(Obsessed with) Vertigo (1958)

As a family we’ve got into the habit of watching a ‘quality’ film on Saturday nights. It can be new, old, critically acclaimed, a cult classic or something we have watched and enjoyed in the past. The broad idea is to give The Boy a sort of education in cinema, and on most occasions titles he might ordinarily have scorned instead become sources of delight. A great success recently was Huston’s The Maltese Falcon, the sort of film in which things are happening all the time, often at a rapid fire pace, and it’s good fun throughout. 12 Angry Men – loved it. Who doesn’t? Of the more recent offerings, we tried Point Break, which is showing its age a bit now but still holds up as an action spectacular.

This weekend it was the turn of Vertigo, my son’s choice having sampled two previous Hitchcock winners in Strangers on a Train and Psycho (the latter, once we got past that scene, which everyone has seen often out of context, ramps up the tension afterwards and found him helplessly caught in the suspenseful mastery). Vertigo is a tougher nut, of course. It divides this house. I adore it. Mrs Mike finds it a bit boring, and it’s quite permissible to have that kind of reaction. On this occasion, the magic didn’t happen. The Boy lasted for about half the film before conceding defeat and walking away, a reaction I thought could happen as it isn’t everyone’s cup of tea.

Vertigo is saddled with the tag of being in many quarters the greatest film of all time. Personally I’m not even sure it’s Hitchcock’s best, though it’s certainly one of a select number of titles that could qualify, but all said whilst a masterpiece it is of the slightly flawed vintage. There are moments, notably the film’s climax, which for me come across as a little on the clunky side, and remain reasons why some critics think it doesn’t quite deserve the exalted status it’s achieved. And yet, when The Boy announced last week that he was selecting Vertigo for our Saturday night movie I admit that I looked forward very much to seeing it again. In the build-up, I listened to Bernard Herrmann’s astonishing score several times. It’s possibly my favourite of them all, of any film soundtrack. Watching it, on my own for the film’s second half, I wallowed in it, the colours brought to vibrant life in its HD transfer. The restoration was so good that it looked as though it could have been released a month ago, rather than sixty years in the past. When I was done I was tempted to go back to the start and catch it all over again, and I can easily picture myself not finishing this piece without another viewing.

It’s a film that I have often wanted to talk about on these pages but at the same time am apprehensive. I would like to find the words that do it justice, capturing what it is about Vertigo that holds an endless fascination for me, and it’s possible I’m not up to the task. It holds the sort of allure that tempts me into booking a ticket to San Francisco so that I can do a pilgrimage of the city, wander in the footsteps of Scotty and Madeleine around its old haunts, like the former do it at five in the morning in the hope of capturing some of its lonely, dreamlike quality, and obviously there would be little point. It’s a different city to the one shown in the film, and many of the locations simply don’t exist now. But I don’t need to do any of that to appreciate and love the picture, one that has every bit as troubled a history as the events it depicts. As bizarre as it seems for such a critically acclaimed work, it’s  worth bearing in mind that contemporary minds did not feel the same way about it, citing Vertigo as indulgent, all over the place, carrying an elusive message that was not realised successfully. Too long. Too slow. Critics had a problem with the film’s twist being explained with a third of it still to run, apparently not ‘getting it’ that its murder mystery elements weren’t really the point. For some years, it wasn’t possible to see Vertigo at all. While not a commercial failure it wasn’t a success, and along with several other titles it was held by the Hitchcock estate until after his death, and even then it was another chunk of time before the film was restored to its present glory.

For my part, I had a similar reaction to The Boy upon my first experience of Vertigo. Screened by Channel 4 in the 1980s as part of a lengthy season of Hitchcock films, back when they still had seasons, it lacked the obvious qualities of other entries that came loaded and taut with sweet suspense. It has since risen to become one of those movies I dust off broadly once per year, and oddly enough I enjoy it more with each watch. Explaining why is a tougher prospect. There are of course the traditional elements, the happy coincidence of director, cast and crew all working at the top of their respective games, and when you’re talking about the Hollywood gold that contributed to Vertigo that’s some game. You can start with thinking that the music makes it, especially because Herrmann’s prelude and the musical accompaniment to the rooftop scene are so strong. The photography is ravishing, another Hitchcock regular Robert Burks on top form and utterly eclipsing the Oscar winning work he put in for To Catch a Thief. He wasn’t nominated for Vertigo, which in hindsight seems like a criminal act because it really doesn’t get any better than this. Whether shooting James Stewart in centre frame sat in his car, then switching to the actor’s perspective as he tracks the languorous progress of Kim Novak’s iconic green Jaguar, or the riot of colour that explodes with the visit to the flower store, it’s a thing of staggering beauty. I would love to visit the Palace of Fine Arts, but I fully expect that seeing it in real life wouldn’t capture the otherworldly romanticism with which Burks shot it in the film.

Hitchcock felt that Stewart’s advancing years made him a less than convincing love interest for the much younger Novak, yet it’s in retrospect that we can appreciate it’s exactly this quality that makes his character’s story so tragic – all those wasted years, the ‘make do’ option of Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes), the chance of happiness with Novak’s Madeleine that’s snatched, brief and elusive, and will haunt him forever, the startling ice blue in his eyes that adds a maniacal aspect to his obsessive, doomed pursuit. As for Novak, I remember writing a piece some time ago about Strangers When We Meet (that I have since lost, because I’m good like that), which turned into something of a worship at her feet. No doubt a hard hitting title by 1960 standards, Novak stood out amidst a distinguished cast as the woman trapped by her own beauty, doomed to be hit upon and defined by her sexuality forever. The actor and director Richard Quine were frequent collaborators, so you would imagine he knew how to use her to best effect by this stage, but Hitchcock had one attempt and coaxed this performance out of her. While you can interpret the Hitchcockian motive behind Stewart’s efforts to reproduce his lost bleached blonde love before he will love her however you want, the truth is she’s every bit as transfixing as Scottie finds her. The camera loves watching Novak, with her (apparently not feigned) physical awkwardness, the inner turmoil, her vulnerability. And she wasn’t even the first choice, Vera Miles having dropped out when she became pregnant. What a break. I’m genuinely not sure if I have ever seen a better job of acting than the one Novak produced here. It seems so natural, perhaps an innate quality that Hitchcock was able to tap into.

As I mentioned earlier I don’t think it’s a perfect movie. The standard’s so high that the false notes tend to stick out, though they’re few and far between. I do happen to believe it’s almost as good as the moving image ever tends to get, however. Sure there are pacier films, where stuff happens more quickly so that you don’t get bored, but for me there are few things better than watching beautifully constructed sequences of shots, dependably transferred from the storyboard to the screen, Scottie trailing Madeleine as Herrmann’s melancholic score drifts lazily along, an unsettling undertone to suggest the trap he’s falling into, the luxuriant quality heightening the sense of romance, the cossetted world this pair enter where there’s just each other. The music even keeps on playing when Madeleine drops into the San Francisco Bay, suddenly chaotic as if the score, like Scottie, can’t quite believe what it’s seeing.

A very famous Hitchcock quote goes ‘What is drama but life with the dull bits cut out?‘ and I don’t think it was ever more apt than in the case of Vertigo.  Just about every frame contains some visual clue about where the story’s going, showing the sheer level of care and attention that went into the film. Unlike many films that are considered up there with the best, it’s all very accessible and easy enough to follow, even if it takes a few viewings to get everything that’s happening. And best of all, and I can’t emphasise this enough, it’s just so rapturously gorgeous, from its actors to the production values, among the very highest of their time. It’s all so good that you end up wanting these tortured souls to find a morsel of happiness, even though the note of impending doom, the spiral towards destruction that featured on much of Vertigo’s artwork, informs you at every stage that it’s heading in the opposite direction. For little over two hours, Vertigo holds you in a kind of grip, I think a trancelike state, where you’re in something close to a dream, and at the very end real life – with all its troubled history – comes crashing in, as if calling time. But getting there is one of cinema’s greatest joys, and I can’t think of a better recommendation than that.

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Ramble through the 2018 Oscars

It’s that time again, just a year since the previous Academy Awards and a guarantee that they’ll read the name of the correct winner this time around. Last year, I made a point of seeing all the Best Picture nominees, or at least all but the eventual victor obviously (something I soon redressed); on this occasion through a combination of laziness and lack of accessibility I haven’t been able to do the same. I could have caught The Phantom Thread, for example, but I would have had to travel to do so and in all honesty I couldn’t be bothered. There were just things that I wanted to watch more, and I hope at this stage you aren’t all going to click off as I reveal that I find Paul Thomas Anderson’s movies to be a bit of a chore sometimes.

