SOME REVIEWS! Also featuring: MGM showing off, Alan Ladd being cool, and Anton Walbrook being mean. Very mean. Evil, even.
Test Pilot (Victor Fleming, 1938) is the epitome, if not the apogee, of Old Hollywood excellence, a slick but weighty entertainment with several remarkable facets, and the full weight of the MGM dream factory behind it.
First, consider its pedigree: its scriptwriters included Howard Hawks and former aviator Frank "Spig" Wead, the personable stars - Clark Gable and Myrna Loy - had just been voted the King and Queen of Hollywood in the biggest poll of its kind ever conducted, there was a meaty role for dramatic heavyweight Spencer Tracy, about to land his second consecutive Oscar, and the direction came from skilled filmmaker and unequivocal "man's man" Victor Fleming - who specialised in rough, tough pictures, but would shoot most of The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind the following year. Seventy-five years on, it still looks like what it was: a proper prestige production, shot on location as well as in the studio, and full of impressive flight footage (which I'll acknowledge isn't always perfectly integrated with the close-up work).
Gable is the test pilot of the title, pushing new planes to the limit at risk of his life. Tracy is his fatalistic, constantly chewing mechanic, Loy the university-educated farm girl on whose parents' land he downs, setting up a romance that moves from blissful exploration to bitter desperation, as drunkenness and death intervene.
This was among Loy's favourites of all her films, and, she said, the last movie in which her seven-time co-star Gable dared to emote, before the need to protect his macho image rendered him dramatically immobile. He was a formidable star, if not much of an actor, and Test Pilot finds him at the top of his game. Loy herself is out of this world: she was never more affecting or amusing - eliciting bona fide lolz and heartbreak in equal measure with a rich, multi-layered characterisation brimming with confidence. Usually happy to merely complement her co-star, here she just acts him off the screen. Tracy is also at the peak of his gargantuan powers, exhibiting a wondrous naturalism that's sustained throughout every moment he's on screen, whether centre-stage or not.
There are a few extraneous scenes, a couple of lurches in mood and perhaps an overly folsky wrap-up utilising Lionel Barrymore's popular persona, but it's largely a proper movie with proper characters, and little of the superficiality or convolution that marred many of Gable's MGM vehicles. It's also a film of great moments: Loy's first meeting with Gable, her breathtaking heart-to-heart with Tracy, a noted precursor to the classic "Who's Joe?" scene from Hawks' own Only Angels Have Wings, and that gutting instant that consists of nothing more than the mechanic tossing some chewing gum on the ground. (Unless my ears deceive me, it's additionally one of the only Breen-era movies to contain blasphemy, in the scene where Gable goes to visit Gloria Holden.)
In her book, Loy says the film "really stands as an example of what big-studio filmmaking could be", and who am I disagree? (3.5)
See also: Tracy and Gable's next, and final collaboration, Boom Town, is reviewed below.
The Glass Key (Stuart Heisler, 1942) - For all its flaws, this is one of my favourite noirs, and a movie I return to time and again. There isn't much plot, and what there is doesn't always make sense, but it's pure joy from start to finish, with Ladd and Lake's usual fireworks, Brian Donlevy and William Bendix in career-best form, and a spectacular script crackling with menace, innuendo and pitch black humour. Putting the malnourished story aside, it's everything film noir should be: violent, sexy and funny. And homoerotic. It's very homoerotic. (3.5)
See also: I reviewed Sullivan's Travels, also starring Veronica Lake, here.
The Silent Partner (Daryl Duke, 1978) - A very good thriller in a very '70s style, with a languid style of storytelling punctuated by scintillating genre set pieces, a shambling, handsome-ugly hero, and lots of women without any clothes on.
Elliott Gould is a Toronto bank clerk, in love with co-worker Susannah York, who realises he's about to be stuck up by a department store Santa (Christopher Plummer) and decides to turn the situation to his advantage. Unfortunately his adversary turns out to be an absolute psychopath – shades of Charley Varrick – but Gould's dalliance with illegality seems to have woken him from his stupor, and sharpened his wits.
