Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Newman and Woodward Bring on a Memorable Hot Summer

       Summertime offers the perfect excuse to re-watch (and pass the viewing experience on to others, if possible) one of the 1950’s most satisfying and entertaining romantic melodramas, 20th Century-Fox’s The Long Hot Summer. Director Martin Ritt, quickly gaining ground as a formidable talent and making up for lost time due to the era’s abominable blacklist, which blocked him from directing for several years, sets a light-hearted tone not normally found in the torrid potboilers of the period (such as Fox’s previous smash in this vein, Peyton Place, or any number of Douglas Sirk’s deft works), while simultaneously beginning a fruitful association with Summer’s soon-to-be superstar leading man. Ritt is aided by a truly remarkable screenplay by Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank Jr., which manages to ingeniously blend several of William Faulkner’s works in a coherent manner, including the classic short story “Barn Burning” and the novel “The Hamlet” into a riveting tale involving the Varners, a well-to-do Southern family whose lives are impacted in various ways after rebellious drifter Ben Quick enters their estate and stirs up plenty of passions within the brood. 

      A first-rate cast comprised of both veterans and talent newer to 1958 audiences does a terrific job of balancing the drama, comedy and romantic aspects of the story. From the outset of the film wherein, after a prologue detailing his eviction from a previous town due to the aforementioned barn burning, Ben Quick’s journey to Frenchmen’s Bend and the local Varner clan is relayed over the title credits as the strains of the film’s pleasant title song is aptly rendered via Jimmie Rodger’s smooth, relaxed vibrato (in a vocal so era-appropriate, you can picture a couple going to a café after the movie and playing Rodger’s Honeycomb or Kisses Sweeter Than Wine on the jukebox), Paul Newman is clearly in supreme command of his colorful anti-hero role. After rising to prominence with his winning performance as boxer Rocky Graziano in 1956’s Somebody Up There Likes Me, Newman paid a few dues in standard fare such as Until They Sail before 1958’s one-two punch of Summer and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof put him firmly in the mix as a star possessing an uncannily knack for showing the vulnerability behind a rebel’s tough exterior- check out how convincingly Newman switches from slick conman to wounded victim as Ben relates his troubled childhood for a prime example of his dramatic finesse in this area. Add in those famous baby-blues, seen to great advantage in Summer’s De Luxe color, and Newman’s arrival as a leading man second-to-none and major screen performer (he won Best Actor at Cannes for Summer) is clear.

          Partnering with Newman for the first and maybe best time onscreen is Joanne Woodward as Clara Varner, a not-so-spinsterish, down-to-earth young schoolteacher both drawn to and repelled by the brash Quick. Made just before the couple became one of the most renowned husband-and-wife teams in show business, Woodward demonstrates an easy chemistry with her beloved in Summer, both in their romantic interludes and during the more frequent scenes wherein friction arises as Ben and Clara match wits and try to figure each other and their relationship out. Newman and Woodward are great sparring partners, finding the humor in their character’s conflicting emotions and attraction to each other, and their spot-on teaming in Summer makes a fan wish more of the duos’ subsequent films could’ve matched this initial high-quality outing. Woodward was rising even faster than Newman around this time, with an Oscar in hand for 1957’s The Three Faces of Eve and equally standout work in the same year’s No Down Payment (also ably directed by Ritt) preceding the release of Summer. It’s great to see Woodward so adeptly switch gears and combine Clara’s more serious nature with a more playful, romantic manner, and you sense Woodward is relishing the chance to avoid typecasting by mixing things up in Summer, as opposed to again handling the stark dramatics involved in her 1957 starring roles. 

        Woodward is also great at showing Clara’s strength in good-naturedly but firmly standing up to her bombastic father Will, played by Orson Welles at his slyest and, appropriately given Will’s overbearing nature, his liveliest. Welles apparently was concerned regarding working with a field of young, formidable players from the Actor’s Studio portraying strong, independent spirits to boot, but he shouldn’t have worried: no one is overshadowing Orson Welles when he gets his teeth into a role this meaty, or otherwise for that matter, as it’s difficult to recall a time anyone’s one-upped Welles onscreen, period, whether he’s giving a performance for the ages in Citizen Kane or hamming it up to hilarious effect via his Catch 22 cameo. Spitting out his dialogue in an often-intelligible manner as Will rants and raves through the town he owns lock, stock and barrel before going home to do more goading with his family, you can’t keep your eyes off of Welles as he blusters his way through Summer with the verve of a genius out to steal a movie. However, Welles is as gifted an actor as the other top-liners in the film, and he modulates the role enough to allow for some calmer, touching moments, such as his one-on-one with Clara late in the movie, to indicate the more humane aspects of Will Varner, lending an impressive believability and compassion to the role when it threatens to become even more larger-than-life than it should be. 

          As Will’s son (and heir-apparent) Jody, who becomes increasingly dejected as he finds his father becoming fond of Ben at his expense, Franciosa is saddled with the most morose role of the principles and, as frequently happened with many an Actor’s Studio alumni, he sometimes lets his Method training show in a too intense, studied manner, lacking the charm and grace found in his costars’ less labored work. However, Franciosa is clearly trying hard to illustrate Jody’s dilemma, and you root for him to break though the generation gap often found in 1950’s dramas, and find common ground with his disassociated father (and what do I know: Franciosa was fresh off an Oscar nomination for A Hatful of Rain and had a Golden Globe soon-to-come for 1959’s Career, which is almost impossible-to-see nowadays, despite a great cast). As Jody’s lushly beautiful young bride Eula, Lee Remick has a giddy spontaneity and sensuality which allows her to rate a major breakthrough with limited screen time, making a maximum impact against stiff competition for onscreen attention. Although Remick would go on to become one of the foremost leading ladies in films and television, often in lady-like roles, in her early parts, such as her debut as the erotic teenage baton twirler who catches Andy Griffith’s eye in A Face in the Crowd, as Eula and, most significantly, as Laura, the calm, sexy wife in 1959’s Anatomy of a Murder, who may or may not be the victim she appears to be, Remick displays great dexterity in handling provocative material, blending an element of sweetness with maturity and a touch of class belying her years. Remick appears to have a ball playing these not-quite bad girls in an entertaining but completely realistic manner, and her appeal in these roles is colossal. 

