Fourteen Hours (1951)

March 15, 2011 § Leave a comment

In the time it takes a room service waiter to get some change and turn around again, a man crawls out on the window ledge, threatening to jump to his death. It may be marketed as a film noir, but I think it’s more accurate to simply call Fourteen Hours a drama, based on a real-life incident a few decades before the film was made. The film switches between a few different bystanders in the growing crowd on the street — which includes Jeffrey Hunter, for those Star Trek fans out there, and a first film appearance for Grace Kelly — and Robert Cosick (Richard Basehart) on the ledge, as the character is visited by various elements from his past, all produced by the police under the assumption they’ll be able to talk him down.

The performances are all excellent, particularly Richard Basehart as the disturbed young man and Paul Douglas as a likeable cop that does fairly well getting through to him and creating a certain amount of trust. The atmosphere and production values are both outstanding, and the film does a particularly striking job of establishing a quiet, almost desolate early morning city in the first few moments, and building towards a climax with hundreds watching the drama unfold while a handful of briefly sketched but well-acted characters making clumsy attempts to help. It’s like an orchestral piece that begins with a few sleepy notes and builds to a riveting finish.

I don’t know what it is that draws me to films that use a simple narrative framework to find a particular focus, but much like Westerns, I think the straightforward structure helps to heighten the impact of the film. The only thing that reminds the viewer it’s a film and removes the viewer from the drama somewhat is the presence of several vaguely creepy psychologists, impeccably dressed and hanging around making pronouncements nobody challenges in the slightest. It feels a bit standard for mainstream American films of the 1950s to have an unquestionable professional, of one kind or another. In science-fiction films, he’s the one smoking a pipe, examining the alien body and explaining how their advanced technology works as though he’s seen all this a few times before. And I choose my pronoun carefully, because it’s never a woman. At the same time, these dated elements don’t ruin the film, which has interesting, but not overly pat statements to make about our broken methods, and our collective tendency to sometimes produce broken people. Not all of them are on a window ledge in the film, but others are there too. Fourteen Hours may be remembered mainly as the first Grace Kelly film, but it also deserves to be remembered as a compelling and nearly flawless drama.

I Wake Up Screaming (1941)

January 27, 2011 § Leave a comment

Despite the occasional title so simplistic is seems to dismiss any notion of real content, film noir is a fascinating genre. It’s a dark genre that’s full of shadows and snappy, backbiting dialogue (Trevor Howard, in the excellent British noir They Made Me a Fugitive explains he once killed a man with a beer bottle, and then adds “Don’t worry, it was an empty bottle.”) yet it often seems to conform to certain film conventions — the formation of a couple at the end, and the vindication of the innocent. It’s as though the genre is a highly dramatized metaphor for the kind of muck we’re sometimes dragged through in personal struggles, or even the larger struggle in society to make progress, a process that often seems to involve two steps forward and one step back. It’s a genre that seems to say we’ll get there, but we’re going to have a hell of a time doing it.

The hero is frequently a reasonably attractive everyman, and in this early noir it’s Victor Mature as a show-business promoter named Frankie Christopher, accused of the murder of one of his discoveries, Vicky Lynn (Carole Landis). Much like Laura (reviewed here) the film introduces a handful of men that were practically obsessed with the murdered woman, though this time Christopher slowly learns to appreciate her sister Jill — also attractive, but in a less conventional way — in a subtle illustration of the difference between lust and love. But the best and most fascinating performance in the film belongs to Laird Cregar as a policeman so keen to arrest Christopher he’s willing to invest his own time and money. To call him a physically imposing presence is an understatement — he’s a wall that moves around the room threatening to close in on Christopher. And without giving away too much about the film, the script gives him one scene that completely humanizes the character. While a viewer watches a film like this expecting that most of the actors will certainly have died by now, I was surprised to discover the sad detail that Cregar only had feature roles in a handful of films before dying of heart failure at 31 years old.

It’s pretty much a dead genre, film noir. Even if it had a great deal of stylistic influence on generations of filmmakers, it somehow couldn’t translate into colour, or a world where men don’t wear hats and people don’t frequently smoke. In the film world, it’s somehow a bit of an evolutionary dead end, and a modern attempt at a noir needs to borrow so many old trappings it can feel like parody as much as tribute. But they fascinate me, because much like Westerns — which have, of course, survived the decades more comfortably if they’re produced less frequently these days — the simplicity of the framework allows for some remarkably strong statements to hide in plain sight. They’re a curious urban brother to Westerns — so overtly stylish they sometimes threaten to be cartoonish, and yet they’re all based on some kind of strange, secret and vaguely shameful truth. If our modern-day mythology starts with the pioneering spirit of Westerns, film noir is the urban, unavoidable next stop. And it’s only if we ever get to a perfect world that it will be completely obsolete.

