September 10, 2009

At The Movies


There were 37 different films shown in Film Forum’s spectacular “Brit Noir” retrospective. I managed to see ten of them and sincerely regret having missed the rest — even those few I’d seen before. Camping out in the lobby, washing up in the men’s room, subsisting on refreshment-stand popcorn and pizza ordered in…this series might have been worth it.

(Six other noir or noir-ish films, all starring James Mason, were shown on successive Mondays from Aug. 17 through Sept. 12 in a “Mason Most Noir” series celebrating the great actor’s centennial. Of these, I saw only The Reckless Moment. The immortal Odd Man Out, also starring James Mason, is having its own two-week run from Sept. 4-17.)

soevilmyloveSO EVIL MY LOVE (1948, dir. Lewis Allen) – Of all the “Brit Noir” films I saw, this was the most emotionally compelling. The femme fatale is a familiar figure in the noir cycle: Think Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity. But here Ray Milland is the homme fatale who seduces impoverished widow Ann Todd into a criminal conspiracy. He engineers her hiring as a companion to unhappy aristocrat Geraldine Fitzgerald (beautiful and intense), who’s being driven to suicidal despair by the neglect of cold, aloof husband Henry Courtney. The deepening bond between the two women, their unavoidable caring and affection, runs parallel to Milland’s cynical manipulations of the fearful but desperately hopeful Todd. But don’t worry, Ray gets his… The various plot complications (bond theft, blackmail, Courtney’s accidental-death-that-looks-like-murder, etc.) play out in a late-Victorian period setting, expertly photographed with appropriate gas-lit gloom by one Mutz Greenbaum (a/k/a Max Greene).

SO LONG AT THE FAIR (1950, dir. Anthony Darnborough & Terence Fisher) – Pretty good, not great. An English brother and sister (David Tomlinson and Jean Simmons) arrive in Paris for the Great Exposition of 1889, check into their hotel, spend the night on the town, and retire to their rooms for the night. When Simmons awakes, she finds that not only has Tomlinson disappeared but so has his room: there’s a wall where there had been a door. Meanwhile, the polite but unyielding French couple who run the place insist that she checked in alone (and the police concur, at least initially).MSDSOLO EC006

With only the help of expatriate British painter Dirk Bogarde, Simmons now must find potential witnesses to her brother’s presence, one of whom is a housemaid (or maybe she was a seamstress) who’s due to join her boyfriend for a hot-air balloon ride that very day. In a memorable and deftly directed sequence, Simmons races to the airfield and plunges through the crowd to reach this woman just as the balloon casts off, floats aloft…then catches fire and plummets to earth. The action later moves to a creepy nun-run convent hospital where the missing brother is…well, let’s just say that bubonic plague may not have been completely eradicated in France by the late 19th century.

THE CLOUDED YELLOW (1951, dir. Ralph Thomas) – Trevor Howard returns from an unspecified spy mission and reports “a bit of trouble” to his boss at British Intelligence, which sure sounds like he’s killed someone he shouldn’t have. Relieved of his duties and his gun, cast out into the job market (but with his former employer keeping tabs), Howard takes a gig as a live-in assistant to butterfly collector Barry Jones (the title refers to the species Colias corcea), who lives with wife Sonia Dresdel and their troubled orphan niece Jean Simmons on a isolated rural estate.

Trevor Howard & Jean Simmons in THE CLOUDED YELLOW
Then thuggish local laborer Maxwell Reed is found stabbed to death, Simmons is framed for his killing. She and Howard take flight, and the film follows suit with the disgraced agent using all his wits and wiles to track down the real killer while protecting Simmons from arrest. There ensues a genuinely suspenseful chase-cum-travelogue as the couple criss-cross post-war Britain, from London and Liverpool to the Lake District: I’m no expert but at times even the accents of the bit players seemed to change with the locale. The film reaches an exciting climax with a long chase sequence in a industrial railroad yard, ingeniously shot by DP Geoffrey Unsworth.