        Rounding out the cast, Angela Lansbury also has fun playing Minnie, Will’s good-time girl in town with marriage on her mind. Lansbury rarely made a bad move on film, appearing to thrive regardless of what type of character she enacted, and Minnie gives her a chance to show off a bouncy, carefree demeanor, while also convincing an audience she has the willpower to tame Will and get him to settle down; she’s a great match for Welles’ forcefulness. Richard Anderson is seen to good advantage as Alan, the reserved object of Clara’s attentions; although Alan is labeled a ‘Mama’s Boy,’ Anderson does a fine job of not simply playing into the stereotypical weak-willed aspects of the character, showing Alan as strong enough to face the derisiveness frequently directed at him by Will with a quiet-but-firm staunchness. As Alan’s sister and Clara’s friend Agnes, Sarah Marshall and her distinct bird-like voice make a considerable impact in her main scene on the Varner’s front porch with Clara, wherein over pink lemonade the two young  women languidly discuss the lack of men in town and their future prospects for a mate- Marshall has a priceless, nervous-but-intrigued reaction shot when the gorgeous Newman shows up and briefly stares her down, resulting in Agnes wanly smiling and skittishly diverting her eyes elsewhere (it’s one of the best scenes in the movie at capturing a sense of summertime ambience and the stirring libidos involved therein). 

        A substantial box-office success upon its release in March of 1958 (Summer placed in the top twenty hits of the year with a tidy 3.5 million in domestic rentals, according to Variety) the film deserves more recognition today for the thoroughly enjoyable manner in which it pulls off the tricky Faulkner subject material in both dramatic and more comedic terms. Viewing the movie a few years ago in its full Cinemascope glory amid a packed house at the New Beverly Theater in L.A., Summer went over like gangbusters with the crowd, making me wonder why this personal favorite hasn’t been shown more regularly in revival houses. The Twilight Time Blu-ray offers classic movie lovers a chance to see the movie in a nice print adequately showcasing the top-flight efforts of Ritt and his remarkable cast, as well as an entertaining bonus feature detailing the eventful making of the film with Newman, Woodward and Lansbury offering their insight. 

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Going to Kansas City for Great Noir

          Finding a top-notch, unseen and true film noir in an era wherein the noir category seems ever-widening, to include any film with some element of crime, or any movie filmed in black and white (and some in color, for that matter), is a rare pleasure. The Film Detective’s gorgeous print on Blu-ray of masterful noir director Phil Karlson’s griping, pensive 1952 Kansas City Confidential offered one of the more satisfying late-night forays into noir I’ve had in some time, and really fits into the genre, with its story of a clever heist and the consequences that arise due to an innocent bystander being thrust into the center of the crime offering plenty of chances for a noir cast from Heaven to excel, in dark alleys and elsewhere, with a tight, efficient script, inspired direction and stunning cinematography by George E. Diskant featuring some of the sweatiest close-ups ever doing much to steer the film into the first-class cabin of noir treasures.

         Heading the cast as Joe Rolfe, a delivery man who serves as a blue-print for the “wrong place at the wrong time” noir hero, John Payne does a perfect job of gaining the audience on his side without them ever being too sure what his actions will ultimately be once he catches up to the bank robbers who inadvertently caused him to be framed for their hold-up. Although movie-star handsome to the nth degree, even in a sunny musical like Hello, Frisco, Hello Payne projected a lost dis-contentedness behind those beautiful-but-baleful eyes that allowed for plenty of audience intrigue, as in “what has this guy, who seems to have everything going for him, got to be so sad about?” Set in the clammy confines of Kansas City, the answer is “plenty,” and Payne is terrific in portraying Joe’s ever-increasing sense of impatience for justice after being fingered for the crime, then screwed over by the police. Payne stays terse, tough and vivid as the film progresses, but also laconic enough that you just can’t help rooting for him to gain some measure of reward, even if his gains may be ill-gotten, just to put a smile on his face.

         As the mastermind behind the heist, Tim Foster, Preston Foster does a fine job of suggesting the drive and intelligence needed for his namesake to pull the tricky assignment off, while struggling with the moral outcome of his actions. His conflicted character is also responsible for the creation of one of the cinema’s most memorable mask, used by the robbers to remain incognito during the robbery, both to the public and themselves, as there’s no hint of honor among this batch of thieves. The three henchmen Tim selects to pull off the robbery really push Kansas City into the noir stratosphere. Gaunt, nervous, bug-eyed Jack Elam (he gets a lot of those sweaty close-ups), playing Pete Harris, the weakest-willed of the bunch, nevertheless takes a backseat to no one in commanding attention. Elam, on edge near every moment, is great at suggesting the possibility Pete might completely lose it in any given scene, and one watches intently trying to guess what Pete’s actions and his outcome will be. Elam had something of a breakout year in 1952, with a small role in High Noon also counting among his nine screen efforts, and his standout work in Kansas City had to factor in Elam’s rise to fame as one of Hollywood’s most memorable bad guys for the next several decades.

