Movies Are My Wife

Married to the Movies — Mdino's Blog

THE BICYCLE THIEF (1948)

The simplicity of most cinematic realist movements has always been deceptive. From the Italian neo-realists of the 1940s to the British “angry young man” or “kitchen sink” school and the Brazilian “cinema novo” or “new cinema” approach of the 1960s, there has been an overriding concern with the lives of ordinary people at the expense of what many feel are the contrivances of Hollywood plotting and technique. But this austerity has not muted the power of many of the works created by the immensely talented filmmakers involved. Of course, the Brazilian directors (especially Glauber Rocha) were heavily influenced by Godard, which often led to a more flamboyant visual and structural filmmaking, but with the same commitment to the “class struggle.” No film successfully conveyed the trials of the ordinary man more than Italy’s THE BICYCLE THIEF (1948), a most moving collaboration between director Vittorio de Sica and the film’s main screenwriter, Cesaré Zavattini. Enacted by a cast of non professionals and shot on location in the streets of Rome among that city’s impoverished denizens, this simple film is of grand historic significance. It inspired most of the movements and filmmakers mentioned above and remains a fitting testament to the all-encompassing reach of the human spirit.

Family man Antonio Ricci (Lamberto Maggiorani) is lucky enough to get a job in a world where such things are hard to attain. All he needs to start work as a poster hanger is a bicycle to get around the big city. However, he had pawned his bike to feed his family just days before landing the coveted employment. His wife Maria (Leanella Carell) takes the family bedclothes to the same pawn shop in order to obtain enough money to get the bike out of hock. The bicycle now in his possession, Antonio proudly starts work the next morning. While he is busy hanging a movie poster (of Rita Hayworth – a startling contrast to his drab life) a young man makes off with Antonio’s only means of transportation. But not before he snares a good look at the culprit. Since lack of action would mean both the loss of his cherished job and the end of his ability to feed his family, Antonio, accompanied by his young son, Bruno (Enzo Staiola), sets off on an epic quest to find his stolen bike.

Antonio’s pride in his new job is illustrated with a few master strokes. At first he cannot believe his luck. “My God, a job!” he exclaims upon first learning of his good fortune. He is overjoyed that all employees of the poster company have their own lockers. Pointing his out to Maria, he says “see how big it is!” and follows this with “and there’s the overtime!” He is especially impressed with the uniform, particularly the cap. He informs Maria that he has found her work as well: She will have to take in the cap which is slightly too large. Antonio’s boss is just as excited, telling the new employee on his first day “See, Ricci, to do this job you must be very intelligent, have a good eye and work fast!”

These are concrete traits of which a man can truly boast, and Antonio likes to think of himself as firmly grounded in reality. When Maria visits a Psychic (Ida Bracci Dorati) to thank her for providing her family with hope, Antonio scoffs at what he calls “nonsense…stupidity.” And he is no friendlier towards organized religion. He and Bruno encounter an old man who may be able to lead them to the thief, but the elderly gent wanting no part of it, escapes to a mission, followed by father and son. Once inside, Antonio is approached by a woman who gives him a Bible tract. Without even looking at it, he crumples it up and discards it on the floor. There is only time for the here and now – the problem at hand.

Like many Italians before and since, Antonio distrusts authority and especially the police. Maria tells him he resembles a “cop” when he first places the cap on his head. He pretends to slap and rough her up over this insult, before planting a gentle kiss on her. The feigned anger is just a joke on Antonio’s part, but this is also a telling moment, as we often speak truths when kidding around. And cops are everywhere in the film, playing prominent roles throughout. Most interestingly, on a couple of occasions as Antonio threatens to call a policeman when someone impedes his search. Threatening a person with arrest is an acceptable action when things don’t go our way – even in a society unfriendly to the police. And the depictions of the police here are often harsh, such as when Antonio reports the theft to the police chief and receives treatment that is brutish at best. The chief tells him directly to “look for it yourself”, explaining he has more important things on his plate. “Nothing, just a bicycle”, he tells another cop who enquires about the case. Almost as ubiquitous as the police are the children that inhabit the landscape of post-war Italy. In any society, children are the most cruelly afflicted with the circumstances of that world. The child who plays an accordion as Antonio is given a lesson in poster hanging, is chased away by the novice’s boss. Antonio’s own son means the world to him, yet this central relationship is not without blemishes, as we see when Bruno is told to “shut up” by his Father, who even slaps the boy at one point. This child – at once so precious and vulnerable yet so worldly – is the kind of child produced by years of a war fought in his own land. He complains that the pawn shop may have dented the bike: “Who knows how they take care of them. They don’t pay for the repairs.” Later, when the search begins, it is Bruno who knows the exact make of the bike and the frame number. This information comes in handy when Antonio’s friend Baiocco (Gino Saltamerenda) tells them the bike has almost certainly been dismantled for sale on the black market. Baiocco takes the pair to an outdoor bazaar of sorts, where such items are sold. As Antonio walks along countless rows of tables, perusing hundreds of gears, chains, wheels and tires, we feel as though his life has been dismantled and scattered before him in pieces. But Antonio and Bruno must be strong for each other.

