Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Les Misérables, Anna Karenina and Welles: A Dissent

The Siren registers polite disagreement with Dave Kehr of the New York Times, and his review yesterday of new DVDs. I hope he didn't mean it when he said that the 1948 Anna Karenina and the double DVD set of the 1935 and 1952 Les Misérables were destined to sit "somewhere on a back shelf in high school libraries, to be shown whenever an English teacher feels like taking an afternoon off." Both releases have a great deal to offer film lovers.

The Siren saw that version of Tolstoy quite some time ago, and while Vivien Leigh could not compete with memories of Garbo in the same role thirteen years earlier, Ralph Richardson was a superb Karenin. It was also directed by Julien Duvivier, a fine talent who achieved greatness more than once with films such as Un Carnet de Bal and Pepe le Moko. As for Les Misérables, the Siren hasn't seen the 1952 version, though Robert Newton supposedly does a good job as Javert, and Lewis Milestone was no slouch. But releasing the 1935 version is a genuine event, for it contains Charles Laughton as Javert, a role recorded at the pinnacle of his artistry. It's been darned hard to find for lo these many years, despite virtues such as cinematography by the great Gregg Toland. The director was Richard Boleslawski, a veteran of the Moscow Art Theatre whose role in bringing the Method to America led Simon Callow to call him "Moses, or perhaps John the Baptist." Laughton's wife, Elsa Lanchester (Madame Magloire in the 1952 version), thought it Laughton's finest performance. And Gloria, if you are reading this and you have a multi-region DVD player, Amazon has it for $13.99, and they ship to Spain. The Siren's copy is on its way.

Finally, a word about Orson Welles as Rochester in Jane Eyre (1944), also released this week. The Siren cheerfully acknowledges her own Welles worship, but she still thinks his performance has been short-changed. Rochester in the novel is a frequently menacing figure, who at first frightens Jane as much as he fascinates her. The Siren sees little similarity between Welles's Rochester, with his air of privilege and his acid sarcasm at Jane's expense, and Heathcliff, the half-wild, uncouth orphan, desperately in love with a woman he cannot have. (Perhaps the association comes from Laurence Olivier. He was mesmerizing, but he played Heathcliff throughout with an accent more redolent of the Old Vic than the stable.)

Joan Fontaine did indeed play the spirited Jane a mite too close to Mrs. de Winter territory. But I would not call the novel's Rochester downtrodden, as Mr. Kehr does, not even at the end when, as Joyce Carol Oates wrote, "the blind and crippled Rochester is no less masculine than before." Rather than playing it safe, as a straight figure of romance, Welles brought out the neurosis in Rochester to a marked degree while retaining the arrogance of the aristocrat. That was a definite risk. As David Shipman put it, Welles "moved and looked the part, darkly romantic, but it was hard to believe that he wasn't as insane as his wife."

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Macao (1952)

It's a shame the Siren didn't see Macao when she was about 16 years old. It has every ingredient her teenage self ever looked for in an old movie. Gorgeous leads, fabulous dresses, exotic locale, some musical numbers, a nice romance. I probably wouldn't have cared as much as about things that bother me now, like a so-what villain, a plot that telegraphs its every twist and a visual style that just doesn't know what it wants to be.

This is often classified as noir on DVD and rental sites, which must cause the occasional truth-in-packaging dispute. It is many things, but thematically it ain't really noir, more straight-up adventure story. There are no tormented loners or soul-sucking character flaws, no depredations of pitiless fate. Institutional corruption is played for laughs. Director Josef von Sternberg's The Shanghai Gesture is more noir than Macao. Then again, The Shanghai Gesture is more Sternberg than Macao. Like Come and Get It, this is a movie that was taken away from one celebrated director and finished by another, Nicholas Ray. Unlike the logging epic, with this one you don't get a clear stylistic delineation. There are Sternberg moments, and Not Sternberg moments. Little or nothing suggests Ray's innovative framing, his characters' intense sexuality or his interest in the psychology of violence. The younger director appears to have phoned in Macao from a very, very long-distance connection.

Macao's plot and setting had a lot for Sternberg to relate to, little to interest Ray. A hard-bitten beauty with a taste for high rolling and low company (Jane Russell) escapes to an exotic locale, battling and then teaming with a stranger escaping his past (Robert Mitchum). There they meet a traveling stocking salesman who dabbles in smuggling (William Bendix, in the movie's most enjoyable performance). Then they run afoul of a mysterious crime kingpin (Brad Dexter, not nearly mysterious or menacing enough, which really hurts the movie). The beauty goes to work in the kingpin's cabaret. Occasionally we encounter the kingpin's moll, Gloria Grahame--given nothing, and I do mean NOTHING, to do aside from wearing a spectacular bolero jacket, the sleeves of which terminate in a glittering pair of gloves. Otherwise Grahame mostly glares from doorways. Songs are sung, wisecracks are traded, wallets are lifted, a negligee is tossed over a dressing-room screen. (That last is one of the Siren's favorite old-movie cliches. It's even better if the heroine gets to pop her head and bare shoulders over the top, or if she sends a filmy something sailing over the top to hit the hero in the head.) Anyway, I ask you, does this sound noir? Macao has some crime, some moody lighting and some night shots. Otherwise it is a heck of a lot closer to something like Morocco.

