Thursday, 27 February 2014

Laughton, the Lanes, and Woody does Lang - Reviews #185

The latest reviews update, in which I watch a couple of good things and then nearly drown in dreck.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame (William Dieterle, 1939) - "Everybody thought he was a genius," Rex Harrison once said of Charles Laughton. "I didn't. I thought he was more of a show-off, really."

This spellbinding film, from Hollywood's greatest year, is the most forceful rebuke to Sexy Rexy's silly, green-eyed contention you're ever likely to find, offering considerable evidence as to why Harrison found himself in a minority of one.

The mighty Laughton is Victor Hugo's tragic hero, Quasimodo, the deaf, childlike bell-ringer of Notre Dame Cathedral, whose passions are awakened by the arrival of the beautiful gypsy girl, Esmeralda (Maureen O'Hara), in Paris to seek clemency for her people from the King. His head isn't the only one that's turned, though, as she unwittingly attracts the attention of three other men: a poet (Edmond O'Brien), a soldier (Alan Marshal) and a sexually repressed clergyman who believes she's been sent to drag him to Hell (Cedric Hardwicke, in delicious form). Cue potential tragedy, and enter Quasimodo.

Filmed on an enormous, astonishingly detailed set, Dieterle's film evokes an almost unparalleled atmosphere, presenting 15th-century Paris as a place of social oppression, fervent spirituality and crippling superstition, its streets teeming with life, violence and hatred, the whole city at a turning point in its history. At the centre of this maelstrom, as the printing press spreads dissent and the ruling class spread discord, is a true innocent, brought to stunning life by Laughton in a remarkably restrained, nuanced and enduringly affecting performance. He's sparingly used until the film's final third, but it's his presence that dominates throughout, as he wins our pity, our sympathy and then our affection, while essentially allowed to act with just half his face, the remainder covered in remarkable prosthetics.

There are stunning passages studded throughout the film, like the Fools' Day parade and the trial of Esmeralda (which ends with the indelible line: "... together with your accomplice, the goat"), but towering above all is the unforgettable "Sanctuary! Sanctuary!" set-piece, which remains simply one of the greatest, most spine-tingling sequences ever put on film. And who else but Laughton could have pulled it off? Probably not Rex Harrison. (3.5)

This review was written for MovieMail.


WOODFEST '14: Shadows and Fog (Woody Allen, 1991) - Woody Allen's homage to Expressionism - particularly Kafka and Fritz Lang's M - never quite gels, but it's unusual and amusing all the same.

Allen is in full Bob Hope mode as a nervous nebbish sent out by his vigilante mob to trap a strangler in the shadow-shrouded nocturnal streets. Unfortunately no-one's shared the actual plan with him, and so he just wanders around, incorporating a gallery of grotesques and lost souls, including a circus sword swallower (Mia Farrow) who dreams of a family but has ended up at a whorehouse.

Blending ruminations on mortality and a strange subplot about anti-semitism in a Third Reich-like state with absurdism and Woodyish one-liners could conceivably have worked, but here the elements just sort of sit alongside one another, rather than congealing into a satisfying whole.

It looks fantastic, though, with Carlo DiPalma's cinematography ladling on plenty of the eponymous elements, and while there are some scenes that don't work - largely those featuring the killer - there are also some great ones, in which Farrow explores her desires or Allen tries to comprehend the spiralling situation. Watching him weasel up to his boss, try to satisfy warring vigilante factions and childishly gloat at the murderer via a magic mirror is an absolute delight.

The film also has one of the director's most peculiar and eclectic ensembles, with the excellent Farrow sharing a love triangle with Malkovich and Madonna, while Jodie Foster and Lily Tomlin play prostitutes, John Cusack is one of their clients, a young John C. Reilly turns up as a cop, and Donald Pleasance appears as a very creepy doctor.

After a devastating purple patch between 1984 and '89, Allen dipped a little on Alice and this one, before roaring back with Husbands and Wives, as his life and reputation fell to pieces. (3)


"You can be such a -"
"Pretty cool human being when you're not being a first class, Grade A bitch."
The Faculty (Robert Rodriguez, 1998) - Pod people take over an archetypal American high school in this typically sharp comedy-horror from the pen of Kevin Williamson.

That smart set-up allows for some astute commentary on the potential benefits of blank-minded assimilation, as well as Williamson's usual amusing inventions - it seems aliens can be killed by chucking drugs at them - and superior dialogue, laced with post-modern genre references, a few overt, a few not.

It isn't as consistently great as it might be, with some dodgy CGI, wish-fulfilment for geeks and nonsensical plotting, but there's lots to enjoy, with a steady stream of shocks and surprises, and a cracking cast.

Bebe Neuwirth is particularly fun as the headteacher, and there are turns from budding stars Elijah Wood and Josh Hartnett, supported by a gallery of familiar faces (Robert Patrick, Famke Janssen, Salma Hayek, Piper Laurie and Jon Stewart) playing the faculty. There's also Harry Knowles, which I suppose is one way of ensuring your film gets a good write-up.

Perhaps ironically, given Williamson's considerable flair, my favourite scene is entirely wordless, an apparent homage to The Birds in which our band of misfits stride out of the school building in slow-motion, observed by a mass of gormless alien fizzogs. Rodriguez has proved a wildly unreliable filmmaker, but he handles this one quite nicely, and that sequence is both obscenely exciting and hysterically hip. (3)

See also: I wrote about Rodriguez's Mexico Trilogy here.


This is the best pitch ever for a film.

Varsity Show (William Keighley, 1937) - A pleasant but completely nondescript "campus musical" - back from when that was a thing - right up until a big, bold Busby Berkeley finale.

Dick Powell plays a failing Broadway producer petitioned by (apparently overage) students at his old college to come in and save their annual show from clueless, meddling headmaster Walter Catlett. Powell turns up with grouchy Ted Healy in tow, is mistaken for a fresher by a dominatrix - sorry, sophomore - who insists he call her "ma'am" and be spanked on the bottom, then proceeds to get off with her, which is frankly inappropriate. She's played by Rosemary Lane, incidentally, who along with her better-known (and more talented) sister Priscilla was making her debut here.

The script, cast and numbers are bland as can be, until Buzz intervenes in typically bombastic fashion. First John Bubbles does a flamboyant tap routine in front of some giant sheet music, then it's twirling batons galore and synchronised hoofing, before Berkeley takes to flinging pigskins at 3D flags of various US colleges, each one created by a hundred or so dancers, as the soundtrack hollers their anthems. Not his best by a long shot, but middling Berkeley is still something to behold.

