Friday, October 20, 2017

Prisoner of Honor (1991)

Directed by Ken Russell; produced by Richard Dreyfuss and Judith James

The Dreyfus Affair was a scandal that divided France, bitterly and at times violently, for more than a decade in the 1890s and 1900s, the repercussions of which may not yet have ended. It began when a French Army captain, Alfred Dreyfus, was convicted of treason, having been accused of passing secrets to Germany. The fact that he was a Jew, and that evidence against him was flimsy, caused a rift in French society. Anti-clerical republicans ranged against pro-church monarchists and the nation was in turmoil.

In an effort to calm matters, the army’s general staff assigned Colonel Henri Piquart to inquire into the matter. It was assumed that because he was a regular officer, disciplined and anti-Semitic, the court-martial’s verdict would be upheld. Piquart was astounded to find that the sole piece of proof against Dreyfus was a memorandum so badly forged as to be almost a joke. While Piquart may have disliked Jews, what he disliked even more was injustice. When his indignant report to his superiors was rejected, he began fighting for the truth so unrelentingly that his career suffered - he was banished to the command of an obscure colonial regiment - his personal life was ruined, he was insulted, vilified and had even to fight a duel. But honour was all to Piquart, and nothing would suppress it.

Recently, I reviewed a comedy starring Richard Dreyfuss called Let It Ride. Four years later, he portrayed a very different character in this very different film, showing his versatility and talent. Confusingly, Dreyfuss does not play Dreyfus, but the unforgiving Piquart, and he does it very well. A history lesson, Prisoner of Honor is also a character study, the story of a man who was so devoted to right and justice that he was willing to let his own life be destroyed rather than do the wrong thing. Piquart’s drive for Dreyfus’s vindication is so great that he even has a falling out with the wrongly convicted criminal himself. After ten years, Captain Dreyfus was recalled from his prison cell on Devil’s Island and tried once more. Again found guilty, the establishment decided at last to appease their detractors and granted Dreyfus a pardon. The poor man, content to be removed from his hellish incarceration, accepted this. Piquart did not, because it left Dreyfus still, legally, guilty; his honour remained sullied. One of course sympathies with the victimised captain; the colonel’s unremitting demand for justice is both unreasonable and admirable.

There are other characters here who are equally interesting, though they are given much less time to develop. Ironically, Dreyfus himself, played by Kenneth Colley, is almost incidental to the story. Another person for whom one feels- almost reluctantly - sorry is Peter Firth’s Major Henry. He has a secret and when it is revealed, his desperate disappointment at how he too is betrayed by his superiors - much less expectedly than with Dreyfus - is almost pitiful. A host of excellent and familiar actors, including Peter Vaughan, Brian Blessed, Oliver Reed and Jeremy Kemp, appear in minor roles.

The direction is pretty straightforward; a relief, since the director is the usually flamboyant Ken Russell. Here his style is nearly pedestrian - at least for Russell - but this is a character study and historical drama, not a fantasy horror film (e.g. The Lair of the White Worm) or an adaptation of a D.H. Lawrence novel (eg. Women in Love). Russell tells a story, largely unembellished but intriguing. The writing as well, competent and lean, is not extraordinary.

The draw here is the story - as opposed to the script - and Dreyfuss’s Piquart. The tale is one of treason, sordid betrayal and heroism, the likes of which only real life can make. But Piquart is not a hero for the twenty-first century, with its simple-minded belief that all must be black and white. Like most humans, he comprised both good and bad. An anti-Semite, he became a Jew’s foremost champion; his character would allow no other behaviour. It is clear that he, as much as Captain Dreyfus, was a prisoner of honour. It is good to note, though, that both men were eventually vindicated. Piquart died years later in a riding accident, no doubt urging his horse forward regardless of all obstacles.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Twentieth Century (1934)

Directed and produced by Howard Hawks

Oscar Jaffe (John Barrymore) is the great man of Broadway, the producer of numberless hits, who runs his theatre like a prince does his realm. His latest discovery - and paramour - is Lily Garland (Carole Lombard), whom he transformed from a lingerie model into a star. Driven to distraction by Jaffe’s egomania, she flees to Hollywood, where she becomes equally successful in motion pictures. Now, Jaffe needs a hit, he needs inspiration, he needs Lily - but there is no way she will ever return, willingly, to his embrace. But, as always, Oscar Jaffe intends to have his way.

