Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Deep End (i5 Films/Fox Searchlight, 2001)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2001, 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

What follows is my original review of The Deep End from the September 2001 issue of Zenger's Newsmagazine and my comments on seeing it again recently.


The Deep End Evokes and Extends Classic Noir


How do you make a convincing film noir these days that actually stands a chance of comparison to the great 1940’s classics? How do you find a story with just the right amount of moral ambiguity while still retaining sympathy for at least some of the characters? How do you avoid falling into the trap of being so cynical that you leave the audience absolutely no one with whom do you identify? And how do you achieve the almost tactile look of old-time noir, with those half-shadowed scenes and vivid black-and-white chiaroscuro effects, in an era in which moviegoers simply take it for granted that films are in color?

Scott McGehee and David Siegel, writers, producers and directors of the new film The Deep End, seem to have figured it out. First, they took a story from the classic noir era: Elizabeth Sanxay Holding’s 1947 novel The Blank Wall, already filmed (in 1949) as The Reckless Moment, with Max Ophuls directing and Joan Bennett and James Mason in the roles now played by Tilda Swinton and Goran Visnjic. Second, they moved the story from a relatively dull California bedroom community called Balboa to the awesome vistas of Lake Tahoe, creating a deeply ironic contrast between the sordid elements of their plot and the natural beauty of the settings — and also tapping the California/Nevada state border as a symbol of the line between good and evil, much the way the U.S./Mexico border served in Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil.

Third, they hired an awesome cinematographer, Giles Nuttgens, who instead of the overall dirty-brown tones of most modern attempts at noir worked hard to duplicate the shadowy black-and-white look of original noir, despite the handicap of color. Often the actors’ faces are in shadow, even in daylight (the darkness that falls over the face of someone when you take their photo with the light behind them — which drives ordinary snapshooters nuts — is a frequent effect in this film), and water becomes a powerful symbol throughout the film. “The Deep End” literally is the name of a bar in which Swinton’s young son (Jonathan Tucker) has become corrupted by an unscrupulous older man, but it’s also both a visual and moral symbol for the murkiness of people’s motivations and the depths into which simple, innocent actions can plunge an ordinary soul who flirts, however passingly, with human evil.

Swinton plays Margaret Hall, wife of an officer aboard the U.S.S. Constellation, who is living in affluent but not really rich circumstances with her children Beau (Tucker), Paige (Tamara Hope) and Dylan (Jordan Dorrance) in a home on the California side of Lake Tahoe, in an area so rugged that owning an SUV as their primary car actually makes sense. The opening shot finds her standing outside a corrugated-steel exterior in Reno, ringing a doorbell and finally gaining reluctantly granted admission into a Gay bar called The Deep End. (“Take the plunge,” their matchbooks urge.) A young, shirtless man calls back into the bar, “Somebody’s mother is here” — and Margaret eventually gets to see the man she’s there to confront: Darby Reese (Josh Lucas), her 17-year-old son’s 30-year-old boyfriend.

In Holding’s novel and Ophuls’ film, it was a straight daughter, not a Gay son, who fell in love with the bad guy and precipitated the plot. McGehee and Siegel knew better; not only would a straight relationship not carry the emotional wallop with today’s audience that a Gay one does, it sets up a bitter, intense scene when, after Darby has died under mysterious circumstances and Margaret is worried her son will be blamed for his murder, blackmailer Alek Spera (Visnjic) shows up with a 40-minute videotape of Darby fucking Beau. Though we only get to see a few seconds of it, and blurred and grainy at that, the point gets made: we feel with Margaret the shame and terror of a woman whose suspicions about her son have been borne out in the most brutal and insensitive way conceivable. (“Gaying” this story also is an ironic payback for all those 1930’s and 1940’s films in which Queer-themed stories like Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour, Richard Brooks’s The Brick Foxhole — filmed as Crossfire — and James M. Cain’s Serenade were cleaned up and pallidly heterosexualized to fit the iron dictates of the old Production Code.)

Gradually Spera himself becomes an oddly sympathetic character, caught in the middle between his growing guilt over what he’s doing and pressure from his boss, Carlie Nagle (Raymond Barry), to collect the blackmail money and close the deal. In the original this character fell in love with the mother, and that was why he was willing to betray his boss and their plot. McGehee and Siegel have given him a less hackneyed and more subtle and powerful motivation: in an extraordinary scene, left alone in the Halls’ house after he’s helped Margaret resuscitate her father-in-law (Peter Donat) after a stroke, he walks through and gazes at their group photo and all the accoutrements of family — and we get the message: the stable, suburban family lifestyle is exactly what this person has never had, and it’s his yearning for it more than anything else that has so suddenly and unexpectedly tapped the good side of his character.

The Deep End has its flaws, and some of them are inherent in the material. It’s one of those annoying 1940’s plots in which the whole aura of danger and suspense would evaporate immediately if any one of the characters would actually sit down and tell any of the other characters exactly what’s been going on. The whole plot hangs together on the mistakes Margaret, Beau and the other implicated people make, particularly in their attempts to cover things up instead of calling the police and letting them sort things out. To their credit, at least with Beau, McGehee, Siegel and Tucker come together to create a fully credible portrait of an adolescent at just that right annoying age at which it’s a point of honor not to level with anybody, especially not his parents, about what’s really going on in his life. Also, as rich and beautiful as the photography is, and as much as the water symbolism adds to the depth of the piece, it does get overdone well before the end.

Nonetheless, The Deep End emerges as a work of power and beauty, expertly staged by McGehee and Siegel and vividly acted by Swinton, Visnjic and Tucker in a calm, understated way. (Lucas also deserves mention; he’s so good at portraying a certain easily recognizable sort of drug-soaked Gay lounge lizard it’s a pity he gets killed off so early.) Margaret’s conflicts between trying to maintain a normal family life and dealing with blackmailers in the cover-up of a crime are well portrayed and only add to the irony of the piece. And the ending, instead of the simple return to suburban normality that was acceptable to 1947 readers or 1949 filmgoers, is a rich, vivid capstone that suggests Margaret and Beau will share a dark, ineradicable secret for the rest of their lives. The Deep End is both a superb evocation of the classic noir formula and a work that legitimately extends it for a modern audience. — 8/8/01


The film I showed Charles was The Deep End, which I’d reviewed in the September 2001 Zenger’s after attending a screening and writing my review on August 8 — I’d given the film a rave and had always wanted to give Charles the chance to watch it with me. As things turned out, it had recently made its basic-cable debut on the Lifetime network (though it’s far above the usual Lifetime fare and its only commonality with what is usually shown on that channel is that the central character is a woman in some degree of peril) and I had recorded it and the movie on immediately afterwards, one they were pushing hard because it co-starred Michelle Pfeiffer and Ashton Kutcher in a story called Personal Effects about a couple who are drawn together because each has recently suffered the death of a family member.

Charles was considerably less taken with The Deep End than I had been, partly because he was seeing it under far more adverse circumstances (on a recording from commercial TV in which the need to fast-forward past the ads all too often killed the carefully worked out atmosphere and suspense of co-directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel) and partly because of some minor but still noticeable deletions from the theatrical release. While in the theatrical version we got a tantalizing glimpse of the sex tape between Reese and Beau with which the principal villains, Reno-based scumbag Carlie Nagel (Raymond Barry) and his agent, Alek ‘Al’ Spera (Goran Visnjic) are attempting to blackmail Margaret out of $50,000 (we see just enough of it to notice that it’s Darby fucking Beau and to feel mom’s sense of violation at having her son’s homosexuality confirmed to her in such a singularly brutal and cruel way), on the TV version we don’t get to see any of it at all.

The Deep End is a far better film theatrically than it appeared to be on Lifetime, and this time around I was particularly struck by a theme rarely tapped in the classic noir films that were its inspiration (The Deep End is actually a remake of a 1949 noir, Max Ophuls’ The Reckless Moment, though in Ophuls’ film it is a straight daughter, not a Gay son, that dates a no-good man and thereby starts the mess from which her mom has to extricate her): the difficulty of interacting with the noir underworld and dealing with the criminal types that haunt it while simultaneously maintaining a normal suburban existence as a single mother of three kids and concealing the noir part of her life with the usual one (especially given that Margaret’s husband may be away at sea — and therefore unreachable for help — but her father-in-law is not only there, he’s played by Peter Donat as the usual irascible old man who’s helped to survive by Alek, who even though he’s there to blackmail Margaret is a decent enough guy that he helps give the old man CPR and saves his life).

Charles thought it was a film with several interesting elements but one that refused to gel as a whole — and under the circumstances I could see why he didn’t like it as well as I did — and he was also annoyed by the ending: it ends, as it begins, with a car crash. The one at the beginning involved Beau and Reese and alerted Margaret to her son’s relationship. The one at the end kills both Nagel and Alek and leaves mother and son alive and legally in the clear but still sharing a dark secret that will haunt them the rest of their lives — an acceptable resolution to the plot but not a really satisfying one. I was hoping Alek would report Nagel to the police, get off with a light (or suspended) sentence and complete the rehabilitation he was already so eloquently and movingly starting on screen (the scene in which he stares at the Halls’ turkey dinner longingly — symbolizing the normal home and family life he had never had and hadn’t realized he wanted until he was confronted with it — is especially powerful, and beautifully acted in a haunting, restrained closeup of Goran Visnjic) instead of the kind of deus ex traffica we actually got. — 12/30/09

The Plot to Kill Stalin (CBS-TV “Playhouse 90,” 9/25/58)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was The Plot to Kill Stalin, actually a live TV show from CBS’s artistically hailed Playhouse 90 anthology series, aired on September 25, 1958 and directed by Delbert Mann from a script by David Karp that was proclaimed to be the most accurate account of Stalin’s last days (actually about his last four months) possible from the sources available in the West. The film offered an all-star cast — Melvyn Douglas as Stalin (turning in the sort of performance you give when you know you’ve been hopelessly miscast but are determined to be as professional as possible and make the best of it), Oscar Homolka as Khrushchev (surprisingly effective — he looked more like his real-life counterpart than anyone else in the film and he had the famous rambunctious mannerisms down pat as well), Luther Adler as Molotov, Thomas Gomez as Malenkov and E. G. Marshall as Poskrebyshev, Stalin’s personal secretary and apparently the only member of his inner circle to remain loyal to him.

