Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Diary of a Country Priest (1951)

Union Générale Cinématographique
Director: Robert Bresson
Starring: Claude Laydu

It would be a great irony that one of the greatest considered religious films in international cinema history would come from a filmmaker that was agnostic. French director Robert Bresson’s 1951 feature Diary of a Country Priest is a quiet, unassuming film that shares a tale of an existential crisis of a young man determined to serve his believe duty in a community that does nothing, but hinder him. The picture is slow and methodical, delivering an internal struggle of a man troubled at every turn both psychologically and physically. With its simple, subtle cinematic style equaled by the similar simple performance Bresson would coax out of his debuting star, Claude Laydu, the film becomes more spellbinding with its ability to create empathy where you may not expect.

 

Diary of a Country Priest is a French drama about a young priest newly assigned to his first parish in a small, rural community in the face of unaccepting parishioners and failing health. An unnamed frail youthful priest (Claude Laydu) finds a new home at his first parish in a northern French town of Ambricourt. Of ill health and malnourished, living mostly on poor rations of bread and wine, the priest finds the locals take a dim view at the boyish, quiet new leader of the parish in a community that already appears to spurn religious practices. Children mock him, while the adults share a near distain of what he stands for, while unheralded rumors are spread of him in a town that does not appear interested in religion. Questioning his faith in God, people, and himself, finding he finds his only solace writing his thoughts in his diary and spending a little time with a fellow older priest of a neighboring community with a more jaded mindset. His health continues to worsen, finally seeing a doctor and and learning he is stricken with stomach cancer. In the face of death, the troubled priest sees the positives in a cruel world and absolves his faith knowing he served it all in grace, that it may have done some good in the world.

 

Not a film for the casual movie watcher, the feature is a quiet, unassuming work with a tale about a man’s religious existentially crisis whose deep faith and a lack of understanding is tested psychologically along with his own frail nature. A spiritual journey rooted in the core value of faith over devout theology and church practices, the picture’s story has the ability to find a common ground with many who do not share similar dogma with its main character.  Subtly executed by a new actor on the French scene, Claude Laydu delivers a performance that so visually expresses the inner strife that it almost does not need the narration his character nearly exclusively communicates in throughout the picture. With nothing groundbreaking in terms of filmmaking or writing the feature is a masterpiece of subtlety, a near perfect mix of meaningful writing, direction, and performance that comes together to share a human story that speaks beyond anything religious.

 

Adapted from the 1936 George Bernanos novel, writer-director Robert Bresson worked the story for the visual medium by focusing on the humanity of the strife. Despite obviously being about a priest, a man of staunch Catholic faith, Bresson stripped away the overly religious tone that could have spoken more to those that grew up in the faith to allow it to be more relatable to a greater audience.

 

An internal struggle of a man stricken with issues of the physical, psychological, and faith, Bresson cuts out any extravagance in the production of his film. Shot in the still often used black and white medium, the story feels grittier, unpolished, and tangible than a more vibrant color feature. With the lack of blues and reds under Bresson’s direction we still feel the cold of the priest’s surrounding, yet the warmth of his soul.


 

Lacking is use of any complicated camerawork. For the bulk of the picture, it is simply static shots with some humble, slow panning where what little blocking calls for it. The most complicated camerawork comes when tracking the priest riding his bicycle with an obvious rig following Laydu as he pedals. In fact, it is not until when the priest is offered a ride with a motorcyclist that we experience the most action filled, yet still meek shot of the movie as the camera rides beside him capturing the only smile he delivers in the whole picture enjoying the exhilaration of the wind whipping through his hair. Otherwise, the entire picture is shot very modestly, with minimal dialogue and a focus on narration of the priest’s mind and his musings in his diary.

 

This marked a period in Bresson’s cinematic creativity where he began to utilize less polished performers, many amateurs or actors not known in film. Bresson had an idea that the art of acting merely got in the way of his moviemaking, suggesting that actors were simply models for him to use and pose to get the images he wished for his camera. Several takes working and reworking the subtlety of a performance would pare down the natural tendency to play up a actor’s want to create action into a final presentation, making even the smallest movement speak paragraphs in the final product.



 

In his debuting role the 23 year-old actor Belgium born actor Claude Laydu delved into the role by spending a great deal of time with many young priests, studying them, their actions, and re-entering into the world of faith he once shared with them. However, for Bresson he used Laydu, as the actor would refer to it, as an artist used clay. Laydu’s natural tendency and demeanor, which is far larger and more playful as seen him his later work in film and television, was honed down to the performance we experience here in the young priest. Portraying his mentor/ fatherly figure in the Priest of Torcy was performed by Adrien Borel (credited as Andre Guibert), a real-life psychoanalyst and psychiatrist who Bresson used for his manner of speaking to people that created a casual connection with others. Most remaining players in the supporting cast were no name performers that either never were known for their work in the picture or would only years later gather together a career.

 

Diary of a Country Priest found financial success upon release in France, but even more so found critical success on the international markets. French critics/journalists awarded the feature the best French film of the year. However, most notable the film was one of the most awarded pictures at 1951’s Venice International Film Festival, taking home four of its major prizes, and guiding director Robert Bresson on the path of international acclaim. For generations Diary of a Country Priest would be considered one of the finest French films of all time, and perhaps Bresson’s and Laydu’s greatest work of their careers. Generations of filmmakers have studied and praised the film, influencing many of the great auteurs in the years to come.

Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (1951)

Romulus Films/ Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Director: Albert Lewin
Starring: Ava Gardner, James Mason

Paranormal romance dramas, a niche in movies of the late 1940 after the conclusion of World War II, receives somewhat of a send off in popularity in a beautifully shot, Technicolor work of director Albert Lewin with 1951’s Pandora and the Flying Dutchman. With a story that was an artistic blend of two mythical tales to form a haunting love story the film is crafted in beautiful color and sophisticated use of camera to deliver a film that can appear to be of a long-known fable captured in a stunning Mediterranean setting. A glamour picture produced in the United Kingdom, its exquisite production and appeal would carry it across the Atlantic helping to drive its two stars to becoming Hollywood A-listers despite the film’s general lack of success.

 

Pandora and the Flying Dutchman is a British produced drama about a bewitchingly seductive woman who falls in love with a hauntingly mysterious seafarer. Opening on the scene of a recovery of two bodies on the beach of a Mediterranean Spanish town, we flashback to the tale of two lovers that died over the passion they shared for one another. They are Pandora Reynolds (Ava Gardner), a sultry American nightclub singer, and Hendrick van er Zee (James Mason), a mysterious yachtsman who recently made port offshore. Pandora is an exotically attractive woman with the allure to induce men to perform outlandish acts in order to demonstrate their love for her to her own amusement. Hendrick is secretly the fabled Flying Dutchman, an ageless captain long cursed to forever roam the sea with momentary periods ashore in search of a woman that would love him to the point of laying down her life, thus breaking the curse. The two immediately are attracted to each other and fall in love, but Hendrick is unwilling to let Pandora share her affection with him, for it would mean her death. Jealousy from a romantic rival for Pandora murders Hendrick, but the cursed man is unable to die. Hendrick explains who he is and that Pandora’s connection to the spirit of his long-deceased wife which explains their attraction to each other. Undaunted concerning the foreseen consequence of their love they are reunited in the face of a deadly sea storm that claims both their lives.

 

A relatively slow building story that combines altered versions of two mythologies, the film plays along the lines of the supernatural while attempting to deliver the romance between its otherworldly main characters. Directed by Albert Lewin the picture utilized a variety of simple, but highly effective uses of camera movements, angles, and framing to manifest its mythical story in a 20th century setting. Its camerawork is so beautifully executed in its Technicolor magnificence that generations later made its practices more typical in cinematic production. Due to this, viewers of contemporary films may not recognize how quietly revolutionary it is without knowledge of its period in filmmaking.

 

Written, directed, and produced by Albert Lewin altered is the tale of the Flying Dutchman, the cursed ship ever to roam at sea, transforming it to the tale of a man who through deadly acts is cursed ever to rove the waters of the world until he finds a woman who would be so in love with him that she would be willing to lay down her life. Lewin combines that story with Pandora, the mythological woman that introduces seductive evils upon the world, mixing it with classic myths of calling sirens, thus her singing characteristic, and more so Aphrodite, a woman whose beauty intoxicates men to do whatever she asks of them, no matter how foolish or deadly. Altogether is constructed a script about two lost souls of time who find in each other their meaning and ultimately their rest.

 

The highly thematic filmmaker Albert Lewin was set to direct this production his fourth of what turned out to be only six pictures in his career for MGM. Best remembered by his haunting adaptation of The Picture of Dorian Gray in 1945, Lewin’s drive to have complete creative control of his work and rising murmurs of Lewin being investigated by the House Un-American Activities Committee MGM drew cold feet and looked to scratch the production. This opened the door for British film producers John and James Woolf to acquire Lewin’s project as the first release under their newly formed British based production company, Romulus Films, in hope of producing pictures of transatlantic appeal. Lewin found himself in a position where he would be able to make the feature he desired with the backing to support him.

 

The film stars Ava Gardner and James in Mason before they reached the heights of their stardom in roles that only improved their cinematic standing in such a visually beautiful picture. Gardner, perhaps best known for 1946’s The Killers where she plays a femme fatale, here utilizes her exotic beauty combined with a mysteriously alluring way about her to make Pandora an enigma of a character only solved by finding Hendrick. Her performance is a bit off overall, but it makes the moments when she falls for her true love more impactful as she is finally able to manifest affection towards another person. Mason as a British born actor in Hollywood was still bumbling around the business, yet to find footing coming off mostly melodramas and a recent Universal contract. Here he delivers a haunted character in Hendrick that feels part Shakspearian as a man wizened, yet a bit out of his time having been cursed for centuries. Both performances with a series of forced, distant stares to personify their troubles make it at times difficult to become lost in, but ultimately complement each other.

 

Stage and screen veteran Harold Warrender serves in part as narrator and guide of the film as Pandora’s friend and somewhat fatherly figure, Geoffrey, a man whose passion for knowledge keeps him unaffected by Pandora’s physical beauty. It is through him as an historian and archeologist that we discover Hendrick’s true nature as the Flying Dutchman as we watch the story unfold from his third person perspective. Pandora’s admirers in the picture include Marius Goring as a man who commits suicide to profess his love, Nigel Patrick as Stephan, a land-speed record driver that is engaged to Pandora, and Mario Cabré as a jealous bullfighter that is willing to kill to have Pandora. Providing the only female third person viewpoint of the story’s drama comes from Sheila Sim’s character Janet, as a woman that sees how destructive Pandora’s existence is to the men in the town, a fresh character considering the male centric ensemble.

