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Albert Finney

Review: Under the Volcano

[Originally published in The Weekly, July 8, 1984]

Ah, the past has filled up quicker than we know, and God has little patience with remorse.

—Malcolm Lowry, Under the Volcano

Adapt a novel of consequence to the screen and you’ll damn well answer for it. At best, your pride of achievement will have, quite properly, to be shared with the author of the original work. At worst, you will be taken to task, by those who cherish the book, for any deviation from it. In the muddled middle range of opinion, reviewers can sound learned and play it safe at the same time by suggesting that, honorable and sporadically admirable as your adaptation may be, it somehow misses the essential imaginative core of the artistic experience. It isn’t …well, heck, it isn’t the novel.

This problem becomes tetchier still with a novel so relentlessly novel-ish as Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano. The main portion of Lowry’s book, dealing with the drunken peregrinations of the ex–British Consul in Cuernavaca, Mexico, on the Day of the Dead 1938, is tacitly a flashback. It’s also a dense, roiling stream-of-consciousness piece with both the hyperclarity and level-shifting instability of a fever dream. Symbols and allusions—cultural, literary, historical, geographical, political—pile up to create a veritable poetic and spiritual analogue of Western consciousness, an updated Waste Land for the generation after T.S. Eliot. (Lowry worked on the book from 1938 through 1946.)

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Chasing the Hat

[This article first appeared in the September-October 1990 issue of Film Comment. It was reprinted in the National Society of Film Critics anthology They Went Thataway: Redefining Film Genres (1995).]

Ice dropping into a heavy-bottomed glass: cold, hard, sensuous. The first image in Miller’s Crossing hits our ears before it hits the screen, but it’s nonetheless an image for that. Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne) has traveled the length of a room to build a drink. Not that we saw him in transit, not that we yet know he is Tom Reagan, and not that we see him clearly now as he turns and stalks back up the room, a silent, out-of-focus enigma at the edge of someone else’s closeup. Yet he is a story walking, as his deliberate, tangential progress, from background to middle distance and then out the side of the frame, is also a story – draining authority from the close-up Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito) who’s come to insist, ironically enough, on the recognition of his territorial rights.

The place is a story, too, which we read as the scene unfolds. A private office; not Caspar’s, but not Reagan’s either – it’s city boss Liam “Leo” O’Bannion (Albert Finney) who sits behind the camera and his big desk, listening. An upstairs office, we know from the muted street traffic (without stopping to think about why we know). Night outside, but sunlight would never be welcome, or relevant, here. A masculine space, green lampshades amid the dark luster of wood, leather, whiskey. A remote train whistle sounds, functional and intrinsically forlorn; the distance from which it reaches us locates the office in space and in history. This room exists in a city big enough to support a multiplicity of criminal fiefdoms and a political machine that rules by maintaining the balance among them, yet it is still a town whose municipal core lies within faint earshot of its outskirts. Urban dreams of empire have not entirely crowded out the memory of wilderness, of implacable places roads and railroads can’t reach, even if one of them has been wishfully designated Miller’s Crossing. Hence we are not entirely surprised (though the aesthetic shock is deeply satisfying) when the opening master-scene, with its magisterial interior setting and dialogue fragrant with cross purpose, gives way to a silent (save for mournful Irish melody) credit sequence in an empty forest. And then to a title card announcing, almost superfluously, “An Eastern city in the United States, toward the end of the 1920s.”

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More Blu-rays from the Warner Archive – ’42nd Street,’ ‘Ladyhawke,’ and more

Last year I surveyed a number of Blu-ray releases from the Warner Archive, which is predominantly a line of manufacture-on-demand DVD-Rs offering films that otherwise wouldn’t support a traditional DVD release. It also, however, releases a few choice Blu-rays each year. The difference between the formats is that the Blu-ray releases are in fact pressed discs and they feature high-quality transfers as good as any classic released through Warner’s traditionally-marketed Blu-ray line.

Because they are available only by order online (through Warner Archive, Amazon, and other outlets), they don’t get the kind of public profile that commercially released and distributed discs get. So here are some of the highlights of the past few months (or more).

