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Sunday, February 18, 2024

Hollywood Story (1951)

Directed by William Castle; produced by Leonard Goldstein

Larry O’Brien (Richard Conte), a successful film producer, moves his operations from New York to Los Angeles, where his old friend, Mitch Davis (Jim Backus), has suggested renovating an abandoned movie studio. Touring the lot, O’Brien’s imagination is fired by a story told by an aged security guard (Houseley Stevenson) about an infamous murder that took place in a bungalow on the property: in 1929, a renowned film director was shot dead, and his killer never caught. O’Brien determines to make a movie about the case. But the movie’s plot demands a resolution to the unsolved murder, and someone will stop at nothing to keep O’Brien’s movie unmade.

An entertaining mystery with an unusual angle, Hollywood Story incorporates a number of clever ideas, including the often intriguing riddle of an old, notorious murder. The killing is probably based on that of director William Desmond Taylor, who was shot to death in 1922; his killer was never arrested. The suspects included a number of well-known motion picture stars. Hollywood Story doesn’t try to get to the bottom of that crime, but uses it as inspiration.

This allows the inclusion of a number of former movie actors in cameos. Though there isn’t really a clear reason for their appearance - Are they to act in O’Brien’s  film? Are they technical advisers? - they provide verisimilitude. Their names - Helen Gibson, William Farnum and especially Francis X Bushman - would have been familiar to many in 1951. Yet it is thought-provoking that 1929, only twenty-two years before the release of Hollywood Story, seems more like an eon previously than a mere two decades. If a present-day film were to invoke names from 2002, there would hardly be the feeling of the distant past.

Yet the Silent Era must indeed have seemed distant to movie-makers and audiences of 1951, with sound an integral part of all movies and even colour becoming common-place. Francis X Bushman was an immensely popular actor in his time - ‘the handsomest man in Hollywood’ - who portrayed Messala in the first Ben-Hur (1925), yet he evidently faded fast from public memory. Joel McCrea has an uncredited cameo in Hollywood Story; he too is unknown to many, but probably known to many more than Bushman. Black and white westerns are undoubtedly viewed more often by film fans now than are silent epics.

Even without such entertaining ingredients, Hollywood Story is an enjoyable motion picture. Fictional characters from the past are included as well as the real, and it is they, as may be guessed, who contribute to the plot. In particular, Henry Hull provides a fine, fun performance as a dissolute screenwriter, who may or may not have been good at one time. Fred Clark projects his usual persona of anger and annoyance effectively; his confrontation with O’Brien over the alleged murder weapon is well-written. Former leading man (though not quite of the Silent Era) Paul Cavanagh has a good rôle as a potential suspect. His relatively small part is that of a former leading man reduced to taking small parts. And Conte himself is credible as a man easily obsessed, with enough power in the business to indulge his obsessions.

There are disadvantages. Julie Adams (billed as Julia Adams) is the obligatory love interest, but her character and O’Brien don’t seem overly attracted to one another. The narration by Backus’s character is pointless, and would have had more significance if given to Conte. And I can’t figure out why one character confesses to a second murder.

The actual story - the mystery - is pretty good, with clues found by the amateurs which might actually have been overlooked in the original police investigation, and the writing is believable. There is also cleverness and irony - perhaps written with tongue in cheek - in the climax, which provides a unique example of why movies sometime change real-life endings. William Castle performs a satisfactory job directing Hollywood Story, a few years before he turned to gimmicky and very low budget horror films.

Hollywood Story has a fairly standard ‘forgotten murder’ mystery that is given life and novelty by its setting and writing.

Sunday, February 11, 2024

Valkyrie (2008)

Directed by Bryan Singer; produced by Gilbert Adler, Christopher McQuarrie and Bryan Singer

In 1944, a group of well-placed German civilians and army officers plan to assassinate their country’s leader, Adolf Hitler. Led by Generals von Tresckow (Kenneth Branagh) and Olbricht (Bill Nighy), the group recruits dissident Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg (Tom Cruise), who will carry out the actual attempt. Hoping to end the world war and save countless lives, as well as their country, the small group of men gamble everything to rid the Earth of a tyrant.

