Friday, 29 January 2010
True story recounted in Adrian Boot and Michael Thomas’ photo-book “Babylon on a Thin Wire”: Kiss of Death was immensely fashionable in Jamaica in the fraught cultural and political moment of the early ‘70s, so unnerving in its popularity in fact that the authorities censored all scenes of violence from the constantly repeated showings for fear of encouraging Rastafarian radicals and banana grove revolutionaries. Such an anecdote, combined with the impact of Richard Widmark as tittering assassin Johnny Udo, kicking the wheelchair-bound old lady down the stairs in a famous moment of boundary-pushing savagery, would seem to highlight Kiss of Death as one of the more trashily energetic, rock ‘em-sock ‘em works of post-war noir.
Which couldn’t be further from the case: there’s not much thrill left in this thriller, with its disjointed, problematic plot and slow pace. Director Henry Hathaway didn’t have much affinity for gangster films and it shows, the resulting film possessing very little of the adamantine strength and plainness of Raoul Walsh’s similar pre-war films. It deserves credit for attempting an adult, soberly recounted story, with Victor Mature’s ill-starred hero Nick Bianco suffering for his attempts to live by principle, firstly by not violating his criminal ethics, and then later by doing just that for the purposes of restarting his life and sheltering his children after their mother’s despairing suicide.
Hathaway and screenwriters Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer offer a nuanced compassion for Bianco and his situation, which thankfully lacks any interventions by Pat O’Brien in a dog-collar (although there are some nuns), instead demanding Bianco put his neck on the line only to protect his new young wife (Colleen Gray) and girls from persecution. Such a portrait of a returning patriarch’s having a hard-bitten shell of enforced resilience eaten away in trying to resume a domestic life perhaps expressed the mood of the returning GIs with unexpected accuracy. There’s a certain charge too to Mature and Gray’s forlorn romance, and the post-war fashion for authenticity, bordering on neo-realism, is apparent in the location photography.
Kiss of Death made Widmark a star and confirmed Mature as one, and that’s comprehensible: Mature’s impression of stalwart physicality and emotional simplicity inflected by melancholy is interesting, and Widmark of course created a template for many a grinning psycho in screen history. By the same token, Mature lacks the kind of grace and intensity other actors might have brought to the role, so the potential for the work to become a kind of character study of a man in a vice is only partly realised. The famous wheelchair scene is just about the only truly galvanising moment in the film, as if dreaming it up unnerved the filmmakers in some fashion, who generally play the rest with a curious mix of intimacy and distraction, lacking a sense of gritty immediacy, and leaving much of the story’s threads distractingly unresolved and fixating on Udo as if by default. This leads to a neatly conceived but rather implausible resolution, and finally the film has aged very badly. Still, Kiss of Death might be considered a median point between They Drive by Night and On the Waterfront in sustaining a hint of social realism in a generic setting, and i t shares a theme of irrepressible reckoning with Hathaway’s best film, The Shepherd of the Hills.
t shares a theme of irrepressible reckoning with Hathaway’s best film, The Shepherd of the Hills.
Tuesday, 26 January 2010
From the moment an opening title tells us that “This is a story of an historic love - the imaginative detail supplied by the dramatist has not violated the spirit of this immortal romance”, we know we’re not in much accuracy in this account of Napoleon Bonaparte’s fractious romance with Polish mistress Maria Walewska. I’m not entirely sure if Charles Boyer’s and Greta Garbo’s performances are great theatre or great ham, but one thing is for sure, they’re very entertaining, and furthermore Boyer is undoubtedly the only real equal Garbo ever had to play off in a movie. Unlike the magnetic narcissism the likes of John Barrymore and Robert Taylor stoked in her in Grand Hotel and Camille, Boyer’s aggressive, utterly physical incarnation of Napoleon struts into the film, sinks in his teeth and tugs it, and Garbo with him, around like a hungry wolf, and the couple’s clinches are shot through a volatile chemistry.
