[Originally published in Movietone News 25, September 1973]
Recently I encountered a phenomenon—I refuse to call it a book—labeled TheOnlyGoodIndian and coauthored by Ralph and Natasha Friars. Its specific sins against the English language and any recognizable form of ratiocination are catalogued elsewhere in this issue. I mention this pseudo-scholarly study of the American Indian’s martyrdom by cinematic slings and arrows only because it exemplifies a particularly cavalier attitude towards product and consumer alike, an attitude rampant not only in selfrighteous critical tracts like the Friars’, but also in an increasing number of current films. People like the Friars don’t have to make sense (either stylistically or thematically), don’t have to work at selling their shoddy wares even on the level of persuasive polemic. Why? Because their readers are pre-sold, previously primed to ingest that which already constipates their thinking. Not, admittedly, a new process—this recycling of pap that effects no change, no growth, only a mild to offensive case of intellectual flatulence. Still, recent movies like TheLastofSheila, The Harrad Experiment, and most particularly Badge 373, HarryinYourPocket, and TheLegendofHell House impel one to speculate about a spiraling trend towards just this sort of bland diet in the cinema.
The Last of Sheila cashes in on the audience’s putative taste for the games (rich) people play, not to mention psychic stripping, a spectacle many in our group-therapy-ridden society have come to relish in and for itself with or without any therapeutic payoff for the individual involved. Broadway composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim—who, with close friend Tony Perkins, wrote Sheila‘s screenplay—is reputedly hooked on the puzzle-game habit himself. Perhaps as a result, the film retains the half-thought-out, initially grabby but ultimately flabby quality of a neat idea cooked up by old buddies with shared interests over late-night scotches.
[Originally published in Movietone News 26, October 1973]
Little can be said of this film’s elusive plot without spoiling the excitement for the viewer. A movie producer invites six friends to spend a week aboard his yacht off the French Riviera, playing a six-day, port-to-port detective game. Each accepts the invitation in hopes of winning some favor from the powerful film magnate. It is a year since his wife Sheila was murdered by a hit-and-run driver; and as the producer’s skillfully devised game begins to reveal hidden secrets about the lives of the players, it becomes evident that one of them is the murderer. Suddenly there is much more at stake than the outcome of a game. Or is there? For as the film twists and turns along increasingly cerebral passageways, each new revelation becomes simply a part of a larger game. Unlike its predecessors in the “game” film genre—Who’s AfraidofVirginiaWoolf?, The Boys in the Band, Sleuth—The Last of Sheila is not based on a stageplay, and its plot never reaches a point at which the game-playing stops, gives way to reality. Quite the contrary, as the film ends the next move is left to the audience, filled with the discomforting sense that everything that happened onscreen was merely part of a still larger mystery game that remains for them to unravel.
[Originally published in Movietone News 26, October 1973]
Sidney Lumet ventures once more into an ascetic community of men—here a Catholic prep school rather than the African-based British prison camp of TheHill—but this time comes up with only about half a winner. Child’s Play is a spellbinder for approximately that fraction of its duration. The boys are subjecting one another to increasingly gruesome and sometimes blasphemous mutilations while on the faculty level the senior and junior masters seem locked in a contest of wills and styles that, to the senior master at least, amounts to a battle with the very Devil. Each piece of information leaked to us strikes its note of grisly suggestibility. Are the boys possessed? Is the place itself—worthy of condemnation by secular if not clerical authorities, inadequately lighted, with red votive lamps punctuating the darkness with awful chromatic intensity—some kind of vestibule to Hell? Unhappily the whole edifice of satanic innuendo caves in like one of those lesser horror films that is grabby enough as a thriller until we finally meet the rubber monster at close quarters: when the explanation comes, it is tactically incredible, psychologically invalid, and dramatically invalidating (one of the first scenes in the film, for instance, is retroactively revealed as a cheat). The filmmakers scramble to recover their balance and our faith, but they have nothing to fall back on but the sort of ringing last-act declamations that are designed to reassure a Broadway audience that all this titillation has had a very serious point: something about schoolroom fascism, maybe, or the death of God, or like that.
