Monthly Archives: December 2017

A memory of Brian De Palma’s Scarface (1983)

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Brian De Palma’s Scarface was released in December 1983. I was then an undergraduate at McGill trying to earn a few bucks during the holiday season by working as an usher at the Place du Canada cinema in Montreal, an 815 seater with one screen that opened in ’67 with Expo and closed in 1989, after the multiplex boom made such theatres impractical.

 

I got fired eventually, ostensibly for reading on the job but really because the holiday season was over. Scarface was Universal Pictures’ big Christmas release that season. During the whole time I worked at Cinema Place du Canada, which must have been just over a month, it was the only film we screened, and we could only show it twice weekdays as the film was so long (2h50). Despite mixed reviews, we got good crowds, and queues were common at almost every screening.

I have many fond memories of working there; the sound of kernels of corn popping steadily away, the smell of the newly melted butter. I thought that’s the way all cinemas all over the world made their popcorn until I moved to England. Here I found the popcorn on sale popped who knows when, looking forlorn and strewn behind big glass windows, usually sweet instead of salty. Why is that? It’s so inexpensive to pop corn fresh and the melting butter makes the whole cinema smell enticing and delicious. What an alienating way to cut corners, especially at the prices they charge.

I’ve never forgotten the way guys with their dates leaned up to the box-office and said ‘Two for Al’ at the Place du Canada cinema screenings of Scarface. It was almost always ‘Two for Al’ instead of ‘Two for Scarface.’ That’s how big a star Al Pacino was then. If the guys were Italian, they’d purr a ‘Hey’ up front with that extra relish, musicality and élan so typical of East Coast North Americans of Italian descent wanting to present ‘la bella figura’ and taking particular pride in Al Pacino’s accomplishments: ‘Hey! Two for Al’. Remember John Travolta aspiring to Al-ness in Saturday Night Fever? 

 

Pacino then was every immigrant’s Al. That Scarface has since found a central place in hip hop culture in particular and black cultures in general is no surprise. One can point to how the cocaine, the guns and the gold might have a particular appeal to hip hop ‘pimp’ culture. But of greater significance in Scarface is how it presents the gangsterism of the system itself, the lawlessness of the cops, the muderousness of the privileged and the constant exclusionary practices put in place against any kind of other. Scarface spoke — sang really — not only in operatic style but with operatic range and depth to immigrants and outsiders of all kinds.

 

At Place du Canada I wore a tux; a cheap, scratchy and ill-fitting one, which probably made me uncomfortable wearing any kind of suit for life. I repetitively took and tore up tickets. I had a flashlight and sometimes lit the way and led the last stragglers to their seats.

But hey, there wasn’t much to do, which meant I was already in place in the dark to delight in the audience’s reaction to the chainsaw scene in the shower, probably the most graphic and violent bit of cinema your average filmgoer had seen to then — the not so average had probably already revelled in Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Tobe Hooper, 1974) — and one which has surely shaped my taste.

I also got to see the rest of the film, over and over again, maybe 70 times in all, which surely also shaped the way I understand and think about cinema now. In between shows, I was reading Pauline Kael in short bursts, which I imagine must also share some of the blame, and not just for getting me fired.

 

There will be more on De Palma’s Scarface in later posts.

 

José Arroyo

Eavesdropping at the Movies 28 – The Greatest Showman

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I go on in an ornery mood finding fault with every aspect of the film. Kind Mike largely agrees but finds room for praise. He also turns the film’s faults into such good jokes that it lifted me out of the dark cloud the film had put me into. One of those instances where the conversation after a film was better than the film itself. A heavily edited version can be heard here:

 

The podcast can be listened to in the player above or at this link

A fine article on the surprising success of the film can be read here

José Arroyo and  Michael Glass of Writing About Film

A Few Observations and Some Questions on Scarface (Howard Hawks, USA, 1932)

I’d not seen Hawks’s Scarface for several decades and had forgotten the title cards that are placed between the opening credits and the beginning of the drama proper (and which you can see below). They rather shocked me. Has any government of the day and its citizenry ever been held to account for a social ill by a popular film as clearly and strongly as Scarface does? If so, I don’t remember it. And why don’t contemporary films do the same? Are media companies now run by Tony Camontes who have already made the world theirs?

The insolence with which Paul Muni as Tony Camonte lights his match on the policeman’s badge is more familiar to us today but it still succeeds in garnering the desired effect (see below).

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The script is a marvel: Complex relationships, humour, a stance on society, a critique of capitalism, an attitude to crime, a complex interviewing of class and ethnicity, all are woven into a classic rise and fall structure in which everything has its place, and the place of everything is tight and has to move fast. It’s no surprise that the credits feature Ben Hetch, John Lee Mahin, W. R. Burnett and Seton I. Miller, all legendary writers with long careers in this type of material.

There are aspects of the film that still raise an eyebrow. I was surprised this time around at the overtness of the incestuous desire: Tony Camonte’s (Paul Muni) desire for his sister Cesca (Anne Dvorak), and her acknowledgment of it is expressed clearly at the beginning when she receives it with shock and disgust. Later, after he’s killed the man she married on the morning after their wedding, she flees from him. But she can’t bring herself to kill him and at the end there’s an acceptance ‘I am you and your are me.’ she says.

I was surprised as well at how beautifully lit the film is and how ingeniously the  lighting is deployed. The first murder that we are shown Tony commit, we see him do it as a shadow through a screen (see fig A, below); the St. Valentine’s-type massacre we see later in the film is also rendered in shadows, this time on a wall (see fig B, below). The effect is poetic if brutal.

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Our first half-sight of Tony
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St. Valentine’s type massacre

But I want to here note simply the beauty of the atmospheric and very expressive uses of light and the camerawork that captured it, credited to Lee Garmes and L. W. O’Connell. See for example how Tom Gaffney (Boris Karloff) is lit in his hideout below (fig C) or how Karen Morley is lit as Poppy when she decides to fully embrace the dark side and opt for Tony (fig D). Its very beautiful.