At first the characters (except for Stalin, whom Douglas brings to life mainly by bellowing and puffing on a Sherlock Holmes pipe he seems to have bought at Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s estate sale) blur into an indistinguishable mish-mosh of manfully attempted if not quite credible accents, but as the events go on the central personalities begin to take shape. The Plot to Kill Stalin has its roots in Stalin’s paranoid nature and how it got worse over the years, from the heavy-duty crackdown on an increasingly fractious and independent artistic community that was hoping for a renaissance after World War II and got jackboots instead to the so-called “Doctors’ Plot,” which snowballed from a report (manufactured by one faction in the Kremlin to use as a weapon against another) that Jewish doctors at the veterans’ hospital were using “improper medical procedures” on high-ranking Soviet army officers to Stalin’s becoming convinced that his doctors were deliberately maltreating him as part of a plot to kill him.

Stalin (at least according to this film; I’m not sure how accurate the script is but it certainly sounds in character) started ordering another mass purge, arresting up to 30,000 and working his way up the chain of command — and the people immediately under him, many of whom had barely escaped the great purges of the 1930’s and were fearful they might not be so lucky this time around, began laying plans for a real plot to kill Stalin. The movie has a rather claustrophobic air — as did a lot of live TV, burdened as it was by the cumbersome nature of the medium, which pretty much restricted you to indoor sets; here there are more filmed inserts than usual (mostly stock footage of the actual Soviet leaders and the military parades in Moscow) which just underscore how the new action is basically restricted to two or three room sets representing various parts of the Kremlin — but Karp’s script and Mann’s direction legitimately build suspense and pace until the final confrontation when Stalin has his stroke, one of the other commissars gets a glass of water to revive him — and Khrushchev kicks it away and lets the old man die on the floor. (Apparently either someone in the Kremlin leadership or David Karp had seen The Little Foxes.)

The Plot to Kill Stalin is well-made and surprisingly powerfully acted (even Douglas, wrong for his role, manages to make Stalin believable as a paranoiac psychopath) but it suffers from the fact that Hollywood knew only one way to depict evil: yes, this is another movie in which Communist thugs act exactly the way Nazi and Japanese thugs had in the films of the war years, which in turn was exactly the way gangster thugs had acted in the classic crime films of the 1930’s. The Plot to Kill Stalin actually combines two of Hollywood’s favorite tropes: the gangster movie (the one about all the underlings anxious to take over from the ailing boss, even — or especially — if that means knocking him off before nature intends to) and the one about the greedy relatives gathered around the dying rich man and scheming for a piece of his fortune while simultaneously fearful that he’ll disinherit them.

It’s powerful drama but it also betrays a clear anti-Soviet propaganda intent — enough so that, according to, the Soviet government responded by closing CBS News’ Moscow bureau and ordering its correspondents out of the country — mainly by portraying all the Soviet leaders as unscrupulous thugs (a characterization repeated when Mad magazine did their parody of West Side Story as East Side Story, a star-crossed love affair set against the backdrop of the United Nations building and the U.S. vs. Soviet confrontations therein; Mad’s Communists sang “The Red Song,” a parody of “The Jet Song” that went, “When you’re a Red/You’re a Red all the way/From your first party purge/To your last power play”), and while ordinarily I get impatient with a film that gives me no one to like or root for, it’s explicable given the propagandistic intent of this one, encapsulated in a scene in which Stalin, just before his death, points to a board on which he’s got pictures of all the top party leaders and points out how, one by one, once they’ve eliminated him they’ll turn on each other and he predicts (courtesy of David Karp’s 20/20 hindsight — he was writing the events that actually took place between 1953 and 1958) that first Beria will fall, then Malenkov, and finally the “brute” Khrushchev will take over — and the film ends on a closeup of Khrushchev’s photo and the clear implication (Karp’s one genuine — and fulfilled — prediction) that someday he too will be pushed out by his fellow party leaders.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Remember the Night (Paramount, 1939)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film I picked for Christmas night was one with a holiday theme: Remember the Night, a movie that’s being ballyhooed big-time on Turner Classic Movies because they partnered with Universal Home Video to release it on DVD for the first time. (It was a Paramount production but, like virtually everything Paramount made between the start of the sound era and 1949, it is now held by Universal because MCA-TV bought the rights to the Paramount catalog in 1959 and later its parent company, MCA, bought Universal.) It was the first of four films co-starring Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray (she was billed ahead of him this time; in their next two films together, Double Indemnity and The Moonlighter, he’d be on top and she’d regain top billing in their last, There’s Always Tomorrow) and was directed by Mitchell Leisen from a script by Preston Sturges — his last script for another director before he became a director himself and launched a short-lived career with the hit political farce The Great McGinty.

Sturges was upset with the way Leisen rewrote the script and took out much of the badinage between the leads — Leisen didn’t think MacMurray could handle the sort of rapid-fire wit Sturges had written — but what remains is a typical Sturges genre-bender in which the first half of the movie is sting-in-the-tail screwball comedy, the second half is romantic melodrama and there’s an interlude in the film which is almost all-out noir. Lee Leander (Barbara Stanwyck) opens the movie by shoplifting a bracelet from an expensive jeweler, then — in a move that would have qualified her for America’s Stupidest Criminals if such a show had existed in 1939 (when this film was made) — tries to pawn it just two blocks away. The sequence is shot with almost no dialogue and has some marvelous visual wit (just before the pawnbroker locks his shop, with her in it, and places her under citizen’s arrest, she narrowly misses apprehension by a cop who’s too busy donating to a Salvation Army Santa to notice her pass by even though the bracelet is clearly visible on her arm (she has a muff but hasn’t even taken the basic precaution of putting her arm far enough into it to conceal the stolen item!).

Assistant district attorney John Sargent (Fred MacMurray) pulls the job of prosecuting her — he’s assigned by his boss because he’s shown skill at convicting women defendants — while she hires a defense attorney named Francis X. O’Leary (Willard Robertson), a pompous windbag (Preston Sturges must have had a lot of fun writing his ridiculous courtroom speeches) who offers a diminished-capacity defense — and Sargent eagerly leaps at it, saying that as long as the defense is bringing up psychiatric issues he’d like to call a state psychiatrist as a witness, but he can’t do so until after the new year because the man is in Florida with his family for the holidays. Sargent’s strategy is to get the trial continued until after Christmas because he’s worried that if the case goes to the jury before the holiday, they’ll be moved by the holiday spirit and tempted to acquit. It works, but he’s conscience-stricken enough that when Lee is taken into custody — she’s run out of bail money (and the expression on Willard Robertson’s face when he realizes his client has far less money than he thought and there’s a good chance she’s not going to be able to pay him is priceless) — Sargent puts up her bail, whereupon she, thinking he’s done that because he wants to get in her pants, shows up at his apartment and is positively resentful that he’s turned her loose on the streets instead of letting her have the nice warm cell and three meals a day she was hoping for.

Sargent tells her she can’t stay since he’s going home to his family in Indiana for the holidays, and Lee tells him she too is from Indiana — so they end up driving there together and getting caught in a trap in a small town in Pennsylvania, where a series of detours puts them on a farm whose owner makes a citizen’s arrest of them for trespassing and petty theft (they tried to milk one of his cows). They flee — naturally Sturges’ interest in creating this scene is the irony that now Sargent is a fugitive from justice too, and they realize they’ll have to bypass Pennsylvania on their way back to New York and go through Canada instead — and the two of them finally arrive in Indiana, first at her family’s home and then at his. Their arrival at the home of Lee’s mother (Georgia Caine) is where Remember the Night takes its detour from screwball into noir; Leisen’s direction and Ted Tetzlaff’s cinematography go all dark and chiaroscuro and full of oblique angles, and the script also gets considerably darker as Lee’s mother denounces her as a hopeless criminal and turns her away.

When they finally get to the Sargents’ home, their reception couldn’t be more different: Sargent’s mom (Beulah Bondi) and her aunt Emma (Elizabeth Patterson) instantly assume Lee is Sargent’s girlfriend and couldn’t be nicer to her; mom even lends Lee her old wedding dress for a local dance (there’s a nifty gag showing it wrapped in a newspaper whose headline is “Teddy Refuses to Seek Third Term,” dating it to 1908 and also providing an ironic contrast to the opposite decision reached by the President Roosevelt who was in office when this film was made), and proximity works its magic and Sargent and Lee kiss in a heart-rendingly beautiful shot behind confetti screamers at the dance. The budding romance is tempered by the fate hanging over both their heads — when they get back to New York she’s supposed to go back on trial and he’s supposed to prosecute her — and at one point they stand outside the Canadian side of Niagara Falls and Sargent tells her they’re not in the U.S. and she’s free to escape. Sturges manages to write himself out of the corner he’s seemingly written himself into when the trial resumes and Sargent, breaking all his own rules on how to win a conviction against a woman, antagonizes the defendant, the judge and the jurors — and she turns the tables on him by pleading guilty, leaving her legal fate undetermined but with an understanding that, if he still wants her, she’ll marry him after she completes her sentence, whatever it is.

When I first heard TCM pushing this movie I was rather wishing they were promoting Remember Last Night? — James Whale’s brilliant offtake on The Thin Man that ramped up both the drinking and the obsessiveness (and one movie that desperately needs to be available on DVD) — but Remember the Night is also a quite good movie, maybe less so than it might have been with Sturges directing it and a more charismatic leading man (at times during the movie I found myself wishing Cary Grant would have done it, though at other times I thought MacMurray’s reserve might have been better for the role than Grant’s Bringing Up Baby neurotic rambunctiousness) but still a lot of fun and surprisingly rich and moving, with an ending that manages the delicate balance of satisfying the Production Code requirements while still making dramatic and emotional sense.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Inglourious Basterds (Weinstein Co., Universal, 2009)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The movie the Bears San Diego showed two nights ago was Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds — the deliberate misspelling was much discussed when the film was released theatrically (Tarantino gave a very rude I’m-not-going-to-tell-you response when he was asked about it in an interview) but appears to be a reflection of the virtually illiterate status of the central character, Tennessee moonshiner turned U.S. Army Lieutenant Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), so named by Tarantino as a weird tribute to the mediocre 1950’s actor Aldo Ray. (Aldo Ray was the guy Harry Cohn wanted to play Robert E. Lee Prewitt in From Here to Eternity, even though Ray himself knew he wasn’t a good enough actor for the part — and so did the film’s director, Fred Zinnemann, who finally faced down Cohn and said, “Either Montgomery Clift plays Prewitt, or you can find yourself another director.”)