[Originally published in Movietone News 27, November 1973]
John Huston’s newest, a spy thriller of sorts, had a short first run downtown and has slipped almost unnoticed to the neighborhood circuit. It’s just as well. Reviewers have criticized The Mackintosh Man‘s convoluted plot, but the principal weakness is a slowness of pace which allows even the moderately intelligent viewer to stay well ahead of each complication and resolution. Every twist and surprise is so over-prepared that any possibility for suspense or shock is eliminated. A motor chase through Irish mountain roads, which could have been gripping or at least flashy, is dragged out to the point of boredom. An equally promising finale, expressing Huston’s customary ironic view of the respective moralities of good guys and bad guys, is executed with a total lack of inspiration, becoming pedestrian and predictable. An impressive cast, ranging from good to excellent, is totally wasted.
The American films of German-born filmmaker Max Ophuls have never been as celebrated as his more overtly stylized and seductively romantic French films. That attitude is fed by a sense of ill-treatment by the studios. He dropped the “h” to become Max Opuls in the credits of his Hollywood movies, which can either be seen as an insult to his heritage or simply part of the American assimilation that his fellow immigrants also went through. More defining is Ophuls’ miserable experience on his first American project, Vendetta (1947), a production micromanaged by Howard Hughes, who ultimately fired Ophuls. That experience colored Ophuls’ entire American period to the point that he himself dismissed the films he made as compromised. I disagree with that assessment. His films haunt the space between the idealism of unconditional love and the reality of social barriers and fickle lovers. Yet his greatest films are anything but cynical; ironic certainly, but also melancholy, sad and wistful, and always respectful of the dignity of those who love well if not too wisely. There is a great dignity in his best American movies, but where his European films present obstacles in the form of social “rules” versus emotion and desire, his American films frame the same issues in terms of economics, opportunity, and the lack of social and legal power to break out of circumstances.
Olive previously gave us the Blu-ray and DVD debut of Letter From an Unknown Woman (1948), the most continental of his American movies, a romantic tragedy set in an idealized past with a decadent, self-absorbed high society man and a dreamy poor girl briefly swept into his world. Caught shares the same elegant camerawork, evocative production design, and the meeting of high culture and working class society but imports it into contemporary (circa 1940s) United States. It’s the first truly “American” film of his American era and, for all the film’s over-enunciated social commentary, it is a powerful drama rooted in the dreams and anxieties and realities of American filmgoers.
The Big House: Triple Feature (Warner Archive) is a special edition for the MOD (manufacture-on-demand) line.
The 1930 The Big House, directed by George Hill, is the original men-in-prison drama in terms of the way it established the conventions. There’s the pecking order of tough guys behind bars, the culture of loyalty, the sniveling snitches, the prison reform speech from the tough but committed warden (Lewis Stone, who is indeed tough), an inmate protest, a prison break and a riot. And through it all, Hill shows us the overcrowding, the regimentation of routine, and the numbing, soul-crushing oppression of the experience, from the processing of a newly-convicted prisoner (Robert Montgomery as a privileged kid completely unprepared to take care of himself here) to the predatory society within. Chester Morris is the leading man here as Morgan, a kind of underworld aristocracy thanks to his reputation as a criminal mastermind, and he comes off as a slightly darker, tougher, and more wooden Richard Barthelmess, the square guy rolling with tough breaks. Wallace Beery is the prison-yard bully Butch, who isn’t too bright but defers to Morgan, and Montgomery is nervous and sweaty as the wide-eyed fresh meat who ignores good advice and turns snitch, illustrating the warning given by the warden in the first scene: “Prison doesn’t make you yellow, but if you are already yellow, prison brings it out.” I guess we know his predilections.
The story is basically a roll call of what will become prison movie clichés but the presentation is striking. The mess hall scene presents mealtime in purgatory, with the inmates lined up in rows and columns with regimented precision, and the image is echoed at chapel, where the prisoners file in out of duty rather than faith. Meanwhile Hill contrasts the surface of resignation to the routine with the covert dealings below the table tops as inmates pass weapons and messages out of sight of the guards. The soundtrack keeps returning to the lock-step trudge of marching feet instead of music. And the warden responds to the occupation of a cell block by prisoners with overwhelming force: he calls in the tanks! It was nominated for Best Picture and Best Actor (Wallace Beery) and won Oscars for the sound and France Marion’s screenplay.