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LIghting Gaffney in his hideout
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Karen Morley lit to enter the dark side and opt for Tony

I had not remembered how modernity itself seems to be a theme in the film. I was first struck by this with the shot in which Cesca is upstairs eyeing Guino (George Raft) flicking his coin on the street and noticed that the time the film was set in and shot was still a time in which horses and buggies shared the street with cars (see fig E). The film depicts a world that is new and changing: it’s significant that the protagonist is an immigrant. The world is literally new to him, with codes (in dress, style, taste) that he continuously misreads; a world full of opportunity for those who dare, and full of new and marvellous tools with which to destroy the other and take over, as for example the moment when Tony discovers that there are now such things as automatic machine guns so that even murder can now be accelerated(see below — fig F), a moment of realisation that with such tools at his disposal the world really can be his.

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A world where horse-and-buggy shares space with the car
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Tony and Guino discover the automatic machine gun, which makes him certain he can take over everything.

Speed and the reduction of time in which various spaces can be crossed also embody modernity in the film. See for example, the montage below, so typical of Thirties American cinema and here showing gang warfare on a daily basis and through the months. It’s now a cliché of the period but still feels exhilarating to watch.

Seeing Scarface again also highlighted Hawks’ skill as a director. See, for example, the scene below. Tony has heard from his mom that his sister Cesca has moved out and is living with a man like a common trollop. We know she’s madly in love with Guino (George Raft). We’ve seen her dance a very suggestive Charleston to him in the nightclub (see a close-up of it below).Screen Shot 2017-12-29 at 20.06.02.png

She’s at the piano playing him a song when the bell rings. Guino goes to answer it, eyes his gun but what the hell it’s his wedding day. He flips the coin — a gesture Raft would forever be associated with —  and opens the door. Then note how Tony looks through Guino, eyes his sister, she screams, we hear the gunshot, and cut to  Guino’s chest presumably receiving the bullet mid coin-flip, before another cut to a two-shot in which Guino eyes Tony, shakes his head as if to say ‘you got it wrong’ and collapses out of the lower part of the frame.   Hawks has shifted the focus from Tony murdering his best friend, a dramatic highlight in any film, to the relationship between brother and sister through the way the murder is staged and cut with imaginative uses of composition, framing, staging and point-of-view. The direction still feels fresh. It’s amazingly fast as well, married and widowed in twenty-four hours. In thirties cinema, things move fast (and it’s just as well with performances like George Raft’s).

I should probably end with a note on performances. Muni is unquestionably a ham, but I find him a most effective one here. He overdoes it, lays on the ethnicity, the gestures, so thick that you see an actor thinking through what he’s doing at every step; yet the result is easily understood and vivid. In the extras for De Palma’s 80s remake, Al Pacino talks about how he found Muni’s performance ‘astounding and inspiring and I thought after that I just wanted to imitate him. I wanted to do something. I was inspired by that performance’. Ann Dvorak is also very vibrant and very beautiful though not always good; and Hawks gets good characterisations out of those who can act (Karen Morley, Osgood Perkins, Boris Karloff). Those who can’t, like Raft, he gives amusing business to.

It was thrilling to see again.

 

Questions:

Is the hospital scene in The Godfather a reply to the hospital scene in Scarface: in the former Don Corleone is saved; in this one, he isn’t, and the gangsters have the insolence to throw in the flowers after the bullets.

Was Boris Karloff on Coppola’s mid when he cast Abe Vigoda, the former in The Godfather looks like an aged version of the latter in Scarface. 

José Arroyo

The Greatest Show on Earth (C.B. De Mille, USA, 1952)

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It’s easy to make fun of C.B. De Mille films: they’re crass, melodramatic, too partial on the workings of society and extremely facile on the workings of the human heart. But by golly can he do narrative and spectacle.

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Dorothy Lamour crying out for custon

The Greatest Show on Earth is widely considered the worst Oscar winner for Best Picture in history. But I found it moves along at a merry pace, managing a large cast of characters relationships and conflicts with ease – the viewer always knows where s/he’s at – and De Mille knows how to render the spectacle of the circus cinematically spectacular.

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Betty Hutton on the trapeze

The colour is that candy-floss early fifties technicolour, on the garish side but intense and heart-lifting; the circus stunts are filmed so as to convey the wonder and danger: can it really be Cornel Wilde on the trapeze? Look, it’s Betty Hutton’s face that appears as the swing tilts towards the camera! It really is Gloria Graham riding that elephant!

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Gloria Grahame gets a star entrance

Each star is given their moment in the narrative and the spectacle: Betty Hutton on the trapeze and singing with James Stewart on a trampoline; Stewart himself clowns around not too successfully whilst being chased by the police for the murder of his wife; Cornel Wilde showing off his body and overcoming a physical disability; Gloria Grahame riding her elephants and looking for love; Dorothy Lamour sings a song in a hula skirt under the big top, looks beautiful and moans a lot about everyone else; a very young and spectacularly handsome Charlton Heston is the boss man women fight over (see clip at the end).

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Cornel Wilde, showing lots of skin

The audience under the big top is always referred back to, sometimes jokily as when Hope and Crosby appear as part of it, and their wonder at what they are seeing becomes ours. De Mille’s camera rarely loses sight of the Circus in general and the big top in particular, and if he sentimentalises what it represents, he honours the mental and physical skills necessary to perform the quite extraordinary feats we see under the big top.

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James Stewart is the killer clown who loves his puppy and his Mum.

On top of that there are cars crashing into trains, lions and tigers on the loose, many of the great Ringling and Barnum & Bailey circus acts of the day, filmed at leisure and with the certainty that they will please — they do.

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A very young and very handsome Charlton Heston

What doesn’t are the hokey narration by C.B. himself, the gender politics so typical of its day, Betty Hutton’s nervy performance and anything in the film to do with love and relationships. But it’s amazingly easy to draw the veil over all of that. A colourful and crude spectacle that still work on the level it originally intended.

A catty fight, a bit of a bitch-fest, sadly typical of the relationships between women in 1950s cinema ….and not uncamp.

José Arroyo

Odds Against Tomorrow (Robert Wise, USA, 1959)

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A heist film where the heist itself is secondary to the exploration of racism, of which there is no greater indictment in 1950s American Cinema than this great Robert Wise film, Odds Against Tomorrow. According to Phillip French in The Guardian, ‘This was the favourite film of Jean-Pierre Melville, who saw it 120 times before directing his noir masterwork Le deuxième souffle’.

