Peyton Place (1957)

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Quality is a very good thing in a roll of cloth but it’s very dull on a big date. Mike Rossi (Lee Phillips) arrives in the small New England town of Peyton Place to interview for high school principal, usurping the favourite teacher (Mildred Dunnock). He drives past a shack where Selena Cross (Hope Lange) lives with her mother (Betty Field), little brother and drunken stepfather Lucas (Arthur Kennedy). Selena’s best friend is the graduating class’s star student and wannabe writer Allison Mackenzie (Diane Varsi) whose widowed mother Constance (Lana Turner) has a clothing store and immediately attracts Mike’s interest. Allison has a crush on Rodney Harrington (Barry Coe) heir to the local fabric mill but he only has eyes for trashy Betty (Terry Moore). Allison confides in Norman (Russ Tamblyn) whose watchful mother has altogether too much to do with her shy son. All of the characters attempt to assert their individuality and grow up but malicious rumours, a rape and a suicide followed by a murder are just around the corner as Lucas forces himself on his stepdaughter and Constance reveals to Allison the truth about her obscure origins; then the newspaper carries a story about the bombing of Pearl Harbor … Even decades after Grace Metalious’ novel was published it bore the whiff of scandal and my eleven-year old self carried it as though it were dangerous contraband – which of course it was, for about a minute. Part of its attraction was the back cover photograph of the authoress, a gorgeous young thing with a Fifties Tammy ponytail wearing a plaid shirt, cut offs and penny loafers – it was years before I would learn that this was a model (paid tribute by a shot of Allison in the film) and that Metalious was in reality a bloated alcoholic who died not long afterwards:  not such a role model after all!  The bestselling exposition of a horribly inward looking and vicious group of people in an outwardly lovely small town in Maine gets a meticulous adaptation by John Michael Hayes who was working carefully around the censor yet still managed to craft a moving even shocking melodrama from some explosive storylines arranged through the seasons. Lange comes off best in a film which has some daring off-casting – including Turner as the frigid so-called widow, cannily using her star carnality against the character. (In reality she would encounter her own extraordinary scandal with teenage daughter Cheryl within a year of this film’s release). Lloyd Nolan playing the local doctor has a field day in the showstopping courtroom revelation telling some vicious home truths amid some frankly disbelieving onlookers including the unrepentant gossips. Tamblyn gets one of the roles of his career as Norman, the son who is loved just a little too much by his mom… I hadn’t seen this in a long time but much to my surprise was immediately humming along again with the wonderfully lyrical score by Franz Waxman. In many ways this evocative drama sums up the morality of the Fifties even while being set on the eve of WW2 and the early Forties. A very pleasant, beautifully made and surprising reminder of a book whose opening line I’ve never forgotten:  Indian Summer is like a woman … Ah! The film is sixty years old this year. Directed by Mark Robson.

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The Spoilers (1942)

