This Land is Your Land: The Southerner (1945)

July 25, 2017

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Jean Renoir considered The Southerner (1945) to be his “only work of a personal nature carried out in Hollywood.” Adapted from the National Book Award winning novel Hold Autumn in Your Hand, by George Sessions Perry, it follows a year in the life of a struggling Texas tenant farmer and his family. A lyrical portrait of do-it-yourself Americanism, it was nominated for three Academy Awards, including one for Best Director (Billy Wilder would win for The Lost Weekend). Sam Tucker (Zachary Scott) is passionately, almost irrationally obsessed with farming a plot of land, even if he’s working it for another owner. So he quits his cotton-picking job and enters into a tenant-farming agreement with his boss, tilling a plot left unworked for years. For him it’s a kind of freedom, though he is gambling that he can harvest enough crop to feed his family and begin to save for a better life. He’s a more responsible version of Boudu from Boudu Saved From Drowning (1932), both seek a way off the grid and find it in rural sections of the country. But Sam has family responsibilities, while Boudu only answers to himself.

(Full Disclosure: I work for Kino Lorber, who released The Southerner on DVD and Blu-ray)

After the Nazi occupation of France, Renoir secured a United States visa and arrived at a dock in the port of Jersey City on December 31, 1940, where he was greeted by Robert Flaherty, who had facilitated his arrival. His first Hollywood production was Swamp Water (1941), a Georgia outlaw romance, on which he regularly clashed with producer Daryl Zanuck. He wrote of Zanuck: “Our story was feasible, more or less. He’s managed to turn it into something I find totally stupid” (quoted in Jean Renoir: A Biography, by Pascal Merigeau). Though a financial success, Renoir was not pleased with the experience. He then signed with Universal, who assigned him to the Deanna Durbin vehicle The Amazing Mrs. Holliday (1943). He worked on it for fifty days before he left the production, citing pain in his leg, which was a cover for his unhappiness with the project, though Durbin was ” a nice girl.” He would jump from there to RKO, to direct the Dudley Nicholas penned and produced This Land is Mine (1943), about the resistance movement in an unnamed Nazi-occupied country. Nichols was passionate about the film, which starred Charles Laughton, Maureen O’Hara and George Sanders, and controlled the production tightly. He didn’t allow the use of a crane, citing budgetary restraints, and disallowed any improvisatory deviation from the script. Renoir directed it, but was not in full control.

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The Southerneron the other hand, proved an ideal film for Renoir because the producers had little interest in it. Robert Hakim, a friend and producer of La Bête humaine (1938), asked Renoir to read a proposed screenplay of Hold August in Your Hand, by Hugo Butler. He was intrigued by the possibility, and after going back to the original novel, agreed to direct if he was allowed to come up with his own script – which would also pass through the hands of Nunnally Johnson and William Faulkner. Zachary Scott later claimed that Faulkner wrote the entire script, but Merigeau’s biography indicates Renoir wrote the majority, and that Faulkner reworked two scenes, on in which Sam Tucker lights the stove for the first time, and the sequence where the family catches a giant catfish. Hakim secured distribution through United Artists, who sent David L. Loew to be a co-producer. This was not a prestige title for Hakim or Loew, and so Renoir was pretty much left alone to recreate a Texas farm at the General Service Studios, located between Santa Monica and Las Palmas.

Initially Joel McCrea and his wife Frances Dee were sought to star, but they eventually cast Zachary Scott and Betty Field as Sam and Nona Tucker, the husband and wife who would try to transform a fallow pile of wood, rocks and dirt into a working farm. Scott spends most of the film shirtless or nearly so, his character exhibiting a serious buttoning phobia.  The lithe Scott is the object of adoration for the women of the town, and for good reason, as every other eligible bachelor is either a drunk or a kindly old timer. The Tuckers are introduced in a massive field picking cotton, when their uncle Pete collapses and with his final breath urges them to farm their own land. Sam takes him at his word, and convinces his boss to become a tenant farmer on one of his disused plots. The house is collapsing, the ground overgrown, and his neighbor Devers (J. Carroll Naish) is a bitter old bastard with a violent streak and a crazed son (a feral Norman Lloyd).

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But the Tucker family, rounded out by son Jot, daughter Daisy, and Granny (an obstreperous Beulah Bondi), perseveres through any and all  disaster, from Jot’s Spring Sickness to a storm that wipes out their crop. It is a movie about endurance and that peculiar brand of insanity called the American Dream, where people seek their fortunes in the face of calamity. For Renoir protagonists Sam and Nona are remarkably straightforward or true, neither touched by Boudu’s wanderlust but similarly attached to the idea of nature-as-freedom. Though in this case Sam is far from free – he is a tenant farmer, still working for a boss, however distant, and his responsibilities lie with his family whose health and happiness depends on the success of this mad enterprise. For it is entirely mad – the farmhouse is a wreck, and the family freezes in the winter and soaks during summer rains. The well is dry so Sam has to ask Devers for fresh water, and he is nursing a variety of wounds against the world, his wife and child having died while he was building up his plot of land. His is the nightmare side of the dream, gaining wealth while losing your life.

Renoir is very adept at blocking out scenes of group revelry, and there is a giddy wedding party sequence that acts as an oasis between emergencies, joining the entire town on bootleg liquor and dance. Sam gets clocked by one of his many disappointed suitors (he’s a one woman man) while Granny nearly lights the place on fire while making tea. Everyone laughs in a blissful state of forgetting. But then a storm hits, and it’s back to disaster management. Though this is mainly a film of static setups, Renoir does utilize his skill with moving camera early on, when the Tuckers first move into their dump. The camera breaks free of the family and enters the home, a free-floating Tucker POV that pokes its head in the door and peeks around corners. Absent of human presence, it presents the house as a blank slate that the Tuckers can fill with all their pain and laughter and failure and fleeting successes. The Southerner is one of Renoir’s most direct, most simple films, and certainly one of his most moving.

Musical ESP: On A Clear Day You Can See Forever (1970)

January 31, 2017

ON A CLEAR DAY YOU CAN SEE FOREVER (1970)

From the rubble of the studio system came On a Clear Day You Can See Forever (1970), a past-life regression musical that was somehow hoped to do Sound of Music-level box office. Vincente Minnelli’s penultimate film was severely recut by Paramount before its release, turning an idiosyncratic film into a nonsensical one, and it soon disappeared from consciousness. It is now one of Minnelli’s film maudits, a cursed film during which Minnelli learned that his wife was leaving him and that his first spouse, Judy Garland, had passed away. Watching it on FilmStruck now under the Icons: Yves Montand theme, I was wowed by Minnelli’s unerring eye for production design that illustrates the manias of his characters, while Barbra Streisand turns in a dynamic performance that ranges from her modern day neurotic to a psychic seductress in Regency-era England. So while there isn’t much music for a musical, and major subplots are ditched halfway through, On a Clear Day You Can See Forever (streaming through May 12, 2017) is valuable viewing for admirers of the Streisand or Minnelli arts.

Minnelli was working on a stage version of the story of Mata Hari, which flopped and never made it beyond previews, when Paramount approached him with the idea of adapting On a Clear DayIt was a Broadway musical with book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner (My Fair Lady) and music by Burton Lane. It was nominated for three Tony awards in 1965, but according to Minnelli’s autobiography I Remember it Well, it “hadn’t been a huge success on Broadway.” Not surprising with such a loopy concept, about a college girl with ESP who, when hypnotized by her psychiatrist to help quit smoking, regresses back to her past lives. The doctor ends up falling in love with one of her older selves, while Daisy wishes he would keep his eyes on her in the present.

