As part of my ongoing posts on Elisha Cook Jr., we’re next going to take a look at Cook’s noir films – the genre he is most often associated with. Cook was part of the noir movement from the very beginning, having been cast in Stranger on the Third Floor – the 1940 film most critics point to as the first true noir film and the beginning of the classic noir period. This classic noir period is subsequently said to wrap up with Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil film in 1958. While Cook was not in Welles’s film, he was nonetheless a constant face in many noir films on through to the very end, making Baby Face Nelson in December of 1957. In many ways, Cook could be viewed to develop alongside the genre – just as the film noirs during those years were becoming more mature and sophisticated, Cook’s noir roles and what he brought to them likewise expanded.

As important as Stranger on the Third Floor is to film history, it is not available on DVD and I have never had a chance to see it. Regardless, it was not until the next year with the release of the classic The Maltese Falcon that things really began to click, both for Cook and the noir genre. The film was a lot of firsts – John Huston’s directorial debut, Bogie’s first unqualified hit as a leading man (though one might argue that High Sierra fits that bill) – but perhaps its most important was as the first true noir masterpiece. The film set up many of the standard conventions that would be recycled and played with over and over again during the following two decades.

After having seen Cook in so many film roles where he made the most of his flacid, bug-eyed expressions to skillfully portray various ill-fated and in-over-their-heads characters – it’s somewhat difficult trying to picture the man just kicking back and relaxing. cook-wilmer.jpgAnd yet, by the early 1940s, the Hollywood career of Cook, now in his mid-30s, had evolved to the point where the reclusive actor could simply retire to the High Sierra hills between films and fish for trout as he waited for the work to come to him via studio courier. It was in these hills that Huston sent word to Cook that he wanted him for what would become Cook’s best known role – the gun-toting Wilmer. Cook nailed the role. It’s one of those where it’s impossible imagining somebody doing it better. It’s interesting because Cook actually appears “tougher” as Wilmer than he does in most of his subsequent noir roles, despite the homosexual undertones of the role and that he was pushed around throughout the film by Bogie’s Sam Spade and eventually set up as “the fall guy.”

After Falcon, Cook made another noir classic, I Wake Up Screaming. He continued to make films in other genres, but for the most part, he was associated with noirs throughout the 40s. He took a hiatus from Hollywood in late 1942 (apparently for military service – though I’m having trouble locating what branch or any other details), and did not return to the big screen until 1944. His first film upon his return was Phantom Lady, a film that should be included in any discussion about Cook, as it is one of the most frequently cited roles in the literature about him. Unfortunately, this is another one not yet out on DVD and that I have not seen yet. (Seriously, somebody needs to start releasing these. Do I next need to blog about the need for an Elisha Cook Jr. box set? I’ve already devoted more time to him than most people do, so don’t think I won’t do it.) The late 40s brought more noir classics, including Dillinger, The Big Sleep, and Born to Kill. The advent of the 50s brought a shift in Cook’s career, as he started doing more western films and suddenly became active with television. He still did the occasional noir, however, most notably in Stanley Kubrick’s 1955 film, The Killing – another of Cook’s best performances.

The fall guy, the scapegoat, the cuckold, the neurotic, the whipping boy, the pushed-around sidekick. cook-borntokill.jpgWithout fail, Cook appeared throughout these tough guy films in less than tough guy roles. He was too bad to be a good guy but not quite bad enough to play the bad guy (his best known nickname was “Hollywood’s lightest heavy”). And yet, he played these roles so well that they continued coming to him, and his portrayals would set up many of the lasting noir conventions. Cook played an integral part in the noir legacy. In many ways, he helped add humanity and believability to the films. Face it – we all want to identify with the Bogies or Mitchums or Stanwycks of the noirs, who always seem to have the answer or else know how to go about getting it, but finding ourselves in similar situations, we might very well find ourselves over our head and panicking just to stay afloat in treacherous waters. Cook’s roles often remind us of the danger inherent in these situations and the less-than-noble ways people often truly respond to such dangers.

