Saturday, July 31, 2010

Green Zone (Universal, 2010)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Green Zone, an odd production released earlier this year to almost total disinterest at the box office but one which I thought was a great movie and a far better film about the Iraq war than The Hurt Locker. Green Zone was inspired by a book by Rajiv Chandrasekaran called Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone. It’s always difficult to take a work of nonfiction and extract a story from it so it can be filmed, but in this case screenwriter Brian Helgeland and director Paul Greengrass (interestingly traversing the other side of the ideological street from his film United 93, which celebrated the heroism of the crew members and passengers aboard the one plane whose occupants fought back on September 11, 2001, with the result that it crashed in a Pennsylvania forest and the only people who died from it were those aboard) managed it by tapping into traditional war-movie iconography — in this case, the righteously honest servicemember (Matt Damon as officer Miller, head of a unit that’s supposed to be searching newly U.S.-occupied Baghdad for the weapons of mass destruction) going up against the authorities — and managed to create a film that’s both a nail-biting thriller and a clear-cut statement against the war and the pretensions of the Bush administration that got us into it and the free-market young Republican crazies sent over to staff the occupation who helped turn it into a quagmire.

Not that much of Green Zone actually takes place in the Green Zone, but enough of it does to make the point: the U.S. officials (both civilian and military) charged with running Iraq after the occupation not only locked themselves away in a fortified compound (at the time I remember reflecting on the absurdity of the designation of the grounds around Saddam Hussein’s Republican Palace as the “green zone” and all of the rest of Iraq as the “red zone”) but lounged around the swimming pool with scantily clad girls, drank alcohol (a bozo-no-no in a Muslim country) and watched American TV from satellite feeds. The good guys in Green Zone are Miller; Martin Brown (Brendan Gleeson), an old CIA hand skeptical of the intelligence the U.S. was receiving about the supposed WMD’s in Iraq; Freddy (Khalid Abdalla, an Egyptian actor who had to re-learn Arabic in the Iraqi dialect to be credible as an Iraqi native), who tips off Miller to a meeting of former Iraqi generals plotting a resistance and gets adopted as Miller’s translator; and — surprisingly — one of the Iraqi generals, al-Rawi (Igal Naor), who’s on the infamous playing cards of the supposed worst people in Saddam’s regime but whom Miller and Brown regard as one of the few people who can actually reunite Iraq and bring it stable native government.

The bad guys are Clark Poundstone (Greg Kinnear) and his aide (Bryan Reents), stand-ins for all the idiots in the occupation’s Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) who, in the interest of totally purging the ancien regime, dissolved the Iraqi army and thereby leaving the country full of tens of thousands of pissed-off unemployed men with guns and the knowledge of how to use them; Lawrie Dane (Amy Ryan), Wall Street Journal reporter whose pre-war dispatches that there definitely were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq fueled popular support for the war (she was obviously modeled on real-life New York Times reporter Judith Miller, and her character name seems an in-joke reference to Miller’s former writing partner, Laurie Mylroie, who co-authored the Miller dispatches and book Saddam Hussein and the Crisis in the Gulf that built up U.S. support for the first Gulf War against Iraq in 1990-91); and Iraqi exile Ahmed Zubaidi (Raad Rawi), a character obviously based on Ahmed Chalabi, who engineered the phony intelligence on WMD in the first place and thereby helped spark the U.S.’s determination to attack and occupy Iraq and overthrow Saddam Hussein.

The plot is pretty simple: just after the U.S. occupation in 2003, Miller leads his men throughout Baghdad on fruitless searches for WMD in all the sites his “intel” tells him they’re to be found — and in one of them he finds a toilet factory while another is a children’s playground — and it gradually dawns on him that the reason he’s not finding WMD is there aren’t any to be found. He hooks up with Brown and also with Freddy, who tips him to al-Rawi’s whereabouts — but al-Rawi’s guards engage the U.S. servicemembers in a firefight that allows al-Rawi to get away. Freddy then makes contact with an Iraqi informant, Seyyed Hamza (Said Faraj) — who, unlike Freddy, speaks no English — who offers to turn in al-Rawi in exchange for payment and safe passage out of Iraq for himself and his family. Only other U.S. forces, on orders from Poundstone, round up Seyyed as part of a general sweep and take him to a detention camp, where he’s tortured. Miller gets a copy of a little red book containing details of the still-nascent Iraqi resistance and wants to hold on to it and give it to Brown — but he’s forced to relinquish it to Poundstone and his staff on orders from Washington, D.C., and he knows what that’s going to mean: instead of actually trying to work with any of these people, the U.S. goon squads will simply kill as many as they can and capture, detain and torture the rest.

Eventually Miller tracks down al-Rawi and offers him $1 million as a bribe to side with the Americans and become the public face of the new Iraq — the implication is that Iraq’s best fate would be to have a hopefully kinder, gentler Saddam put back in power — but al-Rawi is killed, not by rival Americans but by Freddy, who was all too aware of Saddam’s depradations (he has only one leg because he lost the other in Iraq’s insane 1980-88 war with Iran) and the last thing he wants is to see another Saddam-like general ruling the country. What makes Green Zone a good movie is its expert balance of thriller-type action and serious politics — the action keeps us on the edge of our seats but we never forget the subtext about the war itself and the sheer pointlessness (it turns out that Zubaidi himself was the mysterious “Magellan” — Helgeland’s stand-in for the real-life Iraqi defector “Curveball” — who fed Poundstone false information on Iraq’s WMD’s, and Poundstone in turn was the anonymous source Lawrie Dane relied on for her articles) of the U.S. invasion and its justification by weapons that didn’t exist.

None of the Iraq War movies have been successful at the box office — even The Hurt Locker, despite its Academy Award cachet, merely did somewhat less badly than the rest — and Green Zone was an almost total flop, partly I suspect because while one could enjoy The Hurt Locker whether or not one supported the war, one would pretty much have to have opposed it from the get-go to find Green Zone entertaining. One irony of Green Zone is that the tactic Miller eventually adopts — find the leaders of the Iraqi resistance and bribe them to stop resisting — is essentially what the U.S. actually did in the so-called “surge” of 2007; what pushed the U.S. involvement in Iraq out of crisis mode and enabled President Bush to claim something of a victory was not the stationing of the additional troops so much as the U.S.’s decision to buy out the Sunni resistance leaders and bribe them not to keep fighting: the real source of the so-called “Sunni Awakening”!

Friday, July 30, 2010

Suez (20th Century-Fox, 1938)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film Charles and I watched last night was Suez, an historical spectacular from 20th Century-Fox in 1938, directed by Allan Dwan — his first big-budget extravaganza since he’d helmed Douglas Fairbanks’ last silent, The Iron Mask, nine years earlier — and starring Tyrone Power as Ferdinand de Lesseps (interestingly pronounced with the accent on the last syllable, unusual for a French name) in his 20-year struggle to build the Suez Canal. The film was a follow-up to the previous cycle of historical films in which Fox had depicted characters bearing the names of, and more or less based on, real people — notably The House of Rothschild, Clive of India and Power’s star-making turn in Lloyds of London — and also an entry in the late-1930’s cycle of disaster movies kicked off by MGM’s San Francisco (set in 1906 and depicting the earthquake and fire in a sequence that even by modern standards remains an impressive and utterly believable piece of effects work) and including Goldwyn’s The Hurricane (1937) and Fox’s (and Power’s) own In Old Chicago.

It was also a follow-up to Power’s role as Count Axel Fersen in Marie Antoinette, made on loanout to MGM and released two months earlier, in that Power once again portrays the frustrated love interest of a French queen. When the film opens, De Lesseps is dating Spanish countess Eugenie de Montijo (Loretta Young, in the last of her five films with Power) when she’s noticed by the president of France, Louis Napoleon (Leon Ames), nephew of the original Napoleon Bonaparte, whose takeover of the French government and eventual proclamation of himself as emperor was the event that inspired Karl Marx’s famous bon mot that “history repeats itself — the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” She’s invited to a big state ball, along with de Lesseps and his friend Vicomte René de Latour (Joseph Schildkraut), and an Egyptian fortune teller (Frank Lackteen) predicts that Eugenie will have a troubled but great life and will wear a crown, while de Lesseps will spend his life digging ditches. Louis Napoleon then overhears de Lesseps take over from the fortuneteller and ridicule the president — and he determines to marry Eugenie and, to get rid of the competition, sends de Lesseps to Egypt to assist his father, Count Mathieu (Henry Stephenson), as French consul.

Egypt’s political situation was a bit offbeat at the time: technically it was part of the Ottoman Empire, under control of the Sultan in Istanbul (which the script by Philip Dunne and Julien Josephson, based on a story by Sam Duncan, persists in calling “Constantinople”), but it had its own native ruler even though he was referred to as a “viceroy” and it was also heavily influenced by Britain. At the time de Lesseps shows up the viceroy is Mohammed Ali (Maurice Moscovich), and his son and heir is Prince Said (J. Edward Bromberg). De Lesseps acquires another love interest in Toni Pellerin (Annabella — imagine, at least one French character in the cast played by a real-life French person!), granddaughter of the consulate’s sergeant (Sig Rumann — whose German accent, passed off as the speech pattern of Annabella’s ancestor, is a good example of how classic Hollywood thought one foreign accent was as good as another — which is how Marlene Dietrich and Ingrid Bergman ended up playing Frenchwomen in Morocco and Adam Had Four Sons, respectively), and one day when de Lesseps and Toni are out in the desert he spies the valley of the Isthmus of Suez and decides that he’s going to benefit the world by building a canal between the Mediterranean and the Red Sea. He goes back to Paris to try to launch a company to build the canal, but runs into resistance from Louis Napoleon’s technical experts (who claim that the Red Sea is 30 feet higher than the Mediterranean and therefore a canal would flood the harbors in the south Mediterranean) and also from the powerful British diplomat, Sir Malcolm Cameron (Nigel Bruce in a surprisingly serious, non-foofy and effective performance), who doesn’t want France to gain commercial advantage from owning a canal even though de Lesseps has promised it would be open to all the ships of the world and, if that actually happened, it would make it easier for Britain to send its ships to and from its dominion in India.

One really quirky aspect of Suez is it’s actually two movies in one, rather arbitrarily glued together at the halfway point: the first is an intrigue about French domestic politics and the second, considerably more interesting, is about the actual construction of the canal. The intrigue centers around Louis Napoleon’s desire to emulate his famous uncle and become not merely president but emperor of France. Standing in his way is the Assembly, controlled by a pro-republican party involving de Lesseps’ father and the Vicomte René de Latour (just why a viscount is so interested in preserving democracy is something Philip Dunne and Julien Josephson never quite explain). Rioters in the street demand that the Assembly dissolve and thereby remove the last roadblock to Louis Napoleon’s absolute power — and de Lesseps’ friend Victor Hugo (Victor Varconi, Pontius Pilate in the 1927 Cecil B. DeMille King of Kings) is inspired by it all to write Les Misérables — and Louis Napoleon tricks de Lesseps into getting his father to adjourn the Assembly by writing a paper promising not to arrest any of his political opponents. No sooner is the Assembly adjourned that Louis Napoleon’s security people are arresting René and all the other leaders of the opposing party — and de Lesseps’ father is so upset by his son’s apparent treachery that he immediately drops dead of a heart attack. On the urging of Eugenie, now his wife, Louis Napoleon authorizes the French government to finance the Suez Canal — only de Lesseps, knowing that if he goes ahead with the canal now it’ll just look like he was paid off for his treachery, abandons the project and sinks into despair until Toni comes back into his life and talks him into pursuing the project again.

