Monday, 3 November 2014

Mad Love, Greta Garbo, and the good Scarface - Reviews #196

PLUS: The Sex Pistols, Lubitsch falling off his mantle and me (sort of) hanging out with Michael Caine.

Flesh and the Devil (Clarence Brown, 1926) - This is a staggering silent melodrama, with a luminescent Garbo bewitching two formerly inseparable soldiers (John Gilbert and Lars Hanson) amidst the lamplight, mist and falling snow.

The story is short, slight and so fatalistic that it's largely predictable, but that's rather beside the point. The point? That this may well be the lyrical apogee of silent cinema, with a look, a feel and an arsenal of visual innovations that set it apart from - if not above - those other wordless hymns to jawdropping imagery that dominate the landscape of the late silent era: films like 7th Heaven, Sunrise and The Docks of New York.

In any other movie, the silhouetted duel - like one of Lotte Reiniger's animated shorts - or Garbo's sacreligious communion would be the sequence you couldn't wrench from your mind for a week afterwards, but Flesh and the Devil goes one better, with that heart-stopping moment when our hero spies his fatale across a ballroom floor: twice there, twice obscured, then back in sight, then in rapturous, seductive close-up. It's one of the most extraordinary things I've ever seen on screen, and call me a hipster idiot, but I made a Vine of it:

As you might have guessed, it's a film that's at once entranced by and terrified of sexuality, a duplicitous relationship that rather works in its favour, as the story throbs with self-righteous fury, then gets periodically sidetracked (like Gilbert) by Garbo's ravishing sensuality.

She overplays a couple of moments near the end, mixing welcome realism and maniacal gesticulation, but is largely excellent, working with her favourite Hollywood director, Clarence Brown, and exhibiting most of the subtlety and all of the star quality that made her a legend within her lifetime. The much-maligned Gilbert is also pretty good in the top-billed part of a happy-go-lucky kid driven to distraction by love lost and lust, with Hanson faring the weaker of the two as his comrade-in-homoeroticism. Barbara Kent - who only departed this realm last year - rounds out the central foursome as Hanson's sister, who adores but doesn't idealise grumpy Gilbert, but can't keep pace with her more illustrious love rival.

It's narratively simplistic, then, erotically confused and perhaps a little erratically played, but it's a visual feast like little before or since, and a fitting showcase for one of cinema's most beguiling, singular performers. (4)

See also: I wrote a bit about Garbo's maligned swansong here.


Scarface (Howard Hawks, 1932) - I love it that this was made in 1932 and it's still a 15.

It's an undisputed, bullet-riddled classic of the crime genre, and certainly the most violent, unsentimental and realistic of the '30s gangster cycle - which also produced films like Little Caesar, The Public Enemy and The Roaring Twenties. It's also a hell of a lot better than De Palma's laughable '80s retread: an exercise in excess, especially in regard to how excessively long and boring it is.

The story has Italian immigrant Tony Camonte taking the Chicago underworld by force, whilst chatting up fickle peroxided floozie Karen Morley, but mostly just fancying his own sister (Ann Dvorak), who has her own eyes set on his right-hand hitman, coin-flipping heavy, Guino (George Raft).

Scarface was principally the brainchild of three men, and each brings something punchy and powerful to the table. Producer Howard Hughes was a rebel, an anti-authoritary figure who sided with the outsider, and had yet to permit his life-wrecking OCD to commandeer his films (his later works were damagingly in production for up to eight years).

Having apparently buried the hatchet after suing and counter-suing one another the previous decade, his director was Howard Hawks, the aristocratic filmmaker who made tough movies about tough men and women, with a style and economy that had made him one of the hottest properties in Hollywood. And writer Ben Hecht, an ex-crime reporter, contributed not only his street smarts, but an understanding of how gangsters spoke, behaved and ran their business.