This isn’t a movie I would ordinarily have gone to see (or bought on DVD) — Charles and I had never seen a Quentin Tarantino movie before because we were put off by his reputation for insane amounts of violence, but Inglourious Basterds turned out to be a bad movie in a way neither of us were expecting: it was boring. The nasty stuff Tarantino is known for was certainly there — from a special effect that allows his World War II Allied commandos literally to scalp the Nazis they kill to some quite explosive, staccato scenes shot with an almost cartoon-like lack of affect (when a director like Sam Fuller with a real understanding of war, which he got from having been a combat soldier himself, does violence the effect is shocking in its revelation of the pointlessness of all this killing; when a guy like Tarantino, whose sole reference point seems to be other people’s movies, does it it’s just gratuitous and disgusting) — but it’s stuck in as arbitrarily like the sex scenes in a porn film, and compared to a porn film far more of Inglourious Basterds’ running time is taken up by boring reams of exposition to set up the action highlights.

Tarantino’s aesthetic as a director is never spend three seconds on a scene that can be stretched to last three minutes, with the result that a basic plot that a hack “B” director from the 1940’s could have got on and off screen in a little over an hour here lasts 153 minutes. (In fact, some “B” filmmakers in the 1940’s did get this type of story on and off screen in a little over an hour in a similarly plotted film called Hitler: Dead or Alive, in which a rich American offers $1 million to the first hit man who can off Hitler — and in the final scene Hitler does indeed die, but is replaced by a double without either the German people or anyone else being the wiser. Tarantino actually mentioned this film as an influence in an interview.) Oddly, the first “chapter” of Inglourious Basterds is by far the best part of the film: a Jewish family named Dreyfus is being sheltered on the farm of another (non-Jewish) family in the French countryside, and the establishing images at the start of the movie look like Millet’s paintings of French rural life (kudos to Tarantino and cinematographer Robert Richardson for not shooting these scenes in past-is-brown orthodoxy) and give a haunting quality to the opening scenes.

The farm is visited by SS Col. Hans Linda (Christoph Waltz, whose quiet, understated villainy steals the film straight out from under Brad Pitt and the other better-known actors), who in a series of extraordinarily subtle (at least by Tarantino standards) scenes worms out of the farmer that he’s hiding Jews under the floorboards of the farmhouse. Linda calls in his squad and four of the five Dreyfus family members are killed immediately. The fifth, Shosanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent), escapes and turns up two “chapters” later running a movie theatre in Paris she inherited from an aunt and uncle. Meanwhile, the U.S. Army forms a unit called the “Basterds,” a group of commandos whose assignment is to kill “Nazis” (by which they mean anyone in the German military, whether they’re card-carrying Party members or not) and rack up as high a body count as possible. The unit is headed by Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) and includes a motley group of people — including a renegade German sergeant, Hugo Stiglitz (Til Schweiger), who killed 13 German servicemembers (whether by accident or out of disgust with Nazism is a plot point Tarantino, ordinarily so forthcoming in his exposition, never lets us in on) — who tear up the German countryside and are as deceitful as the people they’re up against, making deals for surrender and then double-crossing the Germans who try to surrender to them and blowing them away again.

The two plot threads converge on Shosanna’s movie theatre, which has won the right to premiere a German war movie, Nation’s Pride, about the adventures of a sniper, Private Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Brühl), and the real Zoller and his co-star, Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger) — who’s really an agent for British intelligence (don’t ask) are scheduled to be there. So, after a lot more boring exposition, are the crème de la crème of high-level Nazidom: Hitler (Martin Wuttke) Göring , Bormann and Goebbels (Sylvester Groth). Both Shosanna and the “Basterds” plan to assassinate the whole Nazi leadership at the theatre (I doubt if Tarantino was consciously thinking of a parallel to the alleged Southern plot in 1865 to assassinate the whole top leadership of the Union government right after Lee’s surrender — Lincoln was killed, of course, and secretary of state Henry Seward was wounded by an attacker, but the guy who was supposed to take out vice-president Andrew Johnson got drunk instead — but the similarities are interesting): Shosanna by setting her own theatre ablaze by using her stores of nitrate film as an incendiary device (by way of explanation as to how flammable nitrate film was Tarantino inserts a clip from Alfred Hitchcock’s Sabotage — I think it’s ill-advised for a director at Tarantino’s level to insert a clip from a director on Hitchcock’s; it only makes Tarantino seem even worse than he is) — and the “Basterds” by going in there with bombs and blowing the place up even if that means they take themselves out as well (so this is a film in which suicide bombers are the heroes).

Raine and another “Basterd” are captured by Col. Landa before the attack is scheduled, but Landa, figuring by then that his side has already lost the war, offers a deal by which he will allow the attack to go forward if he gets a real sweetheart deal, including a free house in Nantucket, after the war … and the theatre duly blows up (after embarrassing the Nazis by showing a special sequence Shosanna and her Black assistant made up and inserted into the fourth reel of Nation’s Pride to condemn them — apparently Tarantino had read or seen The Magic Christian) while Landa gets a swastika carved on his face (a trick the “Basterds” have pulled on most of the Nazis they haven’t outright killed) just to make sure he can’t blend unobtrusively into American society after the war.

Quentin Tarantino’s chutzpah in rewriting a major slice of world history so the principal Nazis meet an end quite different from the ones they actually did isn’t the biggest problem with Inglourious Basterds; nor is Tarantino’s knack for highly stylized violence. The biggest problems are its slowness, its reams of exposition (far more than needed to explain the plot — I’d faulted Public Enemies for its overall slowness but it’s a work of irresistible kinetic energy compared to Inglourious Basterds!) and its sense of being drawn from movies instead of life. As one example, Quentin Tarantino wanted Ennio Morricone to write an original score for his film, but Morricone’s heavy schedule prevented this. No problem; Tarantino simply raided Morricone’s (and others’) previous soundtracks for the music — gaining a quite impressive patchwork score but also leaving us in the audience wondering, “Where have we heard that before?,” just as many of his visuals give us the feeling, “Where have we seen that before?”

Coraline (Focus Features/Universal, 2009)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Our movie last night, Coraline, was a 2009 release (gee, two recent movies in a row!) from Universal’s art-house division, Focus Features (I call them “Out-of-Focus Features” since their logo is the word “FOCUS” in all caps, but with the “O” blurry while the rest of the letters are clear). Directed by Henry Selick, who also made The Nightmare Before Christmas (though Tim Burton got most of the credit since he’d written the story and done much of the preliminary design work), Coraline is based on a children’s book by Neil Gaiman that as a story is sort of Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz meet Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

Coraline (voiced by Dakota Fanning) — that’s her name, though of course (and much to her irritation) most of the people in the movie insist on calling her “Caroline” — is the daughter of Charlie Jones (John Hodgman) and his wife Mel (Teri Hatcher). He’s a writer, which explains why he’s on his computer virtually all day (in a desperate attempt to get his attention, Coraline flips the fuse switch and cuts off power to his computer, thereby erasing much of his day’s work), though he also cooks all the family’s meals since his wife couldn’t be less interested in that sort of thing. They live in a place called the Pink Palace, even though it isn’t pink and isn’t a palace; instead it’s a typical movie haunted house, Victorian in style and with a lot of moldering old rooms and a general aura of the sinister. Coraline ventures outside and meets a rangy outdoor cat and a boy named Wybie (Robert Bailey, Jr.) who’s so compulsively talkative he bores and disgusts Coraline at first sight. (“Wybie” — a character Selick added to his script for the film — is short for “Wyborn,” and Coraline irresistibly puns on his name, “Whywereyouborn?”).

Much of the first half-hour of this 101-minute film is scene-setting and characterization, but eventually the plot kicks into high gear when Coraline discovers a secret child-sized doorway in a part of the house. It’s been wallpapered over on her side and bricked over on the other, but she cuts through the wallpaper, the bricks magically vanish and she goes through the doorway and finds herself in … the same house, with the same mom and dad. Only they’re totally different; mom is a great cook, dad is a musician instead of a writer (with two formidable extension arms so he can play the piano while he’s doing other things with his hands) and they’re both considerably warmer to her than her real parents back on the other side of the door. On this side of the door the cat can talk and Wybie can’t — Coraline is pleased with both those developments — and it’s only after a while of experiencing her dream of what she wishes her family and their lives together were like that Coraline realizes the whole setup is there for some sinister purpose and she is its target. Eventually she comes to grip with the fact that the “Other Father” and “Other Mother” she’s found so much more congenial than her real ones are alien beings of some sort that are there to eat her. At least I think that’s what happened; as with a lot of other fantasies, the dramaturgy gets muddled towards the end as we’re not sure what laws of physics and nature the author is declaring inoperative for the sake of his story and which ones he’s clinging to.

