Categories
British Drama

Last Orders

Last Orders (2001) - Photo Gallery - IMDb

How many movies have featured a group of old friends coming together and reflecting on their lives because one of their circle has died (e.g., The Big Chill, Husbands)? And how many times have Michael Caine, Tom Courtenay, Bob Hoskins, and David Hemmings portrayed British blokes like themselves who weren’t born with a silver spoon in their mouths? And how many times has Hellen Mirren played an intelligent, sensual woman with a mixture of strength and vulnerability? Did writer/director Fred Schepisi really think audiences would fall for a movie that recycles all that for the umpteenth time? Bless his cotton socks, he did, and the result is a quiet cinematic gem from 2001 that deserved a bigger audience than it got: Last Orders.

The plot: Three long-time friends gather in their Bermondsey pub with the cremated ashes of their mutual friend Jack (Michael Caine). Jack was a butcher and the son of a butcher, who leaves behind his wife Amy (Helen Mirren) and his adopted son Vince (Ray Winstone), who refused to follow Jack into the family business and instead opened a car dealership. Amy and Jack’s also have another child, June (Laura Morelli), who was born with profound intellectual disabilities. Jack refused contact with her, but Amy has been dutifully visiting her daughter at a group home once a week for 50 years. Jack left instructions for his ashes to be scattered into the ocean at Margate. Amy doesn’t wish to go, so his four friends set off without her, with Vince driving them in a Mercedes from his lot. The friends are Ray (Bob Hoskins) who served with Jack in World War II and has a talent for picking horses, Vic (Tom Courtenay) who runs a funeral home with his sons, and Lenny (David Hemmings) a boozy and somewhat irascible ex-boxer whose daughter Sally (Claire Harman) was long ago wooed and then abandoned by Vince. As the men travel to fill Jack’s last request, we learn about their lives through their interchanges at various stops along their journey as well as from flashback scenes of their younger selves.

Schepisi did a remarkable job fashioning this script from Graham Swift’s novel, incorporating just enough remembered and experienced action and conflict to keep this from becoming dull and overly talky. He was aided immeasurably by his experienced acting ensemble, who evidence that characteristic British willingness to share the stage that American movie stars often lack. Each uses the time Schepisi gives them to create a believable character with defects and virtues. The younger performers in the flashback scenes are also fine; casting director Patsy Pollock deserves credit for finding newcomers who look remarkably like the older stars. Brian Tufano’s cinematography and Paul Grabowsky’s music are also significant assets.

Last Orders (2002) - Rotten Tomatoes

Schepisi delves into existential questions about love, family, trust, betrayal, grief, and friendship but to his credit he doesn’t offer pat answers. Some people’s lives (e.g. Vic’s) work out pretty well for them and theirs, others (e.g., Lenny’s) far less so, and in the end we don’t really know why. Marriages can be terribly disappointing in some ways and extremely enriching in others. People can love each sincerely yet also let each other down. And through it all, we have keep buggering on.

I appreciated this movie as an affecting drama, but also admired it as a piece of sociological history: it’s a vivid adumbration of how a particular generation of British men of a particular social class travelled through life. And who better to bring this across than Caine, Courtenay, Hemmings, and Hoskins, who opened up British acting to lads who weren’t born to the purple?

p.s. Some Americans too whom I have recommended this film struggled to make out some of the accented dialogue, so if that’s likely to be a challenge for you, you may wish to stream it with English subtitles.

Categories
Drama

Body and Soul

Body and Soul (1947) John Garfield , Anne Revere, Film Noir, | Film noir,  John garfield, Iconic movies

Many fine movies have been set in and around the boxing ring. Most of them borrow from the subgenre’s touchstone: Body and Soul.

