John Houseman

Moonfleet (1955, Fritz Lang)

Moonfleet is a very strange film. The protagonist is ten year-old Jon Whiteley; the film starts with him arriving in the coastal village, Moonfleet. It’s the mid-eighteenth century. Moonfleet is a dangerous, scary place. Sort of. Whiteley is in town on his own because his mother has died (Dad is a mystery, but nowhere near enough of one) and she’s sent him to look for an old friend. The old friend is Stewart Granger. He’s an old flame. Mom and Granger hooked up, then her rich family ran him out of town. The family fell on hard times, moving away from Moonfleet, so Granger moved back. Not because he’s nostalgic for Whiteley’s mom, but because it’s a good place to run a smuggling ring. He seems to have known the mom at least moved.

And Granger’s got zero interest in having a ward. He spends most of his time drinking and carousing. He lives in Whiteley’s family manor, but it’s closed down and janky. He has his friends over to get blasted and hook up with the various women who throw themselves at Granger. Granger does have a live-in girlfriend, Viveca Lindfors, whose credited role suggests he seduced her away from a husband but it’s not in the story proper. Granger’s introduction actually has him with a different woman, Liliane Montevecchi. She’s Romani. She’s not credited as Romani. Anywhere, she might not even have a line. She’s there to do a seductive dance with lots of leg and cleavage. Lindfors gets very jealous because she’s only showing cleavage and not leg.

Okay, remember when earlier I said the protagonist is a ten year-old? Yeah, the movie makes this quick shift for much of the first act to being ladies getting hot for Granger. It’s almost like it’s a kids’—well, boys’, there’s nothing for a ten year-old girl except learning hot dudes like Granger get to treat them terribly and they should go back begging for more—but it’s like Moonfleet is a kids’ movie with stud Granger in it for Mom and all his ladies for Dad. It’s weird. Especially since the sexual nature of Granger’s various relationships isn’t implied. It’s explicit. Granger’s best pal is George Sanders, a lord who slums it at Granger’s pad to get wasted, gamble, and hook up with loose poor women. It’s okay because his wife, Joan Greenwood, knows all about that behavior. She’s fine with it, because she and Granger are schtupping. Sanders suspects he’s being cuckolded but isn’t sure and isn’t really too worked out about it. Granger’s subplot—or the closest thing he gets to a subplot in the ninety minute picture—involves Greenwood wanting him to run off with her and Sanders. Sanders is keen to it because Granger is ostensibly a lower class scoundrel who climbed the social ladder. Greenwood just wants to keep schtupping Granger, just not in England.

Back to ten year-old Whiteley. Much of the first half of the film has Granger trying to get rid of him. Or Granger’s smuggler gang threatening to kill Whiteley. Granger’s got a tenuous hold on the leadership role. At least until he shows off his sword-fighting skills to convince to rabble to stay in line. So it’s one of those kids’ adventure movies where the kid is in constant threat of vicious murder and there’s wanton (1950s acceptable) sex. Moonfleet is weird.

Whiteley’s adventure has him trying to find his grandfather or great-grandfather’s hidden treasure. Everyone in the town has been trying to find it for years but they’re all really dumb because once Whiteley gets one clue, Granger is able to figure it out.

The other major reason Moonfleet is weird is it manages to work. Lang’s direction is never particularly good. He doesn’t do action well. Not just the sword-fighting, which has bad editing (from Albert Akst), but like stage direction. It’s sluggish, like Lang is making the actors move too slowly across the Cinemascope frame. Robert H. Planck’s photography is also… unimpressive. The day-for-night stuff is always wonky, but the various interiors are always a little off too. The film’s got some really nice sets. Planck just doesn’t seem to know how to light them effectively. It’s fine. Lang doesn’t know how to shoot them effectively either. Moonfleet would probably work a lot better, visually, in black and white and Academy Ratio. Lang and Planck utterly wasted the Cinemascope.

