All posts by NotesonFilm1

About NotesonFilm1

Spanish Canadian working in the UK. Former film journalist. Lecturer in Film Studies. Podcast with Michael Glass on cinema at https://eavesdroppingatthemovies.com/ and also a series of conversations with artists and intellectuals on their work at https://josearroyoinconversationwith.com/

If only Mary Astor were ten years younger Burt wouldn´t need to call her mother….from Desert Fury (Lewis Allen, 1947)

Mary Astor, delicious as Fritzi, drinking her liquor and puffing away her tensions to keep her gambling joint open and her daughter (Lizabeth Scott) safe has a proposition for Burt Lancaster but it´s not for herself: ‘Stop acting as if you were about to be ruined. Now if only I were ten years younger…. But since i´m not  you can call me mother.´ However, he´s so attractive, in every way, that she´s willing to spend a fortune on a vast and completely stocked ranch if he´d agree to marry her daughter. Will he be bought?

 

Burt gets propositioned in Rope of Sand (William Dieterle, USA, 1949)

Burt Lancaster not only can ‘bear the burden of sexual objectification’ but he gets propositioned all the time in cinema, even when it´s for nefarious purposes such as Corinne Calvet´s here. Note how he´s lit,to maximise what Calvet and the audience might see in him, and note how he insists on his retirement, the focus on his desirability unusual, even in a leading man, the assertion of his ´retirement´an insistence and return to rigid gender roles. :

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 221 – Un flic

Listen on the players above, on Apple Podcasts, or on Spotify.

Jean-Pierre Melville’s final film, Un flic (A Cop), has a bleak feel, its characters isolated amongst harsh architecture and the neverending business of cops and robbers. Alain Delon’s cop follows the trail of Richard Crenna’s thief, whilst handling informants, other cases, and an occasional relationship with Catherine Deneuve.

It’s a film in which feeling shows through small actions, glances, and behaviour. The cop has seen the worst of humanity and carries a weariness with him, but that just makes his capability for generous gestures more meaningful. Mike remarks upon the similarity between cop and thief, both going about their work with a sense of lifeless inertia. We also note the central heist sequence’s clear influence on the climactic set-piece in Brian De Palma’s Mission: Impossible, comparing the ways in which the scenes work and what their intended effects may be, and José comments on the film’s blue-tinged look, something that contributes greatly to its sense of melancholy.

Those of you interested might follow up with Le samourai, Bob le flambeur, L‘armée  des ombres/ Army of Shadowsand other Melville films.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

 

From Here to Eternity (Fred Zinnemann, USA, 1953

 

From_Here_to_Eternity_(1953_poster)

 

A landmark film. One of the great hits of the 1950s, with an all star cast: Burt Lancaster, Montgomery Clift, Deborah Kerr, Frank Sinatra, Donna Reed, Ernest Borgnine. One of the things that makes the film legendary is that it contains some of the best screen moments of that astonishing cast: Deborah Kerr and Burt Lancaster kissing on the beach, Sinatra’s Maggio dying in Prewitt’s arms; Prewitt on the trumpet playing through tears at Maggio’s funeral, Fatso’s sadism, more evil for being so unaware and perfectly embodied by Borgnine. With the  the exception of Donna Reed — whose TV super-stardom in The Donna Reed Show superseded the meanings her persona accrued here — these are roles the cast would continued to be remembered for even up to now.

There are many legends that accrue to the film: how Joan Crawford dropped out over a silly dispute regarding her wardrobe; what Frank Sinatra had to do to get this role: Did he make an offer that couldn’t be refused? Was there a horse’s head under Harry Cohn’s sheets. However he got the role, what he did with it became one of show-business’ legendary come-backs. His work remains terrific.

The shot on the beach, which you can see below, marked an era. It was considered shocking partly because Deborah Kerr is on top, and remains amongst the sexiest embraces ever filmed.

 

The film is tightly directed: every shot counts; and it remains emotionally affecting, partly through always siding with the underdog (Di Maggio, Prewitt, the prostitutes and adulteresses of this world), partly through evoking the depths of unhappiness that love can bring, such as in the beautiful scene below.

 

The film also offers more spectacular pleasures, again unusual in that it focusses on male bodies in various states of undress, such as Burt Lancaster below:

grauitous-Burt

and Burt Lancaster in motion is always a joy to watch, like everybody’s idealistic embodiment of G.I Joe, at least if that were any longer a possibility:

OK-fatso-2

 

David Greven, commenting on the initial posting of this piece, argues that, ´There are many things to recommend this movie, but for me it has always been about Clift primarily and his absolute and utter integrity as an actor. Sinatra lends fine support and is indeed probably better than any other time, but Clift is the mesmeric centre of this film´.

And perhaps it´s true that he deserves more attention here.  In her review of the film, Pauline Kael writes, ”Montgomery Clift´s bony, irregularly handsome Prewitt is a hardhead, a limited man with a one-track mind, who´s intensely appealing; Clift has the control to charm –almost to seduce — an audience without ever stepping outside his inflexible, none–too-smart character’.  She sees the conflict between (Prewitt´s) status and his determination to have his rights (as) the mainspring of the action, and later argues that Prewitt´s fate gets ‘buried in the commotion of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. And Clift´s innovative performance was buried in the public praise for Sinatra and Lancaster. It was almost as if the public wanted to forget Prewitt´s troublesome presence’ (5001 Nights At The Movies, p. 204).