The Big House was previously released as a stand-alone movie on the Warner Archive line. The “special edition” of this release comes in the other two films of the triple feature: the French language version, directed by Paul Fejos and starring Charles Boyer as Morgan, and the Spanish language version. Both are shot on the same sets and utilize the same crowd shots, special effects, and even shot-lists and set-ups. The compositions are almost exactly the same, like an assembly line cranking out the alternate versions on a timetable, and the biggest difference is in the variations of characters brought by the actors and dramatic direction. Fejos seems constrained by the structure here—see his striking Hollywood work in the Lonesome disc set Criterion released last year (a triple feature in its own right) to see his eye for setting scenes and moving the camera—but he and Boyer turn Morgan into a much more charismatic figure, less hard-boiled, smoother and cooler, with a sense of authority that comes from confidence and ease. The Spanish version, from journeyman director Ward Wing (a sometime actor with a couple of shorts and documentaries to his credit as a filmmaker), hasn’t the same strength of character (Jose Crespo is a bland, unimpressive Morgan but Juan de Landa makes a strange mix of childlike clown and psychopathic bully as Butch) but the production value and the momentum keep it rolling along.
Three films on two discs. The print has seen wear and the contrast fluctuates a bit but it looks quite good considering the age and the era. The French and Spanish versions are not quite as well preserved but perfectly watchable and acceptable. The English subtitles are actually close captions and include notations on sound effects.
5 Fingers (20th Century Fox Cinema Archives), a smart 1952 espionage thriller directed by Joseph Mankiewicz, features James Mason in a superb performance as the contemptuous valet to the British Ambassador to Turkey during World War II. A career servant, he decides to make his fortune selling British military secrets to the Germans and enlists a penniless French countess (Danielle Darrieux), a woman he once served and still desires, to help him hide his money and provide a safe house. Based on real events from World War II, the 1952 film reworks the story and the players to make the valet, who is given the code name Cicero, a bitter, resentful British man determined to break through the class barriers. Mason plays him with smooth arrogance and cynicism, beholden to nothing but money and power. While he’s nakedly obsessed with class and status, everyone else is simply more subtle about it—this almost invisible valet is never once suspected by either side of being the leak in the embassy—and the Germans are so afraid that he’s actually a double agent that they never act upon the intelligence. Even the agent sent from London to find the leak (Michael Rennie) discounts him from his investigations.
The direction is low key, with a focus on the culture of the city of Ankara during the war (Turkey did not choose sides and Allied and Axis powers both had a presence in the city), the script full of sharp wit and clever dialogue, and the story is filled with delicious ironies. Mankiewicz did not receive screenplay credit but some of the dialogue surely came from his pen, such as the Countess saying to a civil servant: “Please don’t look at me as if you had a source of income other than your salary.”
The Fox Archive release has not been mastered in HD and it looks only slightly better than laserdisc quality, but it’s a good source print and is perfectly watchable.
Roadblock (Warner Archive) opens with a set-up that promises a femme fatale siren thriller and a heist picture, and in its own way it defies both genres, or at least it takes a different twist. Charles McGraw is the hardcase of an insurance investigator, an incorruptible agent who earned the name “Honest Joe” but falls hard for a chiseling dame (Joan Dixon) looking to score a rich husband: “You’re a nice guy, honest Joe, but you’re not in the right league. I’m aiming for the World Series.” So he trades his integrity in for a crooked payday and ends up investigating the very robbery he masterminded while his partner (Louis Jean Heydt in soft-spoken conscience mode) starts to suspect him.