As a film, Conquest is fairly standard bed-and-drawing-room history, not as nuanced as the kind Alexander Korda was making in Britain at the time, but compensating with strong production values and technical qualities (particularly Karl Freund’s gorgeous photography), and, of course, meteoric star power. The script’s fairly intelligent portrait of Bonaparte as one part noble idealist, one part childish egotist, lends weight to the proceedings, and the pitch of Walewska as a star-struck young patriot, married to a noble, good-hearted but ancient Count (Henry Stephenson), forced to approach a love-struck Bonaparte to plead for her country’s case with her lips and, it's implied, her hips, has a kind of corny force that probably doesn’t have much to do with the real people but makes for a good yarn. Indeed, considering the themes of infidelity, state-sanctioned immorality and what is definitely an extra-marital sexual affair that results in an illegitimate son, it must have counted as risqué stuff at the time. Apparently, however, losing at
Director Clarence Brown essays the early scenes with atmosphere and drive, with the attention-getting opening in which rampaging Cossacks invade the Walewska’s mansion and threaten Maria’s rape, before the arrival of Bonaparte’s army inspires her to brave the snowy night and encounter him at a snow-crusted shrine. The clash of sensibilities and purposes between the hyper-energetic Bonaparte, grasping hungrily at pleasure in between the business of conquest, and the ardent, ripe-to-be-seduced Maria, played out with spiky energy even in the most glamorous of Warsaw ballrooms, is amusing and well-sustained, with Boyer delighting in portraying Napoleon’s slightly boorish manners and air of imperial prerogative mixing to grating effect. A neat motif sees Bonaparte repeatedly encountering people who don't recognise him, firstly in a comic encounter from Count Walewska's senile mother (Maria Ouspenskaya) and much later, and more seriously, from a soldier dying (Vladimir Sokoloff) in the retreat from Moscow, events that underline his journey into self-destructive solipsism. But once Maria forgives Bony for taking dreadful liberties and leaves her husband for the giddy atmosphere of his camp, the film slowly loses force, turning into a series of black-out scenes that skip inelegantly over the statecraft and warfare and leave the supporting characterisations, like Reginald Owen's Tallyrand and Alan Marshall's stand-by love interest, d'Ornano, hovering without resolutions.
The dialogue, supporting the sentimentalised realisation of the historical personages (oh look, Napoleon had a mommy too!), lurches into the kind of breathless, absurd rhetoric (“I have signed many treaties, but this is the first time I have known peace!”) that inspired a couple of generations of movie spoofers. Garbo and Boyer however hold up their end, as in the lengthy, compelling scene when Maria, having learnt Bony’s going to marry Marie-Louise, accuses him of succumbing to his worst impulses and failing his creed, and in the very finale, in which Boyer exits the film with the same unfussy, swift purpose he entered it. He, like Napoleon himself, cared only for the business and had little time for show, and in the context of
Sunday, 24 January 2010
Although not up to the standard of director Sydney Pollack’s immediate predecessor The Yakuza as a ripping genre yarn leant weight and atmosphere by artful and intimate handling, Three Days of the Condor is nonetheless one of the best paranoid ‘70s films. It’s a fitting precursor to star Robert Redford’s subsequent production All the President’s Men, and also a terrific starring vehicle for Redford himself and Faye Dunaway in an atypically demure role, as Joseph Turner, the gadabout young CIA researcher who finds himself pursued by assassins, and Kathy Hale, the brittle, slightly pathetic photographer he snatches off the street to provide him first with transport and then a safe harbour. Turner, codenamed Condor, finds himself in a world of pain when his co-workers, including his girlfriend (Tina Chen, whom I know best from Alice’s Restaurant), are brutally slaughtered by a team of assassins invading their office in downtown
Pollack’s snappy, crisp filmmaking is still a long way before the sluggish prestige work he churned out through the ‘80s and ‘90s, and the gamy New York locations well-employed. Less aggressively, pretentiously stylised in its evocations of surveillance culture and political conniving than Coppola’s The Conversation, it evokes existential malaise just as well, in the unexpected erotic charge that Turner and Kathy find together in close circumstances. Pollack cuts between a sex scene and Kathy’s desolate photographs to illustrate the hollowness, rather than heat, motivating their tryst, a visual flourish that works better than it should. The idea that political alienation and the emotional alienation of post-‘60s, post-liberation urban pick-up culture are similar is intriguingly described, and summarized memorably in Kathy’s slightly forlorn, slightly aggressive self-description as “the old spy-fucker”. Cliff Robertson is oddly cast but suitably shifty as Higgins, the company man with whom Turner tries and fails to find some common ground. It’s close to being Redford’s best performance, his glib, bouncy character shading into sullen, grave, dishevelled confusion whilst fighting for his life, with nuance and confidence he didn’t always get to display in some of his blander pretty-boy parts.
