash. When she finds out his wife, Ingrid Bergman, is a spy, she tells her dutiful boy to kill her. Slow poison will mask the scheme from their Nazi collaborators.  No wonder that coffee tasted bitter.
Barbara Stanwyck, Double Indemnity (1944) - Billy Wilder
Sexy in a trailer park way as Phyllis Dietrichson, Barbara Stanwyck pulled Fred MacMurray's strings as well as any femme fatale. She wanted someone to knock off her husband. One look at that ankle bracelet and Fred was hooked. Before he knew what was happening he had planned and executed the deed. As one of film's best connivers, Stanwych earned a nomination for Best Actress.    
Joan Crawford, Possessed (1947) - Curtis Bernhardt
Van Heflin forgets the old adage: "Don't mess with a woman scorned." Obsession leads Crawford to murder, not once but twice. As emotionally unstable Louise Howell she can't get over losing Heflin to another woman. It's not a pretty picture and it ends with Louise wondering aimlessly in downtown L.A., completely off her rocker. At least she got an Oscar nomination.  

Friday, October 12, 2012

Favorite Films of the 1970s

For me, the 1970s is the last decade of great film-making. No doubt this opinion reflects my age and a desire to hold on to that which I was introduced to in my formative years, but most classic film lovers will agree that production companies and directors since have shifted focus to younger audiences in the search for bigger box office. Yes, terrific films are still made, but there's seems to be fewer of them. Action is favored over character development and scripts, and CGI has replaced creative cinematography.

It's easy for me to identify plenty of great films through the decade of the 1970s. Picking just ten is tough. Here's my list for the decade.

The Last Picture Show (1971) - Peter Bogdanovich

Ruth Popper (Cloris Leachman) consoles Sonny (Timothy Bottoms)

Maybe the best film of the decade. Beautifully shot by Robert Surtees it contains great supporting performances. Sam the Lion's (Ben Johnson) soliloquy at the pond and Ruth Popper's reunion with Sonny in the film's final scene are as poignant as it gets. Both won deserved Academy Awards.

The French Connection (1971) - William Friedkin

Smuggler Charnier (Fernando Rey) eludes Popeye on the subway.

A great adaptation of a dull novel by Robin Moore. The thrilling assassination attempt of Popeye and subsequent wild chase under the el never happened in real life, but Friedkin established a new bar for exciting action in crime films. A gritty game of cat and mouse between New York narcotic cops and drug smugglers.

The Godfather/The Godfather II (1972/1974) - Francis Ford Coppola

Two generations of Corleones.

In this story of a mafia family Brando came out of nowhere to produce one of the most iconic performances of the decade and win a second Best Actor Oscar. I like Pacino's work better as son Michael. The set decoration of early and mid-century New York is fabulous.

Summer of '42 (1971) - Robert Mulligan


Michel Legrand's haunting theme song seemed perfect for this story of loss, innocent first love, and friendship. Hermie, Oscy, and Benjie's adventures on Nantucket during the first summer of America's involvement in World War II are funny, ultimately sad, and timelessly universal and human. Age 15 at its initial release, it was easy to relate to Hermie and his feelings for the beautiful young woman down the beach. One look at Jennifer O'Neill explains it all.

Frenzy (1973) - Alfred Hitchcock

Another victim of the neck tie murderer. 

Hitchcock's best film since Psycho is filled with signature touches: a sensational camera shot down a stairs, the funny dinner scenes between husband and wife, an innocent man accused, and the harrowing ride in a potato truck. And there was something more as the old director tried to stay current with more sensational cinema of the decade--gruesome murder on screen. I love the London setting but miss Bernard Herrmann's score and George Tomasini's editing. Still, a worthy effort by a master.

The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973) - Peter Yates

Mitchum as Coyle drinks a lot of coffee. 

Director Yates produces his second top crime drama (Bullett), this time with a wonderful performance by Robert Mitchum as a small-time hood in over his head. A gritty look at the violent, dangerous world of Boston thugs and low-lifes. Eddie contemplates turning stoolie to avoid prison time. His speech in a diner about having his knuckles smashed in a drawer is good stuff.   

Chinatown (1974) - Roman Polanski

Private eye J.J. Gittes needs to forget. It's Chinatown.

Nicholson's best film. A compelling mystery about water rights late 1930's L.A. is at the heart of this terrific story of incest and murder. John Huston makes an intimidating bad guy and director Polanski wields a nasty knife in a cameo. Robert Towne wrote the acclaimed Oscar-winning script.

The Conversation (1974) - Francis Ford Coppola

Hackman finds himself in odd places. 

Gene Hackman in his best performance is Harry Caul. Lonely and emotionally stifled, he is the best in the business, a paid surveillance expert who begins to suspect that his current employer is up to no good. Haunted by perceived past failures, Harry is soon on a slippery slope to full-blown paranoia. The final shot of him playing his saxophone is memorable.

The Shootist (1976) - Don Seigel

Books goes out like a man in a face off with three rotten 

John Wayne can't act? Hardly. Maybe the best swan song of any actor's career, Wayne is great as a dying gunman, looking to live his final days in peace. Director Seigel opens the film with a terrific montage of scenes from old Wayne films, followed by a fine confrontation between Wayne, as J. B. Books, and a would-be robber. The town set doesn't seem particularly impressive--reminiscent of an inexpensive TV production, and I could do with a better supporting actor than Opie Taylor, but Wayne is wonderful. Cancer would soon devastate his robust frame, but for one last time, we got to see a giant. I still miss him.  

Manhattan (1979)

My favorite Woody Allen film. It's got a lot going for it: beautiful black & white cinematography; Gershwin; New York; and a witty script by Allen and partner, Marshall Brickman. Woody is Isaac Davis, an unhappy TV writer whose life is in flux after a divorce. Mariel Hemingway secured an Oscar nomination as innocent Tracy, a 17 year-old high school student, inexplicably in love with Isaac. Their final scene is terrific, bittersweet and acted with understated perfection.

Links to other Favorite Lists:

Favorite Westerns
Great TV