Bette Davis

The Scapegoat (1959, Robert Hamer)

Despite Bette Davis playing a French dowager countess, The Scapegoat always feels very British. It’s probably exaggerated a little because it takes place in France, features mostly British people (save American Irene Worth) playing French people. Nicole Maurey is the only actual French person in the film, certainly the only one with a French accent. It draws some attention to her and how little she fits with the rest of the film, but it somehow works pretty well, which the film acknowledges enough to take for granted.

Scapegoat is also a little strange because it’s a character study of lead Alec Guinness, who’s in the middle of a peculiar mystery. The film opens with Guinness arriving in France on holiday; he’s a bored bachelor school teacher who’s given up on doing anything but teaching French to rich little British snots. He goes to France every year for the holiday and this time he’s thinking of just staying. He gets his wish in the form of… Alec Guinness. See, turns out Guinness has a French double and his double is a French nobleman who’s got land, title, and a whole bunch of debt. French Guinness is also at least a sociopath and always up to some kind of no good, having—it turns out—just ducked out on wife Worth after she’s suffered a miscarriage, but he also skipped out on mistress Maurey. Neither woman ends up getting an explanation because when Guinness gets home to his estate, he’s not French Guinness, he’s British Guinness. The double got him pass out drunk, switched places, disappeared.

Going forward—British Guinness is always going to be Guinness and French Guinness is always going to be French Guinness. So Guinness doesn’t really get particularly interested in why French Guinness has changed places with him, as life on the estate is an unhappy mess. French Guinness had left under the pretense he’d had a schizophrenic mental breakdown and needed to go to Paris to party. As much as any Alec Guinness, French or otherwise, is going to party. All by himself. No families, mistresses, doctors. And nobody except daughter Annabel Bartlett really seemed to care. But Guinness Guinness is overwhelmed at all the double has around him. He’s got a great kid, a sympathetic wife, a mistress, an estate, a failing but beloved business, and a cranky but not actually dangerous bedridden mum, Davis. Guinness tries to fix French Guinness’s life, which is the character study. But there’s still the mystery. Even if Guinness doesn’t acknowledge it.

That mystery comes back in the last twenty minutes of the film. The first twenty minutes are kind of slow, the next fifty breeze, the last twenty are a little awkward. Guinness is never appropriately suspicious, there’s not enough with Bartlett in the finale, and the resolution is too abrupt. Those reasons, more than everyone speaking with a British accent save Maurey, are why the film feels so British. It’s almost like director Hamer is trying to direct a slightly different, more comedic mystery script while the script is actually trying not to be comedic or mysterious. Only Hamer wrote the script; based on a Gore Vidal adaptation of the novel. So I want to assume it’s Vidal who turned it into this character study but who knows. Because, based on a summary, the novel sounds a bit more melodramatic.

It works out pretty well in the end, all things considered, but just makes it.

Guinness is phenomenal. The script gives him these great quiet reflection scenes without any narration—his narration is always matter-of-fact and goes away after a while; his reflection scenes are always beyond subtle. He’s exceptionally patient. Then as French Guinness, he’s got this subtle character arc, which the script sort of hints at but Guinness takes it a different direction. It’s rather good.

The special effects putting Guinness on screen twice are all good. Hamer never goofs off too much with it. He’s got an enthusiastic workman quality to his direction here, with cinematographer Paul Beeson helping a bit, and the special effects scenes are just the same. It’s not a gimmick, it’s a scene.

Of the supporting performances, Davis’s is the most fun. She’s got maybe three scenes and manages to imply a character arc. Bartlett’s performance is the most important because she’s the reason Guinness gets so interested. See, French Guinness—despite driving her into town each week for a music lesson (but really so he could go see Maurey)—he always wanted a boy. Guinness has no such prejudice. He also doesn’t have any animosity with Worth, which French Guinness seemed to have cultivated. Worth’s fine. She rarely gets time enough to develop her character. Pamela Brown has a really good scene opposite “brother” Guinness (she’s otherwise background). So all the acting is good or better.

The Scapegoat just has tone problems the conclusion doesn’t resolve satisfactorily enough, which… seems very British to me.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Robert Hamer; screenplay by Hamer, adaptation by Gore Vidal, based on the novel by Daphne Du Maurier; director of photography, Paul Beeson; edited by Jack Harris; music by Bronislau Kaper; production designer, Elliot Scott; produced by Michael Balcon; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Alec Guinness (John Barratt), Annabel Bartlett (Marie-Noel), Nicole Maurey (Bela), Irene Worth (Francoise), Geoffrey Keen (Gaston), Noel Howlett (Dr. Aloin), Peter Bull (Aristide), Pamela Brown (Blanche), and Bette Davis (The Countess).