The 1951 picture is a film noir by definition, with its corrupted characters and mercenary femme fatale and atmosphere of a noose tightening around our anti-hero. Director Harold Daniels is no visual stylist and there’s a slackness to many of the scenes, but he comes to life in a nighttime murder scene that he transforms into a model of noir violence, an urban street fight in the dark of the empty city picked out in shards of light (credit likely goes to cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca, RKO’s crime movie vet), and the screenplay co-written by Steve Fisher has a bite of irony in its twists. And give the film credit for making a heist film work where we never see the heist; we’re checking in from McGraw’s honeymoon, which is also his alibi. The gravel-voiced McGraw carries the rest of the film with his working class integrity and moral judgments twisted into self-destructive panic when he becomes everything he despises just to impress a girl. Print quality is good.
Wicked is the operative term in this apt title to the Eclipse release of three outsized, overwrought, gleefully excessive Gothic-pulp melodramas made by the British studio Gainsborough during World War II. The studio had been around since the twenties but found sudden popularity with the potboiler costume drama. While the rest of the British film industry was (much like Hollywood) turning out paeans to patriotism and stoic resilience in the face of hardship, shortages, and sacrifice, these Gainsborough melodramas offered audiences an escape with bad behavior, wicked schemes, and villains who betray friends and lovers out of greed, arrogance, or mere thrill seeking.
The four major stars of the trilogy are all introduced in The Man in Grey (1943), a dime-novel version of a Gothic melodrama set in the cruel culture of the British aristocracy, led by James Mason in his breakout role as the title character. Lord Rohan is a brutish, proud aristocrat who marries a sweet, sunny heiress (Phyllis Calvert) simply to secure an heir to the name. Top-billed Margaret Lockwood (of Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes) is the dark to Calvert’s light, bitter and calculating and ready to sacrifice her best (and only) friend in the world to grasp fortune as Mason’s mistress, and Stewart Granger makes a superb entrance into the drama, to all appearances a highwayman ready to rob Calvert’s coach, but in reality a poor player with a charming confidence and an honest soul, especially next to the crude, cruel Rohan.
The story is framed with a contemporary sequence, an auction of the family estate where a young woman and a dashing officer meet to bid on items from the estate. In fact, what interests them most are the seemingly inconsequential mementoes in a keepsake box, little worthless baubles that, through the course of the film, we see invested with great personal value. These modern players are, we learn, descendents of the dramatis personae, and in case you don’t recognize them at first, it’s clear in the coda that they are played by none other than Calvert and Granger.
Director Leslie Arliss creates a world of luxury and culture with minimal studio sets and painted backdrops. I don’t know that there is a single shot taken on location. A nighttime carriage ride through a desolate landscape, for example, is created entirely on a stylized set similar to what Fritz Lang will later purposely use for Moonfleet, an artificial, theatrical suggestion of the dark world outside. In fact, the whole thing is an unreal, stylized piece of work, from the settings to the characters. Mason is especially mesmerizing as the selfish, arrogant Lord who would rather watch the dogfights with the local peasants or satisfy his appetite for violence in a duel over some slight than play the public aristocrat. All dark, glowering power, he’s not quite a villain but certainly no hero, and any drive to avenge his wife’s fate is entirely a matter of vanity. The only glaring discordance in a film so shamelessly melodramatic and outsized is the servant boy Toby, a black African child played in blackface and a cringing patois by white British child actor Harry Scott.
On Monday, January 23, Turner Classic Movies is showing all four films made by Max Ophuls, the great German director, during his brief tenure in America (when he dropped the “h” and signed his films “Max Opuls”).
The evening of “Max Ophuls in Hollywood” is followed by two of his greatest French films, La Ronde (1950) and The Earrings of Madame de… (1954), but while they are well represented in superb DVD editions stateside, the four American films showing Monday night—Letter From an Unknown Woman (1948), The Reckless Moment (1949), Caught (1949) and the rarity The Exile (1947), his Hollywood debut—have still not been released on DVD in the U.S.
The films of Ophuls haunt the space between the idealism of unconditional love and the reality of social barriers and fickle lovers. Yet his greatest films are anything but cynical; ironic certainly, but also melancholy, sad and wistful, and always respectful of the dignity of those who love well if not too wisely. His fluid, elegantly choreographed camerawork and intimate yet observant directorial presence have resulted in some of the most delicate and beautiful films made on either side of the Atlantic, but his American films have never been as celebrated as his more overtly stylized and seductively romantic French films (Ophuls left Germany in the early 1930s for the same reason so many fellow artists did).
