Thursday, December 28, 2017

A Christmas Carol (a.k.a. Scrooge)

Directed and produced by Brian Desmond-Hurst

At this time of year, I think there is no better movie to review than one of my favourites, A Christmas Carol (originally entitled Scrooge), from 1951. As may be discerned, this is not going to be a negative review, but I will provide ample evidence, I believe, to show why I find such favour with this film.

It follows the very familiar story of Ebenezer Scrooge, a man so miserly and miserable (the two words once had similar definitions) that he has no liking at all for his fellow man, merely contempt. To turn his life onto the proper path once more, he is visited on Christmas Eve by four spirits, beginning with that of his late business partner. Through a series of flashbacks, which Scrooge and his guides - the various spirits - also observe, the viewer sees the gradual transformation of Scrooge from hopeful young man to angry misanthrope.

With such a well-loved classic as A Christmas Carol, there will certainly be no faulting the story in this movie. Like Jane Austen novels, like Alice in Wonderland, Dickens’s Yuletide tale has proven itself with more than a century of popularity. If any movie adaptation of it fails, then it surely is not the fault of the story.

But this fact does not automatically guarantee a successful adaptation, either. There have been several films made from the book, and their quality has varied. I think first and foremost, the 1951 version owes its supremacy to the lead actor, Alastair Sim. A career in performing begun in the 1930s gave him great experience as both a leading man and a character actor. His portrayal of Scrooge walks a fine line between caricature and realism: he invites us to ridicule the old man for his disdainful ways - there is a large dollop of comedy, sometimes subtle - in this irritable old man, but he is nonetheless imbued with a humanity that we recognise.

It was after the tenth or twelfth viewing of this film (yes, I’ve seen it that often) that I realised Scrooge, as depicted here, is paranoid. Witness the start with which he greets a knock on his office door, and the fright a debtor gives him on the front steps of the Exchange. One would think he was expecting to be ambushed. As well, the number of bolts on his door at home suggests a man with enemies. It is made clear that Scrooge has no earthly foes, but there is something in the back of his mind that worries him about his life - and with good reason, as it turns out.

Sim’s Scrooge starts as a crabbed old man, hunched over, pulled into himself, keeping the world physically at bay. When he is redeemed, he comes alive again, and is a spry, lanky fellow, dancing polkas, standing on his head and moving with the agility of an adolescent. The giddiness with which he embraces life at the end is contagious, and I suspect that few viewers could refrain from grinning along with Scrooge at his newfound happiness.

Other actors compliment Sim marvellously, from Kathleen Harrison’s charlady, with a voice like a door-hinge, to the delicacy of Carol Marsh as Scrooge’s sister. There doesn’t seem to be a mis-step in the casting. Jack Warner plays Mr Jorking, the symbol of the insidious seduction of wealth, and a character who was not, so far as I can recall, in the book. I rarely approve of screenwriters tampering with successful source material, but Warner’s performance and the lines he is given are perfect fits for the story. George Cole plays the young Scrooge. He would go on to a forty-year career in movies and tv, thanks to Sim. The elder actor and his wife practically adopted Cole and his wife; Sim and his protègé worked together in numerous films.

Much of the praise must go, as well, to the director of the movie. It’s an open question as to how much Scrooge’s cheery transformation owes to the director as opposed to the actor. The fact that it’s hard to tell is a compliment to both. The atmosphere contributes much to the film’s success. The eerieness of Christmas Eve, with tricks of light and dark, its cold, when everyone must be bundled up, is contrasted with the appeal of the following morning, when windows are open and the air is fresh. The joviality of the Spirit of Christmas Present (my favourite visitor) evokes the fun that the miser is missing, as much as the speechless doom of the Spirit of the Future shows what he will suffer. At 86 minutes, A Christmas Carol moves along at a fair clip; there is nothing extraneous to the plot, and the story doesn’t bog down at all.

Lastly, a word must be written about the music. Richard Addinsell combines old carols and folk tunes (the lovely “Barbara Allen” is a recurring theme indicating a lost - and regained - happiness in Scrooge’s life) with new compositions. It is an instance of a movie’s music being noticeable and yet contributing to the story, and not overpowering it. This is not always the case with films.

I watch A Christmas Carol each year, and frequently discover something new about it. A professional critic once wrote that it is too good a film to watch only at the Yuletide, but it has become a part of many movie-lovers’ holiday traditions, and it has long been one of mine.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Ride the Pink Horse (1947)

Directed by Robert Montgomery; produced by Joan Harrison

Despite the title, this is neither a children’s movie, nor the story of a weekend’s alcoholic binge. It is semi-film noir about a man who comes to a town on the U.S.-Mexico border, looking to even the score with a crooked businessman who was responsible for a friend’s death.

First of all, I must state that Robert Montgomery as a tough guy always stretches credibility for me. I think I’ve seen him in three or four films, and in all but one, he was a tough guy. There is something about him that does not convince me. This time, however, his acting ability - with which I have no problem, despite not being persuaded by periodic performances - and the subtlety of his direction win the day.

