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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
Action/Adventure Romance

The Sea Hawk

The Sea Hawk (1940) - Turner Classic Movies

There’s an old jibe that “They don’t make movies in Hollywood, they remake them”. But sometimes they remake them so bloody well that audiences can’t help but stand up and cheer (see for example my recommendation of the Casablanca recycle job To Have and Have Not). A pluperfect example is the 1940 swashbuckler The Sea Hawk.

Let me clarify what was really being remade. Rafael Sabatini’s novel had been filmed before under the same name in 1924. That silent classic featured purpose built, full size replicas of battling sailing ships that were so realistic that they were spliced into many subsequent movies, including this one. But the origin of the 1940 adaptation of The Sea Hawk lies with a 1935 adaptation of a different Sabatini book, Captain Blood (my recommendation here). That film made Errol Flynn a superstar and Warner Brothers a mint, so they immediately planned to rework roughly the same story elements into a new pirate movie again starring Flynn, co-starring Basil Rathbone (though he declined the role), and directed by Michael Curtiz. The studio had a script draft as early as 1936, but Flynn was committed to a long line of films at that point, a number of them directed by Curtiz (including my recommendation The Adventures of Robin Hood). It was thus several years before Flynn and Curtiz could make The Sea Hawk, but it was well worth the wait.

The Sea Hawk streaming: where to watch movie online?

The plot: Unlike Captain Blood, in which Flynn starts out as a slave, becomes a notorious pirate, and then has a climactic tussle with his enemies, in this film he starts out as a notorious pirate, becomes a slave, and then has a climactic tussle with his enemies. Also unlike Captain Blood, in which he had an achingly unconsummated extended flirtation with a beautiful, high-born, English woman, in this film the woman is only half-English. You get the idea.

More seriously, there is one big difference between the two films, which resulted from the start of World War II. In the Sea Hawk, Hitler is thinly veiled as the King of Spain, a ruthless seeker of global domination. And in the movie’s best performance, Dame Flora Robson as Queen Elizabeth gives a rousing speech about defending freedom that could have come out of Churchill’s mouth.

The Sea Hawk (1940) - Photo Gallery - IMDb

Brenda Marshall plays the love interest this time around, but the film didn’t launch her to stardom as did Olivia De Havilland’s pairings with Flynn (Though one of Hollywood’s most eligible bachelors, William Holden, clearly took notice: they married the following year). Marshall isn’t given a lot to do beyond looking lovely. If you want to see a movie where she gets a chance to show off her acting ability, check out my recommendation Strange Impersonation.

Claude Rains and Henry Daniell fare better as a couple of rotters, each played in their signature style, more charming for the former and more menacing for the latter. In the part that Rathbone declined, Daniell is just as good except that he couldn’t fence at all (Rathbone was a master swordsman). A double was smoothly spliced in for his extended duel with Flynn and it works just fine.

As for Flynn, he’s okay here but seems a tad less energetic than he was only a few years before; perhaps his health, never as good as the publicity machine made Americans believe, was starting to fade. But he certainly has enough gusto to keep the audience engaged, and he gets expert supporting help from many solid character actors, including Alan Hale, Una O’Connor, and Gilbert Roland.

Of course a swashbuckler lives and dies by its action scenes, and The Sea Hawk’s are epic in scope and brilliantly executed. The big budget shows as does the ability of the autocratic Curtiz to get armies (er, navies) of actors to do his bidding. Cannons boom, swords flash, buccaneers swarm, and ships cavort on the high seas. The Sea Hawk is a ripsnorting adventure, the fact that it was another trip to the same well notwithstanding.

p.s. My recommendation is based on the 127 minute version. Shorter versions sometimes appear on television.

p.p.s. In case you are tempted to adjust your screen settings, the sepia tint in the scenes in Panama was in the original film.

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
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
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
Action/Adventure Romance

Captain Blood

Swashbuckler: Lessons in Morality From Peter Blood, the Pirate

An intelligent, dashing, apolitical doctor tends to a wounded rebel during the English Civil War and finds himself branded a criminal and sold into slavery. But his courage, leadership ability, and swordsmanship enable him to reverse his fortunes by becoming the greatest outlaw pirate of the high seas!: Captain Blood. This 1935 movie was a mega-hit adaptation of a mega-hit novel by Rafael Sabatini. Many a wildly popular film has had minimal artistic merit, but in this case craft and entertainment value go hand in hand.

