Monday, July 30, 2007

Ingmar Bergman, 1918-2007

The Siren pauses to mourn the death of the great Ingmar Bergman. Her knowledge of Bergman's filmography is largely confined to his earlier films--The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries, Smiles of a Summer Night, Summer Interlude, The Magician, Persona, The Magic Flute. But the Bergman films she has seen, she loves passionately. Most of all, she loves Fanny and Alexander, that fantastically beautiful ode to family love and the warm, carnal world of art and the theatre.

One of the best film bloggers the Siren has ever read was the late George Fasel of A Girl and a Gun. His family, in what constitutes a very large service to the film-blogging community, has left his archives up at his old blog. In July 2005, a little more than a month before his own death, George posted a piece on Ingmar Bergman, and summed up the director, and what we have lost with his passing, far better than the Siren can:

    Bergman could be funny--uproariously funny--when he chose to be: just have a look at The Magic Flute and especially Smiles of a Summer Night (1955), a timeless comedy of great invention. But for the most part, his work bluntly and unapologetically portrayed intense psychic pain, the emotional violence that people did to one another as a matter of course in the name of love, duty, and God. Bergman hurts, and if you don't feel it, you've unplugged your antennae. But he also presents his pain--which you have no doubt he has felt himself many times--with such honesty, clarity, and aesthetic scrupulosity that one can only respect him. He makes his audience work, not just by enduring the agony, but to find out what is really going on, who is the reliable source and who is not, why people say they are lying when they are actually telling the truth, why they subject themselves to injury needlessly.

    In spite of the subject matter, it all looks and sounds gorgeous. Bergman first hooked up with DP Sven Nykvist in 1960 and they were still together in Fanny and Alexander; I doubt there was a cinematographer in the twentieth century who could render emotional states by light, shade, framing, and camera positioning with his skill and subtlety. And the casts? Well, consider: Harriett Andersen, Max von Sydow, Gunnar Björnstrand, Eva Dahlberg, Liv Ullmann, Ingrid Thulin, Gunnel Lindblom, Erland Josephson--every one of them willing to do what the boss called for, make it even better, and most of all completely submerge themselves in their characters. I can do something with Bergman films I almost never do otherwise, which is to watch them for performances only...

    As [Saraband] finished, I didn't want to believe this was it, that we wouldn't be seeing anything new from this genius. All right, he turned eighty-seven just last week, and a man has a right to throttle back. But I wish he wouldn't. We need his honesty and mastery more than ever.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Nightmare Alley (1947)

Is there anything better than seeing a great movie for the first time? (Aside from all the usual landmarks of one's personal life, of course.) The Siren was prepared to like Nightmare Alley, the 1947 noir set in the world of carnivals and con artists, but instead she loved it. She saw the film after a long week, punctuated by the baby's epic cold and sleep deprivation that turned the household into the garden party scene from The Manchurian Candidate. Given the Siren's low frame of mind Nightmare Alley should have depressed the living hell out of her. Instead she switched off the DVD player and immediately started proselytizing to Mr. C: "You HAVE to see this one!"

The Siren has spent some time on her blog discussing films that are often called noir, but really aren't, like Macao and Moonrise. No such uncertainty here. Nightmare Alley is noir, all right. But it has some aspects that set it apart, chiefly the budget. Most crime thrillers of the era had middling to dead-broke production values. This movie was the pet project of its star, Tyrone Power, who bought the rights to William Gresham's novel and then browbeat Darryl Zanuck and 20th-Century Fox into greenlighting the project. The crew was strictly A-list and the whole thing was put together with great care and ample money.

Certainly this movie stands out in the career of director Edmund Goulding. There are tragic moments in his prior movies--John Barrymore's pathetic death in Grand Hotel, Bette Davis feeling the sun on her hands for the last time in Dark Victory. But in other Goulding movies, people suffer in refined settings, and they do it in good taste. Hiring Goulding to direct Nightmare Alley was a bit like assigning James Ivory to adapt Last Exit to Brooklyn. How wonderful, then, that Goulding rose to the occasion.

