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Tuesday, January 24, 2023

Chase a Crooked Shadow (1958)

Directed by Michael Anderson; produced by Douglas Fairbanks Jr and Thomas Clyde

Kimberley Prescott (Anne Baxter), daughter of a South African diamond millionaire, arrives at her villa in Spain following the suicide of her father. That event had come while Kimberley was still mourning the death of her brother, Ward, in a car accident. She is shocked when a man (Richard Todd) arrives claiming to be that brother. Though she says that he isn’t Ward - doesn’t even look like him - his identity papers, his pictures and even her uncle (Alexander Knox) counter her belief. Is she going crazy, or is there a plot against her? Or is there something even more sinister at work?

I enjoy stories such as that which Chase a Crooked Shadow presented. They, like tales in which the protagonist suffers amnesia, or there is otherwise some confusion about someone’s identity, can be very entertaining. But there is a large portion of these in which the writers create too much of a mystery - or, rather, dig too deep a hole for themselves. This film unfortunately falls into that category.

The performances are good. By this time, Baxter had already shown in numerous movies that she was a fine actress, and could handle lead roles. Todd is a capable and engaging actor. Though the film mostly comprises the interaction between these two, there is satisfactory support from Herbert Lom as an intelligent local police officer, and Faith Brook as a possible criminal.

Neither is there a complaint about the direction or production, except, perhaps, given the beautiful setting – on Spain’s Mediterranean coast - assistance would have been lent by filming the movie in colour.

The story, as I mentioned, is promising, but the execution is at fault. If there is a conspiracy afoot, then it is so detailed, and the conspirators so knowledgeable, as to be incredible. For instance, Todd’s character is as superb a car-driver as was Ward - the latter won several racing competitions - and drives a particular course in record time to prove his identity to Kimberley. If he is Ward, how could he still be alive. If, on the other hand, Kimberley is correct, there are no clues given as to how and why an imposter could have acquired his skills. The viewer keeps waiting for the explanation which when it comes is, I think, inadequate.

As well, the conclusion depends upon the breakdown of a character and, though the psychological effects of pressure are subjective, I didn’t feel that in this case, the result was justified by what went before. Indeed, the dialogue that was evidently expected and required for the plot’s resolution was rather specific, and did not, I think, follow as a natural progression of events.

As I was watching Chase a Crooked Shadow, I was reminded of a superior television film called Vanishing Act (1986), which follows a similar premise. This movie, from Richard Levinson and William Link (the pair responsible for Columbo) has a character commit an incriminating act that is more plausible than Chase a Crooked Shadow’s. There can be much variation in what a character does in drama, but in a mystery, the standards are tougher, because viewers generally demand a more logical progression in behaviour than in other genres.

While it is well-acted and directed, Chase a Crooked Shadow over-plays its hand for much of the script, and then under-plays it at the end.

Tuesday, January 17, 2023

The Straight Story (1999)

Directed by David Lynch; produced by Neal Edelstein and Mary Sweeney

When he learns that his estranged brother, Lyle, has had a stroke, Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth) determines to visit him, and heal old wounds. The trouble is that Lyle lives 240 miles away; Alvin is in his seventies and not in good health himself. Due to this, he can’t get his driver’s licence renewed. His spirit of independence means that he won’t have anyone else transport him. His solution to this problem is to drive his riding lawnmower all the way to see his sibling.

Anyone who is familiar with director Lynch’s work, whether they like it or not, knows that each project is unpredictable, and each result unusual. He cannot be called a conventional director or writer. But if one is expecting something like the self-indulgent and ultimately nonsensical Lost Highway, or the intriguingly nightmarish Mulholland Drive, one will be disappointed. This is a Lynch film for non-Lynch fans. It is as conventional as possible for Lynch, yet is heartwarming, rewarding and satisfying.

One might think, given the description in the first paragraph, that The Straight Story is a comedy. While it has humorous moments, it is a drama, a very human drama, depicting a fully realised character.

The story is episodic, with a climax too unexciting to be called such, yet just the sort of ending the movie should have. The scenes depict the various people Alvin encounters on his six or seven week long odyssey. We learn about Alvin, and others, during these encounters; slowly, and only under certain circumstances, he tells people of himself, his past and his beliefs; one gathers that he feels he can reveal himself to strangers whom he likely will never see again. Memorable moments include shared reminiscences with a fellow war veteran, and, amid a bicyclists’ encampment, a great truth about growing old.

