Friday, February 24, 2006

I Capture the Castle

My daughter has decided that we live near a castle. Three days a week I push her and and her twin brother in a stroller to their preschool, about a 15-minute walk from where we live, and each morning as part of her customary trip narration she declares "Castle!" I know better than to say "water tower" or "Toronto Hydro," because she will only shake her head in pity for my ignorance and repeat "Castle!" with rising emphasis until I admit that yes, it is a castle, a beige brick castle with a red-and-white metal tower on top.

On Friday I saw Spirit of the Beehive (1973), and I was astonished at director Victor Erice's ability to capture the view of a child. An abandoned farmhouse becomes Frankenstein's lair, a midnight walk becomes a means to summon a ghost, a sister's playing possum becomes death itself. There were points in the movie where I sat up in disbelief, jarred by a memory of the way I thought and acted as a child, that memory brought back so vividly it was as though I were a little girl again if only for a minute.

The setting is a remote part of Spain in 1940. Ana (Ana Torrent, about six years old and possessed of eyes that could stop your heart) sees "Frankenstein" via a traveling movie show. Her sister Isabel convinces her that the monster's spirit is still somewhere about. Ana's parents, traumatized and estranged, pursue their own obsessions and are only fitfully present in their children's lives. Spain's Civil War just ended, and throughout the film we sense real monsters barely kept at bay as the girls become more engrossed in their games. It is a strange movie, visionary and almost plotless, crammed with symbols of adult isolation, deception and loneliness. But despite the frequent reminders of the grown-up world, so intensely do you enter the minds of the children that when a bit of magical realism takes shape late in the tale, it feels as logical to you as it does to Ana.

I walked out feeling a bit disoriented, as though I had slipped inside my children's heads and could not alter my view back to adulthood. If you had taken my hand and walked me to school, I would have sworn I saw a castle.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

The 60-Cent Special

The Siren has been working her way through her must-see DVD stack. Many thrillers to cross. Ah, film noir, nothing like it. Women wore fitted suits for everything from luncheon with the girls to a train-boarding getaway from the local mob; men wore trenchcoats but didn't tie and knot the belts like sissies; and everybody drank whacking big cocktails and smoked as though replacement lungs were 25 cents at the Automat. The Narrow Margin (1952), which I saw last week, is a splendid example.

You won't find the Siren saying much of anything good about the Hays Code, but the ban on profanity meant the genre carries some of the best, most creative slang and insults in the annals of American art. My favorite in The Narrow Margin: "[She's a] 60-cent special. Cheap, flashy and strictly poison under the gravy." Other choice morsels include "You make me sick" and the response "well, use your own sink!" as well as "you cheap badge-pusher!" (Sounds great, but what does it mean? How does a cop push a badge? Into a crook's face? But that is usually more of a flash. Possibly the Hays Office heard "badge flasher" and said "you've got to be kidding.")

The setting is a train, so the Siren was inclined to like the movie anyway, since she has a weakness for train pictures of any kind. It was a B picture, but it is class all the way. Marie Windsor, the aforementioned 60-cent special, stars as the wife of a dead mobster, and flinty, growling, shovel-faced Charles McGraw plays the cop who's escorting her to testify in a big racketeering trial. Windsor is just amazing, so tough you could use her to upholster a couch, sashaying around in her floozywear and snarling over everything from the gangsters who want her dead to the cop's failure to bring her breakfast in a timely manner. (Interesting interview with her here.)

McGraw does particularly well showing his character's disgust at his charge. You can see him throwing himself into the pure gamemanship of protection, as he fights to avoid thinking about her utter worthlessness. The supporting cast is equally good, including Paul Maxey as a rotund and enigmatic passenger and Gordon Gebert as a small child with the kind of vocal power you associate with episodes of "Nanny 911."