The other night, I watched The Secret Love of Martha Ivers for the first time. It’s a 1946 film by legendary producer Hal Wallis with a fantastic cast – Van Heflin, Lizabeth Scott, a young Kirk Douglas, and last but not least, Barbara Stanwyck. Wallis wasn’t missing with many of his films during this time period, and he certainly didn’t miss with this one. It’s a mature, psychological, noiresque drama that draws one in with its well developed characters, who are portrayed skillfully by the film’s starring quartet. I would definitely recommend the film. I’m actually writing here, however, because the film reminded me of a question that’s been bothering me lately: Why haven’t they released a Barbara Stanwyck DVD box set?

By no means am I a frequenter of box sets. I tend to be too cheap. The appeal of these sets, however, certainly does not escape me, and a Stanwyck set would be one of those where I’d be tempted to actually purchase it. There’s something cool about getting a nicely-packaged, themed mini-library of movies with a single purchase. Classic film lovers, in particular, seem to enjoy them, and classics bulletin boards and blogs across the Web are littered with threads discussing the confirmed releases, rumored releases, wished-for releases, etc., of these box sets. Having perused some of these discussions before, I know that I am not the only one wondering why Stanwyck hasn’t gotten her own set yet. In fact, you’ll occasionally see people discussing a “rumored” or “promised” Stanwyck box set. In particular, there have been reports connecting Warner Brothers and its nice “signature collection” line of box sets with Stanwyck, but as of yet, nothing has materialized.

Well, I imagined this might have something to do with distribution rights, and this interesting review on the Cineaste website of the Warner box sets states as much. stanwyck.jpgStanwyck was famously independent in a period where studio heads were still calling the shots. As a result, the rights to her films eventually became scattered across multiple distributors. Thus, despite the appeal of such a box set, the associated legal and financial difficulties have probably scared away many a potential suitor.

I decided to look a little closer at the matter. To help figure this out, I recruited the help of the DVDFile website’s article on DVD distributors. Then, I looked at Stanwyck’s filmography – more particularly, at the list of her films currently available in DVD. Using Warner’s signature collection box sets as a model, I tried arranging a box set that would use 1 or 2 films considered outright classics, 1 or 2 solid but sometimes overlooked classics, and 1 or 2 lesser-known films (while these are sometimes just filler, they more frequently seem to be good films that just don’t seem to stand out on their own for whatever reason). I also tried, as the signature collections usually do, to show a range of genres and representative films. Doing so, I came up with the following list as a sample box set:

  • Double Indemnity
  • Christmas in Connecticut
  • Stella Dallas
  • Clash by Night
  • Forty Guns
  • Crime of Passion

Such a set has several solid films, represents Stanwyck in a variety of genres, and includes some of her most classic roles. Further, it leaves some of her other classic films (such as The Lady Eve) to highlight future box sets, since an actress like Stanwyck could certainly fill more than one quality set. So here’s the problem.  I selected these films based solely on what I believed would likely compose a good box set. Looking at the companies that appears to hold these rights, however, proves that such a set would be impossible. Looking at the different distributors for this set – Double Indemnity (Universal Studios), Christmas in Connecticut (Warner Home Video), Stella Dallas (MGM), Clash by Night (Warner), Forty Guns (20th Century Fox), and Crime of Passion (MGM) – shows how scattered these rights are. There are other studios too – Paramount, for example, distributes both The Strange Love of Martha Ivers and Sorry, Wrong Number.

The upshot of all this is that a Stanwyck box set is not impossible; it’s just a challenge. Warners has filled multiple well-balanced Bogart collections because it has almost all of his films. That’s not the case with Barbara Stanwyck. Her best films are scattered across the major studios. The good news is that Stanwyck did so many good films that this should not stop a set from eventually coming out. Reportedly, Warners has said that it has enough to films to fill multiple Stanwyck box sets, and I feel relatively certain that at least one will come out within the next couple years. The bad news is that the “dream” box set that some fans like to speculate on simply will never happen.

As I announced in a post a few weeks ago, I am beginning a series of posts to explore the life and career of one of Hollywood’s all-time greatest character actors, Elisha Cook Jr. There is not an abundant amount of information out there on such character actors and finding information on their early life can prove particularly difficult, as I found as I started doing some research. Almost all the sources on Cook say essentially the same thing. Even going to some promising-looking print sources – such as The Illustrated Directory of Character Actors – was of limited use. And yet, with some persistance and creative researching, I eventually discovered some information on his early life and career. Thus, in this first post, I wanted to basically look at his life before he really got started as a noir actor, which he did around 1940.