At the time of writing, I’ve covered five of the nine finalists. Of these, the best for me is clearly Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, a haunting and rather droll drama about death and its fallout. The curiousity is that Martin McDonagh’s sudden prominence has come as any sort of surprise. In Bruges was an utter blast, both very funny and quite moving, and at the time who knew Ralph Fiennes had such a gift for comedy? I would place Dunkirk in second place, if for nothing else then for Nolan’s willingness and skill in finding new ways to tell a well-trodden story, also because it’s such a tense watch. I liked but wasn’t blown away by The Shape of Water. A residual love for Guillermo del Toro saw it across the line, but I couldn’t escape the nagging feeling that I’ve seen it all before – the director made a better fist of his off-kilter fairy tale oeuvre with Pan’s Labyrinth, and despite doing little wrong – the period detail was especially well observed – this one felt kind of thin and stretched, like there wasn’t really enough going on for a full-length feature. I liked Get Out a lot and am pleased to see it get this kind of recognition, but I don’t see it as a potential best film of the year and suspect there’s an agenda by the Academy to its positioning. Finally, and by some distance, is Darkest Hour. I’m a sucker for (i) Gary Oldman (ii) films about wartime (iii) prods against the Establishment, but every bit of love for this entry drives from a first rate performance by its lead actor because much of the rest seemed cliched and set in the usual fictionalised England that didn’t exist outside a Hollywood writer’s room.  Besides which, anyone who’s watched Netflix’s The Crown knows that it’s possible to coax a striking Churchillian turn from a left-field casting choice…

The film I thought was the best of the previous year didn’t get anywhere save for the technical categories, and that was Blade Runner 2049. I was enraptured enough to have watched it three times now, and increasingly it strikes me as a five star piece of work. Just think how easy it would have been to have given us more of the same, and instead we get an entirely new plot set within the world of Deckard and Replicants, a tale that answers a stack of questions set by the original film and poses new ones, all with a thread of topicality and what it means to be human. Wonderful stuff, and that’s without a word on the frankly incredible job of world building, Deakins’s cinematography and the sound design. I would shower it with honours, and along the way I’d find time to praise the actors also.

Of course, disagreeing with the Academy is nothing new. I indulged a week off work catching up on some old unseen titles, particularly previous Oscar winners, and what a mixed bag it is. Take the first ever Awards, ninety years ago, and the honours going to Wings. On the night Sunrise was given what appeared to be an equally weighted trophy, but it’s Wellman’s World War One epic that’s considered the outright Best Picture. Having seen both, I feel Sunrise has aged far better, and retains an elegiac, haunting quality that’s as powerful now as it was when Murnau first shot it, whereas Wings… Well, it’s fine. Notable for its aerial photography, the film explodes into life when depicting dog-fights between the primitive planes waging war miles above the trenches, even serving up some colour via the machine gun fire. Elsewhere, the opening comedy of errors leads to a largely tension-free love rivalry between the two male leads, while Clara Bow – effortlessly worthy of more attention than she receives – watches on longingly. Both films are available in restored, HD editions, and are well worth seeing, but for me there’s little contest between which of the two deserves the higher praise.

Years later, there’s the Oscar for Gentleman’s Agreement, a film that promised to life the lid on anti-Semitism in post-war America. Gregory Peck is always a star I’d pay to see, but the real draw was John Garfield, that great ‘what if’ of an actor who tragically didn’t get the lasting career and plaudits his talent warranted. Sadly, it all turned out to be sanitised and safe, even resorting to some jarring exposition when Peck explains the point of it all to his son, played by a very young Dean Stockwell. At around the same time, I happened to catch Odds Against Tomorrow on Blu-Ray, a late-period classic Noir, which did a much better job of exploring themes of racism as part of a wider narrative. The film’s about a bank heist, focusing on the lengthy build-up by following the fortunes of its protagonists, Harry Bellafonte’s debt-ridden gambler and Robert Ryan. the robbery is doomed to fail before it even takes place, we learn, largely because the two men are so diametrically opposed. Ryan plays pretty much the same character he essayed in Crossfire, an unremitting racist with some casual misogyny thrown in, all in all a complete arsehole who deserves nothing less than his fate in the film. I thought it was riveting, a smashing work from Robert Wise during his richest period as a director, but despite dealing so eloquently with issues surrounding bigotry didn’t even trouble that year’s Oscars. I guess it’s easy to dismiss this one as a heist movie, however there’s so much more bubbling beneath the surface and it deserves to be better known.

For the record then, here are my ten favourites of the Best Picture winners, in date order…

1. All Quiet on the Western Front (1929/30)
2. Rebecca (1940)
3. Casablanca (1943)
4. The Lost Weekend (1945)
5. The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)
6. The Apartment (1960)
7. The Godfather (1972)
8. The Godfather Part II (1974)
9. Amadeus (1984)
10. The Artist (2011)

Jut goes to show there’s no accounting for taste, huh?

Whistle down the Wind (1961)

When it’s on: Thursday, 4 January (6.30 pm)
Channel: Talking Pictures
IMDb Link

We’re heading towards the end of this two week blitz of seasonal postings on the site, and what better film to cover than a charming slice of northern whimsy like Whistle down the Wind? Bryan Mills might be better known as a director for some of his later works, but this debut in the chair, produced by Richard Attenborough, showcasing child star Hayley Mills, and offering an early major screen role for Alan Bates, takes some beating.

The funny thing about Whistle down the Wind is that it isn’t incredibly well known, but those who have seen it tend to fall under its spell, perhaps enchanted by a film set in the shadow of Pendle Hill, Lancashire. The landmark is famous for its seventeenth century witch trials and is difficult to miss – I don’t have to travel far to see its iconic whaleback outline, isolated from the Pennines so that it stands out on the horizon. I climbed its 557 metres a few years ago, so I know what it’s like to risk a heart attack thanks to a reckless, punishing act! In any event, for a mere hill it holds a mysterious, romantic allure for visitors, while presenting a stark jab of nature into a region that grew during the Industrial Revolution. Burnley is the nearest town, once a centre for cotton production, while the hamlets that were built in the shadow of Pendle are slightly remote farming communities. It’s in the latter that the film is set.

Bernard Lee plays Bostock, a middle aged farmer whose wife died several years ago and now lives with Auntie Dorothy (Elsie Wagstaff). When irresponsible farmhand Eddie (Norman Bird) tosses a sack containing kittens into the river, they’re saved from a watery death by Bostock’s three children, Kathie (Mills), her younger sister Nan (Diane Holgate) and little brother Charles (Alan Barnes). The kids then try to find a new home for the cats, offering them to a Salvation Army official who says she can’t take them but that Jesus will make sure they’re looked after. Resigned to keeping the kittens for the present, they set up a temporary shelter in their barn, and it’s here they come across an injured and delirious man (Bates), who exclaims ‘Jesus Christ!’ when Kathie asks him who he is. He falls unconscious, and the children make the obvious leap of imagination that the stranger is none other than Jesus himself.

Over the next few days, the children bring ‘Jesus’ things to eat and slowly help him to regain his strength, letting slip their discovery to other local children so that the legend begins to spread. In the meantime, the little community is rocked by the news that an escaped wife murderer might be somewhere in the area. Police are combing the region, and Bostock tells his children not to get involved with strange men.

The story is about the formation of a myth, more specifically the ability of children to develop their own lore and in the film applying the history of Jesus – they’re taught about his miracles in Sunday School classes, led by Diane Clare’s patient teacher – that takes them out of their tough, agricultural lives to the mythology of the man in the barn. The disconnect between reality and Clare’s fantastical yarns is clear, and makes it equally obvious whether Bates is really Jesus or not, but there’s an earnest yearning among Kathie, her siblings and their friends that turns the film into an optimistic fable. For a time, imagination and the longing for something ‘bigger’ and more meaningful than themselves and their world takes precedent. The man neither confirms or denies their assertions over his identity, which adds to the mystery and allure surrounding him.