The hero of this 1947 classic is up-from-nothing Charley Davis (John Garfield), a scrappy boxer looking for a shot at the championship. Unfortunately, that means throwing in with the criminals who control the whole rotten enterprise and exploit everyone in it. As celebrity and money go to his head, Charley is drawn away from the decent values and people from his old neighborhood and towards the glamorous but amoral people who spend their lives in society’s upper echelons. Charlie thinks he is on top of the world. But then the bosses order him to throw a big fight so that they can cash in by betting against him, pushing Charlie to the point of emotional and ethical crisis.

This movie suffers a bit in the same way as many of Alfred Hitchcock’s films: Its elements have been aped so many times in subsequent movies that they may come across to modern viewers as clichéd. But try to get past that unfair but understandable reaction and feast yourself on a sharply-written, unforgettably photographed and acted piece of cinema.

The rewards for viewers are many. Garfield is superb as Charley, bringing alive his character’s mix of toughness and boyish vulnerability. It’s a complex performance of impressive maturity from a fairly young actor (who unfortunately never got to become an old one, he died just a few years later). Abraham Polonsky’s memorable script creates a triangle around Charley, with the other two points being strong, well-rounded female characters: Charley’s long suffering fiance Peg and his mother, Anna. These roles are brilliantly essayed by Lili Palmer and Anna Revere, respectively. In particular, the scenes of the three of them together in Anna’s house are absolutely riveting. These confrontations are also beautifully blocked and lit as the three performers move from the kitchen in the foreground to the small bedroom in the background which has a window where there really ought to be a wall (Unrealistic architecture, but the effect is so striking that you will not care).

Wrap Shot: Body and Soul - The American Society of Cinematographers

This film is also justly legendary as a showcase for my favorite cinematographer, James Wong Howe. The boxing scenes are astonishing in their vividness (Robert Parrish and Francis Lyon’s Oscar-winning editing is priceless). Until I saw the above photo I wondered if it were just a Hollywood legend that Howe shot them on rollerskates! Howe also shines outside the ring, given the viewer a gritty, realistic cityscape in which this dark story unfolds.

Although on the surface this movie is of course about pugilism, at a deeper level it’s about low-income outgroups (Jews and Blacks) trying to make good in a corrupt, oppressive and money-grubbing system. Virtually everyone involved in the production were members of the hard left and would soon be persecuted by McCarthyites as a result. But they had a free hand here for their pro-underdog politics, and they pulled no punches.

Categories
British Drama Romance Science Fiction / Fantasy

A Matter of Life and Death

A Matter of Life and Death (1946) | BFI

Many film buffs love to rank order films in best ever lists, straining and debating to argue which is #4 versus #3 or #7. I do not put myself through that agony, but am comfortable with more fungible judgments. In that spirit, I am quite sure than any creditable list of the ten best ever British films would somewhere include A Matter of Life and Death.

As World War II was winding down, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger were firmly established as cinematic superstars after turning out one gem after another (including my recommendations 49th Parallel and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp). The UK Government, recognizing that the two most important things in the world are love and Anglo-American relations, approached The Archers (as the team styled themselves) about making a movie that would diffuse tensions between American and British people. The Archers might have accomplished this with a simple story of international romance, but they went well beyond that modest ambition to create one of the most original and beloved works in cinema history.

The film opens with the camera taking the viewer through the cosmos accompanied with lyrical, wry, narration, setting up a damn-near perfect opening scene down on earth. Piloting a shattered, burning, Lancaster bomber trying to return to England, lone survivor Peter Carter (David Niven) calls out desperately on the radio and reaches a lovely, loving American WAAF named June (An achingly endearing Kim Hunter). Peter has heroically told his crew to bail out without revealing that his own parachute is destroyed. He’s going to die and just wants to say goodbye to someone and to life. Their connection emotionally overwhelms Peter and June (and the audience), and they are spiritually a couple for a precious moment before Peter, not wanting to burn alive, leaps to his death.