Elisha Vanslyck Cook Jr. was born into a theatrical family in San Francisco, California, on December 26, 1903 (occasionally, one finds a source saying 1906, but this appears to be incorrect). Not much is ever said about his parents. Although Wikipedia says Elisha Sr. was a pharmacist, most sources describe him more as one of those vaudevillian jack-of-all-trades – acting, directing, and producing. His mother, Helen Henry, was an actress and seemed to be a rather talented one at that, as she would eventually land the lead role in the acclaimed Broadway play Mother in 1935, around the time her son’s own stage career was peaking. Soon after Elisha Jr. was born, the family moved to Chicago, where he grew up in the stage environment, beginning at a young age to do odd jobs around the theatre. At the age of 14, he premiered in the vaudeville act Lightnin’.

Cook was not yet 23 when he made his Broadway debut in 1926. While many biographical sketches claim he made this debut in Henry-Behave, according to Cook’s IBDB page (Internet Broadway Database – who knew they had such a thing?), it appears it may have actually been several months earlier in Hello, Lola. Regardless, it appears that from this point forward, Cook had fairly steady work as a Broadway actor and began to appear rather regularly in the drama pages of the New York Times and other publications. I perused the reviews of Cook’s plays using the local university library’s online database. (If you haven’t done this before, it’s a pretty fun and interesting thing to do. The theatre back in the day was still big news and so the reviews have an All About Eve aura and seriousness about them. Plus, the stage was still prime source material for Hollywood, so many of the plays and actors and actresses found in the drama pages are recognizeable to classic film lovers.)

Cook seemed to have somewhat meatier roles towards the beginning of his Broadway career, actually playing the leads in a couple of plays. In fact, he recreated his male lead role from the play Her Unborn Child for a Hollywood adaptation in 1930. He allegedly did one other film that same year before returning to the stage. It’s possible, however, that the brevity of his first stint in Hollywood had more to do with the quality of the source material than it did with Cook’s acting. As a Time magazine reviewer of the play version of Her Unborn Child wrote: “Elisha Cooke [sic] Jr., in the comedy role, was better than his lines.”

Over the next few years, Cook continued to make a name for himself on the stage. He began to stand out in the increasingly frequent supporting roles, which would become more or less the norm for him from this point forward in his acting career. Though the roles were typically small, he made the most of them, and the reviews, though short, were positive.

His big break came in 1933, when he played the role of Richard Miller in Eugene O’Neill’s long-running and critically acclaimed comedy Ah, Wilderness! As was often the case due to Cook’s youthful appearance, the role was that of a young man. Brooks Atkinson, the New York Times critic, wrote “As Richard, Elisha Cook Jr. has strength as well as pathos. Mr. Cook can draw more out of mute adolescence than any other young actor on our stage.” Such reviews were not atypical, as they commonly noted Cook’s skillful use of facial expressions to convey emotion – it was an early indication of a strength that would stay with him throughout his career and would help him make his limited roles all the more powerful and memorable. Hollywood took notice of Cook’s performance in Ah, Wilderness!, and Paramount contracted him to work when the season was over. Interestingly, the drama pages initially report that he was contracted to appear in the 1934 film Ready for Love. However, even though the paper reports his leaving for Hollywood in June and his subsequent return in August, all his filmographies do not list Cook as appearing in the film. Thus, it’s unclear whether he just had a small overlooked role in a forgotten film or if the contract actually fell through for some reason. At any rate, upon his return to New York, Cook resumed his role in Ah, Wilderness! as the show went on the road. He went on to do at least two more Broadway plays over the next two years, before more or less settling permanently in Hollywood in mid to late 1936.

Cook’s talent as an actor combined with the incredible rate of production during the studio era meant that he was soon doing several films a year (8 films with him were released in 1937, his first full year in Hollywood). While he was in some crime dramas and mysteries at this point, he was not as frequently typecast in such genres as he would be in the noir explosion in the 40s. In fact, he did just as many romantic comedies as anything else, still often cast as a juvenile. Unfortunately, it is incredibly difficult to find these films, particularly on DVD. Some of them appear to be rather forgettable, but in many others, Cook was working with big name stars and directors (to name just a couple of examples – he was in Submarine Patrol in 1938, directed by John Ford, and was in Love Crazy in early 1941, one of the William Powell/Myrna Loy collaborations). Many of these films from early in Cook’s career will likely be released in the coming years.