Dark Victory (1939, Edmund Goulding)

Bette Davis and George Brent never kiss in Dark Victory. He’s a brilliant neurosurgeon, she’s a mysteriously ill young socialite. He saves her, they fall in love. But does he really save her….

Victory gives Davis an excellent part, right up until the end of the film. It’s a somewhat bumpy ride–in the first act, which is three acts of its own, Davis isn’t particularly likable. The film establishes her on her Long Island estate, twenty-three and free. And very rich. With some decent suitors (Ronald Reagan in an affable performance) and her best friend (and secretary) Geraldine Fitzgerald. Davis goes riding during the day, out on the town in the evening, then home to party all night.

The film opens with her dealings with Humphrey Bogart, who plays her stablehand. He’s Irish and sexist. Bogart’s accent is usually Irish, though very noticeable when not. The sexism just leads to banter; it’s not a great part, in the end, for Bogart. He’s a tool of the melodrama. But he’s still likable, especially at the beginning, when Davis comes off like a spoiled brat and Fitzgerald her enabler.

The film’s focus moves soon to Brent, who gets her case from a decidedly underused Henry Travers. Brent’s excellent as the conflicted doctor, enough so to humanize Davis in their first scene together. From then on, although the action sticks with Brent for quite a while, Davis’s part gets better. She’d had some good dialogue quips, but she was the film’s subject–more, the film’s characters’ subject–not the protagonist.

Whether or not she ever truly gets to be the protagonist is questionable (and one of the film’s eventual failings; it shouldn’t be in question).

So the first thirty-five minutes concern Davis’s recent headaches and how Brent treats them. There’s never a discussion of medical ethics in Dark Victory and it kind of needs it. A lot, as it turns out. Because the only way for the film to function without them–which leads to Brent and Fitzgerald alternately and jointly infantalizing Davis–is through melodrama. After forty-five minutes, Dark Victory never tries for more than melodrama; it promises more than melodrama, but it never attempts to fulfill those promises.

The melodrama does give Davis and Fitzgerald some good material. Not really Brent. Brent gets overshadowed by everyone in the second half of the film, including Reagan (not to mention Bogart, accent or not). The script avoids dealing with Brent, once he’s done just as a doctor. Brent still has some fine moments in the film, but nothing like he had in the first half, when his forced calm demeanor ached with tragedy. It’d be a lot to keep up the entire runtime, sure, but at least screenwriter Robinson could’ve had him in some longer scenes.

Robinson’s adapting from a play, which might explain some of the pacing after the first act. Davis goes through a minor character change, with some fabulous costuming, incidentally, but it requires a rather extreme narrative distance. For her next character change–she gets a lot of character development with the part, going through four distinct phases–the narrative distance closes in, which is great, but the script gets real choppy. It’s a stagy bit of narrative. Not stagily filmed, but stagily plotted. There’s a jump forward, then an exposition-heavy sequence taking place over a single night, with characters strolling through in order to explain what’s happened since the jump forward. All the acting’s fine–Davis is great–but it’s too jammed, too rushed.

And if it’s going to be so jammed, so rushed, at least have Travers do a walkthrough. He goes from leading the second tier supporting cast in the first act to complete, inexplicable onscreen absence.

Davis’s performance makes the film. Brent’s, for a while, seems like it could but their relationship is way too chaste (exceptionally so considering they were carrying on off-screen). Fitzgerald and Davis have a wonderful relationship, full of character development and so on… until the development stops. The film foreshadows a lot for its characters and delivers none of it. Ostensibly it delivers on one thing, but through cop out.

Technically, the film’s fine. Goulding’s composition is decent, if unimaginative in his overuse of interior long shots–the sets aren’t that great and even if they were, they’re immaterial to the melodrama–and Ernest Haller’s photography is good. Max Steiner’s score is excellent.

