Sunday, 21 February 2010

Stanwyck in noir II: Cry Wolf (1947)

When Sandra Marshall (Stanwyck) arrives in Mark Cadwell's estate and claims that she is his recently deceased nephew's widow, he is not very pleased and seems to be hiding something. Perhaps something about the circumstances of her husband's death? Her young sister-in-law on the other hand takes an instant liking to the new arrival whom she sees as friend who might release her from her uncle's oppressive rule.

In theory the above would be a good starting point for any film noir. True, this is not the most imaginative of settings: the stranger who arrives in a house full of secrets is hardly new. And yet the film fails abysmally. While Stanwyck does her best and is convincing as the newcomer exploring the household's secrets, there are three main factors on why the film doesn't hold.

First in the list must be Peter Godfrey, the director. Based on his IMDb credits, I imagine he would be nearly forgotten if it weren't for three films he did with Barbara Stanwyck: "Christmas in Connecticut" in 1945 and "Cry Wolf" and "The Two Mrs Carrolls" in 1947. The last is by far the best, and while I know "Christmas in Connecticut" is a personal favourite of many, it didn't do it for me at all. He seems to have been one of those directors who populated the studio system, doing what they were told to do without any imagination. He simply picks the script and does it by numbers. For a thriller the tension never amounts to much (unlike in "The Two Mrs Carrolls") despite a few attempts in that direction.

The second problem is casting. There are two obvious casting errors. One is Geraldine Brooks who plays the young sister-in-law. She was obviously been groomed by WB for stardom but someone along the way forgot to notice that the girl couldn't act. She is irritating, but in her defence her part is a bit thankless. Then there is Errol Flynn. At this stage you may want to stop reading, as I will discuss some of the plot. His casting is a clear attempt to play him against type. He was getting older, the drinking was clearly leaving traces on his face, and he wanted to prove himself as an actor. Two years later he would do the same in "That Forsyte Woman" (which I haven't seen yet). All that is fine, but it doesn't work; and for two reasons. Flynn's charm on screen depended massively on his ability of not taking himself too serious. But in 1943 he was accused of rape and suddenly saw his life turned upside down. Sadly, despite being cleared, his life and career were never the same again, in particular that infectious presence was gone and with it the ability of engaging with the audience. His range was not very wide and his confidence was probably low and the mix of all this produces a hybrid performance of menacing and dull insecurity. Five years earlier I suspect he would have been menacing because of his spider-like charm. He might have been a deadly villain, had he been allowed him to play one. More important than that, Flynn's casting is an issue because it either highlighted or caused the most serious problem with the film - the script.

Up to this film Flynn had been always the hero. Yet here there is a clear attempt to darken his image and I suspect that someone at WB got cold feet with this. Starting as Stanwyck's antagonist and the film's villain, a twist in the script says otherwise and suddenly there is a forced happy ending with the leading lady. Where Bogart was allowed to go dark, Flynn wasn't. And maybe a better actor would have pulled it off, but as the film stands it's just a curious failure with a good Stanwyck performance.

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

The Queen of Spades (1949)

Adapted from a short story by Alexander Pushkin, "The Queen of Spades" tells a story of obsession with a magic sequence of cards that is unbeatable. On one side, there is a poor army engineer that wants it, on the other an elderly countess that he suspects knows the secret. The engineer is played by Anton Walbrook, who I hardly recognised without a moustache and with a wig, while Edith Evans is the countess, aged beyond the actress' years.

A slightly forgotten film, I had heard much praised about it. After watching it I wasn't entirely convinced it deserved as much as it is showered with. Like the short story that it adapts, the film doesn't come fully to live until the leads face each other. There is a good "flashback" (there is no guarantee they are the actual events as Walbrook reads them from a book) that tells of how the countess may have come in possession of the secret of the cards, but nothing ever sparkles until the confrontation between the two characters in a fantastic scene, incredibly well written, directed and acted - note how Edith Evans never utters a word, how you can't be entirely sure of what she's thing but how you still side with her. Before that she indulges a bit in grand dame-isms but nothing too serious. Anton Walbrook didn't always convinced me, but I can't entirely put my finger in it. Still, his performance is good, and improves as the film progresses.

After the confrontation, three sequences in succession take you into a much darker film, which is really what is all about. So far it was filler. In the first, we are revealed the secret. This is the proof, should you need one, that cinema is also experienced through sound. We never see anything, but we hear plenty. After this, obsession becomes the dominant chord and the ending is inevitable, but oh so good.

Sunday, 14 February 2010

La Dama y la Muerte (2009)

A hilarious animated short that I hope will get the Oscar. Death and some doctors battle for the life of a dear old lady, but no one has asked her for her opinion.

Official website here where you can see the short itself (direct link here).

