March 8, 2011
Despondent cineaste Jack Andrus should buck up. First, he’s seated in an eye-blazingly Technicolor red chair, which one assumes is also of sensuously high-grain leather. Second, he’s being played by Kirk Douglas at his most flamboyantly masculine, a dream come true for characters of dissolutely manic personalities like Jack. Third, the Warner Archive has released a fine remastered DVD of the film that houses him, Vincente Minnelli’s convulsively beautiful Two Weeks in Another Town. For the rest of us, they also recently put out a remastered version of Minnelli’s The Cobweb (1955) and an un-restored but handsome-looking edition of Blake Edwards’ Wild Rovers (1971). We’ll start with the last first just to get Jack’s goat, but also because the Minnelli greats have already been covered by more seasoned minds, although I’ll still get my thoughts in.
In 1969, MGM hired James Aubrey as president to cut costs and bring the studio back to profitability (John Houseman nicknamed him “The Smiling Cobra”). Blake Edwards had the unfortunate task of directing Wild Rovers under his reign, and this after the box office failure of his Paramount musical Darling Lili (1970), which was hounded by reports of spiraling costs and studio meddling (Edwards would use this experience as the basis for S.O.B. (1981)). For Wild Rovers, Edwards envisioned a three hour Western epic, in which it would be important to “show the vastness, the loneliness, the boredom and natural beauty of the West of that period.” (quoted in Sam Wasson’s book-length study of Edwards, A Splurch in the Kisser).
It tells the story of two down-at-heel cattle ranch hands, Ross Bodine (William Holden) and Frank Post (Ryan O’Neal), who decide to rob a bank and end up on the run from the ranch owner’s sons, John and Paul Buckman (Tom Skerritt and Joe Don Baker). The tone is detached, almost bemused tragedy, as Ross and Frank ride toward their annihilation in landscape shots where they are advancing dots, or in widely spaced medium shots within the Panavision frame, in which intimacy is impossible.
Edwards did not have a chance of getting his vision on the screen. While available production histories don’t state how much he was allowed to shoot, the film was taken away from him by Aubrey in post-production, and released in 1971 at around 106 minutes (this according Vincent Canby’s NY Times review. The Variety review lists it at 110, and Wasson at 113). In American Cinematographer, Herb Lightman bemoaned and identified the cuts (quoted in Wasson):
Gone is the opening montage…Gone is the gutsy man-to-man breakfast sequence. The dramatic confrontation between Karl Malden and his sheepherder arch enemy…has been telescoped into a quick montage with voice-over narration. One complete sequence which… provided motivation for the entire last half of the picture, has been deleted. The downbeat…ending has been trimmed and tied off with a reprise of the horse-breaking montage that numbs the tragedy….”
A so-called “director’s cut” was put out on VHS in 1993, which extended the run time to 137 minutes, although I don’t know how much input Edwards actually had into this re-release. Wasson reports that Aubrey cut “twenty minutes from the finished film”, so it could be close to complete. The Warner Archive has released the 137 minute version in a decent anamorphic transfer, and it seems to contain all the footage Lightman mentions, although there is audio from the horse-breaking montage still in the final scene, which may be a remnant of Aubrey’s scissorhands.
Opening with an Overture, and broken up with an intermission, Edwards clearly had an epic in mind. He told the NY Times that, “it was my best film, and he [Aubrey] butchered it.” Perhaps the film in his head was, but the reconstructed version still seems an ambitious misfire, a fascinating relic that exposes the seams between classical and New Hollywood. The visual style seems firmly implanted in the widescreen aesthetic of the classical era, with limited camera movement but intricate blocking inside the frame. Cinematographer Philip Lathrop told American Cinematographer that “One thing I want to do is avoid the slick mechanical gadgetry that we use so much in making pictures today-things like helicopters and obvious dolly shots and zoom lenses. I think that these would be very false in relation to a period Western.” For the most part this holds true, but in the horse-breaking sequence, and in the sheepherder shootout, there are overlapping montages of extreme slow-motion, seemingly lifted from The Wild Bunch of a few years before. It’s impossible to know whether these were Aubrey-implemented to modernize the film
Then there is the discordant lead pairing of William Holden and Ryan O’ Neal, a clash in acting styles and eras. Holden plays his mischievous ne’er do well as gruff and straightforward where O’Neal is arch and playful, and they seemingly talk past each other, killing any Butch Cassidy-type camaraderie. Edwards was clearly aiming for something more operatic than a straight buddy-comedy, but the emotional colorations he reaches for, “how uncertain life really is”, as Holden says, feels forced and sterile coming out of this duo. In a final adieu to a classical past, he films the alienated finale in the moon-scape of John Ford’s Monument Valley.
