Thursday, April 30, 2009

Changeling (Imagine Entertainment, Relativity Media, Malpaso, Universal, 2008)

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

I ran Charles the movie Changeling, a 2008 film from Universal directed by Clint Eastwood from a script by J. Michael Straczynski based on an actual case — two cases, really — in Los Angeles in the late 1920’s, back when the Los Angeles Police Department was even more corrupt and domineering than usual (which is saying a lot). It was actually the interface of two cases, the disappearance of 10-year-old Walter Collins (Gattlin Griffith) and the attempt of his mother, Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie, top-billed) to find him; and the so-called “Wineville Chicken Coop Murders,” in which chicken ranch owner Gordon Stewart Northcott (Jason Butler Harner) lured pre-pubescent boys into his car (usually by falsely telling them that their parents had had an accident and sent him for them), kidnapped them, drove them to his ranch and there tortured and killed them. A Canadian native, he had an accomplice, 11-year-old Sanford Clark (Eddie Alderson), a distant relative whom he got to help him kill his victims out of fear of his own life after he lured the boy away from his home in Canada with the promise of a vacation in sunny California.

The tie between the two cases is, not surprisingly, that Walter Collins was one of Northcott’s victims — but what made this story really quirky was that in the meantime the police had apprehended another missing boy, Arthur Hutchins (Devon Conti), who had been arrested in DeKalb, Illinois after the man he was with had tried to bum a meal from a diner without paying and had left the kid behind while he supposedly went back to his home to retrieve his money. The LAPD somehow got custody of this kid and decided to create a “success story” by passing him off as Walter Collins and “returning” him to Christine five months after the real Walter’s disappearance — and, when Christine sees through the imposture and realizes the phony “Walter” is not her son (which isn’t hard to figure out; he’s three inches shorter than Walter was when he disappeared, he’s circumcised — the real Walter wasn’t, lucky him! — he doesn’t remember his teacher and he doesn’t have the membranes between his teeth that the real Walter’s dentist had been treating him for), the LAPD has so much of its public image wrapped up in the feel-good story of how they “recovered” this poor mother’s kid that they insist he is Walter, that Christine is just trying to weasel out of her responsibilities as a parent so she can party and date (this is 1928, after all, and the “Roaring Twenties” are in full swing), and when she still insists that the kid the LAPD “reunited” her with is not her real son, they have her incarcerated in a mental institution.

Writer Straczynski was tipped off to the existence of this case when someone he knew at L.A. City Hall stumbled onto the documents about it in a cache of old files that were being cleaned out for destruction, and Straczynski took the files, researched the case for a year and based a good part of the dialogue in his script directly from court transcripts and other contemporary records — though that didn’t stop him from fictionalizing and pulling some of the usual screenwriter’s tricks to heighten the drama of a story that seemingly didn’t need heightening, notably in the rather tacky scene in which Our Heroine is about to be subjected to electroshock treatment and just at that moment her biggest community supporter, Rev. Gustav A. Briegleb (John Malkovich, the film’s male lead — to the extent it has one), shows up to demand her release.

Though the title fits the movie only in the most elliptical way (relating to the ancient myths about people — usually children — who disappeared into a supernatural world and returned distinctly different physically, psychologically and spiritually from how they’d been when they left) and there are a few annoying anachronisms in what’s otherwise a convincing evocation of the 1928-1935 period (electroshock wasn’t used on humans until 1937, the dialogue contains phrases like “serial killer” — a 1970’s coinage; a 1920’s criminologist would have called Northcott a “multiple murderer” — “APB” and “don’t go there,” and towards the end of the film Christine is depicted as listening to the Academy Awards on the radio and having made a bet with a friend that It Happened One Night would win Best Picture; in 1935 the Academy Awards weren’t yet broadcast live and were pretty much of interest only to people in the movie business; they weren’t a mass cultural phenomenon the way they became later), Changeling is a quite remarkable movie.

It’s basically a simple story, told simply (though Charles thought it could have used more of the economy of storytelling of the movies made when it takes place — after seeing James Whale zip through the events of The Kiss Before the Mirror in a mere 67 minutes the deliberate pace of Changeling did tend to pall, and if Eastwood had been able to keep it within two hours instead of stretching it out 21 minutes longer than that, it might have been even better) and directly, and managing to work in some of Eastwood’s obsessions — particularly murders of children and the social response to them — that we know from more personal films of his like Mystic River (which was actually a far weaker film than Changeling, with a vigilante plot line that would have played much better in an Eastwood Western than it did in a contemporary setting).

Oddly, Changeling didn’t start as an Eastwood project at all; it was developed by Ron Howard and his producing partner, Brian Grazer, and Howard was originally set to direct until he ran into scheduling problems with The Da Vinci Code and Eastwood took over the film. It was also Howard’s decision to cast Angelina Jolie as the lead — which is actually one of the better aspects of the film; it’s always nice to see someone who’s been coming off as a spoiled celebrity brat get a down-to-earth role that proves she can really act. Indeed, what’s most special about Changeling is the understated nature of all the performances and the overall quietude of the direction — it’s an exciting movie, but in a subtle way that gets us into the characters and their plights rather than dazzling us with action highlights.

And the issues it raises still resonate: the ways in which people are manipulated by authorities and the media, and the point mystery writer Abigail Padgett made to me when I interviewed her and she reflected on her experience as a Child Protective Services worker and how that impacted her fiction — that if there’s any possible way you can resolve your problems before turning to the system, you should, because systems have their own internal logic and the people within them will be focused far more on the health of the system than the well-being of the individuals who come to it asking for, and expecting, personal justice. Indeed, the entire film takes on a Kafkaesque air, as Christine finds herself in a situation in which every attempt she makes to assert herself and her own humanity is interpreted by the authorities as simply another indicator of her madness — to the point at which she is literally being offered a bribe by the authorities: sign a slip of paper acknowledging that the false Walter Collins is indeed her son, and she can leave immediately.

Changeling is a quite remarkable film that disappeared almost as soon as it was released, and was overshadowed by Eastwood’s other directorial credit from 2008, Gran Torino (probably because Eastwood was in Gran Torino and it was closer to his usual style both in subject and execution), but like Australia it was a box-office disappointment that deserved to be a blockbuster.

The Torchy Blane Series (Warners, 1937-1939)

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

I watched Smart Blonde, the first Torchy Blane movie from Warners in 1937 and the one that established the series. It was also the only one that was based on a story actually written by Torchy’s creator, mystery writer Frederick Nebel (adapted into a screenplay by Warners’ hands Kenneth Gamet and Don Ryan), and it showed in a much more interesting plot than most of these films had, with a large assortment of potential suspects and genuine surprise in the finally-revealed identity of the murderer. It also benefited from being set in genuine Warners’ territory — in the worlds of entertainment and criminality; nightclub and racetrack owner Fitz Mularkey (Addison Richards) is determined to get out of the business and go into real estate to please his fiancée, Marcia Friel (Charlotte Winters). He wants to make sure he sells them to an honest owner instead of one of the New York gangsters itching to get their hands on them, so he sends for Boston entrepreneur Tiny Torgensen (Joseph Crehan) and agrees to sell to him even though Torgensen is offering him considerably less than the New York crooks are.

The deal becomes moot when Torgensen is killed at Union Station right as Torchy Blane (Glenda Farrell) is interviewing him — talk about being on top of a story! — she boarded his train from Boston in mid-run, got to his cabin, started the interview there and was continuing it as he got off the train when he was ambushed and shot. From there much of the action shifts to the Million Club, centerpiece of Fitz’s entertainment mini-empire, where his sort-of former girlfriend Dolly Ireland (the always marvelous Wini Shaw — her credits listing in the American Film Institute Catalog index only covers four years, 1934 to 1937 , and it seems inexplicable that her great performance in the “Lullaby of Broadway” number from Busby Berkeley’s Gold Diggers of 1935 didn’t make her a major star) holds forth as a singer and is shown singing most of a song called, “Why Do I Have to Sing a Torch Song?”

Smart Blonde is probably the darkest of the Blanes — there’s some genuine homicidal madness among the characters (Addison Richards is especially good as the sympathetic nightclub owner driven to rage and the edge of criminal insanity by the deaths of Torgensen and a number of his other friends), including the interesting figure of Chuck Cannon (Max Wagner), Fitz’s “enforcer” and a prime suspect since Fitz’s decision to bail out of the nightclub and racetrack businesses means he’ll be out of job. In the end [spoiler alert!] the killers turn out to be Marcia Friel and her “brother” Louis (David Carlyle, later known as Robert Paige), who turn out not to be brother and sister after all but rather a con-artist couple out for Fitz’s businesses and fortune. (One wonders if Frederick Nebel lifted this gimmick from The Hound of the Baskervilles.) Smart Blonde even looks darker — more proto-noir — than the later films in this series (Warren Lynch was the cinematographer and Frank McDonald, who did most of the Blanes, was the director), and the comedy relief is a lot more restrained than it became in subsequent films in the series. — 7/8/04


I ran us the first in the eight (out of the total nine) Torchy Blane movies I recently recorded to DVD off TCM, Smart Blonde, a snappy opener to the series and a movie I quite like if only because it’s one of the few screen appearances of Wini Shaw — here cast with her true first name, Winifred — and she even gets to sing a song, “Why Must I Sing a Torch Song?,” in which she’s quite good (nothing that would have kept Billie Holiday awake worrying about the competition, but a nice “torch” voice that did justice to this song just as it did to the magnificent “Lullaby of Broadway” in Gold Diggers of 1935), though alas it’s interrupted by dialogue and we really get to hear only the beginning and the ending of it. The plot deals with a mini-entertainment empire that’s been put together by good-bad gangster Fitz Mularkey (Addison Richards), which includes a racetrack, a boxing arena and the Million Club, basically your average movie nightclub that looks far larger and more elaborate than a real one, in which singer Dolly Ireland (Wini Shaw) holds forth and carried an unrequited crush for her boss.

