Monkeyshines from the Sixties

Planet of the Apes (for post)I saw Planet of the Apes (1968) last night on TCM. I still like it as a pretty good late 1960’s Hollywood take on science fiction (which is always more like science fantasy). So I decided to post this review once again. (I wrote this back in 2003.)

Planet of the Apes (1968)

I saw this movie when it came out in 1968. I would have been twelve at the time and, believe me, I was damned impressed with Planet of the Apes. As of this writing, roughly 35 years later, I’m still pretty impressed though perhaps not for the same reasons … (Read more)

American Rebel: Eastwood bio a disappointing read

While I remember the song from Rawhide I don’t recall ever having seen it. For me, Clint Eastwood’s career would have begun with A Fistful of Dollars (1964).

Continue reading

Witness for the Prosecution (1957)

Clever and sly, Witness for the Prosecution has the appearance of being a modest little film that manages to sneak up on you with great performances and a great ending.

Continue reading

How Chandler’s Marlowe is like Hamlet

Inexplicably, after what seems a kind of cinematic hiatus, I’m watching a bevy of older films and, to the dismay of some, rambling on paper (or screen, to be more accurate) my dimly lit opinions of what I’m seeing. I seem to be bouncing back and forth between noir and romantic comedies. The only thing I can venture as at least an explanation in part is this: I find watching movies relaxing, even meditative in some way. I don’t get this watching TV; only movies.

The other day, it was yet another noir …

Murder, My Sweet (1944)

Directed by Edward Dmytryk

This murder mystery is, for me, itself a mystery in that I cannot fathom why they would change the title of Raymond Chandler’s book, Farewell, My Lovely to the far less subtle, Murder, My Sweet. I know it had something to do with not wanting to confuse the public with lead actor Dick Powell’s previous roles as a kind of song and dance man, but that doesn’t seem a very credible reason to me.

I suppose it’s not very important in the larger scheme of things, but it makes me shake my head. As for the movie …

When you go over reviews of this movie, as well as other movies based on Chandler’s books, you see one topic continually pop up: who was the best Philip Marlowe? It is probably not surprising to find there is not a great deal of consensus.

It strikes me that Marlowe is a kind of variation on Hamlet in that everyone has to play him, or a variation on him, and we decide who does it well, who doesn’t, and who’s Marlowe we buy into. On the DVD case cover, it tells us Dick Powell, who plays Marlowe in Murder, My Sweet, was author Raymond Chandler’s favourite. Of course, others have different opinions. Bogie comes to mind.

For many people Humphrey Bogart (The Big Sleep) is the Philip Marlowe. But just today I came across a review where the writer was claiming the best Marlowe was Robert Mitchum in 1975’s Farewell, My Lovely.

I admit that when I first saw Murder, My Sweet a few years ago Powell bothered me, but that had less to do with his performance than the fact I had Bogie so drilled into my head, from The Big Sleep but also similar characters, like Sam Spade from the The Maltese Falcon.

But I watched Murder, My Sweet again last night and I liked Powell much more. His gestures and speech fit the character nicely and he seems very natural as Marlowe. And the more I think about it, the more I think, “Yes, I like Powell’s Marlowe.” (That’s sort of like saying, “I like Plummer’s Hamlet.”)

As for the movie as a movie … It has a lot of what you would expect from a film of this kind: a lot of uncertainty as characters appear to be good, then bad, then good again, and then bad once more. Marlowe seems to think one thing then it’s shown he was only pretending, although a later scene shows he actually does think and feel that way.

In other words, the movie twists quite a bit and in many cases the twists are arbitrary for the sake of being a twist and to sustain the mood. But they don’t make a lot of sense. Yet in a film noir, you can often get away with that because the movie is less about plot and more about atmosphere, characters, character relationships … and lighting and camera focus.

I’ve read the book this movie is based on but don’t recall it, so I can only assume the movie stays roughly true to it and, if that’s he case, the filmmakers can thank Chandler for writing them an opening that is a nicely baited hook.

Told almost entirely in flashback by Marlowe, it begins with him in a police station being questioned and telling his story. That wouldn’t be much except we’re shown that he can’t see; his eyes are completely bandaged up. So as he’s is grilled and finally starts telling his story, we’re already hooked on the mystery of what happened to his eyes even before we’ve had an inkling of the real mystery.

Being film noir, we also get a femme fatale. Claire Trevor is Mrs. Helen Grayle, aka Velma. Director Edward Dmytryk introduces her to us legs first, underlining the character’s sexual nature and involvement with the story. But the there is also Anne Shirley as Ann Grayle, step-daughter and enemy of the second Mrs. Grayle (Velma). It’s easy to see why.