Apparently some 40 minutes of the film were snipped by Warner for its re-release, and no longer exist. On the strength of what remains, we didn't lose another Ambersons, though a couple of numbers in the trailer look better than most of those that remain. (2)


Pretty Woman (Garry Marshall, 1990) - This has been a recruitment video on behalf of the prostitution industry. (2)


Kindergarten Cop (Ivan Reitman, 1990) - Oh early-1990s, you guys crack me up. And with this high-concept action-comedy you must have created about the highest and most lowbrow concept ever: Arnie, playgroup, let's go!

Beyond the premise, it's just screenwriting by numbers, with every development signposted in advance, and every tick-box checked, from mawkish motivation to the requisite action climax. And in the foreground are a bunch of kids who can't act, but in the presence of Arnie "doing comedy" look like a RADA reunion. Then there are those parts, erm, "borrowed" from crime classics White Heat and The Narrow Margin, and what seems like five solid minutes of a car repeatedly pulling over so someone can be sick.

The best you can say for the film is that Penelope Ann Miller is quite good as the love interest, it has undisputably the greatest title card of all time, and there's a sign outside a shop saying "Owl drugs", which I hope is what it sells, rather than its name.

I'd always remembered this as being fun. But it's not fun. How could a film called Kindergarten Cop not be fun? (1.5)


... and an early contender for this year's This Film Is the Worst award:

Enchanted April (Harry Beaumont, 1935) - Yikes. I'm not a very cynical person, but this artificial, unconvincing drama is a bit twee, even for me. It's also quite outrageously uninteresting. "I don't know why San Salvatore makes me so drowsy," ponders one of the characters. Me neither, but the feeling's mutual. I could sense myself growing increasingly jaundiced, grumpy and ever so sleepy under the film's malignly benign influence.

Ann Harding and Katharine Alexander are the unhappy American housewives given a new lease of life by their stay at an Italian villa. The script is profoundly irritating - mixing weak comedy, self-pitying drama and inexplicable subplots - and the film completely fails to evoke Italy through a mixture of second-unit footage and back projection.

Harding was a really good actress, but she's unbearably bright-eyed and unfunny here, aside from in the climactic scene. She and screen husband Frank Morgan fared much better in the excellent 1933 film. When Ladies Meet. In support, Reginald Owen tackles the material with all the subtlety of a knee to the face, as we head towards one of the worst endings I've ever seen.

Apparently the 1991 version is rather wonderful. I'll have to watch it, after I've destroyed all copies of this one. (1)


Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Me and Shirley Temple

Stop all the clocks. Turn off the projectors. Dismantle the Hollywood sign. Old movies are dead.

That's how I feel about the passing of Shirley Temple, the curly-topped little moppet who had an incalculable impact on 20th century popular culture, and as big effect on my own existence as just about anyone else I never met. As a 29-year-old, 21st-century Englishman who didn't go near an old movie until I was a teenager, I'm about as far away from Shirley's target audience of Depression-era Americans as it's possible to get. And yet I loved her.

Of course I'm fascinated by her place in cinematic folklore and 20th-century history as a whole. I'm intrigued by the way she effectively defined the persona of the child star, breaking box-office records as she went. And I'm impressed by the way she graduated from a child star to an adult, giving stellar turns for Selznick and Ford, before deciding that her dreams lay in disappointing me by becoming a Republican.

But in the end none of those things really matter. Not the politics, the records, nor her place in popular culture. Rather, I just love what she brought to the screen. I love her films, and the megawatt charisma, unbounded talent and irrepressible joy with which she imbued them. Her vehicles were formulaic in the extreme - studio Fox would always leave her with one screen parent at most, usually a dad, so adult audiences would instinctively want to mother her - and yet there isn't one that I wouldn't happily sit down to watch this minute. That has little to do with Allan Dwan's sense of visual composition or fondness for a weird fantasy sequence about clogs (Heidi), the often epic production numbers (Poor Little Rich Girl) or even the sight of Guy Kibbee dressed as a baby (Captain January), though that is great. Instead, the reason stands about three feet tall, and has 56 meticulous curls atop its chubby round face.

I first heard of Shirley Temple when I was 10 and a tuneful classmate sang the actress's signature song, On the Good Ship Lollipop, in school assembly. As you might remember, I was one of those doing the actions in the background. I've always been fascinated by history, and this blast from the past interested me no end. I decided to find out more. Then I forgot. It took my immersion in old movies at the age of 13 to really set the wheels in motion. From then on in, I frittered away my paper round money on Shirley-branded DVDs in pink cases, as if they had once been in fashion and were now going out of fashion. Some of my interest was doubtless ironic teenage posturing, but most was a fascination with Shirley's unique iconography - the way her image was marketed, enjoyed and consumed, coming to represent an entire era of American history - coupled with the fact that her best movies stood comparison with just about anything made during that period, and that she was unfailingly extraordinary in them.

In simplest terms, she was a superb actress with incredible screen presence, who could play an emotional scene as deftly as anyone, keep up with the hoofing of the incomparable Bill "Bojangles" Robinson (admittedly in his later years), and present distinctive, definitive versions of standards both sappy and sublime. She effectively created a cottage industry of Shirley Temple Films and while, yes, the weight of the studio system was behind her, it was her natural talent and force of personality that sustained it through good movies and bad. Her persona of the indefatigable child, confronting tragedy with a smile and quite often some sort of a song, could - indeed would - have been cloying or wearisome in the hands of almost any other young performer. Instead, she attained an essential, simple truth in her acting, while positively commanding your attention. She was a child actor for whom you had to make no excuses, only apologies to the veterans she was tramping under her feet. Across five years of star vehicles - some 15 films in total - she proceeded to refine, even re-define the idea of the child actor, becoming the infant star by which all others would be judged, as she delivered again and again and again.

If we play the fun game of reducing her movies to pocket summaries of her characters, then a few of my favourites would have to be Imperial Shirley (Wee Willie Winkie), Civil War Shirley (The Littlest Rebel) and Chinese-speaking Shirley (Stowaway), though it seems a shame to miss out such delights as Splashy Shirley (Just Around the Corner), Lollipop Shirley (Bright Eyes) and indeed Breakout Shirley (Little Miss Marker), the one in which she laid waste to a gallery of usual scene-stealers and embarked on the path to superstardom way back in 1934. Imperial Shirley was in fact a movie made especially for me, being based on a story by my favourite poetic imperial tubthumper (Rudyard Kipling), starring my favourite heavy-set British character actor (Victor McLaglen) and directed by my favourite filmmaker of all time, the mighty John Ford. Incidentally, because doubtless everyone will bring it up today, Graham Greene did indeed accuse Fox of "pimping" their young star, in his review for the film (for their part, they slapped him with an enormous lawsuit), claiming her characters were weirdly sexualised. As satire, it was kind of funny, but as a proper critique of her presentation, it doesn't stack up. Her characters bantered with male adults, and wrapped them round her finger, but always in the service of a story that required her to do so in order to avert some tragedy for herself or others. And while her skirts were indeed shorter than most other child stars', that was more to accentuate her dancing, ultimately becoming part of her image.