Fitz has decided to cash out of his businesses so he can settle down as a legitimate real-estate developer and marry his fiancée, Marcia Friel (Charlotte Winters), and rather than sell to one of the four or five New York crooks interested enough in his businesses to pay a premium price for them, he calls in an old friend from Boston (where he grew up), Tim “Tiny” Torgenson (Joseph Crehan), and sells them to him — only Torgenson is killed in a taxicab as soon as he gets off the train, and ace reporter Torchy Blane (Glenda Farrell, top-billed) just happens to be in the cab, witnesses the whole thing and immediately calls the story in. Her boyfriend, police inspector Steve McBride (Barton MacLane), naturally gets the call to investigate the case, and the two cycle through a series of suspects — including Mularkey’s roughneck bodyguard Chuck Cannon (Max Wagner), who’s thought to have killed Torgenson out of fear that Fitz’s withdrawal from the business would leave him unemployed — before they finally realize (in a plot twist original writer Frederick Nebel or screenwriters Kenneth Gamet and Don Ryan might have borrowed from The Hound of the Baskervilles) that the real villains are Marcia Friel and her husband Lewis (David Carlyle, later known as Robert Paige and a mini-star at Universal in the 1940’s, best known as the romantic lead in the Abbott and Costello breakthrough film Buck Privates); Lewis had posed as Marcia’s brother and the two were well-known con artists whose modus operandi was to use the Mrs. as a sexual lure to attract horny middle-aged pigeons for swindling.

Fitz ends up wounded but alive, sadder but wiser, and in the arms of Dolly Ireland at long last when she visits him in the hospital — and Torchy and McBride, after a whole movie of having their meals interrupted by one emergency call or another, finally get to go out to dinner at the fadeout. What appeal there is to Smart Blonde (and most of the Torchys to follow) is mostly in Glenda Farrell’s performance — an outgrowth, William K. Everson argued in The Detective in Film, of her role in Mystery of the Wax Museum as the reporter (again!) who solves the mystery and neatly steals the movie from the nominal female lead, Fay Wray (when Mystery of the Wax Museum was remade in 1953 as House of Wax the reporter character was omitted, and the film suffered big-time) — that and Frank McDonald’s acceptably atmospheric direction and the relentlessly fast pace Warners was known for that manages to get this story on and off screen in 59 minutes. — 4/29/09


The film I picked was Fly Away Baby (oddly the American Film Institute Catalog spells the title as Flyaway Baby, without a space between the first two words, but that’s not how it appears on the opening title), an entry in the Torchy Blane series with Glenda Farrell and Barton MacLane starring and Frank MacDonald turning in a sprightly job of direction. The exploitation gimmick on this one was the credit that the Don Ryan/Kenneth Gamet screenplay was “based on an idea by Dorothy Kilgallen” — who had actually won a race around the world, sponsored by her newspaper, to see who could get around the world fastest taking only commercial flights. (On screen the idea works out rather absurdly — one wonders how anyone can possibly win the race when the three contestants — Torchy, Lucien “Sonny” Croy [Gordon Oliver] and Hughie Sprague [Hugh O’Connell] — keep turning up on the same flights.)

This one is kicked off by the murder of jeweler Milton Devereux in which the three suspects are Croy, Devereux’ business partner Guy Allister (Joseph King) and recently paroled jewel thief Vanoni (the character appears briefly on screen but neither the on-screen credits nor the AFI Catalog list who plays him). The plot resolves into a complicated race around the world during which Blane is dead-set on pinning the murder on Croy — though the real guilty party turns out to be Allister, who kills Croy (his partner in an operation to fence stolen jewels through a crook in Frankfurt, whom Allister also kills) on the Zeppelin on the way to New York from Frankfurt and then, when cornered, tries to make his escape via parachute but pulls the rip cord too soon and ends up plunging to his death. It’s one of those movies where the plot matters less than the characters — Glenda Farrell in full cry is always a treat — though it does seem odd that a film in which key scenes take place in Germany make absolutely no reference to the Nazis and treat Germany as if it were a normal country with a normal government! — 6/17/03


Charles and I ran a movie, Torchy Blane, the Adventurous Blonde, made at Warners in 1937 just after Fly Away Baby. This was a considerably duller movie than Fly Away, Baby, too, despite a quite promising opening: Torchy (Glenda Farrell) is on a train, sitting next to a mysterious woman, Theresa Gray (Natalie Moorhead). A porter comes by and gives them both telegrams, but he gives each one to the wrong woman, so Theresa receives the one from police detective Steve McBride (Barton MacLane) that he’ll marry her as soon as she gets back in town, while Torchy receives one meant for Theresa from her lover, “Harvey,” breaking off their affair. “Harvey” turns out to be actor Harvey Hammond, who becomes involved in a plot hatched by Torchy’s rival reporters who, fearing they’ll be shut out of police stories when Torchy marries McBride, decide to embarrass her by hiring Hammond to fake his own death so she’ll report his murder — and a competing newspaper owned by Theresa’s husband Mortimer Gray (Charles Wilson) will discredit her by reporting him as alive and well. Only somebody takes advantage of this elaborate plot to kill Harvey for real, and Torchy and McBride spend six surprisingly slow-paced reels trying to figure out who.

As the American Film Institute Catalog summarizes it, “The suspects in his death are Grace Brown, an actress in Hammond’s company; her boyfriend Hugo Brand; Mrs. Jenny Hammond, who was jealous of Hammond’s love for Grace; and Theresa Gray, Hammond’s discarded lover” — though the real killer scenarists Robertson White and David Diamond decided on was Mortimer Gray, Theresa’s husband, who was jealous of Hammond for seducing and abandoning Mrs. Gray. It’s a dénouement that strains credibility and hardly seems worth waiting for — and though Frank McDonald repeated as director this is hardly an effort in the same league as Fly Away Baby, which had a faster pace as well as a genuinely mysterious plot and a much more credible ending. (Incidentally the American Film Institute Catalog claims that the plot of Adventurous Blonde is similar to that of Back in Circulation, released by Warners just two months earlier — but aside from the fact that both stories deal with a reporter proving an adulterous wife innocent of murder I detected no particular similarities, and the pathos of Back in Circulation — both in the suspect’s character and in that of the reporter, who puts her job on the line since her editor is convinced the woman is guilty and wants her to write it that way — is totally absent here.) — 6/18/03


Charles and I didn’t get back until well past 9:30 and we only had time for a short movie: Torchy Blane, the Adventurous Blonde (at least that’s what the title is in the credits and in the American Film Institute Catalog; TCM’s schedule listed it simply as Adventurous Blonde), third in the series (I had a few of them scattered on sporadic videotapes but I took advantage of TCM’s decision last June 30 — the anniversary of Glenda Farrell’s birthday — to tape them all in sequence). It came right after the dazzlingly inventive Fly Away Baby and suffered from the comparison; it deals with the attempt of reporters for rival papers to discredit both Torchy Blane and her cop fiancé, Lt. Steve McBride of the homicide division (Barton MacLane, about whose performances in these films William K. Everson wrote that his “main concession to his playing of the cop was that he shouted a shade less belligerently than when playing the hoodlum”) by bribing actor Harvey Hammond (Leland Hodgson) to pose as a corpse, so Torchy will report his murder and then get shamed out of the business when he turns up alive — only someone takes advantage of this situation to kill him for real (don’t you just hate it when that happens?).

Adventurous Blonde wasn’t much of an entry in the series — it missed the relative audacity of Fly Away Baby and the Warners’ backstage atmosphere of the first one, Smart Blonde (which benefited majorly from the presence of the great Wini Shaw in the cast), and the sight of Glenda Farrell and Barton MacLane making out in the back of a taxi is hardly stimulating or particularly erotic (one wants to walk into the screen and tell her, “You could certainly do a lot better than him!”), but the film is fun even though the mystery isn’t all that mysterious and it doesn’t help the whodunit status of this story that Torchy gets the key clue even before any of the other principals are introduced (on a train coming back to New York City from the ending of Fly Away Baby she runs into a married woman who was having an affair with Hammond, which he had just broken off by telegram, and not at all surprisingly the killer turns out to be the rival publisher whose reporters organized the “fake” Hammond death, who was also the husband of Hammond’s paramour). This one was pretty routinely written (by Robertson White and David Diamond) and directed (by Frank McDonald), but Glenda Farrell in full cry is always fun to watch and she really “makes” this movie. — 7/4/04


The film I’d picked out was Blondes at Work, episode number four in the Torchy Blane series and, like the previous one we’d seen two nights earlier, Torchy Blane … the Adventurous Blonde, it was a pretty dull and unmysterious one, though definitely benefiting from Glenda Farrell’s star presence. The story deals with the sudden disappearance of Marvin Spencer (Kenneth Harlan), owner of the Bon Ton department store, who is later found dead in a hotel room. It turns out he and his rich friend, Maitland Greer (Donald Briggs), were fighting over the affections of former Bon Ton model Louisa Revelle (Rosella Towne), and Greer is accused and even convicted of Spencer’s murder, but in the end the real killer turns out to be Louisa, who stabbed Spencer to keep him from killing Greer and is therefore legally justified on grounds of self-defense.

The American Film Institute Catalog notes the plot similarities to two earlier Warners’ features, Front Page Woman (1935) and Back in Circulation (1937) — in which the enterprising female reporters were played by Bette Davis and Joan Blondell, respectively — though the only real point in common is having the woman reporter spend time in jail for contempt of court for having overheard the jury return a verdict and having “leaked” it to her paper so they published before the verdict was actually read in court.

