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 trilling action sequences, delightful moments of comic relief, and eye-catching humor and 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.

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.