Forbes adds to the fable by linking the childrens’ meetings with the stranger to Bible tales. Their first encounter involves the three siblings, an allusion to the three wise men, and when their group extends to twelve you get the same number as the apostles. One of the kids, Jackie (Roy Holder) is picked on by a school bully to whom he claims he knows Jesus. Held in an arm lock he’s forced to deny this three times, before a train whistle sounds in the distance – the imagery should be clear enough. It’s at its most obvious in the scene where the stranger is finally arrested. Standing outside the barn where he’s been hiding and forced to stretch for a search, his silhouette against the stark white background of the sky forms the shape of the cross. All the while, the children start attributing every day acts to the power of Jesus. It starts raining and then it stops. They wonder whether he’s responsible.

Bates puts in a real star-making performance as the stranger, often communicating in little more than grunts approximating dialogue and doing the rest of the acting with his eyes, not quite believing what’s happening and having no choice but to play along with the delusion. Though a killer, there’s little suggestion that the children are in any danger from him, and the threat he represents is more implied by their blind trust rather than anything he does. Hayley Mills, the daughter of John Mills and Mary Hayley Bell (the latter wrote the novel upon which the film is based, with her daughter ever in mind for the role of Kathie), was already a star when she made Whistle down the Wind. She was Disney’s child actor of choice, but affected a note perfect northern accent and fit the part with ease, though she’s upstaged by Barnes as her little brother. Worldly wise and nasal, Barnes steals all the scenes he appears in. His catchphrase, the withering ‘It isn’t Jesus, it’s just a fella‘ could be the film’s tagline, delivered most significantly after the stranger has failed to look after his stray cat and allowed it to die. Holgate adds good value as the middle child, the focus of all those shots that depict her looking hopefully at ‘Jesus’ as though everything depends on him being the real thing. As for the other adults, Lee is fine and understated, gruff with his children yet kindly, and there isn’t a bad performance elsewhere.

Shot in crisp black and white photography, adding to the bleakness of the location while making it appear more evocative and less dirty than it deserves, and a wistful score from Malcolm Arnold that weaves in hymns and Christmas Carols, there’s a lot to cherish here. I think it’s a delightful piece of work, all about that hinterland between childhood and growing up, when you let yourself dream and hope against hope that some of it will stick. Some interpretations of the final scene suggest Kathie is left devastated by the film’s final twist, but my impression is it ends on an optimistic note, that there’s enough in what she saw and experienced to make her suspect she’ll have those feelings again some day.

Whistle down the Wind: ****

The First of the Few (1942)

When it’s on: Wednesday, 3 January (12.30 pm)
Channel: Spike
IMDb Link

The First of the Few was retitled as Spitfire for its release in some territories outside Britain, notably America. The suggestion is that US viewers knew of the British fighter plane well enough, but were less familiar with the film’s original name, a play on Winston Churchill’s famous ‘Never has so much been owed by so many to so few‘ comment about the RAF pilots who fought and won the Battle of Britain. The ‘first’ of the title refers to R. J. Mitchell, the aeronautical engineer who designed racing seaplanes and was ultimately responsible for developing the Spitfire itself.

Returning to Britain after World War Two erupted, Leslie Howard shrugged off the matinee image that had been crafted for him in Hollywood to become quite the emotional figurehead. The diffident figure he cut in Gone with the Wind, by some distance the least memorable of the principal players in that epic, was suddenly an active participant in propagandist and morale-boosting efforts. He appeared in movies, made many public appearances, all to defy the Nazis and defend his realm. Howard became so prominent that no less a figure than Lord Haw-Haw denounced him over the airwaves. Increasingly the actor was taking fuller roles in his productions. He shared directorial duties on 1938’s Pygmalion and made Pimpernel Smith in 1941. The First of the Few followed in 1942.

The film was supported by no less a figure than Churchill, who asked the RAF to give the production unprecedented access to its planes and airfields. This seal of approval ensured The First of the Few would fulfil its positive image of both Mitchell and his cause, albeit in romanticising his story. Howard played Mitchell as a softly spoken English gentleman, really a stylised version of himself, whereas in reality the engineer was a tough, working class Potteries man, given to bouts of barely controlled rage and torrents of abusive language. This might not have suited the image Howard wanted to project, though he did seize on Mitchell’s work ethic, the fact he’d driven himself into an early grave when he continued to work on the Spitfire despite the ravages of rectal cancer. In the film, the nature of Mitchell’s illness is never disclosed, but his determination to get the Spitfire finished rather than take a long break for his own health is shown, and adds a suitable heroic note to the man’s efforts. More importantly, the film gave this then rather obscure figure a platform, bringing him to public acclaim as an unsung champion, which given the success of the fighter plane was no less than he deserved.

Mitchell’s story is told in flashback. A squadron of pilots is taking a short break in between shooting down German attackers. They’re met by David Niven’s Geoffrey Crisp, who begins telling them Mitchell’s story, the implication being that it’s one few people knew. Crisp was an invention of the film, an amalgamation of a number of test pilots who worked alongside him during the years, most notably Jeffrey Quill who made an uncredited cameo as the pilot performing those acrobatic leaps and daring dives in the test of the Spitfire. Crisp, a ‘lifelong friend’ of Mitchell’s, works as his pilot during the 1920s, a period of growing success in the development of seaplanes that came to regularly win competitions and break speed records. Taking a holiday to Germany in the early 1930s, the pair meet Nazis, who unsubtly prophesise that the Fatherland will one day dominate Europe. Mitchell and Crisp see the obvious danger, and return home to work flat out on a fighter plane that will eventually be capable of defending the island. As his bouts of sickness increase, Mitchell sacrifices himself for the cause. Told by his doctor that he can last no longer than eight months without a significant rest, Mitchell declares that it’s time enough and carries on.

Though embellished, the story manages to take in Mitchell’s struggle to get his plane worked on in spite of a government more focused on appeasement and saving money, which strikes a true note about the period. He’s supported financially by Lady Houston (Toni Edgar-Bruce), an aristocratic patriot who like Mitchell can see the threat posed by the fascists, and believes in his dream. The film’s dig at the ostrich-like government of the pre-war years reflects Britain’s own withering attitude towards its officials, who only come to appreciate where things are heading at the last minute, when it’s almost too late to make effective plans to counter Germany, along with the vision of people like Mitchell, who ‘got it’ early enough.

There’s a temptation with films like this to mock it, in particular the perception it creates of some misty-eyed, half remembered past when pipe-smoking Professorial types could be heroes, imbued with the traditional ‘make do and mend’ mentality that is exhorted as a uniquely British virtue.  In contrast the Germans, depicted in the film’s entirely fictionalised episode, are shown as megalomaniac villains, determined to break the Treaty of Versailles and make their country great again, no matter who suffers in the process. It’s a cartoonish representation and a bit of a false step, as elsewhere the film attempts to strike an authentic note in recounting Mitchell’s story, and rather carefully builds his image as a dedicated and quietly resolute engineer. He’s shown as possessing that vanguard British virtue, getting to where he does thanks to years of hard work and an inventive mind. The concept that will eventually blossom into the Spitfire is inspired by birds, Mitchell’s aim to develop planes that are based on their natural, physical ‘engineering’ at a time when everyone else was a long way behind technically.

The First of the Few is directed in semi-documentary style, opening with a narration about Germany before depicting Mitchell’s life, his achievements and pitfalls, in episodic snapshots. Crisp appears to have been created as a more easily digestible cinematic character and Niven plays him just right, giving him personality and a winning charm as he makes to woo a succession of ladies, most of whom turn out to be already married.

But it’s Howard’s film, even if he plays Mitchell as a rather typically British one-noter of determination and bluff. It’s an encapsulation of the English ideal, the sort celebrated by the Daily Mail and efficiently performed, Howard’s traditional ‘under playing’ transforming him into the embodiment of pluck and virtue.

It’s easy enough, watching this, to see the reasons for his success during this period, and his status as someone Germany might want to see out of the way. Less than a year after its release and several days before it debuted in American theatres, Howard was dead, most likely shot down by Nazi Junkers while on a flight from Portugal to Britain. Rumours about this persisted. One conspiracy theory suggested he was sacrificed as Churchill was on a plane at the same time and British Intelligence deliberately leaked that Howard’s flight was carrying a VIP. Another speculated that Enigma messages intercepted by code-breakers revealed the Nazi plan to take Howard down, and the difficult decision was taken to let it happen so that Britain’s ability to decode the machine would not be revealed to the enemy. Most likely it was down to an error of judgement, a fateful act that would normally have involved Howard’s plane being escorted to France and its occupants taken as prisoners.

