Harlow (1965)

Harlow

Everything about me is real.  Jean Harlow (Carroll Baker) arrives in Los Angeles as a teenager, pushed into showbiz by her sex-mad mother Mama Jean (Angela Lansbury) and grasping stepfather Marino Bello (Raf Vallone). Kindhearted agent Arthur Landau (Red Buttons) becomes Jean’s mentor and rescues her from glamour shots and the casting couch, while a devious Howard Hughes-like mogul Richard Manley (Leslie Nielsen) grows infatuated with the beautiful young actress. Harlow herself falls for writer/producer Paul Bern (Peter Lawford) before tragedy strikes right after their marriage and her efforts to get together with fellow studio star Jack Harrison (Mike Connors) come to nothing …  You have the body of a woman and the emotions of a child!  The big-budget version of the screen icon’s life was beaten to it by a cheaper experimental film starring Carol Lynley that barely scraped into theatres so this is the one that people remember, if at all. Adapted in part from Landau and Irving Shulman’s pulpy biography of the sex goddess by John Michael Hayes, this skips and jumps through Harlow’s life, eliminating altogether any direct reference to her relationship with William Powell (Connors plays a variation on him) or her co-star Clark Gable, more or less fabricating whole sequences and introducing an element of wantonness involving her stepfather that seems excessive even in this version of events. It’s rather lurid and seems to deviate from what is known of Harlow’s true character but it’s rather interesting to see the platinum blonde in vivid Technicolor with Edith Head making the most of the opportunity to create some stunning gowns. Baker had featured in the controversial Hayes adaptation of Harold Robbins’ The Carpetbaggers a year earlier and shot a famous nude scene in the role of Rina, a thinly veiled version of Harlow – so her casting here is no surprise given that Paramount produced both pictures. Effectively, then, this is a remake in part of part of a year-old film. Baker is a decade older than Harlow at the time of her death but her performance is tender and appealing, capturing some of the spirit of Harlow’s great characters against a melodramatic backdrop that nonetheless plays fast and loose with the facts including the circumstances of her demise. Lansbury and Vallone are extremely impressive as the lusty parental figures while Buttons is very good as the kind man who remains her one true friend. A fascinating insight into how Hollywood saw itself at one time. Welcome to the velvet prison. Hayes deserves his reputation as a great writer of dialogue and he manages to invest showbiz clichés with the ring of truth especially when uttered venomously by Connors. Julie Parrish appears uncredited as Connors’ wife and would make a couple of appearances opposite him on Mannix five years later. The production design by Roland Anderson, Hal Pereira and James W. Payne is jaw dropping. The theme song Lonely Girl is sung by Bobby Vinton. Directed by Gordon Douglas. There’s nobody deader than I am right now. Oh, I guarantee all of you I won’t be by tomorrow

Angel Face (1952)

Angel Face

I only ask questions and I love to dance. When wealthy Beverly Hills denizen Mrs. Catherine Tremayne (Barbara O’Neill) is mysteriously poisoned with gas, ambulance driver Frank Jessup (Robert Mitchum) meets her refined but sensuous stepdaughter Diane (Jean Simmons), who quickly pursues and infatuates him, taking him away from his hospital receptionist girlfriend Mary (Mona Freeman) who expects to marry him. Diane’s father Charles Tremayne (Herbert Marshall) is a formerly successful novelist who hasn’t written a word in a year and indulges his daughter. Diane persuades Frank to work as her family’s chauffeur and asks her stepmother to give him money to fund the former racing driver’s plan for a garage of his own. Despite fearing that Diane’s hatred of her mother could lead her to kill her, Frank goes along with her plan to run away but then both her stepmother and father have an accident and he finds himself embroiled in a court case … One acquires bad habits so early. Producer/director Otto Preminger spins a deeply subversive noir melodrama out of Frank Nugent and Oscar Millard’s screenplay (from a story by Chester Erskine) with uncredited contributions from Ben Hecht, almost removing the drama so that when the violence occurs – twice – it comes as more of a surprise than it would in a conventionally mounted suspenser. Mitchum is great as the sap who says he won’t be caught as the innocent bystander, while Simmons unleashes her inner demon to great effect. In their smaller roles, Marshall plays a typical Englishman albeit one whose charm has run out for his wealthy wife due to his spendthrift ways; while Mona Freeman is fine as the girlfriend who knows only too well she can’t outcompete Simmons. Leon Ames and Jim Backus have fun in the courtroom face-off. There’s a a lyrically misleading score from Dimitri Tiomkin and it’s beautifully shot by Harry Stradling. Quietly brilliant. All I want is you. I can’t let you go – I won’t