What value there is in this movie is almost exclusively from the one-liners, the subtext (Thomas Jackson, at his most stubbornly self-righteous, plays a police captain who’s trying to stop Torchy’s cop fiancé, played by Barton MacLane, from giving murder solutions to her paper and thereby scooping her competitors — a prohibition Torchy evades by bribing her boyfriend’s partner to read his diaries) and delightful little bits of characterization like the screaming-queen stereotype in charge of Bon Ton’s fashion department (who would seem to have had his own motive for killing Spencer — “He kept leaving me to date women!”). Albert DeMond’s “original” screenplay suffers from a common fault in journeyman mystery writing — not enough suspects to keep the whodunit angle interesting — but it’s got some good lines, and Frank McDonald directs at the usual Warners breakneck pace and brings it in at 63 minutes so the slender story at least doesn’t outstay its welcome. — 7/6/04


Afterwards I ran Charles another movie, Torchy Blane in Panama. Apparently this wasn’t the next to last in the series — they interrupted the sequence with Glenda Farrell as Torchy and Barton MacLane as Steve McBride to try replacing the principals (Lola Lane played Torchy and Paul Kelly played McBride), then returned Farrell and MacLane to the series before the final film, Torchy Blane … Playing with Dynamite, with Jane Wyman (of all people! Imagine a future Academy Award winner in something like this!) as Torchy and Allen Jenkins as McBride. The experimental cast change didn’t work — frankly, Torchy Blane in Panama would have been a much more entertaining movie with Farrell and MacLane in the leading roles; whereas Farrell could play an assertive woman without losing her femininity Lane is just aggressive and edgy; and Kelly is so utterly lacking in charisma or sex appeal he makes MacLane look like Clark Gable by comparison and we wonder, even more than we do in the Farrell-MacLane Torchy Blanes, what on earth she sees in him.

It’s a pity, because in other respects the script for this one (by George Bricker, from a story by Noah’s Ark collaborator Anthony Coldewey) was one of the more creative entries in the series. It starts at a giant parade for a fictitious lodge organization called the Loyal Order of Leopards (one wonders if Coldewey and Bricker were influenced by the Laurel and Hardy masterpiece Sons of the Desert in using this device); dumb cop Gahagan (Tom Kennedy, the only actor to appear in all nine Blane films) is leading a contingent — which requires all its members to dress up in Tarzan-like leopard skins, showing off all too much of their decidedly un-Tarzan-like physiques — when he witnesses a bank robbery in progress. His contingent rushes in the bank en masse but too late to catch the robber or even get his car license number; frankly, I found myself feeling for the poor customers, who had to deal first with the trauma of watching the bank get robbed and a teller get killed and then had to deal with a contingent of 20 overweight Tarzan wanna-bes led by someone claiming to be a police officer responding to the call!

In any event, Torchy finds a clue at the scene — a Loyal Order of Leopards lodge pin from L.A. inscribed with the name of a lodge leader who’s been dead for three years; and, assuming that the robber has stolen this man’s identity and is planning on skipping out of town with the L.A. contingent, who are stopping off in Panama on the way home, McBride, Gahagan and rival reporter Bill Canby (Larry Williams) get on a boat to Panama and Torchy boards the boat in mid-ocean by parachuting down in a skydive from a small plane she’s rented for the circumstance. It doesn’t take long for Torchy to figure out that the bank robber is Stan Crafton (Anthony Averill), whom she romances to try to find out where the money is; he’s hidden it inside the stuffed leopard that serves as the L.A. contingent’s mascot and plans to sneak it off the ship in Panama and fence the money. As usual Torchy gets captured by the crooks and Steve has to rescue her.

The story is actually quite a clever one, director William Clemens (never one of the more important Warners’ contractees but someone who actually did pretty well with unpretentious “B” scripts like this) maintains a sprightly pace and actually inserts some interesting camera angles, and some of the supporting players are quite good (notably Averill, who plays the robber as a properly smarmy, oily personality but with some degree of actual charm that enables you to believe he could crash the Leopards and be accepted by the other members — the giveaway comes when Gahagan, actually managing to make a genuinely intelligent deduction for a change, figures out he’s not really a Leopard because he shakes hands normally and doesn’t give the secret lodge handshake), and all in all Torchy Blane in Panama manages to be entertaining despite the wrongness of the leads. — 7/13/04


Charles and I got a ride home and I ran him Torchy Gets Her Man, fifth [actually sixth] in the Torchy Blane series from Warners from 1937 to 1939 and a considerably better film than either the third, Torchy Blane … The Adventurous Blonde, or the fourth, Blondes at Work. This time the mystery was genuinely suspenseful; Albert DeMond’s script told the story of “Hundred Dollar Bill” Bailey (Willard Robertson), master counterfeiter who has been evading detection by the U.S. Secret Service for 15 years. His current plot is to use the $100 window at a racetrack (played by the Inglewood track in which Warners then had a financial interest) to pass his phony money. A Secret Service agent named Gilbert shows up at the New York police department and gets Lt. Steve McBride (series regular Barton MacLane) to cooperate with him and swears him to secrecy.

As part of the alleged cooperation MacBride’s stupid aide Gahagan (Tom Kennedy) is supposed to pass a letter to Brennan (silent-screen veteran Herbert Rawlinson) and wait for a reply — only the letters are lifted from him when he’s stopped on the street in two elaborately staged hoaxes that raise our suspicions well before anyone in the movie actually catches on. It turns out, natch, that “Gilbert” is Bailey — not a genuine Secret Service man turned crook the way Donald Meek’s character was in that RKO movie we saw recently, Behind the Headlines, but a crook mounting a major imposture as a Secret Service agent so he can stake out the racetrack, steal genuine $100 bills and substitute his counterfeits, so nothing will be noticed until the track’s officials actually deposit the money. It’s a good plot, charmingly tricked out with the usual assortment of comic gags (including my favorite — to track down the crooks Torchy and Gahagan rent a German shepherd dog, only they rent him from a German-owned pet shop and find he only responds to commands in German, so Torchy has to get a German-English phrase book to order the dog to do anything) and well constructed from a suspense standpoint as well, with a clever device to reveal Bailey’s masquerade to MacBride (he mentions Torchy’s fondness for steak dinners, something he couldn’t have known about if he hadn’t met her, so MacBride deduces — correctly — that he’s kidnapped her). — 7/7/04


Charles and I had time to hang out here and watch an hour-long “B” movie: Torchy Blane in Chinatown, made in 1939 by Warners as part of a series featuring Glenda Farrell (replaced in one film in mid-series by Lola Lane and in the very last film by Jane Wyman!) as hard-boiled woman reporter Torchy Blane and Barton MacLane as her police detective boyfriend, Lt. Steve McBride, whom she’s constantly beating to the solutions of various homicides. William K. Everson had a special affection for this film — he called it the best of its series — though he had little affection for Barton MacLane, of whom he said that his “main concession to his playing of the cop was that he shouted a shade less belligerently than when playing the hoodlum.” The “comic relief” of Tom Kennedy as an even dumber cop, Gahagan, got rather oppressive — especially Torchy’s constant poking him in the belly to dramatize his obesity — and the plot itself, a good one, had been given a far better workout in the 1933 film A Study in Scarlet and would receive another better one in its quasi-remake, The House of Fear (1945).

Frankly I thought the first Torchy Blane film, Smart Blonde, a much better movie than this one — at least it was set in a familiar Warners milieu (the entertainment industry) and cast the unforgettable Wini Shaw as a singer (and even gave her a number!), so it had other things going for it besides Farrell’s character (and in particular her rapid-fire speech; she was called the “fastest mouth in films” for her ability to spit out dialogue at fantastic rates of speed) and the mystery element. At least Torchy Blane in Chinatown had a quite good supporting cast, including Henry O’Neill as Senator Baldwin, Patric Knowles as Captain Condon and James Stephenson as Mr. Mansfield — Condon and Mansfield were part of an extortion plot against Baldwin, along with a third participant, Fitzhugh (Anderson Lawlor), who posed as vengeful Chinese tong members (and faked their own murders!) allegedly angry at Baldwin for stealing priceless jade burial tablets from China for his personal art collection.

William Beaudine directed, and though he would travel Chinatown’s generic narrow streets again and again and again in his Charlie Chan movies for Monogram, here at least he had a major-studio infrastructure behind him that goosed his usually placid direction to the velocity of a typically fast-paced Warners thriller even though the script by George Bricker, based on an “original” (definitely deserving quotes this time) story by Murray Leinster (actually a highly regarded science-fiction writer and a surprising name to turn up on the credits of a film like this!) and Will Jenkins, was workmanlike but hardly gave Beaudine much to work with. — 11/15/02


We did have time for at least a short movie — I picked the eighth Torchy Blane movie and the last to star Glenda Farrell, Torchy Runs for Mayor, a wildly imaginative movie in which Torchy Blane is out to expose New York’s all-powerful political boss, Dr. Dolan (John Miljan — his first name is never given but it seems clear he really is an M.D., since in the course of the film he “offs” one of his political opponents with an injection of what the script calls “toxic chloride”), who’s been able to install a stooge in the mayor’s office and is in the process of purging the police commission and thereby threatening the jobs of honest cops Captain MacTavish (Frank Shannon) and Torchy’s fiancé, Steve McBride (Barton MacLane).

Torchy strikes back by a number of tactics that probably seemed quite novel to a 1939 audience and are rather astonishing even today, like bugging the mayor’s office and breaking into Dolan’s house to steal the “little red book” that contains a complete ledger of all his payoffs. When her home paper, the Star, stops running her stories because Dolan is organizing an advertiser boycott of them, she places her latest scoop in a tiny paper called the South End Blotter, edited by Hogarth Ward (Irving Bacon), who proudly boasts he’s already been to jail six times for his political convictions and doesn’t mind risking a seventh time to print the story Torchy wrote from Dolan’s purloined book.

A group of citizens seeking to recall the corrupt mayor seizes on Ward as a replacement candidate, only before they can get him on the ballot he’s beaten by a Dolan henchman and then killed by Dolan himself with the “toxic chloride” injection. As a joke, McBride puts Torchy’s name on the recall petitions — and Torchy takes it seriously enough actually to pursue the office and, of course, win — only, in a rankly sexist ending unworthy of an otherwise quite game script by Earle Snell (based on an “idea” by one Irving Rubine), at the press conference held in conjunction with her swearing-in Torchy is given a baby to hold (since the theme of her campaign had been to make the city safe and clean for future generations), and this sends her maternal instinct into overdrive and she instantly announces her intention to resign, marry McBride and be the nice little housewife and mother he’s always wanted. (A pity, since a sequel showing the new Mrs. Torchy McBride trying to juggle wife- and motherdom with running the city would have been a quite entertaining film.)