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‘You little pickanninny’

 

The film’s noirishness comes not only from depicting lives being lived underground, mainly at night, in jazz bars and seedy hotels; where the edges of criminality are crossed and re-crossed, in a black and white often filmed in infra-red stock so that the skies themselves seem black, but also by making race the film’s over-arching theme: from the moment an ex-con affectionately picks up a young girl playing on the sidewalk and says, ‘you little pickanniny, you gonna kills yourself playing like that, yes you are!’, the first line spoken in the film,  to the last one, where two policemen look at the charred bodies of the two failed bank-robbers played by Robert Ryan and Harry Belafonte and say, ‘which is which, take your pick’.

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Every noir trope in the book

In the grand scheme of things the colour of one’s skin might not matter, but in the day to day it can push you out, kick you over and burn you up to the point of extinction. Odds Against Tomorrow depicts that trajectory in a noir style, using practically every noir trope in the book, making the most of the black and white photography it deploys and experiments with, and making black and white the very subject of the film.

 

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A film in which even a child’s playground is rendered a world of shadows and violence

The plot revolves around a heist organised by Burke (Ed Begley), a disgraced cop who feels he’s got a sure thing pulling a bank robbery in a small town in upstate New York with a big enough pay-off to dig him out of the hole he finds himself in: ‘They sure changed the colour of your skin when they rehabilitated you at Sing Sing’; ’50 grand can change it back!’

To get the job done, he brings in Earl Slater (Robert Ryan) for muscle and Johnny Ingram (Harry Belafonte) to drive the getaway car and also to impersonate the diner delivery boy who is the key to opening the back door of the bank. Both initially refuse but are then driven to accept: Earl due to the self-hatred incurred by living off his girlfriend’s money; and Jonny by the mob’s setting of a deadline on which to pay his gambling debts or risk violence to his ex-wife and child, something to heed as this is a film in which even a child’s playground is rendered a world of shadows and violence (see above). The trio, tenuously held together by greed at the beginning, is fatally fractured by Earl’s racism: ‘You didn’t say nothing about the third man being a nigger!’. This is a film in which racism infects and destroys everything, even a bank heist.

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Central Park

Has New York ever seemed so bleak, lonely, alienating?  Has Central Park ever been so empty? Wise and cinematographer Joseph C. Brun show an external world of skyscrapers, with puddles full of junk, and the junk that doesn’t end in puddles windswept past our protagonists, often pictured alone in empty streets, framed against black skies and looming skyscrapers.

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Empty Streets

Indoors, people tend to be filmed from a low angle looking up at characters cramped in by life’s burdens and low ceilings (see below), and in wide-angles that distort the edges of this world whilst highlighting the spaces between people.

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cramped in by life’s burdens and low ceilings

There are a lot of zooms also, deployed here not only to show us what the characters see but to emphasise the great distance between people, barely within sight and far away but connected, coming into view from great distance.  Even upstate New York’s normally majestic countryside is here used to isolate the characters, and when we get a closer look we see that here too people’s lives are framed by flotsam, jetsam, barbed wire, shadows (see below).Screen Shot 2017-12-21 at 13.43.03

In what must be one of the earliest instances in the history of Hollywood Cinema of a black star packaging their own films, Harry Belafonte produced and gave himself a great, multi-layered and spectacular role. His Johnny is a man of great talent and beauty, catnip to women but angered by the knowledge that, as he sings in the last line of the clip below, ‘I just can’t make that jungle outside my front door.’

Johnny refuses the assimilationist tendencies pursued by the ex-wife he still loves, angered by what he sees as her bringing up their child believing in another white man’s con. He’s torn by a love of a fast life he can’t afford — his white sports car, the clothes, the clubs, the horses — and his attempts to at least be a good father. In this tension he’ll be brought so low that even a punk faggot messenger boy on the edges of the mob will feel he’s got enough power over him to make a pass. The clip of that moment excerpted below — a rare moment of gay visibility in in one of the few genres that would accommodate it — encapsulates  a contest of power and conflict by two types of subalternity in which power, desire and anger commingle, and is one of the many great moments in the film.

 

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Robert Ryan as Earl: At ease with his body and confident in what he’s got to offer Gloria Grahame’s character

The extent to which men’s bodies are put on display — and the various ways in which that display is made meaningful — is extraordinary. One would expect Harry Belafonte’s looks to be made much of. How could a film starring one of the handsomest men of the 1950s avoid that? However, see also Robert Ryan’s Earl Slater in the two clips with Gloria Grahame excerpted below. Earl’s an aging con, out of prison and unable to find a job because of that. He’s being kept by his girlfriend Lorry (Shelley Winters) who’s crazy in love with him. He knows it too, and there’s a suggestion that he’s not without feelings for her. But as he says, ‘I spoil everything I can’t help it. I just have to spoil everything’. He spoils it with her when he so much as tells her that what she likes about him is the fucking she gets but what will happen when he gets old? ‘You’re already old!’ she says as she flees the room crying. After that he feels free to get it on with the upstairs neighbour he’d turned down earlier, the glorious Gloria Grahame, who makes the most of her two short scenes here (see clip below).

First meeting with Gloria 

Earl’s  a man whose only power has been that which his big and powerful body has afforded him…and he’s ageing. He’s worried about getting old but know he’s still got enough power to beat the young soldier at the bar (a young and skilled Wayne Rogers in one of his early roles, over a decade before M*A*S*H made him famous). In the clip above, see how the camera shows him taking his shirt off, first for us and then so that Gloria Grahame can make her usual memorably sexual entrance and say, ‘what’s going on in there, an orgy?’ And you get the sense that, if there was, she’d like to join in; and if there wasn’t, she’d like to start one with him.

In the second clip excerpted below note how this time Earl is receptive, sweet-talks her into coming into the apartment and then note the way he sits on the chair, showing her the body he’s got to offer, and his confidence in what that body can do to and with her. It’s a scene full of sexual tension and danger that emanate from a male body on display, a male body powerful enough to have killed a man.

