The Heiress

The Heiress CoverThe Criterion Odyssey

Spine #974

Writer: Ruth Goetz & Augustus Goetz

Based on their play and the novel “Washington Square” by Henry James

Director: William Wyler

Cast: Olivia de Havilland, Montgomery Clift, Ralph Richardson

Cinematography: Leo Tover

Music: Aaron Copland

Company: Paramount Pictures

Release: October 6, 1949

Country: USA

Awards: The film won Oscars for Best Actress (de Havilland), Best Art Direction/Set Decoration in a Black & White Film (John Meehan, Harry Horner & Emile Kuri), Best Costume Design in a Black & White film (Edith Head & Gile Steele) and Best Original Score (Copland).

It was nominated for Best Picture (lost to “All the Kings Men”), Best Director (lost to Joseph L. Mankiewicz in “A Letter to Three Wives”), Best Supporting Actor for Richardson (lost to Dean Jagger in “Twelve O’Clock High”), Best Cinematography in a Black & White film (lost to “Battleground”)

We tell one hell of a lot of lies every day, both to those around us… and to ourselves.

The Heiress LongMost of these lies are small and don’t mean much in the long run: “You don’t look fat in that.” “This tastes great.” “My car broke down.” Others have more meaning, but they are the things we need to tell ourselves in order to keep going: “You didn’t totally fuck that up.” “Your relationship isn’t over.” “You’re happy.”

“The Heiress” is about the impact those lies can have on the life of one person. It takes the classic romantic story structure, twists it and subverts it until all that is left is Montgomery Clift’s million-dollar smile, and by then we are sickened when we seeing it. It’s a film of unusual power, told with a surprising amount of honesty… one where you genuinely don’t know how to feel as the film fades to black, but you are certain you feel something.

The Heiress 4Olivia de Havilland stars as Catherine, heiress to the rich Sloper family. She’s ugly (well, as ugly as one can make de Havilland, which isn’t much), awkward, shy and has zero understanding of human communication. What’s worse, she constantly lives in the shadow of her dead beloved beauty of a mother thanks to the constant death-by-a-thousand-small-cuts comments her father Austin (Ralph Richardson) gives her on a daily basis. She has a decent relationship with her aunt Lavinia (Miriam Hopkins), who is essentially kept in the house by Austin as a full-time matchmaker for Catherine.

The Heiress 1Into Catherine’s life steps the gorgeous, sweet Morris, who is so attractive one could mistake him for Montgomery Clift. Their introduction and courtship scenes are very sweet, as we watch Catherine slowly come out of her shell and open herself up to the possibility of love for the first time in her life. It’s pretty obvious from the get-go that Morris wants to marry Catherine for her money. Lavinia sees this, but encourages the match nonetheless. Catherine probably realizes this on some intellectual level, but chooses to tell herself otherwise. Plus, Morris makes her happy – even if there is a little bit of acting on his part, she’ll get a lovely husband and he’ll get her money. On the surface, it seems like a solid match… made of lies, but lies that cover the hurt.

Austin will have none of that. He brutally attempts to break Catherine and Morris apart repeatedly, finally savaging his daughter with the truth and shattering her dreams (and their father-daughter relationship) in the process. Catherine may have mentally survived that, but when he learns that Austin threatened to disinherit her, Morris abandons Catherine too… breaking her beyond repair.

The Heiress 6Is Austin a hypocrite? Of course he is. We know how much he wallows in grief over his wife, and Lavinia calls him out early – telling him that nothing will ever match up to the unrealistic memory of her. He waves this away – he’d rather live in that lie (one that has been inadvertently hurting his daughter for decades) than face the truth. And yet it doesn’t make our heart any less when Catherine refuses to come to his bedside when he dies… we sense that he loves her the best he can – it just happens to be in a shitty way.

The screenplay by Ruth Goetz and Augustus Goetz, adapted from their play, is quite brilliant in how it plays with the audience’s hopes, dreams and desires – it exploits our vulnerabilities about ourselves. To some extent, we all feel like the ugly duckling, like the awkward one alone at a party… and as a result Morris’ charms work on the audience much like they do to Catherine. We never see that other side of him (until the final shot) – he’s always acting when he is onscreen, and this was the smartest move the writers could make.

The Heiress 5It’s odd that we are so emotionally torn about Catherine’s fate considering that de Havilland and Clift don’t have much chemistry together. Her strongest acting scenes are with Richardson, and when she’s with Clift, she leans a little too much into caricature – if I had to see her awkwardly bend backward when Clift leaned in one more time… But maybe that’s the point. Perhaps their casting was an incognito masterstroke – they don’t work well together because they shouldn’t work well together, but the writing is so good and our sympathies lie so much with Catherine that we tell ourselves the match is better than it is. It’s no coincidence that the love theme by Aaron Copland is used explicitly as a plot device in the movie as a way for Morris to endear himself to Catherine (he claims he wrote it and plays it for her on the piano) – it’s pretty, but it’s also not real.

De Havilland is much better sparring with Richardson, first as she cowers from his every statement and later when she finally stops giving a shit and is as brutally honest to him as he has been to her. These are the scenes that earned her the Oscar… those and the heartbreaking moment with Lavinia where Catherine realizes that Morris has abandoned her.

The Heiress 2Cinema maestro Wyler, working here with cinematographer Leo Tover (“The Day the Earth Stood Still”), creates an astonishing world within Catherine’s house on Washington Square. Aside from a party scene and a few other brief moments, Wyler smartly keeps the claustrophobia of the play by setting every major sequence in the house. The stairs especially become a metaphor all their own – note the placement of the camera every time Catherine walks up or down them to underline her emotions in the moment. Though he has no problem with moving the camera, one appreciates the way Wyler conjures his frame… he’d much rather hold it in place while the characters within it move in dynamic, unexpected ways that surprise you.

The ending has haunted me long after the film ended. The resignation on Catherine’s face as she pulls the curtains and locks the door. The devastation on Lavinia’s as she realizes Catherine is too emotionally far gone to ever accept love again, not the fake kind from Morris or the possibility of real love later. How Catherine’s face changes to unreadable in that final moment as she mounts the stairs… but his is overcome with genuine emotion for the first time as he pounds on the locked door. And then, before he can stop, we fade out. It’s a “drop the mic” ending if I’ve ever seen one.

“The Heiress” is a masterpiece for many reasons, not least of which is because it manipulates the audience as well as it does. It understands that we’d rather be lied to, but refuses to give us that easy way out.

In its own way, it’s one of the most truthful films ever made.

Cover: A lovely cover by Danielle Clough that impresses upon first blush, then even more the closer you investigate. I love that Catherine looks like she is smiling, but focus further and realize that you may be incorrect. It’s one of my favorite covers of the year.

I award it five strings of yarn out of five.

Essay: Pamela Hutchinson writes a great introduction to the film, to Wyler, and to the intricacies of adaptation. She also does a (possibly justified) drive-by on Clift’s reputation along the way, and the part of me that loves juicy gossip ate it up.

I award it four fish heads out of five.

Extras: A decent spread.

  • The centerpiece is a conversation between writer Jay Cocks (“The Age of Innocence,” “Silence”) and Farran Smith Nehme as they try to unravel the weird, messed up emotional core of the movie. They don’t always agree, and when they do agree it’s not often because of the same reason, making for an excellent sparring match.

 

  • Larry McQueen talks about Edith Head’s costumes for both the film and her career in general. It’s a waste of time especially because, in the same breath that McQueen shows off a costume for the film, he tells us that he would have preferred getting one from “Gone With the Wind.” Then later he throws a bunch of shade at Edith Head. Skip it.

 

  • A short film called “The Costume Designer,” primarily focused on Edith Head. It’s all very fun, and there is one outstanding sequence where Head goes through her thinking process for costuming a single scene, and we see an actress go through the many possibilities as Head talks through them. A must watch.

 

  • De Havilland speaking on “The Paul Ryan Show.” She’s measured but engaging, though doesn’t give as much insight as one would hope.

 

  • “The Merv Griffin Show” did a tribute to Wyler with many interesting interviews. It’s all surface, but very fun to watch.

 

  • Wyler accepting his AFI Lifetime Achievement Award. His eloquence here is divine, and it makes me want to track down the entire program.

