Monday, 16 December 2013

Joan Fontaine (1917-2013)

Joan Fontaine was one of the last true stars from classic Hollywood left. From memory, and excluding child stars (e.g. Shirley Temple and Mickey Rooney), the only ones left are Fontaine's sister, Olivia de Havilland, Maureen O'Hara, Angela Lansbury and Luise Rainer. (EDIT: As Judy mentioned in the comments, I forgot a few: Lauren Bacall, Kirk Douglas, Sidney Poitier and Doris Day.)

While her career dwindled after the mid-1960s, she left, mostly in the 1940s, a strong string of performances for which she is deservedly remembered. She went from minor role into minor role (most of which I don't think I have ever seen) in the 1930s until Cukor's "The Women" which was followed by her breakout and unforgettable performance as the second Mrs DeWinter in Hitchcock's "Rebecca". This film brought her recognition but also typecasted her as the suffering virginal damsel. She did this very well in the 1940s, in films that I love - "Suspicion", Ophüls' "Letter from an Unknown Woman" - and films that I don't  - "Jane Eyre", "The Constant Nymph". The one exception was "Frenchman's Creek", where (to quote my post) she was "not the Joan Fontaine Hitchcock and Ophüls showed the world, [she was] something else. Something much, much sexier." If I have to chose one performance other than "Rebecca" this would be it.

As the 1940s turned into the 1950s, despite an unforgettable performance in the Ophüls film, she found her limelight stolen by dogs (in Wilder's "The Emperor Waltz") or younger actresses (such as Elizabeth Taylor in "Ivanhoe"). She also did very well in a couple of darker roles, for instance in Nicholas Ray's "Born to Be Bad" (she makes the film watchable on her own) and more ambiguously in Lang's "Beyond a Reasonable Doubt". After that her roles became fewer and far between.

She got an Oscar for "Suspicion", which really should have been for "Rebecca"  (she lost to Ginger Rogers), making it the only performance in a Hitchcock film to win the award.  She was also nominated for "The Constant Nymph", which I find beyond my understanding.

Note: I have added a proper text to this post, which I didn't have a chance when the news first broke.

My thoughts on "The Constant Nymph" and "Frenchman's Creek".

Sunday, 15 December 2013

Peter O'Toole (1932-2013)

It was his first leading role on screen, and it was the one which made him immortal. No matter that his career lasted a further fifty years, he'll always be T.E. Lawrence, i.e. Lawrence of Arabia. The only reason he didn't sweap all awards, Oscar included, was Gregory Peck and "To Kill a Mockingbird".
A magnificient actor, not just in Lean's film but in films as diverse as "The Lion in the Winter" and "Venus" and two of my personal favourites the delightful "How to Steal a Million" with Audrey Hepburn and as the voice of food critic Anton Ego in "Ratatouille".

After seven missed nominations, the Academy gave him an honourary Oscar. He almost declined it, saying he wasn't over yet. He wasn't - he got an eighth for "Venus".

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Eleanor Parker (1922-2013)

I don't think I have seen that many of her films. Of course, the ubiquitous "The Sound of Music". Minnelli's "Home from the Hill". "Caged", the film that made her and for which she got her first Oscar nomination. And of course, "Scaramouche", in which she is absolutely wonderful. That red hair of hers in three-strip Technicolor is unforgetable.

Friday, 6 December 2013

Now on Twitter...

So now there's a twittter account for the blog. Follow it @cinemaandchoc

Longer posts will continue here, of course.

Thursday, 28 November 2013

The Deep Blue Sea (1955)

There are some films that are lost without being so: films that have no home video release and are only screened very rarely. One of these is Anatole Litvak’s adaptation of Rattigan’s “The Deep Blue Sea” starring Vivien Leigh. Fortunately, the BFI decided to include it as part of the actress’ centenary season. It is telling that the original two screenings sold out very quickly and a third one was added. More worryingly, was the fact that the BFI only managed to locate one copy (of variable quality).

The film, like the play, is set during a day, after Hester Collyer (Leigh) is found after a failed suicide attempt. Ten months before the play starts, she abandoned her husband for Freddie, a younger man, and now is confronted with the eminent ending of that relationship as well.

The play is compelling and does wonders with the claustrophobia of the space, and the compression of time, but is designed as a play. A cinematographic adaptation will never be easy – you keep the play closed, and it’s not very film-like; or you open it up, which can tear the play’s fabric apart. The TV adaptation with Penelope Wilton and Colin Firth falls in the first category, while the 2011 film with Rachel Weisz went in the second (or at least the 20 minutes or so, I lasted watching it). However, this film fared better, partly because Rattigan wrote it himself. So instead of fabricating a whole story of an unhappy marriage (as in the 2011 version, which created a horrible mother in law), he kept the flashbacks to key moments during Hester’s affair, and all prior her leaving husband. He also added/developed a few supporting characters, although I wasn’t entirely convinced he pulled it off.

More disappointingly, at least to me, the film lacked the lust between the characters that I saw in the 2008 revival. This is a key plot point. After all, Hester doesn’t run away with Freddie for a companionship of minds. Repressed all her life, she finally found a way to escape her social chains. I understand that censorship was tighter on film (see the moralising tagline), this absence makes the affair more doomed and less understandable that it should be.

The contemporary reviews praised Kenneth More for his portrayal of Freddie. I wasn’t particularly impressed. I assume his casting was due to having originated the part on stage. But Freddie is supposed to be good looking, or at least extremely charming (Colin Firth was a much better cast). More was too old, lacking on screen the sex appeal he might have projected on stage.

On the other hand, Leigh was very good, much better than I expected. I liked the control in her voice (so unlike Blanche DuBois, much closer to her younger self), and the occasional fire she allowed her character to release. There was a close-up towards the end that Litvak might have borrowed from “Gone with the Wind” and felt a bit out of place.

