Categories
Drama Mystery/Noir

Scandal Sheet

The directors whose work I have praised repeatedly on this site are all household names except for Phil Karlson. He rarely got decent budgets and spent much of his career at studios and in positions that weren’t worthy of his talent. Yet he managed over the years to make some highly compelling movies that conveyed his bleak and brutal perspective on the human condition. I have recommended two of his collaborations with producer Edward Small that starred John Payne Kansas City Confidential and 99 River Street. Let me add to those a recommendation of another Karlson-Small collaboration, this one with a bigger budget and a bigger star than the director usually had to hand: The 1952 noir Scandal Sheet.

The plot: Circulation at the New York Express has been soaring since an editor named Mark Chapman (or is he???) converted it into a tabloid full of sensationalist stories, ruffling the feathers of the bluenoses on the board as well as idealistic features writer Julie Allison (Donna Reed). Said editor (Broderick Crawford) is aided in his work by ace newshound Steve McCleary (John Derek), who digs up dirt for his mentor while failing to successfully romance June. But Chapman’s world is upended when a woman from his past re-appears, and he embarks on a series of desperate, violent, actions that McCleary begins to investigate. Noirish themes of moral compromise and inevitable doom ensue.

This film echoes the summit of Crawford’s career, namely the 1949 Best Picture winner All The King’s Men. Again Crawford effectively portrays a domineering yet vulnerable man and again he has a father-son style relationship with a character played by John Derek, although in this case Derek is his mentee rather than literally his son, and the relationship is much warmer. Indeed, the art in Crawford’s performance is how he simultaneously conveys his rising panic that his secrets could come out and his admiration and pride that his protégé is so effectively hunting him down. The other echo of ATKM is the magnificent Burnett Guffey’s cinematography, which combines the look of urban realism (despite this being filmed on the Columbia back lot and using some stock shots of New York City) with a dash of film noir-style camerawork. The opening shot of this movie, as the camera moves over a cluster of fire escapes filled with onlookers and a murder witness, is a clinic by Karlson and Guffey on how to pull an audience in the particular world of a movie right from the first.

John Derek was irresistible to women, but was not a particularly good actor. The quality supporting work here comes instead from Reed, who shows she could do more than be the wholesome All-American mom who serves milk and cookies. Henry O’Neil is also affecting as an unemployed, alcoholic, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist looking for a way back.

Karlson’s serves up a bracing dose of cynicism leavened with glimmers of hope, and manages to maintain tension throughout the story despite the fact that under the conventions of noir, the ending is never really in doubt. The only person who didn’t like Karlson’s adaptation of the 1944 novel The Dark Page was Samuel Fuller, who wrote it. Perhaps it was just vanity that made Fuller resent anyone other than himself adapting his own work, but movie fans were the winner because it inspired him to start making his own films, including classics like Pickup on South Street (my recommendation here).

p.s. Sadly, Crawford’s alcohol addiction kept him from building on his cinematic successes of the late 1940s and early 1950s. But he did have a late-career revival on television, including starring on Highway Patrol and, bizarrely enough, hosting an early episode of Saturday Night Live.

Categories
Drama Horror/Suspense

The Man Who Laughs

Blu-ray Review: THE MAN WHO LAUGHS (1928) - cinematic randomness

A woman has seen my face, and yet may love me.

When people recall Universal Studio’s famous run of monster movies, they generally think of the fine films that began appearing in the 1930s (e.g., Dracula, Frankenstein, et al). But those talkies are actually the second generation of what producer Carl Laemmle began in the silent era. The opulent Lon Chaney classics The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of the Opera did huge box office telling the stories of disfigured, lovestruck, scary, yet also sympathetic monsters. Laemmle wanted to return to the well one more time with a different Victor Hugo novel as source material. Chaney was tied up at MGM, so Laemmle recruited a German actor (Conrad Veidt) and director (Paul Leni) steeped in that nation’s expressionist film tradition to create a unique treasure of the genre: The Man Who Laughs.

