Shirley MacLaine

The Trouble with Harry (1955, Alfred Hitchcock)

The Trouble with Harry is very cute. It’s fine, the film’s intentionally cute, but it’s also somewhat frustrating. With the exception of the glorious Technicolor exteriors of Vermont leaves, director Hitchcock and photographer Robert Burks don’t do anything particularly interesting. John Michael Hayes’s screenplay is so confined it often feels like Harry is a stage adaptation. It’s not; Hayes’s script is just stagy.

The film takes place over a particularly long day in a small New England town. Lovable old sea captain Edmund Gwenn is out rabbit hunting and finds a dead body. Thinking he’s killed the stranger, Gwenn goes to cover it up, eventually involving local painter and singing stud muffin John Forsythe (Forsythe’s voice sounds nothing like his singing voice). Forsythe happens upon Gwenn after going in to town to charm some groceries out of shopkeep Mildred Dunnock. He also meets local spinster Mildred Natwick, who we’ve already met because she caught Gwenn with the body. And made a date with him. Because New Englanders are naughty.

Gwenn and Natwick at the body is cute, Natwick in the shop is cute, Natwick and Gwenn are going to be cute throughout the movie. Meanwhile Forsythe has his eyes set on new-to-town local single mom Shirley MacLaine, even though Forsythe appears to be friends with MacLaine’s kid, Jerry Mathers. Mathers finds the body in the beginning, even before Gwenn. This jumbling instead of sequential plot recounting is intentional. See, Trouble with Harry is full of twists and reveals in the first half. The second half is all dead body comedy, but the first half is moving its four main cast members into situations together. Gwenn and Natwick, Forsythe and MacLaine. With Mathers popping in as needed. And it turns out he’s occasionally really needed because Hayes and Hitchcock run out of energy so it all hinges on Mathers having been cute enough early in the film.

It works, but it’s a lazy finish. Harry can get away with some lazy because part of the joke is how little people care about the dead body, whether Harry is a stranger or even an acquaintance. Hayes doesn’t have any difficult jokes in Harry. Even when he’s trying to shock, it’s never with a difficult joke. They’re always easy. And cute. Shockingly cute at times, so it helps MacLaine is so cute. And so on.

Hitchcock does really well with the cast, even when they’ve got way too much dialogue (or way too little). At the beginning, when Gwenn finds the body, it seems like he’s going to be Harry’s stage manager and narrate it. Though in talking to himself, not the audience. But then Forsythe shows up and Gwenn never gets to be the lead again. Forsythe’s too charming. And talented a artist. And swell guy.

Though he’s a dick to Natwick in their lengthy first scene together. Eventually the script reins in that character “feature” and Forsythe gets a lot more likable. Though he’s not like anyone else. He’s never cute. Even Royal Dano as dopey local sheriff’s deputy who the Scooby Gang has to hide from occasionally–and who they bully in a shocking display of classist privilege at one point–even Dano gets to be cute. And really sympathetic. Right before the troubled finish.

Though maybe the truncation of the ending saves the film from more derision of Dano, which becomes the focus for the final act. It’s really weird. Either Hayes or the source novel writer totally bungled the finish of the story or Hayes and Hitchcock screwed it up. It’s disappointing.

Gwenn is great. Natwick is great. And they’re adorable. MacLaine is good. And cute. Mathers is never around enough to get annoying.

Dunnock is good too. She seems like she’s going to have more to do than she gets.

Hitchcock’s direction is fine. It’s occasionally precious, which doesn’t clash with the humor but it also doesn’t generate any energy. Great photography from Burks. Awful editing from Alma Macrorie. Some of it is lack of coverage footage, but it’s still awful. There are also these fades to black at the end of jokes or when it’s time to jump ahead in time because Hayes’s plotting is so thin and they never bring anything to the film. Some are fine, but they’re never helpful.

Bernard Herrmann’s score is an unqualified, adjective-free perfect.