42ndStreetBD42nd Street (Warner Archive, Blu-ray) – Released in 1933 by Warner Bros., which specialized in snappy, fast-paced pictures with working class heroes and street smart characters, 42nd Street launched a series of great backstage musicals that featured lavish production numbers in a Broadway culture where the depression was a reality just offstage and the dancers were one flop away from the breadlines. Lloyd Bacon directs the dramatic sequences while dance choreographer Busby Berkeley took this opportunity to completely reimagine the musical production number for the possibilities of cinema. This film is as much Berkeley’s as Bacon’s.

Warner Baxter stars as the Broadway producing legend who lost everything on the market crash and puts everything on the line to create one last hit and Bebe Daniels is the leading lady who hooks a sugar daddy (Guy Kibbee in leering old man mode) to finance the show. Ruby Keeler plays the chorus girl who takes over the leading role on opening night, a showbiz cliché that played out in real life: the film elevated Keeler and Dick Powell, who plays her boy-next-door co-star and love interest, to movie stardom.

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Review: Murder on the Orient Express

[Originally published in Movietone News 39, February 1975]

There’s an air of bad faith, not unlike the scent of bathroom deodorizer, about Murder on the Orient Express. I’m as fond of “production values” as the next fellow, maybe fonder, but I don’t wish to be force-fed them by a soulless dietitian who knows what I as a consumer ought to want. That’s the way Sidney Lumet has directed this film, and all of Geoffrey Unsworth’s filtered lyricism, all of Tony Walton’s art-deco design, all of Richard Rodney Bennett’s tongue-in-jolly-good-show-cheek music can’t convince me that Lumet gives a tinker’s fart about the Orient Express, the old Hollywood, Grand Hotel, or the artificial but scarcely charmless business of working out an Agatha Christie red-herring mystery.

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Manners, Morals, and Murder: Sleuth and Murder on the Orient Express

[Originally published in Movietone News 57, February 1978]

Sleuth and Murder on the Orient Express. More than puzzles are to be teased out in these two jokey, backward-looking thrillers. Two ultra-British subjects are handled by two very American directors, and whodunit – or whodunwhat – is only one of many queries to be resolved. In essence, each is of a classic English pre-war mystery-thriller type: Sleuth sets us down in our old friend, The Remote Old Country House Where Things Are Not As They Seem, whilst Murder on the Orient Express is a glossy confined-space thriller where The Killer Has To Be One Of A Small Number (all played by famous stars, of course) And Cannot Get Away For A While; the detective, Hercule Poirot, he of the waxed moustaches and the little grey cells, has to trap said killer in the limited space of time before the snow-plough arrives to allow the Orient Express, marooned in snowdrift, to continue its Istanbul-to-Calais route.

Let those readers who haven’t seen the films quit reading now, if they haven’t already. I aim to be so unsporting as to blow the surprise endings, and most of the inner workings of the plot, on both films. Actually, simply what happens isn’t so all-important; if it were, who would want to see either film a second time? And though neither film seems to be realistic, grim reality keeps on creeping in, to the advantage of Sleuth and the detriment of Orient Express. Sidney Lumet, a stern social commentator, or so he would have us believe, in earlier films like The Pawnbroker, The Hill, A View from the Bridge, and, of course, Twelve Angry Men (which has the most bearing here), is revealed by a close examination of Orient Express to be a threadbare moralist indeed; whilst Joseph Mankiewicz, widely regarded as a witticism-churning butterfly too hooked on his own bons mots to be much concerned with Life, or even visual style, has come up with as acute a study of Britain’s steel-trap class system as any native director from the so-called good old days of the island’s filmic new wave.

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“Gumshoe,” “Five,” “Our Man in Havana” and Martini Movies – DVDs for the Week 2/3/09

What exactly is a “Martini Movie”? Sony hasn’t really explained the meaning behind the moniker it’s used to brand a collection of otherwise unrelated films from the Columbia Pictures catalogue. But based on the promotional featurettes the Sony has whipped up for each of the now ten DVDs released that imprint, a “Martini Movie” is a cinematic cocktail made up of varying measures of hard-boiled attitude, sardonic self-awareness, nostalgic naiveté and campy exaggeration. And, according the cocktail recipes printed on each disc, these are movies best seen under alcoholic lubrication.

