It's been quite a couple of weeks. A slipped disc in my back (again), the completion of my kids' book (only took the best part of three years) and further forays into the career of Bette Davis, a performer so talented that my admiration has even withstood seeing an interview in which she claimed to fancy Terry Wogan. Here's the latest stuff I've seen and read:
Starting with a slew of movies featuring the astonishing Bette Davis: a skilled technician (like the modern actress to whom she's so often compared, Meryl Streep), who could really make you feel (unlike the modern actress to whom she's so often compared, Meryl Streep).
Of Human Bondage (John Cromwell, 1934) - Magnificent, unique Pre-Code drama, from the Somerset Maugham novel, about clubfooted medical student Leslie Howard and his romantic and sexual obsession with a callous, uncouth waitress (Bette Davis in her starmaking role).
This stunning study of unrequited love and self-destruction boasts snappy direction in the early-'30s style, one of Howard's best and most affecting dramatic performances - though a comedic wizard, he could be unbearably smug in a straight role - and a dazzling, dynamic turn from Davis, particularly when her character has her emotions in check.
This fast-paced film dips a little towards the end, as it explodes into melodrama, but it is a remarkably grown-up and accomplished movie - especially for second-tier studio RKO - with space for an affecting bit from Kay Johnson, and an appearance from the quite astonishingly attractive 25-year-old Frances Dee.
Of Human Bondage is a short, sharp shock that still reverberates down the decades. (4)
Dark Victory (Edmund Goulding, 1939) - An oddly-paced but otherwise exceptional Warner weepie, powered by Bette Davis’s star turn as a shallow socialite diagnosed with a terminal illness. Like Ikiru’s Mr Watanabe, her immediate reaction is to drown herself in hedonism, before she makes some important realisations about what’s really important in life. Everything about Davis here is stunning, but I especially love her walk: she could define the distinctions between her deceptively disparate characters through her stride or the use of her hands alone, then slay you with those subtly expressive close-ups. In support, both George Brent and Geraldine Fitzgerald do some of their best work (I’m not a huge fan of either), but no-one can handle Davis, or ever could, really. This is the film in which Humphrey Bogart pretends to be Irish, with limited success. Sumptuously shot by Ernie Haller, though, it's another minor classic from Hollywood’s legendary year. (3.5)
The Little Foxes (William Wyler, 1941) - We need to go beyond the canon. The established canon. The regimented canon. The Empire canon of Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Back to the Future, Alien, Aliens, peak era Spielberg, Blade Runner, The Shawshank Redemption and a handful of headline old movies: Singin’ in the Rain, The Wizard of Oz and Metropolis. The Sight and Sound canon that centres on Vertigo, Ikiru and – for some reason that I can’t quite fathom – suddenly Man with a Movie Camera. The Cahiers canon, lauding Godard and Truffaut’s pet films, from underwhelming sex Westerns like Rancho Notorious and Johnny Guitar, to selected Hawks films and the lesser work of Frank Tashlin.
Between the monoliths and the re-evaluated misfires lie films every bit as good: forgotten, neglected, still classic. In terms of American films of the 1940s, Casablanca, Citizen Kane and The Maltese Falcon are great films, but they’re not the only films. It’s in the cracks beneath these landmarks that you’ll find many of the most interesting – ironically, the most memorable – movies of the period. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Nightmare Alley. Remember the Night. Ball of Fire. Hail the Conquering Hero. Broadway Melody of 1940. Films that encapsulate an era, hum with its sense of invention and imagination, spotlight actors like Joan Blondell, Barbara Stanwyck and the unheralded Eddie Bracken, showcase the dialogue of Preston Sturges, the direction of Mitchell Leisen.
The Little Foxes is another masterpiece deserving of rediscovery. I’ve seen very few films better than this over the last five years, and I consider myself an Old Hollywood nerd; yet until a few weeks ago, I hadn’t even heard of it. As far as I can see, it’s never had a UK DVD release. But look at its credentials: produced by Sam Goldwyn, directed by William Wyler (whose career is bizarrely overlooked nowadays, aside from the abysmal Ben-Hur remake, probably the worst film he made), based on a play by Southern Gothic commie playwright extraordinaire Lillian Hellman, shot by the incomparable Gregg Toland, and featuring one of the finest ensemble casts ever assembled, with juicy roles for shimmering stars and weighty character players alike.
