Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Betting on a British Winner

One of the great, overlooked British dramas, 1949’s The Rocking Horse Winner (based on a D.H. Lawrence story) details the plight of a well-mannered boy, Paul Grahame (John Howard Davies) who lives a content, bourgeois existence with his two younger sisters, his beautiful mother, Hester (Valerie Hobson) and his father, Richard (Hugh Sinclair). Hester's an extravagant spender dissatisfied with her middle class surroundings; she frequently states, “We must have more money” to Richard, a shiftless gambler. One Christmas, the gift of a rocking horse allows Paul the otherworldly means necessary to elevate his family to wealth, but the riches come at an irrevocable price.

Anthony Pelissier’s resourceful, intelligent direction and tasteful, economic script help make this little-seen fantasy one of the best examples of honest, straightforward storytelling in film history. It’s unfortunate Pelissier directed only a few films, but the artistic accomplishments he achieved while devising Winner mark him as a major film director of the period. In a concise 91 minutes, every scene appears important to the film as a whole, and the director manages to unfold the far-fetched plot in an adroit manner, allowing the audience to suspend their disbelief and become thoroughly engrossed in the story.

Equally important to the film’s artistic success are the deft enactment of the two main characters by Howard Davies and Hobson. Guided by Pelissier’s sure hand, the actors give low-keyed yet expressive, naturalistic performances that serve as prime illustrations of superior film acting: Hobson and Howard Davies manage to avoid the temptation of overplaying their meaty parts and execute their roles with great sincerity and perception.

Howard Davies, who also played the title role in David Lean’s Oliver Twist, was one of the most unaffected, gifted child actors ever to appear in films, and as Paul Grahame in Winner he gives a realistic, mesmerizing performance. With his trusting eyes and his offbeat, slightly elfin appearance Davies effortlessly embodies the innocence of youth, and he delivers his lines in a charming, completely believable manner. His acting is so assured and focused that Davies doesn’t seem to be performing: he becomes Paul.

Valerie Hobson had been acting in films for over fifteen years before Winner and, although Hobson was undeniably an extraordinary-looking woman with her slim, glacial, aristocratic features, onscreen she normally adopted a reserved, unemotional persona, remaining beautiful, ladylike and colorless in her roles. The challenging, multi-faceted part of Hester provided Hobson with a chance to demonstrate her rarely seen abilities as a fine dramatic performer. Although Hobson’s icy, reserved disposition was ideal for the role, she imparts dimensions to Hester that are not apparent in the script. It’s impossible to tell how much of Hobson’s complex, acute performance is a result of fine direction, and how much the quality of her work has to do with Hobson’s unique identification with the character. In the film’s more intense sequences, Hobson pushes her acting skills to the limit to convey the tragic woman Hester has become. It’s rare to witness emotions this vivid onscreen, and audiences are sure to be entranced as they watch Hobson plunge the depths of human despair.

Although some scenes in The Rocking Horse Winner may be frightening to very young, impressionable viewers, curious adult audiences interested in discovering a subtle, unusual fable delineating the catastrophic effects avarice can have on a family will find in Winner that rarity of the cinema: a perfect film.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Seance Transfixes

1964's highly original Seance on a Wet Afternoon, starring Kim Stanley and Richard Attenbourgh, offers a chance to see two great performers in an involving tale concerning kidnapping, marital strife, and the supernatural.

Stanley's arresting work as Myra Savage allows one to see this legendary Broadway star and 'Actor's Actor' in possibly her best film work (1958's The Goddess is another peak for Stanley). Although Stanley's inventive take on a colorful role might sometimes appear too mannered or worked-out, I recollected the actress' agitated, pent-up line readings, tight shifts in facial movements, and jerky body language years after first seeing the movie- no other performer could've inhibited this part with the unique elan Stanley brings to the character (she won the NBR and NYFC's "Best Actress" awards, as well as an Oscar nod). Attenbourgh's performance as Billy, the sedate, quite husband who assists Myra in the elaborate scheme she creates to prove her gifts as a seer, provides a perfect understated counterpoint to Stanley's flamboyant portrayal. The film is a must for those interested in offbeat dramas featuring vivid performances.

The DVD I viewed presented an okay print of the film, with occasional scratches marring the picture. The sound was soft even with my tv at full volume (although I don't have great sound on my television, it usually comes through better than this).