This first of the screwball comedies has an impressive parentage. Not only is the leading man one of the great actors of early movies, a rarity who made the transition from silent films to talkies, and the leading lady one of the lights of 1930s comedy, but the writers are the winning team of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, with uncredited contributions by Preston Sturges. This noted, Twentieth Century is not up to later entries in this genre, such as His Girl Friday. Like the latter, Twentieth Century came from a play (by Charles Bruce Millholland), and shows its origins a bit more. It is almost as if those who would go on, not to better things but more precise things, were honing their skills here.

But good Hecht/MacArthur and good Hawks is better than the best from many others, and Twentieth Century is fun entertainment. At its centre is Barrymore’s Oscar Jaffe. To write that he has a bit of an ego is similar to saying that Hitler liked things ‘just so’. His claim, made before each production, that he loves all his actors, is then followed by a demonstration of how much more he loves himself. Jaffe, in fact, holds actors in pitiful contempt, but his entire behaviour is based on the most exaggerated performances one can see on stage. Barrymore must have had a break-down after the demands of this role, in which everything is over the top.

Lombard matches him, though her histrionics come later, after she is an established diva, with an ego of her own. There is a scene in which both are collapsed in chairs wailing about their respective lots in life; they resemble a couple of escapees from a lunatic asylum.

The writing is sharp, as may be expected from Hecht and MacArthur, and utilises a number of innuendo which had to be used because of the censorship of the times. Personally, I find that such restrictions helped good writers: when one has fewer tools with which to work, one must become skilled at one’s trade. I’ve always preferred the implicit to the explicit in film scripts, anyway.

Twentieth Century won’t be for all twenty-first century tastes, but for those who like their comedy frantic, and a little different than that of today, this vintage film has aged very well.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Let It Ride (1989)

Directed by Joe Pytka; produced by David Giler

Let It Ride is the story of an inveterate horse-race gambler who has ‘a really good day’. Richard Dreyfuss plays a man appropriately named Trotter, who has decided to give up gambling. Then he overhears two men talking about a sure thing at the race track. He can’t resist betting $50 on the horse; this results in a $700 win. Through a series of events, Trotter spends the whole day at the track, betting. Will his luck holds as he ‘lets it ride’?

This is a movie I first saw when it was newly released in 1989. I liked it. I thought it was fun. Either it or I have changed in the intervening years. Let It Ride is not a bad movie, but it’s not a good one, either.

I admire Dreyfuss. I find him usually a likeable actor, with whose characters one normally sympathizes. He is a versatile actor, as well, who can perform equally in comedy and drama. Let It Ride definitely fits into the former category, but veers sometimes into farce, while trying to boast elements which are quite serious. That’s one of the problems.

Trotter is clearly a man with an addiction. He finds a sure thing and bets, and is genuinely intending to leave at that point. But the men who provided the first tip generously provide a second. Trotter decides to wager again. Anyone could find himself making the same decision. But then he keeps going, basing his choices on, for instance, horses that no one else expects to win. His continuation is because of his feeling that ‘this day is different’ and that he ‘can’t lose’. His wife (Teri Garr) actually tries to leave him because his gambling, and gets drunk over his addiction. This is not the stuff of comedy. If the plot were driven by a series of coincidences that Trotter could not ignore, a series of tips that were too good to pass up, like a situation that snowballs, the basis for the comedy would be less tragic. Having a wife who is utterly miserable because of her marriage is not funny, either.