De Lesseps goes to Egypt with the promise of financial guarantees from the French government and rights to the land from Prince Said, who has since taken over from his dead father as the viceroy of Egypt, and work on the canal proceeds (represented by an animated white line crossing the relevant portion of a map of Egypt) despite an attempt at sabotage. A group of Arabs steals some explosive from the canal’s builders and uses it to blow up the cliffs overlooking the canal — in a scene I thought was the most spectacular effects footage in the movie, more exciting than the famous sandstorm scene later on — but that causes only a temporary delay. Much more serious is Louis Napoleon’s decision to pull funding for the Canal because he’s facing war with Prussia over the disputed provinces of Alsace and Lorraine (the war actually happened in 1870, France got its ass kicked, Louis Napoleon lost his throne and ultimately France was governed by the Third Republic until Germany kicked its ass again in 1940 and split France into a directly occupied zone and a nominally independent nation ruled by the collaborationist regime at Vichy — so we’ve suddenly leaped forwards only two decades without any of the film’s principals looking visibly older!) — de Lesseps returns to Paris to lobby the emperor to continue funding the project but is told that Louis Napoleon canceled it as a gesture to Britain to get its support, or at least its neutrality, in the coming war against Prussia.

De Lesseps then goes to Britain himself to try to get them to support the canal, and the prime minister (George Zucco — a year later he and Nigel Bruce would again appear together in a film for Fox, as Professor Moriarty and Dr. Watson, respectively, in the second Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes film, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes) declines — but fortunately just in time there’s a disraeli ex machina as Benjamin Disraeli (Miles Mander, cast after studio head Darryl F. Zanuck’s first choice, George Arliss — then living in retirement in his native England nine years after having played Disraeli in a Zanuck production at Warners that won Arliss the first Best Actor Academy Award for a sound film — turned it down) wins the next British election and, committed to a policy of overseas expansionism, bankrolls the canal and de Lesseps gets to finish it. Alas, while he was waiting for the outcome of the British election de Lesseps also had to contend with an enormous desert sandstorm (prefaced by a cyclone effect similar to, but less convincing than, the one in The Wizard of Oz a year later) that filled in much of what had already been dug, collapsed the two enormous wooden towers that contained the workers’ water supply, buried many of the workers themselves under sand and dispatched Toni Pellerin, who’s shown tying de Lesseps to a building beam so he doesn’t blow away before the sandstorm grabs her and she goes flying to her doom in the desert.

In the book Allan Dwan: The Last Pioneer, based on a series of interviews film historian and later director Peter Bogdanovich did with him in 1968 and 1969, Dwan explained how he and effects technician Fred Sersen did the famous sandstorm: “I got about a hundred of those huge airplane fans we use to make wind and lined them up. … At first they were blowing sand, but I had to discard that because it would cut the skin off people, so instead we used ground-up cereal that we threw in front of the blades. The people had to move through that all day long, and I’m telling you, that was an ordeal.” For the scene in which Annabella’s character was blown into the sandstorm and killed, “we had to put her on a wire and fling her through the air,” Dwan recalled. Dwan also said that the original script called for a much longer and effects-driven sandstorm than the one that finally got into the released film, and he got some of the extra scenes eliminated by telling Zanuck that filming them would have upped the budget by $200,000. “You start one of those things, you don’t know when to quit,” Dwan told Bogdanovich in words a lot of modern filmmakers would do well to heed. “There’s a limit to effects. You can blow too many things down — you still have your story. … They had overwritten it by two reels — got fascinated with destruction.” (Whatever interest I had had in seeing the most recent version of King Kong evaporated when I read that the film was three hours long; director Peter Jackson left in all his spectacular effects scenes even when they slowed down or totally stopped the momentum of the story, whereas the filmmaker of the 1933 version, Merian C. Cooper, cut the film to the bone, taking out many of the most elaborate and difficult effects shots in order to create a movie with non-stop thrills.)

Dwan acknowledged that he wasn’t a fan of big effects movies in general — he mentioned two of his relatively unambitious silent films, Big Brother and Manhandled, as examples of the kind of filmmaking (“simple, honest stories that happen to people”) that more appealed to him — and he also told a quite charming anecdote about the threat of de Lesseps’ heirs to sue him over the film: “We gave him a romance with Eugenie, and they objected to that, so they took us to court. And the court told them that this picture did so much honor to France that no matter what they thought as a family, the case must be discarded, and they threw it out of court.” As a movie, Suez is a bizarre mixture, vivid, exciting drama one minute and treading on the thin edge of silliness (and occasionally going over) the next. Tyrone Power is too impassive an actor to be believable as the driven de Lesseps, but he’s good-looking and charismatic enough to carry the film anyway. Loretta Young knew her role was mainly to be a piece of set-dressing, so she decided to go whole-hog with her wardrobe and work with her designer, Royer, to make the largest hoop-skirts of all time — thereby forcing the set builders to widen the doorways so she could get those insane clothes through them.

Annabella is actually the best of the principals — tough-minded, spirited and obviously a far better match for de Lesseps than that stuck-up Eugenie (and a much better match for Tyrone Power off-screen, too: they fell in love during the making of this film, married a year later, and though they didn’t stay married they remained friends until Power’s death in 1958). The supporting cast is a wet dream for fans of the great character actors that populated and enlivened so many American movies during the classic era — there’s even an almost apparitional appearance by Brandon Hurst as Franz Liszt in the early scene at Louis Napoleon’s reception — and overall Suez emerges as good light entertainment, hardly the film it could have been with a rangier actor as de Lesseps (as hard as it would have been to believe in either of them as a Frenchman, what it really needed was one of the Warners edge-meisters like James Cagney or Humphrey Bogart) and a film that explored the dark side of his background (the allegations against him that he was an agent of the British government and he was employing slave labor in building the canal — not to mention the even darker sequel, in which de Lesseps tried to build a canal in Panama, went bankrupt and was arrested, convicted and imprisoned for defrauding his investors, although the case was overturned on appeal), but a nice slice of Hollywoodized history even though its cheery disregard of historical fact was summed up by a British critic who wrote, “What would Americans think of a British film of Kentucky, with Lincoln as a plantation owner courting Harriet Beecher Stowe to the strains of ‘Alexander’s Ragtime Band’?”

The Florentine Dagger (Warners, 1935)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I screened a quite interesting Warners “B” from 1935, The Florentine Dagger, a “Clue Club” series film but made by considerably more “A”-list talent than usually worked on these mystery potboilers. The director was Robert Florey, who almost never got to work outside the “B” salt mines but within them created some quite fine movies — notably Murders in the Rue Morgue, Ex-Lady and The Face Behind the Mask — and the screenplay was by Tom Reed and Brown Holmes but their story source was a 1928 novel by Ben Hecht, and though the plot is a pretty silly whodunit Hecht’s fine structural hand is apparent even filtered through other writers (including Holmes, who did right by Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon in his script for the underrated 1931 version and wrong by the same novel in the ill-advised 1936 camped-up remake, Satan Met a Lady).

The film starts on a train (a pretty obvious but still effective model shot) approaching the small Italian village of Rossano, where three mysterious strangers — Viennese theatrical producer Victor Ballau (Henry O’Neill), Vienna-based British expat doctor Gerard Lytton (C. Aubrey Smith) and mystery man Juan Cesare (Donald Woods, top-billed), who refuses a police officer’s request for his identity card by saying he’s an Italian citizen — get off even though, as the conductor tells us, he can’t recall anyone from his train stopping there before. Rossano has a sinister reputation because it’s located in a valley overlooked by a mountain topped by the castle of the Borgias — yes, those Borgias — represented by a stock shot of a castle (or at least the model of one) depicted in daylight no matter whether the rest of the scene is supposed to be taking place during day or night.

It turns out that Juan Cesare is the direct descendant of Cesare Borgia — something he already knows but is revealed to us, Hound of the Baskervilles-style, when a portrait of Cesare Borgia hanging in the lobby of the hotel where the three men are staying bears a striking resemblance to Donald Woods. Juan has come to Rossano to commit suicide because he’s afraid that the blood taint of the Borgias affects him and, if he allows himself to live, he will ultimately start killing people like his notorious ancestors did — and he decides to order from a local apothecary (Euro-speak for pharmacist) the exact same poison Cesare Borgia used on his victims. Only the apothecary, guessing his intentions, renders the formula harmless by substituting salt for the active ingredient (a plot hole Charles noticed: drinking salt water causes you to vomit, and so someone who drank a supposed “poison” containing salt would puke it up well before anyone else told him that he hadn’t really drunk poison).

The three men come to an agreement that they hope will spare Juan’s life: Juan will write a play about his infamous ancestors, Lytton will encourage him and keep him alive, and Ballau will produce it in Vienna. (So an Italian writes a play in English for a production in a German-speaking country.) Juan attends the rehearsals and vetoes every actress who auditions for the key role of Cesare Borgia’s sister Lucrezia until Ballau’s estranged daughter Florence (Margaret Lindsay) shows up and reads for the role. The play is a massive hit, due largely to Florence’s intensity as Lucrezia, and Juan falls in love with her but Victor refuses him permission to marry her because he’s an attempted suicide. Then Victor turns up dead — stabbed by one of the three Florentine daggers, once owned by the Borgias, in Lytton’s antiquities collection. Later Lytton is found dead, also stabbed by a Borgia dagger, and Juan is suspected of the murders, as is Florence, but the real killer turns out to be Teresa (Florence Fair), Florence’s mother — Ballau, it turns out, was only her stepfather — a former actress whose career ended when she was badly burned in a fire. Ballau told people she was dead but in fact she was alive, and she disguised herself with a lifelike rubber mask (a gimmick Florey would also use in The Face Behind the Mask five years later) and got a job as Ballau’s housekeeper to make sure that he didn’t seduce his stepdaughter when she came of age. Eventually Juan and Florence flee to Italy with Teresa, whom they decide has suffered enough and should get off scot-free for the murders — a surprising ending for a Code-era film.

The Florentine Dagger isn’t much as a story — it’s one of those mysteries that depends on preposterous coincidences and information withheld from the audience for its resolution — but Florey and cinematographer Arthur Todd drown it in appropriately Gothic atmosphere and give us the marvelous half-lit look previously known as “the German style” and later called film noir. What’s more, Florey gets surprisingly effective performances from Donald Woods and Margaret Lindsay, two actors usually relegated to anemically portrayed second leads in big Warners’ movies; here, though, Woods gets to play a character of real dramatic definition and contrast — his speech about his family’s guilt and how it has led him to take his own life, though melodramatically written (and though I haven’t read the novel I’m inclined to think Reed and Holmes took this straight from Hecht: it sounds like Hecht at his most overwrought), is beautifully delivered with chilling understatement instead of the overacting with which scenes like this were usually played in a 1935 movie.

Lindsay, usually a barely competent foil for Bette Davis, turns in a strong enough performance that she actually convinces us Lucrezia Borgia’s soul is inhabiting her body when she performs scenes from Juan’s play, and elsewhere her acting is not quite that stellar but still shows that she could rise to the occasion when she got to play a lead instead of being stuck in supporting roles. The Florentine Dagger is a good major-studio “B” that takes advantage of the Warners infrastructure (despite that tacky castle shot inserted willy-nilly in the opening scenes) and shows once again how tragic it was that Robert Florey stayed stuck in “B” films for almost his whole career and didn’t get the chance to graduate to more important projects and bigger budgets.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Deadly Honeymoon (Marvista/Lifetime, 2010)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The movie I watched from a Lifetime recording was Deadly Honeymoon, a really rancid piece of Lifetime schlock that was shown last Saturday just before The Client List and seemed to have been scheduled that way to make The Client List — a good but not great exploration of some familiar Lifetime tropes with an alleged inspiration from a true story (which Deadly Honeymoon may have claimed as well — there’s nothing on the official credits but the film’s page links to news stories suggesting that this film drew at least some story elements, however tenuously connected, from something that happened for real) — seem better than it really is.