The plot of this 1928 gem: When an English nobleman refuses to submit to the King, he is put to death and his only child, Gwynplaine, is turned over to a horrific gypsy clan (For which Victor Hugo created the term “Comprachicos”) that mutilates the young to turn them into profitable circus freaks. Gwynplaine’s face is carved into a permanent, ghastly, grin and he is abandoned. As he walks alone on a wintry night (This is my favorite expressionist shot in the movie, see below) he discovers a blind baby girl in the arms of her dead mother. Miraculously, the starving and half-frozen children are taken in by a kindly travelling entertainer named Ursus (Cesare Gravina). Grown to adulthood, the lovely, gentle, Dea (Mary Philbin) and Gwynplaine (Veidt) perform in Ursus’ plays, in which Gwynplaine becomes famous as “The Man Who Laughs”. The two also fall in love, but Gwynplaine cannot believe that Dea would want to marry him if she could see his bizarre visage. Meanwhile, a royal advisor (Brandon Hurst in a wonderfully wicked performance) finds out that Gwynplaine is the last surviving heir of a Lord, which presents threats and possibilities for court intrigue, particularly regarding a lustful, wayward Duchess (Olga Baclanova).

the man who laughs

This is a visually stunning film, because of the haunted camerawork of Gilbert Warrenton, the art direction of Charles Hall, Thomas O’Neill, and Joseph Wright, the impressionist sensibilities of Leni, Jack Pierce’s make-up wizardry, and Laemmle’s willingness to open the checkbook for sets, props, and a cast of thousands just as did on his Lon Chaney films. Released at the end of the silent era, this film could easily have been a talkie, except that with his prosthetic teeth and grin, Veidt could not speak clearly. The filmmakers compromised by adding a synched soundtrack with rich music, some sound effects, and a love song to accompany the visuals.

As in another of my recommendations, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Conrad Veidt demonstrates that a great actor does not need words to convey a range of emotions. But that understates his achievement, because Veidt makes the audience feel Gwynplaine’s sadness, love, fear, and self-hatred despite having only half of his face available to him. Of many good performances in the film, many of them delivered by veterans of the Lon Chaney films, the other that stands out for me is Olga Baclanova’s. Her role as a sexually assertive aristo is a reminder that prior to the Hayes Code and the rise of domestic dramas after World War II, movies dealt with women’s sexuality far more candidly than they did for decades afterwards.

A couple of the plot developments aren’t motivated quite convincingly, but J. Grubb Alexander’s adaptation of Hugo’s novel more than makes up for it with its humanity. This is particularly true in a heartrending scene in which the circus performers go to extraordinary lengths to try to convince Dea that Gwyneplaine is still near her when in fact he is imprisoned.

I will close by sharing two other wonderful things to know about The Man Who Laughs. First, it has been beautifully restored. Second, it is in the public domain and you can watch it for free right here.

p.s. One person who took inspiration from this movie was Bob Kane, creator of Batman.

user uploaded image

p.p.s. I wonder if when this film was shown in Britain in 1928, the audience laughed at one character’s expressed outrage at the thought of the House of Lords admitting a clown.

Categories
Drama Mystery/Noir

Sweet Smell of Success

Many films deservedly flop at the box office because they simply aren’t any good. But a subset of gems meet the same fate because they are too far ahead of their time, violate audience expectations, or both. On the honorable list of the highest quality box office failures of all time, an unforgettable 1957 movie has a strong argument for top slot: Sweet Smell of Success.

The plot: J. J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster) is an all powerful, Walter Winchell-esque columnist who can make or destroy lives and careers at his whim. Every Big Apple press agent wants Hunsecker to boost their clients and spread their gossip, none moreso than the amoral, ambitious Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis). But J. J. refuses to carry Falco’s items unless he breaks up the romantic relationship between a clean cut musician (Martin Milner) and J.J.’s sheltered, brow-beaten, younger sister Susan (Susan Harrison). When the young lovers prove determined to stay together, J.J. and Sidney realize that even more ruthless actions will be needed. This comes naturally to both of them, though only Sidney has the self-knowledge to admit it to himself.

sweet-smell-of-success-movie-seven - Vague Visages

Alexander Mackendrick, known for classic Ealing Studio comedies like The Man in the White Suit seems on paper to have been a bizarre directorial choice. But he triumphed with this unfunny, un-British, material including persuading his tempestuous movie star-producer (Lancaster) that the film should end with a confrontation not between the male leads, but between J.J. and his sister Susan, the one person J.J. cared about enough to be damaged by. Mackendrick also cleverly smeared Vaseline on Lancaster’s glasses to prevent him from focusing, giving the actor a terrifying, wall-eyed stare. Lancaster was furious at Mackendrick for the film’s poor box office performance and refused to work with him again, which may have contributed to the rapid decline of the fine director’s career after Sweet Smell of Success. But at least Mackendrick went out on top with his work here.

