Columbia Pictures

The Lady from Shanghai (1947, Orson Welles)

It’s immaterial to the film overall but I want to talk about how Welles compensates for projection composites looking like projection composites. He changes up his focus, sometimes focusing on the person in the foreground, sometimes not. Is it intentional? Is he really trying to compensate?

Well, the technique does compensate a little for it. The Lady from Shanghai does have, technologically speaking, a more consistent visual look as the film goes between projection composites and location shooting.

Again, it’s immaterial. It’s just one heck of a what if.

The Lady from Shanghai moves very quickly. It runs just under ninety minutes, with a present action of five or six months. However long it takes to sail from New York City to San Francisco, through the Panama Canal, with some extended stops in Mexico, plus a murder trial. There’s a lot of summary, always ably narrated by writer, director, producer, and star Welles. Welles is a world-traveling Irish sailor who meets Rita Hayworth one night in Central Park, while he’s waiting to find a ship out. Welles, who tries the Irish charm on Hayworth at first sight, ends up saving her from some muggers. He takes her to safety, they talk, they flirt, and wouldn’t you know it, she’d love to hire him on to sail her yacht.

Oh, and she’s married.

So Welles, in the first and last smart thing he does in Shanghai, says no. But when he gets another chance in the form of Hayworth’s much older husband, played by Everett Sloane, shows up to beg him, Welles takes it. He’s feeling way too young, strong, and virile comparing himself to Sloane, who’s a disabled person. He’s also an extremely wealthy lawyer. And he calls Hayworth “lover” in a way it makes everyone’s skin crawl and almost seems like Sloane knows he’s having that effect. Even though Welles is narrating the film, he never reveals his character’s hopes and dreams when he signs on to the yacht. He’s infatuated with Hayworth, yes, but he’s also got a sidekick along, fellow able-bodied seaman and not yacht guy Gus Schilling, and he soon finds out everyone around Sloane’s very, very weird. Like Sloane’s business partner, Glenn Anders, who’s a sweaty drunk.

See, Anders figures out the Welles and Hayworth thing—even more than Sloane, who’s at least passingly aware of the attraction and uses it to humiliate both Hayworth and Welles—but Anders realizes there’s more emotion behind it than Sloane expects. Welles has the heart of a poet and the fists of a six foot three Irishman. He sees through Hayworth the pin-up to the woman; see, Sloane likes it when Hayworth wears skimpy bathing suits in front of all his pals.

Sloane’s a great villain. The film doesn’t really have villains or heroes, but Sloane’s great in the villain spot. He’s cruel, calculating, immodest. He’s a major creep in a film with a bunch of major creeps—like Anders is clearly more dangerous than Sloane, but are you just underestimating Sloane because he doesn’t have use of his legs. Because there’s something else going on besides Sloane wanting to humiliate his trophy wife for being gorgeous, someone’s planning on killing him. Actually, no one seems like they’re not planning on killing him, except Schilling, who just does his job.

So those two plots go on simultaneously, plus the class commentary. See, Welles doesn’t like being privy to the goings ons of these shitty rich people. But they all love being condescending to him, even Hayworth, who runs hot and cold as far as their flirtation goes.

Then there’s a murder and then there’s a trial. There’s an action-packed, hallucinatory finale. There’s a great de facto chase sequence through Chinatown, there’s a big fight scene. An Orson Welles fight scene. He’s really good at some of it, though Viola Lawrence’s editing is key. Her editing is key for everything in Shanghai because the film only exists in its shots and angles, intrusive ones. Welles pushes the camera into faces—with the exception of Hayworth, who gets cradled by the camera, Welles’s infatuation controlling the shots. Welles and Hayworth were married at the time, which doesn’t add a real layer, but is kind of fun to think about. Especially during Hayworth’s big scenes. She’s got a handful of them and they’re all awesome. Welles gives himself the showier part, with his Irish accent—which gets amplified thanks to Welles’s audio process. All the dialogue is looped. The actors performing their lines separately from speaking them in their performance. No actual diegetic sounds, just diegetic sound effects, which the characters don’t “hear.” It gives Shanghai this detached but incredibly intimate quality. Even though that intimacy with the characters’ conversations is more often than not intrusive. The film’s very intrusive. Yes, it’s a film noir about hot cheating wives, sexy Irish lugs, corrupt rich people, and boats, but it’s also this careful examination and evaluation of its characters and what they represent and what they don’t and how the disconnects affect them.

So, it’s a tad misanthropic. But deservedly.

The best performance is Sloane. No one else gets to be such an exceptional creep. Not even Anders, who’s a big creep. Or Ted de Corsia, who’s a little creep. But Sloane also gets more complex emotions and they get laid bare. It’s an outstanding, spectacular performance.

Then Welles, then Hayworth. Welles, director and screenwriter, showcases Hayworth for narrative impact and effectiveness. It means she doesn’t get as good of a part as Welles, actor. But even if her part isn’t as good overall—meaning she can’t give a better performance because he’s written and directed it so she can’t—he does give her far better shot composition than anyone else in the film. He’s not just cradling her for that infatuation angle, he’s also amplifying her deliveries. So Hayworth still manages to have a “movie star” performance in this movie without the possibility of movie star performances. Welles doesn’t compose shots for them.

Anders is great; Schilling is good, Erskine Sanford is fun as the judge. Evelyn Ellis is excellent as Sloane’s maid. She’s a Black woman with a very hard life and Sloane exploits her and brags to everyone about it. In front of her.

Because he’s an incredible creep.

Great photography from Charles Lawton Jr. There’s a lot of stuff in Lady from Shanghai. Almost everything except Shanghai. Lawton shoots it all beautifully. The end action sequence is singular, thanks to Welles, Lawton, and Lawrence. The cuts and the lights are integral to its success. And it is a success. So good.