Monday, 18 November 2013

Angela Lansbury's Oscar

She was nominated three times, for "Gaslight", "The Picture of Dorian Gray" and "The Manchurian Candidate". She should have got it for the latter.

But at long last, she finally got an Oscar.

Saturday, 7 September 2013

O Lugar do Morto (1984)

First, a confession. Like most Portuguese persons I know, I don't watch many Portuguese films. My reasons are many - ackward dialogues, often wooden performances, poor availability (good luck in finding some titles...), terrible sound quality, and an industry that by large makes films more for its own pleasure than for a wider audience. A wider reason is the small market. Some Portuguese films are highly regarded by critics and festivals, but fail miserably to get bums on seats. There are of course exceptions. In the 1980s, one of these exceptions was "O Lugar do Morto" which for nearly a decade held the record for tickets sold. At the time it came out, the film also caused some scandal (which I am sure it didn't harm the box-office). For mid-1980s Portugal, the film dared to show two sex scenes (very tame even by 1984's international standards) and imply abortion (which was illegal then).

The film starts with a twice-divorced journalist, after a frustrating night with his lover, going to spend the last few hours before work asleep by the coast in his car. However, once there, a woman enters his car after a discussion with her male companion (we will never know the full nature of their relationship) and asks the journalist to take her away. He does so, she changes her mind, and when they return the man has killed himself. She runs away.

What follows is very much a cross between Hitchock and film noir. From the latter, there is an impending doom and randomness in the hero's life and his endless pursuit of this woman, who more than just a femme fatale, might easily be Death herself. From Hitchcock, there's the rhythm, the McGuffin (the dead man is really nothing else) and a scene clearly inspired by Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint in "North by Northwest".The title is a give away, but looses something in translation. The meaning is "death seat", the seat next to the driver. However, a literal translation could be "dead man's seat" or, and I am slightly inclined to prefer this one, "dead man's place".

I watched it recently for the first time, and for about two thirds of it, I was genuinely taken. It was one the best films I had seen in a long while. The performances were excellent (well, by large - the music critic was a noticeable disaster). Ana Zanatti, the leading lady is a famous face I grew up with, but I have no idea who the leading man (Pedro Oliveira) is or was, or what else has he done - IMDb credits him only with this, Google wasn't much more helpful and I found elsewhere he was a journalist. It is the pity, as he clearly had the talent and could have made a really good career. For the final third, I found the film dragged, the plot going on dead ends that I felt weren't necessary (the journalist's eldest son) and particularly, I found the ending incredibly unsatisfactory, although - and here's a spoiler alert - I liked the fact that I knew little more about what really had happened than at the start.

I was particularly appreciative of the fact that most of world the characters live and move is actually real Lisbon. The buildings shown are what they're supposed to be (schools, hotels, the headquarters of the criminal police). And as a particular pleasure, it allowed me revisit the Lisbon of my childhood, with orange buses, black dial phones, five or six digit phone numbers, kids' books I recognised and a few buildings that are no longer there.

Sunday, 25 August 2013

Sunday, 11 August 2013

La Ronde (1950)

After a few years in Hollywood, Max Ophüls returned to Europe and directed "La Ronde". I saw it for the first time in early 2006 in a screening at the Portuguese Cinematheque. I didn't like it at all despite I loving (some) Ophüls. But as I watched it again last night, I was much more in tune with it, and think my previous judgement was too harsh. I really like it. Yet, I still don't love it.

Plot-wise, the film relates the encounters (mostly sexual) between five women and five men, with one of them passing on to the next encounter (thus creating the circle) under the supervising eye of Anton Walbrook, who comments and guides the action, breaking the fourth wall and even cutting the action at moments.Two non-sexual encounters, one at the middle (where a married couple doesn't do together what they do with others) and one at the end (where two of the men cross each other in the street) elegantly provide the axis of symmetry and closure of the circle.

The film, although beautifully symmetric in is construction, as you'd expect from a film called "La Ronde" (which could be translated as  "The Circle"), is to me at least, too uneven in its balance. My issue with the film, and possibly the reason I disliked it so much before, is that the first half is so much better than the second. The first half up to the middle scene between the couple, is full of light touches and wit. In particular, the scene between the maid and the young man is a delight, with him playing the game so clumsily that it can't help endearing him to you. The following scene, with the young man again, and the married woman (played by the wonderful Danielle Darrieux)  is almost as good and has one the wittiest moment of the film, which i won't spoil.

The second half by contrast, lacks this wit and light touch and feels rushed when it shouldn't (the episodes with the count played by Gérard Philipe and the second with the poet) and drags when it shouldn't (the first episode with the poet). One of the consequences of this, is that the performances seem weaker in the second part and the characters not properly developed (the count and the actress in particular) . There's also less interaction of Walbrook with the female characters than earlier on, which he had done so well with Simone Signoret and Simone Simon. I really feel something is missing in what should have been a perfect circle. I understand that there is a longer version of the film which may solve this, but as at the moment it seems to be hidden from view. It might be that this version will be the one that makes me love this film.

The film's cast is a veritable who's who of European actors, mostly French, of the time (the ones I mentioned plus Isa Miranda, and Jean-Louis Barrault, from "Les Enfants du Paradis"). But my favourite has to be Daniel Gélinas the young man, bringing a keen embarrassing to the role that you can't help but relate to. It got two Oscar nominations, for best art direction and best screenplay co-written by Ophüls himself.

Friday, 7 June 2013

Easy Living (1937)

I have a peculiar history with this film. I saw it first in 2000. Although neither loving or hating it, I thought it relevant enough to buy the R1 DVD when it came out in 2008. For some reason, I couldn't pass the first ten or so minutes of the film. I tried again later (twice, I think), and again, got stuck at more or less the same point. Should point out that at this stage I already had a second copy of the film, from an Italian boxset. Finally, I now managed to pass whatever was holding me in those particular first minutes. And I enjoyed it, but...

