Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Lavender Hill Mob, The (1951)

L. Arthur Rank Organisation/ Ealing Studios
Director: Charles Crichton
Starring: Alec Guinness, Stanley Holloway

Honors:
Academy Award for Best Writing, Story and Screenplay

Pushing further into the realm of comedies, future British acting legend Alec Guinness stars in another Ealing picture, this one being perhaps a precursor to heist movies in decades that follow. A humor filled romp about the robbing of a bank of large sum of gold, the film uses the perceived snooty nature of English gentlemen characters as the canvas upon which to paint its bumbling anti-hero. Mixing the suave debonair of a seasoned thief with a fish-out-of-water motif, high stakes, good acting, brilliant writing, and inspired direction we get one of the great classic British comedies of all time.

 

The Lavender Hill Mob is a British comedy about a meek bank clerk’s plan to rob his bank out a fortune in gold bullion. In Rio de Janeiro a generously wealthy Englishman, Henry Holland (Alec Guinness), recounts to a companion how he came to be where he is in life. Back in London he was highly professional, unassuming clerk conjures the idea of robbing one of the gold deliveries he supervises over in what he considers the perfect crime. Recruiting his neighbor and friend Alfred Pendlebury (Stanley Holloway) and two low level crooks he stages a robbery of one of his deliveries making it appear he is the victim. Using Pendlebury’s souvenir business they mask the gold by forming them into Eiffel Tower paperweights as means to smuggle the wealth out of the country without notice. In Paris a handful of the masked gold is accidentally sold at the souvenir stand to English tourists sending Holland and Pendlebury racing to reacquiring them back in nation they just smuggled them out of. One gold tower is enough to connect the dots for authorities sending Holland and Pendlebury on the run pursued by the authorities for their crime. Pendlebury is arrested, but Holland successfully escapes to Rio using the amount of gold he had on hand to afford a year’s worth of lavish living in the South American nation. Here Holland concludes his story where it is revealed he was recounting to the man arresting him, handcuffed as they leave to return to England and his fate.

 

The feature is a whirlwind of humor, clever storytelling, suspense, and fun. We spend the movie rooting for this gentlemanly antihero to succeed at his heist of grand proportions, sending us on an adventure of two friends with meager means of attempting their perfect crime. The delightful mix of British humor with this heist story performed by the great Alec Guinness and Stanley Holloway comes together to the backdrop of London and Paris. Its dry and goofy, enthralling, and creative in its own way easily making it a beloved picture in British cinema all these years later.

 

The story was conceived and penned by Ealing Studios writer T.E.B. Clarke who was tasked with delivering an idea of a working-class crime. Envisioning a clerk robbing him our bank, Clarke became inspired witnessing a old man of short stature supervising the delivery of gold by way of armored truck to the back he was visiting for research, giving him the premise upon which he expanded from.

 

Alec Guinness after a couple of more serious roles returned to Ealing where he found great renowned in the comedy Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), here cast as the unassuming bank clerk. Looking to make the Holland more relatable and likable he gave the character a particular British accent where his r’s were pronounced as w’s, giving his antihero an imperfection that bridged his gentlemanly persona to the simpleton scoundrel he his at heart.

 

His partner is crime is Alfred “Al” Pendlebury portrayed by prominent comedian and humorist Stanley Holloway. At first not realizing he is being recruited for a crime, then being hesitant, and ultimately evolving into being a full partner his portrayl is even more of a bubbling British man just unwise enough to go along with Holland’s crime. Holloway provides the jovial yet worrisome ying to the Guinness’ much drier and determined yang. Through his performance the heist becomes a form of buddy comedy, a crime by two partners similar to Mel Brooks’ The Producers (1967) as two conceive of a scheme only to watch it dissolve into humorous failure.

 

The remainder of the Lavender Hill Mob, which comes from the name of the street Holland and Pendlebury live on, is fleshed out by Sid James and Alfie Bass as two petty criminals that help carry out stopping and robbing the armored truck with Holland inside. The two character actors provide little in terms of substance in the overall movie other than hired hands for the caper. Both characters of Lackery and Shorty excuse themselves from the concluding steps of the heist for amusingly normal reasons, most notably their wives not allowing them to go to Paris. This swiftly excuses the two from taking part in the meat of the third act as we focus on our stars and shenanigans through Paris and return to England.

 

Under the direction of studio filmmaker Charles Crichton, the picture takes us on a tour of sights in London’s financial district and the Eiffel Tower with visuals equally pleasing as the story. Aside from couple of special effect shots that do not look as convincing now as they did then, Crichton films the picture in a manner that gets across the frantic nature of the heist along with the suspense and dread that builds within the men as they fear being caught. The most uniquely constructed portion of the action comes from Holland and Pendlebury’s frantic decent down the spiral staircase of the Eiffel Tower in pursuit of the sold golden tower souvenirs. With the build in speed and the nature of the staircase the scene gets across the manner which dizzies both the characters and the audience withs images swirl and spin, ramping up the desperate nature of the scene and our heroes as they pursue tourists that acquired some of their incriminating evidence.