To Each His Own (1946)

To Each His Own

Are you proud of your life? In World War 2 London, fire wardens Josephine ‘Jody’ Norris (Olivia de Havilland) and Lord Desham (Roland Culver) keep a lonely vigil. When Jody saves Desham’s life, they become better acquainted. With a bit of coaxing, the ageing spinster tells the story of her life, leading to a flashback of her life in upstate New York town where is the daughter of pharmacist Dan (Griff Barnett) and she is proposed to by both Alex Piersen (Philip Terry) and travelling salesman Mac Tilton (Bill Goodwin) but she turns them both down. A disappointed Alex marries Corinne (Mary Anderson). When handsome US Army Air Service fighter pilot Captain Bart Cosgrove (John Lund) flies in to promote a bond drive, he and Jody quickly fall in love, though they have only one night together. Months later she gives birth to his son in a New York hospital and her plans to adopt the baby by stealth go wrong when Corinne’s newborn dies and she and Alex take in the child, known as Griggsy.  Bart has died in the war and then Jody’s father dies and she has to sell up. She starts up a cosmetics business in NYC under cover of Mac’s former bootlegging enterprise and reveals to Corinne she’s been propping up Alex’ failing business and will continue to do so but she wants the baby – her son – however the boy misses his ‘mother’ … You sin – you pay for it all the rest of your life. A morality tale that doesn’t moralise – that’s quite a feat to pull off but master producer and screenwriter Charles Brackett (with Jacques Théry) does it. This miracle of straightforward storytelling never falls into the trap of over-sentimentality and is helped enormously by a performance of grace notes and toughness by de Havilland, who won an Academy Award for her role as the unwed mother who through the worst of ironies loses access to her own baby when a finely executed plan goes wrong. Her ascent through the business world is born of necessity and grim ambition to retrieve her son – and the scene when she has to admit there’s more to parenting than giving birth is one of the finest of the actress’ career. Just bringing a child into the world doesn’t make you a mother … it’s being there … it’s all the things I’ve missed. The subject of illegitmacy is handled without fuss and de Havilland is surrounded by fine performances, acting like a sorbet to her rich playing of a woman whose coldness is pierced by the thoughts of her lost son: Culver is excellent as the no-nonsense English aristo who engineers a reconciliation; Anderson is fine as the flip rival who gains the upper hand while knowing her husband still loves his childhood sweetheart; and Lund scores in his debut in the double role as the flyer chancing his arm at a one-night stand and then as his own clueless son twenty years later, wanting nothing more than a night with his fiancée. A refreshing take on that strand of stories known as the Independent Woman sub-genre. Directed by Mitchell Leisen.  I’m a problem mother

 

The Upturned Glass (1946)

