Saturday, September 26, 2009

Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) - #325

It is so difficult to make a neat job of killing people with whom one is not on friendly terms.

How refreshing it is, in this long stretch of art house classics that I've committed myself to watching, that Kind Hearts and Coronets pops up as a nicely comedic change of pace. Movies as flat out funny as this don't come up in the Criterion Collection as often as the more somber, philosophically rigorous and dramatically tragic offerings, and I appreciate the chance to laugh it up a bit (quite a lot, actually) as I go about my studies. Not to imply that Kind Hearts and Coronets is a lightweight trifle - no, that's not at all the case. The film carries a message of socio-political significance, girded by shrewd psychological insights into the human condition and delivered with impeccable wit and intelligence. But it may take a second or third viewing for all of that to sink in - the first time through, at least for me, was spent simply enjoying the wickedly delightful absurdity of watching a well-mannered sociopath exact murderous revenge on an aristocratic clan who'd done him and his mama wrong at an early age.

Kind Hearts and Coronets is probably best known for one of three reasons, which I'll list here in descending order:

1) It's the film in which Alec Guinness plays eight different parts, all members of the D'Ascoyne family (six of whom fall victim to foul play, all of whom die before the movie's end.) He does a terrific job, bringing quirky nuances to each character even if they only get to fill a few minutes of screen time.

2) It's the most famous and beloved production of Britain's Ealing Studios - and a helpful reminder for a classic film novice like me to realize that not every movie made in England in the 1940s was produced via J. Arthur Rank (who put the gong at the beginning of his films) or Alexander Korda (who splashed Big Ben across the screen to start his.)

3) It's the review that DVD Beaver directs its readers to if they want to understand the concept of and reasoning behind "pictureboxing." (For the record, as of today I have no problem with pictureboxing since I still watch on a CRT TV and I appreciate getting the full picture on my almost-archaic convex screen... but when the day comes that I finally upgrade to flatscreen -and it'll be soon - then I'll gladly join the ranks of hi-def snobs who deplore this sacrifice of resolution for the sake of an ever-dwindling home audience.)

There's a lot more to the film than those three points, of course. It must be regarded as one of the most successful black comedies ever made, and by black I don't mean Tyler Perry, Eddie Murphy or Richard Pryor. Those are different kinds of black comedies. (But in regard to this film's controversial use of a particular racial slur, I invite you to check out this essay.) What I mean here is sharply focused, ironic, sophisticated humor about potentially offensive subjects and behavior that would be appalling if acted out in real life. The central narrative of Kind Hearts and Coronets could just as easily be framed and presented as a suspense thriller, a grim, nihilistic film noir or even a twisted, exploitive horror flick. Instead, we get a lively comedy, rich in dialog, that probably could have been as successful on stage as it was on screen - except that Alec Guinness would have had too hard a time playing eight roles, fewer people would have seen it, we wouldn't have had a record of the magnificent performances, and we'd all be the worse off because of that.

But still, cinematically speaking, Kind Hearts and Coronets is a rather straightforward production, without much in the way of innovative camera techniques or imaginative compositions to recommend it. The magic is found in the writing and the casting of Dennis Price, first and foremost, as Louis Mazzini, the young man whose fiendish ambition to clear the path to an aristocratic station in life fuels the action. Louis is the son of a British heiress who fell twice as a young woman - first, she fell in love with an Italian tenor and agreed to marry him; second, she fell out of favor with her parents and relatives, the D'Ascoyne family, headed by the Duke of Chalfont, who considered the arrangement "beneath" her and so cut her entirely out of the family fortune and all other relationships. The hardships that this disinheritance inflicted on Louis' family are presented with sardonic flair, the moral flipside of films like Oliver Twist and A Story of Floating Weeds that also deal with disgraced families, or The Lower Depths and Bicycle Thieves, that take a more earnest approach to the disparities between social classes. Kind Hearts and Coronets takes malevolent glee in bringing to light the petty corruptions and hypocrisies that beset us all, whether we are striving to climb the social ladder or doing our best to make sure that the masses are impeded from advancing one rung further than necessary, lest they disrupt our hard-earned comforts and privileges. There are no virtuous poor here, no solidarity of the proletariat, no heroic struggles against the forces of oppression. The social milieu of Kind Hearts and Coronets is a quietly corrosive and exploitive one, despite all its surface level exhibitions of scrupulous propriety and prominent achievements in life.

This venal spirit pretty thoroughly inhabits the film, but it's pulled off so charmingly, with such consummate skill and droll turns of phrase, that we easily lose track of just how heinous Louis' behavior becomes as he finds new ways to knock off his unwitting rivals to the dukedom, all the while ingratiating himself to those toward whom he bears only the illest of will. His murderous episodes progress from almost passively benign (loosening a line that sends a small rowboat carrying his first victims over a waterfall) to whimsical (shooting down a hot air balloon that leads to a crash landing in London's Berkeley Square) and finally, to a cold-blooded shotgun blast, looking his victim right in the eye. And we're sitting there laughing at him the whole time!

