Sunday, May 15, 2022

Mae West Earns Her Halo in I'm No Angel

As one of the chief films to both pull Paramount Studios out of bankruptcy and bring about the creation of the restrictive Production Code, 1933’s I’m No Angel provided new screen sensation Mae West a worthy follow-up to her first starring vehicle, She Done Him Wrong (an adaptation of one of her biggest stage successes, Diamond Lil), which offered sexy, sassy entertainment to Depression-era masses hungry for light diversion and a offered a perfect vehicle to introduce West’s major talents, carefully honed over years of stage work in vaudeville and on Broadway, to a much wider public. Director Wesley Ruggles helped West solidify her previous success by keeping Angel’s pace steady at a brisk running time of 87 minutes, while properly showcasing West as Tira, a foxy circus beauty with prime undulating skills, keeping her and her ample charms and wisecracks front-and-center throughout the movie as Mae ambles her way through her own wry, sagely written screenplay in consistently diverting fashion.

Radiating supreme confidence and earthy good humor while provocatively singing and sashaying her way around every man in sight, Mae West puts on a memorable one-woman show as Tira, a circus beauty with “Big Bill Barton’s Wonder Show” who, when not undulating and “oohing” to bring the crowds in, keeps them rapt with her daring lion-taming act. West also keeps things lively by slipping out of one terrific outfit into another, and the striking wardrobe created for West provide one indicator of the first-class production values Paramount wisely poured into Angel, with one spider web-designed gown in particular perfectly befitting the star’s seductive persona as first one beau then another potential mate pay Mae a call. West has such a grand time playing up her sexuality and suggestively tossing off one innuendo after another one might feel sorry for the Production Codes advocates who clearly were missing out on the fun, except for the fact that after Angel, they stepped in to make sure West wasn’t allowed to move about as freely ever again during her 1930’s heyday. Fortunately, by that point West had firmly established her public persona as a screen siren quite unlike any other, with the audience in on the joke as West made fun of sex in an unashamed, sly manner, which allowed her to keep her career going on stage and in films for the next several decades, achieving living legend status long before her passing in 1980.

After gaining a major career boost opposite West in She Done Him Wrong, Cary Grant once again proves an ideal leading object of desire for West to ogle and vamp around upon first sight. As the affluent, attractive Jack Clayton, who quickly becomes West primary conquest, it’s interesting to see Grant in this early leading man mode. He’s classy, very handsome and has an easy rapport with West (they share a wonderful sequence bantering at a piano), but the charismatic spark found in his breakthrough Sylvia Scarlett performance and in just about every subsequent role hadn’t taken root yet. However, even in a more standard leading man guise, Grant has a great, carefree manner with West in Angel as the two impishly trade suggestive dialogue, and the audience can tell Mae clearly enjoys working with and eying her magnetic co-star (upon first seeing Grant walking around the Paramount lot, West famously stated “If he can talk, I'll take him.”). Years later West quickly named Grant when asked who her favorite male lead was, and Angel clearly justifies her conviction, as the two are admirably in-synch on screen, whether playfully toying with each other or romancing in a more arousing manner.

The rest of the cast do well enough, although this is clearly West’s show all the way, as it should be and as her snappy script intended. As Big Bill, Edward Arnold and his forceful, gruff acting style is well-suited to his role, and he gets to set up one of West’s best Angel retorts after he tells Mae “I changed my mind.” Nat Pendleton makes a brief impression as circus man Harry and Gregory Ratoff lends his distinct vocal delivery style as Tira’s supportive lawyer. Gertrude Michaels is properly terse as a jealous would-be rival (West had no true rivals when it came to the men in her films), while Walter Walker scores perhaps the strongest of these players as the cooperative judge clearly open to West’s flirtatious byplay during the terrific climatic courtroom scene, wherein West takes on all lawyers, jurors and witnesses with aplomb. Also look quick for Hattie McDaniel as a manicurist who briefly banters with West humorously and is introduced telling Mae to “sing it, honey.”

Kino Lorber’s new Blu-ray offers a sterling print which sufficiently presents Leo Tover’s bright cinematography. For West, the success of Angel cemented her place among the top box-office draws of the era, with placement in the top ten in 1933 and 1934. The film stands as the last opportunity for West in her prime to perform on-screen at her sauciest and most suggestive until, in 1968, the production code was lifted in favor of the MPAA ratings system, and West was finally permitted to entertainingly add her famous saucy retorts to the otherwise-woeful Myra Breckinridge. With Angel allowing West to bemusedly partake of witty, sexy interplay with a variety of handsome suitors in her trademark beguilingly uninhibited fashion, the film maintains a fresh appeal nearly 90 years after its initial smash release and offers perhaps the best example of West in her most iconic mode as the smart, funny, vamping, original cinematic luminary for the ages.  

I recently had a lot of fun putting together a tribute video to West using her 1932-1940 screen output, including a handful of famous Mae quips to start the proceedings, before getting to the song tribute involving Elle King's "Ex's & Oh's" (Elle comes on like Mae's great-granddaughter, both in her vocal style and her demeanor seen in the playful video for King's 2014 hit). Reviewing the films demonstrated what a daring, one-of-a-kind performer West was- she marched to her own tune with apologizes to no one, writing her own material with great wit and aplomb. The tribute can be viewed over here at YouTube: https://youtu.be/GeDtz5vu2_U

Wednesday, April 20, 2022

Cary Grant and Grace Kelly Perfectly Team To Catch a Thief

Offering a prime example of a 1950’s studio-era commercial property featuring a perfect blend of director, stars, location and story, Paramount’s To Catch a Thief affords Alfred Hitchcock and mega-stars Cary Grant and Grace Kelly the chance to showcase their talents via a diverting caper set amid beautiful French Riviera vistas filmed in VistaVision and Technicolor. Although Thief is considered one of Hitchcock’s lighter entertainments, it can also be labeled one of his most irresistible works, with two stars at the height of their abilities giving charismatic performances, which includes an abundance of playful, sexy chemistry. Hitchcock is also aided by a crafty, breezy screenplay by frequent collaborator John Michael Hayes and Robert Burks’ ace, Oscar-winning photography, which allows viewers to get lost in the ample scenic wonders on display, and make them want to plan a trip to say, Monte Carlo as soon as the film concludes. Wisely forgoing tense suspense to utilize his deft cinematic touch in showcasing comic and romantic elements via a more casual whodunit format, Hitchcock and his stars create the type of enjoyable, carefree diversion movies were made for.

