25/07/2015

Stalag 17 (1953)


Billy Wilder's inspired POW comedy Stalag 17 is being spruced up and given the Masters of Cinema treatment by Eureka for its Blu-ray debut next week, which is splendid news for fans of this sorely underrated masterpiece. The fact that a film as funny, humane and self-evidently important should so often be overlooked just speaks to the quality of Wilder's overall body of work. Following in the wake of Double Indemnity (1944), The Lost Weekend (1945), Sunset Boulevard (1950) and Ace In The Hole (1951), and with The Seven Year Itch (1955), Some Like It Hot (1959) and The Apartment (1960) still to come, it's no wonder it gets forgotten.

Taken from a Broadway play by Donald Bevan and Edmund Trzcinski, Stalag 17 concerns the antics of a gang of US airmen held in a Nazi prison camp on the Danube and is an astonishingly light-hearted film for Wilder to have made on the subject. The director, an Austrian Jewish émigré to the States, knew the reality of Europe's concentration camps intimately having shot Death Mills in 1945, a shockingly matter-of-fact documentary about their liberation following the Allied victory. For the public good, Death Mills presents the bare facts of the Holocaust and doesn't flinch from showing footage of bulldozers ploughing heaps of human corpses into mass graves. It remains a gruelling film to sit through, even with a running time of just 22 minutes.

There's nothing quite so stark in Stalag 17, which is after all concerned with the detainment of American combatants - nominally protected by the Geneva Convention - rather than European civilians rounded up for genocide, but that's not to say it doesn't have its horrors.

Less interested in the mechanics of breaking out than The Great Escape (1963), which seems utterly infantile by comparison, Stalag 17 deals primarily with the captives' attempts to keep up their spirits by improvising entertainments where they can and dreaming of their lives back home. The likes of Shaprio (Harvey Lembeck), a savvy Brooklynite, and Stanislas "Animal" Kuzawa (Robert Strauss), a wild-eyed horndog with the hots for Betty Grable, spend their days betting on the outcome of mice races, playing volleyball, listening to the radio and spying on the Russian girls' bathing hut next door.


The gang's horseplay is tolerated by the sinister Colonel von Scherbach (played by noir director Otto Preminger) and positively indulged by the fatherly Bavarian guard Johann Sebastian Schultz, (Sig Ruman, a specialist in comic Germans and a veteran of Lubitsch and the Marx Brothers). Their games are amusing but always freighted with sadness. Wilder never lets us forget that these poor devils are desperately contriving distractions for themselves in order to avoid having to face the grim reality of their plight. The film's opening, in which two US sergeants are viciously gunned down after worming their way under the compound's barbwire fencing, remains lodged in our thoughts.

That incident proved beyond doubt that the Yanks have a spy in their midst and the search for the identity of this double-agent drives the narrative. The group quickly singles out one J.J. Sefton (William Holden) for the stool pigeon, accusing Sefton of passing notes to the Germans in exchange for preferential treatment. Sefton is a wheeler-dealer, a Bogartian cynic embittered by his experiences and grown selfish, concerned only with his own welfare. Like Bogie's Rick Blaine in Casablanca (1942), Sefton must be persuaded to step back into the spotlight, rejoin the cause and fight the good fight - and only does so after he's been wrongly accused and his hand forced.

His eventual escape and entrapment of the guilty party is a cause for celebration, not least because it hails Sefton's own moral rejuvenation, even if it means the villain meets the same grizzly fate as the men he betrayed. This is the brutal world of war, Wilder reminds us, the perfect end note to this most sensitively judged of black comedies.

05/06/2015

Desert Fury (1947)


In Lewis Allen's decidedly queer Technicolor noir Desert Fury, Lizabeth's Scott's Paula Haller quits school and returns home to the "cactus graveyard" of Chuckawalla, Nevada where her mother Fitzi (Mary Astor) rules the roost. Fitzi runs The Purple Sage, the town's premier roulette joint, which has just attracted an unwelcome visit from spivy gambler Eddie Bendix (John Hodiak) and his overly protective right-hand man Johnny (Wendell Corey). Despite her outward independence, Paula is naive and directionless, unsure what the future holds. The only attraction this second-tier mining town has to offer is square-jawed traffic cop Tom Hanson (Burt Lancaster), a "broken down cowboy" like Gay Langland in The Misfits (1961), no longer able to ride the rodeo but who shares Paula's love of the open range and hopes to retire to a ranch. Tom is Fitzi's preferred candidate for Paula's hand, but the girl resists. She's taken a shine to bad boy Bendix and won't be talked out of it. Disaster beckons.