Here's a clip in which you can see for yourself a few choice displays of Louis' homicidal knack:

And as far as disordered conduct is concerned, Louis' killing spree only covers roughly half of his symptomatic behavior, because he's also quite manipulative in his relationships with women (I won't dignify them by calling them "romantic.") The subplots involving his philandering with childhood flame Sibella (played by Joan Greenwood, whose voice and facial mannerisms just beguile me) and the widow Edith D'Ascoyne (Valerie Hobson, much better suited to this role than she was as the adult Estella in Great Expectations) are more complicated than I wish to get into here (and are best enjoyed without spoilers anyway.) The actions of the principal players are all quite reprehensible - the games that Sibella and Louis play with each other's affections (and ambitions) doubtlessly stir up in the viewer recollections of past romantic entanglements - and perhaps more recent ones too! - as unfortunate as that must be. But at least this film gives us a chance to find humorous perspective in such circumstances.

Kind Hearts and Coronets has been a staple atop the Best British Films Ever Made lists for several decades now and as I mentioned it on Twitter and did some reading up on the film, I discovered that it holds a pretty dedicated audience, which I completely understand. I count myself as a big admirer too - it's practically flawless at what it sets out to do and I can hardly say enough good things about the ending. Without giving it away, I just love how it leaves the audience dangling, withdrawing from the action and closing down the narrative at precisely the right moment, so much unresolved, just as it should be - sheer comedic perfection! (Well, the original ending, that is. The "American ending" found on the Criterion disc offers a sad example of how "American" can sometimes be synonymous with "dumbed-down, moralistic and spoon fed" in cultural matters.)

But beyond the two hours of amusement (and the nice lingering after-effect of so many great lines that come to mind upon reflection,) there is, as I said above, a deeper level of insight and a sharper critique of the social order that informs Kind Hearts and Coronets. It's quite a subversive film, especially coming from a studio that consciously prided itself as being a champion of solid British values and mores. The accompanying documentary on Ealing Studios provides a lot of background on their films and helped me get a sense of how exceptional Kind Hearts and Coronets is among their works. The sexual frankness and satirical mockery of so many English institutions went further than studio chief Michael Balcon wanted to, but he was unable to tone it down when his creative people insisted on releasing the film uncut. And when it became a big hit, well, that's when Balcon saw the light and proclaimed it "the best film we have made!"

I have to conclude that a big reason that Kind Hearts and Coronets found such a receptive audience upon its release is that it reflected a popular break with the Edwardian ethos that it lampooned. It's significant to note that the era portrayed on screen appears to be the late 1890s or so, the very height of the British Empire. The England of 1949 had gone through a transformation that their forebears of 50 years earlier could scarcely have envisioned or believed if it had been described to them. Two world wars, and especially the one just concluded, cast a dubious light on the pompous certainties and smug presumptions of those bygone days. Kind Hearts and Coronets inserts into that Edwardian era a character whose jaded perception and comfort with his own disillusionment more closely matches that of the contemporary audience. Though the war had turned out basically OK from the British point of view, a lot had been lost, and there was no easy way of settling the score with the perpetrators of so much injustice. A collective craving for revenge had been established, and as people of taste, they were pleased to have it served to them cold, even if only in the form of a delightfully amoral and consequence-free indulgence on the silver screen.

Monday, September 21, 2009

The Small Back Room (1949) - #441

Stop playing with figures, my boy. Learn something about soldiering.

I haven't read extensively from whatever critical scholarship The Small Back Room has generated, but from just a bit of poking around on the internet, it seems like most viewers don't make as much of the complementary contrasts between this film and its immediate predecessor, The Red Shoes, among the works of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, aka the Archers. I mean, there is the obvious difference, noted right on the back of the Criterion DVD case, that The Small Back Room was shot in black and white whereas The Red Shoes contains some of the most splendid Technicolor sequences ever created. But more fundamentally, it seems to me, the two films play off of each other almost like polar opposites in some ways. I could easily divide their attributes as antithetical pairs; in fact, I will!

The Small Back Room = science, technology, weapons, politics, masculinity, emotional repression, fear, angst, claustrophobia, sparse, behind the scenes.

The Red Shoes = art, dance, creativity, show business, femininity, emotional expression, love, loyalty, exploration, extravagant, public performance.

You'll have to mentally arrange the terms in columns since I can't format this blog to do that for you... but you get the point. I can't say at all that the Archers consciously mapped the movies out that way. They appear to have just produced the stories that were both interesting and financially viable for them at the time, and they'd spent a few years batting around the idea of basing a film on this wartime novel. The book cover, by the way, is pictured above, using a movie still as its illustration. This is a film so obscure that I could not find a single reproduction of an original film poster anywhere on line! Not even under it's alternative American-release name "Hour of Glory." Which genuinely surprises me since the Archers seem to have developed a loyal (and deserved) following. I guess this film just didn't register over the long haul quite as much as some of their more opulent, cheery and accessible productions.

