Sunday, March 18, 2012

The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) - David Lean

A British colonel consumed with foolish pride butts head with a cruel Japanese prison commander intent on completing a strategic railway and bridge over the River Kwai in Burma during WWII.

The Bridge on the River Kwai is a superb achievement, where all elements of film come together to produce the most satisfying action-adventure film ever made. If not as visually stunning as Lawrence of Arabia, on the whole it is director David Lean's best epic. It involves two parallel story lines, one the psychological drama between two strong-willed protagonists, Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness) and Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa) over how to build the bridge; and the second, Commander Shears' (William Holden) escape and return in a daring commando raid to blow it up. The first story line runs throughout nearly the film's entirety, while the second provides the exciting climax.

Lean does a fine job setting the stage by portraying the misery of a Japanese prison camp without showing any of its actual brutality on screen. Filmed in the heat and humidity of Ceylon, there was no need spray the actors to create "sweat." Their flesh glimmers with moisture. Uniforms rot in the constant dampness and some of prisoners' shoes are little more than soles. The first scene depicts crude crosses in the make-shift cemetery as Shears and another man dig a new grave. Shears looks at the new arrivals and guesses he'll have plenty of work ahead.

The camp lies in the middle of a dense jungle, representing Burma, the scene of the actual events of the film in 1942/1943, which except for the film's climax, are essentially accurate. Saito explains to the newly arrived British prisoners that it is useless to try to escape. If his guards don't shoot you, the snakes or heat will get you. Shears disagrees with Nicholson, who advises his men against escape, saying: "I'd say the odds against a successful escape are about 100 to one. But may I add another word, Colonel? The odds against survival in this camp are even worse."

Given what follows, it is doubtful Saito could have ever won the battle of wills against the stubborn and proud Nicholson, but he certainly gets off on the wrong foot. In his initial address to the British troops he insults their officers, saying they were cowards to surrender, denying their men the chance to die like soldiers. The only way for Nicholson to save face is to defy Saito's demand that officers work along side the men on the railway, even if it means his own death in the oven--a small corrugated tin hut. Nicholson will even sacrifice his own officers on principal.

Nicholson after a few days in the oven.
For his own part, Saito is under immense pressure to complete the bridge on time. Failure means suicide in accordance with the Japanese code of honor. He has no regard for the Geneva Convention when it comes to the treatment of prisoners, but realizing that he needs Nicholson's cooperation to construct the bridge, it is the Japanese officer who eventually capitulates in an emotional scene that leaves him sobbing in humiliation on his cot. 

Guinness won a Best Actor Oscar for his role. His performance is terrific. Nicholson, not particularly admirable or likable, is a complicated man, and Guinness makes him sympathetic. He is a fascinating character. The officer holds unfilled aspirations. Having surrendered he must feel some responsibility for having brought his men to this abysmal place, commanded as he says by the worst officer he has ever met. He suffers the indignity of being slapped in front of his men. His adherence to a British stiff-upper lip attitude saves face, but more importantly enables him to cloak his feelings of shame over a failure in leadership.

On the plus side, his enthusiastic cooperation with Saito leads to improved rations for the prisoners. And he is correct in asserting that the bridge project helps maintain discipline in the ranks and gives his men purpose. That it demonstrates to the Japanese that the British are superior is even better in Nicholson's eyes.

Still, we wonder how much of Nicholson's behaviour stems from a desire to prove to himself that he can accomplish something significant. He tells the camp doctor "one day the war will be over. And I hope that the people that use this bridge in years to come will remember how it was built and who built it. Not a gang of slaves, but soldiers, British soldiers, Clipton, even in captivity." More telling is the brilliantly written bridge soliloquy, which is a strong argument that the latter motive is his real catalyst, at least subconsciously:

Nicholson to Saito: I've been thinking. Tomorrow it will be twenty-eight years to the day that I've been in the service. Twenty-eight years in peace and war. I don't suppose I've been at home more than ten months in all that time. Still, it's been a good life. I loved India. I wouldn't have had it any other way. But there are times when suddenly you realize you're nearer the end than the beginning. And you wonder, you ask yourself, what the sum total of your life represents. What difference your being there at any time made to anything. Hardly made any difference at all, really, particularly in comparison with other men's careers. I don't know whether that kind of thinking's very healthy; but I must admit I've had some thoughts on those lines from time to time. But tonight... tonight!  

Here's a link:

It's the best scene in the film, beautifully written and acted. Lean shoots most of it from behind the actor as he leans on the railing looking out over the river. The camera slowly pulls forward, eventually moving to a side shot. As he finishes, he accidentally drops his make-shift riding crop into the water, signifying that he has completed the journey from humiliation (Saito broke his real crop in an earlier scene) to redemption. Writers Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson would win an Oscar for the screenplay, and this scene as much as any likely sealed their win.