And the script is slight. Supporting characters aren’t memorably written or performed. None of the supporting performances are bad—though all the men’s makeup is bad and there’s a lot of it; it’s bad on all dudes but Granger—they just aren’t memorable. Even though the smuggler gang is a bunch of recognizable faces, none of them distinguish themselves.

But Granger and Whiteley are both really good. Whiteley gets through lots of bad dialogue and sells the earnestness right. He brings some depth to the part; like, we don’t know what this kid’s life has been like, even if he does sound like a proper little English boy. His accent is a little out of place occasionally, however. And then Granger sort of seems to know he ought to be in this kids’ adventure picture about maybe this scoundrel being the dad and maybe not being the dad but it doesn’t matter because deep down everyone knows he really wants to be the dad. Only Moonfleet isn’t that movie. But Granger pretends.

He’s never more comfortable in the film than with Whiteley and the smugglers and never less comfortable then when with Sanders and Greenwood.

Sanders is okay. It’s a small part with nothing to it and no reason for George Sanders. Other than putting him in a wig and making him as unrecognizable as George Sanders as possible.

Greenwood’s… better than Lindfors? Lindfors seems miserable being in the film. She and Granger have negative chemistry.

So… Moonfleet. It’s a weird fail. The worst part is the end, which—for most of the film—is all the picture’s got going for it, the possibility of a solid ending. And then there’s a misstep and then a stumble and then a face-plant.

Moonfleet doesn’t deserve Whiteley or Granger.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Fritz Lang; screenplay by Jan Lustig and Margaret Fitts, based on the novel by J. Meade Falkner; director of photography, Robert H. Planck; edited by Albert Akst; music by Miklós Rózsa; produced by John Houseman; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Jon Whiteley (John Mohune), Stewart Granger (Jeremy Fox), Joan Greenwood (Lady Ashwood), Viveca Lindfors (Mrs. Minton), Melville Cooper (Felix Ratsey), Sean McClory (Elzevir Block), Alan Napier (Parson Glennie), John Hoyt (Magistrate Maskew), Donna Corcoran (Grace), and George Sanders (Lord Ashwood).

The Fog (1980, John Carpenter)

It’s not just Janet Leigh being in the film or all the trouble–visibly–starting when Jamie Lee Curtis arrives in town, it’s everything about The Fog–it’s an aware Hitchcock homage. The list can continue with the setting, the reference to The Birds, but it’s even more. There’s a definite feel to the film; Carpenter seemingly (he really doesn’t, since the film’s only ninety minutes) dedicates a bunch of time to the character development.

He’s got that fantastic introduction to Adrienne Barbeau’s character. There’s her talking to admirer Charles Cyphers on the phone to showcase her actual personality (versus her radio personality), the guys on the boat talking about her, then, a few scenes later, there are the backstory heavy photographs and newspaper clippings. It takes almost no time, but Carpenter and co-writer Debra Hill create this incredibly full character. I think the line about her grocery shopping does a lot of work in about four seconds.

Hill’s contributions to the script can’t be overlooked–besides Barbeau’s fine character, there’s also the almost passive–but touching–romance between Tom Atkins and Jamie Lee Curtis. It’s so passive, it’s hard to even call it a romance, but it’s there and the scenes are great. Atkins is the closest thing the film’s got to a leading man and he’s fantastic–his character’s also very Hitchcockian. The film’s got six principles–Barbeau, Atkins, Curtis, Leigh, Nancy Keyes and Hal Holbrook. Leigh and Keyes spend most of the film together–another great relationship–while Barbeau and Holbrook are mostly solo. Holbrook’s part is only significant at the beginning and end, so the film’s almost three–Barbeau the radio deejay, Atkins and Curtis’s wild ride, and Leigh and Keyes working on the town’s anniversary celebration.

The anniversary celebration, which is handled extremely carefully, just shows off what a great job Carpenter does with limited money here. Everything gives the impression of majesty, mostly due to Carpenter’s fine Panavision composition and Dean Cundey’s lush color palate (another Hitchcock similarity). It’s an incredibly tight script and the majority of the film doesn’t have a single misstep. There’s Cyphers in his small role and he’s great. Darwin Jostin has a cameo, he’s great. It’s all great… until the end.