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

No Way Out of Stardom for Poitier

Although entry #13 in the "Fox Film Noir" line, 1950's No Way Out more aptly belongs to the series of socially-conscientious dramas the studio turned out regularly during the period (1947's Gentlemen's Agreement and 1949's Pinky come to mind). Director/co-writer (with Lesser Samuels) Joseph L. Mankiewicz's take on race relations centers on the challenges facing a young intern, Luther Brooks (Sidney Poitier), as he attempts to establish himself as a medic. The film is engrossing throughout, and surprisingly pulls no punches in depicting the prejudices that were prevalent at the time.

Poitier is remarkably self-assured in his feature film debut, already displaying the intelligence, calm intensity, and class that marked his signature roles. As Ray Biddle, the incredibly racist patient who gives Brooks a very hard time throughout the film, Richard Widwark shows his flair for playing irredeemable creeps (his Biddle could be a cousin to Widmark's star-making Tommy Udo in Kiss of Death). Widmark's vivid nastiness, along with Poitier's phenomenal screen presence, assures Out never becomes a "polite" social drama (ala Agreement), while Mankiewicz and Samuels keep the plot moving, throwing in a race riot and several assaults to enliven the drama. Costarring a somewhat deglamorized Linda Darnell, fine as the downtrodden heroine trying to improve her lot in life; Ruby Dee can also be glimpsed in a small part as Brook's sister-in-law.

The DVD features a fine b/w print and commentary by Eddie Muller, and is definitely recommended viewing for fans of classic dramas.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Fallen Angel is a Lost Gem

I've been eagerly anticipating the DVD release of 1945's Fallen Angel, produced and directed by Otto Preminger and starring Dana Andrews. I don't believe the film ever saw a VHS release, and I'd never caught it on tv. The wait over, I was happy to finally get a chance to view the movie, which concerns a shiftless young man, Eric Stanton (Andrews) who wanders into a small California coastal town and is immediately drawn to the town's fickle, cold, yet incredibly luscious waitress, Stella (portrayed by Linda Darnell). The plot thickens as Stanton attempts to woo and wed the town's richest girl, June Mills (Alice Faye) in order to get the money he needs to win the opportunistic Stella's hand. Costarring Charles Bickford, Anne Revere, Bruce Cabot, John Carradine, and Percy Kilbride. The story might have appeared far-fetched, but Darnell (in one of her best performances) is so alluring as the cool, tough Stella it's easy to believe the film's premise, which has the town's entire male population passionately in love with her and spending ALL their free time at the diner where Stella works.

I enjoyed Angel a lot, and didn't solve this "whodunnit" until the final reel. The movie serves as a worthly follow-up to Preminger and Andrews' previous collaboration in Laura; given the quality of the production, the cast, and the director, it's surprising the film wasn't released prior to this new DVD. It's certainly one of my favorites in the 'Fox Film Noir' line, along with Laura, Nightmare Alley, Panic in the Streets, and Kiss of Death. The print is excellent, especially considering the film's "neglected" status. If you're into mystery/noir, don't pass up this Angel.

A side note: Faye reportedly was extremely upset during the shoot, thinking she wasn't being photographed attractively; she also believed the studio was favoring Darnell. Therefore, immediately following the movie's completion, Faye ended her starring career at Fox (she'd return to the studio seventeen years later for the State Fair remake). Ironically, although it's undeniable Darnell's a stunner who dominates her scenes, Faye does fine work in a rare dramatic role, and should have been proud of her contribution to the film.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Julie Christie's a Darling in Her Oscar Role

Last night I watched 1965's Darling, which I hadn't seen for years. The film follows the exploits of Diana Scott, a young women out to demonstrate how far a beautiful girl can go in the swingin' sixties. With Julie Christie in the lead, Diana and Darling have charm, class, and complexity. Christie is magnetic and has the audience firmly on her side throughout the film, even when her character's sometimes acting in an underhanded and selfish manner. The film's take on the glamourous, decadent Jet Set lifestyle may today seem tame and outdated, but director John Schlesinger captures the 'modish' time and place very effectively, and Christie's work is something to see (she deservely won the Oscar, NYFC, and the National Board of Review awards for Best Actress). Featuring two excellent costarring performances from Dirk Bogarde (as Diana's true love) and Laurence Harvey, smooth and sly as the unemotional-yet-sexy cad Diana has a fling with. Film also won Academy Awards for Orignal Screenplay and B&W Costume Design, and the NYFC award for Best Picture.