Welles, Sloane, Hayworth, the supporting cast, the crew, they make something special. The Lady from Shanghai is fantastic.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Orson Welles; screenplay by Welles, based on a novel by Sherwood King; director of photography, Charles Lawton Jr.; edited by Viola Lawrence; music by Heinz Roemheld; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Orson Welles (Michael O’Hara), Rita Hayworth (Elsa Bannister), Everett Sloane (Arthur Bannister), Glenn Anders (George Grisby), Ted de Corsia (Sidney Broome), Evelyn Ellis (Bessie), Gus Schilling (Goldie), and Erskine Sanford (judge).



Twentieth Century (1934, Howard Hawks)

Even with its way too abrupt finish, Twentieth Century is rare delight. Would it be more successful if the ending hadn’t wasted Carole Lombard? Yes, but also because it would’ve given lead John Barrymore more Lombard to act opposite and Barrymore’s best opposite Lombard. He’s amazing the whole time, but he’s best working with her. He aggravates him in just the right way. And, after time, she aggravates him in just the right way, which certainly hints at an amazing finish.

Sadly, no. Screenwriters Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur kind of choke on it, though no doubt some of the fault lies with director (and producer) Hawks.

Anyway. Done with the negative verbiage. On to the reverse.

The film opens with a stage production doing a rehearsal; it’s model Lombard’s first attempt at acting. The director, Charles Lane, and the theatre accountant, Walter Connolly, don’t think much of her. They think boss and Broadway wunderkind Barrymore just hired her because of her looks. Just before Barrymore arrives on stage to take over the film introduces Roscoe Karns as Barrymore’s drunkard newspaper stooge, who’s there to profile Lombard. For about ten minutes, it’s just Barrymore going nuts directing Lombard through the rehearsal. He’s mean (though not cruel), manipulative, rude, and utterly hilarious. Barrymore gnaws at the scene, practically snapping at the air over Lombard’s shoulders. The scene starts with them apart, ends with them intwined, Hawks and editor Gene Havlick really focusing on how the two actors pace off the other. The air is thick with chemistry.

Even if Lombard doesn’t quite realize it yet.

Because Barrymore’s not just interested in creating a successful contract player in Lombard, he’s looking for love. The “seduction” scene is where Barrymore goes from being a hilarious tyrant to a personable, hilarious tyrant. The film has three time frames. The first opens the film; Lombard and Barrymore getting together, realizing greater success because of their collaborations. Then three years later when things have hit the skids. Then another three years later, post-skids, with one far more successful than the other. That last part is the majority of the film. It’s also where the title comes in—they’re on the 20th Century Limited, on the way from Chicago to New York. The first two phases have a lot of Lombard and Barrymore together. There’s some more character establishing with the supporting cast, Connolly and Karns in particular, as they’re going to be very important in the third phase, but it’s all about Lombard and Barrymore. Second phase is mostly more about Lombard. It’s where she’s got to show all the changes in her character over the last three years; what being around Barrymore will do to an intimate partner as well as creative partner. It’s where Lombard gets to let loose almost as much as Barrymore.

Whenever the film’s Lombard or Barrymore, it’s that rare delight. Barrymore manages to get more eccentric by the third phase, set almost entirely on train, while Lombard finally gets to match him. Much of the film is spent either laughing or grinning while preparing to laugh again. Hecht and MacArthur’s script does a fantastic job building up jokes, particularly in the third section, particularly with troublesome train passenger Etienne Girardot. Girardot is a great C plot, which ties into the A plot, but also provides some real texture to the train. He gives the supporting cast something to focus on, giving them their own story arcs. The film is always bustling, as sometimes Lombard and Barrymore need to take a break. They’re both very busy; in character and performance.

Connolly and Karns get a bunch more to do in the third phase, as they’re trying to save Barrymore from himself, which means intruding on Lombard, who’s got her own things going on with fresh beau and stuffed shirt Ralph Forbes. At some point in the second half, it almost feels like Connolly and Karns’s movie. It doesn’t last for long, as they have to involve Barrymore in their activities, but then it becomes the Barrymore, Connolly, and Karns show. Lombard gets downgraded.

Just as the film finally starts remedying Lombard’s reduced station and bringing her back up, giving her some great scenes with Barrymore, the movie stops. Maybe Hecht and MacArthur ran out of ideas to give Barrymore and Lombard something to riff on, but the film needs just a little more. Five minutes maximum. It’s not like Lombard or Barrymore give any signs of slowing, even as Connolly and Karns are literally passing out by this time.

But it’s a magnificent ride to that abrupt finish. And it works, it just doesn’t transcend.

Good editing from Havlick, good photography from Joseph H. August, excellent direction from Hawks. Barrymore and Lombard are wondrous. Twentieth Century is awesome.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Howard Hawks; screenplay by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, based on a play by Charles Bruce Millholland; director of photography, Joseph H. August; edited by Gene Havlick; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring John Barrymore (Oscar Jaffe), Carole Lombard (Mildred Plotka), Walter Connolly (Oliver Webb), Roscoe Karns (Owen O’Malley), Ralph Forbes (George Smith), Charles Lane (Max Jacobs), and Etienne Girardot (Matthew J. Clark).



Superbad (2007, Greg Mottola), the unrated version

Superbad is exceptionally funny. In terms of how often you lose your breath from laughing, it’s hard to think of a better movie than Superbad. Watching Superbad probably burns between 118 and 315 calories. This unrated version anyway. The rated version would burn about four minutes less. Next time I watch it I’ll have to try to measure it on my Apple Watch. It’s one of the funnier films ever made. A smartly done, utterly obscene teen male virgin comedy. It’s a peerless success in terms of those laughs, a combination of script, actors, and material. Utterly obscene teen male virgin comedies—the kind screenwriters Seth Rogan and Evan Goldberg apparently grew up watching—needed the Internet and culture to hit 2007 to fully realize the genre’s potentials.