What’s most interesting about Torchy Runs for Mayor is that the film seems like a mini-Capra movie, what with its corrupt politicians and their secret bosses, the plucky little newspaper that dares to print the truth and the ordinary citizen who finds him/herself in a position of political power — indeed, so many elements seem to prefigure Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington I couldn’t help but wonder if Warners was deliberately trying to get this one out before Capra’s far more prestigious effort (made for a less powerful company, Columbia, but with double the running time, more than double the budget and major stars — James Stewart, Jean Arthur, Edward Arnold and Claude Rains). Glenda Farrell is absolutely convincing until that cop-out ending — as in the earlier Blanes, she’s a dynamo of energy and quite credible as a liberated woman. The direction is by Ray McCarey, who may not have had the brilliance of his brother Leo but nonetheless turned in a stronger job than the hacks like Frank McDonald and William Beaudine who did most of the Blanes, and overall Torchy Runs for Mayor is an above-average series entry that is genuinely about something and keeps the comic relief (notably Tom Kennedy’s ultra-dumb cop Gahagan — ironically Kennedy was the only actor who made all nine of the Blane films!) within welcome limits. — 7/11/04


I ran Charles the final Torchy Blane movie, Torchy Blane … Playing with Dynamite (the ellipsis is actually part of the title as printed on the opening credit). Though Glenda Farrell wasn’t in it, this was nonetheless one of the better Blanes, powered by a strong crime-drama plot (story by Scott Littleton, script by Earle Snell and Charles Belden) and better-than-average direction (by Noel Smith, who did some of the best Warners “B”’s of the period and probably should have got a shot at “A”-films. Torchy was played by Jane Wyman, and as unlikely as it seems to find a future Academy Award winner in a film like this (just as it seemed unlikely in retrospect that future Academy Award winner Susan Sarandon should have played the ingenue in The Rocky Horror Picture Show!), she’s actually quite good, managing to spit out lines almost as fast as Glenda Farrell did in the role and make her character appealing without the unpleasant edginess that afflicted Lola Lane in her try at the role in Torchy Blane in Panama.

Had they actually cast a young, personable actor as Steve McBride, Torchy’s police detective fiancé, this film might have been a gem — as much as I hate his subsequent career, Wyman’s husband-to-be, the young Ronald Reagan, might have been quite good in the role — but instead Warners went the other way and put Allen Jenkins in the part (“not particularly helpful,” William K. Everson notes, “since he played more for comedy and the gap between him and the still-retained Tom Kennedy [as his doofus sidekick Gahagan] was too narrow”). Still, Torchy Blane … Playing with Dynamite is a good movie, albeit a very derivative one; the plot gimmick has Torchy getting herself sent to jail deliberately so she can contact Jackie McGuire (Sheila Bromley), girlfriend of the notorious bank robber “Denver Eddie” (Eddie Marr), wanted in several states across the country.

Jackie and Torchy stage a prison break (actually arranged in advance by McBride and his contacts in the jail administration) and flee to San Francisco, where Denver Eddie is supposed to meet them; and McBride and Gahagan also go to San Francisco, hoping to win the $50,000 reward by capturing the crook without help from the San Francisco police. From then on the film, despite a mere 59-minute running time, manages to crowd quite a few appealing plot elements into its story, including a bunch of S.F. police officers convinced that McBride and Gahagan are crooks; a wrestling promoter who gets Gahagan to go up against his former Navy wrestling opponent, “The Bone Crusher,” in a match; an associate of Denver Eddie’s who puts Torchy in danger by blowing her cover; and a neat climax in which all parties meet at the wrestling match and Gahagan, thrown out of the ring by his opponent, lands on top of Denver Eddie in the audience and thus gets the credit for his arrest. It was a clever story and a truly appealing film in a generally quite entertaining series. — 7/14/04

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Crips and Bloods: Made in America (PBS, 2009)

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

The library movie was a preview screening of Crips and Bloods: Made in America, a PBS “Independent Lens” documentary by Stacy Peralta (a white man, by the way) that offered a chilling view of the 40-year civil war on the streets of south-central Los Angeles between the Crips and the Bloods. Peralta’s approach was, rather than create a straightforward documentary, to make a sort of visual equivalent of a D. J.’s mix tape, moving backwards and forwards in time, and also a sort of fashionable liberal bit of sociologizing that locates the origin of the gangs in the de-industrialization of inner-city Los Angeles (the film depicts both the opening of the big defense and auto factories in the early 1940’s and their closure in the late 1950’s and 1960’s) and the successful suppression of the Black nationalist self-help movements of the 1960’s by the federal government (particularly the FBI) and local police departments.

The film depicts L.A.’s legendary police chief William Parker — who may have rooted out the LAPD’s previously endemic corruption but was also such a flaming racist that, as a series of memos recently published in the Los Angeles Times revealed, even J. Edgar Hoover thought he was crazy — and therefore unwittingly (or perhaps not so unwittingly) contributes to the debate as to whether the new LAPD headquarters should retain the “Parker Center” name of the old one. The film — at least in the truncated hour-long form shown last night (apparently there’s a longer version that at least one audience member had previously seen) — leaves out a lot, including barely touching on the importance of the drug trade in general and crack cocaine in particular in financing the gangs. A veteran of the 1950’s predecessors of the Crips and Bloods remarks that their generation of gangsters just fought each other with fists, and it was in the next generation that the gangs began arming themselves until now they have assault-quality weapons and probably are better armed than the police; this is true, but what the film inexplicably didn’t mention is that what’s financed the gangs’ ability to arm themselves is the massive income they get from the drug trade.

The screening was facilitated by Rafik Muhammad, a tall, strikingly attractive African-American who lives part-time in Los Angeles and part-time in San Diego, where he heads the sociology department at USD, and he was confronted by a young Black man in the audience who claimed to be an ex-gangbanger himself and asked if he’d ever used drugs (he refused to answer and both the library staffers in charge of the screening and most of the audience backed him in his refusal — and, let’s face it, that was none of our goddamned business!), and he filled in some of the movie’s hardest-to-understand omissions, including how the gang war on the L.A. streets is not only a civil war within the African-American community but a war between them and Latinos (indeed, the most deadly street gang in L.A. today is probably the MS-13, short for Maru Salvatrucha Trece, a gang that started with refugees from the civil war in El Salvador, though most of their lower echelons these days are filled out by undocumented immigrants from Mexico who’ve joined for protection).

I’m generally quite sympathetic to sociological arguments for crime, but I think it’s a bit too simplistic to think that if the Black Panthers had been able to survive the 1970’s there wouldn’t be Crips and Bloods today — it’s one thing to say that a lot of the potentially positive social-service and entrepreneurial spirit among young African-Americans is being channeled into criminal enterprises because it doesn’t have an outlet in the legitimate economy (Malcolm X made that point in his autobiography 45 years ago!), and quite another thing to absolve the African-Americans themselves for the ridiculous level of intra-group violence that has left 15,000 dead on the streets of L.A. Indeed, through much of this film I was wondering if perhaps the best outcome would be for the Crips and Bloods to get together and form a commission to settle differences between them the way the various Italian-American gangs in the early 20th century formed La Cosa Nostra — while that hasn’t stopped drive-by shootings and other forms of violence between various Mafia families, it has cut down the violence quite a bit and for most of the 20th century left the Mafiosi alone to provide the illegal services that kept them in business and not have to watch their backs for each other all the time.

Perhaps realizing how hopeless and despairing he’d made the rest of his film — Peralta naturally mentioned that due to “tough-on-crime” legislation (though one law he didn’t mention is the ludicrous discrepancy between crack and powder cocaine sentences — in a law actually drafted by African-American Congressmember Charles Rangel in the mistaken belief that he was protecting his community in the early days of the crack epidemic, federal drug laws stipulate minimum sentences for cocaine possession based on the total amount of substance, even though in crack most of the substance is inert, rather than the amount of active drug — which means the Black people’s cocaine is punished far more severely than rich white people’s cocaine) over one-fourth of all African-American males will serve some time in jail or prison — though that’s one of those double-edged statistics since it also means that almost three-fourths of all African-American men won’t serve time, and at least part of the solution lies in facilitating opportunities for them and making sure they and their wives and children don’t become peripheral or collateral victims of gang violence — he dragged in some hopeful characters at the end, a group of middle-aged Black men (many of them former gangbangers) who call themselves “Gang Intervention” specialists and are reaching out to the young to try to keep them from going into gangs and giving them alternatives (though so much of the “alternatives” involve sports and coaching, and one can’t help but think that we’ve been here before).

Peralta is right to be shocked that the death toll on L.A.’s streets is higher than that in the sectarian violence in Northern Ireland, and that there are more L.A. Blacks being diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder than are residents of Baghdad, and it’s clear that the lock-’em-up-and-throw-away-the-key attitude hasn’t worked (Rafik Muhammad pointed out in his post-film talk that the recidivism rate in California prisons is over 70 percent, which he cited as a reason to institute rehabilitation programs, though once again that’s a double-edged statistic that’s been repeatedly used by “tough-on-crime” politicians and activists as a reason to make sentences even longer), but from the evidence presented in the film it’s not all that clear what will work, if anything — one could use the information in this film to argue that by now the Crips and Bloods are as utterly separate tribes as the Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda, and only by isolating them from each other can they be prevented from killing each other in perpetuity.

The Kiss Before the Mirror (Universal, 1933)

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

I finally got to watch a movie I’d been curious about for years and which TCM had shown on their schedule last Sunday: The Kiss Before the Mirror, a 1933 suspense melodrama made by Universal and directed by James Whale from a script by William Anthony McGuire based on a Hungarian play by Ladislaus Fodor. (In an example of the whirlwind pace at which films were made in 1933 — a far cry from the years even popular stories spend in development hell in today’s film industry — the film was released on May 4, 1933, just eight months after the play premiered in Vienna, where it takes place.) The Kiss Before the Mirror is a wild tale which begins with a clandestine meeting between two adulterous lovers, Lucy Bernsdorf (Gloria Stuart) and an unnamed but clearly wealthy man (Walter Pidgeon, who reflecting both his background in operetta before he started making films — he had a singing role in Universal’s first all-talkie, the musical Melody of Love, in 1929 — and a possible influence from Hitchcock’s Blackmail, sings — or at least hums — a song in the sequence). She visits him at his palatial home (this is the sort of movie in which all the homes are palatial; if they weren’t so crowded with breakable bric-a-brac one could readily imagine someone moving a portable basketball net into one of these impossibly large, high-ceilinged rooms and shooting hoops), full of beautiful glass windows and doors, unaware that her husband Walter Bernsdorf (Paul Lukas) has followed her there.