The Upturned Glass

The man who is prepared to pursue his own ethical convictions even to the point of murder. Prosperous British neurosurgeon Michael Joyce (James Mason) falls in love with the married mother Emma Wright (Rosamund John) of a girl Ann (Ann Stephens) he saves in an operation. They carry on an affair which she abruptly terminates. When Emma falls to her death from the bedroom window of her holiday home Michael notices at the inquest that her shrewish sister-in-law Kate Wright (Pamela Kellino) is guiding Ann’s answers and comes to realise she is implicated in the death of the woman he loved. He swears revenge and initiates a relationship with Kate who he discovers is deeply greedy but he feels compelled to talk about the case at one of his regular medical school lectures … A doctor dispenses death and healing with blind impartiality. Mason gets to unleash both sadistic and masochistic elements of performance in this wonderfully complex and brilliantly told melodrama of love and vanity, obsession, passion and revenge, a project he and his wife Kellino dreamed up for themselves (having started out as a chronicle of the Brontë family under the same title!). Kellino’s co-writer Jno P. Monaghan, an American serviceman, has a small role as an American soldier who encounters Mason stuck on the road in a car with Kellino’s body inside. It’s a glossily made noir with a truly inspired storytelling style – the framing story becomes something else:  a subtle and unwitting confession by a reliable narrator! Talk about fatalistic! – and it’s glossily shot. A disarming film with a really amazing philosophy unspooling behind the narrative, with Dr Farrell  (Brefni O’Rorke) there to provide the killer psychological blow after a redeeming surgery takes place. Kellino is a revelation – a nasty piece of work who elicits sympathy; while Stephens is the image of Irish actress Jessie Buckley which is a little disturbing in a 75-year old film because she too was a singer and made a classic recording of Teddy Bear’s Picnic. She would make another film with this director, Lawrence Huntington, The Franchise Affair. She died shockingly young, aged 35 in 1966. Produced by Mason with Betty Box and Sydney Box. Man doesn’t have any generous feelings – he only thinks he has. Selfishness, habit and hard cash – those are his real motives

City That Never Sleeps (1953)

City That Never Sleeps

I could make a big man out of you. Disillusioned Chicago cop Johnny Kelly (Gig Young) wants to quit the force and make a new life with strip tclub performer Sally ‘Angel Face’ Connors (Mala Powers), leaving wife Kathy (Paula Raymond) who tells her father-in-law, Sgt. John Kelly Senior (Otto Hulett) she suspects Johnny might be planning on leaving the Chicago PD and believes he can’t stand being outearned by her. Johnny meets big wheel corrupt DA Penrod Biddel (Edward Arnold) who blackmails him into transporting former magician now thief Hayes Stewart (William Talman) after a setup later that night across state lines into Indiana because Johnny’s little brother Stubby (Ron Hagerthy) a former bellboy is now involved in his rackets. What Biddel doesn’t know is that his wife Lydia  (Marie Windsor) and Stewart are having an affair and he is being set up instead with Stubby being used as his accomplice in that night’s theft. When John Sr takes Johnny’s call he ends up getting caught in the crossfire …. What he needs is a lesson in ethics. An awesome cult item full of bruised poetry, astonishing camera setups by John (Psycho) Russell, surprising plot twists and pleasurable performances. There are self-conscious references to The Blue Angel; a voiceover out of Dragnet from Chill Wills, Young’s insightful partner for the evening; and Young’s own ‘sour’ character tipping into masochism and creating a bristling set of disarming consequences for all concerned. The screenplay by Steve Fisher has the tropes of a police procedural but it reaches into the gutter and exposes the viscera of desire in the most amazing ways with a Mechanical Man (Wally Cassell) bearing witness to murder from a nightclub window and a chase to the death along the Chicago El. What a film! Directed by John Auer. Restored by Martin Scorsese and shown by that invaluable channel, Talking Pictures. You are sick inside Johnny. Something inside you is all fouled up

Havana (1990)