 

Despite all the cast, looking back the real star if the feature is Lewin’s camerawork. It is difficult to find filmmakers of this age use the framing of a camera in the manner we see here. Everything is subtle, but massively effective at delivering the surrealism that obviously influenced the making of the picture. At select times he used Dutch angles or other visual symbolisms, which is not in itself revolutionary, but it altogether affective subtle that makes the film flow without realizing how impactful it is. He moves his camera while at the same time panning, keeping foreground images in the same place in frame while mid and background move around. Unimportant as they may sound, keeps the frame full of life in moments that emotionally driven, but with little action.

 

Along with very delicate movements Lewin allows the frame to be apart of the story without overshadowing it. He paints the frame in the way surrealistic artists use a canvas, but never takes the audience out of the story. To augment his visuals is excellent sound editing with use of silence or understated ambient noise as simple as a barking dog or sounds of the sea magnifying the actions or inactions we view on screen. This post production work aids in creating a grander world beyond the frame, painting in the subconscious of the audience’s mind.

 

Shot on location in Spain and in studio in England, Lewin was able to bring his vision together in marvelous color for a beautiful picture, albeit a bit slow and perhaps boring to some. MGM would regain interest in the film and acquired distribution rights within the United States. Premiering in the UK in February of 1951 Pandora and the Flying Dutchman would be one of the most popular features in the United Kingdom of the year. However, MGM held back its stateside release until mid-October to ride on the foreseen success of Ava Gardner’s appearance in Show Boat which opened in September. In the end the film was not a significant financial success, but did garner acclaim for its two stars who would go on to massively successful careers respectfully.

 

Pandora and the Flying Dutchman may not seem to be a film to document for significance in the annuls of cinematic history. Ava Gardner and James Mason are fine performers and the story is acceptable at best, but what it does provide is a pleasingly visual motion picture that one studying closer can tell its creative mind put a great deal of work into. Albert Lewin made only a handful of films, but what he did do was work intensely with theme, utilizing every aspect of filmmaking in a pleasing way to make his vision come through on screen. For that the feature is worth a study to be admired for its visually pleasing subtle use of the camera’s frame.

Tuesday, June 8, 2021

At War with the Army (1950)

York Pictures Corp./ Paramount
Director: Hal Walker
Starring: Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis

One of show business’s greatest up-and-coming comedic duos of the late 40s and early 50s are finally featured in their first starring roles in 1950’s Paramount comedy At War with the Army. With Dean Martin as the smooth talking straight man with musical chops and the zany, slapstick deliveries of funnyman Jerry Lewis, the team debuts their first of a series of 14 films where they are the star attraction. In this military picture that spoofs army bureaucracy the two set a tone for their careers in Hollywood as a short-lived team before long lived solo acts.

 

At War with the Army is a musical comedy two friends adjusting to their different trajectories on an Army training base during World War II. Old friends and song and dance team Vic Puccinelli (Martin) and Alvin Korwin (Lewis) find their set of troubles with life at their stateside stationed Army training camp. Vic, a 1st Sargent with a smooth singing voice, finds his desk job dull ever begging reassignment to overseas while juggling his various romantic interests. Alvin, just a Private First Class with a shrill voice and a knack for being overly clumsy, bumbles his way through duties and drilling, a nuisance when trying to find time for his friend. Much of the picture serve as vehicles to points of comedy, songs, dances, and routines with a loose plot that sees Vic and Alvin become jumbled in each other’s troubles. Vic avoids one old flame, Millie, while wooing another girl Helen, meanwhile Alvin seeks permission to go home to visit his wife who recently gave birth. Mistruths and confusion surround interactions with their superiors leading to antics conclusing with Vic being demoted and the entire unit is to be shipped out, but Alvin is their to still be a good friend.

 

The picture is a simple humorous comedy that serves little more than a vehicle to showcase the rising talents of Martin and Lewis for motion picture audiences as they began their venture into the movie stardom. Established is the style that would make the team so successful. Martin provides the straight character of the team, a smooth-talking lady’s man with charisma that contrasts the goody antics of Jerry Lewis who provides a zany rambunctiousness to the feature with his slapstick physical humor and piercing toned voice that he made into a trademark of many of his acts. The overall plot largely takes a backseat to the two stars and their talents as the picture features songs sung by Martin, a hilarious scene with Lewis dressed in drag, the two together showcasing their dancing skills, and notably a rather good homage to the 1944 Best Picture winner Going My Way with Martin playing Bing Crosby and Lewis performing a wonderful Barry Fitzgerald impersonation.

 

Martin and Lewis came to fame initially for their nightclub act and eventual radio and early television show appearances that began delivering their brad of entertainment to homes across the country. Sought for possible movie deals the team eventually signed with Paramount with an agreement to produce films separately from the studio once a year under their own company banner, York Pictures. First featured in the 1949 comedy My Friend Irma where they provided comedic relief the two began work on At War with the Army as their first starring vehicle under York Pictures. Based on a play of the same name adapted for the screen the script was fleshed out with added scenes to showcase the teams brand of entertainment more as they looked to display more their talents to audiences in movie theaters.