When Antonio and his son finally encounter the teen-aged thief, they harass him until he suffers an epileptic seizure. There is an icy irony in that this sickly youth may need the bicycle even more than Antonio. “Instead of insults, you should give my boy a job!” his Mother cries. Chased away by the thief’s neighbors, Antonio is left in an even more desperate state. It is here that we discover the meaning of the film’s original Italian title: BICYCLE THIEVES. As Antonio and Bruno sit dejected on a curb outside a soccer stadium, and endless sea of bicycles speed past them. Accompanied by the sounds of the soccer fans roaring their approval, Antonio gives into temptation and, after sending Bruno home, steals a bike parked down the street. The owner, his friends and several others, chase the second of the film’s bicycle thieves, finally catching him as Bruno (who was too late for the streetcar) sobs “Papa.” In another moment of irony, the owner shows more compassion than Antonio had shown the first thief. “Be thankful he didn’t have you arrested” one man remarks. A second bystander then delivers the film’s final line and, perhaps, its ultimate message: “And you can thank God.” We are left to wonder if Antonio will take the man’s advice. Realizing his son has witnessed the entire degrading incident, Antonio joins hands with Bruno. Both close to tears, they walk home disappearing into the crowd.

THE BICYCLE THIEF is a quintessential example of a fortunate meeting of minds. In this case the Christian Vittorio de Sica and the Marxist Cesaré Zavattini, frequent collaborators. Marxism is represented by the film’s preoccupation with class struggles and Christianity finds its ultimate expression in its theme of forgiveness and brotherly compassion. After sixty-five years these concerns have never been more simply or beautifully depicted in film.

CREDITS: Produced by Giuseppe Amato. Directed by Vittorio de Sica. Written by Cesaré Zavattini, Vittorio de Sica, Suso D’Amico, Oreste Biancoli, Adolfo Franci and Gerardo Guerrieri. Based on the novel by Luigi Bartolini. Photographed by Carlo Montuori. Edited by Eraldo Da Roma. Art Direction by Antonio Traverso. Music by Alessandro Cicognini. WITH: Lamberto Maggiorani, Enzo Staiola, Lianella Carell, Gino Saltamerenda, Vittorio Antonucci and Ida Bracci Dorati.

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September 18, 2013 Posted by | 1940s cinema, film directors, ITALIAN CINEMA, neo-realism, screenwriters | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER (1941)

You would never know from watching it, but the screenplay for THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER (1941) was written by two of the men who penned CASABLANCA (1942). That was the job of a good studio contract writer – to adapt to your material and serve the producer, while working in a number of genres and styles. The scenarists in question – brothers Philip and Julius Epstein – were as skillful at the task as anyone during the golden age of the Hollywood studio system. With films like ARSENIC AND OLD LACE (1944) and MR. SKEFFINGTON (also 1944), the team more than proved their mettle. Also a fine example of a studio employee was the film’s director, William Keighley. Making films in a breathtaking variety of genres, he frequently displayed a smooth, elegant technique, rewarding to audiences. But he was no “auteur”. He never developed a personal vision like Ford or Hitchcock and was content with serving his studio bosses – men such as Hal Wallis, production executive at Warner Brothers for many years, and executive producer of THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER, a near perfect example of studio run efficiency. All the various departments (acting, producing, writing, directing, photography, art, music and editing) work together to create a delightful unified whole. It may have been an assembly line, but it produced a number of Cadillacs.

As part of an effort to garner support for his lecture series, Sheridan Whiteside (Monty Woolley), a famous writer and critic, agrees to have dinner at the home of the Stanleys, an Ohio family made up of Father Ernest (Grant Mitchell), Mother Daisy (Billie Burke), daughter June (Elizabeth Fraser) and son Richard (Russell Aims). The incredibly snooty and rude Whiteside insults Mr. and Mrs. Stanley when they meet him at the train station, proving how boorish east coast snobs can be when dealing with the denizens of “fly over” country. It is enough to make you believe in Karma when the elitist boob slips on the icy steps of the Stanley home, fracturing his hip. But it is the host family doing most of the suffering when they are stuck with Whiteside as a most unpleasant house guest during his convalescence.

Whiteside’s personality is skillfully illustrated from the very start with a few colorful stokes. At the station, an awestruck Mrs. Stanley asks him two questions: How was his trip and will he indeed be having dinner with her family? His reply to the first query? “Charming. I killed a woman in the next compartment. She asked me to lunch!” This after he pretends to be a Frenchmen in order to avoid speaking to them. His secretary, Maggie (Bette Davis) sums things up to him succinctly: “You have one advantage over everybody else in the world. You never had to meet Mr. Sheridan Whiteside!” But there is a hint of thawing to come in his handsome tipping of a black porter.

