Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Window

1949, US, directed by Ted Tetzlaff

My film-watching has been significantly curtailed since our son was born six months ago, and although I've still succeeded in seeing some fascinating movies in that period, this was the first title that made me wonder what it will be like to sit down with Shay when he's older and introduce him to one of my own passions. I'm sure that this idea came to mind partly because The Window centers on a child - the film is hardly a model of a fine father-son relationship, or at least not the kind I aspire to - but perhaps also because it triggered such strong memories of Twelve Angry Men, a film I first saw in the company of my own father, when I was no older than the protagonist of The Window.

Although not confined to a claustrophobic room, The Window is another fine entry in the sweltering New York genre, with a key scene in which someone may have witnessed a murder on a hot, sweaty city night. If Bobby Driscoll, remains a little too winsome at this stage of his career for the gritty setting, the film still captures an authentic whiff of New York air, from the establishing shots that showcase long-changed parts of the city, to the anonymity that allows one's upstairs neighbor to engage, unnoticed, in casual criminality. There's also a real tension in the climactic scenes, despite one's suspicions as to the likely outcome, with Tetzlaff making fine use of a location (or set) in an abandoned building, filled with hazards and hiding places.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Doctor X

1932, US, directed by Michael Curtiz

This gig must have been a set designer's dream: the lab sections in Doctor Xavier's research institute have the expected retorts and bubbling flasks, but even his library is impressive, the shelves stretching up to the high ceiling, while Doctor Xavier's home on Long Island is a veritable gothic gallery, filled with bizarre scientific equipment.
Both locations allow Michael Curtiz ample room for the use of expressionistic shadows to create an atmosphere of dread, with every element of the house in particular becoming a threat at times, although Curtiz also makes effective use of sound, whether it's the teacup trembling in a terrified maid's hand or the pervasive, grating sound effects as the film reaches its climax. I don't know what the two-strip Technicolor effects would have looked like to a contemporary audience but in the version I saw, they contribute effectively to the off-kilter feel of the film, particularly in the lab sequences, with unexpected textures and flashes of colour.

Unfortunately, the overall mood is frequently thrown into reverse by Lee Tracy as the comic relief; it's hardly the actor's fault, but his fast-talking, double-taking newspaperman seems to have drifted in from a different film entirely (perhaps Blessed Event, given his character's approach to journalistic ethics). The various professorial types, by contrast, are a terrific gallery of creepy character acting, one more suspicious than the last, although the actual murderer isn't hard to discern, and indeed the plotting only makes the outcome more apparent.
Although the X in the background here during Lee Tracy's explorations of the old dark house might seem to be a reference to the eponymous doctor, I couldn't help but wonder whether it was in fact a discreet tip of the hat to Howard Hawks's Scarface, which came out during the filming of Doctor X; the symbol disappears when the camera cuts back to this perspective a few seconds later (the reference, if that is indeed the intention, is a little more subtle than Martin Scorsese's tribute to the Hawks film).

Friday, July 15, 2011

The Kennel Murder Case

1933, US, directed by Michael Curtiz

William Powell made three earlier appearances as Philo Vance for Paramount, but this fourth outing for Warners seems to have been a significant step up in terms of the man behind the camera; Frank Tuttle, who sat in the director's chair for the initial trio of films, seems to have been almost completely forgotten by film history. In addition to a modicum of his usual shadowplay, Michael Curtiz employs whip pans to signal movement both in time and space, a neat way to move the action forward and around in what's a typically crowded 1930s narrative (perhaps a touch overcrowded: the death of a dog remains somewhat mystifying, while a scene where Vance just happens to have detailed models of the murder scene is entirely unexplained), but his most striking touch is the use of a subjective camera to detail the murderer's exploits, a very early use of a technique that cropped up occasionally in the early sound years but which really came into its own after John Carpenter's Halloween.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Big Deal on Madonna Street

1958, Italy, directed by Mario Monicelli (original title I soliti ignoti)

Although it has an exceptional cast - Gassman! Mastroianni! Cardinale! - perhaps the producers weren't confident that their largely nascent stars had what it took to make the film a success, since the early posters for the film featured Totò misleadingly front and center. The older comic's role is rather small but Monicelli introduces him in clever fashion, hiding him in the centre of a scene and then gradually revealing him such that you suddenly realize he's been there all along, cloaked in darkness.

Perhaps Monicelli's greatest trick here is to combine a treasurable series of character portraits with the relentlessly downward spiral of his narrative, in which a grandiose robbery is transformed into farce; everything that could go wrong does go wrong, and a little more to boot. Those broad-brush portraits employ and dissect more or less every Italian stereotype - snobby northerners, cunning Neapolitans, pathologically jealous Sicilians - around, suggesting that somehow that a rather motley collection of individuals is capable of collaborating in some loose collective endeavour, albeit with plenty of mistakes along the way. It's not hard to discern therein that a commentary on the state of recovering post-war Italy, or rather an undercutting of the public success story with a counter-narrative of muddling through; that commentary is worn lightly, though, in a film that so adeptly creates an atmosphere of impending comic disaster.

Friday, July 08, 2011

Siamo Uomini O Caporali

1953, Italy, directed by Camillo Mastrocinque

My sister-in-law is from a small town near Naples, and when we travelled to the wedding I thought some research on that most iconic of Neapolitan film performers, Totò, was in order. I dragged my indulgent wife around an absurd number of shops in search of Totò DVDs only to find that very few of his films have English subtitles; I couldn't find any subtitled fare from before the early 1950s, and the few films I did find seemed, for the most part, like second-string affairs.

Siamo uomini o caporali ("Are We Men or Corporals?") was written by Totò, too, under his real name or an abbreviation thereof since he had noble origins, with the multiple names such afflictions entail. It's a sort of loose sketch film, framed by an extended interview in a doctor's office in which Totò, very much in Little Tramp-ish mode, expounds on his philosophy that men can be divided into two groups, the eponymous men and corporals, before narrating several instances in which he came into contact with such corporals.

The first section deals with Totò's wartime adventures in a German-run camp, and it's not hard to discern a somewhat queasy foreshadowing of Roberto Benigni's Life is Beautiful, with Totò's camp experience the background for a burgeoning romance, and a spoof of Nazi medical experimentation that seems distinctly unamusing. The subsequent sequences, particularly those which undermine the image of a beneficent American military, are stronger, although the overdubbing of the "American" characters, a standard Italian practice of the period, is distractingly poor.

Although director Camillo Mastrocinque worked frequently with Totò, he doesn't always seem to appreciate what he has on his hands: one of Totò's great strengths is his way with words, and he delivers a terrific near-soliloquy early on in the doctor's office, but Mastrocinque constantly undermines the performance by cutting away for reaction shots. Later, he has the good sense the to keep the camera squarely on his star even when engaged in conversation with another actor, for it's Totò's actions and reactions that make the scene.


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Most of the images here are either studio publicity stills or screen captures I've made myself; if I've taken your image without giving you credit, please let me know.

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Boston, Massachusetts, United States