Mackendrick also had input into the wood-alcohol cocktail script, which was mainly the work of Ernest Lehman and Clifford Odets. It’s a endlessly quotable work of art in itself; even without the actors’ fine delivery the lines would be brutally effective. The plotting is equally so, most particularly the hard-to-watch scene in which Sidney pimps out a cocktail waitress who needs a favor and becomes an bargaining chip in his dirty game.

Josh Olson Presents SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS - American Cinematheque

Lancaster is effectively malicious here, both in his dealings with Curtis and also with Harrison as his cringing sister (if Sweet Smell of Success has a weakness, it’s that the relationship between Milner and Harrison is the least interesting one in the movie). But Curtis, viewed at the time as a lightweight pretty boy, is a revelation. In his walk, his physical deference to Lancaster, his furtive looks, his desperate patter, and his surface smoothness over underlying panic, he creates one of cinema’s indelible characters. Grasping ambition has rarely been so vividly captured by a movie performer. Lancaster said that Curtis deserved an Oscar for his performance, but the Academy didn’t even grant him a nomination. More fool them.

There is yet more to praise! Elmer Bernstein contributes an energetic jazz score and the Chico Hamilton Quintet not only sound fantastic in their scenes, but also effectively cover over the fact that Milner couldn’t play guitar at all. But even more than the superb music, this movie will always be remembered for its look.

Picking a favorite cinematographer is tough for any film buff, but for me it’s James Wong Howe, in significant part because New York City has never been shot with such luminous darkness as in Sweet Smell of Success. Howe’s shots crackle with the energy of bustling, anonymous, humanity and bring alive the combined menace and thrill that arrives when night falls on a great city. Howe’s photography here is a genius-level blend of the stylized look of film noir and the more realistic urban photography of such films as The Naked City. Howe and Mackendrick also uses camera positioning expertly to convey character and relationships, for example by using low shots to make the massive Lancaster look even more intimidating or coming in close at just the point when someone sells out morally so that you can see it on their face and right down into their soul (presuming they have one).

Sweet Smell of Success | The Soul of the Plot

Why did such a tremendous work of cinematic art not find an audience? After the financial success of the prior year’s Trapeze, which had Lancaster and Curtis swinging through the air in tights (and screen siren Gina Lollabrigida swinging between them), their fans were expecting a chance to swoon again at their gorgeous heroes. Instead, they got a couple of throughgoing bastards in suits in a dialogue-driven story. Tony Curtis’ female fans haunted the set hoping for a chance to glimpse their idol and can’t have been pleased to see him play a character who treats women like garbage. The unremitting cynicism of the movie may also have turned audiences off in 1957, coming a few years after the post-war film noir boom had faded. In the decades that followed, the magnificence of this movie — including the against-type performances of Lancaster and even moreso Curtis — became widely appreciated, including by inclusion in the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress.

Instead of the trailer, I will close by posting this “three reasons” promotional film put out by Criterion Collection when they wisely reissued a remastered edition of Sweet Smell of Success. Even at a single minute long, it makes clear why you simply must see this classic movie.

Categories
British Drama

Chariots of Fire

In Chariots They Ran

Some Best Picture Oscar winner selections are immediately recognized as mistakes by discerning viewers (American Beauty, Crash, Forrest Gump, Gladiator), others seem plausible contemporaneously but the bloom fades from their rose over time (Around the World in 80 Days, Dances with Wolves, Gigi). What a pleasure and a relief it is to revisit a Academy Award winner from 40 years ago and find that it hasn’t (ahem) lost a step: Chariots of Fire.

The plot: In the 1920s, two markedly different British men share a love of running and a desire to make a mark upon the world. Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson) is a devout Scottish Protestant who “feels God’s pleasure” when he runs whereas Harold Abrahams (Ben Cross) is an English Jew striving to be accepted by the Establishment. Both are seen as misfits in elite circles and struggle to balance their fierce athletic commitment with the rest of their lives and loves, yet both are talented, determined, and full of competitive fire. As opponents and teammates, they bring themselves and their nation to the pinnacle of tension and opportunity at the 1924 Olympics.

REVIEW: Chariots of Fire | The Viewer's Commentary

There are many ways to understand what Colin Welland’s skillfully crafted story is “really about”. Is this film about how sports can ennoble individuals and forge deep friendships? Is it about the changing nature of post-World War I Britain? Is it about how outsiders crave acceptance so strongly that they are driven to magnificent achievements? Is it about how young people find their purpose in life? Yes, yes, yes, and yes. This is a rare film that different viewers can appreciate — even be deeply moved by — for entirely different reasons.