The story of the filming is more dramatic than Macao itself, but that doesn't mean the movie is without interest. Any fan of The Shanghai Gesture (Siren pal Girish is one) should see Macao to compare its casino, full of railed landings going further and further up, with Mother Gin Sling's Dante-like gambling hell, a series of circles leading inexorably down. Again and again in Macao we see light coming through Venetian blinds, casting vertical bands on the characters. In noir this effect is usually suggestive of prison, either literal or figurative. In Macao the light-through-blinds seems more like a cobweb--beautiful, hemming in the characters, but nothing a determined adult can't break through. The most striking sequence, one that truly screams Sternberg, is a dockside chase that closes the movie. In the opening sequence (maybe Ray, maybe not) the actors race over floating docks, bobbing and weaving on the unstable piers. The end has the characters running around the same docks, but now the sets are strung with close-knit fishing nets. Sternberg's camera glides around this new obstacle, no more trapped by it than the characters are.

This was made at RKO and Howard Hughes' fingerprints are all over Russell's wolf-whistle costumes. One gold lamé dress was the subject of a memo from Hughes so schoolboyishly detailed the Siren is embarrassed to quote it. Russell's breasts somehow stay in frame no matter what else is going on. Still, Sternberg's most famous collaboration had been with Marlene Dietrich, and together they paid obsessive attention to her lighting and costumes. Russell was nowhere near the screen presence of a Dietrich--her chief asset was likability, her persona a Buddy with Boobs--but having the camera dawdle over a gorgeous woman was second nature to Sternberg.

What a pity, then, that according to film historians Russell disliked Sternberg, and Mitchum positively hated him. Sternberg's precision, his fastidious and haughty demeanor struck them as ridiculous. His career was in fadeout, his celebrated movies more than a decade in the past, and the rising young stars saw no reason to take orders from the ceremonious old has-been. Together with Bendix they made Sternberg's set a torment to him. The Bad and the Beautiful, a book on Hollywood in the 1950s, tells of the trio toppling von Sternberg's tent when he was changing clothes and rubbing Limburger cheese on his car engine. In his Mitchum biography, Lee Server describes how Mitchum mocked Sternberg's speaking manner: "Where did you get that accent, Joe? You're from Weehawken, N.J." (Sternberg grew up in Vienna and New York.)

Jane Russell remembered, 'According to Sternberg, we were not supposed to eat or drink on the set. No grip was allowed to have a Coke in the corner. Nobody.' Mitchum began bringing in bags of food and coffeee, and handing them out to one and all. Sternberg was enraged, told MItchum he was going to be fired. Mitchum said, 'If anyone gets fired, it'll be you' ... Mitchum began having his lunch [at Sternberg's lecturn], leaving half-eaten pickles and greasy wax paper all over the director's pages.

Server says Sternberg chose the wrong way to develop a rapport with Mitchum, trying to make chitchat by remarking that the warmed-over script was a "piece of shit" and comparing Russell's talent to that of his cigarette case. Mitchum responded tartly, "She must have something. Lots of ladies have big tits." Actually, at the time what Russell had was Hughes and his breast monomania, but Mitchum's on-and-off sense of gallantry had been offended.

Throughout his book Server makes his relish of Mitchum's bad-boy attitude very clear, but the Siren is resolutely uncharmed. Sternberg was obviously a difficult person, but he was also a great talent, and when the Siren reads about the stars' juvenile behavior she wants to go back in time and ground them. Mitchum never did have enough respect for himself or his profession, which is why for every great performance (and he was often superb) there is another where he's a shambling bore, drifting by on his looks and sexual magnetism. The actor has developed a cult in recent years, but the Siren subscribes only to the acting part of the fan club (well, okay, the eye-candy part too). "It was just a crummy melodrama," Mitchum carped in later years. Well, the atmosphere on the set undoubtedly helped ensure that.

The film tested poorly in previews, Sternberg either pushed off or was pushed, and Hughes, the perpetual tinkerer, brought Nicholas Ray on board for retakes. Server estimates that about one-third of the finished movie was directed by Ray. At the time Ray was married to Grahame, but the couple was divorcing. Grahame, thoroughly sick of her insipid part, told Ray she'd forego alimony if he would cut her out of the movie. Scenes went in, scenes went out, Mel Ferrer (!) directed a few more scenes, Mitchum started to complain that "his character would come through a door and run into himself on the other side." (Server) The script, already worked on by George Bricker, Edward Chodorov, Norman Katkov, Frank L. Moss, Walter Newman, Stanley Rubin, Bernard C. Schoenfeld and Bob Williams, got additional dialogue from Mitchum. No wonder the movie feels aimless, even though the action stays in Macao.