 

In the end the picture is fun, humorous, and filled with suspense that may even please a Alfred Hitchcock fan. Upon release the film was a success domestically as well as abroad, swiftly becoming one of the highest praised films in the United Kingdom of 1951. The following year The Lavender Hill Mob was embraced in the United States, earning Guinness an Academy Award nomination and a Oscar win for T.E.B. Clarke for Best Story and Screenplay, the precursor to the modern Best Original Screenplay category. The film marked the highest grossing feature for Alec Guinness in America for many years, that was until a science fiction film premiered in 1977 called Star Wars.

 

In the years since The Lavender Hill Mob has witnessed much praise, marking it as an all-time classic of British cinema as well as one of the all-time great comedies. It can be found named on numerous lists of favorite films by various critics and historians through the decades and continues to delight audiences discovering it to this day.

Friday, September 17, 2021

Idiot, The (1951)

Shochiku
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Starring: Masayuki Mori, Toshiro Mifune, Setsuko Hara, Yoshiko Kuga

A long-desired passion project by the renowned Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa, 1951’s The Idiot would be a marathon of a feature that also resulted as the greatest personal disappoint his long, storied career. An adaptation of the Fydor Dostoevsky’s novel, the film met disapproval from the studio over its length lengthy running time, leading to significant edits and resulting in a erratic story and a rare blunder in Kurosawa’s resumé. Despite its shortcoming, the feature is favored by some for the clear dedication by its creator, as well as being considered one of the most ambitious works by the famed director.

 

The Idiot is a Japanese drama about a man suffering from a mental issue who enters a love triangle between his friend and shamed woman. Kameda (Masayuki Mori) is a WWII veteran whose psychological trauma as a prisoner of war lead to physical issues that altered his personality making him come away overly innocent and trusting, almost child-like. Acting on unfiltered love and compassion which many consider to be foolish, he is deemed by some as an “idiot.” Returning to his home in a snowy Hokkaido he befriends fellow war returnee, the gruff Akama (Toshiro Mifune), who is obsessed with Taeko (Setsuko Hara), a beautiful, yet wicked mistress of a wealthy man who seeks to sell her to another suitor. The timid Kameda shares a budding love to a headstrong young Ayako (Yoshiko Kuga), but finds an attraction in his compassion towards Taeko in the sadness he sees in her, which Taeko finds appealing. A jealous Akama murders Taeko, but despite the evil act Kameda consuls his troubled friend in the freezing temperatures until they both succumb to the elements, leaving those who knew Kameda to wish they could love without hatred as Kameda lived. 

 

A very long film, with a very disjointed structure, the picture suffers from obvious, non-artistic editing that largely whittles down the first act of place setting and character introductions to accelerate to the heart of the story. Notwithstanding these jarring edits, the picture is shown great care in its filming and assemblage where it was left untouched by the studio. Under the watchful eye of Kurosawa, the camera tells the story with beautiful framing, careful movement, and inspired acting. A dramatic winter setting takes this eastern movie into a more culturally western produced movie settings, a frigid, taxing climate that parallels the cold, unforgiving nature of the characters in the story. Through this it creates a world where the warm innocence of Kameda’s goodness is punctuated through the greatly flawed surroundings he finds himself in.

 

Having been a great fan of Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky, whom he believed perhaps best captured the human struggle, filmmaker Akira Kurosawa long wished to adapt his favorite work of the author, The Idiot, as one of his films. In adapting the story the setting was moved from Russia to Japan, but Kurosawa would keep as much of the original influences by setting the story in the snowy northern region in Hokkaido to mimic the rugged climate much of Russia was known for. With that heavy clothing influenced by the western nations serving as wardrobe for his characters the picture further connects Kurosawa influence in styles outside of his homeland. Classic Russian orchestra pieces are added to the film’s score, giving emphasis to the origins of the story, as well as tying the production to a more timeless and transcendent quality.

 

Aside from changes in setting, Kurosawa kept the story rather close to the original source material, which led to the greatest flaw the film would have, its length. A long novel being adapted to the screen would reasonably result in a long film, and thus it would be with Kurosawa turning in a 265 minute feature. Originally Kurosawa desired the project to be released in two parts which would have been a rare feat to accomplish anywhere in cinema, especially in a conservative Japanese market. Of course, this was denied by the studio and the final production was not a desired production they were looking showcase to help produce profits.

 

Without consulting the filmmaker the studio imposed that 100 minutes be trimmed away from the film. Many of the edits are sloppy, simply lopping off large chanks of the first act, and in a couple of cases replacing it with title cards or narration trim down to the story to its heart. It is painfully obvious where the cuts are made, but it would still result in a feature that ran nearly three hours long. Despite the crudeness of the final film’s trimming, realizing that there was 100 more minutes of material removed is difficult to imagine, but the scars it left behind in the final product are painful as well. Sadly, the original full version of the picture would never be exhibited publicly and has been altogether lost to the disappointment of the director and cinema historians.