Whiteside’s inflated view of himself is seconded by many of his hangers-on in the show business, newspaper, literary and political worlds. Even Winston Churchill calls to wish him well, causing Mrs. Stanley to gush “Winston Churchill – on our telephone!” But even his most committed fans joke about his influence. A line in a newspaper article about his accident reads “Christmas may be postponed this year!”

Once hunkered down in his new digs, Whiteside refers to the Stanley home as a “moldy mortuary” and the elegant library he will be working in as a “drafty sewer.” The joke here is that this home is actually a lush mansion, as Mr. Stanley runs a successful munitions factory. Whiteside cordons off parts of the house for his own use and demands that the family members come and go by the back entrance. All of this serves the purpose of making his gradual warming more tantalizing, and for this reason THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER is set during a particularly nasty and frigid mid-western winter. When Whiteside is drawn into the lives of aspiring photographer Richard and love-sick June and her beau Sandy (Charles Drake) the setting is the plush living room next to an inviting fireplace and its cozy, comfortable fire. This imagery is offset by the depiction of a world seemingly cloaked in ice. Whiteside’s close friend – visiting actress Lorraine Sheldon (Ann Sheridan) – even covers herself with “ice” (read that jewelry) and sports a snowflake broach. She is in town – at the behest of Whiteside – to foil Maggie’s intention of marrying hunky newspaperman and playwright Bert Jefferson (Richard Travis). It seems Maggie has plans to abandon her old boss and dedicate herself to her new husband, if she can snag him. Lorraine’s mission is to preoccupy Bert with plans to produce his new play and keep his mind off of Maggie.

For all its humor, the film contains a remarkably dark view of marriage: When Bert takes Maggie to the Railway Express Agency to pick up a yuletide gift he has purchased for her, there is an unusual conversation with the man at the mail center. He is gifting his wife with a pipe this Holiday season. Says Bert: “That’s not very sensible.” The man replies, “It’s as sensible as the vacuum cleaner she’s giving me!” There is more of this cynicism, as it happens that Bert’s gift is a charm bracelet made up of previously sold trinkets and engraved with the sentiments of long forgotten lovers from the past. These begin well enough with “a fair lady” but end on what Maggie and Bert agree is a pretty grim note: “iron bars a cage.” Eventually this dark view extends to all family life, including a macabre aside involving Ernest’s crazy sister Harriet (Ruth Vivian) who, it turns out, murdered her parents with an ax a quarter of a century earlier.

There are many in jokes on hand for pop culture enthusiasts of that long ago era, as well as those of today who may have a historical bent. First, the character of Sheridan Whiteside is patterned after Alexander Woollcott, a well-known crusty malcontent columnist and critic. Whiteside’s friends, Beverly Carlton (Reginald Gardiner) and “Banjo” (Jimmy Durante) represent Noel Coward and Harpo Marx respectively. These little touches add a delicious layer to THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER. As one who has not seen the play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, it is difficult to know where Kaufman/Hart leave off and the Epstein brothers begin. One thing is clear: These were four talented guys involved in a studio system that has often been maligned, but at its best produced some of the most entertaining movies ever made.

CREDITS: Produced by Jack Saper and Jerry Wald. Directed by William Keighley. Written by Philip G. and Julius J. Epstein. Based on the play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart. Photography by Tony Gaudio. Music by Frederick Hollander. Edited by Jack Killifer. Art direction by Robert Haas. WITH: Monty Woolley, Bette Davis, Ann Sheridan, Grant Mitchell, Billie Burke, Richard Travis, Elizabeth Fraser, Russell Arms, Reginald Gardiner, Jimmy Durante, Ruth Vivian, Mary Wickes, Edwin Stanley, Betty Roadman, Charles Drake, George Barbier, Nanette Vallon and John Ridgely.

September 11, 2013 Posted by | 1940s cinema, American Films of the 1940s, film comedy, film directors, films based on plays, screenwriters | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

THE BIG SLEEP (1946)

THE BIG SLEEP (1946) isn’t the best film noir ever made, but it certainly is one of the funniest. The Howard Hawks production based on the Raymond Chandler novel is stuffed with hilarious one liners and near perfect performances – especially from Humphrey Bogart as iconic detective Phillip Marlowe. Bogart and co-star Lauren Bacall had previously teamed up with Hawks to creat TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT (1944), and that film was so successful they decided to collaborate once again. Good idea… For the most part. THE BIG SLEEP is an exciting breakneck ride with a labyrinth plot that causes the head to spin – perhaps a bit too much. For this is not so much a feeling of vertigo with all its inherent, though strange, pleasures, but more of an outright confusion, relieved by the laughs, excitement and romantic subplot. This confusion seems to have its roots in Chandler’s book, rather than in the screenplay by William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett and Jules Furthman. As they adapted the novel, Hawks and his team were lost as to the identity of one of the murderers. When they contacted Chandler to find out who killed the chauffeur, they were amazed to discover that the original author himself had no idea!