Davis gets to do so much in Dark Victory, it’s unfortunate the film doesn’t let her do all it promises for her. I almost started talking about the film as the difference between a part and a role. If there’s such a difference, Dark Victory gives Davis a great part but promises her a great role.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Edmund Goulding; screenplay by Casey Robinson, based on the play by George Emerson Brewer Jr. and Bertram Bloch; director of photography, Ernest Haller; edited by William Holmes; music by Max Steiner; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Bette Davis (Judith Traherne), George Brent (Dr. Frederick Steele), Geraldine Fitzgerald (Ann King), Ronald Reagan (Alec), Humphrey Bogart (Michael O’Leary), Virginia Brissac (Martha), Cora Witherspoon (Carrie), Dorothy Peterson (Miss Wainwright), and Henry Travers (Dr. Parsons).


The Little Foxes (1941, William Wyler)

The most impressive things about The Little Foxes are, in no particular order, Bette Davis’s performance (specifically her micro expressions), Patricia Collinge’s supporting performance, director Wyler’s composition, director Wyler’s staging of the narrative (adapted by Lillian Hellman from her play and set in a constrained area but a living one), Herbert Marshall’s performance, and Gregg Toland’s photography. Actors Teresa Wright and Charles Dingle almost make the top list. They make up the second tier. Then you get into the other great supporting performances and things like Daniel Mandell’s editing or the set decoration and it goes on and on.

Because The Little Foxes is an expertly made film. The script is strong, Wyler’s got Gregg Toland shooting this thing, Wright’s character got hidden range (too hidden), and Davis can do this role. Davis and Wyler didn’t get along but the conflict never comes through because Davis’s character is supposed to be so against the grain. Bickering with the director through your performance is a great way to generate grain to move against.

Even though Wyler does a great job translating a play to the screen, the film skips a little too much. Wyler and Toland have this great foreground and background action thing going so they can get multiple things done at once (occasionally with middle ground action too). But it’s a device to keep Little Foxes lean. The first thirty-six minutes, taking place over a day, sings. Wyler gets done with it and it’s like the film is just starting. He’s introduced the cast, he’s introduced the setting. It’s laying the ground situation in action. It’s awesome.

And for a while it pays off and just keeps getting better. Little Foxes is about the machinations of a nouveau riche Southern family in 1900. Well, not quite riche enough but almost. Davis and brothers Dingle and Carl Benton Reid (in a sturdy but inglorious performance) have a plan, they just need Marshall–as Davis’s convalescing husband–to get on board. Only maybe Marshall thinks the family is awful. Foxes has some peculiar politics, with Marshall and Richard Carlson as progressives (and the only decent white men in the picture).

Collinge’s part in the film, reductively, is to forecast the possibilities for Wright’s future. Collinge does a great job with it and the scenes are beautifully written–her relationship with Wright in the first act is a standout both for acting and cinematic brevity–but she disappears in the third act. She’s got no place in the story, which is kind of a problem because the story was the family and then it just turns into this business deal thing.

It’s too abrupt, but Wyler’s able to make it at least flow a little thanks to Toland and Mandell’s contributions. There’s a throwaway scene in the third act where Carlson gets to slap around porto-bro Dan Duryea. Not to fault Duryea with that description, he’s awesome in the part. Lovably dopey and still somewhat dangerous. So Wyler gives the audience a reward for sticking through the mussed third act.

Even though the grand finale is part of that mussing, Davis and Wright really bring it together and make it work long enough for Wyler and Toland to finish the movie. Dingle and Marshall also go far in making it happen, but it’s Davis and Wright. It’s got to be the mother and daughter showdown, even though the film never exactly promised such a thing. And you get to see Wright develop her character without an inch from Davis. Is it an inch in character or out? Doesn’t matter, makes their scenes beyond tense. Maybe because Davis wasn’t in the second act much. The Little Foxes, with Marshall, Wright, Carlson, Collinge, and Jessica Grayson just sitting around enjoying each other’s company in one scene, becomes almost genial. Wyler doesn’t promise happiness, but he does acknowledge people actually enjoy life.

Davis has to come back with a vengeance to remind the audience there is no happiness, no enjoyment. Because the world’s a bad place. It’s actually a really downbeat ending even though everyone kind of gets a happy ending. Characters win, humanity loses.

Foxes has got some problems–it’s too short as it turns out–but Wyler and company turn in an excellent picture. Confident, beautifully shot, beautifully acted, well-paced. But in that confidence is a lot of safety. Wyler’s most ambitious with his composition, not the film overall.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by William Wyler; screenplay by Arthur Kober, Dorothy Parker, Alan Campbell, and Lillian Hellman, based on the play by Hellman; director of photography, Gregg Toland; edited by Daniel Mandell; music by Meredith Willson; produced by Samuel Goldwyn; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring Bette Davis (Regina Giddens), Teresa Wright (Alexandra Giddens), Herbert Marshall (Horace Giddens), Charles Dingle (Ben Hubbard), Patricia Collinge (Birdie Hubbard), Jessica Grayson (Addie), Carl Benton Reid (Oscar Hubbard), Dan Duryea (Leo Hubbard), Richard Carlson (David Hewitt), John Marriott (Cal), and Russell Hicks (William Marshall).