Havana theatrical

Now I want a shot. One shot. At a game I could never get in before. Christmas Eve 1958. On the eve of revolution, Navy veteran and professional high-stakes gambler Jack Weil (Robert Redford) arrives in Cuba seeking to win big in poker games. Along the way, he meets and falls in love with Bobby (Lena Olin), the wife of a Communist revolutionary Arturo Duràn (an uncredited Raul Julia) and gradually becomes convinced that the anti-Batista campaign is a cause worth fighting for… Nobody should be here. Redford’s seventh collaboration with director Sydney Pollack is their final work together and is a rather uneven experience once it veers away from its inherent genre identity of romantic melodrama. Perhaps the problem is inherent in the premise linked to previous Redford characters and his meta perception as an enigma:  the lack of commitment to a cause which reeks of Casablanca.  In truth it’s a problem with the screenplay which takes too many stances too quickly. This also suffers somewhat in comparison with treatment of broadly related subject matter in The Godfather Part II with Mark Rydell making an appearance here as Meyer Lansky and that film’s outrageous sex show is in another dimension from the tame act Redford brings American tourists Diane (Betsy Brantley) and Patty (Lise Cutter) to see, the foreplay to their inevitable threesome. In fact the role of ‘Rick Blaine’ is actually split between Redford and Alan Arkin who plays Joe Volpi, Lansky’s front guy. Then Arkin gets to essay a variation on Claude Rains in the penultimate scene with Redford adopting a more straightforward heroic stance, not that that was ever in any doubt because of how the story begins. It starts out with an ill-advised voiceover by Redford and gets right into action which involves his going out on a limb for no perceptible reason to help a total stranger escape the attentions of SIM (Batista’s secret police) onboard the Cuba-bound ship, forcing the meet-cute with Olin. Olin’s character is an out of work Swedish actress who was inspired by Garbo – shouldn’t it have been Bergman?! – while her former husband, a blacklisted Hollywood screenwriter got her exiled to Mexico and then marriage to Duràn, son of a well-connected Cuban family (we’re non-torturable, he explains). There’s talk about American citizenship. A lot of talk about moving to Miami. There’s a great character – a ‘fake fairy food critic’ called Marion Chigwell (Daniel Davis) and he is – what else – a CIA spook. Somewhere here there’s a great movie but it’s badly organised and the sub-plot with the journalist friend Julio Ramos (Tony Plana) seems under-explained. There are great poker scenes with the military chief Menocal (Tomas Milian) who of course is not what he appears. After Olin’s character loses her naturalistic diffidence in the first two-thirds it shifts into a different and more convincing gear. Even if we never believe Redford is in real trouble. Despite this there is an uncannily evocative atmosphere throughout and some great lines. Pollack was an inveterate messer with scripts, perhaps that explains it. There are major compensations in Owen Roizman’s cinematography (of the Dominican Republic, where this was shot) and the dreamy production design by Terence Marsh is something of a miracle. Written by Judith Rascoe (from her original idea) and Pollack’s usual collaborator, David Rayfiel. A fascinating work for students of Hollywood stardom as Redford edged into his mid-fifties. History is overtaking us

Europa (1991)

Europa theatrical

Aka Zentropa. I thought the war was over. Just after World War II Leopold Kessler (Jean-Marc Barr), an American of German descent takes a job on the Zentropa train line in US-occupied Germany to help the country rebuild. He becomes a sleeping-car conductor under the tutelage of his drunken uncle (Ernst-Hugo Järegård). He falls under the spell of the mysterious Katharina Hartmann (Barbara Sukowa) daughter of Zentropa railway magnate Max (Jørgen Reenberg) whose friendship with US Colonel Harris (Eddie Constantine) has raised hackles. Her gay brother Lawrence (Udo Kier) is the family embarrassment because like Leopold he didn’t serve his country. Leopold inadvertently becomes embroiled with a pro-Nazi fascist organisation known as the Werewolves who are conspiring to overthrow the state. Simultaneously being used by the US Army, Leopold finds neutrality an impossible position … I understand unemployment in Germany a lot better now. It costs too much to work here. Danish auteur Lars von Trier made this great train thriller long before he became a trying controversialist down the Dogma 95 rabbit hole. It plugs into that febrile post-war atmosphere which we already know from films of the late 40s like Berlin Express as well as sensational character-driven pre-war comedy thrillers like The Lady Vanishes. It’s the final part of the director’s first trilogy (following The Element of Crime and The Epidemic) and it gained a lot of kudos upon release, particularly for its visual style, principally shot in black and white with rear projections in colour (photographed by Henning Bendtsen, Edward Klosinski and Jean-Paul Meurisse) lending an eerie aspect to what is already an innovative production, shifting tone as surely as it shifts pigments. The hypnotic (literally) narration by Max von Sydow lulls you into submission like the mesmerising shuffle of the carriages along the tracks; while the charm of the leading man on his journey which is physical, emotional and political, all at once, carries you through a sensitive yet experimental scenario.The miraculous editing achievement is by Hervé Schneid. It feels like a new kind of film is being born, reformulating the grammar of the language with its surrealist nods and noir references. A cult item from the casting of Kier and Constantine alone, with Sukowa’s role harking back to her Fassbinder films, this is a classic of modern European cinema. Written by von Trier (who appears as a Jew) & Niels Vørsel with a shooting script by von Trier & Tómas Gislason. You have carried out your orders. Now relax