Desert Fury marries the big skies of John Ford's great Westerns with Sirkian melodrama. Taken from a serialised novel by Ramona Stewart, the script by Robert Rossen and an uncredited A.L. Bezzerides is more interested in the emotional lives of its pulp protagonists than Eddie and Johnny's gangster ploys or Fitzi's criminal past. While the ostensible plot is as old as time - an innocent must choose between two suitors, picks the rotten egg and comes to rue her mistake before order is restored - Desert Fury's real concerns are the rocky relations between Fitzi and her mother and Eddie and Johnny.


Fitzi loves her daughter dearly. She has framed keepsakes of Paula scattered across her office and allows her every freedom, never begrudging her spending money or allowing her to go without. Fitzi has had a hard life and grafted for a living on both sides of the law, hardening in the process. She envisions a better future for her progeny, hence her mortification when Paula becomes involved with Eddie. Paula's is a natural reaction against her parent's controlling influence and the women otherwise behave like bickering sisters. Or even lovers, kissing passionately on the lips at the film's denouement.

While the presence of such an outré subtext may be a matter of conjecture in the case of Fitzi and Paula, it is laughably overt between Eddie and Johnny. More than just a henchman or gunsel, Johnny cooks and cleans for his boss, repeatedly describes him as "good looking" and is openly jealous and hostile to Paula's intrusion. After she's walked in on the men sunbathing shirtless together, even Paula starts making fun of their living arrangements ("Johnny's a little behind with the dishes"). You don't need a copy of Vito Russo's Celluloid Closet (1981) to hand to work out that things between them are serious when Eddie slaps Johnny across the puss with a telltale glove, itself a kitsch echo of Othello discovering Desdemona's handkerchief. Eddie's account of their first meeting practically spells it out:

“It was in the automat off Times Square at two in the morning. I was broke. He had a couple of dollars. We got to talking. He ended up paying for my ham and eggs. I went home with him that night. We were together from then on.”

With lines like that, Desert Fury was always doomed to remain a camp curiosity, a cult oddity rather than a truly top notch noir despite its fine cast, genuinely glorious Technicolor cinematography from Charles Lang and Miklós Rózsa score.

03/04/2015

The Red House (1947)

What's eating Edward G? As gentleman farmer Pete Morgan, he's first seen doting on his adopted daughter Meg (Allene Roberts) and making a generous offer to his new hand Nath Storm (Lon McCallister), hired to help around the place on account of Pete's increasing years. But when the boy announces his plan to return home from his first day on the job via a shortcut through Oxhead Woods, Morgan wigs out and frantically warns Nath to stay out of this haunted land. The mystery appears to have something to do with the titular red house, standing neglected and lost somewhere amidst the trees. Nath and Meg set out to uncover the truth behind Pete's torment, despite his warnings not to.

An interesting example of the rural noir sub-genre* from the underrated Delmer Daves, director of Dark Passage (1947) and 3.10 To Yuma (1957), which finds its star essaying another troubled neurotic after his turns in The Woman In The Window (1944) and Scarlet Street (1945) for Fritz Lang, all roles that offered counterpoints to the grandstanding gangsters that made Robinson's name. Pete Morgan, a once vigorous and independent specimen of American masculinity now reduced to limping on a wooden leg, stands for a generation of returning U.S. soldiers scarred by their experiences of war.


The Red House has a lot going for it. Its juvenile leads are good, as is the support from the brilliant Judith Anderson (Mrs. Danvers in Hitch's Rebecca, 1940) as Morgan's self-sacrificing sister, pop star Julie London as Nath's sultry love interest Tibby and Rory Calhoun as a feral gamekeeper whose middle name is presumably "Danger". However, the talky, Freudian resolution to the kids' detective work is anti-climactic and would perhaps have been better presented as an atmospheric flashback.