The end falls apart slowly, maybe because it’s hurried. After spending so much time with Curtis and Atkins (and Leigh and Keyes), seeing them pushed aside for Holbrook to take over–while Barbeau awkwardly narrates–really knocks away at the picture.

The film opens slowly and quietly. You’ve got John Houseman telling a story. Houseman’s definitely got the voice for it. It’s gradual, ominous and full of mood. The ending is fast, loud and neon.

The performances are all good, especially Barbeau (until the end, she can’t make her monologues sound good, no one could), Atkins, Keyes and Curtis. Atkins is such an assured leading man, it’s hard to believe he never played one again (maybe he did, but I’ve sure never seen it). Barbeau’s character is so interesting, she could have played her in a straight, non-genre picture and it probably would have been even better.

It’s great filmmaking, it’s just a problematic film.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by John Carpenter; written by Carpenter and Debra Hill; director of photography, Dean Cundey; edited by Charles Bornstein and Tommy Lee Wallace; music by Carpenter; production designer, Wallace; produced by Hill; released by AVCO Embassy Pictures.

Starring Adrienne Barbeau (Stevie Wayne), Jamie Lee Curtis (Elizabeth Solley), Janet Leigh (Kathy Williams), John Houseman (Mr. Machen), Tom Atkins (Nick Castle), James Canning (Dick Baxter), Charles Cyphers (Dan O’Bannon), Nancy Kyes (Sandy Fadel), Ty Mitchell (Andy), Hal Holbrook (Father Malone), John F. Goff (Al Williams) and George ‘Buck’ Flower (Tommy Wallace).


Rollerball (1975, Norman Jewison)

Somehow, it’s impossible to find an actual Tarkovsky quote regarding 2001 online, just tidbits about Solaris being his humanist response to that film.

Damn.

I wanted to open with a comment about Norman Jewison sharing the opinion about the science fiction genre.

Rollerball‘s a technical masterpiece. Jewison’s sense of composition and editing have never been better. It’s unfortunate, very unfortunate, the script isn’t up to snuff. During scenes, some more than others, but during actual scenes and not the frequent exposition scenes–Rollerball seems like it should be fantastic. The film’s a series of vignettes imprisoned by William Harrison’s poor transitionary scenes and endless exposition. Harrison bashes at the viewer with a rubber mallet at every opportunity, when instead–given the film’s distanced view of the future (the viewer never gets to see the rollerball fans outside the stadium, the common people)–just sitting back and letting Jewison try to loose his inner Fellini on a Hollywood movie, would have let the film achieve its full potential.

Jewison’s choices aren’t all perfect, of course. The use of classical music is a serious mistake. The choices are poor and, occasionally, comedically bombastic.

James Caan’s performance is okay. He plays the character ultra-shy at times, murmuring to the point he’s unintelligible. He gets better as the movie goes on.

Rollerball runs just over two hours and, sometime before the first hour’s up, the film’s suffocated the viewer. It’s not exciting, it’s not intriguing, but it’s somehow captivating.

The other performances are generally decent. It’s amazing to see John Houseman play his role straight-faced and well. John Beck and Moses Gunn are both good. Maud Adams is terrible.

Though Jewison’s take is highly derivative–I guess he even owns up to the Kubrick influence–he does a great job. It’s just too bad he didn’t get a good screenwriter.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Norman Jewison; screenplay by William Harrison, based on his short story; director of photography, Douglas Slocombe; edited by Antony Gibbs; production designer, John Box; released by United Artists.

Starring James Caan (Jonathan E.), John Houseman (Bartholomew), Maud Adams (Ella), John Beck (Moonpie), Moses Gunn (Cletus), Pamela Hensley (Mackie), Barbara Trentham (Daphne), Shane Rimmer (Rusty) and Ralph Richardson (Librarian).


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