Portraying John Robie, a retired cat burglar of 15 years who suddenly finds himself at the top of the suspect list due to a series of new robberies, Cary Grant was lured back to movies after a couple years’ retirement by his persistent director, and effortlessly dominates the film with his matchless charm and skill. Sleek, tan and debonair, Grant makes 50 look very fine, and he is so confident and relaxed one hardly cares if Robie actually committed the crimes as he works with others to find an alternate culprit. Thief finds Grant at a career peak, with the suave, sly Robie a superb match to Grant’s self-assured screen persona; it’s easy to see how in the aftermath of the film’s success he would go on to an eventful final decade in films, rarely missing the mark as one smash hit followed another (these included An Affair to Remember, Houseboat, Operation Petticoat, That Touch of Mink, Charade and his signature late-career role as Roger Thornhill in the follow-up and final teaming with Hitchcock, North By Northwest) as the audiences’ love affair continued unabated with Grant until his for-real screen retirement in 1966 via Walk, Don’t Run.

Reuniting after fruitful associations via Dial M for Murder and Rear Window, Hitchcock once again brings out the best in Grace Kelly’s cool, regal bearing, and she’s possibly even more slyly bemused and alluring than in her iconic role as the adventurous Lisa Fremont in Window. As the headstrong, bold Frances Stevens, a wealthy traveler who initially encounters Robie due to her mother’s expensive jewelry collection, Kelly is in beautiful synch with Grant during their double-entendre exchanges, specifically during the film’s most famous sequences, first at a roadside picnic, and then during the expertly-staged hotel room seduction, with cross-cutting to a blazing fireworks display in case the simultaneous fireworks the star couple is creating leaves any doubt what’s transpiring. In addition, she and Grant look so sensational together it seems perfectly natural guests gawk as one of the screen’s classiest couples walk through the Carlton hotel lobby, instead of cliché and unbelievable. Also, along with Kelly’s great alliance with Hitchcock, To Catch offers another cinematic match made in Heaven, as Kelly once again wears chic Edith Head creations with breathtaking style (Head also gets a chance to illustrate her awesome gifts during the elaborate costume ball at the film’s climax, and received one of her many Oscar nominations for her notable efforts).

In support of the stars, Jessie Royce Landis is intensely likable as the aptly named Jessie, Frances’ straightforward, sage mother, who has plenty to say regarding her daughter’s aloof behavior towards what Jessie views as an ideal mate. Landis’ earthy good humor scores so dynamically that, along with her adeptness in performing banter engagingly with Grant, Hitchcock found it suitable to peg her for an even more iconic role in North By Northwest as Grant’s wryly bemused mother, even though she only predated Grant’s birth by about seven years. John Williams is a welcome urbane presence as the wry insurance agent working with Robie, and he has a great scene with Grant wherein they discuss what constitutes a thief, and how most people fall into the category. Rounding out the principle players, Charles Vanel and Brigitte Auber lend some continental flavor as French allies of Robie, who are both highly intrigued by the robberies and Robie’s role in the crimes.

Upon its release in the summer of 1955, To Catch a Thief provided audiences with the kind of escapism perfectly suited for summertime movie fare. The film continued the trend of popular Grant-Hitchcock and Kelly-Hitchcock pairings, as well as the incredible run of screen successes Kelly had during her brief reign as a top star in the mid-1950’s (with an Oscar on her mantle to boot a few months prior to the release of Thief), taking in $4.5 million in rentals according to Variety, to place among the top 20 box-office hits of the year. Although Thief is seldom mentioned among the Master of Suspense’s chief works, it warrants more valuable consideration, as it takes considerable talent to pull off a refreshing, beguiling comedy-mystery as successfully and Hitchcock and company manage to do here. Possessing first-rate production values and a peerless star-director combo (or two), viewers looking for a palatable, colorful excursion arising in a glamourous locale won’t feel cheated by the substantial charms on display in this stylish Thief.

On a side note, I recently created a video tribute to Grant at YouTube, using clips from over 30 top Grant films. It can be viewed here: https://youtu.be/HOmDE7oud8k. Reviewing the films while compiling the clips, it was clear how impressively Grant handled so many diverse roles with conviction and spontaneity, shifting from drama to comedy (whether it be sophisticated, broad or physical) with remarkable dexterity. He also created a wonderful comradery while working with children, whom he appeared to adore, as witnessed by Houseboat, Father Goose and the funny, touching and underrated Room for One More, wherein he co-stars with then-wife Betsy Drake. Unfortunately, Grant’s easy professionalism and lack of pretension left him generally ignored by the Academy, with Grant scoring two nominations (for Penny Serenade and None but the Lonely Heart) before finally being given an overdue and career Oscar in 1970. I think Grant warranted the Oscar for his deeply felt, moving work in Serenade, and I’d also grant Grant at least one other statute for one of his roles during his phenomenal run of classics from 1937-1941, say The Awful Truth.

Wednesday, March 23, 2022

Hayley Mills Breaks Through to Stardom at Tiger Bay

One of the most enjoyable and touching dramas of its period, J. Lee Thompson’s Tiger Bay mixes elements of the burgeoning “kitchen sink” British dramas and an exciting chase adventure. Anchored by a truly remarkable debut by 13-year-old Hayley Mills, the 1959 film traces the exploits of tomboy Gillie Evans, whose curious, mischievous nature finds her abetting a young seafarer, Bronislav, who is on-the-run from the law. Adeptly visualizing the John Hawkesworth and Shelley Smith screenplay (from a short story by Noel Calef), Thompson does a fantastic job moving the story along while showcasing Mills and a host of fine performers to their best advantage and, as he would demonstrate post-Bay with hits such as The Guns of Navarone and Cape Fear, utilizes his second-to-none ability to slowly build suspense towards a powerful climax. Eric Cross’ evocative black and white cinematography immeasurably assists Thompson in setting the proper rural tone for the film, as his vivid camerawork fully brings to life the Cardiff and Wales locales, beautifully capturing a specific time and place.

