Friday, 17 January 2014

Crime, Clara and Cagney running wild - Reviews #181

Plus: Peter Lorre, Chuck Palahniuk and Kate Hepburn's first Oscar win, in this latest reviews update. Ratings are out of four, because that's how I and also old men rate things.

Classe tous risques (Claude Sautet, 1960)

The short version: "A masterpiece of crime cinema: bleak, brilliant and grubbily realistic, influencing everything from Melville to Godard to Eddie Coyle. Will almost certainly take up smoking on account of Belmondo."

The long version: "Which movie character would you turn to in a crisis? As tempting as it might be to go for, say, Dumbledore, or Batman, I'm inclined to pick Jean-Paul Belmondo's Eric Stark in this Gallic crime classic: a noble, personable and resourceful small timer willing to stick his neck out, right out, for a total stranger.

That stranger is career criminal Abel Davos (Lino Ventura), a big-shot-turned-petty-thief who's left down, out and injured – with his two young kids on his hands – after a fateful encounter with some heavily-armed custom officials. Stark's job is to get him back to Paris and then out of sight, though Davos wants a few words with his former partners, who owed him a debt of honour, and didn't really deliver.

Director Sautet, branching out after years as an assistant director, called his style of filmmaking 'pure cinema': light on dialogue, strong on faces and physicality, this time vividly employing Ventura's past experience as a wrestler. "A big plus for Classe tous risques was his instinct for abrupt violence," recalled Sautet decades later. "It was great!" The film was also integral in defining one of the most important screen personas of the 1960s: the ugly-handsome Belmondo's image as a dapper, unflappable modern man with a singular code of ethics and a socially irresponsible way of making smoking look like a really good idea.

For all his stylishness, though, this understated, wintry masterpiece of gangster cinema, about a man in decline in a dirty, deadly business, is bleak, full of regret and stunningly filmed at authentically drab locations. Written, suitably enough, by ex-con José Giovanni, it remains both a massive achievement on its own terms and a model for a new breed of film, its DNA present in everything from Melville's mesmerising Le Doulos to Peter Yates' The Friends of Eddie Coyle. In an overt nod to Sautet's movie, Jean-Luc Godard even went so far as to name a whole film after one of its unseen characters, an underworld figure called Pierrot le Fou.

Often ignored amidst its showier contemporaries, Classe tous risques looks better – and greater – with every passing year."



Then I revisited a couple of old Woody Allen films: one almost perfect, the other merely pretty damn great:

"Who is Pearl Harbor?"
Radio Days (Woody Allen, 1987) - Woody's most personal and nostalgic film: a rough collection of tall tales and reminiscences, dealing with his childhood - he's played by a young Seth Green - and his beloved radio shows of the 1940s.

Lovingly narrated by the director, it's a time machine made of celluloid, beautifully devised and executed, with sumptuous period music and design, and the usual stunning work from his great '80s collaborators, Dianne Wiest and Mia Farrow - the latter showing her range once more in a sweet, funny, Judy Holliday-ish part.

Sentimental and deceptively deep, it's a simply wondrous movie - back from when it all seemed so effortless for Woody - casting its spell like a rosy, American Distant Voices. (4)

Bullets Over Broadway (Woody Allen, 1994) - An often joyous Woody confection - all surface, but what surface!

John Cusack is a pretentious, highly-strung playwright in early '30s Broadway who sells out, while being forced to deal with a monstrous luvvie (Dianne Wiest), a mobster backer (Joe Viterelli) and his moll (Jennifer Tilly), her abrasive bodyguard (Chazz Palminteri) and a leading man who can't stop eating (Jim Broadbent).

It lacks the depth and resonance of the director's greatest, and doesn't always quite tie together, but it looks utterly stunning, the cast is superb, and there are plenty of great characters, funny lines and inspired ideas - particularly the development of Palminteri's heavy.

For fans of the period, there are also fun references to the likes of Philip Barry, Eugene O'Neill, Jerome Kern and Clara Bow, as well as a soundtrack full of lovely old standards, including that cracking Irving Aaronson version of Cole Porter's Let's Misbehave. Such compensations should help you to stomach a little of Woody's usual smirking at non-intellectuals (imagine someone not knowing who Hamlet is!). (3)


Three Strangers (Jean Negulesco, 1944) - Good old Warner: you couldn't imagine MGM ever greenlighting a succession of films with leading men who looked like Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet. Their lack of conventional glamour, of course, was offset by a staggering amount of talent - particularly in the case of the strangulated, bug-eyed Lorre, beautiful in his own way and one of the greatest actors in the history of film.

This is one of the pair's best: an ironic, unpredictable and sometimes shockingly violent drama about three strangers - they're joined by Geraldine Fitzgerald - who wish upon a Chinese deity for wealth, with a couple of them having a particular reason for needing a mountain of cash, and fast.