From 1939, Fox let Shirley grow up. Slowly. She got her first kiss in 1942's Miss Annie Rooney, gave a stunning, beautifully modulated performance in the irresistible Home Front drama, Since You Went Away, then kept pace with two of the greatest ever light comedians - Myrna Loy and Cary Grant - in The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer. A year later she reunited with Ford for Fort Apache, the first part of his legendary Cavalry Trilogy, where she and the greatest of all American directors reconvened their mutual appreciation society to unforgettable effect.

Some of those films I've seen lately, some not for years, but all have stuck with me in one way or another: sometimes just an image, a line or a song, but always Shirley, never her more decorated co-stars, which I think is the mark of a great actor - certainly a great star. And, aside from the days lost lazing on the sofa, watching old Shirley films (20 at last count, many numerous times), my life has been peppered with happy Temple-related memories.

I watched half of Stowaway with my future best man prior to going clubbing in sixth-form. (Stowaway, of course, has one of Shirley's best performances, a gaggle of great numbers and that "macaroni" joke.). I devoured '30s newsreels on a public domain site with my younger brother ("Oh thank you very much, Mr Cobb", from her birthday celebrations, became our shared catchphrase) before we watched Just Around the Corner together. And then I made that t-shirt online and wore it to death, until my dad said it was weird. After I met my future wife, one of our first days together was spent watching The Littlest Rebel. That's the one with Pollywollydoodle, which was my answerphone message at university. I used to use "Curly Top" in bios or as an online title, and Shirley as a profile pic, until I got that serious haircut a couple of years back. Indeed, when I applied to Empire Magazine's Thunderdome competition in 2006 - which was searching for amateur writers - I described myself as combining "the hair of a young Shirley Temple with the easy-going affability of a young Dennis Hopper". I didn't win. I also wrote to Shirley, expressing my admiration. I never heard back. Then I tweeted her, when she turned up on everyone's favourite micro-blogging site, and she didn't reply then either. But then she had a million fans, so I didn't hold it against her. MUCH.

In a way, for those of us who don't know Shirley, it doesn't matter whether or not she's still around. I never met her, I never would have.

And yet, as her light goes out, as she goes to win round the grouchy old grandad in the sky, it feels that a link to our shared heritage has been severed, that those flickering silver images are a little further away, their faces and voices a little fainter.

Saturday, 8 February 2014

The complete Woody Allen (continued) - Reviews #184

That's frankly a deeply misleading title. I've no idea what possessed me to use it. There's no way I'm revisiting most of his noughties films, because they're rubbish. Still, I was more than happy to go back to these ones, which are coming up in chronological order:

Zelig (1983) - "I'm 12 years old. I run into a synagogue. I ask the rabbi the meaning of life. He tells me the meaning of life, but he tells it to me in Hebrew. I don't understand Hebrew. Then he wants to charge me $600 for Hebrew lessons."

It's a little piece of Allen genius, but there aren't many one-liners in this brief, ingenious mockumentary, inspired by the faux newsreel near the start of Citizen Kane.

Woody is Leonard Zelig, the "human chameleon" who unwittingly inhabits the physical characteristics of those around him, a trait that turns him into a national sensation during the Jazz Age. Mia Farrow, in her second film with the director (though the first to be shot), is the psychiatrist who brooks the medical consensus by insisting that his problems are all rooted in his mind. Shot as a retrospective documentary, complete with taking heads and perfectly rendered "newsreels", not to mention a fake film-within-a-film and spoof novelty records, it's an incredible technical achievement, armed with an effortless sense of the credibly absurd, and with a real purpose behind it.

Because what might appear at first glance to be a throwaway, one-joke comedy is actually a deft satire on celebrity and conformity, with an inspired sting in the tail. In fact, the film's only real shortcoming is that it lacks the emotional pull of most of Allen's other '80s films: the scenes in which he and Farrow converse in relative privacy are the most affecting and funny in the picture - but they're also too brief and few in number.

It's a must-see, though, because it's something completely different: a pitch-perfect pastiche with a real purpose, a sharp sense of humour and a slightly underdeveloped presence of heart. Plus Farrow in a doctor's coat. This is the film that launched my enduring crush (on her, not on doctors). Hubba hubba. (3.5)


September (1987) - This is Woody's most underrated movie, an emotionally draining, Bergmanesque chamber piece drawing abstractly on the Johnny Stompanato affair, as a self-pitying bag of nerves (Mia Farrow) - still haunted by shooting dead her mother's gangster boyfriend decades before - interacts with other unhappy souls at her Vermont house.

There's her outwardly vivacious mother (Elaine Stritch) - a former movie star accompanied by her husband (Jack Warden) - a moody writer with whom Farrow is besotted (Sam Waterston), the married woman he loves (Dianne Wiest), and Farrow's own, benevolent suitor (Denholm Elliott).

The film underwent a notably difficult production, with Allen being forced to entirely reconstruct the interiors of Farrow's country house on a soundstage, before scrapping a first attempt at the material after it had been finished, re-working the script and replacing half the cast. But the artificial, stagily claustrophobic setting works wonders, and - while it would have been interesting to see Farrow's mother, '30s movie star Maureen O'Sullivan in the Stritch role - the additions do have their compensations.

The material is some of Allen's best. Though Farrow's character can come down on the wrong side of whiny, there are proper psychological factors underpinning her behaviour, and the criticism from various reviewers that these people's problems aren't worth caring about seems flatly shortsighted. Yes, they're middle-class, white and largely affluent, but their confusion over their identity, their thwarted passions and their purpose in life are surely universal, and not caring about someone who's mentally ill because they're a bit annoying is The Wrong Response.

The Stompanato story is a great basis for a study of childhood trauma echoing down the decades, and Allen's recourse to physics in trying to articulate the chaotic meaninglessness of existence, if rather conveniently achieved (Stritch's husband happens to be a senior physicist), cleverly underscores a film that's positively throbbing with emotional angst.