Hayley Mills’ compelling, naturalistic work as Gillie completely captivates the viewer from first scene to last. Thompson visited John Mills prior to filming, and upon meeting Mills’ strikingly individual daughter decided to change the lead from a young boy to a girl. Thompson’s intuition paid off as, although untried as an actor prior to Bay, Hayley Mills effortlessly holds the screen in one of the best film debuts and child performances ever, displaying an innate understanding of the demanding role and how to illustrate Gillie’s every conflicting mood in an unforced manner (Thompson makes excellent use of close-ups to showcase Mills’ guileless approach in front of the camera). Sustaining a relaxed, beguiling performance style as she admirably reacts to her costars in a focused, believable fashion, Mills’ full investment in the character and each scenes draws the audience into Gillie’s plight quickly, then keeps viewers attentive as she faces a series of misadventures in and around the title location.

As Gillie, Mills can also be counted among the greatest liars in movies, never telegraphing to the audience she’s lying, or doing cute gestures or pauses to emphasize the fibbing; as Gillie, she simply and calmly lies, offering a masterclass in how to effectively be deceitful onscreen. Mills is especially gifted in this area during a couple cat-and-mouse interrogation scenes with her father, portraying Graham, the sly police superintendent intent on capturing Bronislav, but hindered in his efforts by Gillie’s misrepresentation of key facts. Hayley Mills does an expert job in appearing nonplussed as Gillie casually keeps denying any association with Bronislav, to the increasing frustration of Graham. For her original, outstanding efforts, Mills won the BAFTA award for Most Promising Newcomer to Film, a special award at the Berlin Film Festival and, significantly, the attention of Walt Disney who, after getting a look at the precocious teen in Bay offered her Pollyanna, leading to the last juvenile Oscar given to her, major stardom and a long tenure with the Disney Studios.

 In his first English-language film, the handsome, magnetic Horst Buchholz was at the outset of an impressive run of classics, following Bay with The Magnificent Seven, Fanny and One, Two, Three in 1960 and 1961. His youthful energy and earnest, sympathetic work allows him to create an irresistible figure in Bronislav, resulting in audiences being right with the anti-hero as he frantically attempts to uphold his freedom throughout the movie. In delineating the film’s central relationship, Buchholz maintains a beautiful chemistry with Mills, conveying a protective big-brother demeanor as their alliance deepens, along with a playfulness which provides some lighter moments amid the general tension befitting the storyline, while Laurie Johnson’s lush recurring theme music helps underscore the touching nature of this atypical relationship. There’s a wonderful scene early on wherein Gillie sings a choir solo to Bronislav in a lovely manner and, smiling, he responses “You’ve got a terrible voice” when it’s clear he’s very moved by her song, and Gillie grins right back at him, then proceeds to talk to him in an open, innocent manner, thereby displaying her trustworthy nature as their friendship is established. In addition to more endearing moments, Buchholz also aids the film’s dramatic essence by adeptly suggesting the conflict Bronislav faces in possibly ridding himself of the young charge who is making it more difficult for him to gain his freedom, with the audience wondering at times if Bronislav is capable of maintaining the loyalty Gillie clearly holds towards him. 

John Mills is properly intense and determined as Graham, becoming disarmingly fiercer as he narrows his search for Bronislav, while Meg Jenkins does nice work as Gillie’s first preoccupied, then progressively more concerned aunt. Yvonne Mitchell, one of British films’ top leading ladies of the era, scores strongly in her brief role as Bronislav’s mistress, Anya, conveying in a few moments both her attraction to the wayward lover who’s drawn to the sea, and the guilt and anger she holds towards him as she seeks out a more stable life for herself. Lastly, as in his most famous work in Dial M for Murder, Anthony Dawson does an effortless job in suggesting a jittery, unreliable nature at every moment as Anya’s new lover, Barclay, and it’s great fun to watch the lanky, sweaty suspect apprehensively interact with Graham as the case develops. In a couple of probing scenes, a viewer gets the impression that, even if Barclay is innocent of the crime central to the story then surely, based on Dawson’s slick interpretation, he must have done something in his past to justify a conviction.

A success upon release, the film gained, in addition to accolades for its young star, nominations for Best British Film and Best Film from Any Source by the British Academy. However, over the years Bay has been eclipsed by Hayley Mills’ higher-profile Disney output, specifically 1961’s smash hit The Parent Trap, which single-handedly made Mills a baby boomer icon. Attending a TCM Film Festival screening of Trap with a packed audience several years ago, with Mills in attendance for an interview prior to the screening, the crowd eagerly awaited Mills onscreen once more singing “Let’s Get Together” as Trap’s calculating twins, but reacted in lukewarm fashion when Bay clips were included as part of a Mills tribute TCM presented, as if most didn’t recognize the film, and while one viewer found it curious Mills was being justly celebrated at a class event as the key child star of her era, with only a passing acknowledgement given to her best role and performance. Fortunately, a subsequent screening a year or two later of Bay at the New Beverly Cienma revival house demonstrated plenty of film aficionados did exist to appreciate the merits of Bay, as the movie was warmly received by a large audience fully invested in Gillie’s adventures, from her early encounters with Bronislav until their moving final scenes together, based on the strong efforts of Thompson and a first-rate cast and crew. As for the film’s leading lady, outside of her more renowned successes, Hayley Mills is assured her place as one of the most gifted child actors in movies based on her singular, memorable work as Bay’s bold, contemplative heroine.

Monday, February 14, 2022

Don Siegel Helms a Memorable Invasion

                                      

Ranking high among both Hollywood’s most satisfying low-budget sleepers and the 1950’s crop of sci-fi features involving ominous interference from galaxies far away, director Don Siegel’s tense, fast-paced Invasion of the Body Snatchers takes the idea of idyllic small-town America and turns it into a dark, paranoiac nightmare. The first and possibly best film adaptation of Jack Finney’s ingenious 1954 novel The Body Snatchers (first serialized in Collier’s magazine), Siegel’s 1956 Invasion utilizes ideal on-location shooting around Los Angeles to vividly depict a vile other-worldly threat infiltrating itself into the seemingly normal façade of fictional Santa Mira, a placid, friendly community until residents start becoming, one-by-one, cool and distant. Aided by a concise, first-class script by Daniel Mainwaring that cleverly leaves much to the viewer’s imagination, while addressing the dangers of harboring a mob mentality wherein any sign of individualism is destroyed and stark, stylized cinematography by Ellsworth Fredericks that perfectly captures the mounting insidiousness pervading the story’s locale as “pod people” take over humanity, Invasion pointedly illustrates the havoc resulting in a society wherein fear and mass hysteria rule the day, during a time wherein irrational panic surrounding the “Red Scare” was recklessly causing damage to America’s democratic structure and the lives of many accused of harboring “un-American” sentiments.