Holden's presence enhances the action part of the film. He's a fabulous actor given a good part. Unlike Nicholson, you have no conflicted emotions about Shears. He's daring; and if he's coerced into joining the commando raid, in the end, heroic. He too gets a memorable speech to the raid's leader, Major Warden (Jack Hawkins):

Shears to Warden: You make me sick with your heroics! There's a stench of death about you. You carry it in your pack like the plague. Explosives and L-pills - they go well together, don't they? And with you it's just one thing or the other: destroy a bridge or destroy yourself. This is just a game, this war! You and Colonel Nicholson, you're two of a kind, crazy with courage. For what? How to die like a gentleman... how to die by the rules - when the only important thing is how to live like a human being.

"Kill him! Kill him!"

A David Lean film always has wonderful cinematography and a few exquisite transitions between scenes. Here, as a precursor to the acclaimed one in Lawrence where the tip of a lit match turns into the Arabian desert, there is a moment where the camp doctor, after visiting Nicholson, complains of the heat and looks up at the brutal sun. The camera moves up to the sky where the unforgiving sun is a searing white orb. Suddenly, Major Shears, who has earlier escaped the camp, comes into the scene from the bottom of the screen with no clear cut. He is stumbling along, filthy and exhausted and near death with thirst. It's a magnificent switch of characters and story line.

The film's payoff comes as the commando team arrives and mines the bridge. Their plan is to time the explosion with the passage of a Japanese troop train. The editing in the finale is superb. The river has fallen during the night, allowing Nicholson to notice wires beneath the bridge. Confused, he takes Saito to investigate. The two walk down to the river's bank as the sounds of the train is heard in the distance, coming closer and closer. The detonation wire is more obvious here, and Nicholson grabs it and begins to pull, exposing the wire as it comes out of the sand, leading to a commando hidden behind some rocks with the plunger. Lean uses quick camera cuts between the characters to capture reactions. It is wonderfully tense.

The sequence has been much discussed, and Nicholson's thoughts and actions are open to interpretation. Clearly, at first he wants to protect the bridge (his "600-year" achievement), and fails to understand that in building it, he has collaborated with the enemy. Has he gone mad? It's hard to say, but the appearance of Shears seems to shock him back to his duty. He gasps "What have I done?" as the train begins to pass over the bridge. Warden has been firing mortars all the while, and one fragment hits Nicholson. He staggers, mortally wounded, before falling dead across the plunger. The bridge explodes and collapses, sending the train into the river.

"What have I done?"
Besides the writers and Guinness, Oscars went to Lean as director, Jack Hildyard as cinematographer, Peter Taylor as editor, the score and the film as Best Picture. Hayakawa was nominated for Supporting Actor but lost to Red Buttons for Sayonara.

The film was named to the National Film Registry in 1997 and in the American Film Institute's most recent edition of greatest films was listed as #13.

Colonel Bogey March

One of the most memorable tunes in all of film appears in Bridge. The British soldiers whistle the jaunty number as they march into camp, and again as they cross the completed bridge. It is called the Colonel Bogey March. There are several versions of lyrics. Here's a typical one, which would have been familiar to British audiences:

Hitler has only got one ball,
Goring has two but very small,
Himmler is somewhat sim'lar,
But poor Goebbels has no balls at all.

Pierre Boulle:

The film is based on French writer Pierre Boulle's 1952 novel. The book was a semi-fictional story about the trials Allied POWs underwent at the hands of the Japan military, which forced them to construct a 258 mile railway in Burma to facilitate the transport of raw materials needed for their war effort. Conditions were so terrible the line became known as the Death Railway. Somewhere around 100,000 prisoners and Asian conscripts died during construction.

Photograph of prisoners working on the Death Railway.

Boulle himself was never a prisoner of the Japanese, but while serving as a spy for France was captured by the Vichy French loyalists on the Mekong River, and imprisoned for a time in Saigon. He escaped and returned to service in British special forces in Calcutta, India.

Boulle also wrote Planet of the Apes.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Double Indemnity (1944) -- Billy Wilder

Walter Neff is an insurance salesman with Pacific All-Risk. A routine stop at the Dietrichson's to secure renewals on some automobile policies sends him down a slippery slope, where lust leads to murder, and murder takes him on a trolley ride all the way to the end of the line. It's a one-way trip and the last stop is the cemetery.

Double Indemnity is justifiably considered one of the great film noirs. Billy Wilder, having already found great success as a Hollywood writer, was just getting his feet wet as a director. This, only his third effort, placed him immediately in the ranks of America's top film-makers. A ground-breaking film, it has spawned decades of copiers, but no one made adultery and murder more fun for an audience than Wilder did here.