The movie does have a few shortcomings. It arguably reaches its zenith at about the midway point, during a nicely conceived power-cut - as Elliott lays bare his feelings for Farrow, and Wiest struggles valiantly with the pull of adultery (oh really, Woody, how novel) - and has its moments of repetition, while Waterston, though not bad, frankly can't hold his own in this kind of company. But most of it's very special indeed. It's intelligently directed, scored by some lovely Art Tatum tunes and, belying the project's rocky history, Allen seems in total control of his themes and his language, shorn of the verbal artificiality that can sometimes intrude on his drama. The acting, though, is the real treat.

Farrow has some brilliant passages, Elliott is absolutely sensational, and Wiest gives her greatest performance ever, casting a torch into every flaw, every frailty in her character's psyche. The scene in which she succumbs to temptation is a masterclass in screen performance: a credible epiphany articulated largely with the back of her head. She's miserable, sensuous, guilt-ridden - often all at once - her voice cracking over her dialogue, her eyes full of fire. I know she's only acting, but boy is she good at it.

So why does September never get bracketed in with those Allen classics? Frankly, your guess is as good as mine. Possibly because it's only got about three jokes, and sombre isn't what people expect - or want - from Woody. Possibly because its trailer is the worst marketing job of all time - wordless close-ups of the actors' faces - and people who saw it have never got over it. Or possibly because all those who've seen the film were so dumbstruck by how ace it was that they forgot to tell anyway. Anyway, it's great: the most unjustly-neglected film in Woody's back catalogue. See it. (4)


Crimes and Misdemeanours (1989) - One of Allen's true masterpieces, and arguably his most ambitious film: a pair of faintly interlocking stories unfolding in successive chunks, one a gripping, gutting tragedy, and the other a hysterically funny comedy.

The serious story is an astonishingly intense, brilliantly-directed piece about a doctor and philanthropist (Martin Landau) trying to deal with his mistress (Anjelica Huston), a loose cannon intent on bringing his world down around his ears. The other narrative is lighter than air: a comedy classic about Allen's resentful, unsuccessful documentary maker being asked to shoot the authorised biography of his brother-in-law (Alan Alda), an impossibly smug TV producer and his rival for the affections of colleague Mia Farrow.

It's superbly put together - its pivotal event falling at the exact mid-point - handsomely shot by Bergman's favourite, Sven Nyqvist, and full of Allen's distinctive dialogue. Do people talk like this? Perhaps not anywhere I've been, and yet the language is deep and beautifully pitched, the themes universally resonant, and the characters diverse, real and unforgettable, brought to life by a remarkable cast. There's Landau's conflicted atheist, Huston's hysteric, Sam Waterston's thoughtful, almost angelic rabbi, Allen's frustrated thinker, Alda's apparently superficial success story, and a pair of different yet equally lonely women in Farrow and Caroline Aaron.

Its central theme - tied up in a lovely closing voiceover - isn't only the obvious one suggested by the title, though I don't want to say more here, or indeed to spoil my favourite joke in any Allen film, which comes when Woody has to explain to his wife the misfortune that has just befallen his sister.

It's a film that manages to be bleak, heartbreaking and yet ultimately, somehow, uplifting, often in the most unexpected of ways. (4)


Alice (1990) - Isn't it annoying how Americans pronounce "herbs"? Yes it is.

Anyway, onto the film. This is a mature, idealistic if somewhat shambolic Woody Allen comedy-drama which interrogates the complacent lifestyles of his usual set, while throwing in a few supernatural and comedic flourishes.

Mia Farrow is the titular character, a lapsed Catholic who goes to see a mysterious Chinese acupuncturist (the great Keye Luke), only to have her back pain diagnosed as upper middle class malaise. Luke gives her a succession of improbable potions to take, which allow her to study, and alter, her comfortable life.

Some may quibble with the usual Allen idea that leading a more truthful, worthwhile life involves cheating on your partner, but Farrow is excellent, the music is particularly well-chosen, and there are several unforgettable sequences in the film's rather jumbled, erratic narrative.

Alice's brief transformation into a vampish, jazz-loving flirt is funny, while the passage set around her childhood home is simply one of the best things Allen has ever done, incredibly beautiful and profound. The same might have been said for the spine-tingling sequences featuring the ghost of her great love, had someone more talented than Alec Baldwin been cast in the part. (3)


"He has come into possession of some very alarming information."
"Like what, did he get the results of his IQ test back?"
Don’t Drink the Water (TVM, 1994) - What have you achieved so far in life? Me neither, but I have seen every one of Woody Allen's theatrically released films. I make that slightly neurotic distinction because, well, neurotic is Woody's default mode, and it also explains where this movie comes in.

Don't Drink the Water was a daft diversion, made for American TV, which Allen squeezed in between Bullets Over Broadway and Mighty Aphrodite, and had always eluded me until now. So, in light of my recent rewatchathon of some of Woody's finest (and Sleeper), I sold my DVD of The Mask of Dimitrios, as I've started doing with movies that don't quite match my expectations, and replaced it with this one. Is that interesting? I just don't know anymore.

Allen wrote the source play in 1966, when the Cold War material was not just timely but so relevant as to be almost satiric by default. It was made into a film three years later starring Jackie Gleason, but Woody hated that, the annoyance apparently enduring for decades, until he could attempt to put it right.

I haven't seen the original, so I can't compare, partly because I wanted to watch Allen's version first, and partly because the late '60s was a wasteground for American screen comedy, with most of the hits having dated far worse than their '30s equivalents. Of course I'm generalising massively, but on the one hand you have Allen's directorial debut and The Graduate; on the other, The Producers, Casino Royale and an abundance of mediocrity in which once great actors, directors and writers seemed to mislay their talents and their supposed replacements failed to deliver: Caprice, Walk, Don't Run, Support Your Local Sheriff! and those slapstick epics that make me want to cry.

Anyway, the plot here, as apparently in those earlier versions, concerns a young diplomat (Michael J. Fox) who's left in charge of the US embassy in Moscow while his dad's away. It's at this juncture that a family of snap-happy American tourists (Allen, regular collaborator Julie Kavner -the voice of Marge Simpson - and Blossom-era Mayim Bialik) run into the building, chased by Russian soldiers who think they're spies. The rest of the film has them trying to extricate themselves from the building and the country, and along the way there's space for many of Allen's preoccupations: new love, mystics, magic and Michelangelo.

It isn't very well-directed - the 4:3 format doesn't suit Allen's visual style, and his camera always seems to be about 15 feet away from whoever's talking - and in all honesty the film never really gets going, but it's pleasant enough, it's interesting to see Allen and Kavner essentially playing versions of his real-life parents, and every 15 minutes or so there are a flurry of funny lines. There's also the ageing Woody pretending to be a gunslinging cowboy, which wasn't something I ever expected to see.