Douglas Fairbanks Jr. stars in The Exile, a lightweight adventure film that looks to Fairbanks Sr. for inspiration. The film, about a king in exile, lacks the showstopping stunts and show-off acrobatics of Sr.’s silent classics, but the old fashioned love story and simplicity of adventure is pleasantly retro. Even for 1948. Fairbanks does his best impression of his father ever, with a tiny mustache and a big smile and a leaping energy, even going as far as writing the scenario and producing the independent feature. And while Ophuls is no action director, he has nothing to apologize for in this rousing little film. His camera glides through some lovely scenes and while Fairbanks lunges and leaps, Ophuls choreographs the crowd scenes to give the film a scope the belies the budget and a grace lacking in most such adventure films.
[Originally published in Movietone News 54, June 1977]
War is an inescapably personal experience in Cross of Iron. Nearly always from middle-shot or closer, the soldiers see the enemy they fight: many die in the embraces of their killers. No field-size moving masses of men, no distant artillery, no “targets” and “objectives.” In Peckinpah’s war there are only people—confused, afraid, in pain, screaming for survival. Peckinpah carefully chooses images emblematic of the reality of war: a soldier’s neck emptying blood into the muddy water where he lies dead; a body that has been run over so many times it has become part of the road. The awful power of his combat scenes is heightened by contrasting qualities of light and sound for the out-of-combat sequences: the warm greens and yellows in the hospital scenes and in the idyllic field to which Sergeant Rolf Steyner’s platoon escapes after a hopeless battle in a burnt-out factory contrast starkly with the cold greens, dusty grays, muddy browns of the battle zone. The absolute silence before each of several attacks in the film serves to emphasize the fury of what follows. Never has Peckinpah’s rhythmic cutting between similar violent acts been so effective in establishing the inevitability and terrible beauty of the sense of community in the meeting—and the meting-out of death.
VCI, a DVD label that rose out of PD films and second-tier films of the past, has been turning yeoman’s work of releasing obscure movies on DVD into a remarkable job at unearthing and presenting the real B-movie, programmers and forgotten low-budget film of the forties, fifties and sixties, with an emphasis on crime, mystery and noir. Some of the most interesting finds have come from their relationship with Renown Pictures, many of them branded “”Best of!” British Classics” (I don’t understand the curious quotes an punctuation either), others bundled under vaguely titled double features and triple features of “British Film Noir” or “Crime Thrillers.”
Which, mind you, is not to say that the films themselves are all (or most or even often) remarkable. Many of the films branded “British Film Noir” are only vaguely related to the American genre while some of the films in other collections are more in tune with the style and/or sensibility of American film noir. Many are forgotten for a good reason. And the technical quality of these releases varies wildly, from good prints and decent masters to substandard prints and indifferent, noisy digital masters.
But these releases are a window into a particular strain of filmmaking almost forgotten in the lazy and usually incorrect branding of “B-movie” on low budget films from Hollywood and elsewhere. And periodically, they unearth a minor classic, a forgotten gem or a fascinating artifact excavated from the archives.
Here are a few of the more interesting releases of late, beginning with Candlelight in Algeria (1944), the latest release of a “VCI “Best of!” British Classics” branded programmer.
Before James Mason found international success and caught the eye of American filmmakers in films like The Seventh Veil and Odd Man Out, he was a very busy actor in the British film industry, working his way up from supporting roles to leading men. This snappy 1944 espionage thriller, made on a budget comparable to an ambitious American B movie, finds romantic adventure in wartime intrigue in Algiers as Mason flees the Nazis with vital information for the Allies, or so he tells the American girl (Carla Lehman) who becomes his ally. As she becomes entwined with a smitten French Vichy officer and a cagey Nazi spy hunter (Walter Rilla), Mason slips in and out of her life in various undercover identities (and a mustache that our heroine rightly ridicules) to get secret plans to the Allies necessary for the planning of the invasion of North Africa.