I wouldn't think of spoiling even the smallest of plot points in this original, moodily-photographed and deeply affecting movie: a mesmerising mix of mystery, thriller and character study, superbly acted by all three leads (though especially Lorre), as well as Joan Lorring in a crucial supporting role, and unusually well-directed by Negulesco.

Allergic to formula, yet richly and enduringly fatalistic in the familiar manner of co-writer John Huston, it's one film you won't forget in a hurry, right down to that classic final scene. (4)

See also: Lorre and Greenstreet made eight films together, starring in three of them. The others were The Verdict and The Mask of Dimitrios.


Picture Snatcher (Lloyd Bacon, 1933)
- This Cagney film is like many of the ones he made in the early '30s, going great guns at first, before getting a bit bogged down in censor-soothing melodrama, as he falls in love and seeks to atone for his sins. Here he's an ex-con who becomes a star reporter at a yellow tabloid, the story based - very, very loosely - on the photographer who snapped the notorious 1929 photo of murderess Ruth Snyder in the electric chair. (Trivia fans: that chap's grandson is Norm from Cheers, and his greatgrandson is Jason Sudeikis.)

There's a rich vein of sex jokes being mined throughout, and Cagney is as he usually was during this period: dynamic, fun, sometimes a bit annoying. The best scene in the picture comes early on, as he announces that he's going legit to a roomful of his former associates, facing them down with hard-won wisdom, righteous anger and a touch of old-fashioned toughness. The momentum slows after the first 15, though, as the melodrama and the message intrude, leaving us with another good film, rather than a great one.

In support, Ralph Bellamy is a standout as Cagney's alcoholic editor, playing a part not unlike his one in Capra's Forbidden, and Alice White - who once starred in a film called The Naughty Flirt - does that Pre-Code thing she generally does. While I'm not a fan of director Lloyd Bacon, and the film's most memorable shot - an electrician setting up for the big one - seems as much through necessity as design, he does handle the bullet-heavy machine gun shoot-out quite excitingly. (3)

See also: Other early Cagney comedies include Taxi!, Hard to Handle, and the rather wonderful Jimmy the Gent. As well as this one:

Lady Killer (Roy Del Ruth, 1933) - A crackling early Cagney vehicle, directed at Del Ruth's usual breakneck speed, and featuring jokes about drugs and sex, and a bit where Jimmy kisses Mae Clarke's boob (that'll make up for the time he used her face as a grapefruit squeezer).

The plot is complete nonsense - with two-fisted conman Cagney storming the picture business - though the film knows it some of the time, and there are as many salty, nifty one-liners as dated ones. There's also a scene where some monkeys invade a birthday party, and another where Cagney plays a Native American with a sore bottom. Incidentally, I think his tyrannical Teutonic action director is patterned after Warner's own Michael Curtiz.

The star is clearly having a whale of a time, spending most of the film laughing at his own jokes and slapping people around, and Clarke is also extremely good as his flirty moll, whom he can't trust as far as he can throw - though it turns out he can throw her quite far. (More of that unsavoury woman-beating that Warner, and Cagney in particular, seemed to go in for).

Lady Killer is basically all over the shop, but good fun with it. (3)


Good Ol' Freda: The Beatles' Secretary (Ryan White, 2013) - A sweet, affectionate and even moving documentary about Freda Kelly, the tough, vivacious Liverpudlian teenager who met the Beatles in 1961, became their secretary in '62, and contined to reply to fans five years after the band had split up, such was their astonishing popularity - and her part in retaining it.

At one point she was responding to over 3,000 letters a day: colluding with John to make sure photos were properly signed, scooping up George's hair to post back to fans and nipping over to Ringo's so he could sleep on a pillowcase sent by one excitable girl.

Freda never cashed in on the connection, though, and has spent the last 40 years as, well, still a secretary, but this time a legal secretary. This portrait of her life then and now has no major revelations (she even refuses to discuss which of the band she stepped out with), but many minor ones, as well as a few insights into working class Liverpool life in the 1960s. And while it's fairly standard in presentation, with a little too much reliance on period, non-Beatles music, it makes good use of archive film and photos (albeit with a couple of conspicuous errors - that's the Queen Mum, not the Queen), and some thoughtful, intelligent location shooting.

Freda herself is unassuming and good-natured: an ordinary person telling a sometimes extraordinary story in a good-humoured, down-to-earth way, her transparent fondness for her fellow fans enduring to this day.