One could, however, see this in a different way, as David Thompson perceptively does in his review of the film. It´s not that Prewitt´s fate gets buried, it´s that ‘this complicated romantic story is so wonderfully aimed at December 7, 1941. The sudden collapse of urgent personal stories in the name of war is what is most impressive about this picture, and most true to the mood of 1941. In a world war, millions of ordinary people put their lives on hold. In turn, the quality that a nation brings to its war is exemplified in part by the stubbornness of Prewitt and Maggio and the expertise of Sergeant Warden in getting things done. …Definitive popular cinema, (p.314, Have You Seen….)

Clift is  divine in From Here To Eternity, with some unforgettable moments. He´s beautiful and affecting in everything he does, and the trumpet scene is gorgeous and moving, And Prewitt is indeed the mainspring of the action, his inability to bend is what sparks everything.  But Lancaster is undoubtedly the centre of the film narratively, structurally, and he too has two unforgettable moments, both which I´ve included here. The love scene on the beach (obviously) but also the moment in the car with Kerr where they talk of the unhappiness their love brings them, which is just lovely. There´s also  a thing about film acting, about embodying, rather than traditional notions of acting, the way his body is used, when he bends down to kiss Kerr say, or when he breaks the bottle to take on Fatso, that are superb and under-appreciated.

Everyone agrees Clift is great in this, a legendary performance. There are now several books about Clift and he is widely considered one of America´s greatest actors. Elisabetta Girelli, for example ,sees From Here to Eternity as a film that ‘crowns the peak stage of Clift´s stardom’ (loc 1851 Kindle, Montgomery Clift, Queer Star) and offers a fascinating queer reading of the film based on Clift´s performance and the film´s uses of his presence. If indeed the praise for Lancaster and Sinatra upon the film´s first release buried Clift´s achievements, this is certainly no longer the case. Indeed, I find that critics and scholars (though not audiences) find it harder to appreciate what Lancaster brings, which to me is just as great albeit in a different way. He always embodied and always performed for an audience, and as his career developed he learned to also *act* a character: all of those things are entwined but each is also a distinctive aspect of what a screen actor  brings to film drama. And one of the things that distinguishes this film from so many others is how marvellous all of the leads are, each in a different way, as, for example, the way Kerr looks as she says she´s never felt that way before. Superb.

 

The film also succeeds in dramatising a solution to real contradictions. The army is horrible throughout; sadistic, petty, punitive; until Pearl Harbour, where everyone heeds the call to arms, even at the cost of their lives. It’s a lovely film that well evokes passion, sadness, various kinds of love, including depths of non-sexual feeling men can really have for each other. It’s a rare film in that every kind of coupling is defeated, most of our heroes die, love is impossible. But of course everything important alters once war begins: everything changes then, and thus perhaps now has a renewed resonance.

The set-piece of the bombing of Pearl Harbour remains spectacular. The scenes leading up to it, with Zinnemann cleverly putting characters in front of dates (the 6th) or names (Pearl Harbour) subtly lead up to that moment. It’s a film where rhythm and pacing have been carefully through through. Everything’s measured, including the explosions: here, it works.

It’s a beautiful adaptation of James Jones, probably much better than the book deserves, and miles above the TV mini-series with Natalie Wood and William Devane.

The film won the award for Best Film and Zinnemann, Donna Reed and Frank Sinatra won Oscars. Burt Reynolds won the New York Film Critics’ award. One of the great hits of the era, with the shot of Kerr and Lancaster on the beach embracing through the tide one of the most famous in the history of cinema.

 

José Arroyo

The Esy Morales ‘Jungle Fantasy’ Sequence in Siodmak’s Criss Cross

Steve Thompson (Burt Lancaster) has divorced his wife, Anne (Yvonne De Carlo) but can’t get her out of his head. He tells himself he’s over her but his actions betray his thoughts. He searches their old hangouts and finally finds her, dancing provocatively in the arms of a very young Tony Curtis as he glowers from the sidelines. The number is by Esy Morales. It’s called Jungle Fantasy and it certainly brings up primal emotion. I’ve not seen dancing quite like it, and for me it evokes the LA zoot suit riots of the late 40s. A sublime moment in the film.

 

South Sea Woman (Arthur Lubin, 1953)

 

South Sea Woman

In his great The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, David Thomson writes of Burt Lancaster: he was ‘a strapping athlete, his smile piercing, his hand outstretched, but with the hint that his grip could crush or galvanize. His vitality was more than cheerfulness or strength; he seems charged with power’ (586). He’s the only reason to see South Sea Woman. It’s a South Seas ‘romp’ which is largely tone deaf, b&w when everything about it screams for colour, dripping with the kind of racism that only flows when all involved are completely unaware of even the concept.

