A Place in the Sun (1951) Titles Sequence

A Place in the Sun poster

One of the most rousingly romantic scores by Franz Waxman introduces this superb exercise in melodrama directed by George Stevens. Mike Nichols said he learned everything he needed to know about directing by watching this over and over again. Mandy Merck wrote a brilliant book about its origins, including the anti-capitalist source novel An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser; a failed attempt by Sergei Eisenstein to film it; an adaptation by Josef von Sternberg; and the eventual acclaimed production written by Michael Wilson and Harry Brown, starring a sixteen-year old Elizabeth Taylor whose stunning beauty is matched by the legendary Montgomery Clift in scenes that literally take the breath away. If you want to remember what true star power is, watch this film. My review of the Merck book can be found here:  https://offscreen.com/view/hollywoods_american_tragedies

 

The Sun Also Rises (1957)

The Sun Also Rises

I don’t have a problem with Americans. In 1920s Paris American news correspondent Jake Barnes (Tyrone Power) has ended up injured, impotent and disillusioned from World War 1. He mingles with an aimless group of bohemian expatriates including hangers on, the wealthy and aimless Robert Cohn (Mel Ferrer) and Bill Gorton (Eddie Albert). His ex-fiancée, the seductive nymphomaniacal Lady Brett Ashley (Ava Gardner) who nursed him back to health in Italy returns to Paris and after Jake and Bill go on a fishing trip in Bayonne, she introduces him to her fiancé, the reckless alcoholic Mike Campbell (Errol Flynn) when they all converge in Pamplona for the bull run, where Robert turns up. Together, they pursue a hedonistic, directionless lifestyle until Brett’s affection for Jake complicates mattersBeing away from you is worse than being here. Adapted by Peter Viertel from Ernest Hemingway’s classic 1926 Lost Generation novel, this somewhat static rendition is truly enlivened by performance (ironically, given the theme) by a cast several years too old for their roles. Ironically, that seems to play into the book’s ideas of the relentless passing of time, never to be regained. Power looks aged, and would be dead within a year; Flynn would die two years later; and Gardner was shortly to be facially scarred – during a bullfight in Spain. Naturally much is lost in adaptation – the density of feeling, for starters – but it’s an attractive proposition with beautiful people suffering in lovely locations. The dissipated Flynn, his beauty long lost to drink, is ideally cast as the soused larger than life Scot and in fact his performance was the only thing Hemingway thought decent about the film; rather wonderfully, Pancho Villa’s son was Flynn’s stand-in. This is the production that launched movie mogul Robert Evans upon the world, playing the sexy young matador Pedro Romero giving Gardner the attention she craves (cleaving rather closely to Gardner’s real life). Everyone on the cast and crew wanted him gone but this mutiny triggered Darryl F. Zanuck’s infamous line, The kids stays in the picture, providing Evans with the title of his legendary memoir. Gardner of course had a habit of driving her lovers crazy for her and that creeps into her role, as well as the fact that she had already essayed Hemingway as a sizzling femme fatale in The Killers, to unforgettable effect. And there’s Juliette Gréco in the first part of the story, set in Paris, not singing but exuding blackly comic and blunt sensuality. Ferrer and his then wife Audrey Hepburn had spotted her performing at a nightclub and recommended her to DFZ, who started a relationship with her. It’s a true exploration of nostalgia, a term that arose to recognise a phenomenon among soldiers returning home from war for whom life was never the same; but it also has a metafiction, about the stars themselves, on the precipice of their celebrity, facing the end of everything. If nothing else, the louche life looks rather picturesque and gorgeously romantic, as does everything directed by Henry King. Everyone behaves badly given the proper chance

An Inspector Calls (1954)