Despite some heavy-handed moralising and a pussy-footed ending enforced by the censorship code, Scarface is a film that revels in wrongdoing, delivering a visceral excitement in those scenes where Camonte kicks the living shit out of the city. That excitement also comes from Hawks' consummate style and effortless ease: he kicks off with a mesmeric tracking shot, kills most of his victims off-camera in various imaginative ways, and - with cinematographer Lee Garmes - makes use of light and shadow in a way that would have impressed future noir pioneers Nicolas Musuraca and John Alton, particularly in the St Valentine's Day Massacre sequence, which is every bit as good as the one in Some Like It Hot - high praise indeed. There's also that first shot of Muni, his scarred face emerging from under a hot towel, and the amazing PoV in the First Ward Social Club, where you first see what Camonte is up against, then later how he intends to deal with that.

Finally, Hecht's dialogue is salty, earthy and entirely potent - there's little of the flowery, sardonic noir poetry here. Camonte is a thug who never got an education; he's not thick, he's smart in his own way, but he doesn't talk like a Hollywood screenwriter, he talks like he was raised on the streets, and intends to stay there - just in luxury.

This was former Yiddish theatre actor Muni's greatest year on screen - he would make the definitive social drama, I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang right off the back of Scarface - and he's simply sensational, a brutish, bruising monument to obsession who flits from charm to malice in a flicker. Speaking with an accent every bit as contrived as Brando's in The Godfather, he nevertheless seems utterly real, immersed in the character from first frame to last.

Raft is more well-used than he is acting well, and Boris Karloff is oddly cast as a rival ganglord, but the two female leads both score big. Morley is suitably flighty, flirtatious and scurrilous as an actress turned on by power and bloodsheed, though it's only Dvorak who can really keep pace with Muni - and arguably surpass him. Her character, Tony's horny, repressed 18-year-old sister, could have come across as forced or spoilt or annoying, but Dvorak is absolutely dynamic: hitting every note flawlessly, whether playing frustrated or sexy or vengeful. Even, in fact, when doing an impossibly dated tap routine outside a nightclub at an uncomfortable George Raft.

Scarface is undeniably imperfect: it doubtless lost something (and gained some unwanted things) during its extended battle with the censorious Hays Office, and has a few more easily avoidable problems, including a saggy mid-section dragged down by Vince Barnett's pointless comic relief, an inclusion as incongruous as if Michael Corleone banged his balls on the door handle after the restaurant scene in The Godfather, and turned to the camera, going: "Ooooooof."

It's also, though, a landmark of the gangster genre, with an energy, a ferocity and a commitment to both reality and grown-up subject matter, as opposed to Hollywood convention, that's still exciting to behold today. If you are 15 or over. (3.5)


The Filth and the Fury (Julien Temple, 2000) - In 1979, Julien Temple made The Great Rock 'N' Roll Swindle: a fictionalised retelling of the story of the Sex Pistols - the most important British rock band of the 1970s - which spouted the party line of manager and all-time bullshitter Malcolm McLaren, suggesting that he alone was responsible for conceiving of, sculpting and defining the group.

Twenty-one years later, the director kindly followed it up with this definitive documentary, which is funny, ferocious and ultimately extremely poignant, whilst telling the truth about where the band came from, what they stood for and why they fell apart. "Never mind the bollocks," you could almost say, "here's the Sex Pistols."

They weren't just about spit, vomit and saying "fuck", any more than the Beatles were about mop-top hair, Scouse accents and saying "oooooh" - that is to say, they did do those things, but they did a whole lot more besides. Paul Cook was a generic drummer, Steve Jones a horny kleptomaniac, Glen Matlock a competent if boring bassist and melody-writer, and Sid Vicious a posturing, talentless replacement who got hooked on smack and promptly fell to pieces.

But Johnny Rotten? He was something special.

A lot of rubbish is spoken about Rotten (aka John Lydon) today - that either he reneged on his punk principles or was never that great to begin with. Nonsense. He was a poet, a menace, a social pariah, an amateur working class historian and a rough-edged polemicist, who almost single-handedly invented the iconography of punk, whilst waging war on the entire British establishment. In two-and-a-half years. He is that important to British cultural history. But how do you follow that? And how is someone like that supposed to grow old - especially when left bankrupt, blacklisted and bereaved by their own 'success'.

