Saturday, 31 October 2009

Dracula (1931)

"Dracula" on Halloween - how unimaginative... In my defence I would like to add it was the first time I saw it. I read Bram Stoker's book when I was 13 or 14 and I still recall the excitement the book provoked on me (possibly wouldn't have the same effect today). The film resembles it in little more than the characters' names. And what's worst, it left me bored and thinking I might have watched something else instead. Time has not been kind to it.

I think I could find reasons why I almost hated it in every scene. Here are a few: Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake" over the opening credits; the hero, who is a dreadful bore; the gaps in the plot that are not explained (Lucy's death which is mention in passage much later or Van Helsing's staying behind at the end) suggesting a lot was left in the editing room floor; the cheapness of it all - Warner made it look good, Universal... well, not so. And of course, the main reason, Count Dracula himself, Bela Lugosi. The man can't act. The man is not menacing. There is too much silent film pantomime from him, and certainly way too many close-ups of his eyes that no longer produce the desired effect. I know a lot of people still love this film, but I am not one of them.

Tod Browning was actually able to do much better such as "Freaks" or "The Unknown" (I would love to see more of his Lon Chaney stuff, but alas, no DVD edition) so it does seem a wasted opportunity. I've heard the Spanish language version is actually superior, so I'll try to keep an eye for it. The sole redeeming feature, is Dwight Frye's performance of Renfield, an amalgamation of two characters from the book (one being the romantic hero).

Thursday, 29 October 2009

Leave Her to Heaven (1945)

I need to start this by saying that I like this film very much. I like it because of its amazing Technicolor cinematography, because of its colour palette, because of how dark it gets (especially in a few key scenes) and of course, because of Gene Tierney's beauty. I like it despite Cornel Wilde and Jeanne Crain, despite Gene Tierney's limited acting ability, despite Vincent Price irritating me somewhat in his early Fox years and despite Alfred Newman's quite loud score. I can't define any better why I like it, but I do. Maybe because there are a few close-ups of Gene Tierney in this film which, should you get a chance to see it in the cinema, are worth the price of admission.

The story is intriguing and catches you - a woman so obsessed with her father marries a man who resembles him. Each time that someone gets between them, she doesn't react very well. Plus the ending is a bit rushed. It sounds bad. It isn't. It grabs you. It is also not a horror film. And you never lose your sympathy for this woman who isn't quite all there. On the contrary, you see things from her angle. In fairness, she does have a point. Her husband clearly pays no attention to her, and seems to be quite oblivious to the thought of spending time alone together.

So again, does this explain why I like this film so much? I really don't know, I simply do. There's some magic somewhere, which is interesting as I usually find Stahl uninspired.

Perhaps it's the crossing between melodrama and film noir. At moments you can't tell if it's one, the other, both or neither. I like that mix of genres, it appeals to me. The genre rules are simultaneously obeyed, bent and broken. And then there is the cinematography. While watching the film last night at the BFI I was impressed with how large it looked, especially the close-ups (and I have seen my fair share of classics at that particular screen, more or less in that row). And above all else, the colours. Browns, blues and greens are everywhere. Her white against the green and the blue in the scene at the lake (you'll know which one...) - and her close-up in that scene. The blue slipper in the stairs scene - you'd never thought a shoe other than Cinderella's could be so cinematic. Some colours are natural (the film has plenty of location shots), some not, together in a very engaging and disturbing colour study. And you know that when realise that the only real red in sight is in Gene Tierney's lips. As quoted on the blurb, they are "as red as a witch's apple" - and you better believe it.

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

M. Poirot's residence

Because I absolutely love Agatha Christie and David Suchet's definitive portrait of Poirot, here's one of the main images of the series - the block of flats posing as "Whitehaven Mansions". A few years ago I bumped into it by accident. More of London should be like this, beautifully Art Deco.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

A quote by E. M. Forster

We do not see what we do not seek.
E. M. Forster, What does it matter? A Morality

The above has become a favourite quote of mine purely by accident. About 12 years ago I gave a friend, as Christmas or birthday present, E. M. Forster's posthumous collection of short stories, The Life to Come and other stories. Later he came up with that quote. I searched my copy in vain for it. Nothing.

Now, for some reason just thought of it again, and thanks to Amazon's search I managed to locate it at last. It's part of the short story mentioned above, and can be found on page 166 of Penguin's blue cover classics series.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Bette Davis, 1937

Bette Davis had four films opening in 1937. They are of unequal quality, contrasting massively with her consistent output over the next few years. In the first of these four, Michael Curtiz’s “Kid Galahad”, she is a fight promoter’s (Edward G. Robinson) girl l that falls for his latest boxing star. Second billed (for one of the last times), she delivers a good girl with a not-so-nice profession in a film that left me fairly indifferent either way. Robinson is the star and it shows - he’s given the grand finale in the tradition of the Warner school of Gangster films.
“Marked Woman” is the second, and her part and the film are slightly more interesting. She plays a club dancer (read prostitute) who rebels against someone who’s basically her pimp (who if I recall correctly has done something slightly naughty like murder). As retaliation he scars her. A prosecutor, played by up and coming Humphrey Bogart, persuades her to tell her tale. I quite like the ending, and Davis put up a fight for her make-up. By refusing to be as glamourised as the studio wanted, she probably made herself noticed to audiences as a brave performer. As much as I love her, and I do, I can’t help the feeling of calculated move. And somehow it makes me love her even more.

