April 17, 2012

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I had a similar reaction to Mr. Stewart when I watched Kim Novak purr her way through Bell Book and Candle, just released by Twilight Time on a gorgeous blu-ray.  He also might have been agog at Westward the Women (1951), the William Wellman femme-Western released in a well-appointed DVD from the Warner Archive, which includes an audio commentary from film historian Scott Eyman. They are two films that focus on female desire, a rare occurrence in the generally leering male gazes of post-code Hollywood (pre-code films were replete with sexually independent women – check out Baby Face (1933) for a bracing example). Bell Book and Candle is set in motion because of Novak’s uncontrollable lust for Stewart, and Westward the Women kicks off because of hundreds of ladies’ self-sacrificing desire for a better life out in California, a gender bending variation on Horace Greeley’s advice to, “Go west, young man”.

Originally, Bell Book and Candle was a stage play written by John Van Druten and produced by Irene Mayer Selznick in 1950. Although her divorce to David O. Selznick had been finalized in ’49, she sold the rights to him in 1953. He intended to cast his next wife, Jennifer Jones, in the lead, but the project never got off the ground, and the rights were eventually purchased by Columbia. After initially considering Rex Harrison for the lead, the studio and producer Julian Blaustein decided to re-team Kim Novak and Jimmy Stewart, who had both wrapped shooting on Paramount’s Vertigo in January of 1958. Since Columbia had lent Novak for that project, Paramount returned the favor in allowing Stewart to film the supernatural romantic comedy, which started shooting on February 3rd. The exuberantly talented Richard Quine (My Sister EileenIt Happened To Jane) was slated to direct, and the legendary James Wong Howe handled the indecently saturated Technicolor cinematography.

Reversing the polarity of obsession from Vertigo, in Bell Book and Candle it is Novak who is the stalker, Stewart the stalked. Novak plays Gillian Holroyd, a stir-crazy witch in the West Village of NYC who deals in African and Oceanic art as a lucrative front. Stewart is the endearingly uptight Shepherd Henderson, the editor-in-chief at an upscale publisher who lives above her storefront. Bored with her hep wiccan lifestyle spent at the Zodiac nightclub (where warlock Jack Lemmon plays the bongos), she yearns for something different. So indeed she indulges in some hoodoo and wraps Shep in her spell. When he finds out his attraction is not entirely natural, Gillian has some explaining to do.

Novak gives a smoldering performance, shooting looks at Stewart of devouring lust as she slowly pours herself onto the couch to accentuate each curve in her body. She even modulates her voice into a low purr, emulating the vocal rhythms of her beloved pet cat. Costume designer Jean Louis puts her in inflammatory red, from a bohemian-chic smock to a scoop-necked sweater, a siren intent on snagging her prey. The colors in James Wong Howe’s cinematography veritably pop off the screen, from those gleaming reds to the sharp pinks of Gillian’s mother Queenie (Elsa Lanchester) and the rich creams and grays of Shep’s sharply lined attire. Richard Quine, always a sharp caricaturist, lets Lanchester and Lemmon loose as the impish do-badders, providing islands of comedy amidst the torrents of Gillian’s pheromones, which course through this intoxicating Technicolor dream.

Where Bell is fantastical, Westward the Women (1951) is elemental. Based on a story by Frank Capra, it tracks the travails of hundreds of women traveling from Chicago to California, lured by the promise of hard-working husbands and the open air. According to Capra’s biography, he intended to direct the film with Gary Cooper to star, but eventually had to table it, and ended up selling the rights to his neighbor, William Wellman, who had recently finished his Clark Gable western, Across the Wide Missouri (also 1951).