Laura (1944) and Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950)

December 28, 2010 § 1 Comment

It’s rare to see a film that’s feels both highly improbable (almost an urban fable of some kind) but absolutely perfect, so that you wouldn’t want it any other way. In Laura, Dana Andrews is excellent as tough New York detective Mark McPherson, slowly falling in love with the portrait of murdered advertising executive Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney). Hunt was an astonishingly beautiful woman killed at point-blank range with a shotgun, making for an odd balance of beauty and ugliness (or gracefulness contrasted with horrific behaviour) right from the beginning. McPherson begins by interviewing one of her closest friends, influential newspaper columnist Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb), who provides most of the witty lines, and begins the spell by describing Laura, the woman that’s certainly the one thing he’s allowed in, past his penetrating caustic wit, in many years. In an early role in his career, Vincent Price is perfectly fine, though less comfortable in the part and less convincing as a young man who claims to have been engaged to Laura, and the one she truly loved. Without giving too much away, it becomes clear quite soon that while various people speak about the highest and most noble aspirations, they operate according to base desires for possession, wealth and status. Detective McPherson seems to be capable of movement the other way around — he begins with cold statements (when asked if he has ever loved, he replies “A doll in Washington Heights once got a fox fur outta me”) but is somehow inspired to something better, even if only by a ghost he’s getting to know through others.

The first time I saw Laura five years ago, I thought it was a well-produced drama with a good score, cinematography and performances. And then I forgot about it. But I recently returned to it after seeing Where the Sidewalk Ends, with Andrews as another tough detective, this time an extremely violent one trying to overcome his harsher instincts and working desperately to cover up his accidental killing of a prime suspect. Tierney returns as his love interest, in a supporting role where she’s nevertheless memorable as someone that represents the kind of life he can manage to have if he wriggles out of his current situation. It’s also a very well-produced film, though closer to the kind of film noir that visits gritty city streets repeatedly, and doesn’t have the presence of any character along the lines of an intellectual newspaper columnist. Once again, Andrews is excellent. Where the Sidewalk Ends certainly doesn’t manage to feel like any kind of fable, and is closer in tone to something like Panic in the Streets (1950), but is still a solid drama, putting the viewer in the curious position of pulling for a cop that’s trying to cheat the system. While Laura is another murky journey towards truth and redemption, most of the conversations are in living rooms and various fairly affluent homes. Looking back on the careers of Tierney and Andrews, it’s easy to see how they could’ve been tremendous stars (both weren’t, for various reasons), though I  hope they were content with interesting careers, and in Laura, at least one remarkable film.

Robin and Marian (1976)

November 12, 2010 § 1 Comment

Sean Connery would play James Bond for the final time in Never Say Never Again (1983), the only Bond film to recognize the character ages after his absence in the role for around twelve years. It isn’t among the better Bond films, though it’s hard to avoid being charmed by Connery and his somewhat more wistful performance. And given the nature of the film, it’s ultimately required that his last bow has him do all the things a much younger man could do. It’s a Bond film with a twist, but still a Bond film.

Connery had already featured in a much more potent meditation on change, ageing, and to some extent redundancy and inflexibility in Robin and Marian. Away on the crusades twenty years, Robin returns to find the Sheriff of Nottingham (Robert Shaw) is still around, and Marion (Audrey Hepburn) has entered a small convent. Critic Roger Ebert is absolutely right that Connery and Hepburn work well together here, and seem to be in complete agreement about the nature of the film. In fact, between them they make the film, though they have great support from Shaw as the Sheriff and Nicol Williamson as Little John. Connery and Hepburn are utterly believable as two people who were once in love, and Connery and Williamson are just as believable as two close friends that would die for each other.

With all due respect to a great critic, I disagree with Ebert when he suggests the humour is misplaced — I think the humour and touches of warmth help the viewer feel these characters are human, which heightens the drama. It also lightens an otherwise bleak film about people ageing and ultimately failing to change the world around them. The film suggests you can defeat the Sheriff, but he’ll be back. And if he isn’t, there are always others that are only too happy to hoard all the wealth and power. “I know your type,” Robin says to one of the more powerful lackeys he faces. Greed also takes various forms and is excused in various ways, as Robin explains in a powerful speech about religious fanaticism and the horror of the crusades.