Watching him glare he seems the embodiment of G.I Joe

Burt-look

He’s totally aware of the camera, conscious of gesture and look.

burt-lily-duval

His smile and the energy of his movements somehow life affirming, there’s a precision, a grace, a joy in the performance, which is also a performance for others.  Look at his stance after he punches Chuck Connors below

burt-punch-out-on-board

and look here at the power evoked by his gesture, and that smile. He’s not just the film’s  duracell battery, he’s a a whole generator providing energy to this otherwise lethargic, half-baked and half-dead enterprise.

give-it-to-'em-burt

…and he’s not just a set of muscles for show. He’s strong and agile and can do things like this below, which in spite of being  his most graceful, makes one marvel at what the human body can do, The evident joy he takes in his acrobatics and the filmmakers letting the audience see that it is indeed he who is doing this is easily transferred to the audience.

burt-in-motion

South Seas Woman is an easy watch but a poor film. It’s a South Seas ‘romp,’ largely tone deaf, b&w when everything about it screams for colour, dripping with the kind of racism that only flows when all involved are completely unaware of it, and with some poor performances (Chuck Connors’ is not even the worst). The story begins with Burt — why pretend here he’s even play a character? — being court-marshalled for a whole series of offences and then through the device of the trial, we get all the flashbacks showing that in fact it was all derring-do and that he deserves medals instead. Virginia Mayo is ‘the girl’ who was initially meant for Chuck Connors but — duh! — ends up with Burt.

Screenshot 2020-04-04 at 06.59.32

Kate Burford in Burt Lancaster: An American Life calls South Sea Woman, ‘a forgettable World War II buddy tale with the loose integrity of a veteran’s reverie (girls, guns, jokes and heroics)’, (loc 2424, Kindle). Lancaster’s presence in the film was due to his wanting to quickly wrap up his Warner Brothers contract.

 

As a sideline, but of interest, Burford writes, ‘Lancaster’s marine pal in the movie, Chuck Connors was a tall, lanky, first baseman for the minor-league Los Angeles Angels and would later say he owed his career to Lancaster, who pushed him for the part and coached him for his screen test. The two men ribbed each other…..with a naturalness that both reinforced a new set of underground rumours that they were romantically involved and might have prompted goofy buddy sequels if the star were anybody but no-sequel Lancaster (Loc 2435).

 

José Arroyo

 

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 220 – Commando and Predator

Listen on the players above, on Apple Podcasts, or on Spotify.

Hollywood action in the Eighties was a world unto itself, and we look back on two specimens of one of the genre’s icons, Arnold Schwarzenegger. One a delightful, over-the-top romp, the other a macho, moody sci-fi, we compare and contrast Commando and Predator.

We’re in agreement that Predator is the better film, but that Commando offers the better time. José describes this era as his awakening to the fact that heterosexual men were checking out each others’ bodies – Arnie and co. are put on display, made to flex their muscles in absurd ways, their bodies painted in glistening sweat, for the pleasure of a straight male audience. We discuss how Arnie’s extraordinary body means entire films have to built around it: elsewhere cast as a pseudo-Greek hero and android killing machine, in Commando and Predator he’s theoretically human, but still a G.I. Joe male fantasy inhabiting similarly oversized films. Similarly, his accent always needs at least a hint of acknowledgement – the films taking a line of dialogue here and there to reassure us, don’t you worry, we also know he sounds odd.

We also think about the fact that these films have simply lasted. Commando in particular is not a very good film, but 35 years after its release it retains a loyal audience, and has to be considered a classic of a kind. Though dated and easy to critique in all sorts of ways, there are still pleasures in this cinema, and Arnie in particular.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

All My Sons (Irving Reis, USA, 1948)

A film of Arthur Miller´s famous play that made me think about Pauline Kael’s views on Long Day’s Journey Into Night, something like, ‘People argue about whether this is cinema or merely filmed theatre. I don’t care, whatever it is, it’s great’. The play, now considered a great American classics, opened to mix reviews in 1947, its run prolonged mainly by Brooks Atkinson´s appreciation in The New York Times which, according to Christopher Bigspy in Arthur Miller, ´welcomed a new talent and praised All My Sons as an honest and forceful drama, identifying Arthur Miller´s talent for unselfconscious dialogue, for creating characters as individuals with hearts and minds of their own (p.282). Word of mouth made it a hit, and in April of 1947 it won the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award as best play over Eugene O´Neill´s The Iceman Cometh.

I saw the film in two stages. In the first, which amounted to the first act,  you’re introduced to the characters: Joe Keller (Edward G. Robinson), a rich industrialist who’d been taken to trial for manufacturing and shipping defective plane parts that caused the death of 21 airmen but found innocent by a jury; His wife Kate, (Mady Christians), warm, dutiful, and with a core strength, who nonetheless seems to be living in a fantasy world where horoscopes matter and her son Larry, a pilot who’s been missing in action for three years, is still alive; their other son, Chris (Burt Lancaster), back from the war, working with the Dad he seems to worship, and having fallen in love with Anne (Louisa Horton), who used to be Larry’s girl.