The lover steps out to send his servant home so the two can be alone, and while he’s out Walter fires a revolver through all those beautiful glass panes at his wife, killing her. He then calls the police and turns himself in, and when he’s taken to the police station and put into a holding cell (recycled, out of all the sets on the Universal lot, from the room in which Boris Karloff as the Frankenstein monster was first seen in Whale’s classic Frankenstein film two years earlier) he sends for his close friend, defense attorney Paul Held (Frank Morgan — yes, the Wizard of Oz himself in quite a different role, turning in a strong and utterly un-foofy performance strongly reminiscent of Lionel Barrymore’s Academy Award-winning turn as a super-lawyer in A Free Soul at MGM two years earlier), to represent him. When the two meet Walter tells Held a bizarre story that he hadn’t realized his wife was cheating on him until half an hour before he killed her, when he saw her in front of a large circular mirror, dressing, putting on makeup and primping. He leaned over and gave her a kiss in front of the mirror — and she recoiled and chewed him out for messing up her makeup. So he followed her to her lover’s home and shot her.

Held decides that the only defense he can possibly put on for Walter is what would now be called a diminished-capacity argument that he was rendered temporarily insane by jealousy — and in the meantime Held gets suspicious that his own wife, Maria (Nancy Carroll, top-billed), is having an affair with someone (which she is, with another unnamed Lothario played by Donald Cook). When he finds her in front of her own elaborate collection of mirrors — a three-way mirror above her vanity, two side mirrors on either end and two full-length mirrors on either end of those — dressing and putting on makeup, and he tries to kiss her and she reacts with the same shocked recoil and insistence that he’s ruined her makeup, he goes ballistic. As part of his summation in court — to which he’s insisted she come even though she didn’t want to — he pulls out a revolver (apparently this was well before the days of metal detectors in courtrooms, even though as early as 1937 Fritz Lang’s film You Only Live Once included a sequence in prison showing a metal detector) and brandishes it in the air at the climactic peroration, then threatens that as soon as he wins Walter’s acquittal and thereby establishes the precedent, he will kill his own adulterous wife. Walter tries to talk Held out of killing his wife, saying that even if he escapes legal penalty he’ll feel guilty and miss her all the rest of his life, and when the Helds finally return home he smashes the central panel of her elaborate array of mirrors and kisses her in front of the shards, symbolizing that at least for the present they’ve reconciled.

Like another obscure and long-unseen Whale film, Remember Last Night? — a marvelous screwball comedy which took the basic situation of The Thin Man and ratcheted up both the alcohol consumption and the overall obsessiveness — The Kiss Before the Mirror proved to be a marvelous movie, well worth seeing despite its odd mix of personnel: a director best known for horror films, a writer best known for musicals and a male lead best known for a foofy part in a classic fantasy. Part of its appeal lies in the amazing cynicism of McGuire’s script, full of lines expressing skepticism in the ability of any married couple to remain sexually exclusive for very long, and with a Hitchcock-style wit in some of the supporting characterizations (particularly a large, obnoxious woman who watches the trial and gets in the way of other people in the courtroom audience).

But much of the strength of this film comes from Whale’s direction, full of vertiginous camera movements and recyclings of the sets from his (and others’) Universal horror classics — not only does Paul Lukas’s character get incarcerated in the same holding cell Colin Clive and Edward Van Sloan used (unsuccessfully) to try to contain the Frankenstein monster, but earlier Lukas stalks his faithless ex-wife in what look like some of the soundstage “exteriors” from Whale’s Frankenstein and the entire prison seems to be made up of leavings from the Frankenstein and Dracula sets. The impression one gets is that Whale was so totally in love with the Gothic look of his great horror movies that he tapped that visual iconography even for stories like this one that had nothing to do with horror. When Frank Morgan and Paul Lukas confront each other in that holding cell, Whale shoots their closeups with oblique angles and rich, shadowy lighting (Karl Freund, veteran of both Weimar Germany’s filmmaking and Universal’s early-talkie horrors, was the cinematographer) that makes them look more like the wary confrontation of two almost-human monsters than an attorney grilling his client for information with which to construct a defense.

Another point of this film was one Charles made: that though the sound cinema was only six years old when it was made, it had already developed all the techniques that have been used since; the actors speak naturalistically (though there are times when Whale lets them overact, particularly Lukas in the throes of his confession and Morgan at the end of his courtroom speech), the dialogue is well-paced, there’s an almost continuous background music score (by W. Franke Harling — indeed, the music is actually a bit overdone, especially surprising given how little of it Whale used in The Invisible Man, made six months later) and Whale’s camera is in almost constant motion. Over and over again he uses long tracking shots to discover the action instead of cutting straight into it — a technique usually associated with Orson Welles but which Whale anticipated here, just as he did Hitchcock in his decision to cast a then-major star like Gloria Stuart in a part in which she gets killed in the first reel — and The Kiss Before the Mirror also anticipates Welles in some highly creative uses of sound, particularly the babble of the spectators in the courtroom scenes. (Cecil B. DeMille is generally credited as the first director to insist that his extras carry on their own conversations, unrelated to the main action, in sound films, but Whale uses a similar technique here and, not surprisingly, gets even more out of it than DeMille did.)

In 1938 Whale, now on the downgrade — when Carl Laemmle Sr. and Jr. lost control of Universal in 1936 the new owners were very homophobic and, disapproving of Whale’s more-or-less open homosexuality, ran out their contract with him by giving him three “B” cheapies — was assigned a remake of The Kiss Before the Mirror called Wives Under Suspicion, whose writer, Myles Connolly, made an intriguing change in the plot line — the attorney who finds his own life paralleling the case he’s trying is a prosecutor (played by Warren William) rather than a defense attorney, with an abacus made of 35 model skulls representing the top crooks of New York City (where the setting was moved to),and the experience of living the same situation as the defendant he’s trying to put away for his crime teaches him humility and encourages him to smash the abacus and rehabilitate his marriage by going on vacation with his wife — and though Wives Under Suspicion hardly has the Gothic flair of its predecessor it’s still an appealing movie and one which should also be revived.

Also worthy of note are the two actors in The Kiss Before the Mirror who play Frank Morgan’s courtroom assistants, woman attorney Hilda (Jean Dixon) — who swears she’ll never get married precisely so she doesn’t end up killed by a jealous husband! — and middle-aged alcoholic paralegal Schultz (Charley Grapewin — so this film has two actors who later appeared in The Wizard of Oz!) — and that Morgan’s performance, a few overacted moments aside, is quite credible; like his performance in the RKO thriller Secrets of the French Police the year before, his work in The Kiss Before the Mirror reveals an actor of surprising range who could do quite a lot more than his “Wizard” act.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Black and Blue (CBS, 1999)

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

I watched a 1999 made-for-TV movie on one of my Lifetime recordings, though this one was originally shot for CBS and had a semi-respectable provenance from a novel by Anna Quindlen: Black and Blue, a tough if not particularly original melodrama about domestic violence and in particular one woman’s struggle to get away from her abusive husband and take their son with her. The woman is Frances Benedetto (Mary Stuart Masterson), and what gives this an intriguing twist absent from most domestic violence melodramas is that her husband, Bobby Benedetto (Anthony LaPaglia), is a star detective on the New York police force who’s just distinguished himself heroically in a dangerous drug bust and is about to receive a commendation from the police commissioner. He’s also part of an extended New York Italian-American family where it’s simply accepted that the husband is absolute master of his household and that it’s perfectly all right to treat his wife as an overgrown child (he calls her “Franny-Franny-Fran,” thinking that disgusting piece of baby talk is actually an endearment) and knock her around when she steps out of line — for something as simple as leaving dirty dishes in the sink instead of washing them immediately.

What makes it even quirkier is that Frances herself has a career as an emergency-room nurse — of course Bobby makes like he’s doing her an enormous favor by allowing her to work — and after some mild complaints to her sister, Grace Ann Flynn (Sabrina Grdevich — who doesn’t look anywhere near enough like Masterson to be believable as her sister, but that’s a common enough movie failing and it doesn’t really interfere with this film’s effectiveness either as message or as entertainment), and an attempt to tease out from her mother-in-law whether her husband ever beat her, Frances is finally propelled into action when she unsuccessfully tries to revive another woman who’s been beaten by her husband and shows up in the E.R. When that woman dies, a black-haired, black-clad domestic violence advocate shows up to give a press conference expressing zero tolerance for abusing husbands — and Our Heroine gets the message and seeks out this mysterious woman for help.

The mystery woman lays down the law: she has not only to leave her husband, but to do so secretly (he just happens to be getting his commendation the next day and that gives her the opportunity to sneak out), relocate to another state, assume a new identity, live as far off the grid as possible (in particular, to spend only cash and not use credit cards or cell phones) — and she puts Frances in touch with a sort of Underground Railroad for spousal-abuse victims that, in a nice bit of irony Anna Quindlen may have intended, moves in the opposite geographical direction from the original Underground Railroad and dumps Our Heroine and her son Robert (Will Rothhaar) in Florida. She struggles to adjust to her new life, while Robert misses his dad and has only the dimmest idea of why she dragged him down to the other end of the East Coast and has them living there in a roach-infested beach motel and calling themselves Beth and Robert Crenshaw.

Eventually Beth née Frances finds a job as a visiting nurse for terminally ill patients and falls in love with Robert’s fifth-grade counselor (do they have counselors in fifth grade?), Mike Riordan (Sam Robards, who may bear the name of a famous acting family but is also the sort of lanky, sandy-haired, decent-looking but not drop-dead gorgeous leading man Lifetime likes for these sorts of roles). Meanwhile, working with a former police partner who’s now a private detective and breaking the law by wiretapping Frances’s sister (and breaking it even further by sending a knife-wielding thug to sister’s house to try to get Frances’s whereabouts out of her), Bobby Benedetto is looking for his wife and son — and he discovers their whereabouts when sonny boy actually calls him.

