Saturday, September 25, 2010

Written on the Wind (1956) - #96

Are you looking for laughs? Or are you soul-searching?

Among the directors with enough films in the Criterion Collection to be considered "featured auteurs," Douglas Sirk is rare in that the titles chosen for inclusion all come from the period of his artistic and personal maturity. Usually, it's just the opposite, with a director's early "breakthrough" films representing their work, typically capturing them at their edgiest and least concerned with mainstream commercial considerations. It doesn't always mean that a director's first film are their best - sometimes, they're just the easiest and most affordable for Criterion to license from the studios that control the rights. But those seminal features made by bold, sometimes desperate young artists eager to express and establish themselves often do make the biggest impact on culture and cinematic history. But in the case of Written on the Wind, I'm glad that this late-career production made the cut - Sirk only made five more feature length films after this one, retiring from Hollywood before the end of the 1950s, even though he lived for another 30 years after Written on the Wind was released. Just following the trajectory established by the two films I've reviewed here that preceded it - Magnificent Obsession and All That Heaven Allows - I can see why Sirk might have figured it was time to put down the megaphone and turn over the director's chair to younger talents. Though his technical mastery and flawless compositions burst through the screen in shot after shot, the pot-boiling elements required to keep his next movie from topping the last one probably became too hard to manage in a way that allowed Sirk to maintain his artistic dignity and self-respect.

Even if Written on the Wind seems likely to be the last (chronologically) of Sirk's films that Criterion will release, the DVD makes a great introduction to his work, primarily because of the Melodrama Archives supplemental feature included on the disk. It's an extensive photo essay that tracks the progress of Sirk's career, which began in 1920s German cinema, reminding us that even though his most famous 1950s films function as nearly unsurpassed icons of that era in America, Sirk was first and foremost a highly cultured European filmmaker whose life experience and perspective gave him a unique perspective from which to chronicle the age. The overview provided by the Melodrama Archives leads me to wonder if an Eclipse Series entry of his earlier works would ever be arranged. I'd be very interested in that set!

Written on the Wind shifts the attention that Sirk gave to proper, upper middle-class heroines (played in both Magnificent Obsession and All That Heaven Allows by uber-dignified 50s female archetype Jane Wyman) to the sleazy and scandalous exploits afflicting a particularly wealthy Texas oil family, the Hadleys. The patriarch, Jasper Hadley, is a widower who plays just a bit part in this saga that focuses more on the psychic torments suffered by his two adult offspring, brother Kyle and sister Marylee. Indulging and reinforcing the common bourgeois notions that limitless, unearned wealth is as much a source of suffering as it is a blessing and privilege, Kyle and Marylee both seem to have arrived at a point of cataclysmic crisis in their personal lives as Written on the Wind's story unfolds. The action begins with a bang, as a speeding exotic convertible roars across the screen through a twilight landscape populated by oil derricks. (I was immediately reminded of the racing speedboat that opened Magnificent Obsession.) A wild man driver chugs bootleg whiskey straight from the bottle as he swerves into the driveway of a stately, gorgeous mansion, exits the car, smashes the bottle and staggers inside. Blowing leaves - a confrontation - a gunshot - a body falls. A powerful breeze flips the pages of a daily calendar... backwards!... and we're led to that point of time, a year earlier, where destinies were altered through a seemingly innocent but fateful meeting in an swanky bar in Manhattan.

The meeting is part of an extravagant ruse concocted by Kyle (Robert Stack) and his sidekick Mitch Wayne (Rock Hudson), a friend since boyhood, to meet Lucy Moore (Lauren Bacall), a sharp secretary to one of Hadley Industry's upper executives. Mitch basically cons Lucy into meeting Kyle, who appears to have never met a woman of substance before, the way he barrages her with self-aggrandizing pick-up lines and flaunts his wealth through embarrassingly generous gifts. Understandably put off at first by Kyle's over-eager relational power-moves, Lucy eventually succumbs to the pressure. She's curious to see where the adventure will lead, agreeing to marry him despite learning early on, by his own admission, that Kyle drinks too much and frequently puts everyone around him through the wringer of his erratic mood swings.

