16/06/2011

In A Lonely Place (1950)


"I was born when she kissed me. I died when she left me. I lived a few weeks while she loved me."
- Dix Steele

One of my favourite films of all time, no question. Humphrey Bogart stars as Dixon Steele, an embittered and highly volatile Beverley Hills scriptwriter who "hasn't written a hit since before the war". Tasked with adapting a voguish novel for the screen that he can't bear to read, Steele takes home an enthusiastic hatcheck girl, Mildred Atkinson (Martha Stewart), to recite the plot to him. When she turns up dead the next day, Dix is the obvious suspect. Questioned by police, he meets his striking new neighbour for the first time, Laurel Gray (Gloria Grahame), who provides him with an alibi. The pair soon find themselves falling in love and, inspired and assisted by his new muse, Steele writes his best work in years. However, with the murder still unsolved and the ongoing investigation hanging over the couple, can Laurel really love a man whose violent temper frightens her so?



Like the earlier Nicholas Ray-Bogart collaboration Knock On Any Door (1949), this baby was produced for Columbia Pictures by Bogie's own Santana Productions (named after his favourite boat). The star's old friend Edmund H. North was assigned to adapt the source, a 1947 thriller by Dorothy B. Hughes, with screenwriter Andrew Solt and the resulting film, originally titled Behind This Mask, is a beautifully fraught, deeply emotional little noir full of pain, resentment, doubt and distrust. Unusually for this blackest of genres, the crime itself takes a back seat to the explosive, intense and sad romance between Dix and Laurel, two damaged people prepared to allow hope to triumph over experience and let love in one last time. He is a fundamentally good man - loyal to his friends like washed up brandy soak Charlie Waterman (Robert Warwick, another old chum who had mentored Bogie in his early theatre days) and beloved by his agent (Art Smith) - but one tragically unable to control himself in the heat of the moment. She is a failed actress - scared of commitment and on the run from a real estate dealer who tried to tie her down with a proposal. Both are as doomed as anyone else in American noir and know it but, for a few weeks, dare to believe otherwise and it breaks your heart to watch them self-destruct. Their redemption can only ever be temporary because of their respective compulsions towards brutality and suspicion.

Ray deserves enormous credit for having the courage to jettison his own original ending, which would have seen Dix strangle Laurel in a fit of rage and find himself cuffed at his typewriter just as he puts the finishing touches to his magnum opus. The director realised this was cornball stuff and had his leads improvise a far more plausible, adult conclusion in which Steele simply walks out on the last good thing that's ever likely to happen to him. The leads are on top form here, with former silent starlet Louise Brooks famously hailing her pal's performance as the closest he ever came to committing his real persona to celluloid. The ever-luminous Gloria Grahame is as lovely as always, having beaten Lauren Bacall and Ginger Rogers to the part (though Mrs B was contractually bound to Warner Brothers at the time), and managed to turn in one of her best ever performances in spite of the fact that her marriage to the director was disintegrating all around her during shooting after she was discovered in bed with Ray's teenage son.

04/06/2011

The Bridge On The River Kwai (1957)



David Lean, Alec Guinness and Sessue Hayakawa enjoy a joke on location during the shooting of this sumptuous, Oscar-gathering World War II epic from the British director of Brief Encounter (1945) and Lawrence Of Arabia (1962). The film's location shoot in Sri Lanka was not always this cosy, however. The climate proved unbearably humid and riddled with poisonous pests, the film's assistant director John Kerrison was killed in an auto smash and its director and star feuded constantly over how best to interpret the character of their protagonist, but the results more than justified everyone's efforts.

I've recently signed on to write some reviews and short features for Blockbuster (which will appear here soon) and am already finding it difficult to get in through my own front door because of all the free Blu-rays they keep sending me to write about. Sigh. It's a hard life. Anyway, The Bridge On The River Kwai represents part of one of my first assignments and I'm glad as it's one of those films I've never quite found time for in the past. However, it turns out to be a gorgeous piece of work and one that has now been so beautifully restored from the original negative that you can almost feel the lush jungle foliage closing in all around you and the sweltering sun blistering your skin beneath sweat-soiled khaki.


Lean's film is a fictionalised account of the building of the Burmese Railway by Japan's prisoners of war in 1943, based on a 1952 novel by Frenchman Pierre Boulle, author of Planet Of The Apes (1963). Boulle was credited with writing the screenplay but its real authors were the then blacklisted Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson, with input from Lean. The rights to the novel had passed from Alexander Korda's London Films to Sam Spiegel's Horizon Films after the Hungarian director decided the subject matter had little mass appeal and would prove problematic. Over the years Lean's work has certainly accumulated criticism for its failure to accurately convey the squalid conditions of the territory's bamboo labour camps or the brutal treatment meted out to Allied soldiers by their captors but it remains a stunning human drama nevertheless. Guinness, returning to Lean's side after a brace of brilliant Charles Dickens adaptations in the forties, Great Expectations (1946) and Oliver Twist (1948), is absolutely unforgettable as Lieutenant Colonel Nicholson, a man whose stiff upper lip is so immovable that he is quite prepared to starve to death "as a matter of principle" over the treatment of officers by his nemesis, the utterly compromised, impotent and ultimately doomed Colonel Saito (Hayakawa). Nicholson refuses to surrender his faith in military discipline, order and "civilisation", even as his copy of the Geneva Convention is slapped from his hand and he finds himself dragged off to face days upon days of dehydration and solitary confinement. "Do not speak to me of rules. This is war! This is not a game of cricket!" cries the uncomprehending Saito, but he is soon forced to accept the Englishman's terms in order to ensure his hopeless project is completed. For Nicholson, the titular bridge soon becomes an obsession - a monument to the redoubtable spirit of his battalion and Great British engineering as well as a means of keeping up his men's proud sense of identity as soldiers rather than broken slaves in the face of oppression. So monomaniacal is his fixation with the construction that he finally loses self-control and attacks William Holden's US Naval Commander Shears as he attempts to blow it up, but Nicholson's death, in which he falls lifelessly onto the detonator, destroying his masterpiece, must be one of the greatest in cinema and is as revelatory in its way as Captain Ahab's.

Orson Welles, John Ford, Howard Hawks, Fred Zinneman and William Wyler were all approached to direct at various stages during pre-production and David Lean was ultimately only selected because of an "absence of anybody else", according to Spiegel at his most disingenuous. The brash Jewish producer was temperamentally at odds with the Englishman and the pair locked antlers on several occasions. Similarly, Charles Laughton, Noël Coward, Ray Milland, Anthony Quayle, James Mason, Douglas Fairbanks Jr, Ronald Colman and Ralph Richardson were all considered for the part of Nicholson ahead of Guinness. The production's real winner, however, proved to be Holden, who took home 10% of the box office takings on top of his appearance fee, a move that made the actor very rich indeed. Cary Grant had been promised Holden's part and reportedly wept when it was taken away from him. Little wonder.


While it might be tempting to compare The Bridge On The River Kwai with other wartime jungle epics such as John Huston's The African Queen (1951, another Spiegel joint) or Apocalypse Now (1979), it perhaps most closely resembles Werner Herzog's Fitzcarraldo (1982) as a portrait of one man's descent into madness as a result of a deranged determination to build a major piece of infrastructure in impossible terrain. The scene in which the wooden bridge finally does explode in a shower of fire and splinters also recalls the extraordinary Civil War train wreck in Buster Keaton's The General (1926). Finally, Lean's film is highly recommended to fans of HBO's recent hit miniseries The Pacific (2010), which dealt with the broader context of Second World War combat in South East Asia.