It’s a film that gets mixed reviews, because some would prefer not to see these characters stripped of all their magic, as Leonard Maltin complains in his movie guide. But that’s about viewer expectations, not about this film. Certainly, those expecting a swashbuckling affair won’t enjoy watching an old warrior refuse to change, refuse to live happily and go quietly, and drag various others with him. And just to make it the polar opposite of earlier films, it’s all to no avail. As King John, Ian Holm gets exactly one scene that makes it clear the return of Robin is really just something of a nuisance, and changes nothing. But for those who approach the film the right way, it’s quite sad, beautiful and touching. And we can always cheer ourselves up by going back and watching Errol Flynn, right?

The Spirit of the Beehive (1973)

September 24, 2010 § Leave a comment

Tyee Bridge, in his essay on stories The Things Ink May Do, comments on the power of “Once upon a time,” observing that “magic in literature lets us set aside the left brain and listen with a different, less acidic part of our intelligence.” Considered one of the best Spanish films of the 1970s, The Spirit of the Beehive doesn’t begin with that phrase, though the opening credits are displayed next to a series of childlike drawings, which certainly sets a tone. Six year old Ana (played by Ana Torrent) lives in a small village in rural Spain around 1940, when there’s a special screening of Frankenstein in town. Reviews vary so widely some say she’s “traumatized” by Frankenstein, and others that it unlocks her imagination. I think the film is structured somewhat loosely, like a poem that leaves some room for interpretation. Ana is certainly changed, but the film takes the time to show a return to daily life and a long, slow summer before she does anything like set off into the countryside in search of the monster, which rules out trauma for me.

I see the film as one about potential, with one unique experience dropped into a limited world and changing things, and it’s remarkable at capturing that childlike frame of reference where even the broken shell of a house has strange imaginative potential. Ana’s father enjoys a glass beehive for the “mysterious, maddened commotion,” inside, the “teeming bridges and stairways of wax.” If anything represents the constantly engaging adult world that leaves little time for imagination, it’s this beehive. And we all know her attempts to avoid an uncreative life are important and possibly doomed. Ana recalls that the Frankenstein monster responded to kindness from the girl by the lake, but also asks why he killed her. The answer is he didn’t mean it, he threw her in the water playfully but didn’t know his own strength, in a moment that was cut from early releases of the film. It was clear later in Frankenstein that the girl was dead, and ironically the cut scene left room for any number of horrific interpretations. It remains to be seen if Ana will grow up making the imaginative leap of putting herself in someone else’s place — the same imaginative leap that allows for compassion — but it would seem there’s a strong possibility.

Made in the declining years of the Franco regime, the subtleness and symbolism was at least partly a requirement, rather than a choice. There’s much more to be found in the film, though I’ll leave out any more plot details in favour of simply saying it’s a film I could easily see again to test my own interpretation and possibly make some new ones. It could just as easily be argued the beehive represents family, and Ana wanders dangerously from it (though of course, that’s a trifle suffocating and I don’t like it as much).  What’s certain here is that it’s a slow moving and almost meditative film, but a timeless one for its beauty, thoughtfulness and symbolism. The music, acting and cinematography are flawless, and even a brief scene where Ana and her sister run home from the film shrieking “Frankenstein!” rings true, and feels convincing, so that anything Ana imagines is embedded in the stark contrast of realism. This film is a classic for some very good reasons.

Passchendaele (2008)

August 12, 2010 § Leave a comment

In a battle scene near the end of Passchendaele there’s a remarkable moment where a young German soldier sits in the mud, wounded and looking around, bewildered at a raging battle that has descended into brutal close combat. He looks as though he’s barely a teenager, and could just as easily be a young Canadian suddenly detached from the situation, and shocked by it.

Written, co-produced, directed by and starring Paul Gross — undoubtedly one of the biggest Canadian stars in a country that sorely lacks the industry needed to tell our stories — the film examines part of the Canadian role in the First World War, a conflict that somehow manages to prove the bizarreness and futility of war remarkably well whenever we see it portrayed. It was a war led by British generals who underestimated the importance of machine-guns, in favour of a more old-fashioned style of warfare at the expense of thousands of lives, and these kinds of historical details are sometimes plainly stated by characters, sometimes demonstrated in the action. It’s a personal project for Gross, who incorporates a true story from his grandfather, who apparently spent the better part of a day trying to knock out a German machine-gun nest, lost all his men, and finally used his bayonet on the head of the last German soldier out of some combination of anger and misery.