 

Features in the cast are many of Kurosawa’s usual stable of players. Masayuki Mori fronts the cast as the titular idiot, Kameda, portray as a wide-eyed man of compassion and love. His performance as the scorned simpleton makes him the desired, caring hero of the story. Toshiro Mifune brings his common style of character in Akama with a duality of dramatic rage and jealousy contrasted with moments of introspection and revelation that can make him very likable despite the evil he produces. Setsuko Hara was a massive star of beauty in Japan that portrays the troubled Taeko, a woman troubled with how she is perceived, taking it out on others when she can. 20 year-old Yoshiko Kuga appears as the young, innocent love interest of Kameda, who best shares the moral that she can be considered an idiot for not being able to love so innocently as Kameda. Mixed in with the cast is a common appearance of Kurosawa favorite Takashi Shimura, who is always a treat to watch in his features.

 

Released in May of 1951, The Idiot rode on the domestic success Kurosawa had received from his previous feature Rashomon, as well as the mass appeal of actress Setsuko Hara. Notwithstanding the issues the picture had with its length and troubled editing job in parts of the story, the film remained to be a financial success yet not quite a critical success. Somewhat by surprise in September Rashomon played at and win the top prize at the Venice Film Festival, propelling Kurosawa to international acclaim, bring with it added attention to his other productions. Additional praise found its way towards The Idiot, but Kurosawa’s future works would overshadow it very quickly.

 

The Idiot would be a great disappointment of Kurosawa’s career, a quiet subject he carried within himself for most of his life. Of all his features he would receive more requests to talk about his film, his blundered passion project than any of his other great films, even Rashomon. It is the production which audiences are unable to experience the full breath of the work he put behind it. To this day those removed 100 minutes remain missing and the original edit is considered one of the great lost films of all time. This disappoint would not slow the filmmaker whose new renowned would continue to hold him high on the pedestal in Japanese cinema for many years to come and impact cinema around the world.

Thursday, September 2, 2021

Ace in the Hole (1951)

Paramount Pictures
Director: Billy Wilder
Starring: Kirk Douglas, Jan Sterling

Honors:
National Film Registry

Following the immense critical success of his film noir Sunset Boulevard (1950) Billy Wilder follows it with his first feature as a triple threat of writer, director, and producer to deliver 1951’s Ace in the Hole. A film that takes exception to exploitation and manipulate by the press, it stars Kirk Douglas in an energetic and cynical role as a journalist trying to create the big story that will make him back to prominence. The result was a film that questioned American institutions, leading Wilder to experience issues with his studio, critics, and audiences of the day, landing him his first flop. However, with the passage of time it cultivated relevancy that persists to the point of being one of the great films of American cinema history.

 

Ace in the Hole is a drama about a disgraced and opportunistic reporter who exploits a small-town accident to regain his prominent professional status. Cynical fallen big city reporter Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas) finds work at a New Mexico newspaper desperate to revive his once successful journalism career. On his way to cover a samll assignment he discovers an opportunity to create a massive story when he hears word of a small-town man, Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict), trapped in a nearby cave in. Tatum turns the accident into a spectacle, playing up in his reports local legends and heroics tales to spin a story that captures national attention and significant tourism to the site. Tatum manipulates Leo’s wife Lorraine (Jan Sterling) to provide him access, town sheriff Kretzer (Ray Teal) Tatum to maintain his exclusive control of the story, and the construction contractor to prolong the event to gain himself the professional notoriety and a lucrative offer from his former New York paper. However, everything falls apart with the passing of Leo due to the unnecessarily prolonged rescue operation and Lorraine stabbing a drunk Tatum out of self-defense. Tatum falls dead just as swiftly as his story, and destroying all those that found greed in this opportunity..

 This is quite an impressive film, especially when you consider it to be a movie about the sensationalism of the news. Billy Wilder delivers a picture with a relatively small cast with characters that are perhaps more cynical than what we met in Sunset Boulevard. Yet at the same time we are provided a sense of significance and large scale as Wilder in a number of scenes utilizes an impressive vista of extras to manifest people’s general fascination with spectacle. Depicting a sea of humanity and a carnival atmosphere in coverage of a tragic story, Wilder paints a dark side of men in a story with a message about manipulation and perception. All this is driven by the impactful performance of Kirk Douglas in a film that has something to say about society.

 

After finding significant critical and financial success with Sunset Boulevard perhaps Wilder grew too confident that he could continue to play with cynical views towards entrenched American institutions where he found inspiration for his next project. Where Wilder took a cynical view toward Hollywood in his prior feature Ace in the Hole was to do the same to exploitation and sensationalism by the press. Inspired by the news coverage by William Burke Miller of the Floyd Collins incident of 1925 where the cave explorer became trapped in the earth following a landslide. Miller turned the occurrence that eventually claimed Floyd’s life into a series of human interest stories about those surrounding the accident, becoming a news sensation and wining Miller the Pulitzer Prize. The project would be Wilder’s first venture as a producer on top of writer/director, making this a significant production in career coming off his prior success.