Warner Brothers gambled big financially on Captain Blood but even moreso by resting the movie on the shoulders of two little-known actors, Errol Flynn and Olivia de Haviland. Thus was born a screen pairing of which audiences could not get enough, leading to seven more films together that were rich in adventure, romance, and some comedy too. As the heroic Peter Blood, Flynn is passionate and athletic but also thoughtful and at times — particularly in his scenes with de Haviland — even vulnerable. This being the 1930s, de Haviland was given less to do, but she makes the most of it with charm, teasing humor, and a remarkable ability to non-verbally convey disabling sexual desire.

The film also benefits enormously from the literate dialogue in the adapted screenplay of Casey Robinson, and, the presence of a first rank director, Michael Curtiz, in the first of the 11 films he made starring Flynn. Curtiz handles so much so well in this movie, ranging from intimate romantic moments to epic battles with complex sets and hundreds of actors, that Captain Blood should be more often mentioned alongside Casablanca among his most significant achievements.

And though his character comes and goes a bit too quickly, Basil Rathbone delivers the goods as Blood’s frenemy, pirate captain Levasseur. He overacts zee Franch rrrrogue stuff a bit, but all sins are forgiven when he picks up a sword. Rathbone was a champion fencer in real life, and to the extent Flynn is credible as a duelist here, the credit goes to his coaching. Kudos to the rest of the supporting players as well, who are all credible in parts large and small.

Movies! TV Network | The Making of a Swashbuckler: Captain Blood

The action scenes, especially the closing sea battle in Jamaica, are completely credible and thrilling (props to George Amy for outstanding editing). Even though special effects have come a long way since 1935 (e.g., in the magnificent Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World) the cannon shots, swordplay, wooden ships, and iron men in Captain Blood are as vivid and vital as any Hollywood has ever portrayed.

Captain Blood would rank on any list of Hollywood’s greatest swashbuckling pirate movies, and has connections to another Sabatini novel whose adaptations would appear the same roll of honor twice: The Sea Hawk. The 1924 silent version included battle scenes filmed with massive sea-going models that were so astonishing that footage from them was recycled (with added sound of course) in subsequent films, including Captain Blood. The other connection is more obvious, namely that without Captain Blood making Flynn world-famous in 1935, there would never have been the equally good 1940 Flynn version of The Sea Hawk.

p.s. If you like this movie, you will almost certainly enjoy two other movies I recommend: The Sea Hawk and The Adventures of Robin Hood.

p.p.s. Dame Olivia de Haviland, incredibly, was with us until July of 2020. Late in her long life, she said that she and Flynn were in love but never consummated their relationship. It’s easy to imagine that the genuine, aching desire they experienced in real life was part of what made them such an irresistible pairing on screen.

Categories
Comedy Romance

When Harry Met Sally…

I recommended Steve Martin’s effort to make a Woody Allen movie (L.A. Story); let me now recommend Rob Reiner and Nora Ephron’s attempt to do the same: When Harry Met Sally….

In one of the signature romantic comedies of the 1980s, college students Harry Burns (Billy Crystal) and Sally Albright (Meg Ryan) meet not-so-cute on a long drive east. He is slovenly, self-involved and a bit of a sexist pig. She is uptight, judgmental and a million miles from being in touch with her feelings. They grate on each other during the road trip and forget about each afterwards, until a chance meeting some years later. Harry, chastened by a messy divorce, has become less smug and more likable to Sally. Sally in contrast thinks she has found enduring love with Joe (Steven Ford), making romance with Harry out of the question. With the possibility of a sexual relationship out of the way (or is it?), they can develop (or can they?) something neither of them has had before: A platonic, intimate friendship with a member of the opposite sex.

The extremely positive audience reaction to this funny, warm film was a surprise to its makers in 1989, but When Harry Met Sally is now widely considered a treasure of the genre. The leads create appealing, funny characters (much on set ad libbing helped enormously, making an amusing script even moreso). Strong supporting work by the two best friend foil characters is another asset (Bruno Kirby and Carrie Fisher), not least because Ephron’s script is perceptive and honest about how men and women talk about each other when the other sex isn’t around.