         Neville Brand was also set to make his mark around this period, abet as a tougher character in Stalag 17 and Riot in Cell Block H. Although in those breakthrough roles Brand is forceful in a take-no-prisoners manner (while playing prisoners, of course), in his briefer appearance in Kansas City Brand does a terrific job in subtly conveying malevolence with calm detachment, illustrating how a still, largely silence presence can make a screen villain come across as more dangerous and evil than when showcasing more overt nastiness (Brand’s Boyd Kane would make a great partner for Louise Fletcher’s placid/acid Nurse Ratched). Finally Lee Van Cleef, with his second-to-none leer (and having a breakthrough year as well after High Noon put him on the map) projects his special brand of sinister intent with maximum impact, making him a worthy adversely to the calm-but-formidable Payne. Although early in his career, Van Cleef seems well-aware of his superior abilities as a villain, and he shows a full enjoyment of his colorful role throughout the film.  

       Although the lack of a femme fatale may be the chief noir element missing from the film, the always-engaging Dona Drake does show up as the flirty, opportunistic hotel employee selling souvenirs to gain a buck or twenty, while musing over the possibility of romance with the more attractive male clientele, which include Payne and Van Cleef (still managing to read as evil, if also kind of sexy, while flirting with the game Drake) once the chief players go South of the Border to meet up at the resort wherein Drake resides. From her early role as Mirhirmah, Bob Hope’s sidekick in Road to Morocco, Drake possessed a good-natured likability and showed an admirable ability to make an impact in small roles against some formidable costars. In Kansas City, Drake is great at conveying a sense of humor while vamping the men with coy seductiveness into buying her wares, and she’s as much fun to watch here as in her peerless campy turn as Bette Davis’ easily unimpressed, confrontational maid in 1949’s unforgettable Beyond the Forest

         In the primary female role, Coleen Gray shows up about halfway into the movie as Foster’s smart, friendly daughter Helen, who is working towards her Bar exam, and once again demonstrates she was a leading lady without equal, possessing a very fine touch onscreen. After making a substantial impact in 1947 in two all-timer noirs, Kiss of Death and (featuring probably her greatest role) Nightmare Alley, Gray spent the next ten years in more standard fare, finally ending up as The Leech Woman. Kansas City serves as a high point for Gray during this period, and it’s nice to see Gray get a chance to tackle a role outside of her earlier ingénue ones she played with distinction. In Kansas City, she’s allowed to show more force and intelligence as a lawyer-in-the making, while still remaining sympathetic and supportive towards Joe’s plight. I think Gray was so fully engaged and focused in her roles her ability was often overlooked, as she doesn’t overdo anything, remaining completely honest in portraying a character, similar to the direct, riveting approach found in Barbara Stanwyck’s work. One wishes Gray had been given richer opportunities to establish herself further, but thanks to her work in top-flight noirs, her reputation as a screen actor of skill and substance is secure.

      As for the film, it’s a must-see for any serious noir aficionado, with the peerless cast and Karlson’s pitch-perfect direction grabbing the audience at film’s outset and keeping them captivated prisoners throughout a briskly-paced 99 minutes. The Blu-ray box list no less than Quentin Tarantino as one of Kansas City’s admirers, citing the film as influencing his break-through Reservoir Dogs. This impressive bit of trivia indicates how substantially the movie’s profile as a highly regarded A-1 noir has grown over the years, and Kansas City offers entertainment value equal to any of the best noirs, whether classic or more Tarantino-ish in flavor.

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Discovering Carol Reed's Overlooked Outcast

                After awaiting its arrival in some format for many years, I was delighted to finally view 1951’s wonderful drama Outcast of the Islands, based on Joseph Conrad’s 1896 novel. Oftentimes a film one’s waited years to see can prove to be a disappointment, as expectations built-up over time can lead to a feeling of “Is that all there is?” after the movie is finally seen. Not so with Outcast, which manages to grab attention from the outset and remain a fascinating, engrossing experience. Carol Reed, in the midst of a very fruitful period which included Odd Man Out, The Fallen Idol and The Third Man, does another terrific job in capturing and maintaining a singular time and place with the aid of a concise, thoroughly involving screenplay by William Fairchild, and a supreme cast of top players doing some of their best work, along with a wealth of local Indonesian islanders who lend much to maintaining the exotic tone of the film. 

                Leading the cast, Trevor Howard is thoroughly engaging as Peter Willems, an irresponsible, childish near-middle-ager without a lot of prospects, but still possessed of enough ample charm to convince Lingard, the captain who essentially adopted him years earlier, to give him one last chance working in trade with a colleague at an isolated island locale. Willems is a tough assignment, as he requires an actor who can convince as an oftentimes reckless cad while still gaining an audience’s empathy. Howard portrays Willem’s as a carefree, lost soul who does possess some moral character to go along with his more disreputable behavior, and one follows the character intrigued as to how things will play out for him, hoping Willem can find a better way of life; Howard also craftily offers one of the screen’s best delineations of the havoc becoming passionately involved with someone can wreak on a person.

                Ralph Richardson lends his formidable presence as Lingard and does a great job suggesting the conflicts involved in illogically supporting someone destined to create strife, due to an unbreakable emotional bond felt towards the wayward soul. Richardson makes it clear Lingard is aware of Willems’ faults, but is reluctant to take action against this “son” figure; this character stands in direct contrast to Richardson's dominating, callous father in 1949's The Heiress, but the great actor is equally persuasive in both roles, and Richardson's adept, more compassionate work in Outcast made me wish cold Dr. Sloper could've cut poor Olivia de Havilland a break at least once or twice in that William Wyler masterpiece, instead of completely devaluing her. Robert Morley scores heavily as Almayer, Willems’ unwilling business partner and chief antagonist. Watching the portly, downcast, ridged Almayer take on the free-spirited Willems provides some of the most compelling drama and comedy in the film. 