While some contemporary critics (including the ever-prescient James Agee) were impressed by Nightmare Alley, others were repelled. (Check out this piece from the New York Times, where the anonymous critic takes out his tweezers and examines the film like a tick he just pulled off the family dog.) Despite the film's brilliance it isn't hard to understand the shock. Imagine you fell in love with Tyrone Power as he squired Sonja Henie around the ski resort or swept Maureen O'Hara into his chiseled pirate arms. There was nothing to prepare you for the sight of the most beautiful man in movies conning little old ladies and meeting a fate as dark as anything in American cinema.

Audiences sidestepped Nightmare Alley like a dead squirrel in the driveway. The movie had a short release. Zanuck yanked it out of theaters and stuck a sword back in Power's hand for Captain from Castile. Litigation between the producer and the company then kept it out of view for decades. Nightmare Alley achieved legendary status via long unavailability. Occasionally a private print would be screened, ensuring that word-of-mouth kept the memory alive for film lovers who weren't lucky enough to have seen it. Only in 2005 did Fox finally wrap up the red tape and release the movie on DVD.

(More on Nightmare Alley to come presently. Next: Tyrone Power.)

Monday, July 16, 2007

Barbara Stanwyck: The Professional's Professional

Today, July 16, marks the 100th anniversary of Barbara Stanwyck's birth. There was a time when the former Ruby Stevens of Brooklyn was familiar mostly as a white-haired matriarch on television series like The Big Valley, The Colbys or The Thorn Birds. Thank god those days seem to be fading, and now Stanwyck's movie career is deservedly at the forefront. There are many cinephiles who will happily name her as their favorite actress. Well, why should they be any different from Stanwyck's Hollywood peers? Here is just a small sample of what the Siren turned up in her search for what other professionals thought of "Missy," as her friends called her:

Beloved by all directors, actors, crews, and extras.--Frank Capra

She's one of the greatest women and the one of the greatest actresses I ever worked with.
--Walter Huston

The best actress I ever worked with.
--Joel McCrea

Stanwyck, of course, was a brilliant actress. She could do anything.
--William Wellman

Working with Barbara Stanwyck was one of the greatest pleasures of my career.
--Fritz Lang

[Howard Hawks] always ranked her among the best actresses with whom he ever worked.
--Hawks biographer Todd McCarthy

Barbara Stanwyck is a fantastic actress. When she makes a gesture as she speaks a line, she has a way of suspending that motion in mid-air for a split second on a certain word which gives an imperceptible emphasis to that word.
--Mitchell Leisen

A professional's professional, a superb technician with a voice quality that immediately hooked you with its humanness.
--King Vidor

Barbara Stanwyck had an instinct so sure she almost needed no direction.
--Preston Sturges

When [in 1932 Picturegoer] listed the top six female stars (Garbo, Constance Bennett, Dietrich, Chatterton, Shearer and Crawford), [Adolphe] Menjou himself told the editor that in Hollywood Stanwyck was rated above the last two.

--David Shipman

How's that for unanimity? The Siren agrees with Adolphe Menjou, and would in fact rank Stanwyck's abilities above that entire Picturegoer list, even above Garbo, who was an instinctual actress and not the superb technician that Stanwyck was. So on this fine Monday, let us take some time to talk about Barbara Stanwyck. Here, the Siren lists her favorites. She loves the actress in all of these movies, and the titles are ranked solely to indicate how much pleasure the Siren gets out of each performance:

1. The Lady Eve
2. The Strange Love of Martha Ivers
3. Double Indemnity
4. Remember the Night
5. Stella Dallas
6. Ball of Fire
7. The Mad Miss Manton
8. Lady of Burlesque (Stanwyck, as Joel McCrea noted, was in burlesque herself and "came up the hard way.")
9. Clash by Night
10. Titanic

Over to you. Name your favorite Stanwyck roles. Did she ever give a bad performance? (Not many actresses who spark that as a genuine query!) Where should she rank in the pantheon of Hollywood actresses?

(Cross-posted at Newcritics. Also, check out Peter Nelhaus's take on Roustabout here.)

Sunday, July 08, 2007

In Brief: Le Samouraï

The Siren was oversold on Le Samouraï, not by any critic, but by the Jean-Pierre Melville movies she saw previously. Having seen Un Flic, which she thought pretty good, Bob le Flambeur, which she thought excellent, and L'Armée des Ombres, which she thought a masterpiece, the Siren was all in a tizzy to Netflix this classic. Le Samouraï, after a patently phony epigraph, opens with a long shot of Alain Delon, barely visible on the bed in a dirty Parisian flat, smoke from his cigarette gathering above his head. And there was this squeak in the background, and the Siren tried to figure out what it reminded her of, until she thought, "Damn. That sounds like the windmill in Once Upon a Time in the West." It's Delon's pet bird, but the association really, really should have warned her. This movie is a cerebrally paced, meticulously framed, fantastically good-looking stiff. The Siren admired its stark construction but it was an endurance test, 105 minutes that felt twice as long as L'Armée did at 145.

