Monday, June 17, 2019

The Big Knife (1955)

Directed and produced by Robert Aldrich

A Hollywood actor (Jack Palance) has reached a crisis in his career. At the height of his popularity, he has sacrificed his professional integrity for fame and fortune, and now wants out. His wife (Ida Lupino) supports this decision, and will leave him if he doesn’t quit. His powerful studio boss (Rod Steiger) is pressuring him to sign a new contract, and will ruin him if he refuses. Will he stand up to one, or both, or will he crack under the strain?

This very rare example of Palance in a leading role shows both that he was competent, and that he was probably best in a supporting role. He gives a creditable performance, and is really the best thing in an otherwise sorry melodrama. It is based on a play by Clifford Odets and, despite Odets being one of the most prominent American playwrights of the twentieth century, reminded me of a university or high school work.

The script is filled with improbable lines and dialogue that would be found only on the stage. Almost every line could be spoken with half as many words and twice as much clarity. The characters were well-defined but without much subtlety.

The direction picks up where the script leaves off, and simply magnifies its problems. The comparison to a high school production becomes stronger, with yelling and crying taking the place of acting. Histrionics vie with overdone earnestness. Considering the fame and skill of the director, the placement and blocking of the actors is amateurish, Palance more than once facing away from the camera or even behind lampshades while talking.

As stated above, Palance did well, though he was badly miscast as a matinĂ©e idol. (John Garfield had filled the role during the play’s Broadway run, and would have been more credible.) The other actors are adequate in their roles, with the exception of Steiger, who gives an early example of the extreme over-acting for which he became infamous. It was like watching William Shatner on steroids. Everett Sloane, as Palance’s agent, was, in his own way, as hammy as Steiger. Lupino reacted rather than acted, though Wendell Corey, as Steiger’s henchman, did a good job.

The problem with The Big Knife stems, I think, from it being too personal. It appears, given Odets’s past, to be autobiographical in some ways. Odets had been a darling of the New York theatre crowd, the new talent, but had gone to Hollywood to write movie scripts. He imagined that he had sold out; Palance represented him in the film. Steiger was the studio boss for whom Odets worked, likely Louis B Mayer. Lupino was the wife who was almost Odets’s agent in dealings with the studio. The manifest emotions of the play may have been how Odets saw his relationship with Hollywood, or how he would have wanted it to be. He may have been too close to the subject to write a convincing, realistic depiction of the situation, and instead created a nightmarish interpretation.

Whether or not this view is accurate, The Big Knife is at different moments tiresome, annoying and unbelievable, but always unsatisfying.

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

The Killers (1946)

Directed by Robert Siodmak; produced by Mark Hellinger

Two strangers (Willian Conrad, Charles McGraw) come to a small town and take the staff and patron of a diner prisoner with the expressed intention of ambushing and killing a resident of the town. When the man (Burt Lancaster) doesn’t show up, they go to find him. Despite being warned, the victim neither flees nor defends himself, and accepts his fate. The insurance investigator (Edmund O’Brien) on the case can’t fathom the dead man’s apathy and, digging further, finds an intricate web of robbery, deceit, obsession and betrayal.

One of the best crime movies from an era that produced the best of that genre, The Killers has everything going for it. Inspired by (rather than based on) the Hemingway story of the same name, the tale is largely told in flashback, the plot laid out for the viewer as O’Brien and Sam Levene, as a police officer interested in the case, uncover it. It is a complex plot, with twists and surprises, and a conclusion rooted in both reason and emotion, as film noir often is. Caper film, mystery, psychological drama; The Killers  works in every way.

The characters are key to the story, especially Lancaster’s; his psyche is important to the story. But everyone’s role is strong and rewarding. O’Brien’s cocksure investigator becomes more likeable as he delves deeper into the mystery, and his team-work with Levene is smooth and enjoyable. Ava Gardner, as the female lead, is fittingly enigmatic, and Albert Dekker is almost sympathetic as the soft-talking villain. Stand-outs, in small roles, are the assassins themselves, Conrad and McGraw: two men who would murder from annoyance as much as for money, and whose frightfulness comes from being so creepily casual in their evil.

The direction is dead on and the cinematography is superb. Check out the opening sequence as the gunmen converge on the diner, arriving at two entrances simultaneously, anonymous (but uncaring if they may be identified to the police). The lighting and pacing is so well conceived that merely walking becomes a sinister premonition of violence and death. The movie demonstrates why film noir worked best in black-and-white.