In plot terms it's reminiscent of Wait Until Dark and the later Hopscotch, it's thematically and stylistically akin to Michael Cimino's Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, and the atmosphere of growing dread and danger within a sanitised, bloodless corporate environment makes it an interesting companion piece to the same year's Dawn of the Dead, but this Curtis Hanson-scripted movie also treads its own path, thanks to consistently surprising plotting, delicious performances from Gould and Plummer, and an incredible score by jazz legend Oscar Peterson, his only one for a feature film, which fills those bank vault sequences with an irresistible, pounding tension.
It's Gould's sporadically assured anti-hero, though - nervous one minute, nerveless the next - who gives the film its apparently contradictory gamut of virtues: it's cool and gripping, fatalistic but unpredictable, escapist but sometimes plain old terrifying. In fact, my only complaint with this offbeat, frequently magnificent movie is the misogynistic nastiness that sometimes intrudes, revelling in Plummer's sexualised deviancy as it pretends to condemn it. (3.5)
Trivia note: The film is set at Toronto's Eaton Centre. I went there once. It wasn't as tense as this.
When Ladies Meet (Harry Beaumont and Robert Z. Leonard, 1933) - AKA "The one where Myrna Loy is hot for The Wizard of Oz". This is one of the most grown-up films to come out of Hollywood in the '30s (in stark contrast to the opening of my review): a fiercely intelligent and sexually candid drama about a "good woman" (Myrna Loy) who falls in love with a married man (err, Frank Morgan, in a departure from his popular persona), then winds up spending an unwitting evening with his wife (Ann Harding) thanks to the machinations of the sarcastic, good-hearted journalist (Robert Montgomery) who's stuck on Loy.
It's talky in the extreme, and the character comedy from Alice Brady, Luis Alberni and Sterling Holloway is abysmal, but it's also equipped with a fascinating, astonishingly incisive take on gender politics, with none of the stifling conformity enforced by the Hays Office in future years (or by MGM normally). Though it starts slowly, it builds superbly, and the climactic conversation between the two women is a powerhouse. Harding, who specialised in smart, adult dramas during the Pre-Code era - also appearing in Double Harness with William Powell - is extremely good, particularly in the later scenes, and Montgomery handles a tricky part with some style, but it's Loy's show all the way. She's nothing short of sensational as the modern woman who just might be heading for a fall. With The Rains Came, it's the best dramatic performance she ever gave. (3.5)
Truly Madly Deeply (Anthony Minghella the Merciless, 1990) - Juliet Stevenson's performance in this fantasy romance is comfortably in my top 10 of all time, her grieving widow contorting with anger, confusion and unhappiness at the untimely death of her husband (Alan Rickman). Her pleasant, measured and good-humoured demeanour crumples and cracks, revealing a raging sea of anguish, tears and snot, but after the return of Rickman - in ghost form - there's joy there too (Walker Brothers!), and wonder, and then more confusion. When I interviewed Terence Davies a few years back (yes, still harping on about that), he insisted on referring to this film as "Truly Madly Boringly". Far be it from me to contradict the best British filmmaker of his generation, but a) That's not a pun, and b) The film's not boring. It is often quite annoying, though, not to mention thematically muddled, tonally baffling, frequently unfunny, saddled with a weak supporting cast, and equipped with a love interest sporting legitimately the worst hairstyle of all time. How do you rate a film like that? Generously, I think, for Stevenson's intense, jaw-dropping, utterly real performance, and for Minghella's work in securing it, whatever the film's other innumerable shortcomings. (3)
"Don't call me 'shorty'."
Boom Town (Jack Conway, 1940) - MGM wasn't in bad shape in 1940. This familiar but ludicrously entertaining mix of comedy, drama and romance – set in the world of wildcat oil drilling – was made on a vast canvas, has the usual polished production values and features no fewer than four massive stars: Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, Claudette Colbert and Hedi Lamarr, whose names scroll across the screen in gargantuan capitals. It was the last (and probably least) of three collaborations between screen titans Gable and Tracy, whose mutual jealousy added to their on-screen sparring. As Myrna Loy notes in her book, Tracy was envious of Gable's sexual magnetism and his popularity with the public, while Gable yearned to be taken seriously by the critics and his fellow actors in the way that Tracy was.
