Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Laura (1944)




I’m about to make a confession that will no doubt result in the demotion of my rank as film-lover: I’m not the biggest film noir fan in the world. I know many who adore the genre, and that’s fine for them, but I’ve seen enough noir to know that I don’t like it, Sam I am. Probably something to do with the self-conscious stylization, the mannered delivery of the dialogue, and the dialogue itself, which never seems to operate in the real world – just a conveyance of information that usually requires the viewer to take studious notes in order to get what the whole thing is about. 

I know – it’s the “other-worldliness” that is exactly the appeal. And Laura operates squarely in that world, although, to be fair, it can also be described as an Agatha Christie-style whodunit, replete with cast of possible culprits, and the final revelation of who really dunnit, after a few false leads and red herrings. By the time we do get to the dénouement, I was pretty well worn out from all the twists and turns. But to be fair, I guessed wrong – so it gets props for at least that.

As the film opens, the voice-over narration of Waldo Lydecker, columnist and radio personality, informs us of the recent murder of Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney), a beautiful young woman whom he clearly had a great affection for. The detective on the case, Mark McPherson, coolly questions his relation to her, and does the same for a cavalcade of other acquaintances of the ill-fated brunette, among them her fiancé, Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price), and a woman who clearly has eyes for him, Anne Treadwell. Through flashback, we learn of Waldo’s tutelage of the girl, taking her under his wing and helping her advance in the ad industry. We also discover of Laura’s vocational assistance to Shelby, and how, perhaps, their engagement may not be quite as solid as it seems.

At a little past the halfway mark, we get a major twist: Laura is, in fact, alive. She shocks McPherson by showing up as if nothing ever happened; when he apprises her of recent events via newspaper headline, she is just as shocked. The murder victim? Evidentially, Shelby’s “other woman,” murdered by… Laura, who just hours earlier was the murder victim herself. At least that’s all Shelby can deduce from the catfight he overheard behind a closed door. When McPherson takes the culprit away, he confides to Laura that it’s all just a show – she can’t possibly be the one – and his suspicions are justified when a rifle’s fingerprint check confirms Waldo as the real killer. They shoot him just after he attempts to kill Laura, and confesses that he also mistakenly killed the other woman, dressed in Laura’s negligee. 

Laura is a confirmed classic, with awards and critical accolade aplenty, so it would ill-serve me to be too critical of it. I suppose this could be on that list of films that I can respect without necessarily loving. I sort of feel like, after all the deep, heady Fox films I’ve recently seen as I go through this collection, Laura comes up soft and lightweight. Quitted-witted dialogue, to be sure, and gorgeous B&W cinematography, but it’s all surface-level theatrics. But it was probably above-par for the film fare of its day – just what the doctor ordered for war-weary audiences looking for some soothing salve to help them deal with the harsh realities of 1944.

I’d like to add, though, how much I admired Vincent Price as Shelby. His characterization of the jilted fiancé is a perfect straddling of tall, dashing class and odd, off-kilter nebbishness. It makes one wonder – if he did not become such a horror icon some 10 yeas later, would he have continued to be such an effectively piquant character actor?

And Gene Tierney as Laura herself? Ravishing, of course, and a reminder of how those old classic film icons weren’t just pretty faces (even though they were that). They all possessed a brimming intelligence – a furtive authority that enabled them to control everyone in the room, and that included the audience. That ineffable quality of possessing everyone’s attention, immediately. In a modern cinematic world where the sound and fury of CGI, hyperactive audio/video editing and the mantra “louder is better” prevail, we al could take note of the soft, subtle power of the movie star.

So go back in time, and relish the old days of film through Laura. Not an deep or hugely emotional picture, but a fine work nonetheless. And it’s a classic.



                          Rating:  ***


Saturday, September 24, 2016

The Song of Bernadette (1943)



There once was a time when Hollywood wasn’t afraid of religion, and it wasn’t that long ago. Starting at the beginning of the medium’s inception, and continuing on up to the 80s or so, the movies featured religion, and Christianity in particular, quite prominently as primary subject matter, and until the New Hollywood movement of the 70s, it was mostly in a haloed, highly complementary manner. From the great Biblical epics of D.W. Griffith, to biopics about clergymen as modern-day heroes like The Bells of St. Mary’s and Going My Way, tinseltown celebrated the faith, owing mostly to its reflection of American society during those conservative years, and its strict adherence to the Hays Code, the act of self-censorship which kept the film industry’s morals in check for most of the twentieth century.