"Easy Living" was directed by Mitchell Leisen from a script by Preston Sturges. It's a Cinderella story where a millionaire "fairy godfather" (Edward Arnold) hands to working class girl (Jean Arthur) a sable coat that he doesn't want his wife to have, with that gesture unleashing a lot of complications. At its core, the film shares some elements (the millionaire "fairy godfather" with wife problems, a girl with no money) with Leisen's later "Midnight" (written by Wilder and Brackett). "Midnight" is however, the better of the two (in fact one of the great screwball comedies). In fact, "Easy Living" is the only time I could see some possible truth in the Sturges/Wilder argument that Leisen damaged their scripts. The film would have benefited from a tighter pace (the scenes in the suite drag a bit), particularly in the middle, and better on-screen characterisation (e.g. the hotel owner and his excessive stereotypes, the millionaire's wife and her relationship with her husband), which Sturges would probably bring. However, as "Midnight" has both of the pace and the characterisation, I am not willing to lay all the blame on Leisen. Afterall, Sturges was not perfect.

Leisen (or possibly Sturges) however, did manage to slip something rather brilliant past the censors: a moment where both leads are lying together, no foot on the floor. How you may ask? By placing them head to toes. On the he could-have-done-better, I really didn't like the reinforcement at the end of the woman's place is in the kitchen -  and this is Sturges' fault.

Another major disappointment was the cast. While Jean Arthur is lovely, she could do better and did (the Capra films, the early 40s comedies). As could Edward Arnold and even Ray Milland who is as one-dimensional as he can be as the love interest and heir-to-be (possibly Sturges fault again, but Milland's lack of charisma didn't help).

So, yes, I enjoyed the film. But I will not be in a rush to watch it again.

Monday, 3 June 2013

Jean Stapleton (1923-2013)

She brightened my childhood in repeats of "All in the Family".

Friday, 31 May 2013

Daisy Kenyon (1947)

When I first saw "Daisy Kenyon" I was absolutely taken aback. I thought it was one of the most emotionally true and adult films Hollywood produced in the 1940s. On a second viewing, while I still agree with that, particularly during the film's second half, I was much less taken aback and start noticing things I missed or forgot from the first time around.

Otto Preminger's "Daisy Kenyon" is among many things a film about how good timing is an essential part of relationships. Daisy Kenyon (Joan Crawford) is a designer desiluded with her affair with a married man (Dana Andrews) when she meets war veteran (Henry Fonda) who proposes to her.

Among the things I liked about the film is Preminger usual pushing the envelope. The film touches subjects such as post-traumatic stress disorder; a mother using children at instruments to get back at their father; the plight of Japanese-Americans after World War II; and in a sense the maturity of the affair (Fonda's character acts like a normal human being). The cast is excellent. Joan Crawford gives one of her best performances, rid of some of her mannerisms, and Dana Andrews surprised  me tremendously. There a few moments who keep coming to mind, particularly his last scene. But the best, I think, is his reaction when Crawford tells him she has married Fonda. It is very subtle and really well done.

Yet, the film is unbalanced with something not quite right. Sometimes this is obvious: towards the end, Joan Crawford uses the most innapropriate shoes to get into the snow. Unrealistic touches like this are usually more evident in an otherwise realistic film. Sometimes it takes a bit of thinking to figure it out - while on the surface, the film seems to question till the end which man will end with Daisy, it's actually obvious, not just by the rules of the Hays Code but in more less obvious ways (there is a lot of rain whenever one of them is on screen).

Friday, 24 May 2013

No Time for Love (1943)

Mitchell Leisen's "No Time for Love", starring Claudette Colbert and Fred MacMurray is a slightly unusual romantic comedy of the 1940s. The key element that makes it different is its sexual politics, by how obviously it states that the attraction of its two leads is sexual, not romantic. This is highlighted by the fact that it is a socially unequal pairing (i.e. not a match of minds); he is a construction worker, she's a sophisticated photographer. This social inequality is a theme recurrent in Leisen's comedies of the early 40s, particularly "Take a Letter, Darling". Moreover, the audience's point of view (this being 1943 was expected to be mostly female) is Colbert's and Fred MacMurray is treated, from the first time we see him, as a sex object (shirtless and sweaty, see also his terrible portrait in a poster below).

In fact, the whole film works around this. Having seen him, and felt attracted to him, Colbert is unable to forget him (or stop lusting after him). When she inadvertently causes him to be suspended from his job; she offers him a temporary one, hoping (?) that spending time with him will cure her from her "problem". The film objectifies him as a masculine object of desire even further by pairing Colbert at the start with a man who isn't terribly different from her gay friends (something the film also doesn't shy from). And it is sexual jealousy they both feel, not a romantic one: she, when he has sex with the dancer; he, when feels less masculine than the model she's photographing.

(Slight spoilers ahead:) Perhaps feeling that all this was too overt, the characters' social differences are toned down slightly (turns out he's an engineer, not a worker - just doing the job of one for macguffin reasons), but by the time her most present (and hungry) gay friend joins them up, sex has resurfaced (their exit from scene and her last line should be enough). But, in difference to what would happen later in the decade, none conceded to the other. This is still a union of equals.

Both leads are great, Colbert exuding her usual charm and MacMurray giving one of his best comedic performances. It's also one of their best pairings. I also had a soft spot for Ilka Chase and Richard Haydn as Colbert's sister and aforementioned friend.

Claudette Colbert and Fred McMurray worked together in seven films. Six are available on DVD. The one missing is their second outing directed by Mitchell Leisen, "Practically Yours" which I would like very much to watch. Last screening I know of was in 2008, in Paris. But my bigger question is why was it missed from a boxset collecting some of their films?