The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942, William Keighley)

The Man Who Came to Dinner is, a little too obviously, an adaptation of a play. There are occasional moments outside the main setting–the home of Grant Mitchell and Billie Burke–but director Keighley doesn’t do anything with them. All involve Richard Travis’s character, which suggests maybe his subplot (local reporter in the center of a media sensation) should have been expanded. Except Travis wouldn’t have really done anything with it so maybe not.

Instead, Travis is simply a cog in Dinner’s gear, much like everyone else.

The film concerns Monty Woolley getting injured while visiting Mitchell and Burke’s house (under duress) and having to stay. Woolley’s character is a famous radio personality who, in private, is a manipulative, abusive egomaniac. The screenplay, from Julius J. and Philip G. Epstein, never quite works as various characters see Woolley being viciously mean to other characters, yet still warm to him. It makes everyone in the film a moron (except Woolley), even Bette Davis, who plays his suffering secretary.

The film’s at its most honest when Woolley, (an annoying) Jimmy Durante and (an utterly misused) Ann Sheridan get together and bask in the fruits of their manipulations. It’s a cruel, mean-spirited film and utterly tone-deaf about it. Seeing as how it’s a studio picture about celebrities secretly being atrocious, I guess the tone-deafness shouldn’t be a surprise. But Keighley’s direction is pretty lame anyway.

The best performance is easily Davis, though Sheridan eventually gets some good material (when she’s not just there to be Woolley’s stooge). Mitchell and Burke are both good. Travis is likable if weak. Mary Wickes is great as Woolley’s nurse; she manages to weather the film, which plays his cruel treatment of her entirely for laughs, with dignity.

As for Woolley… is he good as an utterly reprehensible jerk? Sure. Is there any point to watching almost two hours of it?

No.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by William Keighley; screenplay by Julius J. Epstein and Philip G. Epstein, based on the play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart; director of photography, Tony Gaudio; edited by Jack Killifer; music by Friedrich Hollaender; produced by Jack L. Warner; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Bette Davis (Maggie Cutler), Ann Sheridan (Lorraine Sheldon), Monty Woolley (Sheridan Whiteside), Richard Travis (Bert Jefferson), Jimmy Durante (Banjo), Billie Burke (Mrs. Ernest Stanley), Reginald Gardiner (Beverly Carlton), Elisabeth Fraser (June Stanley), Grant Mitchell (Mr. Ernest Stanley), George Barbier (Dr. Bradley), Mary Wickes (Miss Preen), Russell Arms (Richard Stanley), Ruth Vivian (Harriet), Edwin Stanley (John), Betty Roadman (Sarah), Charles Drake (Sandy), Nanette Vallon (Cosette) and John Ridgely (Radio Man).


monty-woolley


Death on the Nile (1978, John Guillermin)

I’d forgotten John Guillermin directed Death on the Nile. The opening credits, a static shot of the river, suggest a much different experience then the film delivers–between Guillermin directing, Jack Cardiff shooting it and Anthony Shaffer handling the adaptation. I suppose I should have remembered Shaffer also adapted Christie’s Evil Under the Sun to similar result.

Oh, and I haven’t even mentioned the wondrous Nino Rota score, which starts as the titles identify Guillermin as the director.

Unfortunately, Guillermin does very little with the direction here. I suppose he presents a fantastic travelogue of Egypt–how could he not with Cardiff photographing it–but, otherwise, the direction is little different than if he’d been shooting for television. In fact, Death on the Nile often reminded me (when inside) of a British television drama from the seventies.

But the point of these Poirot films isn’t necessarily the filmmaking or the writing, it’s the all star cast–it must be the cast, since relatively nothing happens for the first hour. And the cast is decent, but somewhat unspectacular, as the roles don’t give any actor much to do.

Mia Farrow is best, since her role gives her a lot of range, and Maggie Smith and Bette Davis are amusing as they bicker. But young lovers Jon Finch and Olivia Hussey? They’re genial, pointless additions.