Ostensibly the lead is Robert Taylor as trail master Buck Wyatt, but the film spends most of its time dutifully tracking the intense labor of the women on the drive, as early on most of the cowboys cut loose, unwilling to drive further into unforgiving territory. But the women endure, as Wellman depicts them in extended montages of work, seemingly inspired by the major drive in Raoul Walsh’s The Big Trail (1931), and perhaps an influence on Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff (2011), other Westerns obsessed with process. These processes are inevitably group efforts, lending these sequences a bit of communal proto-feminism, together doing the jobs of men with little fuss and unspoken teamwork. The gritty heart of the film is Patience (Hope Emerson), the Ward Bond of the movie, whose brute physicality inspires the rest of the ladies to self-abnegation and ultimate triumph, but who secrets a sensitive soul behind all the bluster. She is joined by a cross-section of personalities, from the sharpshooting farm girl Maggie, the still-mourning Italian widow Mrs. Maroni, and the two ex-prostitutes Fifi and Laurie, eager for some vision of country life.

Many women suffer and die, but the rest endure, the vast middle section is a grim kind of survival horror movie, as carriages crash and hostile Native Americans chase them down. Pared to the bone of back-story, the film operates by the familiar Wellman method (although only intermittently witnessed in his post-30s work), of showing character through action. All of the women in the film gain a personality through the attention Wellman pays to their faces, instead of lugubrious scenes of exposition.These roll calls of expressions (similar to the montage of faces before the cattle drive in Red River), intimate more in images of their lined brows than any speech could convey.

Never an emotional director, Westward the Women is nonetheless an unexpectedly moving film. When the women finally meet their prospective husbands in California, it’s a scene that could easily become droopingly sentimental, but instead is reticent and ambiguous, a skittish embrace of an uncertain future, one in which the freedoms of their drive West will likely disappear in their return to male dominated society. It is this melancholy undertone that makes Westward the Women a fascinating object, as the seams and contradictions in Hollywood’s depictions of womanhood poke through thanks to Wellman’s distanced, unvarnished approach. In a similar way, Novak’s voracious sexual appetite, that the movie never indexes as negative, undercuts the usual Madonna-Whore complex of romantic comedy that persists today (see, if you must, the dire What’s Your Number for a current example). Both these films are remarkable in that they show women who can fuck and fight with with the best of them, with no apologies.


January 24, 2012

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The intrepid Twilight Time label continues their line of limited edition Blu-Ray releases with an absolutely gorgeous version of Picnic, Columbia’s romantic smash of 1955-1956. Sold exclusively through on-line retailer Screen Archives, it presents James Wong Howe’s Technicolor cinematography in eye-titillating detail. Based on William Inge’s Pulitzer Prize winning play from 1953, Picnic is a garishly entertaining melodrama that sets earthy he-man William Holden after prim beauty queen Kim Novak, upending a small Kansas town in the process.

The play,  directed by Joshua Logan, ran for 477 performances, and gave Paul Newman his first big break in a co-starring role alongside Ralph Meeker and Janice Rule. After a bidding frenzy, Columbia Pictures purchased the rights in September, 1953 for around $350,000. Logan, coming off of directing and co-writing the Broadway juggernauts South Pacific (1949) and Fanny (1954), was tapped to direct the movie adaptation, despite his limited screen experience, having only co-directed (with Arthur Ripley) the 1938 Joan Bennett-Henry Fonda drama I Met My Love Again. The screenplay by Daniel Taradash met immediate disapproval by the Production Code Administration, which sought to eliminate any hint that Holden and Novak have pre-marital sex, although the finished film leaves little doubt as to their amorous adventures.

Holden plays Hal, an ex-college football star turned hobo, riding the rails into Kansas to find his rich frat brother Alan (Cliff Robertson). Walking with a tipsy swagger as if he was leaking testosterone, he stumbles past phallic imagery (grain elevators and swinging chutes) into the Owens household, where he immediately enraptures the teenage bookworm Millie (a delightfully snot-nosed Susan Strasberg) and their repressed schoolmarm neighbor Rosemary (a hysterically campy Rosalind Russell). The eldest Owens daughter, Madge (Kim Novak), is expected to marry into Alan’s wealth, but is innately attracted to Hal’s raw, destructive physicality. At the end of a Labor Day picnic, these unspoken attractions burst forth in a torrent of passion and recrimination.