Meanwhile, Mitch diligently sticks to his underling role in Kyle's world, a competent enabler that allows the millionaire playboy to function despite the increasingly turbulent, even violent, scrapes that Kyle keeps falling into. Even though the flush of a new marriage has kept him on the wagon for a short while, Kyle's anxiety over the scandalous behavior of his manic nymphoid sister Marylee and the persistent underlying insecurities of being a big man's son who can never measure up push him back to the comforts he finds in the "raw corn" he buys under the counter at the local bar. Though the world's finest Scotch and other liquors are always at his disposal, there's something about that rotgut moonshine that hits the spot for Kyle.

As for Marylee, she has a basket case full of her own torments that drive her into the arms of any good time Charlie who crosses her path whenever she's in the mood. Kyle and her dad are powerless to stop her, though Mitch might have the key, if only he'd give in to her perpetually lusty come-ons. But having grown up with her all his life, he can't get past the sense of her being more of a kid sister than the lover that she, and husband that father Jasper, wish he could be.

The emotional stew continues to simmer as further complications add to the heat: Kyle learns that Lucy's inability to conceive a child relates to his own impotency issues; Mitch's function as Kyle's companion keeps him near to Lucy, fanning the flames of attraction that those two had felt toward each other back when they first met; Marylee's lewd carousing grows ever more out of control; business pressures and old man's fatigue take their toll on Jasper's health; Kyle relapses into daily drunken binges. Finally, with the tinder pile stacked up and dried to a crisp in the Texas heat, Marylee tosses the match that lights it all up in grim conflagration, sowing rumors and triggering jealousies in her brother's booze-addled imagination about the state of affairs between Mitch and Lucy. When Lucy announces the news of her pregnancy to her husband, let's just say it's not received with as much grace and gratitude as decent middle-class husbands would show their loving, faithful wives.

Eventually the strains of melodrama that are Written on the Wind carry us back to that same point where we first entered the picture, where we learn what happened when that shot was fired and are then set up for a final act denouement that manages to resolve and humanize, to an extent, the caricatures we've been watching. What makes Written on the Wind such a fascinating slice of prime 50s Americana is how easily and effectively it can be viewed on multiple levels, depending on the mood of the viewer on any given occasion. One can get caught up in the pain and pathos experienced on screen, a straightforward surface reading that packs earnest emotional power if you just go with it on its own terms. Or it can be enjoyed, if you prefer, as an exercise in florid, trashy camp cinema, a precursor to prime-time soap operas that became standard network TV fare decades later when the censorship rules softened up sufficiently to allow candid handling of touchy subjects like those focused on here. The impeccable, conceptually-loaded cinematic craftsmanship of Sirk, the sumptuous Technicolor hues, and dynamic period-tinged acting performances from Dorothy Malone and Robert Stack (along with Hudson and Bacall, both relatively bland, but effectively functional), all make return visits to Written on the Wind an inviting proposition.

Watching this film in close conjunction with ...And God Created Woman also brought to mind the extent to which popular films were beginning to significantly loosen up in how they addressed mature themes. Though the Bardot film wouldn't crash American shores for another two years, both of them are noticeably frank in how they handle sexual topics - the European film being a bit more playful and casual, of course, and the American taking a typically neurotic, histrionic approach, seeing sex as a more of a problem than a pastime. As Written on the Wind's liner notes point out, this relaxation of standards was in part a response to Hollywood's competition with network television, which was still strictly limited in its ability to talk about what was on peoples' minds. It was also among the very last films released in 1956, a harbinger of still more loosening up and lowering of inhibitions that would take place over the course of the late 50s.

The YouTube clip I chose to add here is a tribute piece put together by someone who had the clever idea of mashing up a representative sample of pop culture flotsam from four decades later with a re-edit of some of Written on the Wind's most visually striking scenes. It's probably best enjoyed by those who've already seen and appreciate the original, but even if you haven't, I figure you can get a few minutes worth of amusement from it anyway. Nothing like a hard slap in the face to get one's point across!

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

...And God Created Woman (1956) - #77

She's brave enough to do what she wants when she wants.

