Tuesday, August 30, 2011

She Done Him Wrong

1933, US, directed by Lowell Sherman

I had only seen a handful of Mae West clips before She Done Him Wrong, all of them showcasing her brassy way with a one-liner and her unique vocal style, so the full-length film came as something of a surprise. Billed as a comedy, and certainly treated as such by the critics, it nonetheless features Mae in a role that flirts with the textbook definition of a sociopath: she's remorseless, self-absorbed, exaggeratedly promiscuous, and with apparently nary a care about the fate of her fellow man or woman. While her va-va-voom charms are amusingly in-your-face, there's a pitiless side to her character that's entirely without humor, and which only deepens as the film progresses, most obviously in a sequence where she tosses off a song after a violent death.

I wondered afterwards if West's reputation has remained so strong because later generations were simply able to see her films while many other strong women characters were suppressed by the strictures of the Production Code; now that so many other Pre-Code films are back in circulation, Mae's persona doesn't seem quite as unique when compared to, say, a Ruth Chatterton or a Barbara Stanwyck, to give but two examples. She's still a fascinating character, though not necessarily in a comic sense.

After enjoying Matt Moore's turn in Rain, it was nice to see his big brother, and bigger silent screen star, Owen show up here as Mae's incarcerated boyfriend, although his part doesn't demand much in the way of subtlety.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Scream 2

1997, US, directed by Wes Craven

Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson do their best to have their cake and eat it, rushing a sequel into production to capitalize on the success of their first installment while decrying the vapidity of most sequels. While the self-referential tone works well in the early going, particularly in the amusing re-creation of Scream's tightly-wound opening, before long a grim air of repetition sets in, occasionally enlivened by an amusing cameo or a clever set-piece, such as that involving a soundproof glass booth from which a character can only watch helplessly as the killer methodically sets to work.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

The Italian Job

1969, UK, directed by Peter Collinson

I saw this years ago on television, and remembered only the extended chase scenes involving three colour-coordinated Minis, though half of the chase seems as much an excuse for automobile choreography as it is an actual escape attempt. By contrast, I had no recollection of the surprisingly lengthy preamble narrating a variety of Michael Caine escapades, nor of Noel Coward's royal-obsessed crime kingpin, who lives in the lap of luxury inside Her Majesty's prison bars. The cocky Cockney act is inevitably somewhat dated at this stage - there's finally some questioning of the romanticization of London's criminals, though these fellows are mostly of the non-violent type - but the chase sequence remains entertaining, and the cliffhanger ending, which I'd also forgotten, is impossible to imagine these days in a similar caper film.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Beauty and the Boss

1932, US, directed by Roy del Ruth

I half expect Warren William's name to appear in the credits as "Dastardly Warren William," for that was his modus operandi in the pre-Code years, and he plays to type here, dashing about from one woman to the next, hiring beauties to act as secretary while he auditions them for other roles, all the while opining about the role of women in the workplace. The film has a lot of fun with the different facets of his personality, never more so than in the scenes where he fires a woman with whom he's becoming infatuated only to turn, literally, on a dime to ask her out as soon as she's been fired - after all, she's no longer a subordinate, so where's the harm? Of course, the needs of drama demand that he meet his match, delivered here in the form of the mousy Marian Marsh, who undergoes a gradual makeover. There's not a shred of credibility to William's character as the film concludes - you never really want this rogue to reform - but the interplay between William and Marsh, each trying to put the other through their paces, is a frenetically enjoyable dance.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Judge Priest

1934, US, directed by John Ford

Judge Priest is a troubling and at times beguiling film: it weaves a captivating down-home atmosphere of 1890s Kentucky but the film's attitude to its black characters, even if rather better than most films of the period, leaves a puzzling taste, never more so in the scenes featuring Stepin Fetchit, an actor whose legacy still hasn't been adequately examined. While Fetchit profited from his career in movies, the price sometimes seemed rather high given his slow-witted, near-incomprehensible drawl and the overall portrait of sloth that reinforced so many (lazy) clichés. While Ford's film is perfectly happy to cast white characters in an unappealing light too - as country hicks, judgmental bigots, and so forth - the worst of the indignities do seem to be reserved for the black characters, not least when they are asked to break into a spirited rendition of "Dixie".

Elsewhere, though, Ford achieves a terrific sense of small-town place through the titular character, played by Will Rogers. The Judge is himself not averse to a spot of work-avoidance, and indeed that is the source of his bond with Fetchit's character, Jeff Poindexter, with whom he goes fishing. There's wonderful, wry comedy in the Judge's attempts to broker the peace both in the wider town and within his family: he's a political animal quick to spot others' weaknesses and vanities. The film's strongest sequence strips the Judge of his own vanities as he speaks in moving terms to his dead wife and child before turning in one evening; there's a moment where he touches their portrait, commenting on damage to the frame, that's heartbreakingly real, perfectly capturing the sense that this is just a brief extract from a much longer, if one-sided, conversation.