Chariots of Fire is also a notable example of how even a little-known director can have at least one great movie in him. Hugh Hudson has been making documentaries and television commercials for years when he was tapped for Chariots of Fire, his first feature film. That doesn’t sound like a promising backstory, but Hudson proves a masterful storyteller, particularly in how he focuses more heavily on the human experience of athletes than on the races themselves (There is a limit to how intrigued most film goers can be by people running in a circle). Also to Hudson’s credit: There isn’t a bad performance or bad shot in the whole film.

The lead actors make a strong impression, as do the supporting players, including Ian Holm as Abrahams’ coach, Alice Krige as his lover, and Nigel Havers (who anchored another of my recommendations, The Charmer) and Nicholas Farrell as his Cambridge University friends and fellow athletes. The film is also famous for its innovative score by Vangelis…I am probably alone it not caring for it that much, but there is so much else to savor in this remarkable film that this in no way diminishes my admiration for Chariots of Fire.

The film takes some liberties with historical facts: Liddell’s refusal to run heats on Sundays did not create a last-second crisis for the British team at the Olympics because he had months of advance notice in which to prepare for a different event, and Abrahams’ family finding the Establishment impenetrable is hard to square with both of his brothers being knighted in real life. But the film isn’t a documentary, it’s a drama based on real events, and every scene is utterly true in psychological and emotional terms. Sometimes Oscar gets things exactly right.

Categories
Drama

I Never Sang For My Father

I Never Sang for My Father (1970) - IMDb

Playwright Robert Anderson had a big Broadway hit in 1953 when he drew on his experience of young romance in Tea and Sympathy. He went back to the autobiographical well again with a 1968 play based on his family of origin. In 1970, Anderson and one of the producers of the play, Gilbert Cates, brilliantly translated it to the silver screen: I Never Sang For My Father.

The plot to this film is so spare that it belies the work’s impact. Gene Garrison (Gene Hackman) is a widower in New York City who struggles to connect emotionally with his successful yet domineering father Tom (Melvyn Douglas). Gene wants to move to California to live with his new lover (Elizabeth Hubbard) but feels guilty about leaving his mother (Dorothy Stickney); guilt which Tom actively reinforces. As the family faces a crisis, complications increase with the return from Chicago of Gene’s sister Alice (Estelle Parsons), who was disowned by Tom years ago for marrying a Jewish man. World-class acting and melancholy observations about aging, parenting, and families ensue.

What makes the movie a knockout is Anderson’s realistic, unadorned dialogue and the superb performances by the cast. Melvyn Douglas had a remarkably long career in Hollywood, and it’s easy to see here why he didn’t fade away after his success in the 1930s and 1940s. He doesn’t make Tom easy to hate or to like. Tom has accomplished great things in life, overcame a brutal upbringing, and can be quite charming. Yet he’s fundamentally narcissistic, seeing other people mainly as extensions of his own desires. Tragically, it’s less so unwillingness than inability to genuinely love that brings so much suffering on himself and his children. Hackman is also achingly good here, playing off of Douglas with a look, a change in posture, or a weakness in his voice that tells you everything you need to know about Gene’s relationship with Tom. It’s also terrific to see Hackman working so well with the magnificent Estelle Parsons again, after their star-making roles in Bonnie and Clyde. Her Alice is an anguished figure, who suffered mightily to marry whom she wanted and appears to be suffering since doing so nonetheless.

Gilbert Cates became a personage in Hollywood without making many movies: He directed the Academy Awards’ telecast for many years and was also the founding Dean of UCLA’s School of Theater, Film, and Television. Filming a play is hard because if you take an overly static approach, it looks like a play trapped in a movie, but if you overdo camera angles and movement, it can be gimmicky. As producer-director, Cates strikes the right balance, and when a cast gives such uniformly sterling performances, you know the director did their job well. My only gripe about Cates is his choice of music, which is too heavy-handed in places and includes a fairly wretched song early on that would better have been binned.

To close with an intriguing bit of trivia about this quiet gem of a film: You could consider it a credit to Hackman and Douglas that the former was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar even though he was on screen more, while the latter nominated for Best Actor. Too much credit going to the old man, his son’s achievements underappreciated..sometimes performances are so good that Oscar voters mix up actors with the characters they portray.

Categories
Drama Mystery/Noir

The Limey

Fresh off his success adapting the Elmore Leonard novel Out of Sight, Steven Soderbergh partnered with screenwriter Lem Dobbs in 1999 to produce another strong film that feels like an Elmore Leonard story: The Limey.