Watching (and re-watching, very closely) Brigitte Bardot in ...And God Created Woman is like being a witness at the creation of Sexy. That probably reads like an extravagant claim at first glance - after all, beautiful, alluring, sexy woman have graced the silver screen ever since the idea first dawned that folks could make a lot of money with this motion picture thing. And of course, Ms. Bardot went on to have a relatively long career, at least through the prime years of her physical attractions, starring in a number movies where, according to taste, many might find her even more voluptuously appealing than she was here, in her breakout performance (and I mean that in every sense of the word.) Furthermore, haven't we seen many buxom blonde beauties like her over the last several decades? What is it about this particular film that would elicit such a comment?

I guess my answer to the last question connects to the affirmative response demanded by the question preceding it. My practice of watching the films of the Criterion Collection in chronological order gives the advantage of seeing Bardot's amazing freshness and exquisite appeal in the context of movies of that time. By 1956, Marilyn Monroe was a superstar, Jayne Mansfield was making a splash, and Diana Dors added a British twist to the emerging "blonde bombshell" archetype, with dozens of imitators following in the tradition of heavily made-up, platinum-tressed, glamorously attired va-va-voom gals that set the wolves a-howling. Bardot could have easily taken that same route and would have likely been very successful at it. But the impression I get from ...And God Created Woman is that she was too powerful, too much a sheer force of nature, to be bound up and contained by the classic Hollywood trappings. The bronzed tan... the tousled, unkempt avalanche of golden blonde hair... the moist pout and unforgettable doe-eyes... Bardot's template for peak feminine desirability still holds strong after all these years. And that raw, unforced and latent sense of sexual freedom is exactly what made her such a wonder to behold on the screen in an era still largely repressed under the rule of a huffy and scolding moralism. Though our vast, inexhaustible resources of popular culture now provide many similar-looking alternatives to the Brigitte Bardot of 1956, here is where the modern version of Sexy was first established, setting the tone for subsequent decades and still not fully exhausted, at least among men my age! :)

Now most of the reviews I've read of ...And God Created Woman take a disparaging tone in regard to the film itself, a verdict that I disagree with, given the powerful cultural impact it made at the time and its own merits as a story about human nature. However slight it is as a work of cinematic art, it still reveals essential and elemental insights into the disruptive effects a beautiful and available woman can have on the psyches of vulnerable and easily distracted men. And simply capturing prolonged shots of Brigitte Bardot on film at this particular point in time adds inestimable value, in my humble opinion! Some of the disdain expressed by critics may be directed more at director Roger Vadim, who seems like an easy guy to dislike, whether that's based on resentment, envy or both. And Brigitte Bardot takes quite a few knocks these days, both for her outspoken political opinions and often frivolous-sounding advocacy for animal rights and for the way she's "let herself go" by refusing to get plastic surgery or take advantage of other modern technologies to keep herself young looking. Personally, I have tons of respect for women who stay natural in their appearance, and in Bardot's case, I think it's perfectly in keeping with the personality we see in this film - a free spirit who refuses to let herself stay boxed in by convention, growing with an innate confidence in who she is, even as she acknowledges the pressures and hostility she faces due to the magnetic attraction that her being exerts on men around her. The lens we use in 2010 to view Vadim and Bardot, who were married at the time, is of secondary interest as far as ...And God Created Woman is concerned. They were young and the story of their relationship and subsequent careers had yet to be written. Whatever conclusions we may draw about Vadim as a man willing to exploit his wife's beauty, Bardot was obviously a willing accomplice and I think her performance indicates a sincere investment and intuitive understanding of the role she agreed to play.

Bardot portrays Juliette Hardy, an 18-year old orphan who's stirring up scandal with each passing week as she ripens more quickly than her aging foster parents can even begin to manage. A prototypical girl who just wants to have fun, she just can't help it if she draws the interest of every man bold enough to leer at her openly, not to mention those more committed who have to content themselves with sidelong glances as she saunters by. Complicating matters even further, the story takes place in the French Riviera resort town of St. Tropez, a seaside paradise that easily lends itself to nude sunbathing, skimpy dressing and doing the cha-cha-cha into the wee hours of the night. Recognizing the advantage that her sexual appeal gives her, and just feeling too independent to heed her foster mother's chastising advice, Juliette wears out her welcome, gets in trouble, and winds up this close to being sent back to the orphanage.