Friday, August 19, 2011

The Blue Lamp

1950, UK, directed by Basil Dearden

Although it's probably best remembered today as the (unlikely) progenitor of the long-running BBC serial Dixon of Dock Green, which featured the kindly bobby played by Jack Warner all the way to 1976 even though the plot here has him considering retirement, The Blue Lamp was a huge hit in 1950. It didn't do too well with the critics, though, who thought it compared rather unfavourably to American crime pictures, although I can't help thinking that this fails to pay much mind to the differences between the US circa 1950 and Britain in the same year, as well as implying that most American crime films of the period were gritty and hard-boiled (The Window, for instance, intersperses scenes of kindly, oblivious cops that make those of The Blue Lamp seem like relentless bloodhounds).

There's also some terrific location work that gives a vivid sense of several London corners, most obviously the scenes set at the dog track, long since dismantled by the wrecking ball, and it's nice to see someone other than John McCririck demonstrate traditional bookie hand signs. The sequences leading up to the climax recall Ozu's or Mizoguchi's use of desolate urban spaces, undermining the sense of the city as a vibrant, finished place.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Viva Riva!

2010, Democratic Republic of Congo/France/Belgium, directed by Djo Tunda Wa Munga

As much as I understand the motivations of the generation of African directors who came of age in the 1960s and 1970s, who consciously worked against Hollywood cinema in particular, it's hard to avoid the impression that there's something approaching a taboo around the idea of fun in the average film from the continent. That is, in some ways, testament to the continued influence of Ousmane Sembène, who took the view that cinema was an important educational tool, though that's not necessarily an unproblematic idea since most colonial administrations took exactly the same view, even if the intended lessons were somewhat different. While there have been notable earlier exceptions, Ça Twiste à Poponguine or Quartier Mozart to name two, the explosion of Nollywood cinema, often wildly, wilfully entertaining even when engaged in social commentary, often makes the festival-circuit filmmakers seem a little staid.

Viva Riva!, then, is the first film I've seen in quite some time to comprehensively overturn preconceptions about African cinema: as one writer commented, it's as though Tony Scott took his camera to Kinshasa and cooked up one of his over-heated extravaganzas on the banks of the Congo. That's true of both the film's strengths - frenetic pacing, a justifiable cynicism about everyone's motivations, wildly colorful characters - and its weaknesses, most obviously its sexual politics, which are a muddle of progressive attitudes and retrograde images, although the sexual frankness is refreshing for African cinema, sometimes notably coy about matters of the flesh. The opening section is perhaps the strongest of all, a brilliant montage that sets up a background of financial penury and criminal energy with no fuss and no dialogue, while also giving us an unfiltered glimpse of African street life without a hint of ethnography. Even if the rest of the film can't quite rise to that level, it's a wild ride capable of pointed commentary: the ending is a rather bleak commentary on the realities of Kinshasa life.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011


1932, US, directed by William J. Cowen

It might be easier to catalogue the ways in which Kongo doesn't offend against the (then still pretty toothless) Production Code. The film features prostitution, drug addiction, alcoholism, incest, torture, sadistic violence, widow-burning, mockery of religion, lascivious leering, and an all-around atmosphere of bone-weary seediness. The film is based on Chester Devonde's play, previously filmed by Tod Browning in 1928, and while I haven't seen the earlier version it's hard to believe that Browning, even with his penchant for the unusual, came up with anything quite so lurid: the atmosphere of moral and physical decay in deepest Africa is utterly unrelenting, making even a Kurtz figure seem relatively benign by comparison.

The film has plenty of rough edges, with several abrupt transitions in tone and characters who appear to be able to conquer their terrible demons of addiction in the cut from one scene to the next, but the overall atmosphere of ruin eats away at the viewer, while Walter Huston incarnates one of the most thoroughgoing screen villains I've encountered. He's a truly misbegotten character for whom even the film's brutal form of redemption seems insufficient in comparison with the outrages he has perpetrated up to the climax.

Even by the standards of 1930s Hollywood, the depiction of African characters is appalling, whether it's the casual use of names like "Fuzzy" or the venal motivations ascribed to virtually all of the African characters (who, of course, barely get any meaningful screen time). While some of the demeaning treatment of Africans is a reflection of the behaviour of Huston's character -- casually shooting a man in the back, for instance -- on other occasions the fault lies with the script (or perhaps the original play), such as the extended sequences which depict widow-burning, which appears to have been borrowed from India since it's at most a very isolated phenomenon in Africa.