It’s a problem, common in the spy yarn genre, when Turner begins to turn into a bit of a superman survivor, adept at avoiding surveillance, combat and wiretapping, in spite of his resolutely non-technical job (he “reads a lot” is the slightly glib explanation for his instant mastery of more obscure spying techniques). His sudden omnicompetence is balanced byexcessive naiveté about political motives: surely a guy who joins the CIA isn’t quite this dewy, no matter how nerdy and distracted. This thin quality is backed up by a terrific story set-up that fails, finally, to go anywhere particularly vital, a point that Pollack tries to conceal with a vague, menacing anti-climax, which is effective to a degree, and captures the unmoored, cynical feel of the Watergate-era, an age defined by not knowing which way to turn in an age of betrayed institutions and failed countercultural alternatives.
But the film works best on an interpersonal level rather than a political one, in the scenes between Redford and Dunaway and also in his fascinating exchanges with his technical nemesis, Von Sydow’s terrific embodiment of bland, self-effacing villainy-for-hire. Joubert considers himself a purely professional tool of power without any moral engagement beyond doing his job and surviving and, after relentlessly pursuing our hero about the city and exterminating his friends and lover, turns into his friendly helper and advisor when he’s dispensed his contracted services. Like many of the best spy movies, Condor is in truth about the mystery people are to each-other and themselves.
Herk Harvey’s solitary but celebrated midnight matinee masterpiece is an indelibly creepy no-budget work that could be called the film Ed Wood might have made if he'd had talent. But it honestly works a magic reminiscent of Carl Dreyer and anticipatory of the stylisation of Stanley Kubrick (in The Shining), David Lynch (especially in Lost Highway) and the directors of a thousand music videos, in cleverly exploiting the simplest and ropiest of effects, from pancake make-up for its spectral beings to sped-up filming of prancing ghouls, for genuinely unnerving and surreal effect.
It’s chiefly a victory for inventive filmmaking and masterful use of locations rather than scripting or acting, for both of those elements are for the large part crude, in accounting the mysterious tale of Mary Henry (Candace Hilligoss), a young musician who seems to die in a drag-racing accident with her two friends, but crawls out of the river unharmed hours later and proceeds, unflappably, on to her new job, playing the organ in a Utah church.
The film possesses an element of didacticism that reflects Harvey’s background in pedagogic short films and educational works, bandying such lines as “You cannot live in isolation from the human race, you know” with blatant meaning, as the irreligious, estranged heroine slowly begins to perceive herself as more than especially alienated from her fellow people, to the point where she desperately clings to the pushy, slightly sleazy blue-collar guy she shares her rooming house with, John Linden (Sidney Berger), and drifts into a trance-like fit of sonorous organ playing that offends the church pastor (Art Ellison).
She continually hallucinates being haunted by a creepy pasty-faced spectre (Harvey himself), is plagued by nightmarish visions of a deserted funfair and ballroom on the edge of the Great Salt Lake filled with the dancing damned, and experiences moments of total divorcement from reality when no-one can see or hear her in spite of her entreaties. Her desire to remain unmarried and ply her trade as a musician to the church without engaging in reverence for such a job carry a whiff of parochial reaction.
If the script is unwieldy and the underlying sentiments a bit regressive,
Hilligoss, although nothing amazing, works her character’s coldness and mounting hysteria with intelligence, and Berger is very effective in evoking a sticky mixture of neediness and threat in his character. A couple of would-be scares, like Harvey turning up in the chair of Hilligoss’s doctor, are a bit laborious, and the technical deficiencies hard to work through in spots. But scenes of the spirits cavorting within the great ballroom, still hung with forlorn streamers from long-forgotten carousing, evoke the shadowy revels of Vampyr, and the final sequences of Hilligoss’s relentless hounding by the ghouls who have come to jealously claim her restless soul, seeing herself as one of them, locked in a laughing dance with her spectral taunter, and especially the bleakly cryptic conclusion, aren’t easily dismissed.