A footnote then, really, but a fairly fun one, and worth it for fans.

Now I'm going to sell it and get something else. (2.5)


Deconstructing Harry (1997) - A film as swaggeringly confident as its lead character is pulsatingly uncertain, kicking off with a run of cool jump cuts set to syncopated jazz, then guiding us through a flamboyantly non-linear story studded with wisdom, philosophy and Allen's signature one-liners.

"Y'know, it's funny, every hooker I speak to tells me that it beats the hell out of waitressing," he tells Cookie, his prostitute of choice, while putting his clothes back on. "Waitressing's gotta be the worst fucking job in the world."

That's right, this is the sweary one: Allen's most adult film and perhaps his most obviously autobiographical, dealing with adultery, anxiety and alienation once more, but zoning in on the idea of a writer who is exceptional at his craft, but hopeless at life. That dichotomy is illustrated by the broad range of friends, ex-lovers and literary creations peppered throughout the film, most of whom want to tell him what a reprehensible human being he is, but not in such polite terms. For all that, he is off on a road trip to receive an honorary degree, like the main figure in Bergman's Wild Strawberries.

The first half of the movie is extraordinarily good: ingeniously structured and full of inspired diversions, though the second, whilst frequently superb, does see Woody getting slightly tangled up with his story threads and throwing in a couple of fantasy sequences too many.

If you're one of Allen's acolytes, though, it remains an extremely interesting, important and insightful film, and, aside from his two genuinely great '90s films - Husbands and Wives, and Sweet and Lowdown - the best thing he did that decade, bursting with ideas and hysterical gags, and benefiting immeasurably from both his assured central turn and Judy Davis's amazing performance as his impulsive, insecure ex-mistress.

This is also the film in which an actor finds that he is literally out of focus, a concept that could only have hatched from the mind of one writer. (3.5)


Scoop (2006) - Well, this is awkward. The film, I mean. Very awkward. Clunky too. And stilted. Not as awkward as having your film part-funded by BBC Films, shooting it in London, and then not being able to get it released in Britain. But awkward nonetheless.

ScarJo, as I believe we're calling her now, is a journalism student in what I think is supposed to be England, except that no-one in England acts or talks like this, and you can't get a Coke in a glass at a bakery. Still, there are loads of people off English telly, like Phil Cornwell as the neighbour of a murder victim, Charles Dance as a journo, Alexander Armstrong playing a policeman and Romola Garai playing one of those (again, apparently English) women written by Allen who basically say nothing except "Daddy". So I suppose it must be England.

Woody meanwhile, is ScarJo's sidekick, a stage magician who's cajoled into helping her after he accidentally summons the ghost of a dead reporter (Ian McShane) during his act, who in turn gives her the scoop of the title: playboy millionaire Hugh Jackman might be the "Tarot Card Killer", basically the new Jack the Ripper.

It's a mixture of murder mystery and comedy where the suspense mostly consists of people trying not to get caught looking around a secret room, where Jackman has this annoying habit of killing Allen's one-liners dead if he's in the vicinity, by going "Ha" really unconvincingly, where ScarJo's performance largely consists of her wearing glasses, and where the script spends as much time explaining why the characters can't run their news story or go to the police as it does on the good stuff.

In fact, the whole thing feels slapdash and half-finished.

But I can't help it, I just quite like it. When Allen's not trading on upper-class English stereotypes, he has some really funny lines, McShane is fun in support, and the whole thing is basically slightly better than Sleeper. I'm not trying to re-appraise it as a classic, that would be silly (look at all that stuff I wrote above), but its status as Allen's worst movie is frankly daft. It's lively and well-intentioned and actually kind of fun. And have you seen Cassandra's Dream?

"I'll do the jokes, Sandra." (2.5)


Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Ten things I learned about Woody Allen

Woody Allen - A Documentary (Robert B. Wiebe, 2012)

First things first, as it's all over the papers. I don't know the truth about Dylan Farrow's allegations against Woody Allen. I'm a huge fan of Allen as an artist, and would hate for these things to have been happened (I haven't been able to watch a Polanski film in years), but the crucial thing is that the truth be established. This typically superb Onion piece says something about the quandary facing fans, as trivial as this is in the context of the allegations.

It seems an odd time to watch an Allen doc, then, but it arrived in the post recently, I had a spare three hours, and this insightful, incredibly entertaining film is chiefly about Allen's work, rather than his life. And rather wonderful it is too, if you can put the headlines briefly out of your mind, full of intimate interviews and rare footage, even if it becomes a little shapeless towards the end, and seems to think Match Point is a great film. The clips from that and Vicky Cristina - along with on-set footage from You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger - do illustrate just what a creative slump he was in prior to Midnight in Paris. The doc scores a (3.5).

Ten things I learned:

1. Allen (born Alan Konigsberg) chose a nom de plume because he didn't want people at school asking him about his gag-writing for newspaper columnists, and picked "Woody" because it was the first thing that came into his head.

2. As a nipper, he was too active and "too much of a child" for his mum. She later regretted being so strict, saying he would otherwise have been a softer, warmer and less impatient person.

3. He regards his first four or five films as funny but "essentially trivial".

4. What does he see as his legacy? If his life had been snuffed out by a nanny at an early age, as it almost was, the world "would be poorer a number of great one-liners".

5. Production nuggets: cinematographer supreme, Gordon Willis, was known as "The Prince of Darkness" due to his grouchy disposition and fondness for low-level lighting (as showcased in The Godfather). The first scene he ever filmed for Allen was the celebrated lobsters sequence in Annie Hall. He shot Manhattan in super-widescreen (2.35:1) because Allen thought it would be interesting to make a small romance on that visual scale. Woody was never as specific as to tell him to shoot Stardust Memories in a Fellini-esque way. Casting director Juliet Taylor kept a folder of "Woody faces": eccentric-looking character actors she thought he could use.

6. Allen decides his next project by emptying a draw full of scribbled ideas onto his bed and going through them one by one, waiting for inspiration to strike. One says: "a man inherits all the magic tricks of a great magician".

7. Purple Rose originally had Michael Keaton in the Jeff Daniels part, but Allen thought him too contemporary.

8. He sends a personalised but formulaic covering letter to every actor along with the script, essentially saying they can embellish it and chuck out the speeches they hate, and if they find the prospect of working on this one nauseating/disgusting/grim, he still hopes they can work together in this lifetime. He only seems to have signed off the one to Scarlett Johansson with "I'm a big fan."