The film builds to a final confrontation in which Bobby confronts Frances and slaps her around, then says she’s no longer worthy to be his wife and all he wants is their son, whom he kidnaps from his school soccer practice and takes home. Then there’s a title, “Five years later … ,” and five years later Beth née Frances is living in a nice suburban home, she’s married to Mike and they have a daughter (played by a child actress who looks considerably older than five), but she’s still lonely for her son — and just when we think the filmmakers, director Paul Shapiro and writer April Smith, are going to dare leave a loose end untied in the manner of real life rather than movies, we cut to a scene on the New York streets in which Frances’s sister Grace runs into a young man who’s supposed to be Robert, now grown up to young adulthood (and, like his half-sister in Florida, also cast with someone considerably more than five years older than the kid who played Robert in the preceding scenes), and there’s a burst of treacly piano-and-strings music in the best (or worst) Lifetime manner as the family is brought together at long last (though at this point the abusive husband is heaven-knows-where and we can’t help but feel for Robert’s plight and at the same time wonder if he’s going to grow up to be an abusive husband himself).

Black and Blue is a good movie for what it is but it could have been even better — the film brings up more themes than it can comfortably resolve in 96 minutes — though even when it seems most obviously patched together from clichés at least the limits of a TV time slot force Shapiro and Smith to give it the sort of narrative economy a lot of 1930’s and 1940’s films got from the fact that the audience knew the clichés already and therefore didn’t have to have them explained to them. The film also benefits from strong acting, especially in the leads; Masterson is believable both as the cowed victim in the early scenes and the woman who rises to a precariously held but still valid level of strength later on; and LaPaglia is equally good, resisting the temptation to portray the character as a florid villain and instead making him chillingly believable, not an evil man but a basically good one (he is a police officer, after all, and on the job he’s both capable and honest) with a serious blind spot when it comes to accepting women as equal and treating his family as anything but his chattels. The fact that an otherwise reasonable individual could have been raised by his culture and his own ancestors to believe that his wife and child are his property, and that he could terrorize his wife and not only see nothing wrong with that but see himself as the aggrieved party, makes Bobby Benedetto the character (and LaPaglia’s reading of him) far more chilling than he’d be portrayed as an out-and-out psycho.

Catalina Caper (Crown International, 1967)

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

I ran Charles another Mystery Science Theatre 3000 episode, this time based on a 1967 film called Catalina Caper which they originally ran between the Jungle Goddess and Rocket Attack U.S.A. episodes. There are a few things that can be said in favor of Catalina Caper: it began with a Warner Bros. logo (though this seems to have been a reissue label; Clive Hirschhorn’s The Warner Bros. Story doesn’t list it and credits the original production to our old friends, Crown International), it featured Catalina Island as itself for a change instead of masquerading as the South Pacific or some other bit of beachfront geography, it had a lot of nice-looking young actors of both traditional genders (and the guys in it were showing some quite nice baskets — especially the impossibly blond Brian Cutler as the irresistible girl-magnet Charlie Moss), and it also featured some genuinely imposing musical talents.

The credits announced the presence of Little Richard, Carol Connors and the Cascades as musical guests, and though I’d never heard of Carol Connors before she turned out to be a quite capable singer, belting out a mediocre song (something called “Book of Love” — not the hit of that title by the Monotones but a piece by herself with frequent Brian Wilson collaborator Roger Christian) with worthy abandon and making me wonder where her career might have gone if she’d gotten material worthy of her (as Dusty Springfield finally did around the same time when, after years of singing some pretty sorry songs, she got to record the Burt Bacharach-Hal David classic “Anyone Who Had a Heart”). I knew the Cascades through their only hit, “Rhythm of the Rain,” and the song they sang here wasn’t in league with that classic but was an interesting one on the cusp of psychedelica called “It’s a New World” — written by, of all people, Ray Davies (though I’m sure that if Davies recorded it with the Kinks, that version would be considerably better than this one).

Little Richard, who never recovered the sheer energy and vitality of his classic 1950’s recordings on Specialty (though he came close a couple of times, notably that quite good mid-1960’s album that was reissued as Little Richard and Jimi Hendrix even though Hendrix wasn’t on it, and the 1986 album Lifetime Friend that took advantage of his appearance in the film Down and Out in Beverly Hills), was shown early on singing a nice bit of pseudo-soul called “Scuba Party” he co-wrote with the film’s musical director, Jerry Long — it hardly has the energy of “Tutti Frutti” or “Good Golly, Miss Molly” but it’s still easily the best thing in this film. (The MST3K crew agreed; they mostly shut up during Richard’s number — their biggest comment on it was to say, “Prince, eat your heart out” — and when it finished they said, “There goes Little Richard, the only real talent in this movie,” which was all too true.) There’s also another soul heavyweight represented here: Mary Wells, who sings a rather lame title song called “Never Steal Anything Wet” (also a working title for the film) over a cartoon title sequence by Murakami-Wolf Animation, but she’s almost unrecognizable and it underscores once again what a horrible mistake she made leaving Motown Records right after recording her masterpiece, “My Guy.”

Otherwise, Catalina Caper is mostly a dull teen beach movie with an even duller crime film grafted onto it. It begins with the theft of something that looks like a piece of gilded wallpaper being stripped from a museum frame — the museum’s security arrangements seem to have been done by the same incompetents responsible for protecting the Soviet missile base in Rocket Attack, U.S.A. — and the theft is masterminded by Arthur and Annie Duvall (Del Moore and Sue Casey), who plan to copy the scroll, sell the copy to fabulously wealthy Greek shipping tycoon Lakopolous (Lee Deane), then return the original to the museum wall and hope nobody has noticed it missing in the meantime — even though the local Catalina newspaper has announced its theft with banner headlines. This is one of those movies in which the two plot strands don’t intertwine and certainly don’t help each other along; they just sit on each other, mindlessly alternating until by the end of the film we’re wondering which one we’re less interested in.

The “star” is Tommy Kirk, who plays the nerdy guy who gets the girl away from the babe-magnet — he might have been glad to get away from the Disney plantation but at least Disney gave him legitimately amusing (not laugh-out-loud funny, but at least amusing) roles in mild kiddie comedies, which is more than the makers of this film, producers Bond Blackman and Jack Bartlett, director Lee Sholem (who got his start as Ernst Lubitsch’s assistant on That Uncertain Feeling and evidently learned absolutely nothing from the experience — it’s like finding that a composer of especially treacly 19th century salon pieces had once apprenticed under Beethoven!) and writers Sam Pierce (story) and Clyde Ware (screenplay), could manage to give him. To the extent that any of the young people in this movie show any signs of acting skill, the one that does is Dan Duryea’s son Peter, playing the honest son of the con artists trying to stage the art caper — genes will out, I guess — and the film just kind of lumbers along and turns into a chase scene underwater with two of Lakopoulos’s minions (since this is a diving movie, sort of, the good guys in the white swim trunks get chased by the bad guys in the black wet suits) chasing the teens for the red tube that’s supposed to contain the stolen scroll, which previously had been heaved into Catalina Bay (wouldn’t it have got wet and ruined the scroll? We’re told it was waterproof but it sure doesn’t look it!).

Eventually Peter Duryea’s con-artist parents get arrested, Lakopoulos gives up in disgust and goes away, the teens continue their long-term party, the scroll “mysteriously” reappears on the museum wall and the comic-relief character, Fingers O’Toole (Robert Donner, doing inept versions of the kinds of pratfalls the far older and infinitely more talented Buster Keaton did in his guest appearances in some of American International’s beach non-epics in the mid-1960’s) turns out to be an insurance investigator (yeah, right). The biggest mystery surrounding Catalina Caper is why it exists at all; there doesn’t seem to have been any crying market out there for a beach-movie-with-con-artists — for all the badness of Rocket Attack, U.S.A., at least it was made by people who clearly cared about its message, whereas Catalina Caper could be written off as a rank attempt at commercialism except that it’s impossible to discern who the filmmakers thought were going to buy tickets to it!

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Australia (20th Century-Fox, 2008)

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

By far the best thing that happened to me yesterday was the movie Charles and I ended up watching: Australia, the 2008 epic directed and co-written by Baz Luhrmann about his native country in general and in particular how World War II affected the northwest of Australia, both positively (in terms of the dramatic uptick in the market for Aussie beef caused by the British military’s need for provisions) and negatively (the direct military threat caused by Japan, which actually dive-bombed the city of Darwin in northwestern Australia about two months after the attack on Pearl Harbor). Despite being the long-awaited follow-up to Luhrmann’s 2001 film Moulin Rouge! and being a major-budget epic with big stars — including Moulin Rouge! star Nicole Kidman as Lady Sarah Ashley, titled Englishwoman who comes out to Australia upon the murder of her husband, who ran a cattle ranch down there and attracted the enmity of the local cattle baron, King Carney (Bryan Brown); and Hugh Jackman as a character identified only as “The Drover” (i.e., cattle driver), whom Lady Sarah hires to lead her cattle to market and thus attempt to get the money to save the ranch from Carney’s attempts to put her out of business — Australia was a box-office flop, sinking from sight after about a couple of weeks in theatres, winning only one Academy Award nomination and giving rise to the usual doom-saying articles in the Los Angeles Times and elsewhere that the era of the adult-oriented epic movie is over and for the rest of our moviegoing days all the major studios are going to churn out are comic-book films and gross-out comedies.

I don’t know what the long-term effect of the commercial failure of Australia is going to be on the movie business, but if there’s any justice in the film world this movie — like The Wizard of Oz, which features prominently in its plot and was also a major financial failure on its initial release — will gain the reputation it deserves. If I stop short of calling Australia a masterpiece, it’s only because too much of it seems made up of other movies instead of actual life — it’s one of those films in which one feels that the references to other films are being hurled in your face by writers (Luhrmann, Stuart Beattie, Ronald Harwood and Richard Flanagan) anxious to show how clever they are and how many films they’ve seen. Basically it’s a two-part film that grafts a remake of Red River onto a remake of Gone With the Wind, with plenty of other references along the way — including the preposterously inappropriate outfit in which Kidman arrives in Australia and is taken to her late husband’s ranch in the outback, which is straight out of Katharine Hepburn’s wardrobe in The African Queen. For the first half-hour or so the film seems uncertain whether to go for serious drama or camp — the bar fight Jackman’s “Drover” gets involved in is like one of those blarney-filled “comedy” scenes we suffer through in John Ford’s movies to get to the good parts — but once Luhrmann and his co-writers settle down the movie triumphantly achieves the grandeur he was obviously going for.

