I've been busy writing, reading and working, but I found time to watch a few films too.
*A FEW SPOILERS*
11/22/63 by Stephen King (2011) – This is the first Stephen King book I’ve read (though I’ve seen plenty of films based on his writing), I was drawn in as a fan of American history and a sucker for time-travel stories. Jake Epping is an English teacher in 2011 who’s shown a portal into 1958, located at the back of short order cook Al Templeton’s storage cupboard. He steps through and emerges in a world of tailfins, Lindy Hopping and harrowing domestic violence. His aim: to stop JFK’s assassination by monitoring and disposing of psychotic, communist mummy’s boy, Lee Harvey Oswald – if he can survive the interventions of an obdurate past that will sling all manner of abrupt, improbable obstacles into his path. First, though, he’s got some errands to run and a librarian to boff.
11/22/63 is overwritten and overlong, with clunky prose, a silly climactic dystopia and a lot of superfluous, blunt humour, but it’s also blessed with a gripping, meticulously plotted story and an unexpected moral grace. Its treatment of time travel is interesting too, as well as creating rules of the game that give melodrama a free pass and make coincidence almost profound, building to a climax of thrilling alternate history, before proceeding to go on for another 90 pages. Along the way, there are sly winks to cinematic history (Epping’s alias, George Amberson, is surely a reference to the character in Orson Welles’ vandalised masterpiece, The Magnificent Ambersons, the first cultural object I’d save, given a time portal) and historical novels dealing with the period (Dwight Holly from James Ellroy’s The Cold Six Thousand makes a cameo), before a bittersweet ending that has more than a hint of Somewhere in Time - a much-maligned time-travelling romance with a devoted following. The book could be more economical and precise, and less hackneyed in its phrasing, sentiments and imagery, but King creates a compelling story set in an often vividly-realised world, and with an undeniably atmospheric, race-against-time crescendo best filed under ‘D. W. Griffith Does Dallas’. (3)
Next up is The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand. I'm 300 pages in and it is ridiculously readable, ideologically terrifying and a little preposterous.
CINEMA: Holiday (George Cukor, 1938) – A truly beautiful, thoughtful and romantic film that deals with politics and philosophy through the prism of a wealthy family, while doubling as an utterly captivating rom-com. Cary Grant is Johnny Case, a working class boy made good, who meets privileged Julia Seton (Doris Nolan) during the first holiday of his life, forcing him to choose between a life of capitalist conformity and the idealism represented by Julia’s free-spirited sister, Linda (Katharine Hepburn).
Based on a 1928 Philip Barry play, and adapted by the great liberal screenwriter Donald Ogden Stewart, it’s a remarkably deep, wise and incisive work that transcends its simple three-act structure, its running time and even its own story, seeming to live way beyond its boundaries in all directions. We encounter entire decades of these characters’ lives, to either side of the few weeks seen on the screen.
Though almost the entire cast are astonishingly good, the film is dominated by Hepburn’s magnificent characterisation, arguably the greatest thing she ever did on film. Novelist Kazuo Ishiguro (Remains of the Day, Never Let Me Go) introduced the film at the BFI as part of the Screen Epiphanies strand, and eulogised her acting style during this period: innumerable emotions clashing beneath the surface. Later, he said, she either lost that virtue or abandoned it, shifting to a style of “one shot, one emotion”.
Linda is a woman shackled and patronised by her family, who finds solace only in the fourth-floor playroom created by her late mother, and escape in Johnny’s infectious zest for living. She idolises and idealises the shallow, grasping Julia, while her desperate fragility breaks more than once into quivering tears. But she’s also a ferocious fighter, fiercely individualistic, with a righteous anger and a devastating wit. “I beg your pardon,” says her father as Grant obligingly engages in a discussion about his suitability as Julia’s suitor. “I should think you would,” counters Hepburn, in just about the finest tone of sardonic disgust I’ve ever heard. Occasionally she traverses into a private school manner that I find a little much (“I do, reaaaally”), but Linda’s pretty much my ideal woman – intelligent, open-minded, loyal, funny and equipped to do a forward roll or an impression of a giraffe when duty demands it – without ever seeming like a caricature or mere wish-fulfilment.