More than most pictures of the era, the movie captures the grubbiness and claustrophobia of a passenger train. People drift up and down the corridors, nosing around in things that are none of their business and harrassing the overworked porters and conductor. The train speeds up, slows down, picks the worst moments to lurch around and knock everyone off balance. The set was stationary in order to save money, but director Richard Fleischer and cinematographer George E. Diskant made a virtue of that by using camera to suggest the train's movement. They used a lot of hand-held work that gives an added feeling of reality. Scenes are lit in a natural-looking way, including a nice sequence at a rather seedy station, shot entirely in bright daylight. There's no soundtrack either, just the whistles and rattles of the train.

There is a twist at the end, but before the Siren gave it away she'd go into Witness Protection herself. The one flaw, however, is that after you've seen the movie you realize there are several things that just don't make any sense. Doesn't matter when you're watching it, however. The Narrow Margin is so entertaining you don't care. And there are compensations, in that you also realize the theme was spelled out quite early, and developed with admirable consistency throughout.

Plus, the film moves too swiftly for much analysis while you're watching. The Narrow Margin doesn't dawdle.

(Top, Marie Windsor shows off her taste in costume jewelry to cops Charles McGraw (left) and Don Beddoe (right). Below, McGraw demonstrates how to wear a trenchcoat.)

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Loving Lana

Certain actresses blow you away with their talent, some entrance you with their charm; and there are others you love, well, because. For years the Siren has maintained the softest of soft spots for the lady above. Where, may the Siren ask, is the revisionist Blog-A-Thon for Lana Turner? After all, when she died she merited a heartfelt tribute in the New Yorker by no less a literary light than John Updike. February 8 was Lana Turner's birthday, and the Siren is very sorry to have missed it. The fun folks at have an entry up on By Love Possessed that is, as usual, a hoot (though it seems to have been edited a bit oddly). The Siren's favorite Lana moment, however, will always be that walk down the stairs at the end of Ziegfeld Girl. You can quibble all you want with other aspects of Lana's acting, but when it came to walking, she was second to none. For absolutely everything you could possibly want to know about Lana, check out Lana Turner Online.

(Top, Lana pushes a broom with aplomb in The Postman Always Rings Twice. Bottom, Lana's climactic moment from Ziegfeld Girl, courtesy of The Lou Valentino Collection.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Memo to March's guest editor: This is what a daring magazine cover looks like. Many other examples here and here. Some of them are even photographed by Annie Leibowitz.

Monday, February 13, 2006

The Siren Awakes From Uneasy Dreams

For years the Siren's dreams were no more than vaguely annoying, with a cast assembled from her daily life. Twice in the past month, however, she has had someone from Hollywood's Golden Age show up to badger her during REM sleep. A couple of weeks ago, it was Cary Grant, wearing a double-breasted suit, who came to her house to tell her that she had bad manners.

And last night, the Siren found herself confronting Fritz Lang, looking as he did in Contempt. Lang told the Siren she looks old. I am afraid that in this dream I completely lost my temper and found myself shrieking at Fritz that "all your actors HATED YOUR GUTS!! Marlene Dietrich said you WERE A SADIST!!"

What annoys me most is that I didn't even see a Fritz Lang film last week, though I crammed in a lot of movie-viewing. I was thinking--thinking, mind you--of watching Clash by Night and I guess that was all it took. I considered trying to re-program myself by watching a Thin Man movie but now I am terribly afraid William Powell might pop into my unconscious to tell me I have lousy comic timing.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Scarlett, circa 2003, age 17.

If she were a movie star, she'd have been Bette Davis. Long-lived, queenly, unable to suffer fools at all, let alone gladly. Whenever I was crying, she leaped into my lap. But somehow as she did this, I envisioned not a comforting pat, but rather Bette switching off Liebestraum and snapping, "I detest cheap sentiment."

She died today.