The film opens with an intriguing sequence--a car driving late at night and slightly erratic in downtown Los Angeles. It pulls to a curb in front of a tall office building. A man eases himself slowly out, supporting himself on the door for a moment. He is apparently hurt in some fashion. A night watchman opens the door, commenting that he looks all-in. The man's name is Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray). He makes his way to his office, where he drops exhausted into his desk chair. A cold sweat beads his forehead and for the first time we see the dark stain of blood on his shoulder. he's been shot. He switches on a dictaphone and begins to speak, confessing to a murder. His last lines grab you and capture the essence of all noir: "Yes, I killed him. I killed him for money -- and a woman -- and I didn't get the money and I didn't get the woman. Pretty, isn't it?"

Walter Neff can't resist that ankle necklace.
It's a daring start by director Wilder--he's already revealed that his star is a murderer. And it stands to reason that he will likely be caught given his condition and the strict morality code of the day. What remains for the audience to discover is who is the woman, why doesn't Neff get her, and who shot him? It's a clever way to engage us and create tension, wondering how the story will unfold. (Wilder liked the technique of revealing up-front what is essentially the end of his film so well, he used it again, effectively in Sunset Boulevard six years years later.)

The rest of the film unfolds through flashback, interjected with voice-over narration and occasional returns to the office and the dictaphone. It begins with Neff arriving at the Dietrichson's. Mr. isn't home but the wife is, and Neff is immediately smitten. Phyllis (Barbara Stanwyck), in perhaps the most seductive entrance in all the genre, appears at the top of the stairs, wearing nothing but a bath towel and high-heeled bedroom slippers decorated with pom-poms.

After dressing she comes down and Neff explains the purpose of his visit, but he's got his eye on her leg and his mind's not on insurance. The script (by Wilder and Raymond Chandler) jazzes up the source novel by pulp crime writer James Cain with snappy dialog. When the two antagonists get together it is laced with plenty of double entendres. The most memorable exchange takes place during their first meeting:

Neff: I wish you'd tell me what's engraved on that anklet.
Phyllis: Just my name.
Neff: As for instance?
Phyllis: Phyllis.
Neff: Phyllis, huh. I think I like that.
Phyllis: But you're not sure.
Neff: I'd have to drive it around the block a couple of times.
Phyllis: (Standing up.) Mr. Neff, why don't you drop by tomorrow evening around 8:30? He'll be in then.
Neff: Who?
Phyllis: My husband. You were anxious to talk to him, weren't you?
Neff: Yeah, I was. But I'm sort of getting over the idea, if you know what I mean.
Phyllis: There's a speed limit in this state, Mr. Neff, 45 miles an hour.
Neff: How fast was I going, Officer?
Phyllis: I'd say around 90.
Neff: Suppose you get down off your motorcycle and give me a ticket.
Phyllis: Suppose I let you off with a warning this time.
Neff: Suppose it doesn't take.
Phyllis: Suppose I have to whack you over the knuckles.
Neff: Suppose I bust out crying and put my head on your shoulder.
Phyllis: Suppose you try putting it on my husband's shoulder.
Neff: That tears it... (He takes his hat and briefcase after his advances are coldly rebuffed.) 8:30 tomorrow evening, then.
Phyllis: That's what I suggested.
Neff: You'll be here too?
Phyllis: I guess so. I usually am.
Neff: Same chair, same perfume, same anklet?
Phyllis: I wonder if I know what you mean.
Neff: (Opening the entrance door.) I wonder if you wonder.

Stanwyck as Phyllis Dietrichson, a dangerous blond bombshell.

Much has been made of Phyllis being an iconic femme fatale, perhaps the iconic femme fatale character in all of cinema. She is certainly devious, and a tempting seductress for a man like Walter Neff, who's attracted to her borderline trashy looks and honeysuckle perfume. It doesn't take her long to size him up. She's an experienced predator and Neff is an easy mark. She plays hard to get just long enough while flaunting her sexuality, then turns on the vulnerability. It's a dangerous combination.

Because of the opening scene, the audience knows before Neff that this woman is bad news, or at least it's reasonable to assume so. He'll catch up to speed in the next scene.  

She invites him to return to the house the next afternoon. The husband is conveniently away. They get comfortable on the couch. Walter, with lust in his mind, may not be the sharpest man, but when she asks if his company offers accident insurance and if can she buy some without her husband knowing, a red flag goes up. Suspicious she's contemplating murder, Neff tells her she won't get away with it and leaves. Wilder lets you know what the character is thinking in a voice-over:
"So I let her have it, straight between the eyes. She didn't fool me for a minute, not this time. I knew I had ahold of a red hot poker, and the time to drop it was before it burned my hand off."
But Neff is weak. When Phyllis turns up at his apartment that night to ostensibly apologize, she's wearing a tight angora sweater. He grabs her and kisses her, telling her that he is crazy about her. A shift back to the present with Neff and the dictaphone allows Neff to admit that what happens next isn't solely the result of being seduced by Phyllis. He's long wondered if he was smart enough to "crook the game," fraud the insurance company with a perfect crime.