The acting could of course have ruined everything else, but The Killers excels in this category, as well. It’s hard to believe that this film was Lancaster’s first. He is not on the screen as much as is O’Brien or even Levene, but he dominates every scene he is in. His acceptance of his imminent demise is not unmitigated; the tension and fear he feels, mixed with his motivation, had to be conveyed right; the rest of the movie depended on it. But no one in the cast is unconvincing.

The Killers starts off on a high note and doesn’t drop in quality appreciably at any point during its 103 minutes. Whether a student of the cinema, amateur movie buff, or just someone who likes an excellent time watching film, The Killers will not disappoint.

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Murphy's Romance (1985)

Directed by Martin Ritt; produced by Laura Ziskin

Emma Moriarty (Sally Field) moves with her son, Jake (Corey Haim), to a small town in Arizona, hoping a different location and her own business venture - horse-boarding - will give them the fresh start they need. Soon, she begins to meet the locals, one of whom is the older, thoughful and forthright pharmacist, Murphy Jones (James Garner). As they come to know each other, interest grows between them that is more than friendship and less than love - but that soon changes.

While it is accurate to categorise this film as a romantic comedy, the inference some may draw from that term would not be quite right. Though I like the genre, most romantic comedies are rather silly affairs, filled with contrivance and forced situations, not to mention forced laughs. Murphy’s Romance is different. It is an adult romantic comedy. By that, I do not mean there is sex, violence and profanity. There is no nudity and though an obscenity is uttered, Murphy makes it plain that he doesn’t care for the word or its use.

No, this is an adult movie because the principals behave like adults and have a grown-up approach to falling in love. Emma and Murphy are mature people who have experienced easy times and tough times, as have we all, and act like they’ve learned from them. It’s clear that Murphy’s feelings for Emma are clearer to him than Emma’s feelings for Murphy are clear to her, and they are clearer sooner. But he is cautious, neither foolish nor timid, while she is gun-shy about love.

The leads’ age difference is a good example of the script’s maturity. Though Murphy’s lengthy collection of years is mentioned, usually as the butt of a good-natured joke, its place in any relationship is not a concern. The age difference is treated as if Emma and Murphy have taken it into account as part of their over-all personalities; they weigh its effect as they would any other aspect of their characters. This lack of hand-wringing angst over something that isn’t much of a problem in the first place makes for a realistic but easy-going movie

Despite the title, Field is rightly given top billing. She is very winning as a woman who is both strong and vulnerable, and her good relationship with her son is as refreshing as is her romantic maturity. Garner is a very watchable but not versatile actor; most of his parts are similar: a steady, dependable, likeable man, tolerant of foibles but hard on folly. Here, the characterization is perfect. He is sensible and funny, the sort of man any woman would want as a partner and any man would want as a friend.

The script wisely avoids populating the film with ‘quirky’ townspeople, the artificial bane of many a comedy. The closest the movie comes is with the community’s oldest resident (Charles Lane), a curmudgeon whose appearance is used to illustrate Garner’s character more than his own.

Murphy’s Romance has been described as a ‘chick flick’ that men would enjoy. I agree with this, but it may be considered a film for women really only because the main character is female. This enjoyable and entertaining movie is for both genders and most ages simply because…it’s an enjoyable and entertaining movie.

Monday, May 27, 2019

For Them That Trespass (1949)

Directed by Cavalcanti; produced by Victor Skutezky

A young man (Stephen Murray), hoping to be a writer, takes to heart the criticism that he has not lived enough to write properly. To correct that flaw, he visits a working-class district of London – in the time-honoured belief that only the poor actually live – and becomes involved with a likeable but promiscuous girl (Rosalyn Boulter). She has a couple of other boyfriends, including a happy-go-lucky thief (Richard Todd) and a brutal railway fireman (Michael Laurence). When the latter thinks his girl has been unfaithful, a crime is committed, and while the would-be author is the cause, it’s the innocent thief who suffers.

Part crime story and part character study, For Them That Trespass (I am still pondering the grammar of that title) is not strong enough in its two forms to succeed entirely as either. It also switches its point of view about a third of the way through, abandoning the effete and bland Murray as protagonist for the more interesting and hearty Todd. This does improve matters, though it also alters the direction of the story. Instead of a tale about a man mired in trouble because of his intrusion in an alien world, it becomes a search for justice, of a man seeking to right the wrongs done him. These are the two forms of ‘trespass’ mentioned in the title.