The First of the Few: ***

Richard III (1955)

When it’s on: Tuesday, 2 January (12.00 midnight)
Channel: Talking Pictures
IMDb Link

Laurence Olivier directed and starred in three big screen adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays – there were halted preparations to film a version of Macbeth, featuring his wife Vivien Leigh as Lady Macbeth, which sounds like it has the potential to be delicious viewing, but the legacy remains Henry V, Hamlet and Richard III. The best known of these is probably his Oscar winning Prince of Denmark, and you can sort of see why it was acclaimed at the time – must of the fat cut away, all those sweeping, portentous shots of castle staircases and corridors, but of the trio it’s my least favourite and without doubt it’s been done better elsewhere. Henry V is an astonishing technical achievement. Beginning as a contemporary troupe of actors performing it on the boards at the Stratford Globe, at some stage the ‘filmed play’ transforms into Hal and his fellow soldiers crossing medieval France and building to a genuinely breathless and superbly mounted Agincourt. It was made as a propaganda exercise, a rabble rouser for the troops, and it’s great viewing, a virtuous attempt to show how such old material can have relevance and entertainment value in more modern times. Perhaps the Branagh update, with its heavy emphasis on the sweat, grime and blood of battle, carries more resonance, but there’s a lot to be said for Olivier’s romantic and patriotic interpretation.

Then there’s Richard III, quite a different character on whom to focus and a moderate success compared with Olivier’s two previous adaptations, and yet in hindsight perhaps the best one. It’s undoubtedly my choice. Fans of the political drama series House of Cards, with its fourth wall breaking of Francis Urquhart/Underwood sharing his plans and feelings with the audience, need look no further than this one for its inspiration. Olivier’s impish Duke of Gloucester waits for the other characters to leave the scene, before turning to the camera and outlining what’s on his mind with the viewer, sometimes making to take us by the arm as he talks, as though we’re a silent witness at the court, knee deep in his machinations and sworn to keep his dark secrets. I think it’s great fun, and Olivier seems to be having fun also, playing Richard as a smiling villain, utterly without scruples in his wiping out of anyone who stands betwixt himself and the crown. Those seeking a more cinematic comparison might see Richard as akin to the charming yet murderous Louis in Kind Hearts and Coronets, narrating his schemes throughout with little feeling of remorse.

As with his two previous adaptations, Olivier cut and amended scenes from the text to produce a more cinematic and muscular movie, and to increase Richard’s Machiavellian villainy. The early scene where he courts Anne (Claire Bloom) becomes more diabolical as he tells her he plans to marry her, having disturbed her procession into the church with the coffin containing her Lancashire supporting husband, killed in battle by none other than Richard himself. As disgusted as she is by his proposal, she capitulates when he makes her choose to either run him through or marry him, knowing she’s too faint-hearted to do the former. He expedites the death of his own brother Clarence (John Gielgud), and plays a more direct role in bringing about the death of the king and his oldest brother, Edward IV (Cedric Hardwicke).

In one of the film’s most powerful moments, the young Duke of York (Andy Shine) makes a joke about Richard’s hunchback, and suddenly the feigned jollity falls away; Olivier turns and fixes the child with such a malevolent glare that he physically backs away, terrified by the monster that was always there, beneath his uncle’s exterior, and now unmasked. This bit of stage direction was invented by Olivier for the film, adding layers to the character’s evil for, as we know, the Duke  and his brother are fated to be the Princes in the Tower.

For all Olivier’s cuts Richard III remains more than two and a half hours in length. It’s a meaty play, a lot to take in, and yet it’s completely compelling thanks in part to the star’s performance, the amazing way he has of making Richard a charismatic protagonist, to such an extent that you almost come to wish he won’t suffer the end that’s coming to him. He’s by some distance the most interesting character in the story, funny and engaging, despite the stoop of his disabilities someone who towers over the court, a sharp contrast with and leagues ahead of its stiff manners and bland gallantry.

Production levels were high, as London Films supported Richard III with a £6 million budget following the commercial success of Henry V and Hamlet. Most of it was filmed at Shepperton, Olivier making painstaking efforts to create as authentic a late medieval environment as possible, going so far as to change a piece of heraldry on the set when it was pointed out to him that the original decoration was incorrect. Olivier didn’t want to direct, aware of how debilitating it was to have to do two key jobs on set, and initially offered the job to Carol Reed. His misgivings proved justified as Richard III developed into an arduous shoot, particularly when the production moved to Spain to film the Battle of Bosworth scenes. Along with sitting on a horse that was suddenly mounted by another, he took an arrow in the leg (fortunately for the shoot it was Richard’s lame leg) and was so ‘in the moment’ that he checked how well the accident would hold up on film before seeing the doctor.

Richard III’s almost ridiculously classy cast was not the group of players Olivier intended to assemble. He wanted Richard Burton, Richard Attenborough and John Mills. Orson Welles was his preference for the role of the duplicitous Duke of Buckingham. Instead, he worked with the actors routinely considered the stage titans of their century – Gielgud, Hardwicke and Ralph Richardson, not to mention Olivier himself. Helen Haye, who had been acting on film for as long as there’d been a British industry, made her screen swansong as the Duchess of York. There were roles for not inconsiderable presences like Andrew Cruikshank, Laurence Naismith, Douglas Wilmer, and Stanley Baker played the future Henry VII, while Hammer staples Michael Gough and Michael Ripper took small parts as Richard’s hired executioners, getting the ghoulish delight of drowning Gielgud’s Clarence inside a barrel of wine.

Olivier’s performance earned him a BAFTA and an Oscar nomination, yet perhaps the film would have done better but for producer Alexander Korda’s fateful agreement with NBC. For a fee of $500,000, Richard III made its American premiere on the small screen as well as being theatrically exhibited. This no doubt had an effect on its box office takings, and dismayed Olivier who felt that the film’s widescreen production would not be showcased to best effect on television. Korda might have argued that Richard III wasn’t Olivier’s most cinematic offering. Until the climactic Bosworth scenes, it’s filmed as though shooting a play, the focus on the characters and their dialogue rather than interpreting the action with a screen audience in mind, as in Henry V. It’s justified because the material is so good and Olivier’s adaptation crackles, but the 1995 version starring Ian McKellen takes a more imaginative approach to the text.

For all his attempts at accuracy, Olivier ignore the revisionist approach that makes it clear this Richard III is almost entirely fictional. The play was written by Shakespeare for a Tudor audience and ties in with the propaganda following Henry VII’s ascendance that Richard had been a murderous usurper. Shakespeare toed the line, turning his minor physical defects into outright deformities and his circuitous route to the throne a consequence of ruthless scheming against family members. None of it is actually true, or at least it’s unsubstantiated. though at least its presentation of the villainous king as a reader of The Prince, Machiavelli’s guide book for rulers that was in circulation at the time, sounds about right. Personally, I would love to see an interpretation of the play that hints at the string of deaths as being ambiguous rather than pointing the finger squarely at Richard. There’s no doubt, however, that Olivier’s playing of him as a blood-soaked monster allows him to let rip on the character, performing Richard with twinkle-eyed glee and remaining true to his potential as the Bard’s most thoroughly entertaining baddie, leaving viewers to feel somewhat unsettled by their enjoyment while following his mounting crimes.

As a footnote, I am happy to refer to the BFI’s comment that in being screened on American network television and watched by audiences of up to 40 million, Olivier became responsible for Richard III being seen by more people than the total of its entire theatrical run since 1592. It’s a little sad that they didn’t get to enjoy the full Vistavision presentation, which we can thanks to recent restorations. I own the Network Blu-Ray, which contains a glorious print, and includes as an extra The Trial of King Richard the Third, a BBC production from 1984 that determined Richard’s guilt or innocence via the means of a courtroom trial.

Richard III: ****

Dances with Wolves (1990)

When it’s on: Monday, 1 January (1.30 pm)
Channel: BBC2
IMDb Link

The received wisdom is that Goodfellas was the best film of 1990 but it lost out to Dances with Wolves, Kevin Costner’s directorial debut that told an all-too worthy story about the Frontier and helped to conceive one of the most infamous snubs in the history of the Academy Awards, up there with the time How Green was my Valley triumphed over Citizen Kane.