 

  • An excerpt from the documentary “Directed by William Wyler” featuring Ralph Richardson. It’s watchable, but why wasn’t the entire thing included?

I award them four hand warmers out of five.

Up Next: Funny Games

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The Bad Seed

The Bad Seed 1The Film Noir Odyssey

Writer: John Lee Mahin

Based on the play by Maxwell Anderson, which was based on the novel by William March

Director: Mervyn LeRoy

Cast: Patty McCormack, Nancy Kelly, Eileen Heckart, Evelyn Varden

Cinematography: Harold Rossen

Music: Alex North

Company: Warner Bros.

Release: September 12, 1956

Awards: Kelly was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar but lost to Ingrid Bergman in “Anastasia.” McCormack and Heckart were both nominated for Best Supporting Actress but lost to Dorothy Malone in “Written on the Wind.” Rossen’s cinematography was also nominated, but lost to “Somebody Up There Likes Me.”

Percent Noir: 30%

What a fucking trainwreck.

I loved this movie as a kid. I had the VHS copy and watched it more than I should have. I hadn’t seen the movie in 15 years before doing this article, and during that time I remember recommending it often and sometimes even defending it to people who mocked it, assured in my thinking that it was a good movie.

Turns out Young Robert had terrible taste.

I revisited “The Bad Seed” at this year’s TCM Fest at one of their iconic poolside screenings, with a bunch of festival guests half-tipsy on the sample wine glasses handed out from the TCM Wine Club. They were branding the film as high camp, which I suppose aspects of it are… but it’s a little bit of a downer when so much of it focuses on parents grieving their murdered son.

Bad Seed 3Patty McCormack stars as Rhoda, a too-perfect eight-year-old girl beloved by her mother Christine (Nancy Kelly), her mostly-absent father and their eccentric neighbor Monica (Evelyn Varden). When one of Rhoda’s classmates is found dead in the lake next to where the class was picnicking, there are several huge flashing signs that imply that Rhoda is the murderer. Still, it takes Christine almost half the movie to figure it out. Also of note is the mentally-deficient caretaker of the apartment building, Leroy (Henry Jones), who keeps taunting Rhoda and then monologuing to the screen when no one is listening to underline how he “sees through her.”

If that does not sound like enough content to sustain a movie that is over two hours long, you are correct. Screenwriter John Lee Mahin, adapting a popular play and novel, adds in endless (endless!) scenes and subplots which are either boring, cringe-inducing or just plain baffling. Most egregious of these is the fact that Christine learns that she is the daughter of a murderer, and that’s why Rhoda is a killer. There are (I’m not kidding) seven scenes leading up to this obvious revelation, which implies that no kids should ever be adopted or fostered, which is upsetting at best and infuriating at worst.

Things pick up a bit when the mother of the dead boy (Eileen Heckart) shows up at Christine’s house wanting to discuss what happened while very, very drunk. Heckart is the best thing in the movie by far, and the fact that her character’s name is Hortense is the best thing in the screenplay. That said, while the first scene is good, the filmmakers make the stupid decision to include a second scene of Hortense showing up that does nothing but repeat the beats of the first to diminishing returns.

The Bad Seed 2Heckart’s performance is big, but at least her drunken state gives her a reason to be big. Everyone else in the movie, though? They have no excuse – and their performances range from chewing on the furniture to inhaling the furniture. This is probably why people who love camp seek out the movie. Many in the cast originated their roles in the Broadway play, but forgot to dial down their performances in front of the camera. As a result, McCormack is so obviously an evil sociopath from frame one that it’s impossible to see her as innocent. She’s better in the second half, when her mother knows that she’s a killer and Rhoda doesn’t have to hide it anymore. The most egregious turn is from Allen, who just seems to say “fuck it” at a certain point and starts screaming and crying and screaming and crying and screaming and crying in every scene she is in. We get it – it sucks to have a kid who is a murderer, but get it together, girl!

All three women were nominated for Oscars, and while I guess I can understand Heckart’s nod (though I’m certain there must have been other, better female performances that year), the other two are confusing as fuck. Even considering the time period and the fact that bigger performances were in vogue, I cannot fathom how any group of people got together and decided that Allen should have been nominated for an Oscar!

She single-handedly implodes the one sequence that could have been great. Rhoda has snuck downstairs and lit the basement on fire, trapping Leroy inside in order to off him. She then goes upstairs and happily begins practicing piano while we see smoke and hear Leroy’s pained, screams as he burns to death. Sounds great, right? Now add in Allen screaming and banging on doors and rolling around her apartment like me after too many gin-and-tonics, and the spell is broken.

Director Mervyn LeRoy made a bunch of decent, unspectacular films in his long career – ones that you probably have heard of or caught one night on TCM before forgetting about the next day. Movies like “Gypsy,” “Quo Vadis” and “Mary, Mary.” He tries to open up the play by adding a bunch of unnecessary exterior scenes that ruin any claustrophobia the apartment scenes might have conjured. He also apparently didn’t read the screenplay well before starting to shoot. We see the lake and pier where Rhoda killed the boy plainly before the picnic, and there is no way people didn’t see it happen since it’s all of ten yards from the tables and there are no trees in the way.

Also, so much is made about the gold medal that the boy had on before he died, but he was found floating without it in the lake and not a single person says “Hey, maybe it fell off and is at the bottom of the lake.” Really? I mean… really?

The only person who seems to understand that the tone of the movie should be comedy, not horror, is composer Alex North, who underlines every scene with music that is more fun than anything else around it. I have no idea how the filmmakers allowed the score to be included, but at least it adds to the fun when watched today.

Then there is the studio-mandated finale, which I will talk about quickly so I never have to think about it again. Rhoda survived in the play and her mother died, but the film reverses it. Useless, crying Christine couldn’t even shoot herself or poison her daughter properly. So Christine wakes up with a bandage around her head to tearfully (UGH!) talk to her husband, while Rhoda randomly goes outside in a rainstorm. Then God himself is like “Uh, I don’t want a sequel please” and kills her with a lightning bolt.

I can’t even with this.

Score: *

Police Story / Police Story 2

Police Story CoverThe Criterion Odyssey

Spine #971/972

Writer: Jackie Chan & Edward Tang

Director: Jackie Chan

Star: Jackie Chan, Maggie Cheung, Chor Yuen

Cinematography: Cheung Yiu Cho/Cheung Yiu Cho, Danny Lee Yau Tong

Music: Michael Lai, Tang Sui Lam

Distributor: Golden Harvest

Release: December 14, 1985/August 20, 1988

Country: Hong Kong

However great a genre film may be, when it first debuts critics and scholars have already placed a mark against it. It may be the definition of a great action or horror film, but that icky word “genre” means points – or, in this case, stars – will be deducted automatically. Sure, every year one or two films will miraculously get a full-on stamp of approval (last year it was “Black Panther” and “Hereditary”) so they can say they aren’t biased, but whereas critics will lavish serious dramas with praise which will be forgotten about in a few years’ time, it often takes years if not decades for genre films to get the kudos they deserve. For some reason “genre” equates with “disposable.”

Police Story 1Look at a movie like “Police Story,” which was liked well enough by critics upon release, but only became a “great action film” after co-writer/director/star Jackie Chan was a household name and the glorious practical excesses of the ‘80s had given way to the CGI explosion of the early ‘00s. Its inclusion in the Criterion Collection (dismissing the questionable choice to pair it with its subpar sequel, the creatively-titled “Police Story 2”) is another step in validating it as art, but even now I have to notice how bullish the essay and some of the special features are… insisting that this is a movie that “transcends its genre” (there’s that word again) and is deeper and more meaningful than its surface implies. Meanwhile, I’m sitting here wondering what is wrong with surface. Hell, if a movie just wants to be a big, loud, fun, funny action comedy that makes your eyes go wide at the spectacle… and it achieves that… isn’t that enough to make it a masterpiece?

Chan stars as Ka-kui, a sergeant in the Hong Kong police department who is part of a task force trying to bring down a crime lord named Chu Tao (Chor Yuen). When levelling a shanty town then hanging precariously from the back of a speeding bus via umbrella doesn’t work, Ka-kui realizes that the key may be Chu’s personal secretary Selina (Brigette Lin). Ka-kui becomes her bodyguard, accidentally exploding his own tenuous relationship with his girlfriend May (Maggie Cheung… yes, that Maggie Cheung) in the process thanks to jealousy. There are twists, betrayals, back stabbings, front stabbings and lots of broken glass, climaxing in a 15-minute fight in a mall that is one of the greatest sustained action sequences of all time.