Back to the apartment we find the couple still on the couch. Walter is reclined, having a cigarette. Phyllis is fixing her lipstick. The implication is clear--they have just made love. Walter tells her he will come up with a fool-proof plan to do away with her husband. A $50,000 accident policy with a double indemnity clause (paying twice the face amount for an accidental death) will yield them $100,000. The pact, and their fates, are sealed.

Phyllis provides the spark, but it is Walter who masterminds the crime. If throughout the film we feel some sympathy for the sap, it's also clear he is no innocent bystander. Several scenes depict him in what became a classic noir motif; shadowy venetian blind slats cross his face and body, suggesting prison bars. This is just one of the effective uses of shadow featured in one of the darkest of all noirs. Stanwyck gets the treatment too, and has a wonderfully dark scene at the end when she waits for Walter to arrive at her house. The lights are off and she fires up a cigarette. The smoke slowly wafts up as Miklos Rozsa's terrific score helps create a sense of ominous dread.

Another memorable scene takes place at Jerry's Market as the two co-conspirators surreptitiously talk over the plan as they reach for canned goods. Phyllis hides behind sun glasses. Filmed mostly on location, at least for the exteriors, L.A. provides a great setting for the action, one of the most entertaining aspects of classic films. Besides the 1940s wardrobe, we get the big period automobiles. There's a nice, atmospheric shot of the Hollywood Bowl from a wooded hillside.

The plan is all Walter's, and on the surface it's a fine one. They execute it well enough, knocking the unsuspecting husband off in a classic murder scene, with Neff hiding in the back seat of the car as Phyllis drives her husband to the train station. Director Wilder stages it all meticulously and with great suspense. Never showing the actual strangulation, the camera instead focuses on Stanwyck's face. A slight smile of satisfaction creases her lips, erasing any remaining doubt of the audience that the woman is anything but cold and wicked.

The sequence involves an impersonation, the placement of the body on the train tracks, and a tense moment when the getaway car fails to start. Walter has established his alibi. It all starts to unravel when his boss, Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson), a veteran claims examiner, starts to listen to his intuition. Convinced the death could not have been suicide based on statistics, and a highly unlikely accident, he concocts a murder scenario that remarkably mirrors what actually happened.

Walter and Phyllis dump the body.

As good as Stanwyck and MacMurray are--she received an Oscar nomination as Best Actress--it's Robinson's performance that most resonates and the character you most care about. He's completely believable and perfect as the slightly gruff, obsessive professional, whose passion is to protect the company and see his protege, Walter, get ahead. He's shrewd and can smell a phony claim a mile away. The two characters have a couple of terrific scenes together, masking their affection for one another in office banter. Keyes is always patting his vest pocket, looking for a match to light his cigar. Walter always produces one, lighting it with a flick of his thumb. In the film's last scene, the ritual is reversed.

"Closer than that, Walter."

For Stanwyck's character, Wilder famously had her don a blond wig. The wig, the anklet, and the sun glasses collectively help define Phyllis and demonstrate Wilder's skill at using little things to make one of his characters physically memorable. (Other examples in his canon are Jack Lemmon's bowler in The Apartment and William Holden's cigar in Stalag 17). She wears a lot of makeup too, suggestive of a less than high-class background, but a woman who knows how to flirt to get a man hot. Stanwyck fans won't find her unattractive, and the look works perfectly for Neff, a man not used to attention from a sexy woman.

Stanwyck could play anything, and do it damned well. Maybe that's why she never got a competitive Oscar. Academy voters likely took her for granted. If Phyllis Dietrichson isn't her best performance, it's right up there. Certainly, it is her most memorable one.

An important subplot with Phyllis' step-daughter and her boyfriend, a man named Nino Zachetti, comes into play. Zarchetti comes within a hair's width of being framed for murder, and Phyllis' unsavory past peaks Keyes' interest.

One of the best scenes takes place as Keyes comes to visit Walter at his apartment. Worrying about the case is causing him indigestion. He relates that he's starting to think that the "wide-eyed dame," as the beneficiary, may have murdered her husband. Phyllis arrives in the hallway as the two men talk and hides behind the open door when Keyes leaves for the elevator. Walter feels her presence, and for a moment, the audience gets to share his fear that Keyes will discover his relationship with the widow.

A narrow escape.

As Keyes closes in on the truth, the pressure ratchets up on the two lovers, and double-crosses make their ugly appearance. As Keyes so adroitly observes: "Murder is never perfect. It always comes apart sooner or later. When two people are involved, it's usually sooner." By film's end we are back in the insurance office, with Walter finishing up his story. It ends as all noirs do. No crime goes unpunished.

In all, the film nabbed 7 Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture; Best Director--the first of 8 for Wilder in this capacity; Best Actress--the third of four for Stanwyck; Best Cinematography; and Best Music--one of 15 career nods for Miklos Rozsa. Incredibly, it won none.