Logan was never comfortable in casting Paul Newman as the lead roustabout Hal, telling him, according to Newman biographer Marian Edelman Borden, that he “did not carry any sexual threat at all”. So the part went to Holden, who at 37 seems miscast as a callow young brute, although his perpetually exposed torso was still toned enough to believably seduce an entire household (was this a template for Pasolini’s Teorema?). Newman’s old stage role of Alan was given to the appropriately starchy Robertson.

Picnic was the beginning of Kim Novak’s major star push from Columbia head Harry Cohn, who depended on James Wong Howe to make her look irresistible. After bowing as a blonde, Cohn wanted to make her a redhead as the discontented Madge, and asked Wong to make some screen-tests of various shades. Picnic, in CinemaScope and Technicolor, is worthwhile viewing for the shifting highlights of this hair alone. Depending on the lighting, it can look Titian red, and then a kind of dark golden blonde, halfway between cinnamon and honey. In one loaded shot, Novak collapses in a new dress, a sobbing puff of blue tulle. This composition, of auburn hair, blue dress, and gray-green eyes, contains the entire chromatic shift of the film, from calm blues and grays to intense, libidinous reds and back again.  This maniacal attention to color detail is part of what attracted the French New Wave to the film. After seeing Picnic, Rivette enthused rather confusingly that Joshua Logan was “Elia Kazan multiplied by Robert Aldrich” (perhaps meaning that Logan merges the realism of Kazan (Picnic was shot on location in Kansas) with moments of pure style (the Aldrich of Kiss Me Deadly)). Truffaut said of Logan, “He is a pure director, a man we know will not be walked on.”

This hypnotic aspect of Novak’s hair is one small example of the film’s mastery of color design. Together with Logan and the production design team led by Jo Mielziner (who deservedly won an Oscar), the film abounds in soft pastels, of a cream and wedgwood blue that adorns the Owens home and the suits of their male admirers. This palette continues through the centerpiece picnic sequence of the film, a bizarre bit pitched between Renoir pastoral, pure Americana corn and small-town Lynchian freak-out, which Jonas Mekas described as “a gaudy display of boobus Americanus.”  Screaming babies, seemingly cast for their old-man sourpusses, are inter-cut with an orgy of fairground games of increasing absurdity. Sack races and pie-eating give way to zombie-like warblers and a  girl-carrying competition. The crowds behind these manic episodes overflow with grays and light-blues, with Novak wearing a cream-colored dress and Russell a light-blue jacket.

The blues get darker in the dusk of day’s end, which is then pricked by irruptions of red. Russell removes the jacket, revealing a blouse of blood-red flowers. These match the bouquet of roses Novak cradles after she wins a beauty contest, sailing downriver in a Queen’s red robe. As these colors set off Novak’s hair, so it initiates a purging of passions, with Russell doing screaming harridan routine, Strasberg puking in a corner, and Novak, ready to embrace her sexuality, enacting a sensuous slow-dance to “Moonglow”, a pantomime of what Logan can’t show on-screen. After this lightfooted pas de deux, which expresses inner states through action, the film starts unloading leaden slabs of exposition, love expressed in words instead of glances.

Reading the images tells a more interesting story. Muted colors return the day after the picnic, with Novak making her climactic decision in a gray-blue jacket, the image of sobriety. The bus she steps onto, however, is streaked with red – pointing towards an uninhibited, uncertain future.


October 18, 2011

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Every week the Warner Archive dusts off a bundle of forgotten studio productions onto DVD and hopes they find an audience. Recently they released a quartet of late films from veteran studio auteurs, and they all deserve to be seen. They are Robert Aldrich’s The Legend of Lylah Clare (1968), Richard Fleischer’s The Last Run (1971), George Cukor’s Travels With My Aunt (1972) and Blake Edwards’ The Carey Treatment(1972), all presented in handsome remastered editions. These are directors who had been weaned in the classical studio era, and who were now facing the reality of producer-brokered “package deals” and the escalating power of the lead actors. Many of these were fraught productions, and none will rank with the best of the respective director’s work, but they all, somehow, end up as solidly crafted entries on their brilliant resumes.