But it’s just a smartly done, utterly obscene teen male virgin comedy. The script’s got an amazing first act, plotting-wise; the rest of the movie doesn’t. Director Mottola takes a hands-off approach, not really showing much personality until the last shot when you get the feeling he wishes he were making a different, less utterly obscene teen male virgin comedy, but maybe even smarter. Lead Jonah Hill (playing “Seth”) loses his first act protagonist role once the second act hits. By the third act he’s even more reduced. Instead, it’s more about Hill’s best friend, Michael Cera (playing “Evan”), and their awkward third wheel, the hilarious Christopher Mintz-Plasse. They’re all high school seniors. It’s the last two weeks of school. They’re going to a party.

Mintz-Plasse’s side plot is all about his fake ID, liquor, and two party animal cops (Bill Hader and Rogen—who are playing older analogues to the teen boys, but not generally, it’s not one-to-one). It’s the even funnier stuff in the extremely funny movie. Because even though Hill and Cera have a lot of humor in their own liquor hunt (Hill promised dream girl Emma Stone he’d bring all the booze for her party, Cera promised dream girl Martha MacIsaac he’d bring her a special bottle of vodka), they’ve also got their “best friends since the fourth grade who go to different colleges and can’t be joined at the hip anymore” arc. For all their excellent insights into the male psyche, Rogen and Goldberg can’t crack that arc. Meanwhile Mottola is focused on the “boys finally learn girls are people they want to spend time with” arc, which is really awkward because Hill, Cera, and Mintz-Plasse are way too old for that arc.

Their being too old for it does provide a decent backdrop for some of the jokes, but the only time it gets directly referenced is with dream girl Stone. She’s too wise for Hill; he’s been intentionally confusing maturity and vulgarity his whole life and it won’t work with Stone. Meanwhile Cera gets this strangely paternalist arc with MacIsaac, which—given how shallow Cera’s performance schtick gets as the film goes along—is really bad for her. MacIsaac gets a little more screen time than Stone (it feels like a lot more; Stone’s forgettable) and somehow even less character. They’re both dream girl caricatures (albeit 2007 ones). The film never even hints at them being anything more. MacIsaac’s got friends, Stone’s got parents out of town. Done.

Other big problems include the progressive gay jokes. It’s lazy writing more than anything else. Superbad’s got a really big anti-toxic masculinity statement it hints around making without ever having the balls to make it. Also interesting is the lack of teen male virgin shaming, which sort of breaks the genre.

I also don’t understand how the Richard Pryor shirt Hill wears through the first act didn’t become the Garfield-in-the-car-window of the late aughts. Pryor’s expression gets laughs of its own, like he’s offering commentary on the surrounding events. It’s awesome.

Lots of Superbad is awesome. It’s peerlessly funny. It’s also astoundingly not ambitious.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Greg Mottola; written by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg; director of photography, Russ Alsobrook; edited by William Kerr; music by Lyle Workman; production designer, Chris Spellman; produced by Judd Apatow and Shauna Robertson; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Jonah Hill (Seth), Michael Cera (Evan), Christopher Mintz-Plasse (Fogell), Seth Rogen (Officer Michaels), Bill Hader (Officer Slater), Kevin Corrigan (Mark), Martha MacIsaac (Becca), Emma Stone (Jules) and Joe Lo Truglio (Francis the Driver).


In a Lonely Place (1950, Nicholas Ray)

Watching the opening titles of In a Lonely Place, I wished the design had allowed for it to appear like it was saying “Humphrey Bogart in A Lonely Place.” Just because. But it doesn’t. And wouldn’t really be appropriate either as it’s unclear, some ninety minutes later, if Bogart was indeed in a lonely place. There are hints at it, including singer Hadda Brooks’s number. But how much does Bogart’s life and demeanor change once romantic interest (and second and third act lead) Gloria Grahame enter his life? Not clear. He’s more productive at work—Bogart’s a screenwriter; Lonely Place is a Hollywood story, though it ends up not really mattering. None of the details end up mattering much in Lonely Place. One of the film’s more lacerating issues.

To get the other more lacerating issue out of the way early on (saving director Ray’s indifference to supporting performances)—cinematographer Burnett Guffey. Lonely Place looks very much to be on a budget. Limited locations, limited cast, definite but inexpensive location shooting; the only thing Guffey shoots well is the exteriors. Otherwise, it’s flat lighting. Ray lets George Antheil’s music do all the emoting, even though the lighting could do just as much if not more. Antheil’s music gets a little much, but it’s fine because it’s got to do all the drama—see, what if it turns out Bogart’s not just an alcoholic, violent, egomaniac, but what if he’s also a killer. What if Grahame’s life’s in danger (even though Bogart’s apparently never functioned as well with her literally managing his life)? Grahame’s suspicions take a while; Lonely Place—even at ninety minutes—has a draggy second act. Once she gets them, the movie gets going for a bit, including bringing Jeff Donnell back into the movie because Grahame needs someone to share her fears with. Donnell’s great. She’s Frank Lovejoy’s wife. Lovejoy’s the copper investigating Bogart who knows him from during the war, when Bogart was his awesome CO. And presumably killed a lot of Germans with his bare hands and probably some rocks because, wow, does Bogart like getting in fights.

Carl Benton Reid is Lovejoy’s boss and he thinks Bogart’s good for the murder. He sees through the war hero bit; actually, only Lovejoy fawns over Bogart for it. Everyone else sort of things he maybe is a killer.

Even his agent, Art Smith. Smith’s likable but not very good. He and Robert Warwick (as a now drunken silent film star pal of Bogart’s) are the supporting actors whose performances Ray doesn’t care about. Occasionally they have really bad comedic moments, which might add to Lonely Place’s plodding. I can’t exactly remember because I wanted to forget them; the timing’s all off from Ray, leaving the actors with eggy faces.