By the 80s, religion was largely ignored by most filmmakers, and in the 1988 came the straw that broke the camel’s back. Director Martin Scorsese, who had always cast a questioning eye toward his Catholic upbringing, unleashed The Last Temptation of Christ, a movie that challenged the prescribed dogma of the life of Jesus by speculating about his humanity – specifically, his ability to e tempted by carnal lust in the form of Mary Magellan. It didn’t take long for protesters to picket movie lines, and the film’s underwhelming box office is most often seen as the causation of this controversy (despite the likelihood that the smash success of 2004’s The Passion of the Christ was due to the same controversy, although it did cast Christ in a far more stoically heroic light). From then on, religion was seen as box office poison, and when it was addressed, it was used merely as superficial spice (1995’s Priest) or quite disparagingly (2015’s Spotlight). The connection Hollywood/Church bond was severed, for good.

So it’s a bit of a time-machine trip to view 1943’s The Song of Bernadette, a film prefaced with the quote, “For those who believe in God, no explanation is necessary; for those who don’t, none is possible.” I count myself among the latter group, so right away I was skeptical, but as the film started I was amazed at how matter-of-fact, how understated (despite appropriately timed musical swells) it was, telling the simple story of a French girl who sees the Virgin Mary in a remote thicket, and how that vision stirs up the unwashed masses in hope, while stirring up controversy among the law and the church in anger. Bernadette doesn’t proselytize; it chronicles an spiritual event, and while it all the while comes down on the girl’s side, it doesn’t demonize the heavies either. It made me think about religion’s place in society, particularly that of a century ago, in another country, and that it is enough for me.
 

Bernadette (Jennifer Jones) is a young teenage girl in Lourdes, France in 1858, born into a peasant family, afflicted with asthma and often ridiculed for her frailty and naïveté. But then one day, wandering in the woods, she sees the glowing image of a beautiful lady, and she is so enraptured she visits the site every day. Energized, her, and he family’s, fortune changes and word spreads of this “miracle.” The local prosecutor, Vital (Vincent Price), and mayor, isn’t so fond – especially when it stymies plans to run a profit-inducing railroad through town. They procure the council of a doctor to find out if she is ill, a psychiatrist to determine her mental health, and search the lawbooks to look for a way she is breaking the law. Every effort proves fruitless, but they are befuddled by her apparent sincerity – and ability to deflect all their interrogations with sound reasoning and logic.

When they finally seem able to lock her u in an institution, the Church steps in – Father Peyramale, initially a skeptic, sets up an appointment by the high clergy to determine the authenticity of this girl’s sighting of the “Immaculate Conception,” and her ostensible materialization of a spring, of which the water evidentially has curative powers beyond scientific explanation. They deem her miracles real, Peyramale encourages Bernadette to devote her life to God. She enters the convent, where fellow some novitiates are impose their rigidity on her – for at least one, the result of guilt over accusing the girl of not having suffered, when it is learned she is suffering from a leg tumor causing unspeakable pain. As the Church, and indeed the entire country, prepares for Bernadette’s death, many previous doubters appear now to be believers, including Vital, now terminally ill with cancer of the larynx. Through an interior monologue, we discover how solitary and self-loathing he is – and we hear his plea to Bernadette for prayer… and redemption.

At roughly 2 hours and 40 minutes, The Song of Bernadette is a long film, particularly for such a narrow plotline. But its swift, spare direction by Henry King, and smart writing by prolific screenwriter George Seaton (Miracle on 34th Street, Airport) keeps it rolling along, with only minor dragging at around the ¾ mark. And there’s a propelling interest to keep one engaged, namely, what exactly is going to happen to poor Bernadette, who gets dragged through the mud over and over again simply for being honest in what she sees in the grotto. Not knowing the story of the “Miracle at Lourdes,” I had no clue, though the film clearly keeps you firmly on her side, since we actually see the blessed virgin just as clearly as she. (Interestingly, if this movie were remade, I’d suspect we’d be kept oblivious, forced to speculate whether she is a miracle viewer or just simply delusional.)

