Friday, 23 April 2010

Richard Brooks’ Tennessee Williams II: Sweet Bird of Youth (1962)

Richard Brooks’ second adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ work was “Sweet Bird of Youth”. This story of loss youth and shattered dreams was and still is more criticised than “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” for giving in to censors and making a travesty of the play. While I have not read the play or seen a production, I know what the main differences are. And purists will forgive me, but I really like the film, differences or not, for reasons I will give below.

Like “Cat…” this was an MGM production. Several cast members, including Geraldine Page and Paul Newman made the transition from the Broadway production. By 1962 Newman was already a star, so I am sure they didn’t hesitate much on that. Page on the other hand didn’t had much of film career (and despite 8 nominations, including one for this, and 1 Oscar she’s not remembered for her films) and I am quite happy they kept her as she is my favourite thing in the film. She’s Alexandra del Lago, an aging star persuaded to make a comeback. When she sees herself on the screen, she panics and flees. In her escape she meets with Paul Newman’s Chance Wayne, a wannabe film star and reluctant gigolo aging fast. Del Lago describes herself as a monster, but the interesting thing about her is that while she is one, she is very conscious of it. She has seen it all before and knows what to expect. So she drowns her sorrows in vodka, pills, hashish and young men. She becomes more and more dependent on these and apparently vulnerable until the point you forget who she really is. As the third act starts, she changes – and what a fantastic scene that is. Suddenly she’s the full on monster she had so often stated, yet one who still holds your sympathy.

Newman’s extremely good looks are used and abused by the director, often treating him almost as a piece of meat. Which he sort of is, as that is how he survives, going from woman to woman (there was a mention of eccentrics which I was left wondering if there hadn’t been some men as well in his past…) and yet he is the most fragile of all characters, the most innocent, realising only towards the end the reality of his situation, but then facing it full on. And this is where most criticisms come from. The ending of the play is extremely violent and bleak. I doubt also that a transposition of that ending would result very well onscreen even if it was handled carefully – you’d still have to show far more than you do on stage, which would then alienate audiences. Richard Brooks’ original choice of ending was equally bleak but “less” violent – Newman’s character would be killed, which funnily enough might have worked really well. However MGM wouldn’t be persuaded and the ending as it stands differs completely of its source material.

So why do I like it, and think it holds well? Brooks rewrote the play adding and cutting – and I think he developed the character of Heavenly, Chance’s love interest and the daughter of a corrupt Southern baron in quite a different way from Williams. In the film, while she has been beaten by life and circumstances and mostly her father, she has not been defeated. Shirley Knight’s performance show us an assurance and an inner force that is barely contained and if triggered will explode. And she does – and this is why the ending makes sense. Because the character is consistent. Because what she does in the end is in character. True, maybe it’s not Williams’ character, but it’s the film’s. To me this is the may difference between the two adaptations. In “Cat…” as I said here, the changes transform Brick from one character into another in a sudden jump.

Ed Begley as Heavenly's monstrous father won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. Page and Knight got nominated for Leading and Supporting Actress respectively, but lost to Ann Bancroft and Patty Duke both in “The Miracle Worker”. The other losers in the main category were Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn and Lee Remick (for “Days of Wine and Roses”) and Angela Lansbury was robbed of the Best Supporting Oscar for “The Manchurian Candidate”.

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Psycho (1960)

I hope you'll forgive me, but I will discuss plot aspects on this one... If you have never seen "Psycho" and know nothing about it, please go away. You are one of the few who is in for a treat whenever you'll get the chance to watch it.
It's really hard to a modern audience to assess the impact "Psycho" might have had when it was first released. Since its premiere 50 years ago it has become a popular culture icon, its most famous scene copied or parodied (my favourite parody is in "The Simpsons" when Maggie hits Homer with a hammer) and the plotline is in the public domain. I went to a screening recently and unsurprising there was little reaction from the audience when we got to the shower scene. How can it be otherwise? EVERYONE knows that Marion Crane is going to get slashed.