9. He claims Hannah is a bleak film that audiences thought was optimistic due to his incompetence (I think this might be a fib if you look at the final scene, which he admittedly added belatedly).

10. Farrow confronted Allen about his pictures of Soon-Yi Previn over the phone, whilst Allen was with producer Robert Greenhut. Which must have been quite tricky for everyone involved.

It's highly recommended for committed Allen fans, though I'd caution against others getting a copy, because if you hate him you'll hate this, and if you're still investigating his work there are a lot of spoilers. I'll leave you with this beaut from one of the stand-up clips:

"I had a rough marriage. Well, my wife was an immature woman and, ah, that's all I can say, she... see if this is not immature to you: I would be home in the bathroom, taking a bath, and my wife would walk right in, whenever she felt like, and sink my boats."

See also: The first in my "Ten things I learned..." series was on Michael Winterbottom.

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Tom Hiddleston, The Wolf of Wall Street and the first of Fonda - Reviews #183

Here are the things I've been watching lately. Wow as I get a bit bored of Scorsese's latest. Thrill as I watch a Janet Gaynor film. Coo appreciatively as you read a potted biography of John Barrymore.

CINEMA: The Wolf of Wall Street (Martin Scorsese, 2013) - So what's all this then? Basically Banks of New York, with Leonardo DiCaprio as hedonistic stockbroker Jordan Belfort, the kind of guy who caused the global recession.

Here he is having an awesome time. Look at his wife. Look at his car. Look at the size of his house. Here he is snorting cocaine off a hooker's boobs. Here he is doing it another eighteen times. Here he is making money. He has lots of money.

Scorsese's admirers will tell you that the director's presenting the facts about Belfort without comment or embellishment, and letting us make up our own minds. I don't buy it. Look at the final shot of the agent assigned to Belfort's case (Kyle Chandler), then try to tell me we're supposed to be energised on his behalf, rather than gloating on his adversary's. I'm not saying Scorsese is on the side of rapacious financiers, more that the film's gleeful tone is a botch job.

The film is troubling and immoral, then, but is it any good? Not really, no. There's an unshakeable confidence about it, DiCaprio gives an assured star turn in the Catch Me If You Can mould, and there are some big laughs and good scenes, particularly near the beginning: Leo having lunch with his mentor - weird, unrepentant über-Gecko, Matthew McConaughey - aceing a penny-share sale, quizzing Jonah Hill about marrying his own cousin, and sparring with FBI agent Kyle Chandler on the deck of his gargantuan yacht. But while I chuckled a bit at DiCaprio's monstrous arrogance, there's a point where I stopped caring what was happening, or deriving any pleasure from the story. I think it was the 408th orgy.

I've seen the film compared endlessly to Goodfellas, but it's more like DePalma's wretched remake of Scarface. It's just deadeningly debauched: a three-hour, one-note exercise in coke-fuelled, fleshy excess with almost no narrative impetus, virtually nothing to say, and even a certain desperation in its supposed strong suit of comedy. Isn't it funny to chuck a dwarf around? Lol when he's on drugs DiCaprio says it's like having cerebral palsy. Now he's effectively raping a woman on a plane. What a card.

Given the critical bouquets being flung in its direction, I was expecting something special. But if you want a film that embraces con artistry, examines the American Dream, and delivers nuanced characterisation to go with its razor-sharp comedy, try Barry Levinson's eternally overlooked Tin Men, one of the great films of recent decades. Scorsese's best since Goodfellas? This is barely his best since his last film. (2)


National Theatre Live: Coriolanus (Josie Rourke 2014)

Coriolanus: "I had rather have one scratch my head i' the sun.
When the alarum were struck, than idly sit
To hear my nothings monster'd."

I want to monster Tom Hiddleston's nothings. (3)


Sightseers (Ben Wheatley, 2012)

"Bye, Mum."
"You'll be back."
"I will, Mum, in a week."

Badlands. In the English countryside. With jokes.

I missed Down Terrace and found Kill List a major disappointment - albeit an intriguing one - but A Field in England, one of the most fun film events of last year thanks to its simultaneous multi-platform release, suggested Wheatley was clicking into gear impressively, another slightly iffy story given superlative, (then somewhat pretentious, long-winded) treatment. Sightseers, his third film, looked better yet, with a fun trailer spotlighting an ace premise and some sly gags - and so indeed it was.

The story sees Tina (Alice Lowe), an ordinary girl from the Midlands, leaving her impossible mum behind to go caravanning with her new boyfriend, Chris (Steve Oram). They're hoping to take in some historical ruins, the Keswick pencil museum, and a fair amount of in-caravan boffing, only for his anger issues to fatally intrude.

The best thing about the film is its tone: aside from Tina occasionally being too dense and one radio broadcast that goes too broad, it creates an affectionate, believable adult relationship - very British in a way rarely seen on screen - within a credible environment of camp stoves, macs and rainy walks, then proceeds to chuck shards of black comedy and bloody violence excitedly into the mix.

While the story is fairly simplistic, though with one particularly clever development, the script is absolutely exceptional, and both leads are superb: Lowe perfectly articulating a certain sort of lovelorn but upbeat, unambitious 30-something Brit, and Oram personifying an outwardly avuncular but troubled man held hostage by his creative impulses, which aren't necessarily matched by his talents (oh dear, that sounds like me).

Wheatley's direction is mostly quite restrained, but with a few agreeably unusual shots (the door closing on Lowe's mum is inventively done) and a handful of extremely effective, intensely edited montages, rich in symbolism and with great use of music, including Donovan's Season of the Witch.

I'm in two minds about the ending. Wheatley seems to be obsessed with these abrupt finishes, where you can almost see him sitting back in his chair, going: "How about that, then?", and thinking that what he's just done is jawdropping, rather than mildly unexpected. On the other hand, this one is broadly in keeping with the story, and works fairly well.

All in all, Sightseers zips by. There's no real message or depth, but it does offer some amusingly askew philosophy, a little suspense - generally alleviated only as and when someone is dead - and a lot of good jokes, including Lowe's memorable putdown of her boyfriend's writing career. (3.5)


When the Wind Blows (Jimmy T. Murakami, 1986) - Hell. A devastating animated feature about the Atomic Age from the writer and director of The Snowman, which takes Peter Watkins' seminal drama-doc The War Game as its jumping off point, showing an archetypal, retired English couple as they prepare for an approaching nuclear strike.