A well-directed, acted and produced film, Valkyrie provides excitement and tension, as well as telling a compelling story in a compelling manner. The script treats the audience intelligently. There is a wealth of names and detail, but the movie is confident that the viewers will be able to digest it all. As an example, one scene has the conspiracy’s explosives expert, Colonel Mertz von Quirnheim (Christian Merkel), explain that the windowless reinforced bunker in which the assassination will occur negates the need for a large bomb, as the air pressure in the virtually sealed building would magnify the blast. On the day of the attempt, however, the vital briefing is moved to a ‘conference hut’. Stauffenberg walks to it, staring at its tall, open windows. It is assumed the audience understands the implication.

For all that, the script nonetheless is explicit where it needs to be. The plan to kill Hitler was both simple (as many of the best plans are) but ingenious. Walkürie was the Nazis’ contingency operation to use the Berlin-based Reserve Army to suppress riot and rebellion if the German people rose up against them. The conspirators intended to use Walkürie for their own purpose: killing Hitler and blaming the act on a combined SS/Gestapo coup d’état; the conspirators would implement Walkürie, use it to eliminate the entire Nazi leadership and take control of the government. This scheme is elaborated concisely and clearly by the characters. But one still must pay attention.

The direction is necessarily taut. A study of such an event would provide enough material for an hours-long documentary, but for a thriller - which is what Valkyrie is - extraneous material needs to be jettisoned. This must be balanced with the requirements of exposition, as noted above. The director, Singer, and editor, John Ottman - who also composed the film’s music - are successful in this. The running time is an unexpectedly brief 121 minutes, but there are no slow moments.

The acting is very good. Cruise, as Stauffenberg, is probably the least of the cast, though this is composed of excellent veterans such as Nighy, Branagh, Tom Wilkinson, Terence Stamp and Kenneth Cranham. Nonetheless, Cruise is perfectly capable in the role. There was some comment from German critics that he was he was an American Stauffenberg, rather than a European Stauffenberg, and that he lacked an indefinable aristocracy. This fine difference will likely be lost on most North American audiences. Philipp von Schulthess, Stauffenberg's real-life grandson, appears as Tresckow's aide.

Movies in which all the characters are meant to be speaking their own, non-English language, even though the scripts are in English, sometimes bring derision, but I’ve always assumed that the tongue they are speaking is their own, and any distinctions are due to characters’ regional and social origins. An interesting dilemma in Valkyrie might have been Hitler’s manner of speech. With all the other actors using their natural accents, it might seem incongruous to have David Bamber portray the dictator with a German accent. But I imagine the director and producers thought hearing Hitler speak as though he were from Ohio or Oxford might be far too distracting for viewers. Bamber practised Hitler’s Austrian accent which, apparently, was a contrast to that used in his speeches, and which made him stand out among native Germans. Thus Hitler’s dialect poses no problem.

In such a film, or, rather, when a film must concentrate on certain aspects, detailed character analysis is sacrificed. Thus we learn very little of the personalities of the different conspirators, Stauffenberg’s alone being the exception, and even he is given only a sketch. A study of the plotters and their motives would fill books or whole tv series - which it has. Certainly, some conspirators - such as Berlin’s police president Helldorf and his superior, Nebe - were opportunistic and amoral, leaning whichever way would ensure their survival. Others, such as Stauffenberg and Quirnheim, had early moral objections to the Nazis. Indeed, Tresckow’s life alone would make for an intriguing movie, as he seemed to be the driving force behind the 20 July 1944 plot. (In fact, one of his quotes about Hitler is transferred to Stauffenberg in the film.)

Aside from the scantiness of the attention given to the characters themselves, Valkyrie is an exceptional historical film, in that it provides as much accuracy as possible within the framework of a Hollywood thriller. It should satisfy a range of viewers for a range of reasons.

Sunday, February 4, 2024

Criss Cross (1949)

Directed by Robert Siodmak; produced by Michel Kraike

Steve Thompson returns to Los Angeles after years of travelling the United States, having, he hoped, rid himself of the memory of Anna (Yvonne De Carlo). It didn’t work, and as soon as he comes home, he starts looking for her. When he learns both that she still loves him but has nonetheless taken up with the crooked Slim Dundee (Dan Duryea), for his money, Steve plots an armoured car heist that will get him the cash to win Anna and settle with Dundee at the same time.