                Wendy Hiller, playing against type as Almayer’s meek wife who is drawn to the romantic, adventurous figure of Willems, shows she can portray a quiet, kindly woman as memorably and adeptly as she did with the stronger characters Hiller often enacted. Based on past performances, I expected Hiller to come on strong and handle Almayer and their business operations in a practical, assertive manner. The dreamy, touchingly innocent quality Hiller brings to Mrs. Almayer, mixed with moments indicating a sager comportment exists underneath her soft exterior, makes the likable character linger, as a viewer wonders about Mrs. Almayer’s background, and how it brought her to less-than-rewarding circumstances. Wilfred-Hyde White is also resourceful in a brief change-of-pace role as a terse, vengeful foe of Willems, as opposed to the jovial, supportive gentlemen he charmingly played elsewhere, and George Coulouris also an air of uneasiness as Babalatchi, an islander out to gain Willems help in building his own business ventures at the cost of Lingard’s.

Viewing the Almayer’s petulant, outspoken offspring Nina, I was taken aback by one of the most precocious children I’ve seen onscreen, and marveled how this impish little girl managed to match Morley in appearance and somber comportment, before realizing it was a case of like father, like daughter (Nina is played by Annabel Morley, in her only screen role). Both Morleys are adept in depicting how ghastly selfishness can motivate a character to act impossible, and it’s fascinating to watch them behaving badly together (Nina doesn’t show much loyalty towards dad when the chips are down and Almayer is ranting, for example).  As Willems’ object of obsession, Aissa, Kerima has a unique, slightly foreboding presence which lends interest to her dealings with her smitten suitor, as the audience is never sure exactly how this pairing will play out, and what Aissa wants out of the relationship. Among the cast of natives, little Tamine makes the biggest impact as the smiling, Puckish-yet-helpful Boy Friday who intently follows Willems on his island exploits. 
       Kino Lorber has done classic movie buffs a great service in making this little-seen treasure recently available via an excellent print that properly showcases the stunning b&w cinematography by Edward Scaife and John Wilcox, which manages to convey a sense of exotic romance and island feverishness. Unlike any other film of its era, and featuring some of the most intelligent direction, acting and scripting found in a film then or now, Outcast of the Islands offers a mature, uncompromising look at a compelling anti-hero and those whose lives he impacts, memorably taking viewers into a tropical world with a vividness seldom captured in a fictional movie, thanks to the first-rate efforts of Reed and his peerless cast and crew.

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Becoming a Psycho Movie Buff

               Developing an interest in classic movies during my formative years in the 1970’s-80’s, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly when my fascination with cinema began, beyond the yearly showings of The Wizard of Oz or some major event like Gone With the Wind or The Ten Commandments being aired to huge ratings, but one movie is probably responsible for pulling me in more than any other.  I’m not sure when I first heard about Psycho, but the film’s history and initial and long-term impact on movies has proved to be a lifelong intrigue for me, from somehow restraining myself at 12 from watching the movie because I was deemed too young by mom, although I was old enough to be left alone with a t.v. the night it was on, and ruing the missed opportunity (no VHS tapes or recorders for most households in the late 1970’s), to (shortly thereafter) sneaking in a hallway after bedtime to watch part of the shower scene for the first time during the AFI tribute to Hitchcock, to reading through a shot-by-shot book in the local university’s library which essentially “told” the entire film in picture form, to asking parents or any adult I knew who saw the film in 1960 what it was like (my dad was the most frightened by Arbogast’s murder), to finally seeing the film and feeling a sense of déjà vu but no disappointment, as Psycho is one of the most perfectly crafted and executed films. 

Working largely with his Alfred Hitchcock Presents television crew, Hitchcock was at the peak of his abilities following the one-two punch of Vertigo and North by Northwest. Word has it he also possibly had a score to settle regarding his “Master of Suspense” title, after Henri-Georges Clouzot raised hackles of his own with some nerve-tingling output, specifically 1955’s Les Diaboliques and its use of the bathroom as the most ominous locale anywhere. Although Psycho contains moments of sly humor and Hitchcock claimed it was “a fun picture” and he firmly set tongue-in-cheek during publicity for the movie (including a Hall of Fame trailer with Hitch slyly showing us around the Bates premises) his main intent was on flooring the audience with showcase suspense sequences and, aided by Bernard Herrmann’s shrieking violins and Anthony Perkins’ brave (as in image-breaking) fully committed performance, he succeeded past all expectations, with audiences’ perceptions as to what to expect from a movie forever left as shattered as Perkins’ formerly endearing boyishness once Janet Leigh stepped into that shower and took cinema into a more modern era with her- after Psycho, all bets were off concerning the narrative of a film and what outcome it provided key characters therein.

Although the success of Psycho opened the floodgates for progressively more explicit violence in movies, as the forefather to subsequent films of the slasher ilk and holding the reputation by many as the scariest movie of them all, it contains only two or three segments that could fall in the “terrifying” category. However, Hitchcock manages to maintain a tone of stark tension throughout the second half of the film, as after the shower attack and subsequent “clean-up” activity, from scene-to-scene a first time viewer is on edge wondering when the killer will come out of nowhere again, aided by that equally violent Herrmann score (and, after reading for years Marion is killed off 20 minutes or so into the movie, I feel compelled to stress that counting the shower clean-up neatly places Psycho into two “Acts”). Rarely has a movie witnessed such a shift in tone, from the engrossing but relatively sedate first half of the movie detailing Marion Crane’s theft of $40,000 and flight from Phoenix, to the untold horrors centering on the Bates Motel and its shy young proprietor, Norman. Hitchcock, working with a first-class Joseph Stefano script, sagely sets a calm matter-of-fact tone while the majority Marion’s storyline unfolds, with a few hints of suspense (such as her encounter with the police officer) to ensure the public they hadn’t walked into some other director’s film. This comfortable set-up of course pays off spectacularly once the movie does its legendary 180 spin with the protagonists, replacing Marion with Norman for the audience’s main identification point. Filmmakers have been trying to do this type of switch-a-roo ever since, but no one ever managed to get quite the shock value Hitchcock manages to cleverly gain.