Criterion Collection Celebrates Powell & Pressburger's A Matter of Life and  Death | TV/Streaming | Roger Ebert

Or does he? Peter’s assigned heavenly “conductor” (a funny, flamboyant, Marius Goring) misses the lucky Englishman in the heavy fog! Having miraculously survives what seemed certain death, he meets June in person, to their mutual joy. But the lovers face a grave challenge when heaven seeks to correct the procedural irregularity. Peter demands a right to trial for his life, where he is represented by a kindly physician (that charmer Roger Livesey) against an American prosecutor (Raymond Massey, effectively menacing) who has a deep distaste for John Bull (Understandable in a man who was shot to death by Redcoats 175 years ago).

The Archer’s utterly original story is just one virtue of the script, which also includes fulfilling moments of romance, friendship, humor, and meaning. This is combined with gorgeous set design and Jack Cardiff’s unforgettable cinematography. The scenes on earth are a riot of Technicolor, and the scenes in heaven were shot in uncolored Technicolor, producing a stylized look reminiscent of the best of German expressionism.

Michael Powell's A Matter of Life and Death (1946): Criterion Blu-ray  review | Cagey Films

David Niven was not, by his own admission, a great actor, but he was an infinitely charming movie star. He nobly derailed a successful movie career to defend his country during the war; this mega-hit restored his stardom in one go after his years of military service. In the starring role, he’s effective enough and he’s surrounded by a sparkling cast in top form, many of whom were Powell and Pressburger favorites. They sell the fantasy elements credibly while giving the story the emotional weight it deserves.

This whole movie must have sounded utterly crazy in the pitch meeting. Cinema was moving towards the dark, realistic, themes of film noir, and this is an uplifting, heart-warming, fantasy. The otherworldly sets could have been a visual disaster, a mechanical impossibility, or unintentionally farcical. But the magnificence of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger is inseparable from their artistic risk taking. They never played it safe and never repeated themselves. It is precisely because they made the seemingly impossible possible over and over that masters like Martin Scorsese recognize them as fellow giants. A Matter of Life and Death was Powell’s favorite of his films and it’s easy to see why he was proud of this piece of pure cinematic magic.

p.s. The American distributor was so scared that a film with “death” in the title wouldn’t attract war-weary moviegoers, that the US title was changed to “Stairway to Heaven”.

Categories
Action/Adventure British Drama

49th Parallel

Calling a movie “propaganda” is usually an insult. But making quality propaganda is a skill, and one well worth deploying when you are fighting the Nazis. In 1941, the British War Ministry approached Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger for support of the then-failing war effort. Wanting to tempt the neutral U.S. into the fight, the emerging superstar duo of British cinema set the story of a deadly team of Nazi invaders in Canada (The film’s US title was “Invasion”). As it happened, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor before the film opened in The States, so whether it would have helped tipped the balance will never be known. But there’s no doubt that 49th Parallel is a brilliant illustration of how wartime films can persuade even as they entertain.

Plot: After sinking defenseless cargo ships, a German U-Boat tries to hide in Hudson Bay. But the Canadian military closes in, forcing its resourceful, ruthless, true-believing Lieutenant Ernst Hirth (Eric Portman, convincing as usual) to lead his crew in a desperate dash across Canada. Thrills and human drama ensue, as does effective illustration of what precisely Nazism entailed and why all free peoples had to resist it.

Review: 49th Parallel - Slant Magazine

Pressburger’s story is reminiscent of the legendary western Winchester ’73 with the overarching narrative arc being a cross-country chase involving core characters, but the underlying structure being episodic. In each episode, new characters and settings provide an opportunity for the audience to see some of their favorite stars (e.g., Laurence Olivier, Leslie Howard, Raymond Massey) and to comprehend a different aspect of Nazism, be it racism, religious intolerance, imperialism, contempt for the vulnerable, and even hatred of “decadent” art. It could easily have been heavy-handed but with this filmmaking team and cast, it’s supremely credible and stirring.