Criss Cross has the elements that make it an essential entry in the category of American film noir. The characters, the writing, the direction, the photography and the lighting all contribute.

The story is straightforward - so straightforward, in fact, that the tragedy may be seen coming in the first few minutes. This is the screenplay’s intention. It creates a sense of foreboding from the opening scene. When a character states that the past should be forgotten, and ‘we’ll start again’, the viewer knows things are not going to work out well. But such is the story-telling that, like Steve’s obsession with Anna, the viewer feels compelled to go on.

The acting is excellent. Lancaster’s Steve may seem to be very similar to his Swede, from his first film, The Killers (1946), especially in his attraction to a woman who is no good for him. Yet here, he replaces the Swede’s fatalism with blind optimism, and creates quite a different aura because of it.

De Carlo matches him step by step, making her Anna one of film’s worst (or is it best?) femmes fatale, a woman superficially - both physically and emotionally - winning and earnest. What lies beneath the surface is given form by a most convincing performance.

Duryea receives a prominent third billing, and he’s very much a big part of the film. He gives what many might consider a stereotyped performance, one that he’s given and would give numerous times. Yet he provides his character with three dimensions. Dundee is not slimy; there is a kind of class to him, and that gives him greater menace. For much of the film, the violence to which he is prone is implied; people are afraid of him, without visible reason. Yet Duryea gives other characters’ reactions credence.

Siodmak’s direction is credited with cementing a number of images and techniques of film noir, and certainly Criss Cross gives ample proof of the claim. His use of darkness is exemplary, from the first scene of the lovers caught in the panning glare of an automobile’s headlamps to the final emergence of the villain from a black doorway. Cramped dance-floors, narrow barrooms and claustrophobic meeting-places all highlight the intent of the plot and script.

The late 1940s was the core of the film noir era, short-lived, crowded, innovative and entertaining. Criss Cross is one of the best of an impressive lot.

Sunday, January 28, 2024

Corridor of Mirrors (1948)

Directed by Terence Young; produced by Rudolph Cartier

Journeying to London by rail, young wife and mother Mifanwy Conway (Edana Romney) recollects the man she knew seven years before. Paul Mangin (Eric Portman) was a fabulously wealthy and eccentric artist, who preferred to dwell in the past. One night, he saw Mifanwy and became smitten by her. His growing fascination with her, and the obsession he had with the past, combined to create a dramatic situation which ended with Mangin being immortalized in Madame Tussaud’s waxworks. But how did it end there? And did it end there?

An involving tale of love and madness, Corridor of Mirrors was adapted from a novel by Christopher Massie, who wrote the source book of the film Love Letters (reviewed on this blog in June, 2021). Corridor of Mirrors, at least as brought to the screen, has a quite different atmosphere compared to the other work. The screenplay was written by the producer and the female lead, Edana Romney; though the latter had had almost no film roles previously, she and Cartier formed a company to produce this movie. It took seven years to gather the financing and interest a studio in the prospects. The results are, if not unforgettable, then satisfying.

The story is rather reminiscent of a Poe tale, without the lurking eerieness. An aspect of the writing is that it keeps the viewer guessing as to where it will go, whether Mangin will descend into lunacy from what is originally a fad, and whether he will do harm as he goes. It involves the viewer as well in the sympathetic character of Mangin; he comes across as eccentric, certainly, but also lonely, with no one understanding either him or his passions. What his ultimate goal may be remains a mystery for much of the movie. It turns out to be rather simple, possibly unattainable, and perhaps deadly.

This is the first directorial effort by Young, and he does a good job. Considering that he went on to direct a number of James Bond movies, it’s ironic that he is more successful in Corridor of Mirrors when he concentrates on faces, expressions and gestures, rather than wider action; but then, leading man Portman was especially good at subtle looks, and Romney, while not in her co-star’s league, is liked by the camera.

As mentioned, Romney is capable in her performance, but not outstanding. This was her only starring role, and she soon afterward settled into the new medium of television, as a programme hostess. She became another kind of hostess when, in her thirties, she moved to Hollywood and became famous for her house-parties.

Portman carries the movie in his part as Paul Mangin. We never see the character painting, and it appears that his art is hardly a passion. Portman instead gives Mangin a quiet but deep and possibly dangerous love of the past, an idealized, romantic past that cannot be recreated. The edge with which Mangin is portrayed comes from not knowing if he realises the impossibility of his fantasies. Nonetheless, it is Portman who allows Mangin to become more sympathetic as the film progresses.