Coraline is quite a charming movie, convincingly animated (and while some of it is computer-generated much of it was done with puppets and old-fashioned stop-motion figures) and effectively staged, and the 3-D effects are fun and add a lot of appeal even though this isn’t a virtuoso display of the in-depth process the way some 3-D films have been. I like this almost literally “skeletal” form of animation that seems unique to Burton and Selick (I can’t remember any other director who’s tried it!); the use of puppets and models to enact the characters enables Selick to bring them to the screen without the heavy literalness of a version in live-action with computer-generated effects shots, and the film maintains a good balance, getting us into Coraline’s point of view while not allowing her to take over the whole movie. It does tend to sag in the second half, though, mainly because of another problem with fantasy as a genre: once you’ve set aside the normal laws of nature and thereby set up your story so anything can happen, the tendency is almost irresistlble to make anything happen — even if it breaks the rules of your fantasy as well as physical reality. Still, Coraline is a nice movie, well balanced between adult appeal and attraction to kids (it’s the sort of movie you can take your family to and no one will be bored — the kids will like the cool effects shots and root for Coraline the character, while the grownups will enjoy the bits of darkness and the inventiveness of the gags.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Seven Days Ashore (RKO, 1944)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film we watched was Seven Days Ashore, a nice if insignificant little comedy-musical from RKO in 1944 presented as a vehicle for Wally Brown and Alan Carney (the two vaudevillians RKO paired in an attempt to create their own bionic Abbott and Costello) but really a romantic quadrilateral dealing with the sailors in the merchant marine. The film, based on an “original” story by Jacques Deval and scripted by Edward Verdier, Irving Phillips and Lawrence Kimble, seems at least in part to have been intended as a riposte to audience members who thought merchant-marine sailors were wimps avoiding the “real” war; Charles pointed out that most of the people in the merchant marine had been sailors on freight vessels in civilian life — and the only difference is that in wartime people were shooting at them and trying to sink their ships, which meant that after the war they were considered veterans because they had served in combat.

In the opening sequence a merchant-marine ship successfully rams and sinks a Japanese submarine that was trying to sink it, only between the damage to their own ship and the fact that it got separated from its convoy, the crew members have no idea where they are. The captain promises everybody a seven-day leave once they arrive in port — no matter where that is — and the ship’s reigning Don Juan, Dan Arland, Jr. (Gordon Oliver), shows his shipmates Monty Stephens (Wally Brown) and Orval “Handsome” Martin (Alan Carney) his address book, in which he literally has a girl in every port. As it turns out, they’re just a few miles off the coast of San Francisco, where Dan’s parents (Alan Dinehart and Marjorie Gateson) live — and where he has three girls, Annabelle (Elaine Shepard), Carol (Virginia Mayo — I recorded this off a TCM birthday tribute to her) and Lucy (Amelita Ward), the latter two of whom are members of Dot Diamond’s (Marcy McGuire) all-girl band that plays at a local dance hall. (There was a brief vogue for women musicians and all-women bands during the war because bandleaders didn’t have to worry about female sidepersons being drafted.)

Dan intends to send a letter to either Carol or Lucy telling her he’s in town and asking her to meet him at the dock, but of course both of them get mailed and the two women find out he’s been two-timing each with the other and vow revenge. Meanwhile, Annabella — established early on as the woman he was really interested in but who broke with him in disgust over his constant cruising (hmm, seems like there’s a moral lesson here!) — is staying with Dan’s parents as a house guest even though she’s already engaged to someone else (though we don’t meet him until the end of the movie). The plot, of course, is just a pretext on which to hang 11 songs and some gags — though Brown and Carney have surprisingly little to do in the comedy department and their main plot function is to woo Carol and Lucy when both sue Dan for breach of promise and he wants two other guys to take them off his hands. He tells them to pass themselves off as millionaires, and the girls see through the imposture relatively quickly but fall in love with them anyway — and the finale is a triple wedding just before the ship sails again (establishing in that annoying Production Code way that even though the three sailors have all married their girlfriends they still haven’t had time to have sex with them!).

The film features some interesting musical guests, including Freddie Slack and his orchestra (though with McGuire singing with them instead of Slack’s regular vocalist, Ella Mae Morse) and a novelty band led by Freddie Fisher as “Col. Corn,” and though McGuire isn’t that great a singer and she’s utterly incapable of convincing us that she can play the clarinet (she wields the thing like a baseball bat and her fingers don’t move at all when she’s supposedly playing), she turns out to be a spectacular acrobatic dancer whose solos are among the high points. Also in the cast is Dooley Wilson, playing the Arlands’ house servant and also a singing piano player (singing he could do for real, piano playing he couldn’t) who trots out the song “Apple Blossoms in the Rain” by Lew Pollack and Mort Greene whenever Dan and Annabelle are on the outs and he wants to bring them together. The song compares to “As Time Goes By” about as well as Gordon Oliver and Elaine Shepard do to Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, but at least Wilson is personable, has a nice voice and is allowed to play a relatively more intelligent character than most of the African-American actors who got cast as servants in this era (Eddie “Rochester” Anderson and Mantan Moreland are special cases).

There’s also a nice offtake on that hoary old plot gimmick about the son of a wealthy family whose father is down-to-earth and likes pop culture, while his mother is snooty and puts on classical “musicales” in her home; in this case, she invites an impossibly bad opera singer named Mrs. Croxton-Lynch, played by the Marx Brothers’ great foil, Margaret Dumont — making an hilarious effect singing “Over the Waves” in a deliberately bad voice. (She was obviously exaggerating and singing badly on purpose because her voice here, especially her intonation, is far inferior to her quite well sung “When the clock on the wall strikes ten … ” bit in the opening scene of Duck Soup.) About the only thing wrong with this relatively unpretentious entertainment is how little the nominal stars, Brown and Carney, are featured; Brown comes off more as a second romantic lead than a Bud Abbott-like comic foil, and Carney seems to have forgotten that there was more to imitating Lou Costello than just whining a lot. They only get one big slapstick moment — when their girlfriends, cottoning to the fact that they aren’t really millionaires, push them off a boat and into the water (whereupon, in true Hollywood logic, they are so endeared by the sight of them floundering around in the sea that they fall in love with them instantly!) — and seem to be lost in what was supposed to be their vehicle.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Hollywood Stadium Mystery (Republic, 1938)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I pulled out a public-domain DVD from Alpha Video of a movie called Hollywood Stadium Mystery, a 1938 “B” from Republic that starred Neil Hamilton and Evelyn Venable (names that were considered pretty much over-the-hill even then — though Hamilton here plays Los Angeles district attorney Bill Devons, and it feels like a job he could have had before being appointed police commissioner of Gotham City, which he played in the 1960’s Batman TV series) in a mystery in which a boxer, Ace Cummings (Pat Flaherty), dies while sitting in his corner just before the start of a championship bout against Champ Madison (William Haade) which Ace was favored to win. Venable plays mystery writer Polly Ward, and in the opening scene a man wearing a rubber face mask comes into the study of a detective and announces he’s going to kill him — only the detective, put on guard by recognizing his would-be killer’s voice, draws first and shoots the intruder instead. Then the curtain falls and it’s revealed that this scene is part of a play Ward has written and presented at a dinner theatre, where she’s sitting at a table with Devons (even though they’ve never met before) — and he, not knowing that the attractive woman he’s cruising is the author, starts ripping the play to shreds and saying that the whole idea of a man recognizing another by voice alone is ridiculous. To prove his point, he disguises his voice and holds her up outside the theatre as she leaves — and she gets the security person to arrest him, cuffing him with an old pair of handcuffs to which he’s lost the key.

Hollywood Stadium Mystery — presented here in a 54-minute version Republic cut down from the 65-minute original for TV showings in the 1950’s (and with the theme music from the 1937 Dick Tracy serial heard over the opening credits — which give the title of the film and the names of its cast and crew as headlines in a series of mock newspapers) — is a quite charming movie, the kind of combination murder mystery and screwball comedy that became popular in the wake of the success of the Thin Man movies. When the murder occurs at the boxing match at Hollywood Stadium, Polly is there but Devons isn’t — he’s later summoned there by the homicide cops and he has to bring the watchman along because they’re still handcuffed together — and the film turns into a game of one-upmanship between Devons and Polly punctuated by the attempts to solve the mystery and sort out the suspects — including Ace’s two rival girlfriends, Edna (Lynne Roberts) and “Regent Pictures” movie star Althea Ames (Barbara Pepper, the vamp from King Vidor’s Our Daily Bread), whom he dumped for Edna; gambler Slats O’Keefe (James Spottswood), the champion’s manager; actor Ralph Mortimer (Reed Hadley), whose eyes were blackened in a fight; the champ himself and Nick Nichols (Jimmy Wallington), the ringside radio announcer.

Paula proves that the murder was committed by using a squirt gun to blast cyanide powder into Ace’s face just before the fight was supposed to begin. She also realizes that the killer whistled a song — which she can’t place until, in an intriguing example of Republic’s cross-promotion, she sees a poster for the Gene Autry movie Comin’ ’Round the Mountain and realizes that’s the song. Eventually she catches on that Nick, the radio announcer — who previously has seemed merely obnoxious — is the actual killer (by this time Slats is dead, too), though he kidnaps her and is about to eliminate her too when an opportune visit from Devons and the cops saves her. (Nick’s motive is that he won 60 percent of the champion’s contract from Slats in a card game, and the share would have been worthless if Ace had fought and beaten the champ.)

It’s the sort of movie that doesn’t aim high but hits what it’s aiming for — a charming, unpretentious entertainment that alternates between the battle-of-the-sexes courtship between Devons and Polly and the murder mystery, without short-changing either plot angle — and Hamilton and Venable, neither among the most charismatic names in 1930’s Hollywood, bring their characters to life convincingly. The film was written by Stuart Palmer (a mystery writer of some reputation), Darrell McGowan and Stuart McGowan, from a story by Stuart McGowan, and directed at a reasonable clip by David Howard with assistance from John Ford’s nephew, Phil Ford. Though it would be nice if the complete theatrical version turns up someday, the extant Hollywood Stadium Mystery is easy to follow and doesn’t contain any obvious lacunae from the TV-motivated deletions — and what we have of it is a quite charming mystery-comedy, typical of the period but done with a literacy and flair more common at a major studio than a “B” factory like Republic.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Public Enemies (Relativity Media/Universal, 2009)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran Charles and I the movie Public Enemies, all 140 minutes of it, a June 2009 release and Hollywood’s latest take on the criminal career of John Dillinger — pronounced here, as in every other movie about him, with a soft “g” even though Dillinger himself, proud of his German heritage, said the name with a hard “g” and insisted that all his friends and associates do so as well. That’s just one of the many mistakes made in this weirdly anachronistic movie, directed by Michael Mann from a script started by Ronan Bennett and finished by Mann and Ann Biderman, based on a book by Bryan Burrough called Public Enemies; America’s Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-34. Public Enemies is the sort of movie (like Lady Sings the Blues and The Buddy Holly Story) that frustrates not only because the film runs roughshod over the real-life history it’s purportedly telling, but because the true story would actually have made a better movie.