In the history of Oscar controversies, this is up there with the most notorious. While I’m not about to argue the merits of the two films involved, what I will say is that I love Dances with Wolves. I loved it when I first caught it at the cinema (with a very bored girlfriend – she didn’t last), and I feel the same way now. The version I own is the extended cut on Blu-Ray, which doesn’t add a lot in terms of plot development but does flesh the characters out a little more and, best of all, gives me more time to spend with this fascinating and lovingly made picture.

One of the contemporary notes I would like to make is that when it was made, the Western was to all intents and purposes extinct. There was the usual scattering of B movies, but mainly the genre was used as comic reference (Back to the Future Part III) or to indulge the young stars of the day (Young Guns II). It was a gamble, not least because Costner was untried and had given little impression he was ready to step up to the chair, only taking the job when established directors turned down the assignment. Handed a $10 million budget by Orion, he crowd-sourced a further five million from foreign investors and paid for the three mill overspend out of his own pocket. The story, based on writer Michael Blake’s research into Native Americans, chimed with Hollywood sensibilities of the time, the revisionist attitude to Vietnam that had produced the likes of Platoon and now took in the pushing back of the American frontier, and the inglorious fate of the people who were indigenous to it. While Western movies had long since abandoned the treatment of Indians as mindless savages, telling stories as far back as Broken Arrow that showed them in a sympathetic light, Dances with Wolves offered more, entering the homes of Sioux tribes and exploring in some depth their culture and language. The effort was to depict Indians as decent, honourable, and without the technology of the expansionists every bit as sophisticated and in fact better at protecting their environment.

The story follows John Dunbar (Costner), a Lieutenant in the Union Army during the Civil War. Injured in battle and then performing an act of heroism in order to save his leg from being amputated, Dunbar is given his choice of postings and volunteers to join a frontier regiment. Turning up at the remote and abandoned Fort Sedgwick, he takes to the task of rebuilding it and holding on until the arrival of relief soldiers. Alone, he battles the solitude by exploring his new environment, keeping a diary of what he discovers. All the while the neighbouring Sioux tribe is watching him, attempting at one point to steal his horse in an effort to intimidate him, before eventually visiting him. An uneasy friendship starts. Dunbar finds himself respecting his neighbours, fascinated by them and their customs, making efforts to learn their language, and when he discovers the arrival of a buffalo herd he takes it as an opportunity to improve relations. The Sioux have problems of their own. As well as depending on the declining buffalo population for sustenance, they face attacks from the warlike Pawnee tribe, and are aware of the long-term threat of settlers moving west.

If Dances with Wolves has issues, then they begin with the stately pace at which all this takes place. Costner takes his good time in soaking up the natural wonders of the frontier (filmed largely on private ranches in South Dakota), while the critical development of his relations with the Sioux happen organically, over time and highlights all the barriers as well as the benefits to their friendship. This is either great or interminably slow, and while I’m happily of the former opinion I can understand that the film’s leisurely narrative has the potential to frustrate some viewers. Added to this is Costner’s performance. I have no problem with it and think he carries the film well enough, however in a story that aches for authenticity it’s possibly tough to watch this native Californian with his neat, modern West Coast dialect and wonder how he could be there at all. Dunbar’s mission as an open-minded adventurer who falls for the Sioux way of life also becomes difficult to take. Practically every white man apart from Dunbar is evil, morally corrupt against the implacable nobility of the Sioux, which is intended to generate an air of tragedy, the sure knowledge that ultimately the latter will vanish in their native form, but a bit more balance would surely have worked in its favour.

For all those elements, it’s still a film I really enjoy, and I’m happy enough to sit through more than three hours of it and even prepared to lump on the extra hour of director’s cut material. Whatever my issues with the ‘black and white’ treatment of its characters, I find the steady build-up of Dunbar’s understanding of the Sioux to be quite fascinating, intended to educate us at the same time as he learns things and doing it successfully. Graham Greene’s performance as the tribe’s medicine man, Kicking Bird, is superb, rounded as the character’s conservatism is balanced with his wish for friendship with Dunbar. As Stands with a Fist, a white woman adopted by the tribe and eventually Dunbar’s wife, Mary McDonnell produces some fine work, reluctant to endear herself to the Sioux’s ‘alien’ visitor and yet drawn to him. Rodney A. Grant plays Wind in his Hair, a young warrior who takes more time to get over his mistrustful instincts of Dunbar, and is also very good. The film has to convince us of the reality of these people, and does it very well thanks to casting Native American actors and breathing life into their customs and attitude. In one of the film’s more poignant moments, tribe elder Ten Bears (Floyd ‘Red Crow’ Westerman) shows Dunbar the helmet of a Spanish Conquistador, a symbol of the invaders who will eventually pass into history and leave them alone, but thinking this is going to happen again with the Americans is a fantasy, one of which Dunbar is only too aware.

Beyond the story, a sympathetic treatment of Native Americans that for its time was relatively fresh, the film’s technical elements are superb. I have been playing the John Barry score while writing these comments, and it feels like a perfect fit. The music offers all the epic sweep of the frontier, but with heavy melancholic notes, like it knows as well as the viewer that despite Dunbar’s romanticism and the tribe’s nobility none of it will endure. The pushing back of the frontier is inevitable, and an entire way of life will be lost. Barry won the Oscar for his score, as did Dean Semler, the cinematographer who had the job of bringing the virgin frontier to life. Quite simply it’s a gorgeous effort, all untamed landscapes and endless skies, in every frame the big country that the Midwest was for its explorers. Added to that are the logistics of putting more than 3,000 buffalo on the screen and getting them to ‘act’ the role of being a herd that’s pursued by the Sioux. In an era when digital effects were too new to recreate the animals with any semblance of reality, those really are thousands of animals being made to stampede, which they would do for miles and represented a danger to the actors working with them, and anybody unfortunate enough to be standing in their path. And yet the effect is worth it; the sight is something you don’t see in real life anymore and was recreated brilliantly for the film.

So, a movie that perhaps isn’t perfect. Its sympathies are clear, bordering on hand-wringing, and when Roger Ebert described it as a ‘sentimental fantasy’ you know exactly what he meant. Though a fictional character, it’s possible that someone like Dunbar really did exist, enchanted by the Indian tribe to the extent of integrating himself as one of them, but the stark reality is that western expansion just swallowed up everything and everyone in its path, which ensures the film carries an air of sadness. And yet it’s also a great adventure yarn, made with care and attention to detail, its attempts at accuracy so painstaking that the occasional fault can be overlooked within the overall effort. Dances with Wolves can also be credited with breathing life back into the Western genre. As mentioned elsewhere on these pages, Westerns were at their best when reflecting contemporary American sensibilities, using the setting to hold a mirror up the values, beliefs and concerns of the time. During the genre’s Golden Age of the 1950s, the movies were a perfect counterpoint to attitudes in the USA, and Dances with Wolves continues that grand tradition.

Dances with Wolves: ****

The Innocents (1961)

When it’s on: Sunday, 31 December (10.00 pm)
Channel: Talking Pictures
IMDb Link

One of my favourite Christmas traditions is the classic ghost story. M.R. James, the Godfather in this regard, introduced his now famous yarns by reading them orally to his friends on Christmas Eve, only later having them collected into written volumes. These later found new audiences via television and the BBC’s A Ghost Story for Christmas series by Lawrence Gordon Clark in the 1970s, which has been revived with more recent adaptations that carefully follow the filming style and maintain the tone and pace set by Clark. These offerings can be frustrating for younger viewers, used to the jump cuts and CGI of modern horror cinema, but I would argue they drip with atmosphere and have an oblique quality so lacking in the films made now. For instance, It, the most successful horror film in recent years, is terrifying in places and I enjoyed it, though the conflict is a fairly straight ‘good versus evil’ story where anything but triumph for the former would amount to cheating the viewer. James’s yarns are fascinating because their protagonists aren’t necessarily bad people, but become embroiled in situations they would be better leaving alone, often with links to some forgotten, arcane past and ancient spirits that take unkindly to being disturbed. Crucially, there’s a suggestion that all the horrible things that take place are happening entirely in the characters’ heads, that their horrific encounters are the embodiment of psychological flaws, or a naive, closed mind unequipped to deal with elements of the unknown.