A word should be mentioned as well of Barbara Mullen, who plays the suitably unnerving Veronica. It is a small but effective role. Look for Christopher Lee in a bit part, his movie debut.

The set design and the lighting must be commended, too, particularly at the end when we see the fruition of Mangin’s fever for renaissance Italy. It might have been spectacular in colour; even so, the impression that the back garden of Mangin’s townhouse is an expansive and separate world, the product of a limitlessly romantic mind and a nearly limitless bank account, is convincing.

Corridor of Mirrors doesn’t quite match any genre, while it borrows from several. Not excellent, but very good, it conjures up a world not quite real, highlighted by the mundanity of the lives ‘bookending’ the principal story. It’s worth an evening’s viewing.

Sunday, January 21, 2024

The Fallen Sparrow (1943)

Directed by Richard Wallace; produced by Robert Fellows

Having been captured by the Nationalists while fighting in the Spanish Civil War, John ‘Kit’ McKittrick (John Garfield) returns to the United States to find out who killed his friend, a New York police officer. Since he helped McKittrick escape from his jailers, the man’s death may have something to do with Spain, though how closely events in the U.S. are tied to what happened to McKittrick in the war, the latter can only guess.

The Fallen Sparrow has the feel of a Hemingway story, though the plot seems rather too convoluted for that origin. It is also a movie that could have had Humphrey Bogart as its lead. It is, however, very well-served by Garfield, who gives a more vulnerable performance than Bogart might have. That’s not to write that the latter could not have done as well - he was a far better actor than many of his roles, performed as if without effort by the man, imply - but Garfield’s weaknesses are more openly seen. Indeed, they are necessary to the story, and thus must be shown both convincingly and unmistakably.

The acting is the strongest part of The Fallen Sparrow, as the characters are interpreted interestingly. The viewer may have little difficulty in determining the principal villains, but who may be assisting them, whether they are being helped willingly or otherwise, and who will pay for it and how, are all factors conveyed more by the characters than by the plot.

Maureen O’Hara does well as a woman who clearly has something to hide, and her behaviour is greatly influenced by it. John Miljan has an enjoyable part as a police detective who appears to have trouble believing McKittrick’s intentions, while hiding his own. And that’s John Banner (Sergeant Schultz from tv’s Hogan’s Heroes) looking as a young man very much like comic-actor Bill Murray.

The plot starts off as a standard film noir story-line: a man coming to town to look into, and possibly avenge, a friend’s death. More important than that, however, is McKittrick’s background, and the reason why he was held by the Nationalists in Spain and tortured. It revolves around a battle standard but becomes less plausible as the movie progresses. Though I can fully appreciate the moral value of a symbol, it is never really explained why the symbol in question is important. Nor is there an explanation of its connection to the coat-of-arms of an expatriate French aristocrat.

Of note is the editing, by future famed director Robert Wise. He interestingly fades to black a number of scenes at dramatic or tense points, especially when McKittrick’s highly strung nerves force him to re-live his torture. This technique gives insight into the protagonist’s damaged psyche that needs no words.

The Fallen Sparrow is an entertaining thriller, rather let down by its writing, which is ordinary on the one hand and incredible on the other. It is, however, redeemed enough by its performers to recommend.

Sunday, January 14, 2024

Easy Living (1937)

Directed by Mitchell Leisen; produced by Arthur Hornblow Jr

Fed up with her over-spending, banker J B Ball (Edward Arnold) throws his wife’s new fur coat off the roof of their New York townhouse. It lands on near-penniless Mary Smith (Jean Arthur). This random act touches off a chain of circumstances that leads to romance, mistaken identities, economic disaster and an epic food-fight.

The set-up is perfect for a classic 1930s screwball comedy; with a screenplay written by Preston Sturges, Jean Arthur for a leading lady, Ray Milland as her love-interest and Edward Arnold as a supporting player, one would think a hit was in the making. One would be wrong. Easy Living is a loud, largely unfunny movie that, despite the talent that goes into it, manages to be rather boring.