Police Story 9The high point there is a stunt so incredible that Chan shows it to us three times in a row from three different angles – Ka-kui dropping down from the top floor to the ground floor of the mall via a pole wrapped in light-bulbs. That moment gets all the press, making us sometimes forget all the awesomeness that came before it – including a man being mowed down by a motorcycle, the destruction of a gigantic glass entrance-way, the destruction of a gigantic glass mall set-up, the destruction of anything glass on the premises… and plenty of astonishing fighting. Chan is careful here not to allow Ka-kui to get the upper hand – for every punch he lands, he’s hit twice. It’s the opposite of what we expect from action films, and much appreciated by those of us (like me) who always wonder why the bad guys line up to attack the hero one at a time instead of all jumping in at once.

There are other stunts throughout which astound, like the aforementioned destruction of the shanty-town/bus sequence, but my descriptions will never live up to actually watching Chan and the other stunt-men in action – this is a movie that needs to be seen to be believed.

Police Story 4“Police Story’s” story (heh) would work just as well if this were an incredibly serious action drama, but Chan and his co-writer Edward Tang shape this spine with enough funny moments to fill three slapstick comedies. Ka-kui gets no less than three pies in the face, must manage multiple incoming calls to the police department (each phone is in a different corner of the room) and physically keep a broken car from rolling away… and that’s only the beginning.

Many of these scenes are genuinely funny, but others represent the one part of the movie that has aged horrendously – the way it treats women. Ka-kui’s poor girlfriend May is introduced being a jealous harpy, there’s a long sequence where Ka-kui has a friend break into Selina’s apartment to gaslight her into thinking she’s about to be murdered, there are super awkward rape jokes that are waved away, and Selina has all the common sense of a baby (though she finally (finally!) gets to throw a few punches in the climactic sequence).

One could read the second half as a veiled metaphor for karma paying Ka-kui back for the way he treats women, but that would be a stretch. Like, a big stretch.

Police Story 3It’s a shame, really, because both Lin and Cheung are quite good in their paper-thin roles – they make you want more for their characters. Chan and Tang attempt to correct this somewhat in the sequel by giving Cheung more to do and introducing a squad of kick-ass police women, so at least they recognized their mistake.

The biggest surprise of the film, though, is Chan himself. I missed his big Hollywood blockbusters like the “Rush Hour” trilogy or “Shanghai Noon” growing up, so I never got a reading on his acting until I saw him in the very good “The Foreigner” from a few years ago, which was a very dark performance. It’s a pleasure to watch him in “Police Story,” because he so beautifully balances the lightness of the situations with the “seriousness” of his character in the scenes without punches or kicks. He’s a legitimately great comedic actor in addition to being perhaps the best physical action performer I’ve ever seen.

Police Story long option 2Watching the special features offered a look into his other major stunts from the time period, many of which equal that mall drop mentioned earlier. I would have loved for any of those movies to be included in this set instead of “Police Story 2,” which was a definite buzzkill after the excellence of the first. It’s not that it’s a bad film, it’s just that it seems to misunderstand what made the first one great.

Things begin with a recap of the biggest stunts from the first, set to the recurring theme song, a beautiful splash of ‘80s cheese (sung by Chan!) that is unapologetically catchy, which really gets you excited as to what comes next. The initial set-up is great, with Chu Tao being released from prison because he’ll be dead in a few months and vowing to destroy Ka-kui’s and May’s life together.

Police Story 8I was super-jazzed to see where this story went, but then the movie changed pace into something totally different and off tone from the first film. Serial bombers come into play. Ka-kui joins some special police force, whose headquarters seem less like a squad room and more like a Bond villain lair – people working on computers and a gigantic electronic screen of the city. A squad of ass kicking police women appear, have one great scene… and then basically disappear. May is given a lot to do at the beginning, then is the center of the best scene in the film – a break-up where she follows Ka-kui into the men’s shower room which has been copied innumerable times since – and then disappears until she becomes the damsel in distress at the end.

All the while, there is precious little in terms of creative action sequences or the ingenious body language Chan showed in the original. Chan seems to be giving a more serious performance here, which seems odd considering his brightness was what made the first fly. The best action scene in the film is relatively small compared to the first, with Ka-kui accosted on a playground. There are a few other precious moments to cling to, like when Ka-kui almost slams into a traffic sign, but these are the exceptions, not the rule.

Police Story 5I was hoping that the ending would redeem the mess, but even there I was let down. The major villain turns out to be a deaf mute (Benny Lai), which is a great idea in theory. But it becomes quickly apparent that Chan and Tang are mocking the disability, first by the filmmakers having him almost quack a repeated noise pattern, and then by having Ka-kui himself mock the man’s speech and deafness. Yikes.

But that’s not all. Whereas the first ended in a crowded mall with one of the greatest of all stunts, this one takes place… in an abandoned warehouse? It almost feels like a video game more than a coherent action sequence, with the bad guys throwing barrels and fireballs at Ka-kui. I think Chan believed the fireballs were supposed to be the centerpiece to the climax, and I understand how dangerous it must have been, but it is also the clammiest thing in either film – we’ve seen variations on it hundreds of times prior to this. There is some good action and stunt work here, don’t get me wrong (I enjoyed a bit with Ka-kui climbing up the wrong side of a staircase), but the only truly astonishing moment in the last twenty minutes doesn’t even involve Ka-kui – it’s when May runs through a series of metal contraptions that are falling like dominoes at her heels.

Whereas “Police Story” left me ecstatic, “Police Story 2” left me befuddled. It could have and should have been better. Still, the set is worth buying for the first film and the myriad of extras (more on them in a moment) that showcase the amazing work Chan did on all his films from the period.

Cover: Jeremy Enecio provides an awesome main cover and two other paintings to represent major set-pieces from both films. They are colorful, fun and I definitely want posters of all of them pronto.

I award the paintings five birthday cakes out of five.

Essay: Nick Pinkerton offers up a very, very defensive essay about the films. The first paragraph alone is enough to make you want to roll your eyes. From there, he goes into the history of Chan’s upbringing and stunt work, all of which is covered much better in the bonus features on the disc. It’s totally skippable, which is good because the way Criterion printed it on the poster makes it nearly impossible to read. Oy.

I award it one umbrella out of five.

Extras: This thing is stacked.

  • An alternate edit of “Police Story 2” which is much shorter. I didn’t watch this because I didn’t want to see “Police Story 2” again – can someone let me know if it’s better?
  • A podcast conversation between Chan and writer/director Edgar Wright along with a solo interview with Wright about his adoration for Chan. It’s very fun (albeit a smidge repetitive) to see him fanboying out, so definitely worth your time.
  • Grady Hendrix breaking down Chan’s origins and his working style, which is invaluable. I was ready to write this one off, but Hendrix brings so much great info to the table, like what the grunts and screams the stuntmen make as they attack Chan really mean. Check it out first if you can.
  • Something called “Son of the Incredibly Strange Film Show” from the ‘80s that interviews Chan and Cheung. The host is super annoying and you can get the info better elsewhere.
  • Lai talking about being in Chan’s stunt troupe and creating the deaf-mute villain in “Police Story 2.” It’s fine.
  • “Jackie Chan: My Stunts,” which is super fun watching Chan behind the scenes creating the magic we’ll see onscreen.
  • An old television show detailing the Beijing Opera Training Chan took part in growing up. These people were insane. Seriously.
  • A stunt reel that is both exhilarating and terrifying. I have no idea how Chan is alive today.
  • Fun, cheesy trailers.

I award the extras five exploded lightbulbs out of five.