All these stories relied, above all, on atmosphere, a very careful build-up of dread from quite mundane starting points, the suggestion of course being that similar things could happen to anyone. Films that work similarly hard to create this are pretty much at the top of my horror genre tree. It doesn’t get a lot better than Robert Wise’s The Haunting, but there’s the folk horror of The Wicker Man, the streets of Venice brought to dimly lit, decaying life in Don’t Look Now, and the psychological thrills of Val Lewton’s RKO films to consider. None of these films came with enormous budgets. Gore and body horror were barely present. What they had was mood, often a downbeat tone related to some personal loss, suspense to spare, and a dark pallor. The body of work produced by Lewton is celebrated now and was at times box office gold contemporarily, not because of thrills but down specially to what you don’t see, your imagination filling in those shadowy, black spaces that of course contain nothing at all.

Into this comes Jack Clayton’s The Innocents, adapted from Henry James’s 1898 story, The Turn of the Screw. The film has what in effect are two parallel plotlines. They are:

Plot One
Miss Giddens (Deborah Kerr) is hired by Michael Redgrave as Governess to his recently orphaned nephew and niece. The children live in his sprawling country estate, a massive dwelling that turns out to be haunted by the ghosts of two recently deceased people – Quint (Peter Wyngarde), the ill-natured valet, and Miss Jessel (Clytie Jessop), the former Governess who fell in love with Quint, carried out an open sexual affair with him often in front of the children, and committed suicide after his demise. To her dawning horror, Miss Giddens finds that Miles (Martin Stephens) and Flora (Pamela Franklin) remain in thrall to the pair, possessed by their spirits, and resolves to free them before it’s too late.

Plot Two
Miss Giddens is an inexperienced Pastor’s daughter hired by Redgrave as Governess. Redgrave’s man about town cares only that someone is present to fill the role and therefore ignores Miss Giddens’s naivete, giving her full authority over the Bly spread. Despite being advised by the housekeeper, Mrs Grose (Megs Jenkins), that the children have a habit of running rings around people, the new Governess finds them both delightful and indulges them. Practically alone with the children in an enormous stately pile, away from the confines of her small home and with little beyond her cossetted upbringing to reply upon, she starts seeing things, picturing spirits of the dead. Her grip on reality slips as she hectors Flora and embarks on a relationship with the apparently ‘mature’ Miles that borders on the inappropriate, while around her the house shows signs of the decay that reflect her own fraying nerves.

You can choose either version of the events. The film simply throws out the clues and leaves the rest for the viewer to decide, and a deliciously constructed conundrum it is. I’ve watched The Innocents many times and can’t make my mind up entirely, however it’s a personal favourite and one to enjoy late at night, all the lights switched off so that the weird, off-kilter dreamscape it presents can take full effect. It’s worth bearing in mind that before this was released, haunted house movies were made more as bits of fun, loaded to ensure that things went bump in the night and offering audiences a good scare, so to make such a serious-minded film was a gamble by 20th Century Fox, who invested a not miserly $1 million in getting it made.

The studio’s backing came with a stipulation that The Innocents be shot in Cinemascope, which presented a challenge as Clayton – who thought the claustrophobic atmosphere he wished to create would be diminished – then had to work out what to do with the edges of the screen. Director of Photography Freddie Francis came up with the idea of using lighting to blur those edges, forcing the viewer’s focus to remain on the screen’s centre so that when things take place away from it – or do they? – there’s a feeling of disorientation. Photographed in black and white, and beautifully shot throughout, the film makes virtuous use of its many shadows, those scenes showing Kerr wandering around the house at night holding a candle and suggesting things following in the blackness around her. The Sound Design department deserves credit also, surrounding Kerr with the lamenting cries of Miss Jessop, real or imagined, and a host of effects that keep both the character and audience off balance.

More often and in a change from the usual, The Innocents’ horrors come during daylight. The garden is depicted often, gorgeously landscaped but teasing at corruption, such as the shot of a beetle crawling out of the mouth of a cherub statue, and more obviously the sights Miss Giddens has of her predecessor, standing in the reeds and watching her, silently and with malevolence.

It takes almost half an hour before the film’s first ‘haunting’ makes an appearance, but already Miss Giddens shows signs of mental unravelling – her persistent questions to Mrs Grose about Quint and Miss Jessel, the unsettled way she reacts to the children keeping secrets from her, her feeling that Miles and Flora are mature beyond their years, and her conclusions about why that might be. When she does see ‘ghosts’, she is looking in that direction before they appear, further raising the suggestion that her mind is filling in the blanks.

The Innocents’ original screenplay was written by William Archibald, adapting it from his play of the same title and based on this rather than directly from James’s source novella. In the play it’s very obviously a ghost story, but Clayton was unhappy with this interpretation and hired Truman Capote to work on the script. Capote realised the book had very little in terms of plot and practically started from scratch, inserting the Freudian subtext that focuses on Miss Giddens’s sheltered upbringing, her frustrated sexuality and thus her dealings with Miles. In one of the film’s most infamous scenes, Miles reaches up to kiss the Governess, but it’s an adult kiss and she fails to break it, despite the shocked expression on her face. It was this relationship, verging on the obscene, which handed the film an ‘X’ certificate.

Kerr gives one of her best performances as the beleaguered Governess, out of her depth and over the course of the film dressing increasingly like Miss Jessel, the virginal white dresses giving way to black as her innocence also is brought into question. Aside from the frankly creepy acting from Stephens and Franklin as the children, the ‘innocents’ of the title – or are they? – the whole production rests on Kerr, eyes wide, terrified, steadily falling apart as the story edges towards its shocking conclusion. Kerr was almost certainly too old for the part, and yet is absolutely convincing as the cloistered Miss Giddens, buying into the ambiguities of the story so that it’s never quite certain whether what’s happening to her is really taking place, or if it’s the product of her fevered mental state. Kerr would go on to add that ‘I played it as if she were perfectly sane – whatever Jack wanted was fine; in my own mind, and following Henry James’s writing in the original story, she was completely sane, but, because in my case the woman was younger and physically attractive it was quite possible that she was deeply frustrated, and it added another dimension that the whole thing could have been nurtured in her own imagination.’

The result is one of the most intriguing, interesting and imaginative ghost stories committed to film. Atmosphere takes precedence, as it should, and without even attempting to answer the film’s central question it’s perfectly possible to enjoy The Innocents as a spine tingling exercise in dread, indeed that might well be the best approach to take. It certainly holds its own as a haunted house movie taken straight from the top drawer, beautifully constructed and performed, and in the tradition of the classics of its genre. Don’t have nightmares. Do sleep well.

The Innocents: *****

All About Eve (1950)

When it’s on: Saturday, 30 December (3.20 pm)
Channel: BBC2
IMDb Link

Over the holiday period the BBC are screening Feud, the Fox series that dramatises the ‘rivalry’ between Joan Crawford and Bette Davis. As a pair of veteran, Golden Age dames, Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon are spectacular in their respective roles, particularly the latter who essentially looks as though Davis herself has somehow walked out of time to appear personally. To tie in with the series, we are getting a short season of films starring the two old greats, and in All About Eve we have an opportunity to see the role that remains perhaps Bette Davis’s best remembered, an acting tour de force that’s so well performed and came at such a perfect time in the actor’s career that it’s possible to believe she was just playing herself.

While the film’s called All About Eve, it isn’t really. Its heart lies with two characters whose wit and cynicism provide the film with its soul – Davis’s ageing Margo, and the Sahara-dry theatre critic Addison DeWitt, who’s brought to sardonic life by George Sanders. Its four female stars were all Oscar nominated, and none of them won, the feeling being that their presence in lead and support categories split the vote, while Sanders ran away with the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. It’s an appropriate merit for someone who gives the impression of having built up to this moment throughout his career. DeWitt is razor sharp, one step ahead and lights up the screen whenever he appears on it. Though his relationship with Eve suggests a marriage of convenience between friendly critic and rising star of the stage, the implication being that both are in fact gay and have united for mutual benefit, several scenes make it clear that he has her number and can always put her in her place, which adds a destructive and rotten note to their partnership.

All About Eve takes place in flashback, as Anne Baxter’s title character is receiving a prestigious honour and the film’s other main players are all present at the ceremony, recalling their memories of Eve. They remember the first time she entered their little company, appearing at the theatre where Margo stars and telling them of her hard luck history, and the hope inspired by seeing the play every night. All are charmed. Karen (Celeste Holm), Margo’s close friend and wife of the play’s writer, Lloyd (Hugh Marlowe), takes to Eve immediately and commits to helping her, encouraging the star to employ her as a private secretary. Margo agrees, and over time Eve becomes an essential member of her staff. Then the doubts start creeping in.