Lew Ayres is almost as good, playing her despondent, booze-marinated brother, Ned. Prohibited from following his ambitions by his father, and with his lustre drained by alcoholism, his waning energies are channelled into sad reflection and bitter observation that’s both heartbreaking and hilarious. It would be easy to be turned off or alienated by a materially privileged character stewing in listless self-pity, but as a New York Sebastian Flyte, Ayres is so specific, so assured, so intensely, insanely likeable that his scenes aren’t just tolerable, they’re tear-jerking and timeless. “He’s in a spot, isn’t he?”, he asks Linda at one point, bleakly surveying Johnny’s chances of emerging with his principles intact. Later, as she flees the nest, the catharsis tempered by his inability to break free, she tells him: “I’ll be back for you.” “I’ll be here,” he murmurs into his glass.
Grant’s Johnny is a similarly vibrant, vital creation. Before the actor became waylaid by a tedious mahogany suavity, he was the best light comedian in Hollywood, and a dramatic actor of unheralded brilliance, and he makes Johnny’s plight remarkably real. This isn’t the fast-talking, exaggerated Grant of His Girl Friday, the stylised nebbish of Bringing Up Baby or the charmingly omniscient rom-com lead premiered in The Philadelphia Story, it’s the most human and appealing character he ever played, with more to say about his world and his times than any other role he was ever given.
Holiday is a snapshot of inter-war America, and yet it endures more than probably any other American film of its period. It’s an assault on conformity, rapacious materialism and – more subtly – fascism, as the odious Seton Cram (sometime Moriarty, Henry Daniell) memorably opines that he could make a lot more money “if only the right government was in place”. It’s also a film about the purpose of living, and especially the purpose of living in a capitalist world that values acquisition beyond accomplishment. Seton Cram’s antithesis is liberal professor Nick Potter, realised by regular Fred-and-Ginger foil, Edward Everett Horton, giving the straightest (in both senses of the word) and deepest performance of a spectacular career. He’s the only actor remaining from the 1930 version of the film, and knows the material inside out. He is warm, loyal, whipsmart but deceptively shambling, his intelligence and charm put to proper use, rather than commandeered in the service of business. His partnership with Jean Dixon – as screen wife, Susan – is immensely rewarding, their relationship like a sort of unglamorous, red-brick Nick-and-Nora, blessed with immaculate chemistry and impeccable timing. There’s one small shortcoming in this film, and that’s Julia’s character. She’s instantly dislikeable, where a superficial or eroding charm would have worked far better, and you wonder whether Mary Astor might have made more of the role in the 1930 film, her ethereal beauty and undeniable sensuality hoodwinking Johnny and the viewer more convincingly than Nolan’s shrewish reading of the character.
Ishiguro was keen to explain that ‘screwball comedy’ doesn’t mean ‘screwy comedy’, it’s a spin ball (from the baseball terminology) in which events have unexpected consequences, in which entertainment meets serious ideas, in which female characters are strong and intelligent and funny, and taken seriously. He listed Holiday as one of his three favourite, alongside It Happened One Night and His Girl Friday, and reserved a special level of ire for The Philadelphia Story – which reunited the same playwright, screenwriter, director and stars, and revived Hepburn’s flagging career, two years later – a work he sees as the reassertion of capitalist and chauvinist values after the Depression (I’d argue that it’s more complicated than that, but his extreme stance is a fun starting place for a discussion).
Holiday is very funny when it wants to be, and exceptionally romantic when it needs to be (that New Year’s kiss…), but it’s the film’s intelligence, erudition, humanity and philosophical daring that sets it apart. It’s obviously derived from a play, but it’s not overly talky and Cukor’s presentation is as cinematic as it needs to be, with some fine use of close-ups. He was Hepburn’s favourite director, having introduced her in 1932’s A Bill of Divorcement, and knew how to get the best out of her: how to capture that vulnerability, that ephemeral, quicksilver quality, and that intellectual alertness that characterised both her characters and herself. There are dozens of Hepburn performances that I admire, and a half-dozen I truly love, but for me she reached a peak in 1937 and ’38 – ironically the most difficult part of her professional career – with this and Gregory La Cava’s astounding comedy-drama Stage Door.