From the title and its appearance on Lifetime I would have guessed that Deadly Honeymoon would be a story about a naïve woman who marries a man she doesn’t know much about but is immediately charmed by, only to find when he gets her on board ship for their honeymoon cruise that he’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde: the nice man she thought she was marrying turns out to be a wife-beater, a womanizer, an alcoholic, a drug addict, a compulsive gambler, a gold-digger, a criminal or any combination of the above. No such luck: Deadly Honeymoon turned out to be a deadly dull concoction that confused the issue by throwing in three unsavory Hungarians who seem to have some connection with the husband (one of the Hungarians rapes another woman on board the ship and it turns out that, since the ship is under Liberian registry, the only country in the world that can prosecute him is Liberia).

The husband disappears about a third of the way into the cruise — which started in Hawai’i, where the couple got married, and was destined for Tahiti — and the wife, Lindsay Ross Forrest (played by an actress with the absurd name “Summer Glau”), has a shipboard friend, Gwen Merced (Zoe McLellan), who happens to be an FBI agent on vacation, who nonetheless volunteers to investigate the case when the husband, Trevor Forrest (Chris Carmack, tall and lanky like most Lifetime leading men but with more facial definition than the norm — and in fact rather hunky if you like the white basketball-player type), disappears and blood stains on the ship’s railing make it look like he was thrown overboard — only Gwen abruptly turns against Our Heroine when surveillance video taken by the ship’s hidden camera shows her indulging in a sexual quickie in a hallway with one of the Hungarians. The script by Ron McGee is too convoluted and too dull to build up much in the way of suspense, and the direction by Paul Shapiro avoids the digital flanging effects that have marred too many of Lifetime’s movies lately but also doesn’t have much in the way of excitement — not that McGee’s writing gave Shapiro much opportunity to stage anything genuinely exciting.

The whole thing builds to a really stupid surprise ending in which [spoiler alert!] we’re supposed to believe that Lindsay actually murdered her husband, having married him purely as a patsy so she could off him on board ship, extract a $3 million settlement from the cruise line and use that to open the high-end boutique she’d always dreamed of owning — though even then it’s not clear whether or not those mysterious Hungarians were her co-conspirators or just that many more red herrings McGee threw us. I’ve seen Lifetime movies that were surprisingly good, ones that were predictable but entertaining, and ones like this that simply had little or nothing to offer — not even much in the way of acting chops, since Summer Glau spends most of the movie looking down and acting pouty and the rest of the cast hangs down about to her level. This one was a two-hour waste of time!

Monday, July 26, 2010

Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief (Fox 2000 Films, 2010)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief, one of those maddeningly lengthy and convoluted titles (like those of the three Pirates of the Caribbean movies) that seems to be designed to herald not just one movie, but the first or latest entry in a series as well. I’d seen this listed as a featured selection from the Columbia House DVD Club and decided to order it thinking it would be a sort of guilty pleasure — Charles had been similarly tempted to buy it at Vons — and indeed it was, a pretty obvious and somewhat arbitrary piece of action porn but at least a good piece of action porn, with an inventive script (written by Craig Titley from a novel — the first of a series — by Rick Riordan) effectively staged by director Chris Columbus (when his first major film. Home Alone, came out in 1991 I joked, “Ah! His first hit in 499 years!” — and indeed he’s made the obvious pun on his name himself by calling his company 1492 Productions).

The conceit of this film is that not only are the ancient Greek gods real, but their practice of descending to earth for the purpose of having sex with mortals and ultimately having children by them is still going on. These bi-specific offspring are called “demigods” and one of them is Our Hero, Percy Jackson (played by the rather twinkie-ish Logan Lerman), who’s living in a ratty New York apartment with a distant mother, Sally (Catherine Keener), that seems like something out of Rebel Without a Cause and an even more repulsive stepfather, Gabe Ugliano (Joe Pantoliano) who seems like something out of A Streetcar Named Desire, expecting his wife to fetch him his beer (when he starts chewing her out because she’s told him his beer is in the refrigerator, and he says, “I don’t think it’s going to magically levitate its way into my hand,” it’s his way of telling her to get it for him and she doesn’t dare snap back, “Get it yourself,” for fear of a beating) and later expecting her to service his poker buddies similarly.

The only time Percy really feels comfortable is in his high school’s swimming pool, where he feels one with the water; it turns out that this is because he’s the son of the sea god Poseidon (Kevin McKidd), who stepped out on earth long enough to have a torrid affair with Sally (at least Riordan and Titley described their relationship as lasting several months so we didn’t have to believe Percy was the result of one of those infallible pregnancies at a single contact!) before running back to Mount Olympus and having to deal with the edict from Zeus (Sean Bean) that gods are no longer to be allowed contact with their half-human offspring. Previously we’ve seen an establishing scene in which Poseidon — who’s shown in the rather murky opening shot as walking out of his normal habitat in the ocean and onto dry land for the confrontation — arguing with Zeus over who stole Zeus’s all-powerful lightning bolt, thereby denying the gods their most powerful weapon and threatening to start a war between the gods that will put the earth, including all human life, at considerable risk.

It turns out that Grover Underwood (Brandon T. Jackson), whom we’d seen first as an African-American fellow student on crutches, is himself a mythological creature: a satyr, a man with goat’s legs and an insatiable demand for sex. He’s delegated to give Percy the word that he’s really Perseus, Poseidon’s son and the only person who can recover Zeus’s lightning bolt in the requisite two weeks (the deadline has been set by the summer solstice) and return it to him to avoid the catastrophe that would befall earth if the gods used it as the battlefield for their own conflicts. It turns out that the three brother gods — Zeus, Poseidon and Hades (British comedian Steve Coogan, who played the Factory Records owner in 24 Hour Party People — who gained power in the first place by killing their father, the Titan Cronus, have never quite got along, and now that Zeus lost his lightning bolt he’s really upset and he’s convinced Percy has it. Grover takes Percy to a sort of boot camp for Greek heroes, where Percy meets the warrior Annabeth (Alexandra Daddario), daughter of the goddess Athena.

Percy immediately falls in love with — or at least gets a big-time crush on — Annabeth even though, as both a trained warrior and the daughter of the goddess of wisdom, keeps getting into battles with him and whipping his ass. When Percy finally out-fights and out-smarts her, the people running the demigod boot camp — including his old antiquities professor, Brunner (Pierce Brosnan), who it turns out was actually a half-man, half-horse centaur and more or less takes charge of Percy’s training. What follows is a Russian box of a plot, as Hades kidnaps Percy’s mother and takes her to the Underworld, from which Percy, Grover and Annabeth must rescue her. To do that, they have to obtain three of Persephone’s pearls — actually rather cheap-looking props that resemble giant green marbles (not as in valuable statues made of rock — as in cheap glass spheres children play with) — which are needed for anyone who isn’t dead to be able to make it out of the Underworld again. To obtain the pearls, they have to visit magic locations on a map — and Riordan and/or Titley had a great deal of fun spotting these around the United States and keying the menace involved in each one to the locale.

The first is in a Midwestern curiosity shop whose proprietress advertises herself as “Auntie Em” (a nice and welcome acknowledgment of this story’s debt to The Wizard of Oz, also a combination coming-of-age story and quest narrative) but turns out to be Medusa (Uma Thurman, who before she unveils her head and reveals the snake is wearing a dark turban and sunglasses that give her a striking resemblance to Yoko Ono), the sight of whose head, with its snakes instead of hair, instantly turns the viewer into a stone statue (though after Medusa’s head is severed — the original Perseus killed her by bringing a mirror into combat and looking at her in the mirror, and this film’s Percy accomplishes the same thing with the reflective back of his cell phone — and it presumably has the same petrification effect, a hotel maid who sees it simply screams with fright and escapes, still in fleshly form).

The next is a full-scale reproduction of the Parthenon in Nashville, in which the pearl is embedded in the headdress of the giant statue of Athena and Percy has to use some winged sneakers — provided to him earlier by Luke (Jake Abel, whom I found considerably sexier than Logan Lerman!), son of the god Hermes — to get to it. He also has to fight a Hydra that springs up in the middle of the temple, and he chops all its heads off and thinks he’s killed it — and it’s only then that Annabeth tells him that that’s the wrong thing to do when fighting a Hydra because for every head you slice off it, it just grows two more. (Throughout the movie one gets the impression that if Percy had paid more attention to Prof. Brunner’s lectures on Greek mythology, he’d be a lot better off now.) Eventually Percy manages to kill the Hydra by gaining extra strength through making himself wet — since he’s the son of Poseidon, water has the same effect on him that earth had on Antaeus, the giant son of the earth goddess Gaia who was rejuvenated every time he was knocked down (and whom Hercules — odd that the Roman form of Herakles’ name is used here even though all the other characters’ names are in Greek form — defeated by holding him up with one hand and punching him out with the other so he’d be overpowered without ever touching the earth).

The next sequence is the most artfully done in terms of transposing the Greek myths into modern cultural terms: the third pearl is in Las Vegas, where it’s being used as a roulette ball at the Lotus Casino — the old story of the Lotus Eaters is transformed into a sort of parable of the timelessness and ennui of a trip to Vegas, with people being continuously drugged by being served lotus flower-shaped hors d’oeuvres and where one man playing a French Connection pinball machine has lost track of all time that has elapsed since that movie’s release. Eventually they pull themselves away and make it to the Underworld, through a portal located at the Hollywood sign, and it turns out Persephone (Rosario Dawson ) is being held there in a loveless marriage with Hades but has the hots for Grover and wants him to stay behind — hey, he’s a satyr, after all; he had to get laid sometime! — while Percy, his mom and Annabeth use the pearls to return to Mount Olympus. They also realize that Luke actually stole Zeus’s lightning bolt and hid it in Percy’s shield to frame him — the sexiest guy in the movie would turn out to be the villain! — and there’s a clever tag scene, interrupting the credits, in which Percy gets a marvelously twisted revenge against his evil stepfather. Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief is a delightful movie, not a world beater but a marvelous piece of light entertainment, maybe a little long for its own good at 115 minutes but still a lot of fun and artfully done in its parallels between ancient and modern myths.

Alfred Hitchcock Presents: The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (Shamley/Revue, 1962)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was The Sorcerer’s Apprentice — not either the current movie from the Disney studio or the 1940 segment from Walt Disney’s Fantasia that inspired it, but a grim little half-hour episode from the last season of the TV series Alfred Hitchcock Presents that was so scary the original sponsor decided to have nothing to do with it, it was pulled from its scheduled network airing and not seen until the series finally made its way into syndication. Though Hitchcock didn’t direct this episode personally — it was done by a director whose name was variously spelled Joseph Lejtes and Josef Leytes — it did involve two of the key talents behind his film Psycho, writer Robert Bloch (whose novel had been the source for Psycho and who here not only supplied the original story but did his own adaptation) and cinematographer John L. Russell.

The tale involves Hugo (Brandon de Wilde), a young man who’s just turned 18 and has been released from the orphanage where he’s spent his whole life — or at least all of it he remembers — where he’s acquired a surprisingly naïve view of human existence. He falls asleep on the grounds of a carnival and is discovered by Irene Sadini (Diana Dors, top-billed), on-stage partner and off-stage wife of Victor Sadini (David J. Stewart), the carnival’s magician. The moment he sees Irene, Hugo falls into a teenage crush at first sight, telling her she looks like an angel — and telling Victor, when he appears on the scene, that he looks like the devil. Victor tries to convince him that he really isn’t the devil and all the tricks he does in his act are just that — tricks, done with sleight-of-hand and special apparatus — but Irene wants Hugo to believe otherwise and she has a quite nasty, self-serving reason for doing so.