The Trouble with Harry is a diverting and often adorable 100 minutes. It’s a fine production. It’s also rather mundane.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock; screenplay by John Michael Hayes, based on the novel by Jack Trevor Story; director of photography, Robert Burks; edited by Alma Macrorie; music by Bernard Herrmann; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Edmund Gwenn (Capt. Albert Wiles), John Forsythe (Sam Marlowe), Mildred Natwick (Miss Ivy Gravely), Shirley MacLaine (Jennifer Rogers), Mildred Dunnock (Mrs. Wiggs), Royal Dano (Deputy Sheriff Calvin Wiggs), and Jerry Mathers (Arnie Rogers).

The Apartment (1960, Billy Wilder)

The Apartment does whatever it can to remain a dramatic comedy when it shouldn’t be anymore. And sort of isn’t. When the film shifts into real drama, there’s no going back. Director Wilder gets it too. The film has a good comedy opening, a breathtaking dramatic middle, and a decent comedy end. The comedy in the opening and the end is very different. The opening comedy is sort of bemused–oh, isn’t it funny how office drone Jack Lemmon gets into management because he lends out his apartment to company managers to use with their girlfriends. You know, away from the wives.

Now, there’s drama of some kind forecast in the opening comedy. The comedy, drama, and comedy split doesn’t exactly fit the three acts. But is sort of shoe-horned to fit. Anyway. There’s some inevitable character drama forecast during the comedy. Lemmon’s got a crush on elevator girl and confirmed non-dater Shirley MacLaine. Turns out she’s not a non-dater, she’s just more discreet than the rest of the office staff. And by office staff, there are thousands of employees. An absurd number of them, actually, for the space. Because before The Apartment becomes a romantic pursuit comedy, it’s a modern office comedy.

Writers Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond do pretty well at the modern office comedy. It all hinges on Lemmon, who’s really got to do everything for twenty-five minutes. It’s a two-hour and change film. So the first fifth is all Lemmon and the modern office comedy involving his apartment. MacLaine shows up, but she’s just another piece of the office comedy.

It’s when Lemmon finally gets busted and big boss Fred MacMurray demands use of The Apartment does the film start moving. All the setup is Lemmon–quite spectacularly–spinning his wheels. There’s no narrative drive to Lemmon’s promotion goals because it’s unclear they’re goals. Certainly why they’d be goals. Lemmon’s character is the force of his personality and performance. It isn’t until the scene with MacMurray Lemmon has to do anything different. That scene changes the whole movie.

Then there’s sort of this mini-first act to the dramatic material, moving the film away from the comedy, bringing in MacLaine’s story. Told in exposition. There’s a lot of character revelations through exposition in The Apartment and they’re often spectacular, but never explored. Lemmon and MacLaine never get to develop in their scenes together. They spend most of the dramatic middle together. The middle of The Apartment is this short film within the film, where the direction changes, the script changes, the performances change.

And the middle is wonderful. Both Lemmon and MacLaine are fantastic. They have this parallel development arc. Lemmon’s falling for MacLaine, MacLaine’s getting back together with MacMurray. There are dramatic stakes involved; the film doesn’t prepare for them. Wilder and Diamond have some absurdism at the beginning, then they’ve got some shock value. But all very mild. The script relies on these sturdy narrative devices, but always carefully; making sure they never creak.

Wilder’s direction is outstanding. He, cinematographer Joseph LaShelle, and editor Daniel Mandell create a seamless visual experience. So seamless when it detaches from Lemmon and MacLaine in the last third, the second comedy section, it does so ahead of the story. The filmmaking and the writing are both phenomenal. Even when The Apartment is skipping character development for these short, tragic, cynically comedic set pieces in the last third. Wilder and Diamond make the film into a drama–almost entirely straight drama–in the middle, then try to avoid having to do a dramatic finish.

Because they want to do the romantic comedy, which is cute–Lemmon and MacLaine are cute, MacMurray’s great as the sleazebag boss–but they haven’t really set up. There are some big Lemmon revelations in the finale and they don’t fit with the rest of the character. Not how Wilder and Diamond handled him in the opening. The script also has a problem with MacLaine’s naiveté. Sometimes she has so much she couldn’t have gotten to where she’s gotten. She also gets some big revelations, but in the middle dramatic area–so not played for comedy like Lemmon’s later revelations–and they scuff with some of the earlier character development; the finale could fix it. But doesn’t. Because as much as the final third distances itself from Lemmon, it abandons MacLaine.