Saturday, 13 February 2010

Pre-code Norma Shearer: Let Us Be Gay (1930) and Strangers May Kiss (1931)

Immediately after the success of "The Divorcee" in April 1930, MGM kept Norma Shearer very busy, releasing four more films before the end of 1931: "Let us be Gay"and "Strangers May Kiss", which I will be talking about, "A Free Soul" (which I briefly discussed here) and "Private Lives". Uniting them is Shearer as a modern woman trying her best to enjoy life and sexual freedom. And she is convincing, refusing to be the little woman waiting for her husband to come home. I like that very much. I think is the reason why I have got so much into Pre-codes over the last few years.

First a disclaimer. I watched "Let us be Gay" a few weeks ago, so if I do get any detail wrong please feel free to correct me. Shearer plays a homely housewife who thinks she is happily married until the day her husband mistress comes and pays her a visit. After that she kicks him out, liberates herself, puts on some sexy gowns and is a hit with men. So much that an old friend (played by Marie Dressler) asks her to come and seduce her granddaughter's latest conquest, an unsuitable match who happens to be Shearer's ex.

The film falls flat. It is clearly an attempt to replicate "The Divorcee", with several similarities in the story department but much less interesting. In addition to which, the film is badly shot. There are sequences which aren't properly framed and I remember at least an instance where the camera focus on an empty room for a few seconds before anyone bothers to come in. It is a bit amateurish for any major Hollywood studio by 1930, but especially MGM. The ending is also a cop-out (again, like "The Divorcee"). There are two interesting things in the film that should be noted, sadly none enough to sustain interest. The first is Norma's look during the first act of the film. She really is an ugly duckling, with no make-up, the sort of thing Bette Davis became famous for a few years later. For a star of her size at that stage it was an interesting and perhaps brave and calculated choice. The second thing worth noting is Marie Dressler as the old lady, slightly deaf, stubborn and very, very funny. It's really a pity that the script doesn't make more of her. She was a wonderful actress and the more films of hers I watch, the more I want to watch.

A bit better but still drawing too much from "The Divorcee" is "Strangers May Kiss". I was particularly keen on this one because of a couple of clips that appeared in Pre-code documentaries. The problem with that is that, out of context anything can sound much better or much worst that what it actually is. Here Shearer is a young successful woman of 21 (if they say so...) who's having a romance with a foreign correspondent with itchy feet. When he is posted in Mexico, she goes with him, but when he gets a new assignment, he decides likes his freedom too much for her to come with him. Heartbroken she turns loose. I was quite disappointed on how it all turned out in the end, but I am not sure if it's not just me.

The film was a bit of a let down from what I expected, but is never less than enjoyable. Shearer provides exactly the same part, same speeches and same poses than before but in a brand new wardrobe. The script is a bit better, which is probably why it works better. Adding to the film's interest is Robert Montgomery's character- He is the loyal, devout, slightly drunk friend who keeps wanting to marry Shearer and keeps being refused. Witty, charming but invisible in the leading lady's eyes, would I be reading too much into assuming that he really is a closeted character? Possibly, but the thought occurred to me several times. There are also a few good lines, one of which compares women to drinks (and which I loved) but that would reveal too much if I quoted it here.

All in all, I really like Norma Shearer's screen persona in the early 1930s, even if I don't always like the films. I think "The Divorcee" and "Private Lives" are gems, but I probably won't rush to see any of the other three again. I would like to see her remaining Pre-codes though.

Friday, 12 February 2010

A personal idiosyncrasy, impulse buying and Lego games

I don't care that much for computer games. My parents only got a computer when I was already 18, which was probably way too late to get into them (my brother, who's younger, loves them). I did have two moments of weakness that lasted a few months while I was still at University. Nevertheless, I am not trained and lack the eye-hand coordination required to play them. Getting bored quite easily probably when it doesn't progress at the speed I think is appropriate doesn't help either.

A few days ago I bought 2 Lego games (oh yeah, I am that childish) on promotion to play on my brother's PS3 (which currently lies about 3000km from where I write this and I get to see it and my brother about twice a year, I should add). It was half impulse buy and the other half a mix of several people mentioning they were quite fun and want to own them there and then. Impulse buying and the "there and then" is the reason my DVD and book collections keep growing out of control.

So far, it's bad, but it gets worst. At the same time I saw one of the games I was buying on PC format for a very small amount. Of course I went back today and got it. This is not an isolated problem. At this stage I should mention that I have bought 3 different versions of Disney's "Sleeping Beauty" on DVD - a Pan and Scan (donated to said brother), which was replaced by a French widescreen DVD and then a UK release because the French had the extras dubbed. Thankfully I managed to bypass the 2009 reissue, so I am improving slightly with age. I have on more than occasion got a second copy of a book because I "damaged" the first one a bit too much for my liking. Most people would question why I used the word "damaged" at all. This has also improved, thankfully. But I still managed to buy the same game twice! Which I have now played for an hour. I am not bored but I am frustrated. Partly because I keep getting killed cause I can't move fast enough; partly because the instructions are wrong and partly because I accidentally do things I can't undo. It's all very irritating, but I am hoping I shall pursue it...