The supporting characters are largely obnoxious. David Johansen, as Trotter’s best friend, is a jerk, who swerves from supporting Trotter to denigrating him, to trying to get him arrested out of spite. As well, Johansen’s overacting is tiresome. Trotter’s cronies in the race-track’s bar run equally hot and cold. The only character who comes across as someone you wouldn’t mind knowing is Robbie Coltrane as a track employee. I imagine the intention was to create a group of people similar to those in Damon Runyon’s stories - the song “Can Do”, from Guys and Dolls figures prominently in the film; if so, the intention was not fulfilled.

Trotter himself is portrayed unevenly. Most of the time, he is sympathetic, but even he becomes a crass boor at some points. Dreyfuss flips - probably with the writing and direction - from level comedy to broad slapstick and back again, and the viewer never knows if the movie is meant to be realistic or not.

Let It Ride could have been a compact and tidy film with good laughs and even with a moral thrown in (or not, depending on the point of the story). Instead, it becomes a good example of a promising premise spoiled by indecisive execution.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

The Man Behind the Gun (1953)

Directed by Felix E Feist; produced by Robert Sisk

Randolph Scott stars in this western - far western - about a U.S. Army officer going undercover in late 1850s California to investigate a possible rebellion being planned in the growing town of Los Angeles. He finds that there are plans afoot by those who control water-resources to break the southern part of the state away from the U.S., as a prelude to forcing the federal government to agree to statehood for southern California, which would then be controlled by the aforementioned water-barons. Scott, however, learns that discovering the scheme is the easy part of his mission.

I like Randolph Scott westerns, and find his ‘Ranown’ films, made with Budd Boetticher in the director’s chair and Burt Kennedy writing most of the scripts, to be top-notch entertainment. The Man Behind the Gun pre-dates these movies, and is not up to their quality. The story is more complicated than many westerns’, and I liked both the plot and the setting. There were a number of aspects, though, that offset these advantages, and which even the stalwart presence of Scott could not obviate.

Firstly, the supporting players are average at best, wooden at worst, and their characters uninteresting or even boring. Philip Carey, as an army captain and suspected plotter, displays little talent or range, while Patrice Wymore demonstrates why she is known more for having been Errol Flynn’s wife than for her acting. Dick Wesson and Alan Hale Jr are Scott’s sidekicks, in the film as comic relief, though the comedy they provide falls short of being actually funny.

The script as well is nothing special. The actual story, as I have mentioned, is interesting and intriguing, but indifferently worded. There are a few incidents that go unexplained, such as the attempt of two men at the beginning to kill Scott. I assumed that they are either enemies from his chequered past or connected to his undercover work, but their attack is never explained.

The direction is competent but no more. Feist’s other directorial work was almost exclusively on series television, where he may have been his forte; it certainly wasn’t cinematic direction.

There are other problems, such as accuracy. The film is set before the U.S. Civil War, but the weapons used are almost all from a period after the 1860s, including the Colt. 44 revolver (revolvers were in use during the movie’s time, but they were quite distinct from those the characters use) and lever-action rifles.

Randolph Scott is an actor whose films are almost always worth the time spent watching them. But, while The Man Behind the Gun is a mildly entertaining movie, it doesn’t reach the value of most of the star’s other efforts.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

The Thing from Another World (1951)

Directed by Christian Nyby; produced by Howard Hawks

This classic thriller concerns the crash-landing of a flying saucer in the high arctic. The passenger is frozen in ice, and found by a mixed group of civilian scientists and U.S. servicemen, who take the alien back to their research station. There, the creature is inadvertently thawed, and begins to wreak havoc.

Usually, a movie that deviates far from the source material (in this case, a novella entitled Who Goes There?) is heading down a detour to lukewarm reviews. The Thing from Another World, however, forges its own road and creates one of the best science fiction / adventure films you will see. Everything works in this gem, with excellent writing, acting, and direction.