Friday, 17 May 2013

The Show (1927)

The more I see of John Gilbert, the less I am convinced by him as an actor. In Tod Browning's "The Show" he plays an unsympathetic womaniser carnival player caught between a woman obsessed by him, her man seeking for revenge and an accusation of theft. If I admire the great leading man's choice of part, he chews way too much scenery to be credible or interesting to watch. His performance is one of the best examples of overacting of the late silent period.

The film itself also suffers from a lack of coherence in characterisation: Renée Adorée's Salomé changes (through no fault of her own) from a feisty man hunter to a devoted daughter simply by changing the sets: halfway through the film, we moved from the carnival (typical Browning) to melodrama within Salomé's appartment. This abrupt change in mood and the character's personality does no favours to the film, which works much better in the first half, despite the fact that, at times, it feels more like an amalgamation of ideas Tod Browning had used or would later use in his films. Nevertheless, Adorée was quite lovely and much better than Gilbert, her "The Big Parade" co-star.

The Browning touches in the carnival are wonderful: the strange creatures which antecipate "Freaks" and the atmosphere of, among others, "The Unknown"; and even the acts themselves. The woman-spider is just brilliant and the sword change is a really clever touch. Another positive was Lionel Barrymore's performance as "the Greek". He is truly the highlight of the film - sleazy, devious, and unlike Gilbert, subtle in his performance: no excesses, no hamming. I was just sorry he wasn't more in it.

On a final note, I felt sorry for the poor iguana in the film. To give the idea of a vicious attack, the poor animal was a few times put on a metal plate which was then electrified and I strongly suspect it might not have survived the film...

Friday, 10 May 2013

Davis vs Hopkins, round one: The Old Maid (1939)

They were two of the most famous actresses of the 1930s - one achieve stardom before the other, who ended having a longer career. Both had a reputation of being difficult. One made a career and won an Oscar out of the other's Broadway flop. They hated each other's guts. And they were paired by Warner Bros. in two films. Edmound Goulding directed the first and was meant to direct the second but decided he couldn't face the two again, and Vincent Sherman directed it instead. And from this rivalry, two of the great melodramas of the war period were born: "The Old Maid" (1939) and "Old Acquaintance" (1943). They are, of course, Bette Davis and Miriam Hopkins.

The two films hinge on a similar topic, the rivalry between two women who share a strong bond. The first film, "The Old Maid" is the darker of the two. Adapted from an Edith Wharton novella, it starts as the story of two cousins in love with the same man. On the day of Delia's (Hopkins) wedding, her former fiancé (George Brent) comes back to see her. Distraught, he founds consolation in Charlotte's (Davis) arms. When Delia finds out about this, and that a child was born, she acts out of spite, setting a chain of events which will bound the two women with an ever tighter knot. They themselves summarise it best, when after finding out Delia's machinations, Charlotte tells her that she hates her - to which Delia, horrified, replies "Hate, such word between us" and Charlotte tells her there was never another word. The ending, as Delia herself admits, is bleak. The two women will end alone, in a house, until one of them dies.

Although our sympathies are supposed to lie with Davis, the film becomes increasingly ambiguous as it progresses. Hopkins' character, is a clear bitch at the beginning of the film. She's a monster under fine lace, who destroys bit by bit her cousin's life. But, as she ages (looking increasingly younger) she becomes fully aware of the consequences of what she has done, and what that entails for both of them and seeks to atone for her actions. Davis' character, on the other hand, becomes harder and harsher, increasing less forgiving, after losing in sequence, the man she loves, the man she hoped to marry and her daughter. Davis avoids asking for our sympathy becoming nearly odious at times - although there is the wonderful scene, where alone she practices her voice to take all tenderness out.

The film (and "Old Acquaintance" as well) says a lot about women's position: you make a mistake (sex before marriage), and you're expected to pay for it for the rest of your life, even if only one (or two) other person knows. Or worse, if you try to show some independence (her orphanage) and you get crushed. You must always conform. This is, almost like Cukor's "The Women", a film about men, where although hardly visible, their presence or absence is overwhelming felt.

Other than the two leading actresses, the other highlight of the film for me was Donald Crisp, as the all sage Greek chorus. George Brent is hardly on the screen (he can't have more than three or four scenes) although that was enough to give him third billing. On the other hand, Jane Bryan as Tina just managed to irritate me, and to be fair, I couldn't care whether she got the boy or not.

On a final note, I watched the trailer immediate after the film, and you can actually see a couple of bits that didn't make the final cut, particularly a visit alluded to of Charlotte's fiancee to her orphanage.

Friday, 3 May 2013

Kitty (1945)

Mitchell Leisen's "Kitty" is the story of a woman from the London slums in the 18th Century who, with the guidance of an unscrupulous and bankrupt nobleman, raises to the top of society. Think of an amoral "Pygmalion" and you won't be too far off. Paulette Goddard is the Galatea, Ray Milland is Pygmalion.

Mitchell Leisen's work has, I think, long be neglected for reasons which I have discussed before. I personally think that this is unfair, and he is actually a good director, whose work might even satisfy some aspects of the auteur (the theme of masquarades, of people pretending they are who they're not). His  comedies of the late 1930s and early 1940s owe a lot to its writers (Wilder and Sturges) it is obvious, but what about the others they didn't write (e.g. "No Time for Love")? In a sense, he is as much as Wilder and Sturges, one of the heirs of Lubitsch. And his melodramas are equally fine. "Kitty" is somewhere between the two groups, more dramatic than comedy, but with good comic relief by Constance Collier and Reginald Owen.