But Carradine, a wealthy businessman and land developer has his eye set on her and realizes that if she goes back to the orphanage he will be deprived of the conquest that he obviously desires. So he sets up a scheme to rescue Juliette from her dilemma: get her  married to the middle son of a family that he's trying to swindle out of a piece of land he needs to build a casino, so that she can now be simultaneously kept close at hand and give him an advantage in the business deal that the family has resisted making so far. Problem is, Juliette's desires are more aimed at Eric, her husband's older brother, who certainly wouldn't mind having a one-night stand with Juliette but is more interested in making money at this point in his life and in any case would never consider her the kind of woman worthy of marriage. Michel, her husband, is a mopey guy who lacks Eric's swagger and self-confidence but invests himself in the role of Juliette's husband, both for the obvious pleasures that she has to offer and as a way of one-upping his successful big brother.

With the triangle thus set up, ...And God Created Woman works through its plot machinations with entertaining efficiency, providing numerous opportunities for Brigitte to flounce around, strike poses, make love and, ultimately, do the mambo! Which in this instance functions as a ritual invocation for the essential earthy wildness that sustains Juliette's (and Brigitte Bardot's) life force. Just for contemporary reference, here's a recent variation on that theme. (Kind of a shame that young women have to go to such excesses to get the point across these days...) The tensions rise between the main characters, and a bit of danger develops as idealistic jealousy and blunt cynicism clash in the battle to capture Juliette's... well, I was going to say "heart," but really now, that's not what these guys are after!

OK, enough chatter from me. This video serves a wonderful function of boiling down ...And God Created Woman to its core elements, using original soundtrack music and overriding the dialog - though I must admit, Bardot's sweet French utterances only enhance her appeal. If you've never seen this film, I don't think it spoils much, if anything. If you have, enjoy a brief revisitation to the sun-drenched sands of St. Tropez and a happy summer spent in the company of Brigitte Bardot:

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Requiem for a Heavyweight (1956) - #495

You're not a winner anymore. There's only one thing left: make a little on the losing.

I have to admit that I wasn't all that enthusiastic about my next assignment in this journey through the Criterion Collection. Requiem for a Heavyweight, the second consecutive teleplay that I'm reviewing from The Golden Age of Television box set, didn't look terrible or undeserving of my attention or anything like that. But I figured that my pre-existing notions about the story would be confirmed upon watching and that when all was said and done, I wouldn't have much of interest to say about it. Those pre-existing notions go something like this:

A prize fighter near the end of his career finds himself at a personal crossroads as he struggles to make the inevitable but still unprepared-for adjustments to life after boxing. Surrounded by a colorful but shady cast of characters, some sort of ethical dilemma puts him to one final test of his manhood and his professionalism, maybe even his worth as a human being, before he hangs up his gloves for good. A beautiful woman would somehow be involved.

Though I knew the line was from a different movie, echoes of Marlon Brando's "I coulda been a cont-en-dah!" bounced around in my brain as I considered when would be the right time to take up the task I'd imposed upon myself.

So I watched it over the course of Labor Day weekend, on a Sunday evening... and I was utterly impressed! Well beyond the jaded expectations that I readily acknowledge here, Requiem for a Heavyweight turned out to be as pleasantly engaging a surprise as I can recall having over the past couple months of watching these old films. I'm not typically all that drawn into boxing movies, though I understand the metaphorical and narrative advantages of having a brutally powerful character step into the ring to take fate into his own hands and live with whatever results from the encounter. I can't say that I've seen "too many" boxing films either. I've never seen more than a few clips of Raging Bull. Will Smith in Ali didn't interest me. I never even bothered to see Aronofsky's The Wrestler yet even though I've heard it's really good and I consider myself an Aronofsky fan! The truth is, I'm just not drawn to that particular sport, or movies about sports in general (even though I follow MLB and NFL very closely.) And I don't feel like I've missed out on all that much by failing to delve deeply into that subcategory of films about athletes. Even though the outline I laid out above fits pretty well with what we see over the course of Requiem for a Heavyweight's running time, what grabbed me about this production was the consistently high quality of every aspect that went into making it - great script, persuasive acting, technical virtuousity with the camera work and staging (considering that it was all performed live, without edits or redos of any sort) and at the base of it all, characters who won my affection and got me to care about them, despite the distance I feel from people who fight for money, or leech off of the dollars that such spectacles generate.