Invasion stands apart from other movies of its genre by maintaining an element of mystery concerning the otherworldly violators and the threat they pose to humanity, and Siegel does a masterful job in upholding this enigmatic aura, while keeping the thriller flowing using simple, direct means, thereby enabling the story to have maximum impact on audiences without any ideas of artistic pretense cluttering up the proceedings. It’s never fully explained exactly why or how people are being overtaken by the alien pods, which makes the narrative possibly more chilling than if mankind was faced with aliens in a more overt manner, ala War of the Worlds or It Came from Outer Space.

A terrific cast, who whole-heartedly commit to the movie’s fantastic premise with conviction and flair, greatly aid Siegel in maintaining an eerie atmosphere as the story unfolds, along with beneficial traces of humor Siegel and Mainwaring throw in to counter the ever-rising tension. Although the film was shot in under a month, the playing upholds a consistently high level of quality due to a fine line-up of stalwart pros, from Whit Bissell and Richard Deacon, who help sell the framing device tacked on after principle photography concluded in order to provide a more upbeat ending, to bit players effectively conveying the sinister, glacial nature of the transformed, including soon-to-be-on-the-rise director Sam Peckinpah as Charlie, the seemingly innocent basement meter reader later seen among the posse out to chase down Dr. Miles Bennell and his former and current lady love Becky Driscoll, the last couple in town yet to be overtaken and zombified by the title characters.

As Miles and Becky, leads Kevin McCarthy and Dana Wynter expertly serve as audience identification points, with viewers quickly drawn into the plight of the attractive duo, as their rekindled romance is abruptly put on hold to focus on a fight for survival. McCarthy skillfully alternates between adopting the calm, rational sensibility befitting the doctor as he attempts to make sense of the increasingly unusual conduct of his community, with a more intense performance style as Miles’ world is turned inside-out after he discovers the literally out-of-this-world force behind the behavioral shift found in his friends and colleagues, adding an understandably frantic demeanor to Miles as he desperately seeks a way out of town for himself and Becky. As his intended, Wynter has exceptional chemistry with McCarthy; they make an ideal team both romantically- there’s a few provocative exchanges regarding bedside manners and such surprising for a 1956 feature- and in the action-oriented sequences.

 McCarthy had previously used his Actor’s Studio acumen to break through on stage and screen as Biff in Death of a Salesman (with a resulting Oscar nomination providing a great start to a fruitful and lengthy career in films, television and theater) and he brings an earnestness, energy and skill to his most famous role that adds invaluable creditability to Invasion. Substitute a more standard and less dedicated leading man of the period as Miles, and the implausibility of the film’s storyline could turn the whole affair into a laughful B worthy of a Mystery Science Theater salute. However, McCarthy invests every ounce of his considerable talents into making Miles a sympathetic, flesh-and-blood protagonist, resulting in one of the most memorable and convincing heroes found in a 1950’s film. Similarly, Wynter lends an intelligent, mature underplaying to her signature role as Becky that allows her to stand above the typical ingénue found in films, sci-fi genre or otherwise. She also adds a distinct air of class and (at least early on, before things get hectic to the nth degree) serenity to the part that establishes a nice synchronicity between Becky and Miles; both behaviorally and physically, McCarthy and Wynter make a perfect pairing as Invasion’s resident couple-on-the-run, and the audience follows their “Evasion of the Body Snatchers” attempts with rapt concern, due to the admirable credibility the stars bring to their meaty assignments.

Other Santa Mira locals making an impression are Virginia Christie as Becky‘s skittish cousin Wilma, who assertively informs Miles she’s convinced her uncle Ira isn’t what he appears, thereby kicking the plot into high gear. Christie nicely conveys Wilma’s unsettled sense of dread concerning the unknown, and what lies ahead for her once Miles and Becky depart, then later vividly depicts the sinister edge driving Wilma’s duplicitous nature as she genially assures Miles everything is A-Okay. King Donovan and Carolyn Jones make perhaps the strongest impression as Jack and Teddy, the couple who alert Miles and Becky to the actual physical threat involved in the odd events pervading the townsfolk. Donovan and Jones are given a few humorous lines to add a little diversion to the suspense and, as usual throughout the decade, Jones manages to stand out with limited screen time.

 Jones had an uncanny knack in the 1950’s to score small but, in her hands, significant roles in one high-profile film after another, and never disappointed in making an arresting impression in a wide variety of roles, leaving audiences eager for more. Check out her flirty charmer in House of Wax, terrified dice thrower in The Big Heat, blasé dog-walker in The Tender Trap, or provocative night nurse in The Seven Year Itch for a few prime examples of Jones adeptness at churning out notable work in the “there are no small parts” field. Fitting, these roles led to possibly Jones’ most original and daring performance as the unnamed Greenwich Village “Existentialist” in 1957’s The Bachelor Party, wherein Jones’ striking looks and fascinating portrayal of a jittery, desperate, lonely free-spirit pretty much walks off with the film in her seven minutes or so of screen time, landing a warranted Oscar nomination in the process. Jones is also in peak form in Invasion, using her huge, expressive eyes and an emotionally-driven acting approach to floridly showcase Teddy’s anxiety-ridden state in the face of truly abnormal circumstances. Like her co-stars, Jones’ realistic playing enhances the incredible plot’s believability factor and allows viewers to stay in-the moment during each riveting scene.

Siegel’s adroit handling of Mainwaring’s inspired script, beautiful camerawork that expertly exudes a specific time-and-place and a top-flight cast has allowed Invasion to endure as a sci-fi standard, capturing the imagination of generations of filmgoers while securing its current status as one of the most unique and venerated classics of 1950’s cinema. The deluxe Olive Signature Edition Blu-ray offer an exceptional presentation of the film in its original “Superscope” aspect ratio, and offers a substantial amount of bonus material, including great “Sleep No More” and “The Fear and the Fiction” behind-the-scenes documentaries featuring interviews with McCarthy and a still-stunning Wynter. Although there have been several further screen adaptations of Finney’s durable tale, including a terrific 1978 Philip Kaufman update that manages to sustain its own funky, harrowing sensibility, Don Siegel and company’s vision of a Santa Mira gone wild remains the first and foremost location to explore when one is inclined to partake in an irreplaceable Invasion.            