I was an absolute Beatles nut as a kid, and spent my 12th birthday at the Beatles Story museum and on the Magical Mystery Tour bus (along with John Lennon's uncle, who used to hop on it to pick up his pension). That part of me was happy to wallow in nostalgia one more time, and for serious fans of the band it's definitely worth checking out. McCartney even licensed the rare use of four Beatles recordings due to his eternal bond with the subject, while Ringo pitches up at the end to deliver a personal message, and do that peace sign he always does. (3)


Morning Glory (Lowell Sherman, 1933) - Kate Hepburn won her first Oscar for this backstage drama, playing an insecure, self-obsessed and stagestruck young woman who pitches up in New York, flitting around the theatrical circle of producer Adolphe Menjou, writer Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. and a peroxided Mary Duncan, as she looks for a break.

It's stagy and rather mannered, but also believable and entertaining for the most part, and while Hepburn isn't as good as she had been in A Bill of Divorcement or would be in countless other films, she's still quite persuasive, and her playing of Romeo and Juliet's balcony scene at a party is beautiful. Fairbanks, cast in an unusually sensitive role, is in fine form as the playwright secretly in love with her - especially when revealing his crush to Menjou - matched by C. Aubrey Smith as the mentor Hepburn forcibly adopts.

Unfortunately the film ends in rather anti-climactic fashion, serving up a cliched wish-fulfilment ending right out of 42nd Street, then failing to show us even a line from the play-within-a-film, an almost wilfully perverse decision that would have rendered the finale just about meaningless, had the closing monologue not proceeded to do that job itself.

It's worth seeing, especially for Hepburn buffs, but her 1937 classic, Stage Door, also made by RKO and featuring Menjou, tackled a very similar story in a vastly superior manner. (2.5)


Choke (Clark Gregg, 2008) - For the most part, an almost indiscriminate jumble of sex, offbeat sweetness, sex, boobs, sex, satire, sex, and black comedy about addiction and psychological and sexual abuse, based on the Chuck Palahniuk novel and anchored by a physically, mentally scruffy Sam Rockwell, who's frankly had better hair.

He's a sex addict (that's where all that sex I mentioned, erm, comes in) and history re-enactor who supplements his income by feigning choking fits in restaurants, donating all the money towards expensive hospice care for his mother (Anjelica Huston, in unusually mediocre form) - once a paranoid psychopath tormenting his various pretty young foster parents, now a passive-aggressive dementia sufferer lamenting her impending demise.

Whilst chasing every woman with a pulse and without a bus pass, sparring with Agent Coulson (who also directs) - as his officious, scrupulously colonial boss - and trying to stop his friend from masturbating in public, Rockwell finds himself thoroughly unable to get it up with his mum's doctor (Kelly Macdonald). But is that because he loves her, or just because they're having sex in a chapel? And then there's the small matter of his true parentage...

For a long time the film seems to be going nowhere, albeit fairly divertingly, before rather dropping off as its mean-spiritedness becomes overbearing. Then, with about 15 minutes to go, it somehow pulls its many disparate strands together in a way that makes much - though certainly not all - of what precedes a whole lot better in retrospect. Rockwell has a couple of nice moments then - he's pretty good in a somewhat muddled part - but it's Macdonald who completely steals the show, and really with only one meaty scene in which to shine; what an exceptional actress she is. (2.5)

See also: For more news on Macdonald saving films somewhat beneath her talents, see this review of The Decoy Bride. And the film, if you insist.


Dancing Mothers (Herbert Brenon, 1926)
- The intuitive essayist and former silent film icon Louise Brooks was an unstinting champion of her phenomenally popular then long-neglected contemporary, Clara Bow, with whom she shared a natural sensuality, though Brooks herself was a long, sultry seductress and Bow a flirtatious bundle of fun.

There were two Bow performances for which Brooks reserved special praise: one was unsurprisingly Mantrap, Bow's favourite of her movies (and mine, for what it's worth), but the other wasn't the legendary It or the first Best Picture winner, Wings: it was this one.

For while Dancing Mothers didn't give Clara a starring role, nor create her "flapper" image - key elements of which had turned up in the previous year's The Plastic Age - it certainly cemented the recognisable Bow image, adding a degree of unrepentant hedonism to her persona, and providing her with a character called "Kittens", which always helps.

The film begins in a fug of moral dissolution, with Bow neatly cast as a spoilt, sex-crazed young woman who goes on the pull with her dad to Napoleon-themed brothels, while her suitor (Donald Keith) impotently broods and her blameless mum (Alice Joyce) sits on her lonesome, poring over old newspaper cuttings about when she was famous. (For those who know about Bow's intense and fractious relationship with her own alcoholic, brothel-frequenting father, who abused her as a teenager and contributed to her terrible mental health problems, watching her act out a similar scenario on screen is rather upsetting.) Naturally Joyce eventually comes to her senses, turning into a massive MILF - at least in the eyes of the movie - as she tries to take sexy womaniser Conway Tearle away from her daughter, partly by pretending to be French, only for the pair to develop, like, "feelings" for one another.