The only 1930s film I could find with Cook was the recently released Pigskin Parade, a musical comedy about a small college football team starring Jack Haley and Patsy Kelly. It didn’t at all sound like the typical film I enjoy watching, but in the name of research, I decided to Netflix it. It turned out to be a surprisingly passable film with some real funny parts. Cook was cast, predictably, as a college boy. He plays a revolutionary sort who ends up getting framed by some of his classmates in order that they may use his name and credentials for an academically ineligible football prospect (one is tempted to say this is an early indication of the tendency later in Cook’s career to cast him as the fall guy, but believe me, it’s entirely different). Cook’s role is limited, but he does a good job with it. He even sings (well, talks in rhythm) a little. He might not have the screen presence he’ll eventually have in some of his later roles, but one can definitely see his natural talent as an actor.

One final note on Pigskin Parade. Not only was it one of Cook’s first films, but it was also the first feature-length film of Judy Garland. I found this interesting because, later in Cook’s career, a legend grew up about him that his mere presence in a film would presage future stardom for some of his younger co-workers. Well, if there’s any truth to this myth, it looks like Dorothy herself owed a debt of gratitude to Mr. Cook, who certainly got her started on her way.

I am not typically a fan of musicals. I don’t particularly dislike them; in fact, there are some I like very much. I just don’t usually go out of my way to watch them. Thus, though I obviously have known of Fiddler on the Roof‘s status as a great film for some time, I never actually saw it until this past weekend, when my wife received it from Netflix. The film portrays the life of a mostly poor Jewish community in pre-revolutionary Russia, focusing particularly on the farmer Tevye (played masterfully by the actor Topol) and his relationship with his coming-of-age daughters. The basic plot sounded fine, but the whole setting-it-to-music thing made me somewhat apprehensive. I must say I was pleasantly surprised.

Part of the reason I don’t tend to watch musicals is because I get irritated and impatient with the constant interruption of the narrative to break into song (somewhat strange, considering I don’t mind opera, but I think that’s a case where I’m going to the artform more for the music than the story, whereas in musicals it’s usually vice-versa). I simply want the story to move along without the characters stopping every five minutes to reflect their emotions through music when it could just as easily be done through other devices. As I began to watch Fiddler, it appeared I might be in for a long night. It sucked me in, however. So much so that by the end, not only did I not mind the music, but I was thinking that this was one of the rare cases where I could say with certainty the film should be a musical – i.e., that trying to express its themes in some other fashion just wouldn’t work as well.

Indeed, Fiddler is a rather eloquent case of form following function. Much like the actual fiddler on the roof, the film’s status as a musical in spite of its overwhelmingly serious themes represents the Jewish community’s ability to be happy and flourish despite its precarious circumstances. As the film goes on, particularly as it nears the end, the saddening circumstances threatens to break it out of its musical genre and into a melancholy drama. fiddler.jpgWhile this can be interpreted literally in a couple of scenes (the Russians interrupting the Jewish song in the tavern, the wedding festivities being overrun by soldiers, etc.), it’s more of a response on the viewer’s part – drawn increasingly into the struggles of Tevye’s family and the surrounding community, as the situation deteriorates around them, one tends to forget that it’s a musical. Yet even towards the end, though the songs may be less frequent and definitely not as chipper, they still pop up occassionally to remind the viewer that he/she is, indeed, watching a musical. It’s a touching illustration of how a community can persevere and maintain its hope and heart even when under the most adverse circumstances. Thus, even when leaving his home for good, Tevye walks with the fiddler close behind him, continuing his tune and demonstrating the resiliency of the Jewish spirit.

I’ll be honest, I don’t know how often I can sit through a three-hour long musical, but in my opinion, there is simply no denying Fiddler on the Roof‘s status as a masterpiece. It may seem strange on the surface, given all its song-and-dance routines, but this film is so skillfully done that it seems every bit as moving and effective as the more serious treatments of Jewish history. I enjoyed it.

The on-screen chemistry between Myrna Loy and William Powell is well documented – a cinematic partnership that resulted in 14 films, including their famous recurring roles as the husband-and-wife detective team Nick and Nora in The Thin Man series. Something I have not seen discussed as much is the role director W. S. Van Dyke played in the couple’s success. Of the 14 films, Van Dyke directed six of them – Manhattan Melodrama, I Love You Again, and the first four installments of The Thin Man series (he very well might have done the final two installments as well, had it not been for his early death in 1943). These films are certainly among Myrna Loy and William Powell’s most notable collaborations.

