Monday, January 30, 2023

People Will Talk (1951)

Directed by Joseph L Mankiewicz; produced by Darryl F Zanuck

Noah Praetorius (Cary Grant) is an unconventional doctor associated with a large and prestigious university. He also runs a clinic based on his principle of not just curing people, but  of ‘making sick people well’. To that end, he sometimes operates, sometimes prescribes medicine, sometimes just talks; patients eat and bathe when they want, not according to a rigid schedule. His methods achieve positive results but their unorthodoxy - and his popularity - cause envy; this, his mysterious past, and his enigmatic companion, Mr Shunderson (Finlay Currie), may lead to trouble for the caring doctor.

A most unusual film, and one difficult to classify, People Will Talk is probably best defined as a comedy/drama, with romance and social commentary. All aspects of the movie stand out, but in particular the acting and the writing.

The latter comes from a play by Curt Goetz, and was adapted for the screen by the director. The script is filled with good lines, whether spoken alone or in dialogue. Some of the writing is clever, even witty, some is insightful, some is prescient: there is a scene in which Grant’s character is describing medicine without humanity and declares that if things keep on as they are, there will be electronic doctors. What would he have made of help-lines and ‘menu options’?

The story may appear rambling as it deals with Praetorius’s serio-comic romance with a one-time patient, Deborah (Jeanne Crain), but in the background is the darker aspect of a would-be inquisition begun by a colleague (Hume Cronyn). And, in fact, the romance is unconventional in that it involves an unwed mother-to-be; this must have been daring at the time, but serves to illustrate Praetorius’s compassion.

Also featured are elements looking at human failure, greed, rumour-mongering, capital punishment and suicide, none of which are particularly comical subjects. Yet People Will Talk incorporates them almost seamlessly into the plot and handles them with sympathy and understanding. Indeed, Praetorius may have been conceived as a means of talking about such issues in a humane manner.

None of these aspects of the movie should persuade a viewer that the film is bleak or filled with black-humour; none of the humour is black, though it veers near to it during Shunderson’s monologue at the end. It is such a strange story in itself, however, and so engagingly told, that the result will be smiles, rather than frowns.

Some of the script may be seen as a bit artificial, the sort that comes from a playwright’s pen, rather than a playwright’s characters. But when heard spoken by the actors, it becomes more natural, especially in the case of Praetorius. Much of what he says in the context of medicine seems rehearsed, as though he has had to explain himself to too many people in the past, and the descriptions have become routine. This may in fact have been the case. This is where the acting comes in.

Grant demonstrated throughout his career that a person can have pretty much the same sort of delivery, even the same manner of speech, yet, with talent, create quite distinct characters. Praetorius elucidates his beliefs as if from a manifesto, and Grant makes it all sound credible. He gives Praetorius an aura of confidence – coming possibly from his wealth, possibly from his success. But this is due to the interpretation of the actor. The only incongruity comes during a scene in a dairy when Praetorius becomes a bit of a bumbler. But the scenes when he plays with toy trains and conducts an orchestra are not out of place.

The other actors are all very good. Mankiewicz reputedly thought little of Crain’s performance. She in fact comes across very well. Deborah is given scope to mature through the few weeks over which the story takes place, and Crain makes her a fitting partner for Praetorius on most levels, from besotted patient to strong wife.

Able support is given by Walter Slezak as a professor friend of Praetorius’s. He is amusing in himself, as well as a foil for the main character, while Sidney Blackmer is sad but content as Deborah’s father. The most interesting secondary character, though, must be Currie’s Shunderson, who accompanies Praetorius everywhere. The reason for their association may not be unique in movies but it is certainly interesting.

People Will Talk is an involving, humorous, thoughtful movie about any number of subjects. It may touch only superficially on most of them, but what it says about them is intelligently  - and very entertainingly – presented.

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.