P.S.- for all you voyeurs out there, there's a scene near the end of Darling wherein a frustrated Diana strips out of her gown, ending up naked in front of her vanity mirror (it's probably Oscar's first "Best Actress" performance to include a nude scene). I'd never viewed this sequence in its entirety (I first saw the film on cable tv, so the nudity must've been edited out); seeing the scene as a whole helps illustrate the extent of Diana's frustration with her lot in life at a point when she appears to have it all.

Friday, April 07, 2006

The Sidewalk Ends in a Dark Corner

I got a"fix" for my impossible-to-kick Film Noir habit (maybe my favorite film genre of them all, in a close race with melodramas and musicals) by watching a couple of new b/w entries from the excellent 'Fox Film Noir' series, 1950's Where the Sidewalk Ends and 1946's The Dark Corner. Both titles feature Lauraesque elements in casting and/or plotlines; as the 1944 classic is one of my top five or top ten favorite films of all time, the ghost of Laura hung over my viewings of these later releases.

I couldn't work up much enthusiasm for Corner. The film clearly is trying to emulate the success of Laura, borrowing many plot points from the earlier film, but the story never really gels, and the climax seems thrown together just to get the film over with in 99 minutes. Lucille Ball is warm and proficient in her "Girl Friday" role, and she works well with Mark Stevens, portraying the private eye Ball assists. Clifton Webb's also onhand, playing a very similar character to his peerless Waldo Lydecker in Laura, but he doesn't get nearly as many great lines this time. However, Webb (as Hardy Cathcart) is involved in the film's two most memorable scenes, first explaining love to his young wife then, near the end of the film, greeting a thug (played by William Bendix) in a skyscraper. With Cathy Downs (as the wife), Kurt Kreuger, and the great Constance Collier, who I wanted to see a lot more of (she's hardly onscreen- check out 1937's Stage Door to see what Collier could do with a good part).

Where the Sidewalk Ends provided me with a more satisfying entertainment, successfully reuniting the stars and director of Laura, but using an entirely new storyline. Dana Andrews plays tough cop Mark Dixon, who finds himself facing several predicaments in his attempts to overthrow a slimy crime boss (played by Gary Merrill, relishing his opportunity to play a heel). Gene Tierney, beautiful as ever, costars as Andrews' love interest; as in Laura, their soft vocal cadences are perfectly matched, and the chemistry is still there, too. Karl Malden is seen in a relatively small part as a cohort of Dixon's, just before Malden's film career took off via A Streetcar Named Desire. Otto Preminger directs efficiently, keeping the pace moving and the plot points coherent.

But nothing beats Laura. If you haven't yet seen the ultimate Film Noir, get thee to a video store or your NetFlix account immediately and scoop it up. The stars, the story, and that legendary David Raskin score- it all adds up to the screen's most perfect murder mystery. Fox really outdid themselves for the Laura DVD (#1 in the 'Film Noir" series), which includes a fine print of the film and a plethora of extra features (A@E bios of Gene Tierney and Vincent Price, two commentary tracks, etc.- you can easily spend a whole night or two watching all the goodies on this disc).

Hanging with Toulouse at the Moulin Rouge

I finally got around to opening, then to actually watching, my DVD of John Huston's excellent 1952 biopic of Toulouse-Lautrec, Moulin Rouge. I'd seen the film two or three times dating back to the 1980's, when I taped a cable showing of it, but it never looked this good. The broadcast I taped presented the film in a somewhat fuzzy/blurry manner, and I thought this had to do with color experimentation; however, the DVD offers the film in all its sharp, Technicolored, brilliant glory, allowing me for the first time to see the movie as Huston intended.

I was surprised how much I enjoyed watching the film anew, and I was drawn into the story again immediately. The legendary painter had a sad life and- understandably- was frequently bitter, but Huston and star Jose Ferrer (portraying Toulouse) do a fine job in creating a multi-dimensional portrait of the artist. Throughout its two-hour running time the movie holds one's interest; in particular, the Can-Can scenes at the Moulin Rouge are knockouts. Colette Marchand is impressive as the young streetwalker Toulouse falls for, while a gorgeous Zsa Zsa Gabor is well cast (and lively) as Jane Arvil- she seems to be having a lot of fun and, although her 'singing' is often poorly dubbed, she gets to introduce the movie's beautiful theme song. Using different lyrics (I like the "It's April Again" lyrics in the film better) this song became a huge 1953 hit for Percy Faith & His Orchestra, racking up 10 weeks at #1 on the Billboard charts. The production is top notch in all areas, resulting in critical acclaim, box-office success, and seven Academy Award nominations (including ones for Huston, Ferrer, and Marchand, and one for Best Picture) and two wins (for Best Costume Design (color) and for Best Art Direction/Set Decoration (color)). Whether or not you're a fan of Baz Luhrmann's 2001 film of the same name (which is not a remake), if you're looking for a good, colorful (in the most literal sense) drama, you should enjoy time spent at Huston's Rouge.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Week-End in Havana with Carmen