As a director, Reiner — on whose dating experiences this film is partly based — wisely puts significant faith in his actors, which is richly rewarded. In preparing for the film he interviewed long-standing couples about their marriages, and adapted these stories into charming inserts in which the mysteries of love are explained by those for whom it all worked out in the end.

This film mirrors Woody Allen’s magnificent Annie Hall so closely in plot, location, themes – even the opening credits and music – that it’s hard not to compare the two films. Annie Hall has more big laughs and although Crystal and Ryan are good they are simply not performers at the level of Allen and Keaton. As for comedic tone, Annie Hall has some bite whereas When Harry Met Sally — consistent with the dominant style of its era — is punch-pulling fluff; viewer preferences for style of humor will make one or the other movie a more rewarding experience, and de gustibus non est disputandum.

But in one respect, the more recent film leaves Annie Hall in the dust. Allen’s film is made entirely from his male point of view, but the Ephron-scripted When Harry Met Sally is more gender-balanced in its take on heterosexual romance and also develops its female characters more fully. The result is a winning date movie, whether it’s a first date or a 30th anniversary.

Categories
Action/Adventure Drama Romance

To Have and Have Not

Star Wars: The Force Awakens was a good example of how recycling characters and plot from a wildly popular movie can led to tedious viewing. An infinitely more successful effort to rip-off a prior cinema classic is Howard Hawk’s To Have and Have Not.

Perhaps the greatest film ever produced via the old Hollywood studio system — Casablanca — was still playing in a few theaters when production began on To Have and Have Not. Although putatively based on a Hemingway novel, To Have and Have Not recycles Casablanca’s characters, plot, style and indeed some of its cast to tremendous effect. In the Ingrid Bergman role of a resourceful, beautiful woman with a past, the incomparable Lauren Bacall became an instant star as well as Bogart’s real-life bride.

The plot: Humphrey Bogart again plays an outwardly cynical man of the world who doesn’t want to get involved in World War II intrigue, despite the pleas of the idealists around him. But the better angels of his nature and an alluring stranger (Bacall) pull him into the fight on behalf of the Free French versus the hateful, corrupt Vichy regime that oversees the Island of Martinique. Nearly peerless entertainment ensues.

The movie has exciting moments of high tension as well as some laughs, but what positively sizzles here is the interaction between “Bogie and Baby”, who were soon to become an enduring Hollywood power couple beloved by millions. May-December romance in the movies can be unrealistic and even downright gross, but here it’s so deeply felt that it works. The two stars were in each other’s thrall, which puts spark and wit into their scenes together. Some immortal lines in the script (“You know how to whistle don’t you?”) enliven their exchanges, which is a credit to Jules Furthman and William Faulkner (Since the average Faulkner sentence runs about 50 pages, I lean towards crediting Furthman with the best one-liners).

The film also features one of Walter Brennan’s many memorable supporting actor turns, this time as Bogie’s alcoholic friend Eddie (See Carl Rollyson’s thoughtful take on Eddie here). Also on hand is the appealing actor-musician Hoagy Carmichael (for another fine Hoagy performance see my recommendation of Canyon Passage). He’s well-cast as the piano player at Rick’s Cafe, um, I mean, Frenchy’s bar. In one of the movie’s highlights, Hoagy and his band back up Bacall as she gives a sultry rendition of his song “How Little We Know”. The studio has originally planned to dub her, but she pulled off the musical number on her own.

I first saw To Have and Have Not as a teenager, and immediately fell in love with Lauren Bacall. I suppose it may reflect a lack of emotional development on my part that I am still just as enchanted by her three decades later…but what can you do?.

p.s. The film might have been the only high point in Lauren Bacall’s career if not for some luck and favorable Hollywood politics surrounding The Big Sleep.

Categories
Drama Romance

Carnal Knowledge

The period between the war and the sexual revolution was disorienting for many American men and women, as prior standards of sexual behavior lost their hold without a clear sense emerging of what would become the norms of the future. In this terrain, Jules Feiffer scripted an unproduced play about the sexual development and relationships of two male college friends. Director Mike Nichols saw potential in the project to become a movie, and the result was 1971’s Carnal Knowledge.