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It would be Minnelli’s most expensive production to date, with a budget of $10 million, as he had to shift back and forth between period settings and the present. The key was finding the right actress to play the girl, named Daisy Gamble in the film. After Audrey Hepburn turned them down, they landed Streisand, a serendipitous bit of casting. Streisand, as quoted in Mark Griffin’s A Hundred or More Hidden Things: The Life and Films of Vincente Minnelli, thought she was perfect for the part: “I am a bit coarse, a bit low, a bit vulgar, and a bit ignorant. I am also part princess, sophisticate, elegant and controlled.” She had seen the show on Broadway and declared it to be “just heaven,” and that the “two parts are close to my schizophrenic personality. They appeal to the frightened girl and the strong woman in me.”

Though she clashed with William Wyler on the set of Funny Girl, she had no such problems with Minnelli, who had nothing but kind things to say about her in his autobiography: “I listened to what Barbra suggested, and implemented some of her suggestions. I found her creative and bright, and we got along beautifully.” This comfort translates to the screen. The modern day Daisy is bumptious and scatter-brained, honking away with a thick Brooklyn accent. When regressed to her past lives, she turns into the mellifluous and cultured Lady Melinda Winifred Waine Tentrees, a psychic from Regency-era England who is on trial for espionage and treason due to her unnatural psychic gifts. Streisand softens and lengthens her delivery, a performance of flexible chameleonic glee. Streisand is marveling in every second of it, getting to go high and low in the same film.

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The role of skeptical psychiatrist Dr. Marc Chabot was given to Yves Montand, after flirtations with Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Richard Harris. He is suitably professorial and befuddled, though he is merely a scratching post for Streisand to scratch.  The film’s second assistant director John Poer recalls a harmonious set, “Streisand was then and is now a prickly person to deal with but not a foolish one. She’s a very intelligent person, and everybody quickly learned that even though she often had opinions about the way things should be done that conflicted with what was going on with the show, she was very often right.”

The movie as it exists today consists of a seres of past life regressions that the doctor performs in his study. He is still too embarrassed to admit that he is fascinated with the possibility of reincarnation, and that he might be falling in love with a centuries-dead past life of Daisy’s. His classroom is minimalist space-age, except for a teak-wood looking desk tucked up on stage – it’s something that could have been a re-purposed game show set. Chabot’s office is warm and seemingly endless, a cavern of books and shag carpeting. These two spaces show off Chabot’s thirst for fame and the academic legitimacy he seeks. Daisy enters the classroom as if she’s in a Laurel & Hardy bit. Chabot is hypnotizing a student on stage, but she passes out instead, and starts enacting the hypnotic suggestions unbeknownst to him. She is profusely apologetic for her hypnotic suggestiveness – she keeps passing out until class is adjourned and she has the whole room rolling with laughter. All she is there for, she tells the doctor, is a trick to quite smoking. She’s hoping hypnosis can set her free and please her fiancé.

But when she sits down for a session, Daisy begins to find hidden items for the doctor and predict when the phone will ring. Expecting that this was some sort of parlor trick, he invites her back, but instead she continues to show immense psychic abilities. It is then that he hypnotizes her and learns of her prolific past lives. The shift to Regency-era England is when the film gets gaudy and gauzy, and Streisand gets to show off her decolletage in Cecil Beaton gowns. These past life regression sequences were heavily edited, and Lady Melinda’s story gets horribly truncated – there is no resolution to her tale of seduction and accused treasonous behavior. Instead the movie abandons that for the concerns of the present day and Daisy’s growing awareness that Dr. Chabot is using her to get to Melinda. It all feels very unfinished, but like a room undergoing renovation, you can construct the final ideal product in your mind, and it is one of strange beauty.

GROUP THERAPY: ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS (1939)

April 12, 2016

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Only Angels Have Wings keeps growing stranger with age. This studio-era classic is about a group of nihilist flyboys who enact their dreams of self-destruction out of an imaginary South American cabana. Howard Hawks insisted on the film’s realism, as he based it on the stories of some ragged pilots he met in Mexico, but the movie is as realistic as the Star Wars cantina. The invented port town of Barranca is pure Hawks country, an extension of the death-driven pilots he depicted in The Dawn PatrolCeiling Zero, and The Road to Glory. Revisiting Only Angels Have Wings in the new DVD and Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection (out today), one is struck by the sheer lunacy of the fliers, ready to sacrifice their lives for the chance to deliver the mail. Only Angels Have Wings pushes Hawks’ love of professionalism to the extreme – death is a natural part of the job, and beyond just accepting it, they seem to embrace it. In Only Angels Have Wings, to work is to die, and these jokey nihilists, including the the female interlopers who are integrated into this group – cheerily embrace the void.

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When film critic Robin Wood was diagnosed with a perforated intestine and was told he might not survive the subsequent surgery, “what immediately came into my mind was the work of Howard Hawks and specifically the way his heroes confront death (actually, in Only Angels Have Wings, and potentially in Rio Bravo, where only one minor sympathetic character gets killed). I felt completely calm, and like to think I was smiling (though I probably wasn’t).” Only Angels Have Wings confronts death early on, when the flirtatious pilot Joe Souther (Noah Beery Jr.) crashes on his return from a mail run, rushing to make a date with traveling musician Bonnie Lee (Jean Arthur). Bonnie is shocked to discover that the mail crew boss Geoff Carter (Cary Grant) and his team do not mourn but instead carouse at the bar. When Bonnie asks them how they could be so crass after Souther’s death, Geoff replies, “Who’s Joe?” His job is over so they wipe away his identity. They are not heartless, but the only way they can carry on is to proceed without a heart. They embrace nihilism in order to survive. And they usually don’t – like Kid (Thomas Mitchell), who asks Geoff to leave his deathbed since he’s never died before and doesn’t want to screw it up. It’s like going on your first solo flight, he says, and he didn’t want anyone watching that either.

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The film traces Bonnie’s curiosity with and assimilation into Geoff’s odd group, a process of sanding off her emotionality. It is an impossible job because Jean Arthur brings her irrepressible Jean Arthur-ness to the role. Hawks reportedly had trouble working with her, as she refused to do the husky, simmering sensuality thing he preferred, and proceeded to be her perky self. Rita Hayworth, who plays Geoff’s old flame who re-married to a disgraced Richard Barthelmess (whose real plastic surgery scars sell the character’s tragic past), also had a rocky relationship with Hawks, but her slinky role got her noticed by Harry Cohn and set her on the path to stardom.While Bonnie doesn’t bend to the group’s will, she is fascinated by it and tries to understand it – her empathy comes through in a performance of “The Peanut Vendor.” After the “Who’s Joe” line, she comes back, sits down at the rickety piano, and bangs out a perfect, rollicking version of the Cuban tune, joining in on the vast forgetting of Joe’s death.

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Geoff and his team were an extension of James Cagney’s character in Ceiling Zero (1936), Dizzy Davis. Davis flew missions in WWI, and has spent the years since as a stunt flier and rabble-rouser. The film begins with him getting hired on by at Newark’s Federal Airlines by his old war buddy. But the flying world has passed him by – it has become professionalized and standardized while Dizzy still flies by the seat of his pants. His free-wheeling ways eventually end in tragedy, and Dizzy chooses suicide over any kind of redemption. Geoff and his crew are a whole group of Dizzys – thrill-seekers too unreliable to get regular jobs in the States, so they ended up at a cheapjack outfit in South America flying impossible missions on ancient equipment.