The Last Run was originally a project set up for John Boorman at MGM, who was to produce and direct. As the AFI Catalog reports, star George C. Scott requested that John Huston replace Boorman, as he had worked with Huston on The List of Adrian Messenger (’63). After three weeks of shooting, however, Huston quit the picture, “after arguments with Scott over rewrites”. Richard Fleischer became the third and final director on the project, and lead actress Tina Aumont was replaced by Trish Van Devere.  It is unknown if any of the footage Huston shot remains in the film.

It is clear that Scott exerted a lot of control, even marrying two of his female co-stars (he left wife Colleen Dewhurst for Van Devere after shooting), and yet Fleischer still imbues the film with the cool, clean lines that had highlighted his work since The Clay Pigeon and Follow Me Quietly (also in the Warner Archive) in 1949. He traced these lines along the well-worn track of the story, the starkly familiar tale of aging getaway driver Harry Garmes (Scott) accepting one more job, “to see if my nerves and brain are still connected.” He picks up escaped prisoner Paul Rickard (Tony Musante) and his girl Claudie (Van Devere), but it appears Paul was sprung in order to be assassinated. Harry has to decide whether to aid their escape, and risk his life, or return to his solitary life on the Portuguese coast. It’s an easy choice unless you are in an existential road movie, in which the death-drive trumps lazy afternoons in the gorgeous coastal city of Albufeira.

Scott was 43 at the time of filming, but he looks at least 60, with thinning gray hair, a prominent paunch and wrinkles carving up his sagging face. As Harry Garmes, you can see every indignity in his life manifest on his body. His son died at the age of 3, and then his wife up and left him alone with his car obsession. He is subsumed in feelings of loss, using work as an escape. The loveliest moment in the film occurs when Garmes is forced to sleep over in a room Claudie has just departed. Her bra, panties and pantyhose are sitting wet in the sink. With lugubrious patience he takes them out, unrolls them, and hangs them on the laundry line by the dresser. In his ashen face you can see the memories flickering by, of when this banal act was routine, of intimacy once taken for granted and now enshrined in an alien past.

Fleischer does an unobtrusive job in choreographing the love triangle, re-configuring the three jousting players around the frame as their power-relations shift and shudder. These cramped, sticky compositions are a stark contrast to the opening shots of Garmes on the road in his BMW, in which the edges of objects all point outside the frame, towards escape. Now the eye just circles inside low-lit hotel dives, the eye cycling around these three increasingly dour criminals, the only way out a bullet in the chest, to turn the triangle into a line.


George Cukor was still a prestige name in Hollywood in 1972 (the trailer included on the DVD trumpets his name), although he didn’t have a hit since My Fair Lady (1962). So when the intended star of Travels With My Aunt, Katherine Hepburn, was “frustrated by budget cuts and demanded several script alterations”, per the AFI, the studio declined her requests, and she quit. Maggie Smith stepped in, and was nominated for the Best Actress Oscar for her efforts.

The film is a buoyant adaptation of the comic Graham Greene novel, about milquetoast Briton bank manager Henry (Alec McCowen) who is whisked away on an international adventure by his dotty Aunt Augusta (Smith). Augusta is trying to acquire $100,00o by any means necessary to ransom one of her ex-lovers, Visconti (Robert Stephens, Smith’s husband until ’74), away from his kidnappers. In order to get this money, she re-acquaints herself with her multitude of formerly amorous companions (including North African fortune-teller Wordsworth (Lou Gossett)), as well as engaging in some minor money laundering and art theft.

This international romp (mostly shot in Spain) gets a lot of mileage out of Maggie Smith’s fluttering bohemian routine, but Cukor also manages to invest her character with a tragic sense of time’s passing. Augusta, who sucks life to the marrow, is a creature of the present tense (“I’ve always preferred an occasional orgy to a nightly routine”), but she is granted a powerfully moving reminiscence at “Le Train Bleu”, the Belle Epoque restaurant at the Gare de Lyon train station in Paris. She is speaking to Henry about her youth, and then the camera pans right, and suddenly the years have worn away, and it is a young Visconti who is walking towards a window. Outside a teenaged Augusta, in a schoolgirl’s outfit, exchanges giddy glances with him. She ditches her class and races inside, into a swirl of noise and movement, until Visconti lifts her away into light-footed waltz. It was a time of endless possibility, which has now shrunken for Augusta into re-living her past flings and scrounging for cash. This is the melancholy that underlies all of the film’s high-flying farce.