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A woman doesn’t run out on the man she loves, she sticks with him through thick and thin. It’s 1900 and Flapjack (Russell Simpson) and Banty (George Cleveland) arrive in Nome, Alaska to check up on their claim to a gold mine. Saloon owner Charry Malotte (Marlene Dietrich) knows that Bennett (Forrest Taylor) and Clark (Ray Bennett) are plotting to steal their claim. The new gold commissioner Alexander McNamara (Randolph Scott) is part of the corrupt scheme as is the territory’s judge Horace Stillman (Samuel S. Hinds) whose niece Helen (Margaret Lindsay) has a thing for Cherry’s old flame Roy Glennister (John Wayne), fresh from a trip to Europe. Roy makes the mistake of siding with McNamara which damages his relationship with longtime partner Al Dextry (Harry Carey).  Roy realizes he’s been deceived as McNamara and Stillman prepare to steal at least $250,000 while the mine’s case awaits appeal. Helen is now in love with Roy, who begs Dextry’s forgiveness and persuades him to rob a bank to take back the wealth stolen from them. Both Glennister and Dextry don black faces to disguise themselves during the heist. The Bronco Kid (Richard Barthelmess) kills the sheriff but Roy gets the blame. He is arrested and a plot forms to kill him – permitting him to escape then murdering him on the street – but Cherry comes to his rescue, breaking Roy out of jail. A spectacular train derailment occurs during his fight for freedom. Then a fierce fistfight with McNamara results in Roy getting back his mine and his girl. A great starry cast play brilliantly off one another in this spirited adaptation of the novel by Rex Beach, adapted by Lawrence Hazard and Tom Reed. The tone is set from the start with a shootout in this muddy town and Dietrich beats a path to the dock to greet old love Wayne. She doesn’t sing but wears several sparkly numbers in this monochrome delight. Her byplay with romantic rival Lindsay is a wonderful contrast in performing styles and her scenes with Wayne positively crackle The frequent references to Robert Service’s works are done with a nod and a wink to his own appearance as The Poet. Directed by Ray Enright who brings everything to a rousing conclusion with one of the longest fistfights ever filmed – and it’s all over the saloon! Wonderful fun.

Deadfall (1968)

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How do you account for the fact the jewel thief is the one criminal that respectable people sympathise with? Cat burglar Henry Clarke (Michael Caine) checks himself into a Spanish sanitarium for alcoholics to befriend the wealthy Salinas (David Buck) in order to rob his mansion. He is visited in the clinic by Italian beauty Fé Moreau (Giovanna Ralli) and asked to join with her and her much older husband Richard (Eric Portman) in robbing Salinas’ place when he’s attending a concert. As a test run they break into another stately home. After risking his life on a ledge, Clarke becomes so angered by Richard’s failure to crack the safe that he digs it out of the wall and he drags it and its contents out of the house. Fé and Clarke begin an affair, which Richard doesn’t mind because he has a new young male lover. Fé buys a Jaguar convertible for Clarke and tells him the safe contained jewels worth at least a half-a-million dollars. Before the time comes to rob Salinas, Fé travels to Tangier without letting Clarke know she was leaving. Richard then reveals to Clarke that he betrayed his male lover to the Nazis and then impregnated the man’s wife. Their baby was Fé and she doesn’t know the truth. Clarke is devastated and breaks into Salinas’ mansion on his own. Fé returns and is shocked and disbelieving when Richard reveals the truth about their relationship. She races to the Salinas mansion and her arrival alerts a security guard who shoots Clarke coming out a window… Bryan Forbes adapted Desmond Cory’s novel which has the trappings of a Hitchcock suspense thriller but instead turns into a relationship melodrama with a rather disturbing Freudian twist. Forbes made some fantastic films in the Sixties and had previously teamed up with Caine, Leonard Rossiter (as Fillmore) and his wife Nanette Newman (the Girl here) in The Wrong Box but the setup takes too long, the key tryout burglary is crosscut with John Barry conducting a concert which is really strangely shot by Gerry Turpin (imagine how Hitch would have staged it – or just watch The Man Who Knew Too Much) and the strangulated diction of Portman makes you wonder why nobody thought of Curt Jurgens for the role. His dialogue basically states the film’s themes and his enunciation is horrifically enervating: I have no idea how Caine acted opposite him. On the plus side it’s mostly well shot save for that concert hall, Caine looks his beautiful feline best enhanced by the Spanish location tan and Barry’s score is deeply attached to the film’s strange emotions, even quoting himself by using the theme from Beat Girl to stress the decadence. And it’s nice to see the glorious Ralli at work as well as watching the great Catalan guitarist Renata Tarrago play the solo on stage. Clouds, silver linings, etc.