 

Directed by Hal Walker who had experience with comedy duos in Bing Crosby and Bob Hope, this feature as a first for Martin and Lewis is clearly less flashy in production value with its humble $500,000 budget. Generally not flashy, most of the picture takes place within the army offices where Vic’s desk is situated along with other simple sets. Play holdover players Mike Kellin and Kenneth Forbes helped provide the residual energy of the original play as they predicted two supporting Army members Sgt. McVey and 2nd Lt. Davenport respectfully. A number of female supporting characters line the cast including Jean Ruth as Millie, the old flame Vic attempts to avoid, Polly Bergen as Helen, Vic’s current stunningly beautiful love interest, and Angela Greene as the wife of a Captain that proves to have a better handle of the military than the men do.

 

Shot in late 1949, At War with the Army was held back in release awaiting production and release of My Friend Irma Goes West (1950), the sequel to My Friend Irma which they were first featured in and Paramount hopped to make more money on. At War with the Army premiered New Year’s Eve 1950 to good reviews and generous box office numbers inn 1951 considering the budget for the picture. Under Martin and Lewis’ contract provisos they forgone most of their salary for the picture in exchange for 90% of the profits which would have made them a large amount of money, but the team would soon find themselves in a legal battle over their contracts with Paramount over profits and distribution. Years later would see a change in the team’s contract, keeping future projects under the studio and limiting their profits.

 

Martin and Lewis were now movie stars aside from night club, radio, and television personalities, making them one the biggest acts in the business and thanks to their manager, one of the most profitable, and in control of their product. Despite all the success the team would only be together until 1956 when they split over creative differences and wanting to break away from what they considered a tiring product together, setting the two men for easily much richer careers as solo acts. Martin and Lewis were now on their way to stardom. The two men found their way into nearly every corner of show business and they owed it to each other, and as for the movies it started right hear in a silly military comedy.

Friday, May 28, 2021

Born Yesterday (1950)

Columbia Pictures
Director: George Cukor
Starring: Judy Holliday, William Holden, Broderick Crawford

Honors:
Academy Award for Best Actress
#24 on AFI 100 Laughs
National Film Registry

The screen adaption of Born Yesterday is full of irony. First its primary plot of a man’s insistence in educating of his naïve girlfriend proves to be his undoing. Secondly the man that purchased the film rights not understanding the villain was based in part on him. And thirdly is most of the cast did not want to be in the picture, but would to critical acclaim. Beyond the picture’s background the feature is one of exceptional writing and brilliant performances coming together as a wonderful work of American cinema

 

Born Yesterday is a comedy/drama about a crooked businessman’s plan to educate his ditsy girlfriend by hiring her a tutor, only to see it backfire. On a visit to Washington DC to perhaps sway favors from politicians, junkyard tycoon Harry Brock (Broderick Crawford) hires political reporter Paul Verrall (William Holden) to help educate his young, brash fiancée Billie (Judy Holliday) with a hope to perhaps make her socially respectable and more sophisticated, as to not embarrass him during their stay. Encouraging Billie to learn and think for herself, Paul introduces Billie to many study many writings at his insistence and inducing insightful conversations with her. Though this Billie discovers more about herself and the world around her. Her newfound understanding of morals and policies leads her to clash with Harry’s crooked ways, becoming a hurdle in his business dealings with their growing friction. In psychologically removing herself from her abusive relationship with Harry, Billie and Paul begin to fall in love. Billie uses her role in Harry’s company to bring him down, leaving the crooked businessman for the gentle soul that opened her eyes in Paul.

 

Judy Holliday shines in a tremendous role she makes all her own as a somewhat ditsy blond we all sympathize and root for. Although never the brightest character on screen, her charm wins us over as we observe her slowly mature as the film moves forward. Directed by the marvelous George Cukor, one of the finest filmmakers of women driven pictures during the era, and co-starring the William Holden and recent Academy Award winner Broderick Crawford, this tightly contained adaption of the successful Broadway play explodes with great talent and character that wins over audiences then and the decades since.

 

Procured for the unheard-of price of $1 million was the rights of Garson Kanin’s hit play “Born Yesterday” by Columbia for the use of the George Cukor project.  It was to be Cukor’s third such production based on a Kanin work as studio head Harry Cohen sought to turn the Broadway success into box office profits all over the world. Interestingly enough Cukor and Kanin were not fans of Cohen even though they were once again brought togther under his watch. In fact, Kanin disliked Cohen so much that it was said he based the loud, brash, and abusive Harry Brock character on Cohen and his abrasiveness. Word of this never got to Cohen, but that was not an issue as screenwriter Albert Mannheimer was brought in on the project to adapt Kanin’s play for the screen and Kanin having no official role in the production. The resulting screenplay was so disliked by Cukor he would approach Kanin to alter it. Cukor wanting to stick much closer to Kanin’s original stage script having Kanin rework for the screen, ultimately utilizing his work as the shooting script. Despite all of Kanin’s toil Mennheimer receiving lone screen credit and even an Oscar nomination for it.

 

Judy Holliday delivers an outstanding performance in would become a prototypical ditsy blonde performance, a role that would make and define her career after bringing her Broadway performance to the screen. Originally Cohen wished avoiding bringing on Broadway cast members, with Holliday being fetched for a screen test simply to serve as a model for which they would base their cast search on. When Rita Hayworth turned down the role and other actresses considered including Lana Turner and Jean Arthur failed to meet expectations Holliday was asked to reprise the role, which she reluctantly agreed to. Bringing with her the vulnerability, brash quality, sweetness to the Billie role she would win over audiences and critics alike in a performance that earned her the Academy Award and Golden Globe that year, forcing Cohen to sign the actress and find future projects for her.