Margo’s maid, Birdie (Thelma Ritter), suspects that Eve’s humility and willingness to do anything for her employer is a sham, that she spends all her time studying Margo, as though working ultimately to become her. This is a feeling Margo begins to share as the ‘perfect’ Eve anticipates her every whim a little too well, and her concerns grow when Eve talks Karen into letting her be an understudy to Margo’s new starring role. On the play’s first night, Margo is unable to make it to the theatre in time and can only sit, stranded, as her understudy takes over, arranging for the press to be present and giving a sublime performance, eventually landing the star-making part for herself. Before long, Eve is making moves on Margo’s boyfriend, Bill (Gary Merrill), and then it emerges that she and Karen cooked up a plan to ensure the play’s star was away on its opening night…

One of the film’s main themes is age. Margo, an established star, is 40 and still forced to take roles that are younger than she is, while Bill is eight years her junior. The suggestion is that her resentment of Eve boils down to the latter being just the right age to take over the lead roles she is used to performing, as well as being young, beautiful and ambitious. Before Eve’s duplicitous nature emerges, it’s implied that Margo’s suspicion of her is basic jealousy, something Margo exacerbates through acidic wit and sly put-downs. DeWitt is part of the problem, ever in search for a  new star to write about and promote. In an early scene, he seems to have discovered his muse in Miss Caswell, a young actress he brings along to the party Margo is throwing for Bill, but it transpires her radiance isn’t matched by talent, a vacuum that is waiting to be filled by none other than Eve. Miss Caswell is played by Marilyn Monroe in an early appearance; her scenes highlight her beauty and the way the men fall around her, something else for Margo’s insecurities to fixate upon. The party starts well but turns bitter as Margo drinks heavily and her tongue becomes caustic, lashing out at everyone around her before she retires and everyone else shuffles home. The stars, it turns out, might  be drawn to Miss Carswell and Eve, but they’re in a fixed orbit around Margo.

As Eve, Baxter is not as good as Davis and perhaps that’s entirely the point. The issue isn’t so much her talent as an actor, but her willingness to scheme and plot with no scruples, as part of an industry that in its women prizes youth over experience and ability. She’s worth following however, especially in the film’s earlier scenes when, as Birdy suggests, she does indeed spend her time on screen watching Margo like a hawk, studying her every mannerism. Also very good are Ritter and Holm in their supporting roles, though rightly it’s Davis who the camera loves and indulges, and she is good value in every second she’s on the screen, still a captivating presence despite the perceived diminishing of all those miles on the clock.

Personally, while I have no trouble admiring All About Eve, its acerbic dialogue and finely drawn characters, it isn’t a title I especially enjoy. There’s something about it that’s a bit too clever, too knowing, at the expense of elements like pace, a build of suspense. For me, the same year’s Sunset Boulevard has everything this one lacks. It’s better constructed, like this one telling a complicated story in flashback (and for added value, they’re the memories of a dead man) but building up to its finale in a dizzying, compulsive way that Eve, for all its smartness, never matches. Perhaps the fault lies in the identity of the directors. Sunset Boulevard was a Billy Wilder film, from most points of view a seal of quality, whereas Joseph L Mankiewcz directed All About Eve. With a background in writing and production before he took to ‘the chair’, Mankiewicz had an efficient eye and clearly no problem with bringing written dialogue to life, but the film seems happy moving from scene to scene without ever fully joining the dots.

What remains is a technically fine film, featuring some truly great performances and a haul of awards, indicating that in my mixed reaction I’m most probably wrong about it. Certainly it’s a celebrated piece of work, routinely occupying spots near the top of most lists and remaining an important touchstone in the career of Bette Davis, even if Sanders deserves more praise than he generally receives in a sea of acclaim for its complementary female performances. There’s even a very nice coda to the film that suggests it’s all cyclical, and that Eve will come to suffer the same fate as the one she inflicted on Margo.

All About Eve: ****

Scarlet Street (1945)

When it’s on: Friday, 29 December (8.55 am)
Channel: Talking Pictures
IMDb Link

Some time ago on these pages, I covered Ms Joan Bennett and her luminous starring role in Max Ophuls’s The Reckless Moment. Both in real life and on screen, Bennett was a compelling and fascinating lady, capable of adapting her talents to various guises just as her world away from film spun through a series of controversies and scandals. You can imagine her acting ability being put to good use as she switched from delicate victim to femme fatale, always with her survival instinct present and correct.

Before Ophuls cast her as a compromised middle class housewife in his 1949 movie, Bennett was perhaps best known for the two films she made with Fritz Lang in the middle of that decade, The Woman in the Window followed by Scarlet Street. Both feature the same cast members – downtrodden, broken Edward G Robinson and thuggish spiv, Dan Duryea – but it’s Bennett who takes two very different parts. In the earlier film she’s classy, but in Scarlet Street she plays Kitty, a low rent tramp, tied to petty conman Johnny (Duryea), who she loves despite suffering physical abuse from him. Though the script never states it Kitty is almost certainly a prostitute, or at least ‘fallen’ enough to use sex casually, and as a consequence she’s beautiful, brassy and in her manner and speech as pure as the driven slush. It would take a true sap to see anything in her beyond irredeemable white trash, and into her world slopes Chris Cross (Robinson), middle-aged, subservient, his soul crushed by life, and yet hopeful.

Through Dudley Nichols’s screenplay, Lang’s direction and a top notch performance by Robinson, Chris is one of those characters who appears to have stumbled into the film from bitter reality. He represents everyone’s broken dream. His lowly cashier’s job pays little and offers nothing, and yet he’s just completed 25 years’ service. He’s married to a lady who dotes on her former late husband, his portrait hanging in pride of place within the parlour to put Chris squarely in his place. Chris works and does the domestic chores while spending his scraps of spare time painting, a release from the dirge that offers him some tiny sense of pleasure. He knows his attempts at art aren’t very good, but that isn’t the point – he loves doing it, despite his harridan wife (Rosalind Ivan) complaining about the smell of paint and threatening to throw all his work away.

In Kitty – who he chances across one night – he sees a chance to turn his life around. She seems to show an interest in him, and that morsel of attention is enough to compel Chris to begin lavishing her with money and gifts, but the entire relationship is based on misconceptions and assumptions. He refuses to let the shades fall away and see her for what she really is, choosing to ignore shady Johnny who always appears to be around while claiming to be just a friend. As for Kitty, her initial meeting with Chris happens when he’s returning from a night out – he’s dressed opulently and is taking about £50,000 art purchases, which suggests to her he’s loaded, a big shot. Johnny tells her to exploit this, which she does half-heartedly. She doesn’t want to take their plan of swindling Chris out of his money too far, but it isn’t long before she’s in over her head. While Johnny starts selling Chris’s paintings to make a bit on the side, the pair have no idea that his largesse is coming from robbing the work safe, that he thinks it will all be worth it because it will ultimately lead to marriage with Kitty and some half grasped happily ever after.

The result of all this scheming and dreaming is an inevitable spiral towards destruction and doom for Chris, Kitty and even Johnny. Each character is punished in some poetic fashion, and while The Woman in the Window came with a final twist that suggested redemption and lessons learned, there’s no such optimistic coda to be found here. It’s as though Lang was robbed of taking his earlier feature to its natural conclusion by a studio fearful of such downbeat storytelling, but was allowed free rein on Scarlet Street and seized the opportunity, handing his characters their just desserts in various degrees of bleakness. As a cruel irony, Chris’s paintings happen to be spotted by a prestigious studio and go on to sell for thousands, though thanks to Johnny’s machinations by then the pictures bear someone else’s name. It’s a satirical note, a comment perhaps on the whims of fate, or a wink back in time to the director’s own early years as a struggling artist before entering the German film industry and becoming part of the Expressionist movement. In any event it shows the possible ‘happy ending’ Chris wishes for, but has long since pulled it from beneath him.

