Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Fanny (1961)

Fanny (1961) is adored by many people, as you can see by going over to its user reviews at IMDB. And the Siren was drawn in by the romantic storyline, mostly fine acting and beautiful setting. But I haven't seen the original Marcel Pagnol trilogy, and I strongly suspect that works to the remake's advantage. Let's divide this post into three parts, like the Pagnol movies I know I really, really, really need to see (so don't beat me up, okay?). First,

The Good. Marseilles is famed as one tough town, the wickedest port this side of New Orleans, but here it is photographed in unforgettable, blue-and-gold tinged beauty by cinematographer Jack Cardiff. The gorgeous score rises and falls (but mostly rises) in the background, reminding the Siren that this was an adaptation of a Broadway musical that condensed Pagnol's trilogy. Warner Brothers, still three years away from its highly successful My Fair Lady, at the time was convinced that musicals were a bad bet at the box office.

The story revolves around the Marseilles waterfront and its people. The Siren is a big fan of Charles Boyer, and he's wonderful as the bartender César. Boyer's performance, in its charm and working-class toughness, hearkened back to his star-making turn in Fritz Lang's Liliom many years earlier. Here Boyer gives César just the right touch of the philosopher to go with the roughneck bossiness.

Maurice Chevalier was often accused of giving mannered, tricksy performances in later life. The Siren would argue that it's a question of whether the tricks still charm, and fit with the character, but here the issue is moot because Chevalier jettisons the old gestures and gives a gentle version of Panisse, the elderly storekeeper who marries Fanny. The Siren wouldn't call his acting in Fanny naturalistic, but it has the ring of truth, Chevalier's reactions becoming those of Panisse and not his usual boulevardier. He manages to make the man's essentially unrequited love for Fanny touching, not creepy and Humbert-ish as it so easily could have been.

The Siren loves Leslie Caron (I said that before, didn't I?) and she is graceful and honest as Fanny. Her character's motivations could seem base in the wrong hands, but Caron plays to Fanny's desire to please and keeps our sympathy. Many women of 29, as Caron was when she made Fanny, can't play teenagers even if they still look that young--you simply don't believe in their innocence. In fact, even some teens can't play the naivete of youth. But Caron hits each life stage's notes perfectly, as a young girl still testing her allure like a chemistry set, through the fearful onset of adulthood when Fanny discovers her pregnancy, and then finally into the mature mother of the film's final third. So that leaves us with

The Minor (problem, that is), which is Horst Buchholz, playing Marius, the young man who impregnates Fanny and then goes off to sea. He was in vogue at that moment, on a great roll that would also include One, Two, Three and The Magnificent Seven in the same two-year period. Buchholz was gorgeous and the Fanny fans at IMDB seem to love him, but the Siren can't agree, not here. His jaws work back and forth whenever he must show emotion and if it's a big moment his head jerks around like a meerkat in a nature video. Quite aside from the actor's German accent, which isn't as bothersome as you might think, he snaps out his lines like marching orders. He is intense and brooding at all times, even when he is supposed to convey the joy of young love. Buchholz had an onscreen air of supreme self-involvement, which worked beautifully for his tag-along gunfighter in Magnificent Seven and the slogan-spouting Communist in the Wilder movie. Here it works in the first act, as he stalks around Fanny, unwilling to declare his love or watch her flirt with anyone else, and later, when he must act selfishly. But his crucial love scenes with Caron are less moving than they should have been.

So now we are left only with

The Major. Fanny forms an interesting way to look at the roles of cinematographer and director, how they differ and how much influence each has on the final visuals. The lighting in Fanny is perfection, the colors exquisite, sets are blended seamlessly with location photography. (Glenn Erickson astutely points out how the waterfront can always be glimpsed beyond the entry of Cesar's bar.) But the choice of what the camera is pointing at, the way the shots fit together, is dull and choppy. At best the mise-en-scène is something you can ignore to concentrate on the characters, the story and the beauty of the photography; at worst it becomes intrusive and annoying. The minimum a director should be able to do is prevent the audience from thinking "why are we looking at this?" Erickson says "Cardiff's eye is apparent in every camera angle. We get the feeling that director Logan concentrated on his actors and left the visuals to a master." Would that it were so. Other films that Cardiff worked on, such as John Huston's The African Queen and Powell and Pressburger's Black Narcissus, have an elegance of blocking and camera movement that Fanny does not. Given that South Pacific and Camelot both have Fanny's unimaginative framing and cumbersome lack of flow, the Siren puts on her deerstalker, takes a puff on her meerschaum and fingers Logan as the culprit.