1944 was a terrific year for film noir. Besides Double Indemnity, there was Laura; Murder, My Sweet; and Woman in the Window. Joseph LaShelle's camera work for Laura went head-to-head with John Seitz for Double Indemnity and won. Director Wilder used both men during his career. Here's a list of their Wilder films:

Seitz: Double Indemnity, The Lost Weekend, and Sunset Boulevard.
LaShelle: The Apartment, Irma la Douce, and The Fortune Cookie

Author James Cain.

Monday, March 5, 2012

The Cranes are Flying (1957) - Mikhail Kalatozov

Tatyana Samojlova as Veronica.
Veronica and Boris are madly in love, as happy as two young people can be. But it is the eve of World War II, and already the Russian capital feels the effects. Boris, who can likely avoid the draft because of his talent as an artist, is caught up in the fervor. Out of duty, he volunteers to serve in the army as the German forces approach Moscow. Their planned marriage interrupted, Veronica and Boris are caught up in the horror of war. Can their love sustain them?

One of the most powerful anti-war films ever made, The Cranes are Flying has universal appeal. The first Russian film to capture the Cannes Film Festival's prestigious Palme d'Or, it was one of the first Russian films cleared for production after the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953. Russia, of course, suffered an estimated 25 million casualties during the global conflict, by far the most of any nation, so director Kalatozov and the Russian film industry had plenty of harrowing experience to draw upon.

For anyone not inclined to give foreign films a chance, this is a good place to start. You are likely to change your mind. Wonderfully directed, it has superb black & white cinematography, fine pacing, a beautiful star, and a story sure to touch any viewer.    

It starts with a sweet scene, two young lovers, euphorically skipping hand-in-hand along the river bank. Veronica (Tatyana Samojlova) radiates happiness. She is beautiful, and Boris (Aleksey Batalov) is tall and handsome. It is morning--they've been out all night. He affectionately calls her "squirrel," and because it is time for him to go to work in the factory, they plan their next rendezvous as he escorts her home. She tip-toes up the stairs so as not to wake her parents. In a nice moment, the camera pans to old couple in bed and we see a conversation every parent has at one time or another, worrying about their children. They hear their daughter's footsteps but pretend to sleep. The mother whispers, "She is crazy about him." "And he about her," the father replies.

The idyllic interlude is brief. Boris secretly plans on joining the army but holds off telling Veronica--he hasn't gotten his notice and next week is her birthday. It comes soon enough in the most moving "going off to war" sequence I have ever seen, beautifully acted and directed.

As Veronica is having fun contemplating their wedding, Boris' friend, Stepan, arrives with the exciting news. She is stunned; Boris must leave that afternoon. With no time to spare, they part having said little, but she promises to meet him later at his house for a quick celebratory lunch with his family. Like Veronica, Boris' father is stunned by the unexpected news, furious that his son has joined the army. It's not said, but the impression left by his reaction suggests the father knows well the horror of war from his own youth, perhaps during the Russian revolution. In any event, fearful that his son has put himself in harm's way, he is proud and must reluctantly accept the decision.

Delayed by traffic, Veronica arrives too late to join in cake and a toast. At the station, Boris scans the crowd, desperately looking for her, wondering now if she is so angry at him that she chose not to come. There is a crush of people saying goodbye to the young men, who are filled with illusions of great adventure, not thinking of the danger ahead. The camera pans the many faces of family members left behind, some happy and proud, but most with tears of worry and dread. It is a powerful scene.

Veronica arrives and forces her way through the crowd, finally catching a glimpse of Boris as he marches to the train. It is loud, martial music plays, the crowd cheers. She calls out but Boris doesn't see or hear her. Hurt and confused, his head is down, his eyes vacant. He looks dazed and disappointed. She tries to toss him some cookies wrapped in a package that she has brought as a gift, but they fall to the pavement beneath the feet of the volunteers. Boris leaves without knowing if Veronica still loves him. The emotional scene compels the viewer to feel his pain and anguish.

In turn, Veronica will be left wondering too. Boris has left her a present, a stuffed toy animal squirrel. He has hidden a note within the basket the animal holds, buried beneath some nuts. She doesn't see it, and won't find it until much later in the film. The hidden note is an interesting plot device that serves to balance the two characters and elicit our empathy for both. 

This entire sequence is highly effective, immensely sad and heart-rending; and perhaps at the time, highly surprising to American audiences, who must have assumed that Russia was a country of only unfeeling, godforsaken communists. But its new leader, Khrushchev, was keen on distancing himself from Stalin, and had granted film-makers new freedom in their art. Kalatozov took advantage of the opportunity and eschewed the usual propaganda produced by previous Russian directors.

As shot, the scene could have depicted any people from any nation that sends its young men off to war--fathers have to fight back tears and mothers and sweethearts are overcome with emotion. The message you take is simple: all wars rip apart a community like no other experience. It doesn't matter if they are American, Chinese, Russian, or anything else. Government leaders lead their nations to war, and common civilians bear the heaviest burden.   