My favorite episode is the Nazis hiding out with a German Hutterite community. Its very much to the filmmakers’ credit that in 1941, when German immigrants were objects of suspicion and hostility in North America, the Hutterites are portrayed entirely positively. The scene where Lt. Hirth attempts to rally them to the cause of the Fatherland and the Hutterites reject him is particularly powerful. Subplots about a German crew member (Niall MacGinnis) who is taken by the Hutterite way of life and is punished for it by Hirth, and a Hutterite youth (Glynis Johns) whose faith is tested to the breaking point, are also powerful. The episode involving Howard as (what else?) an eccentric English scholar is nearly as fine. Kudos are also in order for multiple episodes showing First Nations people in a more positive light than was the norm in this era.

I’m not sure any country has had as much cinematic talent as densely packed as did Britain in the 1930s and 1940s. So much so that even after all this writing, I am just now getting around to mentioning how beautifully shot and perfectly edited the movie is, courtesy of Freddie Young and David Lean respectively. Five well-earned lifetime Academy Awards between those chaps; you can see why again here.

All in all, 49th Parallel is both crackerjack entertainment, affecting drama, and a compelling reason to stand up and sing O Canada!

p.s. Leslie Howard, whom the Nazis would murder in 1943, also did excellent work in my recommendation The Scarlet Pimpernel and Pygmalion, as did Niall MacGinnis in another of my recommended movies, Curse of the Demon.

Categories
Drama Romance

Room at the Top

Room at the Top | The Soul of the Plot

Theodore Dreiser’s novel An American Tragedy was adapted into a 1951 hit movie called A Place in the Sun directed by George Stevens and starring Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor. The tale of a young man trying to rise from the working class to wealth in both his career and his romantic aspirations was hailed by Charlie Chaplin as “The greatest movie ever made about America”. Yet these sorts of stories are hardly culturally bound, as demonstrated by the groundbreaking 1959 British film Room at the Top.

Neil Paterson’s brilliant, Oscar-winning screenplay adaptation of John Braine’s novel tells the story of working class striver Joe Lampton (Laurence Harvey, in a star-making performance). Joe is from such a small, depressing Yorkshire town that moving to the mid-sized Yorkshire city of Warnley (think Bradford, where some exteriors were filmed) feels to him like arriving in cosmopolitan heaven. He works as a humble civil servant, but immediately announces that he intends to woo the lovely, upscale, Susan Brown (Heather Sears), daughter of the richest factory owner in town. Despite the objections of her snobbish parents (Ambrosine Phillpotts and Donald Wolfit) and a romantic rival (John Westbrook, who makes a very effective condescending bastard), Susan takes a shine to Joe, even though he’s N.O.C. But strangely, Joe finds himself more drawn to Alice Aisgill (Simone Signoret), an older woman trapped in a loveless marriage with a philandering upper-class heel (All Cuthbertson). Sensual desires, painful choices, human ugliness, and class conflict ensue.

Room at the Top (1958) | BFI

A remarkable achievement for first time director Jack Clayton (his next film was another of my recommendations, The Innocents), Room at the Top kicked off the “angry young man” cycle of films that were central to the British New Wave. Signoret instantiates in increased French influence on British cinema in this era, including in the frank portrayal of sex, which at the time earned this film an X rating. Because of its gritty working class settings (strikingly photographed by Freddie Francis), and its blue collar resentments, this film is sometimes said to have kicked off “kitchen sink” drama, but if you have seen my review of It Always Rains on Sunday, you know that tradition was present in British film already.

There are many good performances in the movie, but Simone Signoret towers over all with her Academy Award-winning turn as a woman who met Joe just a bit too late. She was only 7 years older than Harvey, but she was made up to look older (how many famous actresses would have been scared to do this?) and in her attitude, tone, and presence, she makes the audience believe she is the sadder and wiser woman to love and to guide the immature, un-self-aware Joe. The two of them have palpable screen chemistry, both sexually and romantically, which is precisely what gives this shattering story of love versus material ambition so much power.