Scarlet Street builds to one of the most pessimistic and indeed depressing finishes I remember seeing on film, certainly where romantic Hollywood cinema is concerned. It brings a European ethos to bear, the sensibility that stories in which people do bad things won’t necessarily lead to an ending where the characters are compensated but instead face ruin, whether through death or forced to live, destroyed morally and haunted by the ghosts of the past.  It isn’t an easy film to stomach, but it successfully holds a mirror to the attitudes of the period, the Noir ethic reflecting society’s sense of uncertainty as the horrors of war and endings that held no satisfactory note were all too real. There’s a hint of unfairness about Chris’s fate, that his only real mistake was to fall in with a ‘bad crowd’ and allow himself to be duped, but hey, bad things happen to people who don’t necessarily deserve it and Chris, who lets himself be manipulated and has no right to imagine a future with Kitty, sort of has it coming. While Lang does offer a note of pity in his instance, it doesn’t really amount to much and the character, shattered and in the grip of a complete mental breakdown, is left to shuffle off into the void of his own making.

So why watch it at all? The reality is Scarlet Street is masterly film making and that ought to be reason enough. Lang was a perfectionist, slave driving his cast and crew to put his personal vision onto the screen, and in this film he spared no effort in capturing it. Milton Krasner, the cinematographer who would be rewarded with an Academy Award for Three Coins in a Fountain a decade later, applied Lang’s visual language with some stunning imagery. The way Chris sees Kitty, bathed in white and angelic, utterly at odds with reality but emphasising his ironic perception, is bathed in soft white light. Later, as our ‘hero’ embarks on his walk of ruin, the shadows creep into the frame more. He’s living in a pathetic hovel, light offered harshly by a neon sign outside the window, which leaves most of his room shrouded in darkness. Chris hears the voices of Kitty and Johnny, his ‘Hello, Lazy Legs‘ and her whispered, sexy ‘Jeepers Johnny, I love you‘ taunting him, presumably for the rest of his days, and the camera all but suggests that those black corners contain their spirits.

Robinson is absolutely believable as the film’s victim, to such an extent in fact that when I picture him it’s as this character, all those years playing hoodlums and the likes of Keyes in Double Indemnity playing support to his role in Scarlet Street. The same with Bennett. Lang saw in her the beautiful woman who has lived and those years of blows, bad choices and bitterness have created the jaded character of Kitty, in her own way every bit as pathetic as Chris, trapped within a destructive relationship and heading in just one direction. There aren’t very many film roles, especially for females, from the classic period that hinted at such a complicated back story for their characters, honing them into the people they are in the movie, but Scarlet Street suggests exactly that and without slapping minutes of exposition onto the screen. The result is a pessimistic work, but a masterpiece in the telling and execution.

Scarlet Street: *****

Holiday Inn (1942)

When it’s on: Thursday, 28 December (5.40 am)
Channel: Channel 4
IMDb Link

There are several reasons why they don’t make films like Holiday Inn anymore. First, let’s get this out of the way – the Abraham song, performed on Lincoln’s Birthday (a Bank Holiday in Connecticut, where the film’s largely set) by Bing Crosby and his band in blackface, adding a ‘comedy’ black intonation to his lyrics. I don’t want to dwell on it because of the time when the film was made, but it’s there and unavoidable. Second, consider the big musical movie hit of the last twelve months, La La Land, its plot focusing on the rather chaste and sweet-natured romance and relationship between two characters, who then suffer the strain of their professions taking them in separate directions. Now, here’s a summary of Holiday Inn’s story:

Bing Crosby is engaged to Virginia Dale, his singing partner. However, the third member of the act, Fred Astaire, steals her away, leaving Bing to move to his farm in Connecticut alone. Recovering from his broken heart and turning the farm he’s unsuited to running into the eponymous Holiday Inn (so called because it’s only open on public holidays), Bing begins experiencing success again and sparks a cautious romance with Marjorie Reynolds, who he employs to sing with him. But then Fred turns up, having lost Virginia to a millionaire, likes the look of the winsome Marjorie and spends the rest of the film trying to snatch her away for marriage and the formation of a new dancing partnership…

That Fred Astaire – what a bastard, right? Some pal he turned out to be! Of course, in a plot that serves to link the songs together it’s all portrayed as innocent, knockabout fun, all’s fair in love and war, etc, and while Astaire essentially destroyed Crosby’s life in the opening act the pair remain friends. With the focus more on the talents involved in the picture, it’s up there with the best of them. Irving Berlin’s songs, 14 of which are used, are exquisite. Crosby and Astaire are both in top form, their abilities as the pinnacle of their individual crafts shown off to stunning effect, and there’s a chocolate box sheen to it that’s never less than warm and fuzzy. Holiday Inn itself, frequently shown wreathed in pristine, virgin snow, is the sort of venue you dream of staying at, and indeed inspired Kemmons Wilson to start his own chain of ‘Holiday Inn’ hotels – there are now over 1,000 of them worldwide. There’s even an oblique breaking of the fourth wall, when Crosby goes to Hollywood to see the production of the film based on his little hotel being shot, and discovers in a studio the perfect replica of it. It’s a wink to the audience, an acknowledgement of Holiday Inn’s sense of artifice, but without overstating the point it’s a nice little touch that’s only there if you want it to be.

Holiday Inn was directed by Mark Sandrich, best remembered for the hit movies he made with Astaire for RKO in the previous decade. Sandrich knew how to work with a supreme talent like Mr ‘Can’t sing. Can’t act. Balding. Can dance a little‘ and how to create the confectionery worlds of their films, which ever projected untroubled fantasies and emphasised the showcasing of Astaire’s act over the drama. Consider Top Hat, their best known and probably best collaboration, and its aim to dazzle viewers with Astaire’s dancing genius and make them forget about the Depression era taking place outside the cinema, and you get why these films were such a hit and changed the face of the Hollywood musical. Sandrich insisted on hiring Astaire for Holiday Inn, despite Paramount’s misgivings over the film’s rising production costs, though the director appreciated the obvious – that having Astaire and Crosby performing Berlin’s musical waxings was a direct translation into beautiful cinema. Watching it now, it’s near impossible to argue against this.

The studio saved a little money on using a relative unknown like Reynolds as its female lead. The ‘Saddle Cinderella’ was little known outside Westerns produced by Poverty Row studios and represented a cheap hire over Sandrich’s casting suggestions of Rita Hayworth and even Ginger Rogers, both of course prior on-screen dance partners for Astaire. Reynolds never used her appearance in Holiday Inn as a springboard to real stardom, but she’s perfectly sweet and charming in the film, holding her own against her male partners. One sequence really shows off her abilities. Performing a dance number with Astaire, the pair’s brief is to minuet romantically for Washington’s Birthday. But Crosby, aware and fearful of the spark of romance between them, sabotages the moments when they pause to kiss by changing the tempo to a frenetic jazz number, prompting the pair to switch to a faster paced dance routine, before reverting to the original music. It’s a complicated scene that must have been hell to film, and your eyes are on Astaire as he has to both switch seamlessly between dancing style while scowling his rising exasperation to Crosby, but Reynolds has to perform it also and never falters.

Astaire’s work was designed to stretch his talent, the product of an admirable work ethic that insisted he pulled off multi-layered turns that had never been seen before, when of course he could have produced more of the same to earn his money. This is displayed to best effect in the firecracker dance. Reynolds has failed to show for a number the pair are meant to perform for the Independence Day celebration, so Astaire is told to ‘improvise’ a solo routine, which he does with an energetic number that features him setting off firecrackers exploding in time with the beat. It took two days and multiple takes to get the sequence right, which makes it a real salute to Astaire’s sheer dedication to his craft.

Next to it, the best known moment is almost certainly Crosby’s performance of the song White Christmas, as a trivial side note written for this film rather than the more obvious White Christmas. Crosby plays it with absolute simplicity, sat at his piano within the snowbound confines of his charming hotel, and that combination of the setting, the lovely sentiments of the lyrics and naturally the star’s velvet vocals are more than enough to transform it into a classic, indeed the song has gone on to join an exclusive club of the 13 singles that have sold 15 million or more copies worldwide.

As cinema, Holiday Inn is the equivalent of comfort food, the dramatic tensions suggested by its plot never amounting to more than the next song and dance number, the inimitable winning qualities of Louise Beavers’s house servant, the many screwball comic moments, the warm hug of Berlin’s music. Certain elements ensure that it’s utterly of its time, such as the tribute Crosby performs to America’s armed forces as the country entered World War Two. Ultimately Holiday Inn is rooted in a more innocent and less knowing cinematic era, but even now there’s little here that isn’t simply enjoyable. The two main stars are at the height of their powers, and the talent they bring to the film make it a real joy to watch.

Holiday Inn: ****