So even though I was mostly a novice to the Archers films before starting this series in January 2009, I'd still seen a couple of their films (Black Narcissus, 49th Parallel) and heard enough about others (The Red Shoes and A Canterbury Tale) to recognize that they had something special going on. Still, The Small Back Room really didn't seem to register much with anyone that I'd read, and when the DVD was released (not so long ago, by the time that I was paying attention to all the new Criterion issues) I don't recall much hoopla or celebration that this film had, at long last, been made available to American viewers. It simply seemed to take its place on the Criterion shelf, more of a niche-filler for Powell & Pressburger completists than anything else.

But I think it's better than just that.

I don't think The Small Back Room can be convincingly argued as a "superior" film to the other Archers titles I've already listed, but for many guys my age, it will probably prove to be more resonant with their experience than, say, the high society theatrical milieu of The Red Shoes, or the military high command of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, two major titles in that oeuvre. Like many of their films, The Small Back Room is set in wartime England, and it shares a very similar specificity in time - spring 1943 - with another WWII British flick reviewed here awhile back, Green for Danger. Those were dark days for England, with the war's outcome genuinely uncertain and an already harried populace having to deal with an increasingly random and nihilistic onslaught from German airborne missiles. The dramatic setting has to do with a rash of booby-trap bombs that have recently exploded, killing children and others who innocently pick up the containers, curious to know what's inside. A Capt. Stuart has been commissioned to find someone able to figure out how to safely dismantle the bombs, once they can find one that hadn't already been detonated.

Stuart's search leads him to Sammy Rice, one of the "back room boys" (basically, engineers, technicians or in Brit slang, "boffins" who make stuff, run tests, fix gadgets and crunch the numbers) for an independent research team run by an old scientist, Professor Mair. Rice, middle-aged and handsome in a Fred MacMurray kind of way, really isn't as much of a "boy" as some of the others on his team, but he's not exactly a stable role model either. Brilliant in terms of technical knowledge, he's also wrestling with his demons. An unspecified trauma, presumably a war injury, has cost him his right foot, and he's wavering between prescribed pain-killers and Scotch whiskey as his preferred medication of choice, whiskey being the more volatile and dangerous of the two as far as its effect on the man. And in the depths of his self-pity and accompanying self-recriminations for being such a wretch, Sammy quickly loses perspective and drags the only person really close to him down into the slough with him - Susan, who happens to be the secretary for Mair's research team, and a woman who lives "just across the hall" from his apartment (since the movies weren't quite ready to have adult men and women cohabitating on screen in 1949, or for some years to come.)

On top of Sammy's personal struggles, he also finds himself unpleasantly scrunched in the midst of some military-industrial-political intrigues, as his research team has been hired to submit an evaluation on a new artillery cannon to be purchased by the British army. Sammy's visit to a test firing session that takes place, astonishingly, at Stonehenge on Salisbury Plain, raises suspicions that the gun is basically unreliable junk, but of course that's hardly a strong enough verdict to wipe out lucrative defense contracts. And a too blatant disruption of business-as-usual could have a devastating effect on the team, dependent as they are on remaining in the good graces of favorably disposed politicians and appointees. Sammy, of course, has no time or patience for all this and would like nothing more than to just swat the smarmy connivers away like so many gnats, so that he could focus on his research and figure out how to get his love life back on track. But the distractions just don't stop. And now Susan is starting to press him to get over his mopeyness and do something to fill the leadership void she sees coming when old Prof. Mair is finally put out to pasture.

Dramatic tensions build as the conflict with Susan comes to a head - and his resistance to the call of a whiskey bottle on his desk (sealed and set aside for V-Day when England finally wins its bloody war) finally erodes. What follows is a fantastic, mildly surrealist scene, not exactly a dream sequence but close enough to qualify, said to be influenced by a similar passage in Hitchcock's Spellbound, in which Sammy comes just this close to the snapping point in working through his dreadful fascination with that damned bottle (or more precisely, what it contains.):

Susan, thankfully, arrives just in time to break the spell, but even her intervention can only hold for so long. Sammy finally, inevitably, goes on the bender that we all knew was coming... and of course, it's just as he's at the point of an irretrievable tumble over the edge that he gets his reprieve - in the form of a task. Sammy has to snap out of his drunken stupor and immediately rush off... to defuse a bomb and render England's green and pleasant land safe once again for British children and countryfolk to wander to and fro.

However, it's not a sun-dappled patch of heather to which Sammy must fly; his task is much more diabolically complicated. A pair of bombs have fallen on Chesil Bank, a 20-mile stretch of seashore consisting of nothing but loosely shifting pebbles, like so many marbles in a heap. The first bomb is Stuart's assignment, the second is Sammy's. This clip (a bit of a spoiler, I should warn you) leads into a masterfully suspenseful, brilliantly assembled sequence in which Sammy mans up and faces an all-or-nothing challenge: neuter the bomb and, in the process, shove all that self-doubting, whiny, mewling, sob-story crap behind you so that you can get on with your life... or get blown to bits! Well, when you put it that way, the choice becomes stark, crystal clear.