 

The picture features that driven performance of Kirk Douglas as the seedy reporter Chuck Tatum. The former Academy Award nominated actor and picture of masculinity delivers a driven portrayal of a man desperate to make his own success through his manipulation of the world around him. Despite the picture him little critical acclaim at the time, it is difficult to imagine Douglas having delivered a better performance in his career to this point. He is driven, passionate, with an energy and ferocity seldom seen from such a character.

 

The world surrounding him is constructed with players that fill important key roles in Tatum’s developing creation. Jan Sterling provides an even more cynical foil as the wife of Leo, the trapped victim. A miserable young woman almost happy to see her husband trapped as reason for her to leave the empty, arid desert she finds herself in she is convinced to remain by Tatum and reap the financial success from the tourism lured in by his reporting. At no point do we root and her despondence, becoming somewhat a partner to Tatum’s evils, but remaining her own independent opportunist. Robert Arthur appears as Herbie, the plucky newspaper photographer whom Tatum pulls into his scheme. Other appearances include Porter Hall as common newspaper editor/boss-type and Ray Teal as the sheriff which is not too far off from his usual fair in his many western appearances. Buried in there (pardon the pun) is Richard Benedict as the victim, Leo, whose performance is quite flat for a character that only supplies the forum upon which Tatum builds his scheme.

 

For the remote desert location filming took production to Gallup, Arizona, providing the open spaces upon which to construct the middle of nowhere setting. Constructed was Lorraine’s small outpost, the ancient mountainside Native American dwelling where Leo is trapped in, and its adjoining a vast parking area upon which the literal media circus would be built on. Wilder delivers the sensationalism of the public by hiring thousands of locals as extras who were paid extra if they provided their cars to fill the vast area. The energy and size of the crowd provided the kinetics of a horde awaiting the news of Tatum’s story while enjoying the carnival atmosphere. The scale is very impressive being that it was all tangible, captured in the camera frame of the camera in single shots as background to Kirk Douglas’s performance.

 

Despite all the impressiveness of the picture, wonderful acting, and good writing Ace in the Hole was doomed to fail. Taking a face first dive into a story that attacks the integrity of the press would not fare well with critics that worked for newspapers and other publications around America. They saw it as an attack on their own character as reports and their livelihood, panning the picture as melodrama too unbelievable to enjoy. Audiences were not kind to the picture either. Depicting how easily swayed  the general public can be with sensationalism offended many and was further supported negatively by the press swaying many to avoid it during it theatrical run. At the time Ace in the Hole was considered too cynical and dark that it initially failed to connect with viewers.

 

Paramount Pictures immediately observing the issues Billy Wilder created with the picture’s release attempting coping with the negative press and appeal by changing its title to The Big Carnival without consulting Wilder. The name change did little to add appeal as the studio rereleased it to theaters and sold it to air on television stations to help cover some of its loses. It was official, Billy Wilder produced a flop, but that was only in America. Overseas the film was better received by more cynical artistic audiences, especially at the 1951 Venice Film Festival, where Wilder was awarded Best Director and the film was nominated for the top prize. Wilder felt the backlash in Hollywood, losing part of the control he earned up to producing Ace in the Hole, but the filmmaker would continue to believe the film to be of his best work.

 

Despite immediate failure and a name change, through the years the feature found increasing acceptance among viewers as generational shifts and the evolution of American views embraced Wilder’s film. A new generation of filmmakers would embrace the production and its message. In the latter years of the century it was clear the movie was one of the best in American cinema, praised by filmmakers and film historians. 2007 saw a home video release of the picture that restored not only the film’s quality, but its original name, Ace in the Hole. A decade later the Library of Congress would preserve it in National Film Registry, further cementing the legacy the picture had on American culture.

 

A film can shine a mirror at ills of society playing an important role in the understanding of ourselves. It continues to be imperative that films like Ace in the Hole be produced and enjoyed so that we are reminded of what is both good and bad in our society, that we may be able to learn and become better. The fact that this picture can still speak to us today and be relevant manifests how powerful the medium is. It may take time, but this picture showed us how things can change for good while sadly reminding us some ills remain the same, doomed to repeat themselves without a better understanding by people.

Thursday, August 26, 2021

Thing from Another World, The (1951)

Winchester Productions/ RKO Radio Pictures
Director: Christian Nyby
Starring: Kenneth Tobey, Margaret Sheridan, Robert Cornthwaite

Honors:
#87 AFI 100 Thrills

Inspiring countless subsequent sci-fi and horror productions The Thing from Anther World is one of science fiction’s pioneers in cinema history. Produced by Howard Hawks this film was fronted by a first-time director with a cast of no names resulting in a production that proved to be wildly popular, playing well to a post war American audience and continues to be a remembered and honored. With modest, yet gripping horror story and a mysteriously well produced product for a rather low budget feature, it lives a classic of the then burgeoning genre of movie.