It’s a caustic, troubling, profound examination of a Southern family brought low – or high and to prominence, depending on how you view it – by a sea of moral dissolution. Charles Dingle and Carl Benton Reid play brothers who want to invest in a new mill, paying low wages to dirt poor labourers. To do it, they need the support of their brother-in-law, bank president Herbert Marshall, and so enlist the help of his wife (Bette Davis) to swing the deal. Meanwhile, radical journalist Richard Carlson battles Davis for the soul of her daughter (Teresa Wright), a kind but naïve, weak-spirited young woman, Reid’s neurotic wife (Patricia Collinge) drinks herself into oblivion and their son Leo (Dan Duryea) becomes a willing pawn in the scheme to land the mill.
There’s only one film I’ve ever seen that has the same atmosphere of rotting wealth and moral corruption, the same richly-textured cinematography – an endless supply of apposite, entrancing, artistic, thoughtful and beguiling shots – and that’s Orson Welles’ butchered masterpiece, The Magnificent Ambersons. I don’t really subscribe to that “one perfect shot” phenomenon, since cinema is movement, but there are Toland images here that I could happily freeze and hang up above the fire, especially that stunning shot of Duryea reflected in the sign outside his uncle’s bank. Somehow, the acting is every bit as accomplished, with Dingle given a rare chance to command a scene, and taking it (despite a certain repetitiousness in his line readings), Collinge extremely moving in a potentially cliched part, Marshall a touch uncertain with his accent but unquestionably magnificent – attaining that dramatic potency he only ever reached with this director – and Davis playing a tricky part with consummate ease, balancing restraint, malevolence and burgeoning triumphalism with unapproachable skill.
Movies are a collaborative medium, but the disparate parts, the collision of massive, swaggering talents with egos to match, rarely creates anything as seamless, as measured, as potent as The Little Foxes. Nor did ‘40s Hollywood – despite being my favourite area of film – tend to produce films this grown-up, intelligent and uncompromising. It is not an easy film, a happy film, an escapist film, but it is utterly dazzling: a seductive assault on the senses, a vicious assault on its meeker characters, and ultimately an indictment of an entire nation. Hellman’s politics run through it like words through a stick of rock: you can see why she ended up getting blacklisted at the end of the decade.
You could argue that the film’s delineation between good and evil is rather simplistic for a work aspiring to high art, but it’s that heightened sensibility that gives it much of its haunting power, particularly as the vultures gather and you realise that Hellman’s vision of America – imagined by Toland, enlivened by a killer ensemble, given order by the gifted Wyler – is far darker than anyone could have expected, the blanched Davis poisoned by greed, leaving goodness, humanity and virtue all gasping for breath. (4)
- The only disappointment? That Collinge's part was supposed to have been played by the incomparable Lillian Gish. The things she could have done with it...
- Incidentally, this piece sparked a really interesting discussion of the concept of the cinematic canon, here.
*VERY MINOR SPOILERS*
The Star (Stuart Heisler, 1952) - A gloomy, sometimes histrionic low-budget drama that starts off extremely unpromisingly, but ultimately attains some essential truth. Here’s what you can expect:
- Bette Davis as a broke, deluded disaster area who used to be a movie star (patterned after her arch nemesis, Joan Crawford).
- A terribly conceived sequence in which she goes drink-driving with an Oscar statuette, and we’re supposed to feel sorry for her.
- A killer POV shot as Davis lays into her ex-lover’s wife.
- A lush Victor Young score.
- Sterling Hayden being all strapping and second-gen Scandinavian and wearing a tweed suit as per usual.
- A heap of movie in-jokes, with references to Ralph Bellamy, ‘Clark Spencer’ (an amalgam of MGM’s biggest male stars of the late-‘30s) and cinematographer ‘Ernie’ Laszlo, and a character patterned after Cecil B. DeMille
- The most unrealistically kindly movie moguls and agents this side of A Star Is Born (1937).
- A mawkish subplot about Davis’s daughter (Natalie Wood) that has been done to death.
- An eerie scene in which Davis and Hayden discuss whether Wood is in danger of falling off a boat (she did in 1981, and tragically died).
- Dated sexual politics in which ‘being a woman’ is apparently incompatible with having a career.
- Two of the best Hollywood-on-film sequences I’ve ever seen: an excruciating screen test sequence, and a follow-up in which Davis watches the test whilst falling to pieces: effectively playing opposite herself.
Not one of the star's best films, but – by the end – a valuable and fascinating experience. (2.5)
Gypsy (Mervyn LeRoy, 1962) - This faithful translation of the classic Sondheim musical is nearly great, with diverse, irresistible songs, some wonderful acting and an engrossing, surprising storyline, but is a bit too drab in appearance, a little too light on quality dancing and ultimately lacking the emotion wallop that a film of this type really needs.