The screenplay by Sturges has its problems. Every author has his off-day, and Easy Living may have been written on Sturges’s. The man that penned The Great McGinty, Sullivan’s Travels and The Palm Beach Story certainly showed otherwise that he was a master-craftsman at comedy. The actual plot of Easy Living is a good one, if predictable from our current point in time. There are funny moments, such as when Mary, needing to salvage a few cents from a piggy-bank, puts a tiny blindfold on the piggy before smashing it.

Such scenes are forgotten, however, with the introduction of tedious characters such as Luis Alberni’s hotelier, Louis Louis, and the awkward placement of slapstick. The interjections of servants and minor characters don’t come off well, either, and Arnold’s character is rather erratically written.

The acting is not at fault. Arthur is extremely winning, as always, and Milland, a versatile actor when in his prime, is a capable partner-in-crime. Arnold provides good support, showing that, if provided with a stable character, he can play a sympathetic, if gruff, man as well as a villain.

What sinks Easy Living is, I believe, the direction. Though Leisen was behind the camera on a number of fine movies, this isn’t one of them. Perhaps screwball comedy was not his forté. Much of the dialogue is delivered with a heavy hand; there is too much shouting, too many double-takes; certainly excess is often used successfully in farce, but that genre is not as simple to perform as it may seem. The riot in an automat is amusing, but even that is a bit too extended for its best effect.

Easy Living is a misfire, though not without its graces (even if they aren’t of the ‘saving’ kind). It might have done better if the writer were also the director, as he was in his biggest hits.

Sunday, January 7, 2024

Impact (1949)

Directed by Arthur Lubin; produced by Leo C Popkin

Walter Williams (Brian Donlevy) has everything he could want. A powerful industrialist, he is confident, wealthy and respected, with a fine home and a beautiful wife, Irene, whom he adores. But one day, all that changes. Irene (Helen Walker), is not only having an affair but plots with her boyfriend, Jim (Tony Barrett), to kill Williams. In executing the homicidal scheme, however, it is Jim who is killed, accidentally, and in a fashion that makes the world think it is Williams who died. Will the would-be victim remain hidden or seek his revenge?

Donlevy rarely filled the parts given to character actors; neither did he often play the lead. But he has his chance in Impact, and he succeeds admirably. Often a villain, he is usually gruff, irascible or hard even when a good guy; his naturally stern expression helps. Here, he turns that to advantage. Williams is a tough man, used to getting what he wants. But he is also, as his unfaithful wife rightly assesses, a ‘softy’: he is concerned with others’ welfare, will do favours for strangers and becomes embarrassed when anyone sees how much he feels for his wife.

Williams is portrayed, in fact, as quite human. Donlevy’s conveyance of a man crushed by betrayal is convincing, especially so at the moment when he deduces that his spouse had tried to have him murdered. Thereafter, Williams develops a different kind of hardness than he had had, yet with vulnerability.

Donlevy’s performance is crucial to Impact’s success, but other actors do as well. Ella Raines, as Marsha, the small-town widow who takes a liking to Williams, conveys a forthright freshness that is needed, while Walker makes her treacherous character suitably vile, twisting at every angle to gain whatever advantage is to be had. Charles Coburn, perhaps a bit too old to play a police detective, even one facing retirement, is energetic and amusing in his search for justice.

Director Lubin fit Impact between several Abbot and Costello films on one side and a couple of Francis the Talking Mule flicks on the other – and he does a fine job of it. He keeps things subtle, for the most part, even in the scene when Williams is overwhelmed by the enormity of the plot against him. At one point, Williams, who had been ten years a mechanic before taking a desk job, hesitates before beginning a car’s repair job: as someone points out, his hands show he hadn’t done such work in a while. That’s typical of the small touches Lubin includes.

The script is also good, though it becomes rather too complicated in the final act, and, at 111 minutes, could have been tightened a bit in the editing room. Nonetheless, it complements the direction in its use of almost incidental moments. When Marsha talks about continuing to run her garage after her husband’s death in combat, she – and the script – hurries past the admission, as if dwelling on it for more than a second or two would be too painful.

Impact is a good crime-film with a concentration on character. That is so much to its advantage, in fact, that when the plot looms larger than the people, it rather hurts the movie. Nonetheless, thanks to the acting and directing, this is an entertaining and enjoyable picture.