*I'm not altogether sure what else we could include in this grouping without stealing from the Southern Gothic canon. Winter's Bone (2010) at least.

31/01/2015

The Queen Of Spades (1949)

Despite a modest recent revival of interest in his work, Thorold Dickinson (1903-84) remains one of British cinema's most unjustly neglected directorial talents. He is best known for the gloomy Victorian mystery Gaslight (1940) starring Anton Walbrook, copies of which were bought up, suppressed and destroyed by MGM when the American studio sought to promote its own version of Patrick Hamilton's play four years later. Dickinson's masterpiece only narrowly survived this ordeal and we are lucky to be able to see it today, an incident typical of the chequered and frustrating career the man endured.

Perhaps the biggest mark Dickinson made was actually on academia, not the business of making movies. He established a pioneering film studies department at the Slade School of Fine Art, UCL, in 1960 and became Britain's first-ever Professor of Film Studies in 1967, having fought a gallant battle for cinema to be taken seriously by scholars.


As such, I was delighted to have the opportunity to take in The Queen Of Spades at the BFI Southbank this week. Dickinson had been hired to direct this adaptation of Pushkin's famous short story at just three days' notice after Rodney Auckland dropped out, making ingenious use of a small budget to produce a truly frightening study in madness and the supernatural despite coming to the project cold, being entirely unfamiliar with the tale. Pushkin's 'Queen Of Spades' (1833), also repurposed for an opera by Tchaikovsky in 1890, tells of Suvorin, a dashing Russian army officer, and his growing obsession with learning "the secret of the cards" from a dying countess so that he may gamble his way to wealth and glory.


With a cast led by Walbrook (again) and the great stage actress Edith Evans already in place, Dickinson and producer Anatole de Grunwald were forced to work frantically by night rewriting the original screenplay by Auckland and Arthur Boys to suit their purposes in time for the next day's'shooting. Their shoe-string production was hindered not only by financial constraints but also by the limited amount of space available at the studios in Welwyn Garden City, where the cast and crew found themselves on a lot too small to accommodate a horse-drawn carriage. Dickinson nevertheless managed to turn adversity to his advantage, positioning his roving camera at such angles as to mask the difficulty and using minimal lighting and candles to cast long shadows and build atmosphere in the manner of German Expressionism.


Dickinson's Queen Of Spades further benefits from some fabulous costumes and sets by Oliver Messel and appropriately theatrical turns from Walbrook, Evans and Yvonne Mitchell. It also retains a pleasingly British flavour, in amongst the onion domes of St. Petersburg, thanks to its choice selection of Dickensian supporting players, with the likes of Miles Malleson and Athene Seyler cropping up as a notary and exasperated princess respectively. The result is a Gothic horror to rival Murnau's Faust (1926) or Cocteau's La Belle Et La Bête (1946).

09/12/2014

The Great Silence (1968)

According to Alex Cox, the reason Django (1966) director Sergio Corbucci set his superb Spaghetti Western The Great Silence in snowy mountains rather than the genre's more familiar dusty plains was simply that he wanted an excuse to take himself off skiing. From this decidedly unambitious starting point, a great masterpiece was somehow drawn, the Dolomites standing in for Nevada and providing sublime scenery as well as several unusual plot points: bounty hunter Loco (Klaus Kinski), for instance, is able to leave the corpses of his prey buried in the snow confident that they will remain freshly preserved until such time as he chooses to return for them to claim his reward money. Robert Altman and Sydney Pollack would follow Corbucci's example soon after with the release of McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971) and Jeremiah Johnson (1972) respectively, but neither quite captured the sheer mortal cold of the mountains in quite the same way. Even in the rather scratched and grainy 35mm print of the film I saw at London's Barbican last night, the agony of Corbucci's scowling gunslingers as their trigger fingers trembled with frostbite was palpable.