Houdini (1953)

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Pay a dollar to see a man in love with death! Watch Tony Curtis saw Janet Leigh in two! From his start at the Coney Island sideshows to London, Paris and Berlin, the career of legendary escapologist Harry Houdini is charted in a screenplay by Philip Yordan adapted from the book by Harold Kellock which plays fast and loose with the facts, including his tragically early death. Houdini (Tony Curtis) meets Bess (Janet Leigh) while trying out his early magic acts and they marry quickly and move in with his mother (Angela Clarke). He takes a regular job in a locksmith factory but tries to escape from a safe and Bess finally agrees to go to Europe with him instead of putting a downpayment on a house with prize money earned when he escapes from a straitjacket at a Halloween show for magicians. That’s when he becomes obsessed with Otto von Schweger, the only other man to have done so. (He develops a fatalistic belief that good things happen to him on Halloween). Bess joins him on the road as his assistant and becomes a star attraction. He becomes infamous after escaping a police cell at Scotland Yard but is too late arriving at von Schweger’s home to meet the man, who had just died. He left him a miniature of a man in a glass case and it becomes Houdini’s obsession. When his mother dies he wants to make contact with her and loses himself for two years. A journalist persuades him to expose fake spiritualists and then he returns to the one trick that remains … Curtis and Leigh were husband and wife and Hollywood’s darlings when they made this and they’re utterly charming together – she’s beguiling, practical and loving, he’s obsessive, devoted and brilliant:  they practically sizzle on screen.  Director George Marshall stages this beautifully in a production that is a triumph of design, colour and performance with great costumes by Edith Head. Demonstrating Houdini’s focus using a bauble on a chandelier as an objective correlative is a brilliant example of how this is visualised. A splendid, tense, thrilling, witty and romantic biography from the Golden Age of Hollywood with wonderfully imagined tricks and illusions.

Esther Waters (1948)

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Esther Waters (Kathleen Ryan) is the maid at a big house where she is seduced by handsome footman William Latch (Dirk Bogarde) – but when he disappears with another woman Esther finds herself pregnant. She leaves for home but her mother is dead and she gives birth alone in a workhouse in Lambeth. Returning to service her childminder offers to kill her baby boy Jackie for a fiver. A kindly policeman helps her and then she meets a nice vicar, Fred (Cyril Cusack) who romances her. When William spots her on a tram however she allows him see her now six-year old son.  He’s a bookmaker with his ex long gone after his forays in Europe. Fred wants to marry her but she protests I’m a woman too and we know her sexual desire for William is overwhelming. It’s quite a moment in a British film of the era. She and William marry and she has to get over her disdain for his profession of gambling – until he falls mortally ill and she must enter the world of risk. The first section of the story is quite visually inventive with a particularly nice moment happening in silhouette. Bogarde is an excellent and louche romantic lead in his first such role. Then it descends into a social problem tract as Esther gets the Dickensian treatment in the city after her abandonment. Their reunion is as a fairly average married couple when he purveys his business – until medical issues twist everything … So the film both in terms of content and style works naturalism and melodrama into the fashion of the post-war period.  Ryan is very good in a complex role, never turning on the tears despite her desperation but it really works best when that attractive man Bogarde is front and centre. There’s a terrific climax at the Derby.  Adapted from George Moore’s novel by Michael Gordon and William Rose with additional dialogue by Gerard Tyrrell. Directed by Ian Dalyrymple and Peter Proud.

Watch on the Rhine (1943)