Watching the first part, it seemed to me that the film was going to be about Chris being able to marry Anne without sending Kate to an early grave. It had brilliant dialogue and the actor are magnificent. But it looked so dull. The direction is atrocious, like a film made by someone who knew nothing of the medium, the camera first using establishing shots and then merely following or focussing on whoever’s speaking next. I see that that’s not actually the case and that aside from filming many of the films in the Falcon series, Irving Reis also directed films that are still remembered including The Big Street (1942) Crack-up (1946 ), and The Batchelor and the Bobby Soxer (1947). But let’s just say he’s not a major visual stylist.

After I returned to the film, I saw the last two acts in one swoop, and it made me better understand those who go to cinemas to see filmed plays even without a live broadcast. This is such a great play and it seems more relevant now than ever. According to Kate Burford in her great biography of Lancaster, Burt Lancaster: An American Life, the film was made at a time when ‘the mistakes, chicanery and treachery of the home front’ during the war had become the stuff of daily postwar headlines. The New York Times would suggest that screenwriter Chester Erksine, had carefully deleted from the original play anything that might explicitly suggest that there are ‘faults in the capitalist system’ and had confined the drama to the greed of one man (Loc 1455 on Kindle). But what drama!

As the play unfolds, we find out that Anne, the girl Chris wants to marry ,is not only his brother’s ex but that her father is the man who’s taken the fall for sending defective equipment, and that Larry is not just missing in action but that he committed suicide out of shame for what his father had done. After worshipping him all his life, the son even raises his hands to the father, which when it’s Burt Lancaster raising it to Edward G. Robinson, is really something to see: ‘You can be better’, he tells him, ‘Once and for all you know that the whole earth comes in through those fences. That there’s a universe outside and you’re responsible for it’.  In the end the father realises that all those young airmen who died because he shipped defective equipment were also his children, thus the title, All My Sons.

 

The film might not be great cinema but it does offer the opportunity of seeing two great stars — Burt Lancaster and Edward G. Robinson — performing in one of the great plays of the era. The casting might at first seem incongruous: Burt Lancaster as Edward G. Robinson´s son? But movies have their own logic. They´re both movie stars and so they belong together, they share a consanguinity of stardom. Plus their differences in shapes and sizes also evoke something of the ideology of the era and the message of the play. The parents not too distant from the old country and the journey that brought them to America, building a base there so that the next generation can be safer, bigger, better, stronger; and then how that their focus rests so squarely on themselves and their immediate family blinds them to a larger community, to full citizenship and its inherent responsibilities.

I found passages in the film like the one above very moving. It´s the siren song of immigrant parents, the dream that gives their life strength, meaning and purpose. To hear a truly great actor like Edward G. Robinson say lines like this is, as you can see above, a thrill: ‘I want a clean start for you kid…I´m going to build you a house….I want you to use what I made for you …with joy not with shame. Sometimes I think you´re ashamed of the money…..Because it´s good money. There´s nothing wrong with that money´

 

 

Edward G. Robinson´s other aria, sparked by the moment when Burt Lancaster as the son begins to clock about his father´s actions on the line, ‘If you want to know ask Joe,’  I find unbearably moving, ‘Can´t you trust your own father? …. My own son…. Going behind my back’. The betrayal Joe feels, the hurt Chris knows he´s inflicting on someone he loves. The lashing out by the father. It´s familiarity crept up on me and its resonance moved me:   ‘I don´t have to explain. Not to you. You´re my son. You´re in it with me. My flesh and blood. You wear my clothes. Eat My Food. You live in my home. I don´t have to explain to you. If I´m guilty, then you´re guilty too’. And of course, it´s a thematic pivot: Joe´s actions have also become Chris´s responsibility. His very father tells him so.  And thus he must make his father answer.

Burt-hits-Edward-G

 

Burt Lancaster here plays the juvenile role. The quiet, All-American, typical boy next door. But Chris has been to the war. He´s survived it. And he´s now in love and wants a future. And he feels guilty, probably about both surviving the war and having fallen in love with his brother´s girl. Lancaster well conveys the sensitivity of Chris, his love for his father and his mother, the slow dawning that his father and therefore he himself is also responsible for what happened. He doesn´t offer the nuances or the bravado that Edward G. Robinson does. In much of the movie, he represents rather than acts. But the scene where he jumps on his father, the violence of an action both of them would have found unimaginable a few weeks before, is truly frightening and heart-breaking.

It´s also another part he´d had to fight for. According to Burford, ‘Ignoring (Hal) Wallis´doubts and Erskine´s protests that signing him was ´like casting Boris Karloff as a baby sitter,’ Lancaster pushed hard for the untough guy loanout part of Chris…’I wanted to play Chris Keller,’ he told one reporter, ‘because he had the courage to make his father realize that he was just as responsible for the deaths of many servicemen as if he had murdered them’. Happy for the chance to portray ‘an average guy — a solid character with high standards,’ his own best dream of himself, he insisted that his choice was a step forward in the direction he, not any studio, had chosen. The overnight star that Universal called ‘the hottest thing in pictures’ was not acting like one. ‘(Burford,  Kindle location 1466)

According to Christopher Bigsby in Arthur Miller, Miller himself derided the film, ´Watching the film forty years later, he found the result, starring Edward G. Robinson, a laughable melodrama that ought to be burned. His speeches had been re-written and all the subtleties blasted away(p.282)´ If so, he’s quite wrong. It’s not a great movie, but it’s a thrill to see great actors attack a great play like this. In the clip above, after Robinson has displayed his genius in the aria where he accepts responsibility it’s left up to Burt Lancaster to once more underline the theme of the play, the taking of responsibility : ‘It’s not enough to be sorry…you can be better….that’s there’s a universe outside and you’re responsible to i’ and then that great moment with the mother as she goes into the father’s room. It’s not a great movie. But I found the experience of watching it very moving.