While the wife and I are enthusiastic fans of Loy and Powell both separately and together, it was not until recently that we had the chance to view I Love You Again for the first time. This screwball comedy might not be as polished and entertaining as The Thin Man films, but it nonetheless is an enjoyable and comedic film. It’s plot (which has sizable and obvious holes that really annoyed the Mrs.) begins with the boring miser Larry Wilson (Powell) loym30.jpgon a cruise annoying the other guests with his insistence on clean living and sobriety. The thing is – Wilson isn’t Wilson. He’s actually George Carey, a crafty con-man and Wilson’s complete opposite, but a bout of amnesia several years ago wiped the slate clean and allowed this new persona to develop. When Wilson falls overboard and receives a blow to the head, Carey resurfaces. Carey’s discovery that in the nine intervening years since he was last conscious Wilson has seemingly amassed a great deal of wealth and also landed a beautiful wife (Loy) causes him to decide to continue the charade long enough to cash in. (If it seems confusing and nonsensical, that’s because it is.)

In lesser hands, this plot could have easily fallen flat on its face. But with Van Dyke, Powell, and Loy, it turns out to be quite a bit of fun. Unlike The Thin Man films, this film relies more heavily upon Powell’s individual talents rather than Powell and Loy’s chemistry. One obviously can’t go wrong with William Powell, so this isn’t a bad thing, but fans looking for more Nick-and-Nora magic might be disappointed. You don’t really hear a lot about this film (in fact, you can only find a DVD of the film in a 4-disc Myrna Loy/William Powell box set), and it’s by no means perfect. Yet this relatively quiet reputation only helps to make it one of those pleasant little surprise discoveries that all classic film fans are only too happy to make.

Kontroll (2003)

May 18, 2007

Kontroll is an interesting, offbeat film by Hungarian director Nimrod Antal. As with most interesting, offbeat films, I’m somewhat reluctant to recommend it outright, since such films often are more polarizing ones that will either resonate with you meaningfully or else just bore you to tears. kontroll2.jpgI have a feeling, however, that Kontroll probably hits more than it misses. It may not be a perfect film, and I imagine it might start to drag in parts if I watched it a second time – but it does seem to have something for everybody. In fact, it can equally be considered comedy, action, or drama. It’s a funny, entertaining, stylish film that also tackles some very serious questions.

Earlier this year, I mentioned that Cache made me aware that perhaps I should be paying more attention to some of the films coming out of film festivals like Cannes. (The festival’s going on now, by the way, and celebrating its 60th anniversary. I was excited to see that this year’s festival was opening with a film called Blueberry Nights by Chinese director Kar Wai Wong [of In the Mood for Love fame]; I was a little less excited when I saw the film starred Norah Jones and Jude Law, but I guess the guy knows what he’s doing.) Kontroll reinforced this notion with me. With the sheer number of quality international films coming out these days, it can be hard to know which ones are worth checking out, but keeping up with the buzz coming out of these festivals is a good place to start.

All of Kontroll takes place underground in Budapest’s metro system. I have always thought that the elaborate subterranean systems of subways make great settings for film – an appropriate location for any film dealing with what lies beneath a society, all its repressed fears, worries, hopes, etc. – and yet I’m still waiting for the consumate underground film. (For a recent example of how not to do such a film, check out Takashi Shimizu’s low budget J-horror film Marebito. Actually, don’t check it out . . . or if you do, do so only with low expecations.) Kontroll may not be the film I’ve been waiting for, but it certainly does play with those themes. kontroll.jpgThe main character, Bulcsu (Sandor Csanyi), seems to be going through an existential crisis. Working as a ticket inspector during the day, Bulcsu refuses to leave the station even at night, as he struggles to understand through the microcosm of the subway the meaning of life, justice, work, and love. The story of Bulcsu and his team searching through the tunnels for a man pushing innocent victims in front of trains is exciting, humorous, and fast-paced. The script is a little rough, and I don’t always relate with the characters or their motivations. Overall, however, I’d say that this film’s strengths largely outweigh its weakenesses and that the film is worthy of a viewing.