The story (script by Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer) is simple. There is blackmail, an attempt to thwart it by physical force, a femme fatale and a final showdown. The characters are intriguing, however. Montgomery’s is not the most interesting, despite his character’s name (‘Lucky’ Gagin) being displayed in the opening credits larger than the title, as if he is a famous character recurring in fiction (and his nickname is not, so far as I can recall, ever mentioned). In his quest simply to find a hotel room in a town crowded for ‘the fiesta’, Montgomery meets a disreputable-looking carousel-owner (Thomas Gomez). The new friend - an habitué of a bar - becomes very interested when the newcomer flashes his cash, but, despite expectations, the man proves a stalwart ally. A girl (Wanda Hendrix), who is instantly attracted to Montgomery, has much to say on the relationship of the races, all without knowing she’s saying it.

The action is mostly in the tension, the tension between Montgomery and others: the shady businessman (well-played by Fred Clark), Pila (Hendrix), the businessman’s sometime girlfriend (Andrea King) and the federal agent on the case (Art Smith). The climax occurs while one of the characters is delusional from an infected knife-wound; unlike many pictures, old and new, a stab in the back here doesn’t heal quickly and causes possibly deadly complications.

That Montgomery fits this role, despite my misgivings about some of its aspects, may be seen by imagining some more successful film tough guys in the part; Bogart or Cagney, for instance. They probably could not have given just the right nuance of vulnerability that was needed in the last twenty minutes. The ending is not what I expected it to be - I wasn’t really sure how Ride the Pink Horse would end, which I like in a movie - but is the logical conclusion of what had gone before.

Ride the Pink Horse turns out to be a film that is good while one views it, but becomes better with more thought and consideration. It is not a classic, nor is it one that I will want to see again soon, but I am glad I saw it, and will recommend it to others.

Friday, December 15, 2017

The Golden Salamander (1950)

Directed by Ronald Neame; produced by Alexander Galperson

This adventure/crime film starts promisingly, with a man, later identified as a British archaeologist, driving through a torrential downpour in Tunisia, his road eventually blocked by a landslide and an abandoned truck. Investigating, he finds the truck’s cargo of boxes burst open, and firearms spilling out. He wisely avoids the two men who show up to salvage the wreck and walks to his destination, a small coastal city. There, he takes a room at an inn, run by a fetching young French girl, and frequented by an assortment of individuals, some clearly sinister, others merely secretive. The archaeologist’s purpose - the cataloguing for the British Museum of a collection of artifacts stranded in Tunisia by the recently ended war - is soon sidetracked by more immediate, and possibly deadly, concerns.

I was encouraged by the opening. After all, a flood-producing rainstorm in northern Africa is a rarity in movies, which seem to think a desert is always dry. The finding of the pistols immediately signalled gun-running, and the stalwart British hero was obviously going to become involved. Unfortunately, The Golden Salamander very soon betrayed its invigorating beginning.

I think the main problem here was the writing. The story comes from a novel by Victor Canning, who co-wrote the screenplay. Canning was an immensely prolific and popular author in the middle decades of the twentieth century; I gather he was a more cerebral Edgar Wallace. Whether his style was better suited to his time, this story was one of his lesser efforts, or it did not translate well to the screen, The Golden Salamander does not move along well. I enjoy a dialogue-heavy film as much as I do an action-filled flick, but the lines here are not particularly bright, incisive, smart or interesting.

The characters too are rather bland. I found little chemistry between the two principal actors, Trevor Howard and Anouk (later called Anouk Aimée but, at eighteen, already a rising star of French cinema). Both are good actors, but Howard I did not find a persuasive romantic lead. Wilfred Hyde-White, as a gentle toper, Herbert Lom as the obviously sinister villain, and Miles Malleson as the local police chief, are satisfactory. But again, the fact that none involved me in the film was probably the fault of the script.

The direction was a bit pedestrian. This is rather more unexpected, as Neame was the man behind the camera in The Prime of Miss Jean Brody and Tunes of Glory. While he later directed action films such as The Poseidon Adventure, The Golden Salamander was only his second directorial work, and his first action movie, though the action is not very thrilling. The whole movie gives the impression of someone new to helming a project. For instance, a native wedding procession is featured, but it has no point to the plot, it doesn’t enrich the characters and their dialogue simply pauses while they look at the parade go by. It’s as if the crew was reminded that they were filming scenes on location, so they’d better make the most of it, whether it fit or not.

So, while the elements were all present for an exciting crime-fighting yarn, they were not handled with any real skill. A more experienced, or confident, hand may have been needed. Perhaps a bit more of the Edgar Wallace touch.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Dunkirk (2017)

Directed by Christopher Nolan; produced by Christopher Nolan and Emma Thomas

The battle and evacuation of most of the British Expeditionary Force and many of its French allies from Dunkirk in 1940 was one of the most significant events in the Second World War. There have been several films about it, and this is the latest, written and directed by Christopher Nolan.