Room at the Top Review | Movie - Empire
Categories
Comedy Drama

The Front

Front, The (1976) -- (Movie Clip) Make It A Firing Squad

Hollywood has always been fascinated with itself, so it’s not surprising how many movies address the “blacklisting” of suspected communists in the 1950s (Guilty by Suspicion, Trumbo, and Hail, Caesar! to name only a few). Among the best of these is a 1976 film made by a director (Martin Ritt), screenwriter (Walter Bernstein), and actors (Zero Mostel, Herschel Bernardi, Lloyd Gough) who were blacklisted themselves: The Front.

The plot: An underachieving, improvident, but essentially decent nobody named Howard Prince (Woody Allen) is approached by an old friend (Michael Murphy) who can no longer sell his scripts because he’s been blacklisted. Howard agrees to front the scripts as if they were his own in exchange for a 10% take. Howard gets cockier as “his” scripts are well received and result in romantic attention from a television producer (Andrea Marcovicci). Seeking more glory and more cash, he recklessly volunteers to take on fronting scripts from even more blacklisted writers. Meanwhile, Prince forms a friendship with Hecky Brown (Zero Mostel), a once big star whose career is declining based on some extremely tenuous connections to communists in the past. As the feds start investigating the increasingly famous Howard Prince, lives, careers, and morals, are imperiled.

The film is simultaneously a comedy and a drama. Most of the comedy comes from Allen, who plays within his usual range and is amusing doing so. The drama comes mainly from Zero Mostel, in a performance with psychic weight. Hecky is not a serious man. He likes to make people laugh. He only flirted with communism to impress a woman he was lusting after. Yet the feds treat his alleged subversiveness with deadly seriousness, resulting in him being ground to pieces bit by humiliating bit.

The Front (1976) Martin Ritt | Twenty Four Frames

In a solid supporting cast, I would single Herschel Bernardi out for praise. Bernardi isn’t much-remembered today, but he was a very fine actor who was the best thing about Blake Edwards’ superb television show Peter Gunn (recommended here). He has a lighter role here as the producer of the show for which Prince writes. As a man who wants to stand up for what’s right but can’t quite do it, he’s believable and appealing.

Mixing comedy and serious drama effectively takes directorial skill, and Ritt, a real pro, is up to the task. Walter Bernstein’s polished script is an asset in this regard even though his portrayal of blacklisted writers is unrealistically saintly (though one appreciates the origin of his bias!).

The Front was underappreciated by critics at the time and to a lesser extent that’s still true today. Many felt that unrelentingly grim, hard-hitting drama was the only appropriate tone for stories about the blacklist. But if the people who actually went through it can appreciate the absurdity of it, can find black humor in the mockery of it, perhaps these critics can stop getting their undies in a wad over The Front being entertaining, rather than merely earnest, eat your peas moral instruction.

p.s. Look fast for Danny Aiello as a fruit seller who into gambling on the side, or perhaps the other way around.

Categories
Drama

Margin Call

Underrated Masterpieces: Margin Call (2011) – Play it Again, Dan

Of the Wall Street movies made in the wake of the financial crisis, Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, drew the most attention, awards, and audience receipts. But I think The Magnificent Martin was outshone by a lower budget film of a first-time writer/director: Margin Call.

Made by J.C. Chandor in 2011, the film documents 24 insane hours at an unnamed Wall Street firm. The story opens with casual brutality: traders and managers being professionally and publicly fired and marched out of the building while their colleagues continue working around them. Revealingly, the only people who are perturbed by the inhumanity are the newer employees; everyone else learned the hard truth a long time ago. But it is a moment of humanity on which the story turns. As long-serving risk management expert Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci) is cruelly cut loose, a whiz kid analyst named Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto) thanks him warmly for his mentorship. Eric is touched, his armor drops for a moment, and he hands Peter a thumb drive and says: “Be careful”. The thumb drive contains a partially completed statistical model which Peter quickly perfects, revealing that the firm has enormous risk exposure that could bankrupt it at any moment. As panic sets in, higher and higher levels of management are brought in to save the firm by any means necessary. High-powered acting and drama ensue.