Second Meeting with Gloria

One of the things that makes this film so great is that it is patterned and cohesive but also that the expressive rendering of those elements that clearly contribute to the whole leave room for the ineffable. The scene below is about the emotional strain Johnny’s under. As Annie (Mae Barnes) tells us at the end of the sequence, ‘that boy is in big trouble’. But the reason he’s in big trouble is not just that he owes money he doesn’t have to the mob, it’s that loving his child and ex-wife as he does makes him vulnerable. ‘Don’t Ever Love Nobody,’ he screams at the crowd. Thus the song, ‘All Men Are Evil’ points to the way that Johnny is and is not. It dramatises the ambivalence, the way human beings are complex, multifaceted, with feelings and impulses that are often contradictory. But joy in the ineffable offered by the clip below is to me simpler and more complex than that. It’s the movement in Mae Barnes chest and shoulders as she moves to the music before beginning to sing her song. What does that convey: confidence, sass, ease, defiance. I’m not sure why I love it so.

There are many other things one can discuss about this film: It was written by Abraham Polonsky,  my favourite writer of hard-boiled dialogue in the Studio Era (e.g. ‘life is just addition and substraction — everything else is conversation’, from Body and Soul). Polonsky was blacklisted in those years and had to use a front. The film was credited to John O Killens before Ponlonsky’s credit was restored in 1996.

In a very interesting piece for Sight and Sound, filmmaker Paul Ticknell also discusses the film’s relation to the heist film. ‘Odds Against Tomorrow is best described as a noir-ish heist movie,’ he writes. ‘The heist movie often concerns itself with process – a minute but exciting examination of some spectacular robbery or kidnap. It also likes to linger over the fallout when the job goes wrong. But Odds Against Tomorrowshows little interest in the planning and mechanics of its heist – a bank robbery in a small industrial town outside New York. What really distinguishes the film is its concentration on what goes wrong beforehand – so much so that the robbery only occurs at the very end of the film’.

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Gloria eyes Robert Ryan

The film also features the most extraordinary use of the vibraphone I’ve ever seen in film and the jazz score for the film continues to be highly praised. The film was screened as part of a restrospective featuring great jazz scores at MOMA in New York and J.B. Spins’s review noted:

Effectively supporting the film is a moody, dramatic score composed by pianist John Lewis, best known for his work with the Modern Jazz Quartet and his Third Stream jazz-classical innovations. There were actually two official Odds Against Tomorrow LPs, both involving John Lewis. The first was the actual soundtrack of Lewis’s jazz-flavored orchestral themes and cues. It was recorded by a large ensemble, including Jim Hall, Joe Wilder, and Lewis’s three colleagues from the MJQ (Milt Jackson, Percy Heath, and Connie Kay), with Bill Evans filling the piano chair.

The MJQ with Lewis on piano also recorded a full jazz album in which they stretch out and elaborate on some of his Odds themes. The soundtrack album is pleasant enough, but the MJQ record is an underappreciated classic, at times much more upbeat than its original source material (let’s hope for another reissue in the near future). Not appearing on either record is a brief vocal performance by Mae Barnes appropriately singing “All Men are Evil.”

It’s aspirations are evident in what it borrows from, and we can see how the ending is an homage to/ borrowing from Cagney’s great last gasp in the marvellous White Heat (see below). But there it was all ‘Top of the world, Ma’; here it’s race can’t be discerned from charred corpses, inside we’re all the same.

Odds Against Tomorrow is a great work that, in spite of all the praise heaped on it recently, remains relatively neglected and deserves to be more and better seen.

 

José Arroyo

27 – Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi – Second Screening

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Mike and I return to a galaxy far, far away, in search of new perspectives and thoughts on The Last Jedi. Mike in particular has been itching to talk more about it since he feels he was unfairly lukewarm the first time. We ruminate on what makes Star Wars feel different to other sci-fi; how films may feel tighter and shorter on second viewing (this one does); Han’s dice; confusion on the resistance cruiser;  we give proper due to the character and performance of Rosie; talk about the great uses of sound in the film; we compare seeing the film in 3D-IMAX and 2-D; whether a Jedi can survive in space; and the differences between the First Order and the Empire, and Hux’s construction as a figure of fun. We still disagree about Mark Hamill’s performance and end the podcast by talking about love.

 

The podcast can be listened to in the player above or at this link.

 

José Arroyo and  Michael Glass of Writing About Film

Eavesdropping at the Movies 26 – Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi

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I loved looking at it. I loved the action. I loved the world it created. I loved Laura Dern and Benicio del Toro in it. Adam Driver is filmed as a Byronic hero, anguishingly romantic and at his sexiest. It’s my favourite film in the series, including Star Wars V — The Empire Strikes Back (1980). Mike felt differently. Matt Moore, also a bit lukewarmish about the film as a whole, joins us for this discussion and points to how the film focusses on female characters and interestingly alters the focus of the series.

We discuss how the film represents a shift from an aristocratic focus on blood and destiny to a more democratic purview on social change everyone, of whatever class, race or ethnicity can engage in. Mike came out of the film gleefully playing with a light-sabre only to sit down and slash through what he saw as the film’s weaker points, though he also points out how he believes Rian Johnson is the right director for the film and how, in spite of its faults, it truly does feel like a Star Wars film. Lots of spoilers.

The podcast can be listened to in the player above or at this link

 

Matt Moore, José Arroyo and  Michael Glass of Writing About Film

 

Recorded on 17th December 2017.

Almodóvar on Call Me By Your Name

Otros Cines Europa (Other Cinemas in Europe) has published a list of Spanish  directors’ choices for  best film of 2017. The list is a fascinating one for many reasons, one of them being a revelation of the extent to which we in Britain are cut off from the major currents of culture in mainland Europe: the majority of the titles on the list are still unknown to me.

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I thought I’d extract and translate Almodóvar’s choice, which has been distributed in the UK, and which many of you will have seen, because there’s already the beginnings of a backlash amongst those most self-identified with queer theory/ queer cultural production and I thought that perhaps what Almodóvar likes about the film might be of interest to those amongst you who do not speak Spanish and would like to know:

Pedro Almodóvar: Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me By Your Name. Everything is pretty, attractive, desirable and moving in this movie: Boys, girls, breakfasts, fruit, cigarettes, pools, bicycles, open-air dances, the 80s, the protagonists’ doubts and dedication, the sincerity of all the characters, the relationship of the protagonist with his parents. The authors’ (André Aciman, James Ivory and Luca Guadagino) commitment to sensual passion. The light of the north of Italy, and most especially, Timotée Chalamet, the great revelation of the year.