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I fight against fascism. That is my trade. Jack Warner acquired Lillian Hellman’s hit play for an enormous sum and her lover Dashiell Hammett adapted it for the screen. Bette Davis gets top billing but she’s just one in an ensemble and therefore a supporting player in this tale of anti-fascist activists in Washington in wartime. She plays Sara, the wife of German anti-Nazi Kurt Muller (Paul Lukas) who travel with their three children from Europe via Mexico back to her hometown to stay with her widowed mother (Lucile Watson) and brother David (Donald Woods) in a very upscale home. They have other houseguests: Teck De Brankovis (George Colouris) a smooth but desperate Romanian who lives off his wealthy wife Martha (Geraldine Fitzgerald, Davis’s Dark Victory co-star), a woman who is falling for David. Teck soon makes it clear he is a collaborator of the Nazis in Washington and rifles through Kurt’s briefcase threatening blackmail over his true identity.  As Chekhov once proved, if there’s a gun in the first act, it must go off in the third … This talky melodrama is a political tract that works in fits and starts. FDR fan Davis clashed with theatre director Herman Shumlin (who had staged it on Broadway) and argued against the casting of Watson, a Republican, who had established the role on stage. However Watson dominates every scene she’s in with an arresting presence. When she declares, Well we’ve been shaken out of the magnolias, you want to cheer. Very much of its time and terribly stagebound but it demonstrates a consciousness about goings-on in Europe and the wheeling and dealing of so-called diplomats on foreign soils at a time when it really mattered. To demonstrate their commitment to the project Warners refused to bow to pressure from the Hays Office and retained the original ending. They dropped most of the location backgrounds because they contained shots of Government buildings. Shumlin was a prolific stage director and also did Hellman’s The Little Foxes on Broadway. He made just one further film, Confidential Agent (1945). It is not noble. It is only the way I must live.

Deception (1946)

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It’s like grand opera, only the people are thinner. The stars and director of Now, Voyager were happily reunited for this melodrama that has a definite inclination towards film noir. Pianist Christine Radcliffe (Bette Davis) discovers that her former lover cellist Karel Novak (Paul Henreid) is not dead on a WW2 battlefield as she previously thought but alive and well and performing in NYC. When they reunite she doesn’t want him to know that she spent years as the mistress of sadistic composer Alexander Hollenius (Claude Rains) whose voluminous loft she inhabits after becoming a kept woman. Hollenius tries to prise the couple apart following their marriage by getting nervous Karel to perform his Cello Concerto (written by studio composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold) and Christine’s lies go deeper and deeper to try and keep her husband from finding out the truth about her past … This adaptation of Louis Verneuil’s play by John Collier and Joseph Than changed Karel’s profession from painter and this permits the three neurotics at the centre of this love triangle to each perform music with a ferocity rarely seen on film (Davis had trained at piano, Henreid was hopeless at cello and other people’s arms are used to fake his part!) In fact it’s a musical in all but name which may have contributed to its relative box office failure since it is a paean to the classical mode.  The framing of Davis’ fabulously physical performance in these luxe interiors (her loft was based on Leonard Bernstein’s NYC pad) is a supreme example of classical Hollywood staging (art directed by Anton Grot) and her sparring with Rains is high comedy.  He relishes his role as this man tipping on the edges of crazy, stroking his Siamese cat and indulging in frightful bullying at the table in an hilariously horrible restaurant scene. The noir tropes of staircases and mirrors are brilliantly used to heighten Christine’s deceitful core, indeed the ending had to be changed to get past the censors so Christine’s actions must be punished! Director of photography Ernest Haller did his best for Davis whom he had been shooting since Dangerous as she was newly married, pregnant and under-confident of her jowly thirty-eight year old appearance. She was outfitted in stunning gowns and furs by Bernard Newman and when Henreid got his heart’s desire to become a director  years later she acted for him in one of her truly dualistic roles as identical twins in Dead Ringer which Haller also shot and you can read about it here:  http://offscreen.com/view/double_life_part_2.

In This Our Life (1942)