Hungary is not a country particularly well known for its cinematic tradition. In fact, I’m not sure, but I believe this might have been the first Hungarian film I had ever seen. I know it was the first film from Hungary to be shown at Cannes in 20 years. The film has a central/eastern European feel about it. Its humor is very visceral, and the scenery and actors in it have a bleak quality about them – even during the film’s more energetic and fun parts. Yet, I’d rate my first Hungarian film experience a positive one and hope that it’s a sign of more things to come (although it looks like the success of Kontroll has resulted in Hollywood stealing Antal away from his home country for the time being).

Elisha Cook Jr.

May 15, 2007

I think many old movie fans are probably similar to me and my wife. After watching enough of these old films, some of those faces that were formerly relegated to the background in significant yet limited supporting roles start to come forward as they become more and more familiar. Moving beyond each picture’s one or two big-name stars, one begins to pay increasing attention to these faces behind the faces – all those various character actors and bit players who really round out the cast and add so much to these films.

So many of these people are now largely forgotten by the public, although quite a few of them were well known at the time and their contributions were quite significant. cook2.jpgFor this reason, I thought it would be interesting to do a series of reviews based upon the careers of one of these supporting actors. This should offer a somewhat unique way of looking at a series of films – as opposed to the usual genre-, theme-, or superstar-based series. Besides highlighting the career of an unduly overlooked subject, it can also bring together an interesting cross-section of films that wouldn’t often be grouped together. This is certainly the case with the actor I’ve chosen to look at here – Elisha Cook Jr.

Elisha Cook has been in some great movies and is particularly well known to fans of film noirs due to his roles in films such as Maltese Falcon (probably his best known role – as Wilmer) and The Killing. It is probably his good work in such memorable films that has led Cook to being not quite as “forgotten” as most of old Hollywood’s character actors. And yet, as a simple Google search for Mr. Cook reveals, the majority of the websites and sources discussing the actor simply recycle the same information over and over again. You can look at his page on IMDB or Wikipedia or one of the many others, but they all say more or less the same thing – i.e., known as “Hollywood’s lightest heavy,” the diminutive cook.jpgElisha Cook made a lengthy Hollywood career out of playing fall guys and spineless villains, including his most memorable roles in such films as The Maltese Falcon and Shane. Such descriptions are great at boiling down a career to only the most essential details, but I have to think that there is something more to a man who had as long and successful a film and television career as Cook had (if you haven’t already looked at that Wikipedia page, do so now and check out the list of different directors Cook worked with throughout his career). It is all the information that is left unsaid that always makes me wonder about these lesser known actors and actresses. Surely there is more to a person who has had such a long and varied career that cannot be captured in just a brief paragraph or two. Off and on over the next several weeks, I’ll try to see if we can’t flesh out that description of Cook a little more by taking a more concentrated look at the actor’s films (and maybe even a bit of his extensive TV work) and maybe by seeing if we can’t find out a little more information from some print sources. As always, any suggestions or feedback is welcome.

kissmedeadly.jpgThere are classic film noirs, I suppose, and then there are classic film noirs. I recently re-watched one of my absolute favorites of the genre – Robert Aldrich’s 1955 film Kiss Me Deadly. While on the surface the film contains many of the tried and true genre conventions – the labyrinth-like urban setting, the morally ambiguous protagonist, the unknown but much sought after MacGuffin – it infuses these conventions with vigorous new life and meaning. In fact, there is a depth to the script (owing in no small part, I’m sure, to the original novel by Mickey Spillane) that is often absent in noirs. The resulting film goes well beyond the superficial detective story and raises many questions regarding what it means to live in a world where the lives of individual people actually matter surprisingly little.

The concept of the investigator being involved in a story where he has to figure out exactly what it is that is at stake is by no means rare in the noir genre. On the kissdeadly.jpgcontrary, protagonists are rather commonly thrust unwittingly into mysteries where they must figure out for themselves just what it is they’ve gotten themselves into. Kiss Me Deadly simply takes this quest a step further. When investigator Mike Hammer (played ever so cooly by Ralph Meeker) stumbles upon a girl named Christina (Cloris Leachman) late one night on a deserted highway, he discovers she is harboring secrets that others will stop at nothing to obtain. After she is eventually tortured and killed over these secrets, Mike starts his quest to unravel the mystery. Guessing that he’s on the trail of “something bigger” than his usual small-time divorce cases, Mike begins searching for clues that will eventually lead him to the source of all this intrigue. But the further along he searches, the clearer it becomes he might be biting off more than he can chew. As his assistant, Velda, quips, “First, you find a little thread, the little thread leads you to a string, and the string leads you to a rope, and from the rope you hang by the neck.”