After suffering along with Lana and the girls through Imitation, I was ready for a lighter entertainment. My salvation arrived when I checked the latest releases (I'm renting, as well as watching my own collection), and saw the one and only Carmen Miranda staring back at me. Famous for her wild outfits and broken English, fortunately Carmen doesn't know the meaning of the word "restraint" in any language, ensuring viewers of Week-End a wild, one-of-a-kind experience. There are many imitators, but nothing beats the original (aptly nicknamed) "Brazilian Bombshell"- when Carmen jumps on (and almost off) the Technicolor screen at the outset of the film, singing the catchy title number, she's a knockout both visually and performance-wise. Miranda has a meatier part here than in some of her Fox musicals, giving her ample opportunity to walk off with an array of scenes, while her talented costars Alice Faye, Cesar Romero, and Apollo-like John Payne wait it out for an opportunity to make some sort of impression on audiences. 80 affable minutes breeze by in this 1941 pre-war musical, and the DVD features an amazingly clean and bright print. The film offers zero sophistication, but tons of fun.

Oh yeah, on the personal front, I finally got a (Federal) job, and a half-decent one at that, starting next month. This probably means less time online after April, so I'll have a good excuse for meagre postings.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Bullitt Finally Discharged

At last I finished the final twenty minutes of Bullitt. McQueen remained ultra-cool and near-mute until the end (there's virtually no dialogue during the last 10-15 minutes of the film). Vaughn, although he didn't do anything too nefarious, still acted slimy and greedy enough to fill the 'villian' role satisfactorily.

I really got testosteroned-out, movie-wise, also watching Battleground, Island in the Sky and McLintock. MGM's big 1949 post-WWII WWII epic is notable chiefly for its huge roster of old and new players (Van Johnson, George Murphy, John Hodiak, Ricardo Montalban, Richard Jaeckel, and Oscar-nominee James Whitmore among them) and for Paul C. Vogel's amazing B&W cinematography, which manages to convey a you-are-there feeling to the battle scenes shot on the studio's soundstages. William Wellman directs as proficiently as ever; Academy Awards went to Vogel and to Robert Pirosh (for "Story and Screenplay").

Of the two John Wayne pictures, Island (also directed by Wellman), is probably the superior film, with it's earnest depiction of a group of men stranded on a mountain, waiting to be rescued, after their plane goes down; however, I found the good-natured high-jinks of McLintock easier to take, primarily because Wayne is paired with his favorite co-star (the beautiful Maureen O'Hara) and, armed with their incredible onscreen chemistry, these two make a lively, ingratiating pair.

Well past my quota for he-man theatrics, I opted for the other extreme by watching 1959's remake of Imitation of Life for about the tenth time. Do not view this Douglas Sirk-directed classic unless you're in the mood for the biggest crying jag of your life. Over the last two decades, I've screen this gem for several friends and family members, and it never fails to produce the waterworks, as two young mothers, Lora and Annie (played by Lana Turner and Juanita Moore), meet, bond, and struggle through the lean years. Turner finally makes it as a Broadway star, yet finds "Something is missing." Conflicts abound when their daughters, Susie and Sarah Jane (portrayed by Sandra Dee and Susan Kohner) reach maturity and strive for independence. The scenes between Moore and Kohner are emotionally-shattering stunners, as is the incredible finale. Turner's love interests appear in the forms of the (unbelievably gorgeous) John Gavin and Dan O'Herlihy, who, as witty, sophisticated playwright "David Edwards" utters one of my all-time favorite lines: when Lora discloses she's considering appearing in one of his rival's works, Edwards pooh-poohs his antagonist's play, claiming "It's drama- no clothes, no sex, no fun." Great opening credit sequence with Earl Grant singing the title tune as a wealth of diamonds fill the screen. A huge hit, the film reaped Supporting Actress Oscar nods for Moore and Kohner, who also won the Golden Globe. Universal's "twofer" disc also includes the fine 1934 original version starring Claudette Colbert and Louise Beavers.