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By the time of Only Angels Have Wings, Hawks had already asserted more control over his work. The film was made for Harry Cohn at Columbia, and Todd McCarthy reports in his biography Howard Hawks: The Grey Fox of Hollywood, that the director had “virtual carte blanche as long as he could deliver a strong story for Cary Grant and one of his top female stars.” So where Ceiling Zero is a compact adaptation of a stage play, Only Angels Have Wings is an extended series of digressions and character moments, so Hawks can build-out this fantasy-world of Barranca. The story outline came from a seven-page synopsis by Anne Wigton entitled “Plan Number Four”, which Hawks then fleshed out with stories of “outcasts” he had met in Mexico. Hawks said that these men were “collectively  and individually the finest pilots I’ve ever seen but they had been grounded because of accidents, drinking, stunting, smuggling — each man’s existence almost a story in itself.”

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Most of these stories are focused through Geoff, played with inimitable insouciance by Cary Grant. Grant worked well with Hawks’ improvisatory style, and though he doesn’t have the look of a grizzled, disgraced adventurer, he was able to convey all of the arrogance and cynicism. It is an improbable performance, and I can never get Manny Farber out of my head when Grant is on-screen: “The thing you you remember most about Cary Grant’s sexy, short-hop Lindbergh in Only Angels Have Wings, a rather charming, maudlin Camp item, is his costume, which belongs in a Colombian Coffee TV commercial: razor-creased trousers that bulge out with as much yardage as a caliph’s bloomers and are belted just slightly under the armpits.” This is not to mention the wide-brim Panama hat that looks like something my mom would wear to the beach. Yet within the boundaries of Barranca it looks like the most natural thing in the world as the push-pull romance works its magic, with Bonnie forthright and honest in her feelings, and Geoff withholding, cruel, and devilishly handsome. The ending is of joyful sadness. Geoff expresses love through the flipping of a coin, the realization of which spreads across Bonnie’s face like a new dawn. But they will all have to go to work the following day, their jobs guaranteeing no happiness past the present, reckless moment.

TROUBLE IN PARADISE: AFFAIR IN TRINIDAD (1952)

December 29, 2015

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Affair in Trinidad (1952) marked Rita Hayworth’s return to the screen after a three-year absence. She had been suspended by Columbia Pictures following her marriage to Iraqi prince Aly Khan and relocation to Europe, which violated her seven-year contract.  Her reunion with Columbia was an uneasy one, and Affair in Trinidad was made with a half-finished script and a truculent star. The resulting film was widely regarded as a sloppy rehash of Gilda, but it was a hit at the box office anyway, as audiences were still devoted to their “Love Goddess” Hayworth. Director Vincent Sherman performed an admirable reclamation job on the nonsensical script, but the artistic successes lie elsewhere on the billing block. The film has two superb dance sequences choreographed by Valerie Bettis, who worked closely with Hayworth, and DP Joseph Walker (in his final film) conjures illicit atmospheres through his inky B&W cinematography. The film recently aired on TCM, and is available on DVD from the Sony Pictures Choice Collection.

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Columbia exec Harry Cohn was eager to get Hayworth back on screen and squeeze the remaining value out of her contract. Gilda was her most successful feature, so Cohn hired that film’s co-star Glenn Ford as well as its screenwriter Virginia Van Upp, who was to prepare a script to recapture the old magic. She turned out 15 pages, and off of that Cohn hired Vincent Sherman to direct the picture. According to Sherman, a meeting was held with producer Burt Granet and Van Upp, during which the whole story was to be planned out. Van Upp had only written 25 or 30 pages with no idea how to finish, and was bottoming out on an alcoholic bender. Rita Hayworth was in town earning $3,500 a week with no script to shoot, and Cohn was putting pressure on Sherman to figure something out. Granet dropped out of the project but Sherman stuck around and hired James Gunn to rush the completion of the script (with some revisions by Oscar Saul). Sherman on working with Gunn:

He had a bright mind, not always very focused, he was drinking and very unhappy, but he was talented. The next day I sent for a copy of Notorious…. I stole a little from that film, a little from this, a little from that, and I put together a melodrama that took place in Trinidad.

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Rita Hayworth plays Chris Emory, the featured act at a Trinidadian nightclub. Her husband Neal turns up dead in the bay, and she is under investigation for the murder, along with her decadent and rich friend Max Fabien (Alexander Scourby). Then Neal’s brother Steve (Glenn Ford) shows up, and starts to unravel the mysteries coursing through the town, as well as falling madly in love with Chris, who may or may not be guilty of the murder.

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Hayworth was displeased by the delays, and refused to report to work until she received a script she could approve. Columbia suspended her from December of 1951 until January 1952, when she relented and agreed to work on the Sherman and Gunn script. By this point it was a production to endure, not to savor. Both Ford and Sherman remember Hayworth as being unhappy and distant on the set. Ford wrote in his journal that, “She had changed. She was still beautiful, still a marvelous girl, but the flame did not burn as bright. There was a tiredness about her now, a sadness in her eyes. She was unhappy a lot of the time. Those of us who loved her tried to bring her out of it but without a lot of success.” Sherman said that Hayworth was the “saddest girl I’ve ever known. She had been used by every man that ever worked with her.”

1952: Rita Hayworth (1918-1987) as nightclub singer Chris Emery in 'Affair In Trinidad', directed by Vincent Sherman. (Photo by Robert Coburn Sr.)

The one person Hayworth seemed to open up to was choreographer Valerie Bettis, who put together the two showstopping dance numbers that are the film’s sole reasons for existing,”Trinidad Lady” and “I’ve Been Kissed Before” (she also acts in a small supporting role as a loudmouthed alcoholic, Veronica, who hilariously slurs that she wishes she could dance like Chris).  Theirs seemed to be a true collaboration, and while the film around them was stilted and familiar, the dance numbers are confrontational and strikingly modern. Bettis called Hayworth, “the most cooperative artist with whom I have ever been associated” (quoted in Adrienne L. McLean’s Being Rita Hayworth).  Bettis was a product of the second wave of modern dance, having studied under German choreographer Hanya Holm, and was interested in folding all forms of media into dance. Her breakthrough solo was choreographed to a poem by John Malcolm Brinnin, while she later adapted Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying and Tennessee Williams’ Streetcar Named Desire into ballets. She became a success in Broadway in her “Tigerlily” number in the revue Inside USA in 1948, and spent the rest of her career oscillating between the stage, film and television.

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On Affair in Trinidad, Bettis said that “every day there was a major crisis, but Rita and I won all our battles and and of course that gave us great satisfaction, no matter what the studio officials felt.” Cohn objected to Hayworth dancing “Trinidad Lady” barefoot feeling, Bettis said, that “it didn’t make [Hayworth] look attractive.” Perhaps not wanting to delay the production any longer, Hayworth and Bettis would get their way, and the “Trinidad Lady” number is a provocative, modern number in the middle of a retrograde drama. Hayworth’s character is doing her nightly show, unaware that the police have arrived to inform her of her husband’s apparent suicide. The routine, set to a light calypso rhythm (with vocals dubbed by Jo Ann Greer), is not your usual hip-swaying  seduction, but a forceful knifing through space. I am not a dance critic, but The New York Herald Tribune’s Walter Terry was suitably impressed, writing:

Here, there is no sense that a dance seems sensual simply because Miss Hayworth is decorating its measures with her sensual presence. Rather do these dances exploit and disclose new aspects of a very vibrant personality. …if you look closely you will see that the legs are but infrequently used to make steps for carrying the body from one geographical location to another but that the legs move because violent actions of the torso propel them forwards and backward and sideways.