Undoubtedly the writers intended the change in direction and tone, wanting Murray’s character to cause the difficulties, however inadvertently, and then depart, the effects of his misadventures forgotten in his rise to fame. Todd’s character, meanwhile, is shown suffering the consequences of another man’s actions. This gives the impression, though, of a preamble half as long as the body of the story. That story, moreover, while keeping the viewer’s attention, is not particularly original.

The acting is uneven. It is clearly seen why Murray, given top billing, became largely forgotten, despite his radio and theatre work, while Todd went on to become a very popular movie performer. This was the latter’s first credited role (“Introducing Richard Todd”). I have seen several films lately with actors “introduced” in the credits, and this is the first from which the actor in question went on to bigger and better things. The supporting players are a mixed lot; for example Laurence is wooden, while Patricia Plunkett, as the woman who stands by Todd, is lively and believable. Kenneth More has a very small part as a prison warder.

For Them That Trespass, therefore, is a jumble of good, bad and indifferent. The good items are certainly there to be found, but are too few and widely scattered to make the movie a good bargain.

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

How to Train Your Dragon: the Hidden World (2019)

Directed by Dean DeBlois; produced by Bonnie Arnold and Bradford Lewis

The third and likely last movie in the How to Train Your Dragon series finds the Viking village of Berk once more beset by dragons. This time, the hundreds of flying reptiles are all friendly, rescued by the young chieftain Hiccup (voice of Jay Baruchel) and his friends from would-be dragon-slayers. Their activities are so successful, however, that they become a threat to dragon-trappers, who hire the devilishly clever, and just plain devilish, Grimmel (voice of F. Murray Abraham), a famous and immensely successful hunter.

What often occurs with trilogies that are not planned out fully in advance, is that the original chapter is the best, the second is much less imaginative, while the third is in between. This movie unfortunately doesn’t fit entirely into that pattern. The look is brilliant and, at times, breath-taking. But these very characteristics work against the film. Many scenes are so busy and active that they become overwhelming, the colour, the movement, the images confusing, rather than impressive. In too many instances, the eyes are dazzled.

The story is adequate but also follows a pattern that has just recently emerged in animated works. It used to be that stories’ themes were quite simple. They would be straightforward tales of good against evil (eg. Snow White (1937)) or a personal message, such as redemption or appearance versus substance (eg. Beauty and the Beast (1991)). Now, however, it seems that the morality must reflect the current issues in socio-political affairs. In How to Train Your Dragon: the Hidden World, co-existence of different races is at the heart of the movie, Hiccup arguing for it, of course, and Grimmel demanding a separation of the races for the benefit of both. The trouble with such earnestness is that it can become heavy-handed quite easily, and turn to sermonising, which is never good for any film, never mind an animated cartoon.

There is also the sub-plot of Hiccup and Toothless, his dragon, reaching a point at which their paths must diverge, and the young human thinking that he amounts to little without his companion. This theme is only weakly developed, especially since the climax features both man and beast working together once more.

The most successful aspect is the depiction of detail in the animation. As may be seen from some of the accompanying pictures, an immense amount of thought and work went into the smallest items. Some of this care for detail may be found in the script. For instance, in one brief image, we see the giant ‘villainous’ dragon from the second movie, having found a home and fellowship (which I found gratifying, since I thought his fate in part two to be undeserved.) And I was very impressed with the female dragon. The gender was convincingly depicted without the usual traits of the feminine cartoon character (bow on the head, long eyelashes, heeled shoes.) It was done almost entirely by gesture and facial expression. But, as stated above, most of the exquisite detail, in the amounts provided, is like receiving a tidal wave when an exhilaratingly swift river is all that is needed.

While How to Train Your Dragon: the Hidden World is a spectacle in a visual sense, its ordinary story, unimaginatively wicked villain, preachy premise and mesmerising visual effects make it too top-heavy, while not providing it with a strong enough base.

(And am I the only one who thinks How to Drain Your Flagon: a Guide to Re-enacting the Medieval Banquet would make a great title for an instructional video?)

Monday, May 13, 2019

Close-up (1948)

Directed by Jack Donohue; produced by Frank Satenstein

Out on a routine human-interest filming session, the day of a news-cameraman (Alan Baxter) turns extraordinary when he inadvertently captures passers-by on film. A man (Russell Collins) begs to be given some footage to avoid his romantic dalliance being discovered. Agreeing to the good deed, the cameraman and his editor (Loring Smith) discover the real reason for the request: an escaped Nazi war-criminal (Richard Kollmar) was also captured on film.