 

José Arroyo (translation my own and any corrections gratefully received)

 

‘Michael Curtiz: A Life in Film’ by Alan K. Rode

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A timely and important new biography of director Michael Curtiz, sure to remain the definitive one for years to come.

Michael Curtiz was the most important director at Warner Brothers during the whole of what has come to be known as the ‘Studio Era’ and the period of ‘Classic Hollywood Cinema’. He was at Warner Brothers from  1926 when he directed The Third Degree starring Dolores Costello and Louise Dresser to 1955 when he left Warners for Paramount to direct White Christmas, a classic probably still playing at a screen near you (it’s screening near me at the Electric Cinema in Birmingham today at 18:00). You may want to take note, as I did yesterday, that the film is billed as ‘Irving Berlin’s White Christmas.’

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A still from the visually astonishing 20,000 Years in Sing Sing
In between he directed such landmarks as Noah’s Ark (1929). Mammy with Al Jolson (1930), 20,000 Years in Sing Sing with Spencer Tracy and Bette Davis, FemaleCaptain Blood (1935), The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), Angels With Dirty Faces (1938), Yankee Doodle Dandy AND Casablanca, both in 1942, Mildred Pierce (1946), and many, many others. He made stars of Errol Flynn AND John Garfield AND Doris Day. He directed Elvis Presley’s best performance on film (King Creole, in 1958).

So many of his movies are still so beloved today that the question around Curtiz has always been why he hasn’t been awarded the kind of respect ritually thrown at John Ford, William Wyler, John Huston, Alfred Hitchcock, George Cukor or any other director working in Hollywood during that period who is routinely ranked as ‘great’? As Rode states, ‘It is a striking paradox: one of the most accomplished film directors became virtually anonymous while his films remain pillars of popular culture'(p. xiii).

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Alex Rode’s meticulously researched book goes a long way towards unpacking that paradox as well as answering many other questions on Curtiz, European filmmaking in the ‘Silent’ period and Hollywood filmmaking in the Studio Era. Curtiz was the company man par excellence, assigned to a wide array of projects from crime (Marked Women, 1937) adventure yarns (The Sea-Hawk, 1940), westerns (Dodge City, 1939), patriotic musicals (This is the Army, 1943), film noir (Mildred Pierce, 1945), biopics (Young Man With a Horn, 1950). He routinely directed as many as six pictures a year (In 1930, 32, 33, 35, 37 and 39, a prodigious output). He also maintained a prodigious batting average: of the five films he directed in 38, two (Angels with Dirty Faces  and The Adventures of Robin Hood) continue to be seen and admired; Four Daughters made a star of John Garfield and all (including Gold is Where You Find It) were major hits except Four’s A Crowd. An extraordinary achievement.

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But that level of productivity might also explain why his films, so often praised as entertainments, of generic (Mildred Pierce) or sociological (This is the Army) significance are rarely thought to offer depth or nuance. The man who made what is arguably the most beloved film of all time (Casablanca) is nonetheless not thought to have made anything truly great, like say Vertigo or The Shop Around the Corner or even The Searchers. Curtiz’s film are praised for their pace, their visual sense and sometimes also for the clarity and wit of their story-telling. But there are no moments in Gurtiz’s oeuvre like, say, the ending of Tokyo Story, that move the heart with understanding.

One of the discoveries of this book is that Curtiz’ command of story in his Hollywood period might to an extent be due to his second or third wife Bess Meredyth (he was married to Ilonka Kováks who became a film star under the name of Lucy Doraine from 1918-1923 but we don’t know if he actually married Lily Damita who he became seriously involved with in the late twenties). Meredyth had been an actress. She and her first husband Wilfred Lucas had had their own production unit at Universal. She’d been the first professional screenwriter to work in Australia, had been a production supervisor in Rome on Ben-Hur, and remained a top Hollywood screenwriter at the time she met Curtiz. According to Rode, ‘Curtiz’s most enduring relationship would be with a woman who became much more than a lover. Meredyth would become his most trusted collaborator — someone he could bounce ideas off and work closely with on story and script development’ (p.81). They would remain married until his death in 1962.

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Lily Damita with what may be her first husband on the right (Michael Curtiz) and her second  on the left (Errol Flynn), on the set of Captain Blood

C.B. De Mille represented the figure of the Hollywood director for the masses. But for many in the know Curtiz embodied the worst cliché of the Hollywood director. Like De Mille, Curtiz wore jodhpurs and boots on the set (though interestingly not in the majority of set stills one now finds on the web — presumably they had become a cliché by then though Rode’s book offers plenty of examples) and screamed from a megaphone. He was famous for mangling the English language: David Niven titled one of his memoirs ‘Bring on the Empty Horses’ after one of his utterings whilst filming a battle sequence in The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936). He cozied up to those in power (Zanuck, Jack Warner): It is Curtiz to whom Darryl Zanuck is said to have said ‘don’t say yes until I finish talking’. Curtiz nonetheless shared in all the moguls’ worst excesses; way into the fifties ,whilst Bess was home voluntarily bedridden and probably working on on one of his films, he was known to keep two mistresses and be open to whatever nubile extras crossed his path on the set, where he was a terror to underlings.

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There are several instances recounted in the book where horses, stunt-people and even performers have terrible accidents, some dying, and Curtiz’ main concern is to get the shot and move on. According to Rode, ‘His reputation for explosive temper tantrums, the difficulty communicating in English, and his perceived disregard for the well being of others were notorious within the industry. During his first decade at Warner Bros, Curtiz’s demonic work ethic approached savagery as he pushed casts and crews past the breaking point of twenty-hour days and seven-day weeks. More than any other studio director, Curtiz was, in a perverse way, responsible for the founding of the Screen Actors’ Guild in 1933′ (p.11). Many stars (Davis, Bogart) refused to work with him once they had the power to make a choice.