The story sees Big John (Gable) and Straight Jon (Tracy) variously making and losing vast fortunes in the oil game, while fighting over Tracy's childhood sweetheart (Colbert), Gable's interest in a single-minded glamour puss (Lamarr), and the fact that the taller guy keeps calling the smaller one "shorty". The first 30 and last 30 minutes are both very well done; the rest is bitty, fast-moving fun, full of abrupt plot developments and excitable montages portraying the passing of time. Tracy and Colbert are superb, Gable – who had worked in the fields with his oil-driller dad – is very charismatic, and there are some wonderful flourishes, both artistic and dramatic: the smoke from a steam train buffeting a banner, a drunk Tracy's parting line to showgirl Marion Martin, and his heart-to-heart with a bedridden Colbert, which moves from faux-poetic predictability to tearjerking brilliance in the blink of an eye.
John Lee Mahin's script is unquestionably erratic, with an unfortunate, jarring propensity to threaten women with violence, but there are lots of enjoyable scenes in it, and it's never boring (just horribly sexist). There's also a first-rate supporting cast, led by Lamarr (whose billing is a little confusing), legendary weirdo Lionel Atwill and Frank Morgan, his riotous performance interrupted by a single moment of overwhelming sincerity. Boom Town isn't as deep or thrilling as George Stevens' later oil-fuelled epic, Giant, but for fans of Golden Age movies, it's a must. (3)
We've all been through this.
36 Hours (George Seaton, 1965) - As you'd expect, this is only three-quarters as good as 48 Hrs. It's a disappointing spy story, set on the brink of the Normandy landings, in which the Nazis devise an elaborate way to get American diplomat James Garner to spill the beans about the D-Day plans. An ingenious first half gives way to a conventional, convenient second that mixes reheated cliches with artificial attempts to deal with big issues, and a litany of far-fetched developments, several concerning a particularly improbable "good German" in the shape of doctor Rod Taylor. Garner's hero must also be about the most stupid in movies, and among the least pro-active: a square-jawed moron buffeted around by chance, German office politics, and his own confusion as to which day it is. It's a shame that after a disorientating, deftly-devised first hour that promises plenty, all the film can deliver is a daft, dull and formulaic final 50 preoccupied with German incompetence, and augmented by a little suspenseless pursuit. (2.5)
And here's a review of a recent DVD release that I wrote for MovieMail:
Gaslight (Thorold Dickinson, 1940) - There can surely be no higher compliment than the world's most famous movie studio trying to destroy the negative of your film because it's a bit too good. That's the fate that befell Thorold Dickinson's Gaslight in 1944, as it dawned on MGM that their remake of the British film - released four years earlier - didn't really measure up.
Dickinson's original is a scintillating, richly atmospheric and sickeningly tense suspenser set in Edwardian London, in which sadistic maniac Anton Walbrook returns to the house where his aunt was once strangled, and methodically and insidiously drives his blameless wife (Diana Wynyard) to the brink of madness.
The director fairly revels in Walbrook's dapper deviance, and proves himself every bit as meticulous as his villain, stuffing his gas-lit movie with vivid montages, ingenious juxtapositions and nerve-shredding set pieces. The sequence in which Walbrook stage-manages his wife's breakdown at a charity concert is one of the most harrowing in movie history, Dickinson masterfully dragging his heels as we move towards the inevitable, and Wynyard sits blissfully unaware, listening to the tinkling of ivories. Later, he cuts restlessly between a crucial conversation and a rambunctious music hall show, briefly stemming the undercurrent of mounting dread via a sea of can-can dancers, only to unleash it in a veritable torrent.
Although the vicious, grey-templed Walbrook steals the picture in familiar fashion, as he would in Dickinson's cult classic The Queen of Spades nine years later, Gaslight wouldn't work without the basic human goodness at its centre. It's a film that finds time to properly humanise its heroine, whose intense fragility is instantly recognisable and whose true character only truly emerges in the presence of some boisterous street urchins, and equips her with a pair of selfless allies: a rotund retired detective (Frank Pettingell) who smells a Walbrook-shaped rat, and her affable cousin Vincent, played by a young Robert Newton.
Stark, suspenseful and sexually frank, essentially good-hearted and yet dripping with the menace and malevolence of its errant villain, Gaslight remains a must for fans of classic British cinema. Just be sure to lock your copy in your desk, Walbrook-style, in case MGM come calling. (3)