Sunday, November 22, 2020

The Window (1949)

Directed by Ted Tetzlaff; produced by Frederic Ullman Jr

Nine year old Tommy Woodry (Bobby Driscoll) brightens a dreary existence in his lower class New York tenement by making up stories. One day his family is moving to a ranch in Texas; the next, he witnesses a gangland massacre. His parents (Arthur Kennedy, Barbara Hale) are used to his tall tales but exasperated and worried by them, at the same time. The limit is reached when the boy tells his mother and father that he saw a murder in their own building. What nobody but the killers realise is that this time, Tommy is telling the truth.

An excellent little crime drama set in a real world of the working poor and crumbling slums, The Window is inspired by the Aesop fable about the boy who cried wolf. In fact, it is based on the Cornell Woolrich novelette titled The Boy Cried Murder. There is nothing really fantastic or unbelievable here; even the killing is an ordinary one, committed, it seems, for nothing more than the contents of a man’s wallet. As in many good movies, though, The Window’s creators take the ordinary and make much of it.

And that ‘much’ depends greatly on Bobby Driscoll, one of the best child actors Hollywood produced. He is completely credible in everything he does on-screen. His expressions, his tones of voice, his attitudes, are what would be expected of a nine year old boy, at least of his era. His curiosity about his neighbours, his restless energy, his unstated claustrophobia in his narrow surroundings, are all convincing. The film would have been ruined had he not been capable of conveying them.

The screenplay, by Mel Dinelli (who had earlier written The Spiral Staircase), is very good. One of its laudable aspects is the characters created. Tommy is not a pathological liar; he makes up stories but doesn’t tell his parents falsehoods beyond these. He is respectful and tries to do the right thing – which is what gets him into deeper trouble in the film. He is also intelligent, and any gaffes he makes in trying to solve his dilemma are themselves believable. If the boy had been a smart alecky brat, or in the least unlikeable, the film would have become tedious fast.

Similarly, Tommy’s parents neither ignore nor over-indulge him. They are frustrated by his stories, though there may be a hint that they understand that his life is too confined for his imagination. They don’t try to stifle it as much as make him understand his responsibility in using it. They are loving people who are under much outside pressure: the father works nights (never conducive to a relaxed state) and the mother is concerned over a sick sister.

If there is a weakness to the writing, it is that there are a few contrivances, especially toward the end. But these are redeemed by the excellent direction. Tetzlaff was initially a cinematographer, and it shows here. Light and shadows, camera angles and viewpoints are important. Small, dingy rooms; dark, empty streets; sounds off-screen, combine to create a tense atmosphere. And the climax is truly involving; Tommy’s final leap is a nail-biter, too.

Films in which a character’s claim to witness a crime are disregarded can often be far-fetched, or frustrating even when credible. This is not the case with The Window. The viewer will be taken along easily in Tommy’s dangerous adventure and, like the boy, wonder how it will turn out.

Sunday, November 15, 2020

Tootsie (1982)

Directed by Sydney Pollack; produced by Sydney Pollack and Dick Richards

Michael Dorsey (Dustin Hoffman) is a talented New York actor so difficult that his agent (Sydney Pollack) confesses that no one in the country will hire him. Outraged by this news – and frantic for work – Dorsey decides to apply for a job not as himself but as somebody else. He’ll show everyone: he applies to a soap opera as a woman named Dorothy Michaels, a disguise which not only gains him employment, but popularity and respect – and a dizzying array of complications.

There are many comedies which amuse me, but few that make me laugh aloud. Tootsie is one of them. Going on forty years of age, this film is in no way out-dated, and perhaps cannot be. Like most superb films, it is largely the result of the triumvirate of excellent acting, directing and writing.

The casting of Hoffman in the lead role was a stroke of genius. It had to have gone to a ‘serious’ actor who was known for dramatic performances. If it had been filled by a comic actor, the effect would have been quite different, an unsuccessful ‘in-joke’. A proponent, at least in his early years, of ‘method acting’, Hoffman’s character’s dedication to his craft might be seen as a little self-deprecation. (During the filming of Marathon Man, Laurence Olivier, seeing Hoffman’s anguish in developing his role, advised him with a smile, “Just act, dear boy, just act.”) But the intensity Hoffman gives most of his parts makes the whole premise of Tootsie realistic, and not just a gag.

Bill Murray represents the sort of actor who might have ruined the film if he had been the lead. But as Dorsey’s roommate, his restrained reactions to his friend’s predicament actually come off as the voice of reason, and he is as close to a straight-man as the movie needs. Jessica Lange is very appealing as the female lead; she conveys an unhappiness with her character’s situation that is convincing, someone who is trapped in a cycle of bad decisions. Teri Garr, Charles Durning, Dabney Coleman (playing the type of role that landed him a couple of successful tv series) and director Pollack are all very good. Christine Ebersole and Estelle Getty have bit parts, and look very fast for Tobin Bell as a waiter at a party.

The writing could not be bettered. The comedy is not derived from a man wearing a dress. While the incongruity of a male who is clearly not female trying to pass as one may be humorous, it is fleeting, good for a single-scene chuckle. Hoffman is credible as a woman, and the very fact of his impersonation is not treated as the joke. It is the situations that arise from it that provoke the laughs.

