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 Schl├╝low. 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 emigr├ę, 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".