And a fond farewell to iconic screen legend Monica Vitti, the cool, enigmatic star of one of the great films, Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1960 masterwork L’Avventura. Subsequent to her success this landmark film, Vitta would go on to serve as real-life partner Antonioni’s muse in other intriguing 1960’s works such as La Notte and Red Desert, but L‘Avventura, with its revolutionary approach to storytelling and vivid depiction of the transitory nature of relationships, offers perhaps the best and most unforgettable lens in which to view the lovely Vitti’s distinct, stylish screen presence.

Thursday, January 13, 2022

Sidney Poitier Finds the Perfect Field for His Singular Talents

 

Sidney Poitier’s recent passing makes a tribute recognizing his great, distinctive career essential, but among so many riches, where does the attention go? Reviewing his unbelievable banner 1967 year, which in terms of public success may be the greatest year ever had by an actor, with three massive hits (Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?, In the Heat of the Night and To Sir, With Love) including the year’s Best Picture Oscar-winner in the mix, leading to Poitier taking (according to the Quigley poll) the #1 position among the top box-office stars in 1968, would be a good bet, along with his intense, dominating work in his breakthrough, 1955’s The Blackboard Jungle, or maybe his distinctive work via his first major role in 1950’s No Way Out. Poitier’s equally-impressive dramatic work in 1958’s The Defiant Ones, wherein he made history by becoming the first African-American to gain a Best Actor nomination, also warrants recognition, but his charming, relaxed performance in the film that actually won Poitier his Oscar, director Ralph Nelson’s ’s warm, ingratiating 1963 comedy Lilies of the Field, a small-scale (Nelson had to put his own money into it to get the film made) United Artists release that proved so endearing to audiences it became the sleeper hit of the year, offers an ideal example of Poitier at the top of his craft as an actor with a rare, extraordinary screen presence.

As Homer Smith, the roaming, free-spirited handyman whose finds himself involved with a group of German nuns and their plans to build a chapel, Poitier flawlessly utilizes his gifts for comedy and drama, while radiating decency and kindness essential to the role, as well as possessing movie-star looks and magnetism that add much to Homer’s all-around appeal. He’s as focused as in other, more intense parts (such as his fantastic performance recreating his stage role as Walter Lee Younger in 1961’s A Raisin in the Sun), but there’s a playfulness and good-nature Poitier instills in Homer not always allowed in his idealized leading man roles, especially after he became a huge star upon the phenomenal critical and commercial reception to Lilies. From Homer’s first encounter with the nuns, who appeared to be isolated in the desert miles from civilization and clearly need assistance, you know Homer is destined to turn the car around after stopping for water instead of abandoning them, due to the benevolence and earnestness Poitier has already established are fundamental traits Homer possesses. By the time Homer starts teaching the nuns some English after dinner, a viewer is hooked by the film’s scenario, and with rapt attention observes Homer and the nuns on their journey through the rest of the film.

Homer states he is “just passing through” several times early in the movie, and Poitier is great at showing Homer’s moral conflict regarding what action he should actually take while repeatedly stating he needs to leave. Poitier also is often creative in his approach to dialogue- check out the scene wherein a hungry Homer, who has had limited meals with the sisters, orders his first full breakfast in some time and, in a heighted stated of ecstasy, colorfully explains to a barman and soon-to-be confidant, Juan (agreeably played by Stanley Adams) what he wants to eat and then, after partaking of some prime orange juice, whispers “very nice, very nice,” with the greatest satisfaction imaginable. Poitier’s uncanny charisma is in beautiful synch with role throughout, whether Homer is kicking up his heels with the locals during a fiesta, stubbornly refusing their help as he determinedly sets his mind to build the chapel unassisted or teaches the nuns the film’s theme song “Amen” (wherein Poitier is dubbed by the song’s composer, Jester Hairston) with a mega-watt smile and beguiling gusto.

Lilia Skala also does much to keep the film’s tone charming and believable as Mother Maria, the alert, stern and crafty ally (and oftentimes antagonist) to Homer. Although there are opportunities for “too-cute” moments in regard to the nuns' interactions, with steely resolve Skala assures Mother Maria remains identifiably human, while keeping her sister sect in line regarding any excessively adorable outbursts as they go about their daily work. Also, Skala and Poitier are wonderful in vividly illustrating the cat-and-mouse nature of their relationship, with Mother Maria pretending to only understand anything the increasing frustrated Homer says that will benefit her agendas while interpreting his comments to suit her, when she’s not flat-out ignoring his requests to be paid for his work so he can move on, leading to many jovial scenes of conflict wherein, nevertheless, the burgeoning unity between the two characters is clearly communicated as efforts to reach the main goal of creating the chapel are addressed. Although Mother Maria rarely betrays warmth with Homer as she constantly bellows orders at “Schmidt!” and critiques his best efforts, by looks and gestures Skala and Poitier fully express the respect and loyalty the unlikely duo foster towards each other, and this growing bond becomes deeply touching as the film reaches its graceful finale.

Director Ralph Nelson, investing all his skills and resources to bring his passion project to life (he truly deserves that “Ralph Nelson’s Lilies of the Field” title seen during the opening credits), does a wonderful job in maintaining an earnest tone to a narrative that could easily have become too fanciful and maudlin in the wrong hands. There’s a lovely simplicity to the story, which Nelson embraces while also addressing some bigger themes within its framework, such as the transitory nature of relationships, racial concerns of the era (which are briefly touched on in a direct, unpretentious manner), and how remarkable things can be accomplishment when community spirit and teamwork intertwine. Nelson, backed by Jerry Goldsmith’s lively score and first-rate cinematography by Ernest Haller that provides a sense of “you-are-there” to the rural scenes, is particularly good at illustrating the positive, proactive nature of the locals as they progressively band together with an “all for one” attitude to realize the group’s primary objective. Outside of helming the film with a sure touch, Nelson also does a solid job in front of the camera as Mr. Ashton, who gives Homer a job and ends up also supporting his efforts with the nuns.