Particularly–and sadly–useless is David Niven, who plays sidekick to Peter Ustinov’s tepid Poirot. Ustinov plays him here without flair, which is, like everything else, disappointing.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by John Guillermin; screenplay by Anthony Shaffer, based on the novel by Agatha Christie; director of photography, Jack Cardiff; edited by Malcolm Cooke; music by Nino Rota; production designer, Peter Murton; produced by John Brabourne and Richard B. Goodwin; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Peter Ustinov (Hercule Poirot), Jane Birkin (Louise Bourget), Lois Chiles (Linnet Ridgeway), Bette Davis (Mrs. Van Schuyler), Mia Farrow (Jacqueline De Bellefort), Jon Finch (Mr. Ferguson), Olivia Hussey (Rosalie Otterbourne), I.S. Johar (Manager Of The Karnak), George Kennedy (Andrew Pennington), Angela Lansbury (Mrs. Salome Otterbourne), Simon MacCorkindale (Simon Doyle), David Niven (Colonel Race), Maggie Smith (Miss Bowers), Jack Warden (Dr. Bessner), Harry Andrews (Barnstaple) and Sam Wanamaker (Rockford).


Watch on the Rhine (1943, Herman Shumlin)

Wow, Watch on the Rhine’s got it all. Not only does it have a nice metaphor for the United States waking up to the horrors of the Nazis and determining to do something about it (which the United States never did), it’s also got a nice ending telling mothers their place is to send their children to certain death. Watch on the Rhine is an odd piece of propaganda. First, it’s a little too late. The film came out in 1943 and the events take place in 1940. It’s selling a particular false history. The play–from co-screenwriter Lillian Hellman, Dashiell Hammett gets the main credit–came out in 1940, so I suppose it was at least honest… Second, the film’s a mash of a family drama, a play adaptation, and the propaganda. The first quarter of the film, until Bette Davis gets home with her German resistance fighter husband and oh-so-precious kids, is an amusing family drama. Lucile Watson, playing the matriarch, is absolutely fantastic, even if she is playing a metaphor for isolationist America. All of her scenes, as she gets excited for her returning daughter (Davis) and the grandchildren and the son-in-law she’s never met, make Watch on the Rhine something special. These scenes bring honest human emotion to even the most extraordinary circumstances.

Then, once Davis and her husband arrive (Paul Lukas, who’s saddled with some bad dialogue, but his performance is incredible–so incredible the word’s making its return here to The Stop Button to describe it) and the film changes. Davis has a number of monologues and, for a moment, the viewer forgets it’s a play adaptation and thinks she’s talking to her family. But the moment passes quickly because the shots never change. Director Herman Shumlin is the least exciting director I’ve seen recently. Watch on the Rhine, at times, positions itself like Casablanca, reminding just how important Michael Curtiz was to that film. It’s not a technicality, these lack of reaction shots, it’s the absence of the characters. The film is from the perspective of the family, of Watson and son Donald Woods, even from bad guy George Coulouris (who’s also great and brings a real sense of dread to Rhine). When there are no reaction shots, the film is floundering. Davis is good and her delivery of the monologues is good, but, in a film, monologues aren’t delivered. There are only three or four but they’re all important and Shumlin messes them all up.

Hammett’s dialogue ranges in quality. When it’s a bunch of Nazis talking shop, it’s fine. When it’s the romance subplot… it’s not. From his IMDb filmography, it looks like his only credited screenwriting credit. He’s particularly bad–this might be from Hellman’s play, I don’t know–with the children’s dialogue. While they’re supposed to be wise beyond their years (as children of a resistance fighter), they’ve also got a lot of cute dialogue. And the eldest son, Donald Buka, has an important part and Buka’s awful.

Obviously, Rhine’s worth watching for the lead performances–particularly Lukas and Watson–but it doesn’t deliver the flawed film the first act promises. It wouldn’t have been perfect, but it would have been special.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Herman Shumlin; screenplay by Dashiell Hammett and Lillian Hellman, from a play by Hellman; directors of photography, Merrit B. Gerstad and Hal Mohr; edited by Rudi Fehr; music by Max Steiner; produced by Hal B. Wallis; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Bette Davis (Sara Muller), Paul Lukas (Kurt Muller), Geraldine Fitzgerald (Fanny Farrelly), Lucile Watson (Fanny Farrelly), Beulah Bondi (Anise), George Coulouris (Teck de Brancovis), Donald Woods (David Farrelly), Henry Daniell (Phili Von Ramme), Eric Roberts (Bodo) and Donald Buka (Joshua).


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