 

Starring alongside of Holliday were William Holden and Broderick Crawford. Just a couple of years beforehand these two actors would have been a couple of the most unassuming actors in Hollywood, but by the end of 1950 they were two of the best performers in the business. Holden was coming off Sunset Boulevard starring opposite of another Best Actress nominee in Gloria Swanson. Unlike in Sunset Boulevard, here he plays an intellectual that helps turn Billie from being a naive victim to a hero by being a mentor and love interest. Swiftly Holden rose to become one of acclaimed male stars in Hollywood thanks to his work in 1950 alone.

 

Broderick Crawford who jumped into the Hollywood scene with his Oscar winning performance in 1949’s All the King’s Men delivers a gruff and unsophisticated style to the role of Harry, a crooked junkyard tycoon attempting to buy himself loyalty in Washington’s backroom deals. Despite once again playing a part of a crooked political role, his performance plays entirely different, this time as the lobbist rather than the corrupt politician. As Harry he is a trouble character with a genuine deep love for Billie, wanting the best for her, but never allowing that outweigh his own greed. Its his own pride that kads him to want Billie to develop a sense of refinement and respect for his own appearances. Both Holden and Crawford perfectly mesh with each other and Holliday in cast that is fleshed out with a handful of smaller supporting cast members that included Broadway holdovers Frank Otto and Larry Oliver, and the addition of character actor Howard St. John as Harry’s attorney.

 

As with many film consisting of sultry blonds, Born Yesterday had its issue with censors. Form the cuts of Judy Holliday’s dresses, how the set was constructed, and to certain lines of the script censors took issue with aspects of the picture, but Holliday’s masterful would performance help keep some of these issues at bay. Her subtle movements belayed troubles while still remaining alluring, yet innocent at the same time. Innuendo laden dialogue suggested blatant sexual tension between Billie and Paul remains in the picture can and can be surprising considering how often censors nixed such forward sexual conversion. The setting in the movie was changed from a single hotel suite to multiple suites on a single hotel floor to mask that Harry and Billie were not married to keep censors at bay, which may actually have help the story since it made Harry that much wealthier. It was these types of creative changes that creative minds worked with to keep the from Hollywood’s moral police from hinting them down.

 

Adding to the picture Cukor makes the setting of Washington DC a major part of the film. While visiting the capital he fell in love with the setting and decided to film as much as he could on location within the city which included many outdoor scenes around famous Washington landmarks. From the Statler Hotel, to monuments, and even the no longer used outdoor concert venue all featured in Billie’s tour around the city, Born Yesterday becomes a minor patriotic political feature as it showcased the nation’s capital.

 

Born Yesterday opened to near universal acclaim from audiences and critics. Nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director, its lone prize went to Holliday’s performance. With a wonderful mix of humor and drama the picture was one of the best films of 1950 and continues to a well-loved feature in American cinematic history, evidenced with its election to the National Film Registry in 2012. With its delightful story and characters, the feature is a very pleasurable watch with a generous message that leaves those that view it with a happy feeling afterwards.

Friday, May 14, 2021

D.O.A. (1950)

Harry Popkin Productions/ Cardinal Pictures/ United Artists
Director: Rudolph Maté
Starring: Edmund O’Brien, Pamela Britton, Luther Adler

Honors:
National Film Registry

In a creative take on a murder mystery where the victim must piece together the missing facts of his own murder before he dies is the premise of this wonderfully constructed, independently produced Hollywood film noir. An unusual drama its plot is told in flashback sending its main character digging ever deeper into the complex plot that claims his life in a beautifully shot black and white motion picture of classic Hollywood cinema. Its amateur investigative story rises in frantic energy with the intensifying build of an unseen ticking clock that is the main character’s fleeting moments of life as he is consumed by the motive of his impending death.

 

D.O.A. is a film noir about a man with a short period left to live attempts to track down his murderer and the motive after discovering he had been poisoned. We begin with Frank Bigelow (Edmund O’Brien) marches into the San Francisco police department to report his own murder. He recounts what was to be a short getaway alone to the bay area as a respite from work and his girlfriend/secretary Paula (Pamela Britton). After an evening on the town Bigelow wakes up feeling ill, discovering he was irreversibly poisoned and informed he has perhaps mere days to live sending him franticly on a chase to find the who done this to him and why. Anxiously Bigelow pieces together the mystery of a transaction he notarized that reveals to be connected to stolen iridium, a recent mysterious suicide of his client, and gangland connections as he chases down clues throughout San Francisco and later Los Angeles. Ultimately, he discovers how he was a pawn in personal quarrel between his client and his wife (Lynn Baggett), stopping her and her lover who poisoned him. Back in the police station as Bigelow finishes his story he dies where the detective decides to report Bigelow dead on arrival, or D.O.A.

 

From the moment the picture begins with its artistic, lengthy tracking shot of Bigelow from behind walking through the police station while the credits roll you can tell you are in for something that is a bit unique and surely pull you in. Director Rudolph Maté brings his years of cinematography experience to the director’s chair in this simple, yet effective absorbing drama shot wonderfully in the film noir black and white style. With the appeal and energy brought to the picture by leading man Edmund O’Brien the film goes from aimless to high stakes vigor as a man must look hard, wide, and swiftly to find the man that had poisoned his drink when he was looking for a carefree weekend away from life at home. It is almost like such a story would not work outside of the classic film noir black and white seen in this period of Hollywood, which is mostly true from its history.