Private Detective Phillip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) is called to the home of “General” Sternwood (Charles Waldron) an elderly and sickly millionaire who lives with his two daughters, the teenaged Carmen (Martha Vickers) and her older sister Vivian (Lauren Bacall). Carmen is being blackmailed by a man named Geiger and the General wants to get to the bottom of it. Also of concern to the General is the disappearance of his friend and former employee Sean Regan. Marlowe’s investigation leads to a string of murders and an ever contorted plot and – at last – true love with Vivian.

Things happen so fast in THE BIG SLEEP, and with such increasing incoherence, that we soon decide the best thing to do is laugh when we can and enjoy the carnage. But there are also clever asides to a sort of playful thematic development. The General meets with Marlowe in a greenhouse where the detective sweats it out as the old man sits in a wheelchair under layers of blankets. Says the General “It’s too hot in here for any man who has any blood in his veins.” The elderly coot’s iciness runs through his entire family – especially Carmen. The greenhouse which wildly sprouts all manner of exotic plants and flowers is like a petri dish – as is the entire Sternwood home. Some wild things grow there! If in true noir fashion the women are especially wild, there is also an exotic aura surrounding the feminine mystique as depicted in the film. Geiger’s cottage is decorated with statues and figurines of female nudes and a large head of a Hindu goddess, which conceals a hidden camera. Everything about women is subterfuge in THE BIG SLEEP, and when Carmen is revealed as a murderer it seems totally logical.

There is also a subtle but elegant highlighting of pairs in the film. The opening credits end with a shot of two burning cigarettes resting in an ashtray – a foreshadowing of the Marlowe, Vivian hook up. When Marlowe leaves Eddie Mars’ (John Ridgely) gambling den, he is met simultaneously by two cigarette girls both there to deliver the news that Eddie’s good friend and frequent customer, Vivian, wishes to speak with him. The young girls at first stumble over each other’s words then share a laugh with Marlowe over the awkwardness of the situation. During the course of the movie Marlowe is beaten up twice – first by two thugs in an alley – then by a different pair of brutes in an auto repair barn. The film ends as it began – with a close-up of two cigarettes smoldering sensuously in an ash tray.

But the thing most people remember about THE BIG SLEEP is the dialogue – especially the banter between Marlowe and the film’s many femmes fatales. Vivian: “You’re a mess, aren’t you?” Marlowe: “I’m not very tall either. Next time I’ll come on stilts, wear a white tie, and carry a tennis racket.” Or try this exchange as they discuss sex in terms that satisfy the censor by using horse racing euphemisms. Marlowe: “I can’t tell until I see you over a distance of ground. You’ve got a touch of class but I don’t know how far you can go.” Vivian: “A lot depends on whose in the saddle!” Or this hilarious wower as a tied down Marlowe expresses concern about the imminent return of an infamous gangster: “He’ll beat my teeth out then kick me in the stomach for mumbling.”

Howard Hawks was one of the most versatile directors in Hollywood history. From the mid twenties until 1970’s RIO LOBO, Hawks mastered every imaginable genre. There were gangster films (SCARFACE), screwball comedies (BRINGING UP BABY), thrillers (THE BIG SLEEP), westerns (RED RIVER being the best remembered) and musicals (GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDS). He even directed parts of a low-budget horror film (THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD – which he also produced) going uncredited for his work in that capacity. Hawks was not a stylistic virtuoso like Hitchcock or Orson Welles. His was a more subtle approach letting the actors and the scripts (on which he frequently collaborated) shine. But he was an innovator: During the 1930s he helped develop the use of overlapping dialogue several years before CITIZEN KANE. Above all he was a storyteller. And spellbinding stories they were – and remain to this day. With the exception of SCARFACE and its dated star performance by Paul Muni, Hawks’ films seem as fresh and potent today as the day they premiered. A fact of which any director could be proud.

CREDITS: Produced by Howard Hawks. Directed by Howard Hawks. Written by William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett and Jules Furthman. Based on the novel by Raymond Chandler. Photographed by Sid Hickox. Art Direction by Carl Weyl. Edited by Christian Nyby (who also directed most of THE THING). Music by Max Steiner. WITH: Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Martha Vickers, John Ridgely, Dorothy Malone, Charles Waldron, Elisha Cooke Jr., Bob Steele, Regis Toomey and Louis Heydt.