And we’re also engaged for another reason, and that lies in Bernadette’s character, the epitome of sincerity, of nobility… of purity. So much so, in fact, that the one-noteness of her character is often maddening. Why does she get led around so? Why won’t she protest more when fatherly forces coax her into joining the seminary, for example, or threaten her with imprisonment for her resolute belief in the miraculous? I ultimately determined that in many ways, Bernadette is more of a static character than we’d like – more of a reflection of the way others see her, and treat her (and they do, mostly, treat her badly). In actuality, the true dynamic character is Prosecutor Vital, whose eleventh-hour appeal to Bernadette for clemency is heartbreaking – the final appeal of a man hitherto strict and pedantic, but now realizing, perhaps too late, the folly of his myopic introversion. Perhaps I identified most with Vital, and though I don’t and likely won’t believe in miracles, I can understand the movie’s theme of being open-minded to the unexplainable.

And Bernadette reminds us that often, particularly in times of despair, the unexplainable is all we’ve got.

Another notch in Fox’s belt – a supremely well-conceived, artfully executed work of theological entertainment. Enjoy them while they still made them.
                     

                           Rating: ***




Saturday, September 17, 2016

The Ox-Bow Incident (1943)


By 1943, Henry Fonda had developed a name for himself as the voice of social conscience in the movies. With roles in films like Young Mr. Lincoln and The Grapes of Wrath, the lanky, blue-eyed actor usually assumed the moral center of the stories he inhabited, and his next Fox film, The Ox-Bow Incident, would prove to be no exception.

Fonda had signed a seven year contract for Fox, at the behest of Daryl Zanuck, who wasn’t entirely convinced the actor would be a better choice to play Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath than the more popular Tyrone Power. We all know how that turned out, but it turned out to be a win-win situation for both parties, which by and large spun the same political orbit. So it was a no-brain to cast Fonda as the protagonist in the studio’s adaptation of the novel The Ox-Bow Incident, a western that pretty much made the phrase “lynch-mob” a common metaphor in the American vernacular.

Fonda is Gil, a “just passin’ through” cowpoke, who stops in to a small Midwestern town alongside his amigo, Art (Harry Morgan, decades before his most famous role as Colonel Potter on M*A*S*H). At the bar, he overhears a couple of ranchers complaining about a few rustlers who had robbed and most likely killed their good friend Kincaid. Gil assists the men in their quest to form a posse and go after the culprits, but soon the gang, headed by a former Confederate soldier, starts talking about hanging. The town sheriff is kept in the dark about their plans, while the deputy “deputizes” the entire posse, giving them what they consider to be the legal validation they need to go forth with their vigilantism.

The gang finds the three men encamped on the prairie, in the middle of the night, and wakes them, demanding an explanation. Yes, they do have Kinkaid’s cattle, the trio’s leader, Donald, confesses, but they were purchased legally. No, they didn’t get a bill of sale, no, they know nothing of Kincaid’s death, and no, that knife they have, allegedly belonging to Kincaid, was found on the ground. But the bloodthirsty rogues aren’t convinced; they came for a lynching, and by-God they’re gonna get one. Even Donald’s heartfelt last letter to his wife, which the town doctor believes to be so good it can’t possible be penned by a murder, won’t change any minds. Gil proposes one last chance for absolution – a poll, between those who vote for the rope, and those who believe in due process of the law. The ropers win, and, at sunrise on the dot, Donald and his two associates are hanged.

On the way back, the posse crosses the sheriff, who had been belatedly sent for to straighten out the matter. The sheriff informs them that Kincaid’s not dead at all, thereby validating everything Donald said as true. The weary, guilt-stricken men saunter back to the bar, and Gil, demoralized and disillusioned by the behavior of his fellow man, saddles out of town with a mission: to deliver Donald’s note to his with and help out with his now-fatherless children.