 

The Thing from Another World is a science fiction thriller about an artic outpost terrorized by an alien being discovered in the ice. An American expedition travels to a peculiar sight near the north pole to study what appears to be a crashed flying saucer frozen under the icy surface. Led by Air Force Captain Pat Hendry (Kenneth Tobey) and lead scientist Dr. Carrington (Robert Cornthwaite) with a journalist (Douglas Spencer) in tow, the search party fails to retrieve the craft, but recover the body of a being frozen in ice returning to their base for future study. Accidently the large plant based humanoid creature is thawed and revived, commencing deadly terrors for the crew as it seeks blood for sustenance. Hendry focuses on survival of all the men and attempting to lure the Thing out from where it hides and kill it. However, Carrington becomes an obstacle as he wishes to spare it for his own future study and advancement. Seemingly indestructible, the Thing withstands bullets and direct attack by fire, as men and resources are lost during the conflict with the deadly creature. After Carrington fails dramatically to appeal to the monster Hendry and the remaining men are able to kill the Thing by electrocution, leaving the journalist, Scotty, to finally transmit his story of the event by radio, urging the audience to keep watching the skies.

 

A film that played to the fears of post war America, it, like most science fiction films of the 1950s through the 1970s, uses the medium to share rooted metaphors in a society that was finding its place in a rapidly evolving world. With a simple tale that comes down to cramped quarters and a unseen predator who can strike at any moment the film assisted in shaping the modern “haunted house” horror trope. All this is done so with the help of the expanding atomic age as the mysteries of space delivered a new source of fear to audiences as mankind neared the precipice of new frontiers and discoveries. A lower budgeted picture, the film easily captured imaginations of countless audiences, becoming nightmare fuel for many in its day and a classic that is still honored all these years later despite its aging.

 

Based on the 1948 novella “Who Goes There” by John W. Campbell, producer Howard Hawks worked to adapt alien-based thriller for the screen under his new production company, Winchester Production Corporation, and distributed by RKO. Simplified for the mean of the production the Thing was reduced from being a shape shifter to simply a humanoid creature with a desire for blood. The script allowed for the fantastical story to be captured in a minimalistic setting with only and handful of uncomplex characters while the focus of the plot remains mostly on the unseen, building mystery and suspense. It was to be a modest picture, low budget to be benefit Hawks’ pocketbook, cast with unknown players and one of Hawks’ long time editors, Christopher Nyby, set to direct his first film.

 

With the story focused on the suspense of the alien creature itself, the characters that dot the cast are rather simple in nature. As true with many horror films, the characters serve as a device to deliver the meat of the film, the creature that does the terrorizing. Observed in his brief appearance within the miltary comedy I Was a Male War Bride (1950), Kenneth Tobey was cast as Captain Hendry, the hero of the picture, who does little more attempt to kill the Thing, fend off the troublesome scientist, and flirt with his girlfriend. This lone female character was played by failed starlet for Hawks Margaret Sheridan. She portrays Nikki, the flirtatious secretary who provides fleeting moments of candor with Hendry outside of the primary drama, delivering a female character that appears strong, but with sadly little to do for the picture. Robert Cornthwaite provides your typical scientist type, as he would usually do in his career, a flat character to detest as he obsesses more over discovering the next big scientific breakthrough than care for the wellbeing of others.

 

Outweighing all the cast was James Arness as the titular Thing. Not making an appearance until nearly an hour into the feature, Arness is not seen too much at all through the film with much clarity. This is perhaps due in part because of the simplified and bizarre makeup that made him into the Thing. After many makeup tests an exasperated Howard Hawks, displeased with what makeup artists first attempts, insisted that they scale back their efforts and make it more Frankenstein-like as the creature would not be seen clearly in the film. Arness as the Thing at most times on screen would be in the distance, in low light, or running frame providing little detail for the audiences to observe. The one time the Thing is up close in a medium shot was a fraction of a second for a jump scare, and in the age before home video, or a pause button, this was not enough for viewers to gain a good look as many where too startled to be sure of what they saw. It is not until the climatic final scene where we get any prolonged shots of the Thing, still allowing for no considerable detail. This presentation of the Thing created a mystique that built through word of mouth as audiences shared their experience in watching the film that created its own short live phenomena.

 

The film’s production was kept rather minimal, playing well to the claustrophobic nature of the story. When shooting on location delivered lesser material than desired, exteriors were shot on a Southern California movie ranch made to look like the arctic while actors sweltered in heavy coats in the hot sun. Many interior sets were built in a refrigerated warehouse to create an environment where the character’s breathe was able to be captured on camera adding to the drama of not only being hunted, but the possibility of freezing to death.

 

The greatest legend that surrounds the legacy of The Thing from Another World is that of its director. Christian Nyby was a newcomer to directing and for him to make such in instant success in his first feature and never achieve similar style or success in his subsequent works allowed for the long debate over whether he even truly directed the picture. The feature shares far more similarities to a Howard Hawks style of picture than anything else, enticing many to believe he was always the creative man behind the picture.