Director Blake Edwards  wanted his name taken off of The Carey Treatment (1972), an efficient medical thriller adapted from an early Michael Crichton novel (A Case of Need, by his pseudonym Jeffrey Hudson). Edwards was unhappy with the cuts MGM had made to the film, just as with Wild Rovers the year previously, but his name remained on the prints. I don’t know what was excised, but what remains is a solidly built contraption anchored by a smugly sexualized performance by James Coburn.

Coburn plays Dr. Peter Carey, a womanizing rogue taking up a new job as a pathologist in a Boston hospital. His adeptness at manipulating women becomes the recurring theme of the film, beginning when his erotic gaze is leveled Georgia Hightower (Jennifer O’ Neill), the clinic’s dietician. Carey’s seductive charm is later utilized in his independent investigation into the death of the hospital president’s daughter, after a botched illegal abortion. Carey’s friend David Tao (James Hong) is wrongfully tagged with the murder. Carey flirts his way through town, becoming more sexually aggressive until it turns to intimidating violence, as when he asks the victim’s old roommate if she is a virgin, and then nearly drives them into the ocean to scare her into talking. He discovers the killer through a bit of homo-erotic flirtation, receiving an aggressive deep-tissue massage from an intrigued meathead until he gets the information he was after.

It is difficult to locate Edwards’ personality, aside from the sardonic shot of a mouse stuck in a jar in the extreme right foreground, the faces that look into it distorted into gargoyles. It’s otherwise a workmanlike production, nothing more than a wonderfully acted episode of House, what with a harrumphing Pat Hingle and nervous Regis Toomey on board to support Coburn’s wildcat act.


Still riding the late career renaissance brought on by the camp theatrics of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (1962), Robert Aldrich directed The Legend of Lylah Clare with even less consideration of good taste. A wild kitsch re-imagining of Vertigo, it invents tragic Hollywood star Lylah Clare (Kim Novak), who died before she was to marry her long-time director Lewis Zarkan (Peter Finch). 20 years later, Zarkan discovers an actress who looks strikingly like Lylah, the bespectacled Elsa Brinkmann (also Kim Novak). He decides to make a biopic of Lylah Clare’s life, with the unknown Elsa to star. Elsa, however, is prone to channeling Lylah’s husky tenor and mannerisms with disturbing accuracy, and Zarkan becomes entranced, his obsession leading him to make the same mistakes that led to Lylah’s death all those years ago…

Hallucinatory and ridiculous, Lylah Clare is an often uproarious send-up of Hollywood self-seriousness, with its menagerie of skulking gargoyle performances. Peter Finch is the head freak, a narcissistic blowhard who believes his genius trumps reality- he looks pretentious even after he shaves off his pointy devil goatee. He gets the best lines: “Stop poncing about like an oversexed dwarf!” and “You are moving like a deeply offended Tibetan yak!”Then there’s his brittle and viciously jealous assistant Rossella (Rossella Falk), the worm-like producer Bart (Milton Selzer),  Ernest Borgnine as the infectiously boorish studio chief Barney Sheehan, “I make movies, not films!”, and Coral Browne as battle-ax gossip columnist Molly Luther, plus a cameo by Dick Miller as a journalist!

Aldrich often freezes them inside Zarkan’s mausoleum of a house, standing rook still like slowly oxidizing statues. Unable to see life beyond the glories of years past, they try to recreate it with Elsa, who is too open to suggestion to withstand their entreaties. As her life dissolves into Lylah’s, the film gets more strident and less bitchy, ditching the satire for a dime store version of Vertigo’s doubled identities. The presence of Novak only highlights this film’s shortcomings at metaphysical speculations. While it’s not terribly deep, I still had great fun skimming along its sarcastic surfaces.