Up Next: “The Heiress”

Road House

Road House 1The Film Noir Odyssey

Writer: Edward Chodorov

Story: Margaret Gruen, Oscar Saul

Director: Jean Negulesco

Cast: Ida Lupino, Cornel Wilde, Richard Widmark, Celeste Holm

Cinematography: Joseph LaShelle

Music: Cyril J. Mockridge

Company: 20th Century Fox

Release: November 4, 1948

Percent Noir: 50%

It’s not often that you fall fully, madly, deeply in love with a character from their first appearance. And yet that’s what happened with Ida Lupino’s Lily Stevens in “Road House.” She’s the rarest of creatures – the full-fledged heroine of her own film noir, gets all the best lines and takes no shit from the weak asshole men who usually populate this genre. She’s such a force of nature that I was immediately terrified that the film’s creators were going to fuck it up somehow. Would they needlessly kill her or reduce her to a silly damsel in distress by the end of act three? I shouldn’t have worried – the filmmakers stick the landing, and I’m ecstatic to report that this is one of the best films I’ve seen on my Odyssey.

The road house of the title is part bowling alley, part bar, part restaurant, part lounge, all awesome… and owned by the unfortunately named Jefty (Richard Widmark). Every few months, Jefty falls madly in love with a singer and pays her exorbitant amounts of money to perform at the road house, but these affairs flicker out as quickly as they ignite. But Lupino’s Lily seems to be the exception to the rule. First, she’s not going to easily give herself over to Jefty’s advances, and secondly, her singing becomes a huge hit with audiences (“She does more without a voice than anyone I’ve ever heard,” intones a listener). Lily falls in love with Jefty’s best friend and second-in-command Pete (Cornel Wilde), and they worry that when Jefty finds out, he won’t react well. Then, spoiler alert – he doesn’t.

Road House 2I’m baffled why “Road House” isn’t considered a classic film noir.

Well, strike that. I guess in theory I understand why – it’s not a marquee title filled with classic noir actors or created by iconic filmmakers. There’s no Bogie or Stanwyck to be found here, nor were Wilder or Lang directing.

And yet that should not prevent this gem from being rediscovered by audiences. It feels modern in ways almost all other films in the genre simply don’t.

Further, this is the perfect moment for rediscovery – Lupino is currently being reassessed both as an actress and as a filmmaker, and her work here is flawless. Look at her range when comparing her ballsy, take-no-prisoners Lily here with her quiet, reserved character in the great noir “Ladies in Retirement” (which I promise to get to very soon). Writers and critics are scouring film history to find tough female characters who were ahead of their time… and need to look no further. When Pete attempts to manhandle Lily into leaving town as soon as she arrives, then insults her, she simply slaps him across the face and says “silly boy” before turning and going back to doing her own thing.

I also have to underline just how awesome Lily’s relationship is with the only other female character in the film, Susie, who is played by Celeste Holm. Susie was kinda sorta maybe dating Pete before Lily showed up, and at first the two clash mightily. Everything is teed up for a catfight between the two, which 99% of other films would have embraced, but instead “Road House” does the unexpected. It bonds the women – they become genuine friends, so much so that Susie puts herself in mortal danger in the third act in order to protect her friends.

Road House 3A lesser movie would also have killed off Susie in this sequence without a second thought, but screenwriter Edward Chodorov (“Undercurrent”) was smart enough to know that we were rooting for her survival as much as Lily and Pete, and instead decides to go in a different direction.

I haven’t even gotten to Chodorov’s dialogue, which is filled with gem after gem. He develops his characters into real human beings with wants, needs and desires… and also remembers to make them flawed. He also seems keyed-in to how things may shake out in a few years – he has the foresight to have Jifty say a line like the following and play it as comedy: “Yeah, she’s independent. But all gals want the same thing, Pete – a guy to take care of them.”

Chodorov also paces the movie in a very interesting way – were it not for the hardboiled dialogue, we wouldn’t know until halfway through that we are in a film noir. But when that darkness comes, the tension is sudden and does not let go. The final act trades in the warmth and brightness of the road house with a fog-ridden swamp and cabin, and the suspense in these sequences is palpable.

This allows director Jean Negulesco to go crazy with atmosphere. The entire movie looks incredible – I was lucky enough to see the film at a screening with a rare nitrate print, which enhanced things even more – with subtle long-takes and surprising angles. He works incredibly well with his cinematographer, the noir superstar Joseph LaShelle (“Laura,” “Hangover Square”) to give the movie a distinctive feel. Negulesco is one of those low key great directors that people just don’t talk about anymore, but one look at his filmography makes you go “Oh! I love his stuff!” Aside from his great non-noir films like “The Best of Everything,” he directed “Humoresque” and “Johnny Belinda,” both of which are aces. This guy should be much better known than he is.

In addition to the look, he also gets some great performances from his cast. I’ve already spoken about Lupino’s awesomeness, but it bears repeating. Wilde, who could be very boring elsewhere, is engaging and has legitimate chemistry with Lupino, and Holm greatly enhances what could have been a disposable roll. Widmark is very good for most of the movie, but in the final twenty minutes degenerates into his usual crazy madman schtick that we’ve seen before in movies like “No Way Out!” and “Kiss of Death.” I would have preferred it if he kept it subtle throughout.

“Road House” is necessary viewing if you like noir, like old movies, like good movies or like movies in general. It was a major revelation for me, and I encourage you to do anything you have to do in order to see it.

Score: *****

Escape In the Fog

Escape in the Fog 1The Film Noir Odyssey

Writer: Aubrey Wisberg

Director: Budd Boetticher Jr.

Cast: Nina Foch, William Wright, Otto Kruger

Cinematography: George Meehan

Studio: Columbia

Release: April 5, 1945

Percent Noir: 40%

What the hell is this movie?

“Escape in the Fog” is so weird, so fundamentally what-the-fuck that, if it were any fun at all, it would be a cult classic. As it is, though, its 65-minute runtime is endless – the viewer sits there with his jaw dropped the entire time… and not in a good way.

Nina Foch stars as Eileen, a woman who has a very vivid dream of being on the foggy Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco when she sees a handsome stranger dragged out of a car by some heavies and beaten almost to death. When she wakes up, she meets the stranger, who is named Barry (William Wright) – he’s some sort of secret agent in the war, but right now they are together at a day spa… or something. He’s told to go to San Francisco on a mission and invites Eileen along because… something. She agrees to go with this total stranger to the location of her dream/premonition/whatever because… plot.

Escape in the Fog 2We’re only 15 minutes in, and I’m already having trouble keeping the thread. Making Eileen psychic is something you don’t often see in noir – probably because it’s a terrible idea, but still. One would think that the rest of the movie would lead up to that fateful encounter on the bridge, which would be the climax… but you would be wrong. It happens at the half hour mark, and Eileen’s mystical powers are never brought up again aside from a quick conversation just after which amounts to our main characters saying “wasn’t that weird?” Yes. Yes it was.

There are other plot developments that could be fun. There’s a clock repairman who is using the business as a front to secretly record government agents. A bad guy figures out what phone number Barry calls by listening for the number of clicks after Barry spins the rotary phone. I would normally eat bits like this up, but even here, screenwriter Aubrey Wisberg (“The Man From Planet X”) whiffs it. That secret recording in the clock? It only records every second sentence, because apparently you can piece together a conversation from snippets… which makes no logical sense and only serves to pad the running time by three minutes. And the phone moment? The baddie can hear the subtle clicking of the rotary phone, but is apparently incapable of hearing the actual conversation that happens on the phone a few seconds later. Oy.

In theory, I could see this being a fun movie. No, seriously, I could. Give the same storyline a better writer and put Fritz Lang in charge, and this could be a fun, dumb mixture of noir and espionage. Lang’s legitimately insane “Ministry of Fear” involves microfilm baked into a cake, evil suit-makers and a phony séance… and is enjoyable for nearly every minute of its runtime. Then again, that had a solid creative team behind the camera and a game Ray Milland leading the way, while “Escape in the Fog,” generously, does not.

Escape in the Fog 3Foch (“My Name is Julia Ross”) does what she can with a role that seems to be actively working against her abilities. Psychic powers were never so boring, but I honestly don’t blame Foch for this. I can, however, blame the bland (bland!) Wright, who is one of those interchangeable handsome dudes who normally fill supporting roles in movies like this… but somehow he got bumped to lead. He has zero chemistry with Foch, does not seem to be taking anything that’s happening seriously, which is poison when everything around you is ludicrous. Otto Kruger gets first billing and doesn’t seem to be enjoying himself much.