The film is basically concerned with the long-standing antagonism between Dillinger (Johnny Depp) and Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale), the FBI agent who was assigned by J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup) to go after him and who led the law-enforcement team that finally ambushed and killed Dillinger outside the Biograph movie theatre in Chicago on July 22, 1934. Remember that date because it’s going to be an important reference point later on to the many anachronisms and flagrant inaccuracies in this movie; as slovenly as it was, the 1945 Monogram film Dillinger (hastily thrown together after the Production Code Administration finally lifted its decade-long ban on Dillinger as a movie subject) was actually closer to the real story. Public Enemies has the flaws of a lot of historical movies these days: an inflated running time (as the film unspooled across all those 140 minutes I couldn’t help but recall how 1930’s Warners hacks like Lloyd Bacon and Ray Enright had been able to tell stories like this in half that amount of running time!); a slow, somber pace — a real surprise coming from Mann, who as a director is best known for fast, exciting, kinetically-paced modern-day thrillers (does he really think people moved that much more slowly in the 1930’s?) — and an elegiac feel expressed not only in the slow pace but also in the relentlessly past-is-brown cinematography by Dante Spinotti.

The biggest single mistake in the film is that the FBI is shown pursuing Dillinger well before they did — or could have; until his famous escape from jail in Crown Point, Indiana on March 3, 1934 the FBI had no jurisdiction over Dillinger since he had not yet committed a federal crime. (The FBI did, however, assist local law enforcement by running fingerprint analysis on Dillinger and making the results available — a kind of cooperation that was highly unusual then even though it’s become routine now.) It was only after the escape that Dillinger drove a stolen car across a state line from Indiana to Illinois — thereby finally committing a federal offense and giving the FBI the pretense it needed to go after him. (One point of accuracy I will give the filmmakers credit for is they don’t call the FBI the FBI — in 1934 it was still officially the Bureau of Investigation of the Department of Justice; “Federal” wasn’t added to its name until 1935.) What’s more, they have Purvis “making his bones” as a federal agent by shooting and killing outlaw Charles “Pretty Boy” Floyd, then being assigned to the Dillinger case as a result of his success with Floyd; in real life Floyd survived Dillinger by three months. (The sequence is correct in the novel Pretty Boy Floyd by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana, which they adapted from an unproduced screenplay they wrote for Warners — and on the strength of that novel, that movie would have been considerably better than this one!) They also have another legendary outlaw, “Baby Face” Nelson (true name: Lester Gillis), dying along with Dillinger in the Biograph Theatre shootout — the real Nelson, though part of Dillinger’s gang at the end, outlived Dillinger by four months.

The filmmakers took pains to make the movie look as authentically 1930’s as possible, but a lot of visual anachronisms slipped in anyway — contributors to noted details like the appearance of modern automobiles, locomotives manufactured well after Dillinger’s death, modern-day judicial robes in the courtroom scenes and the like — and I was particularly (and predictably) annoyed by the musical anachronisms. As delightful as it was to hear three snippets of songs by Billie Holiday on the soundtrack — “Love Me or Leave Me” and “Am I Blue” from early-1940’s Columbia studio recordings and “The Man I Love” from a 1946 concert recording from Los Angeles (not from Carnegie Hall, as stated in the film’s closing credits) — when Dillinger died Billie was an obscure singer eking out a living in hole-in-the-wall New York cabarets and had made only two obscure records (“Your Mother’s Son-in-Law” and “Riffin’ the Scotch,” with a Benny Goodman-led studio group and issued under Goodman’s name), and it’s highly unlikely Billie would have played in a place that had a radio wire even to do local broadcasts, let alone be heard on the air in a city as far away from New York as Chicago.

If they had wanted to use a real-life jazz great on the soundtrack, they should have picked Jack Teagarden, who had at least an indirect connection to Dillinger. In 1933-34, Chicago was hosting a world’s fair called the Century of Progress Exposition, and the real Dillinger frequently went on dates there, sometimes just with one of his (many) girlfriends and sometimes with members of his gang. One of the exhibitors at the Century of Progress was hosting an on-site nightclub at which Teagarden led a band, and while it’s not known for certain whether Dillinger actually saw Teagarden perform (unlike Al Capone, Dillinger was not known as a jazz fan), it’s certainly more likely than that he ever heard Billie Holiday! (There’s another musical anachronism; Diana Krall plays a jazz singer and is shown performing “Bye, Bye, Blackbird” in the film, but the arrangement is characteristic of the 1950’s rather than the 1930’s. The film also includes Benny Goodman’s recording of Jelly Roll Morton’s “King Porter Stomp” — made on July 1, 1935, almost a year after Dillinger’s death.)

As a movie, Public Enemies isn’t bad — though the factual errors and in particular the inflation of the role of the FBI (or whatever it was called then) in his capture rankle. The best thing about it is the kind of parallelism built up between the crooks and the cops, who in the rather cynical manner of a lot of modern crime films are shown as morally equivalent — especially when Purvis orders a roundup of all of Dillinger’s acquaintances, including family members and others not suspected of any involvement in his crimes, and tells his men to keep them under custody until they provide information: the parallel to George W. Bush and his orders for the indefinite detention of so-called “terror suspects” is unstated but relatively obvious. The script also does a good job of depicting Dillinger’s bravado — at one point he walks into a Chicago police station (his current girlfriend needs a police license to work as a waitress and he’s accompanying her as she gets it) and strolls through the office of the Chicago Police Department’s anti-Dillinger task force, unrecognized.

Another nice touch of characterization riffed off the last night of Dillinger’s life, when the FBI got a tip that he was going to a movie at either the Marbro or the Biograph, but the tipster — Anna Sage (Branka Katic), later known as the “Lady in Red” because the orange dress she was wearing (her pre-arranged signal to the federal agents) showed red under the theatre’s outside lights — didn’t know which. Purvis looks at the movie listings in the newspaper and, though he has both theatres staked out, he himself goes to the Biograph because it’s showing a gangster movie, Manhattan Melodrama, while the Marbro is showing Little Miss Marker and he can’t imagine Dillinger wanting to see a Shirley Temple movie when something ballsier and closer to his own experience is available.

The cast is strong but not as strong as it could have been; as Dillinger, Johnny Depp turns in a surprisingly un-quirky performance, losing himself in the character but also making him a bit on the dull side. (Before Depp signed for the role, Leonardo DiCaprio was also up for it — though I think the best actors for the part today would have been Nicolas Cage and Sean Penn.) Christian Bale is interesting as Purvis — though the film doesn’t tell the rest of the story (there’s an American Graffiti-esque title that mentions that he left the FBI in 1936 and committed suicide in 1960; what it doesn’t mention is that J. Edgar Hoover forced him out because he brooked no rivals in public esteem) and there’s a bit of the Batman in his performance (not that I minded!) — and Billy Crudup is fascinating as Hoover. Considerably better-looking than the real one, without the famous bulldog face and with an odd hint of a British accent at odds with the way the oft-filmed real Hoover talked, Crudup nonetheless catches the smarmy self-righteousness of the man. Dillinger’s main girlfriend Evelyn “Billie” Frechette is played by Marion Cotillard (Academy Award-winner for playing Edith Piaf in La Vie en Rose), and she’s quite good, properly proletarian and with only a hint of her French accent — I’ve seen much worse attempts by foreign actors to adapt to playing American characters in American movies!

Public Enemies isn’t a bad movie, but it’s still not the film it could have been — the Dillinger story has a lot more interesting cinematic possibilities than are explored here and, quite frankly, the one I would have liked to see is a film I think should be called Dillinger and Leach — Matt Leach being an Ohio state police detective who obsessively pursued Dillinger and then, after Dillinger’s death, was so pissed off at the FBI for horning in on the case and getting the glory for killing Dillinger he bitterly told Ohioans not to cooperate with the FBI and got fired for his pains. Dillinger and Leach actually had the mutually taunting relationship Mann and his writers tried to establish here between Dillinger and Purvis, and the film also touches on the interesting relationship between Dillinger and organized crime (they helped him at first but then shut the doors to him and his gang because Dillinger’s highly publicized, flamboyant sorts of crime were drawing police heat that might potentially get the mobsters in trouble as well)) and the fame of attorneys like Louis Piquett (Peter Gerety) who were considered — often with good reason — to be just as corrupt as the gangsters and outlaws they represented. (The real Piquett was disbarred two years after Dillinger’s death.)

Public Enemies is a good movie, but it’s not great — and given the potential of the story (filmed at least twice before, in 1945 and 1973, as well as in innumerable other variations, including The Petrified Forest, that got around the Production Code ban on Dillinger films by creating characters recognizably based on Dillinger but just calling them something else), the talent of the cast and director Mann’s reputation for slam-bang energy, it should have been great.

Brigham Young (20th Century-Fox, 1940)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The movie Charles and I watched last night was Brigham Young, a movie Darryl F. Zanuck put into production in 1940 as 20th Century-Fox studio head because he figured America’s fast-growing Mormon population would be interested in a story about the founding of their church and in particular their exodus from Nauvoo, Illinois (where the church’s founder, Joseph Smith, Jr., was convicted of treason on trumped-up charges and then lynched before he could be sentenced) to the valley of the Great Salt Lake in Utah, where they ultimately set up their community and (mostly) thrived. He also trusted on his own instincts to hew closely enough to the usual movie formulae that non-Mormon audiences would like it, too. He was spectacularly wrong on both counts — the film was a resounding box-office flop and, in a last-ditch attempt to resuscitate it with ticket buyers Zanuck changed its title to Brigham Young — Frontiersman and tried to pass it off as an ordinary pioneer Western.