Warwick’s similarly likable, except then it turns out he’s a pig.

Morris Ankrum is great as Bogart’s next project’s director. Shame he’s only in two scenes. He pushes back against Bogart, which the film needs. It’s not a good enough part for Bogart to take up all the air, which is why it’s so nice—and the film improves so much—when Grahame takes over the lead.

Andrew Solt’s screenplay (of Edmund H. North’s adaptation of Dorothy B. Hughes’s novel) doesn’t balance its leads well. When Bogart’s the lead in the first act, Grahame’s material is wanting. When Grahame’s the lead in the second and third acts… Bogart’s material is wanting. It’s too bad. But seems like a surmountable problem, only for the film’s deflated, predictable finish to take a safer route.

All the movie about the killer screenwriter needed was a… better screenwriter.

And cinematographer.

And for Ray to care equally about his actors’ performances. Speaking of which, I forgot to mention Martha Stewart. Better just leave it.

But Lonely Place does give Grahame a rather solid part for most of the movie. It even hints maybe she’s in the lonely place, only not really because she only gets a trouble sleeping scene to herself. Because problems. So many problems.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Nicholas Ray; screenplay by Andrew Solt, based on an adaptation by Edmund H. North and the novel by Dorothy B. Hughes; director of photography, Burnett Guffey; edited by Viola Lawrence; music by George Antheil; produced by Robert Lord; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Humphrey Bogart (Dixon Steele), Gloria Grahame (Laurel Gray), Art Smith (Mel Lippman), Frank Lovejoy (Brub Nicolai), Jeff Donnell (Sylvia Nicolai), Carl Benton Reid (Capt. Lochner), Martha Stewart (Mildred Atkinson), Morris Ankrum (Lloyd Barnes), and Robert Warwick (Charlie Waterman).


This post is part of the Noirathon hosted by Maddy of Maddy Loves Her Classic Films.

The Reckless Moment (1949, Max Ophüls)

The Reckless Moment is self-indulgent. But in a remarkable way. A remarkable and good way. Director Ophüls and star Joan Bennett both find a way to get at the core of the story, which is a very limited character study of Bennett. The film is occasionally fantastic and sensational—though never melodramatic, even in the plotting—as upper-class Bennett gets involved with scumbag James Mason. Sure, he’s cultured and charming because he’s James Mason, but he’s Irish; he’s cultured and charming in a decidedly not WASP-enough way. But it’s always just about Bennett trying to manage her life.

Bennett and family live on Balboa Island, a nouveau riche Los Angeles suburb. Besides Bennett, there’s father-in-law Henry O’Neill, there’s all-American tween son David Bair, there’s art school daughter Geraldine Brooks. There’s also the maid, played by Frances E. Williams (a Black woman), who doesn’t even get credited even though she’s in every third scene with lines so thanks for the ick 1949.

Williams is important too.

Anyway.

The movie opens with Bennett heading into L.A. unexpectedly to meet with Shepperd Strudwick in a cheap motel. Not like that. In the closed bar, in one of the many scenes in Moment where screenwriters Henry Garson and Robert Soderberg give the film just a little bit of detail and Ophüls and his crew are able to amp it up. Lots of individual parts firing just right is what makes Moment such a special success. Because it’s also very noir-y. But also not.

Sorry—back to Strudwick. He’s carrying on with seventeen year-old daughter Brooks—she’ll be eighteen next month he tells Bennett during their initial confrontation. He’s one of the low class people Brooks has met because artists and he’s willing to give her up for cash money, something Brooks doesn’t want to hear from her mother when Bennett gets back. Family drama and some really effective lighter scenes between Bennett and son Bair ensue—Bennett having to single parent Bair gives her a lot of subtle character development. Consistently too. It’s always good. Because Bennett, Ophüls, the screenwriters.

Dad is a post-WWII civil engineer who’s making a fortune—presumably—traveling the globe and rebuilding war-torn countries with U.S. Steel. It’s important because it’s American and a success story. Bennett very knowingly, very deliberately revels in her class status and the privileges it brings. She wouldn’t initially be so sympathetic if daughter Brooks weren’t so obviously in the wrong and beau Strudwick so obviously a creep. Brooks is Moment’s weakest performance, by a lot. She’s all right by the end, but she’s a disaster before Bennett starts having to be a mama lion.

And Bennett has to be a mama lion because it turns out Strudwick’s a gambling man and he just can’t win. As collateral, he’s provided loanshark slash blackmailer slash general scumbag James Mason with all seventeen year-old Brooks’s love letters. They could ruin her. In more ways than one it turns out. Enough so Bennett has to deal with Mason at the same time she tries to deal with the Strudwick situation and get the house ready for Christmas. Reckless Moment has a very short present action. It’s a tight, noir-y thriller. Only it’s a character study, which is what makes it so special.

Bennett dips her toe in the water of disrepute and it doesn’t just fill her life with it, it changes how she experiences her life because of the new situations it brings. It turns out to be an awesome role for Bennett.

It’s a fairly good role for Mason too. He’s got his own subplot about crushing on Bennett, which she doesn’t know about and wouldn’t believe if she did. The only time Mason’s off is when he lays on the Irish too much, usually when he’s talking about Ireland, which isn’t too often. Not sure why Mason’s top-billed, other than patriarchy (though Bennett’s character would clearly approve of the man getting top billing… by would she by the end?).

Good supporting cast: O’Neill’s fine as the father-in-law, Bair’s amusing, Williams’s really good, Brooks’s uneven but comes out all right by the end, Strudwick’s appropriately scuzzy. Great black and white photography from Burnett Guffey. Nice editing and music (Gene Havlick and Hans J. Salter, respectively). Bennett’s house is absurdly big, but Frank Tuttle’s set decoration does a lot for the picture.