The Ox-Bow Incident is a fable – a morality tale in which its characters don’t grow as much as they are simply emblematic of human behavior. In that it reminded me a great deal of a good Twilight Zone episode, maybe, say, “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” or “The Shelter,” and with Ox-Bow’s tight, 75-minute running time, that’s not such an outrageous comparison (particularly if we’re talking about Zone’s fourth-season, hour-long episodes). You could even regard Ox-Bow’s ending as a “twist,” offering up the combined one-two punch of both surprise and moral edification, in the great-grand Serling tradition.

The other work this film reminded me of is the classic 1957 film 12 Angry Men, also starring Henry Fonda, none-too coincidentally. In that film he convinces his co-jurors, one by one, that there is insufficient evident to convict the man on trial, and in Ox-Bow, he pretty much does the same thing with his fellow cowpokes, only this time, he’s entreating them to have a trial in the first place. Men, of course, has a cheerier ending, and the comforting notion that men do possess the power to change. Ox-Bow, as all the great fables generally do, prefers to proffer the notion of man’s implacability – we’re the ones who are supposed to change.

And change I did, in just a small way. Sure, it was preaching to the choir. but one thing that affected my was how resonant the film still is. These thugs, though overacted and broadly written (as they all were back then) could still exist in this day and age. Human nature hasn’t changed; people are still just as malleable when in a group environment, willing to alter their moral fiber just to fit in It’s no surprise the film has been remade – we see the evils that the need for conformity can produce every time we read the papers. I could see showing this to a classroom in 2016, and after the students giggle and laugh at the dated elements, they’ll be mesmerized by the timely theme.

Just like I was.


                          Rating:  ****



Monday, September 12, 2016

How Green Was My Valley (1941)


Daryl Zanuck, 20th Century’s Fox’s founder, was on fire in 1941. Coming off the colossal success of the previous year’s The Grapes of Wrath, which he produced, he next turned to a beloved book about Welsh coal miners. How Green Was My Valley was Fox’s first Best-Picture win (Cavalcade was technically a 20th Century film), but ironically it’s for that reason that a lot of film snobs (and I was one, back in the day) look down in it. You see, 1941 was also the year a little film called Citizen Kane was nominated, which is generally regarded as the greatest film of all time. So how could any film ever be considered better than the greatest?

But it’s unfair to penalize Valley for that, because even though it’s not as great as Kane (and what film is?), it’s still pretty great. And even better, and to my delight, it holds up pretty well. Sure, it falls prey to the overripe, theatricalized acting style common in mainstream cinema until Brando, but it also features pitch-perfect, verisimilitude-adding Welsch accents that lend an earthy authenticity. Add to that a perfect blend of message and melodrama, along with John Ford’s understated (for its time) direction and some stark yet beautiful black and white cinematography, and you’ve got a film for the ages, if modern audiences would just find the initiative to see the darned thing.

A Welschman named Huw narrates his memories of growing up in Wales in the late 19 century. The youngest member of a large brood, of which all the male members, including the father, work at the local coal mine, he enjoys the day to day life of a typical boy. Family dinners are moments to share the day’s events, the men drop their pay off to the mother, who buys the groceries, and the singing of Welch hymns gets them through the rough patches.

But when the mine owner cuts everybody’s salaries, it precipitates a chain reaction of events that leads to the family’s, and town’s, downfall. The workers rally to form a union for protection, but it winds up turning the sons against their father. They strike, but not everyone returns to work as a result, and the now unemployed sons opt for a better life in America. Huw and the family matriarch nearly die in a frigid lake; the boy nearly loses his legs, only managing to walk after months of convalescence. And a mining disaster takes the life of the father, despite the heroic efforts of his son and a few of the locals – the final straw in the slow, coal dust-poisoned decay of a town that was once as green as the valley which nestled it.