It is a remarkable, one-of-a-kind, lightning-in-a-bottle film, catching four Hollywood acting legends – Hepburn, Grant, Ayres and Horton – at the zenith of their artistry, given room to live and breathe by Cukor, and fed almost the last word in articulate, humane and liberal mind-fodder by two writers of uncommon quality. (4)
The Catered Affair (Richard Brooks, 1956) – A sort of Mother of the Bride, translated to a working-class Bronx household, with Bette Davis as a harsh but loving mother who decides to pull out all the stops for daughter Debbie Reynolds’ wedding. She wants Debbie to have something she’ll remember all her life, but the process of planning it begins to alienate her friends and family: her older brother (Barry Fitzgerald), the matron of honour (Joan Camden) and Davis’s own husband (Ernest Borgnine) – a cab driver whose life savings, meant for his own cab, are about to be splurged on one meal.
This impressively low-key drama, originally filmed for TV with Thelma Ritter, made the transition to the big screen after the success of Marty – also written by Paddy Chayefsky. He characterised The Catered Affair as “an unfocused piece, in which the first act was farce, and the second was comedy-drama and the third was abruptly drama”. There’s some truth in that, but I think the celluloid version – adapted by Gore Vidal – is more coherent and cohesive than he’s suggesting (aside from a cheering but tonedeaf ending). Its problems are more an overabundance of similar viewpoints, Debbie Reynolds’ character – who seems to have wandered in from a frothy rom-com – and the fact that it just isn’t very funny; Fitzgerald’s scheming and scowling is good value, but the rest of it is either too vague or too stressful to make you laugh.
It is, however, an unusually thoughtful, honest and poignant film, set largely in an admirably scuzzy little apartment and with fine work from Fitzgerald, Borgnine, Camden (in an arresting bit part) and Davis. Her identikit line-readings struck me at first as a shortcoming, but that’s not typically a problem she has an actress, and I came to think of it as the key to her character. That rasping, dropping voice is a positive choice Davis has made to hammer home Agnes’s weariness and emotional repression. With her usual – and indeed increasing – lack of vanity, she looks dowdy, even haggard as she crafts a character who’s neither a selfless saint nor a mommie dearest, but a real person blessed with few illusions and beset by the chronic, thankless monotony of life. When she responds to a private character evisceration by wordlessly plaiting her frazzled hair, it is a moment of rare profundity: I’ve found that tragedy is usually and perversely accompanied by such shell-shocked mundanity. (3)
See also: Ritter and Davis starred together in All About Eve, the best movie ever made about the theatre.
I was supposed to be seeing this at the BFI, but TFL cancelled all the trains, so I streamed it on Amazon instead. £3.49 in HD if you want to do the same:
America, America (Elia Kazan, 1963) – Kazan’s epic, based on his uncle’s journey from Anatolia to America, is uneven but unforgettable, with many fine moments and astonishing Haskell Wexler cinematography. The director’s style seems so effortlessly virtuosic, juggling moods from absurdist comedy to frenetic violence, rhapsodic joy and despair, or else conjuring them from thin air through immaculately composed monochrome imagery and remarkable but unshowy editing.
The film suffers a little from formal artificiality – everyone speaks English, the accents are a shambles and the juxtaposition of location photography and synthetic studio sets in the early stages is frustrating – but the cast looks just right (no Hollywood glamour here), and from Fordian or Seventh Seal-ish silhouettes on a hillside to that quietly overwhelming kiss of the turf, the film shows a man whose command of his medium is absolute – the climactic coughing montage on the boat a simply extraordinary bit of filmmaking.
As you might expect from the late Kazan, though, he remains transparently tortured by the shame and guilt of his appearance before HUAC, in which he ‘named names’ of fellow communists. When the hero (Stathis Giallelis) says he keeps his honour ‘safe inside him’, he is echoing not only the character’s collaborationist father, but also the writer, director and producer, who oscillated endlessly between seeing his own actions as cowardly or heroic.
It is, ultimately, a film about the opportunities that America affords immigrants, and the hardships it is worth enduring to get there, which is both an enduring message and one likely to ring bitterly hollow for the foreseeable future. There’s also a bit where someone's told that they'll have to change his name from ‘Kardashian’ if they want to make it in America. (3)
*ONE SPOILER IN THE FINAL PARAGRAPH*
Drive a Crooked Road (Richard Quine, 1954) – A very worthwhile and unexpectedly moving little noir, with Mickey Rooney typically excellent as a badly-scarred, self-loathing and possibly autistic mechanic, who's recruited as a getaway driver by ruthless playboy criminal Kevin McCarthy and his hard-boiled moll (Barbara Foster).