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A Michael Curtiz super-production from 1922 starring his first wife, Lucy Doraine

One of the many things I learned from this meticulously researched book was just how extensive Curtiz’s pre-Hollywood career had been. In all he directed 181 films with roughly a third of them in Europe before the age of 38, which was his age when he landed in America in 1926.  Few realise that ‘he started out as a classically trained actor who virtually invented the film industry in his native Hungary. He ran a movie studio and directed scores of impressive films in Europe’ (p. xv). He received training as a filmmaker in Denmark as well as Hungary, made films in Paris, Berlin, Vienna, Prague as well as in his native Budapest. Changes in name accompanied changes in life circumstances. A birth certificate noting his name as Mano Kaminer born on December 25, 1886 is on file at the Jewish Community Archive in Budapest. He later changed his name to Mihály Kertész when he went on the stage as an actor, then Michael Kertész when he went to make films in Vienna and finally Michael Curtiz for his Hollywood career.

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According to Rode, Curtiz was a cinematic pioneer who ‘made a seamless transition from the earliest hand-cranking cameras in silent films to directing the first sound feature at Warner Bros. in which the characters spoke their parts. He led the way in two and three-color Technicolor productions, directed the first motion picture produced in VistaVision, and worked extensively in CinemaScope (p. xvi).

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A Tolong/ The Undesirable, 1915

The book is wonderful at delineating  different historical contexts, from technological developments to budgets, from the effects of the industry’s divestment of theatres on filmmaking to changing styles of acting and performing that help us understand the changes and developments in Curtiz’s career. The one I appreciated the most, maybe because I knew of it the least, was his time in Hungary and the artistic and intellectual circles to which he belonged to there: Bela Lugosi, Ferenc Molnár, Ladislav Wajda, Alexander Korda, S.Z.Sakall all mingled together in the cafés of Budapest.

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What comes across in this book is a fundamentally kind man of enormous discipline, ferocious energy and extraordinary concentration, driven by fear, almost entirely focussed on sex and film-making, not necessarily in that order, and living for the moment. If one can find fault with Rode’s monumental work, and it’s hard to, I would have liked to know, if one can, the extent to which his being born a jew in Hungary during the Austrio-Hungarian Empire and then landing a success in Hollywood at the time when all the people he knew and loved back home were quickly being denied rights, rounded up into concentration camps and killed fuelled his actions, way of life and his art. This bubbles under and around the book’s narrative without quite being brought into focus as much as I’d like it to have been. But in the light of the achievements of this superb work, this is a minor quibble indeed. It’s a great book, a must read for anyone interested in the history of cinema.

 

José Arroyo

 

 

In Conversation with Pamela Hutchinson on Pandora’s Box (G.W. Pabst, Germany, 1929)

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The second of a series of conversations about books on cinema with their authors. The intention is to expand and disseminate our understanding of cinema and its diverse histories and various cultures by bringing attention to recently published books in the field in order to enhance understanding of and access to the knowledge the books provide.

 

This one is with Pamela Hutchinson, founder of the great Silent London website and a regular correspondent for Sight and Sound, The Guardian and many other outlets on various aspect of Silent Cinema. The occasion for the chat is the publication of her wonderful new book on G.W. Pabst’s Pandora’s Box, a BFI Film Classic, so recent that it’s literally hot off the press, and as witty as it is informative.

What you hear in the background is the bubbles in a glass of champagne and one can only hope that our chat is as fizzy. The conversation ranges from the film’s aesthetic achievements to its continued influence, the appeal of Louise Brooks, what Marlene Dietrich might have done with the part and what the film has to tell us on sexual desire, the options open to women and the prevalence of rape culture then and now. Pandora’s Box seems more pertinent than ever and just as powerful and hypnotic as it always was. Pamela Hutchinson’s book is not just a beautifully written introduction to the film but one which provides new information and enhances our understanding in various ways and does so with great charm and wit.

I hope that the  quality of the chat compensates for that of the editing and recording. It can be accessed above or directly on this link, 

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José Arroyo

Lauren Bacall by Louise Dahl-Wofe

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This is the photograph that led to Lauren Bacall’s movie career. It is currently on display, along with other works by Louise Dahl-Wofe, at the Fashion and Textile Museum in London. Ostensibly, Nancy ‘Slim’ Hawks saw this and thought her husband should test that striking presence on the cover for a new film he was planning. Howard did and cast her in a secondary role in To Have And Have Not, where she was so charismatic that he built up her part into Bogart’s leading lady. Men still go woozy when they watch her ask Bogart if he knows how to whistle. Bacall slinking provocatively on a piano, legs crossed as President Truman tickled the ivories, was enough make a whole nation woozy, some with indignation.

Kitty Hawks divorced Hawks and married Leland Hayward, legendary producer of some of the greatest hits of mid-Century Broadway (South Pacific, Mr. Roberts, The Sound of Music). Leland Hayward had gone out with Katharine Hepburn in the 30s and later married Margaret Sullavan, the immortal star of The Shop Around the Corner; Margaret Sullavan had earlier been married to Henry Fonda, who later in life wrote of how he spied on his wife making love to Jed Harris (‘the meanest man on Broadway’) through the window outside their own flat, riven with jealousy but immobilised by powerlessness, and wept; Brooke Hayward, one of the Hayward-Sullavan children, married Dennis Hopper and  wrote – beautifully –about the childhood they shared with the Peter and Jane Fonda in Haywire. Slim herself was one of the super-rich ‘Ladies Who Lunch’ on the edges of Truman Capote’s ‘Swans’, Babe Paley, Lee Radziwill, Marella Agnelli, C.Z. Guest, and all the other ultra-fashionable consorts of the jet-setting 60s super-rich.

In a superb article, ‘Looking American: Louise Dahl- Wolfe’s Fashion Photographs of the 1930s and 1940s’, Rebecca Arnold writes of how Dahl-Wolfe’s photographs, of which the above isn example,  ‘represent and help to shape feminine identities that evoke myths of America: the pull between visions of a vast Edenic landscape of opportunity and the cosmopolitan modernity of the city’ (p.46) and how, ‘her photographs provide a rich source for examining the growing confidence of the New York fashion trade and the crystallization of the “American Look,” which framed national identity in terms of active sportswear that spoke of functionalism and freedom. Dahl-Wolfe’s warm color schemes and light-filled images present a fiction of stability and cohesion during a period of turmoil. They smooth away contradiction and anxiety, providing unproblematic and coherently constructed ideals of American femininity'(p. 46, Fashion Theory, Volume 6, Issue 1, pp. 45–60)

Louise Dahl-Wofe shot for Harpers during the time it was edited by the legendary Carmel Snow. In the relatively recent A Dash of Daring: Carmel Snow and Her Life in Fashion, Art and Letters (2010),  Penelope Rowlands recounts how Snow revolutionised fashion publishing by drawing on the European avant-garde to create a distinct, modern American view of life. Harper’s Bazaar during this period was part of the huge Hearst publishing empire that encompassed newspapers across the US but also National Geographic and Good Housekeeping, thus creating a taste for what Thomas Veblen had already termed  conspicuous consumption. Hearst would be Orson Welles’ model for Citizen Kane. Welles himself, baby-faced but already a Broadway legend, was photographed by Dahl-Wolfe in 1938 (see below).