Voiced by a perfectly cast Johnny Mills and Peggy Ashcroft, with a Roger Waters score that oscillates between wistful tranquility and doom-laden industrial mayhem, it's also a technical wonder, juxtaposing cartoons and strikingly grim photography as it juggles fantasy, reality and reflection to consistently remarkable ends, its gentle tone evaporating as the bomb approaches.

The World War II and wedding photo sequences - the latter surely an influence on Up's "Married Life" segment - are as moving and exalting as anything you'll ever see, depicting a world that at least, to these people, made some sort of sense.

By contrast, the film's long, slow and unremitting descent into ugly, pock-marked death is utterly horrifying. All this in a world that makes no sense at all. As much as Mills tries to reassure his wife, and himself, that there's some Government plan, that some help is on the way, he - and we - know that there's nothing. (4)


Alfred Hitchcock triple-bill:

Dial M for Murder (Alfred Hitchcock, 1954) - One of Hitchcock's most straightforward and entertaining films, with little visual innovation, just a meticulous, involving story about urbane psychopath Ray Milland plotting the murder of his wealthy wife (Grace Kelly), after learning of her affair with a mystery writer (Robert Cummings).

Taking place largely in a single London flat, it has just one notable set piece, and even that could have been done by a dozen other directors. But freed of the need to craft and then tie together those ambitious, show-stopping sequences, Hitch is instead able to throw his energies into making the clever, intriguing but stagy material cinematic and alive. And he's helped by a decent cast, with Milland in good form as the former tennis pro investigating a new and lucrative career in sociopathy.

A scene featuring Kelly's persecuted head is bafflingly rendered and the ending to this thriller could do without so much Basil Exposition, but those are minor quibbles with a first-rate film. (3.5)

Rope (Alfred Hitchcock, 1948) - Hitchcock loved an experiment. In 1954 he would shoot (almost) an entire movie, Rear Window, from a single vantage point. Six years earlier he presented this popular stage play as a "single take" feature - with one cut and some rather obvious cheating.

The effect is of being permitted on stage during a play with no scenery changes, and having Hitchcock push you around the set, occasionally grabbing the back of your neck to show you what you should be looking at. It's arguably negated by zooming in and out of someone's back every 10 minutes (Hitch's somewhat artless way of obscuring the joins between takes), and there's probably a reason why the exercise has only been repeated once or twice, but it's an interesting approach and one that really suits the material.

Rope used to be regarded as a lesser work, but is now ritually listed among his classics, perhaps because its technical showboating is more appreciated; perhaps because its cynicism is easy for a modern audience to embrace (while I've lost count of the number of times someone has praised a film noir for its nastiness, I'm yet to hear anyone laud an old rom-com for its consummate niceness).

Or perhaps its critical standing is simply because it's very good indeed: the gripping story of two murderers (John Dall and Farley Granger), patterned after Leopold and Loeb, who hide the body in a chest, throw a tablecloth over the top and invite the victim's friends and family over for the evening.

The first and last five minutes are rather weak, but the rest is first-rate, full of clever touches and lashes of black humour, with Dall and Jimmy Stewart very well matched: the former a superficially charming Nietzschean superman, the latter his erudite, endlessly joshing former mentor, and the one guest who smells a rat. (3.5)

The Man Who Knew Too Much (Alfred Hitchcock, 1956)
- Forget the story and feel the suspense, as Hitch uses that old kid-in-danger set-up to serve up a succession of virtuosic set pieces.

A dead man walking through a Marrakech market place.

Jimmy Stewart trying to make a critical phone call as he's interrupted by some luvvies, and heading to a secret rendezvous tracked by noisy footsteps.

The mesmeric, pulsating Albert Hall climax, which builds from a concert performance to one of the tautest sequences in the Master's oeuvre, as Bernard Herrmann conducts, a statesman watches, and a gaunt gunman lurks.

And Doris Day belting out Que Sera, Sera at the top of her lungs, hoping it will rouse her kidnapped kid, and bring him back to her.

(There's also that usual bit where Hitchcock gets really excited by a staircase.)

Hitch's loose remake of his own 1934 effort, concerning an innocent couple mixed up in an assassination attempt, is a film with many great things in it, rather than a great film. The script feels slight, padded and lacking in panache, Day and Stewart exhibit little chemistry, and the kid would like wildly out of his depth in a school nativity (look, I'm cool, I picked on a little boy). And then there are those hideous process shots that blight a lot of Hitch's '50s work (some unbearable critics have suggested he's purposefully introducing a theatrical unreality to his work; yeah, he's not, he just didn't realise how crap they looked).

But while the leads never quite click with one another, they both offer a great deal individually. Championing Stewart is, of course, as uncontroversial as thinking the effects in T2 were quite impressive for their time, but being a Day fanboy is resolutely uncool today. That's perhaps due to her wholesome image and the clunkers she was later forced into by her agent husband, but she was a remarkably talented woman with a singular voice. While her performance is best remembered for her Oscar-winning rendition of Que Sera, Sera, she also gives the film the undercurrent of love and humanity that it needs, lending the disorientating, brilliantly-filmed Albert Hall sequence an added feeling of maternal desperation.

It's those imaginative, self-contained and perfectly paced set-pieces that are the film's raison d'être, and those - as well as a certain slickness of production - that lift it out of the class of the original, even without Peter Lorre's delicious presence. (3.5)


John Barrymore double-bill:

The Beloved Rogue (Alan Crosland, 1927)
- John Barrymore was one of the greatest actors of the 20th century. That's simply a fact. His performances as Richard III and Hamlet on the stage in the 1920s revolutionised Shakespearean acting and inspired the likes of Gielgud, Olivier and Orson Welles. But it's often hard to make out his undoubted genius in his screen work, which was erratic to say the least.

That was down not only to the different demands of film acting when he was at his peak - less physical and at that stage soundless - but also his general disdain for the medium, and for the roles he found there. He went into movie acting because he was easily bored, abhorred repetition and liked money. And so although he is brilliant in the mental health drama A Bill of Divorcement and in parts of Wyler's punchy Pre-Code legal melodrama, Counsellor-at-Law, although he lit up Twentieth Century when perfectly set up to chew all the scenery he liked, although he provided brief flashes of brilliance across a half-dozen other roles, from Don Juan to Topaze to Midnight, it's often hard to reconcile the two Jacks.

On the one hand there is the consummate artist, a dizzyingly talented, ambitious thespian who reinvented himself from a light comedian to a mesmerising tragedian across less than five years during the Jazz Age. And then there is the increasingly hammy, increasingly dissipated "Great Profile", playing every role for a laugh, with a raised eyebrow in place of a performance.