But throughout it all, a decent upstanding pastor named Gruffydd (Pidgeon) stands as the moral center, nurturing the boy through his hardships and lending out his sage council to whoever may require it. That includes not simply the boy but his brother’s wife, who is abruptly widowed after a mine accident. And it also includes Anghard (Maureen O’Hara), the family’s only daughter, a beautiful young women who clearly has his eyes on the dashing clergyman. Meant to be? Hardly – he couldn’t bear the thought of subjecting her to an acetic life of poverty, despite requiting her feelings entirely. She winds up marrying the stuffy, pompous son of the mine owner, and her unhappiness is all but assured. The local tongues start gossiping of divorce, and Gruffydd is implicated, despite the absence of any kind of proof for the accusations. Before the holy man hightails it out of town, he gives his hypocritical deacons a tongue-lashing and calls it a day.

There’s much to admire her, but I’d like to revisit my observation that the message is so front and center. That’s easy to take for granted: so many studio efforts from the era either shied away from serious themes or buried them behind haloed movie stars kissing to the swells of pumped up film scores. But Valley took care to underscore its attitudes toward labor and socialism (gasp!), which might be residual from Ford and Zanuck’s previous preaching in The Grapes of Wrath. In any case, it heightens the film’s import, and abets its timelessness. Isn’t the oppresson of the working class still an issue we wrangle with to his day.

And speaking of undying issues, how ‘bout that love story – that achingly unfulfilled love story that made many a late-show viewer an emotional wreck? O’Hara is marvelously luminous in her role – a spunky yet vulnerable woman yearning for emotional freedom yet subject to the societal strictures that bind her to a man she has no interest in whatsoever. Pidgeon is her equal, a resoundingly honest man, sort of an Atticus Finch before his time. Rarely do you get such a mix of romance and tract all in one film – Reds is the only other film that comes to mind – but when you do… fireworks.

And binding it all up is the fact that this is a memoir, which provides the overriding tone of nostalgia. The narration, somewhat reminiscent of Earl Hamner’s in The Waltons, not only provides warmth and dramatic irony but helps diffuse some of the more over-dramatic moments in the film. (Given the litany of tragedies which befall his poor family, we sure need it!) Roddy McDowell, in his first film role, is terrific in the role of Huw. He could so easily have played him with all the cloying precociousness of a typical child actor, but he doesn’t. His expressions – wide eyes and all – do most of the performing, and for that he avoids the pitfalls that limit most juvenile acting, then and now.

Only quibble: the father’s death at the end feels sort of like a tack-on, either out of place or out of sequence. Gruffydd is leaving; what does one more tragedy have to offer except interrupting his walk into the sunset? Perhaps he gets one more glimpse of unrequited love at Anghard. Don’t know but it doesn’t quite offer the closure that would make the film a flawless home-run.

But whom am I to say? The film is a bona fide classic, and it deserves that status in every frame. 


 Rating:  ****



Monday, September 5, 2016

Charlie’s Angels 2:1 “Angels on Ice” (Parts I and II)

Airdate: 9/21/77


The Angels get comp tickets to an ice show, but their suspicions that it’s not entirely a leisure event are justified when the show’s owner, Max, request the girls for a job. He’s got problems: his office broken into, and his two lead skaters, Jack and Helene, gone, but we know better. A slow-witted, unctuous trainer named Billy, with a case of the incredible hots for Miss H, had a hit put on Jack, but the plot backfired when the thugs took them both (suspiciously paying Billy for the dirty deed). So the Angels of course do what they do best – go undercover at the rink to get to the bottom of the ill-timed disappearing act.

Kris hangs around Jack’s cuckolded wife, Shirley, while Sabrina impersonates a conglomerate rep to get the skinny on Billy. But to really get in on things, Kris and Kelly audition to be skaters for the show, actually succeeding too (with a little director schmoozing). But Jack and Helene’s kidnappers turn out to be more nefarious than first imagined, now enlisting the cold-blooded services of assassins in the form of a expert Russian skating couple named Olga and Luisi. Oh, and did I also mention that they abduct prop master Iggy (Jim Backus) and replace him with a sinister thug named Durgas who replaces the fake guns with realies? 