 

The film is often described as a noir, which baffled me a bit. As you can see in the images there is noir lighting throughout, very effectively deployed, particularly in the scenes where Chris and Anne first kiss, their faces barely visible, the relationship haunted by the past and the actions of their parents, and there are more examples of that throughout the film (see examples below).

 

 

It didn´t seem to me to be a noir but I was perhaps stuck on it being an adaptation and overly focussing on noir in terms of recurrent techniques  (though see examples of Russell Metty´s superb noir cinematography above) or narrative conventions (though there are flashbacks). However, if one focusses on thematic and atmospheric attributes one might come to a different conclusion. According to Robert Sklar in Movie-Made America, ‘the hallmark of film noir is its sense of people trapped — trapped in a web of paranoia and fear, unable to tell guilt from innocence, true identity from false (p.253) ‘.  Thomas Schatz in Boom and Bust: Hollywood in the 1940s, notes that David Cook follows a similar tack, describing film noir as a ‘cinema of moral anxiety’ whose films thrived upon the unvarnished depiction of greed, lust, and cruelty because their basic theme was the depth of human depravity and the utterly unheroic nature of human beings.’ Cook notes that this style first emerged during the war but reached full maturity only with the paranoia, pessimism, and social angst of the postwar era(p.232).´

 

Seen that way, All My Sons is a noir. But more importantly, though not a great movie, it remains a great opportunity to see great actors perform in a great piece. I for one was surprised at how moving I found it.

 

Those interested in such things may want to look at the billing in the three posters at the top of this post. Edward G. Robinson is top billed in the first and second. This is before his career began to suffer from the blacklist almost from the time this film was released. You can see that Lancaster receives solo top billing in the third, poster, a historical erasure of both Robinson´s position in the industry then and what he brings to the role.

José Arroyo

 

Mr. 880 (Edmund Goulding, USA, 1950)

mister 880

 

 

A gentle, agreeable, if inconsequential romance about Steve Buchanan (Burt Lancaster), a Secret Service agent on the hunt for a counterfeiter known as Mr. 880. The number refers to the Secret Service case file. The Mr. is the honorific bestowed on the case due to it having been open for more than ten years with no progress made on finding the perpetrator.

boodle-of-queer1

Steve discovers Anne (Dorothy McGuire), a glamorous  UN translator, passing on a fake dollar bill and decides to get to know her better as a means of tracing who she’s in contact with and how she might have acquired the bill. They fall for each other but their romance comes under stress when they find out the counterfeiter is nice, gentle Skipper Miller (Edmund Gwenn), Anne’s neighbour, so kind and good he only passes on a dollar bill at a time, taking care to spread them through different parts of New York so no shop-keeper takes too much of a punishment, and often giving them away to neighbourhood children.

Gwenn is all twinkle here.  As a child I loved him as Kris Kringle in Miracle on 34th Street. But the  sugariness with which the character is conceptualised here can stick in the throat a bit, though Goulding directs with tact and prevents him from being too twee.  Lancaster and  McGuire play well off each other and Goulding stages the whole film inventively. I particularly liked a scene where Lancaster tricks Mcguire into a meet cute by faking a fight with his pal, all shot from the inside of an antique shop where the audience can’t hear what is being said (see above). There is also really interesting imagery as, for example, the UN sequences (see below).

Screenshot 2020-04-02 at 14.58.44

The film is visually interseting.  See for example, the shot below with  Gwenn in the foreground outside a shop with Lancaster inside, waiting for the counterfeiter he knows only by actions rather than by face.

Screenshot 2020-04-02 at 15.05.26

Mr. 880 was a minor success in its time and  an agreeable watch now,  if no more than that. My main interest is in seeing Lancaster in a transitional phase of his persona, moving on from the film noir years onto his teeth and muscle roles (The Flame and the Arrow, The Crimson Pirate) and pausing here for a moment in 1950 as, in Dorothy McGuire’s words, ‘the man girls like to whistle at’. See below for proof:

 

 

José Arroyo

Sorry, Wrong Number (Anatole Litvak, USA, 1948)

SSorry

Sorry Wrong Number is about a woman — bedridden, confined, and isolated — who overhears plans for a murder on a crossed telephone line and comes to realise that the victim of that murder is herself. It´s based on the eponymous radio play from 1943, one of the most famous of its time, in which Agnes Moorehead gave such a legendary performance that she would forever more be associated with it. She did many versions. The one that aired on CBSon  9/6/45 can be listened to here. Lucille Fletcher fleshed out her play for the movies, not too successfully. The film, a big hit in its time, remains a good watch, though it does drag in the last third, and there are too many unnecessary asides (the police inspector with the black child is particularly annoying).