The surprising success of Lilies throughout 1963 (after its May release) led to the film being in pole position for awards recognition as “The Little Movie That Could.” This proved to be the case, with screenwriter James Poe picking up the Writer’s Guild Award for his unassuming, on-target script (based on the William E. Barrett novel), the film placing among the National Board of Review’s Top Ten, a Berlin Film Festival Best Actor prize for Poitier, Golden Globe Awards for Poitier and for “Best Film Promoting International Understanding,” then five Oscar nominations, including a Best Picture nod and ones for Skala, Haller and Poe to go with Poitier’s historic win in a very competitive year (with Albert Finney in Tom Jones and Paul Newman in Hud two of his chief contenders). Poitier’s impressive, skillful handling of Lilies’ protagonist allows Homer to resonate as one of the most appealing heroes found in a 1960’s film, and makes it clear exactly why the movie was immediately revered by audiences (I once had a friend fondly recall she didn’t realize the film was in black-and-white until halfway through a first-release viewing, as she was so immediately caught up in the storyline) and has lingered thereafter.

And a kind word to Cara Williams, who passed away on December 9th at 96. A distinct presence in films and television, with flaming red hair and big flirtatious eyes that matched an often-good humored manner onscreen, Williams reached her career peak with an Oscar nomination costarring alongside Poitier and Tony Curtis in The Defiant Ones; however, for this viewer Williams will live on fondly in memory for the terrific moment in 1959’s Never Steal Anything Small wherein, as the wonderfully-named Winnipeg Simmons, she jaunts around a car showroom insisting “I’m Sorry, I Want a Ferrari” to James Cagney, as the racketeer friend in desperate need of Winnipeg’s help. The film has intermittent charms, but once seen “Ferrari” is hard to get over (Cagney querying “Desoto?” with William’s retorting “Oh, go da. . .” is a high point). A recent Blu-ray release from Kino Lorber, which showcases the film’s vivid Cinemascope color design, afforded the chance to watch the number anew about 40 years after first catching it on t.v. during an idle Sunday afternoon, and the assets of “Ferrari” remained as undiminished as those of the 1959 vehicle in question, with Williams’ saucy, earthy delivery responsible for a large portion of the vibrant number’s enduring impact. 

Tuesday, December 14, 2021

Tyrone Power Memorably Dives into Noir's Dark Alley

 

 With the upcoming Guillermo del Toro remake just around the corner, interest logically has  turned to one of film noir’s most trenchant and entertaining offerings, the riveting 1947 Nightmare Alley. Director Edmond Goulding sustains a great seedy atmosphere while detailing the seamy carnival world of Alley, assisted by Lee Garmes’ alternately moody and lush cinematography and an artfully-crafted script by Jules Furthman, who skillfully manages to maintain much of the seediness of the William Lindsay Gresham novel while providing work acceptable to the production code and Fox executives willing to mount a major production around the screenplay featuring their top male star, Tyrone Power. Power had returned from WWII looking for something more challenging than his standard, sometimes bland leading man heroics and, after making a deal with studio boss Darryl Zanuck to headline Fox’s big one for 1946, the florid all-star adaptation of Somerset Maugham’s bestselling The Razor’s Edge, was allowed to uncharacteristically star as downright cad Stanton Carlisle, one of the cinema’s smoothest-talking and arrogant con artists. Indicating the rich assets found in the studio system’s heyday, Fox gathered a truly top-flight cast of veterans and newcomers to add considerable verve and class to the bleak-yet-fascinating proceedings.

Tyrone Power had cemented his star status early in his Fox tenure via 1936’s Lloyds of London (watching the friendly, upbeat and colossally handsome Power turn up in a brief role near the end of the same year’s Girl’s Dormitory make it clear the emerging actor was a “buy now!” option as far as his chance for major screen stardom went), then during the next decade was the studios go-to male star in dramas, comedies and adventure films of varying quality, but mostly successful at the box-office. On the strength of hits such as In Old Chicago, The Rains Came and Jesse James, Power rose to #2 on the Quigley Poll of 1939 top ten box-office stars, and his elite status remained undiminished through the rest of his career, until his untimely death while shooting Solomon and Sheba in 1958. However, although Power occasionally showed a formidable screen presence and acting ability to match his disarming good looks (Jesse James is a high point), normally he capably performed his duties as a reliable leading man in a more standard, mellow manner.

With Alley, Power was allowed to use his nature charm and ever-evolving acting acumen to great dramatic effect, and admirably does not shy away for depicting the ambitious Stan’s selfish, egocentric nature as he rises past his carny origins. Rather, Power appears to relish playing up the most unsavory aspects of the character, such as the way Stan seems to get excited at the prospect of using others to get ahead or how, with a mega-watt smile at his disposal, he tries to fool anyone who gets near him, while laughing to himself at how easy it is to put one over on a variety of hicks. Leading men in 1947 did not do such immoral things, at least not without a wink to the audience, but there’s nary a blink in Power’s focused, uncompromising work. Although the character is not allowed to be the complete cad of the novel, Power invests plenty of starkness in the role, in the process making the cool, ruthless Stanton Carlisle one of the most indelible villains found in classic film noir (or in any classic film).

Joan Blondell, moving into character parts after starring in a string of memorable 1930’s offerings (Gold Diggers of 1933, Footlight Parade, Bullets or Ballots) and scoring more recently via her sublime work as Aunt Sissy in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, gained one of her best roles as Zeena, the fortune-telling carny veteran who includes Stanton in her act and sets him on the road to success. The street-smart Zeena knows the score and has been around the block, and Blondell conveys the character’s world weary yet benevolent nature as ideally as any actress could, then or now. Blondell was also an accomplished pro who could handle any type of role, and she’s vivid and true, whether depicting Zeena’s romantic nature (although sage regarding relationships, she’s gullible to Stan’s charms), humor, bitterness or, possibly most memorably, her aguish when tragedy arises and changes both Zeena’s and Stan’s destinies.