It’s actually quite a good movie within the conventions of Hollywood in 1940, though it’s neither a “white” enough version of the Mormons’ founding story to attract Mormon audiences then or now (it’s still probably a lot better than the tacky versions of the Mormons’ early days the church has produced itself) nor a dark enough one to get the maximum interest out of the tale. The film opens in Carthage, Illinois, where a group of townspeople have put up signs advertising a “wolf hunt” at 7 that night — only our first suspicion that dirty deeds are afoot comes when the “wolf hunters” blacken their faces (they wouldn’t have had to do that if they were really hunting wolves because — like their descendants, dogs — wolves can’t see for shit and rely mostly on their senses of hearing and smell). They’re really after Mormon families in a sort of homegrown pogrom that the Mormons themselves, accustomed to such things, know all too well.

The raiders invade the home of the Kents and kill father Caleb Kent and also their friend Mr. Webb (Frederick Burton), a non-Mormon. Caleb’s son Jonathan (Tyrone Power, top-billed — this is one of those movies in which the stars play fictional characters and the down-cast character actors play the real people) narrowly escapes and protects his mother (Jane Darwell) and younger brother Henry (Dickie Jones), then reports to the council of Mormon elders and sparks a debate on how best they can protect themselves against their neighbors’ intolerance. (The sequence in which Caleb Kent is lynched is full of dark, dramatic images that no doubt had heavy resonances to audiences in 1940 who’d seen similar events happening in newsreel footage from Europe; as Caleb is tied to a tree his tormentors order him to spit on a copy of the Book of Mormon, and later there’s a closeup of the book burning on one of the fires the lynch mob set.)

Joseph Smith (Vincent Price) notes that until then he’s turned the other cheek and instructed his followers not to resist (a depiction considerably at variance from the Mormons’ actual history — the real Joseph Smith was quite ready to take up arms against their tormentors, and more than once he warned his real or perceived enemies not to confuse Mormons with Quakers). Porter Rockwell — played by John Carradine in a weird get-up that makes him look like a frontier version of Jesus — says he’s always urged armed resistance, and Smith reluctantly issues instructions to the Mormons to arm themselves and fight back the next time they’re attacked. For this he’s indicted and tried in a crude court on charges of treason — the great character actor Tully Marshall, veteran of Stroheim’s The Merry Widow and Queen Kelly, is the judge — and the only person who speaks in his defense is Brigham Young (Dean Jagger), who recounts the story of how he met Joseph Smith (it’s shown in flashback, the only time in the film we see Smith’s first — and only legally recognized — wife, Emma) and challenges the jury to acquit.

The jury convicts, of course, and Smith is lynched that very night (he’s shot to death on the second floor of the jail and his body falls through the jailhouse window to the ground below — which tallies with witness descriptions of how Smith’s murder actually went down), but before he’s killed he tells Young he wants Young to take over the Mormon church. Young has to deal with a rival successor, Angus Duncan (Brian Donlevy, a villain as usual), who wants to compromise and conciliate with the Mormons’ townie enemies. Young falsely claims he’s had a visit from God Himself entrusting him with the leadership of the church, and he’s told by a friend in the U.S. army that the Mormons will be set upon and lynched en masse by the townspeople unless he gets them the hell away from there.

The rest of the film is the story of the Mormon Trek, on which all the principals travel — including non-Mormon girl Zina Webb (Linda Darnell), daughter of the Kents’ ill-fated house guest, who goes on the trek because she’s in love with Jonathan Kent (well, they are the top-billed romantic leads, after all) — which begins excitingly with the Mormons’ successful crossing of a frosted-over river into Iowa, continues with their encounter with Jim Bridger (Arthur Aylesworth) at the fort named for him, their alliance with the Pawnee Indians (who help them at a time when all the white people they encounter are snubbing them) and their final crossing of the Rocky Mountains and Young’s decision to settle them in Utah — rather than continuing on to gold-rush California, as Angus Duncan and many of the others had wanted — on the reasonable ground that the only way the Mormons will survive is if they settle in a place no one else would want, and therefore they will be left alone long enough to build the community Joseph Smith called for, in which everyone would work and be rewarded equally; no one would starve but no one would have more than their share, either; and greed would be a punishable sin. (In this film’s script by Lamar Trotti — Zanuck’s pet writer, who wrote virtually all his most personal projects — based on a story by Louis Bromfield, the Mormons’ ideal sounds even more than usual like the socialist dream.)

Their first winter in the Great Salt Lake is viciously hard — Brigham Young is forced to reduce his people’s rations over and over — and the winter wheat crop they were counting on to bail them out is set upon by crickets, but then salvation occurs in the form of a flock of seagulls from the salt lake itself, who eat the crickets, save the wheat crop and give Young the evidence he wanted that God did indeed ordain him as the true successor to Joseph Smith. (Charles said he’d seen this movie on TV as a boy and remembered the final scene vividly.) One can notice the borrowings from other movies — the insect plague from The Good Earth, the overall conception of an effects-driven ending from The Rains Came (which also had Louis Bromfield as story source and Tyrone Power as star), and even a direct crib of the famous final scene in San Francisco where the pioneer version of Salt Lake City dissolves into the real one as it existed in 1940.

Brigham Young shoehorns a potentially interesting story into the usual Hollywood conventions — though Tyrone Power and Linda Darnell have surprisingly little to do and their romantic story seems only a distraction from Dean Jagger as Young, who (not surprisingly) dominates the film — but it’s also a well-done movie. The cinematography by Arthur Miller is phenomenal, featuring the sort of rich, dappled, contrasty lighting that brings this long-ago world to vivid life in black-and-white and makes one wonder why anyone ever thought the movies needed color. The direction by Henry Hathaway (who was 20th Century-Fox’s usual go-to guy for the scripts John Ford turned down — though his work here is very Fordian, down to the use of “Oh, Susannah!” and other songs of the period to goose up Alfred Newman’s impressive score) is surprisingly (for him) quiet and understated, even in the action scenes.

So is the acting; Vincent Price is also powerfully understated as Joseph Smith — I couldn’t help but chuckle over the irony that he played both Joseph Smith and Oscar Wilde (the latter in a 1977 one-person stage show called Diversions and Delights I saw live in San Francisco), but what’s more impressive is that an actor known later for campy scenery-chewing here played the part of a self-proclaimed prophet, the sort of part that usually sends performers an engraved invitation to overact, in a quiet and beautifully restrained manner. Alas, his good efforts are largely neutralized by John Carradine, who does chew the scenery unmercifully — and who does more damage to this movie than Price did good because Price is killed 23 minutes in. The film really belongs to Dean Jagger, who manages to make Young the conflicted character he most likely was in real life — determined and just but also severe and impatient with his people when he doesn’t live up to their expectations for them.

One of the obvious minefields in making a movie about the early Mormons — especially in the Production Code era — was how to deal with the polygamy issue and be historically honest while still keeping the Mormons as the good guys. Trotti’s solution was to treat it as a joke; there are only three references to polygamy in the script, and they all have elements of humor. The first is when one of the townspeople in the original lynching party in Illinois jokes, “What’s the difference between a white man and a Mormon? About 50 wives!” The second is when Brigham Young meets Jim Bridger and Bridger asks him, “How many do you have?” — he doesn’t say how many what but it’s not hard to figure out -— and Young answers, “Twelve.” The third, and longest, is when Zina Webb fends off Jonathan Kent’s marriage proposal by joking that she’s not going to be just one of 20 wives, and asks why he doesn’t just propose to all of them at once to save time. At the same time, we’re not shown anybody living the plural-marriage lifestyle; the only one of Young’s wives who’s actually depicted is his first one, Mary Ann (a rather wasted Mary Astor, waiting out the time until her spectacular comeback the next year in The Great Lie and The Maltese Falcon).

Brigham Young doesn’t delve into the darker aspects of its story — nor could it have been expected to under the Production Code-era restrictions and with Darryl Zanuck’s commercial hopes for the movie contingent on the Mormons of 1940 liking it — but on its own terms it’s surprisingly entertaining (even if Tyrone Power sometimes seems like an extra in a film in which he’s supposedly the star!) and even moving … if you can accept the Mormons as good guys and forget about everything they’ve done and stood for since!

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Old Barn (Mack Sennett Productions/Educational Pictures, 1929)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran The Old Barn, a 1929 Mack Sennett short that was certainly one of his first sound films and may have been the first. I’d downloaded this off and used it to fill out the disc on which I’d burned the 1933 film Corruption, and it proved to be a mildly amusing but not especially inspired comedy, directed by Sennett himself from a script by the usual committee — Hampton Del Ruth, Alfred M. Loewenthal, Andrew Rice, Earle Rodney and “story supervisor” John A. Waldron. (It was Sennett who pioneered the system — still used for TV sitcoms today — of having the writers sit around a table and bounce potential gags off each other, eventually evolving a script between them by using each other’s laughter, or lack of same, to determine what an audience is likely to find funny.)

By this time Sennett was already on the downgrade, having lost his distribution contract with Paramount and signed with Educational Pictures (the studio formed by his one-time comedy producer rival, Al Christie, which did not in fact make educational pictures) — though within a few years he’d make a mini-comeback, regaining his berth at Paramount and launching Bing Crosby’s movie career and W. C. Fields’ talkie comeback (and also giving Paramount the inside track on signing Crosby and Fields for features). The Old Barn is an interesting little movie, surprisingly naturalistic for a 1929 talkie (as Charles noted, the actors actually spoke normally and without the long … pauses … between … words characteristic of a lot of early sound features) but also not especially funny. It starts out at a country hotel and ends up in (not surprisingly) an old barn, where the various characters are alternately trying to capture and trying to hide from an escaped convict. It’s an O.K. movie but the funniest gag has nothing to do with the plot; it’s the opening logo, in which Sennett parodied the MGM lion by having a dog emerge from an archway and bark to herald the film.

Love Affair (Columbia, 1932)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Our feature last night was Love Affairnot the 1939 classic directed by Leo McCarey and starring Charles Boyer and Irene Dunne in a picturesquely doomed romance, or its 1994 remake with Warren Beatty (as star and director), Annette Bening and (in her last role) Katharine Hepburn (of course the most famous version of the story is the intervening one from 1957, also directed by McCarey and starring Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr, retitled An Affair to Remember), but a 1932 film from Columbia directed by Thornton Freeland (mostly known for his musicals, especially Flying Down to Rio) and starring Dorothy Mackaill and Humphrey Bogart.