Logan wasn't always like that--he did a good job with Picnic--but here he has no sense of how to shoot conversation in a way that doesn't beg for a proscenium arch. The Siren has many curmudgeonly problems with recent big-budget movies, and one is how stingy filmmakers have become with real close-ups for anything other than fast-cut, grotesque emphasis, say a villain or somebody who's about to get crushed by an oncoming whatever. But here comes Logan to remind the Siren that older films sometimes abused the close-up too, in this case with overuse, cutting back and forth between characters in a way more suited to the Men's Final at Wimbledon than a widescreen film. Leslie Caron was never more beautiful than here, but even the worshipful Siren began to wonder just how many shimmering, peachy-skinned, coral-lipped close-ups we were supposed to take, especially when they are intercut with medium shots of less-attractive actors shot with crystalline precision. So here's gauzy Leslie filling the screen, cut to old guy from the waist or chest up in sharp focus, with nothing that melds the two or gives a sense of one continuous vision. Nope, it's Leslie's line, time for Leslie's close-up. Or Leslie's reaction. Or what the heck, let's just look at Leslie again.

Fanny, in the end, made the Siren take a look at how much emphasis she places on direction. On that score, you have to flunk the movie. Logan guided three very good performances and one so-so one, but in other respects it's badly directed, end of story. But the Siren can't lie and say she disliked Fanny, when in fact she enjoyed it very much. The delicate theme of romance down the years, children as the thread that binds us together, the beautiful south of France, the intensely lovable characters and most of all Jack Cardiff created a movie that the Siren was powerless to resist completely, Logan or no Logan. It is out in a new widescreen DVD that supposedly looks quite good, so check it out and tell me whether you, too, had to throw your reservations off the pier.

P.S. Yes, the Siren has heard the old story that the director originally wanted the marquee to read "Joshua Logan's Fanny," and thinks that reeks of apocrypha. She'll believe it when someone comes up with a solid source, not just vague tales of the "press pointing out."

P.P.S. If you aren't pouncing on Dan Callahan's every star profile, you are missing out. Two of his best: Leslie Caron (focusing on the Siren's favorite Caron performance, in Lili) and Charles Boyer.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father (2008)

This will be a brief post, because it is undoubtedly best to see Kurt Kuenne's documentary Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father with as little preparation as possible. Not that anything could prepare you for the impact of this movie, which left the Siren a shaking, sobbing mess on her couch, searching the letter that accompanied the disc from Flickhead to see if he had included a phone number. He didn't, and it's just as well. Incoherent blubbering calls at 11:30 at night are small thanks for passing along a great movie, even if Flickhead must have known the film would flatten me too.

Dear Zachary outlines events that would be wrenching no matter how they were depicted, but Kuenne's accomplishment is something else again. He began the movie as a memorial to his friend, Dr. Andrew Bagby, who was murdered in 2001. Murder runs through all kinds of American films, both narrative and documentary. But Kuenne had an unusual resource, in that as a budding filmmaker he recorded hours of Bagby over the years. The director intersperses the old footage with many interviews with Bagby's friends and relatives. Kuene's accretion of detail recreates his friend in such a way that Bagby becomes as extraordinary to the viewer as he was for those who loved him. For once, life itself, and not just the taking of it, occupies the heart of the film. Proudly subjective, the movie gradually shifts into blistering advocacy, but beyond the grief and rage are the decent, loving people at Dear Zachary's core.

The film will be shown on MSNBC in the fall, according to the film site. (Be warned that browsing the site will reveal details.) Apparently a theatrical distributor is still being sought, and the Siren hopes a deal is struck soon.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Olympics Warmup: Jim Thorpe, All-American

Almost Olympics time, and the Siren is going through her usual ritual of swearing she won't watch the thing. She always gets hooked anyway. But she is also thinking about sports movies, one in particular. Ever notice how many sports movies are tearjerkers? The great romantic women's pictures get tagged as "weepies" (odious term, the Siren loathes it) but many sports movies rank high on the list of all-time downers. Just think about The Pride of the Yankees, Bang the Drum Slowly, Brian's Song, and Jim Thorpe--All-American.

As a girl the Siren wept long and hard over Burt Lancaster as Thorpe, the doomed Native American sportsman stripped of his gold medals by a class-ridden International Olympic Committee hell-bent on preserving its little image of the "gentleman athlete." She hasn't seen the movie in years, and its cringe-inducing portrayal of Indians probably would bother her a lot more now. But Lancaster broke her heart in the role. She can still remember the scene of the death of his two-year-old son, Jim Jr., and the later episodes where he is reduced to playing a living version of a cigar-store Indian.

The movie ends on a note of hope (it would, wouldn't it?) but Thorpe's real life played as almost unrelieved tragedy in the years after he stood in Stockholm and was proclaimed the world's greatest athlete. Broke, alcoholic and living in a trailer, he died of a heart attack in 1953. He served as a consultant on the movie of his life, and in keeping with Hollywood tradition he got screwed on the rights payment.

In 1982, the IOC finally defrosted enough to reinstate Thorpe's records and medals--but in a remarkably petty footnote, they declared him "co-champion" with the two athletes who won the silver in the decathlon and pentathlon, way behind Thorpe. To their credit, those two gentlemen always maintained that they considered Thorpe the only champion.

