James Ivory, as a writer in the Cannes-Matin notes, has become a genre unto himself, and you couldn’t ask for a more thoroughgoing manifestation of that genre than The Golden Bowl. Adapted by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala from one of Henry James’s most intricate novels, mounted in exquisite European locations and handsomely photographed as ever by Tony Pierce-Roberts, this latest Merchant Ivory production will neither disappoint devotées nor persuade unbelievers to take an adjacent pew. In both cases, that’s because The Golden Bowl is more a Cliff’s Notes version of Henry James than the real thing (to coin a phrase).
Is Mildred Pierce (1945) (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) film noir or melodrama? I say why choose? Film noir is almost entirely associated with crime stories and life in the shadows and at night in the city and sure enough Mildred Pierce, based on the novel by James M. Cain, opens with death and darkness and the twilight of the soul. But there’s a subset of noir rooted in melodrama or the women’s pictures, as they were called in the 1940s and 1950s, films about the lives of women as they reach for their American dream, or at least the one promised them in love, marriage, and family. Mildred Pierce offers both, almost as two separate films that converge in the final act
It opens squarely in film noir territory (not that there is anything square and simple in noir), with a point blank murder and grotesque dying convulsions of a man who, even at first glance, convinces us he’s an oily, unclean manipulator who surely earned his terrible death. It’s Zachary Scott in a lounge lizard mustache playing his trademark gigolo with weasely insincerity—almost too perfect for our opening victim. We’ll get back to the corpse but first we leave the beach house scene of the crime for a seedy part of the boardwalk and a woman in fur (Joan Crawford) gripping the rail with every indication of a suicidal plunge into the surf. There’s a gaudily colorful bar with a Polynesian theme owned by Jack Carson, appropriately attired in a white tux that screams new money and no taste especially next to the elegance of Crawford, a nightcap, and what appears to be a neat little frame for murder that sweeps all of our characters into the police station for questioning.
You don’t think of Michael Curtiz, the great house director of Warner Bros. spectacles and prestige pictures, as one of the great noir directors but the opening twenty minutes or so is a master class in film noir directing, in part thanks to stunning nocturnal images by cinematography Ernest Haller (his work earned an Oscar nomination, one of six that the film racked up).
[Originally published in Movietone News 51, August 1976]
In this life sure things are rare, and it were churlish not to pay tribute to one when found. Very well, then: see James Goldstone marked down as the director of a given film and rest assured it will be a shambles. Not that a mindless pirate picture would be the easiest project to bring off in the Seventies with a modicum of style and dash—commodities almost in shorter supply than sure things. But even if a director were capable of steering round the improbabilities in a pirate-meets-girl, pirate-foils-nasty-dictator, pirate-gets-girl-without-losing-a-PG-rating script, he’d still have to do something about making other generic conventions seem effortlessly natural: conveying a sense of fun and exuberance that would make those nonstop guffaws over the joys of fighting, guzzling and wenching seem other than forced, or the absence of any notion of danger—even when the air is full of live steel and cannonaded masonry—seem the only proper response to a world made for devil-may-care adventure. A gregarious raconteur like Raoul Walsh has it in his blood; a Michael Curtiz can cram his frames and send them hurtling after one another with such dizzying stylishness that any feeling of extravagant artifice all but becomes a virtue; even when a stolid craftsman like Henry King is in charge, the solemnity of his responsibility in marshalling a big-budget period picture lends a narrative stability of its own. Goldstone doesn’t come near suggesting any of these guys (although at one point he keeps the duelling Peter Boyle and Robert Shaw out of sight behind a staircase, and if you happen to spot their shadows on the wall amid the clutter of extras, you might feel generous enough to count it as failed-Curtiz) and, worse, has no consistent idea what to do on his own hook.