Whether or not that’s an accurate overview of the first wave released in October 2008, which included the sub-Gilda noir exotica Affair in Trinidad with Glenn Ford and Rita Hayworth, the racketeer drama The Garment Jungle with Lee J. Cobb and Sidney Lumet’s witty 1971 heist film The Anderson Tapes, it’s a downright disingenuous appellation for at least some of the films released under that brand on DVD this week. The five films in this eccentric collection are the hipster youth generation satire Getting Straight with Elliot Gould; the Jeff Goldblum psychics-on-the-run comedy Vibes (notable as the feature debut of Cindi “She-Bop” Lauper); Stephen Frears’ first film Gumshoe with Albert Finney; and the first-ever home video releases of Arch Oboler’s 1951 end-of-the-world drama Five and Carol Reed’s 1959 spy satire Our Man in Havana. It’s this latter trio of titles, minor classics debuting with little fanfare in bare-bones editions, that I hope to draw a little attention to.

“I want to write The Maltese Falcon, record ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ and play Las Vegas.” So proclaims Eddie Ginley (Albert Finney), a small-time bingo caller and wannabe stand-up comic, to his therapist in the opening scene of Gumshoe (1971). But he’ll settle for running an ad in the local paper offering his services as a private detective (no divorce cases), his present to himself for his 31st birthday. When he gets a call from a client, he just assumes his buddies are playing along for a laugh, but the package he gets from The Fat Man includes ₤1,000, a picture of a girl and a gun. Eddie’s no P-I and he knows it, but when his brother gets him canned from his only paying gig, there’s nothing stopping him from following the trail to the end of the line.

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Review: Gumshoe

[originally published in Movietone News, May/June 1972]

“SAM SPADE: Ginley’s the Name—Gumshoe’s the Game.” After a year of psychoanalysis, brought on by his girlfriend’s marrying his brother and terminated by his genial conclusion that the shrink is “off his head,” Eddie Ginley places the foregoing advert in a Liverpool paper. His breakfast-time reading is The Thin Man and his running patter — when not actually performing his job as emcee at a bingo club — is case-hardened Humphrey Bogart. His own voiceover commentary (“For everyone else in Liverpool it was just another Friday morning…”) eases into boyish practicality long enough to make clear Eddie doesn’t expect to be taken seriously: when a phone call sends him to that hotel room to receive a wrapped parcel from a Fat Man smoking a cigar on the other side of a tall chair, he assumes it’s just his mates’ way of slipping him a birthday present (he’s making the gloomy turn to 31). The package proves to contain a thousand pounds, a girl’s photograph, and a revolver to—presumably—do her in.

From the opening titles, nicely evocative of the old Universal Sherlock Holmes credits, Gumshoe is a minor masterpiece of faultless footwork, treading with absolute conviction that high wire of stylistic commitment with clinical absurdity lying to one side and shallow sendup to the other. Stephen Frears’ direction, Neville Smith’s dialogue, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s music all take that necessary chance of pushing just a little too far, which is the only way to push far enough. But as much talent as these gentlemen evidence, Gumshoe would only be charmingly lightweight without the rigor and intensity of Albert Finney as a standup comic in a trenchcoat trying to come of age. It’s tempting to speculate on the origins of Gumshoe, and how much Eddie Ginley might have been conceived and written for Albert Finney, who was last seen in his directorial debut, Charlie Bubbles, climbing into an utterly improbable carnival balloon and sailing up out of all his insoluble problems. Charlie Bubbles moved some observers, appalled others (I stood among the latter), but it will be worth re-viewing if only to strengthen one’s appreciation of this new gem. There Charlie/Finney’s estranged wife was superbly played by Billie Whitelaw; here she plays Eddie’s lost love, to whom he repairs now and again for psychic rearmament — to stage a smoky, piano-playing, late-night reunion or to be kissed goodbye/kissed off at a railway station. In the incestuous way of private-eye thriller plotting, Gumshoe enables Eddie Ginley to pay off, by means of melodramatic ingenuity, those very psychic wounds that have necessitated his fantasy-embracing lifestyle. The ambiguity of the last lengthy shot — whether Eddie has been trapped forever in his dreamworld or whether he has taken a decisive step toward adulthood — is profound rather than facile, and thoroughly earned.

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