The plot: A greying but tough as nails Cockney career criminal known only as Wilson (Terence Stamp) finishes his latest stay in the Big House and comes to sun-soaked Los Angeles to investigate how his daughter Jennifer died (Melissa George). He is guilt-stricken over his considerable failures as a parent but loved Jennifer intensely, so much so that he can’t accept that her death was really due to an unremarkable automobile accident. Wilson’s charm is considerable, and he soon secures the assistance of two of Jennifer’s friends, an ex-con who’s gone straight (Luis Guzmán) and a modestly successful actress (Leslie Anne Warren). From them he learns that Jennifer was in a relationship with a hot shot record producer named Valentine (Peter Fonda), who has a sleazy side hiding behind his perfect tan and aggressively whitened teeth. As Wilson starts to investigate, he finds himself tangling with Valentine’s head of security (Barry Newman), assorted thugs, and federal agents who are also on Valentine’s trail. A noirish tale of vengeance and regret follows.

Steven Soderbergh on the 20th Anniversary of 'The Limey' - Rolling Stone

The Limey can be enjoyed simply as a professionally produced and performed rendition of a familiar movie story line. It includes exciting action scenes and some good dramatic moments. There are also some laughs, the biggest of which comes from Stamp’s theatrical Cockney slang-filled speech delivered to a calmly befuddled Bill Duke (the director of one of my recent recommendations, Deep Cover). There’s nothing wrong with making a purely entertaining movie, but many people, including me, see something more in this film.

What is The Limey “really about”? After Gene Siskel died, Roger Ebert tried out a number of co-hosts on his television show At The Movies, my favorite of whom was B. Ruby Rich (who alas, did not get the job permanently). In their discussion here, Rich sees the movie as being a father-daughter story, whereas Ebert says its about the contrast between the genuinely tough central character and soft Californians who think they’re tough, but aren’t. Those are intriguing takes; personally I saw The Limey as being about the lingering remains of the 1960s.

Stamp and Fonda were both 1960s icons, and seeing them duel it out here in their declining years and come to terms with the harm they did along the way, makes a mournful statement on that era, particularly when Valentine says the 1960s “were just 66 and early 67 — that’s all it was”. Newman, of Vanishing Point fame, another cult figure from that era (There was also a scene with sex kitten Ann-Margret that was cut from the final film) adds to the throwback feel, as does Soderbergh splicing in flashback scenes of Stamp from the 1967 film Poor Cow. Stylistically, the adventurous editing, repetition of key images, and violation of linear chronology recalls the experimentalism of cinema in that era (Even though Soderbergh didn’t add all that in until post-production when he saw that a more conventional structure didn’t work). It all gives the film an elegiac meta-theme on top of that of the main story, making it stick with you for much longer than other films of its genre.

p.s. The DVD release of includes in its special features menu an audio commentary track that is legendary among film buffs. Rather than do the usual dull nodding along saying how great each scene and actor was, Soderbergh and Dobbs argue intensely and intelligently about how the film turned out. It’s fascinating both for what it reveals about them as people and also about how directors and screenwriters think.

Categories
Drama Mystery/Noir

Deep Cover

Deep Cover | Wonders in the Dark

Many hip-hop music fans know the hit soundtrack of Deep Cover because it featured a pre-mega fame Dr. Dre and Snoop Doggy Dogg. In this recommendation, I want to make a case for Deep Cover as a movie. It was a modest money maker in 1992, but got a bit lost in the avalanche of drugs and crime flicks that Hollywood put out in that era. I re-watched it recently for the first time since in debuted in theaters, and was struck by how it laid to waste its competition in the genre.

Based on a story by accomplished screenwriter Michael Tolkin, the film centers on an apparently straight-laced cop named Russell Stevens Jr. (Laurence Fishbourne) whose father was a drug-addicted criminal and met a violent end. A shifty DEA official (Charles Martin Smith) sees in Stevens the ideal personality for an undercover agent in the drug trade. Stevens agrees, and under the name John Hull begins penetrating the seamy, violent underworld of Los Angeles. But he develops doubts not just about whether the investigation is morally justifiable but also about his own nature.