As Marion Crane, the heroine anchoring the first half of the movie, Leigh does an outstanding job of gaining the audience’s sympathy and holding their interest, making her untimely demise even more shocking and hard to except. Leigh was discovered by Norma Shearer (via a photo of Leigh Shearer spotted) and groomed via the slick MGM star-making system, but she possessed a unique aptitude for screen acting early on that she maintains in her best roles. Check Leigh out in 1948’s Act of Violence or her fine playing with another screen natural, Robert Mitchum in the same year’s Holiday Affair for a nice showcase of how intelligent and focused a young ingénue can be with the right opportunities. In Psycho Leigh obviously has her career role and she knows what to do with it, skillfully depicting Marion’s mindset regarding the moral conflict she faces both before and after absconding with the cash and, in a wonderful later scene with Norman wherein each discuss the “traps” they’ve fallen into, providing a natural, carefully modulated approach to her dialogue that helps make the scene one of the best-acted and least-dated of its era. As for possibly the most famous scene in any movie, Leigh dies as convincingly as anyone I can remember onscreen, and is as unforgettable as the scene itself.  

Although Perkins is also forever linked to this scene, as has been frequently mentioned he was in New York working on Greenwillow when this iconic moment, probably his most renowned career reference point, was shot. The son of veteran character actor Osgood Perkins (see 1932’s Scarface) Perkins entered films after trekking across the country to land a small debut role opposite Jean Simmons in George Cukor’s 1953 The Actress, before breaking through in 1956 with an artful, emotionally charged performance as Josh, a conflicted Quaker youth (fighting or not in the Civil War provides the conflict) in William Wyler’s memorable Friendly Persuasion. After an Oscar nomination Perkins became the hottest young male star in the business, abet with hit-and-miss results concerning his output leading up to Psycho, with fine work in Fear Strikes Out being countered by something like his miscasting in the largely regrettable Green Mansions.

Perkins’ nervous earnestness and thoughtful approach to his roles had been well-established by 1960, therefore allowing both audiences and the film industry to be sent reeling once yet another (seemingly) “nice boy” portrayal by Perkins turned out to be possibly the darkest young man ever seen on screen. The trade-off was clear, maybe even at the time: film immortality as Norman Bates at the cost of forgoing any chance of a career as a straight-laced, handsome movie star, if Perkins even wanted that (as it turned out, he headed to Europe for much of his 60’s output, before giving another great performance as a troubled youth in 1968’s cult classic Pretty Poison, opposite an equally-adept Tuesday Weld, as the girl providing him even more trouble). Although in some post-Psycho films Perkins famous ticks sometimes come off as mannered, he is masterful in detailing all of Norman’s complexities, whether they be endearing or terrifying. Perkins’ alternated between stage and film work for the rest of his career, gaining a nice professional boost with the success of the well-crafted 1982 Psycho sequel, wherein Perkins’ showed he’d developed a sly humor in regards to portraying Norman’s neurotic behavior.

Concerning the rest of the cast, Vera Miles is appropriately tough and somber as Marion’s no-nonsense sister Lila, who’s determine to uncover the mystery surrounding Marion’s disappearance. Miles had been groomed by Hitchcock for stardom, but after strong work in 1956’s The Wrong Man, pregnancy prevented her from starring in Vertigo, so the rest wasn’t history concerning Mile’s career as a top Hitchcock blonde. Ironically, playing the “lesser” role of Lila to finish her contract with Hitchcock did give Miles a measure of lasting fame as a major factor in the film’s mesmerizing basement finale, wherein Lila finally meets and introduces the audience to Mrs. Bates, then lets out a scream in perfect sync with Herrmann’s screeching violins. As Sam Loomis, Marion’s boyfriend who aids Lila, John Gavin isn’t too animated, but he’s so classically handsome in a Greek-God manner you can see why someone would steal $40,000 in 1960 dollars in a desperate attempt to hook up with him permanently.

Martin Balsam provides possibly the most stellar supporting work this side of Mrs. Bates as Arbogast, signaling with his smart, direct and focused portrayal what a great decade laid in store for him as a top character actor in offerings such as Breakfast at Tiffany’s, The Carpetbaggers, and his Oscar-winner, A Thousand Clowns. In smaller roles, John McIntire and Lurene Tuttle are amusingly folksy as the small-town sheriff and his wife who offer Lila and Sam some critical information, Simon Oakland smoothly provides the wrap-up explanation for audiences still reeling from revelations unlike any they’d yet seen onscreen (and watch for Ted Knight as a guard in this sequence) and, as she memorably did in her larger role in Strangers on a Train, Patricia Hitchcock comes through for dad once again by offering a welcome light touch early on as Marion’s cohort in the office, Caroline. Patricia has commented she would only be cast by her father if she was exactly right for a part; luckily, two of those roles came in works that rank at or near the top of the Hitchcock cannon.

Although critics, who were made to watch the film with general audiences instead of in the comfort of a screening room, generally were less-than-generous towards the film that firmly stamped the “Master of Suspense” moniker on Hitchcock forever after, the success of the low-budget thriller was unprecedented, as Psycho racked up 1960 grosses second only to the mammoth Ben-Hur. Hitchcock’s clever publicizing of the film went beyond the trailer, with the best promotional gimmick involving theaters refusing to allow anyone into a showing of the film once it started, in order to keep audiences from seeing any of the shocks out-of-sequence. Waiting to get into the next screening of Psycho could have only added to the already pronounced anticipation to see the much-buzzed about production, and the incredible audience reaction to the film even led to some awards attention (those disgruntled critics and their bruised egos be damned), with Leigh scoring a Golden Globe, and both her and Hitchcock placing among Psycho’s four Oscar nominations. The film’s seismic impact on movies and American culture proved impossible to top for Hitchcock, who gained a measure of success with his memorable 1963 follow-up, The Birds, but floundered for much of the rest of the decade, until his penultimate film, 1972’s Frenzy showed Hitchcock’s perverse sense of humor in the macabre genre, brought up-to-date with R-rated explicitness, was still fully intact. As for Psycho, the movie’s reputation as the premier modern-day horror film and one of the key Hitchcock films has only grown in stature over the last 60 years, resulting in the film today owning its rightful place among the greatest films ever made, and a lot less people in showers everywhere.