An Inspector Calls

We don’t live alone. We are members of one body. We are responsible for each other. In 1912 Inspector Poole (Alastair Sim) arrives at the wealthy Birling household as he investigates the apparent suicide that afternooon of Eva Smith (Jane Wenham), a young working-class woman. He arrives in the middle of a dinner party and slowly reveals how each family member, including stern patriarch Arthur Birling (Arthur Young) and his uptight wife, Sybil (Olga Lindo), daughter Sheila (Eileen Moore), future son-in-law Brian Worth (Gerald Croft) and finally his own son Eric (Bryan Forbes), could all have had a hand in Eva’s death…  We all started like that, so confident and pleased with ourselves, and then he started asking us questions.  J.B. Priestley’s 1945 blend of closed-room suspenser and drama of conscience is a fascinating theatrical exercise adapted by Desmond Davis retaining Priestley’s rather blustering retro-fitted comment about complacency ahead of a war that couldn’t possibly happen in those halcyon pre-WW1 days. With the casting of Sim (famously Inspector Cockrill) you know this isn’t going to play out conventionally but each family member plus Worth has their flashback to their supposed involvement and the implications grow of a politically loaded social threat:  the father set in motion the girl’s downfall because he didn’t want to pay more than subsistence wages and feared her collectivist instincts so fired her.  It’s a canny work, toying with all kinds of prejudices and fears, ultimately summoning the supernatural to extinguish the guilty parties who are all, in their way, corrupt. Directed by Guy Hamilton. You and I aren’t the same people who sat down to dinner here

 

For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943)

For Whom the Bell Tolls

In our country, General, they say never blow a bridge until you come to it. During the Spanish Civil War, an American professor of Spanish and explosives expert, Robert Jordan (Gary Cooper) allied with the Republicans finds romance with freedom fighting peasant Maria (Ingrid Bergman) during a desperate mission to blow up a strategically important bridge in the mountains while the Axis powers attempt to establish a base in Europe … Each of us must do this thing alone. Bergman got another Oscar nomination for her performance and Cooper displays his stoic masculinity in Dudley Nichols’ romantic (and lengthy) adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s classic novel. The protean quality of both stars is much in evidence here – Bergman is luminous as the Loyalist and Cooper is a perfect hero, strong, reliable and deeply felt. I’ve always loved you but I never saw you before. They make an awesome couple.  They don’t shoot you for being a Republican in America. However the adaptation isn’t as focused on action as it ought to be, the dialogue is occasionally too on the nose (explaining that Germany and Italy are using Spain against Russia) and overall this is not especially well staged, confined as it is to studio settings (imagine if they’d done this somewhere as lush as Northern Spain). Katina Paxou got the Best Supporting Actress Academy Award and she’s tremendous as the tough plain-speaking older woman Pilar in this story of betrayals and compromise – and, inevitably, sacrifice. With Akim Tamiroff, Arturo de Cordova, Vladimir Sokoloff and Joseph Calleia in a characterful ensemble, this doesn’t lack for interesting exchanges or tension which escalates as the moment descends. The original running time was trimmed from 168 minutes to 130 and then restored to 165. It’s too long but as a relic of classic screen performances and despite the issues it’s still one of the better Hemingway adaptations and simply must be seen. Directed by Sam Wood. Each of us must do this thing alone

The Sheltering Sky (1990)

The Sheltering Sky

We’re not tourists. We’re travellers. In the late Forties American expats Port Moresby (John Malkovich) and his wife Kit (Debra Winger) are trying to inject their tired marriage with adventure in North Africa. They are accompanied by their friend George Tunner (Campbell Scott) and fall in with some loathsome English expats, the Lyles, a mother (Jill Bennett) and her son Eric (Timothy Spall). When the city hems them in they journey through the desert. Port sleeps with a prostitute while George starts an affair with Kit and now there is a complicated love triangle unfurling in difficult circumstances because Port becomes ill … No matter what’s wrong between us there can never be anyone else. Bernardo Bertolucci’s romantic interpretation of Paul Bowles’ debut novel about alienation plugs into its erotic and dramatic intensity and wisely avoids any attempt at expressing its overwhelming interiority, with astonishing performances by the leads (particularly Winger), mesmerising cinematography of the sweeping desert landscapes by Vittorio Storaro and an utterly tragic dénouement to this unconventional marriage of fine minds and wild desires that feels utterly confrontational. It’s a staggeringly beautiful work that is as decorative as it is despairing, resonant, mystifying and depressing by turn. It’s a plot that promises melodrama but is more consequential in the symbolic realm yet it also boasts a harsh lesson – that white people will always be strangers in this strange land of seductive images and grasping locals with their own motives. The haunting score accompanying this epic tale of love and death is composed by Ryuichi Sakamoto and Richard Horowitz. Written by Bertolucci and Mark Peploe. Bowles hated it – and he’s in it. My only plan is I have no plan

Lord Jim (1965)

Lord Jim

What storm can fully reveal the heart of a man? Midshipman Jim Burke (Peter O’Toole) becomes second in command of a British merchant navy ship in Asia but is stripped of his responsibilities when he abandons ship with three other crew who disappear, leaving the passengers to drown.However the Patma was salvaged by a French vessel. Disheartened and filled with self-loathing, Jim confesses in public, leading to his Captain Marlow’s (Jack Hawkins) suicide and he seeks to redeem his sins by going upriver and assisting natives in their uprising against the General (Eli Wallach)… The weapon is truth. Adapted from Joseph Conrad’s 1900 novel by writer/director Richard Brooks, this perhaps contains flaws related to the project’s conscientious fidelity to its problematic source. Overlong and both burdened and made fascinating by its pithy philosophical dialogue, O’Toole is another cypher (like T.E. Lawrence) burning up the screen with his charisma but surrendering most of the best moments to a terrific ensemble cast. The psychology of his character remains rather impenetrable. There are exchanges dealing with cowardice, shame, bravery, heroism, the meaning of life itself and the reasons why people do what they do – and the consequences for others. There is guilt and there is sacrifice, the stuff of tragedy, in a film bursting with inner struggle, misunderstandings, romantic complications and the taint of violence. Shot by Freddie Young, who does for the jungle what he did for the deserts of the aforementioned Lawrence of Arabia. When ships changed to steam perhaps men changed too

Whitney (2018)

Whitney 2018

Her parents were preparing her for legacy music. Kevin Macdonald’s documentary about Whitney Houston was made with the co-operation of her family and is executive produced by her agent Nicole David, one of several associates interviewed here, and he has access to the music, so it’s a different creature to Nick Broomfield’s film on the subject, Whitney:  Can I Be Me. Macdonald admirably makes this a story of a time and place by dint of regular montages placing us in a year – culturally, socially, politically – with news and current affairs footage and symbols giving a firm context. And it’s jarring to hear Houston’s brother tell us how she got her name – their mother, the famous backing singer Cissy Houston, liked ‘a white sitcom’ on TV so named her for the actress Whitney Blake. Racism of all kinds looms large in this story. Newsreel footage of the Newark riots and the bodies of black men killed by the police remind us of what life was like for black people in New Jersey in the Sixties. Her father John is called both a dealmaker and a hustler, a man who gained powerful status in local circles, and he nicknamed their light-skinned daughter ‘Nippy’ because she was a beautiful but tricky child, and she was bullied in the neighbourhood. She sang in the church choir and sometimes sang backup for her mother who was trying to launch a solo career that didn’t take off. When her parents divorced following her mother’s affair with their church pastor, Whitney left home as soon as possible and moved in with her friend Robyn Crawford who she had met aged 16. Her brothers were aware that Robyn was a Lesbian. One interviewee says that these days Whitney’s sexuality would be designated ‘fluid’ while her longtime hairdresser and friend Ellin Lavar says Houston loved sex, with both men and women and discussed it with her to an embarrassing degree. Whitney modelled but soon sang on her own and two big labels courted her and she signed with Arista’s Clive Davis. He announced her to the world on the Merv Griffin Show and the footage of her singing Home from The Wiz is spinetingling. It is used on the audio track later in a different context in the film, to chilling effect. One contributor talks about the issue of ‘double consciousness’ – the problem that a black entertainer has in having to satisfy a white country and a black world, but in this context it could also refer to Houston’s sexuality and the difference between being Nippy and being Whitney, a stage character. Macdonald does not shirk from the role of the black community – divided on colour lines of its own – and the pressure it exerted on Houston directly or otherwise. In the Eighties, Rev. Al Sharpton appeared in front of her venues with signs calling her ‘Whitey’ Houston (ironically his TV condolences are aired when her death is announced); and of course there is the infamous incident at the 1989  Soul Train awards when the audience booed her – presumably for not being black enough, for having sold out, for singing pop and being brilliant at it. She was asked in an interview why she thought it might have happened – and she claimed she didn’t know. It was the kind of bullying that had provoked her parents into sending her to a private Catholic school in the first place. That was the night she met bad boy (and acceptably black soul singer) Bobby Brown – the ghetto type the Houstons had wanted to keep her away from – and the conclusion is that the couple who would marry and have a child were mutually co-dependent. As her star rose with The Bodyguard, his could never hope to meet it, a year after she had performed The Star-Spangled Banner at the Superbowl, an appearance that still stuns the viewer and nailed her ability and popularity simultaneously when the US was at peak patriotism following the Gulf War. Her Bodyguard co-star, Kevin Costner, was proud of the fact that their interracial kiss was such a significant shot in the film – pointing out the 180 degree camera move, replayed here. (How odd that thirty-plus years after Island in the Sun this should still be a contentious point [and odder still that when he gave a eulogy at her funeral his entrance was greeted with booing by the black attendees – not something mentioned here]. Odder still to a white viewer is Lavar saying that she and Houston were afraid of making the film because they were so outnumbered in the middle of ‘all these white people’:  racism is a beat constantly underpinning the narrative.) She was a good actress. I always used to tell them, Whitney’s in there somewhere. But she’s trapped. That film and the theme song I Will Always Love You (written by Dolly Parton) made her a global superstar:  she is shown being comforted by Nelson Mandela when she gave the first concerts in South Africa after he came to power.  She could find nuance in songs that even the writers didn’t know was there. That record got a British woman gaoled for a week when she drove her neighbours nuts playing it 24/7. An Arab version played endlessly on his campaign trail propelled Saddam Hussein to power. When Brown is asked directly by Macdonald about Houston’s drug use he refuses to discuss it – and perhaps given that it was her own brothers (two full, more half-) who admit introducing her to drugs when she was still a child, he has a point, despite the tabloid headlines about their married lifestyle and on-camera evidence produced here about their home lives (which they eagerly broadcast in their horrifying reality TV show). About two-thirds of the way through the film is the big revelation: her brother Michael volunteers the idea that it’s something in a person’s childhood that drives them to drug use and declares that as a boy he was abused by a female relative. Then Whitney’s aunt says the singer revealed her own experience to her of abuse by the same woman when they were discussing their daughters – this is supposedly why Whitney was afraid to leave Bobbi Kristina (called Krissie) at home while she toured:  the same female relative was her cousin Dee Dee Warwick (Dionne’s sister, another singer). Dee Dee is shown in TV clips from the Sixties, a dour-looking heavy-browed character. Bizarrely, Houston is pictured in one home movie lying on a bed under a huge photo of the sinister woman. For all her concerns about her own daughter, Krissie was an unstable cocaine addict by 18 and in and out of rehab, unsurprisingly given what family and friends say she was growing up around [and her own dreadful death, replicating her mother’s, is recounted here]. Houston made a lot of magazine headlines (the National Enquirer alone was running almost weekly updates for a decade) for her drug use; and many more complications arose from 1999 onwards when she signed a $100 million contract for new recordings. By that point she knew her father and accountant had been robbing her blind and her father then sued her – for $100 million. Once her father had taken over managing her there were many members of her family riding the gravy train, other than her mother and Robyn, who was invited to tender her resignation, a decision Whitney endorsed, despite the fact that Robyn had been doing her best to protect her from the sharks throughout her career. I don’t think she knew the layers being created by others. After an excruciating performance in honour of fellow fame victim Michael Jackson, a car crash interview with Diane Sawyer did not help. She had to quit rehab after 8 months because the money ran out. Then there was appalling evidence of her drug-ravaged singing voice in mobile phone footage of one of her last concerts, with one concert goer offering that a dead rat would have performed better. Years were spent pointlessly attempting to record new music, recalled with tragic diplomacy by the producer Joseph Arbagey, who remembers her disappearing for weeks at a time behind her hotel room door and returning emaciated.  Many millions of dollars were expended on the fruitless project. No longer fit to perform, she was given a lifeline in a remake of the movie Sparkle, a lodestone film from her childhood that had starred Irene Cara. She played the mother. Her agent says that Whitney had been clean throughout the production and didn’t go home for three or four days after the job was done but at the time she wasn’t aware of it until her driver told her Whitney simply didn’t board the flight and eventually asked him to drive her cross-country to her home. Her agent refers to it as ‘that hole’ in Atlanta.  We don’t need to be told what followed. Despite the access, the film still feels curiously incomplete, as if the dots have not been joined: sex abuse, parental ambition and divorce, drugs, Lesbianism, being a light-skinned black in a community divided, being a black singer performing pop songs better than anyone ever had. Cause and effect are not entirely or convincingly linked. Perhaps because this is the official version, unlike Broomfield’s, who talked to Robyn. Or perhaps because the person at its centre had stopped doing what she was good at long before her incredible demise in a bathtub in a Hollywood hotel while her aunt went out to get her donuts with sprinkles and found her dead when she returned just thirty minutes later, as she tells us. The camera enters the hotel room and tracks into the bathroom where Houston was discovered face down in the water. Graced with the voice of an angel in the body of a beautiful black woman exploited by all the people she trusted most in a divided industry produced in a divided country, this biography is a tale of total tragedy, something that regularly occurs in the music business but it’s a story that shows absolutely nobody in a good light, not even Houston herself. It was in every sense a life half-lived. Whitney Houston died 11 February 2012. I’m pissed off. And people think that it’s so damn easy