Friday, August 12, 2011

11 Harrowhouse

1974, UK, directed by Aram Avakian

I'm following, yet again, in David Cairns's fine footsteps here. I was a little distracted initially by the intermittent plot similarities with the more recent Flawless - a diamond heist featuring an employee of the diamond company on the verge of retirement, American actors in prominent roles in a British setting - but 11 Harrowhouse ultimately occupies different territory, mostly because of Charles Grodin's voiceover, constantly commenting on and undercutting the onscreen action.

The effect is a little like watching a James Bond movie with a friend who provides a witty ongoing appraisal; it's not hard to imagine Grodin sitting right beside you, subverting the narrative, in which a couple of amateurs rather unexpectedly turn into note-perfect thieves. The point of films like Ocean's Eleven is that the thieves are skilled pros going about their work: those films are a celebration of the virtues of a job well done, whereas here the sheer unlikeliness of the transformation is what lends tension to the outcome, with inexperience threatening to trip the grand plan up. Although it's Grodin's smart underplaying that anchors the film, there are several fine turns from British thesps, too, most obviously James Mason, entirely convincing as a man on the verge of an unhappy retirement, though I also enjoyed John Gielgud's preeningly nasty performance.


1939, France, directed by Maurice Lehmann 

Maurice Lehmann was best known as a theatre director, and all of his four films were adaptations of stage plays, with three of the four involving Claude Autant-Lara as some form of co-director. Fric-Frac had a successful stage run in 1936, with both Michel Simon and Arletty reprising their roles from the original show, supplemented by Fernandel in all his toothy glory, perfectly cast as a naif. All three were established screen stars by 1939, and the interplay between the actors remains strikingly fresh even though the plotting sometimes feels rather forced.

The dialogue makes extensive use of le javanais, a Parisian argot that the film implies was the preserve of the criminal classes, although the characters are constantly translating their words for Fernandel's character, who's a respectable petit bourgeois with a couple of pals from the other side of the tracks. The interpretation, itself the subject of some repetitive jokes, tends to lessen the disorienting effects of the slang since nothing remains mysterious for very long.

While the performances are a delight - though I can only imagine the on-set clash of egos - the cinematic translation of the play isn't entirely successful: Lehmann and/or Autant-Lara elect to use close-ups and cuts at times when a medium shot featuring all of the characters would have better served the material, such as in a sequence when Arletty and Simon give contradictory messages to Fernandel's character before the eponymous break-in; instead of seeing the different expressions simultaneously, the directors cut from one face to the next in sequence, undermining the comedy value.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Rhodes of Africa

1936, UK, directed by Berthold Viertel

Although the film lays claim to a balanced portrayal of Rhodes (Walter Huston), mostly by making clear that he was a difficult man to like, single-minded and uninterested in opposing views, there's no real attempt to assess the man's actual impact and legacy in Africa: the film is so abbreviated that it mostly centers on a few personal relationships, jumping from one incident to the next over the years with little wider context, and implying that Rhodes laid claim to vast swathes of territory through sheer will (the film uses the term "superhuman" to describe its subject at one point).

It goes almost without saying that the film has essentially no interest in the impact of Rhodes's policies on Africans - the first African we meet is dismissed as untrustworthy, to be subjected to humiliations by his white bosses, and the only African character of any real note, Lobengula, the king of the Ndebele, is portrayed as a pathetic dupe, though the film doesn't linger over his fate or that of his people. There's marginally more interest in the Afrikaners, as represented by Paul Kruger (an arresting performance by Oscar Homolka), though the film implies he can be bought. Near the very end, Rhodes concedes that one African chief had the soul of a poet, given the man's choice of burial place; Rhodes's own similar final resting place comes across, then, as an act of intellectual theft...

As was the case for Sanders of the River, released the previous year, the film is split between studio sequences shot in Britain and location footage that is occasionally, and unconvincingly, patched together with the main players. The sections shot in Africa (based on the credits, they appear to have been filmed in Botswana and South Africa) are of some historical interest: these areas didn't appear onscreen much, and the mining and claim scrabble sequences give a fairly vivid sense of the realities of the mineral rushes of the period.

Sunday, August 07, 2011


1996, US, directed by Wes Craven

Fifteen years later, after sequels, imitations and parodies, as well as the rise of an entirely new horror genre, it's hard to recall just what it was like to encounter Scream for the first time: like Halloween, it's as if the film is simultaneously unpicking both the teen horror film and its own deconstruction of that genre as it unspools. Although the tone is mostly light-hearted, playing with our knowledge of cinema convention by luring our attention to the corner of the screen or setting up what seem to be obvious boo moments before going in other directions, the filmmakers are still focused on delivering scares, though not necessarily with what's onscreen. After all, they even undercut the visual power of the bloody imagery by mentioning that movie gore is just red corn syrup, and so keep us off balance instead with constant changes in sound volume: I was particularly conscious of this with a young child sleeping elsewhere in the house as the volume suddenly jumped to deliver a thrill; the effect must have been much greater in a packed cinema in 1996.