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Tyrone Power and the Gang Ride to Glory in Jesse James

Providing a retelling of one of the Wild West’s most famous outlaws, 20th Century-Fox’s 1939’s Jesse James forgoes much of any resemblance to the real James’ history to offer a more heroic bandit better-suited to the Classic Hollywood era of the period. In Fox’s rendering, James’ life of crime stems from his seeking justifiable revenge from evil railroad men who wreak havoc on James’ homestead and family, making it clear to the large audiences who turned out for the film who is being wronged onscreen, and is most deserving of their empathy. Fox knew how to put these spruced-up historical sagas together in entertaining fashion with great production values, and reliable in-house director Henry King stays on track throughout, keeping things moving at a brisk clip, particularly during an exciting staging of the pivotal shootout that changed James and his colleagues’ fortunes considerably.

As the troubled title character, Tyrone Power does some of his best work. Frequently used as a lighter romantic lead in Fox’s major productions, in these roles I’ve often felt Power, although professional, was fairly conventional in his performance style and played up his boyish charm, sometimes even in more dramatic fare (but not, of course, in his now-revered work in one of the best Fox films ever, 1947’s Nightmare Alley). In James, Power comes on much stronger than usual and, although he has a naturally endearing screen presence and looks like a million bucks in Technicolor (and in 1939 dollars at that), Power does not play for any audience sympathy as Jesse either, even if the script protects Jesse from being too much of a villain. Some of the darkness that came to full fruition in his Alley work can be seen here; when Jesse flares up and starts getting paranoid, you believe Power and wonder exactly how far Jesse will go.  

                As Jesse’s loyal older brother Frank, Henry Fonda is onscreen a lot less than viewers might expect, but he shows a laconic mastery of his role from his first (great) introduction on a back porch to his key scene challenging Jesse when his brother starts to become overly demanding with the gang. Fonda already demonstrates his keen ability to indicate layers of depth beneath a character’s calm, stoic exterior, and is such an assured, solid presence, there’s no doubt Frank can handle any situation throw his way, and it’s interesting to watch how formidable an impact Fonda can make in a smaller role, which would come few-and-far between after this film (after the success of James, Fonda would return the next year in the aptly titled The Return of Frank James, as well as starring in Young Mr. Lincoln later in 1939, and a little drama called The Grapes of Wrath in 1940).

Despite great work from her costars, Nancy Kelly proved to be the most fascinating performer for at least one rapt viewer. Having been a movie buff for several decades, there are few actors I’ve only seen once onscreen. Although she had steady output through the late 1930’s- mid 1940’s in movies, Kelly fell into this category for me, based on her now-iconic (in camp circles, at any rate) Tony-winning, Oscar-nominated performance as Rhoda’s progressively unhinged mother Christine in the 1956 all-timer The Bad Seed. Kelly’s grand, nervy theatrics in that unforgettable piece of work (in every sense of the word) are intriguing to view in comparison to what she pulls off in James as Zee, Jesse’s faithful intended. Although only 17 during filming in 1938 (James was released early in 1939) Kelly, already a veteran performance since early childhood, is remarkably composed and focused in her scenes, suggesting a maturity far beyond her years and the dramatic prowess she would display full-throttle in Seed, yet she’s much softer in her acting style in James, and vocally and physically looks very different (I wouldn’t have placed Kelly without knowing beforehand she was in the film, and I wasn’t sure in her first scene if she was the Nancy Kelly). However, although her work is more subdued and less mannered, Kelly is as captivating to watch in James as she is being tormented by her pigtailed offspring years later, as in James she seems to be fully vested and “in the moment” in each scene, truly interacting with and responding to her costars, instead of acting at them. She’s wonderful with Power; you sense the deep connection Zee feels for James, and how difficult it is for her to be apart from the frequently absent outlaw. Based on her moving work in James and the adept talent she clearly possessed as a screen performer, it’s surprising Kelly would have to wait so long to have a similar success late in her career (although only 35 when Seed came out, it was Kelly’s last film credit, as she only made television appearances thereafter).

                Among the rest of the players, Randolph Scott, as lawman Will Wright, who is both at-odds with and sympathetic towards Jesse, shows a low-key ease in the Western genre that would carry him to greater success in the 1950’s after teaming up Budd Boetticher for both of their most seminal works. Henry Hull handles his meaty role as newspaper editor Major Rufus Cobb, Zee’s newspaper editor uncle who is constantly indignant over the mistreatment of James, in showy fashion, while a more sedate Brian Donlevy makes an equally strong impact in his villainous comfort zone as a slick railroad man out to con the James’ and any other citizen who gets in his vicinity. As Robert Ford, John Carradine also gets his chance to show his adeptness with limited screen time at making a strong impression as a cad, and Donald Meek, playing against his usual comic milquetoast roles with great verve, stands out as another nefarious railroad agent intent on destroying the James Gang, and in particular Jesse. You patiently wait for this worm to get his comeuppance, and one of the joys of watching a classic film is knowing it’s well-nigh inevitable a jerk will get what’s coming to him or her in a wholly satisfying manner.  Rounding out the cast, Jane Darwell gets a look-in and a warm-up for her iconic Ma Joad as James’ mother, and Lon Chaney Jr. is credited as one of the James Gang, although I can’t remember seeing him anywhere.