It seems that Irene is carrying on an affair with a high-wire walker, George Morris (a surprisingly butch-looking Larry Kert) and wants to get rid of her husband but fears the beating she’ll get if she asks him for a divorce, so she convinces Hugo to murder Victor so she and George can be together and Hugo will take the fall. Only Hugo becomes convinced that Victor’s “magic wand” — which we, of course, know is really just a prop — is the secret of his power, and in a final scene that still scares even though we know what’s going to happen well before it does, Hugo straps Irene into the apparatus for the saw-a-lady-in-half trick and, not knowing how the trick works, actually saws her in half — and as we hear her screams the show fades out.

One can see why this tale rubbed the sponsors the wrong way — even so it’s still a good illustration of the surprising freedom Hitchcock had on his TV show relative to his films, including quite a few stories in which murderers get away with their crimes (something he couldn’t have got away with in films at the time — unless you count Vertigo, in which the censors probably missed that Tom Helmore’s character got away with murder and escaped scot-free at the end because Hitchcock, with his own magician’s skill at indirection, threw so many other more momentous dramatic issues at us we just forgot about it). The Sorcerer’s Apprentice was a nicely chilling little movie, vividly shot in noir-esque chiaroscuro by Russell and with the ghastly outcome of Bloch’s tale marvelously dramatized in a way that made it genuinely shocking instead of just disgusting.

The Client List (Jaffe-Braunstein/Lifetime, 2010)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I began it watching a movie that had aired on Lifetime Saturday night, The Client List, which for two-thirds of its running time was a pretty ordinary Lifetime tale of a woman (this time 28 and married rather than barely out of her teens, and doing it to save her home from foreclosure and provide for her out-of-work husband and three kids) drifting into prostitution and drug addiction. Desperate because they’ve received a foreclosure notice and the banker who sold them the subprime loan in the first place won’t (or, in the real world, most likely can’t) renegotiate, Samantha “Sam” Horton (Jennifer Love Hewitt) accepts a job at a “massage parlor” in Ladeena, Texas (a substantial but not ridiculously long commute from her home in another Texas town). She thinks she’d being hired as a legitimate masseuse but soon learns that the place is a whorehouse only thinly disguised as a massage parlor — and kept from being raided only by the freebies the madam hands out to the local cops.

The film is ostensibly based on a true story, though the closing credits acknowledge that what we see is heavily fictionalized, and Sam starts her career as a prostitute for her family in general and her husband Rex (Teddy Sears, considerably hotter-looking than the milquetoasts Lifetime usually casts in parts like this) in particular. The gimmick is that one reason she’s especially successful is her extraordinary memory, which enables her not only to recall the sexual preferences of all of her customers but also make small talk with them about their jobs, their families (one gets the impression from this film that a prostitute is also a sort of marriage counselor) and all manner of details about their lives that charm them and get her bigger tips. In fact, she throws herself into the job so enthusiastically that by mid-film she’s having trouble maintaining the energy even to stay awake, much less to keep up with her clientele and her family responsibilities (she raises the $100 her son needs to compete in flag football but then doesn’t make it to the game when he scores his first touchdown) — until a trucker who’s one of her “regulars” introduces her to cocaine, and in the space of a couple of commercial breaks she’s hooked big-time, even getting rude to her customers out of withdrawal frenzies and not giving them the kind of small talk that had endeared her to them before.

She’s staging a scene like that when the place gets raided — apparently Ladeena’s woman mayor is in the middle of a tough re-election campaign and she’s decided to mount an offensive against the “massage parlor” and bust not only the prostitutes but also the clients they’re servicing. Our Heroine gets busted and is defended by an African-American woman attorney who, along with a local bartender, has been part of her group of two other women confidantes — and the lawyer tells her that the only way she can duck a two-year prison sentence is if she can give up the names of her customers. She recruits the other girls and they come up with a list of 69 names — and of course screenwriter Suzanne Martin can’t resist a few jokes about the sexual appropriateness of that number — and with the ammunition of the clients’ names they’re able to bargain their sentences down to 30 days each. But, needless to say, the strain of the revelation that his wife is a prostitute and a drug addict has led Rex to leave her and take the kids — though they seem headed for a reconciliation at the end after she and one of her buddies from the massage parlor have taken jobs as waitresses (the irony being that in their days as whores they had joked that however bad it got, “it’s better than waitressing”) and Sam and Rex have a reunion meeting at the end which gets underscored with one of the sappy piano-and-strings instrumentals that seems to abound in Lifetime’s music library for scenes like these.

The film is a bit overdirected by Eric Laneuville — his worst sequence is one in which, to dramatize how lonely she feels in her house now that her husband and the kids are gone, he dissolves from her in the bedroom to her in the living room to her in the kitchen, and she seems to be moving magically around the house in a sort of female version of Where’s Waldo? — but as it stands it’s still nice clean dirty fun even though much less is made of the potential embarrassment to the big men of Ladeena (and surrounding environs) from their exposure as customers of prostitutes than could have been. The best line is one in which the attorney responds to the judge who’s on Sam’s list by saying, “I used to have a crush on him!” — and Sam replies, “Sometimes small things come in big packages.”

The Adventures of Jane Arden (Warners, 1939)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was an intriguing 1939 Warners’ “B” called The Adventures of Jane Arden, based on a then decade-old comic strip about a wisecracking, aggressive woman reporter who solved crimes; it was created by Monte Barrett and Russell E. Ross and ran from 1928 to 1968. Though her boyfriend is her managing editor instead of a cop, this was essentially a Torchy Blane film with different character names (indeed Warners may have intended it as the first part of a series to replace the Blane films), with an actress named Rosella Towne whom I’ve otherwise never heard of playing Jane Arden (quite effectively, too, with the same indomitable spunk Joan Blondell and Glenda Farrell brought to similar roles for the studio) and William Gargan his usual boring self as her editor, Ed Towers.

The plot starts out with the murder of socialite Martha Blanton (Maris Wrixon), a participant in a jewel-robbery ring run by phony “doctor” George Vanders (James Stephenson, a quite interesting actor Warners was building up as a specialist in suave villainy — though his most famous role was a sympathetic one, as Bette Davis’s attorney in the 1940 film The Letter, and after having started his film career relatively late, 49, he died suddenly of a heart attack at 53 in 1941). The police arrest a rather milquetoast guy as a suspect but Jane’s convinced he didn’t do it, and she has a plan to catch the person who did — but after the rival papers scoop hers on the case Towers abruptly fires her, and also fires her roommate Teenie Moore (Dennie Moore), the paper’s advice-to-the-lovelorn columnist.

Later — in a scene possibly borrowed from the 1936 film Bullets or Ballots (Edward G. Robinson as a cop ostensibly fired from the force so that, still working for the police, he can be recruited by the crooks and infiltrate their gang undercover) and ironically recycled by Warners for several of their war movies (Humphrey Bogart and Errol Flynn supposedly turning traitor so the enemy will contact them for some nefarious sabotage plot) — Towers meets Jane surreptitiously and explains that he’s going to send her on a mission to infiltrate the gang of jewel thieves for which Martha was working, whose above-board front is a jewelry store owned by Albert Thayer (Pierre Martin). Jane goes in with a pair of pearl earrings that’s been privately reported stolen by an association of jewelry stores but not officially reported to law enforcement, Thayer recognizes the stones and is about to have Jane arrested, when Dr. Vanders sees her through a one-way mirror and decides he’d like to recruit her for his latest scheme: to steal a priceless item from a government ball in Bermuda. He’d also like to recruit her for sexual purposes, much to the chagrin of his existing girlfriend and partner in crime, Lola Martin (Peggy Shannon).

Jane hooks up with Vanders on the ship to Bermuda, but Thayer quickly learns who she is and radios the information to Vanders aboard ship. The crooks do a ship-to-shore phone call and decide to have Towers kidnapped and threaten to kill him unless Jane goes through with the jewel theft as scheduled, but meanwhile Towers escapes and takes a plane to Bermuda to intercept the thieves — and when Vanders and Jane show up at the ball they find that the jewels they were after were already stolen — by Lola, who wanted to get back at Vanders for apparently having jilted her in favor of Jane — and there’s a spectacular chase sequence in horse-drawn carriages as Towers tries to get to the airport, where Vanders has a plane waiting to take him out of Bermuda with the loot, with at least one head-on shot obviously clipped from a Warners Western and used here as stock footage. Eventually Towers corners Vanders at the airport and shoots him, Lola gets a neat death scene (Vanders pushed her from the carriage at high speed and she dies of the injuries sustained in the fall) and Towers and Jane end up alternately kissing and arguing on the steamship taking them home as the movie ends.

All this story gets told in a brisk 53 minutes, courtesy of zippy director Terry Morse and a concise script by future director Vincent Sherman with Lawrence Kimble and Charles Curran, and why Rosella Towne didn’t become a star at the level of Blondell and Farrell is a mystery to me: she certainly matches their snappy authority in this sort of role. It was also ironic, the day after San Diego’s Comic-Con concluded, to be watching a movie based on a comic strip long before movies (especially ones that weren’t serials) based on comic strips were cool.

Friday, July 23, 2010

To the Ends of the Earth (Columbia, 1948)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was To the Ends of the Earth, a 1948 Columbia production starring Dick Powell as a nark — yes, he’s a high-ranking agent for what was then the U.S. Treasury Department’s Bureau of Narcotics, and he’s based in San Francisco and is supposed to be embarking on a vacation when he receives a report that a ship known to be involved in the illegal opiates trade has been working its way off the west coast of South America, up past Mexico and off southern California, and is heading his way. He gets a ride on a Coast Guard cutter (the Coast Guard was then also a part of the Treasury Department) and catches up to the ship, the Kira Maru — though the framing sequence featuring Powell’s character, Michael Barrows, reminiscing about one of his old cases is set in 1948, the case he’s remembering (and narrating to us via voice-over) took place in 1935, when Japan had already occupied Manchuria and had established influence on the Chinese mainland, which is how the vessel Barrows spots, the Kira Maru, is registered in Shanghai but has a Japanese name (and the captain, whom Barrows sees on the bridge and is certain he’ll recognize if he sees him again, is Japanese).

The reason the captain makes such an impression on Barrows is that he’s carrying a cargo of undocumented aliens aboard, 100 Chinese being held in slavery and chained to each other, and with the Coast Guard giving chase (and too spooked to realize that he was already outside U.S. territorial waters and therefore the Coast Guard couldn’t do a damned thing to him without breaking the law themselves) the captain releases the chains and all 100 Chinese, weighted down by the chains as well as each other’s bodies, sink to the bottom of the sea and drown in one of the most chilling scenes put on film in the Production Code era. Barrows gets permission to go to Shanghai and see if he can find the Kira Maru’s captain and also learn what he was supposed to do with the opium, which was being grown in a poppy field in Egypt, shipped to Shanghai for processing into opium paste, and then further refined into a more compact morphine base for smuggling via Havana into New York and its end users.

The film is a weird mix of Left and Right politics — or rather what would be Left and Right politics now; 1948 audiences probably read it more ambiguously — reflecting the political orientations of its makers: Powell was a member of the pro-blacklist Hollywood Right (organized as the “Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals”) while producer and uncredited co-screenwriter Sidney Buchman (best known today as the writer of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and the producer of A Song to Remember and The Jolson Story) was an out-and-out Communist, not just a falsely named blacklist victim or a Left-wing sympathizer but the real hammer-and-sickle McCoy. One of the fascinating things about this movie is its frankly pro-globalization agenda — at a time when it was the Left that supported globalization in general and the United Nations in particular and the Right who saw them as part of the international Communist conspiracy to subvert and take over the Free World — the film goes out of its way to dramatize the extent to which the illegal drug problem is far greater than the law-enforcement capability of any single country, and therefore everyone in the world must work together to trace the criminals across the world and apprehend them.