I am a big fan of good writing, so I will start with that. The script (by Charles Lederer) is smart and clever, with explanations of what is happening, what the creature in question is and how to deal with it, conveyed by means which make neither the speaker seem stilted or unnatural, nor the listener artificially ignorant. The characters are almost immediately seen as three dimensional, with personalities shown not just by what they say but just by the mere fact that they are saying it. There is humour, as well; not the misplaced humour of the generic joke inserted without reason, but the sort that people under stress would create, either intentionally or otherwise, and the sort that people who are intrinsically amusing might use.

The characters are, for the most part, likeable people, which is something one doesn’t come across too often in films. There is usually a character who is abrasive, abusive or otherwise unpleasant, thrown in to create tension or conflict. His motives are usually weak or simply not demonstrated. There is none of that here. These are ordinary people, individuals, with whom, while one may not want them as best pals, one doesn’t mind spending time. Even the ‘human villain’ of the piece, though he may come across as fanatical, exudes a certain sympathy.

The actual dialogue is very natural and smooth. At times, two or more characters speak at once, cutting each other off, talking over each other and finishing each other’s sentences. Think of how many times this happens in real life and how many times it doesn’t occur in movies, and you’ll get the idea of how realistic the dialogue is.

Translating the script into the spoken word are a number of actors, only one of whom would be familiar to most viewers. Kenneth Tobey plays an, admittedly, average man who shows why he’s a good officer; Margaret Sheridan - producer Hawks’s ‘discovery’ and of a regrettably short career - is the female lead, intelligent, fun and able to drink Tobey under the table. The cast is filled with capable supporting performers. The only member who would become recognizable in later years is, ironically, unrecognizable here: James Arness fills the role of the alien. (A recent review was of The Ride Back, which starred William Conrad, who played Gunsmoke’s Marshal Matt Dillon on radio; Arness would play him on television.)

The direction is disputed. Christian Nyby is credited with the job, but it has long been believed that producer Hawks had a large hand in it. Whoever was in the chair, his work was lean, exciting and very good. There are scenes which easily rival some of the best bits from fine movies these days. The scene in which the humans try to fight the alien with fire is thrilling, and must be one of the earliest in which a stunt-man was fully engulfed in flames for filming.

I look for attention to detail in movies, attention which shows that the writer or director or producer cares about even the incidental aspects of his work, the little things that add to the enjoyment or interest. In The Thing from Another World, there are brief glimpses of civilian cooks at the remote research station (ever wonder who makes the meals or washes the clothes at these isolated locations?) and remarks about stray bullets that almost hit people (an indication that, while the viewer may have forgotten minor characters, the writer didn’t.) There is one tiny aspect with which I quibble: the movie takes place in November in the far arctic, yet there are scenes in broad daylight… (Yes, I do like detail in my movies.)

The Thing from Another World is a snappy and fun night at the pictures. Many movie-makers of the twenty-first century could learn lessons from this old-time entertainment.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Nine Lives (2016)

Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld; produced by Lisa Ellzey.

A hard-driving millionaire businessman (Kevin Spacey) with an obsession with raising the country’s tallest building buys a cat for his daughter. In so doing, he draws the attention of the cat-shop owner (Christopher Walken) to his less than generous personality. Walken decides to do something about it, and arranges for Spacey’s soul to inhabit the cat’s body until he learns more about human decency.

I wanted to like this movie. Spacey is an excellent actor, whom I’ve admired since I saw him in an episode of The Equalizer in the 1980s. Walken can always be counted on for an interesting performance. And it’s about a cat. What could go wrong with a film like this?

Everything. Despite the star-power, this is a lacklustre movie that plays like a less successful Disney film from the 1970s. Why Spacey agreed to do this, I don’t know. Perhaps he had just bought a new house. Perhaps his girlfriend’s children like cats. He certainly didn’t put anything extraordinary into his performance. It was good, as they usually are, but no more than that. The same may be said for Walken’s role.