Behind the camera, there isn’t much here. I’ve already touched on Wisberg’s terrible screenplay, but here are a few other moments where I rolled my eyes, just to underline the inanity. The McGuffin of the script is some government document that is wrapped in rubber, and after it is thrown over the bridge into the river below, Barry admits that he could just ask for a replacement, but decides not to… because then the movie would be over. Eileen tears up a paper with a confidential message, but instead of just tearing it up into pieces too small to put together, she places the eight large pieces into her purse so the bad guys can put it together moments later when they kidnap her. Speaking of kidnapping her, the bad guys put a query in the newspaper (!) hoping she would read it (!!) to lure her into their home (!!!) instead of just walking up to her and grabbing her, which would be the easy thing to do if you ask me. Oh, and when Eileen and Barry need to escape from a room filling with gas, Barry decides to write “Hail Japan” (!!!!) on a lens then light a lighter (!!!!!) behind it to create a giant spotlight on the building across the street. Yes, “Hail Japan” instead of “Help, I’m Trapped.” I can’t even.

Budd Boetticher Jr. (“Behind Locked Doors”) directs, and does not direct well. Fog is the only atmosphere you are going to find anywhere on display, and there isn’t a single creative shot in the entire (endless) 65 minute runtime. And even when he has the fog working for him, he can’t properly execute a suspense sequence. I watched the climactic chase/shootout three times (you’re welcome) and still cannot tell you with any certainty where the characters are at any given moment. People seem to teleport from place to place, the fog seems to be super thick, then barely there… and when someone is shot off a building, we can see the actor’s hat pop back up into frame a second later when the actor hit the mat off camera. That’s right, Boetticher was too lazy to even get a second take after that obvious mistake.

He didn’t care, Wisberg didn’t care, and therefore neither should you. Even for noir completists like myself, this is a hard pass.

Score: *

Address Unknown

Address Unknown 1The Film Noir Odyssey

Writer: Herbert Dalmas, Kressmann Taylor

Based on the novel by Kathrine Taylor

Director: William Cameron Menzies

Cast: Paul Lukas, Morris Carnovsky, K. T. Stevens, Carl Esmond

Cinematography: Rudolph Mate

Music: Ernst Toch

Studio: Columbia

Release June 1, 1944

Awards: Toch was nominated for “Best Score” (one of 20 nominees that year!), but lost to Max Steiner’s “Since You Went Away.” Also nominated were films noir “Christmas Holiday,” “Double Indemnity” and “Voice in the Wind.” Further, Lionel Banks, Walter Holscher and Joseph Kish were nominated for Best Art Direction (Black and White), but lost to fellow noir “Gaslight.” Also nominated was “Laura.”

Percent Noir: 70%

How can such an awful movie be so pretty?

The behind the scenes talent for “Address Unknown” is absolutely stacked. The director is William Cameron Menzies, who you may not be familiar with offhand, but is one of the most important visual stylists in film history. His production design and camera tricks made “Gone With the Wind” what it is, and he also directed the sci fi classics “Things to Come” and “Invaders From Mars.” The cinematographer was Rudolph Mate, who some would call the best of all time – his credits ranging from Carl Theodor Dreyer’s “Vampyr” and “The Passion of Joan of Arc” to classic noir like “Gilda.” Oh, and he also directed (among other gems) noir masterpiece “D.O.A.” Plus the film is an adaptation of the same-named novel by Kathrine Taylor, which was one of the major touchstones of WWII literature, a blockbuster that was beloved by all.

I also think it’s the reason the film adaptation doesn’t work.

Address Unknown 2The premise seems like it would great as a novel (or a radio play), but as a movie? Nope. The story involves two German families who are the best of friends. Martin (Paul Lukas) is a Christian and Max (Morris Carnovsky) is Jewish, and together they run a gallery together. Martin’s son Heinrich (Peter van Eyck) is in love with Max’s daughter Griselle (K.T. Stevens), but they aren’t getting married because Griselle is heading to Germany with Martin to learn acting. Once there, Martin becomes a Nazi, isolating himself and his wife from Griselle, his son and his friend. Griselle ends up being murdered for her Jewish heritage, and then one of the men in America begins to plot revenge…

Revenge through postage.

No, I’m not kidding. Martin begins getting letters written in nonexistent codes postmarked from San Francisco, and since all letters are scanned for enemy aid, he is immediately in trouble with his Nazi buddies. The more letters he receives, the worse things get for him.

You can see how this would be an amazing book, right? How the tension and suspense would rise with each passing chapter spotlighting a new letter, either from San Francisco in code or from Martin begging Max to stop. That said, you can also see how this would not translate well to screen and, since the book was so beloved at the time of adaptation, I feel like the screenwriters and producers felt tied to the structure of the book… making it almost impossible to alter in a major way.

So instead we get a second half that is very interior and all dependent on Lukas’ ability to seem panicked and nervous at reading letters in every single scene.

It gets old.

Address Unknown 3Dear reader, I wish I could report that the first half was much better, but it’s not. Screenwriters Herbert Dalmas and Kressmann Taylor whiff the idea that Martin is so seduced by the Nazi party that it seems impossible for him to turn away from it. When one of the party sits down with Martin to tell him all about the Nazi movement, the words are carefully chosen. Too carefully. How I wish the filmmakers (and, presumably, the censorship board) attempted to actually make Nazi-ism something grand and great which feels impossible to avoid. The viewer would know and understand how asinine it is, but Martin could be seduced by the half-truths and lies at first, until it is too late. Instead, we watch a dumb coward listening to obvious villains say evil things and, before you can sing “Tomorrow belongs to me,” he’s heiling with the best of ‘em.

In the middle of these two awful halves is a sequence so astonishing that it took my breath away. That is not an exaggeration. It is such a perfect encapsulation of rising tension that it should be taught in film schools. If the rest of “Address Unknown” had been this good, it would have been a masterpiece.

The sequence involves Griselle rehearsing a scene from a play she is about to premier when a Censor comes in and cuts several lines that come straight from the bible. During the packed house performance that night, Griselle reinstates them. The Censor is in the audience and begins screaming for the performance to stop, stomping around and smacking the stage until he’s made a big enough fuss that the performance does stop. He calls out Griselle onstage for being Jewish (Why didn’t he just remove her from the performance before if he knew this? That is a logical leap I’m willing to take because the scene is so good) and a riot begins, stopped only by the curtain dropping in front of Griselle and allowing her a few moments to escape. She races to Martin’s home with the law in hot pursuit, and Martin refuses her entry… leaving her to be murdered on his doorstep.

The tension keeps building throughout this eight minute tour-de-force until you can barely take it… and then instead of releasing the tension, the filmmakers go for the hard way out – murdering the innocent woman we’ve been rooting for the entire time. When I tell you that Lang, Hitchcock or Wilder could not have done this better… know that I fully understand the implications of that. But this is how amazing the sequence is. Those eight minutes alone almost make this essential viewing.

Also notable here is how amazing the movie looks as a whole. The performances are, by and large, disposable, the story does not work and the adaptation is awful… and yet the film looks amazing. Menzies knew what he was doing as a camera, and his background as a set designer (this film was rightly nominated for an Oscar for its sets) makes him use space within the frame in much the same way Welles did in “Citizen Kane” or “The Magnificent Ambersons.” His collaboration with Mate is excellent, especially with the shadows brought forth within Martin’s home during the third act.

“Address Unknown” doesn’t work… but it doesn’t work in that complicated way where there are amazing things in it. I want you to watch it because of that midpoint sequence, but I also want to warn you to fast forward through the rest of it because yikes. One thing is for sure, I’m very curious to see what else Menzies directed – given the right material, he could have conjured a great movie.

Score: **

Lured

lured 1The Film Noir Odyssey

Writer: Leo Ronsten

Story: Jacques Companeez, Ernst Neubach, Simon Gantillon

Director: Douglas Sirk

Cinematographer: William H. Daniels

Music: Michel Michelet

Cast: Lucille Ball, Charles Coburn, George Sanders

Release: September 5, 1947

Studio: United Artists

Percent Noir: 70%

From the opening credits, which show a flashlight illuminating the filmmakers on walls and other surfaces, you know you are in for a fun ride with “Lured.” This is one of those very good movies that is so close to being great that you can’t help but be a little frustrated… but you’re enjoying the ride so much that it’s easy to focus on the positives.