The Reckless Moment is short, quiet, and rather good.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Max Ophüls; screenplay by Henry Garson and Robert Soderberg, based on an adaptation by Mel Dinelli and Robert E. Kent and a story by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding; director of photography, Burnett Guffey; edited by Gene Havlick; music by Hans J. Salter; produced by Walter Wanger; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Joan Bennett (Lucia Harper), James Mason (Martin Donnelly), Geraldine Brooks (Beatrice Harper), David Bair (David Harper), Frances E. Williams (Sybil), Henry O’Neill (Tom Harper), and Shepperd Strudwick (Ted Darby).



The Mind of Mr. Soames (1970, Alan Cooke)

The Mind of Mr. Soames is preternaturally gentle (which, getting ahead of myself, is kind of the point) but it’s always a surprise how much more gentle it can get. The film doesn’t forebode or foreshadow, even though doing either wouldn’t just be predictable, it might even be appropriate given the subject matter.

The film opens at a private British medical institute, where everyone is very excited because they’re going to operate on star patient Mr. Soames (played by Terence Stamp). Stamp was born comatose due to a super-rare condition in his brain stem and this institute has kept him alive for thirty years. They’ve been waiting for medical science to get to a place where it can help Stamp. And it has. American surgeon Robert Vaughan (sporting a very cool beard) crosses the pond to do it. He’s not interested in Stamp’s recovery process, just the surgery.

At least, not until he realizes Davenport wants to train Stamp like a pet, not raise him like a child. Because even though Stamp’s got an adult brain, he’s pristine tabula rasa.

Also in the mix is scuzzy TV journalist Christian Roberts. He’s got Davenport’s permission to turn Stamp’s “childhood” into a documentary series. Part of the film’s gentle is how much the filmmakers trust the audience. The script trusts them to keep up, director Cooke trusts them to keep up—a big thing in the first act is American doctor Vaughan realizing British doctor Davenport is less concerned with Stamp recovering than with him making the Institute famous. But it never comes up. The whole arc of the film turns out to involve Donal Donnelly as Davenport’s underling, who gradually learns how to be a good doctor. Vaughan’s a big influence on him, but so’s Stamp.

Even though it’s almost a spoiler how much agency Stamp gets in the film given he starts it inanimate, kept alive by a roomful of machines. When Mind starts, it’s a split between Vaughan, Davenport, and Roberts, with Donnelly bouncing between Vaughan and Davenport. But once Stamp wakes up, the film starts its gradual transition into being his story.

It’s a great film, but it’s very hard to imagine it being able to do any more than it already does. Stamp eventually encounters all sorts of other people—most importantly kindly (potentially too kindly) miserable housewife Judy Parfitt—and Mind treats them as caricatures. Only Stamp, with this necessarily reduced agency and potential of it, gets to be a full-fledged character. These people he encounters are caricatures from his perspective, but from the film’s, which I guess is where the only real problems (outside the wrong closing music) occur. Everyone relies on Stamp to handle his perspective, which is understandable, he’s phenomenal. But if the film adjusted the narrative distance to track Stamp more closely, it’d necessarily lose the doctors.

Mind of Mr. Soames can’t be a character study, but it also can’t be a medical thriller because it can’t maintain the medical procedural. It also can’t do straight drama because it’s got a speculative air to it. Director Cooke does that gentle thing instead of trying to hit various intensities. It’s never calm, it’s never placid, it’s just gentle. Mind is based on a novel and there’s definitely the potential for some sort of comparison to Frankenstein, maybe with the book but definitely with the film; whether or not Stamp is going to go Frankenstein is one of the film’s many questions, but never one of Stamp’s and it’s Stamp’s film.

The film doesn’t exactly have charm—it’s too intense, stakes-wise—and it’s never overly stylish, but the deliberate but still surprising way the narrative unfolds is rather agreeable. Mind of Mr. Soames does a lot, provides its cast a lot of great scenes, and it’s not an easy story to do. So when it works out so well… not charming, but nice.

It’s a story very well told.

Outside the occasionally too obviously shot in the studio night time exteriors, Billy Williams’s photography is always good. The actual exterior shooting—when Stamp and the film get outside his “playroom”—is excellent. Really strong direction from Cooke, both with the actors and the composition. The film seems to get a certain patience from Cooke, while it gets a different one from John Hale and Edward Simpson’s script; the story’s about agitated people but the story’s never agitated.

Pretty good music from Michael Dress (except the closing track, which is fine but not good enough for what the film has just accomplished).

Great performance from Stamp (you can’t imagine anyone else in the role after he does it). Excellent support from Vaughan, Davenport, and Donnelly. They’re ahead the other caricatures because, well, they get enough time not to be caricatures.

Stamp, Cooke, and everyone else make something special with The Mind of Mr. Soames.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Alan Cooke; screenplay by John Hale and Edward Simpson, based on the novel by Charles Eric Maine; lighting cameraman, Billy Williams; edited by Bill Blunden; music by Michael Dress; production designer, Bill Constable; produced by Max Rosenberg and Milton Subotsky; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Terence Stamp (John Soames), Robert Vaughn (Dr. Bergen), Nigel Davenport (Dr. Maitland), Christian Roberts (Thomas Fleming), Donal Donnelly (Joe Allan), Norman Jones (Davis), Dan Jackson (Nicholls), and Judy Parfitt (Jenny Bannerman).



Picnic (1956, Joshua Logan)

Picnic is all about sex. It can never talk about being all about sex because it’s from 1956 and it’s set in small-town Kansas anyway and no one in small-town Kansas was going to be talking about sex. Not when schoolteachers like Rosalind Russell are trying to ban books for even hinting at sex.

But it’s all about sex.