Yet the story has its serious side, tempered by the comedy. Dorsey learns about himself, sees his flaws, sees the problems with how men treat women and, what’s more, does something about them. No major character is two-dimensional in Tootsie: even Coleman, an acerbic Lothario, has his faults mitigated – or at least explained – in one scene.

Pollack’s direction is dead-on. When dealing with major scenes, he gives the actors their head, seeming only to set parameters. The small, incidental scenes add both to the story and the comedy: in about three seconds, we see Dorsey, dressed as Dorothy, bellow at a cab – stopping one in his light female voice doesn’t work – then swig his arm angrily, in a decidedly feminine way. That brief moment shows how closely Dorsey and Dorothy are related. Characters are introduced in ways that permit the audience to know their most significant characteristic right away. Dorsey’s difficult nature is demonstrated in a hilarious sequence in which he rants about playing a tomato in a tv commercial and a performance as an “endive salad that knocked the critics on their ass.”

Tootsie is one of the best cinematic examples of making a comedy work by treating it seriously. This isn’t a farce, and situations and actions – and reactions – are realistic. There is little hyperbole, except perhaps in the devotion Dorsey exhibits to his role as Dorothy; and in that case, it is clear that that is his wont. Besides, most of us know of at least one such obsessive. Its believability is another of the movie’s assets.

Using only the best ingredients, and eschewing anything cheap and unimaginative, Tootsie remains one of film’s enduring – and endearing - comedies.

Monday, November 9, 2020

Born to Kill (1947)

Directed by Robert Wise; produced by Herman Schlom

Helen Brent (Claire Trevor), newly divorced and travelling back to San Francisco from Reno, meets Sam Wilde (Lawrence Tierney), a low-talking, supremely confident man - who has just murdered two people. After an implied tryst, Helen tries to brush Wilde off, but he pursues her, despite her betrothal to another man (Phillip Terry). Wilde’s motives aren’t just carnal, however: they are also mercenary, and when he marries Helen’s rich sister, Georgia (Audrey Long), lives are sure to be ruined - and maybe ended.

A dark, unforgiving movie, Born to Kill characterises the psychological aspects of film noir and, in so doing, becomes one of the ‘noirest’ of the genre. There is a great deal of talent displayed in Born to Kill, but even for that, it is not really a pleasant movie to watch.

Trevor’s performance is the stand-out, though, as the unfeeling murderer, Tierney has what might be considered the choice role. Helen Brent is not really someone on whose side the audience would be. She is rather cool, and definitely selfish. Her affair takes little account of her fiancĂ©, and when she discovers two corpses, clearly the result of homicide, her reaction is to flee town. Her character becomes somewhat sympathetic as the movie progresses, and her motives, never noble and entirely egocentric, become nonetheless honest. There are moments when Trevor reveals her character’s personality with a glance or an expression that show her talent.

I had a problem with Tierney, which doesn’t really stem from his performance. His character consists largely of one note, a glum, menacing attitude that is really one big chip on broad shoulders. The script is good but leaves the viewer wondering what some women see in Wilde. Certainly, the glowering, dangerous aspect would appeal to many. But the mental and emotional sides, as opposed to merely the physical, are absent. As an affair, Wilde is credible; as a husband, he is a cipher. He also has a friend (Elisha Cook Jr, in a very good performance), yet gives no indication that the two of them do anything more than mope in silence together.

The portrayal of this single-minded killer is very effective, even so. Wilde is driven almost exclusively by the desire to get what he wants. He even ignores the hazard of being tracked by police and caught, concentrating instead on his anger over anyone ‘cutting in on him’. Tierney is well-cast for the role, though, considering his off-screen actions, one wonders how much of a stretch the violent, paranoid Sam Wilde was for the actor.

With primary characters as off-putting as Helen and Wilde, it is perhaps not surprising that the minor characters present more interest. Esther Howard does fine work as a heavily-drinking friend of the first murder victim: initially rather repulsive, she reveals hidden depths of loyalty. Walter Slezak, on the other hand, plays a very good detective with rather loose ethics. Martha Hyer, Ellen Corby and Jason Robards Senior have uncredited roles.

Born to Kill is a grim plunge into the psyche of two people, one whose ambition and ruthlessness is unencumbered by the slightest concern for others, and the other whose amorality is barely under control at the best of times. That given, one cannot expect fun watching this movie, perhaps not even entertainment. But Born to Kill will certainly give the viewer something to think about.

Sunday, November 1, 2020

Intruder in the Dust (1949)

Directed and produced by Clarence Brown

In a small Mississippi town, a black man, Lucas Beauchamp (Juano Hernandez), is arrested for the murder of a white man (David Clarke). Beauchamp maintains a nonchalant refusal to tell his attorney (David Brian) what happened, but urges the lawyer’s nephew, Chick (Claude Jarman Jr), to investigate the matter. This begins a rush to find the truth before Beauchamp is lynched; it also begins a journey of realisation for young Chick.