Though the movie is good, I must reluctantly admit to disappointment. It just didn’t have the expansiveness that such an epic of history demands. One of the reasons for this is, I think, Nolan’s decision to view the battle from ‘ground level’, as it were. The protagonists are ‘low-level’ performers on the stage of history: a Spitfire pilot (Tom Hardy), a civilian ‘weekend sailor’ (Mark Rylance) and a soldier (Fionn Whitehead), representing the three elements - air, sea and land - of the battle. I have often read that an individual’s perception of a battle may be quite different from how it is viewed at large - a soldier who survived the most ferocious fighting of his life learns that he was in no more than a skirmish, or finds himself with nothing to do during a titanic struggle - and in Dunkirk, the three men’s experiences don’t translate into anything big or gripping.

Another problem is the storyline that follows Whitehead’s character. While Rylance and Hardy are heading into battle to do their bit, Whitehead is trying to flee. He and his comrades spend a great deal of time waiting, strolling along the beach and watching. This is no reflection on his or other soldiers’ character; there was little for individuals to do unless they were posted to defend the city’s perimeter. At one point, Whitehead and others crowd into the hold of a grounded trawler, and wait for the tide to float the boat so they can escape. Awaiting the tide becomes the maritime equivalent of watching paint dry. Whitehead does experience action: he is thrice involved in sinking ships. Though this may have occurred in real life - indeed, I have read first-hand accounts of officers and men rescued from one stricken vessel, only to have their second ship sunk under them - the repetition in a movie grows more tedious, rather than exciting.

At 106 minutes, Dunkirk is just the right length for its story, but I can’t help thinking that it deserved to be longer, with another, higher level involved. A series of parallel stories, showing the planning and execution of the operation by generals and admirals, would have created a greater sense of the scope of the true event. Here, there is little indication that the city and beaches were defended, when in fact, large numbers of British and French troops fought constantly to keep the Germans at bay. Dunkirk itself was a ruined shambles by the end of the evacuation, but in this movie, buildings are intact, windows still neatly glazed. In fact, the only attacks made by the Germans on the Allied forces are sporadic assaults by air and under sea. In real life, the artillery bombardment was continual. There is, surprisingly, relatively little action in this film about an event in which something was always going on.

The performances are excellent, mostly given by unknowns, though Hardy and Rylance are prominent, and James D’Arcy and Kenneth Branagh play, respectively, an army colonel and a Royal Navy commander - the highest ranks seen except for a brief appearance by an admiral. Michael Caine (who played a prominent part in 1969’s The Battle of Britain) gives voice to an unseen pilot. 

There is little, really, to criticize regarding what was provided. Dunkirk suffers principally from what is not provided. In the end, though a fine tribute to the men, service and civilian, who rescued an army and made ultimate victory in World War Two possible, Dunkirk is like a painting: a representation of scenes and events that convey an impression, rather than tell a true-to-life story.

Monday, December 4, 2017

The Man Who Planted Trees (1987)

Directed and produced by Frédéric Back

I have something a bit different this time. The Man Who Planted Trees is an animated Canadian film based a French book written by Jean Giono (with, in this case, an English translation by Jean Roberts). It is a mere thirty minutes long, a fable meant for adults, undoubtedly, but fit for any age.

It tells the story of a young man who starts a walking tour through Provence. Eventually, he finds himself in a desolate district, where little grows and no one lives. A few ruined villages are the sole testimony to the harsh and crabbed existence people lived there, before eventually giving up even that and leaving. The man, narrating the story, meets a shepherd named Elzéard Bouffier. Living alone, Bouffier wanders the valleys planting acorns. He is patiently re-foresting the land, with oaks on the plateau and birches in the valleys. In three years, he has planted 100,000 seeds, of which he expects a tenth to grow and survive. What follows is a remarkable tale of the power of a single individual to change his world.

This little movie is nearly flawless; I say ‘nearly’ only because nothing is perfect, but I can’t actually find anything wrong with The Man Who Planted Trees.

One of the tale’s strengths is its realism. Almost everyone who read the book or saw the film initially thought it was based on true events, and that Bouffier was real. This is reinforced by the style of the writing. The lines spoken (by Christopher Plummer) sound like merely those of a man telling what has happened to him. From first to last, the lines are simple and ordinary; like a complex drawing that uses nothing but unadorned strokes. The story is set not in a fantasy land, but in France, beginning in 1913. Events occur that lend realism. There is mention of a government plan to cut down trees Bouffier planted, to provide fuel during World War Two, but the scheme is not financially feasible, and is shut down. This digression doesn’t add to the narrative, but to its authenticity.

A simple, exquisite story is matched by superb animation. It has often been compared to Impressionism. The images reminded me of water-colours, but I think, upon close inspection, they resemble more those made by crayons. Pictures blend one into another, as the story flows from one scene to the next. The colours are finely judged, and create the atmosphere as much as do the words. More than once, an image is used as a comparison or a contrast; for instance, the narrator speaks of how, while he was at war, young birch trees were growing, and we see the trees shoot up like explosions. Instead of death, these bursts bring life.

The Man Who Planted Trees is a fable about making a difference. It is not preachy or demanding; it is as patient as Elzéard Bouffier, as gentle as the land he creates. It is all the more powerful because it is realistic. There is no climax, for the whole story is, in a manner, anti-climactic. If there is excitement, it is in the thrill of seeing a world bettered by human endeavour.

This film is movie-making, and story-telling, at its best.