She is not moving to get from one place to another but from a hidden force inside her core. This interiority is emphasized in extreme close-ups in which Hayworth stares with a sly grin into the camera. It is not a come hither stare, but more an aggressive announcement of her own sexual power.

The “I’ve Been Kissed Before Number” is set at a party, and is gliding and playful where “Trinidad Lady” is aggressive and confrontational. It is almost all sinuous arms and hands, faux-flirting with the gathered guests. It makes less of a visceral impact but serves its purpose to fire Glenn Ford’s jealousy.

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Affair in Trinidad was a problem that had to be solved, and what could have been a disaster was molded into passable entertainment thanks to the two standout dance sequences. Valerie Bettis would speak highly of her collaboration with Hayworth years later, and they seemed to be the only two on the set who didn’t wish they were somewhere else. With Sherman and Ford Hayworth seemed distant and sad, seemingly defeated by the business. But for Bettis it was a cherished, joyous collaboration. Hayworth seemed to light back up around her (and they would collaborate again for the “Dance of the Seven Veils” sequence in Salome).  When the New York Times asked Bettis if Hayworth was a “truly good dancer by a reputable choreographer’s standards”, she responded: “She fed me…she was an Open Sesame. There she was, under a double-edged sword, so to speak, facing ‘the monster’ — the camera — for the first time in more than three years. I wanted her to loathe it. I wanted her to be so familiarized with the routines she would be contemptuous of it. And she was — like an angel.”

RAFT NOIR: NOCTURNE (1946) AND RED LIGHT (1949)

March 4, 2014

variety81-1925-12_0278George Raft started out on his toes, dubbed the “The Fastest Charleston Dancer” in a 1925 issue of Variety. That agility never quite carried over to the big screen, but the maniacal focus did. Note that he was the “fastest”, not the most graceful or technically sound. He was there to get a job done quickly. He became a star as a hired goon in Scarface (1932), obsessively flipping that coin of his. It was a bit of business director Howard Hawks requested Raft to master, so he did with machine-like efficiency, reflecting the soullessness of his killer. With this breakout role, and his real-life palling around with mobsters (he counted Bugsy Siegel as a friend), Raft was typecast as a gangster, whereupon he became one of the most popular actors of the 1930s. As the 40s progressed his star began to dim, and he took on projects that might shake up his persona, including two films noir that Warner Archive has just released on DVD: Nocturne (1946) and Red Light (1949). Both are flawed, fascinating works in which Raft’s deliberate style is adapted to ostensibly heroic ends. One expects one of Raft’s Lieutenants or vengeful brothers to go full sociopath, but they remain stubbornly on the straight and narrow.

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The advertising plays up Raft’s psychopathic persona – “Raft on a Rampage!” – though in the film he is more of a mild-mannered obsessive. Nocturne was producer Joan Harrison’s first assignment at RKO. A former secretary for Alfred Hitchcock, she eventually became one of his closest collaborators as a screenwriter (Rebecca, Suspicion) and a producer (Alfred Hitchcock Presents). One of the only female producers in Hollywood, she started her production career auspiciously with two Robert Siodmak films for Universal (Phantom Lady and The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry). The director was prolific B-director Edwin L. Marin (he is credited with four other features in 1946), with a script by pulp novelist Jonathan Latimer, who would later pen the noir staples The Big Clock and Alias Nick Beal.

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A composer and notorious lothario is found dead in his Hollywood Hills home, and looks very much like a suicide. The only clue is an unfinished composition called “Nocturne”, dedicated to “Dolores”. The lead investigator is ready to close the case as a self-inflicted gunshot wound, but Lieutenant Joe Warne (Raft) refuses to let it go, intent on proving it as murder. He pursues the case with an obsessiveness that threatens his job security, as he oversteps any number of departmental codes. Warne proceeds anyway, convinced that one of the victim’s many girlfriends, all of whom he nicknamed “Dolores”, might hold the secret to his demise. It’s a role that puts Raft on the right side of the law, but makes use of his persona of cold calculation. Raft, never the most charismatic performer, here seems to embrace a minimalist, utilitarian kind of performance. He speaks in low monotonal bursts, anticipating the impersonal “just the facts ma’am” approach of Dragnet which would appear five years later.

Latimer’s script doesn’t have the staccato tempo of the show, depending instead on repetitive plotting in which Warne tracks down the women from the many portraits in the composer’s home. These scenes border on the tedious, even though Latimer does have a gift for dialogue (“You can never depend on girls named Dolores”). Raft still intrigues, though, by his refusal to emote. It’s something of an anti-performance.

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Director Marin is equally anonymous, but pulls off one brilliant shot in the opening. It begins with a mockup of the Hollywood Hills, with a miniature cliff-side cantilevered mansion set off against a matte of the skyline. The camera cranes slowly towards the house, rear projection depicting the back of a man at his piano. The shot continues into the living room via an invisible matching cut as the camera crosses the threshold, from special effect artifice to what passes as reality. The movement continues in a semi-circle around the pianist, settling below him, and revealing a woman hidden in shadow on a couch in the far background. The shot travels miles of diegetic space in a minute, the kind of faked mobility that David Fincher achieves through CG means in his snaking air vent shots in Panic Room.

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Red Light has more of a talent pedigree behind it, with Roy Del Ruth as producer/director and frequent John Ford cinematographer Bert Glennon (Stagecoach, Wagon Master). Even the second unit had talent, with Robert Aldrich as its Assistant Director. I know Del Ruth only from his Warner Brothers pre-codes, so seeing “Roy Del Ruth Productions” slapped at the head of the credits had me expecting something snappy. It starts with a bang, as inmates Raymond Burr and Harry Morgan plot to kill a priest while inside a flickering prison projection booth,  but it ends as a rather lugubrious exercise in divine intervention. It was to be the last of three films for Roy Del Ruth Productions, following the cheerier It Happened on Fifth Avenue (1947) and The Babe Ruth Story (1948). At this point Raft was deep into the downswing of his career, and battling to reframe himself as something of a hero. Compared to Nocturne he is downright chipper here (he even smiles!), playing the vengeful brother of the murdered priest.

Again it’s in the form of a procedural, as Raft believes that his brother wrote the name of the killer in the Gideon Bible in his hotel room. It has gone missing, and Raft tracks down every other occupant of the room in search of it. One of them is Virginia Mayo, who is, “about as chummy as Leo Durocher with an umpire”, according to a hotel clerk. Raft wants an eye for an eye, but Del Ruth and screenwriter George Callahan have a curious interpretation of the bible. They interpret the “Vengeance is Mine” of  Romans 12:19 to mean that if you require your enemies to suffer a violent death, you should lower your weapon because God will kill him off for you.

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It’s a bizarre interpretation of the text, and the final third of the movie comes under the sway of this activist, Old Testament God. Up until that point it is a conventional policier, enlivened by Raft’s engaged performance and Glennon’s grandiose chiaroscuro. This is a dark movie, as Glennon experiments with all manner of shadowy shapes. There are company logos splayed on walls, ceiling fans dissecting diner patrons and a chain link fence imprisoning a face about to confront death. Every shot has some dark shape indicating doom. This reaches its manic peak on the runway of a blinking neon 24-Hour Service billboard, on which the deciding shootout takes place. Constantly flickering between light and dark, Raft battles with his conscience on whether to plug Burr or let God sort him out. He opts for the latter, and ends in the light. But Raft’s career excelled in the shadows, in maniacs and coin-flipping brutes. His career continued to sputter, and by the end of the 1950s he was playing off his old bad-guy rep as a greeter at a Cuban casino operated by Meyer Lansky.