It’s a trip we feel like we’ve been on before but we’re still being led confidently and serenely by a master director at the peak of his powers (and remember, this praise is coming from someone who thought Moulin Rouge! an overrated movie that choked on its own gimmickry) — he even managed to scout a canyon location of such natural grandiloquence I couldn’t help but joke, “Monument Valley, Australia.” There’s also a crucial subplot that gives what’s otherwise an 1890’s U.S. Western story 1940’s Australian cred: the Australian government’s controversial policy towards the Aborigines and in particular the mixed-race children of Aboriginal mothers and white fathers. (It probably happened the other way, too, but even a movie as expansive and daring as this one wasn’t going to open that particular set of raw wounds.) The government’s policy was to rip such children away from their mothers and send them to church-run schools — as one person puts it in the film — “to breed the blackness out of them” — much the way Native American children in the early 20th century were taken away from their tribes and boarded in prison-like schools, taught to worship Jesus, speak English and forget their tribal traditions. The Australian government didn’t stop this practice until the 1970’s and didn’t formally apologize to the Aboriginal communities until 2000.

In the film, the deceased rancher Maitland Ashley’s overseer, Neil Fletcher (David Wenham) — who in the second act becomes the principal villain of the film after it turns out he’s not only engaged to King Carney’s daughter but is secretly in league with Carney to sabotage the Ashley ranch, Faraway Downs, and send Ashley’s best (but unbranded) cattle into Carney’s herds — has fathered two such children, one of whom, Nullah (Brandon Walters), becomes a sort of spirit guide to the (good) white characters. Along with his Aboriginal grandfather “King George” (David Gulpilil), who’s suspected of the murder of Maitland Ashley but was really framed for it by the true killer, Fletcher (who will later kill Carney as well to take over the cattle empire — and if this film had achieved the success it deserved Wenham, who makes the transition from unscrupulous businessman to raging psychopath far more credibly than most actors manage roles like this, would be well on his way to international stardom by now), Nullah is able to direct the cattle drive by supernatural means — a sort of so-called “magical realism” that in other movies all too often comes off as a lazy cop-out by writers who’ve written themselves into corners they can’t write themselves out of again by strictly materialist plot devices, but here turns into a genuinely moving story thread in its own right as well as a powerful metaphor for the white vs. indigenous culture clash that the film counterpoints with its other, more familiar (to moviegoers, anyway) clash between the upper-class white aristocracy and the down-to-earth proletarianism represented by the Drover (who, significantly, is never referred to by any other name, giving his character the sort of no-name quality Clint Eastwood had in his spaghetti Westerns).

Given how beautifully the cattle drive is staged and how well Luhrmann follows in the footsteps of the directors he’s clearly emulating, John Ford and (especially) Howard Hawks (indeed, given the relationship between the Kidman and Jackman characters I’m almost tempted to call the first half of AustraliaRed River — the straight version”), it’s somewhat jarring that the good guys get the cattle on board the British transport ship and win their race against the cattle baron just halfway through this 165-minute movie. Then the war clouds darken and Australia turns into Gone With the Wind in its second half — along with The Wizard of Oz, which is actually referenced directly (it’s shown screening at an outdoor theatre after the song “Over the Rainbow” has already been introduced in Nicole Kidman’s deliberately inept rendition — Nullah takes to the song and in particular to its message about “the dreams that you dare to dream really do come true”) — including one direct visual quote of Kidman and Jackman embracing while silhouetted against a bright orange sunset.

Jackman proves as convincing in his evocation of Clark Gable as he was earlier in his evocation of John Wayne, and though the war as presented is historically inaccurate (the Japanese did indeed dive-bomb Darwin, but two months later than the film shows them doing, and they did not actually land troops on Australian soil), the second half works not as a pendant to the more viscerally exciting first half but as a superior piece of filmmaking in its own right and a genuinely moving piece of drama, particularly when the Mission Island on which the Australian government has relegated all those half-Aboriginal kids is the first place the Japanese planes target and it’s touch-and-go whether Lady Ashley and Nullah will ever get together again. Though the film evokes so many old movies one really isn’t in that much doubt as to how it’s going to turn out — the good guys are going to get what’s coming to them and the bad guys are going to get what they deserve — on its own level Australia is a magnificent piece of filmmaking, achieving the grandeur Luhrmann was clearly aiming for.

Australia had a difficult production history, coming in at 50 percent over the original budget, and Luhrmann had particular problems casting the male lead; though Hugh Jackman is absolutely wonderful in the role he was only the third choice. The first choice was Russell Crowe, but his asking price was too high and 20th Century-Fox asked him to reduce it to bring the film’s whole budget down. Crowe refused, so Luhrmann then sought out Heath Ledger (obviously Luhrmann, given his druthers, would have wanted a genuinely Australian actor for this role!) — but Ledger turned it down to make The Dark Knight instead, and I can’t help but think that that was a major mistake. What Ledger needed back then was a role that would have got him away from the American celebrity race — back to his roots, as it were — the part in Australia would have suited him far better as an actor (I know it’s a minority opinion, but I still think Ledger was abysmally miscast in The Dark Knight and he won his Academy Award less for his actual performance in that film than for his unrealized potential and for having been passed over for Brokeback Mountain), and I can’t help thinking that if he’d chosen differently and spent those months making the film he should have been making instead of working himself into a tizzy over being unable to find any depth to the Joker and drugging himself into oblivion, he’d still be alive.

Also worth mentioning is the fascinating character of Kipling Flynn (Jack Thompson), a rumpot who works as Faraway Downs’ financial manager and goes off on the cattle drive, where before he’s killed he teaches Nullah to play the harmonica — and though his instrument ties this film into Frank Capra’s oeuvre as well (the harmonica appears in Capra’s films as a sign of cultural innocence and purity) the performance is reminiscent of Edward G. Robinson’s marvelous “Cocky” Wainwright in the virtually forgotten film A Boy Ten Feet Tall (also a trek movie, though in Africa instead of Australia) and also some of the later acting jobs of John Huston and Orson Welles. One aspect of the film that rubbed me the wrong way was the racist Asian stereotype character of “Sing-Song” (Yuen Wah, who’s usually a stunt person in martial-arts movies), the Ashley family’s cook; it seemed a bit strange that a film with so strong an anti-racist message about Australia’s treatment of the Aborigines would lapse into such a demeaning portrayal of a person of color.

But that’s only a minor blemish on an otherwise great movie that I liked better than Moulin Rouge!, better than Pearl Harbor (though much of the bombing footage was stock from Tora! Tora! Tora! — one contributor even spotted an American battleship anachronistically parked in the background of Darwin harbor — the terror of being under an air raid came through much more strongly in this film than in Pearl Harbor), and —as much as I enjoyed Slumdog Millionaire — I thought Australia was better than that, too. Thank goodness the DVD revolution (and the VHS and cable revolutions before it) have lengthened the commercial lives of movies enough that audiences that missed important movies the first time around have the opportunity to discover them later; Australia is a film that thoroughly deserves the kind of ultimate success The Wizard of Oz and Citizen Kane got after they flopped on their initial runs.

Lucia di Lammermoor (Metropolitan Opera, 2009)

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

I ran the Metropolitan Opera presentation of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, which originally took place on February 7 and was one of their high-definition live presentations to movie theatres. It was re-run on PBS, originally scheduled for the Wednesday night Great Performances time slot, but because for whatever contemptible reasons KPBS in San Diego chooses to ghettoize cultural programming to either the wee hours or the afternoons, it wasn’t shown here until Sunday at noon, so I recorded it then and we watched it that night. I remember thinking Lucia was a pretty silly opera when I first heard it — Donizetti’s music seemed just too pretty, too nice, too well-behaved for this obsessive tale of love, revenge, murder and madness and I couldn’t help wishing that Verdi had done the story instead.

I’ve grown to appreciate this score more in recent years, largely through Maria Callas’s recordings (particularly her 1953 studio version with Tullio Serafin conducting and the 1955 Berlin Radio broadcast with von Karajan, both with Giuseppe di Stefano as her co-star), but it remains a rather tricky opera and a difficult one to pull off. The Met’s current production was created in their last season for Natalie Dessay, but on this occasion she was relegated to introducing the broadcast as host and Lucia was sung by Anna Netrebko, something of a surprise since she’s known mostly as a lyric soprano and Lucia is the coloratura role to end all coloratura roles. The plot is one of those Romantic concoctions, based on an historical potboiler called The Bride of Lammermoor by Sir Walter Scott (whom the New Yorker critic, reviewing the original run of this production with Dessay as Lucia, called “the Dan Brown of his time”), in which whatever semblance of story logic is involved depends utterly on the characters behaving like complete idiots.

Lucia (“Lucy” in Scott’s text before Donizetti and his librettist, Salvatore Cammarano, “Italicized” it) is the sister of the ambitious Scottish Lord Enrico Ashton, whose fortunes have fallen on hard times. He sees a way out by marrying her off to wealthy Lord Arturo Bucklaw, but in the meantime she’s already met and fallen in love with the Ashton’s family’s most hated rival, Edgardo di Ravenswood. The Ashtons and the Ravenswoods have hated each other for centuries, ever since a Ravenswood man murdered an Ashton woman he was trying to kidnap and seduce, dumped her body in the fountain on the Ashton estate, and she supposedly has remained behind as a ghost haunting the fountain. (We learn all this in Lucia’s first aria, “Regnava nel silenzio,” and though she supposedly doesn’t go mad until later in the opera she sounds pretty crazy already.)

This doesn’t stop Lucia and Edgardo from swearing eternal love and doing a D.I.Y. wedding ceremony on the Scottish heath just before Edgardo is scheduled to leave for France, where he and some other exiles are plotting to take over the Scottish throne. While Edgardo is out of the country, Normanno, the captain of Enrico’s guards, tells him that he’s successfully intercepted all the letters Edgardo and Lucia wrote each other, and in addition he’s forged a letter to make it look as if Edgardo is involved with someone else. Raimondo, the family priest, joins in the pressure on Lucia to marry Arturo and save the Ashton family fortunes, but no sooner has she signed the contract to marry Arturo than Edgardo bursts in, crashes the party, and without stopping either to ask for or receive an explanation, immediately assumes the worst and tears his ring off Lucia’s finger.