The assured Helen Walker gives her definitive screen performance as Lilith, the sleek, furtive psychologist who provides Stan with ample career opportunities and challenges. Utilizing a calm, cultured voice and a mature composure and sophistication rare in a Hollywood ingénue, Walker is mesmerizing to watch as a viewer tries to determine just exactly what Lilith’s agenda is. She and Power generate great friction in their scenes as Stan and Lilith attempt to outsmart each other, while the audience uneasily calculates whose side is the more admirable one to root for. Maintaining an element of mystery and surprise throughout, Walker’s sly, subtle work indicated a great future for the rising star, after debuting in 1942’s Lucky Jordan with Alan Ladd and matching up well with Fred MacMurray in 1945’s rambunctious Murder, He Says. Unfortunately, an auto accident shortly after the filming of Alley was completed left Walker with serious injuries and few subsequent roles, leaving her surprising, sinister work as Lilith as the chief evidence of Walker’s unique onscreen presence and skill.

Collen Gray also scores perhaps her best role as the naïve Molly, who falls for Stanton only to slowly realize her Prince Charming may not be worthy of her love. No ordinary starlet, Gray was able in invest her heroines with a natural decency and intelligence, avoiding coming across as forced or saccharine. In Alley Gray’s acting is (as usual) smart, focused and spontaneous, allowing viewers to gain insight into Molly’s thoughts as the character evolves and is faced with moral dilemmas relating to her loyalty to Stan. Molly serves as a stand-in for the ethically-sound members of the audience who would like to tell Stan a thing or two as he grows more ruthless, making Molly’s confrontation with Stan wherein she questions his unscrupulous behavior and indifference to others one of the most satisfying sequences in the film as, with simplicity and deft precision, Gray registers the conflicted Molly’s every thought. After standout work in Alley and the more successful noir Kiss of Death, the talented Gray’s stellar 1947 cinematic output boded very well for her future at 20th Century Fox and beyond. However, Fox abruptly let Gray go in 1950, and she spent the rest of the decade maintaining a lower-profile, including fine work in another pair of top-flight noirs, Kansas City Confidential and Stanley Kubrick first success, 1956’s The Killing, before gaining her most famous later-career role in 1960’s cult classic The Leech Woman. Although Gray deserved much better, her work as Molly shows what she could do when given a challenging role in first-rate material, securing a place for Gray among the roster of noir’s most prevalent “good girls.”

Of the other cast members, Ian Keith scores most impressively as Zeena’s besotted husband Pete, who once had a major act with Zeena before alcohol took its tool. Keith has a wonderful scene wherein, recounting past glories to Stan, Pete suddenly loses his jittery, deportment and majestically draws Stan in as, caught up in the moment, he tells the young upstart of his childhood roaming with a dog. It’s a brief but juicy role that could have easily been overdone, but as Pete Keith manages a fine balance between florid emotionalism and a calmer acceptance of his downtrodden circumstances with great skill and perception, and it’s rare and daring to see someone play a drunk without the slightest sense of remorse regarding the addiction- Pete loves the bottle, and Keith completely commits to this aspect of the character without a hint of regret concerning Pete's alcoholic state. Taylor Holmes is also memorable as an affluent target of Stan’s scheming, and Julia Dean has a lovely moment as Addie Peabody, yet another wealthy patron who falls for the supposedly otherworldly incite “The Great Stanton” possesses, as Stan claims to be in contact with her long-deceased daughter, and Addie is overcome by the incident.

Unlike the current film, which is generating Oscar buzz for cast and crew, Goulding’s classic was largely shunned by 1947 audiences who found the material too bizarre and dark, even with the simultaneous burgeoning success of noir themes in other films and the substantial drawing power of Power, who still found major post-war popularity via Edge, followed by Captain from Castile in the wake of Alley’s disappointing box-office returns. However, over the years the film has rightfully grown in stature, with critical reassessments increasing interest in the film, allowing for grade-A DVD and Blu-ray releases of Alley from the Fox Film Noir line and Criterion, respectfully. The original film, with its wealth of unforgettable performances and power of suggestion over the more overt depictions of unsavory events certainly to be found in the new film, prevails as a prime example of how creatively and perceptively adult themes could be shown during the classic studio era, even within the restrictions of the reigning Production Code.

Viewing the new version of West Side Story, I admired Steven Spielberg’s and Tony Kusher’s attempts to update the material in innovative ways and thought the cast put their all into the material, but I also felt compelled to defend the original’s assets in the wake of new criticism directed at the 1961 version. Specifically, although in the original Jerome Robbins-Robert Wise version numbers were filmed in a more conventional (if trend-setting in 1961) manner, with that simplicity often came a vividness that draws a viewer in, as you’re allowed to focus completely on the performers and their interactions. For example, “America” is performed on a rooftop and not all over town as in the current film. Watching the new version, I enjoyed the impressive staging and vivacity of the cast, but the immediacy I felt in the original film with the performers and the impact they made in the number, Gerige Chakiris and Rita Moreno as Bernardo and Anita foremost, weren’t as evident, and this held true for several other sequences, such as the opening of the dance at the gym (the Jets/Sharks conflict was clearer with 1961’s more direct staging) and Tony and Maria’s initial meeting- as corny as their romanticized “across a crowded room” tryst might have been in 1961, it connected with audiences. However, the trade-offs include some major assets in 2021, such as Mike Faist’s vivid, crafty interpretation of Riff (check out the ingenious way he says “knives?” when discussing the rumble with Bernardo), a beautifully-executed rumble sequence (thank you, Steven Spielberg), cinematography by frequent Spielberg colleague Janusz Kaminski that somehow evokes both classic and current cinema and, finally, the invaluable addition of Moreno as a new character, Valentina (Moreno’s little-girl vulnerability breaks your heart in her big scene singing “Somewhere,” just as it did with Moreno as Anita in 1961, particularly in her scenes after the rumble).

Rachel Zegler, armed with the voice of an angel and looks to match, is wonderful as Maria, and she holds the screen with conviction and apparent ease, justifying all the “a star is born” claims. However, I feel the need to also put in a kind word for Natalie Wood’s Maria. Yes, Wood was not of the correct racial background for the role and played some scenes in a very worked out, studied manner; however, give Wood an emotional scene, and she usually delivered in powerful, disarming fashion. Although Zegler does an excellent, graceful job in the finale as it is staged, I missed Wood’s tension, emotional nakedness and guttural cries (including “Don’t you touch him!”) in this finale of West Side Story as, old-fashioned as it may be, Wood holds nothing back in fully conveying Maria’s torment front-and-center, and unforgettably floors the viewer in the process. Wood may not be of the right ethnicity, but the rage and remorse she graphically depicts is universally identifiable to anyone with a beating heart. 