CAGED: A NICOLAS CAGE MARATHON

January 28, 2014

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In 1999 Sean Penn said Nicolas Cage was “no longer an actor. He could be again, but now he’s more like a…performer.” Penn intended this as a criticism, framing a narrative of Cage abandoning art (Wild at Heart, Leaving Las Vegas) for commerce (The Rock, Con Air, Face/Off). That has been the accepted story of his career ever since: that of an eccentric, gifted actor who wasted a promising career cashing facile blockbuster paychecks because of bad real estate investments. The Alamo Drafthouse in Yonkers, NY hosted a four-film Nicolas Cage marathon last weekend (Con Air, Red Rock West, CoVampire’s Kiss and Face/Off – all on 35mm!) that shifted my perception of his career. From the start Cage was a “performer”, a destabilizing physical presence rather than the reflective “method” artist which Penn desires from his actors. In The Guardian, Cage told Emma Brockes that, “if you look at Vampire’s Kiss, it’s all about that memory of Nosferatu; that Germanic, expressionistic acting style.” He has the angular, haunted face of Conrad Veidt attached the quick-twitch tendons of Jim Carrey, blaring his silent film pantomimes out to the back row. You can trace these moves throughout his career, his goggle eyed stare and hunched shoulder lope a fixture of the 90s blockbuster through to his Aughts VOD quickies. Even before his financial difficulties he was a prolific performer – he would have savored the 5-movie-a-year pace of old studio hands.  To follow his breakout year of 1987 (Moonstruck and Raising Arizona), he accepted a part in the deliriously strange black comedy Vampire’s Kiss, while he countered David Lynch’s Wild at Heart with the immortal Sam Pillsbury’s Zandalee.  His relentless work ethic has landed him in more dross than gold, but even in the dregs he’s capable of inspired, movie-imploding madness.

The Alamo Drafthouse opened its six-screen Yonkers outpost this past August, and imported the “Caged” marathon from its mothership in Austin, although it swapped out a few titles. Famous for serving food and beer during screenings, they also have a strict no talking/texting policy, under which they famously banned Madonna from their chain. This seemed to be contradictory, for what could be more disruptive at a screening that waiters flitting back and forth in front of your seat? As an anti-social cinemagoer, my Platonic theater ideal is the monastic original Anthology Film Archive seats, which included blinders on both sides, so all you could see was the holy projected light on the screen. And yet, at least in the convivial atmosphere of an all-day marathon, the servers did not prove to be a major distraction, and they allowed me to consume a Ghost Rider-themed hamburger (lots of jalapenos), which I can now cross off my bucket list.

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The afternoon began with a screening of Con Air (1997), the first feature Jerry Bruckheimer produced after the death of his partner Don Simpson. It is the continuation of Cage’s supposed “sellout” phase, after he pivoted from his Oscar winning role in Leaving Las Vegas to the Michael Bay blow-em’-up The Rock (1996). In Con Air Cage plays Cameron Poe, an Army Ranger from Alabama imprisoned for murder (defending his wife, of course). Sporting scraggly shoulder-length locks cascading around his widow’s peak, and speaking in a halting, syrupy sweet Southern accent, he acts more like an aging rhythm guitarist from Lynyrd Skynrd than an action hero. Cage always introduces these kinds of tensions into his work, emphasizing his own ungainliness. For while he is in great physical shape, shown off under his flimsy undershirt, he is far from graceful. His limbs are too long for his body and his run is an uncoordinated gallop rather than the fleet exertions of a Tom Cruise. Cage is the lead weirdo in a cast full of them (John Malkovich, Steve Buscemi, Dave Chappelle and Ving Rhames all deliver perverse work), introducing genuine strangeness into Bruckheimer’s slam-bang formula.

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After the visual and aural assault of Bruckheimer, programmer Cristina Cacioppo slowed down the tempo with Red Rock West, a neo-noir of quiet desperation that aired on HBO in 1993 and disappeared after. For a quick moment director John Dahl (The Last Seduction) looked like a true inheritor of the noir tradition, with his airtight constructions of American greed and vanity. Like auteurs of old, he is now a prolific director on television. Dahl co-wrote and directed this poisonous little thriller about a drifter (Cage) who ambles into the middle of a violent feud between a husband (J.T. Walsh), a wife (Lara Flynn Boyle) and a hitman (Dennis Hopper). Cage is introduced as already debilitated, his leg hanging out the drivers door, a heavy bandage around his knee. He’s playing an out-of-work roughneck who inadvertently steals a hitman’s payday. Dahl continually circles through a few locations, the town of Red Rock a circle of hell to which Cage reluctantly keeps returning, to as if dragged by fate. For Cage it is a quiet performance, as he lets his hangdog eyes and stooped back tell his tale. He defers to Dennis Hopper to provide the scenery chewing, who channels the chattering psychosis of his Frank Booth in Blue Velvet. When Hopper sneers, “You think you’re better than me?”, it feels like a dysfunctional passing of the torch.

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Cage literally chews the scenery in Vampire’s Kiss, a pitch black comedy written by After Hours scribe Joseph Minion. The movie tracks the mental breakdown of a NYC literary agent who believes he is turning into a vampire. Cage channels everything from John Barrymore in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde to Mick Jagger in his most experimental and uproarious performance, in which his character transforms from clean-cut yuppie to drooling savage – done without makeup or effects aside from the plasticity of Cage’s body. In his ritual harassments of his assistant (Maria Conchita Alonso), he becomes increasingly grotesque, popping open his eyes to the straining point and stretching his grin to Joker-lengths, looking like Conrad Veidt in The Man Who Laughs. His face is one thing, his body another, as it skitters and stutters in unpredictable contortions. Jonathan Rosenbaum compared it to Jerry Lewis, while Pauline Kael said Cage does “some of the way-out stuff that you love actors in silent movies for doing.”

It reminded me most of Jim Carrey, who would break out a few years after The Vampire’s Kiss in Ace Ventura. Both wring unpredictable angles out of their angular bodies, though Cage aims to alienate the audience (at one point he eats a live cockroach) while Carrey is serving it. The whole arc of the film leads to Cage’s horrific self-annihilation, in which his character takes some violently misogynistic turns. Cage borrows some of these destabilizing moves for Face/Off (2007), with his priest’s strained orgasmic stare in the opening matching the death’s head glare from Vampire’s Kiss, lending a symmetry to his work that continues today.  He is currently filming a new movie from Paul Schrader (The Dying of the Light), and his Southern gothic drama Joe, made by David Gordon Green, has received positive festival notices. In between, of course, will be the Russian mob thriller Tokarev and the evangelical Christian movie Left Behind. He wouldn’t have it any other way.