He talks a bit of shit in the film - he always did - but who else would you want to guide you through the story - his story? Cook and Jones are good comic value (I love Cook's one-liner about his first encounter with Nancy Spungen), and the archive footage of Vicious is sort of fascinating, but it's Lydon who leaves the indelible impression - wise, legitimately bitter and ultimately broken-hearted, as he recalls Vicious's sad demise, and you realise that, in the shadows, he's crying. Amongst the wealth of archive footage, there's also a brilliant sequence in which the band hold a benefit for the children of striking firefighters in Huddersfield, doling out cake to the kids, most of which they throw at a delighted Rotten.

As a film it has a few flaws - its political contextualising is shaky, the editing is annoying, and, most damagingly, there's no live music to go with the live footage - but it's a movie with a great deal of personal significance to me, one I've watched a lot over the past 15 years, and as good a film as we'll ever get about the Pistols. (3)


Initial experiments with the Hollywood's Legends of Horror box-set:

Mark of the Vampire (Tod Browning, 1935) - This highly-rated ensemble horror from Freaks director Tod Browning is occasionally sublime but more often silly, and hamstrung by some very obvious pre-release butchery.

When a prominent aristo is found dead and drained of blood, sceptical cop Lionel Atwill, vampire expert Lionel Barrymore and several people not called Lionel try to get to the bottom of the matter. Cue Bela Lugosi and the unearthly Carroll Borland stalking the environs, accompanied by mist, eerie soundscapes and a multitude of amusingly unrealistic bats. But cue also all manner of plot contrivances, draggy dialogue scenes and acting as wooden as a stake through the heart (excepting, of course, the kindly, twinkly-eyed and always excellent Jean Hersholt).

Perhaps the problem is that there’s no reason why this film should only run an hour, aside from commercial concerns, making the narrative seem quite absurdly choppy, as we scoot forward in time, fade out during significant moments, and get less Lugosi than anyone could possibly want.

There’s oodles of atmosphere, a handful of memorable images courtesy of James Wong Howe, and Elizabeth Allan's lovely English voice, but with a story this daft and unconvincing – and nominal star Barrymore barely bothering to vary his line readings before returning to his trailer – it just doesn’t really work. Regardless, Browning was a very talented filmmaker, and his movies still cast a long shadow – this one’s DNA is unmistakably present in the work of ‘40s horror pioneer Val Lewton, which really is as good as its reputation suggests. (2)

Mad Love (Karl Freund, 1935) - A top-notch little horror, with Peter Lorre in scintillating form as a bald, brilliant surgeon driven mad by his love for actress Frances Drake, who just doesn't see him as boyfriend material.

It doesn't always have time to explore its various competing story threads, and might have worked even better without the dated comic relief from May Beatty and Ted Healy, but it's imaginatively plotted - with a nod or two to Frankenstein, as that film's dodgy doctor (Colin Clive) is taken over by a criminal body part - nicely co-filmed by a young Gregg Toland, and quite exquisitely acted by the star, who's enjoyable when playing it big, and quietly devastating when turning those huge, uneven and expressive eyes on his inner tragedy.

He's helped by some unusually incisive writing for what is just a low-budget B-movie, as well as the inventive, intelligent handling of genre specialist Karl Freund, who shot films for Fritz Lang and Murnau, made Dracula with Tod Browning, and directed The Mummy. This was his last film as a director, with MGM instead putting him to work as a specialist cameraman on prestige productions, but it's one hell of a sign-off.

Mad Love has one of my favourite trailers ever too, with a lounging, charming and fully-haired Lorre cooing into his phone as a 'fan' waxes lyrical about the actor's recent starring part for Hitchcock.

I can never see Clive without thinking of Mae Clarke's comment that he was "the handsomest man I ever saw - and also the saddest". (3.5)

The Devil-Doll (Tod Browning, 1936) - This is the sort of film you might see as a kid and subsequently wonder if you'd imagined, with Lionel Barrymore as a vengeful banker (and prison escapee) who dresses as an old woman, shrinks dogs for fun, then enlists a pair of microscopic, voodoo minions to paralyse his old adversaries.

It's a baffling collision of Tod Browning horror and sentimental melodrama (Barrymore has a daughter who's disowned him, played by Maureen O'Sullivan, best known as Tarzan's Jane) that never gels, but is as difficult to forget as it is to fully embrace.