On top of all the qualities I checked off just now, Requiem for a Heavyweight carries the distinction of being the first live TV drama expressly created for the very challenging 90 minute time slot. I don't think we fully appreciate how demanding such a task had to be for the people who took it on back in the mid-1950s - even though they were much more adept at this kind of thing than anybody working in today's entertainment industry. Coordinating all the details that go into not merely staging a play but capturing it all on video in a creative way that holds a viewer's interest - well, as I've now watched the program a few times, I find myself more and more impressed with the collective skills brought to the job. Unlike some of the earlier installments in this GATV collection, Requiem for a Heavyweight feels like a movie that was successfully pulled off in a single take. We don't see the full range of cinematic effects, and of course since we're watching a Kinescope, the image quality is going to suffer a bit - but the mix of close-ups and wide angle shots, all set up in advance and edited on the fly leave such a deep impression on me. And to execute all this over the course of a draining hour-and-a-half, with a big chunk of the nation watching it all on Sunday night TV... I'm probably getting redundant here but I just gotta tip my hat to the unsung crew that pulled it all off!

And then there are our lead actors. Jack Palance, who I'd mainly regarded as an old tough guy (the dude who did one-armed push-ups at age 73 after winning at the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in City Slickers) won an Emmy for his role as Mountain McLintock, the washed-up boxer. His ability to blend raw physicality, brutal emotional power running the range from grim determination, blind rage and impotent confusion, a child-like naivete and the simple dawning awareness of a man whose been crudely exploited behind his back - it's all pretty amazing to behold. Nice job, for a big dumb Ukrainian palooka!

The supporting cast comes through just as strong. Ed and Keenan Wynn, a father-son acting duo, deliver a big dollop of tension as the manager and the cut-man who wind up at odds with each other as to how to best help Mountain make a grateful exit from boxing. Keenan, the son, plays Maish, who's guided McLintock's career to this point and now has some debts to pay as a result of bets gone wrong against his own client. Ed Wynn, a long-familiar comedy veteran who was famous at the time for playing broad slapstick roles, is Army, the cut-man who sees Mountain's humanity and vouches for him in opposition to Maish's plans to turn Mountain into a professional wrestler. For Maish, it's just another quick-money scheme, but for McLintock, so much more is on the line. Watch this clip to get a sense for what's at stake in this Requiem for a Heavyweight:

If you like this sort of milieu, allow me to recommend Night and the City, while I have your attention.

Also worthy of individual mention is Kim Hunter, the obligatory beautiful woman who takes a personal interest in Mountain after he applies to work at the employment agency she staffs. Their date scene at the rowdy boxer's bar where McLintock and his crew hang out is just one of many tender gems of characterization that run throughout Requiem for a Heavyweight.

I can't conclude this write-up without mentioning Rod Serling, who wrote the script (and won an Emmy for it, as did director Ralph Nelson.) Serling won his lasting fame, of course, for his work on The Twilight Zone, but here's a vintage sample of the work he did before that landmark series. Serling also wrote the screenplay for Patterns, another GATV offering. Clearly, his brilliant writing established the foundation for so many other creative talents to flourish. I'm probably sounding like an overwrought booster by this point, so I'll just conclude here: Requiem for a Heavyweight is quality stuff! Among so many great selections available in the Criterion Collection, one segment of an eight-part box set of blurry video transfers may not stand out so prominently, it's all too easy to overlook amidst the treasures which surround it. This represents my modest effort to bring a great production to your attention. Buy it, rent it, Netflix it - whatever means suits you best, I submit to you my sincere recommendation. It's worth 90 minutes of your time.

Eclipse Review: I Will Buy You

Monday, September 6, 2010

Bang The Drum Slowly (1956) - #495

Well, you know, if people think you're gonna die, they're gonna be nice to you and... 

Now that we're into September, the Major League Baseball season enters that phase of the year where it has to work a little harder to hold the interest of the voracious sports fans that populate the USA from coast to coast. They play a long, drawn out campaign that strains the attention spans of a culture used to more immediate forms of gratification. Fortunately for the game and its owners, the fall pennant races take on a more compelling tone, at least for those 10 or 11 markets where teams still have a chance to play on into October. However, for the rest of the country (and even for many who live in cities whose teams are destined to make the post-season), football is the main game of interest, with basketball and hockey due for a return in the not too distant future to keep the games rolling through the winter months and on into the following spring.