August 7, 2013 Posted by | 1940s cinema, film directors, film drama, film noir | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

HIS GIRL FRIDAY (1940)

Howard Hawks’ production of HIS GIRL FRIDAY (1940) is a slap happy mixture of 1930s screwball comedy and a Warner Brothers social conscience film from the same decade. It also looks forward to the social realist dramas of the late 40s and early 50s. The film is a remake of Lewis Milestone’s THE FRONT PAGE (1931) utilizing one of the screenwriters of that film, Charles Lederer. Both films were based on the play “The Front Page” by Charles MacArthur and Ben Hecht. HIS GIRL FRIDAY underwent some gender bending, changing the main character of “Hildy Johnson” into a beautiful woman, and transforming the film – in a roundabout way – into a different sort of love story than the one originally envisioned.

In HIS GIRL FRIDAY Walter Burns (Cary Grant), a morally corrupt newspaper editor, wants his ex-wife and former ace reporter, Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell) to come back to work for his paper. Burns – for the purpose of selling papers – has taken up the cause of Earl Williams (John Qualen) who is about to be executed for the murder of a cop. He may or may not be innocent by reason of insanity. Hildy was Burns’ best writer, and he is convinced her writing skills will get Williams the reprieve he desperately needs. And Burns desperately needs the reprieve – you guessed it – to sell more papers.

The gender bending of HIS GIRL FRIDAY goes beyond the switcheroo with the main character. Walter Burns constantly refers to Hildy in masculine terms. When trying to convince her to come back to work for him, he implores “You’re a newspaperman!” Since Burns claims he was drunk when he proposed marriage, he scolds her for accepting with “If you’d have been a gentlemen you’d have forgotten all about it!” Hildy is engaged to Bruce Baldwin (Ralph Bellamy) because he treats her “like a woman” and says sappy things such as “Even ten minutes is a long time to be away from you.” She eats it up. Though Burns gives her the “one of the guys” treatment most of the time, he is not above occasionally treating her like a child, inviting her to sit on his knee after delivering this loo loo: “Theres’s a lamp burning in a window for you, right here.” Refusing, she responds with “I jumped out that window a long time ago.”

Though she seems to desire the delicate female treatment, a hint of her inner fire is displayed in lines such as the above (which also prefigures a suicide leap by a secondary character) and also in her wardrobe. Throughout the film she wears bold striped designs while her ex-husband is seen in conservative grey suits. And her husband to be is a buttoned down guy as well – an insurance salesman who is looked down upon by her ex. In fact Bruce is viewed by Burns as so milquetoast that the editor grabs the handle of the insurance man’s umbrella, shaking it instead of his hand, on their first meeting. The umbrella, like the goloshes he wears, signify to Burns (and us) that Bruce is a bit of a sissy, who doesn’t fully exist without the conveniences of modern life. And he may be right about the whimp factor. When the three principles go to dinner, Bruce (who is not paying attention) accidentally sits in Burns’ lap! And Bruce is mixed up in other ways: When defending his profession, he ridiculously states “We don’t help people much when they’re alive – but when they’re dead – that’s what counts!” Even stranger, Bruce plans to take his mother on the couple’s honeymoon and he and Hildy intend to live with Mother after the nuptials.

The cynicism about the insurance industry is mild compared to what the filmmakers unleash on the newspaper business. Before and after taking the job (Burns buys a hefty life insurance policy in order to persuade her) Hildy makes clear her distaste for her profession. When her fellow reporters fabricate salacious stories about Molly Malloy (Helen Mack) and Earl Williams (she brought flowers to his cell after being touched by his plight) Molly bursts into tears, shouting “They’re not even human!” Hildy responds with “I know, they’re newspaper men!” Perhaps Hildy’s disgust at being treated like a man stems from the fact that all the reporters she has encountered throughout her career happen to be men. As the Earl Williams story progresses she is more and more seduced by her old life and career and becomes much more like the man Burns has always admired. After Earl’s escape from the police station, with cops and everyone else in hot pursuit, she chases down the Warden (Pat West) and literally tackles him in the street to get the story. This is perhaps the funniest scene in the film and the one most evocative of 1930s screwball comedies, including Hawks’ own BRINGING UP BABY. On a darker order, gallows are being built outside the press room. The “Gentlemen of the press” as Hildy sarcastically calls them, are doing their best to see Williams hang. The symbolism is obvious.

And then there are the politicians…and the Doctors who analyze Williams for the state…and everyone else in the bureaucracy. They all come in for cynical dissection. The politicians manipulate Williams’ fate for their own political purposes, with the Governor (whom we never see) being a fan of “red menace” conspiracy theories and the Mayor (Clarence Kolb) issuing a “shoot to kill” order against Williams to further his reelection bid. The Sheriff (Gene Lockhart) announces excitedly “I have the tickets for the hanging here boys!” as he enters the press room, as though the state sponsored murder were a stage show. The Sheriff and Psychiatrist (Edwin Maxwell) discuss banalities in front of Earl Williams, ignoring him completely. When the poor man objects, the shrink offers a half-hearted apology:”I’m awfully sorry, Mr. Williams. I forgot you were there.”