Screwball veteran and occasional scenery-chewer Rosalind Russell is Rose, the ultimate stage mother, her performance big but nicely modulated, without the excesses that you worry about. Karl Malden makes for an appealing Herbie, her faithful doormat, business partner and romantic partner, while Natalie Wood is the future Gypsy Rose Lee: initially a dour, boyish (but actually gorgeous) talent vacuum named Louise. I saw the West End version of the play back in June and it fairly knocked my socks off, dominated by Imelda Staunton’s surely definitive – and even career-defining turn – as Rose.
Usually comparisons between theatrical and cinematic productions are somewhat pointless, but this is one where it works, since Mervyn LeRoy’s film is so doggedly, and apparently intentionally, rooted in its stage origins. With that in mind, it’s worth noting that the stylised, skewed-perspective sets and dazzling costumes at the Savoy Theatre were far more vibrant and arresting than in this Warner film, but that Natalie Wood navigates Gypsy’s changing modes, moods and priorities with an effortless, enchanting grace and understated human resonance that Lara Pulver’s competent turn was rather lacking. Russell plays it differently to Staunton: more obviously sentimental and sympathetic – which sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t – with bluster and screwball mannerisms in place of theatrical grandstanding, and with an effective but tar-damaged voice less obviously appealing than Staunton’s, but with no smaller emotional range (though much of that singing actually comes from sound-alike substitute Lisa Kirk, who was rather easier on the ears than Ros). The single biggest improvement in the recent stage adaptation, though, was surely Baby June's weird squeaking when she did the splits, which slayed me every single time.
I find the material both impressive and admirably nuanced – Rose is misguided but not a monster, blinkered but essentially decent – but it does have dips and wobbles and dry spots, particularly during the earlier sequences in the burlesque house, which are kitsch and campy in the worst sense of those words, with irritating, broad and clichéd supporting characters. The songs, both on stage and on film, are simply superb: some of the best that Sondheim ever wrote: pining, lushly romantic, cynical and silly in turn - from Small World and You’ll Never Get Away from Me to If Momma Was Married – a scene that comes complete with transcendently beautiful facial acting from Wood – the whole thing climaxing with the show-stopping Rose’s Turn, which wraps it up perfectly, nailing the character in five minutes of sheer leather-lunged majesty. I wish the film was always as moving, as narratively coherent, and as aware of its visual sense as during that sequence, but it is an extremely good movie musical, if not quite a great one. (3.5)
The Unforgiven (John Huston, 1960) - This is a strong but flawed race relations Western with a cracking cast, in which whites and Native Americans alike react badly to the news that the pale-faced scion (Audrey Hepburn) of a wealthy family of cattle ranchers may be a 'redskin'.
The performances take in everything from realism to Gothic melodrama, and the denouement may trouble liberals who'd been rather enjoying themselves up till then, but it's a heady brew, with committed handling from John Huston − who could be bothered to properly direct around half of his films − some extremely distinctive photography, and a fascinating ensemble. The pick of the bunch is silent screen legend Lillian Gish (though I would say that) in one of the few talkie roles requiring even an ounce of her awesome talent: indeed, it's the sound-era part she received that most suited a performer whose genius lay in the economic transmission of complex emotion through face and body alone. There are little, exalting nods to her greatest film, The Wind, while the ferocious hanging scene and the subsequent revelations in her parlour are two of the finest things Gish did after the movies learned to speak.
Meanwhile, Audie Murphy is cast against type as a bigot with a horrible moustache, Hepburn's cut-glass pan-European voice may carry disconcertingly over the plains, but she has some fine moments, Burt Lancaster is as virile, commanding and cheesily clichéd as ever (while looking curiously like sports journalist Martin Kelner), while Charles Bickford is the only one who comes close to matching Gish, as an essentially decent man struggling with a few very difficult truths. Joseph Wiseman and June Walker, by contrast, play it BIG − he as essentially a corpse on horseback, she a mad, screaming racist − and John Saxon off of Enter the Dragon appears every so often, as a Native American horse-tamer with very white teeth.
There's not quite enough story and I'm not sure it ultimately hangs together as a message movie, but there are some good action sequences, some startling visual compositions and a few memorable cues from genre favourite Dimitri Tiomkin, as well as the kind of cast that you would frankly have to be very odd to not want to see. (3)
See also: There's no link beyond the genre and the title, but I reviewed Clint Eastwood's greatest film - Unforgiven - right here.