Indeed, the film begins and ends with international meetings of the world’s officials dealing with narcotics, including documentary footage of the notorious Harry J. Anslinger, founder of the Bureau of Narcotics, playing himself and taking part in these conferences (held at a surprisingly elaborate United Nations temporary headquarters on Long Island before they moved into their big building in New York City on the East River), and Powell’s character is high enough in the leadership of the Bureau that he reports to Anslinger personally. The film follows a single narcotics shipment across the world from Egypt to China to Cuba to New York, and throughout the story the narcotics officials in each country want to apprehend their locals and confiscate the drugs, and Barrows keeps talking them out of it because he wants to follow the drugs to the end of their distribution chain so he can arrest the higher-ups who control the entire ring. (There’s a fascinating scene in which Barrows’ opposite number in Cuba’s drug enforcement agency asks him how he can let the millions of dollars’ worth of narcotics currently in his country be smuggled out, and Barrows wins his reluctant approval — though his misgivings are recalled when the smugglers hit on an ingenious method of getting them off the ship without having to get them through New York customs and the good guys almost lose track of them completely.)

While all of this is going on Barrows is sometimes escorting and sometimes tracking a mysterious woman named Ann Grant (Signe Hasso), whom he’s convinced is the mysterious “Jane Hawks” in charge of the entire smuggling ring — her now-dead husband was an engineer who designed and built the irrigation system that allowed the crooks to grow opium poppies in the Egyptian desert; Ann is also traveling with a Chinese immigrant girl named Shu Pan Wu (and played by someone billed only as “Maylia”) who’s supposed to be given a home in San Francisco after fleeing war-torn Shanghai — only, in a final reversal [spoiler alert!] that stayed with me from my first viewing of this film on the “Dialing for Dollars” movies-on-TV show in the Bay Area in the early 1970’s, it turns out that Shu Pan Wu, not Ann Grant, is the mastermind of the drug ring: her motive was loyalty to her real country, Japan (she’s half-Japanese and that’s the half that she’s loyal to), who wanted to smuggle drugs into the U.S. and the rest of the Western world to weaken their will to resist when World War II finally occurred and Japan and the U.S. ended up fighting on opposite sides of it. When I read Joe Gores’ 1970’s novel Hammett — a fictional mystery using the real-life Dashiell Hammett as a detective investigating mysterious crimes in San Francisco in 1928 — I couldn’t help but wonder if he was ripping off To the Ends of the Earth when he made the character of Crystal Tam, a teenage Chinese prostitute who’s introduced stoically enduring being gang-raped by three of her clients, the ultimate head of his criminal organization (and, at least in Gores’ fictional universe, the inspiration for Brigid O’Shaughnessy in The Maltese Falcon).

To the Ends of the Earth is also an unusual movie in that virtually everyone in it is in disguise: Barrows has taken a false name and identity as an importer and salesman of Oriental rugs; his contact with the Chinese narcotics bureau, Lum Chi Chow (Vladimir Sokoloff), maintains a cover identity running a shop selling tasteless chinoiserie knickknacks to tourists in Shanghai; the conspirators in the drug racket in Shanghai include tour guide George C. Shannon (John Hoyt) — Barrows goes on his group’s tour of Shanghai and one of the gang members picks his pockets and retrieves his notebook, thereby “outing” him and setting up a scene in which the baddies beat him up (well, it wouldn’t be a Dick Powell thriller if he didn’t get beaten up at some point in the plot — and I joked that as he came to, he’d be saying, “I had a terrible dream! I dreamed I was in the middle of a Busby Berkeley production number!”) — and rickshaw company owner Nicholas Sokim (Ludwig Donath), who’s sheltering the captain of the Kira Maru by giving him a job as a rickshaw runner and is also maintaining on his premises the lab needed to refine the raw opium on its first stage into a marketable narcotic drug.

Virtually every character we meet is involved in the drug business on either the crooks’ or the law’s side — one starts to wonder if there are any innocent bystanders left — and To the Ends of the Earth (effectively directed by Robert Stevenson from the script by Jay Richard Kennedy and the uncredited Buchman) doesn’t really have the moral ambiguity to qualify as film noir, but it’s certainly an entertaining thriller that’s less well known than it should be. Almost certainly it got on TV in the early 1970’s because of its striking similarity to The French Connection — also about a militant cop tracing a narcotics shipment around the world — though I think To the Ends of the Earth, despite its lack of anything like the baroque car chase that’s the first thing anybody thinks of about The French Connection, is a better movie overall and probably closer to the truth of how the drug laws are enforced (or at least were enforced at the time it was made).

Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Living Ghost (Monogram, 1942)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was The Living Ghost, a 1942 Monogram production that was billed as mystery and horror but was really — at least in intent, rather than result — more of a comedy than anything else. The star was James Dunn (TCM was doing a whole afternoon of Dunn’s movies), pretty portly by then, cast as Nick Trayne, a former D.A.’s investigator and private detector who has now set up in business as “The Sympathetic Ear.” This entails him offering customers the opportunity to sit in his office and tell him their troubles so they can get them off their chests and feel better about them. Trayne only charges $2 an hour for this service — which made me wonder why he didn’t have psychiatrists breathing down his neck and threatening to sue him for unfair competition, since he was basically offering the same service they were at a fraction of the cost to his consumers. Nonetheless, a joke that sophisticated was beyond the meager imagination of Joseph Hoffman, who wrote this script from an original story by Howard Dimsdale.

There’s a brilliant scene early on in Trayne’s office, with a mad cast of eccentrics — including one of those people, common in Monogram movies of the period, who spoke in gibberish with an occasional insertion of an English phrase (or at least something that sounded like real English words) — in the Monogram Charlie Chan movie Dark Alibi we saw an African-American comedy duo doing something like this as a gag (they were speaking recognizable words but cutting each other’s sentences short) and being quite amusing, and in his 1966 concert recording in Manchester Bob Dylan pulls something similar to shut up the hecklers in his audience: he starts spouting gibberish that sounds like English and the audience falls quiet in an attempt to make out what he’s saying. (This makes me wonder if this is an old carnival performer’s trick which Dylan picked up because during his boyhood in Hibbing, Minnesota, traveling carnivals were the main form of entertainment available to residents of Hibbing and other towns that remote.)

Trayne enters the action when the anxious family of multimillionaire Walter Craig (Gus Glassmire) calls him in to find him after he’s disappeared and been presumed kidnapped — I joked that rival private eyes Walter Playne and Sammy Boatt were unavailable — and they send the housekeeper’s daughter, Billie Hilton (Joan Woodbury), to fetch him and bring him into the case. What results is a movie that once Trayne arrives at the Craig mansion, hardly ever leaves it again — except for a run-out to a doctor’s office as Trayne and Billie seek an explanation once Walter Craig returns, but with his cortex basically fried with toxic drugs so that he’s in a virtual coma which will last about a year or two and for which there’s no known cure other than time. The film then turns into a whodunit — though Hoffman’s writing and William Beaudine’s direction are both so sloppy and uninvolving it’s more of a whocareswhodunit — and for what it’s worth Charles guessed the culprit who put Walter Craig into his medically induced almost-coma state was his wife Helen (Edna Johnson), whose motive became clear once it was revealed that she was frozen out of Craig’s will and if he died all his money would go to their daughter Tina (Jan Wiley). My money was on Craig’s business manager, Tony Weldon (George Eldredge, yet another portly, middle-aged Monogram villain), and it turned out they were both in on it, and “it” was a plot to loot the Craig fortune since if Craig died Helen would be frozen out, but if he were alive but incapacitated Helen could help herself to his money legally.

The whodunit plot was less interesting to Hoffman than the Nick-and-Noraish byplay he wanted to establish between the Dunn and Woodbury characters (the two actors had made at least one previous movie together, the recently rediscovered 1937 RKO film Living on Love, no great shakes as a film but a damned sight better than this one!), but the film ultimately sinks under the weight of all too many lines of supposedly snappy dialogue that hang there limply and don’t evoke laughter at all. The Living Ghost is a disappointing movie because in a lot of ways it’s a better-than-average “B” — the premise is provocative (though it would have taken much more careful writing than Dimsdale and Hoffman offered to make a viable movie out of it) and the sets have a refreshing solidity to them (this is one Monogram where one doesn’t have to worry about literally shaky sets collapsing on the actors at any moment), while Mack Stengler’s camerawork is better than his average and blessedly free from the shadow moustaches his errant lighting sometimes provided for female cast members. It’s just a wearing experience to hear these actors — the portly, un prepossessing Dunn and the quite good Woodbury (I think she was a superb performer and only the oddly bony structure of her face kept her from the major-studio stardom she certainly had the acting chops for!) — spout reams and reams of Joseph Hoffman dialogue that’s clearly several orders of magnitude less funny than he clearly thought it was, and hardly a patch on the Albert Hackett-Frances Goodrich repartee in the MGM Thin Man movies with William Powell and Myrna Loy that were obviously Hoffman’s inspiration!

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

I, Robot (20th Century-Fox, 2004)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I, Robot began life as a series of short stories written by science-fiction superstar Isaac Asimov in the early 1950’s which were ultimately collected into a book of that title. The only unifying theme Asimov had to link his various robot fictions were a series of principles he dubbed the “Three Laws of Robotics,” rules put into place to make sure his robots (unlike those of the Czech writer Karel Cápek, who coined the term “robot” for a mechanical humanoid in the first place for his 1923 play R.U.R. — “robot” is simply the Czech word for “worker”) never banded together, overthrew or annihilated their creators and took over the world. The three laws are: 1) a robot must never harm a human being, or allow a human being to come to harm through inaction; 2) a robot must obey all orders from human beings, unless that would conflict with the first law; and 3) a robot must do all it can to ensure its own survival, unless that would conflict with the first and second laws. Asimov was writing in a relatively optimistic time, and he was enough of an optimist himself that he posited what he called, in the last story of I, Robot, “The Evitable Conflict” — meaning that whatever mistakes might happen in human-robot interactions, they would always be self-correcting and any disruption of the equilibrium between humans and robots would be temporary and would work itself out according to the Three Laws.

Needless to say, when I, Robot was filmed in 2004 it was based on an original story by Jeff Vintar, scripted by Vintar and well-known action hack Akiva Goldsman, and merely “suggested by” Asimov’s book — which seems to mean that they used the Three Laws of Robotics and some of the character names but almost nothing else. What emerged from Vintar, Goldsman and director Alex Proyas (whose best-known previous credit was probably The Crow) was not the utopian vision of Asimov but a trendily dystopian one, centered around Del Spooner (Will Smith), a homicide detective in Chicago in 2035. Del has a pathological hatred of robots and is convinced that the Three Laws are B.S. and someday a robot is going to start committing crimes. In the opening scene he’s chasing a robot who’s carrying a blue purse, which Spooner is convinced he’s snatched; it turns out he’s only returning a lost purse to its owner at the owner’s request. The whole scene, and in particular the havoc Spooner wreaks as he’s giving chase to the robot and the anger with which the woman who owned both purse and robot greets his attempt to arrest it, seems a premonition of Will Smith’s later film Hancock, in which he played a blundering superhero — a far less pretentious movie than I, Robot and also a lot more fun.