One of the most powerful films depicting racism in the United States is also one of the scariest movies on film. Adapted by Ben Maddow (who wrote the screenplay for the recently reviewed The Asphalt Jungle) from the novel by William Faulkner, Intruder in the Dust is adeptly directed by Brown, and set, for astounding realism, in Faulkner’s home-town of Oxford, Mississippi.

Not having read the book, I cannot judge what part of the writing is Faulkner’s and what is Maddow’s, but it is all good. The atmosphere created by the words and action is terrifying -  to Beauchamp, but also to the audience. Everyone in the film assumes that the suspect is guilty, even those whose characters should dictate otherwise. Furthermore, everyone assumes that Beauchamp will be murdered for his alleged crime, and no one seems prepared to do anything about it, until Chick, an old woman (Elizabeth Patterson) and a household servant (Elzie Emanuel), bestir themselves for different reasons.

This movie, more than any other I’ve seen, re-created the nightmarish world in which blacks undoubtedly lived in that part of the U.S. at the time. The surreal sequence of townspeople and visitors, many arriving by bus, gathering for the climax in a carnival-like feeling, is truly something from a bad dream. The crowd is not a mob; it’s worse than that: they are an audience, come not to commit a travesty of justice, but to watch it happen – while eating ice cream and popcorn. Equally revealing is the reaction of blacks in their homes, when they see the headlamps of an unexpected car driving through their neighbourhood, or hear the baying of hounds. A black man simply walking into a general store creates a potential for violence and death. These elements, and the use of extras, with their variety of faces and expressions, were the superb work of the director.

The acting is first-rate. Hernandez works with the script to create a character who is real. Too many black characters in films that deal, whether seriously or superficially, with race-relations are depicted as angry activists or calm sages, always with the right phrase on their lips. Beauchamp is an admirable man, but not really likeable. He says nothing wise, and, indeed, does nothing particularly smart. He is proud almost to the point of arrogance. One gathers the impression that he may, due to owning land, think himself superior to other blacks. But life’s heroes are, despite the current fashion for flawless symbols, not perfect.

Similarly, the whites who help Beauchamp are hardly free of stain, except perhaps Patterson’s character. Chick is initially appalled at a black man treating himself as a white’s equal. His journey to understanding is sometimes explained only through Jarman’s acting. And, as always in good movies, the secondary and tertiary roles are often telling: the casual hatred and racism – at best, apathy - enacted by the white performers adds greatly to the movie’s effect.

Not having experienced anything like even the setting of Intruder in the Dust, I cannot in fact vouch for its reality, though I have no doubt of it. Even so, a movie should ultimately be reviewed solely on its own integral merits, or the lack thereof. With that criteria, Intruder in the Dust is an excellent drama, a finely crafted social commentary and, perhaps not least, an interesting crime story.


Sunday, October 25, 2020

Quicksand (1950)

Directed by Irving Pichel; produced by Mort Briskin

A hard-working but broke auto mechanic (Mickey Rooney) needs $20 to take out the new girl (Jeanne Cagney) at the local diner. He decides to steal it from his work-place, knowing that he can replace it on the morrow when a friend pays him an outstanding debt. But when the friend has to go away suddenly, the mechanic is forced to take ever more dangerous steps to keep his petty larceny from being uncovered, steps that lead to armed robbery, blackmail and perhaps even murder.

Mickey Rooney had, by 1950, fallen from the immense popularity of his ‘Andy Hardy’ film series which, whatever its professional and financial effects, did his acting no harm. In Quicksand, he leaves behind the over-acting and mugging of earlier days, and turns in a most creditable performance. The film depends almost exclusively on his participation and, if it had resulted in an unbelievable effort, could have been disastrous. His character, an ordinary man, is entirely credible. As his situation becomes more dire, and his actions more frantic, the viewer can feel the fright and panic building in the man.

Rooney is the best thing in Quicksand. Peter Lorre, also past his prime in terms of his career, gives an atmospheric performance that helps the movie tremendously. Less of a help is the leading lady; one has trouble imagining Jeanne Cagney as someone to inspire a crime spree, or even the initial reaction of Rooney and his pals.

The story is good but not imaginative. Rooney commits numerous acts that most probably would not, if faced with similar motivations, but they are not implausible. The ending, while realistic, is perhaps less climactic than the preceding events would have implied, and gives the characters a few breaks that may be considered the easy way out. Even so, there is uncertainty at many points as to where the plot would finish, and that is a key element of a suspense film.

The script matches the story in being adequate, but no more. The actions and words of Cagney’s character would surely have turned most men away from her, while those of Barbara Bates, as a girl badly stuck on Rooney, would have been classed as stalking, if committed by a man.

The direction is decent, as well, without being expert. There are some good scenes, such as the bell ringing to end a shift at the garage, just as Rooney lifts twenty dollars from the cash register. The timing, and Rooney’s reaction, make the viewer’s heart run a bit faster.

Quicksand reminded me of a low-budget film noir of the 1940s, with a second- or third-string cast which is nonetheless competent, a low budget and largely unknown people behind the camera. Move time up to 1950, add several better known actors who were once ‘names’, and you have Quicksand, entertaining to a degree, but no more.