The Hard Way (Vincent Sherman, 1943) - I've wanted to see this for ages, but it didn't quite live up to expectations. It's an uneven but sometimes dazzling backstage melodrama from Warner, with ruthless Ida Lupino scheming behind the scenes to drag her cartwheeling kid sister (Joan Leslie) to the top of the Broadway fame game.
I'm a big fan of Leslie, a rosy-cheeked triple-threat who was the best-looking girl-next-door in Hollywood and created a dizzyingly alchemy with some of the best and most charismatic male leads in movies (Bogart, Gary Cooper, Fred Astaire), all before her 20th birthday. But here she seems miscast: her routines are oddly mediocre and her inhabitation of a potentially interesting part − an apparently sweet-natured young woman happy to acquiesce to her sister's marauding brutality − seems piecemeal, especially up against Lupino's pyrotechnics.
Lupino, who was also the only prominent female director of the Golden Age, was a London-born actress who moved to Hollywood in 1939, shortly after completing filming on The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, and became one of the most dynamic and compulsively watchable actresses on the American screen, typically offered Bette Davis's cast-offs, but able to inject them with a mixture of big-eyed charm and boggle-eyed neuroticism. I love her in the unapproachably brilliant B-movie, Lone Wolf Spy Hunt − a mixture of screwball comedy and crime thriller − but it's her bonkers scene-stealing in movies like High Sierra, Woman in Hiding and They Drive by Night that tend to have attracted a committed cult following.
She's great here, often more restrained than you might usually find her, and offering a few moments of genuine pathos: like the scenes showing the grinding poverty she's come from, or the sequence in which she's effortlessly seduced by Dennis Morgan − who's just trying to humiliate her. I say 'a few moments', as her character here is increasingly cruel, pitiless and selfish: a hardening that's credible and compelling if housed in a story that doesn't always convince. It simply isn't believable that Leslie would turn the Broadway world on her ear, that Lupino could mould and manipulate people so simply, that Morgan (in one of his better performances) would switch from a cynical ladykiller to his usual bland romantic in a matter of montaged moments. But as the pouty, soot-haired operator, powered by pride, poverty and − at least at first − sisterly devotion, Lupino utterly convinces.
There are other virtues too, within the rather unlikely narrative. James Wong Howe's shimmering cinematography. A pair of stunning montages: the first a gloriously rhythmic evocation of life in the mining town of Greenhill that recalls the short films of Humphrey Jennings, the second a glitzy, '30s-style montage of Leslie's '30s successes, segueing into despair. Three fine supporting performances: Jack Carson's role as Leslie's good-hearted, naïve husband, Gladys George's barnstorming performance as an alcoholic star on the skids, and Leona Maricle's Eve Arden-ish bit as a witty writer, who seems to get much better dialogue than everyone else. For those virtues, Lupino's fire and a great last line, it's worth catching, it's just not the classic I was hoping for. (2.5)
Golden Boy (Rouben Mamoulian, 1939) - A glossy, largely unbearable high-concept boxing movie, from Clifford Odets' play, about curly-headed second-generation immigrant William Holden, a callow, sanctimonious boor who's caught between a love of the violin and the lucrative lure of the fight game. Adolphe Menjou is the promoter who takes a chance on him, Barbara Stanwyck the hard-bitten, Jean Arthur-ish girl who comes between them, and Lee J. Cobb his father, in a preposterous, movie-sinking characterisation − bits of carpet apparently glued onto his face, and each line emoted in a strangulated, cod-Italian wail.
Every good thing that happens in the film comes from either Karl Freund and Nicholas Musuraca's sumptuous cinematography − between them they shot Lang's Metropolis, Out of the Past, The Good Earth and Cat People, among some 360 other films − or an absolutely superb performance from a young, hot Stanwyck, who almost reduced me to tears in her opening scene, and went on from there.
There's the shot of her face, held in a heart shape between Holden's body and violin, as she starts to fall in love with his conflicted artist. That moment with Cobb in the doorway, the tears finally springing in her eyes. Her scene opposite Holden where she says that she doesn't want love, only peace and quiet. The way she barks: "I love Tom, tell him what?" at his replacement, the bitter toughness of her Pre-Code characterisations colliding with the self-sacrifice of her later ones. The way she slinks towards him, virile, threatening and uncompromising, after he orders her to look at him when she speaks. And, a rare moment that works without her emotional immediacy, thanks to that phenomenal photography: as moral-swamp-of-a-gangster Joseph Calleia throws a fag at Holden, and the sparks fly off the fighter's jacket, an effect I've never seen before in a chiaroscuro film.