 

Inspired by the 1931 German picture Der Mann, Der Seinen Morder Sucht, director Rudolph Maté adapted the premise of a man investigating his eventual demise for the contemporary world adding more liveliness to the plot as well as darker tone that would appeal to audiences in the post war era. Bringing all his knowledge of visual storytelling he gathered as one of the great cinematographers in the business dating back to his European roots and into Hollywood success, Maté was turning his skill set to the director’s chair. His mastery of the black and white frame dating back to the silent era continued to this transitional phase of his career which was a perfect match for a film noir drama such as D.O.A.

 

Maté does little playing with a usual formula when it comes to storytelling, sticking for the most part to conventional cinematography to keep the focus on his actors and their performances. A does capture views of San Francisco and Los Angeles form a street view as he films views of the cities from lesser extravagant areas and angles, even stealing shots of O’Brien on open public streets. The most creativity shot in the picture comes immediately during the opening credits with its lengthy tracking shot from behind O’Brien walking through the halls of a police station. Being that it plays behind the credits the shot was not meant to overshadow the rest of the picture, but serves purely as creative background to the usually bland credit sequence. To add an addition layer of intrigue to the feature was a line in the closing credits about the scientific accuracy of the poisoning depicted, punctuating the conclusion of the picture as audiences left theaters.

 

Edmund O’Brien carries the picture as its protagonist. As victim and hero his portrayal of Frank Bigelow is the key to the success to the film. Beginning as a man troubled, weighted down by the burdens of personal life he transitions to the frantic nature of a man told he will die in the matter of days. Ultimately his purpose changes to amateur sleuth hysterically seeking out the clues that connect him to a motive that will claim him. All this comes together in the singular performance of O’Brien, which he makes work so well.

 

His supporting cast consists of a wide array of characters that jump in and out of the plot, never spending too much time with them to become a significant focus of the overall story. What begins as the most important supporting character of the picture appears to be Bigelow’s secretary and somewhat secreted girlfriend whom he nervous about, Paula, played by Pamela Britton. Initially a Broadway actress whom later came to be remembered for her work in the 1960s television show “My Favorite Martian,” Britton plays an anxious partner whose relationship gets quickly pushed to the back burner once we get into the heart of the film’s plot. The bounty of secondary characters rolls in with Luther Alder as a menacing mob leader, character actor William Ching as Bigelow’s poisoner, Lynn Baggett as the plotting wife that put all things in motion, and a debuting Beverly Garland as questionable secretary in the idle of the mess with Bigelow. All these sporting players seem to come and go as the story plows through with Bigelow to determine the clues that find the truth of the situation he had been put in, leaving little time to truly focus on them much.

 

At the time D.O.A was reviewed in a generally favorable manner with critics praising O’Brien’s performance and a plot that gripping enough for a feature. Being a United Artist released film the feature tended to get less attention from press and the public compared the bigger flashier studios in Hollywood. However, with time D.O.A. would be viewed, studied, and praised for its production and visuals. Its unique portrayal of both San Francisco and Los Angeles shot in the less lavish street views, at times with “stolen shots” gave the picture a more tangible feel to the cities and the drama. Maté’s would gain praise for the picture, becoming one of his best-known features as a director. It would be considered for many all-time movie lists through the decades and eventually gained election to the National Film Registry in 2004 for its significance.

 

D.O.A. and its premise would be remade a number of times in many fashions including radio dramas, films, plays, and even video games throughout the years, but all manners would never reach the praise of this initial picture. It marked a significant strong start to Rudolph Maté’s directorial career, with D.O.A. being only his third picture, providing him a push towards a very busy directorial career until his death in 1964. The film remains fresh with its production and story despite its age, where it remains a treasure to be rediscovered by new generations of audiences.  

Tuesday, May 4, 2021

Los Olvidados (1950)

Ultramar Films/ Koch-Lorber Films
Director: Luis Buñuel
Starring: Alfonso Mejía, Stella Inda, Miguel Inclán, Roberto Cobo

A retort to all the films about dirty-faced boys of the crime ridden streets that find a fatherly figure and miraculously discover the path of the straight and true we are delivered a motion picture that highlights the endless cycle of poverty and crime. In this tale society keeps youths from finding their way out of a destructive cycle in the Mexican feature Los Olvidados. For a film that was an immediate failure for its Spanish born director in his new homeland, it found international renown and an eventual status as a masterpiece of Latin cinema. With a touch of European style, the picture was a sad reminder of society and poverty.

 

Los Olvidados (which translates to “The Forgotten Ones”), or The Young and the Damned as it was known in the U.S., is a Mexican dramatic picture about the troubles lives of impoverished boys in Mexico City. An exhibition of the terrible cycle of suffering and despair within poverty, the film tells the story about a gang of boys that terrorize an impoverished neighborhood. Led by Jaibo (Roberto Cobo), the eldest and largest of the bunch who recently escaped from juvenile detention camp, the gang steal where they can, even beating a blind beggar (Miguel Inclán) for what he has. A younger boy Pedro (Alfonso Mejía) becomes our focus as his life is further brought down by Jaibo’s destructive nature. Pedro finds momentary hopes of making better of himself in life, but is continually threatened by Jaibo. It first begins with Pedro witnessing Jaibo murder a rival boy followed by Jaibo stealing from those around Pedro with the younger boy receiving the blame and punishment. Jaibo continues to haunt Pedro even as he serves in a juvenile camp ultimately leading to a confrontation between the two as Padro attempts to out the older boy leading to Jaibo killing Pedro. Shortly after Jaibo meets his demise by the police concluding this tale of how the spiral to devastation destroys these desperate youths who can never find a way out of the slums.