There are countless witty touches and inside jokes scattered throughout the film. Feigning heartbreak (though he truly loves Hildy) Burns dabs at his eyes with a handkerchief saying “Maybe she’ll think of me after I’m gone”, then gently taps Bruce on the shoulder to make sure he will not miss this piece of finely tuned choreography. Near the end of the film Burns refers to a nefarious character named “Archie Leach”, which is Cary Grant’s real name.

Despite these light touches HIS GIRL FRIDAY remains a most cynical piece of film history. It is to newspaper professions what Billy Wilder’s SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950) is to the movie business. This is perhaps the reason Wilder himself chose to do yet a third version of the film in 1974, under the play’s original title. A fourth version – by the way – called SWITCHING CHANNELS was made in 1988 updating the story to the television era and using the gender make up of HIS GIRL FRIDAY.

CREDITS: Produced and Directed by Howard Hawks. Written by Charles Lederer. Based on the play THE FRONT PAGE by Charles MacArthur and Ben Hecht. Photography by Joseph Walker. Music by Sydney Cutner. Edited by Gene Havlik. WITH: Cary Grant, Rosalind Russell, Ralph Bellamy, Gene Lockhart, Clarence Kolb, John Qualen, Abner Biberman, Helen Mack, Ernest Truex, Cliff Edwards, Porter Hall, Roscoe Karns, Regis Toomey, Billy Gilbert, Pat West, Alma Kruger, Edwin Maxwell.

July 10, 2013 Posted by | 1940s cinema, film comedy, film directors, screenwriters | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CROSSFIRE (1947)

Last week’s film dealt with inter group tensions in a very slight way.  This week, I have decided to explore a movie that is along similar lines, but with some meat on its bones.  It is a sinewy film in every respect, about anti-Semitism, called CROSSFIRE.  Edward Dmytryk’s work from 1947 follows a group of soldiers, just home from war, who are involved (in various ways) in the beating death of a middle-aged Jewish man.  Montgomery or “Monty” (Robert Ryan) considers himself the alpha dog.  He viciously brow beats some of the other soldiers and anyone else he feels is beneath him – especially Jews.  Keeley (Robert Mitchum) is an intelligent, well read man with a cynical streak about the military.  Floyd (Steve Brodie) is a nervous sort, and this trait will eventually cost him his life.  Leroy (William Phipps) is a quiet Southern boy from Tennessee.  And there is Mitchell (George Cooper), a sensitive artist who was seen leaving a bar with the victim, Samuels (Sam Levene), and becomes the main suspect in his killing. Eventually Monty, Mitchell and Floyd wind up in Samuels’ apartment, where the former helps himself to the host’s liquor.  Soon all three soldiers are drunk, leading to the inevitable tragedy.  We suspect Monty – who calls Samuels “Jew boy” – right from the beginning and we are eventually proven correct.  An embittered police detective named Finlay (Robert Young) sets a trap for the arrogant creep with Leroy’s help, exonerating Mitchell. 

Among the many fascinating aspects of this incredibly moving and suspenseful film, is the way Dmytryk and screenwriter John Paxton play against audience’s expectations, smashing stereotypes.  Leroy, the southerner, is shown to be a caring individual and not the crazed bigot of so many Hollywood hot-house depictions of the South.  In fact, he himself is the victim of Monty’s ugliest taunts and it is especially satisfying when he helps bring the killer down.  The Jewish Samuels (given a special depth by Levene’s sensitive performance) is a man who can involve himself in Mitchell’s problems with loneliness, because he truly cares about the returning veteran.  He is an insightful, kind and cultured man whose apartment is adorned with small ceramic busts, perhaps of classical music composers.  He is anything but a Shylock, and makes the most enlightened statements of the film when he comments on the pent-up hatred of so many soldiers after fighting a war against hate, and no longer having an outlet for their anger.  This frustration is a central theme of the film and finds its expression in the constant drinking depicted, slowly burning cigarettes, a coffee pot boiling over and in a most ferocious act of violence – the brutal murder of a man who only wanted to help.  This Jewish man’s killing is the ultimate irony considering the fact that the beast who kills him has just returned from a war fought against a regime that murdered six million Jews.  Also ironically, Samuels is known by a shortened version of his last name – “Sammy” – just as Montgomery is known as “Monty”. 