                Jesse James offers a fine example of the carefully-crafted entertainment major studios like Fox turned out regularly during Hollywood’s Golden Era, which many feel reached its peak in 1939 with an incredible run of enduring top releases. Impressively, among a slew of worthy competition for box-office receipts, James managed to out-pace most contenders and pull in some of the biggest grosses of the year, trailing only Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz according to Susan Sackett’s Box Office Hits. It’s easy to see how a public eager for escapism was draw into the plight of James as presented in a more attractive, accessible manner by Fox than reality warranted (but people weren’t going to movies for grim realities in 1939; they already had dealt with plenty of that at home during the decade), with smooth, proficient direction by King, memorable work by a slew of capable performers and the still-novel Technicolor allowing the film to gain precedence over many in a strong 1939 field, and to remain endearing cinema over eighty years onward.

Friday, May 15, 2020

A Cleaned-Up, Compelling Peyton Place Scores Big in 1957

2oth Century Fox’s shrewdly crafted 1957 film version of Grace Metalious’ eye-popping novel from the previous year, which caught the public’s fancy for juicy, salacious material few would admit to reading while copies flew off shelfs in record numbers, Peyton Place offers engrossing entertainment, with memorable emoting from some well-cast performers at the top of their respective games helping to maintain viewers’ interest throughout a lengthy running time. Although the movie has to sidestep or dilute some of the book’s darker territory, which included incest, rape, abortion, adultery and, for good measure, a severed arm (no wonder citizens of the town Metalious based her no-holds-barred story on were outraged), onscreen Place was still progressive by production codes standards of the day, managing to address many of the book’s adult themes while keeping the movie appealing to the masses- Darryl Zanuck owed screenwriter John Michael Hayes a huge bonus for keeping a fine balance between the ribald and respectable, as the movie was embraced by the public and reaped some of the biggest grosses of the decade (according to Variety, the late-1957 release was second only to The Bridge on the River Kwai in 1958, with Place garnering $12,000,000 in U.S./Canadian rentals). 

For Lana Turner, the role of Constance MacKenzie provided a chance to take on a mature, juicy part in a high-profile project after her time at MGM had passed a couple of years prior. Constance proves an ideal fit for the star; there’s not a lot of novels you’d read and think, “I see Lana Turner in this character,” but the great-lady airs Turner brought to roles as a “big MGM star” (even after she left the studio) perfectly match up with Constance, a woman putting on a classy, aloof front at all times to hide a shady past. Turner properly appears both apprehensive and standoffish, and although there are a few moments she may overdo the dramatics, she also has some impressive emotional scenes, particularly with co-lead Diana Varsi as her independent-minded daughter Allison. Turner has been unfairly knocked during her lifetime and beyond for not being much of an actress; however, in a manner similar to Natalie Wood, Turner can go from giving a perfunctory performance to turning on some riveting emoting when a meaty scene gives her a chance to dive in, and her histrionic skill combined with the baby-doll quality Turner never completely lost, especially during highly emotional scenes, showcases an impressive screen presence and draws the viewer in. In her memoir Turner expressed surprise she won her sole Oscar nomination for Place, as she felt she didn’t do much in the film to warrant recognition, but she’s very well cast and does focused, professional work. Even if she did get the nod as part of the sweep that saw Place end up with nine nominations (if no eventual wins), I think Turner’s work holds up and merits this sole Academy approval she received.

         As Allison, Varsi makes a substantial impact in her first film, managing to convey the character’s poetic, innocent nature while possessing a calm, intelligent, ethereal quality that allows for highly individual work- Varsi is no ordinarily starlet slickly manufactured by the studio system. Her freshness and direct acting style (Varsi does a great job focusing on and naturally reacting to whomever she’s onscreen with) lends a modern element to the melodramatic proceedings. Adeptly handling much of the melodrama as Selena Cross, Allison’s wrong-side-of-the-tracks friend who doesn’t catch one good break during the film, mostly due to her odious stepfather’s unwelcomed advances, Hope Lange provides many riveting moments as she pushes herself to depths of despair not commonly seen onscreen. Although Lange would remain a professional, likeable performer after her breakthrough here (including winning two Emmys for The Ghost and Mrs. Muir and winding up in Blue Velvet, which would make an interesting double bill with Place in demonstrating how far a filmmaker could go in depicting controversial material during and after the production code’s rigid censorship ruled Hollywood) she’s possibly most unforgettable depicting Selena’s many travails, mixing a quiet grace with powerhouse emoting and obtaining truckloads of audience empathy as Selena’s plight unfolds and she faces one travesty after another.

         Of the huge cast filled with well-known names, several manage to make a strong impression although with the three female leads. Arthur Kennedy does a great job of mixing relatable and repulsive characteristics into his portrayal of Lucas Cross, Selena’s less-than admirable wayward stepfather responsible for plenty of the drama that goes down. As the venerated schoolteacher, Mildred Dunnock has some good moments with Kennedy and instills a nice touch of bitterness later when she’s passed over as school principal and informs a sympathetic Allison to go get want she wants in life, “Don’t wait for anyone to give it to you.” Lloyd Nolan is wonderful as the town’s moral conscience, Doc Swain, and wisely plays in a down-to-earth, sometimes tough manner that keeps the good doctor (who seems to be a stand-in for the audience at times, in saying and acting as we would if aware of the town’s dirty underbelly) from becoming tiresome.