Love is a Many-Splendored Thing (1955)

Love is a Many Splendored Thing

Our gorgeous lie did not even last the night. Hong Kong 1949. American journalist Mark Elliott (William Holden) is covering the Chinese civil war. Undergoing a trial separation from his wife, he meets beautiful Dr. Han Suyin (Jennifer Jones), a widowed Eurasian physician originally from mainland China. As the pair fall in love, they encounter disapproval from both her family, his friends and Hong Kong society about their interracial romance … I have my work and an uncomplicated life. I don’t want to feel anything again… ever. This outrageously beautiful melodrama lingers long in the memory for its Widescreen Deluxe images, shot by the great Leon Shamroy, including two weeks on location in its Hong Kong setting; and its cast. Adapted by John Patrick from Suyin’s 1952 autobiographical novel it’s a pulsatingly lush romance, played to the hilt and given gravitas with its issues of race against a background of the war in China leading to a takeover by the Communist Party. The subject matter meant there was trouble getting it off the ground in those censorious days. The production was no less troubled, with the stars eventually coming to loathe each other. None of that matters because the performances sing in a carefully dramatised story that boasts some of the most romantic scenes in either of their careers. All those love letters, kissing on hilltops, swimming … it’s a spectacular and vivid epic, sad and tender. And was there ever a more impressive hunk of sexy mid-century masculinity than Holden?! There is a strong supporting cast including Torin Thatcher, Murray Matheson and Isobel Elsom, rounding out a snapshot of colonial life in those post-WW2 days. Ornamenting the gorgeous score by Alfred Newman is the title song by Sammy Fain and Paul Francis Webster, one of the great movie themes, and it’s sung by The Four Aces. It was an enormous hit, just like the film.  Patrick would write another Hong Kong-set romance starring Holden, The World of Suzie Wong. Directed by Henry King, who had a knack for making beautiful films, with second unit location work by Otto Lang, who is uncredited. Love is nature’s way of giving a reason to be living, The golden crown that makes a man a king

Jules and Jim (1962)

Jules and Jim

Catherine never does anything halfway. She’s an irresistible force that can’t be stopped. Her harmony is never shaken because… she knows she is always innocent. In the days leading up to the First World War, shy Austrian writer Jules (Oskar Werner) becomes friends with extroverted Frenchman Jim (Henri Serre) and they travel to an Adriatic island to see an ancient sculpture, eventually encountering a free-spirited woman Catherine (Jeanne Moreau) who is a double for the statue. Jules and Catherine become involved and go to Austria to marry while Jim is involved with Gilberte (Vanna Urbino). The men serve on opposite sides during the war and wonder if they’ve killed each other.  They survive and Jim visits Jules and Catherine in their Black Forest home where they have a young daughter Sabine (Sabine Haudepin) and the marital tensions are evident with Catherine torturing Jules due to her recurrent infidelities. She tries to seduce Jim and Jules permits their marriage but wants them all to live together but when Jim and Catherine can’t have a child she leaves him… I may not be very moral, but I have no taste for secrecy. One of the great French New Wave films, François Truffaut adapted (with Jean Gruault) a late semi-autobiographical first novel by elderly art collector Henri-Pierre Roché, turning it into a freewheeling nostalgic tragedy, boasting incredible and playful cinematography by Raoul Coutard, a stunning score by Georges Delerue (with a hit song, Le Tourbillon de la vie) and a standout performance by Moreau, the centre of this love triangle which above all is about enduring friendship in the face of passion. She bewitches, she betrays, she is incandescent, vivacious, an irresistible siren. As Jules says, Whatever Catherine does, she does fully. She’s a force of nature that manifests in cataclysms. In every circumstance she lives in clarity and harmony, convinced of her own innocence. Yet it’s also about war and the particular awfulness of trench warfare, emblemised by a story Jim tells about a man who falls in love with a girl on a train and how he keeps himself alive in the hope of seeing her again. A landmark in cinema, this never fails to entertain, to involve, to terrorise, to touch. It is a kind of enchantment that starts like a dream and concludes in unbearable tragedy, a story of a joyous life lived at full throttle. You said, “I love you.” I said, “Wait.” I was about to say, “Take me.” You said, “Go away”