It´s hard for me to think of a film star other than Barbara Stanwyck in the part of Leona Stevenson. Who else would have dared come across as so unlikeable? Leona is a spoiled, selfish, rich girl. A daddy´s girl used to getting everything she wants. And she´s not above buying her husband, Henry (Burt Lancaster) and then feigning illness to keep him. I was surprised to see Sorry, Wrong Number does not get even a mention in Andrew Klevan´s otherwise excellent Barbara Stanwyck from the BFI´s Film Star series (London:2013).  There are of course so many other great Stanwyck performances to choose from (Stella Dallas, Double Indemnity, The Lady Eve, and this to mention only a few that Klevan does deal with).  But this is one of her most famous and one of the four she received an Oscar Nomination for (Stella Dallas (1937), Ball of Fire (1941)and Double Indemnity  (1944) being the others.

But perhaps Klevan didn´t appreciate the performance. In Barbara Stanwyck: The Miracle Woman Dan Callahan deems it her most flagrant Oscar bid: ´the showy role of bedridden neurotic Leona Stevenson calls for something more along the lines of the scenery-chewing style of a Bette Davis or a Joan Crawford than it does Stanwyck´s best life-or-death realness. …As of her high-pressure work in WrongNumber, I’m glad she didn´t win for this atypical, sloppy picture; it´s not at all representative of her talent, her artistry, or her overall style'(p.175). Perhaps, and Callahan does a great job of dissecting what he sees as the weaknesses of Stanwyck´s performance in his book. But I don´t agree. It´s a fearless performance. She plays an unlikeable, controlling, possessive and neurotic woman so well, the audience ends up disliking the character whilst eliciting pity that a love that is deeply felt should take that form. I suppose I *can* see Crawford and Davis in the part but I can´t imagine them being better.

Callahan notes that ´Lancaster is ill at ease in his role — great to look at but still green as an actor, (p.174). Callaghan´s criticism, that he lets Stanwyck push him around in their scenes together, is to me part of his success in the part.. However, according to Kate Burford in Burt Lancaster: An American Life: ‘When (Hal) Wallis described Sorry, Wrong Number — Henry Stevenson, a boy-toy weakling, tries to get out from under the control of his rich invalid wife, Barbara Stanwyck´s queen bitch, Leona, by having her murdered — Lancaster said, ´Why not me?’ Wallis objected that he was too strong for the part of Stevenson, but Lancaster insisted that the audience would be more interested in watching a strong man become weak. In the first of what would be a series of roles in which the star was cast against type, Wallis gave in. It was also the beginning of another career motif for Lancaster: getting himself cast opposite strong, experienced, intimidating women’ ((loc. 1695 on Kindle edition).

Burton himself was happy with his performance: ‘I really sweated bullets on that one’, said Lancaster. ‘This was the first part with which I couldn´t identify Lancaster on the screen. Usually there´s some movement, some characteristics which you recognise as your own. But not this one. Ten minutes after I walked into the theater I gave up looking for Lancaster. Seemed like a different person up there. It´s a good movie´ (Minty Clinch, Burt Lancaster, 1984,  pp.24-25)

 

The scene above is critical in establishing the dynamic between Leona and Henry. The camera moves in on Leona and dissolves on the voicing of Sally Hunt (Anne Richards), with a gleeful little smile as we dissolve into her memory of how she first met Henry. We see a crowded dance-hall as Henry and Sally come into view and we´re made to see Sally´s adoring look and Henry´s response to it: they´re a couple in love. And then of course Leona cuts in. This is a critical scene in that we need to see that Henry´s gorgeous, that he´s happy, and that he´s happily involved with Sally. This is the moment where Leona will begin to ruin his life. The film has to communicate what Leona sees in him, which as you can see in the scene above and in the gifs below, it does very well.

 

me-missing-her

Henry´s handsome, taken, ostensibly independent. But someone who can and will be bought. As the poster tell us, ´Heiress to millions….who bought everything she wanted…Including this man!

so-long

The ability to buy anything, including love, means however that Leona is never sure whether he loves her or just her money. Thus the the increasing and not entirely psychosomatic illnesses: Leona gets progressively bedridden but it is tied to her not getting what she wants at all times,. It´s her way of manipulating people´s responses to her needs, which is all that she sees, acknowledges and thinks about; and will be what drives Henry to plan a murder he too will come to regret in the end.

burt-peeking

Sorry, Wrong Number was a prestige picture: and adaptation of a popular and critical success from another medium. According to Michelangelo Capua in Anatole Litvak: The Life and Movies, ´(it was) a 22 minute radio play….made popular by Agnes Moorehead in a tour-de-force performance in 1943. The play was so successful that it was rebroadcast seven times and translated into fifteen languages´(p.78). It is also, however a noir, with Burt Lancaster as the homme fatale, an interesting counterpoint to his Swede in Siodmak´s The Killers (1946). It´s about desire cutting through class, murder, a connection to the underworld, the night, drug trafficking, and, in its own way, an ode to the telephone. Visually, cinematographer Sol Polito encases the whole film in a world of shadows with a restlessly moving camera, evoking the jitteryness of things that lurk, are half seen, as is demonstrated in this great scene below