In interviews Melville suggested that Jef, a hired assassin and the "samurai" of the title, is schizophrenic, but crazy people are usually livelier than this, at least in the movies. Somewhere around the time Jef got nicked by a bullet the Siren realized there was never going to be a point where she gave two hoots in hell about him. Instead she found herself looking at Delon's face, dour and unchanging in shot after shot, and remembering the verdict of his ex-lover Brigitte Bardot: "Alain is beautiful, but so is my Louis XVI commode." Nathalie Delon (married to Alain at the time) and Cathy Rosier, both gorgeous, apparently had the same acting coach as the star. The police chief (François Périer) was the Siren's favorite. He cracks jokes and has facial expressions.

The Siren can understand the admiration for the steel-colored perfection of Le Samouraï's look. But watching Delon dart around the Metro, in fear for his life, left her as cold as Harry Lime looking down from the Ferris wheel. The Siren has resigned herself to more lonely iconoclasm, but she did find this. Merci, M. Rosenbaum, for expressing a few reservations. And apologies to Girish.

Above left (click to enlarge): Alain Delon, right three-quarters view; Alain Delon, left three-quarters view; Alain Delon looks at a gun; Alain Delon looks at Cathy Rosier; Cathy Rosier looks at Alain Delon. Special bonus: Compare the second shot with this snap of the Delons' son. Joie de vivre runs in the family.

The Siren likes Delon in other movies, particularly Purple Noon, Rocco and His Brothers and The Leopard. Good take on the actor to be found at Sunset Gun.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Anytime Annie: Role Model

Emma of All About My Movies called this Blogathon for The Performance That Changed My Life. Right there--"changed my life"--seems the Siren should be delving into something deep and meaningful. "Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront showed me the possibilities of a new style of acting!" "Audrey Hepburn in The Nun's Story showed me the agony of spiritual struggle!" "Meryl Streep in Sophie's Choice broke my heart!"

But the Siren can't lie to Emma. The performance that really did change my life wasn't deep and wasn't even a star turn, though certainly it was meaningful to me. It was Ginger Rogers as Anytime Annie in 42nd Street. I saw this movie as a kid, probably chopped up on TBS, source of many of my cinematic touchstone viewings. I must have been well under 10, too young to catch a single double-entendre. Still, Ginger fascinated me. That tart tongue, that supreme self-confidence, the way she took any obstacle from the Depression to a catty costar and rolled right over it. I love almost all of Ginger's early tough-tootsie characters, but 42nd Street was the first one I saw and it holds a special place for me. (I am happy to note that it recently charmed Siren favorite Tonio Kruger as well.) Over the years I saw the movie again and again, and here are the lessons it carried for me:

1. People used to dress a lot better, especially starlets. The Siren defies you to look at any modern-day picture and tell her she is wrong. For a time in the 1930s Ginger had one of the best figures in Hollywood. She loved clothes and she wore each ensemble with dash. Which leads into

2. With the right attitude, even an odd outfit can be carried off. When Anytime Annie enters, she is wearing tweeds and a monocle.

And, in the modern parlance, she rocks them.

3. Bad girls have more fun. Does this even need elaboration? Here's how Annie is introduced:

Andy Lee: Not Anytime Annie? Say, who could forget 'er? She only said "No" once, and then she didn't hear the question!

And here we have Ruby Keeler, as insipid ingenue Peggy Sawyer:

Chorine: You, uh, looking for somebody - or just shopping around?
Peggy: Could you tell me where I'll find the gentleman in charge?
Chorine: First door to your left, dearie!

Which woman would you like to hang out with?