 

 

The Last Time I Saw Paris (1954)

The Last Time I Saw Paris

I’ve been having a bad day for a year now, maybe I’m growing up. Novelist Charles Wills (Van Johnson) returns to Paris to claim custody of his young daughter Vicki (Sandy Descher) and recalls his life there… On VE Day in Paris, American journalist Charles Wills is on the crowded streets of Paris when he meets an unknown woman Helen Ellswirth (Elizabeth Taylor) who kisses him and runs away. He discovers who she is when he encounters her lovely sister Marion (Donna Reed) in a cafe and is smitten. He meets their father James (Walter Pidgeon) and finds a man from the Lost Generation who is flat broke but encourages his daughters to live in his lackadaisical fashion, dreaming big dreams but making no firm plans. Charles falls in love with Helen and they marry but when he parties away the unexpected dowry from James’ oil investments it drives a wedge between them then his ambition to write a book sunders them completely … What kind of wife are you, dancing with other men?  Adapted by Julius J. & Philip G. Epstein and director Richard Brooks from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s story Babylon Revisited, updated to after WW2, this is a wonderfully atmospheric portrait of the Lost Generation and the clash with the post-war world of the Forties generation (which altogether alters the story’s theme). Sensitive to both male and female perspectives, disappointments in life and love and tragic to the core, this is an unusual production because it’s chiefly from the perspective of the male protagonist and even if Johnson’s no dream boat he acquits himself well. Taylor is rather wonderful and Reed is equally good as the responsible older sister who settles for dull marriage to a decent man, prosecutor Claude Matine (George Dolenz). Roger Moore has a good role as Paul Lane, a tennis pro who romances Taylor; while Johnson is diverted by Eva Gabor. A good old-fashioned melodrama, beautifully made despite the constraints of the studio set. Happy VE Day. I’m sick to death of death. I want to enjoy things, have fun, live every day like it’s the last day. Wouldn’t that be nice, a lifetime full of last days?

The Fan (1981)