Our hero is Sandra (Lucille Ball), who is an American dancer currently living in London after the travelling show she was performing in folded. She’s making ends meet by working at a dance hall, which is where she becomes fast friends with fellow dancer Lucy (Tanis Chandler, who makes a lovely impression in her few scenes). Lucy believes she has found an ideal man via the personal columns in the newspaper, but soon disappears entirely. It becomes clear that she is the latest victim of the “Poet” serial killer, who has been using those ads to trap and kill young women.

lured 2Sandra is enlisted by the police to become an undercover detective for them. Her boss is Harley (Charles Coburn) and she’s also got a plain clothes cop named Barrett (George Zucco) shadowing her to make sure she’s safe. Sandra meets some real weirdos while answering every personal ad in the paper, including fashion designer Charles Van Druten (Boris Karloff), but also meets and falls in love with rich so-and-so Robert (George Sanders)… which would be great until he becomes the prime suspect.

The director is Douglas Sirk, who made a couple of films noir like “Sleep, My Love” and “Shockproof” before becoming the popular director of melodramas like “Written on the Wind” and “Imitation of Life,” which were critically reviled in their day but considered masterpieces today. He also has a crazy backstory when he lived in Nazi-controlled Germany that you should seek out. Here he creates a great balance between the humor of Sandra’s character and her adventures with the genuine dread and danger of the active serial killer she is hunting. The movie can be very funny, particularly when exploring Sandra’s relationship with Barrett, but does not feel like a comedy.

Sirk is also very smart with his casting choices. While they don’t share much romantic chemistry, Ball (“The Dark Corner”) and Sanders (“While the City Sleeps”) are both quite good in their roles. Sirk surrounds them with a bunch of red herrings (plus one real killer) and, in a genius move, casts a bunch of horror veterans so that you are immediately suspicious. Karloff (“Frankenstein”) is a delight in his cameo as a demented fashion designer who mixes up a dog for a royal. Zucco (“The Mummy’s Hand”) reveals a real penchant for fast-paced dialogue and great comedic timing. And then there’s Cedric Hardwicke (“The Invisible Man Returns”) as Robert’s lawyer/assistant/whatever.

lured 3For the first two acts, the screenplay by Leo Ronsten (“The Dark Corner”) juggles tone with character beautifully. Sandra is set up as a wonderful, gutsy dame who is practical and resourceful, and her relationship with Harley matures quickly from boss/employee to father/daughter, but you still buy it. Things go a bit off the rails near the end of act two – and I can pin down the exact moment. It’s when Robert rescues Sandra in a park and she suddenly turns into a brainless romantic. She ignores clues obviously pointing to Robert’s guilt then, after he’s arrested, just cries and begs him to forgive her for implicating him. The film’s point-of-view oddly shifts away from Sandra (who becomes much less of a presence) to Hardwicke’s villain character for no obvious reason, and though things slightly improve for the climactic reveal… it all still feels off. Studio notes? A different writer rushing in for last minute rewrites? I have no idea, but that 15-minute section of “Lured” is a much more mediocre version of the excellence around it.

The other reason I suspect some studio tinkering is the score by Michel Michelet (the “M” remake), which strikes a tone much lighter than the movie it supports. Take the sequence where Sandra must walk into a dark and foreboding building with Druten. We are supposed to feel tension and suspect she may be attacked… at least I think… but the music is light, almost playful, which breaks any atmosphere Sirk was building.

Still, these are quibbles when taken within the context of the rest of the movie, which is aces. Sirk and his cinematographer William H. Daniels (“The Naked City”) create a marvelous version of London on the soundstages, marrying the fog-filled cobblestone streets (which I’m pretty sure were paved by 1947, but that’s beside the point) with some impactful interiors. The dance hall where Sandra works when we meet her has this crazy-stunning chandelier/proto-disco ball that needs to be seen to be believed.

It’s also worth pointing out how refreshing it is to have a female hero here. Sure, the movie strips her of her agency in the last act, but damn Sandra is a great hero before then. I love her first scene with Harley, where she realizes he is sizing her up for the cop job and then begins sizing him up as well. Ball was the best part of the underrated gem “The Dark Corner” and can handle hardboiled dialogue just as well as any of the greats – she really fits in this world of guns and shadows.

This is why it’s so sad that the movie lets Sandra and Ball down in that last act. Had she truly been the heroine of her own story all the way through, “Lured” probably would rank among my favorite films noir, but as it stands, it’s just a fun ride into fog-soaked London, complete with killers, blue dresses, symphonies and that great title sequence. And that’s not nothing.

Score: ****

My Brilliant Career

My Brilliant Career CoverThe Criterion Odyssey

Spine #973

Writer: Eleanor Witcombe

Based on the novel by Miles Franklin

Director: Gillian Armstrong

Star: Judy Davis, Sam Neill, Wendy Hughes

Cinematography: Donald McAlpine

Music: Nathan Waks

Distributor: GUO Film Distributors

Release: August 17, 1979

Country: Australia

The movie is titled “My Brilliant Career.” The first scene is its main character writing the opening to her book. And yet, for most of its second and third act, the filmmakers trick the viewer into believing he is watching a love story unfold. And that is perhaps the most important among the many things that make this film transcendent – it makes our hero’s final decision (which, again, is right there in the damn title) seem as emotionally shattering to us as it is for her.

My Brilliant Career 6Up until this, I had never seen a film by Gillian Armstrong. That’s one of the great things about this Criterion Odyssey – it’s introducing me to incredible filmmakers I have somehow missed so far in my life. But my adoration for this film is such that I have ordered eight of her other films and documentaries so I can jump into as much of her work as possible.

Judy Davis stars as Sybylla, a young woman who is all wild ideas and gumption. Her family used to be well off, but a drought in the bush has brought them to near-ruin, so much so that Sybylla’s mother insists that they can no longer afford to feed her – she’ll have to get a job as a servant. Sybylla, who is 16, is just realizing she has an artistic temperament, though she does not yet know how she wants to express herself… so taking the job of a servant is the equivalent to asking her to chop off a limb.

My Brilliant Career 3It seems a savior comes in the form of Sybylla’s grandmother (Aileen Britton) and aunt (Wendy Hughes), who invite Sybylla to stay with them instead. Once there, it becomes clear that they want Sybylla to be married off as soon as possible, so that she will not be penniless when she grows up. Sybylla hates the idea, but still manages to get two suitors lined up in jackaroo Frank (Robert Grubb) and hot, Hot, HOT landowner Harry (Sam Neill). But even as she explores her feelings, a little piece of herself keeps gnawing at her, insisting she can be more than just a wife.

My Brilliant Career LongSybylla is one of the great characters of film, and I love how she always is zigging just when you expect her to zag. Part of this probably comes from her upbringing – though her family had money once, she clearly has no time for formalities when all she does is work. But 95% of it comes from within her, of course. She reacts as she does because she cannot imagine any other way. Actually, let me strike that – she often does know the lady-like way to react to something, but that seems somehow inhuman to her. She’s curious. She asks questions. When it begins raining, she doesn’t snatch up her parasol and makes a run for it – she stands still and lets it wash over her. Her idea of a date with a guy is running for miles through a garden while savagely attacking him with a pillow. It was a genuine pleasure to watch her onscreen because she was always surprising me in just about every scene.

My Brilliant Career 8Despite the fact that Sybylla looks a lot like Judy Davis, she doesn’t find herself beautiful. This is in the same way all teenagers look in the mirror and exhale, noting every imperfection and odd bit that isn’t exactly in line with the standards of beauty. Her face is covered in freckles, and her hair is as wild and untamed as her personality… though it does become a little more agreeable once Sybylla leaves the bush for places where it rains. The moment I realized I loved this movie comes when her aunt finds her crying, admitting how ugly she thinks she is. Her aunt does the kindest thing one can do in the situation – she does not disregard Sybylla’s feelings with a line like “No, you are beautiful,” which is something the girl would not believe. Instead she simply tells Sybylla all the ways she can be extraordinary. It’s an exquisite scene, perfectly rendered by screenwriter Eleanor Witcombe.