This is not a perfect film (and spoilers ahead). One main issue is that Ray Milland's character is too base and devoided of any good quality to justify Kitty's love or for me to believe in his redemption. Although I did buy his arrogance really well. Furthermore, attempting to put her down before her fiancé as a way of earning her heart is really not a good idea: either dramatically or in real life. This is exactly the same problem I had in Leisen's "Lady in the Dark" and it is a pity he didn't address it any better here (sometimes I wonder if someone at Paramount simply gave Fred McMurray all nice leading man and Ray Milland all the unpleasant ones). Another major flaw in the film the time scale: Kitty's education seems to last longer than her first marriage, and in a time where appearances were all, she has no morning period - I could just about buy this when she marries the duke because his social standing would just about allow it, but not the second time. Both these problems are in part the way Leisen deals with them, but also easy wait out for lazy writers.

On the other hand, Paulette Goddard is really good as the social climber with a heart. Her characterisation is really well done, with incremental steps up the social ladder. And then there's the brilliant moment when her beads (pearls?) fall over the floor. And so is most of the cast. I particularly liked Constance Collier as Milland's drunken aunt, Eric Blore as her servant and particularly, Cecil Kellaway as Thomas Gainsborough. The film seems to have more respect for historical authenticity than most at the time. More important, it is an entertaining film, even if it is one I shan't remember terribly well in a few months.

Friday, 26 April 2013

Bluebeard's Eighth Wife (1938)

On the Riviera, an American millionaire (Gary Cooper) falls in love with the daughter (Claudette Colbert) of a bankrupt French marquis (Edward Everett Horton). When she finds out she's going to be wife number eighth, and that marriage for him is just another business venture, she decides to teach him a lesson.

Directed by Ernst Lubitsch, this was his last Paramount film. When I wrote about "Ninotchka", also directed by Lubitsch, also scripted by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett, I mentioned that it felt more like Wilder than it Lubitsch. Here, this is pure Lubitsch, full of the wit that made him famous (the opening sequences at the store, the charge Cooper makes towards Colbert's bedroom, the many Czechoslovakia gags) even if its Lubitschian meet-cute is pure Wilder according to IMDb. The film's location (Paris and the Riviera) and cast (Cooper and Everett Horton) also seem to reference previous films ("Trouble in Paradise", "Design for Living", "Angel" and the Borzage directed "Desire").

The impact of the Hays Code is striking: a woman decides to teach the man a lesson because he doesn't act according to the sanctity of marriage. But the way she does it is slightly subversive. In post-1934 Hollywood, marriage was first and foremost a way to sanctify sex. Whole films, such as Minnelli's "The Clock", basically exist because the two leads are not allowed just to get a hotel room. Here, Claudette Colbert suppresses it after the wedding as well (the distancing of the two during the honeymoon is another lovely Lubitsch touch), thus exposing the hypocrisy of the whole thing: Gary Cooper can't have sex outside marriage because he's not allowed (basically the reason why he married seven times before), but he's also denied it afterwards because he doesn't believe in the right type of marriage, having basically bought Colbert. But, supreme irony of Lubitsch, Wilder and Brackett, when they do have sex, they aren't married anymore, proving the point that censors aren't really the cleverest of people.

While not an absolute masterpiece, it is delightful and entertaining - I confess that having seen it once before I didn't remember anything other than the pajamas at the beginning. While there is some good support from Edward Everett Horton and David Niven, this is really a two hander between the two leads. Claudette Colbert is a delight to watch, at her prime as commedienne, and so is Cooper for that matter. I have to say this is probably my favourite performance of his although he usually doesn't do it for me. I usually find him a bit wooden, but here there is a vitality unmatched in any of his performances I have seen.

The film also reminded me somewhat of "The Lady Eve", which was a couple of years into the future, with the idea of a woman seeking to punish a man that she feels has let her down by marrying him and then making mince meat out of him.

Saturday, 20 April 2013

The Ghost and Mrs Muir (1947)

First, there is Bernard Herrmann's gorgeous score. If nothing else, I could watch this film for one of the most beautiful, romantic and entrancing scores ever composed for a film. With "Vertigo" and "Psycho", it is one of Herrmann's masterpieces. Watching the film again, I realised how much of the film's magic it is due to its music.

I say magic, and really don't use the word lightly. This arguably one of the finest, most beautiful and certainly one of the loveliest films ever produced in Hollywood. I am left wondering if there is anything wrong with it - which probably there is, as nothing is perfect; but right now I am still basking on this feeling of falling in love all over again. Like love, I can't explain it all, but I will do my best.

I first came to this film in a screening in 1999 at the Portuguese Cinematheque, where has been regularly screened, as it was one of its late director favourite films. I have seen it a few times over the years (although not lately), shared it once with a friend in Bristol on a faulty DVD and had a few misses as well, chiefly missing a screening during a weekend in Paris cause I got ill.

It was directed (but not written) by Joe Mankiewicz, who brings an atypical balance of comedy, romance and other-worldliness. It is funny and touching, but you wouldn't describe it as a romantic comedy (although it might have been one if it had been filmed ten years earlier). This is a story of a young widow (Gene Tierney), who in search of independence from her nagging in-laws ends in a cottage by the sea in turn of the century England. In this cottage, she finds a ghost of the previous owner (Rex Harrison) who helps her find her independence, both financially and as an individual. George Sanders completes the leads and a very young Natalie Wood plays Tierney's daughter.

Tierney is perfect. I really can't find another word for her performance. As good as she was in "Laura" and "Leave Her to Heaven", she is even better here. She refuses to let Mrs Muir to be an object of pity, instead showing the character's strength and making you fall her over and over again. She also has the help of two fine actors - Harrison and Sanders - as the two men of her life; one alive (Sanders) and one dead or imagined (Harrison); with Harrison giving a career high performance in my opinion (with a confidence on screen that was lacking in some of his earlier British films). All three actors are actually key in Mankiewicz oeuvre; if Tierney has her summit here, Harrison would achieve it in "Cleopatra" and Sanders as the unforgettable Adison DeWitt in "All About Eve".