Not bad as very low budget thrillers go, Close-up is nonetheless not very good, either. Baxter had had a strong career in the 1930s and ‘40s, but was no longer making grade A, or even B, films by this time. Certainly his acting probably did not qualify him for top roles. Leading lady Virginia Gilmore is now best known - if known at all - for being Yul Brynner’s first wife. Her talent too placed her squarely in the second grade of movie performers. All the players are competent, without being quite completely believable.

The story is a good one, and may have been one of the first to use the premise of an accidental recording of an image on film leading to murder and mayhem. It must be a contender as well for the early plot-line of an escaping Nazi. But the script doesn’t translate these advantages. There are instances when the viewer is left asking the dreaded cinematic question, “Why?” When two pairs of villains confront each other, one set shoots an opponent but merely knocks the second out. Why? Baxter is taken prisoner and brought on the climactic chase. Why? Would it have not been in the villains’ interest to kill him instead?

Good use is made of New York locations and facilities, especially an action scene on board a ferry, and indeed, the setting of scenes is beneficial to the look of the film. One suspects that this department was handled by somebody who didn’t have much else to do with the movie.

While not exactly a waste of time, Close-up doesn’t summon enough enthusiasm to make one glad to have seen it. No doubt quickly made, it will just as swiftly leave one’s memory.

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Won't You Be My Neighbor? (2018)

Directed by Morgan Neville; produced by Morgan Neville, Nicholas Ma and Caryn Capotosto

This is a documentary about a unique person in television, and in children’s education. Fred Rogers not only was the host of the tv series Mr Rogers’ Neighborhood, from 1968 until 2001, but was its producer, music arranger, puppeteer and writer. Thirty-three years of holding those positions would qualify for a documentary on their own, but having the effect on children - and adults - that Rogers did, makes their analysis almost necessary.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor? doesn’t quite follow the usual format of a filmed documentary. It is not completely linear because, while it does start by examining the early days of Fred Rogers’s involvement with television, and ends with his death in 2003, it moves back and forth in time, depending on the aspect of Rogers’s life and career it is examining. It comprises archival footage, interviews, even animation; like its subject, it is not exciting, but it is entertaining, interesting, intriguing, and never dull.

The picture the movie paints of Fred Rogers is an overwhelmingly complimentary one - indeed, from other stories and discussions of the man, it seems that it would have been difficult to construct a derogatory documentary - but it doesn’t let him off the hook entirely. His two sons imply that it was not easy being Mr Rogers’s offspring, though it is equally implied that this was not Rogers’s fault. As well, he appears to have been a very determined man, which could be frustrating, even annoying, for more laid-back people, but his determination was in the best causes.

The documentary is a good one in that it considers not just Rogers, nor his attempts to educate children, but how he did it. His unflinching tackling of topics such as divorce and racism, death and even political assassination, is probably unparalleled in children’s television. What made him superior to many programmes that attempted the same was that he dealt largely in children’s feelings; how a child reacts to certain events or influences, and why negative reactions are not always bad.

There are very affecting moments in the film, such as when Rogers appeared before a U.S. congressional committee to help obtain funding for public television. Facing a politician notorious for his antagonism to tv, Rogers convinced the man to support public television in a matter of minutes. (This scene is notable not just for Rogers’s earnestness and success but for its demonstration that there was a time when politicians could be persuaded of new ideas, and did not rigidly adhere to the party line to the exclusion of all good. Yes, it was a long time ago.) Also moving, in another way, is Rogers’s interaction with the famous gorilla Koko. She did not know Rogers’s as a tv personality but quickly created a bond with him. (This says perhaps just as much about Koko as Rogers.)

One of the most intriguing moments for me was when it described how quiet, even silent, Rogers’s instruction could be. In one scene, he demonstrated the length of a minute, using a timer - and silence. This reminded me of something many children’s educators and entertainers have forgotten - if they ever knew it. Children often play and learn quietly, even noiselessly. Anyone who has watched children, especially a single child, at play, will note this. That is often when learning is most effective. If a documentary can give a viewer a revelation, there is something to it.

But Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is more than just a few good moments. It is a telling and affectionate tribute to an unprecedented phenomenon in television, probably one not to be repeated. And the fact that the world thinks there is no room for another Mr Rogers, that it has moved beyond him, is, unfortunately, its saddest statement.