The title refers both to the eerie natural silence of a landscape muffled by snowfall and to the film's hero (Jean-Louis Trintignant), a mute avenger since his throat was cut as a boy who moves wordlessly about the world delivering bad men to the next, the greatest silence of all. Silence only kills in self-defence, waiting for the aggressor to draw first to ensure that he's never legally at fault for the cadavers piling up in front of him. This Man With No Voice is a formidable righter of wrongs, but he hasn't reckoned on the nihilistic glee of Loco, a vulture endlessly amused by the blank indifference of a godless universe, and the avarice and lust of banker Pollicutt (Luigi Pistilli), a cruel man with designs on Vonetta McGee's spiky local widow.


For Cox, writing in his book 10,000 Ways To Die (2010), Silence's decision to finally confront Loco at the film's bleak climax is an "atheist's sacrifice", a gesture made in full knowledge of the probable outcome and without even the consolation afforded to Christ on the cross, the promise of eternal life in the hereafter. Corbucci's wife Nori later revealed that her husband had been inspired by the recent deaths of Che Guevara and Malcom X when making The Great Silence, reading into their assassinations the pessimistic moral that the revolutionary who dares to take on a powerful and corrupt elite is always ultimately doomed to failure, no matter how just their cause or radical their method. The house always wins. But Corbucci saw a tragic nobility in the very hopelessness of their idealism, giving their inevitable destruction and defeat an inherent greatness and value. As Cox elaborates: "Both men walked into the lion's den, knowing they would most likely die, knowing they would not see their dreams realised, doing it anyway because it was the right thing." In death, even Silence makes a sound because his sacrifice is a powerful legacy to leave behind.

19/11/2014

Once In A New Moon (1935)


"Heavens! England's gone!"

Here's a rare thing. A "quota quickie" sci-fi from Fox British dating back to 1935, which tells of the fictional Essex hamlet of Shrimpton-on-Sea, unceremoniously plucked from the face of the earth by the sheer velocity of a passing "dead star" and which thereafter becomes a planet in its own right, Shrimpton-in-Space. The locals initially refuse to believe the truth when it's presented to them by postmaster Harold Drake (Eliot Makeham, an accountant in another life), but are finally forced to face facts, whereupon a class war breaks out between the socialist yokels and the landed gentry who have assumed power with a predictable air of entitlement. 

Once In A New Moon's outlandish Wellsian premise is is taken from Lucky Star (1929), a novel by travel writer and historian Owen Rutter, a former bureaucrat with the North Borneo Civil Service who was so obsessed with the Mutiny on the Bounty that he wrote no less than six books on the subject. However, its plot is merely a pretext for the gentle political satire that unfurls, putting mild-mannered Drake at odds with Viscount Bravington (Morton Selton), a purring old Tory keen on brown sherry and prone to smoothing down his lustrous white moustache when vexed. Bravington - a genteel hobbyist in the manner of P.G. Wodehouse's Lord Emsworth at Blandings - is being bullied into striking up a civil war by his fearsome wife (Mary Hinton) when he'd clearly rather spend his days organising a cherished stamp collection. Fortunately, the comet reverses its effect before anyone on either side is seriously hurt and the village duly crash lands in the North Sea just east of Scarborough.

This delightful little curiosity - bringing cosmic intrigue to Little England in a manner not altogether dissimilar to Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright's recent The World's End (2013) - comes from director Anthony Kimmins, a veteran of multiple George Formby vehicles, who shows laudable ingenuity in getting a great deal done with almost no budget to speak of, a no-name cast and just a 63 minute running time. Kimmins succeeds in presenting us with a complete village's worth of distinct if clearly allegorical characters and  develops a pleasing sub-plot about Drake's doting daughter (the lovely René Ray) being pursued by the rebellious young lord of the manor (Derrick De Marney) despite his snooty parents' disapproval, a scenario always popular with W.C. Fields

Those looking for overt social comment or insights into the broader 1930's context from Once Upon A New Moon may be disappointed, although there's a striking moment during a newspaper-montage sequence - intended to show Britain's aghast response to Shrimpton's disappearance - when one of the other prominent headlines featured on a frontpage reads: "Nazi Terror in Vienna". One wonders if Once In A New Moon were well enough known to have been an influence on Ealing's later Went The Day Well? (1942).