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BACK TO THE PERFUME COUNTER: JOAN CRAWFORD IN THE WOMEN (1939)

January 7, 2014

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It is Joan Crawford month at Turner Classic Movies, with sixty-two of her features airing on Thursday nights in January. Today I’ll be looking at one of her scene-stealing supporting turns, as the gold lamé digger Crystal Allen in The Women (1939, screening on 1/16 at 8PM on TCM). It was directed by George Cukor, recently the subject of a complete retrospective at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. Cukor was canned from Gone With the Wind a month before shooting started on The Women, and it was a fortuitous re-assignment. The Women was based on the hit stage comedy by Clare Booth Luce, trumpeted as having ran for 666 performances at the Ethel Barrymore theater. Famed for having an all-female cast, Cukor’s movie claimed that even its animals were of the fairer sex. A sensitive director of actresses, Cukor elicits a wide range of performances from his volcanically talented cast. Norma Shearer is the nominal lead, projecting regal innocence as news of her husband’s infidelity is smeared over the tabloids. Rosalind Russell is her loudest friend, a motormouthed gossip buried under headscarves and microscopic hats. Cukor was fondest of Joan Fontaine, one of his discoveries, perfecting her shaking leaf naivete. But the one who hip-swivels away with the picture is Joan Crawford.

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Crawford had first worked with Cukor on No More Ladies (1935). The original director, Edward H. Griffith, took ill, and Cukor was brought in to finish the film, uncredited. Crawford was impressed with his work, telling Charlotte Chandler that he was “the director who, hands down, helped me the most. She went on to say that, “his words stayed with me always, so he was actually directing me later when I worked with lesser directors.” The character of Crystal is selfish, cruel, and rather irresistible. She gains a kind of integrity from being brutally honest about her intentions. Louis Mayer warned her against accepting the role, worried that playing such an “unsympathetic” character would upset her fans.  Cukor valued how Crawford “made no appeals to audience sympathy: she was not one of those actresses who have to keep popping out from behind their characters, signaling, ‘Look…it’s sweet lovable me, just pretending to be a tramp.” 

She is not introduced for a good thirty minutes, the name of “Crystal” thrown around as a particularly vile piece of trash. Her name begins as an idle piece of gossip passed along the routes of a Park Avenue spa, traversed by Cukor in a series of long tracking shots. It circulates from the loose lips of a manicurist to hyperactive social butterfly Syliva (Russell), who spreads her venom throughout town. Crystal, it appears, is a trampy perfume counter girl is breaking up the happy home of Mary (Shearer) and Stephen Haines. By the time Crawford appears as Crystal, she’s been given a buildup as fraught with anticipation as Orson Welles’ in The Third Man.

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She is first seen behind that counter, her face set in a mask of the bland affability of customer service. In this first shot Crystal is already performing a role, one she sloughs off immediately upon entering the back room, where the soft edges of her voice harden. Her voice is a flirtatious weapon, molded to the circumstance. In a flurry of movement she prepares for dinner with Stephen Haines, set to prove her bona fides as a good girl, or at least one that can make a decent meal. She sarcastically tells her co-worker that it’s time Stephen”found out I was a home girl.” Crawford laces the line with irony, bouncing on the balls of her feet while trilling her voice upward on “home girl”, indicating how much of it will be just another show. It’s that little bob, the slightest of movements, that reveals the density of her hard heart. It also shows why Cukor called her a “great movie personality.” He elaborates: “All she has to do is walk across the room, from one side to the other, and you notice that something very special is happening.”

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When she then gets Stephen on the phone, it’s a master class in manipulation. After issuing gruff orders to her maid to cook dinner (to pass off as her own), she receives the call. Her voice is sanded down into a gentle, rounded chirp, that of a submissive housewife. She successfully plays the victim, guilting him out of breaking their engagement. Her victory screech: “He almost stood me up for his wife!”. The scene ends with a pitched battle between Sylvia and Crystal. Sylvia throws loaded questions about the Haines family at Crystal, who swats them away with icy cold disinterest. The customer service mask cracks into one of condescending hatred. Then Crystal disappears for another twenty minutes, but her presence hangs over the proceedings like soap scum on a shower wall.

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One of the early climaxes of the film is the first encounter between Crystal and Mary Haines, who stare each other down inside a dressing room. The MGM publicity department positioned this as “the catfight of the century”, even though they never come to blows, by playing up the real life tension between Crawford and Norma Shearer. Crawford famously complained, “How can I compete with Norma when she’s sleeping with the boss?”. Shearer was married to MGM head Irving Thalberg. He had died before filming on The Women began, but she still retained enormous influence at the studio. Though exaggerated by publicity flacks, their feud added some extratextual flair to their boudoir fracas.

Shearer is wearing a swooping ball gown, and Crawford a short-skirted gold lamé contraption with a turban and excess bow ties (designed by the overworked Adrian). Crawford’s outfit looks like a reject from a Busby Berkeley harem routine, but she exudes arrogant charm anyways, owning that getup. After Mary orders her to cease her affair, Crystal purrs with Olympian disdain, “he seems to be satisfied with the arrangement.” She seems to be totally free of shame or insecurities, completely content with her destabilizing station in life. Crawford then smokes a cigarette with exasperation, as if dealing with a pesky child. Then she gives Mary the ultimate kiss-off with, “You noble wives and mother bore the brains out of me.”

Though she loses the game of musical husbands in the manic closer, she never loses her sense of self.  So when Crawford says, “back to the perfume counter for me”, it is not with regret or sadness but a matter-of-fact rationality. Money comes and goes, but there will always be rich men she can sucker with soft words and a firm touch.

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THE GRATING AMERICAN NOVEL: YOUNGBLOOD HAWKE (1964)

December 17, 2013

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If my blog posts were the only articles you read this year, you’d come away thinking Delmer Daves was the most popular man in America. Alas, this is only true in my living room. But this was the year I delved into Daves, helped along by a two-part retrospective at Anthology Film Archives. The first was way back in May (of which I gushed here), and the second wraps up today, for which programmers Nick Pinkerton and Nicolas Rapold culled from Daves’ less reputable potboiler period. After a long career of open-air Westerns, Daves made a surprising turn to soapy melodrama. The change was necessitated by his health. Daves suffered a heart attack in 1958, and was instructed to ease back on stressful location shoots for the relative safety of studio-bound pictures. So he turned to the soaps, for which he escorted Troy Donahue into stardom. The most famous of these is A Summer Place, which scored a #1 pop hit while embracing the sexually permissive mood percolating in the country. Anthology is screening A Summer Place (yes, which I also wrote about), as well as Youngblood Hawke, his last melodrama for Warner Brothers, and the much-derided topic of today’s post.

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The implausible novel by Herman Wouk regards a coal miner launched to stratospheric celebrity through his doorstopping book “Alms For Oblivion”. Hawke is also bulging with ravenous sexual appetites, though framed in Charles Lawton’s restrained B&W rather than the ripe Technicolor of Harry Stradling’s work in A Summer PlaceYoungblood didn’t match its predecessor’s success, and very rapidly became a punchline. John Gregory Dunne lays the groundwork in the December 4th, 1964 issue of Life magazine. After admitting he has a “perverse predilection for the awful”, he declares Youngblood Hawke to be the, “hippiest and funniest motion picture in years, one which not only summons up the implausibility of the vintage Marx Brothers epics but also is sure to be discussed by the long-haired Cahiers du Cinema crowd for some time to come.” Truffaut was an avowed Daves fan, though I don’t know if Hawke ever got the full Cahiers treatment. Dunne closes by saying Dr. Strangelove was “made by the hipsters unwittingly for a mass audience”, while “Hawke was made by a mass filmmaker unwittingly for the hippies. See it now or see it later: in years to come it should be the highlight of Delmer Daves festivals at the Museum of Modern Art.”