But "Psycho" is much more than someone being murdered while taking a shower. To be fair I always thought the scene the let down of the film, but having seen it on the big screen (well, NFT1, which is about as big as it gets nowadays) I changed my mind. What's noticible on a small screen (some of the technical tricks behind it) suddenly disappeared from sight - I never noticed that the knife never actually touches Janet Leigh. Like the shower scene, another aspect of "Psycho" that has been turned into a cliché is Bernard Herrmann's string-only score. I love it and even Hitch himself admited that 33% of the success of the film was due to the music. But from homages ("Halloween") to pastiches, it's hard to see how original and brilliant that score really is. Someone who studied Herrmann's scores once told me that there is even a little off note when John Gavin disappoints Janet Leigh by something he says. Herrmann was a genius and that shows here.

Going back to the audience at my screening, there was a reaction to the second murder - although a great scene in its own right, it's not known unless you have seen the film already. It's not famous and because of that is unexpected, and unexpectedly scored - Bernard Herrmann's score almost made me jump. As such, it takes you out of your comfort zone which was Hitchcock's idea in the first place. That is the closest we can now hope to be where the director wanted us. And the same thing applies to the scene in the cellar towards the end. Again is not that well known. I remember jumping first time I ever saw the film. Totally caught me unaware.

From the opening scene Hitchcock manipulates his audience, drawing attention to the fact of the financial situation of the main characters (Janet Leigh and John Gavin) is the only obstacle to their happiness. Not your typical Hitchcock blonde, Janet Leigh's Marion Crane - not aloof, not out to get her man, not unreachable - she's also a very real character (and a very good performance). When faced with temptation she gives in. The camera keeps focusing on the money, emphasising its importance. However, poor Marion didn't think things through and she suddenly fully realises of the consequences of her action and decides to undo them. But then we get to where Hitch wanted us. Suddenly, we are revealled that the money and Marion herself, have been nothing but pure McGuffin. Norman, his mother and their motel (and what happens there) is all he had ever been interested in. And Norman is Anthony Perkins, in what became a curse of a role of which he could never release himself. He is excellent - hurt, shy, soft-spoken, a bit of a geek, an all-around nice guy with a possessive mother. The dinner scene with Janet Leigh at the motel is amazing, and don't think I ever had noticed it until now.

There are of course, some problems with the film - the most obvious being the final explanation, almost in Agatha Christie style. It is such an obvious cut from what happened before that it feels clunky - less the actual content but the manner which is presented, almost as an after-thought. John Gavin and Vera Miles don't really do much - he seems to only be there as The Hunk, and she is there to scream.

Something that I believe may surprise people is how overtly sexual it is. The film starts with Janet Leigh and John Gavin in a hotel room, just after having had sex. Behind Norman Bates' behaviour, we later find out, was his repressed desire. Sex again.

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Psycho (1960) trailer

Hitchcock's trailer for "Psycho" (and for a post about the film). This is the best of his trailers, he is incredibly funny to watch as he describes the sets and events.

Love the way how the music switches back and fro between "The Trouble with Harry" and "Psycho"'s own score.

Saturday, 17 April 2010

Richard Brooks' Tennessee Williams I: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958)

Richard Brooks’ two adaptations of Tennessee Williams’ plays are often vilified because of their cop-out endings that distorted the playwright’s work. This needs to be put slightly in context. Williams’ work was created for the stage which had (and still has) far more freedom than film or even TV. His plays treat uncomfortable themes and are populated with characters on the verge of the precipice. His themes (mental illness, homosexuality, sexual freedom, the South) were unlikely to pass any film adaptation untouched.

“Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” was the first of the two, the second being "Sweet Bird of Youth". Originally performed in 1955 on Broadway with Barbara Bel Gueddes and Ben Gazzara, it was transformed by MGM into a vehicle to one of their brightest stars, Elizabeth Taylor. Her co-star was a rising Paul Newman. Burl Ives reprised his role as Big Daddy and Judith Anderson, Jack Carson and Madeleine Sherwood (also from the stage version) rounded the cast. All of them the standard to which I compare any cast whenever I have seen the play (which I have twice). Taylor oozes sexuality and her desire to resume sexual relations with her husband is present in her every look – it probably didn't hurt that Paul Newman was quite good looking. She also has the cattiness that the role requires, that need to fight her corner to the last breath which is the essence of her character. Paul Newman’s stillness and indifference in the first two acts of the film is pretty much how I see the character, which of course, is a very personal matter. Both were nominated for Oscars but lost to David Niven and Susan Hayward (who also beat Deborah Kerr, Shirley MacLaine and Rosalind Russell).

Judith Anderson proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that she was an excellent actress the moment I saw her scaring Joan Fontaine in “Rebecca”, and here, in the final scenes in the library and before, when she hears Burl Ives telling her how much he can’t stand her, she shows it again and again. You might not notice it’s Mrs Danvers (or Judith Anderson if you prefer), but I dare you to forget her. As you won’t Madeleine Sherwood, a viper personified, the ever-pregnant wife of Jack Carson. Carson made a career out of sleazy types and this is probably one of his best after his amazing performance in “A Star is Born”. Sherwood is an actress that has always fascinated me because of this film. She is so malicious and yet she manages to keep it real, which is quite hard – the balance is incredibly delicate. The other only film where I am aware of having seen her is “Sweet Bird of Youth”. But the great tour-de-force is Burl Ives. He’s perfect. Unforgettable. His disdain for his grandchildren made clear with one look; his passion for life written all over his face. He is the character and perhaps the greatest merit of the film is that he has a lot more screen time than in some of the versions of the play text.

The there were two obvious points of contention when adapting it. One was Maggie’s adultery. Saint Liz couldn’t be an adulteress and get away with it: not only that was not allowed by the Hays Code, but the audience wouldn’t forgive it. Probably for the same reason Taylor toned down in her performance her thirst for money, not so much by cutting words but by subduing them. So that was relatively easy to sort – and in fact its impact in the narrative might have been minor if not for the second issue: the references to homosexuality (both Skippy’s and Brick’s). Throughout the first and second act of the film (which coincide with the play’s and end with Brick’s conversation in the rain with Big Daddy) the film is as faithful to the play as possible – Brick is a hopeless drunk haunted by the death of his best friend. For a modern audience watching the film, there are clear hints that Skippy was in love with Brick, the clearest one comes from Maggie herself when she describes the moment when she almost seduced Skippy to get her husband back. She says something like Skippy had the same thought, i.e. if he sleeps with Maggie he can present her to Brick as adulteress have and conquer him back. This has the additional “advantage” of presenting the absent gay character as an opportunistic monster determined to taint the heroine. But the guilt ridden Brick has been cleansed. He really wants his wife, only he has yet to forgive her, and when he locks himself in the bathroom after an argument he caresses her nightgown. Still, it’s hard to swallow his description of great bond with his dead friend as just friendship. Brick is closeted, and will stay so as he is unable to deal with his feelings. So far, so Williams. But then the twist comes. The third act of the play is problematic and there are at least two versions of it. The film retains some of the key issues and dialogue (Gooper and Mae’s confrontation with Big Mama in the library), however, Brick’s character suddenly changes personality, no longer guilt ridden, no longer an alcoholic, he makes peace with his family and guide us to the most frustrating of endings. And this is not because it’s not the play’s ending but because it’s no longer the same character. The rain has operated a miracle, or maybe Liz’s curves did it. Either way, watching the film again, a couple of months after seeing it on stage, made me like it less than I did before. And sadly, I don’t think I will ever like it as much.

PS – I saw it at the BFI in the most disappointing of prints… surely they can afford to get a new one for such a popular title. The colours were off; the image was often not in focus, a bit of a mess really. For that I might as well stay at home and watch the DVD.