There is a jaundiced eye cast on soldiers and the military, especially by a man who is a soldier himself – Keeley.  Early in the film he tells Finlay “Soldiers go crawling or they go crazy” and “Soldiers don’t have anywhere to go unless you tell them.”  Monty is a career soldier who looks down on “citizen soldiers”, and at times seems obsessed with the military.  He assumes that the Jewish Samuels has avoided the draft (he is proven wrong in the end) and especially hates him because of this.  There are admirable military traits depicted, however: In a spirit of comradery, Mitchell”s fellow soldiers pull together to help him out of his jam and – once again flying in the face of stereotype – this man who has spent the last several years killing for uncle Sam, is a dedicated artist.  But hanging over everything is Keeley’s cynicism.  Only at the film’s conclusion, after Monty is brought to justice, does Keeley use the word “soldier” with pride.  “How about a cup of coffee, soldier?”, he asks Leroy. 

Above all CROSSFIRE is a film about outsiders.  Leroy is a rural Southerner in the big city.  Mitchell is the lonely artist.  “Ginny” (Gloria Grahame), the girl Mitchell picks up in a gin joint (the one place she belongs as her name is associated with her place of employment) is a poor girl from Wilkes-Barre Pennsylvania.  Keeley is the soldier who doesn’t really belong soldiering.  Monty is a hater at odds with a changing world.  And above all, the ultimate outsider, the Jewish man Samuels.  Even Finlay, the cop, is an outsider.  “Nobody likes cops” he tells a disapproving Ginny.  But he has class: Everyone else chain smokes cigarettes while he is a pipe man. 

The artistry of the film’s visual design is immense.  Virtually every scene takes place at night, in darkened rooms often lit by a single light.  Shadows are everywhere.  Only one scene takes place in the light of day: Finlay, in his office, discovering Monty’s guilt and his motive of anti-Semitism. Throughout light is used impressively, such as the moment when the detective tells of the motive behind the murder of his Irish Catholic Grandfather, one hundred years earlier. “He was a dirty Mick!” Finlay says, as he leans in close to the lamp on his desk, speaking in the words of the killer. Suddenly his face is illuminated harshly, accentuating his harsh words.
At times the power of the film is overwhelming. This is due in part to Roy Webb’s intense music score and J. Roy Hunt’s cinematography, the aforementioned low-key quality of which adds an extra layer of depth to John Paxton’s screenplay. Director Dmytryk’s startling use of camera angles is also aided immeasurably by Hunt’s lighting. All of this expertise is spectacularly on display in the scene of Floyd’s slow crack-up under the strain of knowing Monty’s deadly secret. As he disintegrates in front of Monty, it becomes obvious that the killer will kill again. Key elements in this scene are the performances of Steve Brodie and Robert Ryan. They are flawless, as are just about all of the portrayals in this exceptional film.
It is a sad side note to one of the best films of the forties, that it was a subject of controversy in 1947. It seems that Edward Dmytryk and producer Adrian Scott were duped by the communist party U.S.A. and became members earlier in their careers. Refusing to testify before the House Unamerican Activities Committee, both were given brief jail sentences. The director eventually agreed to testify and was allowed to go on with his career. Scott did not testify. His career was over.
CREDITS: Produced by Adrian Scott. Directed by Edward Dmytryk. Written by John Paxton. Based on the novel THE BRICK FOXHOLE by Richard Brooks (in which the victim was a homosexual, not a Jew). Photography by J. Roy Hunt. Edited by Harry Gerstad. Music by Roy Webb. With: Robert Ryan, Robert Mitchum, Robert Young, Steve Brodie, William Phipps, George Cooper, Sam Levene, Gloria Grahame.               

June 5, 2013 Posted by | 1940s cinema, film directors, films about prejudice, screenwriters, suspense films | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

THE SET-UP (1949)

When a filmmaker tries something different, it is often labeled a gimmick or a stunt.  So it was with Hitchcock’s ROPE (1948) and its continuous ten minute takes.  This was especially the case with Robert Montgomery’s LADY IN THE LAKE (1947) and its extensive use of the subjective camera.  Whatever the merits of these innovations, it is obvious that an infusion of new ideas – a new way of looking at things – is important from time to time, in cinema and any artistic pursuit.

THE SET-UP (1949) is a thrilling boxing picture presented in real-time – the innovation of director Robert Wise and screenwriter Art Cohn.  The film is seventy-two minutes long and the on-screen action takes place over seventy-two minutes in the lives of the characters.  We know this because the first shot after the opening credits is of a street corner clock telling us it is five minutes after nine.  The final shot of the film is of the same clock reading seventeen minutes after ten.  But before we get to this point we are lured into this busy evening scene, with people filing in and out of a bar called “Dreamland” and a sports complex named “Paradise City Arena.”  We are immediately aware that these names will be featured prominently and ironically in the film and we soon find out that this is a street where dreams are often crushed and the smokey atmosphere of these establishments are more closely related to hell than to heaven. 