My Brilliant Career 2And that’s another thing I love about this movie – people are kind. Aside from (arguably) Frank, there are no villains here. Everyone recognizes Sybylla is different and wants what is best for her. Whether that is getting her a job, or a husband, or politely breaking the news that the guy she likes may be out of her league… or whatever… it’s people genuinely trying to help Sybylla figure out a life within the constraints of the society she lives within. In another life, Harry would be the perfect husband for her.

My Brilliant Career 9But that isn’t her destiny. The book apparently ended on a more dour note, with Sybylla leaving Harry and heading back to the bush for an unclear life. None of that would do for Whitcombe and Armstrong, who reframe the ending ever so slightly, but just enough to make it triumphant. You see, the author of the book “My Brilliant Career” was really a woman named Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin (that’s a lot of first names), and though she called it a novel, it was semi-autobiographical. So our filmmakers underline that Sybylla did in fact get her novel published… that her choice was worth something after all… that she lived the life she wanted to, even if it wasn’t an easy one.

Though she had made several shorts and a documentary prior to this, “My Brilliant Career” was Armstrong’s first feature film. The unexpected angles and ways she goes about framing each scene (collaborating with cinematographer Donald McAlpine) are often genuinely unexpected, but nearly always work. I love the way her camera slowly searches a scene for something interesting, finally landing on the punchline to a joke or a character right before she (in this movie, it’s always a she) says something incredible.

My Brilliant Career 1There are a couple wobbly moments in tone, specifically the detour Sybylla takes when she is forced to tutor a bunch of uneducated, illiterate children in squalor. The sequence should play like her emotional low point (which it is, and is also the thing that enables her to say she’s taking her destiny into her own hand), but Armstrong oddly plays these scenes mostly for their humor. Look! Babies without pants! Kids with dirty faces and slingshots! The sequence is absolutely necessary, but I would have loved to see it reframed for the audience.

My Brilliant Career 7Of course, nothing would work without the fearless performance of Davis, who is in just about every scene, and commands each one. She manages to have chemistry with every actor, and does more with her eyes than most actors do with their entire bodies. Neill is quite good as the eye candy, and Hughes is also wonderfully human as Sybylla’s aunt.

I end this article filled with joy… not just at discovering this great film, but also at the prospect of the rest of Armstrong’s filmography before me. If you’ve never seen “My Brilliant Career,” track it down as soon as possible, it’s rare to find such a human portrait of a woman… hell, a person… trying to discover who she is.

Cover: Eh. In theory, I love that it has the first few lines of Sybylla’s book on the cover, and also adore that they chose to show her with her windswept hair – but for some reason F. Ron Miller doesn’t manage to pull it off. Maybe it’s because the writing is mostly in white? Or maybe he should have chose one or the other? Whatever the case, it’s quite forgettable, and such a brilliant film deserved a brilliant cover to go with it.

I award it one-and-a-half splashing milk buckets out of five.

Essay: Carrie Rickey does a lovely job of personalizing the film to herself, and I love how she assumed that the director and the novelist were both men when she first saw the film. I also appreciate the deep dive she gives into Sybylla’s character, though it does get a little too descriptive of the film. Still, the context of “My Brilliant Career” within Armstrong’s filmography is great, so I’m going high with my grade.

I award it four cows stuck in mud out of five.

Extras:

Armstrong is the star here, first with her excellent commentary track and secondly with a half-hour conversation that tracks her development as both an artist and the creation of this film. The honesty with which she talks about Davis and her dislike for the movie really surprised me, but by the end – when she underlines what it means for her to be a woman filmmaker – I wanted to stand up and cheer.

-There’s an interview from 1980 with Davis, which is interesting but not essential. She seems super guarded, as if choosing every line she is speaking carefully and self-editing before she says anything too incendiary. I did like the stuff about her growing up, though.

-An interview with Luciana Arrighi, who was the production designer. It’s short but quite insightful, especially in how she drew from impressionists like Monet for the film. I also loved the short section about the house whose wallpaper is covered with pages in a book.

-A meh trailer.

I award them three-and-a-half riding crops out of five.

A Face in the Crowd

Face in the Crowd Cover ActualThe Criterion Odyssey

Spine #970

Writer: Budd Schulberg

Based on his story “Your Arkansas Traveler”

Director: Elia Kazan

Cast: Andy Griffith, Patricia Neal, Walter Matthau

Cinematography: Gayne Rescher, Harry Stradling Sr.

Music: Tom Glazer

Songs: Tom Glazer, Budd Schulberg

Studio: Warner Bros.

Release: May 28, 1957

Country: United States

Even though I’m sure that all of Lonesome Rhodes’ lines were not written in capital letters in the original screenplay, they might as well have been. Here is a man who wants to be heard… needs to be heard… will be heard no matter what the consequences. From the moment he awakens, lying in squalor in a jail, he is talk, talk, talking… and even in the moments when someone else is speaking, you can see him vibrating with energy, wanting nothing more than to interrupt to express his opinion.

face in the crowd 1We’ve all encountered men and women like this, and “A Face in the Crowd” represents that moment, which has been repeated throughout history, when such a human finds a place in the zeitgeist.

Lonesome is portrayed here by Andy Griffith, and the casting is spot on. His face is beautifully malleable – it can seem in the same shot unconventionally handsome, but also piggish. Director Elia Kazan sprinkles sweat beads all over his face to enhance the effect – when a young girl tells Lonesome how attractive she finds him, he is dripping with perspiration, and not in a post-workout sexy Instagram way.

It’s a miraculous performance in many ways, because Griffith is so BIG and LOUD in basically every scene, and despite what the public may think, Lonesome never comes across as likeable onscreen. And yet Griffith somehow makes sure that, although we are cringing, we are not looking away. He’s fascinating from beginning to end.

Face in the Crowd 6Griffith’s work has so taken over the conversation of the movie that it’s sometimes difficult to remember that he isn’t even the hero of “A Face in the Crowd.” That distinction belongs to Patricia Neal’s Marcia Jeffries, who gives an excellent performance in a role that does match her. When we meet Marcia, she is the host of a local radio program that purports to highlight the lives of ordinary men and women, and she’s the one who discovers Lonesome (and gives him his name) in that jail. From there, she becomes his producer, keeper and sometimes lover… until the scales fall from her eyes and she can no longer do so.

Face in the Crowd 3For most of the movie, all Marcia gets to do is watch Lonesome do his thing. She gets no real dialogue of distinction except a few B-grade witticisms until an hour and thirty minutes into the movie. Yes, that is correct – the hero of the film doesn’t become active until 90 minutes in. Lonesome talks about how he needs her and how she’s driving his career, but we get no evidence of this, nor do we see how essential she is to his show… only learning after she has a breakdown and misses a day that people don’t know how to get along without her.

In his second collaboration with Kazan, screenwriter Budd Schulberg doesn’t seem to have much interest in Marcia. On the one hand, I get this because Lonesome is a much more fun character to write but, on the other, he is doing a disservice to her by marginalizing her as much as he does. Kazan must have sensed this and pulled a rabbit out of his hat by casting Neal in the part, because she can make simply watching someone into a brilliant performance. Kazan’s camera just regards her, noting the tiny changes in her smile, or the hunger in her eyes, or her growing disgust… and because Neal is great, he somehow pulls off making her seem like she’s doing more than her character actually is.

Face in the crowd 4Schulberg seems much more interested in the character of Mel Miller, played by Walter Matthau. Mel isn’t really a character – he has no distinguishing ticks nor is memorable in any way concerning his interactions with other humans… he is simply there to spout all the thesis statements Schulberg wants to make sure the audience gets. That’s it – he mansplains. Ostensibly he is a reporter following Lonesome’s rise to fame who decides to write a book about what a phony he is, but I wouldn’t blame you if you forgot that almost immediately, because I certainly did.

Face in the Crowd 7Matthau does what he can with the role, which isn’t much, and Schulberg fumbles by never having Marcia or Lonesome snap back when Mel monologues at them. In a bar, he has a three-minute speech breaking down who Marcia is and what her function is within the story (this is helpful because, as mentioned above, Schulberg doesn’t do a great job of landing that otherwise). He says some very nasty things, but Marcia just sits there and takes it, despite coming across as a person who would otherwise argue for herself. Then, in the film’s final scene, Lonesome stops ranting long enough for Mel to get in a long (albeit very well-written) monologue about what Lonesome’s future will be like… when every previous scene implies that Lonesome would cut him off mid-sentence and start ranting again.