THE OCTOBER MAN (1947, dir. Roy Baker) and THE GREEN COCKATOO (1937, dir. William Cameron Menzies) – A double bill of films starring John Mills (1908-2005), the acclaimed English thespian and the father of my first shiksa crush, Hayley Mills (I was nine, she was fourteen, the world was young…). Mills is more convincing in the title role of The October Man (a suicidal depressive wrongly accused of murder in his shabby/genteel rooming house) than as a quasi-George Raft vaudevillian with underworld connections in the tepid, static Green Cockatoo, where he comes to the aid of an innocent country girl accused of killing a hoodlum. (Sound familiar?) The earliest entry in the “Brit Noir” series, Cockatoo‘s threadbare production values made The October Man look like Gone With The Wind.noose_poster2

NOOSE (1948, dir. Edmund T. Greville) – The opening shot: a smudged and tattered poster flaps in the stiff London breeze: “WE’RE UP AGAINST IT – IT’S WORK OR WANT.” This is the scene I singled out when my wife asked me to describe the  differences between the US and UK noirs of the late Forties. Some scholars will dispute my characterization, probably with plentiful evidence, but my sense of (many of) the American films is of a chain of events that (or disturbed individual who) disrupts or upsets an overall atmosphere of rising prosperity, of relief that the war is over, that the combat-weary veteran has been returned to peacetime society and reunited with family. Meanwhile, back in Blighty, the industrial base has been destroyed, rationing is still in full effect, and an impoverished urban working class is living amid heaps of rubble left over from the Blitz.

Another major distinction is the archetypal character of the “spiv.” American movie gangsters could be cunning and canny but also had to be physically intimidating to a greater or lesser extent. But the spiv, as superbly portrayed here by Nigel Patrick, is a rather elegant gent who lives by his wits; when he needs muscle, he’s got to call in reinforcements.

This fast-paced and highly entertaining film is set in an East End underworld fueled by a busy black market in…uh, almost everything but especially ration cards. Carole Landis is a wisecracking American reporter working at a stolid British paper who investigates a young woman’s drowning in the Thames by hit men from crime boss Joseph Calleia’s gang. (In the poster image at right, the Calleia character of Sugiani is inside the noose.) Meanwhile, her just-discharged English boyfriend Derek Farr rounds up members of a local boxing club to go on the warpath against Calleia’s diverse enterprises. The latter’s heavy Italian accent and fumbling attempts at female seduction lends a comic edge to his menacing mien as the snappy dialogue flows fast and furious. More great cinematography, too — a terrific picture and sadly the one of the last films to feature Carole Landis. She committed suicide at age 29, the same year that Noose was released, reportedly as the culmination of an unhappy love affair with British actor Rex Harrison, who’d refused to divorce his wife Lilli Palmer.

July 31, 2009

At The Movies

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WATE, Italian Style

WATE, Italian Style

There was a full house last night at Film Forum to see Wind Across The Everglades (Warner Bros., 1958) — among the rarest films in FFs current Nicholas Ray retrospective and one that has never been released on DVD.

WATE takes place at the turn of the 20th century in the Florida Everglades, where the fad for wild bird plumes as adornments to women’s hats is fueling a voracious trade in the skins of egrets, herons, ibis, and other semi-tropical species. City-bred birder Walt Murdock (Christopher Plummer) arrives to teach high school in a rough backwater town and is promptly recruited as an Audubon Society game warden charged with enforcing new Federal statues designed to protect the birds from the depredations of a grubby gang of swamp rats led by Cottonmouth (Burl Ives). Complications ensue, Cottonmouth dies, Murdock lives, and we’re left with the hope that the birds will survive, given efective legal protection.

WATE was written by noted screenwriter Budd Schulberg (still kicking at 95) and produced by his younger brother Stuart Schulberg (1922-1979). Stuart’s daughter Sandra Schulberg, founder of the Independent Film Project and a vital force in the field of film preservation and restoration, was on hand to introduce the picture, in which she very briefly appears. To my surprise (and likely not just mine), Ms. Schulberg stated that Nick Ray “was so strung out on heroin” that he had to be replaced after three weeks of shooting and that her uncle Budd directed most of WATE uncredited. She described both Stuart and Budd Schulberg as ardent environmentalists at a time when the word was barely part of the American lexicon, and said that the brothers had fought to overcome the resistance of Warner Bros. executives to making a “message movie” about a bunch of birds.

The Florida location shoot was “very chaotic and very difficult for the adults involved,” she recalled, “but a wonderful time for the children” on the set who delighted in playing with trained animals and became acquainted with some of the locals cast in supporting parts. Prior to the 7:15 p.m. screening that night at Film Forum, Sandra Schulberg had not seen Wind Across The Everglades since she was fifteen years old.

Nicholas Ray (1911-1979)

Nicholas Ray (1911-1979)

After this lengthy introduction, I wish I could proclaim WATE a masterpiece on the order of such Nick Ray films as In a Lonely Place, Bigger Than Life, or Rebel Without a Cause (as did Jonathan Rosenbaum in a 2002 essay on the direct0r). However, it is decidedly not a masterpiece and in fact “doesn’t feel anything like a Nick Ray movie,” to quote my always-observant wife.