The third film is by far the weakest, “That Certain Woman”, a remake of a Gloria Swanson early talkie ("The Trespasser", 1929). Both films were written and directed by Edmund Goulding. I saw the original last year at the London Film Festival, and all I can say is that Goulding should take full responsibility for both. It’s melodramatic tripe of the worst kind. All sentiment and no substance. If I mentioned that the 1937 version also stars Henry Fonda, the full scale of the waste might be better felt. It has however two things I quite liked. One was Donald Crisp’s turn as the evil, remorseless father-in-law. Manipulative, imposing, full of self-importance, not used to lose, his is the sole redeeming performance, probably because is so brief. The second thing was Ernest Haller’s magnificent cinematography – that man did know a few things about his craft (as also seen in “Gone with the Wind”, “Jezebel”, “All this, and Heaven too” or “Mildred Pierce”).

Finally, there’s “It’s Love I’m After”, a screwball comedy with Leslie Howard and Olivia de Havilland, with Davis and Howard playing two over the top actors (Howard clearly taking inspiration from the John Barrymore school of actors). While is not one of the best, it’s a decent second-tier comedy, with a few scenes, in particular the beginning, where the two actors insult each other while performing “Romeo and Juliet”’s death scenes. Davis was not a great comedienne as Irene Dunne or Barbara Stanwyck, but she has a way with sarcastic dialogue that I find really, really funny. And that was perfect for screwball.

What all these four films show best is Davis’ versatility and ambition. She fought Warners for better parts and in the end she got “Jezebel” and the rest is history. However, what I find the most interesting about these films is that they suggest the possibility that without “Jezebel” and Wyler, Bette Davis might have been confined to footnotes in film books or to cult-ish status, like fellow Warner leading ladies of the 1930s Ann Dvorak, Kay Francis or Ruth Chatterton. Or maybe not. Maybe by 1937 her path to screen greatness was already inevitable.

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

Third Finger, Left Hand (1940)

If I say that “The Philadelphia Story”, “Double Indemnity”, “Tea and Sympathy” and “Old Acquaintance” have something in common with a slightly forgotten 1940 MGM comedy with Myrna Loy and Melvyn Douglas called “Third Finger, Left Hand” I doubt that anyone would guess – the reason is far too personal. At some stage or another each of them was the film I wanted to see the most. I now need to find a new one…

Margot Sherwood (Loy) is a magazine editor with a nice job and a mysterious husband she left soon after her impulse marriage while holidaying in Brazil. Everyone seems to win with this situation – her boss doesn’t see her as available, her boss’ wife doesn’t see her as threat and she doesn’t see herself as out of a job. Except for the fact that there is no husband and she was never married. And it all works well until she meets Jeff Thompson (Douglas) and he finds out about the charade. He then decides to pass as the long lost hubby, and complications ensue.

Although not perfect, the film is funny, entertaining and perhaps unjustly forgotten, especially considering the calibre of both leads. Douglas was at his best as a comedy leading man, having done “Ninotchka” the previous year, and Loy has here one of her best MGM vehicles without William Powell. In fact, it’s clearly her vehicle through and through and she knows it. But she never runs away with it. It’s a team effort, as usually was with her. But she does fill the screen – just look at her feline eyes after having just persuaded Felix Bressart to continue helping by writing fake love letters. For a few seconds she does look as the cat that got the cream. Or later, when she just called Douglas under a false pretext and he doesn’t get her true intentions. To me there was only one obvious false step: when turning the table on Douglas, Loy pretends to be a tough Brooklyn dame that just got herself a nice husband. Not sure who thought of that, but there is something in that scene that doesn’t quite work out, whether it is the accent, or how much un-Myrna she becomes. I laughed, but only partly with her.

Contrary to most films, I was slightly disappointed with the character actors – even with Felix Bressart, one of Lubitsch’s usual troupe and hilarious as one of the three comrades in the above mentioned “Ninotchka”. In particular, I now know for a fact that I absolutely can’t stand Bonita Granville and that she should have never been allowed to be in a film (she was also dreadful in a key role in “The Mortal Storm”). The rest is usual MGM post-Thalberg – bright lighting, beautiful sets, sofisticated costumes (thankfully not by Adrian), inconspicuous director (Robert Z. Leonard in this case).

Not that any of this diminished the pleasure I had in watching the film – it is a well built, funny comedy; and yes, it is a star vehicle, but one that works for both stars. In fact I was a bit sad that among all the films both of them did for MGM in their heyday, this was their only pairing (they would later work in other projects, including “Mr Blandings builds his dream house”).

The film also has an interesting historical footnote. It has a dignified, albeit small, part for a black actor and I am pretty sure Myrna and/or Douglas had something to do with it: a train porter who has taken a law degree by correspondence and turns out to be the vehicle for the inevitable happy ending.

Thursday, 1 October 2009

Heartbreaking - Art theft in Lisbon and surroundings

I am sorry that this is Portuguese only, but I couldn't help posting it. It's a news piece (14min long) about the theft of Portuguese tiles (azulejos) and other art pieces, some from the middle of the street. Two have a personal significance as I passed by them many, many times as a kid; and one, a church, has been stripped bare from everything is heartbreaking.