(Note: spoilers follow)

To emphasize the fact that the world is changing, Kalatozov has already shown the audience that Moscow is readying for war: Boris digging defensive trenches, Veronica and Boris hanging blackout curtains, iron defenses aligned along the river downtown. When the German bombs begin to rain down, the populace head for the subway. In one such attack, Veronica emerges to find  her apartment building leveled, both parents killed. In a well-designed scene, she rushes up the open stairway amidst fire and smoke. It looks quite dangerous. Boris' father takes her in, telling Boris' cousin, Mark, that they have to protect her.

Veronica now waits for a letter from Boris that doesn't come, either because he hasn't time to write or because communication lines are disrupted--we never know. She grows increasingly depressed. Another bombing attack finds her and Mark together at Boris' family apartment. Mark, a musician who we later learned has avoided the draft by bribing an official to secure an exemption, has long harbored his own desire for Veronica. During the commotion of the bombing, he rapes her. Confused, feeling disgraced, and not knowing Boris' fate or feelings, she makes a regretful decision, and reluctantly consents to marry the scoundrel.

The focus shifts briefly to Boris on a reconnaissance mission traveling through the miserable landscape. Mud rises above his ankles. Gunfire from the enemy breaks the silence. He never forgets Veronica and carries her photograph close to his heart. His death comes quietly. He falls, spinning to the wet ground with his last thoughts of her as in a dream, imagining their wedding.

Boris helps another soldier.
In the meantime, Veronica continues to wait for a letter. She now works as a nurse in a hospital with Boris' father, a doctor. The separation is hard on her. One woman describes her as a ghost. 

The actor who plays Boris' father gives a strong performance. When Mark and Veronica announce they are going to marry, he sits silent, stirring his coffee, but his face lets you know he is furious. This is a betrayal of his son. As far as we know, she never reveals to him the circumstances of the rape, so his anger is understandable. Still, from here, he feels conflicted about Veronica. In a moment that hits too close to home, she overhears his harsh comments when a wounded soldier creates a loud commotion. The boy is upset, having been informed that his own girl friend has married someone else, a civilian. To rally the boy's spirit, the doctor argues that such a girl is contemptible, saying she married a coward who sits out the war at home, letting others protect him. Full of self-loathing and distraught, Veronica runs out. The doctor suddenly realizes the effect his words have had on the poor girl and is ashamed. It was an honest speech, but not one he meant for her. The pain on his face reveals he is sick at heart. Thankfully, he later gets a chance to apologize, saying only someone without a heart could reproach her.

But for now, Veronica contemplates suicide. The need to intervene to save a young child from being run over in traffic, jolts her out of her funk and gives her a new purpose. Coincidentally, the boy's name is Boris. She takes him in as if she were his own mother. 

Veronica eventually finds the note from Boris in another dramatic scene. She reads the contents, and in a voice-over we hear Boris explain his decision and profess to her his undying love. Her faith renewed, she continues to hold out hope he will return, even when another soldier later tells her he was killed in action. The film ends with the soldiers coming home as victors to a jubilant city, the war over. Stepan is among the veterans and confirms Boris' death. He then gives a stirring speech of hope to the crowd. Symbolically, cranes fly over the city as the music swells (an image seen in the opening moments of the film) and Boris' father leads Veronica away.

Boris and Veronica admire the cranes. 

Besides its moving message, the film is technically magnificent. The director makes judicious use of hand-held cameras to convey the terror of the battlefield and moments of panic, and selective closeups of Veronica at key moments. Always her face is perfectly lit and expressive.

Tatyana Samojlova is tremendous in the role as the heroine, and it would be tough for anyone to fault her character's decision to marry the reprehensible Mark. We can't help but feel compassion for the girl. As the father-in-law says at one point, she has been through a terrible ordeal. Just 23 at the time of filming, it is quite a performance from one so young, and only her second film. Compare it to Julia Christie's performance in a somewhat similarly themed film, Dr. Zhivago, and it is even more impressive.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964) - Robert Aldrich

Charlotte Hollis has a problem. An aging recluse and spinster, she hopes to hang onto the family plantation and mansion, which lies in the path of a planned bridge and freeway. To stop the bulldozers, she solicits the help of her cousin, Miriam. At the same time, she is haunted with memories of a murder that took place in the mansion thirty-seven years earlier. Is she going insane?

"Get off my property!"

Thankfully, director Robert Aldrich's 1962 film Whatever Happened to Baby Jane was a commercial and critical success, earning 5 Oscar nominations and the year's fourth highest box office. It starred two giants of an earlier era, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. Aldrich hoped to duplicate that smash by reuniting the two actors for another psychological thriller two years later. And though Crawford would drop out of the project shortly after filming started and be replaced by Olivia de Havilland, Aldrich achieved his objective. Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte is a terrifically atmospheric Southern Gothic thriller. While not earning as much in ticket sales, it surpassed the first film in Oscar nominations with 7.