That's the gist of it then - the wartime period piece atmosphere, the literary quality of the script, fine attention to film-making detail and subtle, respectfully intelligent psychological insights that don't have to be made so glaringly obvious are all just bonuses on what is essentially a summons for men to overcome some of the pitfalls of mid-life manhood: to not let old hurts, thwarted ambitions, romantic troubles or the allure of drunken escapism render us irrelevant before old age and the march of time make it unavoidable anyway. It's also quite fun to watch this film after one has seen Black Narcissus, which features the male and female leads from The Small Back Room in very memorable and significant support roles.

We're getting pretty close to the end of the Archers on Criterion - just one more left to go, and then a Michael Powell solo project (if it's ever proper to apply that term to a film) made years later. The Small Back Room is probably not the ideal place to start if you want to dig into their filmography - I'd recommend watching them in order like I did! - but it's a good place to visit if you need to work out some kinks in your machinery, bounce a few ideas off of some like-minded fellows, step away from the careerists and the women folk for awhile and steady out your nerves.

Eclipse Review: I Shot Jesse James

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Bicycle Thieves (1948) - #374

Either you find it right away, or you never will.

I’ve been hanging around Bicycle Thieves long enough – it’s been a couple weeks since my last entry here and when I haven’t been busy with family, work or watching football, this great classic of world cinema has been consistently spinning on my video players and in the background of my imagination. I have a habit of carrying my “DVD of the moment” around with me in my backpack most places I go, and since Bicycle Thieves comes in a light paperboard slipcase, its corners and edges show a nicely proletarian degree of wear and tear from the ordeal. I’m not a mint condition freak by any means, but I figure that’s a hint to me that it’s time to move on to the next movie.

So here’s my second take on Bicycle Thieves. I scrapped most of my first one because I got off course trying to pass along too much second- or third-hand knowledge of neorealism and the socio-economic conditions of postwar Italy. Don’t get me wrong, those are interesting subjects, and a basic understanding of the times and background of the film add to one’s enjoyment. But to me it feels like I’d make a mistake to spend too much time trying to convince you I’ve done my homework. That’s not the prerequisite for appreciating what Vittorio di Sica, Cesare Zavattini (who also stirred my conscience in The Children Are Watching Us) and others achieved in this elegant, simple and universally accessible work of art.

As often noted, the "action" of Bicycle Thieves can be summed up briefly enough to drop it in as a secondary subplot in most other films. Antonio, a poor, dejected and unemployed laborer in a city teeming with others like him, unexpectedly lands a job which requires the use of his bicycle, presently in hock. His wife agrees to pawn the linens from her dowry in order to reclaim the bicycle. The family is cheered by the promise of a "good city job," convinced that, for them at least, hard times are finally over. On his first day at work, the bike is stolen and the anonymous thief rides off into the city. The man, accompanied by his eight year old son, spends the next two days looking for his bike but never finds it, all the while working through the emotions stirred up by his dilemma. That's about it - some formula! You won’t find any of the staples that typically grab an audience by the collar: nobody dies, there aren't any love triangles, nothing much in the way of comic relief. We see a couple of small musical numbers, but they don't provide much diversion. Even though the film is shot in Rome with some interesting buildings and nicely framed cityscapes, the movie doesn't offer much in the way of a travelogue. A brief glance at a crinkly poster of Rita Hayworth is about as sexy as it gets. The humble, unassuming chase scenes are so plodding and brief as to hardly merit mention, and even the one clear moment of revenge and retribution that most movie audiences crave and expect gets undercut before we can reach a satisfying denouement. The ending, despite its genuine poignancy, leaves many loose ends hanging about the fate of the man, his job and his family. Hardly the kind of subject that would convince a profit-driven studio exec to pull out his checkbook and fire up the green light. (Ironically, the film went on to great success and won an Academy Award, despite its creators’ rather pointed critique of just about everything Hollywood – part of the old “if you can’t stop ‘em, assimilate ‘em” showbiz strategy that ensures the eventual homogenization and domestication of just about every subversive effort to dismantle The System.)

But far from leaving me feeling disappointed, I marveled at the realization that this is one of the first dramatic films I’ve seen in this series of great motion pictures that dared to refrain from delivering the obvious payoff. There is, to be sure, an emotional climax that relies on our sense of empathy and even a touch of sentimentality to bring about a satisfying conclusion. But the lack of resolution, the somber outlook on what the characters are likely to face in the near future, and the tensions that have yet to be resolved beyond the relief experienced by a father and son holding hands in the aftermath of a crisis – all give Bicycle Thieves a sense of true-to-life ordinariness quite distinct from just about all of the Criterion films I’ve watched up until this point. And because of that, the horizons of cinema expanded in ways that future artists explored to great effect: a willingness to engage in bold, confrontational political debates, and to bravely explore the big truths awaiting discovery in mundane events - two noble causes that Bicycle Thieves advanced considerably.