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You’ve never gotten over me and you never will. John Huston’s sophomore outing (after The Maltese Falcon) is this deranged adaptation of Ellen Glasgow’s Pulitzer-winning novel concerning race relations and sibling rivalry in the contemporary South, a subject on which she was rather an expert. Bette Davis is Stanley Timberlake who is about to marry lawyer Craig Fleming (George Brent, Davis’ frequent co-star) but runs off instead with her brother in law Dr Peter Kingsmill (Dennis Morgan). Stanley’s sister Roy (Olivia DeHavilland) divorces Peter but starts dating Craig in revenge and Peter starts to get nervous when Stanley goes kinda crazy at a roadhouse.  He becomes an alcoholic and commits suicide. Stanley returns to Virginia and wants to stop Roy from marrying Craig. She kills a mother and child while drunk and tries to pin the crime on a young black man Parry Clay (Ernest Anderson) working for the family and interning in Craig’s office to prepare for law school … What a wonderful showcase of the very opposing talents of Warners’ biggest stars. Both Davis and DeHavilland were having a bad time on this film:  Davis’ husband fell very ill and the company made it difficult for her to visit him then she fell ill;  DeHavilland was overworked and tired and felt overweight. Davis felt Huston favoured her co-star and drew attention to herself with her overwrought self-designed makeup scheme and her very busy costumes by Orry-Kelly. Her personification of this selfish nasty histrionic woman whose very physicality bespeaks narcissism is totally compelling;  her quasi-incestuous scene with her indulgent uncle William Fitzroy (Charles Coburn) is still shocking – he holds the power once he’s taken over the family business. That scene was directed by Raoul Walsh when Huston was called away on war duty (this was made between October and December 1941). But what made this film such a problem when it was released was its truthful depiction of the state of race relations and therefore created a distribution issue. There are many things wrong with Howard Koch’s adaptation but the busy-ness of the production design with its wildly clashing patterns, the strength of the ensemble scenes and the sheerly contrasting powers of the ladies playing opposite one another in their varying interpretations (madly hysterical versus quiet revenge) in some very good shot setups by Huston make this a very interesting example of Forties melodrama. Watch for Walter Huston as a bartender.

The Birth of a Nation (2016)

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William Kienzle once wrote that nothing beats religion, sex and murder. This almost-true (ish) story of Nat Turner (Nate Parker) a literate slave and preacher in antebellum Virginia has all of the above plus a sense of righteousness that along with Twelve Years a Slave risks a new era of blaxploitation with rather different text than in the Seventies.  We are dealing with archetypes rather than real characters despite its biographical origins. Year in year out, another brutal beating, unwatchable torture and horrible violence. From his childhood to his inevitable death by hanging after taking revenge on the supposedly kindly owner Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer) who betrays him after persuading him to suppress rebellion through religion we are not remotely surprised by any of the narrative turns. Worthy but not really memorable, from the quadruple threat Parker – who directs and produces as well as co-writing with Jean McGianni Celestin.

Piccadilly Incident (1946)

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Don’t touch me! A brutally effective wartime tearjerker with WREN Diana Fraser (Anna Neagle) meeting cute with Captain Alan Pearson (Michael Wilding) in an air raid and taking refuge in his Piccadilly flat. They fall madly in love and marry because she’s being deployed abroad in 72 hours and they encounter his father, a judge (AE Matthews) in a restaurant and celebrate their hasty wedding.  They share some very sensual scenes but her sojourn in Singapore lasts a lot longer than anticipated – when the city falls and the ship she’s on is wrecked she fetches up on a desert island and is gone three years before being rescued. She is reported missing presumed drowned. Upon her return she finds his flat has been bombed and goes to his country seat where she meets the American woman Alan married in her absence and they have a baby. She watches him performing – in one of several musical segues, one of which is a ballet sequence devised by future director Wendy Toye – and pretends she’s found someone else. They are both injured in a bombing and she makes a deathbed confession as he kisses her … This romance carried out amid bombs and blackouts is bookended with the legal fate of Alan’s illegitimate son making Florence Tranter’s wartime take on Enoch Arden (screenplay by actor/writer Nicholas Phipps) both more realistic and trapped in its time:  nonetheless the accidental pairing of director Herbert Wilcox’s wife Neagle with Wilding (it was supposed to be Rex Harrison) was hugely popular (number 2 at the 1946 UK box office after The Wicked Lady) and they were re-teamed a further five times to make more, beautiful music together. No wonder.  Sob. Watch out for an uncredited Roger Moore at a table.