He is calling it camp, a source of unintentional hilarity made for hipster guffaws that might yet be over-interpreted by cinephiles. His prediction has not yet come true, as it faded into obscurity instead of into Mystery Science Theater or Cinema Scope.  Released in a restored DVD by the Warner Archive last year, I think it’s worthy of reconsideration as both ridiculous and sublime, a narrative absurdity and an aesthetic marvel, a grim B&W vision of mid-century NYC, with the emptied out modern design reflects the hollowed out characters. Dunne’s final jab may yet come true, as new adjunct curator at MoMA, Dave Kehr called Youngblood Hawke the “sleeper” of the Anthology series.

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Warren Beatty was originally cast to play the title Hawke, and Hedy Lamarr was competing with Gene Tierney to land the role of Frieda Winter, the rich socialite who inducts Hawke into the ways of the city and her boudoir. None of this worked out. Jousting with WB management, Beatty quit the production, and Lamarr and Tierney were passed over for French actress Geneviève Page. After getting tossed off the studio lot for intransigence, Beatty eventually agreed to appear in Robert Rossen’s Lilith (1964). To replace him, Daves and the production team chose James Franciscus, the blonde-haired monolith who was starring in the NBC high school drama Mr. Novak. Instead of an alluring contrast of New and Old Hollywood,  Daves was left with incompatible parts. The bland functionality of Franciscus is a poor fit for the volcanic virility of Hawke, whom women “could feel across the room”, per the salacious tagline. He has rangy good looks but moves like a disgruntled mule, appearing as though he suffers from indigestion more than arousal or emotional turmoil. Geneviève Page was still adapting to Hollywood productions after years in Europe, and her English had not yet been perfected, yet hers is a more layered and affecting performance.

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As Frieda, Page has to convey a flightiness masking a bone-deep melancholy. As an aging beauty (she was 37 at filming), Frieda needs to convince herself she can still bed the latest hot young literary thing – despite her rich husband and two kids. In one of the many hauntingly composed shots, Daves frames Page in the dark foreground, her faced edged by an adjacent lamp, while Fransiscus is immobile with lust by the fireplace behind her. They are both looking forward, their desires in momentary abeyance, when a smile flashes across Page’s face, an acknowledgement of the utility of her own beauty. Their bodily distance will soon be closed, but her smile announces this encounter as a mutually selfish act, a union of vain bodies. The lady whom Daves and Wouk’s script position as Hawke’s true love is Jeanne Green (Suzanne Pleshette), the Ivy League grad who edits Hawke’s unwieldy tomes. She is the modern future of femininity, on the inside of a publishing business at which Frieda can only chip at with her sexuality.

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Art director Leo Kuter and DP Charles Lawton do quite a bit to contextualize Hawke’s emotional state through mise en scene. His first NYC apartment is a dingy attic in far out Brooklyn Heights, in which laundry lines run through his workspace. Then, after his second novel (Chain of Command) wins the Pulitzer, he starts his own publishing company complete with his personal skyscraper and posh penthouse pad. Even back in the halcyon days of publishing this gargantuan wealth was far-fetched for any writer – Hawke even has cash to invest in a Long Island shopping mall scam. Most of it is poured into his home,  but all the angled wood and Eames furniture can’t suppress Hawke’s low-class lineage, as clothes lines still criss-cross the space, cutting it up into cramped squares rather than the luxurious open concept it’s supposed to realize. Hawke is constrained by the space around him as well as his own outsized ego. While Youngblood Hawke is not one of Daves’ masterpieces, it at least proves his unerring visual knack. Even if it never ends up at MoMA, it deserves a place in your living room.

YOU WERE MEANT FOR ME: PENNY SERENADE (1941)

August 20, 2013

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Penny Serenade (1941) is the third and final film Cary Grant and Irene Dunne made together. The Awful Truth (1937) and My Favorite Wife (1940) are screwball comedies of re-marriage, and Penny Serenade is their tragic inverse, focusing on the work necessary to maintain a long-haul relationship. The first two are set in high society, produced by the improvisatory Leo McCarey, while Penny Serenade is working class and focused on the fear and trembling of young parents, made with stark realism by the more deliberate George Stevens.  Grant worried about audience expectation, the “people who are laughing already, in anticipation of another mad marital mixup”. Both actors were protective of this heart-tugging melodrama, and later in life Irene Dunne declared it the favorite of her films. It was a success, although not to the same blockbuster degree as The Awful Truth, and for years has circulated in beat-up public domain editions. Olive Films is releasing a spiffy Blu-ray of Penny Serenade next week, and it’s something of a revelation.

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After parting with RKO, George Stevens signed with Columbia on May 14, 1940 to produce and direct two features. Harry Cohn wooed him with a promise never to speak to him on the set, which was reportedly honored. Stevens presented Cohn with the Martha Cheavens’ short story “Penny Serenade”, which was to be published in McCalls magazine. Columbia purchased the rights for $25,000 and hired Cheavens as a script consultant. Morrie Ryskind expanded her story into a feature-length screenplay, which tracks the travails of Julie (Dunne) and Roger (Grant) Adams, a married couple at the breaking point. Julie is about to leave him when she spies a scrapbook/record album that collected the history of their love alongside the hits of the day. In a series of flashbacks set to those pop hits, Stevens traces the bloom and decay of their bond, from the meet-cute at a record store to their grieving lows of poverty and irreperable personal loss.

In The Awful Truth, Leo McCarey would play a piano on set to loosen up his actors and stir improvisational ideas. When they cooked up something funny, they would shoot and move on. Stevens was a far more deliberate worker, who Dunne described as “just the opposite” of McCarey, “very slow. But he came well prepared…we would have rehearsals on the set, and…discuss details of how a scene would be played.” He was notorious for shooting a lot of coverage and running up film costs, waiting for the moment in his head to appear in front of the camera. Stevens uses crowded compositions in Penny Serenade, life a series of obstacles Julie and Roger must traverse. Before Roger can make his marriage proposal on New Year’s Eve, he has to navigate packed rooms in which he is continually interrupted. It is only when they squeeze onto the fire escape that Julie can say yes. At their most peaceful moment, when George gets a reporting job in Japan, an earthquake levels their home as Julie is pinned by debris on the staircase.

He also deploys intricately choreographed long takes in the parenting scenes. The camera is fixed, but Grant and Dunne are in constant motion. In one slow-burn gag, Dunne is freaking out about bathing her newly adopted baby, approaching as if it were a caged lion. Grant watches with queasy anticipation next to her, and both of them fail so badly in this simple task that their assistant Applejack (the wonderful Edgar Buchanan) has to take over. The film is unique in how it undercuts traditional notions of motherhood. Dunne does not instantly become nurturing, but has to learn how to care for the child. She is as terrified of hurting the baby as Grant, who handles the kid with goggle eyed terror.

This is one of Grant’s greatest performances, for which he was nominated for his first Best Actor Oscar (he lost to Gary Cooper in Sergeant York). Roger is a playboy crushed by the Depression, unable to provide for his wife and child. Grant has to divert his natural charisma into something darker as the film progresses, culminating in a pained monologue to a judge about to reject their adoption application. It is a plea of pure abjection, Grant bows his head and flexes his body inward, making himself looks small so his emotions seem enormous and true by comparison. It works beautifully, and as Orson Welles said of Make Way For Tomorrow, it could make a stone cry.