My favourite thing about it - and there are several good things, none of which are Barrymore's 'old woman voice' - is the enormous set that Lachna (Grace Ford) clambours over on her way to multitudinous wrongdoing - an ingenious bit of filmmaking far more special than the other effects on display.

The Devil-Doll is no classic, but it rarely bores, and is - for all its daft interludes and concessions to eye-rolling hamminess - quite unlike anything I've ever seen before. Very interesting ending too. (2.5)

Doctor X (Michael Curtiz, 1932) - If you love film history, don't miss it. If you don't, don't watch it.

The story - about an unhinged medical professor stalking a Gothic house - is ludicrous, and the acting from a cast that includes Lionel Atwill, Fay Wray and the incredible Lee Tracy is surprisingly dodgy, dogged by creakiness and plenty of fluffed lines, presumably because the two-strip Technicolor they were shooting on was so expensive.

But the eye-popping sets, the casting, the Max Factor make-up and that experimental black-and-white-and-red-and-green-and-sort-of-yellow palette still amaze. The film is notable too for its populist flourishes, like having the reigning Scream Queen, Wray, enter the film screaming for absolutely no reason. (2.5)


It's all downhill from here. Which is a pity.

Billion Dollar Brain (Ken Russell, 1967) - I sat in on a Newsnight interview with Michael Caine the other day, as he was doing a show at the concert venue where I work.

One of the fascinating things he talked about - which didn't make the edit - was this ludicrous idea that he just plays himself on screen. Rather, he said, he's a bit like Fred Astaire: "You see Gene Kelly running up the walls and you say, 'I couldn't do that', but then you watch Fred Astaire, and he makes it look so easy - and you think, 'I could do that'. Trust me, you couldn't. And that's the same with my acting. 'I could do that.' Trust me, you couldn't."

That's true of his effortless, offhand performance in Billion Dollar Brain - the third instalment in the Harry Palmer series, which began with The Ipcress File (partly filmed outside the Hall!) in 1965 - lending a wit and subtlety to a film that starts with an utterly sublime scene nodding to classic noir, before declaring open war on our good will.

Part of the problem is the script, which features some fine speeches and delightfully sardonic Palmer zingers, but frequently introduces characters by having Caine simply say their name, too often plays for laughs, and has absolutely no substance: just a shrill, endless merry-go-round of double, triple and possibly even quadruple-crosses.

The cacophonous, bombastic music score doesn't help, either, especially when contrasted with John Barry's magnificent work on Ipcress, and Ed Begley's massive performance as a psychotic religious zealot can be safely filed under 'shit'.

It's sort of interesting, though, for director Ken Russell's familiarly frenzied, sexualised and operatic visual sense, some astute verbiage, and Caine's agreeable underplaying. You couldn't do that. (2)


Nancy Goes to Rio (Robert Z. Leonard, 1950) - In this film, Jane Powell uses the word "jinkies" to express surprise.

It's a grindingly dull, often quite irritating retread of the Deanna Durbin film, It's a Date (Powell's mentor was producer Joe Pasternak, who had also discovered Durbin), with a poor screenplay, a weak performance from Barry Sullivan as the love interest, and some awful comedy from Louis Calhern, who I much prefer as a Pre-Code baddie.

Powell's songs are pleasant, though - if never the match of Durbin's - and the dress rehearsal scene, in which we discover just how talented her stagestruck kid really is, works very well. There's also fine support from Ann Sothern as her mother - who doubles as her professional and romantic rival - and Carmen Miranda turns up to sing a song, which is exactly the same as all her other ones, and thus boring.

That's doomed former child star Scotty Beckett as Powell's goofy suitor. (1.5)


Madame DuBarry (Ernst Lubitsch, 1919) - Stodgy, sub-par Lubitsch: a plush but joyless, disappointingly straightforward melodrama about DuBarry (Pola Negri) and Louis XV (future Oscar winner and head of the Nazi film unit, Emil Jannings), with little of the director's famous "touch", and all of that confined to the first 20 minutes.

Negri does look quite cool masquerading as a soldier, as Lubitsch briefly explores his famous fondness for roleplay, but the master of the rom-com has little flair for action scenes, and surprisingly little chance to inject his sly sexual politics into this rigid, overblown film. (1.5)


Thanks for reading.

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