One can spin out a whole history of Hollywood and a whole series of social histories from one photograph, or one of Dahl-Wolfe’s at least. But one doesn’t have the time to do so now.

José Arroyo

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‘Louise Dahl-Wolfe: A Style of Her Own’ is on show at the London Museum of Fashion and Textiles until the 21st of January.

 

Eavesdropping at the Movies 25 – The Red Turtle

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Mike and I watched the film separately, he on a big screen, I on a HD stream from Amazon, and we speak of the different viewing experience, the transnational funding, the address of the film to adults; how it’s a film that doesn’t try to sell you anything but attempts to express a world-view, poetically without sound but with very expressive imagery, beautifully realised. We discuss how it’s a film that actively induces a range of interpretations, what those might be and the extent of their validity. The Red Turtle is a beautiful film, fully deserving of all the accolades it’s received but one which we also have reservations about, and we certainly give them an airing at the end whilst nonetheless  making sure the accent’s firmly placed on the film’s very considerable achievements.

 

The podcast can be listened to in the player above or at this link

José Arroyo and and Michael Glass of Writing About Film

Recorded on 14th December 2017.

Eavesdropping at the Movies 24 – The Disaster Artist

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A disaster of a film about a disaster of a film that nonetheless made us laugh; a film that tells more than it shows; an in-joke  dramatised in James Franco’s fan project about the worst film ever made. We discuss the mean-spirited nature of finding films so bad they’re good, the lack of direction in The Disaster Artist, the quality of Franco’s central performance, and why we find the film so self-indulgent. I contradict myself by saying he’s only ever good with other directors and then talking about how great he here.

The podcast can be listened to in the player above or at this link.

José Arroyo and and Michael Glass of Writing About Film

 

Oklahoma (Fred Zinnemann, USA, 1955)

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Oklahoma! is one of the great scores of American musical theatre but not the greatest of musical films: the two often get confused, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s own South Pacific being the most obvious example (though it can be argued that even that isn’t Rodger’s and Hammerstein’s best work; the film, however, is dreadful).

The stage show, coming as it did in 1943, just after America’s entry into WWII, was thought, erroneously, to introduce American musical theatre to the integrated musical (Show Boat, produced in 1927 with music by Jerome Kern and lyrics by Hammerstein came considerably earlier and has a greater claim to the honour).

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Bambi Linn as Dream Laurie and James Mitchell as Dream Curly

The Broadway show of Oklahoma did nonetheless revolutionise American musical theatre, showing as it did, how musical theatre was capable of bringing not only joy but also depth, seriousness, unity, and cutting edge inventiveness (with Agnes De Mille’s dream ballet in the show receiving particular praise for this. The dream ballet here inspired all the subsequent dream ballets in Hollywood musicals. So blame Agnes de Mille.). The show was thought so important it won a special Pulitzer Prize for literature to acknowledge its contributions. It was certainly influential, and from the mid-forties onwards, the integrated musical became the norm on Broadway.

The score is one of the great wonders of American musical theatre. Hearing the rising O’s in ‘Oklahoma!’ alone is enough to put a smile in my face. But the score also contains ‘Oh What a Beautiful Mornin,’ The Surrey with the Fringe on Top’, ‘People Will Say We’re in Love’, ‘Many a New Day’, ‘All er Nothing,’ and many more hits. It’s no exaggeration to say that it became the soundtrack of a generation throughout the forties and well into the fifties and is known to be a particular favourite of the Queen. The songs have been covered by pretty much all the great singers (from Sinatra and Lena Horne to Blossom Dearie) and are considered staples of ‘The Great American Songbook’.

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Too much of the dream ballet filmed so that you can’t actually see the dancers dancing.

Both the show and the film convey the way America liked to see itself in the middle of the last century: equal (‘I’m no better than anybody else but I’ll be danged if I ain’t just as good’), modern (‘everything’s up to date in Kansas City, they’ve gone about as far as they can go’), inclusive (Persian peddlers marry in, cowboys and farmers end up friends, a territory becomes a state), with a cornfed energy and open-air sexual innocence (‘People Will Say We’re in Love’) that often enveloped or was a front to more exciting things (‘I’m just a girl who cain’t say no’). The tone throughout is one of homespun hickness layered in the common-sense toughness so prized by Americans.

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Many scenes are shot full-on frontal

But the film of Oklahoma! is a stately and ponderous affair, a dilemma for a show that’s got an exclamation point in its title. Zinnemann has no fun with this material. Everything is filmed to highlight the seriousness and importance. We get to see Curly (Gordon McRae) riding from a low angle amongst the corn so rendered majestic. Even Will Parker (Gene Nelson) jumping of a train onto a horse is rendered unexciting, from far away in a long take that emphasises the landscape rathe than the action. Many scenes are shot full-on frontal, in compositions that seem haphazard. And whilst songs are often shot in long takes from a fixed angle (see the clip below), Agnes De Mille’s great dream ballet is butchered so that sometimes all you see of the dancers is from the waist up. And often one notices how landscape is favoured over character, and though it is beautiful, and the show is meant to be about Oklahoma, it distances us from the characters.

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Too many abysmal compositions

The film was shot in two versions, the then new 70 mm Todd-AO process for select theatres and a CinemaScope 35mm version for wider distribution. They are in fact two different versions, made up of different takes. I saw the 35mm version, meant to be the weaker one, as the first takes where generally used for the Todd-AO version, and though the restored version is generally a handsome affair, some shots still look quite murky.