Thursday, 15 April 2010

Penelope (1966)

Some films for which you have nostalgic feelings and were last seen too long ago are probably better not seen again. They might not survive the shock. A few years ago, watching “Around the World in 80 days” again shattered childhood memories revealing itself as a dreadful bore. “Sex and the Single Girl” with Natalie Wood and Tony Curtis survived better although it rode high on the nostalgia wave but “Penelope” another Natalie Wood vehicle was less successful.

I stumbled into it around 10 years ago and remembered that I laughed and laughed. Watching it again now, it revealed itself as nice piece of fluff with some inspiring moments but mostly as the grounds to showcase the leading lady in Edith Head’s costumes with Sydney Guillaroff’s wigs or with as little clothes as possible. The latter is in one of the most tasteless sequences in films I have seen, where sexual harassment and possible attempted rape are presented as light entertainment. The feminists must have cringed.

The film starts with a darling old lady robbing a bank. A few moments latter she is now a blonde young woman in a yellow Givenchy suit and not long after is Natalie Wood, all brunette, in a black dress arriving to her psychiatrist’s office. This is the best moment in the film, and one can only regret that Arthur Hiller didn’t direct the rest of the film with same grace and inspiration. A few minutes into her conversation with her psychiatrist we are set: the bank she just robbed is her husband’s because he’s not paying her enough attention. To be frank, if I was him I would divorce her, and vice-versa, but that’s the cynical in me.

The film clearly started with an interesting premise and a fun first act but it seems that the screenwriters had no idea where to take this and the second, but especially the third act seem contrived and rushed. There is a recurrent gag (and funny, while I’m at it) where Natalie Wood forgets her shoes everywhere but it seems completely gratuitous and is left unexplained.

Sadly for her, especially since this is her vehicle, Natalie Wood has hardly anything to hold on to. Her job is clearly to look pretty and smile and keep her fingers crossed that everything will turn out alright. The actor playing her husband is negligible. Peter Falk as the police detective has a bit more fun parodying himself and Dick Shawn as her psychiatrist almost runs away with film. The only reason he doesn’t is because Lila Kedrova and Lou Jacobi, as a pair of crooks, are by far the best thing onscreen and one can only regret that they aren’t there long enough.

Monday, 12 April 2010

American Madness (1932)

Frank Capra’s “American Madness” is one of the lesser known films of the director, lost among titles like “It Happened One Night”, “Mr Smith Goes to Washington” or “It’s a Wonderful Life”. It is, I think, the first of his socially conscious films that still make his reputation. Having now seen all his feature films released between 1931 (after “Forbidden”) and 1948 (“State of the Union”) (*), the period he was at the height of his powers, I also think it’s one of his best.

For 1932 audiences, the film, which tackles the depression and money rushes head on, must have felt too close to home. It is set in a bank ran by a man who strongly believes character is the biggest security any one can offer for a loan. In the aftermath of a robbery, a rumour starts to spread that the bank is insolvent and there’s a money rush.

Personally I find Capra’s politics a bit too utopian and the cynical in me gets frustrated with them. I don’t know enough of economics to argue against the romantic ideas he defends here, nor will I try. But in his best work, or if you prefer, those films of his that I enjoy the most, he has some of the best sense of drama ever presented on screen. The climaxes of “Mr Smith…” and “It’s a Wonderful Life” are probably the best examples.

Walter Huston is great as the bank president, showing once more why he is considered one of the great American film actors. He has his Capra moment at the beginning when he delivers his speech about the depression, but he shines through in the scenes towards the end, during the money rush. The surprise however, comes from Pat O’Brien. I don’t like him very much but here I think he gives the performance of his career.

Edwin Maxwell as one of Huston’s antagonists in the board of directors is a proto-character of what Edward Arnold would come to symbolise in Capra’s films. Funnily enough his own screen persona seems to have been taken by Arnold later on.

(*) – Although “Broadway Bill” and “Lost Horizon” are very faded memories.