Charles Lang got an Oscar nomination for best Black and White cinematography. The only one that film got. Not one for Tierney, not one for Herrmann. Didn't they hear how wonderful it was? Every time I hear it, it transports me back to that cottage by the sea, surrounded by fog, and in it, a young widow is waiting for the ghost of a captain. And I'll fall in love all over again.

Sunday, 14 April 2013

Ninotchka (1939)

"Garbo Laughs!". Ernst Lubitsch's "Ninotchka" is so often reduced to that. True, it seems the slogan was decided before any line was written and  I understand MGM's need for the slogan (it's good and catchy), but on another hand I find it simplifies the film tremendously, focusing solely on one scene.

"Ninotchka" is probably set in the early/mid-1930s, at the time the Soviet Union sold many of its treasures to the West. In the film, a trade delegation is sent to Paris to sell the state confiscated court jewels from Grand-Duchess Swana (played by Ina Claire). Warned of this by a loyal White Russian, now a waiter at the hotel used by the delegation, she sends her lover, a bankrupt French nobleman, Leon (Melvyn Douglas) to delay the procedures. In response, Moscow sends a new negotiator, comrade Nina Ivanova Yakushova, also known as Ninotchka (Greta Garbo).

"Ninotchka" is a comedy, a romance and a political satire. The romance, mostly evident in the later sequences in Paris is probably the most routine part of the film, but it still is carried well. But where the film excels is in the comedy, the satire and the mix of both. When she arrives in Paris, Ninotchka is almost an authomaton, heartless and emotionless - her approach to men ("Must you flirt?") and love/sex (a chemical process) sum of her view of the world. The first sequence in Leon's appartment is brilliant and most interesting, quite explicit for the time - she was there for sex... ("Go to bed, little father. We want to be alone.") The comedy sections, particularly the fall of the three Soviet commissars is where Lubitsch's touch is most present. The hats changing, and the maids running around are things he used in other places as well.

But the satire, and some of the best lines of dialogue, seem to me that come from Billy Wilder, who signed the script with Charles Brackett and Walter Reisch. Lines like "There are going to be fewer but better Russians" and "I should hate to see our country endangered by my underwear" are too sharp to be anyone else's. I also think that the delicate balance of keeping Communists and Capitalists (and Nazis at one moment), White Russians and Red Russians, in a delicate balance where no one comes out well and everyone is the same is his - and from what I know from their partnership, I'd say the fact that we care for them is probably due to Brackett. The two scenes between Swana and Ninotchka give glimpses of the harsh reality: in the first, Ninotchka refers to the cruelty of the cossacks; in the second Swana mentions the pain of being an expatriate (and who is fighting to keep the man she loves, even if she'll never admit it). In that moment, and despite the hindsight of history, Swana was rather touching and a real person, as opposed to a frivolous Grand-Duchess.

This is also the film where Garbo gives us a tantalising glimpse of what her career might have become if the war (her main market seems to have been in Europe), bad advise would have not interfered (she allegedly refused another film with Lubitsch on advice from a friend) and her decision to leave cinema had not come to place. Gone is tragidienne, and suddenly a modern actress that could have carried on through the 1940s. Her stone faced comissar is as brilliant as her woman in love - although, I have to say, I cringe at her laughing scene. She does look fake.

Melvyn Douglas gives one of his best pre-war performances (and would reunite with Garbo two years later for her final film) and I couldn't go without a word for the brilliant trio of Iranoff, Buljanoff and Kopalski (Sig Ruman, Felix Bressart, Alexander Granach) who steal every scene they're in. Even the ending.

Friday, 5 April 2013

A Foreign Affair (1948)

In post-war Berlin, an US captain (John Lund) is having an affair with a German singer with a nebulous past (Marlene Dietrich). All is going well until the arrival of a delegation of Congressmen and particularly one Congresswoman (Jean Arthur), who thinks her main task is rid the US army of any improper behaviour.

Wilder's film, is often uneven, dragging a bit in the middle, despite a typical sharp Wilderean start (sharp dialogue, misbehaving characters, etc.) and some very good scenes towards the end. It is mostly a Old World vs New World motif, with neither coming out brilliantly, nor entirely tarnished. Representing both sides are the two women, the prudish US Congresswoman Phoebe Frost (the pun with the name is a bit too obvious for my liking) and resourceful, survivor, (ex-?) Nazi Erika von Schlülow. The prize is, on the surface, a man, only it's not really. It is more of a clash of cultures of identities, and the winner will be the dominant culture: the film mirroring the US taking over Europe as the leading world reference. As an Jewish emigré, Wilder was certainly very aware of this. Besides, as the end shows (and minor spoiler here), Dietrich's character is less concerned about him than she is about her future.

Wilder co-wrote the script with Charles Brackett (as usual, until after "Sunset Blvd."), with Richard L. Breen also credited. Annoyingly there is one major fault with it. Arthur's character is drawn or played too broadly for gags as a prudish and self-rightous nuisance in the beginning and later, as she's intended to become more sympathetic the film suffers from it. Jean Arthur's character grows as she leaves her bubble and sees the world, but I really never cared for her. It is also possible that she had already lost interest in acting (or that her wrinkles were too visible). This was her first film in four years, and she would only return once more five years later for "Shane". Dietrich's character on the other hand is much better written. Yes, she was (is?) a Nazi, but she has also experienced the war at its fulllest and become adept at survival. There are some very dark hints at what happened when the Soviet army arrived in Berlin. There is some ambiguity at how much she loves John Lund's character or if he's just a convinient person to know. I am inclined to say it's both. Dietrich is both wonderful and miscast, as she's perhaps a tad too glamorous for a 1948 Berlin underground bar. On the other hand, that helps explain a lot. But also by 1948 Dietrich was a myth not an actress - even if Wilder got much better out of her in "Witness for the Prosecution".