Face in the Crowd 9These are pretty fundamental issues, and it’s a testament to how excellent the rest of “A Face in the Crowd” is that they do not sink it. Kazan is clearly having a ball with the film – he’s already a “loud” director, and here he relishes the opportunity to go full tilt. There are two montages in the film, the first a half-commercial, half-view of the rise of useless pill called Vitajex, and the second a real-time view of Lonesome’s career implosion… and both rank among the director’s best work ever. Yes, you read that right, montages rank among Elia Kazan’s best work. Who would’a thunk it?

When Lonesome is on the radio or on live television, he often does things that would make the program unlistenable or unwatchable. For radio, he screams into the microphone, chews loudly with his mouth open right next to the aforementioned mic, and also covers it for 30 seconds while having a side conversation… which would mean those listening at home would hear garbled dead air. On television, he wanders around stage, grabbing cameras and twisting them so he would not be in frame. He gets so close to the camera that his face would immediately blur. And don’t even get me started on the way the audience behaves. On the first viewing, this deeply bothered me, but on the second it did not – you can almost hear Kazan chuckling offscreen at how unrealistic this asshole’s rise to fame is.

Face in the Crowd 5Not all of Kazan’s gambits work. A gag with a bunch of dogs outside the sheriff’s office is not visually appealing, nor does the punchline of everyone around laughing uncontrollably for minutes at a time land. A bit later with kids in a pool feels like it could have been more sharply framed and shot to underline its importance to the plot.

And yet I still must give Kazan all the kudos in the world for managing to pull this film off. A lesser director would have gone fully into camp, or miscast one of the two leads. And the reason we so easily forgive those giant screenplay problems is because Kazan buries them in the excellence around them. I actually like “A Face in the Crowd” better than Kazan and Schulberg’s more famous (infamous?) pairing “On the Waterfront.”

Cover: Marc Aspinell offers up a solid if not spectacular cover. It works very well the closer you go into the image, and I appreciate the way he captures the theme of the film. That said, it’s not the type of cover that grabs your attention in store, and the inclusion of the guitar in the background detracts from the rest.

I award it three-and-a-half Vitajex pills out of five.

Essay: April Wolfe’s essay mightily misses the mark and I would recommend skipping it. She starts by being incredibly defensive about Kazan, segues into a tedious summation of the film, and then acts like Andy Griffith being told to do homework on his character was an incredible ask by Kazan. She ends things by making an allusion between Lonesome and (GASP!) Donald Trump, as if it’s a major revelation that every single person who has bought the product had not already come to.

I award it one spittoon out of five.

Extras:

  • An interview with Ron Briley about Kazan and his place in film history. I appreciate Criterion losing the blinders when contemplating a director’s personal failings, but wish extras like this had been done sooner and will continue to be done for more filmmakers… the ones who have done far worse things. Even though, realistically, something like this would never show up on a Polanski release.
  • Evan Dalton Smith talks about Griffith – it’s an interesting watch for someone (like me) who only knows him from his sitcoms and procedurals (and “Waitress”!).
  • A documentary from the old non-Criterion Kazan boxed set. A beginner’s course for both Kazan and Schulberg that talks about the Blacklist and their choice to testify… but if you’re reading this then I’m guessing you’ve already seen programs on this at least a dozen times. More interesting are the tidbits from Griffith and Neal, particularly when Griffith admits that he became a terrible person over the course of filming.
  • A (pretty bad) trailer.

I award them three slowly nibbled pretzels out of five.

Backlash

backlash 1The Film Noir Odyssey

Writer: Irving Elman

Director: Eugene Forde

Cinematographer: Benjamin H. Kline

Music: Darrell Calker

Cast: Jean Rogers, John Eldredge, Larry J. Blake

Release: March 1, 1947

Studio: 20th Century Fox

Percent Noir: 60%

“Backlash” tells a predictable mystery with a cast of bad, interchangeable actors, terrible production value and nonexistent direction. That said, I do not hate it.

Detective Jerry McMullen (Larry J. Blake) is brought in to investigate the brutal murder of a well-known (skeevy) lawyer named John Morland (John Eldredge), whose car has been crashed and his body burned beyond recognition. McMullen’s investigation leads towards Morland’s wife Catherine (Jean Rogers). Why? Several second-hand witnesses tell McMullen that Morland came to them with things like poisoned medicine and mysterious dead pets, all courtesy of Catherine. Looks like McMullen has his killer… but is it all too convenient?

The answer is “duh”! Even casual viewers of noir know that when there’s a body burned beyond recognition found in act one, the body is never, ever, ever, ever, ever the person they think it is. And though the film uses flashbacks to illustrate the second-hand stories of Catherine’s misdeeds, even a completely drunk viewer could probably get that she is being set up by minute 12. Hell, if you haven’t seen the movie and have just read my synopsis, you’ve probably figured out the twist.

backlash 2What’s that, you say? Morland is alive and framing his wife for his own murder? You are correct! You’ve won a lifetime supply of venetian blinds! Congratulations.

As predictable as the story is, I have to say that the really fun, hardboiled dialogue courtesy of screenwriter Irving Elman gave me my only real pleasure during the 66-minute runtime. I mean, it’s hard to fully hate a movie with the line “Murder is like solitaire – it should be played alone.” There are a bunch of fun nuggets like that throughout, all very quotable, and it gives you the illusion that you are in a better movie than you are… at least for awhile.

But good dialogue can only do so much.

Every other aspect of the movie sucks. And I know how crazy that sounds, but it’s true. It’s very difficult to be that bad that often, but “Backlash” pulls it off. We’ve already discussed the whole plotting issues, but there’s so much more.

First up is the fact that the movie looks like it was made for seventeen dollars plus some food stamps. I am genuinely shocked that this was made for 20th Century Fox – I’ve seen many of their low-budget films (and covered several on this Odyssey), but those still looked like actual movies. This may well be the cheapest-looking movie a major studio ever released… it’s certainly the worst offender I can think of. This looks worse than even a Monogram movie… it’s on the level of the really, really cheap PRC horror flicks from the late ‘30s and early ‘40s. You know the kind – where the plywood walls wobble after a door is closed.

backlash 3Still, many great directors have done one hell of a lot for less. A majority of the best noir were made on shoestring budgets, but you either don’t notice the cheapness because of the style or do notice it but then get even more respect for the filmmakers for pulling off what they did. That is not the case here. The director is someone named Eugene Forde, who directed nothing notable except for a few of the lesser Charlie Chan movies, and he brings nothing to the table visually or in the performances he gets from his actors. The most atmospheric moment of the entire film is when Morland turns on a light, illuminating his villainous face. Wow. The worst soap operas had better set-ups than Forde utilizes here – where his over, over, two-shots sometimes aren’t even framed properly. He and his editor allow a lot of dead space in scenes with nothing to fill it except the actors staring at one another, bored.

There’s one completely random sequence in an abandoned train car which seems shot after the fact with a different crew plugged near the end of the second act, and it merits mention for only for the fact that the filmmakers there at least attempt to use shadows to create atmosphere. They don’t succeed, but at least they try.

One final note on the look of “Backlash” – the cinematographer is Benjamin H. Kline, who also shot the iconic noir “Detour.” Obviously he could have done better, but instead was either uninspired or taking a long nap behind the camera during the shoot.

And then there is the cast, which is filled with vaguely handsome white guys all wearing similar suits. I got confused a lot, most often with the lead detective and the dude who may be having an affair with Morland’s wife. As a result, no one makes much of an impact aside from the vague feeling that everyone is turning in a competent performance… at least I assume so. Not one actor in the movie seems to have gotten a single acting note from Ford, and I’ve already forgotten what all of them look like. Rogers likewise is just fine as the possible femme fatale, but leaves no lingering impact beyond her hats.

I didn’t enjoy myself watching “Backlash,” but it’s not the worst way you can spend 66 minutes either. Or maybe it is, and I was just in a super good, forgiving mood when I watched it. Either way, it’s only available for a premium price via a made-to-order 20th Century Fox DVD, and it’s not worth a fraction of that price to track it down. So don’t bother. You’ll get more enjoyment by looking at the poster, and how they turn the “L” in the title into a whip, hoping to make the movie seem a little kinky. Whatever works, right?

Score: *1/2