This is the sequence that begins the film, before a sudden shift into life at home and recovery for the Paul Gross character, as his character falls in love with a nurse (Caroline Dhavernas). While Gross and Dhavernas are quite good, it’s here I think the film threatens to become somewhat dull and typical for some viewers, toying with ideas of politics and prejudice at home but ultimately dwelling on a romance that’s given epic proportions.

What the scenes in Canada appear to get absolutely right is the portrayal of a simpler time and an unspoiled, remarkably beautiful landscape that contrasts nicely with the utterly miserable battle conditions that frame the film. Without revealing too much about the plot, the Gross character returns to battle, though sadly the epic moments follow him, occasionally taking the viewer out of the film because they come across as overly contrived.

Returning to the images of the bewildered German soldier sitting in the mud, it struck me as a great moment, but also one that illustrates the film. As well done as it is, the camera lingers on the young soldier far longer than is necessary for the viewer to get the point, which is the sort of detail that tells viewers what to expect from the film — not a subtle art film, but a worthy mainstream one.

I came to the film with my own vested interest in it, as my grandfather Wilfred Boyd fought in the First World War. He stowed away on a ship in Halifax to get to the action sooner, and it’s another one of those ironies that men who expected a short, gallant war got a long, squalid one of mud, rats and lice. Given the rarity of Canadian historical films with a healthy budget, Gross can be forgiven for considering it an important opportunity, and taking a heavy-handed tone that’s presumably unintentional. There’s a lot that Passchendaele gets right, and I can easily recommend it to people (and really, every Canadian should see it) though it’s a bit unfortunate some will feel they’re dutifully watching an epic history lesson rather than getting caught up in a story.

The Upturned Glass (1947)

April 4, 2010 § Leave a comment

Along with actors like Cary Grant, James Mason must among the few British actors that can so effortlessly convey sophistication and intelligence. It’s an interesting premise, then, when the viewer follows such a character very closely as he carefully plots a murder — after all, nothing could lure the viewer into believing he’s justified more than the kind of charm he manages — before the final reels of the film suggest the possibility that he might be completely mad.

Mason plays a neurosurgeon named Michael Joyce who falls in love with a patient, but when she apparently falls to her death, he begins to suspect it’s the work of a relative of hers, and starts to quietly investigate the matter. In a clunky, improbable and unnecessary structure for the narrative, he lectures a class on the criminal mind, and begins to tell his story (at least up to a certain point), providing such a remarkable level of detail that it should be plainly obvious he’s talking about himself. And since he doesn’t eventually take questions from the class, the scene doesn’t even serve the purpose of illustrating that he’s questioning himself. Clearly he doesn’t, and clearly the viewer isn’t meant to question him much either. The film even makes the relative he plans to murder into a pushy (pardon the pun) self-centered person, a long-standing technique in drama that’s designed to soften our judgement of Joyce.

The lecture is the only clunky part of the narrative. Once he’s finished, and heads out to try and pull off the murder, the film really takes off. His elaborate plan has involved dating the woman he firmly believes shoved her out the window, and tossing her out the same window. But far from some kind of neat execution, the actual act is a cringe-inducing scene that reminds the viewer it’s a messy and unpleasant business he’s confidently strolled into. Additionally, her hysterical accusation that he’s completely mad is where his neat world and confidence begin to unravel, even if he doesn’t recognize it yet. After this, there’s a final set of scenes with another doctor who arrives quite literally (and symbolically, in a great scene) out of the fog, waving at Joyce in need of a ride. This other doctor is remarkably cynical (It’s “all one to him” whether people recover or not) but he gives Joyce the push towards a more objective viewpoint, and that’s all Joyce needs in order to see the hideousness of his actions. There’s one short speech given by the other doctor (who has spotted the body hidden in the backseat, and has a good idea what happened) that makes his diagnosis of Joyce clear:

“Not you, I’m not speaking of obsessionals. I’m speaking of the normal, the perfectly sane. Let me put it this way. The vessell which we normal people use for imbibing experience is a stout austerity model which doesn’t crack. With others, like yourself, the glass, though of superior design, cracks quite easily.  Now, instead of of leaving it upturned on a shelf, a danger to all, it should be thrown away.”

Of course, the statement is loaded with generalizations. Who is he to declare himself normal, when he’s so dispassionate about his patients recovering or dying? Joyce, however, recognizes he likely killed a murderer, but acted without solid proof, or any kind of confession. It’s a film that’s interesting both for the plot twists and the psychology of the characters, as well as managing to ultimately leave some questions open-ended. Those viewers that have run out of Hitchcock can turn to The Upturned Glass for a film inspired by his work, but worthy enough to stand on its own.

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