So it was with some excitement that I came across The Beloved Rogue, an extravagantly mounted silent version of the story later made as If I Were King (script by Preston Sturges), in which Barrymore - if not approaching his scintillating Shakespearean apex - is at least astonishingly good. There are moments when that eyebrow makes its dreaded appearance, when he skips around merrily like a pointy-bearded pixie, but then he does something like the scene by the snow-capped monument, removing his Fools Day disguise as his heart quietly breaks, and all is forgiven. That passage is so touching and so beautifully restrained, the whole effect created solely with his eyes. There are lush love scenes too, rousing speeches, and several stunning sequences where his poet goes tête-a-tête with his king (an extravagantly weird, intensely good Conrad Veidt), and this vision of Barrymore, the greatest actor of his age, hoves quite unexpectedly and gloriously into view.

For those not familiar with the story from the respectful, lushly-mounted Ronald Colman version, Francois Villon (Barrymore) is a pickpocket and carouser who also doubles as France's national poet. He loves "France earnestly, Frenchwomen excessively, French wine exclusively" - not true of Barrymore, of course, who had no great feeling for patriotism, loved all women excessively and drank anything. Some people think he's a ledge, I think he's a tragic alcoholic who followed in his father's footsteps by throwing his God-given gift down the toilet. But not before doing things like this. Anyway, back to the story, in which Villon finds himself at loggerheads with the scheming Duke of Burgundy (Henry Victor) and so with the superstitious, weak-minded King Louis XI (Veidt), while vying for the hand of the monarch's hot ward (Marceline Day).

There are four credits that stand out. Director Alan Crosland essentially sounded the tinny, Jolson-y death knell for silent cinema the same year by making that abysmal first talkie, The Jazz Singer, but fills this one with lovely, stunningly-lit imagery, assisted by future John Ford cinematographer Joe August. William Cameron Menzies was a magnificent art director who worked on the likes of The Thief of Bagdad (the silent version) and Gone with the Wind, as well as directing Things to Come (great sets, boring film), and produces a grubbily opulent Paris, complete with a massive great tower for the climax. And Paul Bern, remembered today - if at all - for his marriage to Jean Harlow and tragic, mysterious demise, was a first-rate screenwriter who penned The Marriage Circle for Lubitsch, and wrote MGM's all-star film Grand Hotel five years after this one. His script here is dramatically imperfect, with a few sequences that stall the film's momentum - most notably the reunion between the hero and his friends at the palace, and his later torture - but it's full of rich characterisation, cleverly-conceived action sequences, and remarkably deft dialogue in its title cards, including plenty of witty verse for Villon.

Given over to Colman, Villon was an engaging if rather safe, smug speechmaker. In Barrymore's hands, he's quicksilver: a mercurial man driven to extremes by all-consuming passions: love, lust, righteousness, patriotism and drink. Though the film frames him as a swashbuckler in the Douglas Fairbanks mould, Barrymore is far too sensual to play an everyman, or transmit a straight-up heroic quality, and that makes the film, and his ultimate, fascinating conversion into this Christ-like figure, all the more intriguing. It is, to all intents and purpose, a piece of escapism, as Fairbanks' historical pictures were, and a slightly flawed one at that. But when Barrymore hits the heights, he's a far better actor than Fairbanks - or just about anyone else - ever was, taking Villon, and us, to new and incredible places. (3.5)

Trivia note: That's unmistakably Dickie Moore as the baby Barrymore, in his first screen appearance. Moore went on to feature in more than a hundred films, including Peter Ibbetson, Lubitsch's Heaven Can Wait and Out of the Past. He's still knocking around today, and is married to fellow former child star Jane Powell.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (John S. Robertson, 1920) - Did Mr Hyde have such comically oversized hands in the book? He looks like Miley Cyrus at the VMAs. This is a reasonable silent version of the oft-told tale, with John Barrymore having fun in the dual role of the idealistic doctor and the monstrous, big-handed alter-ego into whom he pours his moral failings. The film is pictorially static and dodgily adapted, with as many dry spells as great moments, but it's definitely worth seeing for Barrymore's performance(s), even if his troubled, nuanced, rather gorgeous Jekyll is more substantial than his off-the-scale Hyde. Incidentally, director Robertson was the figure immortalised in one of The Byrds' greatest songs, Old John Robertson. In his dotage, the Stetson-wearing eccentric was a figure of fun to Chris Hillman and the other neighbourhood kids. (2.5)


The Farmer Takes a Wife (Victor Fleming, 1935) - I don't like it, Mummy. Henry Fonda looks too young. This was the first film of Fonda's 56-year screen career, as he brought his breakout Broadway role to the screen, playing the titular farmer, who romances a feisty cook (Janet Gaynor) whilst working on the Erie Canal. And very smooth-faced and bushy-tailed he is too.

Its stage origins are obvious, but it is opened up well in places into something like Americana, evoking an under-represented area of U.S. history - the east just prior to the mid-19th century railroad boom - and throwing in a few references to the likes of Lincoln and Booth, wagon trains and government treaties with the Native Americans, which places it in context as well as just being good, eerie fun. It's also nicely photographed by Ernest Palmer, who shot many of Fox's best late silents, including 7th Heaven, Street Angel and The River for Borzage, and Murnau's City Girl.

There's plenty of character business featuring Slim Summerville, Andy Devine, Margaret Hamilton, Sig Ruman and John Qualen, though the film is at its best when either evoking a pastoral idyll or focusing on Fonda and Gaynor. The source of their trouble, for there's always trouble, is not unlike that in the Tom Waits song Fish & Bird ("He said, 'You cannot live in the ocean', And she said to him, 'You never can live in the sky'"): she won't leave the canal and he wants a farm. To be honest, it's rather an uninteresting dynamic - and the subplot about Fonda's "cowardice", featuring annoying Charles Bickford, is retrograde nonsense - so their earlier scenes are the best, but they're both such talented actors that they can make anything look good.

Fonda's technique is a little stagy in places, but it's surprising how quickly he adapted to the requirements of screen acting (and his adorable habit of prefixing any word starting with "w" with "huh" is present and correct: "Like huh-what?"). And Gaynor is just fantastic, cast in an unusually fiery part that recalls her early scenes in Lucky Star. It's a pity that the only existing print is missing a few frames here and there, making their first meeting choppy and sometimes difficult to follow.

The film is inconsistent to say the least, both dramatically and stylistically, and there's a character from "Yorkshire" whose accent is frankly very Welsh, but it has a few lovely moments as well as a pair of very attractive star turns. (2.5)


Thanks for reading.