Saturday, July 6, 2013

10 More Unjustly Neglected Films by Famous Directors

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Alan Howell’s “Ten Unjustly Neglected Films by Famous Directors” post inspired me to ransack my movie-watching memories and see if I could come up with other examples. Howell structured his film list as a 10-to-1 “countdown,” but shenanigans like that have always put me off, so my list is ordered chronologically. To read Howell's post go to

Cecil B. DeMille’s The Affairs of Anatol (1921)

I watched this the day after I watched Stanley Kubrick’s abysmal last film, Eyes Wide Shut, thinking it would make an interesting comparison because it’s also about a young couple dipping their toes (or more) into the sexual underground out of sheer boredom with each other. Both films are based on stories by Arthur Schnitzler, and both are relocated from Schnitzler’s turn-of-the-last-century Vienna to contemporary New York. Both have highly decorous plots in which the central characters never actually cheat on each other — at least to the point of the actual down ’n’ dirty — even though they’re highly tempted; both feature as supporting characters a best-friend peer for the hero and a super-rich man who is essentially above both law and morality; and both even feature highly stylized encounters between the hero and self-styled Satanists — only in this film it’s just one self-styled Satanist. Surprise! The Affairs of Anatol turned out to be a far better film in every respect: a more sophisticated script (by Jeanie MacPherson, Beulah Marie Dix and Elmer Harris), superior direction (with half-lit shots, silhouette shots, mirror shots and other tantalizing visual effects) and a more intense and believable cast (Gloria Swanson and Wallace Reid as the central couple and Bebe Daniels standing out as the Satanist). This was DeMille while he was still a major creative director before years of Biblical spectaculars drained him of any real visual acumen and allowed him to coast on the sheer grandeur of his massive sets and hordes of extras.

Erich von Stroheim’s The Merry Widow (1925)

Asked what the difference was between his style and Ernst Lubitsch’s, Erich von Stroheim once said, “Lubitsch first shows you the king on his throne, then shows you the king in his bedroom. I first show you the king in his bedroom, so you will know exactly what he is like when you see him on his throne.” The difference is apparent in this, the only story they both directed. While Lubitsch’s 1934 Merry Widow is a good and underrated enough movie one could make a case for putting it on this list, too (see the “Honorable Mentions” below), it pales by comparison to Stroheim’s. Though a lot of Stroheim’s most demented scenes ended up on the cutting-room floor, enough remains to show how for Stroheim sexual decadence was a serious business, while for Lubitsch it was a joke. Sumptuous sets alternate with atmospheric exteriors, big scenes with small, intimate ones, and Stroheim also gets the most out of his cast. This is one of the two films (King Vidor’s The Big Parade is the other) that establishes how good an actor John Gilbert really was, and despite their mutual hatred he got a surprisingly good performance out of leading lady Mae Murray as well. The only weak spot in the cast is Roy D’Arcy as the villain — and for that we can blame Irving Thalberg for not letting Stroheim play the role himself.

John Ford’s Three Bad Men (1926)

The Ford at Fox mega-box released a few years ago contained quite a few of Ford’s most underrated films, including Pilgrimage (1933) and The Prisoner of Shark Island (1936), but this was the prize rediscovery of the bunch, a rich, complex forerunner to the so-called “psychological Westerns” that were all the rage (and considered so innovative!) in the early 1950’s. Like Stroheim’s Greed and Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons, it was mutilated by the producing studio before its release, and it was such a commercial flop that Ford, who had spent the first decade of his directorial career making mostly Westerns, didn’t do another one until Stagecoach 13 years later. But so what? This is a great movie, with multidimensional characters — outlaws who achieve a sort of nobility and a law-enforcement official who’s really a crook, and a star-crossed couple (George O’Brien and Olive Borden) whose families fought on opposite sides in the Civil War (one suspects Ford’s cut made more of this than the version we have), as well as a spectacular land-rush climax worthy of comparison to the ones in Tumbleweeds (1926), Cimarron (1931) and The Oklahoma Kid (1939). I suspect what turned audiences off about this movie in 1926 was exactly what makes it seems so modern today: the complexity of the characterizations, the degree to which Ford holds his sentimentality in check, and the use of what would become a favorite theme of Ford’s in his later Westerns: the “civilization” of the West, the imposition of rules and mutual responsibilities on previously free-wheeling frontier communities and the role of women in bringing that about.