The Cobweb and Two Weeks in Another Town are delirious Freudian melodramas with wildly expressive mise-en-scene. You could watch these Technicolor marvels on mute and perfectly understand the emotions billowing through them. The Cobweb (1955) is set in a stately mental hospital, where the line between patient and doctor is distressingly blurry. It’s all a matter of curtains. Office and personal relationships break down when the HR director/dictator Miss Inch (Lillian Gish), the bored, breathy housewife Karen (Gloria Grahame) (married to hospital head Stewart McIver (Richard Widmark)), and the sensitive counselor Meg Rinehart (Lauren Bacall) propose different curtain designs for the library.
The breakdown in their society was heralded by the opening scene, of a neurotic patient (John Kerr, in a role originally offered to James Dean), hitching a ride back to the grounds by Karen. Their conversation breaks down the professional walls between the sane and insane, while also explicating the cathartic virtues of art. Kerr asks Grahame if the burstingly red flowers in her backseat are for a funeral, and she replies, in what could be a statement of purpose for all of Minnelli’s cinema (except, maybe, for the last phrase): “Why do flowers have to be for anything? Isn’t it enough that they have color and form and that they make you feel good?”
James Naremore, in his Films of Vincente Minnelli, asserts that all four of the “art melodramas” that Minnelli made with producer John Houseman (The Bad and the Beautiful, The Cobweb, Lust for Life and Two Weeks in Another Town), “employ a simplified version of an argument Edmund Wilson helped to popularize in his infulential 1941 volume of literary criticism, The Wound and the Bow. In each film, a character who suffers from a repressed psychic ‘wound’ uses art as a release for thwarted libidinal energy.” In this case Miss Inch and Karen plow their sexual and psychological insecurities into the curtains, while Kerr’s paintings seem to release the tensions and inhibitions of the entire patient population.
Karen and Kerr split from their car ride, only to have their relationships relentlessly paralleled. Minnelli crosscuts between Karen and her husband Stewart, and Kerr and his budding flirtation with the agoraphobic Sue (Susan Strasberg). Ruptures in one affair ripple into the other, everything sewn together into one cinematic cloth, or I should say, curtain. Stocked with stunning widescreen compositions and offhand grace notes (I was particularly moved by Gish’s trembling upper lip when her boss and nemesis gracefully retires), it’s what my former academic self would call a “rich text.” French critic Serge Daney wrote a short, packed essay on The Cobweb, “Minnelli Caught in his Web” (translated by Bill Krohn in Joe McElhaney’s Vincente Minnelli: The Art of Entertainment, and viewable in Google Books), and two statements reverberate. One: “Today no one would know how to democratically house so many characters in one film”. Two, to bring it back to Wild Rovers, “Just from the way Minnelli confines his actors in extremis to a common space, one can tell that the crisis in the studio system will not be long in coming.”
And then there’s Two Weeks in Another Town (1963), in which that crisis is giving everyone in the movie business a nervous breakdown. Edward G. Robinson’s aging Kruger is a director on his last legs, churning out an international co-production to keep his wife in furs. His former star Jack Andrus has already had his psychotic break, living out his days in a mental hospital not unlike the one in The Cobweb. Kruger invites Andrus to Cinecitta studios in Rome to play a bit part in his bloated spectacle. The events that led to Andrus’ original violent freak out are coming back to haunt him, and they’re all wearing red (and a green scarf). His ex-wife Carlotta (Cyd Charisse) is also in Rome, a gold-digging enchantress who walks with a belly-dancer’s circular sway. Andrus’ fears and paranoia grow more monstrous as the film progresses, with Minnelli matching his character’s madness with incredible feats of set and costume design, as the color red slowly tightens a vise around Andrus’ granite head. Even monks walking past him in the street wear blood-red robes. He ends up in Carlotta’s grasp at a narcotized party, surrounded by blase models, as if he was, like Odysseus, made sluggish by these slinky sirens’ song (note their red hair, and Carlotta’s stroking of an Ancient sculpture). It ends in a gorgeous bit of back-projected madness as Andrus purges the harpies of his unconscious, emerging Phoenix-like from his debauch with a perfectly-pressed white trenchcoat slung over his arm.