Ann Grayle loves her father (Miles Mander), who is much older than his new wife. He also seems frail by comparison to everyone else in the film, even impotent. And he’s married to a woman who doesn’t appear to cover up what she’s interested in:

Helen Grayle: I find men very attractive.
Philip Marlowe: I imagine they meet you halfway.

But the movie isn’t just about this. It begins with a man named Moose (Mike Mazurki), who is just out of jail and looking for his Velma.

Chandler books, and movies of this variety, are peppered with characters, most of whom are types, and give the storyline places to go and people to engage with as well as scenes to play out before getting to an end.

I liked how this one plays out. I like Dick Powell as Philip Marlowe and Claire Trevor as a femme fatale. And I’m pretty sure I’ll be watching this one again.

Lily Damita, Roland Young and This is the Night

Without intending to, I caught This is the Night on TCM last night and I was delightfully surprised. It was funny, curious and also interesting historically in that it was the first full feature movie Cary Grant ever appeared in. It was directed by Frank Tuttle, a man I know best for having directed This Gun For Hire that starred Veronica Lake.

This is the Night (1932)

Directed by Frank Tuttle

To get the Cary Grant aspect out of the way, you can tell it’s an initial effort. His performance is good sporadically. Often he overplays it, though in one way it works because the film is a farce. You can see, however, the beginnings of what he would later become, especially his comedic skills.

But this movie is really Lily Damita’s and Roland Young’s. (The movie also stars Charles Ruggles and Thelma Todd.)

An athlete (Grant) returns from the Olympics. While he was away, his wife (Todd) has been involved with another man. As that other man, Roland Young must try to cover up the affair. With the help of a friend, Ruggles, he hires a heavily accented actress (Damita) to pretend she’s his wife.

It’s a relationship comedy – quite a funny one – and it is filled with sexual jokes. (The movie was made pre-Code.) For example, a recurring joke in the movie involves Todd whose dress keeps getting removed accidently by the chauffeur/butler. There are verbal jokes as well, such as Damita’s character who doesn’t understand English well, and ends up interpreting hints as, “I live in sin. I am naughty,” when Young tries to tell her to say she’s from Cincinnati.

It’s silly, yes, but lots of fun. It’s not exactly a screwball comedy; it’s a bit too farcical for that. But you can see the beginnings of screwball (just as you can see lingering hints of the silent era in the visual humour, as mentioned in this review).

Lily Damita (July 10, 1904 – March 21, 1994)

What I found curious, and a little off-putting, was what I initially thought was a technical mistake in the broadcast but later saw was deliberate. It was this: much of the film occurs in Venice and much of that is at night. Every time the action occurs outside, at night, the screen goes blue.

Yes, it’s a colour that suggests night but in a movie that is otherwise black and white it’s a jarring and unnecessary effect. A quick online look revealed no reference to this so I don’t know if this was something the original movie tried or was added later. But I do know I would remove the effect.

Apart from that, This is the Night is a very fun and funny movie; it even has some nice romantic elements, not to mention Cary Grant’s movie debut. I was glad I found it.

As an aside, Cary Grant would work with Roland Young again a few years later in the movie Topper (1937).

As another aside, Lily Damita was married to Errol Flynn for a number of years and later married to Michael Curtiz. Her Hollywood career was relatively brief. She essentially got out of acting in movies when she married Flynn.

Mr. Arkadin – another fine mess

I’ve noticed Orson Welles had a thing for looking with slightly bowed head up from under his eyebrows. He uses it a lot in Mr. Arkadin, though I suspect it’s deliberate with an intention of parody, perhaps of himself. It’s hard to know with any certainty what his intentions were with that movie since it is an incomplete and irresistible mess.

Mr. Arkadin (1955), aka Confidential Report

Sometimes too much is too much and with Orson Welles’ Mr. Arkadin we have an good example of this. It’s too much of so many things (which in some ways is the film’s point, if it has one at all). To begin with, I have the Criterion 3-disc set, which means I don’t just have the movie; I have three versions of it.

The result has been that it has been sitting on my shelf for ages because I couldn’t decide which version to watch. I finally have arbitrarily choosen the second (or Confidential Report) version for no reason other than that I read somewhere that it was the one with the best picture quality.

If you know anything about Mr. Arkadin then you know it is a movie Welles never finished, so there is no definitive version. The movie was taken from him and others have completed it, in one fashion or another, over the years. The most recent version is the Criterion “comprehensive” version, a scholarly approach to restoring the movie in order to get a version as close to what we dimly know Welles was attempting, though no one really knows. (This last version is also the longest coming in at roughly 110 minutes.)