Nonetheless, a robot does indeed become a crime suspect when Dr. Alfred Lanning (James Cromwell), director of research for U.S. Robotics (the company that makes all the robots and is about to launch a new model, the NS-5, when the film begins), falls to his death through a window in his office in U.S. Robotics’ state-of-the-art headquarters building in Chicago. The rest of the police rule it a suicide and don’t want to investigate any further, but Spooner keeps digging and finds that Dr. Lanning built a rogue robot called Sonny (“played,” via a motion-capture system, by actor Alan Tudyk in the same way Andy Serkis played Gollum the renegade hobbit in The Lord of the Rings and the title role in Rings director Peter Jackson’s remake of King Kong) who’s been programmed not to be compelled to obey the Three Laws. Spooner hooks up with U.S. Robotics psychologist Dr. Susan Calvin (Bridget Moynahan, a considerably better actress than usually plays the damsel-in-distress in action films these days) to try to find Sonny — in one grimly funny scene, albeit pretty obviously copied from the Matrices, Spooner is trying to find Sonny in a room full of 1,000 otherwise identical robots and he reasons that if he keeps shooting at them, the one that defends itself against a human attack (thereby violating the First Law) will be “outed” as the rogue.

The vision of the future given here is modishly dire, complete with things like auto-controlled cars (when Spooner disables the auto-control mechanism on his white streamlined BMW patrol car and actually drives it himself, everyone who hears about it is shocked because that’s something that in 2035 is never done) and robots gradually insinuating themselves into everyday life much the way computers have done in our own time (and Vintar and Goldsman artfully incorporate enough Internet jargon into their script to give the impression that the “robotization” of human society — including U.S. Robotics’ ambitious plan to make their product so cheap all but the very poorest people can afford one — is merely a further development from the “computerization” of society in our age), but the film is also burdened by seemingly interminable and not especially thrilling action sequences before Spooner, Dr. Calvin and Sonny piece together the plot. Midway through the movie we learn that Spooner is himself at least partially robotic — when he was a child he was involved in an auto accident: his parents were killed and so was an 11-year-old girl in the other car, and he never forgave the robot on the scene for sparing him but leaving the girl to die. Spooner’s left arm was severed in the crash and Dr. Lanning built him a new one with his robot technology — which we learn when he’s struck by a piece of heated metal and it burns hash marks in his robotic arm but causes him no pain. (In a rather odd in-joke, the driver of the other car was someone named “Harold Lloyd,” and Spooner’s condition is a reference to the famous accident suffered by the real Harold Lloyd, who lost two fingers of his right hand when a prop bomb exploded early, and who for the rest of his career wore a glove that concealed the loss. This gimmick would make considerably more sense if the young moviegoers who are the target audience for a sci-fi action movie knew or cared who Harold Lloyd was.)

The film ends with an all-out battle between humans and robots sparked by the U.S. Robotics super-computer VIKI (voiced by Fiona Hogan, who also appears visually as a face that appears on VIKI’s monitor screen whenever the computer talks); it seems that VIKI has realized humanity’s penchant for starting wars, starving each other and otherwise hurting their own kind, and has re-interpreted the Three Laws as justification for a kind of benevolent dictatorship in which the robots will rule over the humans and protect them from their failings — only, needless to say, none of the humans (including Farber, a young punk who flits in and out of the action and is played by Shia LeBoeuf) are exactly thrilled by the idea of being ruled by robots, and in a scene largely lifted from 2001: A Space Odyssey Spooner and Dr. Calvin do a thrilling descent (including an intriguing high-tech variation on the sliding-down-the-sail-on-a-sword stunt Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. did in The Black Pirate in 1926 and Burt Lancaster reprised in The Crimson Pirate in 1952) into the innards of VIKI to insert “nanites,” sub-microscopic robots whose presence will act as a sort of quasi-biological virus inside VIKI and disable her, thereby snapping all the robots back to their original programming to serve humans instead of rule them.

There’s a nice little Gollum-like bit of indecision on the part of Sonny whether to take the humans’ side or VIKI’s, and an almost inevitable plot turn in which Spooner has to conquer his fear of heights to disarm VIKI — and director Proyas even copies Stanley Kubrick’s famous gimmick from 2001 of having the computer’s voice slow down, like an old-fashioned wind-up phonograph running down, as it dies (though mercifully he at least spared us the sound of VIKI singing “Bicycle Built for Two” as it expires). Even though it has at least a pro forma happy ending, I, Robot is a considerably darker, Matrix-influenced vision of the human-machine conflict — not for Vintar, Goldsman and Proyas Asimov’s schoolboy optimism that humans could design a system that would control the worst impulses of humanity from taking over and abusing humanity’s creations — though one nice thing about I, Robot is that its vision of the future is “darker” than that from 1950’s sci-fi in a quite positive way: an African-American actor is playing their hero — a refreshing change from the idea one got in 1950’s sci-fi movies that the human race of the future would be entirely white.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Truth About Youth (Warners as “First National,” 1930)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The Truth About Youth was a 1930 Warners’ production based on a 30-year-old play, When We Were Twenty-One, by a writer named Henry V. Esmond. Produced under the “First National” imprint, The Truth About Youth was probably considered an antediluvian story then — the play had been produced on Broadway three times but the last time had been 1906 — and it doesn’t seem like screenwriter B. Harrison Orkow did much to update it. The top-billed star is Loretta Young, playing gooder-than-good Phyllis Ericson, daughter of the housekeeper to Col. Graham (J. Farrell MacDonald), who has been raising the young Richard Dane (David Manners) since he was six and his father died in an accident. Dad apparently lingered on a bit before expiring, since his last instructions were that Graham and his friends Richard Carewe (Conway Tearle) and Horace “Waddles” Palmer (Harry Stubbs) form a trio of guardians to raise young Richard, whose childhood nickname “The Imp” has stuck even though as the film opens he’s just about to turn 21.

The Guardians (that’s how they’re referred to throughout the movie) and Phyllis have planned a surprise birthday party for the Imp, complete with a symbolic place setting for his deceased father, but the Imp doesn’t come home that night; instead he phones and says his old psychiatry professor is lecturing that night at Carnegie Hall. I wasn’t aware any nonmusical events ever took place at Carnegie Hall, but it doesn’t matter because as any even remotely experienced moviegoer could guess that’s just a blind. What the Imp is really doing is attending the opening of the swank Firefly Club, featuring a spectacular entertainer called Kara (Myrna Loy), who performs as “The Firefly” and sings a song called “Playing Around” (by Sam H. Stept and Bud Green) that reflects her character’s utter disinclination towards monogamy. The Imp has formed a mad crush on Kara even though the Guardians have been expecting him to marry Phyllis, with whom he’s grown up — and Kara, an out-and-out golddigger who contemptuously tells her French maid Babette (Yola d’Avril) that she wouldn’t even think of continuing to see her last boyfriend after he lost all his money, is stringing the Imp along because she thinks he’s in line to inherit a major fortune, even though in fact he and the Guardians are almost totally broke (though, typically for a 1930 movie, they still get to live in an enormous, lavishly appointed mansion).

In fact, the Imp and Kara actually sneak off and get married — only in the meantime Richard, who has thrown us a lot of burning looks indicating that he has an unrequited crush on Phyllis (and they’re both such blandly boring and “good” characters it’s clear they belong together — sort of like a Jane Austen novel), intercepts a letter Kara has written the Imp and, since the address says “Dear Richard,” decides to pose as the man Kara is in love with and even gives her $5,000 (if they’re all so broke, where did he get that kind of money?) to spend a month dating him and making it look like he’s her new sugar daddy, in hopes that will bring the Imp back to his senses and steer him back to Phyllis. In the end Kara dumps the Imp for a previous boyfriend whom she had dumped when he lost his fortune, but is willing to take back now that he’s regained it; and Richard says that they should have no trouble getting the marriage annulled, but in the meantime Phyllis and the elder Richard have decided they belong together and the Imp is left without either the good girl or the bad one.

The Truth About Youth is a pretty lame movie by any normal standard, but one thing it’s absolutely convincing about is what a wretched deal circumstances and these relentlessly overprotective adults have thrown David Manners’ character: hemmed in all his life by a group of people so prying he doesn’t even know the meaning of the word “privacy,” and further infantilized by that ridiculous nickname (obviously their own convenience in being able to keep him separate from Conway Tearle’s character though both have the first name “Richard” meant more to them than his psychological well-being and ability to grow up), it’s no wonder that at the first opportunity he’s staking out his freedom and engaging in adolescent rebellion, even with dire consequences for himself as well as his family. It’s also a fascinating movie for Myrna Loy fans, made while she was being typecast as a sexually and morally rambunctious character (born Myrna Williams, she had been given the name “Loy” by a Warners casting director who thought the slight slant in her eyes fitted her to play Asians and therefore she should have a Chinese-sounding name; she got a lot of roles as Asian nymphomaniacs, including Thirteen Women and The Mask of Fu Manchu, and even when she got to play white people they were still immoral ones until she rebelled for real and told Louis B. Mayer she would no longer act such roles — and Mayer, to his credit, told her, “I was wrong about you. From now on you will always be a lady” — and so she was).

Loy is wretchedly miscast as the vicious, heartless vamp, singing in a dubbed voice (and her voice double was an Ethel Mermanesque contralto whose honking tones don’t even begin to match Loy’s lovely speaking voice) and responding to David Manners’ revelation that he’s broke not by sending him off with an excuse and quietly calling her lawyer to get an annulment (what one would imagine a real-life golddigger would do) but screaming at him and ultimately throwing three vases at him, followed by his coat and hat — but she still acts the role to the hilt, playing like the professional she was and giving her all even for a part she clearly hated. What’s more, this is one of the few films she ever made that gave her a chance to dance; though she couldn’t sing, she was a fully trained professional dancer — she’d studied under Ted Shawn, husband of modern dancer Ruth St. Denis (the couple founded the famous Denishawn troupe and Loy was a member of their chorus) — but her dancing chops are showcased in only a handful of movies, including this one and the 1929 Warners all-star musical The Show of Shows (in which her contribution to the otherwise preposterous “Li-Po-Li” number, the one part of the movie that survives in the original two-strip Technicolor, is marvelous and suggests that somewhere there’s an alternative universe in which Fred Astaire and Myrna Loy made a series of great musicals, while William Powell and Ginger Rogers did a series of mysteries as a hard-drinking husband-and-wife detective team).

Monday, July 19, 2010

The Phenix City Story (Allied Artists, 1955)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The night before last Charles and I watched a movie I’d long been interested in seeing: The Phenix City Story — and no, that unusual spelling of “Phenix” is not a misprint: the location is Phenix City, Alabama, whose founders left out the “o” in the name of the more famous Phoenix in Arizona. It was a 1955 Allied Artists (née Monogram) production, directed by Phil Karlson from a script by Daniel Mainwaring and Crane Wilbur and so closely based on a genuine tale of urban corruption that the first 13 of its 100 minutes are an interminable prologue in which reporter Clete Roberts (one of the people who first exposed the systematic corruption in Phenix City) is shown as himself, interviewing some of the other real people involved in the story — including Hugh Bentley, whose house was blown up because he joined a committee that dared to confront the gang running Phenix City.

Some of the people in the prologue are also portrayed by actors in the main part of the movie — as is Alabama attorney John Patterson, who’s played by Richard Kiley through most of the film but appeared at the end, as himself, announcing that he hopes to win convictions against the gangsters whose apprehension (restaged for the film with actors in all the roles, both the gangsters themselves and the Alabama National Guardsmen who arrested them, since the corruption in Phenix City extended so far the state governor had to put the town under martial law because all the local cops were being paid off by the gangsters. It’s one of those movies whose documentary pretensions fit uneasily with its film noir style — and though Karlson reportedly went along with the documentary style and even got some of his actors the same clothes to wear as the characters they were playing had owned and worn, it’s clear he’s much more interested in the noir dramatic passages than in the documentary parts.

Phenix City itself was (and is) located on the Chattahoochee River that divides Alabama from Georgia; there’s another, larger city on the other side of the river from it — Columbus, Georgia — and also on the Georgia side is Fort Benning, the U.S. Army base that appears to have provided the vice kings of Phenix City much of their income, since most of the customers for their various illegal enterprises were soldiers stationed at the base and crossing over the river for some R&R. The “bad” side of Phenix City is centered around 14th Street, particularly the Poppy Club, a gambling joint (in which all the games are fixed — a montage sequence shows how they load the dice, mark the cards and otherwise skew the odds to make the house not only favored but virtually unbeatable) which is owned by Rhett Tanner (Edward Andrews), which depending on which hints in the dialogue you believe is either the man in charge of Phenix City’s criminal element or just the on-site lieutenant for a big syndicate headquartered somewhere else.

The film’s narrator (Ed Strickland) tells us that the Phenix City gang is involved in gambling, prostitution, drugs, rape (since when is rape an organized crime?) and a lot of other things the Production Code wouldn’t let Mainwaring, Wilbur and Karlson actually show — we get to see the gambling and at least get hints of the prostitution (we see bar girls at the Poppy Club and occasionally actors dressed in Army uniforms leave with them) but the rest is just talked about instead of actually shown. The most interesting aspect of the film is the sheer off-handed ruthlessness of the gang — they’re more like a modern-day Mexican drug cartel than anything you expect to see in a 1950’s movie, killing anybody who gets in their way with an attitude of almost nirvana-like unconcern either with consequences to themselves (since they own local law enforcement they don’t have to worry about getting caught) or collateral damage: in one of the film’s most chilling scenes, they sent a message to crusading attorney John Patterson by murdering an eight-year-old Black girl — daughter of Patterson’s friend Zeke Ward (James Edwards) — and throwing her body on the Pattersons’ doorstep with a penciled note attached saying, “The next time we do this to your kid.”

What made Phenix City a national scandal and ultimately inspired this movie was the recruitment, by the handful of civic leaders who wanted to do something about the vice, of Patterson’s father Albert (John McIntire) to run for Alabama attorney general, on the ground that the only elected officials who would be willing to do anything about Phenix City would have to be in a statewide office to which they could get elected without having to depend on the fixed ballot boxes of Phenix City and its surrounding county — and the gang’s response, which was to kill him just after he’d won the Democratic primary (tantamount to election in the one-party Democratic “Solid South” state Alabama still was then) in hopes that that would shut down the investigation. Before that the gangsters have killed Fred Gage (Biff McGuire), whose father Ed Gage (Truman Smith) was part of the secret reform committee, and his girlfriend Ellie Rhodes (a surprisingly powerful good-bad girl performance by Kathryn Grant; the movie world lost a quite talented actress when she quit to become the second Mrs. Bing Crosby!), a dealer at the Poppy Club who risked — and ultimately lost — her own life to get the good guys information about what the bad guys were doing and how they’d thought they’d get away with it.

The Phenix City Story has its pretentious moments — the crowd scenes are dorky and none of the actors are identified until the very end of the movie (I think because Karlson sensed that if we didn’t recognize the actors and identify them with their previous roles, we’d more readily believe in them as their characters — but for the most part it’s a powerful melodrama that would have been even more powerful if Karlson had been permitted to lose all the pretentious documentary stuff and shoot it as straight drama. Even as such, it’s one of the most violent crime films of the 1950’s — which is probably what Martin Scorsese, who’s named this one of his all-time favorite films, likes it so much — though the violence isn’t gratuitous but necessary to depict the reign of terror the decent Phenix Citians lived under with the criminal enterprises in their midst — though I did find myself wondering why the good people of Phenix City didn’t appeal to the U.S. military at least to try to place 14th Street off limits to servicemembers and thereby strike at the gang by cutting off the biggest source of their income.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Dangerous Blondes (Columbia, 1943)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Dangerous Blondes, a 1943 “B” from Columbia starring Evelyn Keyes and Anita Louise in the title roles. Keyes plays Jane Craig, who seems to be the girlfriend and is only later revealed to be the wife of successful mystery writer Barry Craig (Allyn Joslyn), whose friend Julie Taylor (Anita Louise) is in unrequited love with her boss, commercial photographer Ralph McCormick (Edmund Lowe), even though he’s already married. What’s more, he’s counting on his wife Erika (Ann Savage, who played one of the great screen femmes fatales in Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour in 1946 but here is ill-used) to get her aunt, Isabel Fleming (Mary Forbes), to do an advertisement for a brand of silverware; it seems that getting the fee for this picture is a make-or-break proposition and if he doesn’t do it, he’s going to go out of business.

Julie starts the movie by coming home and saying that she was assaulted in McCormick’s darkroom by a mysterious assailant who slashed the negatives of the Isabel Fleming picture — which means that Ralph has to re-call all the models who were in the photo and take it all over again. Only Aunt Isabel takes violent objection to a substitute model who appears in the second picture, Madge Lawrence (Bess Flowers), and won’t go through with the photo unless she’s fired — and, with no one else available on such short notice, Julie steps into the picture (literally and figuratively) herself. Needless to say, the lights go out and Aunt Isabel is murdered — as is Erika McCormick, considerably later in the film — and the Craigs and the offical police, led by Inspector Joseph Clinton (Frank Craven) and his sidekick, Detective Gatling (played by the marvelous William Demarest, who gets way too little screen time even though he’s that rarity in these sorts of movies: a “comic-relief” character who’s actually funny), have a friendly — and sometimes not-so-friendly — rivalry trying to solve the case and find the killer.

Dangerous Blondes was clearly working the same sort of comedy-mystery territory that had been ploughed so productively by MGM in the Thin Man movies, but despite some good gags and snappy dialogue it never really takes off. Part of the problem is that the mystery part of the story is singularly uninteresting, part of it is we’re confronted with a plethora of suspects and a shortage of comprehensible motives — this is one of those movies in which it’s difficult to keep track of who is who and how they all relate to each other, especially since it’s cast with a pretty anonymous group of actors who look all too much like each other — and the killer turns out to be a peripheral character, a gangster type who’s been hanging around the photo studio and who, it turned out, was in love with Mrs. McCormick and thought Aunt Isabel would get in his way … while with Mrs. McCormick conveniently offed during the action, the way is paved for Mr. McCormick and Julie to get together at the end, not that we really want them to.

The best sequence in the film comes early on: a radio quiz show in which Barry Craig and Inspector Clinton are leading rival teams — detective fiction writers vs. real detectives — answering questions about crime, and Detective Gatling misses the question, “Who invented the machine gun?,” hemming and hawing and admitting in frustration that he can’t come up with the answer even though “I know it as well as I know my own name!”

Thursday, July 15, 2010

The Magnificent Ambersons (RKO, 1942)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I flipped the channel back to American Movie Classics and watched Orson Welles’ almost-masterpiece, The Magnificent Ambersons, for the umpteenth time. I remain convinced that, had Ambersons been released in its original form instead of the 88-minute version that remains (two-thirds of Welles’ original conception), it would be considered Welles’ masterpiece, a far deeper and richer film than Citizen Kane, if only because it touches the emotions as well as the intellect. As director John Frankenheimer put it in The Celluloid Muse, “From the photographic point of view [Welles] made just about the perfect film in Citizen Kane. The only problem with it is you really don’t care about anybody in it.”

That is not a problem with Ambersons, even though the dual nature of the story, so evident and pervasive in Booth Tarkington’s novel — the emotional traumas of the characters played out against the social and physical changes of the town, ultimately coming together when the outside changes destroy the Ambersons’ fortune and social position — got lost when the film was re-edited. What remains is an intensely romantic drama, on the thin edge of soap opera (and, in the horrible, non-Welles-directed ending, finally going over) but saved from sentimentality and bathos by the richness of Welles’ directing, the subtle, nuanced performances he got from all the actors (even people like Dolores Costello, Anne Baxter and Tim Holt, who rarely if ever performed this well again) and the haunting atmospherics of Mark-Lee Kirk’s sets and Stanley Cortez’ camerawork. — 9/19/93


Moving on to an acknowledged classic … this morning I finished (re-)reading Booth Tarkington’s The Magnificent Ambersons, a fascinating novel in its own right as well as a source for Orson Welles’ magnificent (if truncated) film version. Tarkington’s style — witty, ironic, detached — is just right for the tale he has to tell (indeed, I kept wondering if the lilt of Tarkington’s prose might have been an influence on F. Scott Fitzgerald [according to Fitzgerald’s biographers, it was], who shared his Midwestern background and whose stories begin at the precise moment in the evolution of urban America and its lifestyles where Ambersons ends); and the social commentary in the novel is at once liberal and conservative, lamenting the loss of the old aristocratic ways and celebrating the triumphs of a democracy that buries anyone who comes along with a large fortune and pretensions to aristocracy.

The message of Ambersons is not only about the inevitability of social change — good and ill — but also about the true “aristocratic” spirit being no respecter of “families” or how long one has held on to a fortune, but in terms of personal values of elegance and civility. (One point in the book that the movie misses is that, by its end, Eugene Morgan has attained the same kind of position in the city, in terms of being looked up to and having his name become a part of civic affairs, that Major Amberson had at the beginning of the story.) I remember reading Ambersons for the first time in the 1970’s and being struck at how visual the novel was — it was an extraordinary tour de force, but at the same time the long passages of physical description of the town and its surroundings made one long for the visual immediacy of the film medium and its capability of making us see for ourselves rather than forcing us to rely on our imaginations (a social change, like the invention of the automobile — on which much of the plot of Ambersons turns — that has had both good and ill aspects); ironically, much of the material in Welles’ film dealing with the physical evolution of the town ended up on RKO’s cutting-room floor.

Still, Ambersons the movie is an astonishingly close adaptation of Ambersons the book, with virtually all the film’s dialogue lifted straight from Tarkington’s pages (much the way the dialogue of the 1941 Huston/Bogart version of The Maltese Falcon came from the pages of Hammett’s novel) and the cinematographic style of Stanley Cortez a worthy and apt visualization of the book (though one suspects a more conventional director would have shot it differently — much brighter, less half-lit, with few if any deep-focus effects and a lot more match-cutting in the dialogue scenes). Ambersons would make a good subject for a movie even now — especially if Martin Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence (also a remake of an RKO movie!) does well; properly used and controlled color would add a lot of nuance to the piece, and casting would be tricky but not impossible. — 9/26/93


I first saw The Magnificent Ambersons on a double bill with Citizen Kane at the old Surf Theatre in San Francisco in 1970 (I remember it as a day of entertainment overload because that night I went to see Herbie Hancock and John Mayall at the Fillmore West) and it was hard absorbing Ambersons after the overwhelming impact of Kane. The theatre’s program notes had no doubt explained that the Ambersons we have is only about two-thirds of the one Welles intended, though as things turned out the first half of the film is relatively close to Welles’ conception and the cuts came mostly in the second half (what would have been the second two-thirds in Welles’ original design).

I’ve often referred to Ambersons as the best F. Scott Fitzgerald movie ever made — which might seem like a facetious comment at first, because Fitzgerald didn’t write the source novel on which Ambersons was based; but the person who did write it, Booth Tarkington, was Fitzgerald’s early influence and role model as a novelist and there’s such a striking parallel between George Amberson Minafer, the young, spoiled-rotten boy-man who matures as a human being only after the loss of his family’s money gives him his long-awaited “comeuppance,” and Amory Blaine, the similarly spoiled protagonist of Fitzgerald’s first novel, This Side of Paradise, that one might almost conceive of Paradise as a sort of “interquel” to Ambersons, with Fitzgerald filling in a part of George’s story Tarkington didn’t write: the years he went away to college.

We know what is missing from Ambersons since a cutting continuity of Welles’ final cut survives (and so do some of the production stills), and we know also that the final scene in the hospital room after George’s accident (announced on screen in an elaborate in-joke reference to Citizen Kane: the paper in which it is covered is the Inquirer and a review by Jed Leland — Joseph Cotten’s character in Kane — appears on the front page) was directed not by Welles but either by assistant director Freddie Fleck or editor (and future director) Robert Wise. Welles’ directorial career never recovered from the double whammy of being called away from the post-production of Ambersons to shoot the documentary It’s All True in Brazil — the person who called him away was Nelson Rockefeller, who was a major stockholder in RKO and wanted the studio’s two most prestigious filmmakers, Welles and Walt Disney (who had his own company but still released through RKO), to make movies to propagandize for the Good Neighbor Policy — which later was canceled without even remotely reaching a releasable stage. (At least Disney, ever the businessman, finished his Good Neighbor film, Saludos Amigos.)

Because he was in South America on what turned out to be a useless debacle (all RKO got out of it was a handful of cool-looking clips that ended up as stock footage in movies like The Falcon in Mexico), Welles wasn’t around to supervise the editing of Ambersons past his first cut, and Mark Robson, who worked with Wise on the editing and also later became a director himself, recalled, “Bob [Wise] and I took it out to preview, and I guess in one fell swoop about a quarter of the theatre audience got up and left. Then about five minutes later another quarter left, and finally the last half of the audience left, until there were about two or three people remaining in the theatre and many angry patrons waiting for us outside. So we figured we had quite a lot to do. We took the picture back and continued re-editing it through maybe 10 or 15 previews. … Finally the picture was played so that nobody left the theatre.” Just why Ambersons evoked such audience hostility is a mystery when watching the current version, which is every bit the masterpiece the critical consensus says it is even though one almost has to watch the film as an archaeologist, piecing together the now-lost original version from what’s left (as one has to watch such other truncated films as Stroheim’s Greed, Eisenstein’s ¡Que Viva Mexico!, or John Ford’s Three Bad Men).

My appreciation of Ambersons took a major leap forward when, after already having seen it several times, I found a copy of the Tarkington novel (ironically, one published by Avon, an imprint of the Hearst Corporation: besides blurbing the book, the back cover mentioned that in 1942 Orson Welles made a movie of it that was now considered a classic in its own right — possibly the only favorable thing about Welles that has ever made it to Hearst-owned print) and felt as if the lost world of this movie was opening up for me: in my mind’s eye I could see not only the life Tarkington was describing but the charming bits of dialogue Welles had copied but had been left on the cutting-room floor (like the party scene in which the Ambersons serve olives, a delicacy previously unknown in the unnamed city — based on Indianapolis — in which both book and film are set — and one of the guests says, “I hear you gotta eat nine of them, and then you like ’em”) and, most importantly, the passages describing the physical transformation of the town as it grows and darkens into a major city (a phrase from the book Welles incorporates almost verbatim into the film’s narration).

As I read pages and pages of descriptions of buildings lost, old streets plowed over, new streets platted and huge constructions — factories and apartments — taking the place of small homes and workshops, and “Amberson Boulevard” being renamed “Tenth Street” as the family’s fortunes and influence faded — it was with a sense of regret because the film medium can do this sort of thing so much more effectively than the written word, and the parallel essential to the book’s structure — the fall of the Ambersons and the rise of the city (and of Eugene Morgan and his automobile business) — is almost lost in the version of the film we have, in which the physical world appears, conventionally, only as background for the principals. I’ve long been convinced that if Welles’ version of Ambersons existed it, not Citizen Kane, would be hailed by critical consensus as his masterpiece. It’s a warmer, subtler film than Kane, the open virtuosity tamed by a desire to show more emotion and compassion for its characters. Indeed, it was born out of the shared belief of Welles and RKO production head George Schaefer that Kane had flopped at the box-office because it was too off-putting and didn’t allow the audience any characters they could relate to — though frankly Ambersons really doesn’t either.

Eugene Morgan (Joseph Cotten) and his daughter Lucy (Anne Baxter) are the only truly sympathetic characters — which may at least in part be a reflection of a part of Tarkington’s novel that didn’t make it even into Welles’ original conception. Though the opening lines of narration closely follow the first paragraphs of the book, they leave out one important detail: contrary to the impression you get in the film that the Ambersons have held their fortune for several generations, old Major Amberson (Richard Bennett) actually earned his money during the Panic (what they called depressions in the 19th century) of 1873, buying when everybody else was selling. Essentially he was a financial speculator who built the Amberson fortune on the misery of others, and Tarkington clearly intended a contrast between the illegitimate wealth of the Ambersons (a fortune made on financial speculation) and the legitimate wealth of the Morgans (a fortune built on inventing, developing and selling a genuinely useful product, the automobile) that got lost even in Welles’ conception of the film, let alone the one we have now.

Welles cast his movie quite effectively, though rather eccentrically, tapping many performers who had familial or marital connections to names more “major” than themselves: Richard Bennett, who played Major Amberson, was the father of Constance and Joan Bennett; Tim Holt, who played Isabel Amberson’s spoiled-rotten son George Amberson Minafer, was the son of 1920’s and 1930’s action star Jack Holt (and Tim had one of the weirdest career trajectories in film history: two great roles in two of the best movies ever made, Ambersons and John Huston’s Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and otherwise almost exclusively leads in cheap “B” Westerns at RKO!); and Dolores Costello, who gives a marvelously nuanced performance as Isabel, was the ex-wife of John Barrymore. The film shows Isabel being courted by Eugene Morgan and him falling through a double bass belonging to one of the musicians he’d hired to accompany his serenade to her — whereupon, hating being made to look ridiculous on her own property, she dumps him and marries colorless Wilbur Minafer (Don Dillaway), leading to the townspeople’s prediction that since she can’t possibly love Wilbur, she’ll express her love by spoiling her kids rotten … which narrator Welles tells us was wrong in only one particular: she and Wilbur didn’t have “children,” they had only one, but she did spoil him rotten.

Holt’s performance has been criticized — Dwight Macdonald called it one of the three worst acting jobs in a Welles film (along with Robert Arden in Confidential Report a.k.a. Mr. Arkadin and Anthony Perkins in The Trial) — but I think he’s just fine, perfectly bringing to life the character’s arrogance and sense of entitlement, in a whole film that seems virtually real even despite (or maybe because of) Welles’ stylization: the woodcut-like closeups of otherwise unidentified townspeople commenting on the action by gossiping about the characters, the almost perfectly realized vision of the Amberson mansion (copied almost verbatim from Tarkington’s description and later reused by Val Lewton’s crew in The Seventh Victim and The Curse of the Cat People as well as in just about every other RKO movie where a Victorian-era mansion was needed — RKO may have turned a profit on Ambersons just with the money they saved by reusing the set!) and even the charming iris-out at the end of the scene in which George Amberson Minafer reluctantly accepts a ride home in Eugene Morgan’s automobile after his horse-drawn sleigh has overturned, the horse has run away and left him and Morgan’s daughter Lucy stranded. (Why almost no sound directors used the iris, when it was a basic transition device in the silent era, is a mystery to me.)

The Magnificent Ambersons is a film that grows in richness and stature every time I see it. It’s a film rich in innovative visual and technical devices — including that astonishing shot in which the camera moves up and down an elevator crane and catches simultaneous action on three stories of the Amberson home — and it seems hauntingly lit and framed, as if Welles and cinematographer Stanley Cortez (who got the job after Welles watched the 1941 Universal film The Black Cat, an old-dark-house thriller in which Cortez’s visual pyrotechnics bolstered a pretty straightforward and clichéd plot) wanted it to look more like the surviving photographs and woodcuts from the late 19th century than a standard-issue movie nominally set in that period. Perhaps since I’m in the middle of reading Mark Griffin’s biography of Vincente Minnelli, I couldn’t help thinking of Meet Me in St. Louis and its comparably effective, though thematically different, re-creation of that past era (and wondering why and how Minnelli’s film was a hit while Welles’ was a flop).

Certainly one can see both Kane and Ambersons and have at least some idea what put 1941-42 audiences off these movies: Welles wore his techniques on his sleeve while most mainstream films of the day worked hard to conceal from the audience that they were watching a film. Most movies back then moved in a pretty stately fashion, resolutely cutting back and forth in a dialogue scene so the camera showed the person talking rather than the person (or people) listening, keeping us at a distance from the action and using close-ups to highlight the big emotional moments and climax each scene. Welles boldly cut in close-ups of peripheral characters, told stories from several points of view, and in Ambersons unified his film with a device that remains relatively rare in movies — third-person narration — even though it was basic to radio drama, a form in which Welles had not only cut his teeth but achieved his first national fame (with the infamous 1938 broadcast of H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds as its story would have been covered by radio newscasters as if it were actually happening).

It’s how Ambersons can get away with being the only film Welles ever directed (aside from his unfinished Don Quixote and The Other Side of the Wind) in which he didn’t play a principal role (he was once asked by an intellectual critic if there was a reason he almost always acted in the films he directed; the critic, expecting an intellectual answer about how his presence on screen was thematically important, was taken aback when Welles said, “It’s because, if I take a part myself, that’s one less actor I have to pay”); though he’s not present on screen, his voice is, serving as the moral arbiter of the story and interpreting it for us as he wants us to see it — and at least one important plot juncture, when Welles explains that George Amberson Minafer had finally got his “comeuppance” but those who had wished for it so long ago were either dead or had forgotten all about it, and about him, is conveyed in the narration in a moving and economical (artistically and financially) way that would have been impossible without it.

There are plenty of marvelous stories about the production of Ambersons — like Joseph Cotten’s reaction, when he got the script and found that he’d be playing most of his part in makeup that would make him look middle-aged, that he’d already played most of his part in Citizen Kane in age makeup and people would think of him as middle-aged, and then when he actually got to be middle-aged they’d say, “My, how well Joseph Cotten has aged; he hasn’t changed a bit!” There’s also the story of how Richard Bennett couldn’t remember the deathbed monologue he had to deliver, so Welles prompted him off-screen, then erased his own voice from the soundtrack — with the result that the long pauses, which were really the parts where Welles had prompted Bennett, sounded like the hesitations of an old man fighting memory loss while audibly reminiscing about his past.

There are also fascinating scenes like the one in which George is wolfing down plate after plate of strawberry shortcake, being fed to him by his Aunt Fanny Minafer (Agnes Moorehead, stylistically midway between her touching vignette as Charles Foster Kane’s mother and her best-known role as the mother-in-law literally from hell on the TV series Bewitched), and Welles daringly has him talk with his mouth full — the point being that the significant issue is the rotten attitude George has that leads him to talk with his mouth full, not the content of what he says (which can be unintelligible because it’s really not important). I mentioned F. Scott Fitzgerald at the start and in some ways Ambersons, book as well as film, is a sort of précis for Fitzgerald’s career (when I mentioned it as a possible influence on Fitzgerald, Charles — who likes Fitzgerald considerably less than I do — said, “Which of Fitzgerald’s stories aren’t about spoiled rich boys?”) and what I’ve found missing from all the films I’ve seen actually based on Fitzgerald is the imagination with which Welles transmuted Tarkington’s prose into visual imagery, which is what makes Ambersons unforgettable and riveting even though we’re only watching — as Mark Robson admitted — “a chopped-down version of Orson’s original conception.” It was still good enough to win ninth place in the 1982 Sight and Sound poll naming the ten greatest films of all time — Sight and Sound did those polls every 10 years and in 1982 Citizen Kane placed first, making Welles the first director to have two films on their all-time 10 best list at once. — 7/15/10