The rest of the movie is just crap. Holden was a star off the back of this, but didn't become an actor until much later, and his titular 'hero' is absolutely insufferable: vain, arrogant, selfish, self-obsessed, blinkered, cruel, stupid, ungrateful and nauseatingly self-righteous, with his dilemma coming off as both extremely far-fetched and incredibly boring. Add to that a shapeless, episodic story, poor dialogue, weak comedy, a schmaltzy score, a miscegenation joke, a black fighter called 'Chocolate Drop' and Cobb devouring much of the scenery in one of the most ludicrous performances of his or any other era, and the overall effect is one of those movies that you hope people don't see when they're first giving classic Hollywood a go, as they're likely to just give up. (2)
True Story by Michael Finkel (2006) – I saw the trailer for a new movie called True Story, starring Jonah Hill and the perma-dreadful James Franco. The film looked iffy, but the story looked fascinating, so I sought out the book it’s based on, and while it has rather more of a ‘true crime’ flavour than I was anticipating (with all the unease, unhappiness and guilt that engenders for me), it was a cracking read. Finkel was a New York Times journalist chucked off the paper for making up a character in a feature about slave labour in Africa. On the day that the paper announced his sacking, he got a call from a local newspaper reporter in Oregon, who was ringing for an altogether different reason: a man accused of slaughtering his entire family had just been arrested, and had been telling everyone he was Finkel.
What follows is really rather like In Cold Blood – though with the author very much a character, in a way that Capote wasn’t within his ‘non-fiction novel’ – a haunting, unsettling portrait of a murderer with an artistic bent and a flair for wordplay: in this case the charming, handsome Chris Longo. Written in the style of an epic magazine feature, though with a cliffhanger at the end of almost every chapter, it’s not only the story of Longo, but a chronicle of his conflicted, almost incomprehensible relationship with Finkel, a treatise on the nature of truth and pride, and a dizzying thriller told in precise language, with real pace and panache.
It’s undeniably ghoulish and calculating, and provides only a few of the answers to the many horrifying questions it raises, but it had a big effect on me – not all of it positive – and it proved extremely difficult to put down. (3.5)
Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote (1958) – Capote’s pained, wistful, often beguiling novella could scarcely be more different from the trite, racist and simplistic Blake Edwards translation, a movie that provided Audrey Hepburn with her emblematic role, while adding a Hollywood ending and one hell of a Mancini score, but misplaced the book’s heady sensibility – which trades in romance, realism and idealism – opting instead for a stale, static and curiously literal approach. Opening in a gobsmacking nostalgic reverie, Capote’s book then takes us back to 1948, as his nameless narrator falls in love with his neighbour, an ethereal, playful, boyishly-haired all-time tease by the name of Holiday “Holly” Golightly.
There are elements that jar and grate, as Capote enthusiastically evokes the artificiality of Holly’s world – the party set-piece, her Gatsby-ish airs, supporting characters barely fleshed out enough to bother remembering – but his elegant prose, measured unsentimentality and eye for detail make it all seem somehow fresh and invigorating, despite its dated milieu and its thematic familiarity (was Holly a cliché even then, or is it merely her influence on Manic Pixie Dream Heartbreakers from Le mépris to (500) Days of Summer that makes it seem that way?). Does Capote’s book stumble and stutter? A little, yes. But does it also sing and endure, nearly 60 years on? Emphatically so: its story and its heroine as infuriating, fascinating and ultimately touching as ever it was. (3.5)
The three short stories accompanying Tiffany's are a little less persuasive. House of Flowers (2) is an unconvincing, rather tedious story set in Haiti, about a prostitute finding love. A Diamond Guitar (3) is far better: an affecting, understated gay love story about a literate, upright lag who develops a non-contact affair with a bewitching young Cuban named Tico Feo, who oddly anticipates Perry Smith - the murderer with whom Capote apparently fell in love some nine years later. A Christmas Memory (3) has become something of a standard in the US, though it's so personal, so specific and so idiosyncratic, that's a little hard to believe. I don't love it - it didn't enrapture me in the way I thought it might, and hoped it would - but it was touching and charmingly offbeat, touched with truth and wrapped up with one of Capote's favourite closing techniques: not the offhand, almost throwaway prefiguring of the future, but the poetic, symbolic leap into the metaphysical.
See also: I've got a piece on the way about Capote's In Cold Blood and its various cinematic adaptations. Do not peel your eyes, as that would be disgusting, or watch this space, as that would be a waste of time, maybe just check back in a week or two, as soon as I've watched the final distressing movie in the cycle, In Cold Blood itself.
Thanks for reading.