There are also a few wonderful one liners (the general wondering if investing in ping-pong tables had not been a waste of money, Dietrich saying her flat is a few ruins away, and her comment about losing her country, possessions and beliefs) and a few very good scenes (the mirroring filibuster scenes), my favourite being the confrontation scene between the two actresses at the flat, where everything is spot on: acting, dialogue, lighting, camera - truly Wilder's style at his best. And Wilder would return once more to post-war Berlin with "One, Two, Three".

Friday, 29 March 2013

Richard Griffiths (1947-2013)

From Harry Potter to "The History Boys" and everything before, between and after, Richard Griffiths was a fantastic actor and it was always a pleasure to watch him.

Sunday, 17 March 2013

The Pirate (1948)

Directed by Vincente Minnelli, produced by Arthur Freed, songs by Cole Porter, starring Judy Garland and Gene Kelly at the peak of their careers, and shot in glorious Technicolor(*) "The Pirate" had everything to go in its favour. Instead, it flopped. I watched this last around fifteen years ago, and had good memories of it, but watching it again tonight, I can see why. It tries a lot of things and fails at most of them. I think it is an honourable failure.

It is meant to be musical, a farce, a comedy and a bit of a swashbuckler. The farce and the comedy more or less survive intact. Both Garland and Kelly were excellent comedians, although neither is fully recognised for it. The best scenes in the film are the farcical scenes between the two, particularly the sequences from his arrival to her village to his arrest. As for the swashbuckler, there isn't enough of it, and most of what is belongs to a five minute stylised dance sequence which left audiences bewildered at the time. It still leaves me cold, as do similar sequences in "An American in Paris" and "Singin' in the Rain".

The music is another problem. This is not vintage Cole Porter: for MGM he did better in "High Society" and even "Les Girls". Even the best song, "Be a Clown" is not at the same level of "Night and Day", "Let's do it, let's fall in Love" or "You're the Top". MGM was probably aware of this, as we hear it twice, in full, within minutes of each other. Also, most of the song and dance numbers drag - particularly "Nina" which adds very little to the plot.

The script is also weak, with not much of a first act, blossoming in the second and then dragging again in the third; and Minnelli probably got tired of arguing with his wife on set (the shooting was very problematic) and lost some enthusiasm. Although it could be simply that having seen most of his melodramas, I have outgrown his musicals, with the exception of the best cross between the two genres, "Meet me in St Louis".

(*) Unfortunately, either because of costs or available materials, the film was not selected by WB to be restored using their Ultra-Resolution process designed for three-strip Technicolor films. Instead something else was used for the DVD. This is a pity, as I think it would benefit the film tremendously if Minnelli's reds could pop to us.

Sunday, 10 March 2013

"A Morte de Cleópatra" (Cleopatra's Death) by Domingos Sequeira

Domingos Sequeira (1768-1837) is a key Portuguese painter of the late XVIII and early XIX centuries. A few years ago I found images of some of his drawings, including two preparatory studies for a painting representing Cleopatra's Death. This is held in storage by the main art state collection, the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga in Lisbon and completely out of sight. I really like the drawings, representing Cleopatra and one of her maids, so for years I have searched for an image of the actual painting without much luck. A few days ago, while browsing the official website for images of state art collections, I finally lucky... You can judge for yourself.

The two drawings...
... and the painting.
Horrible, isn't it? All the fluidity and tridimensionality of the drawings is missing from the final work. This is something I often find with drawings: they are often better than the final paintings. Watteau is a case in point.

Images taken from the Matrizpix website.

Sunday, 10 February 2013

Eien no hito (1961)

"Eien no nito" (in English, "Immortal Love", in French "Un Amour Eternel") is a 1961 film directed by Keisute Kinoshita, starring Hideko Takamine and Tatsuya Nakadai. It was Oscar nomination for best foreign language film, losing to Ingmar Bergman's "Through a Glass Darkly". It also has one of the worst Western translation of a Japanese film title once you actually seen the film; as love, immortal or not, is not really what the film is about (Google translates it as "The Eternal One").

Divided in five different parts of roughly the same length, representing key moments in Japan mid-20th Century (invasion of Manchuria, WWII, post-war) as background to the life of couple. This not, however, a romantic tale. Nakadai (later the husband), the heir of a rich family, comes back from the Manchurian war crippled, frustrated and resentful. He takes a fancy to the daughter (Takamine) of one of farmers in his family's land. Out of lust and spite towards the man she loves, he rapes her and then engineers to marry her. Powerless in a society where women were little more than wives and daughters, she is forced to submit, but this will taint their lives and the lives of their children.

For the last nearly two months, I have what can only be describing as binging on classic Japanese cinema of the 1950s (give or take a couple of years). And this is one of my favourites so far. It presented a rather raw and bleak view of a marriage where the wife hates her husband (with bloody good reason), and he resents her for it. Takamine is particularly brilliant, giving us a fully rounded, flawed human being; a fundamentally kind woman betrayed or abandoned by the men in her life; a mother whose love for her children is bounded by her feelings towards their father, particularly her eldest, the result of the rape. Nakadai, as her husband, is never a likable character, but is also not a hateful figure. Instead, he is presented as a spoiled brat, feeling entitled to do whatever he wants by his social position. However, as the film goes on, he becomes more and more a figure of old Japan, puzzled not only by the changes in his world, but also unable to connect with his wife (something he actually wants).

The film doesn't run away from these topics, presenting the story in an un-melodramatic fashion, each line of dialogue full of recriminations. The intention is, of course, that you have to face the story straight on. Although I didn't entirely buy the ending (possibly due to differences Japanese/European culture as opposed to a fault with it) this is one of my favourites so far. Exquisitely shot in Black and White cinemascope and with flamengo soundtrack (sang in Japanese), the film is also a pleasure to watch and hear. While it's not available in an English-friendly edition, there are French and German DVD editions, and the former (which I own) also contains a small introduction (in French) which I found useful on context of Japanese history.