Director Bill Duke (on the right in this photo taken on the set) is one of many talented artists who have a higher profile among Blacks than whites. To the extent white filmgoers know him at all, it’s mainly as a portrayer of fearsome tough guys in the Arnold Schwarzenegger movies Predator and Commando. But he’s also a skilled director who has focused his cinema work on Black-centered stories (e.g., A Rage in Harlem, Dark Girls). What he achieves in Deep Cover is unique to my knowledge, namely crossing conventions of 1970s Blaxploitation with mid-20th century film noir. That could have easily crashed and burned because the former genre embraced more traditional morality tales (evidenced here in the parable-like opening sequence with Stevens’ father, Smith’s role as a white-as-rice boss with an dirty agenda, and Clarence Williams III’s role as a righteous cop/pastor blend) and the latter cherished murky gray morality and characters like Russell Stevens Jr.. But Duke mixes these potentially competing cinematic traditions into a potent cocktail with a smooth finish.

And speaking of underappreciated African-American artists, how did it take so long for Hollywood to give Laurence Fishburne a leading role? His anguished performance as a man trying to atone for his father’s sins while stomaching the rot around him gives Deep Cover psychic weight to accompany its effective action sequences. Fishburne also strikes sparks with Victoria Dillard, who plays an African art dealer who launders drug money on the side (or maybe other way around). In a wonderfully screwy yet scary role, Jeff Goldblum gives Fishburne first-class support, including providing some comic relief in this otherwise tense drama.

Categories
Action/Adventure Drama Foreign Language Romance

Napoléon

Napoleon: 10 unmissable highlights from Abel Gance's five-and-a-half-hour  masterpiece | BFI

In 1927, the days of silent film were coming to an end, but some brilliant directors sent it out in style. William Wellman’s Wings and F. W. Murnau’s Sunrise landed the first-ever Academy Awards, while in The Soviet Union Sergei Eisenstein’s October hit the screens. But a French film towered even over that mighty company in ambition, scope, and enduring fascination: Writer/Director/Producer Abel Gance’s Napoléon.

The plot: Well, take a deep breath, because this 5 1/2 hour epic covers a lot of ground (and incredibly, Gance wanted to make it only the first of a series of six movies!). The story begins when young Napoleon (Vladimir Roudenko) is an eccentric, bullied schoolboy, already brilliant at strategy and tactics as shown by his triumph at a massive, extended, snowball fight. He grows into an impecunious, unappreciated young man (Albert Dieudonné), with little to comfort him other than his loving family of origin in Corsica. The French Revolution erupts, and Danton (Alexandre Koubitzky), Robespierre (Edmond Van Daële), and Marat (Antonin Artaud) try to guide its fractious, passionate supporters, while Napoleon’s life is turned upside down by political events, forcing him into a dramatic escape from Corsica. But fate finally smiles on Napoleon when he is given command of the artillery at the Siege of Toulon, defeating the British and becoming a hero of the revolution. Returning to Paris and enmeshed in political intrigue as The Revolution devolves into The Terror, he finds time to romance the bewitching Joséphine de Beauharnais (Gina Manès), before being promoted to head the French Army in Italy, leading to a spectacular final battle against his country’s enemies. (Insert sound of reviewer pausing to catch his breath). But those are just the highlights of this mammoth cinematic event.

The Many Lives of Abel Gance's 'Napoleon' - The New York Times

Everything about this movie is on an epic scale, the performances, the battles, the artistry, and the themes. And yet it’s in no way ponderous or pretentious; indeed it’s tremendously fun to watch, containing thrilling action sequences, delightful moments of comic relief, and eye-catching eroticism. The best way to see this film if ever you get the chance is on a big screen with a live orchestra. But though I suppose it’s a sin, you can still appreciate many of its virtues on a smaller screen.

The movie is also unforgettable because of Gance’s creativity as a filmmaker, as he fluidly shows off innovation after innovation in multiple exposure, triptych photography, fast cutting, special effects, cameras strapped to horses, and more. He was such an influential filmmaker that you will many times recognize moments that were echoed or consciously copied in subsequent films. My own favorite of these is the scene in which before a life or death battle, Napoleon confronts the ghosts of The Revolution, which almost perfectly prefigures Aragorn doing the same in the Paths of the Dead scene in The Two Towers.

Napoleon (1927) | The ominous ghosts of Saint-Just, Robespie… | Flickr
The Lord Of The Rings' Army Of The Dead Explained

Gance cut and re-cut Napoléon many times over the years. The original Paris release was 4 hours (which I suspect is about the right length as the 5 1/2 hour version has some slow spots). In one of the most astonishing feats ever in cinematic restoration, historian Kevin Brownlow painstakingly reassembled the film with input from Gance and financial support from Francis Ford Coppola. That preserved this treasure of the silent era for future generations, earning Brownlow an honored place in film buff heaven.

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.