At times its low-budget is a hindrance – with an endlessly repeated musical motif and a pathetic opening set-piece dominated by lousy back-projection – while Jack Kelly's part as McCarthy's wisecracking heavy is basically just annoying, but Blake Edwards' story is genuinely affecting, there's some quietly iconic imagery and breathless action (the climactic drive is heart-in-mouth stuff, despite its overall vagueness and process shots), and Rooney is enormously touching as the lonely, unloved dupe whose great love is just a sham.
At his best, Rooney was arguably the finest screen actor in America (Young Tom Edison, The Human Comedy, National Velvet), but he typically needed both good material and a director who could rein him in. Here he seems to have both, and compared to his other best-known noir, Quicksand, in which he's supposed to be sympathetic but is written rather like a psychopath, this one comes off very nicely. It's rare to find such a gentle, sweet-natured, and quietly and consistently moral crime film; one that's about love, dreams and goodness, rather than lust, money and man's dark heart. Warner arguably did something similar with probably the oddest film in its '30s/'40s gangster cycle: Brother Orchid.
It'd be nice if Columbia and director Quine had put a bit more care into the finished product – even the impressive finale has one incompetent bit of staging that should have been re-done, as a man 10 yards away is shot by a bullet that goes directly upwards – but the film is sufficiently distinctive and original enough to succeed anyway, while leaning on all those noir tropes that I love so dearly.
"I never thought I'd make a killing on some guy's 'integrity'."
Sweet Smell of Success (Alexander Mackendrick, 1957) – A spectacularly cynical late noir, with Tony Curtis's best dramatic performance, as gorgeous, amoral press agent, Sidney Falco, who slimes his way around a vividly-realised, nocturnal NY, trying to save his own skin. He'll do whatever it takes to break up the romance between an idealistic jazz guitarist and a fragile young woman (Susan Harrison), in order to win the favour of her brother: all-powerful, creepily possessive Broadway columnist, J. J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster), one of the movies' most frightening villains.
Director Alexander Mackendrick called satire "the snarl behind the smile", and here that snarl is barely concealed, as he mercilessly drags tabloid muckraking, capitalist compromise and phony patrotism under the lens. It's the feel of the thing too, though: a sweaty, desperate, and seductive trawl through the seething, rancid underbelly of urban America. It's in the striking performances and the avant garde angles (some of which are positively Wellesian). It's in the textures and timbres of Elmer Bernstein's classic jazz score. It comes from the peerless NY flavour, with stunning use of street locations by the great James Wong Howe; the bruising, blistering dialogue from regular Hitchcock collaborator Ernest Lehman (who wrote the original novella) and legendary playwright Clifford Odets.
It's also an enormously entertaining film, once you become attuned to its eye-watering misanthropy (or at least that of its characters), until it begins to stop and stutter with 20 minutes to go. Characters had to be punished in this era, and the tricks that the script has to play in order to do it are worse than fraudulent, they're laboured. There are flashes of inspiration and irony in those last two reels, but the intrusion of bathos into this nightmare vision has never worked for me. This is one movie where comeuppance should be outlawed; where sweetness doesn't spell success. (3.5)
Sherlock: Season 4 – A disappointing fourth series of what used to be the best show on TV, with flashes of brilliance but an awful lot of self-satisfied nonsense and bum-squeaking tedium.
The Six Thatchers – Mary’s got a secret and apparently we care. This opener was difficult to follow and had far too many platitudes in its script (a major problem with Gatiss’ writing), though it was terrifically acted and the music was fantastic.
The Lying Detective – An hour of light-hearted escapism about Jimmy Savile (terrifyingly rendered by Toby Jones), followed by an insanely good closing 30 that made this whole series worthwhile. The reveal was astonishing.
The Final Problem – Silly, disengagingly overblown, self-parodic silliness, with our heroes forced to play The Crystal Maze with Ayn Rand. The closing montage is a reminder that Sherlock was most fun when he, y’know, solved crimes. (2)
Thanks for reading.