In spite of my reservations, there are many things I love about this version: It’s a treat to see James Mitchell, so important to Agnes De Mille’s work and indeed to the development of American dance, as the dream Curly actually dancing (unlike in Minnelli’s The Band Wagon where he merely plays Cyd Charisse’s Svengali choreographer); Shirley Jones had not yet learned to act but she’s got a delectable chocolate box prettyness; I love the tone of Gordon McRae’s voice even though his performance lacks the zest, energy and sex-appeal Hugh Jackman brought to the role of Curly in the Trevor Nunn production for the National Theatre in London (see above); Gene Nelson’s been thought one of the burdens poor Doris Day had to put up with in her Warners Days but I like his dim Will Parker very much.

These performers, though not quite of the top rank, are not the problem with the film. In fact, to me, Rod Steiger has never been better. He could be, in fact he usually was,  a terrible ham. But here he brings a broody, hulking presence to the role of Judd. And he’s so restrained throughout most of the film, that when he does explode, it becomes powerful and meaningful, rather than an annoying characteristic of his style of acting. Likewise, whilst there are other performances of Gloria Grahame that I like at least as much (I love her in everything I’ve seen her in really but particularly in Human Desire, The Big Heat, and In a Lonely Place) her Ado Annie — all stylised and pitched high but soft — is a joy,  as is her duet with Gene Nelson in ‘All ‘er Nothing’ (the former is from the 35mm CinemaScope print, the latter from the 70mm Todd-AO, for comparison)

From the 35mmm CinemaScope version

From the 70mm Todd-AO version

Fred Zinnemann has no feel for the homespun rural Americana the film idealises. His greatest hits (The Search, A Nun’s Story, A Man for All Seasons, Julia, and even — famously —High Noon) and his dream project that got away (a film of Malraux’ Man’s Fate) are indicators of how distanced his sensibility is from this material. The main lacks are pace and energy, which in fact should be the very motor of this material.

My main reason for seeing this, however, was Gloria Grahame (I’m on a bit of a marathon of her films at the moment). She did not disappoint, and in fact the film brought an increased appreciation of her talents and  an increased understanding of why Rod Steiger once meant something as an actor. Plus the score is an undiluted joy in any version.

 

José Arroyo

 

The Cobweb (Vincente Minnelli, USA, 1955)

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One of those all-star multi-strand melodramas so typical of the 1950s (Not as a Stranger, The Best of Everything, This Earth is Mine). But this one directed by Vincente Minnelli, and perhaps only he could get away with structuring all of the drama around the hanging of drapes: Mrs. McIver (Gloria Grahame) wants some chic ones from Chicago; Miss Inch (Lillian Gish) wants some practical ones, at a discount; and Doctor McIver (Richard Widmark) and Miss Rinehart (Lauren Bacall) have a project to get the patients at the psychiatric institute (Jon Kerr, Susan Strasberg, Oscar Levant etc) to design their own. Charles Boyer is Dr. Devanal, the former head, now usually too soused to do much except letch around between institute and motel room , spicing up the intrigue and thickening the plot as the drapes go up and down.

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Gloria Grahame

The standout performances are Grahame’s, all seething sexual frustration as the girl who every guy but her husband is hot for, and Gish who does something much deeper and complex with her performance of Miss Inch, the administrator desperate to be needed and hiding it all an aggression born out of a lifetime’s neglect.

The worst performance, and its worth mentioning because she spoiled so many 50s movies, is Bacall’s. She’s a sour, haughty and humourless presence here as in so many movies of this period (Written on the Wind) and later (Murder on the Orient Express). Here she looks great, which hasn’t always been the case when photographed in colour. But even her glossy tawny looks can’t hide a performance that is all attitude without emotion and seems composed entirely of poses.

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Bacall *looks* spectacular

 

In interviews, Bacall’s talked about how in this movie Minnelli cared only for drapes and the only thing he contributed to her performance was to move her knee from one side to the other. What she doesn’t mention is that that’s probably the best anyone could have done for her (See her performance in How to Marry a Millionnaire — at least *here* she’s photographed beautifully and looks terrific). Minnelli knew about drapes and about moving the camera and arranging people within the cinemascope frame in ways that are still tremendously exciting to watch. What Bacall accuses Minnelli of is in fact what she provides: great surface with nothing evident underneath.

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Sadness, doubt, regret, vulnerability, force of will: all mingle in Lillian Gish’s wonderful face, surely one of the most expressive in film history.

Readers interested in questions of the representation of gays and lesbians in cinema might find it interesting to know that the character played by Oscar Levant, Mr. Capp, was a homosexual fixated on his mother in William Gibson’s original novel. The Hays Office prevented the character from being so characterised in the film. Perhaps because of that, Minelli visually coded the character of Mrs. Delmuth as lesbian in what for the 1950s passed as the strongest and most clichéd terms possible: with the short hair, the men’s shirts and in jodhpurs, wearing riding boots, and later on in the film, at the woodwork shop, working at her lathe. The title of Mrs. a cover and alibi for the visual representation where dress nonetheless trumps address. I at first and tellingly thought the part of Mrs Delmuth was played by Mercedes MaCambridge, one of the most vibrant and exciting signifiers of lesbianism in 50s cinema, but I see that the role is actually played by Jarma Lewis. The confusion is, as I hope you can see below, understandable.

James Dean was originally cast as the troubled young artist but studio politics prevented the casting. John Kerr, who would subsequently be cast as the homosexual youth in Tea and Sympathy, is dull in spite of all the histrionics his character is given to perform, rather a feat.

If the film is a visual treat, the sounds are no less of an achievement: According to Laurence E. MacDonald in The Invisible Art of Film Music: A Comprehensive History, the score for The Cobweb is ‘basically atonal’ and is considered to be ‘the first Hollywood film score to contain a twelve-tone row. The main-title music features two elements that return throughout the score: agitated figures for strings and glissandos on the kettledrums. These elements account for much of the imapct of this score, which is understandably a difficult listening exercise for viewers’ (p. 157′)

José Arroyo

 

Eavesdropping at the Movies 23 – Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool

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In spite of extraordinary performances from Jamie Bell and Anette Benning, we didn’t like the Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool much, so the discussion ranges from the why of this to who Gloria Grahame was, film noir, why so many fading film stars marry gay men, and what it’s like to watch films at the Electric Cinema.

José Arroyo and and Michael Glass of Writing About Film