Margin Call - NYT Watching

The cast is star-studded, with Paul Bettany as a mid-level trading manager who wonders why he never breaks into the higher echelons of the firm, Kevin Spacey as a world-weary survivor of decades on The Street, and Simon Baker as an ice cold executive. The role of the CEO — one of those “let’s write a colorful small part for a prestige actor” roles — is played with just the right touch of theatricality by Jeremy Irons. Irons is particularly effective at conveying one of the script’s principal messages: The higher up you go, the more sociopathic and substantively ignorant people become.

Demi Moore also gives an excellent performance as the one woman in authority within the firm. She projects power laced with the underlying brittleness and fear of someone who is smashed flat against the glass ceiling. The script offers no sentimental dreck about corporate women being nicer the men: She after all is the one who cans the long serving Eric Dale after failing to listen to his warnings. Yet we also feel sorry for her because it’s obvious that when the boys’ club pins the blame on someone for the catastrophe, it will be a fall girl and not a fall guy.

Yet with all that star talent, the real star here is J.C. Chandor, in one of the most promising cinematic debuts in quite some time. His script and direction make for brisk pacing without sacrificing nuance. A story about the corrupting influence of money on both the best and the worst of us could easily have been preachy or heavy-handed, but here it’s artful and wise. Most notably, Chandor humanizes the characters while not forgiving them. A few more lines of quotable dialogue, including a moment or two with some comic relief, might have made it even better, but that’s a small complaint about a polished and multi-layered script. Hats off to Chandor as director as well, for clearly not being intimidated by his stellar cast, and for offering a compelling vision of the people, motives, and actions that wrecked the global economy.

Categories
British Drama Mystery/Noir Romance

It Always Rains on Sunday

There’s a special joy that comes when you watch an old movie with no preconceptions because you’ve never heard of it and come away loving it. That’s the lucky experience I had some years ago with It Always Rains on Sunday. A big hit for Ealing Studios in 1947, it was forgotten in the ensuing decades. But thanks mainly to restoration and promotion by the cinematic angels at BFI, many modern viewers have had the wonderful experience I did with a film that is both enthralling and culturally significant.

The movie’s plot is two-fold. On the one hand, It Always Rains on Sunday is a romantic drama somewhat like one of my other recommendations, Brief Encounter, but for the working classes. On the other hand, the movie is like a gazillion of my other recommendations in being a film noir. These two genres come together as follows:

In a cramped, dingy house in the East End, a once carefee ex-barmaid named Rosie Sandigate (Googie Withers) is chafing under dreary post-war British domesticity. Her husband George (Edward Chapman) is older, decent, and dull, and her step-daughters get on her nerves, particularly the free spirited Vi (Susan Shaw) who is stepping out with a flashy, married man (Sydney Tafler). Rosie’s drab world is upended one Sunday morning when she goes out to her Anderson shelter and is startled to discover a handsome criminal on the run: her former lover, Tommy Swann (John McCallum)! Tommy begs Rosie to help him, and amidst a tumble of emotions, she agrees, leading to a life changing Sunday indeed.

The Dark Time: “It Always Rains on Sunday” Kitchen Sink Noir

From this description, this film may sound like a misbegotten mish-mash but the potentially competing strands are expertly woven together courtesy of screenwriters Angus MacPhail and Henry Cornelius, and, co-writer and director Robert Hamer. When people think of Hamer and Ealing Studios, the peerless black comedy Kind Hearts and Coronets and other funny films naturally springs to mind. But Ealing wasn’t yet a comedy powerhouse in 1947, and to the extent Hamer was known at all when he was signed to make It Always Rains on Sunday, it was for directing part of a classic horror film (Dead of Night). Hamer, who died tragically young from alcoholism, was no stranger to turbulent emotions and brings them out on screen here.