Indeed, as it turns out, the thing Mike is looking for isn’t just “something bigger,” it’s something huge. In a post-WWII, nuclear age, private ambitions and plans of individuals mean little compared to the large ideological and political forces that can result in wholesale destruction and death. By the time Mike realizes this, he is in way over his head, and abandoning his hopes for a big payday, he must struggle just to keep himself and those closest to him alive. The famous closing scene (strangely not shown in the original release in many countries) has Mike and Velda clinging to each other in the water upon the shoreline – a haunting image which from its liminal perspective would seem to indicate the struggle of the couple to maintain its relationship from a rather marginalized position in the world. It’s a stunning visual that really has a tremendous effect. It seems an appopriate ending to a work in which everything good – love, beauty, poetry – struggles to survive in the face of greed and power.

I seem to have rambled into a bit more analysis with this posting than I usually do. Suffice it to say that Aldrich’s direction is excellent and energetic, the acting is good, and the script is top-notch. Owing much to the zeitgeist of the 50s, the film really captures the paranoia and strange sense of discomfort beneath the surface of post-War America. Kiss Me Deadly is one of those entertaining films that has a surprising amount of depth to it and just never seems to get old. I highly recommend it.

Cleopatra (1934)

April 27, 2007

Before Joseph Mankiewicz directed his extravagant, expensive version of Cleopatra starring Elizabeth Taylor in 1963, Cecil B. DeMille directed his own extravagant, expensive (though definitely not so outrageously so) version of the film cleo2.jpgstarring Claudette Colbert in 1934. I’ve never been a huge DeMille fan. I can appreciate his historical epics for their innovation and influence in cinematic history, but frankly, I think they’re usually pretty boring. On the other hand, I am a fan of Colbert’s work, and figuring that a film like Cleopatra depends a lot on its female lead, I thought this film just might be worth checking out. My reaction was decidedly mixed.

IMDB’s trivia page for the film contains only one item, which describes how a group of Italian critics at the time were so unimpressed by the film that they actually catcalled and heckled it as they watched. This, of course, sounded very similar to the reaction French critics gave in 2006 to Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette. In this more recent case, I believe the French were mostly upset at the film’s sympathetic view of the controversial monarch and its watering down of the historic context in favor of a human-interest story. While I could understand such a viewpoint, I actually thought Coppola’s film was good and that it offered a compelling view of the woman behind the queen. Now as I was watching Cecil B. DeMille’s version of Cleopatra the other night, I initially found myself agreeing with the 30s-era Italian critics. It seemed like DeMille had directed a rich historical story that had been hollowed out and replaced with a ho-hum script that sounded less suited for a classical Roman setting than it did for a trendy, twentieth-century parlor filled with debutantes. As the film wore on, however, I started to realize that Demille had similar intents in his film to what Coppola had had in hers. The historical events and all their grandiose repercussions were not so important to the director; rather he was trying to look at Cleopatra as a person and how the events occurring around her affected her on a personal level. While I still wouldn’t say I loved this film, once I recognized this fact, I began to appreciate it a lot more.

Though historical dramas may not perhaps be the best genre for Colbert, she does a pretty good job with the role given her. In fact, towards the beginning of the film, it hardly seems like she’s in a historical picture at all, cleopatra.jpgand one listening to the trite dialogue might think they were actually watching one of Colbert’s screwballs – if it weren’t for all the togas. As the film wears on, however, the character of Cleopatra rounds out fairly nicely, and we begin to see a woman who has learned from her past mistakes and consequently developed both in her public and private life. This character development is the centerpiece of the film, and DeMille surrounds it nicely with some truly lavish sets and costumes. And though Liz Taylor may have played the role while she was still pretty and not yet freaky, Colbert certainly is more believable in the part of the irresistable queen of mythic beauty.