Monday, 21 January 2013

Laura (1944)

“Laura”, directed by Otto Preminger, is a film where three men trying to assert their claims and possess a woman. One, Waldo Lydecker (played by Clifton Webb), wants her as the jewel in his collection of beautiful objects; the most beautiful ornament of them all. The second, Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price), wants her for the escape opportunities she represents, and the chance of a better life. The last, Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews), falls in love with her portrait, a necrophiliac passion that anticipates something of “Vertigo” by more than a decade. None of them wants the real Laura, only the fantasy (the Laura in the portrait and of the flashbacks is not the one we see). Waldo in particular rejects any visions of her which don’t match and taint his own. In the end (and minor spoiler here), the one who does get her does so because his fantasy and her own desires match the best (for Laura is really made of flesh and blood). 

As Laura Hunt, the title character, Gene Tierney is wonderful. She has the allure and intelligence that Waldo refers to, but she also is enough of blank canvas that he and the others (as well as the audience) can project their fantasies into. Tierney’s gift is in showing us her real feelings and desires as the film progresses, and the portrait over the fireplace becomes more of a real person.

Another highlight of the film is Webb’s performance as Waldo. Caustic and sharp, with eyes that shoot daggers, he incarnates his character to give one of the most memorable performances of the 1940s. He got an Oscar nomination out of it, but lost (and he would loose two years later, for a similar role in “The Razor’s Edge”). Noteworthy are also Dana Andrews and Judith Anderson, as Laura’s patrician aunt with a soft spot for Price’s character.

And then, there’s the music. One of the most recognisable theme tunes of any film, Raksin’s score is a masterpiece. Heard mostly throughout as source music (i.e. from the radio, record, bands), I got the impression it became more of regular score once (and another minor spoiler) Laura enters the film, breaking Dana Andrews dream-like drunken stupor. Interestingly, the score did not get an Oscar nomination - in addition to Webb's, the film got nods for art direction, screenplay, director (Preminger's first) and won for Joseph LaShelle's beautiful black and white cinematography (beating, among others, "Double Indemnity", another noir with ravashing black and white cinematography).

If Laura” is one of the highlights in the careers of nearly all those involved (Tierney, Webb, Andrews, Anderson, Preminger and Raksin), the one sour note is Vincent Price’s grotesque miscasting. He doesn’t fit the character. He’s ill at ease in his clothes and his manner (and he shouldn’t in either) and I can’t buy him as someone who depends on his looks and charm to live. I also can’t see what either Laura or her aunt see in him.
As one minor note, the chronology of the film is a bit dubious: by Waldo’s account, Laura was around 17 when she first appears in his life, which might make her a tad too young for her job. That is not Tierney’s fault though, it’s just lazy scriptwriting. As is, Waldo’s opening narration, wonderfully delivered as it is – unless what we are hearing is what he is typing, it is completely inconsistent with the film’s time scale (the present, whereas the narration suggests the past)

Another (very minor) irritation is the silliness of some of the characters’ actions: everyone tags along Dana Andrews as if it was the most common thing in the world (and to a sense it is in 1930s and 1940s cinema); and everyone obstructs justice and gets away with it (particularly in the maid’s case).

Monday, 14 January 2013

Theodora Goes Wild (1936)

In early 2000, there was a life changing event in my cinema-going life: a season of screwball comedies that for two months made me go repeatedly to the Portuguese Cinematheque. By the end of that season, I had watched some new favourites and some forgettable things (and some that moved from one to the other later on), but more important, I had a good grasp of the genre and had seen most of its key titles. There was, however, one major exception – “Theodora Goes Wild” with Irene Dunne. I got to finally see it in 2009, when the DVD came out. Unsurprisingly I watched it on the same day it arrived.

Was it worth the wait? Oh, yes… Theodora, a small town good girl (Irene Dunne) writes a raunchy novel under a pseudonym. While visiting her publisher in New York, the artist who designed the cover of her book (Melvyn Douglas) takes an interest in her. He ends following her to her small town, and does his best to liberate her from her environment. Only now Theodora goes wild, in a sudden turn (and hilarious, I thought) that the script takes in the third act.

I can definitely add this film to my list of reasons of why I think Irene Dunne is a favourite. From repressed girl in the beginning, to the master and maker of her own destiny at the end, she makes you believe in the growth of her character. Her timing is impeccable, and no matter how many times and how many people have said it before it should be repeated. She also pairs extraordinarly well with Douglas (another of my favourite actors) - just look at the sequences in Lynnsburg, particularly the dueling confrontation between the whistle and the piano and how her face reflects the lyrics. (Also note how the cat and the dog in the scene represent Dunne and Douglas, with the cat following where she can't go...). I freely admit that the later sequences in NY aren't as good as the ones in the small town.

Interestingly, Dunne was reluctant to take the part. She preferred to be thought of as a dramatic actress. However, she could really be both, and she got an Oscar nomination and spanned a career as comedienne, with "The Awful Truth" (and another nomination) and "My Favourite Wife" (both with Cary Grant) as the other highlights. The season at the Portuguese Cinematheque in 2000, showed not only these two, but also "The Joy of Living" and "Lady in a Jam". I recall nothing of either, but I think I liked the first and definitely found the second very weak.

The supporting cast (which includes Thomas Mitchell and Spring Byington), is delicious, particularly the aunts and Byington as the town's gossip (who also gets her own comeuppance).
I decided to watch the film again following a passionate stance on it by Peter Swaab, the curator of the Screwball season at the BFI at the season's introduction. I wasn't able to go to the screenings (would have loved to see in on the big screen, introduced by him), so a DVD session had to do...