Googie Withers really makes the domestic side of this story hit home. She’s downright brilliant at portraying competing emotions: Disapproving of Vi but also envious of her youthful freedom and passion; Barely tolerating George yet also yielding to the virtues of stable commitment; and most of all, being intoxicated by, scared of, and scared for Tommy. Outside of the confines of the Sandigate home, the movie focus more on action than drama, with equally potent results. The thrilling pursuit of Tommy by the police ends with an epic train yard confrontation that was filmed with no stunt people (i.e. those are the real actors dodging and climbing on real trains).

It Always Rains on Sunday. 1947. Directed by Robert Hamer | MoMA

The look of this film is critical to its success. The Sandigate home is the apex of British drear (hat tip to Art Director Duncan Sutherland), from the faded wallpaper to the cracked plaster to the fractured windows to the piled bric-a-brac. Rosie’s frustration at how her life has turned out is accentuated by her surroundings in every cramped, overcrowded scene on that remarkable set. And for the shadowy scenes of action and intrigue, it’s always hard to beat Douglas Slocombe, whose noir camerawork I have praised many times (e.g., Taste of Fear, Robbery).

The film was influential in shaping an emerging genre (Brit Noir) but even moreso in prefiguring the kitchen sink dramas that would become popular a decade later. It Always Rains on Sunday contains the seeds of mega-hit working class soap operas like EastEnders and Coronation Street as well as darker fare like Look Back in Anger. In an era when many British films were filled with earls, viscounts, and people who dress for dinner, It Always Rains on Sunday gave working class people overdue attention.

Withers and McCallum began a 60+ year marriage shortly after making It Always Rains on Sunday. Rather than close with the movie trailer, I will instead share a charming interview with their daughter, Joanna McCallum. An an actress herself, she offers insight into both the movie and the relationship of her remarkable parents.

Categories
Drama

To Sleep With Anger

Many films structure their narrative around the power of visitors to disrupt overtly settled lives. Sometimes the results are comic (e.g., The Mating Season), sometimes they are dramatic and heart-warming, (e.g., The Bishop’s Wife) sometimes they are sinister (e.g., The Intruder), and sometimes they are a combination of all these things, as in the superb 1990 film To Sleep With Anger.

The plot: The heads of a multi-generational family, Gideon (Paul Butler) and Suzie (Mary Alice), left The South geographically — but not culturally — decades ago and established themselves in a middle-class Black neighborhood in Los Angeles. Their sons now have families of their own, though Junior (Carl Lumbly) is eminently responsible and “Babe Brother” (Richard Brooks) is immature and selfish. Into this fairly placid picture comes Harry (Danny Glover), a charming acquaintance from back home whom they haven’t seen in 30 years. The trusting, good-hearted Gideon and Suzie invite Harry to stay with them for as long as he wishes. Much like a vampire, once invited over the threshold Harry changes from ingratiating to calculating, undermining the family’s well-being for reasons that remain mysterious.

Writer/Director Charles Burnett put himself on the map with his cinema vérité film school thesis project Killer of Sheep. That film has been lionized by critics as one of the great movies of the 1970s, but its lack of narrative structure or character development limits its appeal outside cineaste circles. In contrast, To Sleep With Anger is a much more accessible movie. Burnett creates an array of full-blooded characters who evolve in believable ways, and a storyline that is dramatically rich. He also proves an assured director in his first film with professional actors.

Film Scene - TO SLEEP WITH ANGER

The heart of the film is Danny Glover, in a darker role than he typically assays (Indeed, other than on some episodes of Hill Street Blues, this is the only time I can recall him getting to develop a malignant character on screen). He is masterful from the very first scene at appearing straightforward, open-hearted, and uncomplicated, while subtly cueing the audience that Harry is none of these things (Burnett’s script is also a help here, giving us some supernatural tipoffs). Some film reviewers have referred to Harry as a “trickster” character but I don’t think that fits. In Black folklore, the trickster uses his wits to triumph over people with more power (e.g., Whites). Harry instead is a danger to the vulnerable and the weak.