Offstage, between Acts II and III, Lucia’s already stretched sanity finally collapses completely and she stabs Arturo as soon as he tries to have sex with her. In the rarely heard “Wolf’s Crag” scene, Edgardo and Enrico meet outside the castle and arrange for a duel, and in the next scene Lucia appears and sings the famous Mad Scene, reliving a rather twisted version of events, imagining herself married to Edgardo and insisting that soon she will be reunited with him in heaven. In the final scene — which for years was omitted because star coloraturas didn’t like the idea that the opera went on for one whole scene without them — Edgardo is waiting for Enrico to show up for their duel when he receives word that Lucia is dead, and he decides not to wait but to commit suicide on the spot.

The Met’s production moved the time of the story up from the 16th to the 19th century, but at least they kept it in Scotland — they didn’t move it to, say, Afghanistan under the warlords or something — and the costumes are relatively coherent (there aren’t the mixups of ancient, medieval and modern wardrobes with which a lot of modern-day European directors assault the audiences for their operas), though by the 19th century Scotland was firmly integrated into the United Kingdom and so the idea of Scottish exiles fleeing to France to plot a revolution against the King of Scotland is dreadfully anachronistic. There are a few other glitches in this production — of which the one that most bothered me (even more so than Edgardo sitting comfortably in an armchair at the start of the Wolf’s Crag scene) was the corporeal appearance of the ghost of the Ashton woman that was murdered centuries before by the Ravenswood man, both in “Regnava nel silenzio” and at the end in Edgardo’s tomb scene. Frankly, she’s a lot more powerful as an off-stage presence — especially when a Lucia with Callas’s power of word-spinning and dramatic inflection makes her seem like a figment of Lucia’s already slightly demented imagination that will later blossom into full-fledged insanity.

Still, this Lucia is on the whole quite effective, with Marco Armillato’s slow-paced conducting not only going easy on Netrebko’s voice (she doesn’t have to do the coloratura at the rapid-fire pace Joan Sutherland was famous for but which Netrebko probably couldn’t have handled) but adding to the darkness and moodiness of the piece. Much of it, especially early on, sounds surprisingly Germanic — maybe not so surprisingly when you remember that Donizetti’s composition teacher was a German, Simon Mayr, who had relocated to Italy — particularly the use of French horns (remember Anna Russell’s joke about how “the French horn, which is German, is called that to differentiate it from the English horn, which is French”) and tympani in the opera’s slow, moody opening.

Netrebko was in excellent vocal form and, though hardly at the level of Callas in moment-by-moment dramatics or Sutherland or Beverly Sills in sheer vocal pyrotechnics, she manages to create a convincing portrait of a woman so totally pulled and torn apart by all the powerful men in her life it’s no surprise that she goes homicidally crazy. Her frequent on-stage partner, Rolando Villazón, was supposed to be her Edgardo in this production, but he got sick and had to cancel — and his replacement was a young Russian tenor named Piotr Beczala, with an enviably strong voice and a rather pinched facial expression that actually worked fairly well for the character. Next to Netrebko, though, the evening belonged to baritone Mariusz Kwiecien as Enrico, who in Mary Zimmerman’s direction isn’t just an ambitious landowner using his sister as a prop to maintain his social position but a full-fledged villain on the level of Baron Scarpia in Tosca (and indeed, judging from his performance here, Scarpia would be a good role for him if he hasn’t already sung it).

Conductor Armillato’s poky tempi worked well in the opening and helped conceal Netrebko’s lack of experience in coloratura, but they also tended to drag the proceedings and make the opera a bit dull — though I give him major points for using the original part for glass armonica which Donizetti wrote for the mad scene but which is almost always omitted because of the sheer cumbersomeness of the instrument and the relative handful of people who can actually play it well; the sound of the armonica adds immeasurably to the atmosphere of the scene and really makes the score sound like someone in an insane babble instead of, as George Bernard Shaw once contemptuously dismissed it, “a test of skill with the first flute.” (The first person to restore the armonica scoring was conductor Thomas Schippers for Beverly Sills’ recording.) The Met Lucia was certainly a quite competent production of an important standard opera — though I suspect I’d have liked it better with a true coloratura like Dessay in the lead — and it was entertaining and blessed with Netrebko’s quite lovely, well-phrased vocalism.

Speak (Showtime, 2004)

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

This morning I watched an unexpectedly interesting movie I’d recorded from Lifetime, a 2004 Showtime production called Speak which they probably revived because of the new-found popularity of the film’s young star, Kristen Stewart (thanks to her role in the big teen-vampire franchise Twilight), who here plays Melinda Sordino, a high-school freshman who shows up for her first day in a state of virtual catatonia. At first it seems like it’s just going to be another alienated-teenager movie — the moment she shows up for school she earns the instant displeasure of social-studies teacher Mr. Neck (Robert John Burke) for being late and having an “attitude” — indeed, as the film progresses Mr. Neck turns out to be a low-grade fascist who turns his class lectures into tirades against people of color because his firefighter son was denied a promotion in favor of a person of color (and when one African-American in the class has the temerity to say, “Maybe he was passed over because he wasn’t good enough,” Mr. Neck reacts violently and says, “That’s my son you’re talking about!”).

A number of Melinda’s other teachers turn out to be weirdos of one sort or another — including the English teacher (Leslie Lyles), whom Melinda nicknames “Hairwoman” because she’s usually facing away from the students to write things on the blackboard (and in a nifty running gag she’s always running out of room on the blackboard and has to make the last few letters of whatever she’s writing much narrower than the rest) and even when she is facing the class, her hippie-style long hair is covering much of her weatherbeaten face; Ms. Keen (Kimberly Kish), the biology teacher whom Melinda can’t stand because of her relentlessly chirpy voice; and the one teacher Melinda actually bonds with, art teacher Mr. Freeman (Steve Zahn), one of those liberal teachers who wants to “relate” to his students and shake them into some creativity.

Speak differs from most alienated high-school-student movies in that even before the school year began, Melinda developed a reputation that has caused most of the class — including her former friends from her junior-high years — to denounce her as a “snitcher” and make oinking noises when she appears; the one fellow student who reaches out to her early on, Rachel Bruin (Hallee Hirsh), a transfer student from La Jolla who never lets Melinda (or us) forget it — this movie is somewhat ambiguous as to where it’s supposed to be taking place but it was filmed in Columbus, Ohio — cuts her dead when she realizes Melinda’s friendship is only going to hold her back from being accepted by the school’s “Marthas,” the social-climber clique (“Martha” as in “Stewart,” I presume). What she did to earn this reputation we learn in dribs and drabs from the flashbacks inserted into the story by writers Jessica Sharzer (who also directed) and Annie Young Frisbie (adapting a novel by Laurie Halse Anderson); Melinda was invited to a wild party with a lot of drinking and opportunities for sex, and Melinda was the subject of advances by hunky, athletic B.M.O.C. Andy Evans (Eric Lively), who got her into his Jeep determined to have sex with her and refused to take no for an answer.

Once that’s finally revealed, midway through the film, we realize that Melinda’s unwillingness to speak in public (or much in private, either) is due to lingering trauma not only from the rape but also from the fact that she never reported it — it was why she called the cops on that party but once they actually arrived the scene got so confused that she fled instead of remaining behind to swear out a complaint against Andy — and among the traumas she’s had to endure through the school year is seeing Andy and Rachel dating and wondering if she should bother to tell her former friend just what a creep the guy is. Melinda’s home life isn’t much of a refuge, either; her dad, Jack Sordino (D. B. Sweeney), is unemployed and her mom Joyce (Elizabeth Perkins) is supporting the family through a beauty shop she co-owns, and when she’s at home (which isn’t often) she looks pretty much like a space cadet herself. About the only allies Melinda has are the art teacher and her biology-class lab partner, Dave Petrakis (Michael Angarano), who’s nice-looking, sweet, intelligent, daring (he tells off Mr. Neck during one of his racist tirades) and altogether lovable, but Melinda rebuffs his efforts to date her.

The film’s script is full of felicitous touches — including having the English teacher give a lecture on symbolism in Hawthorne (when one student in the class questions whether her interpretations of Hawthorne’s symbolism have anything to do with what Hawthorne intended, she gets as defensive as Mr. Neck and says, “I wrote my doctoral dissertation on Hawthorne!” — suggesting that school is, among other things, a place where teachers go to work out their own neuroses while their students suffer through it all), the irony being that the movie itself is full of subtle but unmistakable symbolism in details like the various ways Melinda gets to school (sometimes she braves the school bus, sometimes she walks, sometimes she bikes and sometimes daddy drives her) reflecting her various emotional moods.

Eventually the film appears to be moving towards a happy, or at least not too miserable, resolution — the school year ends and Melinda plans to take art courses in the summer; she gets the work she’s been hiding in a storage closet on the school grounds that’s been her hideout when the pressures of the environment got too intense; and her art teacher is there to encourage here — when suddenly [spoiler alert!] Andy confronts her and demands that she go through the entire school telling everybody that she lied and he really didn’t rape her (“I can have any girl I want — willingly!” he thunders at her, along with the inevitable, “You’re not even attractive!”), and she retaliates by throwing some sort of liquid in his face that blinds him, or at least seems to be doing so — and one can’t help but wonder what kind of trouble she’s going to be in now and how he’ll be able to dance away from any responsibility for her violation now that he can claim to be the injured party.

Speak is quite a good movie, well directed — unlike a lot of people at this level of filmmaking, Jessica Sharzer actually has an eye for artful compositions, though they remain totally appropriate to the story and don’t call attention to themselves — and also quite well cast (indeed, seeing Kristen Stewart here makes me more curious about Twilight than I was earlier) — and though much of it is from the grab-bag of alienated-teen movie clichés, they’re at least deployed effectively and for most of this movie one is genuinely uncertain about how it’s all going to turn out. A little gem!