It is fight night in Paradise City and we are whisked into the arena and introduced to a series of fascinating characters: A blind man (Archie Leonard) who has the action of the fights relayed to him by a friend who accompanies him.  An obese man (Dwight Martin) shoveling every imaginable food into his gaping mouth, waiting for the next burst of violence like he anticipates each bite of hot dog.  Another, older man who listens to a radio broadcast of a baseball game while eating up the fight action.  He is obviously a chronic gambler with bets on both sports.  There are also many woman, including one supposedly squeamish lady who refers to the last fight she attended by saying “I kept my hands over my eyes the whole time!” 

Across the street, in a seedy hotel room, is Bill “Stoker” Thompson (Robert Ryan) and his visiting girlfriend, Julie (Audrey Totter).  Stoker is a washed up fighter hoping for one big win so he can retire and open a cigar store or a beer joint.  Julie wants him to quit now.  But he has a fight scheduled for this evening.  He doesn’t know that his manager, Tiny (George Tobias) has agreed to have Stoker throw the fight in an unholy alliance with a local gangster, “Little Boy” (Alan Baxter).  Tiny, wishing to avoid upsetting Stoker, is not planning to reveal the scheme to him.  He is counting on the aging and inept hack to continue his losing ways naturally.  Big mistake…

Stoker’s dreams are always just out of his grasp – like the prizes in the claw game his trainer, Red (Percy Helton) seems obsessed with in the early scenes at an arcade.  He finds inspiration in the stories of other fighters, and then is horrified when they return from the ring pummeled and delirious.  Now he waits his turn and Julie has torn up her ticket.  He will go it alone.  A trainer named Gus (Wallace Ford) reads a “True Romance” type magazine called “Love” as he awaits the outcomes of the fights in the locker room.  We cannot help but think of Stoker’s situation.  Julie does indeed love him – and she hates boxing.  In the hotel, we discover that she avoids calling him by his boxing handle, and only refers to him as “Bill.”  To everyone else it is always “Stoker.” 

The fight world is presented as an atmosphere ripe with corruption, and it is not difficult to understand Tiny’s throwing the fight for money.  One trainer even cheats at solitaire!  When it comes time for Stoker’s match, the ring announcer’s words “Ladies and gentlemen” are met with boos from the crowd.  The fans are well aware that they are as corrupt as the game they celebrate. 

The scenes that follow are some of the most exciting in all of cinema.  They are also fascinating for their incisive depiction of the human comedy.  Stoker is not only battling his opponent “Tiger” Nelson (Hal Fieberling), but for the soul of everyone involved in this blood sport.  When Stoker’s eye is closed and bloodied, the blind man, hanging on every word of his companion and the announcer, screams out viciously “The other eye Nelson!  Close the other eye!”  As a blind man yearns for the blinding of another human being, the brutality becomes overwhelming. 

But Stoker fights back, causing Tiny to worry.  Between rounds, his manager begs Stoker to just “go the distance” and not to fight so passionately.  He feigns concern that his boxer may be injured.  As Stoker is implored to lay off, a barker can be heard in the background shouting “Get your cold beer here!”, reminding him and the audience of his dream.  He will fight on – with everything he has.  This is too much for Tiny who, during another break in the fighting, finally spills the beans to Stoker.  He comes out fighting harder than ever.  Proving everyone loves a winner, the blind man begins rooting for Stoker, who knocks out Nelson.  Tiny and Red beat it. 

Cornered in an alley by Little Boy and his goons, Stoker is pounded into unconsciousness and has his hand smashed.  This fight is a natural extension of what goes on in the ring.  There is a jazz club adjacent to the alley and as the thugs wail on Stoker, Wise cuts to shadows on the alley wall of a swing band wailing away.  Both beat downs are the music of the night in Paradise City.  Later, he wakes up and staggers into the street.  The “Dreamland” sign is partially obscured by buildings and is distorted in such a way that it appears to say “I Dream.”  Julie arrives in time to cradle Stoker in her arms.  He reveals the whole sordid tale and states proudly “I won.”  And he has – not just the match – but his freedom.  The broken hand means nothing as he was planning on retiring anyway.  “We both won tonight”, says Julie.  In a beautiful crane shot, the camera pulls back to reveal that clock, once again.  Seventy two minutes have passed for Stoker and Julie as well as the audience.  This brief running time and real-time approach to the film makes for a more immediate, moving and suspenseful experience.  It has been a memorable night at the fights, indeed, for all concerned. 
CREDITS: Produced by Richard Goldstone. Directed by Robert Wise. Written by Art Cohn. Based on the poem (that’s right, poem!) by Joseph Moncure March. Photographed by Milton Krasner. Edited by Roland Gross. Music by Roy Webb. With: Robert Ryan, Audrey Totter, George Tobias, Alan Baxter, Percy Helton, Wallace Ford, Hal Fieberling, Archie Leonard, Dwight Martin.              

   

May 15, 2013 Posted by | 1940s cinema, boxing films, film directors, screenwriters | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment