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: ****

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A Shot in the Dark (1964)

When it’s on: Friday, 26 December (5.00 pm)
Channel: Channel 5
IMDb Link

A Shot in the Dark is the second Inspector Clouseau film, and the best. It marks the point that Peter Sellers’s bumbling French detective becomes centre stage, perfecting his incredible accent and slapstick comic moments, before the show becomes too much a series of set-piece pratfalls as would happen later in the series. Sellers was always funny as Clouseau, but never more so than here.

In the previous year’s The Pink Panther, Sellers was on hand as a supporting player to David Niven, yet stole the show and both he and director-producer Blake Edwards realised they had struck comedy gold. A sequel was quickly demanded, and for it the pair mined a project that the actor was already attached to, inserted Clouseau and made him the focus.

A Broadway hit, A Shot in the Dark was adapted from the French play L’Idiote, and starred Walter Matthau and William Shatner. Excising pretty much everything from the story apart from the central plot about a maid being accused of killing her lover, it was transformed into Clouseau’s efforts to crack the case whilst similarly falling in love with the main suspect and doing all he can to exonerate her.

The resulting film is owned so completely by Sellers that everything depends on how funny you find his hapless Inspector to be. Fortunately, he’s completely hilarious, tapping comedy from as simple a situation as placing a billiard cue into its rack or agreeing on a time to switch off the power with his perpetually fed up assistant, Hercule (Graham Stark). Utterly incompetent, and yet pompous and filled with implacable self-belief, the fun derives from his ability to conjure slapstick genius from virtually anything whilst those around him grow increasingly irritated.

No one does this better than Herbert Lom’s Chief Inspector Dreyfus, making his first appearance in the franchise as the boss driven literally insane by Clouseau. Further down the line, Dreyfus would become a villain, but it’s here that the descent into madness starts, Lom’s famous eye tic developing over the course of the film along with the introduction of his lunatic giggle. What drives him over the edge is his insistence that Clouseau be removed from the murder case, whilst someone ‘higher up’ demands that he stays on it, leaving him to clean up after every mess.

The film’s opening scenes focuses on a mansion in Paris, the home of millionaire Benjamin Ballon (George Sanders). Everyone in the house seems to be having an affair with someone else, occupants sneaking around into each other’s bedrooms, before eventually the Spanish driver, Miguel, is shot dead. His lover, Marie the maid (Elke Sommer) is the prime suspect as she’s found holding the smoking gun, but once Clouseau arrives and gets a whiff of her scent, he’s intoxicated and determines to prove that someone else is the murderer. What follows is a series of episodes that feature Marie being put in jail as the killings continue and she’s always on the scene, then getting released so that Clouseau can trail her, only each time he does he’s arrested for not having a license for whatever disguise he happens to be wearing.

A brilliant scene that has Sellers at his best takes place in a nudist camp to which Marie has retreated. Clouseau follows but has to do so naked, and wanders around covering his dignity with a strategically placed guitar, clearly very awkward and shamefaced. The moment can only end one way, with a naked Clouseau and Marie fleeing the camp in a car, before being caught in the middle of a Paris traffic jam and once again arrested, this time for indecent exposure.

Any element of sleuthing is removed from the story as we never find out conclusively who the killer is and, besides, that’s never really the point. The murders are little more than a hook for more Sellers comedy, and this is always worth the film’s ultimate lack of interest in identifying the culprit. We also get the introduction of Clouseau’s manservant, Cato (Bert Kwuok), who the Inspector employs to help hone his martial arts skills by demanding he attack him at any time, leading to more hilarity. The confection is topped off with another winning score from Henry Mancini, who doesn’t reprise the Pink Panther theme (for which he was Oscar nominated) but produces a tune that’s every bit as fine, accompanied with some fantastic animation for the opening credits.

By all accounts, the making of A Shot in the Dark was strained as the working relationship between Edwards and Sellers – both men thought they were the driving force – was tense, bad tempered and frequently broke down. They needn’t have bothered. It was a big success, critically and commercially, and drove the pair back together for three sequels before Sellers’s untimely death in 1980. Even after his passing, Edwards used cutting room floor footage of the actor as the foundation for further Panthers.

A Shot in the Dark: ****

The Gay Falcon (1941)

When it’s on: Monday, 13 August (12.05 pm)
Channel: BBC2
IMDb Link

It’s great to see the BB-bally-C revive the tradition of classic movie serials over the summer holidays, first with the Saint films and now screening the Falcon series. There may have been some little known sporting event taking up the schedules beforehand, but we’re now into three remaining weeks of holiday fare, which raises the prospect of, well, what next? I can’t imagine seeing the decidedly non-PC Charlie Chan films make it onto the screens, but how about some Rathbone era Sherlock Holmes, or better yet, Weismuller donning the loincloth for his classic Tarzan adventures?

In the meantime, this week’s deal is two Falcon films per day, which makes ten in total, covering the George Sanders era in its first two days before Tom Conway (Sanders’s real life brother) takes over for the rest of the week. Anyone wondering what the difference is between the Saint and the Falcon can rest assured that there isn’t one. RKO simply needed to get Saint author, Leslie Charteris, off their backs as he protested with each release over the studio’s treatment of his stories and Sanders being quite wrong for his vision of Simon Templar. The Falcon is based on a short story written by Michael Arlen. With the adaptation rights bagged and RKO able to spin numerous flicks off from Arlen’s yarn, Charteris and his complaints were removed from the agenda, though he did sue the studio for their sheer cheek in repackaging the Saint. The matter was settled out of court.

As for the first film in RKO’s new franchise, The Gay Falcon is a short (it runs around seven minutes past the one hour mark) and bubbly concoction, and joyously naive when watched through jaded 2012 eyes. There’s that title for a start. Arlen’s story was named The Gay Falcon because that was the moniker of his protagonist. RKO kept the Gay but gave him the new surname Lawrence, whilst the Falcon remains as a shadowy, almost superhero nom de plume. As in the Saint pictures, The Gay Falcon is more about the lead character than the mystery in which he’s involved, indeed it’s a little weaker because the crime yarn is undercooked, as though all the scriptwriting effort went into developing Mr Lawrence. For all that, the police with whom Gay has an antagonistic working relationship are generally dullards, though not as daft as dim Jonathan ‘Goldie’ Locke, his hangdog sidekick. And then there are the dames. Gay’s a real ladies’ man, spending the film stringing along Wendy Barrie’s plucky amateur sleuth whilst being perfectly abominable to long-term squeeze, Elinor (Nina Vale). The latter’s flinty approach to Gay suggests she’s been treated exactly the same way for some years, but can’t resist him once he fixes her with his attention.

The whole show rests on Sanders, who floats through the film, just like the Saint in the knowledge he’s one step ahead of everyone. Gay’s such a fantastic character, breathed into life by the almost purring lilt of the actor’s plummy vocals that he’s eternally watchable. It’s both fortunate that RKO were able to drag so much work out of him in the space of several years, and a real shame Sanders believed the role was beneath him. No one says ‘Call me Gay’ better. Almost as good is Allan Jenkins as the wisecracking Goldie. Jenkins enjoyed a long career as a supporting actor, appearing in 150 films and TV shows and revelling in the fact that in each one he played basically the same character.

The Gay Falcon: ***

The Saint Strikes Back (1939)

When it’s on: Wednesday, 25 July (12.00 pm)
Channel: BBC2
IMDb Link

George Sanders had already featured in fifteen films over the course of a five year career in the industry before his starring turn in The Saint Strikes Back. It was the first of five appearances as Simon Templar, released over a breathless two year period that seems almost unimaginably quick on the draw. The part and actor met at the right time. Not yet a star, indeed destined never to rise to stratospheric levels of fame, Sanders nevertheless was a perfect fit for the Saint, bringing his urbane style and silky voice to bear as the supremely confident Robin Hood of the modern era. And if there are shades of James Bond in his playing, then it feels natural that the Saint was kind of a forerunner for 007. Fortunately, by 1930s standards his way with the ladies doesn’t extend as far as outright bedding, but rather winning over the delightful Wendy Barrie with his charm and cleverness.

Whilst Louis Hayward did well enough in the role, Sanders is effortlessly watchable and in fact makes his acting feel unforced and easy. His work alongside Jonathan Hale, returning from The Saint in New York as Inspector Fernack, is the stuff of genius. Unconvinced by his accomplishments in New York, the copper tails Templar because he suspects the Saint is up to no good, only to be fooled time and time again. On one occasion, Templar makes Fernack think he’s been given the slip whilst they’re on a plane making a routine stop in Dallas, so off he runs into the terminal, still wearing his pyjamas and dressing gown, only to find the flight, with his quarry still very much on board, taking off without him. Later, Templar feeds Fernack into nodding off, leaving the Inspector with feverish dreams about lobsters on swings, a freaky bit of surreal humour for the time.