The Fan 1981

Dear Miss Ross, I’m your biggest fan. Broadway theatre star Sally Ross (Lauren Bacall) is successful, famous and nervous about rehearsing for a new musical. She’s still in love with ex-husband Jake Berman (James Garner) who has moved on with a newer model, and his absence creates a void in her life. Despite her loneliness, she doesn’t reciprocate when a fan, record store assistant Douglas Breen (Michael Biehn), starts sending her letters which are intercepted by her loyal secretary Belle Goldberg (Maureen Stapleton). The letters exhibit an obsessive interest in Sally and become steadily more personal and explicit, causing Belle to warn him off. This angers Douglas so much that he starts getting violent, with everyone in Sally’s immediate circle being targeted Quick, let’s think of something funny. The kind of film you’d think wouldn’t have stood a chance of getting released in the wake of John Lennon’s murder (and Bacall lived at the Dakota building too), this is a mix of high end midlife backstage melodrama and slasher horror exploitation, with the first half hour’s truly terrible pacing and poor editing ultimately damaging it on both fronts albeit the balance is finally struck in the last third. Bacall seems to the manner born as the quick-tempered diva giving Belle a hard time, while both Hector Elizondo as the police detective Raphael and Garner are particularly at ease in their supporting roles with some real chemistry between them and the leading lady on the screen. A strange mix of genres that doesn’t work overall but it’s somehow satisfying to see Bacall cast as the Final Girl confronting her deranged fan and Stapleton is outstanding. The music is by the legendary Pino Donaggio and there’s the bonus of seeing Bacall hoofing on stage in the manner of her own hit Applause (based of course on All About Eve, whose plot this rather wickedly limns). Watch out for Dana Delany and Griffin Dunne in small roles while legendary columnist Liz Smith appears as herself (George Sanders proving dead and therefore unavailable). If it wasn’t for the stabbings this might have had something to say about the dangers of being a celebrity. Adapted by Priscilla Chapman and John Hartwell from the novel by Bob Randall. Directed by Edward Bianchi and shot by an individual called Dick Bush. I rest your case.  I’m more than a fan, I’m a friend

East of Eden (1955)

East of Eden

The way he looks at you. Sorta like an animal. In 1917 Salinas Cal (James Dean) and Aaron (Richard Davalos) Trask are the sons of decent farmer Adam (Raymond Massey) who is chairman of the local wartime draft board. Both compete for his attention but Cal has discovered that the mother Kate (Jo Van Fleet) they were told was long dead is in fact the madam of a whorehouse in Monterey, 15 miles away. He borrows money from her to profit from a rise in the bean farming market intending to repay his father for his failed experiment in freezing food for long-haul shipping.  But his father prefers Aaron’s announcement of his engagement to Abra (Julie Harris) whom Cal starts to desire just as Aaron feels pressure to enlist and Cal decides to surprise him … I’ve been jealous all my life. Jealous, I couldn’t even stand it. Tonight, I even tried to buy your love, but now I don’t want it anymore… I can’t use it anymore. I don’t want any kind of love anymore. It doesn’t pay off. Was there ever a more important or sinuous entrance in the history of cinema than James Dean’s arrival here? The way he moves, coiled like a caged animal set to pounce, slinking along like a cat, then hunched and feral, infiltrating our consciousness and catalysing our puzzlement and desire? I first saw this aged 12 and that’s the perfect age to watch it for the first time, this story of bad parenting, bullying, abandonment, sibling rivalry, envy and first love, all choreographed to the backdrop of the outbreak of WW1 in a masterful adaptation (by Paul Osborn) of the last section of John Steinbeck’s great 1952 novel. Everything about it is right:  the shooting style laying out the gorgeous landscape of Salinas, alternately warm and sunny, chill and foggy; the wide screen that’s barely able to contain the raw emotionality; the marvellous, occasionally strident score by Leonard Rosenman with its soaring, sonorous swoops. And there’s the cast. Jo Van Fleet gives a great performance (in her screen debut) as the wild whoremongering mother  – just look at her strut when we first see her (this is a film of brilliant entrances), providing the angular example of difference to this half-grown boy of hers; Massey is upstanding, a self-righteous, arrogant man, given to sermonising, incapable of leading by empathy; Harris is generous to a fault, allowing Dean to be everything, all at once, boy, man, lover. He burns up the screen with playfulness, confusion and rage. His scenes with Davalos, the Abel to his Cain, bespeak a softness and eroticism rarely equalled and play into the latterday perceptions of his orientation – or perhaps director Elia Kazan just understood how he needed to be in the part, getting into your head by whatever means necessary. Kazan recalled the audience reaction to Dean at the first screening and said that kids were screaming and yelling and practically falling over the balcony to get closer to him, they went wild. That’s how he makes you feel, James Dean. You want to get closer to him. You want to be him. This is really where that sensation began:  of feelings being teased, opened up, acknowledged. Once seen, never forgotten. You’re a likeable kid