December 4, 2012

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Clive Brook with a bottle in his hand is the most memorable image in Gregory La Cava’s Gallant Lady, an unusual melodrama that skews from an engaging women’s picture into an unrepentant celebration of alcoholism. A recent release from the Fox Cinema Archives, their DVD burn-on-demand service, the film continues to alter my understanding of La Cava, following my consideration of Bed of Roses and The Half Naked Truth in last week’s post. The more I watch of his work, the more it becomes clear how little I knew. An anti-authoritarian rage bubbles beneath his dry humor, coming out in full force in Gallant Lady, pushing it off its genre moorings and becoming a vagrant’s statement of purpose. Far less personal is Sidney Lumet’s Deathtrap (1982), which arrives in the first batch of Warner Archive Blu-rays (alongside Gypsy, while The Hudsucker Proxy and others are promised in the future). An adaptation of Ira Levin’s hit play, it’s an actor’s showcase in which Michael Caine and Christopher Reeve duel in a battle of crime fiction writer wits, a clever bit of meta-Agatha Christie.

Gallant Lady was filmed in one month, from October to November of 1933, four months after the release of Bed of Roses. The script by Sam Mintz, later elaborated on the set by La Cava, begins as a classic melodrama, as Sally Wyndham (Ann Harding) watches in horror as her stunt-flying husband-to-be dies in a crash. Unwed and secretly pregnant, she gives up the child for adoption, while making ends meet thanks to the help of disgraced doctor and heavy drinker Dan Pritchard (Clive Brook). Sally yearns to get her baby back when she learns that the original adoptive mother has died, and that the stepmom is a bit of a bitch. Pritchard, cast aside in her pursuit of hearth and home, becomes a bitter drunk, and rather enjoys it.

In his essential NY Times home video column this past Sunday on the Fox Cinema Archive, Dave Kehr wrote that the “sensitive and self-destructive director Gregory La Cava” offered ” a self-portrait in Clive Brook’s supporting performance”. Being unfamiliar with La Cava’s reputation, I did some quick research that revealed him to be a notorious souse, with W.C. Fields among his favorite drinking partners. Director Allan Dwan recalled that:

When he got the alcohol in him, he got mean, and sometimes got himself into jams. He got into jams with studio heads. He was insulting, let’s put it that way. He had a great capacity for saying something sharp that would hurt people, but that he’d think was funny.

It is the hurt behind the humor that is so striking to me in these early 30s La Cava films, whether it’s the loneliness masked by Constance Bennett’s zingers in Bed of Roses, or Sally’s mournful crack, “Why do animals become ill? To escape affection.”

Pritchard is desperately in love with Sally, and even makes furtive attempts to go straight to win her admiration – going so far as to start a veterinary clinic. But her eyes are only for her child, so she sets upon seducing and marrying the adoptive father – without him knowing her true identity. The majority of the film is taken up by Sally’s pursuit, but the most seductive figure here is Pritchard, played in one long, exhausted sigh by Clive Brook. He’s a broken man briefly conjured back to life by Sally, but whose rejection forces him to back into himself. What he discovers, in a line that could have come straight out of the tippling La Cava’s mouth, is that, “I like bumming around and I like to drink”. Exit stage right. Left agog, Sally must return to the family she so desired, with her real son and fake husband, who still is unaware of her story. The film ends on her half-hearted smile as she agrees to marry him, entering a contract of duties that Pritchard has abandoned. La Cava’s sympathies are clear – he would rather die young and free than old and cooped up. As his boozing took its toll, he only directed five features in the 1940s, before dying on his own terms at the age of 59.

Gallant Lady is the film of an artist, while Deathtrap is that of an artisan. Lumet, the son of a Yiddish stage actor who quit performing on Broadway in his 20s, had a deep and abiding respect for the theater, and in Deathtrap he treats Ira Levin’s play as a sacred text. He told Michel Ciment in 1982 that:

For someone like me, with a tendency to be introverted, it’s important simply to film an action-packed story, just for fun. My latest film, Deathtrap, falls into that category, a crime story with a tight plot, one of the best I have ever read, based on a Broadway play. Everything takes place in an enclosed space, after a first sequence that takes place in a theater. For me, these films are like the parallel bars in gymnastics. They are for practicing and maintaining your technique.

Deathtrap is a useful exercise for him, plotting ways to make the interior of a living room engaging for two hours. He partway succeeds, thanks to the the fiendishly clever Ira Levin play, which artfully masks its nested series of reversals, and the ferocious performances of Michael Caine and Christopher Reeve. Reeve is especially lithe and menacing as Clifford Anderson, the one-time student of once famed thriller playwright Sidney Bruhl (Caine). Bruhl, after a string of flops, is eager to kill Anderson and steal his sure-to-be hit play. But there are enough feints, double-crosses and twists to sustain their pas-de-deux through its bloody climax. The title is a nod to Agatha Christie’s stage whodunit Mousetrap, which had the longest initial run of any play in history. Levin adds layers of self-consciousness, but at its heart it’s a densely plotted descendent of Christie.

Lumet takes a curious approach to the enclosed space – he shrinks it rather than enlarging it. He establishes the full space in a 360 degree tracking shot of Bruhl inviting Anderson over to his home, but then fixes his camera to a different side of the room for each movement in the plot. It shifts from a backyard facing camera to a front-facing one, after the initial twist is revealed. This is effective in activating new spaces for the unfurling activities of the plot, but his style is as equally mechanical as Levin’s play. Although it does happen to be one fine tuned machine.

The Warner Archive Blu-ray was not made with their on-demand technology, but manufactured in the regular “pressed” manner as the rest of WB’s discs, only in smaller quantities. The transfer is crisp and pleasing, and bodes well for future entries in the series. The Fox Cinema Archives disc is soft and fuzzy, although Fox is dealing with older and inferior elements. And in any case, La Cava would probably prefer you get as fuzzy and faded as the print before watching his ode to the demon rum.