Wednesday, 27 May 2009

Remember the Night (1940)

“Remember the Night” is a romantic comedy, and the first pairing of Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray. She’s a thief caught stealing a few days before Christmas. He’s the prosecutor who wants to put her jail and gets the trial to be adjourned till after the New Year. Only he gets guilty and ends up spending the whole Christmas period with her.

The film is simply delightful. It’s well directed, well acted, well paced. I’m surprised it’s not really as well known as other comedies of the period. I think it’s one of Preston Sturges best scripts along with “The Lady Eve” (1941) which he himself directed, also starring Barbara Stanwyck. In reality, her character in Leisen’s film is a first draft (but what a draft!) for her character in Sturges’ masterpiece. Fred MacMurray is at his best as a romantic leading man, and his chemistry with Stanwyck amazing. The same chemistry that both actors would take a step further that less than five years later, as the so sexy and so deadly protagonists in Billy Wilder’s “Double Indemnity”.

Mitchell Leisen, the director, is mostly remembered for allegedly been the reason Billy Wilder and Preston Sturges started directing – they didn’t appreciate his treatments of their scripts. Thankful as I am that both men turned into directors, it’s not a fair assessment. Wilder’s comments on him were always harsh, stating that he gave more importance to costumes and décor (Leisen was a former art director/set designer) than to substance (i.e. his script). For Wilder the last straw was during the filming of “Hold Back the Dawn” (1941); for Sturges, the previous year’s “Remember the Night”. Having seen both films, I think it’s more of a case of the victors rewriting history.

Leisen was a director who did very good stuff if the material (and the actors) he had to work with was good. And that shows in films like “Hands across the Table”, “Midnight” and “Hold Back the Dawn” (by the way, I don’t like “Easy Living”…). If the material was ok but not as good, he couldn’t improve much on it – for instance in “The Mating Season”. So yes, he wasn’t Wilder or Sturges, but he was far from a fool obsessed with decors. And there’s suddenly an interest in his work. There were some retrospectives in the 2007 Edinburgh Film Festival and last summer in the French Cinematheque. And little by little, his films are coming out on DVD – like “Remember the Night”.

On the DVD: At the moment this film is only part of an Italian 4 disc DVD box set “Cofanetto Mitchell Leisen” which includes this, “Midnight”, “Easy Living”, “Arise my Love”, “No Time for Love” and “Lady in the Dark” (there are 2 films in discs 2 and 3). The quality of all the films is quite good, with some restoration work done to them – except for “Lady in the Dark”. This is a faded Technicolor copy, with Italian subtitles burnt in, probably taken directly from an archive copy somewhere. It’s a pity – especially cause they could have included “Hold Back the Dawn” or “To Each his Own”.

Tuesday, 26 May 2009

João Bénard da Costa (1935-2009)

I just found out that the director of the Portuguese Cinematheque (PC), João Bénard da Costa has died last Thursday. Unless you’re Portuguese, you’ll probably have never heard of him. I never met him although I saw him a few times. Once or twice he even introduced a screening I attended. But it's hard to find out any person, with perhaps one exception, who has had a more important role in exposing me to films and shaping my taste in film.

In the mid-1990s when I was discovering old films and devouring everything I could get my hands into, he had a weekly column in a newspaper my father bought. I still have saved somewhere the ones he dedicated to Laura (1944) and Sunset Blvd. (1950) and probably a few others. They all have been collected in books that I have been toying about buying for at least 10 years – maybe now I will.

And then, in 1999, I started attending the Cinematheque screenings regularly. My first film there was Billy Wilder’s Irma La Douce (1963), in a season dedicated to films that were forbidden in Portugal during the dictatorship. Each screening at the PC has an original essay written by one of the programmers or collaborators. His were the best. I have all to the screenings I have attended over the past 10 years plus a few random others I have picked along (or in one case, my brother picked for me). Some of these essays (not just his) have also collected in book format, arranged by director. This has exposed me to even more films, directors, actors, etc., as I have a considerable number of these collections. I read and reread some of the entries a lot, as I watch or revisit a film. And I still get curious about films he mentions, and I still find new things.

Reading his words, or hearing him speak about cinema, you could feel his passion for each film, including Johnny Guitar (1954), which is the most screened film at the PC, and not surprisingly, his favourite – and the one they chose show as homage.

He was not without controversy, and I didn’t always agree with him. But he helped me explore what is undoubtedly one of the great passions of my life.

Monday, 18 May 2009

On Cukor

On Saturday, while walking around London and visiting a couple of bookshops I stumbled across a book about George Cukor. It was discounted and I was expecting a coffee table book full of pretty photographs of "My Fair Lady", Judy Holliday and Katharine Hepburn. What I found was a 2000 revised edition of an interview book from the 1970s, in a similar vein of those made by Truffaut and Cameron Crowe on Hitchcock and Billy Wilder. I never even knew such thing existed. Of course, it is now in my shelves, and of the large chunks I have read, it’s brilliant. I strongly recommend it, but beware it’s officially OOP.

George Cukor (1899-1983) was one of the first directors I knew by name, along with Hitchcock and Vincente Minnelli. I was terribly disappointed to miss in 1997 a retrospective of his work at the Portuguese Cinematheque, simply because I was living quite far off and transport links made it nearly impossible to go. I remember I was particularly sad to miss “The Philadelphia Story”. For a while, he was my favourite director. Funnily enough, it was that film that made me change my mind. It never really lived to the hype.

Before “The Philadelphia Story”, I had seen “Camille” (which is absolutely wonderful and probably my favourite of his films) and probably “My Fair Lady”, “Adam’s Rib”, “What Price Hollywood?” (which to this day I regret not having recorded), “Gaslight” and “A Double Life”. All of which I had liked very much, especially the first three. But I don’t know why the bitter disappointment of the Katharine Hepburn vehicle was too much. And then for a while all the films I saw, including some already on DVD were disappointments (“The Women”, “Sylvia Scarlett”, “A Star is Born” and most significantly, most things with Judy Holliday).

But I have changed my opinion of him a bit in the passing years. Especially when I finally got to see a retrospective of his work, this time in London, shortly I moved here in late 2004. And what first stroke me was how underrated his “minor” films were. Up to that point, pretty much all of the titles I had seen of his were his “major” works. And suddenly, here I was in love with “Keeper of the Flame”, “Edward, my son”, “Bhowani Junction”, “Our Betters”. More than that, “Susan and God” and especially “A Woman’s Face” really introduced me to Joan Crawford, just before several of her films made it into DVD. It made me more aware that Time, while usually a good judge, may occasionally let a few things slip through the cracks.