Every two years, as she sits on the couch and watches millionaire professionals compete in the Olympics, the Siren remembers Jim Thorpe, and wishes with all her heart that the IOC had gotten over itself a little sooner.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Le Crime de DVD: A cri de coeur from the Siren

This past weekend the Siren saw a great film: Jean Renoir's Le Crime de Monsieur Lange. Jacques Prévert's witty script is an absolute marvel of construction that compresses a large number of fully drawn characters into a complex narrative, and does so in (get this) 80 minutes. (As John McElwee observed this week in his fine review of the film of the moment, "current films too often start with a bang and finish up dog tired.") And the Siren's copy contained a marvelous prologue in which Renoir himself discusses the movie, pointing out the experimental nature of the way it was filmed. The director also talks of his admiration for the performance of Jules Berry as the villain, Batala. It is no wonder Renoir got consistently fine performances from his actors--he respected both them and their craft.

Isn't that great? Aren't you burning to see this 1936 gem now? You are? Tough.

It isn't on Region 1 DVD. The Siren had to get her copy, like samizdat, from a sympathetic blogger she won't name for fear of bringing some sort of corporate wrath on his head. He knows who he is, and he's a mensch. He probably won't mind if the Siren tells you the print is in so-so shape--murky in parts, with the occasional jump. But Monsieur Lange's nowhere near as bad off as Caught, which the Siren also got under-the-table from another, equally wonderful blogger. That Max Ophuls masterpiece, about love, social-climbing and obsession, looked as though it had been filmed through a Mafia widow's mourning veil.

The good news is that Monsieur Lange is now part of a Region 2 boxed set from the UK, and Caught will soon be available as a Region 2 DVD from BFI Films. The Siren's going to get her own copy of Caught, to go along with Le Plaisir, Letter from an Unknown Woman and The Reckless Moment. Gallingly, however, the last two films were made right here in the good old U.S. of A., as was Caught. Ophuls was as continental as they come, a true cosmopolitan. But it was the independent company of Joan Fontaine (bless her) that made Letter possible, and Universal that distributed it. It was our grand old country that provided the resources for Ophuls to make three phenomenal movies in a row (after letting him languish for six years, but better late than never). And it is our country, and the corporate drones who make the decisions about which movie gets a DVD release, that has failed to release these movies. In all fairness, perhaps it is the French who should have been on the case of Monsieur Lange. But we are also awaiting Diary of a Chambermaid, a superb Renoir film made during his American exile, as well as The Woman on the Beach.

Glenn Kenny performs a great service every Monday Morning with his "Foreign-Region DVD Report," letting us all know about movies available outside the U.S. Serious cinephiles do own region-free players. The Siren does. She has also resorted to VHS for those movies that made it to one format but not the other. But what does it say about us as a society when we concede some of the greatest American art to the tender care of other countries? What becomes of a great film if it is confined to highly expensive overseas orders, bootleg copies made by friends, a late-night Turner Classic Movies screening or the occasional festival screening? You might as well take the score for Beethoven's String Quartet No. 14, stick it in a closet and bring it out once a decade. You're slowly killing the potential audience for the lesser-known movies, virtually guaranteeing that the broad taste for classics as something more than antique curios is fated to wither and die.

You want to see Bigger Than Life, Nicholas Ray's legendary 1956 study of a suburban father's descent into addiction and madness? So does the Siren. So she's picking up a copy next month. When she goes to FRANCE. And she's also getting a copy of Make Way for Tomorrow, which influenced Ozu's cowriter on Tokyo Story and which many critics rank with Citizen Kane as one of the great American films. The French found the money to put together a pretty good version of it. Paramount (a unit of Viacom, which posted $1.6 billion in 2007 profits) has not. The Siren wonders what Leo McCarey, a rock-ribbed patriotic conservative of the deepest dye, would have made of his own country's lack of interest in distributing his best film.

Well, the Siren says it's a disgrace. Don't talk to me about profit margins, complex rights and the cost of restoration. Last year NBC Universal cleared $923 million in profit. The company is owned by GE and Vivendi, both of which have also been known to make money. They could throw a little dough at Ophuls.

No, movie studios are not charities. But neither are they widget manufacturers. They are sitting on a major part of our historical and cultural heritage as Americans. And sitting, and sitting, and sitting, while the films' lifespan becomes ever more precarious. We accept that companies have a responsibility not to pollute or leave a mountain looking like a moonscape. (Well, most of us do. Hard-core Randians probably quit reading before this paragraph anyway.) Why are movie studios not held to a higher standard for this vital responsibility, that of preserving and disseminating the very things that make them special?

Criterion is a splendid company. We all love Criterion. They rock, and furthermore they just released an Ophuls set of The Earrings of Madame de..., La Ronde and Le Plaisir. (Pretty please, could we put some hustle in the Naruse stuff, guys?) But they're not all that big, and they can't do it all themselves. They can't even do it with other outfits like Kino also helping out. As a cinephile the Siren is not content to hang around and wait for Criterion every time someone says "oh, they're supposed to be doing a version." There are thousands of films, and only one Criterion.

[I saw] The Wind at the Dryden Theatre in Rochester's Eastman House one night in 1956. I had never heard of it! And I could find no clue to its history. Gish's clothes were charmingly contrived from all periods, from no period. Her hair was either piled up in a dateless fashion on top of her head or swirling round her throat and shoulders. The Swedish director Victor Seastrom (born Sjöström), in his direction, shared her art of escaping time and place. Seastrom and Gish were meant for each other. After the picture, I could hardly wait to ask the curator of Eastman House, James Card, when and where it was made. He said that it had been made at MGM, in Hollywood, in 1927. 'In Hollywood, in 1927, at MGM?' I said. 'Why, I was there then, working at Paramount! How come I never heard a word about The Wind?'
--Louise Brooks, Lulu in Hollywood

The past decade's pre-code discoveries have emphasized the fact that the film canon shifts constantly. Given a steady stream of classic movies, we look at old films with new eyes and wonder how past audiences missed their evident greatness. Those films in the vault--how do we know there isn't another Man's Castle, another Employee's Entrance in there? Film stock is finite. And The Wind, by the way, isn't on DVD.

The Siren has a waking nightmare that visits her sometimes as she tries to go to sleep, in which the only old movies to be found anywhere are on the AFI Top 100 list. She sees herself ten years from now, wanting to share One-Way Passage with her teenage twins. And she can't. It's off in a basement somewhere, turning to dust. Never mind, the special effects sucked. We can alway rent Casablanca again, right?

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Anecdote of the Week: Four Times as Big, and Paint It Pink

This week's anecdote was inspired by Glenn Kenny, whose blogging has been on a tear of late. He posted recently about a Blu-Ray edition of Black Narcissus, available in the UK. Now the Siren's attitude toward technical advances in home viewing, born of bitter experience, is that it's bad news for classic films. We all know the drill. The studios won't want to invest money in releasing niche items on the new format, much less rarities, and instead there will be a gazillion different superhero movies to choose from. (Because we were running out of those, you know.) There are far fewer titles available on DVD than were on VHS, and I see Blu-Ray making that worse. I'll believe it's an unqualified good for classic movie fans when I hear about the Blu-Ray edition of Desire.

But even the Siren has to admit that the news isn't all bad for those of us who don't want the latest Pirates of the Carribbean on high-def. Glenn has some excellent news about this new version of Black Narcissus. Click over and see what he has to say, and the very revealing screen captures he's posted. It prompted a mini-discussion of Technicolor, and Jack Cardiff, and the Siren's signed edition of Michael Powell's marvelous autobiography, A Life in Movies. And that, in turn, prompted this anecdote of the week.

It's from the section in Powell's book about filming The Thief of Baghdad. Together with cameramen like Cardiff, Georges Périnal and Christopher Challis, Powell made the most beautiful Technicolor films anyone will ever see. (And one thing the Siren likes about Powell's books is that he always gives due credit to the DP.) This, however, did not mean Powell worked free from interference by Natalie Kalmus, the "color advisor" moviemakers were saddled with if they wanted to film in Technicolor. She was universally regarded as a pain in the ass, having a meddlesome, high-handed personality coupled with dreadful taste. But producer Alexander Korda, while talented, was no picnic either, as we shall see. Powell says that although "my name is on the picture, as one of the directors...the film is really the swan song of the Korda brothers--Alex, Vincent and Zoli [Zoltan]."

I had never directed a colour film, but I found the crossover easy. "Make the colour work for you, don't start working for the colour," I said to myself.

And when Natalie Kalmus was firing off her cliches at a grumbling Vincent Korda as she stalked about the big sets on the lot, I said to myself, "We are not making coloured picture postcards for Technicolor."

Mrs. Kalmus, naturally, went by the book. She was not an artist, and the sight of one of Matisse's canvases of that period would probably have sent her to bed for a week. Alex [Korda] knew even less about painting, although he pretended he did, and Vincent had bought him a Manet to hang on one of his walls. I have been with him and Vincent and Nuisance and Frank Walker, the chief of construction, as they walked around the huge pink set of the marketplace and looked at the elaborate foreground miniatures of the city on the hill which were being put in place. Alex, on principle, was never content with anything his brothers did, and he would grumble: "Vincent! What do you think this set is supposed to be?"

"It is the palace, Alex."

"It's a piece of shit. Tear it down and rebuild it four times as big and paint it blue."

"Pink, Alex."

"Pink, then!"

For years around the Siren's former Harlem household, which she shared with two gay men she misses a great deal, a major catchphrase was "Four times as big, and paint it pink."


Here are some other pieces the Siren has been catching up on around the blogosphere:

Raymond de Felitta has switched gears to blog the filming of his new movie, City Island, right here in New York with Alan Arkin, Steven Strait and Emily Mortimer. Andy Garcia plays an everyman, a prison guard with yearnings for art--a type of art that is dear to the Siren. Already there is a lot to enjoy, such as this post about Arkin.

Bob Westal has been devoting himself to the fabulous Michael Caine, one of the Siren's favorite actors of any era. Start here and follow to the magazine. Bob's got clips, reviews and career retrospective. But Bob, where is the love for Caine in Mona Lisa?

Over at Goatdogblog Michael Phillips was blogging his European travels, but the Oscar From the Outside In project is still in full swing. Nick's Flick Picks has the one the Siren was looking forward to, Crash vs. All Quiet on the Western Front, and the Siren was delighted that there was not unmitigated hate for Crash. I still haven't seen Crash, mind you, but I love a contrarian viewpoint, even a partial one. And anything nice about Crash is contrarian. And now The Film Experience has Cimarron vs. Million Dollar Baby. Adding--the Siren's new favorite catchphrase, from Michael discussing the thematic complexities of Cimarron: "Did they mean anything except 'look at this huge budget'?"

Speaking of contrarian, here's Peter Nelhaus: "I know there are some who love El Dorado. Too often, I got the feeling that Rio Bravo was a river that should have been best visited once." The Siren feels the same way about El Dorado; definitely lesser Hawks. I have been waiting to hear Peter's opinion of Lee Server's Robert Mitchum biography, and here it is, in tandem with reviews of El Dorado and Man in the Middle.

Dennis Cozzalio, who once met John Belushi, has an open forum on Animal House going.

Kimberly Lindbergs has great news about a CD release of movie music by John Barry.

The Siren tries to read every word of Greenbriar Picture Shows for its impeccable research and intelligence. John McElwee always has something different to add to the discussion. Three posts the Siren has particularly loved recently. There is this two-parter on the wild and woolly experiments with movie theaters in the late 1920s, and how early widescreen was snuffed out in the 1930s, darn near taking the careers of Raoul Walsh and John Wayne with it. And then there is this sympathetic look at not just the tragedy, but also the work of Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle.

Noir of the Week tackles the best film poor doomed Barbara Payton ever made, via her biographer John O'Dowd. Talk about a star-crossed dame.

Finally, Ivan at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear is the antidote to the sour sentiments expressed here a few weeks ago about Red Skelton. And Ivan just wrote up Anthony Mann's "historical noir" Reign of Terror (aka The Black Book), which the Siren has waiting for her in a stack of recorded DVDs even as we speak. She recorded it off TCM in hopes of getting a better look at John Alton's cinematography, but no dice. Ivan reports that it's the same crappy print that's everywhere else.

Which brings us right back where we started. I know I'm a curmudgeon, but I have company. Blu-Ray, schmu-ray.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Frenchman's Creek (1944)

One summer when she was a teenager the Siren visited her grandmother in a small town in north Alabama. Like all grandmothers should, this one had a grand, high four-poster bed for her granddaughter to sleep in. And next to it, on a yellowed lace doily, was a glass bulb lamp with some kind of landscape painted on it. When you lit this lamp at night, and looked around at the bed's posters, you had the most shadowy, atmospheric reading spot you can imagine. The Siren was on a Daphne du Maurier kick and her book that summer was Frenchman's Creek. If I close my eyes right now I can remember the windowshades and the glow of the lamp and staying up late to read the romantic story of Dona St. Colomb and her pirate.

I only wish there had been something in Mitchell Leisen's 1944 film version that was half as exciting as devouring that book by lamplight in an old room.

It's a sumptuously beautiful movie, but as anyone who's tried to watch a Cindy Crawford performance can tell you, beauty only gets you so far. The film is way overdone, like a meal late in the movie that starts with a huge pile of shrimp and moves on to an enormous roast. In her autobiography Joan Fontaine says that it might have worked if done in black-and-white as a "story of doomed love." Instead Paramount spent a mint on making it in lavish Technicolor. The costumes are eye-popping ...

... albeit also overdone. Fontaine apparently did not get on well with the cast and while Leisen later said she offended the British actors by remarking one morning that it was hard having to carry the whole movie, the Siren also wonders if his wig didn't have the otherwise courtly Basil Rathbone a mite on edge. Fontaine also said that the premiere audience greeted certain parts with laughter and is it just me, or do you suspect we have captured just such a moment above?

"Show me a happy set, and I'll show you a dull movie," Katharine Hepburn once remarked, although that's no more universally true than the old theater superstition about smooth dress rehearsals. Here we seem to have the worst possible mix, a miserable set and a (mostly) dull movie. Romantic swashbucklers work best when everyone seems to be having fun, and doing it in a way that lets the audience in on it. That's true of all the Siren's favorites in the genre--Scaramouche, The Crimson Pirate, Sinbad the Sailor, The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Black Swan, Captain Blood...you get the idea. Frenchman's Creek gives you that only intermittently.

Fontaine, who was under contract to David O. Selznick, says she spent most of the movie stewing over Selznick's having forced her to accept the loanout, and his keeping half her salary to boot. Arturo de Cordova, the famed Mexican actor who played (what else?) the French pirate of the title, was shorter than she was and his lifts made him teeter when he walked. One day she asked him why he'd taken the role, since he was already a major star in Mexico. Fontaine says this was twisted by Nigel Bruce and Rathbone into her having told him to "go back to Mexico." She dismissed the film's acting as "stilted and melodramatic."

If Leisen disliked her, it seems to have been mutual, as she airily says he was "mostly known for his musicals" (not really true then and certainly not now). She also said she knew that he would lavish more time on the sets and costumes than performances. Leisen, whose reputation is undergoing a well-deserved renaissance, certainly got that rap many times over the years. Billy Wilder sneered that Leisen was a "window dresser." But Leisen also had a reputation for being, if anything, too deferential to his stars, cutting bits from the movie if the star found it unplayable.* Years later they were to make Darling, How Could You? in relative harmony, but at this point director and actress were markedly cool to one another.

Despite all the tsuris there is pleasure to be had in Frenchman's Creek, it's just that it never comes together to give you any sense of either a love that passeth all reason, as Fontaine wanted, or high adventure, as Paramount seems to have desired. Cecil Kellaway is an excellent Cecil Kellaway, as ever, this time with an accent that is supposed to be Cornish. Maybe it is. It also makes him sound like Uriah Heep. Nigel Bruce is a creditable dimwitted milord. Fontaine had been playing a series of dewy-eyed innocents, but this role required her to be a woman simmering with sexual frustration. The Siren suspects that quality is the only one that really interested Fontaine as an actress, because those are the moments where she lights up and puts her energy and intelligence into it. And even if Leisen disliked her, he certainly didn't take it out on her close-ups. She looks gorgeous, perhaps as beautiful as she ever did.

Oh, the plot. Do you care? Well, Dona St. Colomb, a married lady of the court, flees London after her jelly-spined husband keeps trying to pimp her out to the dastardly Lord Rockingham (Basil Rathbone, who thank heaven does not spend the entire movie in that wig). She takes their two children to their remote estate in Cornwall. While she's resting, she discovers that a nearby creek is being used as a harbor for a French pirate known as "the terror of the Cornish coast." In fact, said pirate has been staying in milady's bedchamber while she's not there. One day she wanders too close to the vessel and is forced to come aboard. She meets de Cordova, and her reaction to him emphasizes every double entendre, as Fontaine is excellent conveying her very frankly sexual interest. After some breathless midnight meetings, she goes on board his ship as a cabin boy. De Cordova is obviously, and hilariously, inflamed by Fontaine in drag. The action part of the picture commences, and Fontaine has another marvelous moment as she, as Fernando F. Croce puts its, "gropes the ship's steering ram."

Mostly Fontaine and Cordova have little chemistry. Despite their on-set friction, however, Fontaine does have a couple of really good scenes with Rathbone. The Siren loves Basil Rathbone. Every time he shows up he gladdens her heart, even when he's in a fright wig. He has a way of taking a villainous line that might be pure Snidely Whiplash from another actor, and giving it such a dry snap that the threat becomes leavened with wit. (Alan Rickman has the same ability. It's rare.)

Frenchman's Creek is not on DVD, and the Siren saw it through the kind offices of the awesome Goatdog. It certainly deserves to be on DVD, if only for its place in Leisen's career and the marvel of its visuals. Over at Senses of Cinema David Melville says the movie is in need of reassessment:

Not even Leisen's greatest fans will deny that Frenchman's Creek, Golden Earrings and the 1934 musical Murder at the Vanities are monuments of camp. Their fervid artificiality, their feverish riot of costume and decor, tend inexorably towards that “theatricalization of experience embodied in the Camp sensibility.” Popular yet critically savaged, Leisen's more flamboyant films need reassessing. Directors as diverse as Kenneth Anger and Baz Luhrmann, Pedro Almodovar and Paul Bartel have redefined our notions of camp. No longer just a failure of taste, camp is fast becoming a genre all its own.

It could be that another viewing of Frenchman's Creek (which won't happen any time soon) would reveal another side of the movie to the Siren. At this point, she isn't sure she'd characterize it as camp. Camp is usually more fun than this film. Certainly it swerves in that direction--the cross-dressing, the singing pirates and the fantastic shot where they're trying on all the ladies' finery in the hold of a captured ship, the wigs and the mincing noblemen. If Frenchman's Creek achieves the status of camp, it isn't through the medium of bad taste, however. It's from an overload of good taste, Paramount's amazing production values piled into the hold until the ship finally slides beneath the waves.

*Once such incident, with Charles Boyer on the set of Hold Back the Dawn, was at the root of Wilder's dislike. That's still a terrific movie, however, one of Leisen's best.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

New York City of the Mind


In the big city the twin spirits Romance and Adventure are always abroad seeking worthy wooers. As we roam the streets they slyly peep at us and challenge us in twenty different guises. Without knowing why, we look up suddenly to see in a window a face that seems to belong to our gallery of intimate portraits; in a sleeping thoroughfare we hear a cry of agony and fear coming from an empty and shuttered house; instead of at our familiar curb, a cab-driver deposits us before a strange door, which one, with a smile, opens for us and bids us enter; a slip of paper, written upon, flutters down to our feet from the high lattices of Chance; we exchange glances of instantaneous hate, affection and fear with hurrying strangers in the passing crowds; a sudden douse of rain--and our umbrella may be sheltering the daughter of the Full Moon and first cousin of the Sidereal System; at every corner handkerchiefs drop, fingers beckon, eyes besiege, and the lost, the lonely, the rapturous, the mysterious, the perilous, changing clues of adventure are slipped into our fingers.
--O. Henry, "The Green Door," from the collection The Four Million

E.B. White once divided New York, like Gaul, into three parts. First is the New York of the native, who takes the city and its treasures for granted. Second is the New York of commuters, "devoured by locusts each day and spat out each night." Then there is the last, and what White considered the greatest, the New York of the immigrant, "of the person who was born somewhere else and came to New York in quest of something."

For her contribution to the Derelict's New York City blogathon, the Siren is indulging herself with a mighty piece of presumption, and adding another New York to White's three categories. For it's always seemed to me that there is a New York of the mind, where the past incarnations of the city bump up against its Neo-Gilded Age present. Which corner of your psyche the city occupies is a personal matter, of course. You may think of it as "Gomorrah on the Hudson," as O. Henry called it, a daily assault on all that's otherwise righteous in the country. You may see yourself reflected in Tiffany's window, eating a bagel like Holly Golightly, or sipping a cosmo like her spiritual offspring, the Sex and the City ladies. But over it all hangs the spirit that O. Henry describes above. Could he be describing any city besides this one? It's easy to set a movie in New York because in the city of our minds, any type of adventure--or debacle--is possible.

The Siren knows that Lists Are Bullshit because Glenn Kenny told her so, and this is not a list. Truly, if it were a list it would horrify the Siren, as there are some big omissions. This just a group, an agglomeration if you will, in which each movie represents something the Siren has observed, experienced or yearned for in New York, some good, some bad. And this is the New York of the mind, not geography, so you will notice that not all were even shot entirely on location. In fact, we'll start with one that captures a great deal of New York's allure, and did so almost entirely on a Paramount soundstage.

Jeff, you know, if someone came in here, they wouldn't believe what they'd see. You and me with long faces plunged into despair because we find out a man didn't kill his wife. We're two of the most frightening ghouls I've ever known.

People-watching - Rear Window. The word voyeurism is usually linked to sexual matters, and lord knows there is plenty of that in Rear Window, both overt and implied. But for a New Yorker there is more than a mere sexual thrill in observing other people. It's part of the attraction of the place. There is an endless amount of people-watching, and most of all, the people are interesting. Usually not trunk-murder interesting, but more vivid and watchable than what you'd see across a backyard in Plano, I'll bet.

Sally: But Sidney, you make a living. Where do you want to get?
Sidney Falco: Way up high, Sam, where it's always balmy. Where no one snaps his fingers and says, "Hey, Shrimp, rack the balls!" Or, "Hey, mouse, mouse, go out and buy me a pack of butts." I don't want tips from the kitty. I'm in the big game with the big players... In brief, from now on, the best of everything is good enough for me.

Ambition - Sweet Smell of Success. Ambition is New York's defining characteristic, as everyone from Billy Wilder to Kander and Ebb could tell you. That's why this poisonous, cynical, glittering little fable is, for most of us, the defining movie about New York. Burt Lancaster is superb as J.J. Hunsecker, the Walter Winchell-based columnist with an unhealthy obsession with his sister. But the real thematic meat of the movie is Tony Curtis's Sidney Falco, and watching him try to climb the ladder, suck-up by suck-up. He gets told off a lot, if you notice, by people who have a lot of noble things to say, but he keeps right on keeping on. His persistence is more realistic than some of the huffy speeches directed at him, in fact, as is his fitful self-awareness. Falco knows he's throwing away pieces of his soul, but he's had his soul wrapped up in an old newspaper in the back of the closet for some time. Curtis later told what attracted him to the part: "All I had to hear was New York. I was raised in that city."

It shrinks my liver, doesn't it, Nat? It pickles my kidneys, yeah. But what it does to the mind? It tosses the sandbags overboard so the balloon can soar. Suddenly I'm above the ordinary. I'm competent.

Addiction - The Lost Weekend. For years the Siren worked retail at a rambling store in an old building below 8th Street. Her coworkers were usually young and hungry, just like she was. Come late afternoon on Tuesdays and Fridays, the Siren would be rearranging the fingerless lace gloves over at the accessories counter, and it would start: "BAM! BAM! BAM!" The hammering. Customers would almost jump through the display case as part-timer Janine (not her real name, believe me) came through on her hands and knees, wielding a hammer and whacking down any stray nailheads in the old, buckling floorboards. "What is WITH her? I don't even see nails anymore," the Siren asked coworker Bill one day, tired of the ritual. "Her shift's almost over. She's got to burn off the time before her next line somehow," came the reply.

When the Siren saw The Lost Weekend a year or two later (at the much-lamented Theater 80) and watched Ray Milland staggering up Second Avenue in a fruitless attempt to hock his typewriter on Yom Kippur, she immediately thought of Janine. If you live long enough in New York, you'll know someone either bottoming out or (we hope) recovering. In many ways Wilder's movie is truthful about the city, as Ed Sikov discussed in his Wilder bio. In production meetings Wilder insisted that the skyline be visible in the shot of the whiskey bottle hanging from Ray Milland's window; he fought to make sure the kitchen was a realistically tiny specimen. Wilder filmed from a camera concealed in a truck, and then spent weeks cutting out footage of New Yorkers scratching parts of their anatomy that the Breen Office didn't want to know about. But most of all, in the character of Don Birnam, Wilder got at a certain type of New York addict. He's smart, he's talented, he has standards, but in all categories he's a near miss. None of it is quite getting Birnam to the spot he feels he should have--none of it, that is, until he has that drink.

We sailed the seas and played a bit of poker
Way in Mandalay
We've walked the streets till the night was over
And we can safely say
The most fabulous sight is New York
In the light of day, our only day.

Adventure - On the Town Okay, so they jettisoned much of Bernstein's landmark score and put in some novelty numbers. But can anything beat that opening, even with the bowdlerized lyrics? That's the spirit, damn it. That's the way to approach the city, wide open to appreciate anything it brings. Those boys are O. Henry's "true adventurers," and honorary New Yorkers if ever there were any.

Roberta kept a diary. Great stuff. "Couldn't sleep. Went into kitchen. Gary came in, turned on light. Gary left. Finished birthday cake." Pages of it. It's got to be a cover, nobody's life could be this boring!

Romance - Desperately Seeking Susan Yeah, yeah, yeah, it was the Madonna movie, back then because it was her first, and now because it's the only one where she's good. But the Siren loves this film for the sweet-natured love story between Rosanna Arquette and Aidan Quinn. Seidelman's movie is one of the few that has any sense of what 1980s downtown New York looked like. The movie also shows how finding a place to crash in this overcrowded, overpriced town can lead to all sorts of entanglements, good and bad. The scene where Arquette is trying to leave Quinn's apartment, then accidentally dumps her suitcase and winds up kissing him on the floor, is pure sex to me, without so much as a button unbuttoned. Of all the films in this post, this is the one to make the Siren all maudlin and nostalgic for the things she found when she first came to the city, and the things that took her a lot longer to find.

On November 1st, 1959, the population of New York City was 8,042,783. If you laid all these people end to end, figuring an average height of five feet six and a half inches, they would reach from Times Square to the outskirts of Karachi, Pakistan. I know facts like this because I work for an insurance company - Consolidated Life of New York. We're one of the top five companies in the country. Our home office has 31,259 employees, which is more than the entire population of uhh... Natchez, Mississippi. I work on the 19th floor. Ordinary Policy Department, Premium Accounting Division, Section W, desk number 861.

Drudgery - The Apartment. The Siren could file this one under ambition, too, but that's a peripheral theme. In addition to the love story, it's about being part of The Crowd (the masterpiece to which it is indebted). There's the loneliness, the grind, the way you search out something interesting--preferably cute and interesting--in order to feel like you aren't just another cog. But in reality, you know that Fred MacMurray is right, and for most New Yorkers, it's gonna take years to work your way up to the twenty-seventh floor, and thirty seconds to be out on the street again. One of the Siren's favorite moments in this movie is a very small one--Jack Lemmon finally returning to his empty apartment to nurse his cold. Bosses and their affairs aside, the Siren's lived that scene. Haven't you?

Bin Laden can drop another one right next door. I ain't moving.

Resilience - The 25th Hour. Spike Lee is the Siren's favorite working American filmmaker. That's my story and I'm sticking to it, boys. And one of the many reasons is the way he gets New York, not just the look and feel of the city--hell, all kinds of directors have managed that--but the way New Yorkers react and process things. With a few simple images and a bit of dialogue, this movie got at something fundamental in the way New Yorkers reacted to 9/11 in a way almost no other artist has. 9/11 has been so thoroughly and, in many cases, disgustingly co-opted that having it crop up in a movie based on a novel written before the attack set off some warning signals. But instead Lee used it to underpin his story about the pursuit of redemption. The 25th Hour was about making amends for the wrongs you've done, but it was also about the far more difficult task of moving past the wrongs that were done to you.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

The Strangest Damn Gang You Ever Heard Of

All right, guys. This is the big one. Sheer movie-watching joy. The best film of 1967, no matter what AMPAS said. Yes, Lance Mannion's Wednesday Night at the Movies brings you Arthur Penn's masterpiece, Bonnie and Clyde. The Siren is hoping all her commenters show up at 10 pm EDT at Newcritics ready to pay tribute to Warren Beatty's grin and Faye Dunaway's beret. Newcritics is back with the living after a nasty run-in with some malware bandits, so post away without fear. As a little shot from the hip flask, here are just five things, out of probably at least five hundred, that the Siren loves about Bonnie and Clyde:

1. The superb control of tone. Take the scene with a kidnapped Gene Wilder, which starts out mocking the squares in a way that's very 60s without killing the period ambience. And then, when Wilder tells them his profession, Penn cuts to Dunaway's face, and the scene is suddenly the very darkest kind of foreshadowing. Split-second abrupt, and smooth as Talisker.

2. The tender, whispery-quiet family reunion scene that functions as the funeral we never see.

3. The beauty of Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway. All the Siren can say to that is, damn.

4. The supremely witty script from David Newman, Robert Benton and the uncredited Robert Towne. Some say that screenplays are about structure, not dialogue. This one has both, the light-and-dark interplay between the episodes kept moving along perfectly, while the dialogue is always spare but telling.

5. The music. Boy, does this bring out the Siren's inner Alabama. In a good way, of course.