Wednesday, November 17, 2021

Lucy and Desi Reach Their Cinematic Peak Driving The Long, Long Trailer

 

 For classic movie fans, major buzz surrounding the release of Aaron Sorkin’s Being the Ricardos may conjure up memories of the actual big-screen output of the film’s beloved power couple, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. Although Lucy and Desi famously met and united via 1940’s easy-going musical Too Many Girls, the apex of their cinematic outings occurred a few years after I Love Lucy shot them into millions of American homes and into the entertainment stratosphere, via 1954’s consistently beguiling The Long, Long Trailer, which afforded them the deluxe MGM treatment, with no less than Vincente Minnelli assigned to direct the adept, amusing screenplay by Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich (based on the Clinton Twiss novel), with his typical class and attention-to-detail. In depicting the series of mis-adventures that befall young newlyweds Tacy and Nicky Collini after they purchase the “New Moon” title character and venture out and about America, Minnelli admirably maintains a keen balance between slapstick, more situation-driven comedy, and a blend of the two, such as Arnaz’s constant paranoia regarding maneuvering the mammoth mobile home from point-to-point, and the ensuing chaos which occurs when his worst fears often come to fruition.

Long Trailer wisely maintains the reliable formula of misunderstandings and frenetic comedy that made I Love Lucy such a success, while also giving Ball and Arnaz chances to modulate their performances enough to add a somewhat more mature element to their one-of-a-kind chemistry, lending a freshness that allows the film to differentiate itself from its small-screen Phenom counterpoint, while still showcasing the unique teamwork that made the Ricardos such an enduring couple. Therefore, along with shenanigans surrounding the transient home that would fit right in with the Ricardos’ lifestyle (Tacy’s haphazard devotion to rocks comes into play, for example), the film also pauses occasionally for a calmer, more romantic moment, such as the carefree manner in which the stars trill their way through “Breezin’ Along with the Breeze” while doing exactly that down a scenic roadway. The first-class production values typical of any MGM and/or Minnelli cinematic outing is another welcome component, with a perfectly-coiffured Ball looking as glamorous as in her previous studio output, and Minnelli’s gift with set design on sometimes-amusing display (for example, the pink décor highlighting the “Just Married” sign on the back of the trailer matches the hues found on the bridesmaids’ dresses in the same scene).

           Lucille Ball had made a solid name for herself in pictures during the fifteen years prior to I Love Lucy, including fine work in the 1937 classic Stage Door and The Big Street (which prompted a rave review from James Agee) as well as serving as an ideal foil for Bob Hope, and the ease in which she depicts Tacy’s every thought and action shows the sure touch of a veteran screen performer. Ball instinctively seems to understand the importance of avoiding making Tacy a near-replica of most her iconic role, while still displaying the fine sense of broad physical comedy inherent in many of I Love Lucy’s most memorable moments. Toning down the wackier aspects of her television persona for much of the film, Ball appealingly adopts a more subtle comic approach; for example, notice Ball’s funny but subdued version of Lucy Ricardo’s trademark bawling in her first scene, as a bemused Nicky laughs off Tacy’s desire for a mobile home. This more grounded-but-still-very-much “Lucy”-based characterization allows the audience to believe Tacy’s quest for an idealized home-on-wheels is a practical notion, as engineer husband Nicky (sound familiar?) travels around the country. However, MGM and director Minnelli must have fully grasped the need to feature Ball in her most popular comical element, resulting in possibly the movie’s most memorable showpiece, wherein Tacy attempts to prepare dinner in the moving, bouncing trailer, with a literal tossed green salad and much worse wreaking havoc in every way possible around and on Tacy, as Ball sells the chaotic milieu with her matchless zany aplomb. 

Desi Arnaz’s Nicky serves as a close cousin to a certain Ricky, and Arnaz again deftly utilizes his under-rated skill at delineating a funny straight man with great natural charm and a sweet innocence. Early on, he also does a beautiful “no look” pratfall in the New Moon that does Preston Sturges (and Minnelli) proud- watching the stunt over, it’s hard to determine how Arnaz pulled it off without breaking some important part of his anatomy. In addition, it’s wonderful how, along with a series of Tacy/Nicky conflicts granting Ball and Arnaz a chance to fully explore the comic factors of that solid-gold dynamic of their partnership (and yes, Desi does end up slipping into his native tongue as Nicky during at least one zenith of exasperation), the film’s allowance for serene moments gives Ball and Arnaz the opportunity to display their deep affection for each other, such as in the scene wherein Nicky dreamingly listens to Tacy recount the moment she fell in love with Nicky or when, in touching fashion, the couple all-too believably mention one is no good without the other.

            At a stop-off along the byways and highways, Marjorie Main barges in with her typical Ma Kettle gusto and, aided by that bullhorn voice and imposing frame, proceeds to take over a couple of lively scenes as a fellow “trailerite” intent on helping the Collinis settle in for a brief rest (or unrest, with Main dominating the compact trailer’s space) whether they like it or not. MGM contract player and former Ball colleague Keenan Wynn (who complimented each other in one of the best MGM outings for both of them, 1945’s Without Love) also shows up as a traffic cop who directs the couple through a problematic intersection; Wynn must set a record for a performer’s best billing with the shortest actual screen time, as for this amusing bit that covers about one minute, Wynn received fourth billing. Wynn’s high placement on the cast list indicates how much of the film (smartly) revolves around Ball and Arnaz, with virtually everyone else getting a brief look-in as Tacy and Nicky roam around the country in a highly-diverting manner.

                Moviegoers hungry for a look at the peerless Ball-Arnaz combo in color (Ansco Color that is, with prints by Technicolor) and larger-than-life on the Silver Screen clearly weren’t disappointed by the resulting cinematic offering, as Long Trailer became one of the year’s most profitable releases, with (according to Variety) an estimated $4,000,000 in film rentals during the engaging comedy’s initial run. The current DVD of the film offers a nice print ideal for a rainy (or otherwise) Sunday afternoon viewing, which is how one Lucy-Desi fan first discovered the substantial entertainment value a Long Trailer can offer. The A-1 efforts of cast and crew have allowed the film to hold up as well as the more-renown t.v. counterpart, with the movie going over like gangbusters at a pre-COVID packed L.A. screening, which for this viewer illustrated how potent, timeless and universal the Ball-Arnaz teaming remains for legions of devoted fans.