Mostly it’s about women wanting to have sex with William Holden, who’s a drifter come to town looking to get a job as an executive from his old college buddy Cliff Robertson. Holden was thirty-seven in Picnic and, regardless of his beefcake factor, looks at least thirty-seven. Robertson was thirty-two. He looks about twenty-seven. It’s never clear how much time has passed since they were in college together though when Russell finally loses it and dresses Holden down for, basically, rejecting her drunken advances, she brings up the age thing. So are they supposed to be mid-thirties? They’re at least old enough Kim Novak ought to be rethinking her de facto engagement to Robertson.

Novak is nineteen. Her mom, Betty Field, wants her to marry Robertson before he gets tired of waiting for sex. Novak just wants men to stop objectifying her. Field says it’s all she’s got going for her so she better use it to get a ring on it ASAP. Couple years, she’ll be way too old to catch a good rich man. I guess the “good” thing about Field utterly devaluing her daughter’s worth is she’s not greedy about it? Field doesn’t want Robertson and Novak to take care of her, she just wants Novak taken care of. She’s selfless. Field doesn’t like Holden strutting around with his shirt off—her sexagenarian neighbor, kindly Verna Felton gets Holden out of his shirt as fast as she can—but Field doesn’t like it. Because it’s catching Novak’s eye and if Novak decides she might want to have sex with some guy instead of just doing it out of duty, well, she’s going down the wrong path.

Field’s got another daughter, a younger one, Susan Strasberg. Strasberg is a bit of a tomboy, super-smart (there’s some throwaway line in the first act, which is full of throwaway lines, about Strasberg having a four year scholarship except then she goes back to high school), and she too takes notice of Holden. Not in an inappropriate way but in the same way Felton notices Holden; they understand he’s a foxy man and there ain’t no other foxy men in Kansas. But they don’t lust after him in the same way as… oh, Russell, who gets drunker and drunker as the day progresses and finally gets so touchy-feely with Holden she tears off half his shirt. Got to let the beefcake out!

Russell’s all about the sex; even as she describes herself as the “old maid schoolteacher” what she really means is she hooks up with hot younger dudes out of town then brags about it to her friends at work. In town she’s stuck with decidedly not sexy, not younger Arthur O’Connell. He’s a local shop-owner, a bachelor stuck in his ways. Who, sure, gets hammered and talks Russell into going off after the picnic to “drive” in his car. There’s a great line from Felton about how everyone disappears after a picnic—Field is wondering where everyone went because she’s forgotten what it’s like to want sex—but Felton remembers. And she’s like, “They’re all off having sex.” And you’d think Field would remember because she told Novak to go off with Robertson and give him some play so he stays interested.

Now, Novak’s a good girl, from a good family, she’s just not a rich girl. Or a smart girl. She’s quiet and a little sad. Being socialized to accept paper boy Nick Adams hitting on her every morning no doubt has something to do with that sadness.

She just wants someone to take her seriously. And not because of how she looks.

So when she and Holden have this super-charged sexy dance at the Picnic, which sets off Strasberg’s jealousy and resentment as well as Russell’s beefcake lust, well… is it different when Holden ogles her? Because it’s William Holden and not Nick Adams or Cliff Robertson.

Or, in the film’s grossest revelation, Arthur O’Connell. Who goes over to visit Russell (who lodges with Field and daughters) and ogles Novak.

O’Connell recovers from that moment, mostly because he’s got Russell holding up their scenes, but… yuck.

If Picnic could talk about sex, would it be better? Well, not if it still had such unbridled passion for patriarchal relationships. Novak and Holden have zero chemistry, which would be a bigger problem if the script ever needed them to have any. But Novak’s written so thin—she’s constantly asking people to define her character in the first act, which gets tedious fast because the character relationships ring hollow. Director Logan, who directed the original play on Broadway, has no patience or regard for his actors. He’s always in a hurry, always shooting in these boring long shots (though James Wong Howe’s photography is fantastic). Often there will be some terrible cut; editors William A. Lyon and Charles Nelson shockingly won an Oscar for the film, which is something since there’s not a single smooth transition between long shot and close-up in the entire film.

While I’m talking about the crew, might as well get George Duning’s score out of the way. It’s too loud, too bombastic, too obvious, too melodramatic. Jo Mielziner’s production design is excellent though. It’s a shame Logan doesn’t have better shots for it. He’s got some really awkwardly pedestrian shots, like he’s scared of cranes or something. The film’s wide Cinemascope aspect ratio is another problem. It opens the film up too much and Logan rarely can compose for it.

The big dance scene is about the only intentionally well-directed sequence in the film, though there are occasional unintentional good shots.

It’s never incompetent, it’s just never anything but competent.

The film peaks somewhere in the second act, during the picnic. Regardless of all the problems, Picnic has a great pace. At least until the third act, when it starts to drag on and on, introducing these juxtapositions between Novak and Russell, O’Connell and Holden. Only none of the characters do enough for the juxtapositions to make any narrative sense, much less drum up any dramatic effect.

Great performance from Russell, really good ones from O’Connell and Felton. Okay—all things considered—one from Holden. He’s pretty good in the first act. By the last act you wish he’d rethought agreeing to the film (given he was worried he was too old for the part he’s obviously too old to play). Novak’s… she could be worse. Same goes for Field, though she’s immediately grating. Strasberg’s great, but the part’s crap. Worse, it’s a big part. It’s just a big, crappy part. If the movie were actually about her and Novak, it’d be something. If the movie were about Novak, it’d be something. If it were about any of its characters, it’d be something. But the smorgasbord approach? Doesn’t work. No one gets enough time or space.