 

A far cry from the common morals of Mexican ideals and the execution of Mexican cinema Luis Buñuel delivers a motion picture that feels more European in nature as it shares of a story of destructive natures and hopelessness in the face of society’s ills. A film whose subject matter and views Mexican audiences were not keen on viewing when they went to the theater in a less than extravagant manner, the picture is more of an art piece and an essay on the suffering of those that go unnoticed. Gritty and filmed in black and white in the dusty slums of Mexico, the feature captures the unfortunate truths of poverty, its communities of desperation, and how it leads to continual destruction. Featuring long running names of Mexican cinema performers such as Stella Inda, Miguel Inclán, Roberto Cobo, and Alma Della Fuentes, Los Olvidados is movie that featured some of the best talent at the time.

 

Spanish born surrealist director Luis Buñuel spent many years studying and practicing his craft from Europe, to Hollywood before settling in his new adoptive homeland of Mexico. Following the success of his recent picture El Gran Calavera (1949) he was allowed to find his next project wishing to make a story on a subject he found great drama in, the overlook impoverished. A news story of a dead body mof a small boy found in a garbage dump inspired him to develop a story of how a young boy was led to this mysterious death. Thus was the genesis of Los Olvidados. 

 

From production the film was controversial. His hired screenwriters disliked how the story perceived Mexican culture. One writer would demand his name removed from the script. Actors had difficulty performing their parts to the director’s likeness as they had problems with the story. Crewmembers on the 18-day shoot disagreed with Buñuel’s focus. Even his wife stopped talking to him during the project. Appalled by how unforgiving the characters were in the movie, most notably Pedro’s mother played by Stella Inda, in deeply Christian nation with love and forgiveness at its heart Buñuel found opposition throughout his creative process.

 

Filmed in the dusty streets with number of locals as extras or small character roles Buñuel’s European style of filmmaking evokes the neorealism found in Italian or French cinema, despite his continual denial as he perceived it. The picture contains plenty of his surrealistic nature, complete with a slow motion dream sequence and bothersome brutality towards animals. Perhaps the most unique shot of the film comes in the form of the Pedro character breaking down the fourth walls by looking into camera as he hurls an egg towards the lens where it shatters and oozes down the frame. The film was unlike movies in Mexico of the era.

 

Los Olvidados premiered Mexico on December 9th and immediately it disgusted audiences and critics who saw the film as a slight against Mexico and its morals. Disagreeing with nearly everything the movie expressed as an afront towards Mexico the film was closed down only three days after opening with reviews burring Buñuel. Some called for Buñuel’s Mexican citizenship to be revoked for his disregard for Mexico’s sensibilities. Producers demanded a new happier ending be produced and a new opening with a narration over images of New York, London, and Paris, stating this could happen in any large city to further separate this story from being purely a Mexican issue.

 

Through surprising efforts Los Olvidados was chosen to represent Mexico in the 1951 Cannes Film Festival where it shined in the light if international critics for its artistry and storytelling. Unshackled by the eyes of local viewers the feature was praised heavily, embraced by audiences and critics of Europe’s cinematic elite. Buñuel was awarded the Best Director prize at the festival. With all the newly brought upon praise Los Olvidados reopened in Mexico to a renew appreciation allowing the picture to flourish back in its home nation. Since then, the film grew in stature as a masterpiece of Buñuel and Latin American cinema, today being considered one of the great movies of all time. The new opening that was commissioned would be attached to the film we view nowadays, but the happy ending with Pedro defeating Jaibo was never edited in, only to be a discovery in film archives in 2002, serving as a footnote to battles between producers and filmmakers as they differ in artistry.

 

Los Olvidados remains a masterpiece work of Luis Buñuel’s works as he finished out his career in Mexico while still babbling with work in Europe from time to time. This gritty movie about a gang of poor boys that illustrate the horrible destructive cycle of poverty can still speak to audiences of today as it remains a social issue, allowing the picture to impact those that discover it.

Monday, April 5, 2021

Kim (1950)

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Director: Victor Saville
Starring: Errol Flynn, Dean Stockwell

A long-anticipated screen adaptation of the Rudyard Kipling adventure novel finally finds its way to the big screen in the 1950 MGM Technicolor feature Kim. A mix of coming-of-age story set in the far-off land of India during the romanticized British Empire colonialism age this picture was long thought to be a sure formula to attract going audiences, even through the years that hindered its production. Headlined by Hollywood’s tried and true adventure leading man, Erol Flynn, featuring the performance of rising MGM child star Dean Stockwell in the title role, and directed by Victor Saville, Kim was a film that even though had to wait many years to greenlight it was a lock at the box office while being one of the most anticipated movies of 1950.

 

Kim is an adventure picture of a British orphan boy in India that disguises himself as a local to find himself in a world of excitement. In British Empire controlled India the orphaned son of an English officer, Kim (Dean Stockwell), decides that rather than go to school it is more fun to disguise himself as a local and experience a variety of escapades while begging and swindling people to get by. Befriending the charming Mahbub Ali (Errol Flynn), a secret agent of the British Army, sets young Kim on a path that utilizes the boy a spy for army. To further disguise Kim to infiltrate a camp of local Indian rebels the youth is paired to travel with an unsuspecting elderly Buddhist lama (Paul Lukas) on a religious quest, becoming his disciple and caretaker along the way. Kim and Mahbub Ali work together to quell a ring of Russian spies and Indian uprisers the threaten the British while the lama passes away from injuries during the altercation while believing he reached his final holy destination. Through all this Kim finds purpose to life beyond mere reckless adventures.

 

A film that is rather jumbled in delivering a story about a boy’s adventures in the land of India, Kim may speak more to a generation that may be further aware of the original Kipling novel than discovering the film on its own. With a series of episodic mini adventure that stumble into a larger plot of a spies and an uprising against British Imperials the picture feels as if it speaks to a different generation and society than is exciting or acceptable today. Captured in the film is the romanticized view of British Imperialism and the far-off, near mystical land of India when the world was a much larger place. It is difficult to enjoy from a contemporary viewpoint how the world is viewed in the film, as well as the use of white actors working in brownface to depict Indians. Even though young Dean Stockwell performs a fine, somewhat mischievous title character, even the plot of his character painting his skin to fit in can be a bit off-putting, perhaps working better in the written word than watching poor representations of brownface on screen. Errol Flynn continues his on-screen masculine adventure persona despite looking a bit more run down than just a few short years before. The film is colorful and bright, utilizing footage shot on location in India, but is obvious that a great deal was shot stateside.

 

Long had MGM anticipated to produce the Rudyard Kipling novel of Kim to the movie screen. Born to a British family while living in India, Kipling penned many adventure novels that were inspired by his eastern knowledge and boyhood adventurous spirit including “The Jungle Book” and “Gunga Din.” MGM purchased rights to Kim with plans announced in 1938 to be a vehicle for then leading male child performer Freddie Bartholomew to star along with Robert Taylor, but plans were put on hold with rising international conflict that eventually resulted in WWII hindered MGM’s initially ideas. Kim reemerged at MGM in 1942 as a Mickey Rooney vehicle with Conrad Veidt and Basil Rathbone attached, but fear of offending Russian allies during the war once again put the picture away temporarily. In 1948 with WWII over, international markets once again opened, and Russians now being international enemies the plot of Kim was at an acceptable time for MGM to finally go forward with producing Kim.

 

Twelve-year-old Dean Stockwell was the then leading child actor for the studio, providing him the biggest role of his young life at the time in the title role. Errol Flynn chose his role in Kim over the leading character in another massive adventure picture for MGM, King Solomon’s Mine, but was still given top billing. It was simple choice for Flynn, deciding to work mainly in the states with a short excursion to India over living in a hot tent in Africa for a role that asked less of him, but paid him the same amount. There were worries that Errol Flynn was too old for his role as Mahbub Ali with Flynn being 40 at the time, and a much more weathered 40 at that, but his history in adventure features made him the attraction of the picture.

 

Flynn proved to be a bit of a problem on production, sometimes arriving late, unprepared, and/or inebriated from the previous night’s drinking as he was a known alcolholic. As the film’s headliner he was given his leeway and director Victor Saville was able to get the performance her needed out of Flynn, in his close ups at least. For Stockwell, Errol Flynn became somewhat of a mentor to the young actor, introducing him to many of the more adult things in life as Flynn flaunted stories of his personal escapades to the impressionable Stockwell. The child star took it all in good fun, learning many things about Hollywood social life from a man that done near everything during his career.

 

As mentioned, most of the picture was filmed in California either on the MGM lot or in rocky areas near Lone Pine, CA to stand in for the Indian wilderness. A stint of production was shot in India to capture the color of the local flavor and architecture delivering an authentic feel to the setting whne edited together with the stateside produced material. However, Dean Stockwell was avoided in being taken overseas, as all his material was produced in America using stand ins for him during the India portion of production.

 

Kim played to welcoming audiences when it premiered in December 1950 taking in generous box office numbers for MGM. It nearly did as well overseas as it did in the states, including being one of the most successful pictures in France through the year 1951 while being one of MGM’s top features that year in the states. It would mark the most profitable picture of Errol Flynn’s career, proving that Flynn had the drawing power for the film picture as it out drew King Solomon’s Mine. Critics were generally mixed to positive, yet the Flynn picture did nothing to gain the film critical notoriety.

 

With time Kim has not aged so gracefully with its use of white actors in ethnic roles, an issue that still plagues Hollywood feature to this day. The adventure of the story does not play out as exciting on the screen as it does on the page and with bigger production budgets experiences in the years since Kim lacks the draw it once held. Today it proves to be more of a film for its time than a timeless classic. Movie watchers can still find the picture today, but few find it as interesting as it once was to audiences. For Errol Flynn his career was begin to fluctuate downward in the coming years while Dean Stockwell would carry out a very long successful career as an actor in many mediums. One can look back on Kim as a trouble picture in politically incorrect sense, but in reality, it manifests Hollywood’s mindset worked it this time, gravitating to an older, intensive mindset in producing movies about other cultures. However, it was all about the money and MGM won out on that in the end.

Diary of a Country Priest (1951)

Union Générale Cinématographique Director: Robert Bresson Starring: Claude Laydu It would be a great irony that one of the greatest consi...