The ungainly script, held together with spit and Spanish moss, rambles through pointlessly prolonged fight scenes, unconvincing bouts of moonshine drinking, and tiresome, empty death threats muttered in the direction of Murdock. The naturalist also engages in a brief romance with Naomi (Chana Eden) but their fling ends as suddenly as it began when he lights out for the interior of the ‘Glades. In parting, Naomi adorns Murdock with her gold neck chain…with a Star of David attached. (I took this as a portent of the ethnographic future of South Florida, much as another scene in the film celebrates a two-block extension of Flagler Street in embryonic Miami.) Events take another unexpected turn when a black singer/pianist (Rufus Beecham, his hair impressively processed) sings the blues a la Nat King Cole in the parlor of a whorehouse presided over by Gypsy Rose Lee!

And yet, and yet…In Wind Across The Everglades, there are scenes of the Everglades so stunningly beautiful that my heart rose in my chest.

Anhinga in the Everglades

Anhinga in the Everglades

Despite its many “clunkers,” to use Sandra Schulberg’s apt term, the film ultimately succeeds in communicating a passion for the natural world of wild Florida and in drawing the viewer deeply (if too sporadically) into that world. It’s amazing how much one can feel from the sight of a Seminole woman silently poling a dugout pirogue through a river of grass or of a vast flock of white ibis taking flight across a blue sky. The pleasure of these scenes is matched by a genuine sense of horror as we watch Cottonmouth’s gang unleash slaughter in a rookery (nesting area), knowing that the adult birds will not abandon their fledglings and thus will make themselves easy targets. But in the end, even Cottonmouth undergoes a sort of deathbed conversion: Fatally bitten by a water moccasin, he finally sees the birds, his prey, for the precious and irreplaceable creatures they are.

On the sidewalk outside Strand Books in Manhattan, store personnel daily wheel out shelf units holding hundreds of used books priced at $1.00 apiece. Gazing idly along the spine-rows last week, I found “Movies Are Better Than Ever” – Wide-Screen Memories of The Fifties by Andrew Dowdy (Wm. Morrow & Co., 1973). This unread copy contained the publisher’s original press release and reviewer’s card (“Please do not publish your review before October 19, 1973”).

Dowdy was born in 1936 and on the first page he notes that during the 1940s, “in the neighborhood theaters where programs frequently changed three times a week, you could see as many as six different films every seven days.” He must have seen a lot of them, because Dowdy mentions a number of films I’d never heard of before–and I’m only up to page 55 of this engaging book. In the chapter entitled “I Married A Communist & Other Disasters of the Blacklist,” Dowdy notes the following pictures:

conspiratorConspirator (1949) – “Junior Miss vs. Marx…Robert Taylor, as the Communist disguised as a British officer of unusually cool reserve, swept young Elizabeth [Taylor] off her feet. The reserve, we come to suspect, is induced by a party discipline which teaches that notions of a right to private life are ridiculous.”

The Red Danube (1949) – “As an escaped Russian ballet dancer, Janet Leigh…preferred a suicidal leap from a window to forced repatriation to Russia.”

The Steel Fist (1952) – “Former child actor Roddy McDowell portrayed an American student trapped in an Iron Curtain country.”

The Whip Hand (1951) – “Soviet agents successfully construct a laboratory for developing germ warfare in a New England village.”

walkeast3Walk East On Beacon (1952) – “…based loosely on the actual case of British spy Klaus Fuchs…the film was almost alone in suggesting historically credible reasons for the international appeal of Communism…Active Communists were shown to be complexly different: a reluctantly fanatical spy whose failure results in his ambiguous punishment, a repressed couple with the look of an ascetic idealism in their pinched faces, a cynical bureaucratic leader, etc.”

Red Planet Mars (1952) – “A scientist contacts Mars and transmits to Earth the accumulated wisdom of a society so advanced in technology that inhabitants live to a graceful three hundred years of age. Earth undergoes a miraculous religious revival in which a secret sect overthrows the Communist regime of Russia.”

Assignment–Paris (1952) – “Dana Andrews, as a newsman, had returned from Budapest a completely zonked potato. The Communists had done something to him with drugs and strobe lights.”

missvfrommoscowDowdy also mentions two obscure pro-Soviet films released at the height of WWII: The Boy From Stalingrad (1943 and never on video, it seems) and Miss V From Moscow (1942).