The film opens with a flashback. It is 1927. Louisiana. Big Sam Hollis (Victor Bruno), an important man of wealth and power, is hosting an extravagant party at the Hollis mansion in one of parishes of New Orleans. Charlotte, his only daughter, is a young belle with mischief up her sleeve. That night she and John Mayhew (Bruce Dern), a neer-do-well who is already married, plan to elope. But Sam has gotten wind of their scheme. He intimidates the weak Mayhew into renouncing his love, leaving Charlotte heart-broken and furious. "I'll kill you," she screams at Mayhew, before storming out in tears. Later that night, John sits alone in the summerhouse, distraught over the turn of events. Suddenly he hears something and looks up. A raised cleaver falls and slices off his wrist. It drops again and again as he screams in pain and terror. 

We next see Charlotte, backing slowly into the main house through the front doors. The party is in full swing. She turns to face the revellers and the camera focuses to the front of her dress. It's splattered in blood. She appears almost catatonic. Naturally, everyone assumes she is the killer when John is later found dead, decapitated and one hand severed. It's not shown on screen, but Sam exerts his political influence in the state capital to get the case swept under the rug, but his health is broken and he dies within the year, leaving Charlotte as his sole heir. Ever since, she has been shunned by society.

A newspaper account of the gruesome murder.
With this intriguing start, Aldrich brings us to the present, 1964. The Hollis mansion and plantation lie in the way of a planned freeway. Charlotte stubbornly ignores the eviction notice, going so far as to threaten the bulldozer crew with a rifle. Her only ally is Velma (Agnes Moorehead), her devoted housekeeper, but Velma is as old and as tired as her employer. Charlotte thinks she has a trick up her sleeve--cousin Miriam (Olivia de Havilland), whom she calls for assistance.

Although Davis and de Havilland each had a few productive years ahead, their best years were clearly well behind them at this point, at least as headliners. Both were both two-time Best Actress winners and at various times arguably each the top actress in Hollywood, certainly among the most acclaimed. But that was more than a decade in the past. Joseph Cotten is also featured as Drew Bayless, Charlotte's personal physician. Though Cotten never reached their rarefied heights of popularity, he was a solid 1940s star in his own right. All three had legions of fans. It's a joy watching these three pros from Hollywood's golden age get the chance to act together in a thoroughly enjoyable, well-produced film at this stage of their careers. They look to be having great fun.

Davis has the flashiest and meatiest role, portraying a troubled and confused woman, whose behavior borders on looniness. It's no wonder. Charlotte is fragile by nature, was coddled as a youth, and continues to be haunted by a terrible past tragedy. Perhaps a little paranoid, maybe even demented, she's certainly worn down by the long ridicule she's had to endure. The cruel neighborhood kids make fun of the crazy lady in the old house with a nasty song, one no doubt passed down by their parents:

"Chop chop, sweet Charlotte
Chop chop 'tll he's dead
Chop chop, sweet Charlotte
Chop off his hand and head."

Davis gives a terrific performance, running a gamut of emotions, and as she seemingly descends into madness she elicits our sympathy. One horror scene sends her crawling down the stairs, gasping in shock. Only a confident actor could pull it off without looking a little ridiculous. Davis makes it seem all too realistic.

I prefer her performance here over her nominated role in Baby Jane, which seems intentionally over-the-top and one-dimensional in comparison. She is even effective during the first present-day sequence, when her slumber is interrupted by a boy who's entered her house at night on a dare. Likely dreaming of her old lover, she calls plaintively..., "John?" The frightened boy flees, leaving Charlotte standing in the door holding a music book that plays the theme melody. Quiet tears run down her cheeks as the opening credits role. Here is a character obviously suffering great emotional pain. You wonder how often she wakes in similar fashion, momentarily thinking John has finally come to spirit her away.

Miriam asks Drew how she has managed to live alone so many years. "People who are obliged to live alone have a habit of creating company for themselves," he explains. "Innocent fancies can become fixed illusions."

Charlotte in one of her less lucid moments.

The plot pulls elements from two earlier psychological thrillers, the French horror classic Diabolique, and Gaslight, and Aldrich adds his own touch of black humor. Eerie harpsichord music plays at night. Hounds bay. There are ghostly voices. Curtains billow and a cleaver and severed hand make a mysterious appearance. Do these things really happen or are they hallucinations of Charlotte's damaged mind? When asked if she's really crazy like the people think, she admits her own doubt, answering sadly: "There was a time when I was positive I wasn't."

And there are present-day murders, one when a character cracks a chair over another's head to send the victim careening down the stairs. The script is great fun, particularly when voiced by Davis and Cotten, whose Southern inflections drip with honey. Cotten also infuses his character with an overdose of self-confidence. He skirts just this side of sleazy as the physician, a little too casual and uncaring of Charlotte's predicament, and a little too fond of her wine cellar.