Not only do the various versions include and/or exclude various scenes, the sequence of the scenes also varies depending on the version. It was always intended to use flashbacks and a degree of disorientation for the audience, but the degree changes. The Confidential Report version may be the one that comes closest to being comprehensible, but that is open to debate.

All of that aside, we’re still left with a movie to watch – one of its versions, at least. What’s the word on that? Is it any good?

Not really. It’s a mess, actually. I had thought I had never seen the movie previously but almost as soon as it started a voice in my head said, “Oh, that movie …” I had seen it before; it didn’t have much impact, largely because it isn’t a good movie.

It is, however, a fascinating movie, at least if Orson Welles intrigues you. It’s hard to know just how serious Welles was in making this work. There is a high level of playfulness in the movie. Is it because he’s just having fun, mocking himself even, but not too serious about the production? Or is it an aspect of a serious film?

Mr. Arkadin is, in some ways, almost a parody of Citizen Kane with its story of a mysterious, powerful man and the puzzle the movie creates around his identity.

Amongst other things, Welles distorts himself physically, at least in a sense, with his wig and fake beard and the obviousness of them, as well as his clothes in the movie. It’s as if he is deliberately focusing in on himself for the purpose of self-mockery. Was that the intent?

As for the puzzle the movie creates, that is largely responsible for the mess that the movie is as it tries to both resolve itself and remain oblique at the same time. Compounding this problem is fact that a puzzle, to be a real puzzle, must have a way to resolve. I suspect neither Welles nor anyone else ever truly figured that one out. As a result, the movie flounders in confusion because there really isn’t anywhere for it to go other than down another blind alley.

Yet the movie is dazzling in its confusion. And bizarre. Odd camera angles, over-dubbed dialogue (that changes from version to version), mix and match scenes … Yes, very odd.

I hadn’t planned to, but I watched Mr. Arkadin a day or two after having watched another of Welles’ movies, The Stranger. They make for an interesting contrast. The latter film is one Welles thought least highly of. It was an exercise in proving he could make a commercial film and, as a result, may be his most coherent. Mr. Arkadin is the exact opposite. It’s famously incoherent.

But for something that is a mess, it sure has style and humour and some fabulous scenes.

Music and Lyrics: It’s supposed to be light

The movie Music and Lyrics is a very light romantic comedy. That is all it aspires to be. Yet some of the reviews I’ve seen of it seem to dislike it for this very reason. I’m not sure why. What might their expectations be? Every romantic comedy will be The Philadelphia Story?

They’re dreaming if they expect that. I prefer to judge movies based on what they are and what they try to be.

There are types of movies I don’t like and only rarely do I enjoy films that fall into those categories. But disliking something and finding fault with it are two different things. I don’t particularly like 2001: A Space Odyssey. Frankly, it puts me to sleep. But I’m not about to say it’s a bad movie. I know it’s a very good one. I just don’t like it much.

Not that Music and Lyrics is in the same league as 2001. But it doesn’t try to be. It’s just a light film. And I wrote a review of sorts of it:

“Alex Fletcher (Hugh Grant) use to be in a 1980s pop band that was briefly popular with a few hits. His writing partner, who wrote the lyrics, went on to be a solo star and Alex faded into obscurity until the inevitable revival came along. Now he lives off his former fame playing fairs, conventions and other small venues – though that, too, is now drying up …

There is more to the movie Music and Lyrics but this is the heart of it. It’s a light, romantic comedy – very much a Marc Lawrence kind of thing – and it’s great fun to watch. I think it’s one of Lawrence’s better films and also one of Grant’s better performances, though he basically plays Hugh Grant. But I tend to like that …”
Read more >

Four movies and a post

Over this holiday period, while I haven’t been posting on any of my sites, neither have I been sitting still.

Here on Piddleville, I actually have been adding reviews, though not highlighting them on the home page here.

I hope to rectify that today. So, recently seen …

Holiday Inn (1942)

The movie Holiday Inn is memorable for a number of things, some good, some not so good. To begin with, it brings together a trio made up of Irving Berlin, Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire. Not a bad place to start. The movie itself is a Hollywood soufflé, very light, very unlikely, and quite delightful…
Read more

Unbreakable (2002)

Movies with surprise endings don’t often work well and, even when they do, it’s easy to tire of them quickly. In a sense, they are gimmicky. Done rarely, they’re riveting; done often, they’re tedious. I think M. Night Shyamalan knows this and feels the same way … You get the sense as you watch Unbreakable that he was trying to avoid the surprise ending. On the other hand, you also get the sense that stories of that kind are his natural inclination…
Read more

The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945)

The Bells of St. Mary’s is movie that is very representative of a type of movie Hollywood made in its heyday, very much the way it’s predecessor was, Going My Way. On one hand, it is a type of film that Hollywood has continued to make (like certain Disney films) with varying degrees of success – family oriented and sentimental. On the other hand, it is anachronistic and, for some, nostalgic…
Read more

Now, Voyager (1942)

Here’s a movie that caught me by surprise. It’s another one of those films I went into with little or no expectations. In fact, if anything, I expected it to be a dud. (I had seen a number of older, black and white turkeys recently.) Now, Voyager was wonderful. It’s also an unapologetic soap opera, the kind Hollywood once did so well…
Read more

And now you are up to date. Sort of. More or less. My memory isn’t great; I may have have forgotten something …

Man Hunt and Fritz Lang’s dance with propaganda

There is a strange irony in a movie like Man Hunt and its director Fritz Lang making the film meet the propaganda demands of the period. Those demands explain (I’m speculating) the sudden and out-of-the-blue ending to Man Hunt.

If ever there was a director who knew something about what Hitler and the Nazis meant, it was Fritz Lang, who left Germany and his career there because of them. As it is, he made Man Hunt and within it we see a very cold and brutal portrayal of what the Nazis were and represented.

Man Hunt (1941)

Directed by Fritz Lang

I like going into a movie knowing nothing about it, or next to nothing. That’s how I went into Fritz Lang’s Man Hunt. I knew about Fritz Lang though not a great deal. Let’s say I was aware of him and how he’s spoken of as a director.

Man Hunt fairly quickly lets you know what it is about, though in a deceptive way. It begins with a big game hunter lying in the grass, up in an elevated and hidden position, setting his rifle’s sights for a shot. Curiously, the scene intercuts with a German army officer, a Nazi, walking in what seems the same area.

Then we see what the hunter is aiming at: Hitler. We see he has the shot but, surprisingly, he doesn’t take it. He’s satisfied with knowing he could take it, and relaxes. Then he pauses, seems to reconsider, and puts a cartridge in the gun and re-aims.

He appears to have decided to take the shot and kill Hitler. He seems about to when the German soldier the scene had been intercutting with sets upon him. He’s stopped and taken prisoner.

We next see him, apparently having been beaten, taken to Major Quive-Smith, played by George Sanders. Now, we get the last few elements the story needs to really get going. We already know the time period, around the Second World War. It gets more specific now: it’s 1939, just before the war begins and world politics are sensitive to say the least.

What Major Quive-Smith wants from the game hunter, the well-known Captain Alan Thorndike played by Walter Pigeon, is a signed confession that he was trying to assassinate Hitler and was working for the British government.

To cut to the chase (no pun intended), Thorndike is tortured, yet continues to refuse. Finally, the Major takes him out and has him thrown from a cliff, murdered by the Nazis. He doesn’t die, however, and manages an escape and the chase is on. The big game hunter becomes the hunted and it is the Nazis, headed by Major Quive-Smith, and a darkly quiet and sinister looking John Carradine (“Mr. Jones”), who are hunting him.

The movie is about this hunt and, once Thorndike meets the young cockney woman Jerry, played by Joan Bennett, about a relationship that is somewhere between platonic and romantic. (Bennett plays Jerry with an accent that may be a tad overdone.)

It’s a very good, quick paced movie that pulls you in immediately with its tantalizing opening. As far as suspense goes, Lang knows his business. Along with the quick pace, there are some wonderful shots.

I wrote about Ugetsu recently and director Kenji Mizoguchi’s penchant for a moving camera shot, like his scrolling shot. In Man Hunt, Fritz Lang also uses this kind of thing (though not to the degree Mizoguchi does). The film opens with a moving camera shot that softly dissolves into another moving shot that, in turn, also dissolves into a moving shot. The effect is of one long moving shot that comes to a rest on Alan Thorndike aiming his rifle at his target, Adolf Hitler.

Throughout the movie you see Lang framing shots in wonderful ways and many of these also involve movement though not of the camera but of the characters.

There is one where a German officer is sitting at a desk and above him there is a large emblem. Initially, you think there is something wrong with the framing because it seems unbalanced – the space between the officer and emblem is too great. Then the officer stands and fills the frame and the shot makes sense.

Lang also creates great scenes combining his talent for framing shots with great sets that involve lines, labyrinths and curious designs. Visually, Man Hunt is fun to watch.

In fact, the only sour note would be the ending. On one hand, there is a very darkly Fritz Lang element to the story’s end for one major character, and there is a wonderful scene between Major Quive-Smith and Thorndike.

On the other, there is the abrupt ending with its patriotic trumpeting. It is understandable – the movie is a wartime propaganda product – but jarring.

So about ninety-seven percent of Man Hunt is a tremendous, suspenseful movie from Fritz Lang. It is well worth seeing.

On Amazon: