Solomon and Sheba (1959)

This post exists because I was toying with the idea of doing a series about the British actor David Farrar. That might still happen – one put-off is the lack of availability of certain titles – because he remains one of my favourite Golden Age stars, the kind of actor who at least lent an air of authority to whatever role he took and at his best really elevated a movie. Added to that is the undeniable pleasure of covering a fun epic like this one, to many a terrible movie, absolutely not without its delights and coming with not a little luridity, albeit by tame, 1950s standards. Enjoy…

Some historical epics are rightly celebrated still, earning replays on television and made available on the best formats to be enjoyed by viewers hungry for fat slices of Hollywood film making on its grandest scale. Others have fallen by the wayside. Sometimes this is unfair. I would argue the case forever that The Fall of the Roman Empire is among the very finest the genre has to offer, which at least seems to be in tandem with a slowly developing, more favourable retrospective of the film that was once damned as the last word in vanity projects. And then there’s something like Solomon and Sheba, another vastly budgeted entry that is perceived by some to be among the worst films ever made, a bloated and boring effort that suffers from poor writing, bad casting, and a checklist of historical inaccuracies.

The film takes as its starting point the tale of the Queen of Sheba’s visit to King Solomon in the ancient and recently founded state of Israel. In the Old Testament and Quran sources, she turns up bearing gifts, gets some wisdom in return, returns to Sheba, and that’s it. Historians have suggested that Sheba was a kingdom in what is now Yemen, or possibly Ethiopia, or perhaps an island in the Nile river. No one seems certain, and it is of course perfectly plausible that the whole thing was made up. The sources go on to outline Solomon’s reign in Israel as a time of plenty. The famous temple in Jerusalem is constructed. The king gains a ‘wise heart’ from God and in return sacrifices in his honour, only for the whole show to be brought down by his fateful love for the pleasures of the flesh. Solomon’s libido leads to the introduction of foreign wives to Israel, who bring their false idols with them, and this causes his ultimate downfall.

I mention all this because the film snatches at bits of Solomon’s story to craft something almost entirely contrived for its plot. The king’s women are largely condensed into the Queen of Sheba, and his lust for her brings about his near ruin. Before her visit, Solomon’s partnership with God transforms Israel from a dusty backwater into the earthly paradise that had been promised. It prospers. The king has no desire to maintain hostilities with Egypt, so peace and a golden future looks like a distant possibility. But threats come from within and without. His older brother, Adonijah, has always seen himself as the rightful heir to David, and is horrified at being passed over for the younger and less warlike Solomon. In Egypt, the Pharoah continues to plot Israel’s destruction. His plan to build massive armies for this purpose is put on hold when Sheba suggests she can conquer the king by seduction. Once she has her claws in Solomon and introduced her pagan idols, she will have affected the undermining of his rule and left the country open to conquest.

Sheba is played by Gina Lollobrigida, and every effort is made to portray her as the most desirable woman of her age. Once she appears in Jerusalem the queen’s costumes become smaller, sheerer, showing everything while revealing nothing, pushing the boundaries of what could be put on screen, exhibiting all the reasons why Howard Hughes invited her to leave Italy and work with him in Hollywood nearly a decade previously. Lollobrigida is at her best in these scenes, the ‘seduction’ phase of the narrative, knowing exactly how to play Sheba as an endlessly exotic siren. Solomon is rightly helpless to resist, ignoring the pleas from the heads of the twelve tribes as desire takes over everything he has worked to build.

Yul Brynner takes the part of Solomon in the film, and there’s some novelty value in seeing him with a full head of hair. He’s fine, achieving similar levels of command to that he held in The Ten Commandments, depicting clearly enough the moments when he can no longer resist Sheba. It is, however, a sad footnote of Solomon and Sheba that he wasn’t the original choice for the role at all. According to its director, King Vidor, audiences were shortchanged by Brynner, who brought none of the nuance to Solomon that had already been captured – but not completed – on film by Tyrone Power. By all accounts Power conveyed the duality of his character, the moral choice tearing him apart, and we’ll never see it apart from a handful of scenes that are available. Also a producer and driving force behind the picture’s making, Power saw this as his push into mature roles, though anyone who’s seen Nightmare Alley and his last credited appearance in Witness for the Prosecution will be aware he could kill it as well as anyone. Power was filming the climactic fight scene with George Sanders’s Adonijah before having to stop, and shortly after dying from a massive heart attack. He was 44 years old, younger than me in fact, though our paths differ in the fact I don’t work through four packs of cigarettes a day. Alas the lack of adequate health warnings, or alternatives, back then.

In his mid-fifties at this stage, Sanders looks too long in tooth for Adonijah – the following year’s The Village of the Damned is a far better use of his talents – but brings his usual gusto to the proceedings. The rest of the cast is filled out with mostly British actors, with roles of varied screen time for the likes of Laurence Naismith, Harry Andrews, Jean Anderson and Finlay Currie, the latter making his customary ‘wise old man’ turn in historical epics as the dying King David. As for Farrar, he plays the power broker behind it all, the Egyptian Pharoah. While that might suggest a meaty part, he’s restricted to two scenes in which he has to set in motion schemes that will be enacted by other people. Farrar easily has the air of authority to play Pharoah, but it’s a shame to see so little of him.

I find it difficult to criticise the film for its inaccuracies when I consider the source material to be the written versions of oral storytelling, as much allegorical as they are records of fact. That leaves nitpicking over, for example, the Israeli state’s heavy use of the Star of David on its iconography, its armour (Solomon has it blandished proudly on his shield), whereas in reality it first appeared anywhere in medieval times. But does that mean it’s any good? Well, I would recommend it as an entertaining picture for completists rather than essential to the genre. Try as they might to take the material seriously, the cast can’t stop the plot from being a bit on the silly side. The word of God makes a cameo appearance, complete with the same ethereal smoke that once smote the Egyptian first born in the The Ten Commandments. A climactic battle, while impressively mounted, pivots on a chance bit of inspired wisdom by Solomon/advice from God that compels the entire Egyptian army to plunge itself into a crevasse. And how about the film’s notorious orgy scene, no doubt daring for its time but one that now verges on the laughable.

One thing that Solomon and Sheba ain’t is boring. At 141 minutes it isn’t overlong and packs in a lot of action, though things slow down during Sheba’s efforts to seduce Solomon. In the turgid stakes it can’t compete with Cleopatra, which no doubt saw its enormous profits (despite middling criticism it was a box office hit) as justification for inserting scene after scene where very little happens. Talking of which, the latter production aped this one in depicting a Queen’s entrance into the home of her (would be) lover, one-upping it with the staggering scene that sees Elizabeth Taylor sitting atop an enormous Sphinx.

Production levels are high throughout, with the usual impressive efforts by costume departments to kit out literal armies of extras in contemporary uniforms. Freddie Young was on hand as Director of Photography, and used the vast possibilities of the Technirama screen process to produce a visually beautiful piece of work, Israel presented as a lush oasis surrounded by desert wilderness. This was director Vidor’s last feature. Having been involved in Hollywood cinema since its earliest days, it seems clear that the long and difficult production, the loss of Power, the filming in other countries (it was shot mainly in Spain) and the need to direct a cast of thousands took their toll. Having done his best work way back in the Silent Era, Vidor finally called time on a lengthy and distinguished career, and left an impressive cache of films that dated back incredibly to 1913.

Anyone seeking the less celebrated Ben-Hur should be advised that Solomon and Sheba isn’t it. There are many better examples of epic cinema, but I will confess to enjoying it as a fun spectacle. A limited run of Blu-Ray editions was released in 2015; I have the Studio Canal Region 2 DVD and am very happy with the restoration effort that went into it, certainly enough not to hunt down the HD upgrade. As with many basically average titles from the time, there’s still a lot of pleasure to be had from this one, though signs the genre was running out of steam are clear. It was all very well to pump millions into productions so long as they were reclaimed with ticket sales, but once that stopped the expensive gamble of historical epics was nigh, and that moment would come, with devastating force, in the following decade.

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(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.

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: ****

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: ****

The Holly and the Ivy (1952)

When it’s on: Monday, 25 December (2.10 pm)
Channel: Talking Pictures
IMDb Link

I confess I had never heard of The Holly and the Ivy before watching it for this piece, and it’s easy enough to see why the film slipped gently into obscurity. Its British middle class setting has little resonance in an era that was being taken over by the kitchen sink, while World War Two, though mentioned in the film, was better remembered in a string of compelling releases throughout the 1950s. Moreover, it’s an adaptation of a play by Wynyard Browne, ensuring the story takes place for the most part in a confined set and focuses on characters talking at the expense of any real action. Relatively short at little more than 80 minutes in running time, there’s an air of lightness, even of whimsy, and a suggestion that the film is inconsequential and eminently missable.

My main reason for acquiring a copy was for the presence of Celia Johnson, one of those actors whose name on the bill guarantees my interest. I haven’t seen many films starring her, principally because she made limited appearances on celluloid and favoured the stage, however she’s always a treat. Best known for Brief Encounter, Johnson was the epitome of that tragic English lady, saddled with duty and what’s expected of her while her emotions and longings are buried as well as they can be. In her case, the feelings would be expressed in her lamplight eyes, the little jawline set as she looks on to some distant horizon to which her dreams are vanishing, wanting to follow and knowing she cannot. In The Holly and the Ivy, she plays Jenny, the eldest daughter of Reverend Martin Gregory (Ralph Richardson), trapped in a life of serving him dutifully while wanting to marry David (John Gregson) and go with him to his job in South America. The contract runs for five years, which means if she doesn’t go then her opportunity for wedded bliss will be over. It’s the quintessential Johnson role in other words, and she doesn’t disappoint.

Her story is one in a sequence of dramatic threads that play out over the course of the narrative. The family is returning for Christmas to the little Norfolk town where Martin lives in his parsonage. For some, like Aunt Lydia (Margaret Halstan, reprising her role in the play), it’s a reprieve from her widow’s existence of living in hotels. To others, the cossetted little world to which they return holds little meaning, as it does for Margaret (Margaret Leighton), Martin’s other daughter who works as a fashion journalist in London. Margaret appears to be the the classic ‘flown the roost’ child who’s moved on to bigger and better things, but she carries a dark side, lapses into alcoholism, which has its origin in a devastating secret that she’s kept for some years. As the family gathers for a happy time together, the demons and resentments they carry will be prised out, and reveal much about how everyone is playing a part so that they don’t upset the Pastor in his Christian and supposedly limited world view.

The comment on tensions between family members at Christmas strikes a note that can resonate with everyone, and there are references to the time it was made that add to the charm. The Holly and the Ivy is set in early 1950s Britain, still an era of post-war austerity that affects everyone, even this middle class family that can’t afford the services of a housekeeper for Martin, in which post-dinner cigars are handed out as a rare treat rather then the norm. Martin’s son, Michael (Denholm Elliott) is in the army, a temporary move he has made to put off his decision over whether to go to Cambridge University, which he knows will be costly. The family’s relationship with their head of the household Pastor is one of falseness, a series of bland pleasantries in which their paramount sensibility is not to upset his beliefs and values, yet withholding information from him is doing him a disservice. As Michael points out, his role isn’t only to provide sermons but to help people, and that includes his own family.

The story therefore builds up to a happy conclusion of sorts, one in which the sources of stress are largely resolved and point to a more hopeful future. In that sense it’s a little pat. The most tragic element of kitchen sink dramas is that there was often no happy ending. No matter what was overcome during the course of the film, the troubles of a difficult working class life remained and always would, so the neat climax as shown in The Holly and the Ivy was simply one battle won in a war of endless attrition against poverty and privation. And in that sense, you can see how this one carries little that can be identified with. That however isn’t the fault of the film, which is set within its own circumstances and remains a nicely acted drama, its characters largely drawn well and calling on memorable turns notably from Johnson, Richardson, Leighton, and Maureen Delaney as a caustic, well meaning Scottish Aunt, played largely for comic effect.

It’s certainly worth a watch, for its ultimate message of hope and its fine acting, also because it’s been very nicely restored and looks good. Fans of Celia Johnson will have much to enjoy; I know I did. As a drama it’s refreshingly adult in tone, one that dwells not at all on fantastic elements or those appealing to children, but rather on the theme of Christmas as a family time, with all the problems and potential for optimism that comes with it.

The Holly and the Ivy: ***

Just to wish everyone who reads these pages a very happy Christmas! Thank you for your support and for reading – love and peace to you all 🙂

The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959)

When it’s on: Saturday, 9 September (4.35 pm)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

You are left to wonder what the Hammer dream team pairing of Peter Cushing’s Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson might have developed into had they been given a series of films rather than just the one. The Hound of the Baskervilles was not a box office success in America, where the studio’s reputation ensured it was marketed as a horror and left audiences confused and disappointed. Perhaps similarly wrong-footed, much of the critical appraisal was equally negative, leaving it to time and re-evaluation for us to come to appreciate it as one of Hammer’s more delicious treats.

Much is retained from Arthur Conan Doyle’s gripping source novel, with several ghoulish embellishments from writer Peter Bryan, including a guest spot from a tarantula and Maria Landi as the film’s femme fatale. Cushing, a consummate researcher and fan of the stories, tried to appear as accurately as Holmes as possible, down to bringing his own costumes to the set, which were based on illustrations from The Strand, and taking on the gaunt appearance of a morphine addict, helped along by a bout of dysentery while on holiday in Spain. The script allows him to be superior, aloof, condescending and lacking in empathy, while Cushing’s energetic performance suggests a detective who is continually thinking twenty things at once and acting accordingly. These contrasts with the far more genial, family friendly Holmes as essayed by Basil Rathbone in a  string of successful Hollywood outings shouldn’t be underestimated. The different approach was clear enough and outlined his Holmes as distinctive, closer in style to Jeremy Brett from the long running Granada series.

Another difference from the earlier films was Morrell’s Watson. While Nigel Bruce played Holmes’s biographer and companion as a bumbler and earned a lot of affection for his easy screen charm and chemistry with Rathbone, Morrell’s is a more faithful portrayal. He’s intelligent, makes useful contributions, and you can picture him standing to one side and making notes of what’s happening for his writing up of the case. Crucially the partnership with Holmes is present and correct, but here it’s more as a pair of equals, Watson’s medical knowledge and warmth filling the gaps for his detective friend, and it’s a great shame we didn’t get to see more of them together (incidentally, Cushing and Morrell were both fantastic in Cash in Demand, a minor yet brilliant Hammer entry that draws on – and is richly rewarded for – the performances of both players). You believe that Holmes is leaving Sir Henry in safe hands when he sends him home in the company of Watson, rather than getting him out of the way while the real detective work goes on.

Of the other players, Hammer used Christopher Lee in a rare ‘good guy’ role as Sir Henry Baskerville. Convincing as the patrician heir to the Baskerville fortune, Lee is allowed to put the heavy make-up to one side and presents us with a very handsome and dynamic Sir Henry. John Le Mesurier plays Barrymore, the butler at Baskerville Hall who carries around an important secret, and there’s a great cameo from Miles Malleson as Bishop Frankland, on hand to provide some brief comic respite and stealing every scene in which he features.

The Hound of the Baskervilles was directed with typical style and economy by Terence Fisher. He starts with a ten minute prologue, setting up the legend of the ‘hound from hell’, an enormous dog that killed the odious Sir Hugo centuries earlier. Not only does the prologue work in revealing Sir Hugo to be a terrible man, an entitled rapist, it’s already laying the breadcrumbs for the story to follow. We then follow Holmes and Watson being interviewed by family friend, Dr Mortimer (Francis de Wolff), who are charged with investigating the recent death of Sir Charles Baskerville and protecting Sir Henry, the last remaining heir. The pair meet the current owner of Baskerville Hall, a scene that works hard to both establish the characters and leave important clues. Watson accompanies Sir Henry to Dartmoor and finds some strange goings on, while also meeting a string of characters who could potentially benefit from the end of the Baskerville line. There’s a stranger loose on the marshes, and then there’s the landscape itself, an eerie, mist-shrouded desolation that’s potted with lethal mire.

Production values are high, despite the relative lack of money spent on the project, and it loses nothing for being the first Baskervilles adaptation shot in colour – the maudlin gloom of Grimpen is just as foreboding as it was in black and white. The only sour note is the hound itself, a trick the crew tried desperately to make work and couldn’t, meaning the beast is kept safely and yet disappointingly off screen for the most part. Cushing noted in his memoir that they attempted to make the hound appear huge by substituting the real actors for children wearing their costumes. In test screenings it was obvious the illusion wouldn’t fool anyone, so as a consequence we get a rather un-ferocious dog pawing at Christopher Lee, who does his game best to look terrorised.

The question remains which is the best version of the tale, this or the Twentieth Century Fox take from 1939 that foisted Rathbone and Bruce onto an unsuspecting world? The latter I own on Blu-Ray, where the sound stages are all too apparent, but the quality of the work shines through. Slightly brisker than Hammer’s version and arguably carrying a greater number of plot-holes, there’s little to beat its effort to replicate Dartmoor as a perma-fogged, unsettlingly silent portent of doom, nor the eternal, never bettered partnership of the two stars, both likeable and perfectly complementing each other, who went on to own the roles for many years. And yet this version runs it close, very close, and remains great entertainment for a dark afternoon. The biggest regret upon watching it is the nagging feeling you get from knowing this is Cushing and Morrell’s one and only outing as Holmes and Watson. The mouthwatering desire for more of their adventures in detection is palpable, but sadly never quenched.

The Hound of the Baskervilles: ****

The Man in the White Suit (1951)

When it’s on: Saturday, 26 April (7.20 am)
Channel: BBC2
IMDb Link

Alexander Mackendrick’s The Man in the White Suit is almost the quintessential Ealing film. It’s very funny. The film was Oscar nominated for its screenplay, which is a supreme example of packing welters of story and characterisation into a script that allows a running time of less than ninety minutes. And it runs breathlessly, introducing its people and mining their nuances for comic effect, which more often than not works. But it’s also a satire, and beneath the fun rather an acerbic one, telling how capitalism pulls rank when faced with the possibility of progress that could halt its drip-feed of money.

Alec Guinness plays Sidney Stratton, a labourer in various textile mills around Greater Manchester who also happens to be a brilliant research chemist. His dream is to create an everlasting fibre, but with each job he ends up being sacked because of the materials bills he runs up. While working at Birnley Mill, he manages to land himself a research role (a dream for him, though he blithely ignores the fact it’s an unpaid position) along with the friendship of the propreitor’s daughter Daphne (Joan Greenwood). It’s she who persuades her father (Cecil Parker) to fund his research, and after several failed attempts – which result in explosions – he hits success. The fibre he invents is not only virtually indestructible, it can also repel any dirt that comes into contact with it.

Sidney, now hailed as a genius and a revolutionary for the textiles industry, has a brilliant white suit tailored especially for him from the fibre. Due to radioactive elements in the material, it has a luminous quality. But then the trouble begins. Other mill owners get wind of what’s happened and work out the obvious – that Sidney’s invention will spell the end of their industry. Over time, the suppressed workers of the mills realise this too can only have an adverse impact on their jobs. As a result they all try to stifle Sidney, first aiming to persuade him to sell his invention and ultimately resorting to keeping him locked up him before he can reach Manchester’s press offices and turn the miraculous fabric into public reality.

The film keeps its narrative light. Its first half covers Sidney’s determined efforts to continue his research, his tendency to fade into the background so that can avoid detection for as long as possible. When he’s funded, put out fellow researchers are herded into tiny, cramped rooms while he carries on, his experiments blowing up so that he can only activate them while hiding behind sandbags and wearing a Home Guard helmet. Later, as he’s kept under lock and key while the mill owners figure out what to do with them, he escapes and sparks a madcap chase through the working class streets, the night time offering no help to him as his suit glows irrepressibly in the dark. As is traditional with Ealing’s material, nobody ever gets hurt and the conclusion, while bittersweet, contains notes of optimism because it’s made clear the story doesn’t necessarily end here.

Despite that, The Man in the White Suit is a tale of complicated morality and the duplicity of big business. Sidney is portrayed largely as an innocent, devoid of any material ambitions, even to be paid for his work, because his goal is the loftier scientific ideal, and so he clashes irrevocably with the industrialists’ capitalist outlook. For their part he’s a threat, in particular when he makes it clear that he can’t be bought. Mr Birnley is the most beneficient of the mill owners, though to an extent that’s because he sees his company as owning Sidney’s contract. Also involved is Michael Gough, Daphne’s fiance and owner of a rival mill. The industrialists are led by Sir John Kierlaw, a decrepit but ghoulish figure played, in a delight of casting, by none other than Ernest Thesiger. It’s Sir John who outlines perhaps the owners’ darkest scheme, to pay Daphne £5,000 in order to make her seduce Sidney and get him to give up his secret formula. It’s a moment that’s subtly outlined in the film and no one says explicitly what they expect Daphne to do, but the underlying message is clear enough. Daphne plays along but is naturally appalled, not least with her fiance who joins the throng in asking her to go with it, putting his business interests ahead of their relationship. And of course it comes to naught. Sidney is unmoved and Daphne, relieved by his force of will, offers to help him escape.

Joan Greenwood could play morally dubious characters as she demonstrated in Ealing’s Kind Hearts and Coronets, but she’s largely straight edged here, though the glamour and especially the silky voice are present and correct. She easily outdoes the labourer, Bertha (Vida Hope), who through the smoke of Trade Union rhetoric and resentment is just as fascinated by Sidney as Daphne is. As for Guinness, in a standout role he remains single-minded throughout the story, as true to his work as he is to making it public, at no point thinking of himself but about the scientific achievement and its benefits. In some ways he’s the classic ‘little man’ battling forces much larger than himself, but Guinness wasn’t interested in playing Sidney as a straightforward hero, and added layers of nuance to his character. That’s why he can almost hide in plain sight, because he’s isn’t too conventionally good looking and – before wearing the suit – never draws attention to himself. And besides, Sidney comes across as a not altogether nice guy. He gives little back to both Daphne and Bertha, despite their interest in him, and his determination comes at the expense of any thought to others. His conscience is only pricked late in the film when Edie Martin, whose living is made from the banality of washing clothes, challenges him about where his invention will leave people like her.

Whether this is Mackendrick’s best film is tougher to answer. As with much of his disappointingly slim list of directorial credits, there’s a lot going on in The Man in the White Suit, yet it’s possible to enjoy it for its dry wit and the affection it has for its richly drawn characters without worrying overly about the darker elements dancing beneath the surface. While Mackendrick was ever at odds with Ealing Studios, especially as its fortunes faded in the mid-1950s, there’s something innately appealing about the work he did for them, the teasing at humanity, even if it’s shown in glimpses. Many argue that his masterpiece was his one significant Hollywood credit, Sweet Smell of Success, and though I’m certainly a big fan of it I think overall I might prefer the delicate balancing act between cynicism and optimism in the kindness of people that he portrayed in his five Ealing films.

And if all that isn’t enough, then consider that The Man in the White Suit was one big nose poke at the venerable Studio itself. Parker, playing Mr Birnley, was made to look like Ealing head, Michael Balcon, and asked to copy his mannerisms and even use some of his pet phrases.

The Man in the White Suit: *****

Rage at Dawn (1955)

When it’s on: Saturday, 12 August (2.35 pm)
Channel: Spike
IMDb Link

In the hinterland of British Freeview television, that mid-afternoon space the schedulers have always struggled to fill, the classic Western still reigns supreme. It was like this when I was young, quite some time ago, and it remains so today. Clearly there are viewers who want to watch these movies, and the sheer wealth of titles on offer proves there’s a rich vein from which to mine, certainly where films made in the 1950s are concerned. The ‘Golden Age’ of the Western threw out some unimpeachable gems, efforts that are well worth watching now both on their own merits and as mirrors to the contemporary American society, values and concerns. But they weren’t all greats. For every High Noon, there were numerous offerings like Rage at Dawn, this minor entry from late period RKO that trod well known paths, served as a vehicle for its star name – Randolph Scott – and disappeared as quickly as it hit theatres.

The film makes an attempt to tell the story of the Reno Brothers Gang, an infamous real-life group of outlaws that was renowned for its train robberies. It’s entirely possible that the Renos’ adventures formed the basis for The Great Train Robbery, America’s first action film from 1903 that would have been made less than forty years after the actual events it was depicting and by which stage the protagonists were long since dead, all hanged by lynch mobs in grisly examples of frontier justice. Rage at Dawn does a fair job of recreating their capers, and the efforts by the Pinkerton Detective Agency (renamed Peterson in the film) to bring them to heel.

Scott plays James Barlow, who’s hired by the agency to work undercover and infiltrate the gang. He doesn’t appear until after twenty minutes have elapsed. That time is taken up with our introduction to the felons, the double cross that leads them to exact some pretty brutal revenge, and the suggestion that not all is right in the web of corruption of which they are the centre. The gang lead a torrid home life, holed up in the house of Laura Reno (Mala Powers) and arguing among themselves, treating the Reno sister like a servant. The good brother, Clint (Denver Pyle), wants little to do with any of it, leaving Frank (Forrest Tucker) to effectively run things, to the happiness of nobody.

Once Barlow enters the picture, he takes it over, faking a train heist in order to come into the gang’s orbit while he learns about the crooked town officials they’re keeping sweet, and speaking of which of course becoming sweet on poor, downtrodden Laura. Scott is an old hand at this stuff and plays his part well enough, seeming to realise it isn’t a prestige project and won’t have any lasting effect on the public’s imagination and so putting in a fairly routine performance. The kind of broiling, beneath the surface resentment that Budd Botticher found in his retinue is barely there and Scott plays it straight, easily in command of the proceedings. Charisma and a natural charm come to the surface. Things only ramp up towards the end, when the gang has been caught and townspeople take it upon themselves to do an old-fashioned lynching, which prompts him into action and offers a spark of the bitter anger he was more than capable of showing. The chemistry with Powers is just about present, though it comes with an air of both players being the only attractive performers and so something romantic’s bound to happen eventually. 

It’s all down to a by the numbers script from Horace McCoy, best known for writing the novel They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, and Tim Whelan’s somewhat leaden direction. Whelan was credited as one of the three (named) directors on The Thief of Bagdad, and many years before had written the story that led to Harold Lloyd’s seminal Safety Last!, but made this one as a strictly box ticking exercise, covering the bases but failing to pronounce any of the story’s more interesting elements, such as the corruption angle. The result is a harmless enough matinee flick that could have been much more, indeed I was pulled in by what sounded like a densely layered plot that didn’t amount to very much.

It does look good however, Whelan able to take advantage of Technicolor to produce an Oater that’s altogether easy on the eyes. Scholars of the period have noted that while the action is supposed to take place in Indiana (where the crimes happened) it’s very clearly California. A state flag appears at one point to unfortunate effect, and that’s when the boom mic isn’t dropping into the shot, all of which suggests a briskly made film without much attention to detail being paid. One for the Randolph Scott completists.

Rage at Dawn: **

Imitation of Life (1959)

When it’s on: Saturday, 27 February (4.00 pm)
Channel: Drama
IMDb Link

I’m white. White! White! If we should ever pass on the street, please don’t recognise me

In reading about Imitation of Life for this piece, I did some research on its star, Lana Turner. What a life she had! In his titanic Biographical Dictionary of Film, David Thomson dismissed her as having ‘the sluggish carnality of a thick broad on the make’, but I get the impression that the roles she took were defined by a well developed survival instinct. As a child, her father took off and was later discovered dead, murdered for the money he’d stuffed inside his sock. She and her mother moved to Los Angeles, completely impoverished, Mildred working up to 80 hour weeks in a string of menial jobs just to survive. By sheer chance, Turner was ‘discovered’ when she happened to buy a soda from a Hollywood store, and from there was signed to MGM. Her debut performance in They Won’t Forget lent her instant fame as the figure hugging jumper she wore in the film landed her the nickname ‘the Sweater Girl’, and a fortune making career in the movies beckoned.

Had the story ended there, with Turner’s money worries over forever, then it would have had the makings of a classic Hollywood fairytale. But real life has a nasty habit of continuing after the credits have rolled, and success came at a price. As her professional career ebbed and flowed, Turner became renowned for her private life, marrying eight times and being involved with countless love affairs. She was five marriages in by the time she was hired for Imitation of Life, her life turning to scandal when her daughter stabbed and killed Johnny Stompanato, the mob bodyguard she was seeing and with whom she had a turbulent and abusive relationship. The murder was committed in defence of Turner and the court ruled it as justifiable homicide, but it also seemed to be career shattering until she was offered the lead role in Douglas Sirk’s upcoming melodramatic epic. It was of course stunt casting. The part she would play – that of a wannabe theatrical star whose single-minded determination to make it comes at the expense of any relationship she has with her daughter – was a reflection of Turner’s own life, a fact that made her as reticent about accepting it as the contract offer – a small salary plus half the net profits. Still, a job was a job. Turner was struggling financially and signed up, a wise move as the film was a box office smash and netted her $11 million.

Looking back, Imitation of Life seems to form the third part of a sort of triptych of defining roles for Turner. 1946’s The Postman Always Rings Twice presents her as the angel faced wife of a much older man, dressed in dazzling white whilst beneath the surface she’s a femme fatale, just waiting for John Garfield’s drifter to assist her in murdering the husband and running away together. Fate is naturally far from clement for the lovers, yet Turner is tremendous as the beautiful woman with an altogether black heart. In 1952, she starred in The Bad and the Beautiful for Vincent Minnelli, playing a booze-soaked actress whose potential is spotted by Kirk Douglas’s ruthless movie producer. He seduces her and in doing so inspires a great performance from her, only to drop her once she’s given the playing of a lifetime.

Both films have distinct echoes of Turner’s real-life adventures and emphasise the tendency for survival that kept her in work. She always strove to develop her skills, took roles that stretched her and proved restless in her effort to remain in the industry long after the initial impact she made wore off. Imitation of Life, made more than twenty years after her discovery and as she was in her late thirties, was as much evidence of this as it was the continuing public interest in her. Strangely enough, her story in the film isn’t the one that carries the most resonance.

Imitation of Life is the story of four women, two mothers and their daughters. Turner plays Lora Meredith, a widow who moves to New York with her girl, Susie, in the hope of making it on Broadway. What she discovers are unscrupulous, lecherous agents and dead end jobs, though the hope of future happiness also arrives in the form of John Gavin’s smitten photographer. Love with Gavin is set aside, as is Susie, as Lora charms her way into a starring role in Dan O’Herlihy’s new stage comedy and the start of a glittering career. Susie finds herself in the care of Annie (Juanita Moore), a homeless black woman who becomes Lora’s housekeeper. Annie comes with her own daughter, Sarah Jane, the outcome of a brief encounter, and because the father was white so is she. As Sarah Jane grows up, she finds increasingly that her mother’s race is the source of embarrassment and will turn her into a social pariah, and she tries to hide her identity.

The years pass. Lora has achieved fame and is now living the good life in a grand pile, with the movies beckoning. But the tensions between her and the teenage Susie (Sandra Dee) have grown, the latter spending more time with Annie and developing feelings for Gavin’s character. Sarah Jane (Susan Kohner) has developed into a young woman with a strong sense of resentment over her roots, dates white boys and looks for a way out. Her feelings clash with those of her mother and become mutually destructive during a period in America that was defined by racial tension.

This being a Sirk movie, the piece plays like a highly stylised soap opera. It’s glossy and colourful – whilst I would argue that monochrome always favoured Turner better, there’s little doubt the film goes out of its way to glamorise her; a million dollars was spent on her gowns alone. There’s the usual elaborate set dressing and confection that punctuates his famous melodramas from this era, but there’s a keen sense of social realism also. As the Lora-Susie storyline fades because it simply isn’t as powerful as the narrative presented to Annie and Sarah Jane, the way it deals with the uncomfortable issue of civil rights is deft – no attempt is made to deny the presence of difficult race relations, but it’s just there and the characters deal with it. The difficulties faced by Annie are simply shown as fact and never given over to heavy handed polemics, leaving the plot to concentrate on the personal tensions between mother and daughter.

Both Moore and Kohner were Oscar nominated for their performances (whilst Turner and Dee were not), and when the camera is on them they are simply riveting together. It’s possible to look on Sarah Jane’s efforts to deny her black mother as altogether selfish, but I think that’s more an issue of watching the film as a twenty first century viewer when in reality there’s a horrible note of truth about her attitude. She’s young, gorgeous, has had the privileges showered on Lora and Susan shoved down her throat and wants some of that action. In the film’s one scene of brutality, she’s secretly been seeing a white boy, until he discovers that her mother’s black and beats her up, which makes Sarah Jane more determined than ever to break away. So she does, leaving the home and making her way in the entertainment business. What she fails to bank on is Annie’s determination to follow her and continue to love her. I admit my heart cracked when Annie tells Sarah Jane that she’ll always be there for her; the daughter realises the depth of a mother’s feeling and caves in. It’s the film’s best scene and it’s just devastating, raw and real amidst all the artifice presented elsewhere.

I’ll happily confess that I’m a complete sucker for Sirk’s American films. Imitation of Life was his last; dismissed at the time as unimportant and lacking realism, the critical response to his work led to his retirement and return to Germany, though it didn’t take long for feelings to change, for an appreciation of his iconoclasm – buried deep within the trappings of glossy melodrama – to emerge, and rightly so. These days, we can enjoy Sirk for his ability to tell women’s stories. It’s no accident that the men in Imitation of Life are either not very nice (Robert Alda’s oily promoter) or fade into the background; John Gavin, as the love interest for Lora and later Susie, is present to fill a role and doesn’t take any focus off the ladies. The problems faced by all four women in the picture are brilliantly set out and discussed, all leading ‘imitations of life’, though it’s the tale of Annie and Sarah Jane that takes pre-eminence because it’s more powerful, socially relevant and, let’s face it, better acted.

We also have the instance of Lana Turner’s last great role, one that ensured her longevity and lasting mark. Not bad going for a ‘thick broad on the make’ who somehow kept winning leading parts and fans many years after her Sweater Girl debut in the industry.

Imitation of Life: ****

Footsteps in the Fog (1955)

When it’s on: Thursday, 18 February (11.00 am)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

Footsteps in the Fog is one of those apparently British films that’s actually backed by American money and therefore plays up to elements of UK life and culture that has a particular fascination for US audiences, most particularly the class system. At one point in the film Stewart Granger tells Jean Simmons that there are no class differences in America, a bit of an eye-popping statement in truth but in the world of the story it’s the essential difference between upstairs folk and ‘them downstairs’ that drives the plot. Had this one been made in the States, it would undoubtedly have emerged as film noir. Transported to Victorian London, all the external action taking place through clouds of pea-souper fog (another tick in the box to meet viewers’ expectations), it becomes instead a slice of Gothic melodrama.

Granger and Simmons were established as major Hollywood stars when it was made, and also made for a real-life couple at the time. Homesick and wishing to take advantage of a trend for films being made in Europe, the pair was shown a script for Footsteps in the Fog. Based on a short story by W W Jacobs, the malevolent and duplicitous characters appealed to Granger and Simmons, who oversaw a string of rewrites before filming commenced. The couple felt less appreciation for the choice of director, Arthur Lubin, in the 1950s best known for directing a series of light comedies about a talking mule, the Francis series (he’d eventually transfer the format to television in the shape of Mister Ed), however Lubin was also a consummate professional with countless credits already to his name including a successful adaptation of Phantom of the Opera in 1943. It’s a combination of the director and cinematographer Christopher Challis we have to thank for some delicious shots, including the principal characters framed below the portrait of Granger’s murdered wife to serve up all the major plot points in one scene.

Granger plays Stephen Lowry, a London society gentleman who at the film’s opening attends the funeral of his wife. She’s passed away at the end of a long fight against illness, but what no one knows is that Lowry has in fact been slowly poisoning her in an effort to take over both her money and status… No one, that is, apart from the house’s maid, Lily (Simmons). At the film’s start, Lily is the lowliest of the house’s servants, according to Marjorie Rhodes’s awful Mrs Park a ‘guttersnipe’ who’s up to no good. Her fortunes improve when she confesses to Lowry that she knows what he did and uses this knowledge to get the rest of the staff sacked and herself installed as Housekeeper. Lily is fatally in love with Lowry. She happily becomes his bed partner as well as the sole member of his staff, believing her logical end to be the future Mrs Lowry. What she fails to come to terms with is her master’s complete absence of morals. As soon as he realises that Lily effectively holds him in her power, Lowry attempts a botched and very public murder against her that fails. Having killed the wrong woman, an innocent police constable’s wife, and been eyewitnessed at the scene of the crime, only Lily’s alibi saves him from further trouble. But Lowry sees himself getting married to the beautiful and eligible Elizabeth Travers (Belinda Lee) rather than Lily, wanting nothing further to do with his useful but redoubtedly working class servant, and plans further machinations to rid himself of her.

One of the fine aspects of the film noir style was the attempt to build characters into more than plot drivers, giving even the most fatale of femmes genuine motives for the dark deeds with which they became involved. Footsteps in the Fog attempts the same, with varying results. There comes a point when you as the viewer realises that Lowry and Lily are made for each other. Neither sees tricky concepts like right and wrong getting in the way of the things they want, which should make theirs the start of a beautiful friendship. The fatal flaw of class difference takes sway, though. To Lowry it’s an impassable barrier, ensuring Lily can never be anything more than a plaything, a distraction, whereas for her there’s a fleeting moment of happiness when she’s at her most intimate with her master, filmed in a post-coital glow having enjoyed his attentions. Despite the murder that kicks off the plot, you hope they can make it work – perhaps Lowry will journey with her to America where the class system (apparently) doesn’t matter, and these amoral yet attractive people can enjoy the fruits of their grubby labours. But of course that doesn’t happen. Lowry, who in a nice little irony ‘married up’ in becoming the member of society’s elite that he now is, simply can’t see beyond his trappings and Lily therefore is an obstacle to his fortunes.

The film varies as a success because there’s little depth to Granger’s character. He’s just not a very nice piece of work and thoroughly unworthy of the rapt Lily, who is guilty of loving him beyond any sense of reason. Her character’s tragedy is her willingness to become his accomplice, even when she makes the fateful testimony that acquits him of the murder she knows was intended for her, and all this is beautifully performed by Simmons. Her greatest noir role was as the eponymous Angel Face, for Otto Preminger playing a seemingly sweet and innocent young woman who is anything but when the surface is scratched away. Lily is not quite as evil but she’s dangerously amoral, which naturally leads to tragic consequences. One of the film’s great shames is that you come away barely remembering any characters beyond the main pair. To an extent that’s fair because Footsteps in the Fog was transparently a vehicle for Granger and Simmons, but everyone else in the film is two dimensional, existing solely to jog the story along. That said there’s a neat supporting role for William Hartnell as a Cockney grifter; Bill Travers on the other hand, who plays Lowry’s friend and his love rival for Elizabeth, isn’t very memorable.

Footsteps in the Fog regularly appears in Film4’s schedule, nearly always in its early slot reserved for throwaway classics and that’s probably about right. It isn’t especially significant and its stars are much better known for roles elsewhere, but it is entertaining.

Footsteps in the Fog: ***