Part II: Plying a parking lot drunk with wine, Sabrina figures out that the abductors are most likely foreign agents, while Kelly notices the skating wunderkinds’ very first “goof” - pointing their rifles directly at very specific spectator seats. Kris gets the thankless task of accepting Billy’s dinner invitation to learn more about the nameless kidnappers who abducted Helene. But when Kelly trails the baddies’ to a Middle Eastern restaurant, and finds herself their latest abductee when she impersonates a belly dancer, she pretty much cracks the code: our evildoers are oil-thirsty, underground Arabs sheiks with fellow sheiks, as diplomats, in their sights – literally. It takes some quick thinking by Kris, as a clown, to stymie the whole plot, and make it al look like it’s part of the show.

You know your show’s a hit when you get to start your second season with two back-to-back, double-length episodes. (Angels closed its first season at #5, and was rewarded with an hour-earlier timeslot at 9:00, still outside the almighty “family hour.”) They sure had the budget for it, and were clearly eager to spend it on glitz and spectacle, given the topic matter of this installment. Say what you want, but it is remarkable how they were able to take two then-topical topics -  ice shows and the Arab oil embargo - and somehow fit them together on the same show.


And yet, there’s a lot of sturm und drang here for
what turns out to be a pretty silly premise. Ok, sure we’ll give them an Ice Capades show, but the evil Arabs’ plot to infiltrate the show with two star skaters who plan to blow away an entire seating section is about as loony as you can get. (I’m guessing the writers had just seen that year’s Black Sunday, as the two schemes are pretty similar.) Charlie’s Angels was never exactly Mission: Impossible but it always stayed well with the realm of credibility. This time, it’s impossible for one not to count up the number of times the Arabs’ plot would’ve completely fallen apart in the real world, starting with the McGuffin event of the owner actually having a spectator’s seating chart stolen from his office. How would he know? Why would he care to have a chart drawn up? Because of the Arab bigwigs being there? Wouldn’t its theft, then, be a red flag? And why does nobody, except Kelly (who catches on far too late), figure out that this flood of strangers into the cast, with thick Eastern-European acents, is probably a cause for concern, particularly given the unexplained disappearance of the two star skaters?

Ah, well, if it’s complete cheese, so be it, but it does afford us the opportunity to watch some legendary comedy veterans in supporting roles, starting with Phil Silvers as the owner of the show, frazzled to the hilt by the notion of his production falling apart at the seams. And boy does he play frazzled great, abetted with some clever lines that he delivers like a pro. And then there’s Jim Backus as the Gepetto-like propmaster, who doesn’t even have to act  - he just steals scenes with that trademark voice. Rounding out the pantheon is iconic character actor Edward Andrews, playing a parking lot drunk who helps the Angels with his unwitting recognizance. Younger folks probably know him best as the grandfather in Sixteen Candles.



And lets not forget James Gammon as the mentally-challenged Billy, whose performance starts off feeling a bit stereotypical but actually turns out to be quite affecting. His scene with Kris, in which he breaks down in tears over the loss of his beloved Helena, along with the guilt he suffers over having caused it, is particularly emotional, and while we’re at it, Cheryl Ladd is fitting in quite nicely in her role too. 

No, it definitely won’t go down as the most politically-correct moment on television, what with its cartoony depiction of Arabs (Charlie even uses the then-accepted mispronunciation of “sheik”). But, as I mentioned, it was timely.

Jaclyn Smith fan alert. She was a great belly-dancing scene about halfway through. No, she’s not really belly-dancing, but it’s close enough, and she looks phenomenal. Also stay tuned for her scene in captivity, where she jumps up to escape through the skylight, still wearing her revealing Arabian get-up. Also, she gets mad props for using the word “fortuitous” correctly.

Beautiful song, “If We Only Have Love,” sung by Dede Andros during Olga and Luisi’s tryout, was written by Jacques Brei and recorded only by Johnny Mathis. Don’t skip it.


It really is hard to resist the Angels charm though. Just don’t think to hard here and you’ll wind up having a fairly swell time.
 

Client: Max Brown (Silvers)

Plot difficulty level: 6  (But, as per, pay attention during the info-heavy debrief.)


                         Rating:  *** 


P.S. Oh, and BTW, this is the first episode to feature the new opening, amended to include Kris and explain how she attended the San Francisco police academy (the others went to L.A.). Ladd’s clips are of course all new, and Kate Jackson gets a few new shots, but Smith and Doyle’s remain unchanged.


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