Though it probably wouldn’t matter because they still couldn’t talk about sex. Picnic is fixated on it. Even if all of its ideas about it are at least bad, sometimes icky, sometimes much, much worse.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Joshua Logan; screenplay by Daniel Taradash, based on the play by William Inge; director of photography, James Wong Howe; edited by William A. Lyon and Charles Nelson; music by George Duding; production designer, Jo Mielziner; produced by Fred Kohlmar; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring William Holden (Hal Carter), Kim Novak (Madge Owens), Susan Strasberg (Millie Owens), Rosalind Russell (Miss Rosemary Sydney), Arthur O’Connell (Howard Bevans), Cliff Robertson (Alan Benson), Betty Field (Flo Owens), Nick Adams (Bomber), and Verna Felton (Helen Potts).



To Die For (1995, Gus Van Sant)

To Die For’s got one of those effortlessly smooth but obviously intricate narrative structures. Screenwriter Buck Henry is adapting a novel, which author Joyce Maynard structured with many different first person accounts. Van Sant and Henry and editor Curtiss Clayton keep the sense of different perspectives—including some interview sessions where someone is obviously making a documentary, maybe not even necessarily the same documentary between interviewees—but the film’s never actually first person. There’s always a narrative distance. Because To Die For only shows so much of its characters. They’re all still mysteries at the end. The film’s got a very definite, very dark sense of humor and it’s never clear just how much Van Sant and Henry are bending reality.

For example, Tim Hopper and Michael Rispoli’s almost entirely dialogue-free police detectives. They’re absurdly intense, emphasis on the absurd. Only Van Sant never plays them for laughs. They cut through the film, their absurd unreality somehow realer than what’s been going on in the film.

To Die For is about cable access weatherperson Nicole Kidman seducing a teenage boy (Joaquin Phoenix) to kill her husband (Matt Dillon). The first act of the movie covers the basic setup and then how Kidman and Dillon got together and how their families clash. Dillon’s Italian, Kidman’s a WASP. It’s quite wonderfully never clear what attracted Kidman to Dillon. Apparently she really did “go wild” for him, but then he got in the way of her career. In addition to her nightly weather duties, Kidman’s making a documentary about local teenagers, including Phoenix. Once Dillon decides it’s time for Kidman to start popping out babies—he gave her a year—well, Kidman starts having sex (apparently a lot of sex, which isn’t initially clear and adds a bunch of layers to things in hindsight) with Phoenix, the end plan being getting Phoenix to kill Dillon.

The film almost entirely shows Kidman’s planning the murder from Phoenix and Alison Folland’s perspectives. Folland is one of the other teenagers in the documentary. Kidman’s documentary, not the pseudo-documentary narrative device. Casey Affleck is the third kid. Folland just wants a friend, Phoenix is in love, Affleck is an ass. They’re all poor, all neglected or abused, all dumb. Affleck gets assigned the project (by Henry, who cameos as their school teacher), but Folland and Phoenix sign up. They’re the only two in the class who don’t see Kidman is a little too much. There’s something clearly off about her.

Unfortunately for everyone involved, that off is she’s an undiagnosed sociopath, something no one suspects—including her—because her parents have spoiled her for so long. Their pampering of Kidman hid it, which the film momentarily and brilliantly addresses when Kidman freaks out dad Kurtwood Smith, who until then seems like it’s completely aware of her peculiar personality. Kidman’s obsessed with wanting to be a newscaster, which motivates every action until she realizes she doesn’t have to be a newscaster to be famous. It’s another of the film’s awesome little character development moments, when Van Sant and Henry reveal they’ve been discreetly layering in an arc, using the pseudo-documentary structure to give it some extra kick. Sometimes for humor (not laughs, humor), sometimes just because.

There are seven concurrent narrative layers. They all take place sometime after the events. There’s Illeana Douglas (as Dillon’s sister who always knew Kidman was bad news); she’s being interview for a documentary. There’s Phoenix in prison. There’s Folland not in prison. Then there’s the parents on a daytime talk show—just the straight talk show footage—Smith and Holland Taylor as Kidman’s parents, Dan Hedaya and Maria Tucci as Dillon’s. Susan Traylor plays Kidman’s sister, who never has anything to say but always has this knowing look. There’s Wayne Knight as Kidman’s boss at the TV station. Then there are the flashbacks. And, finally, there’s Kidman narrating to the camera.

Only she’s not confessing so her material is very different. The reality she presents is very different from what we see transpire. Maybe it’s never clear with Taylor, but Smith seems to know Kidman’s guilty.

Listing the best performances in the film is basically just like listing the cast. Kidman and Phoenix are both phenomenal. And even though they have a bunch of scenes together and Kidman’s manipulating him and Phoenix is bewitched, their character arcs are entirely separate and so are their performances. They don’t have “chemistry” because it’s not possible for them to have it in those conditions. Folland’s great. Douglas is great. Knight’s great. Smith’s great. Affleck, Dillon, Hedaya, Taylor, Tucci; they’re all good. They just can’t compare. They don’t get the material, though there’s always this implicit material. Like Traylor’s looks, whatever they mean.

Good photography from Eric Alan Edwards, good production design from Missy Stewart, perfectly matched Danny Elfman score (it’s a constant, emotive, supportive but never ambitious score). To Die For’s technicals excel. Everything about it excels, especially Kidman, especially Phoenix, especially Van Sant, and especially Henry.

It’s gang busters.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Gus Van Sant; screenplay by Buck Henry, based on the novel by Joyce Maynard; director of photography, Eric Alan Edwards; edited by Curtiss Clayton; production designer, Missy Stewart; music by Danny Elfman; produced by Laura Ziskin; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Nicole Kidman (Suzanne Stone), Joaquin Phoenix (Jimmy Emmett), Alison Folland (Lydia Mertz), Casey Affleck (Russel Hines), Illeana Douglas (Janice Maretto), Wayne Knight (Ed Grant), Kurtwood Smith (Earl Stone), Holland Taylor (Carol Stone), Dan Hedaya (Joe Maretto), Maria Tucci (Angela Maretto), Susan Traylor (Faye Stone), Tim Hopper (Mike Warden), Michael Rispoli (Ben DeLuca), Gerry Quigley (George), Buck Henry (Mr. H. Finlaysson), and Matt Dillon (Larry Maretto).