Friday, August 05, 2011


1932, US, directed by Howard Hawks

I won't try to add much to the wealth already written about Howard Hawks's film, a truly pared-down piece which charts the rise and fall of Tony Camonte (Paul Muni) as he marches relentlessly toward his inevitable end, the film discarding characters left and right without regard to potential audience sympathies. It's that single-mindedness that lingered most in my mind: even the apparent asides, such as the scenes in Camonte's parental home or the bits of comedy with his dim-witted assistant - not that Camonte himself is over-endowed with more than brutish intelligence - are ultimately germane to the outcome, with the comedy reversed to grim effect.

Although I've never cared for Brian De Palma's overblown 1983 version of the same tale, not least because Al Pacino's performance so unbalances even that most shrill of films, I better understood where it was coming from: Pacino's character, if not necessarily his performance, seems much closer in spirit to his 1930s predecessor than I originally realized, both men thuggishly single-minded and entirely oblivious to the likely consequences of their destructive behaviour. Paul Muni's brooding performance embodies a kind of Mr. Hyde character, all id with no sense of consequences; indeed, the characterization might have emerged from a 1930s horror movie as much as from the crime headlines. Ann Dvorak's performance, by contrast, seems to come from a later generation: there's a heart-rending authenticity to her fear and anger, far removed from the stylized screams of a Fay Wray.

(I was particularly amused by the scene where one of Camonte's underlings reveals the ending of the play, and 1928 film, Sadie Hawkins, particularly since Lewis Milestone's reworking of the story, entitled Rain, was in production right around the time that Scarface was released in early 1932.)

Wednesday, August 03, 2011


1932, US, directed by Lewis Milestone

Drawn from a stage play, and previously filmed in 1928 under the original title of Sadie Hawkins, Lewis Milestone's version retains a sense of the material's origins notwithstanding his occasional attempts to "open up" the material with brief forays to the outside world: the overwhelming majority of the film takes place in a creaky store/bar/boarding house that functions as a refuge from the driving monsoon of Pago Pago.

Indeed, apart from a few sections of "documentary" background which don't feature the main players, almost all of the action transpires on the ground floor or its various verandahs; Milestone makes use of crane shots and a surprisingly mobile camera to give the action a more cinematic profile. An early shot that circles around the cast, and the room, is repeated to comic effect a short time later, although those attention-getting flourishes are gradually de-emphasized as the darker heart of the story emerges in a confrontation between Sadie (Joan Crawford), a prostitute in search of a new life, and an inflexible man of God, the Reverend Davidson (Walter Huston), who sees Sadie as either a conversion project or an evil that must be cast out.

The pre-Code elements of the film aren't hard to find. Davidson is explicitly likened to a witch doctor by a perceptive local woman, and as the film progresses his maniacal tendencies become ever deeper, with Milestone shooting Huston such that his eyes are barely visible, a frightening character who might have wandered in from a Universal horror film of the period rather than from the pulpit. Although the character lacks much in the way of nuance, it's not hard to imagine how effective a stage actor Walter Huston must have been: a key scene where he declaims, over and over, the Lord's Prayer, is mesmerizing in its effect (within the film and for the viewer). Joan Crawford is allowed a degree more subtlety, her character struggling with a variety of choices for her future, although she's much more compelling when Sadie's in zesty flow with a string of men following in her wake (not unlike her turn in the same year's Letty Lynton). Sadie's comprehensive turnaround under the brow-beating of the preacher never seems entirely credible given her earlier brash self-confidence.

I was most taken with actor Matt Moore, given his unmistakable Irish accent; his character, a doctor who's a kind of counterweight to Huston's preacher, is a thoroughly decent, open-minded man. Despite his origins, I'd never heard of Moore, but he and his siblings Owen (Mary Pickford's first husband), Tom, Joe, and Mary formed quite the silent-era acting dynasty, with hundreds of screen credits between them - Meath's biggest Hollywood exports until Pierce Brosnan. Although Matt had a very healthy career in the silent era, with numerous lead roles, by the early 1930s his parts were getting smaller, and he's uncredited for most of his final two decades onscreen. He turns in a fine character performance here, sympathetic and humane in his dealings with Sadie, and authentic enough that I briefly wondered if he was an actual doctor.


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Boston, Massachusetts, United States