 

The truth is Hawks was there from the beginning, choosing the story, approving the script, and supervising all aspects of filming. The film was produced under the banner of his own production company. He rehearsed with the actors without Nyby before filming started. During principle photography he was ever-present with Nyby consistently talking to him between takes. Nyby would insist that the film’s similarities to a Howard Hawks-like style was spurred from his past working with Hawks, first as his editor and now wanting to emulate his boss so much that he portrayed similarities in how he filmed this movie, hoping to impress. Many cast and crew would state years later how obvious it was Hawks was pulling the strings, but Hawks and Nyby would continue to deny. Rumor states that Hawks distanced himself from directing his company’s first feature to help save on the budget of the film for his new company through RKO. Another rumor says that was Hawks’ way of helping Nyby get his foot in the door with the Director’s Guild with this being his first feature. All this is speculation, but there must be nuggets of true found in there as the performances, blocking, and line delivery all resemble a Howard Hawks style of picture which is why most film historians consider this a Hawks’ picture when they discuss it.

 

The Thing from Another World was moderate success in the theaters, making it one of the top 50 grossing features of 1951, a great result for a science fiction picture. Critic reviews were mixed to positive, seeing the film as a simple monster movie. Looking back, we can study how The Thing encapsulates the mindset of America at the time. The picture reflects impressions of the Red Scare, how Communism and Russian enemies were viewed as an unseen threat to everyday American society. In the wake of World War II and the atomic bomb there is was flourished a general distrust in science, as progress opened new doors to new dangers. On top of that were the mysteries of the on-coming space race poking into view. All this is visible looking back which allows the film to be a time capsule, a view into the minds of a portion of the population and its fears as it entered a new age for America.

 

The Thing from Another World would go on to be remade and reimagined in the years to come. Outside of John Carpenter’s direct remake in 1982, perhaps the best reimagining of the trope would be Ridley Scott’s 1979 Alien, a classic of the genre itself. The Thing remains one of the most influential science fiction and horror pictures of all time, continuing to capture the imaginations of viewers with each passing generation.

Monday, August 16, 2021

Great Caruso, The (1951)

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Director: Richard Thorpe
Starring: Mario Lanza, Ann Blyth

By way of the silver screen Louis B. Mayer delivers to a new audience many of the New York Metropolitan Opera’s monumental productions of the past here recreated in the biopic The Great Caruso. Starring the popular vocalist Mario Lanza, this prestige picture lavishly paints a motion picture of showbusiness of a bygone era in an unapologetically over-polished account of Enrico Caruso, the famed tenor from the turn of the century. Similar to many biographical features produced in Hollywood to this point the film would be more of a fluff piece that plays loosely with facts in order to showcase the of a bygone era glitzy, attractive nature of the profession that fascinated audiences for such pictures.

 

The Great Caruso is a biographical musical loosely depicting the life and career of opera tenor Enrico Caruso. From humble beginnings Enrico (Mario Lanza) spends much of his life fighting and clawing his way to find love, acceptance, and his place in society. His gifted singing voice and his pursuit of career in the medium clash with him achieving that which he seeks most other of life making it a struggle despite his success. While singing for his choir he misses the final moments with his mother before her death, and as a young man he misses marrying his first love, Musette (Yvette Duguay), due to conflict with her father over his profession as a singer. Gaining financial success Caruso clashes with critics and experiences a bumpy transition to the American market as he strives to appeal more to the common man rather than the elite. Eventually the heart of the story is Enrico meeting and  falling in love with Dorothy (Ann Blyth), the daughter of an American opera producer, yet another man that clashes with his persona. The two marrying and have a child, news he dramatically receives with great joy while in mid performance. Later Caruso develops growing soreness of the throat which he attempts to downplay, but through his pride performs through until one final performance where he collapses and perishes to the mourns of admirers.

 

Wonderful Technicolor capturing the period costuming while excellent sound recording deliver the multitude of musical and operatic scenes making the film is feast for any opera lover of the period. To the silver scene the picture becomes a veritable highlight reel recreating the majesty and lavish quality of many famed operas in Caruso’s long and storied career. However, as entertaining these moments can be as a feature film it can been alleged as falling short as a completely well-constructed narrative and overall movie. Where the film falls short is in connecting to audience with any true drama, and on top of that even recalling facts of Caruso’s life. The movie is nothing short of a vehicle to delivering a multitude of opera numbers wrapped in a package of a melodramatic love story that lacks any distinctive perceived conflict. The life story of Enrico Caruso is delivered in a manner of a near fairytale, a commoner that rose to become the Great Caruso, a man of passion who eventually dies doing what he loves. It is predictable and uninspired. Worst of all, it was almost entirely manufactured. But this was the formula of an MGM biopic to this point.

 

Personally chosen for production and overseen by studio head Louis B. Mayer, The Great Caruso was meant to be a prestige picture for MGM. Selected to direct the lavishly produced picture was mainstay of the studio Richard Thorpe who had built up a lengthy resumé and a musical based director of choice for the famed studio and this picture. Mayer spared no expense to delivering the operatic experience this picture was indented to be, with big sets, lavish costuming, and a multitude of popular musical numbers that accompanied the production, a genuine showcase of opera for the silver screen.

 

The picture proved to be a perfect marriage of star and film. Philadelphia born tenor Mario Lanza shared many similarities with Enrico Caruso from their Italian heritage and humble beginnings to their respective tragedies later in life. Lanza said he idolized Caruso as a child, learning to sing while listen to Caruso record albums. Believing in his greatness Lanza attempted to enter Hollywood with pushback until Mayer witnessed a performance of his at the Hollywood Bowl and signed him to a contract. on set Notoriously insistent with cast and crew on set and his struggle with fluctuating weight Lanza proved to be troublesome  during production. His constant weight changes kept tailors on standby to alter his costumes  depending on how much he indulged over the prior days. Where he lacked in professionalism he made up in his warmth performing and vocal talents on screen, even receiving praise from Caruso’s son years later that no other man could have done a better job of depicting Caruso musically.

 

It is difficult to study the remainder of the cast as the picture is so focused on Caruso and we do not get much of a feel for the rest of the individuals in the story. Of all the supporting players we get to know would be Dorothy, the wife of Enrico, played by the beautiful and vocally talented Ann Blyth in a sugar-coated role that is agonizingly flat, making for a very uninteresting character to depict. Her greatest contribution to the picture is singing the film’s sole original “The Loveliest Night of the Year” which was given to her after Lanza stubbornly refused to perform for the feature to focus on his operatic skill. The song would become a hit, after which Lanza agreed to make his own recording.

 

The Great Caruso would prove to be a box office success for MGM, breaking records during its run at Radio City Music Hall, just about a mile from where most of the operas depicted successfully ran. It did well internationally and later ran on regular theaters to profits while were generally favorable to the feature for its musical scenes. The biggest detractors of the feature would actually be the Caruso family, who sued MGM over many inaccuracies the film painted, mainly historical details of opera release dates.

 

The fact was the film nearly a complete fabrication of Caruso’s life story, a 100% fictionalization. From his rise to fame to the order of events of his life, the inconvenient facts are scattered throughout the film, including his multiple marriages and children before meeting Dorothy, his weight and health issues, to his far less glamorous,  the cinematic vision of the man was nearly to deify him and his craft and airbrushing any other ancillary facts that do otherwise.

 

The film was the great success both MGM and Mario Lanza were seeking. However, fortunes for both studio and star would swiftly change in the immediate future. Louis B. Mayer would go on to oversee one more feature at MGM, another lavish musical in Show Boat (1951), but was dismissed soon after from the studio he helped found. Lanza continued to quarrel with producers at MGM over his status and his weight issues. The relationship between studio and star became so problematic that during the production of The Student Prince, which reunited Lanza with Blyth, Lanza was dismissed from the role. This move led to an immediate spiral in Lanza’s life and career, losing confidence in himself and indulging more in food and alcohol lending directly to heart issues and an premature death in 1959 at the age of 38.

 

All these years later The Great Caruso leaves behind a mostly forgotten legacy, yet another flashy, overly fictionalized biographic picture out of MGM’s late golden era. Not a classic film viewers would typically go seeking for, its reenactments of opera numbers, many which featured a handful of actual cast from the original operas performing within them, being the greatest contributions to the heritage it leaves behind. For its time the soundtrack was one of the most successful records and stands as the greatest mark in the short career of one of Hollywood’s short-lived musical stars. It is as if Mario Lanza lived purely for this film.

Thursday, August 5, 2021

A Place in the Sun (1951)

Paramount Pictures
Director: George Stevens
Starring: Montgomery Clift, Elizabeth Taylor, Shelley Winters

Honors
Academy Award for Best Director
Academy Award for Best Screenplay
Academy Award for Best Cinematography (Black and White)
Academy Award for Best Costume Design
Academy Award for Best Editing
Academy Award for Best Score
Golden Globe for Best Picture-Drama
National Board of Review Award for Best Film
National Film Registry
#92 on AFI Top 100 (1998)

Director George Stevens transitioning to deep dramatic cinematic productions makes his intentions manifest fully in his highly decorated 1951 feature A Place in the Sun. A story the American dream gone wrong, the film brought together what was considered the most beautiful on-screen couple in Hollywood with stars Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor and co-starring the talented Shelley Winters in a role that changed her career. Nominated for nine Oscars, winner of six, and nearly universally considered one of the best films of the year proves how greatly praised this picture was and a quiet landmark picture in American cinema.

 

A Place in the Sun is a drama about a young man torn between his pregnant girlfriend and the elegant girl of his dreams. George Eastman (Montgomery Clift) is a charming young man who has wondered across the country to work in the factory of a wealthy distant relative to initiate a new promising life for himself. While working he meets and cultivates a secret relationship with shy factory girl Alice Tripp (Shelley Winters) that could blossom into something really special. As the two poor young people they find comfort and love in each other it all is interrupted when George is introduced to stunning socialite Angela Vickers (Elizabeth Taylor) a begins to fall in love with her. News of Alice being pregnant with George’s child puts him on a tight place wrestling with wanting to be the good man and care for Alice and their unborn child, but his passion drives him to cultivate a life with Angela in her more exciting higher social circle. What follows is a series of bad decisions in effort to purge himself of the lowly Alice to be with the more extravagant Angela, ultimately leading to Alice’s death. Shortly thereafter George is arrested, tried, and convicted for the murder of Alice, costing him everything and closing on his walk to his execution.

 

This heartbreaking drama wonderfully encapsulates the title of its source material, 1925’s novel “An American Tragedy.” It is story that shares ideas of the American dream of meeting and falling in love with a person that complements you with a possible future together being interrupted when he encounters the image of the ideal girl. All this makes the young man rethink everything he thought wanted and trade it quickly for what he desires more in the moment until it becomes a disaster. Clift continues to mature a rising young leading man of Hollywood, Taylor is given her first real dramatic role of her adult career, while Shelley Winters grows beyond the boundaries of the actress she was fashioned to be by studios. Under the direction of George Stevens, it is constructed in a manner that pushed American cinema with its story of love, lust, murder, guilt, and ruin.

 

Previously adapted in 1931 by Josef Von Sternberg, the novel was itself inspired by the real-life murder of a pregnant factory girl in 1906, manifesting America’s fascination with tales of secret passions and murder. For A Place in the Sun the screenwriters and George Stevens tilt the scales of a drama by focusing more on the cultivation of the relationship between George and Angela while making the death of Alice appear to be an accident. This new framing of the story creates George to be less of a villain and more of tragic figure torn between love and duty. The result was a production that was one of the highest praised pictures of the year.

 

The subject matter of dealt with in A Place in the Sun consisted of many issues that at the time motion picture censors found unacceptable, which led to many rewordings or work arounds that creatively skirted the issues. Stevens captured heavy sexual passion by pushing in his camera to the actors faces making the subtleties of the performer much more dynamic as the emotions become much more intimate for even the audience to watch, especially between Clift and Taylor. For the sex scene between Clift and Winters Stevens built up the passion between then pans away the camera as the music builds, a cliché al these years later, but works remarkably better as it leaves the passion of the moment play within the mind of the viewers. Afterall, the viewers imagination can be far more dramatic than anything that could be shared on screen at that time. Abortion was a immense subject to avoid, therefore the script avoids it all together when the source material saw Alice consider pursuing that avenue when she received news of her pregnancy. In the picture it is only implied as Alice helplessly asks for help from the doctor to the frustration of the physician who shares little sorrow for her plight.

 

Starring Montgomery Clift, Elizabeth Taylor and Shelley Winters, the film’s leading cast all made names for themselves under this production. Already one of the business’ leading young stars with an Oscar nomination from his very first starring role, Clift utilized his method acting style in preparation for the picture, even hiring an acting coach to be on set with him during filming. This method clashed with Stevens whose controlling nature pushed back hindering the acting coach to affect his directions on set. It would be one Clift’s best performances and earned him a second Academy Award nomination. For Taylor, who was seventeen at the time of filming, she stated this was he first role she was really asked to act instead of simply being herself on screen. She was provided her first mature role sharing mature emotion of screen with Clift that captured the imagination of audiences. Then there was Shelley Winters, then manufactured as a blond bombshell in studio pictures, she pursued to break from that simple shell to be considered a serious actress. To land the role she auditioned with no makeup and in drab clothing to win over Stevens, coming away with Oscar nominated performance for herself in the process.

 

Both critically and finically A Place in the Sun was a success for Paramount Pictures. Its near universal acclaim won it a slew of awards including many “best picture” awards across the industry, except for the big one, the Academy Award, which went the much more lighthearted MGM feature An American in Paris. This is perhaps due in part with Hollywood’s largest and perhaps most politically driven fraternity was being far more conservative in its choices. George Stevens earned himself great praise in domestic and international circles with this film with even cinematic legend Charlie Chaplin considering A Place in the Sun “the greatest movie ever made about America” when he viewed it during a preview screening.

 

For Elizabeth Taylor, despite still being so young was quickly becoming a sex symbol in the industry with the help of her role as Angela painting her as the ideal American girl of social status that any man would be happy to catch. Her on screen chemistry with Montgomery Clift was so stirring gossip columnist wanted to believe the two were an actual couple off-screen. The two would happen to be very good personal friends for life and never a romantic couple due to Clift’s secret homosexuality. Winters’ on-screen person would be altered by her performance as Alice, being able define so well the ideal fragile romantic woman in many films in her career.

 

A Place in the Sun would swiftly become an America classic, continuing to be held in high regard despite losing some of its status with the continued evolution of motion picture dramas, leaving it but one of many along similar lines of subject matter. No doubt is A Place in the Sun a well-regarded work of filmmaking, acting, and execution in an age that had to toe the boarders of maturity in movies, impacting many audiences that viewed it.

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.

Lavender Hill Mob, The (1951)

L. Arthur Rank Organisation / Ealing Studios Director: Charles Crichton Starring: Alec Guinness , Stanley Holloway Honors: Academy Award for...