Though sometimes billed as a comedy, the film is actually a melancholy drama and exploration of an era. The central characters are Jonathan (Jack Nicholson), who sees women as sexual objects and pursues them aggressively, and his diffident best friend Sandy (Art Garfunkel) who puts women on a pedestal from which they cannot escape. The film charts their sexual course in three acts running through the 1950s to the early 1970s (kudos to the makeup artists for aging the cast convincingly). The plot centers on the relationships they both have with a college student (Candice Bergen) and Jonathan’s subsequent romance with a gorgeous model who longs for a conventional marriage and home life (Ann-Margret).

The story’s origin as a play is well-exploited by Nichols, who keeps the cast small and the emotional tension high. There is an unreality in much of the staging and shots (such as the above) with only a few characters appearing in camera view at a time. The film also plays with the fourth wall, with characters seemingly giving speeches to the audience until it is subsequently revealed that they are talking to each other. Such theatricality can backfire in film, but in Nichol’s hands, it’s golden.

Nichols’ talent as a director is also evident in his getting first-rate performances from Art Garfunkel, Ann-Margret and Candice Bergen, none of whom is a first-rate actor. If I were king, I would love to see this precise story told again from the women characters’ point of view. The two female leads leave the audience wanting more and guessing so much about their motives as they — like many women of the era –try to navigate a sexually changing world where they are ostensibly freer yet somehow end up even more trapped by convention and male chauvinism than ever before.

Nichols has a penchant for making movies in which none of the main characters are likable. In Closer and the wildly overrated Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? this made for excruciating cinema. But in Carnal Knowledge, Jonathan and Sandy — and even moreso the times that make them — are consistently intriguing despite never being entirely pleasant.

p.s. Look sharp for Rita Moreno making the most of her one scene in this movie.

Categories
Action/Adventure Romance

The Count of Monte Cristo

In the 1930s, film studios made a run of lavish historical costume dramas based on best-selling books (Some of them literary classics, others meretricious tripe). The majority were set in Europe and a few were even made there, including my film recommendation The Scarlet Pimpernel. But most were produced on Hollywood back lots, such as MGM’s Tale of Two Cities, Warner Brothers’ Anthony Adverse and RKO’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Another classic of the form was made in 1934 by RKO: The Count of Monte Cristo.

Dumas’ thrilling tale of romance, revenge and redemption is catnip for filmmakers. It had been adapted to the silver screen several times before and has been filmed many times since (and referenced in other films as well). But the 1934 version is arguably the best of the bunch and certainly holds up very well today.

The key presence is British actor Robert Donat, who made his only trip to Hollywood to make this movie (he did not care for it, returning soon after to spend the rest of his life in England). As the Count (nee Edmund Dantes), he’s dashing, eloquent, passionate and also manages to make the credibility-stretching aspects of the plot believable. His lady love is played winningly by Elissa Landi, who like Donat is so agreeable to the eyes that it’s easy to miss her acting talent. The two performers bring across their aching romance as much through non-verbal gestures and anguished looks as with dialogue, reminding us that this was the era in which most actors were used to working without sound (The previous adaptations of this story in fact were all silent movies). Watching Donat and Landi today exerts an extra tug on the heart because modern viewers will know that both of them died young, given them a tragic air that makes them even more romantic as couple.

As was the norm for these affairs, the studio spared no expense on set designs, costumes and props, producing a spectacle that must have given Depression Era audiences some wonderful moments of escape. The sumptuous scene in which the Count throws a ball as part of his plan to avenge himself on those who betrayed him is a particularly memorable “film in a film” sequence. The cast at the ball gawps as elaborate tableau after tableau is revealed on a grand stage, and the movie audience gawps at them gawping. It’s a visual feast.

Director Rowland Lee had a touch for this sort of material and brought out the best in the talented cast. There isn’t a bad performance in the movie, and there are several powerful ones. The result is pure escapist entertainment of the first order.

p.s. If you like Robert Donat in this movie, you will probably also enjoy his performance in another of my recommendations, The 39 Steps.