And when she is in it, Wilder and Diamond keep her as flat as possible. It’s very strange. The finale just feels perfunctory. Technically inspired, beautifully written, but perfunctory. The film stops worrying about its characters and concentrates on the most efficient way to finish things up.

The acting’s all great. Lemmon, MacLaine, MacMurray (whose paper thin character never gets any thicker). David Lewis and Ray Walston are awesome as a couple of Lemmon’s apartment leches. Jack Kruschen and Naomi Stevens are Lemmon’s neighbors, who think he’s a sex addict with all the activity in his apartment; they play a big part in the middle. They go from being bit comedy background to this spectacular dramatic support.

Hope Holiday is hilarious. It’s kind of an extended cameo; the part’s beautifully written and Holiday’s fantastic. The other thing about The Apartment is how little Wilder and Diamond try in the final section. They employ these particular, different, precise narrative devices–always beautifully executed–and then they give up on trying for new ones in the finale.

Edie Adams is good as MacMurray’s secretary. She too goes from background to… well, not support, but also not background. The way the script makes room for bigger parts for the characters is another phenomenal quality of it. And another one the finale ignores.

The Apartment is rather frustrating. It’s spectacular film. Masterfully, exquisitely produced. But still disappointing. It pulls off this great transition from comedy to drama and then shrugs at the transition back. It never runs out of enthusiasm just ambition.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Billy Wilder; written by Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond; director of photography, Joseph LaShelle; edited by Daniel Mandell; music by Adolph Deutsch; released by United Artists.

Starring Jack Lemmon (C.C. Baxter), Shirley MacLaine (Fran Kubelik), Fred MacMurray (Jeff D. Sheldrake), Jack Kruschen (Dr. Dreyfuss), Edie Adams (Miss Olsen), Naomi Stevens (Mrs. Mildred Dreyfuss), Ray Walston (Joe Dobisch), David Lewis (Al Kirkeby), Johnny Seven (Karl Matuschka), and Hope Holiday (Mrs. Margie MacDougall).


Two Mules for Sister Sara (1970, Don Siegel)

Two Mules for Sister Sara opens playfully. Then it gets serious. Then it gets playful. Then it gets serious. Then it gets playful. Director Siegel never lets it keep one tone for too long, not until the end, when he shows what happens when you take it all too seriously. After a hundred minutes of occasionally violent, occasionally indiscreet situation comedy, Sister Sara all of a sudden turns into this very real battle scene during the second French invasion of Mexico.

And it gets there beautifully. The first two-thirds of the film is a road movie. Mercenary Clint Eastwood runs across nun-in-danger Shirley MacLaine and saves her. She takes advantage of his pious nature, softly conning him into being her escort as she works to help the revolutionaries fight the French. Eastwood complains, but not too much and it’s only set over a couple days. Things move very fast in Sister Sara, it’s one misadventure to the next.

And it’s just MacLaine and Eastwood. There are pretty much no other main speaking roles in that first two-thirds. You can probably count the close-ups on one hand. Maybe not at all if it weren’t for action sequences–which feature Siegel using some kind of terrible zoom-ins, which are about the only thing wrong with Siegel’s direction. His two or three uses of a contemporarily popular visual device. When it counts, during that crazy battle scene finish, Siegel isn’t messing around.

Anyway. It’s just MacLaine and Eastwood. They bicker, they sort of seem to flirt, which creeps everyone out–particularly Eastwood, there’s the adorable Ennio Morricone music. It sort of cradles MacLaine through the idea of a nun in a Spaghetti Western. Because Two Mules for Sister Sara is an American production shot in Mexico starring Clint Eastwood. Siegel doesn’t go for that directing style, but when he does have a similar shot? It’s eerie. So MacLaine doesn’t belong, especially not as a nun. And there’s this playful Morricone music to keep everyone at ease.

It’s a road movie.

Then it turns into a movie about revolutionaries mounting an attack and it gets real serious. That shift in tone works so well because Sister Sara has been setting MacLaine and Eastwood up to do more than banter. Their relationship escalates perfectly for comedy and perfectly for action drama. It’s perfectly plotted up until that transition and then there’s sort of second movie. The first two-thirds is just prologue. Siegel, editor Robert F. Shugrue, and composer Morricone pull off something spectacular with that second-to-third act transition.

Great photography from Gabriel Figueroa. He does really well with the comedy Western, has a few problems with the revolution drama–but it’s hard lighting, cavern lighting, and he’s trying–and then he nails it on the battle scene.

And excellent supporting turn from Manolo Fábregas. He’s the Juarista colonel. He really helps out in the final act hand-off as well. The present action jumps a number of days and the last scene could be stagy–it’s in a cavern, it’s Eastwood, MacLaine, and Fábregas having a heated conversation–but it doesn’t. Siegel’s directing of the actors is good throughout; sometimes it’s amazing. Sister Sara has a handful of difficult expository scenes and Siegel moves them along thanks to his direction of his actors.

It’s even more interesting as MacLaine and Siegel apparently hated working together.

Siegel, Shugrue, and Morricone do such exceptional work–and MacLaine and Eastwood are so game in their performances–Two Mules for Sister Sara is almost too good for what it wants to do. It’s an unintentional overachiever.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Don Siegel; screenplay by Albert Maltz, based on a story by Budd Boetticher; director of photography, Gabriel Figueroa; edited by Robert F. Shugrue; music by Ennio Morricone; produced by Martin Rackin and Carroll Case; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Shirley MacLaine (Sara), Clint Eastwood (Hogan), Manolo Fábregas (Colonel Beltran), and Alberto Morin (General LeClaire).


Bewitched (2005, Nora Ephron)

If there’s anything more horrific than Will Ferrell trying to be a straightedge romantic leading man, Bewitched makes one forget about it. Director Ephron is either completely blind to the complete misfire she’s directing or she just didn’t care. Seeing as she and sister Delia Ephron wrote the script, one has to suspect she actually thought she had something. Some of her direction–straight out of Technicolor musicals–allows supports the idea she thought Bewitched was good work.

She’s very, very wrong.

She also apparently told Nicole Kidman to try to sound like Marilyn Monroe, which is hilarious since Kidman can’t even keep her Australian accent hidden. One wonders if she can walk and chew gum.

There are good things about Bewitched, however. Heather Burns is great in a small part, Shirley Maclaine’s hilarious, John Lindley’s photography is competent.

None of these good things make up for Ephron seemingly telling Ferrell to ad-lib scenes and then choosing his worst takes for the final cut. If the insipid selections in the film–a lot of Bewitched seems like Ferrell’s mocking himself–are the best Ferrell came up with… I can’t even imagine the worst ones.

For such a high concept–witch Kidman stars in a relaunched “Bewitched” series–the Ephron sisters don’t come up with anything good. It should be a no brainer, but they can’t even figure out the concept has to play out im real time.

Particularly terrible are Kristin Chenoweth and Jason Schwartzman. Especially Schwartzman.

It’s heinous.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Nora Ephron; screenplay by Nora Ephron and Delia Ephron, based on the television show created by Sol Saks; director of photography, John Lindley; edited by Tia Nolan; music by George Fention; production designer, Neil Spisak; produced by Douglas Wick, Lucy Fisher, Nora Ephron and Penny Marshall; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Nicole Kidman (Isabel Bigelow), Will Ferrell (Jack Wyatt), Shirley MacLaine (Iris Smythson), Michael Caine (Nigel Bigelow), Jason Schwartzman (Ritchie), Kristin Chenoweth (Maria Kelly), Heather Burns (Nina), Jim Turner (Larry), Stephen Colbert (Stu Robison), David Alan Grier (Jim Fields), Michael Badalucco (Joey Props), Carole Shelley (Aunt Clara), Katie Finneran (Sheila Wyatt) and Steve Carell (Uncle Arthur).


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