18/10/2014

Red River (1948)


"I didn't know the big son of a bitch could act!"
- John Ford on John Wayne

Howard Hawks' Red River - a psychological Western with a distinctly Oedipal twist - is often talked about as an early example of the Classic Hollywood school of acting encountering the young upstarts of the Method, with John Wayne's on-the-horse/off-the-horse style squaring up to Monty Clift's soulful sensitivity drawn from personal experience.

That's certainly one interesting aspect of the film - Clift providing quite a contrast to the practiced genre playing of Wayne and Walter Brennan - but it's less often remarked quite what a phenomenal undertaking the production was. As with Werner Herzog's Fitzcarraldo (1982), the cast and crew found themselves forced to live their story, leading a giant herd of cattle along the arduous Chisholm Trail while loaded with costumes and kit and toiling away in baking temperatures and only limited shade. The end more than justifies the means, however, with Hawks conjuring up a truly immersive experience for his audience, taking us into the fray by placing a camera in the rear of a covered wagon as the group wades across a high river and casting us among the fleeing cattle during a standout stampede* sequence.



The plot, adapted by Borden Chase and Charles Schnee from the former's Saturday Evening Post yarn, concerns Wayne's Tom Dunson, who stakes his claim on Texas soil in 1851 and builds a major beef empire after his girlfriend is butchered by Indians when a wagon train she is part of is attacked. Dunson adopts the only survivor of that atrocity, Matthew Garth (Mickey Kuhn), and raises him as a son with help from his old confidante Groot (Brennan). 15 years later, the Lone Star State is impoverished in the aftermath of the Civil War and Dunson needs to sell his herd to keep the business afloat. Setting off on the 1,000 mile trek to Missouri, Dunson and his men soon suffer terrible hardship, weakened by bad coffee and short rations. Dunson himself becomes tyrannical and obsessive in the best spirit of Captains Blye and Ahab, forcing the adult Garth (Clift) to intervene and overthrow him, diverting the cattle drivers east towards Abilene, Kansas, where the new railroad has just hit town. Dunson, maimed, swears revenge.



But Garth's coup is much more than a dramatic plot turn. For Red River is really a critique of posturing alpha male masculinity, offering us Garth the thoughtful, feminised consensus-seeker as an alternative to Dunson's unchecked and wrong-headed machismo and aggression.

As with other tough guy stars of the 1940s, Big Duke Wayne found post-war America ready for a more nuanced and complicated hero and more open to questioning the action man exploits he had previously thrived on following six long years of global conflict. Bogie would become Captain Queeg in The Caine Mutiny (1954), Bob Mitchum a murderous preacher in The Night Of The Hunter (1955) and even loveable Jimmy Stewart a tortured neurotic in Vertigo (1958).


Wayne's Tom Dunson, a forerunner to the borderline psychotic Ethan Edwards of The Searchers (1956), is sidelined by Garth, however reluctantly, because his macho management style has bred an unhappy camp where morale is low and dissent rife. Dunson, white haired and covered in trail dust, looks like a phantom, his brutal, militaristic instincts having finally led him astray and rendered him obsolete. Garth, the Fletcher Christian of the piece, is the New Man that America needs, a proto-Democrat and pacifist prepared to listen and take counsel to achieve the best result in opposition to the overbearing authoritarianism of his Republican father figure, which, Red River shows us, has become a dangerous dead end. The film's gender politics are further underlined when both men are giving a thorough dressing down by a woman (!) at the close, love interest Joanne Dru handing out the ticking off with evident relish.

*That scene is also a fine example of how to turn comedy into tragedy. A recurring joke about a cattlehand with a sweet tooth pinching sugar from Brennan's chuck wagon is finally revealed to be the set-up for a disaster: his clumsily upsetting a pile of pots and pans while seeking to satisfy his craving causes the spooked herd to turn tail and run and a colleague (Harry Carey Jr) to be trampled to death in the ensuing melee.

Harry McClintock - The Old Chisholm Trail