Elsewhere, Sanders gets some incredible dialogue to play about with, at one point comparing San Francisco in winter with Naples in April, only to confess they’re both in fact very different. Later, Barrie’s character forces him to reveal his reasons for helping her. He replies it’s because ‘I love you. But don’t let’s get sticky about it. I’m really a very shallow person. I also love fireflies, mockingbirds and pink sunsets.’ All good stuff, though Sanders manages to get across the Saint’s inscrutability and shadowy past. Nobody knows who he really is, and when it’s suggested late in the film that he might marry Barrie, he politely declines and ends the picture leaning against a lamp post in foggy San Francisco, watching the world go by and letting the mist consume him.

The emptiness at the heart of the character is only teased at. The film’s little over an hour long and there isn’t time to go into such plot developments as Templar’s back story, and it’s moments like these that we must hold on to. Sanders has little of Hayward’s gritty edge. His Saint is all charm, talking his way both in and out of trouble with errant ease. It’s so effective that director John Farrow’s attempts to give added dimensions to Templar are fragmentary and never really the point.

By all accounts, Saint series author Leslie Charteris had little time for either Sanders’s or Hayward’s takes on the part. He wanted Cary Grant and apparently thought Roger Moore’s portrayal on the small screen was the closest to ‘Sainthenticity’ anyone managed. Sanders might have agreed. He was critical of his own talents, claiming ‘I never really thought I’d make the grade. And let’s face it, I haven’t.’

The Saint Strikes Back: ***

The Black Swan (1942)

When it’s on: Thursday, 21 June (12.30 pm)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

Not a nutty ballerina to be found in The Black Swan, Henry King’s 1942 swashbuckler about pirates in seventeenth century Caribbean waters. The film was  made as war between America and the Axis powers was imminent. Producer Robert Bassler, acting under orders from his Fox paymasters, ordered a limited number of takes for each scene in order to cut down on chemical usage that could be better deployed in the war effort. If certain scenes seem a little stagy and heavy on dialogue, then it’s probably for this reason. In places, The Black Swan might not crackle with the force of any moment when the camera’s on Maureen O’Hara’s fiery redhead, but mostly it’s very good fun, a fine choice for matinee entertainment on a rainy day (after all, it’s only the middle of flipping June).

Tyrone Power features in many scenes bare-chested as Captain Jamie ‘Jamie Boy’ Waring, a former smuggler who, along with Tommy Blue (Thomas Mitchell), gains legitimacy as a fellow pirate is reformed and installed as the Governor of Jamaica. Peace terms have been agreed between England and Spain, a state of affairs not to the liking of all, including Captain Leech (George Sanders), who continues his career of buccaneering. Leech appears to know just where to strike and it emerges he’s being tipped off by a Jamaican official who’s keen to impeach the new Governor, as well as wooing the old broom’s daughter, Lady Margaret (O’Hara). Jamie Boy takes a shine to the explosive Maggie, and kidnaps her as he sails off to deal with Leech’s ship, the infamous Black Swan…

Clocking in at less than ninety minutes, The Black Swan packs a lot in and, that slow middle section aside, passes agreeably. Almost every moment has Alfred Newman’s score twinkling away in the background, with a lovely trumpet-driven signature tune. The sets and costumes are entirely agreeable, and there are some really fine special effects, including one great set piece involving a ship running aground. It’s a model, naturally, but not a bad one, and it comes as part of a cracking sea battle to close the film. The effects and music were both nominated for Academy Awards, but The Black Swan’s only Oscar went to Leon Shamroy’s colour cinematography. It was the first of Shamroy’s four wins (and a slew of nominations) within a masterly career that is in fine evidence here. Skies have rarely looked more ravishing, particularly the orange dawn rays flooding into the cabin occupied by Power and O’Hara.

The fabulous cast is another considerable plus. O’Hara seems never better to me than when she’s playing the hellcat, which she does here until the final reel. George Sanders is recognisable only from his familiar silky voice; otherwise he’s cloaked in the thick ginger hair and beard of the villainous Captain Leech. Mitchell offers excellent support, and there are small but eye-catching roles for George Zucco and Anthony Quinn. As for the oft-topless Power, he doesn’t quite have the presence of Errol Flynn, but he’s certainly better than many bland matinee leads and really comes to life in the action scenes, especially his fast-paced duel with Leech. As a tragic postscript, he died at just 43, suffering a heart attack whilst filming another sword fight with Sanders for Solomon and Sheba.

The Black Swan: ***