 

But the scene above though crucial — it happens just before the murder — is not an isolated instance and Polito tries to capture a consistent look and use of lighting throughout (see image capture below)

 

 

It´s a film that looks great, has terrific use of sound, a legendary central performance from Barbara Stanwyck, and one  that makes the most of Burt Lancaster´s appeal. However, it does also feel like a film that´s padded out, filled in, with sequences that seem extraneous. These are mostly the ones with Lancaster and it´s not his fault. These are the scenes that were largely added in to flesh out a short radio play into a feature-length film. I´m not sure how I feel about Anatole Litvak´s direction, some of the shots like the one I giffed above of Burt peeking, are superb, but this is yet another of his Hollywood films — like All This and Heaven Too, City for Conquestthat feels narratively bloated: terrific shot to shot but unsatisfying taken as a whole, inflated plots, convoluted structures, lethargic pacing.

 

José Arroyo

 

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 219 – Bacurau

Listen on the players above, on Apple Podcasts, or on Spotify.

A political parable, satire, thriller, high-concept actioner, horror, and Western all at once, 2019 Cannes Jury Prize winner Bacurau is a wild experience and well worth your time. Set in a tiny, remote village in a near-future Brazil, we’re given a portrait of life within an open, tolerant community under the thumb of a distant but powerful mayor, and shortly after the funeral of one of the town’s elders, things start going awry.

To say more would be to spoil the surprises, and we encourage you to check the film out knowing as little as possible. As a fable, it’s a potent piece of work – themes of political abuses, the ownership and withholding of water conferring power, and the value of community and the knowledge of history are all made manifest as Bacurau straddles its genres and provides its thrills. It’s a film that’s as open to interpretation as it is clear about what it thinks – its clunkiness in this respect a positive for Mike while occasionally a little overegged for José. But quibbles here and there pale in significance to Bacurau‘s boldness and intelligence, and you should see it.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

Brute Force (Jules Dassin, USA, 1947)

burt

I’ve now seen Brute Force several times, hoping to be persuaded by the claims others make for it but I remain unconvinced. The story of prison inmates suffering through the sadistic actions of a quasi-Nazi prison official (Hume Cronyn) and attempting an escape which ends in failure is excitingly rendered visually by Jules Dassin and cinematographer William H. Daniels.

It’s got very striking compositions (see below):

Some exciting set-pieces, like the final mow-down in the prison yard, or when inmates force the squealer into the industrial press with blowtorches: (see below):

Screenshot 2020-03-31 at 10.11.29

Daniels’ low-key lighting is really beautiful and expressive:

Particularly good at lighting actor’s faces:

I always like seeing scenes of people watching movies, such as here when the inmates watch The Egg and I, with Claudette Colbert and Fred McMurray:

Screenshot 2020-03-31 at 10.13.45

It’s also got an incredible cast of noir stalwarts, not only Lancaster and Charles Bickford but also Yvonne De Carlo, Anne Blyth and Ella Raines:

Screenshot 2020-03-31 at 10.05.50

The film also has the kind of gratuitous and extraneous chest baring I am also partial to:

 

And one which the film deployed to the market the film. The shot below was used in publicity but appears nowhere in the film:

 

So with all this going for it, why does it fail to convince? In the essay that accompanies the Arrow release, Frank Krutnik notes that the film was based on a botched escape attempt at Alcatraz in May 1946 and that producer Mark Hellinger, ‘enlisted the fiercely liberal novelist Richard Brooks, author of the sensational best-seller The Brick Foxhole (filmed y RKO in 1947 as Crossfire), who had crafted the original screen story for The Killers. Lik Hellinger Brooks was fascinated by Heminway’s tough, masculine ethos and, as a New York Times reviewer commented, his post-war screen work — Brute Force, Crossfire and Key Largo (1948) — consisted of ‘savage indictments of social wrong. melodramatic and hairy chested, they demonstrated the shock technique of the movie’s current approach to controversy.’

Brooks was praised for his ‘bristling and biting’ dialogue but the rest of his screenplay leaves a lot to be desired. The character of Calypso (Sir Lancelot), though in many ways a respectful representation of a black inmate (the lone one we see) is a ridiculous contrivance, embarrassingly singing every bit of action that he’s part of to a calypso beat.  The flashback structures to the women are also very poorly dramatised, the sections of the way in Italy being particularly embarrassing. And this ‘hairy chested’ and ‘tough, masculiine ethos’ also turns out to be very homophobic, not only making of Captain Munsey a Wagner-listening quasi Nazi, but also clearly coding him as homosexual. See the amount of ‘classic’ male nudes, pictures and statues, his prison office is furnished with:

and which help to explain glances like this in the film:

Screenshot 2020-03-31 at 10.07.57

 

According to Krutnik, the film was regarded as setting a new standard for screen brutality and Life magazine deemed it a ‘picture of almost unrelieved violence and gloom’ and by the ending scene, ‘the screen is drenched with blood and littered with corpses’. Standards for violence have now been raised, or lowered, depending on your point of view. A liberal denunciation of prison conditions, a great vehicle for Burt Lancaster, a huge hit in its day. But at best a mixed bag now, at least for this viewer.