Around the mystery of Harry’s motives and nature are more conventional subplots of family drama: The tensions between adults set in their ways and children who want something more modern, the love and rivalry between siblings, and the way marriages can be strong and frail at the same time. With a big assist from Burnett, the entire cast makes these well-worn themes come alive on screen in an authentic and touching way, with some humorous moments as well. In 2019, To Sleep With Anger was selected for inclusion in the Criterion Collection, a deserved honor for this highly original and engaging movie.

Categories
Drama Mystery/Noir

Witness for the Prosecution

The Ace Black Blog: Movie Review: Witness For The Prosecution (1957)

Agatha Christie’s popular blend of mysterious murders, eccentric characters, droll humor, and surprise endings have translated smoothly into many entertaining movies, including some all time-classics. In that glittering club along with another of my recommendation (And Then There Were None) is Billy Wilder’s 1957 gem Witness for the Prosecution.

Plot: While recovering from a heart attack, the brilliant and caustic Sir Wilfrid Robarts (Charles Laughton) is presented a murder case that tempts him back to the Old Bailey, despite the risks to his health. A charming ne’er do well named Leonard Vole (Tyrone Power) stands accused of murdering an older, well-heeled, widow named Emily Jane French (Norma Varden), who had fallen under his spell. Vole’s glamorous, enigmatic, German wife (Marlene Dietrich) at first seems willing and able to provide an alibi…but the audience shares Sir Wilfrid’s suspicion that the case will be nowhere near that simple.

Christie was comfortable with liberal adaptations of her work. Indeed, she herself changed the ending of her story Traitor’s Hands when turning into a play called Witness for the Prosecution. And she countenanced a number of further changes in the film version, as scripted by Wilder, Larry Marcus, and Harry Kurnitz. Their most brilliant innovations were enlarging the part of Sir Wilfred to give Laughton a showcase role and inventing outright the character of Miss Plimsoll, his long suffering nurse. Casting Laughton’s real-life wife, that shamelessly funny ham Elsa Lanchester, as Miss Plimsoll was another stroke of genius. The first quarter of the film could have stood on its feet just as a comedy, as Plimsoll mothers and badgers Sir Wilfrid to follow his health regime and he schemes and wheedles to obtain his treasured cigars and brandy.

Reviewing performances: Best Actress in a Supporting Role 1957 ...

But of course it’s not primarily a comedy, but a murder mystery and courtroom drama. It’s very strong on those terms, with articulate jousting in the courtroom and engrossing plot twists outside of it. The ending, which I will not ruin (and the post-credits ask audiences to abide by the same silence), is a bit contrived but still satisfying.

The smaller roles are also very well essayed, include Una O’Connor as the hilariously crotchety maid of the victim and Henry Daniell, whom I loved in multiple Rathbone-Bruce Sherlock Holmes films, as another lawyer. But even in this strong cast, Laughton towers over them all with one of signature performances of his stellar career. His Sir Wilfrid is a complete character: insufferable at times, dazzling at others, and always, at the core, honorable.

Tyrone Power was an intriguing choice as the accused. Entering middle age (and tragically, to die of a heart attack after this picture was released) , his handsomeness is still visible, but at a less godlike level that in the 1940s. He looks, appropriately, like a chancer who knows his looks will fade soon but are still impressive enough to spark fantasies in a lonely older woman. Marlene is as beguiling as ever, and it doesn’t really bother us that despite her penury, she wears a series of smashing outfits designed by Edith Head.

WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION (1957) • Frame Rated

The movie is of course also another triumph for Billy Wilder, and one that at moments echoes some of his other movies. Leonard’s relationship with Mrs. French brings to mind Sunset Boulevard and a scene in post-war Germany with Dietrich and Power recalls A Foreign Affair. Resonant grace notes for fans of the legendary director.