Of course, edgier experimentation and more radical ventures into social provocation that took place over the next several decades can have the effect of making Bicycle Thieves seem underwhelming to those who hear more about the film's greatness than is usually healthy prior to actually viewing it. But seen on its own terms, apart from any obligation to affirm critical consensus or admire its stature as an important cultural milestone, Bicycle Thieves primarily stands out as an emotionally accessible, empathy-generating work of art. In the context of films from this era, I was fascinated to get another long look (a la Kurosawa’s Drunken Angel) from the losing side of World War II, when the postwar malaise had yet to subside, after watching a string of releases from the American and British perspective. Though I don't think the Italians ever generated hostility on a level comparable to the Germans or the Japanese within the Allied nations, a movie like this one - a story capable of connecting with anyone who's experienced the swift descent from relieved elation to helplessly crushing disappointment in the span of a day - had to have a healing, reconciling effect across cultures that had so recently been at war.

As a husband and father who’s had to guide a family through lean financial times (though never the kind of crushing poverty depicted on a mass scale here) and also had to earn back lost respect through impulsive acts and foolish choices I’ve made over the years, I felt a quick and sustained bond with Antonio, the hard-pressed guy who thought he’d caught a lucky break but now, through no apparent fault of his own, was in a more painfully screwed up position than ever after losing his bike. The stunned realization of what just happened, the utter helplessness to reverse events and the growing sense of futility as his best attempts to fix the situation fell flat – that all hit me, and more. The ineffectual advice of friends, the disinterested police force, and the corrupted neighbors who seem just on the verge of openly relishing his misfortune – what a potent stew of emotions get stirred up the more I ponder the misery of his predicament. So I hardly blame him for getting resentful, self-absorbed and reckless as the day goes on – and yet it’s also so clear that giving in to those feelings is only going to make his plight worse. And that’s not even considering the effect that it has on his son, Bruno.

Ah Bruno. What a face! Apparently di Sica saw him one day on the streets of Rome, just a wandering boy, and quickly concluded that he was the one the director needed to play that role. Forget that the kid wasn’t an actor – he had the look, and di Sica had the ability to coax the right performance from his amateur cast. Unable to track him down, di Sica arranged for a casting call to be held in the neighborhood where he knew the boy lived, drawing thousands of Italian “street urchins” to the event. And when di Sica finally saw the face he was looking for in the crowd, he informed his assistant and that was the end of the casting call.

Like The Fallen Idol, Bicycle Thieves presents another loss of childhood innocence narrative, though it’s fair to assume that Bruno has already suffered a lot more hard knocks in his life than Phile, the son of a wealthy diplomat. (Bruno’s also a few years older, to be fair.) But even in making the comparison, The Fallen Idol (which I liked) comes out unfavorably, as its plot developments are more sensational, gimmicky and unbelievable next to the very plausible situation facing Bruno as he witnesses his father’s breakdown at the end of the film. That central human drama, the resilience of family even when all the other trappings of stability and well-being collapse around us, and the apparent indifference of the larger society to reconstruct itself to prevent or at least reduce the number of such calamities – these are the deeper thoughts that two weeks of living with Bicycle Thieves have stirred up in me!

Here’s a nice, short, homemade trailer that I like for its ability to reconnect a previous viewer of Bicycle Thieves to some crucial moments in the film, without giving away too much for those who haven’t seen it yet):

Monday, September 7, 2009

Unfaithfully Yours (1948) - #292

All I do is wave a little wand a little, and out comes the music.

As the career of director Preston Sturges wound down from the incredible peak he achieved in the early 1940s, when he ran off a string of films that were hits then and universally recognized comedy classics to this day, it seems like the one-time "can't miss" auteur was either running out of ideas or consumed by a particular need to get one of his old stories out in the public sphere. Or maybe both. Unfaithfully Yours was based on a story he'd been unable to pitch since the early 1930s when he was just starting out as a screenwriter. The film represents the functional end-of-the-line for this brilliant talent from Hollywood's Golden Age, even though Sturges went on to take part in the creation of a few more films over the next decade or so. I find the story's long gestation period interesting because it hints at something deeper than usual that drove Sturges to see it through to final print. All the commentaries and analyses I've read point out the obvious parallels between the director and the central character of the film, Sir Alfred de Carter, British aristocrat and world-famous symphony conductor. For this tale of an obsessive, easily provoked, recklessly jealous creative genius to have as much staying power as it did in Sturges' imagination, I can't help but imagine that de Carter's central dilemma had much in common with the travails that Sturges himself went through as he saw his romantic and authorial powers wax and wane over the space of nearly two decades.

I'm no expert on Sturges by any measure, but all it takes is a brief look at his filmography on IMDb to get a picture of how things went for him. After a decade of working his way up the showbiz ladder, Sturges was given a crack at the director's chair in 1940, starting with The Great McGinty. Over the space of three years, he released five films, including earlier Criterions The Lady Eve and Sullivan's Travels, all highly successful comedies in both popular and critical terms. His reputation and familiarity surpassed that of every other Hollywood director of his time and I learned from the commentary that he was "the third highest paid man in America" in the mid-1940s. In short, he was a superstar director, a bigger celebrity behind the camera in some ways than the idols he put up on screen. But as often happens, his comet blazed bright and burned fast. He sought to branch out from the witty comedies he was known for and found that turning melodramas into hits wasn't as easy as some made it look. Following the disappointments of The Great Moment (a biopic about the inventor of dental anesthesia - what were they thinking?!) he didn't seem all that well situated to make a successful transition to the postwar tastes of American society. He flubbed with The Sin of Harold Diddlebock, known mostly as Harold Lloyd's last film (and an unfortunate epilogue to that great career.) A misguided partnership with Howard Hughes promised him independence from the studio system but never materialized into any worthwhile footage. By 1947, Sturges was floundering and looking to salvage his reputation and get his career back on track. He took an offer to join 20th Century Fox and submitted his screenplay for Unfaithfully Yours as the first of two films they agreed to release.

That's a little more film-maker bio than I usually provide or get concerned with, but I think that context is important to understanding the film in question. Unfaithfully Yours could probably stand alone on its own terms as a dark comedy that takes interesting risks for a film of its time. But because it focuses so persistently on the psychological processes of a singularly gifted individual who doesn't offer all that much for "the common man" to relate with, it probably helps to create as much empathy for the auteur and his on-screen representative as possible. And it probably helps explain why Unfaithfully Yours had a hard time finding an appreciative audience when it was released at the end of 1948.

As I've said, Sir Alfred de Carter is a prominent maestro who's just landed back in the States after some time spent away from his wife, taking care of business in his native England. He sweeps in with all the flourishes befitting a man of his station in life. He regales his entourage with witty but imperious commands, showers affection on his beautiful young wife Daphne and berates August, his stuffy, wealthy brother-in-law (who married his wife's wise-cracking sister.) Though he despises August on the basis of sheer incompatibility, Sir Alfred is moved to outrage when August informs him that he set a detective on Daphne's trail during his travels. Over the course of the next half hour (film time), de Carter's haughty demeanor is gradually eroded as (against his better impulses) he comes to suspect that his loving and devoted wife betrayed his trust by having a fling with Tony, his handsome, virile and young personal secretary, while he was away. This clip, probably my very favorite dialog scene in the whole movie (though there are several other great ones,) shows Sir Alfred's armor cracking just a little, just enough for the seeds of jealousy to be planted and take root. Sweeney the detective is a minor character, but a real gem - the one guy in the movie who, presumably based on experience and a keen grasp of human nature, is able to penetrate de Carter's defenses and discern, more deeply than the maestro himself has yet realized, just what's bugging the great man.

That envious sprout grows in the fertile soil of de Carter's passionate imagination, coming into full bloom that same evening as the great conductor takes the podium in concert. We've already seen de Carter and his orchestra at work, in a beautiful scene that you can view here. (I didn't embed the clip because it contains another reviewer's voice-over analysis of the scene and I didn't want readers here to think it was me.) That early scene, and the later segments that feature Sir Alfred's visualizations of his emotional response to Daphne's infidelity, remind us that this is a film as much about the creative process as it is about marital/romantic relationships. In this, the film shares quite a bit in common with The Red Shoes, also released that same year. The two movies would make for an interesting side-by-side study, especially in contrasting the seasoned, worldly Sir Alfred de Carter (for whom art is important but best enjoyed with vulgar relish, not rhapsodic worship or rigid pomposity) with the two male leads of The Red Shoes, Lermontov (who considers ballet his religion) and Craster (who takes his conducting oh-so-seriously and regards ballet as a step or two beneath his calling.)

Those "emotional visualizations" I mentioned just now are the feature that makes Unfaithfully Yours more than just a stock comedy about the tensions that inevitably rise up in romantic relationships. To audiences of the time expecting plenty of laughs from a Sturges film, or even today if we don't expect it, it was/is rather unsettling to enter directly into the consciousness of the lead character and witness through his mind's eye the homicidal fantasy he indulges in while leading the orchestra through a powerful musical passage - especially since the crime he envisions is so dark and brutal. Of course, it's that very edginess that now helps the film stand out and hold our attention these days - but it's no surprise to me, after watching it, to learn that Unfaithfully Yours failed in its bid to catapult Preston Sturges back to the top ranks of American film directors. Instead, he got the closed-door treatment in Hollywood much more often than not, a classic case of "what have you done for me lately."

Though most of the film's critical attention seems to focus on the first of the three fantasy sequences (the one where he kills Daphne,) the other two are worth mentioning here. They all represent a cinematic sleight-of-hand that studio execs know is very difficult to pull off - the depiction on film of events that don't "really" happen. The peril here is, of course, breaking the spell of suspended disbelief that the audience agrees to when sitting down to watch a movie. We all know that unless we're watching a documentary, it's a fiction. But to insert a fiction within a fiction, and leading us to believe even for a short while that those events are an actual part of the narrative... well, that's just too big of a gamble to take for producers who bank on broad mainstream commercial success. Sturges had rejection letters on hand that made that very point, featured among the archival materials on this DVD.

So... Fantasy #2 depicts Sir Alfred, having made a tentative peace with his wife's turn of affections, decides to magnanimously offer her a large sum of money in order to take care of her future needs as he reconciles himself to the reality that as an "older man" he can no longer satisfy her more "youthful" needs. Of course, his intentions aren't so much to demonstrate his readiness to move on as they are to induce wretched guilt in the woman who spurned his affection. And the third sequence takes the grief-and-loss cycle (even if only imagined) to a yet-deeper level of irrationality, a bold challenge to his rival Tony to play a round of Russian Roulette in the presence of their mutual object of desire. Of course, it ends badly, but then again, it's just harmless imaginings, right? Well, not quite.

From that point, Sir Alfred finishes up the concert, sizes up his options, and decides to pursue Fantasy #1. He heads back to their apartment where he'll re-enact his ingeniously-conceived "perfect crime." Only things don't go quite so smoothly in plotting his way through that sort of scheme as they do when he's standing in front of an orchestra with a baton (or standing behind the camera holding a script, for that matter.) Instead, we are treated to a rousing sequence of bumbling slapstick which I found genuinely entertaining and hilarious. Whatever could go wrong in Sir Alfred's murderous skullduggery does go wrong, to great comedic effect. And then, to top it all off... a happy ending! It was, after all, a big misunderstanding, and despite the flare-up of emotions and the genuine risk that Alfred, Daphne and Tony faced (unbeknownst to all but one of them,) relationships are preserved and the show will go on for at least one more performance.

And sometimes, that's as much as we ought to reasonably expect from life - just one more chance to put the petty resentments, insecurities and suspicions that time and circumstance stir up in us, and return to our home base of love.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

The Fallen Idol (1948) - #357

We've got to think of lies and tell them all the time. And then they won't find out the truth.

I was prepared to move quickly past The Fallen Idol in my multi-year trek through the Criterion Collection. After reading a couple reviews in advance of watching it, and sizing up the film based on its premise (a young boy's disillusionment over his suspicion that a favored adult in his life committed murder) and packaging (a fairly lightweight though recent entry into the Collection, with limited special features and not much hype or hipness surrounding its release,) I figured I was in for a solidly-crafted, quality production with a touch of sentimentality... and a touch on the boring side. My working assumption was that the film earned its release through Carol Reed's pedigree as a respected director (hence, some of the dismissive reviews from critics for whom Reed's impeccably tasteful style had fallen out of favor.) Criterion obviously has a fondness (and a loyal audience) for British melodramas and if I'm not mistaken, The Fallen Idol's release as a new DVD was synced with their re-release a couple years ago of an improved edition of The Third Man, the film that Reed made right after this one. So my task was to take stock of this minor entry into the canon and move on quickly enough to the next thing (with the monumental Bicycle Thieves awaiting me very soon after that - another one of those heavyweights that I'll need to devote extra time and attention to in order to adequately grasp its profundities and express my impression of them here.)

But a funny thing happened - I watched the film several nights ago, just once, and the story stuck with me, inhabiting my imagination ever since! The Fallen Idol is a bigger deal to me than I ever expected it would be.

Since I don't think this film's storyline is all that familiar to readers here, compared to recent reviews like Oliver Twist or Hamlet, let me fill you in on what happens. A young boy, Phile (pronounced "fill,") son of a diplomat, is left at his home, an embassy in London, under the care of two servants, the butler Baines and his wife, for the weekend, while his father goes away on official business and his mother finishes a hospital stay where she's been recuperating for several months. Phile doesn't mind being left with Baines because he just adores the man's jovial humor, kindness and willingness to indulge him just a bit. However, Phile doesn't like Mrs. Baines at all, since she's taken it upon herself to occupy the maternal gap in Phile's life in a particularly stern and domineering way. The Baines' are a childless couple, locked in an unhappy marriage, and unknown to Phile, his beloved butler has also become a bit of a philanderer, carrying on a (so far) mild affair with Julie, a young French servant who's worked in the embassy for the past seven months but is now thinking it's time for her to head back home to escape the complications and pressures that this romantic attachment has created in her life. Julie is played by Michele Morgan, whose hypnotic blue-eyed gaze was first observed on this blog as the teenage beauty in the see-through raincoat in 1938's Port of Shadows.

Shortly after all the other adults have left the embassy, conflicts begin to emerge between Phile and Mrs. Baines, leading to him uttering with wonderful understatement, "I hate you!" while seated at the dinner table. Mrs. Baines scolds the boy and sentences him to confinement in his bedroom for the rest of the day. Phile knows better than to openly defy her so he slinks off upstairs, but not before Baines saves the day by quietly nudging across the table a small box containing Phile's beloved (and forbidden) pet snake, Macgregor. Phile is able to sneak the package away without being caught, deepening his admiration for Baines all the more for it.

However, Phile's not so content to stay cooped up on a beautiful day, and as he gazes at the view of London's embassy district from his gorgeous balcony, he sees Baines trotting off across the street. He tries whistling to catch the butler's attention, but can only muster a futile sputter (so cute) and then decides to sneak down the fire escape in order to join his buddy and go for a walk together. At this point, the jaunty, yippity-skippity music that accompanies the scene kind of got to me and began reinforcing the negative presuppositions that had already taken root in my mind. I wondered if the scene might have been more engaging (or less irritating) if the music had been subdued or even absent. Sometimes older soundtracks can have that kind of effect on me, pushing me to assess a movie as quaint or corny when it need not be seen as such. Something I'm learning to work through as I watch older films...

Phile isn't able to stay immediately pick up Baines' trail but through his wanderings, he happens to stumble upon him in a small cafe, quietly conversing with Julie, who's in tears and trying to break off the affair. Phile's sudden entrance into the situation throws everything into highly awkward imbalance, and this is where the film really grabbed me as it began its dissection of adult hypocrisy and manipulations, as viewed for the first time through the eyes of a child. Phile is just out for a good time on a sunny day, and I found it agonizing to watch Baines try his damnedest to preserve Phile's innocence while also maintaining his negotiations with his suddenly recalcitrant lover. Phile's presence initially serves to harden Julie's resolve to just leave, confirming the sheer impossibility of seeing their affair culminate in some kind of satisfying, lasting relationship. But Baines patiently works the angles, maneuvering his way through the predicament quite deftly, convincing Julie to see him at least one more time before she leaves, preserving Phile's naivete about what's going on between him and Julie with a quickly concocted cover-up and finding a clever way to keep Phile from disclosing the highly dangerous knowledge that he now possesses to Mrs. Baines upon their return to the embassy. This clip shows Baines at work:

There's a lot more in that clip that merits your close attention, but for the sake of those who haven't yet seen the film I will let the surprises and plot developments that grow from it remain undisclosed here. As a child of divorced parents and a husband who's gone through some difficult passages over the years in my own marriage, I have to wince at that scene where Baines is trying to initiate a break-up with his wife, not knowing that Phile is looking on. From this point in the film, all the way to the end, the deceptions, switch-backs, half-truths and misdirection only grow thicker and more convoluted as Baines, Mrs. Baines, Julie and Phile each get caught up in trying to present various "versions" of reality that don't exactly conform to the facts. While it's sadly almost routine to see the adults get so thorougly ensnared in their lies, similar to what we saw in Clouzot's Quai des Orfevres and Dassin's The Naked City, what sets The Fallen Idol apart is the devastating emotional tug of watching a sweet and innocent boy get caught up in that vortex himself. Reed wasn't quite as audacious as David Lean was in using the first person subjective perspective in Oliver Twist, but he definitely gives us a Phile's-eye view of the proceedings, leading to a memorable panicked barefoot dash through the midnight streets of London (nice practice for the classic chase scene through the sewers of Vienna in The Third Man) and a final swirl of confusion in the film's final minutes. As the story reaches its conclusion, we're fully caught up in the bewilderment that Phile experiences as he tries in vain to figure out whether it's more important to tell the truth or to keep secrets through well-crafted lies. All the adult role models around him, including his dear friend Baines, the police officers who represent the law or Julie, the only grown-up present who can speak with him in his native language, send him endlessly conflicting messages. Without giving away too much, I can only say that the moral ambivalence of the ending - where misinterpreted evidence leads to the mistaken exoneration of a truly innocent man (think about that!) - left my mind spinning, my heart racing and a big smile on my face, even though I was ready to throttle Phile as he scrambled around, desperately trying to be heard ("Please, somebody lithen to me, it's vewy impawtent, please!" over and over again!) My first impression was that the kid actor had overdone it, but the way those lines stick with me persuades me that he got it just right, for maximum cinematic effect anyway. Of course, the adults, confident in their own conclusions, felt free to ignore him... which turned out to be OK for everybody involved anyway!

It's as ingeniously constructed of an impossible to sort out, intellectually riveting conclusion as I could have hoped for, and emotionally moving as well. It got me thinking about my own childhood encounters with adult fallibility, memories of watching my kids go through various "losses of innocence" themselves, and even my professional work of providing treatment for teenage victims of abuse and neglect. Though Phile's loss of innocence takes place in a very privileged, idealized setting, screenwriter Graham Greene captured some universal truths about the experiences we all go through as we begin coming to grips with the essential falseness that characterizes so much of what goes on in our lives. The Fallen Idol doesn't really offer any tips on finding our way out of the mess, but by leading us to reflect on the disappointments we've dealt with and put others through, perhaps it can get us in better touch with the responsibilities we have to not add any more to the odious hypocrisy that surround us, if we are at all capable of doing so.

Eclipse Review: Port of Call

Next: Unfaithfully Yours