As she did several years earlier in parts of Come Back, Little Sheba, Terry Moore shows a knack for playing a tease while keeping the audience on her side, in possibly the role most sanitized from the book, as “town tramp” Betty Anderson, who in the film deeply loves her rich conquest, Rodney Harrington (a likeable Barry Coe). Moore has a great scene in a car with Coe wherein she manages to infer quite a bit of sexual energy onscreen, even though limitations prevented Betty from being as misbehaved as what she pulled off in the book. One of the things I love best about classic movies is how creative artists couldn’t overtly show certain mature aspects on film (specifically anything to do with sex) due to the production code, and therefore had to come up with ways to suggest these shenanigans without actually portraying the sins. Leaving things to the imagination ironically can lead an audience to think up situations far beyond what was intended, and I bet filmmakers had fun creating scenes like this fairly racy encounter between wayward lovers Betty and Rodney. 

         Although set in the early 1940’s, Peyton Place aptly captures the mores of the late-1950’s (including the increasingly prevalent generation gap), at least as they might appear on-screen in compellingly melodramatic fashion. Mark Robson’s direction admirably maintains a consistent tone in introducing and detailing the many characters and events without letting the drama move too much into far-fetched territory, as well as frequently showcasing the Camden, Maine locations in all their magnificence, providing an interesting offering of beautiful backdrops to frame all the unsavory story elements. Viewed as an impressive, tasteful rendering of source material deemed inappropriate for the screen (if wildly popular on the printed page) upon its release, Place still holds up as a prime example of how well a studio equipped with A-1 production values across the board could pull off a big-screen adaptation of a controversial bestseller by maintaining the flavor of the novel and offering some of its eye-opening content, while simultaneously classing things up enough for the lauded film to be eagerly consumed by the masses, who could go with their families to this “adult” movie and still appear respectable to their friends and neighbors, many of who probably had a copy of Peyton Place stashed in a closet. 

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

An Appealing Fox Biopic Earns its Stars & Stripes

20th Century Fox’s entertaining 1952 retelling of John Philip Sousa’s life, covering his 1890’s success as the leader of the Marine Corps’ marching band through key years fronting the renown Sousa Band, Stars & Stripes Forever differs from many of the biopics of this era in bypassing major dramatic elements such as alcoholism or other addictions and/or unsavory elements (see Love Me or Leave Me or just about any 1950’s Susan Hayward film of this ilk) to depict a life largely free of controversy. This could come across as stale and uninteresting (one of the film’s big moments finds the conductor stepping away from his post to dance a two-step with Mrs. Sousa), but great charm is found in Stars unpretentious narrative, with veteran director Henry Koster capability helming the proceedings and wisely keeping the running-time at a brisk 89 minutes and, most importantly, a group of charismatic, ingratiating performances by the leads helping to win the audience over.

From his initial scene wherein Sousa is seen buying 150 dozen pairs of white gloves for his chosen profession, Clifton Webb is fully in his comfort zone as the practical, precise bandleader, and although he can still pull off a caustic line second-to-none, he seems friendlier than usual and even smiles a few times. Webb is great at not overdoing anything here, playing in a simple, straightforward manner throughout, and he isn’t afraid to even look (aptly) a little foolish when Sousa starts to bellow the lyrics to one of his songs in less-than-impressive fashion. As Mrs. Sousa, Ruth Hussey has a wonderfully direct, knowing manner in her scenes, without ever coming across as phony or saccharine, a merit that applies to the other actors and the overall film as well. Hussey’s likeable professionalism is in perfect sync with Webb’s casual adeptness, and they make an endearing combo (and yes, that scene wherein Mr. and Mrs. Sousa dance the two-step around a ballroom is a winner in the hands of these two skilled performers). 

The handsome Robert Wagner, playing a young Marine who becomes a key member of the Sousa Band, is eager, pleasantly vacuous, and completely irresistible in a breakthrough major role after scoring as military officers earlier in the year in What Price Glory and, specifically, the hit Hayward biopic With a Song in My Heart. Every time Wagner turns on that mega-watt smile with an impact that would possibly even make Julia Roberts jealous, any greenness he might show as a novice performer is swept under the soundstage, and you can see why his career was off and running in short order. As his lady love, Wagner is beautifully paired with Debra Paget, the ideal 1950’s ingénue (IMO, at least- she might win the title based on her 1956 output alone; throw in Broken Arrow and it’s a no-brainer and step aside, Mitzi Gaynor), whose typical spiritedness and earnest approach are well-suited to her role as a young singer looking to break into the Sousa Band. Paget’s style also meshes superbly with Wagner’s playing- Wagner and Paget’s characters could be deemed conventionally “cute’” as is the case with many young onscreen lovers back in the day (and maybe still today) but, both in appearance and in possessing an easy, unforced youthful energy, they’re so damn perfect together that the audience is completely with them in every scene. Also, as a classic movie geek I waited patiently thinking surely George Chakiris, the good-luck charm of many a Fox or Paramount musical of the period, would have to show up and (in the words of the late, great Rosemary Clooney during her commentary on White Christmas) “gorgeous George” didn’t let me down- Chakiris waltzes by a few times in that ballroom sequence mid-way into the film.   

I admit to vapidity regarding becoming completely enamored with a movie showcasing gorgeous Technicolor, regardless of if the film has any merit besides this asset. Although Stars and Stripes has the aforementioned advantages, the terrific restoration effort put in for the Blu-Ray of Stars provides abundant pleasures for the eye to behold. Every scene appears pristine, and it’s rare to see this much work put in to make a classic film not extremely well-known (as opposed to a The Wizard of Oz) come out looking like gangbusters- thank you, Fox! Stars did well upon its initial release (a late-December 1952 release, it earned $3,000,000 in rentals and placed in the top twenty-grossing films of the year according to Variety) but I can’t remember seeing it aired much or being in any conversation of memorable movies of its period, musical or otherwise. It was great to finally watch it and find Stars to be such an enjoyable viewing experience. As Fox has been bought out by Disney, grab a copy of this worthy classic title sooner rather than later, for a very pleasant way to spend 90 minutes.