Bogart had come out to Hollywood in 1930 with a contract at Fox, but they’d dumped him after a few undistinguished supporting roles (and one quite good performance in John Ford’s Up the River, Spencer Tracy’s first feature and Bogart’s second). Columbia picked him up and had him under contract for six months in late 1931, but this was the only film they gave him — even though it was his first lead in a movie — and he made two films as a free-lancer at Warners in early 1932, Big City Blues and Three on a Match, before going back to New York, pursuing a stage career and making only one movie in the next four years (the 1934 gangster film Midnight, shot in New York for Universal — Bogart’s only credit for that company).

Love Affair, based on a story by Ursula Parrott and adapted for the screen by generally talented writers, Dorothy Howell (continuity) and Jo Swerling (dialogue), was one of those legendary movies I wondered if I’d ever get a chance to see — but unlike some of the others on that list (like Mamoulian’s Applause, Lubitsch’s Monte Carlo and Whale’s Remember Last Night?), it was one that failed to live up to the anticipation. Carol Owen (Dorothy Mackaill) is a devil-may-care heiress who decides out of the blue that she wants to learn to fly, so she enrolls in a flying school run by Gilligan (Jack Kennedy — not the same one!) and insists on going up with the school’s youngest and hunkiest instructor, Jim Leonard (Humphrey Bogart). What she doesn’t realize is that Leonard is about to quit the flying school to form a start-up company to develop a revolutionary new airplane motor he’s invented. What she also doesn’t realize is that she’s broke; for the last year her bills, unbeknownst to her, have been paid by her stockbroker, Bruce Hardy (Hale Hamilton), in anticipation of her marrying him.

Meanwhile, Hardy is also keeping a mistress, Linda Lee (the marvelous Astrid Allwyn), who’s exploiting him for his money so her boyfriend, theatrical director Georgie Keeler (Bradley Page), can soak Hardy for enough to mount a show that will make them both stars. By a weird bit of authorial fiat, Linda Lee is also Jim Leonard’s sister — though neither Linda nor Jim knows about the other’s dealings with Bruce and Carol. Got all that? Predictably — especially given the title of the film — Jack and Carol fall for each other, and Carol takes him on a round of nightclubbing and teaches him to play golf so he can have a sense of fun and not be a workaholic all the time — while Gilligan breaks off his plans to invest in Jack’s company because he thinks Jack has become too wrapped up in his relationship with Carol to devote the attention he needs to perfecting and marketing his invention. Love Affair isn’t an especially interesting story, and it’s told with such a strangulation-poor budget that we don’t get the generally obligatory montage sequence showing Carol leading Jim around to nightclubs, golf courses, and whatever else she’s supposed to be doing with him that’s taking his attention away from his startup.

Columbia seems to have blown the budget on Jim’s glorious-looking Art Deco office — one wonders how a budding entrepreneur who’s supposed to be scrounging for investors can afford such high-class digs — and it all ends with Jim, disillusioned with his triple betrayal (not only is his girlfriend going to marry another guy for his money, but the other guy is cheating on her with Jim’s own sister, while the sister is just trying to extort money from him), abandoning the startup and asking for his old job back, Carol deciding to rent one of Gilligan’s planes and use it to commit suicide, and Jim finally realizing all this and making an heroic run down the runway, where he leaps onto the plane (the leap itself was clearly doubled but there are enough close shots of Bogart grabbing and holding onto the plane for dear life it was clear he was really clinging to a plane as it taxied down the airport location), saves Carol and gives her a big kiss in mid-air to signal their reconciliation. Love Affair isn’t much of a story, and it isn’t told with anywhere near the sense of style that would have been necessary for it to work (though it benefits by the general sexual honesty of the so-called “pre-Code” period; the relationships between the characters are depicted as what they are, even though the Code Adminstration tried and failed to get Columbia to tone down the hints of actual sex between Jim and Carol) — and Mackaill is her usual competent but uninspiring self (the more I’ve seen of her other movies, the more her excellent performance in Safe in Hell looks like a fluke, inspired by the superb direction of William A. Wellman).

As for Bogart, he looks almost unimaginably callow. Oddly, in Up the River two years before he’d had a role of real substance (an ex-con desperate to conceal that fact from his family) and had anticipated some of the world-weariness and soured (but ultimately regained) idealism of the great Bogart roles to follow a decade or so later — but in Love Affair he’s a plain old juvenile, playing a part any decent-looking young male actor could have played and offering nothing special, nothing that would have made Harry Cohn realize what a great box-office name he would be. (Cohn would get another crack at Bogart 15 years later in the film Dead Reckoning after Bogart, by then a Warners superstar, renegotiated his Warners contract to be non-exclusive; Cohn would then get four more Bogart films through signing a distribution deal with Bogart’s company, Santana, and a sixth, The Caine Mutiny, when producer Stanley Kramer signed him up for it.)

Monday, December 14, 2009

Frolics on Ice (Everything’s on Ice) (RKO, 1939)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Our “feature” was a really peculiar effort called Frolics on Ice, originally made by producer Sol Lesser at RKO in 1939 and called Everything’s on Ice and then reissued in this version by something called “Screencraft Pictures,” presumably a TV label, in the 1950’s. We downloaded this one from and it turned out to be an indigestible mixture of skating musical and situation comedy. The main function seemed to be to create a screen vehicle for prepubescent skater Irene Dare, who’s cast as “Irene Barton,” younger daughter of barber Joe Barton (Edgar Kennedy) and his wife Elsie (Mary Hart). Elsie’s brother, Felix Miller (Roscoe Karns), talks Joe out of a loan of $150 (out of the $2,000 Joe has saved up to buy the barbershop at which he works) to launch Irene’s career, so while Joe stays behind in Brooklyn Felix, Elsie, Irene and her older sister Jane (Lynne Roberts) all journey to Florida.

On the train they meet up with nondescript nebbish Leopold Eddington (Eric Linden, who was about a decade too old for his role — he’s the living proof of all those gags in the Gold Diggers movies about youngish-looking men persisting in the juvenile roles until they get lumbago), who we’re told — but the principals are not — is actually a millionaire, having been made so in his teens by the sudden death of his oil-tycoon father (were the writers, Adrian Landis and Sherman Lowe, thinking Howard Hughes here?). He falls in love with Jane — and she with him — at first sight, but Felix thinks Leopold is an impoverished jerk and tries to break him and Jane up. Instead he seeks to pair her off with Harrison Gregg (George Meeker), who’s posing as a millionaire but is in fact about to be thrown out of the hotel for not paying his bill. There were quite a few other movies of the period, including The Gay Deception and Hands Across the Table, that did far more with these tropes than Frolics/Everything’s on Ice did, and eventually it all turns out as we expect it to: Harrison is exposed as a four-flushing gold-digger (we could tell all along because he was blond and had a “roo” moustache), Jane insists on marrying Leopold and finds out only afterwards that he is genuinely rich, and Leopold ingratiates himself with the family by buying Joe (ya remember Joe?) the barbershop and underwriting Irene’s latest production number, introduced by a quartet of singing bears (actually, of course, actors in ill-fitting bear suits), in which she plays a newly hatched baby penguin brought into the world by an avian medico named “Dr. Quack” (I’m not making this up, you know!) — the latter decision makes one (this one, anyway) think his love for the heroine outweighs his brains or good taste.

Irene Dare was billed as six years old — she was actually eight (she was born February 14, 1931 in St. Paul, Minnesota) — and she certainly knew her way around a rink, though her routines seem a bit dated today simply because she doesn’t do the spectacular jumps we expect from top-level figure skaters now. She gets to skate in four big production numbers that don’t involve any other members of the cast — just a bunch of chorus skaters and a stereotypical screaming-queen director staging them — including an introduction set to the title song by Milton Drake & Fred Stryker; an Americana number in which she skates to “Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean” and other moth-eaten “patriotic” favorites; a Hawai’ian number in which she attempts a hula on skates (she can’t do it but it’s highly doubtful anyone could have); and that ghastly final major production, staged by Dave Gould (whose faux-Berkeley spectacles weighted down the early Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers movies, and who’d done a far superior ice ballet in the 1933 musical Melody Cruise) to a song called “Birth of a Snowbird” by Victor Young and Paul Francis Webster (both of whom did much better work elsewhere). Dare’s ice numbers look like they were spliced in from another movie, and though she luckily escaped the fate of JonBenet Ramsey (according to Dare is still alive!) there’s something of the sick exploitation of the young about her appearance here, especially when that obnoxious Uncle Felix (judging from this film and also the far superior Road to Happiness, Roscoe Karns’ whole stock in trade seems to have been obnoxiousness!) coaches her to say, as part of his attempt to pass off his family as rich to attract a rich husband for Jane, “I don’t have to skate for money. I skate because I like to.”

Irene Dare (true name: Irene Davidson) was first introduced to movie audiences the previous year in a film also produced by Sol Lesser, Breaking the Ice, with fellow child star Bobby Breen, and she made only one other movie (Silver Skates, for Monogram in 1943, starring Kenny Baker and adult skater Belita with Patricia Morison and the real-life comedy skating duo Frick and Frack), and in a few minutes on the Web I haven’t been able to find out what happened to her after that, but she’s a personable little kid who deserved a better vehicle than this bizarre retreat of old movie clichés (with workmanlike but hardly inspired direction by Erle C. Kenton) in which we’re always two to five reels ahead of the filmmakers in figuring out what’s going to happen next.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

One Body Too Many (Pine-Thomas/Paramount, 1944)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was One Body Too Many, which I recently burned to DVD from an download, a 1944 horror spoof from Paramount that I probably would have liked better if I hadn’t watched it so soon after the 1941 Universal film The Black Cat, since the plot premises are the same (an eccentric millionaire puts off her — or, in this case, his — relatives by writing a really bizarre will that makes them wait for their inheritances, and during the wait they start knocking each other off) and Bela Lugosi not only appears in both movies but plays the same role: the crazy rich person’s long put-upon butler. Lugosi is billed third — though the public-domain DVD’s generally put him first — behind Jack “Tin Man” Haley and Jean Parker.