But there was a time when the equation was quite different, when baseball truly was America's Pastime and served a function as one of the prime stages in which stories of everyday men could be told in ways that gave them the mythic quality that sticks in the imagination. Bang The Drum Slowly is a relic of that era, finding its first success as a best-selling book before being adapted as a live-action teleplay and, nearly two decades later, a feature length film that helped Robert De Niro break into bigger roles. Being a pretty loyal and interested baseball fan, I've known the basic storyline of Bang The Drum Slowly for a number of years, without even seeing any of the different versions: Bruce, a strong but dumb third-string catcher for a fictional baseball team (the New York Mammoths) discovers that he's the victim of a terminal illness that will probably kill him within the next year, maybe even much sooner. Other than confiding this devastating information to his best pal, Henry "Author" Wiggen, a star pitcher on the team, he keeps his diagnosis a secret, afraid that he'd be cut immediately and left without any support. This puts Author in the position of having to protect his friend, answering to a higher code of honor than the usual manly competition and boisterous ribbing that goes on between ball players usually demands.

Learning what I had (from what source, I can't recall), I'd never made it a special priority to seek out the book or movie, figuring that it was more or less an imitation of Pride of the Yankees or a forerunner of Brian's Song, both of which had the advantage of being based on factual stories involving two of the greatest athletes of their respective sports, Lou Gehrig and Gayle Sayers. I didn't sense a special need to delve into fictionalized melodrama when the real thing found in those stories was plenty enough compelling for me. But now that my Criterion-blogging task requires it of me, I have a better sense of just for whom it is that we've been asked to Bang The Drum Slowly.

As another episode of The Golden Age of Television, Criterion's three-disc box set of performances originally broadcast live as one-time-only events, the reason for its inclusion is perfectly obvious. The lead character, pitcher Wiggen, is played by Paul Newman, who was an unknown actor at the time but went on to become one of Hollywood's most iconic and beloved leading men over the next five decades. Newman's career accomplishments hardly need be recounted here. But his performance in Bang The Drum Slowly, covering an impressive range of moods under incredibly time-restricted, no-second-chance conditions, ranks right up there as a prime example of what made Newman stand out among his peers. The script called for him to serve as both a narrator and as a pivotal figure in a series of vignettes that stretch over the course of a baseball season. Over the course of the story, Wiggen transforms from a self-centered prima donna, easily irritated by Bruce's naive, thick-skulled simplicity to a humble and chastised role model for fair play and looking out for the little guy. Newman had to carry an enormous load to tie diverse elements together, and he does a terrific job juggling the choreography (having to rely on dimmed stage lights and shifting sets to move from "scenery" to "neutral narrator's space") while at times having to do his costume changes in real time, right on camera. Just doing the mental calculations of how the stage director and camera crew handled their technical side of the job, without any chance of a retake, with the only built-in time for a breather provided by a few advertising breaks over the course of an hour, provides plenty to keep one fascinated and entertained for a second or third viewing. To enhance the appeal, toss in some interesting supporting characters, including the TV debut of George Peppard (from the original A-Team and many other films) who sings "The Streets of Laredo," the mournful "dying cowboy" ballad from whence the story's title takes its name. As a production, it left me nothing short of impressed. But as a story, I have to admit, there were some elements I struggled with.

My main problem with the story, at least how it comes across in what must have been a truncated form in its TV adaptation, is just the seeming implausibility of its central conflict. A bench-warmer suffering from a degenerative disease at the major league level is not going to have the same extended grace period, or any residual benefit of the doubt to ward off critical scrutiny by the coaching staff. I can grant that the game was different back then - trainers and physical conditioning and medical exams were all less specialized and technically developed than what we find in professional sports operations these days. But I had a hard time believing that a diagnosis could be so pessimistic and yet nothing occurred to draw further attention to Bruce's plight. Likewise, the contract negotiations between upper management and Wiggen, who stages a holdout based at first upon money, then later upon his insistence that Bruce be guaranteed a spot on the roster, seriously strained my credulity. Maybe I just have a hard time thinking that a star athlete would be that altruistic, or that he'd ever even consider trying to use his leverage in that way, or that such details would be hammered out on the spur of the moment over 5-cent bottles of Coca-Cola between the team owner and the player himself (no hints of any agents to be found), sealed by a handshake and a word of honor. I mean, it would be nice if the world worked that way, and maybe I really have no grasp of how straightforwardly business was conducted back in the good ol' 1950s... but I had a hard time getting past these central pivots of the narrative.

On top of that are just the anachronisms of hammy acting, corny slang and what seemed at times to be blatant emotional manipulation, all fairly common to mainstream American entertainment of that era. Maybe in a different frame of mind I would have found those characteristics more entertaining and less distracting. I suppose it's not too sporting of me to begrudge the playwright and producers their chance to pull at the nation's heart-strings a bit - baseball is a game, after all, that has always lent itself to being  mythologized and magnified beyond the significance of what actually happens on the field. Given the physical limitations of an flat-staged enclosed studio space, what the creators of Bang The Drum Slowly were able to accomplish on a late September night in 1956 deserves better than the nitpicking I tossed at it just now. Certainly I'm grateful for the boost it gave to the career of Paul Newman, a man whom I've come to respect as much for his lifelong philanthropic and political efforts as his acting abilities. He made some pretty excellent salad dressing too - I had some at dinner tonight!

Here's the final scene of Bang The Drum Slowly, so it's a spoiler, if you haven't seen the show. But it's the only clip I could find on YouTube, and I think it shows off rather nicely Newman's ability to reach through the tiny screen of an old cathode ray tube to touch something we can all probably relate to, one way or another.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Elena and Her Men (1956) - #244

To thank them, give them one last show.

The inclusion of Elena and Her Men serves as a fine example of the value and significance that box sets have in the canon of the Criterion Collection. As a standalone film, I probably wouldn't see much in this lightweight, farcical production that would validate its place in the ongoing series of important classic and contemporary films, despite the fact that it was directed by Jean Renoir and stars Ingrid Bergman and Jean Marais - all superb at their craft and quite admirable for their career achievements. After all, each of them were involved in numerous other projects that Criterion would probably never consider releasing even if they could obtain the rights for very cheap. But as part of the Stage and Spectacle 3-disc set, packaged alongside The Golden Coach and French Cancan, Elena and Her Men fits quite nicely as both the third installment of an informal trilogy and a fine specimen of what Renoir and company were able to produce in semi-improvised and less than ideal circumstances. It's yet another case where the supplemental features shed valuable light on how and why a film was made, generating a fair amount of grace that helped me look past the surface frivolities and breeziness of a mid-50s musical comedy that already seemed antiquated in comparison to heftier offerings of its time, films like Bigger Than Life or Bob le flambeur.

Of course, I'm just as sure that there are many classic film fans out there who gladly prefer the merriment stirred up by the lovely Ingrid Bergman in all her Technicolor and Gay-Parisian glory to the decidedly darker moods (emotionally, in the former, and visually in the latter) of those two titles referenced above. Make no mistake: this movie exists primarily because Renoir had the chance to work with Ms. Bergman, just after she had gone through her divorce from Italian director Roberto Rossellini. Her initial affair with Rossellini (while both were married) had stirred up serious scandal for her just six years earlier, badly damaging her public image in the USA, and forcing her to relocate her career to Europe. Now that relationship had reached its end. These were difficult times for Ingie, but it's to her everlasting credit that she absolutely lit up the screen in Elena and Her Men, playing an elegant, appealing Polish princess whose irresistible attractiveness to men triggers all kinds of romantic and political entanglements. One would never guess from her performance that her personal life had just gone through upheaval. Attribute that to her professionalism perhaps, but also to the fact that the role of Elena itself probably played its own part in boosting her self-esteem and helping her look forward to a new chapter of her life. Elena is a classic beauty, conscious enough of her ability to beguile the opposite sex but still retaining a degree of innocent playfulness that helps her to stop of short of being a shrewd manipulator. A widow forced to rely on her feminine allure to refill the empty coffers left behind by her lavish lifestyle, Elena has little choice but to allow herself to be wooed and courted by Martin-Michaud, a wealthy old capitalist, even though her heart leads her in other directions to bestow her assistance, and good luck in the form of charmed daisies she distributes, to men she finds interesting and attractive.

The other two who make up the quartet of Elena and Her Men are General Rollan (Marais) and his aide Henri. Rollan is a celebrated military figure whose broad and uncritical popularity makes him an appealing figurehead for the reactionary forces who would like to use him to stage a coup d'etat - a role that Rollan is reluctant to play. Early on, Elena gets caught up in the frenzied excitement of a Bastille Day celebration where Rollan makes a public appearance and stirs up the crowd. Circumstances fall into place where the lovely Elena is introduced to Rollan, where she bestows on him one of her lucky daisies. Moments later, Rollan receives an official visit from a presidential emissary. In an effort to co-opt their potential rival, government intermediaries offer him a cabinet post as Secretary of War, keeping him on board, in check and conveniently pocketed before the anti-government conspirators can win him to their cause. Attributing his fortunate turn to the mysterious Elena, Rollan clearly wants to see more of this new acquaintance, but his lady friend Paulette, sensing a rivalry of her own with Elena, shows up just in time to create her own obstructions. Elena is handed off to Henri, who wastes little time in ushering the two of them off to enjoy the raucous street parties of Bastille Night.

This clip (in my opinion, the cinematic highlight of the entire film) takes us right into the vibrant celebration, and serves as proof that fourteen years after her heart-melting performance in Casablanca, a decade after her brilliant work with Hitchcock in Spellbound and Notorious, Ingrid Bergman, mother of four, was still one ravishingly sexy woman.

Like Anna Magnani in The Golden Coach and Francoise Arnoul in French Cancan, Ingrid Bergman finds herself at the center of a three-way competition for her affections, another theme of romantic comedy entanglements that binds the trilogy together. But as much as Elena and Her Men benefits from being viewed in that context, an even more profitable companion piece to watch it with is Renoir's 1939 masterpiece The Rules of the Game. Both films revolve around amorous adventures involving upper and lower classes, with abundant wit and elements of social satire on display throughout. Though Rules of the Game is by far the more deservedly celebrated and revered film (on so many levels), Elena and Her Men may be closer in some respects to the "pleasantly amusing" movie that Renoir originally envisioned when he shifted his tone from the poetic realism of earlier works like La Bete Humaine and The Lower Depths. He admits to styling Rules of the Game after the Commedia del'Arte in his filmed introduction to that film (included as a supplement on that DVD,) but his ambitions backfired spectacularly as Rules provoked riots at its premier and suffered ignominious censorship and repression for many years afterward as a result. Renoir basically fled France for the USA afterward (well, the Nazi invasion of France and the outbreak of WWII had something to do with it too) and didn't return until over a decade later.

With Elena and Her Men, Renoir ramps up the farcical absurdity and dials down the lethal violence and subversive undertones that caused so much offense in 1939. It's likely that the intervening years had mellowed the grand old director significantly, and he was after all still a working artist who needed some degree of commercial success to earn the right to shoot more pictures. However, Elena and Her Men didn't do all that well at the box office, either in Europe or in the States, where it was chopped up and released under the title Paris Does Strange Things (a title that could be amusingly applied to the antics of a certain tabloid-friendly celebrity these days) Renoir's intro to Elena and Her Men indicates that he himself is aware of certain mediocrities (goofy and somewhat hammy slapstick bits, for example) that hold the film back from the upper registries of his own filmography or even the major releases of 1956. But viewed today, Elena and Her Men more than justifies its hour-and-a-half with an abundance of saucy humor, musical gaiety and fin de siecle splendor. Christopher Faulkner's liner notes describe it as a "very cynical film," and perhaps he has a point, but I mostly found it a pleasant amusement that fell short of making the big statements about life and love that elevated The Golden Coach and French Cancan above my modest expectations going in. Though I must admit, I enjoyed the sweetly sumptuous moonlit make-out session with gypsy chanteuse accompaniment at the end...

My last observation here is to mention the penultimate appearance of one Gaston Modot in the Criterion Collection (he'll make his final bow on this blog when I review Louis Malle's The Lovers some months from now.) Here, the great Gaston plays the chief of a band of wandering bohemians who offer the fastidious Paulette temporary living quarters in their grungy caravan as she chases after her wayward General Rollan. It's a bit part, but a nice casting decision as far as I'm concerned! Click the label with his name, found below this review, to get a quick recap of my favorite character actor's fascinating Criterion career.