It Happened in Hollywood (1937, Harry Lachman)

It Happened in Hollywood is very nearly a success, which is surprising since most of the film is entirely mediocre. There’s a great lead performance from Richard Dix, as a silent movie cowboy who can’t make it in talkies (though, to be fair, the one bombed screen-test scene was more used to comment on the industry’s problematic transition to sound), and it’s nice whenever Fay Wray shows up as his regular onscreen love interest and off-screen possible love interest, but she’s not in it much. And the script doesn’t start getting inventive until well into the second half of the film, which only runs sixty-seven minutes. The direction, which has all sorts of opportunities to comment on sound storytelling versus silent storytelling, misses them all. Then in the second half, when Kid Melodrama starts kicking in (more on him in a moment), director Lachman misses the most perfect opportunity, one where it’s hard to forgive him.

Because Lachman isn’t a lazy director by any means. Hollywood is on a budget for sure, but Lachman and cinematographer Joseph Walker have a lot of big establishing shots (and small ones) and the one fight scene is good. Even if the production values are a little slim. It’s just Lachman isn’t interested in the story and Hollywood needs someone interested in it. Dix seems pretty interested in it, Wray seems pretty interested in it (when she’s around); the entire supporting cast, with the sole exception of Kid Melodrama, is solid. And they need to be really solid for what the script does with them in the second half. Hollywood doesn’t necessarily start with a lot of potential, but it builds up steadily throughout. Only to choke in the finale and not even because of Kid Melodrama. So let’s get to Kid Melodrama.

Kid Melodrama is Bill Burrud. He’s in the hospital at the start of the film, which is where we meet Dix. He’s on a children’s hospital tour, showing his latest silent Western with Fay Wray as his damsel. He’s the biggest Western star in Hollywood, beloved by children nationwide. Both boys and girls based on the hospital audience, which makes it weird when Dix gives a speech ignoring the girls. Something similar happens again even worse at the end, but it’s not the finale choke so it’s just, you know, 1937.

Anyway. Burrud. Burrud is the sickest kid on the ward. He’s going in for surgery and it doesn’t look good, but Dix promises the kid he can visit Dix and his horse in Hollywood if he gets better. Sadly, Burrud gets better. And he sends Dix letters throughout the first half, which chronicles Dix’s immediate and catastrophic fall from stardom in the first few months of the talkies. While he fails, Wray succeeds. For a short while it seems like the film might be about them, even though Wray’s in the film less and less. When Dix gets a chance in talkies again thanks to the aforementioned fight scene, it’s in one of Wray’s pictures, but only barely returns to Hollywood. She’s around for a second, then disappears again, including from Dix’s disaster. Because Dix is scared of her.

Basically Hollywood is forty-four year old Dix acting like a bashful teenager. Wray’s not much better, but she’s a little better. Dix pulls it off, sure, but eventually it gets a little tiresome, which coincides nicely with Dix deciding to abandon Hollywood forever.

Luckily for him, Kid Melodrama Burrud shows up. He got better just to come out and see Dix and he’s an orphan and the foster care guy makes fun of Dix all the time and Hollywood too. Even though Burrud’s annoying as hell, Dix’s concern for him works. Out of nowhere, It Happened in Hollywood all of a sudden gets to do something different. For a while, it gets rather inventive.

So the utterly pointless finish, which actually manages to interrupt a rather nice scene for Dix and Wray where it seems like at least the script understands how things echo throughout the picture… it’s disappointing. And silly. The film all of a sudden stops taking itself seriously just so it can wrap up. Nicely, Dix and Wray have enough charm to get through.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Harry Lachman; screenplay by Ethel Hill, Harvey Fergusson, and Samuel Fuller, based on a story by Myles Connolly; director of photography, Joseph Walker; edited by Al Clark; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Richard Dix (Tim Bart), Bill Burrud (Billy – The Kid), Fay Wray (Gloria Gay), Victor Kilian (Slim), Charles Arnt (Jed Reed), Granville Bates (Sam Bennett), William B. Davidson (Al Howard), Arthur Loft (Pete), Edgar Dearing (Joe Stevens), James Donlan (Shorty), Franklin Pangborn (Mr. Forsythe), Zeffie Tilbury (Miss Gordon), Harold Goodwin (Buck), and Charles Brinley (Pappy).


The Critic (1963, Ernest Pintoff)

At just about three minutes of “action,” The Critic is the perfect length. It opens with some abstract animation–black shapes dancing around variously colored backgrounds, as active (versus tranquil) classical music plays. The designs get more complex, but for the first thirty seconds (so fifteen percent of the action), Critic plays it straight. It’s some abstract animation short. Not too complicated, but lively.

And then Mel Brooks asks, “What the hell is this?”

And The Critic starts on its path to sublimity.

For a while, it’s just Brooks talking about the action on screen. Dot moving over here, dot moving over there. Some shapes getting jiggy.

Brooks’s character is a cranky, impatient old Russian guy and we’re hearing his thoughts. It’s perfectly fine. Brooks is funny, it’s not going to go on very long, it’s all good.

Only we’re not hearing his thoughts. Or, more, we are hearing his thoughts. But so are all the other people watching the short film with him.

He’s in a theater, talking out loud. That detail gives The Critic the extra oomph it needs and pushes it up and over. It’s awesome.

Brooks ad-libbed the whole thing too. Apparently, the filmmakers didn’t even show him the short before he recorded.

3/3Highly Recommended

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Ernest Pintoff; written by Mel Brooks; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Mel Brooks.


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