The dialogue is realistic, and one wonders if the screenwriters provided, at least in Farnsworth’s case, more guidance than script, for his words seem to come from a man rather than a page. That The Straight Story is based on fact doesn’t ensure that Alvin’s quest will meet with success; that his success is less important – to the viewer – than his attempt is a tribute to the involvement the film creates.

At the movie’s heart is Farnsworth, in his final rĂ´le. He had two careers in movies: as a stuntman, and as an actor, the latter not beginning until he was in his forties. His characters are always down-to-earth, quiet and sensible, usually friendly and intelligent, in a folksy sort of way. That is Alvin Straight. There is no delusion to this man: he knows he may be doing something foolish, riding a lawnmower across the American Mid-west, but, once he decides to do it, he will give it his best.

All the supporting actors are natural in their parts; many of them are unknowns who could be residents of the locations where the film was shot. There are a few exceptions, such as Sissy Spacek - who plays Alvin’s daughter, Rose – and Harry Dean Stanton.

The direction is, coming from Lynch, almost deliberately ordinary. There are no tricks or cleverness to detract from the story, from the scenery, from the characters. Lynch knows his material, and its value.

The Straight Story is an entertaining, slow, gentle tale of a man making what is probably the last journey of his life, but one which he knows is worth the effort. This movie, too, is worth the effort.

Wednesday, January 11, 2023

The Second Woman (1950)

Directed by James V Kern; produced by Mort Briskin and Robert Smith

The images of a house, before and after a catastrophic fire, lead to flashbacks telling the story of Jeff Cohalan (Robert Young), a successful architect. A recent widower, it’s not clear if Cohalan mourns his wife or merely regrets her death; certainly the violent event has left its mark. A series of accidents and unexplained circumstances has followed the man for a year. What their cause might be, and to what it will lead involves Ellen Foster (Betsy Drake), Cohalan’s neighbour, who has begun to develop feelings for him.

If you’ve seen the 1940 screen adaptation of Rebecca, you will notice immediately The Second Woman’s resemblance to it. The plot diverges, eventually, but initially there is much in the later movie that is reminiscent of the earlier. It begins with a woman’s spoken and dreamy recollection of a residence, now destroyed, and continues to depict a dead wife’s influence on a reticent man. There are the stories about the late woman and her fatal accident, the indications of a hidden mystery, even a smug hanger-on who may or may not have knowledge of events. All that is missing is the sinister housekeeper.

The Second Woman’s story, written by the producers, does stand on its own after a while, and if the screenwriters saw the similarity between their work and Rebecca (and how could they not have done?), they may have hoped that the viewer would stick with the film long enough to see the difference. It may be why one of the first scenes shows what appears to be a major character’s suicide attempt, thus demonstrating that all is not identical. It’s almost as if, having seen Rebecca, Briskin and Smith – the screenwriters as well as the producers - wanted to re-write the classic, with more mystery.

For that, the mystery does have its admirable points. The solution is logical, though, like too many B-movie endings, is dependent upon what nearly amounts to a deus ex machina being sprung on the audience. As well, it doesn’t ‘play fair’ with the viewer, withholding certain events and facts that would have provided clues.

Also, the explanation of the pivotal accident may force the viewer to ask why a principal character would do something so foolish as he did. If so, it probably won’t be the only question pondered. Indeed, the characters tend to act in aid of the mystery, rather than as real people in such situations would; similar to, though not as annoying as, the soon-to-be-next-victim behaves in a more modern slasher film.

The direction is adequate. The Second Woman is likely Kern’s ‘biggest’ movie; he later turned to television. There is no scene that stands out, despite Kern’s struggle for atmosphere, crediting Peter Ilyitch Tschaikovsky with the musical themes (which don’t do much for the movie.)

The acting is good, though Young never strikes me as charismatic or even involving enough to be a strong leading man, despite the abilities he shows in numerous films. Nor does Drake have any particularly draw. Even so, both leads offer capable performances. Jason Robards Sr (listed among the cast without the qualifier, of course) has a bit part.

While mildly entertaining, nothing in The Second Woman is really commendable. The leads are not very sympathetic, the story is uninvolving, the direction ordinary: a film for a Saturday evening when you’ve watched everything else in your collection.