 

The Arrow Academy edition is lovely to look at with a really interesting film in which Burt Lancaster biographer Kate Burford talks intriguingly of this noir period of Lancaster’s career.

 

 

José Arroyo

 

In Conversation with Deborah Shaw on The Daughters of Fire (Albertina Carri, Argentina, 2018.

 

If you want to see what a female gaze looks like, what queer cinema by women might feel like to see, what a combination of porn and poetry might evoke, have a look at Albertina Carri´s ‘The Daughters of Fire,’ currently playing on
@mubi.

Skyping with Deborah

‘it´s so sensational that I asked Professor Deborah Shaw, a specialist in Latin American cinema from the University of Portsmouth to join me in a discussion of this great film so we could mull it over together. We also discuss ‘Barbie también puede eStar triste/ Barbie can also be sad’, an extraordinary stop-motion queer short using Barbie dolls to dissect and critique gender under patriarchy. The two films together are proof of a major new voice in world cinema, one worth watching and talking about. The Barbie film can be accessed freely on Carri’s Vimeo channel by clicking on this link.

 

 

In the podcast we discuss how female-centric The Daughters of Fire is and how unusual that is in cinema. It´s a film about women, 95% of the cast and crew were female, and the  film seems deliberately designed for a female gaze.  Its success is evident by how we both felt: as if we were seeing something new, something  we´d never seen before.

We discuss the film in relation to pornography. Can it void patriarchal norms? Can porn be rendered poetic and what would that look and feel like? Does the film succeed? The film defies many norms. Scenes that might not seem so unusual in an interior urban metropolitan setting make even more of an impact as they are set in the natural rural setting of Patagonia.

We also discuss The Daughter of Fire as a ‘Road’ movie: our protagonists set out on a journey, meet more people, give expression to themselves. The film laudably makes it difficult to  generalise about female desire or female sexuality because each woman in the film is so different. What matters is each character´s pleasure.The film transcends a lot of the codes that have been used previously in relation to lesbian culture.

Is there a discourse on nation in The Daughters of Fire? What is the relationship in the film between people, community, nation?

We also discuss whether queer culture in its present form erases lesbianism or whether the relative lack of attention the film´s been getting is due to Anglo-centrism. Anyone working on queer theory would have a field day with the film. What is porn? What is female pleasure? How do we escape the patriarchy. Sexuality is seen as fluid, butch/femme is de-centred. We discuss how the film is trying to find a way to say something that requires a new or different form.

‘The problem is never the representation of the body but how those bodies become territory and landscape in front of the camera`, the film´s narrator tells us. How can cinema show female bodies without objectification? If it does´t objectify does it then cease to be pornography?

 

We both agree that The Daughters of Fire and Barbie Can Also be Sad are individually major works and together announce a major voice in the cinema, a major artist: Albertina Carri.

 

We hope you see the film, and if you do, you may want to check that there are no children in the room.

 

José Arroyo

 

 

https://vimeo.com/136821291?fbclid=IwAR1cN-3U6Uim_54wvEAccUpXI4ZuUD9HaXtowQoApTi7ydGocIPEOVg7XWo

 

https://vimeo.com/136821291?fbclid=IwAR1cN-3U6Uim_54wvEAccUpXI4ZuUD9HaXtowQoApTi7ydGocIPEOVg7XWo

Burt serves his sentence in Kiss the Blood Off My Hands

Was Burt Lancaster ever a gay pinup? I mean he obviously is one to me now but I mean socially, amongst gay subcultures in the 40 and 50s? Kiss The Blood off My Hands has a great scene with Burt, in his prime and shirtless, being flogged senseless. It ostensibly was an approved system of punishment handed out by the courts in post-war Britain, where the film is set. It´s a scene that must have inspired many fantasies and clearly influenced many a subsequent gay sex shop.

PS on a more serious note, it´s also worth thinking about male action stars and scenes like these, where they do bear the burden of the look, where they are objectified, but usually via pain or suffering, a punishment unjustly meted out. Errol Flynn, the major action star of his day, had several scenes like this in the Michael Curtiz pirate pictures he did in the thirties for Warners. What´s interesting about this one, is that the punishment is just. It´s not quite the fault of the character Burt plays. He was a POW, he´s not being too successful at processing trauma, he´s lashing out with terrible consequences. He´s done the deed but the rages or red flags that lead to them are caused by the war and he´s just as much a victim as the people he ends up victimising. He´s mired in circumstances outside of his control that work against him.

 

José Arroyo

Mitchell Leisen in Variety Girl

This is really just for those of you who might want to know what the famously queer Mitchell Leisen, great director of Easy LivingMidnightHold Back the Dawn and so many other classics, looked like. At the time of his appearance here in Variety Girl in 1947  he was Paramount’s top director second only to C.B. DE Mille, who also makes an appearance. Their status is the reason for their presence in the film. Mitchell’s would sadly change, too soon and for the worse: