Wednesday, January 20, 2010
The Shadows So Far (and Night Three Coming Up)
More on the TCM Shadows of Russia films so far. Big Hollywood is showing the Siren some love by assigning its best writer, Robert Avrech, to cover the series; his thoughts on Night One are here.
The Way We Were: "Is this movie," demanded Mr. N, "going to be one long tracking shot coming to rest on Robert Redford?" My beloved husband saw this--imagine--as a flaw. Well, there are a lot of those shots. Sydney Pollack was a good friend of Redford's and in this movie apparently he decided to use the actor the same way John Ford used Monument Valley. At one point Mr. N went upstairs and I called up, "They just tracked to Redford on a boat." "I knew it," came the retort from above, "I could hear the music starting up."
Still, the film holds up well. It's still romantic and touching, and the Siren still sniffled over it, unlike Love Story. The tracking shots are just the camera yearning like Barbra Streisand. When those shots come to rest on Redford's face, you see everything Hubbell is holding back from. As Katie Morosky, Streisand's sincerity is so naked you want to shout at her to play harder to get; she sells the love affair, and the political dedication as well. If David Ehrenstein is right, and Katie is a self-portrait by screenwriter Arthur Laurents, then Laurents is gifted with self-knowledge as well as talent. The movie is frank about how difficult it is to be around a person of profound beliefs and constant activism. When Hubbell says to Katie, half-resigned and half-incredulous, "You think you're easy? Compared to what, the Hundred Years' War?" you have to agree. And yet Gardiner squanders our sympathy as he squanders the richest parts of his life, leaving his baby girl in the hospital along with Katie, choosing television and a Gloria Upson blonde. "People are their principles," Katie snaps at him, and the movie is one long demonstration that she is right. She will always be the person at the party trying to shame those telling vicious jokes, and Gardiner will always be the one saying, "Why bother?"
Reds: Spirited discussion of Warren Beatty at Glenn's place at the moment, tied to Glenn's slog through Peter Biskind's biography. When the Siren first saw this movie she thought it magnificent. Upon re-watching she sees more flaws, although it still should not have lost the Oscar to Chariots of Fire. (It should have lost to Atlantic City, in case you're wondering.) Vittorio Storaro's cinematography hasn't aged a minute. The witnesses remain one of the most clever exposition devices ever, and their extraordinary faces make the Siren ponder the fact that features deeply scored by time are a rare sight in mainstream movies and always have been. As Robert Avrech pointed out, most of the interviewees didn't know Bryant and Reed personally, but they are meant to be witnesses to the era. And the movie's real romance is with that moment for the American left, that optimism for the cause. The characters regard their unattainable love object--a true workers' state--in the dreamy way all such loves are seen, flaws somehow pushed to the periphery.
Beatty plays Reed with self-deprecating humor and Jack Nicholson is as drily perfect as I remember him, a precisely controlled performance free from the Jack-ishness that overtook him later in the decade. Diane Keaton is, however, nerve-wracking for the first hour and in the early episodes her connection with Reed seems shallow, as indeed does the character. Comes the revolution, however, and they turn on the heat.
What the Siren likes best about Reds, aside from the witnesses, the beauty, Nicholson and the moving conclusion, are the parts that show the self-knowledge Reed doesn't possess. Reed talks in abstractions, his concrete moments are all tied to Bryant. Emma Goldman, a small part played with burning dedication by Maureen Stapleton, anchors the movie to reality. In her first scene she interrupts Reed to insist that birth control is no distraction, but rather something that will make an immediate difference to countless women; in one of her last scenes she tries to tell Reed what his longed-for revolution is about to become.
Spring Madness: A meringue, so light it does not linger. While Maureen O'Sullivan was much less tiresome than usual, with her mannerisms gone and some nice moments conveying young love, she did not convert the Siren to the "love" column. But hey, Burgess Meredith was amusing, and usually the Siren just stares at him and wonders what in the hell enabled this guy to land Paulette Goddard. Lew Ayres, an often fine actor and a man of principle to boot, was phoning it in, I am afraid. The good bits came from Ruth Hussey (velvet-voiced Ruth, as Exiled in New Jersey calls her), tossing off some lines worthy of Eve Arden--"Why, Mr. Thatcher, is that suspicion I see coming up in the dumbwaiter of your mind?" And also from Joyce Compton, playing the same daffy Southern belle she essayed in The Awful Truth. (The second-funniest scene in one of the funniest movies of the 1930s. Siren readers will know that the still is Compton in the McCarey film, but honestly it's the same character.) Compton is adorable here too, and gets the only line that refers to Russia as an ideology and not just an interesting choice for a postgraduate stint: "Say, is he a Communist, or just a meatball?"
Comrade X: A likable movie, one of the last of the screwball comedies, and of course it has Eve Arden which ups a film's coolness factor by--I will have to calculate, but it's a lot. And Eve plays an ex-girlfriend of Clark Gable's, a woman of the world and not the man-hungry spinster she often had to play. More bonus points.
The Siren saw it once before and thought it wasn't so hot. This time, she tried to look at the film on its own merits and not compare the script to Ninotchka, and found Comrade X quite entertaining. It has some problems, including a slapstick tank chase that doesn't quite come off and, more seriously, a mass-execution scene midway through (I describe it here in my Moving Image Source article) that just kills the funniness deader than Trotsky.
Comrade X does have King Vidor's direction and a bright performance from Hedy Lamarr, the best the Siren has seen from Lamarr outside of H.M. Pulham Esq. (also, and not coincidentally, a Vidor film). It has Clark Gable mouthing phony platitudes about the proletariat, a concept that Gable understands is so inherently funny it should be underplayed. It has Felix Bressart and some great lines, including a couple of sideswipes at Communism that are even more explicit than Ninotchka. (Bressart: "The communists have ideas. But they found out you can't run a government with everybody going around having ideas. So what is happening, the communists are being executed so that Communism should succeed.")
Tonight, it's Our Pals in the Red Army, with The North Star at 8 pm and, for those who missed the BAM screening and want to know what the fuss is about, Mission to Moscow at 10 pm. We then shift to Diplomatic Immunity, movies about Cold War espionage, with one movie the Siren is dying to see, The Kremlin Letter, at midnight and Conspirator with Taylor beauties Robert and Elizabeth, at 2 am. In an overnight slot at 4:15 am, TCM picked a movie not on our shortlist, Counter-Attack, with Paul Muni, to go back to the Red Army theme. The Siren was tickled to notice that that this is the movie on the background marquee as Barbra Streisand goes to work in the opening of The Way We Were. (And as if that wasn't enough cross-movie series coincidence, The North Star was Farley Granger's film debut.) Read my series co-conspirator Lou Lumenick's preview here at the New York Post.
Here also at the Post website is an edited version of Lou and me chatting with none other than Robert Osborne. I do not like how I look in the picture so scroll quickly to the interview, which contains clips from My Son John. If you aren't salivating to see that one, you should be.