My problem with the film is that the elements just don’t seem to gel together. The story and script simply do not fit with the historical setting, and the disjunction serves as an annoying distraction. For all the flack the later version would take for its over-bloated budget and off-camera shenanigans, at least it seemed to be a more historically rich film (which somehow just seems necessary in a historical epic). While I do like DeMille’s version better than some of his other films, and the scenery and costumes of Colbert are impressive, I’d have to say that otherwise, this is, to my mind, a fairly standard film that really isn’t all that memorable.

Saboteur (1942)

April 17, 2007

The more one watches Hitchcock, the more one notices how the director revisits certain themes and devices in his films over and over again. It’s almost as if he were one of those artists who sketches numerous studies of subjects in order to get used to their forms before incorporating them in new and exciting ways in the final masterpiece. (That’s not altogether an apt metaphor, since it implies that Hitchcock’s earlier works were just casual practice works that would eventually lead to bigger and better things – when, in fact, these earlier works often were just as good, if not better, than many of his later Technicolor wonders.) His 1942 film Saboteur is a case in point, as it follows the same basic plotline as The 39 Steps from 1935 and North by Northwest from 1959. In each film a case of mistaken identity leads a man on a cross-country journey, evading both good guys and bad guys along the way, as he battles to discover the truth and clear his name. A comparison of Saboteur with the other two – both among Hitchcock’s best – does not really reflect favorably upon it, as it has neither the originality and the literary and political punch of the earlier film nor the sophistication, wit, and polish of the later one. Nonetheless, Hitch obviously knew this plotline was a winner, and even though it might not be quite as good as the other two, it’s still a fun and clever film to watch.

Saboteur marked the first American film where producer David Selznick loaned Hitchcock out to another studio. saboteur.jpgBoth Selznick and Hitchcock were noted control freaks, and they simply could not work out their creative differences. Thus, Selznick loaned Hitch to Universal. Originally, the director was hoping to cast Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck in the leading roles (both of whom seemed like they would have been perfect for the parts); however, because of the usual studio politics and some budget restraints, he wound up having to use Robert Cummings and Priscilla Lane instead. Though it doesn’t perhaps have the Hollywood heavyweights he wanted, there’s little doubt that Hitchcock was still working with a very solid cast, and the acting is good throughout.

Hitchcock’s direction, of course, is solid, although it’s pretty standard fare for him . . . with one notable exception. saboteur2.jpgThe climatic Statue of Liberty scene was revolutionary at the time, and left viewers and critics puzzled as to how it was shot. Hitch actually used a very innovative travelling matte shot to film this. I remember they actually had a demonstration of how he did this when I visited the Hitchcock attraction as a student at Universal Studios Florida many years ago (unfortunately, I think they’ve since gotten rid of this attraction). Basically, the process involved Hithcock starting with a camera close-up on the actor and then using pulleys to quickly pull it away from the actor as he laid back and flailed his arms to create the illusion of falling through the air. This footage was then superimposed upon separate Statue of Liberty footage to complete the image of the dramatic plummet. Wikipedia has an informative page on the basic matte process.

I’d have to say the weakest part of Saboteur is the script, which is kind of strange considering that Dorothy Parker helped co-write it. More than anything else, this is what keeps the film a slight level beneath The 39 Steps and North by Northwest. While most of the script is fine, skillfully combining suspense and humor in the manner most Hitchcock films do, but there are a few awkward scenes that seem to compromise the rest and give the film a somewhat clunky feel. Such scenes are either odd and melodramatic (the circus performers scene), over-the-top patriotic (the speech Robert Cummings makes to Otto Kruger after his capture), or both (the random blind man scene). Much of this is probably owed to the fact that this film was Hitch’s contribution to WWII propaganda, and such works typically have a forced feel to them. While I wouldn’t say these scenes ruin the film, they do serve as a distraction and really interrupt its overall rhthym.

One final note to this already too-long post – this film is somewhat strange to watch from a post 9/11 perspective. Its plots involving bombing plots and sabotage certainly seem relevant to today’s world. Things don’t seem quite as cut-and-dry as they did in the 40s, however, and the patriotic talk, while certainly inspiring on one level, also seems somewhat like hollow rhetoric on another. More than anything, I believe it is this rhetoric combined with the eerie resonance of the whole unable-to-trust-your-neighbor subplot that lends this film a somewhat unsettled atmosphere to today’s viewers.