The material is spotty, though leading up to a decent reveal and a progressive pay-off, while the whole cast is rather dull with the exception of Bow. For much of the film she offers only an energetic but posturing cartoon (she was after all the partial inspiration for Betty Boop), curiously playing direct-to-camera at various junctures. In the final third, though, she has two key scenes, and plays them both well: first moving from anger to surprise, mirth and finally dejection as the object of her affections spurns her; then, in the finale, acting gentle, vulnerable and quite appallingly selfish, her playing displaying many of the virtues for which she would soon become renowned, being vibrant, natural and entirely lacking in technical affectation. I can't quite see what Brooks was getting at when she hailed it as a performance for the ages, but there is at least a fair bit to admire and enjoy. In truth, Bow isn't helped by the lacklustre handling from future Laugh, Clown, Laugh director Brenon, who rarely holds her in close-up. Perhaps he simply didn't realise what he had.

It's nothing special, then: not as gloomy and laughably melodramatic as Bow and Keith's Parisian Love from the previous year, but rather drab and lacklustre, rarely making the most of its possibilities. It's worth a look for Bow, though, as well as three little things that made me smile: 1) The bit where Joyce's best friend tells her that they have long lives ahead of them, and they both light up; 2) One of the characters being credited as Butter and Egg Man; and 3) Joyce's accidentally hilarious confession: "I've lied to you - I'm not a French woman." (2)


Change of Heart (John G. Blystone, 1934)
- Janet Gaynor and Charlie Farrell were one of the most popular romantic teams in pictures, back when such things existed. He was limited if personable, but she was arguably the best actress of her or any other era, possessing a beguiling sincerity, and from the silent period - when they kicked off with three incredible Frank Borzage films: 7th Heaven, Street Angel and Lucky Star - through to early musicals like Sunnyside Up and Delicious, they were a reliable box-office banker with a solid screen chemistry.

Tastes changed, though, and this 1934 effort, blandly directed by former Buster Keaton collaborator Blystone, proved to be the last of their 12 (12!) teamings, across just seven years. The pair play a prospective lawyer (Farrell) and a writer (Gaynor) who arrive in New York hoping to make a mark, forming a love quadrangle with their college buddies: a superficial actress (Ginger Rogers) and a guy who keeps making rubbish jokes (James Dunn), followed by self-congratulatory remarks like: "Oh, that was a subtle one", after which he whips out a comb and does his hair. In 1945, the alcoholic Dunn confounded expectations by producing one of the greatest and most astonishingly raw of all screen performances, as a dissipated pipe dreamer in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, but that was a way off. Here he's merely competent in a daft role.

The film isn't really very good. Its script, co-written by playwright and character actor James Gleason - a familiar face in many of the period's best comedies - is anaemic, abrupt, luducrously melodramatic and full of excessive exposition, if occasionally effectively evoking the atmosphere of mid-'30s New York from the point of view of outsiders.

Dunn we've dealt with, Rogers is a pain - playing the "bad girl" part that was briefly her stock-in-trade - and Farrell's a mopey annoyance turned potential adulterer, leaving only Gaynor's attractive naturalism to cling onto, along with a bit of future-star-spotting in the shape of Shirley Temple - just prior to her breakthrough in Little Miss Marker - Mischa Auer and a debuting Dick Foran, billed as "Nick".

There is one absolutely brilliant scene, though, completely at odds with the silliness surrounding it, in which Gaynor shaves the recovering Farrell's face as they discuss their future. Recalling Lucky Star, one of my all-time favourites, it's a completely genuine, tender and affecting passage, full of Gaynor's warmth and understated sense of humanity, and augmented by her fond, delightful and realistic facial quirks. After that, the film brightens a little, while never approaching such lofty heights again.

This was one of two DVDs I bought with my Christmas money. (The other was Dancing Mothers.) For that one special scene, and really that scene alone, it was worth it. (2)



The Spy Who Went Into the Cold - Kim Philby: Russian Super Spy (George Carey, 2013) - This cumbersomely-titled Storyville doc deals with the most senior member of the "Cambridge Five", a communist penetration agent who rose to the upper echelons of MI6, while feeding secrets to the Russkies and getting blind drunk. The film is as erratic as they come, with a few vague psychological insights into its subject, an interesting theory that fellow spy Anthony Blunt tipped Philby off about his cover being blown, and an almost endless parade of footage in which Carey shows us the sites where some of the things happened, which is sometimes eerily interesting but more often not. To be honest, he really should have got some more source material before handing this one in to BBC4, as close-ups of Google searches of people's names don't really cut it as far as documentary imagery is concerned. There are some interesting talking heads, not least the subjects's daughter Josephine, and a few good clips - including interesting analysis of Philby's supposed British boss speaking later on a TV chat show - but overall it's a scrappily unsatisfying addition to the wealth of Philby films. (2.5)


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