A favorite bit of dialog occurs when Charlotte and Drew sit down to dinner with Miriam upon her arrival. There's tension in the room, and for a while it's apparent past slights still fester between the relatives. Charlotte wants Mariam to go to Baton Rouge to put things right with the county commissioners. When she and Drew suggest once too often that there's no way to prevent the mansion being torn down, Charlotte finally reacts with anger. "What do you think I asked you here for?" she screeches, "COMPANY?" 

Olivia de Havilland as Cousin Miriam.

de Havilland, 48 at filming, looks lovely, and her elegant voice works perfectly for her character, who may not be what she first seems. In this film, no one is. As interesting as Crawford might have been in the role, de Havilland's fortuitous casting enhanced the film immensely because her character is so different from what her fans had come to expect from this Hollywood legend. Moreover, she was generally considered one of Hollywood's most graceful and nicest stars. When Miriam slaps Charlotte out of frustration and viciously scolds her like an unruly child, you are shocked. Crawford wouldn't have induced the same reaction from the audience, particularly given the well-publicized ill feelings the two actors harbored for one another.

Moorehead, nominated for a Supporting Actress award for her efforts here--her career fourth--also shines. Looking like she was rolled up wet and stuffed in a closet overnight, her hair hangs in disarray and her dress might be a Goodwill reject. She's more clever than she looks though, and better able than Charlotte to read people's character.

Think I don't know a due bill when I see one? - Moorehead as Velma.
Another star from the 1940s, Mary Astor, best known as the femme fatale from The Maltese Falcon, appears as Jewel Mayhew, the murdered man's wife. She holds the key to the mystery and has kept it secret for decades. Aldrich's story fashions a clever connection between her and cousin Miriam, who  lived at the Hollis mansion at the time of the original murder.

It's too bad that Astor is only in two scenes because her character is fascinating. One of the best scenes in the film occurs when she encounters Miriam on the street. Jewel, whose health is rapidly failing and whose pocketbook is nearly empty, is disgusted to find the woman in her town. She doesn't bother to hide her contempt. The viewer finds out later why she behaves so.

In the other scene she has tea with a visiting insurance man, Harry Willis (Cecil Kellaway), who helps unravel the mystery for the audience. Kellaway handles these types of roles wonderfully. He has a quiet, friendly voice, one that sounds pleasant and thoughtful. Charlotte and Jewel both instantly trust him. In the final edit, Aldrich unfortunately removed a part of their dialog, which would have given her character considerably more depth. Willis wonders why she never collected on an insurance policy on her husband. She explains that she simply couldn't capitalize on her loss. And she makes a confession:

"I believe you must know a thing I've been very late in learning...that the wickedest act in this life is to sit in judgement on others...and bring down vengeance upon them... The frightful things that happened when my husband died. And the other things, the quiet, slowly festering ones that have gone on happening ever since..." (a pause)
Me, alone here in this house---Charlotte alone over there, a frightened exile from the world. No matter what she did..." (she breaks off, lost in some private reminiscence, then she shakes her head) "More than one life was taken that night."

Jewel Mayhew's time is short.

There is something special about stories set in America's deep South that draw audiences in, that fire its imagination. Maybe for those of us not born there, it represents the closest thing we can get in this country to an exotic locale. Southern settings suggest the past. Aldrich and crew do a marvelous job of tapping into this sensation. You can almost smell the wisteria and feel the sweat dripping down your back.

Throughout, it is simply one of the most atmospheric films of its type. The old mansion has seen better days. It seems dusty and in need of a new paint job. Old nick knacks and relics adorn the big rooms. Wicker chairs sit on the veranda. It looks like someplace your rich old grandmother might have lived in. Charlotte can see the family graveyard from her balcony, and outside, the surrounding bald cypress trees drip with long wisps of moss that float in the breeze. Of course, Aldrich's decision to film in black and white just enhances the effect. 

The mood is also enriched by a lovely theme song (sung by Al Martino over the closing credits). It plays frequently in the background as the action unfolds and even gets a brief rendition by both Davis and Cotten during certain scenes. William Glasgow and Raphael Bretton earned well-deserved Oscar nominations for art and set direction.

Some viewers may find the film on the campy side, devoid of subtlety. Not me. And if some of the performances come off as exaggerated, they perfectly capture how I picture Southerners of the period to be: eccentric, possessing long memories--particularly when it comes to grudges--and having little restraint when it comes to their emotions. From start to finish it is a meticulously crafted and presented film, full of engaging suspense and characters.

Other Films by Robert Aldrich:
  • Kiss Me Deadly  - 1955
  • Autumn Leaves  - 1956
  • What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?  - 1962
  • The Flight of the Phoenix - 1965
  • The Dirty Dozen - 1967