The story is unremarkable. Walken’s decision to put Spacey in a cat’s body seems arbitrary. How he does it is never explained. There is no sense that Spacey learns anything profound as a cat, no sense that the change he inevitably undergoes (sorry if I spoiled the ending for you) is real, and no progression shown toward that alteration. We see him re-connect with his daughter, but don’t see any point at which this is accomplished. There is a sub-plot (or perhaps it’s the main plot) of a rival trying to take over Spacey’s company while the latter is in a coma (his body, left without an occupant, goes into a deep sleep), Spacey’s son attempting to head off this catastrophe. That was actually the most involving bit of the story.

The worst of Nine Lives from a cat-owner’s perspective is that the writer either knows or cares little about cats. The cat brought home by Spacey for his daughter is not neutered (there is a joke made later about this status), which means that the character played by Walken (allegedly a cat-fancier in real life) had numerous unfixed cats roaming about, inside and out. Despite the Spacey family home being an immense, multi-storey apartment, his wife (Jennifer Garner) decides to put the litter-box in the kitchen - and next to the cat’s food and water. No mention is made of cat behaviour or habits. The animal in this film could have been a budgie, a gerbil or a dog (shades (no pun intended) of Chevy Chase and Benji in Oh Heavenly Dog, another disaster of a movie), for all the point of it being a cat. It would have been nice if the opportunity had been taken to give a little information about cats along the way, in a humorous and relevant fashion.

And finally, it would have been a pleasantry to have had the title mean something to the story.

This mess had, perhaps symptomatically, eleven people labelled as some sort of producer (executive, line, assistant, etc.) and five writers. But, whether for a Spacey fan, a Walken aficionado, or a cat-lover, Nine Lives is a - I have to write it - a CATastrophe.

Monday, September 25, 2017

The Ride Back (1957)

Directed by Allen H. Miner; produced by William Conrad

The plot in this western is simple, as most western plots are. A deputy sheriff (William Conrad) travels to Mexico to bring back to his home county a fugitive (Anthony Quinn) wanted for shooting two men to death. After that, things get complicated.

This isn’t the usual western, with plenty of gunfire and action. There is, in fact, little action as such. This is more of a character study, even a psychological drama. But then, many of the good westerns are. The story seems straightforward at first, but as it progresses, the viewer learns more about the main characters, what drives them and what haunts them.

The Ride Back is propelled by its acting and its script. William Conrad was the original Matt Dillon, when Gunsmoke was a radio drama. His deep, sometimes fearsome voice was made for radio and he was a star in that medium. He also provided the narration for the hit tv series The Fugitive, before having his own success in Cannon and Jake and the Fatman. In movies, he often played villains or shady characters (check out his very cynical corrupt cop in The Racket). His acting in The Ride Back is self-assured, and he has no problem showing his character as a basically decent but flawed man, greatly hurt by life. Quinn’s character is closer to others that he has played, ebullient, full of life, somewhat derisive of others but nonetheless sensitive and sympathetic.

The script for The Ride Back was adapted from what I believe was an unused Gunsmoke story, but the lawman Conrad portrays is miles away from the confident, intimidating Marshal Dillon, and the latter would not exhibit the weaknesses that are mirrored so well by Quinn’s strengths. This is the tale of two opposites, and how, even if they don’t come to respect each other overly much, come to understand one another. I really wasn’t sure how the movie was going to end, which is unusual in any film, let alone a western, and if the finale is a little weak, it is nevertheless very much in keeping with the characters’ behaviour throughout the story.

The writing (by Anthony Ellis) is sparse. One reviewer noted that only six characters have lines. I counted eight, but that includes a boy whose only words are “bang, bang!” and a woman who is heard but never seen. The Ride Back is essentially a two-man story, impressive enough for Quinn to have starred in this low-budget production the year after his Oscar-winning role in the critically-acclaimed and popular Lust for Life.

The direction is deliberate, and the pace, frankly, slow. The action is in the dialogue and the relationship, not in the barrel of a gun. While I like the flamboyant direction of a spaghetti-western, I also like the deliberate work of a good emotional and mental showdown. The Ride Back won’t appeal to everyone, but I enjoyed the work of two actors at the top of their form.