Haley plays Albert Tuttle, life-insurance salesman for the Emperor company (which, by the looks of things, appears to be just Tuttle and one other person who banters with him in the opening scene — one wonders why Paramount didn’t recycle the elaborate insurance-company office mockup Billy Wilder had built for Double Indemnity), who has finally made an appointment to sell a $200,000 life insurance policy to eccentric millionaire Cyrus J. Rutherford. Tuttle explains to his partner that Rutherford is a believer in astrology — so much so that he has had an observatory, complete with dome and enclosed telescope, built on the premises of his home, and he’s hired an astronomy professor to work for him full-time, watching the stars through the telescope and giving him information about their positions in the sky so he can forecast his own future — and that Tuttle himself has succeeded in landing an appointment with him where other insurance men have failed by playing along with Rutherford’s astrological bent and making the date for a day when Leo, Rutherford’s sign, is in the ascendant.

We then cut to Rutherford’s home and to a close-up of his coffin — we’re supposed to be savoring the irony that the guy croaked just before Tuttle was to meet him and sell him a policy, but we also feel a sigh of relief that Tuttle didn’t get there in time to sell the policy and then have his company have to pay out on it. Not that there was much chance of Tuttle buying a policy since Rutherford already had a large fortune and hated all his relatives; he has his attorney, Morton Gellman (Bernard Nedell), summon them all to his home and read them the “preamble” to his will. This stipulates that he must be buried in a coffin with a clear window (sort of like Lenin’s) which is to be placed where it has a clear view of the stars, so they will keep shining down on him even after he’s dead. It also says that his relatives — whom he insults viciously throughout the document, suggesting that after he dies he’s going to be reincarnated as Don Rickles — are to wait in the house until his star-oriented crypt is built, and if they leave they will disinherit themselves, while if his body is buried or disposed of in any other way than the one he stipulated, the terms of the will will be reversed and the people he willed the least to will get the most, while those he willed the most to will get the least. He also says that the terms of the will itself — which he hand-wrote and sealed so not even Gellman knows what’s in it — are not to be read until after he’s interred in the clear crypt and placed in full view of the stars.

What follows is a pretty pointless but still sporadically amusing bit of nonsense in which Tuttle comes off as quite personable and attracts the affections of the only decent person in Rutherford’s family, Carol Dunlap (Jean Parker), while Cyrus’s body is stolen from its coffin and a few other people on the premises — including Gellman — turn up dead. One Body Too Many is not much of a movie — the 1941 Black Cat did a better job on this premise — but at least Lugosi gets some droll moments of his own (notably in one scene in which it’s hinted that he’s dropped rat poison in his coffeepot so everyone who drinks his coffee will be killed — though at the end, after everyone else has refused his coffee for reasons ranging from the sensible, “It keeps me awake,” to the snobbish — Tuttle says he won’t have any because it was made with a percolator and “I’m a drip,” evincing a kind of coffee connoisseurship I didn’t think came into existence until at least the 1950’s — he and the maid drink some of it themselves, to no ill effect) and Haley gets to recycle some of the dialogue of his Wizard of Oz cast-mate Bert Lahr and overall project a warm, rather homey air even in the quirky role of an insurance salesman who’s mistaken for the private detective who was supposed to guard Cyrus’s body and make sure nobody tried to bury it contrary to Cyrus’s instructions.

In the end, the murderer is unveiled — he’s Henry Rutherford (Douglas Fowley), the only one in the family who had Cyrus’s last name (all the others, we’re obviously supposed to assume, descended from his female relatives) and who earned (so to speak) his uncle’s dislike when he married a slatternly and unscrupulous woman named Mona (Dorothy Granger) — and Tuttle rescues Carol from him in the nick of time. We don’t ever find out who gets what from the Cyrus Rutherford estate and we don’t really care; directed by Frank McDonald from an “original” screenplay by Winston Miller and future director Maxwell Shane, One Body Too Many is an engaging little farce that could have done more with the central premise than it did but still is a relatively painless way to spend 75 minutes — and for once an post of a movie is actually complete!

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Twilight (Summit Entertainment, 2008)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The movie Charles and I ran last night was Twilight, the heavily hyped first film in the series of adaptations of Stephenie Meyer’s young-adult vampire novels, all of which seem to be titled according to times of day between dusk and dawn. The film was released last year and was an instant hit, and the sequel, awkwardly called The Twilight Saga: New Moon, was released a couple of weeks ago and was an even bigger instant hit, setting box-office records for the opening weekend. I ordered it my last time at Columbia House and decided to watch it while the sequel was still in theatres and the smell of hype was still in the air. It’s the sort of movie that grows on you; thinking about it now I’m liking it better than I did when I was directly experiencing it, and I’m impressed with it as a workmanlike piece of entertainment even though, since I’m about 40 years older than its target audience, it’s a bit difficult for me to see why it became such a high-profile cult item and attracted the enormous audience it did.

As just about everybody who’s living in a less remote place than Timbuktu knows by now, Twilight is the story of a 17-year-old high-school girl, Isabella “Bella” Swan (Kristen Stewart), who starts out the movie in Arizona, where her mom lives with her stepfather, a minor-league baseball player who spends a lot of time on the road. With mom planning to spend that time on the road with him, Bella decides to move up to Forks, Washington, where her dad Charlie (Billy Burke) is the police chief. Since Forks is a town of only 3,000 people — though Charles joked that its high school looks large enough to hold that many students — being its police chief isn’t that tough a job, and any qualms about its remoteness and isolation soon drain away for Bella because, unlike in virtually every other story ever told about a new kid in high school, rather than being looked down on Bella is instantly popular.

She’s got boys of various colors — Asian nerd Eric (Justin Chon), Black guy Tyler (Gregory Tyree Boyce) and white kid Mike Newton (Michael Welch) — interested in her almost immediately, but she’s unimpressed by any of them. There’s a brief glimmer of interest between her and a Native American kid, Jacob Black (Tyler Lautner), but it dies when she learns he attends school on the local reservation rather than at the big high school, but the boy she eventually goes for is Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson), who lives with a mysterious clan led by his foster father, Dr. Carlyle Cullen (Peter Facinelli), and Carlyle’s wife Esmé (Elizabeth Reaser). The various Cullens all seem to have paired off with each other — they can since they’re not biologically related — and they’re all pale-skinned. Though they can go out during daytime, they prefer cloudy weather (one reason they located themselves in the chronically foggy, rainy climate of Washington state) because sun makes their skin look like it’s covered with industrial diamonds.

As this movie takes its own sweet time telling us — but most of its audience knew in advance anyway, making the l-o-o-o-o-n-g exposition especially annoying (director Catherine Hardwicke and writer Melissa Rosenberg take 50 minutes of screen time to give us story premises the folks at Universal in the 1930’s and 1940’s would have tossed off in a couple of brief, to-the-point scenes) — the Cullens are actually vampires, though they’ve taken an oath not to consume human blood but to feed themselves only on animals. In one of the nice pieces of dry wit that abound in the script, Edward explains that would be like a normal human being living entirely on tofu — it’s nourishing but tasteless.

Generally, Twilight is at its best when it’s combining the two genres that gave it its special appeal to the teenage audiences who made first the books and then the movies such enormous hits: the teen coming-of-age comedy/drama and the vampire movie. Though Kristen Stewart played an alienated teen in an even better movie, Speak — in which her alienation came not from being the new girl in school and falling in love with a vampire but from having been raped by the B.M.O.C. and then turned into a pariah because she called the police to raid the party at which she met the guy but then ran away instead of staying to press charges —she’s damned good here, and so is her vis-à-vis — even though I thought Cam Gigandet (a boy named Cam?) as James, member of a trio of bad vampires who do drink human blood and commit two murders in the movie (one of them of Waylon, played by Ned Bellamy, an old friend of Bella’s father), was considerably sexier than Robert Pattinson. Charles noted that for a modern-day movie Twilight is unusually well constructed — the story has a beginning, a middle and an end, and though the end is open-ended enough to set up a sequel it’s also a satisfying resolution to this phase of the story, like the endings in Wagner’s and Tolkien’s Ring cycles and not like the maddening serial cliffhanger-style endings of the first two Matrices.

One rather amazing aspect of Twilight is that it’s probably the first vampire movie ever made that doesn’t qualify as a horror film; there’s a fair amount of action (including a spectacular fight scene at the end between the good and bad vampires — one of the conceits of the saga is that vampires have super-powers, able to leap great distances, climb trees, move far more rapidly than normal humans and bend dented cars back into shape; in one sequence Edward uses his super-strength to block Tyler’s SUV as it’s hurtling towards Bella, thereby saving her life) but the emotions the filmmakers are evoking are romance and thrills, not terror. While I personally found the Underworld movies (at least the first two) more convincing rescensions of the vampire mythos into the modern era, Twilight is quite a workmanlike and impressive movie — indeed, I found myself liking it better than the Swedish import, Let the Right One In, that had been promoted as the more intellectually respectable alternative to it (in the Swedish movie the leads were still pre-pubescent and it was the girl, not the boy, who was the vampire) but which seemed to me much colder and less emotionally involving than Twilight.

The film ends with Edward and Bella swearing eternal love for each other even though both of them are all too aware that the only way they can make it eternal is if Bella is herself “vampirized” — and Meyer, Rosenberg and Hardwicke make much of the Anne Ricean irony that she’s more eager for that to happen than he is: at times it seems like one of those stories in which a person who’s never considered himself Gay or herself Lesbian has his/her first sexual experience with a same-sex partner, falls in love immediately and then is warned by the veteran Queer they’ve just fallen in love with, “Not so fast. This kind of life is a lot harder than you think.” Though Twilight suffers from the length of its exposition — it improves dramatically at the 50-minute mark once Bella finally realizes her boyfriend is a vampire — and doesn’t entirely escape the risibility any supernaturally-driven story treads on the thin edge of, it’s a quite impressive piece of work, and I couldn’t help but wonder if the fact that the original story writer, the screenwriter and the director are all women helped shape the marvelous emotional sensitivity with which the story is told. Believe it or not, I’m actually looking forward to seeing the sequel some day!