The Columbia publicity director at the time, Lou Smith, wrote in a private memo that “I cried three times during the showing and everyone around me was mopping up too…Instead of having actors jump off cliffs, this one will have the audience jumping off.” Penny Serenade is a traditional tearjerker, with a plot that turns on unthinkable tragedy and improbable coincidence. But Stevens, Grant and Dunne treat the material with utmost respect, etching a film of bone-deep melancholy about the terror of child-rearing and the greater horror of losing that child. By the end Stevens shoots the Adams home as a tomb, shadows creeping in on Julie and Roger. Only a miracle can save their marriage, and Penny Serenade is one of those movies that makes you want to believe.

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THE BITTER NOIRS OF MARK STEVENS: CRY VENGEANCE (’54) AND TIMETABLE (’56)

August 6, 2013

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Second-tier actor Mark Stevens directed two first-rate film noirs in the 1950s, Cry Vengeance (1954) and Timetable (1956). Made when his acting career was in decline, these are self-lacerating works in which Stevens casts himself as a physically and morally disfigured criminal, as if doing penance for his Hollywood failures. In both films America is a prison his characters are desperate to escape, a repository of the fearful past. The destinations of his flight take on symbolic weight, from the vertiginous heights of Ketchikan, Alaska in Cry Vengeance (shot on location), to the neon claustrophobia of the studio Tijuana in Timetable. Stevens, a former handsome romantic lead, plays his obsessives with bitter quietude, his delivery a strangled monotone, as if he is devouring his own charisma. These are strikingly melancholy works made in near anonymity for Allied Artists (formerly known as Poverty Row studio Monogram), and thanks to Olive Films Cry Vengeance is now available in an appropriately funereal B&W Blu-ray. Timetable is in public domain hell, and is viewable in various samizdat versions on YouTube.

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Born Richard William Stevens in Cleveland, his name was changed to Stephen Richards as a contract player for Warner Brothers. Most able-bodied men were enlisted to fight in WWII, but Stevens had long-time back problems that exempted him, stemming from a diving accident that incapacitated him for months as a teen. It bothered him all his life, lending his motions a stuttered, tortured quality appropriate to noir heroes. He gained his modicum of fame after he jumped to 20th Century Fox. It was there that Daryl Zanuck dubbed him “Mark Stevens”, and his short-lived career as a leading man began, from Henry Hathaway’s noir The Dark Corner (1946) to the Oscar-nominated melodrama The Snake Pit (1948). They also tried him in light musicals (Oh You Beautiful Doll (’49)), but they  released him from his contract in 1950. Hathaway blamed The Dark Corner’s box office failure on Stevens, saying he, “never quite cut it. Too arrogant, cocksure.” Once one of the top ten actors “Most Likely To Achieve Stardom” in a 1946 Motion Picture Herald poll, Stevens had to take whatever work was available. In the early ’50s he moved on to a few mid-budgeted action-adventures at Columbia and Universal-International before he finally went bust at the big studios, and had to move into the independents, while expanding his work in TV. He nabbed a starring role in the short-lived ABC series News Gal (1951), and went on to a prolific career on the small screen, from the newspaper drama Big Town (1954 – 1956, which he also produced) all the way to guest spots on Magnum P.I. and Murder She Wrote.

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He acted in two films for Allied Artists before becoming a director, the cheap Korean War drama Torpedo Alley (1952), directed by the insanely prolific Lew Landers, and the vigilante Western Jack Slade (1953). It was through these productions that Stevens met producers Lindsley Parsons and John H. Burrows, who gave him the opportunity to direct. Production began on Cry Vengeance in September 1954 at the KTTV studios in Los Angeles. Location photography would be shot in San Francisco and Ketchikan, Alaska. The script by Warren Douglas and George Bricker involves former police detective Vic Barron (Stevens), released from a three-year jail stint after being framed for taking bribes. He was set up after pursuing mobster Tino Morelli (Douglas Kennedy), and lost his wife and child in a car bomb, along with half his face. He is hell-bent on revenge. Horrifically scarred, Vic is a tense ball of hatred, his first act as a free man to purchase a revolver at the local pawn shop.

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He is a ghost to his old friends in San Francisco, speaking in mono-syllables with a stooped, mechanical gait. Their sympathy clangs off his rigid exterior until he starts throwing haymakers to escape their impotent pity. The thrum of San Francisco is replaced by the chill of Alaska, as Vic tracks Morelli north, hiding as a single father in the small fishing town of Ketchikan, aping the movement of city to country in Nicholas Ray’s noir On Dangerous Ground (1952). The entrance from the airport into town is a vertiginous wooden walkway emblazoned with chamber of commerce ads like “Salmon Capital of the World”. It is a neighborly small town, where even the bar owner Peggy (Martha Hyer) is a conscientious community member. Even Morelli is softened by the ocean air, going so domestic even his hired goon has turned into a modified babysitter for his little girl.

But the past is never past, and so bleach-haired killer Roxey (a serpentine Skip Homeier) stalks into town with addled floozy Lily (Joan Vohs) in tow, ready to rub out Vic and Morelli for fun and profit. Vic is courting death, whether his own or Morelli’s, he doesn’t seem to care. Walking with tin man stiffness in the natural light of Alaska, he sees Roxey as another unnatural man with a similar talent for self-destruction, so they test each other’s gift for annihilation in a perilous chase up through a paper mill, higher and higher into obliteration.

[MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD]

In Timetable (1956) Stevens plays an outwardly adjusted American male, but who is inwardly even more twisted than Vic. For this film Stevens set up his own production company, Mark Stevens Productions, of which Timetable is the only result (while commonly known as Time Table, the AFI Catalog notes that “All available contemporary sources” list the title as one word, which I will follow). Mark Fertig discovered the fate of this venture in his extensively researched profile of Stevens in Noir City:

Mark Stevens Productions was formed in 1955, with huge plans: there was to be a filmed version of the dark western novel Feud at Five Rivers, a new primetime series for future Mister Ed star Alan Young, and a pilot based on the radio drama The Mysterious Traveler, set for Vincent Price. Stevens also expanded into the music business, launching Mark Stevens Music (publishing), Mark Records (distribution), and Marelle Productions (retail). None of the ventures panned out — Mark Stevens Productions officially brought just one film to theaters, Time Table(though at times Stevens claimed others, including Cry Vengeance and The Bitter Ride). All four companies crashed within a year when, as described in a Twentieth Century Fox press release for the 1964 film Fate is the Hunter, “outside management of his company forced him into bankruptcy.”

Timetable‘s Charlie Norman is close to Stevens’ heart – a hard-working striver stuck in middle-management who eventually gives up and leaves for foreign lands. Norman is an insurance investigator who goes rogue to mastermind a train payroll heist before lighting out for Tijuana. Stevens is a frustrated actor and director who eventually leaves Hollywood for Majorca, spending his days running restaurants and his nights cranking out adventure novels. He even told Los Angeles Times in 1956 that, “I don’t like to act, I’m not a very good actor and I’m not kidding myself about it.”

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It is this self-doubt and makes Stevens such a riveting performer in Cry Vengeance and Timetable, a sense of exhaustion perfectly apt for his profoundly alienated characters. Norman has what seems to be the ideal American life – a solid job and a doting wife in the big city, but it is all a fragile facade. The film begins with a bravura heist sequence, one we are led to believe Norman is investigating. But less than thirty minutes into the film he is revealed to be the architect of the robbery. His reason, he later tells his astonished wife, is that “The house becomes a prison, the job a trap.” For Mark Stevens acting became his prison, and Cry Vengeance and Timetable are a bracing ventilation of all of his resentments toward his chosen art.