I love my cats because I love my home, and little by little they become its visible soul.
- Jean Cocteau

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Sunday Musings on Marx

The Siren celebrated her new television (actually an old television off Craigslist--long story) by watching The Cocoanuts, one of the few Marx Brothers movies she'd never seen. Groucho is running a Florida hotel in this one, and Chico and Harpo play two thieves. Zeppo is a clerk and he's barely in the movie at all. Poor Zeppo, he's such a cipher. We were almost at the credits before I even bothered to notice his lack of screen time. This movie is somewhat less hilarious than the brothers' greatest films, but still has some hysterically funny sequences.

Margaret Dumont is in The Cocoanuts, and even here was ready to accept her crown as The Greatest Straight Woman of All Time. (Straight woman in the vaudeville sense, got that?) Marx authorities ranging from Dick Cavett to Groucho himself all say Dumont genuinely didn't get the jokes, on or off screen, but the Siren finds this difficult to believe. For one thing, the woman had a long career as a comic foil. For another, Dumont is just too good.

For contrast, check out Kay Francis in this movie. She looks ravishing. She also looks absolutely befuddled. In one sequence where the brothers are running in and out of her hotel room, Francis seems to be playing the part of a woman forced to dodge across the Santa Monica Freeway in high heels. She can't play off the mayhem, she's too afraid of being run over. When Dumont enters later in the scene, she is resolutely, regally in character and the jokes become just that much funnier. It takes real skill to be in a scene with the Marx Brothers and not look like you've been hit over the head with Harpo's horn.

Every time I try to write about the Marx Brothers, I just wind up quoting Groucho, so why should this Sunday be any different:

Groucho: Wages? Do you want to be wage slaves? Answer me that!
Bellhops: No.
Groucho: No, of course not. But what makes wage slaves? Wages!

Zeppo: Any luck with the 4:30?
Groucho: Yeah. It didn't hit me.

(Answering telephone)
Groucho: Hello? Yes? Ice water in 318? Is that so? Where'd you get it? Oh, you want some.

Groucho: Why, it's the most exclusive residential district in Florida. Nobody lives there.

Groucho: (on phone) You want to know where you can get a hold of Mrs. Potter? I don't know, she's awfully ticklish.

Groucho: All along the river, those are all levees.
Chico: That's the Jewish neighborhood?
Groucho: Well, we'll passover that.

Groucho: (addressing Dumont, of course) I can see it now: you and the moon. Wear a necktie so I'll know you.

This is a real antique, made in 1929. So the camera work is static, to say the least, but you get some slight compensation in that the costumes mark the fabulous death throes of High Flapper Style.

The Siren adores the Marx Brothers. Her favorite is Duck Soup. You could spend hours deconstructing the world view of that one. Or you could take Groucho's word on the film's political significance: "What significance? We were just four Jews trying to get a laugh."

That makes for an abrupt transition to part two of my Sunday ramblings. If there is one movie argument that the Siren just doesn't want to have, it's the one about Hollywood's alleged monolithic liberalism. Of course, my main field of interest is the Golden Age. The minute someone tries to tell me the general tilt was to the left during that period is the minute I realize I'm talking to someone whose classic movie viewing is largely confined to renting Casablanca on Valentine's Day. For heaven's sake, just look at the Hays Code. It's about liberal as Pat Robertson on a bad day.

As for the current movie scene ... one of my all-time favorite posts from master blogger Lance Mannion was one where he tried to put political arguments about the Oscars out of their misery. But the "Hollywood Has a Sinister Marxist Agenda" theme just keeps coming back, like Rasputin or Freddie or Jason or Martin Lawrence. Back it came this year, spurred by the list of Oscar nominations for Best Picture. And the gentleman at the consistently hilarious Kung Fu Monkey blog has taken some time out to feed the myth some cyanide cookies, pump it full of silver bullets and drive a stake through its heart. Please check out his post, as the Siren is still laughing over it. Enjoy your Sunday.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

In Memoriam: Moira Shearer, 1926-2006

For many years now, the Siren has marked each birthday with pleasure thinking that the date was shared by Moira Shearer, the beautiful star of The Red Shoes. This year, sadly, was the last time I will be able to do that. I have a brief memorial post over at Cinemarati.