William Wellman’s Safe in Hell (1931)

I’m still reeling over the bizarre and boneheaded decision by TCM Home Video to put out a “Forbidden Hollywood” box of Wellman’s “pre-Codes” and not include this one, since it’s the best of the bunch. A film noir about a decade before noir emerged as a genre, Safe in Hell casts Dorothy Mackaill as a prostitute who accidentally sets a building on fire while fleeing a particularly obnoxious client (Ralf Harolde), then hooks up with a nice-guy sailor boyfriend (Donald Cook) and flees with him to Tortuga, a Caribbean island with its own independent government and no extradition treaty with any other nation in the world. Once she gets there — not surprisingly — she turns out to be the only white woman on the island with a group of the plug-ugliest male character actors Warners could find, all licking their lips and batting their eyes at the sight of her the way Sylvester did with Tweety. Safe in Hell consists mainly of Mackaill’s unequal struggle to keep her pledge of fidelity to Cook, and it builds to a dramatically powerful unhappy ending even though it would have been all too easy for writers Houston Branch, Joseph Jackson and Maude Fulton to come up with a happy one. It’s also noteworthy for the Black servant couple played by Nina Mae McKinney and Clarence Muse; the writers wrote their dialogue in the usual stupid dialect, but Wellman overruled them and had McKinney and Muse speak their lines in normal English. After I saw this I sought out Mackaill’s other films and found her stiff and wooden in all of them; apparently Wellman worked the same magic on her Alfred Hitchcock did on Grace Kelly two decades later.

Alfred Hitchcock’s Rich and Strange (1931, released 1932)

The title of this film could also serve as a capsule review! Hitchcock’s tenure at British International Pictures (BIP) from 1927 to 1932 was one of the unhappiest parts of his career, and virtually the only BIP Hitchcock that gets shown today is Blackmail (1929) because it was his first talkie. But in the middle of a lot of dreary assignments for hire, Hitchcock got to create this story and make this rich, strange and highly personal film. The story — the rich uncle of a young, struggling urban couple decides to give them their inheritance early, and with the windfall they set off on a tour around the world — isn’t exactly the freshest premise for a film, but it’s what Hitchcock and his wife Alma Reville (they wrote the script themselves with Dale Collins and Val Valentine, and based a lot of it on their own travels) do with it that makes this Hitchcock’s first masterpiece. The rich culture clashes, the ironies, the use of silent-film titles to make wry comments on the action (a gimmick copied by Woody Allen in Hannah and Her Sisters 55 years later), and the fascinating performances (Hitchcock blamed the film’s financial failure on his casting Gay actor Harry Kendall as the husband, but he’s actually marvelous in the role, as is Joan Barry as the wife and Percy Marmont as a gentlemanly suitor she’s attracted to) make this one of Hitchcock’s finest films. Not until he came to the U.S. and made Rebecca would he again have a story with this kind of emotional complexity and depth.

Preston Sturges’ The Great Moment (1942, released 1944)

The invention of anesthesia may not seem like the most obvious material for a comic master like Preston Sturges, but he not only tackled it, he brought it off brilliantly. Made in 1942 but not released until 1944, obviously because Paramount didn’t know what to do with it, The Great Moment evokes another Sturges masterpiece, The Power and the Glory, in its first 25 minutes. It begins with the widow (Betty Field) of Dr William T. G. Morton (Joel McCrea) and his first patient (William Demarest) reminiscing about him, then cuts to the court case in which he lost his patent on the anesthetizing process, then — and only then — flashes back to the main body of the film. Sturges’ portrayal of the world of science as a cynical field in which prestige and greed are both more important motivators than a dispassionate search for truth — like his portrayal of politics in The Great McGinty and Hail the Conquering Hero, or his portrayal of Hollywood in Sullivan’s Travels — is both unusual for its time and completely relevant today (and, in his portrayal of President Franklin Pierce, he gets his licks in here against the politicians as well!). The remaining two-thirds of this 80-minute movie are more conventional technically than the dazzling opening third, leading up to a scene in which a young girl, in a room lit by a single shaft of light, attended by a nun and with Schubert’s “Ave Maria” issuing from the soundtrack, says she isn’t afraid of the operation she’s about to undergo because she’s heard someone has invented something that will make it painless. A sophisticate like Sturges obviously must have written and directed this with his tongue lodged so firmly in his cheek he would have had to use Morton’s invention to get it out again without pain. I’ve long thought Sturges intended this at least in part as an answer film to Citizen Kane, since Orson Welles was being hailed as such an innovator for making an entire film with a leading character who’s dead at the opening and whose story is told in flashbacks by people who knew him — a technique Sturges had pioneered in The Power and the Glory.

Orson Welles’ Black Magic (1947, released 1949)

With all the foofaraw about Orson Welles’ “lost” films — with people trying to piece together the surviving footage of It’s All True and Don Quixote and lamenting the disappearance of The Other Side of the Wind in the maw of Middle East politics — it’s amazing that Welles cultists haven’t seized on the “lost” Welles film that’s been staring them in the face all this time! It’s true that Welles wasn’t the director of record on this one — Gregory Ratoff was — but don’t let that fool you. According to leading lady Nancy Guild, Ratoff spent virtually the whole shoot sitting in his director’s chair reading newspapers while Welles placed the cameras, blocked the actors and gave them notes — in other words, directed. Certainly Black Magic, an historical fantasy based on the legendary hypnotist Cagliostro (Orson Welles), looks like a Welles film — all that chiaroscuro photography, all those vertiginous camera movements (including one scene in which the Gypsy parents of Cagliostro, t/n Joseph Balsamo, are being tried for witchcraft and the camera swoops across the landscape and dollies in to the window of the courtroom in an obvious visual quote of Gregg Toland’s famous tracking-crane shot in the opening of Citizen Kane that “discovers” Susan Alexander Kane, or what’s left of her, drinking after her vocal shift at El Rancho nightclub) and that swirling aura of fate that surrounds Welles’ own performances in the films he directed. I suspect Welles had a hand in the script, too; not only is the whole thing structured as a flashback (with at least one sequence presented as a Casey Robinsonesque flashback within a flashback!) but there are two points at which Cagliostro, at the height of his influence with the common people in Paris, boasts that he can get them to believe anything he wants them to, and any Welles fan can’t help but recall his similar boast in Citizen Kane that people would think “what I tell ’em to think!”

Billy Wilder’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970)

With Alan Howell having usurped Ace in the Hole (1951) as his unjustly forgotten Billy Wilder film (I agree with him that it’s Wilder’s best movie — and we’re in good company; according to biographer Maurice Zolotow, Wilder thought so too), I looked for another unjustly forgotten item in his oeuvre. A long-time personal project and a film originally envisioned as a three-hour epic with four plot lines, it finally got released at two hours and with only two stories — and the first half-hour put off a lot of people (including me) because it was Wilder’s humor at its sniggering, locker-room worst. Stay with the film, though, because the remaining hour and a half is Wilder at his sweepingly romantic best. The flawless evocation not only of the Victorian era but the whole Holmes ethos, the rich conflicts of love and loyalty, and the superb performances of Robert Stephens (the best Holmes during the long, frustrating interregnum between Basil Rathbone and Jeremy Brett) and Genevieve Page make this one of Wilder’s finest films and one of the best contributions to the largely disappointing screen legacy of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s great character.

Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987)

It’s nice to know that Kubrick made one great film during the last 28 years of his life — it wasn’t all pretentious, overblown garbage like Barry Lyndon, The Shining and Eyes Wide Shut. Full Metal Jacket has been criticized for the contrast between its first 45 minutes — a grim, well-structured depiction of the sadistic hell of boot camp (with real drill sergeant R. Lee Ermey in the lead because Kubrick realized no actor could duplicate the loathsome intensity of the man he’d hired as a technical advisor because he’d done it for real) — and the rest of the movie, with the characters in Viet Nam and the film turning almost plotless. Kubrick seems to have intended this at least in part as a response to the pretentiousness of previous Viet Nam War films like Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter. The “grunts” in ’Nam listen to trash pop-rock like “Surfin’ Bird” and “Wooly Bully” instead of the Doors, and at the end they sing, not “God Bless America,” but the theme song to the Mickey Mouse Club! War, says Full Metal Jacket, is just one stupid thing after another, and its destructiveness is matched only by its pointlessness. I wouldn’t necessarily say Full Metal Jacket is a better film than Paths of Glory, but it’s certainly less preachy and doesn’t wear its anti-war heart on its sleeve quite as baldly. (It’s also obvious that Kubrick’s approach influenced Kathryn Bigelow in The Hurt Locker.) Incidentally, Matthew Modine’s Stars and Stripes photographer character is at least partly autobiographical; Kubrick was a Stars and Stripes photographer during World War II, and after the war he pursued a photographic career and eventually drifted into filmmaking.

Baz Luhrmann’s Australia (2008)

Just to prove that I’m not entirely a cinematic antiquarian and I can derive pleasure from films made in recent years by directors and actors who are still alive, I’m citing this one, a commercial flop that sank from sight after about a couple of weeks in theatres, winning only one Academy Award nomination and giving rise to the usual doom-saying articles in the Los Angeles Times and elsewhere that the era of the adult-oriented epic film is over and for the rest of our moviegoing days all the major studios are going to churn out are comic-book films and gross-out comedies. It didn’t deserve it; to my mind it’s a better film than both the Luhrmann credits on either side of it, Moulin Rouge! and The Great Gatsby, and proves that Luhrmann can make a great movie without dazzling production numbers set to anachronistic music in a story ripped off from a classic. (Moulin Rouge! was a thinly disguised remake of Camille.) Largely a remake of Red River in the first half and Gone With the Wind in the second — with references to other classics, including The Wizard of Oz (the song “Over the Rainbow” features prominently in the action) and The African Queen, Australia is nonetheless a powerful story told in a relatively understated style that maintains its artistic integrity and doesn’t sacrifice dramatic truth for tasteless effects. (No wonder it flopped in today’s market.) It also manages the virtually impossible feat of pulling off so-called “magical realism” on screen. Moulin Rouge! star Nicole Kidman surpasses her performance in Luhrmann’s earlier film and Hugh Jackman (Luhrmann’s third choice, after Russell Crowe and Heath Ledger) proves that he can be a first-rate actor and not just a comic-book character with really long fingernails.

Honorable Mentions

Preston Sturges’ The Power and the Glory (1933) (William K. Howard was the director of record but writer Sturges had an unusual contract with producer Jesse Lasky that virtually gave him final cut); Charles Vidor’s Sensation Hunters (1933) (an important noir precursor from the director of Gilda); Ernst Lubitsch’s The Merry Widow (1934); Cecil B. DeMille’s The Crusades (1935); William Wyler’s The Gay Deception (1935); George Cukor’s Romeo and Juliet (1936); Rouben Mamoulian’s The Gay Desperado (1936); Anthony Mann’s The Great Flamarion (1945); Douglas Sirk’s Lured (1947) (superb dramatic performances by George Sanders and Lucille Ball — yes, you read that right — in a delightfully decadent thriller); and Woody Allen’s Whatever Works (2009).