4. Dealing with male lechery? Mock it. The Siren read one reviewer who was so offended by the scene in which the chorus girls have to show off their legs to the producers and director that he compared it--unfavorably--to a scene in Takeshi Miike's Ichi the Killer where a prostitute gets her nipples sliced off. The Siren suggests, politely (because she is a little afraid of this guy) that he is missing an important element of the scene. That would be Ginger and Una Merkel (as Lorraine), rolling their eyes as soon as the director moves down the line, not taking any of it seriously for a minute. You know they are thinking it beats stenography, which at the time also attracted a fair share of wolves (check out Joan Crawford dealing with Wallace Beery in Grand Hotel). In Showgirls, Elizabeth Berkley and the others stand around tremulously, like Irish setters on point, waiting for that magic bit of male approval. Ginger and Una know they're attractive, they know they will make it through, and they also know the men are drips. Which brings us to

5. See an opportunity for a wisecrack? Grab it.

Marsh: Address?
Chorine: Park Avenue.
Annie: And is her homework tough!

Lorraine: ...I always said she was a nice girl. And she's so good to her mother.
Annie: She sure is. Do you know that she makes forty-five dollars a week and sends her mother a hundred of it?

Annie: [to chorus girl] It must have been hard on your mother, not having any children.

Music director: Get some feeling into it, willya?
Annie: Whaddya want me to do, bite my nails?

6. What's going on at the margins is often more interesting than the main event. Ginger and Una in their upper berth, sarcastically commenting on the newlyweds, are the best part of "Shuffle Off to Buffalo":

Matrimony is baloney
She'll be wanting alimony in a year or so
Still they go and shuffle, shuffle off to Buffalo.
When she knows as much as we know
She'll be on her way to Reno
While he still has dough
She'll give him the shuffle, when they get back from Buffalo.

7. Sisterhood is beautiful. Watch as Annie and Lorraine adopt Peggy, for no apparent reason, and Lorraine holds up three fingers to indicate they need three parts:

Annie: (to Peggy) Stick with us girl, and you'll come in on the tide.

Later, when cast in the lead due to a fortuitous relationship with porky "angel" Guy Kibbee, Annie gives up the part because Peggy supposedly has a better chance of saving the show. Here we have the movie's most glaring logical flaw, though. The Siren cannot look at Keeler without thinking of lines in a much-later show-business satire: "She can't act, she can't sing, she can't dance. A triple threat." Keeler wasn't a patch on Rogers, and something about the former Ms. McMath's face in this scene shows she knows it.


8. Men are wonderful, but they aren't necessities. Annie, sending Kibbee out to walk her Pekingese and rushing back onstage, showed the Siren that there are plenty of different ways to a happy ending.


Wow, Emma's blogathon was an absolute roaring success. The Siren is including all the links in her post, because ALL of the links are so well worth reading. Get a long cool glass of something and settle in front of the screen. The final roundup:

Kendra at Jake Weird on Michael Caine in Sleuth
Catherine from The Mixed Up Files of Catherine on Bette Davis in All About Eve
Adam from All Things Film on James Stewart in It's a Wonderful Life.
Anna at Verging Writer on Sally Field in Norma Rae.
DL at Cellar Door on Samantha Morton in Morvern Callar.
Sen at Les montreurs d'images on Robert Redford in All the President's Men.
Becci at The Sacred Ramblings of Becci on Emmy Rossum in The Day After Tomorrow.
Marius at Blog by Cosmo Marius on Marco Hofschneider in Europa Europa.
Dave over at Victim of the Time on Jodhi May in The Last of the Mohicans .
Kayleigh at Shiny Happy Blog on Audrey Tautou in Amélie.
Vertigo's Psycho from And Your Little Blog, Too on Shani Wallis in Oliver!.
RC at Strange Culture on Stéphane Audran in Babette's Feast.
Beautiful.Adam at DVDPanache on Joseph Cotten in The Third Man.
Rant1229 from The 400 Obscure Passions of the 8½ Personas on Erland Josephson in The Sacrifice.
Nathaniel R from the Film Experience on Marni Nixon in West Side Story.
Mr. Movie Geek at Movies to Movie Geek No Kamikakushi on Kate Winslet in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
Adam Carson Keller from Crumb by Crumb picks Geena Davis in Thelma and Louise.
Jose at The pathetically normal, pop culture obsessed, life of Jose on Vivien Leigh in A Streetcar Named Desire.
StinkyLulu goes for Anne Meara in Fame.
Piper from Lazy Eye Theatre on Daniel Day-Lewis in Gangs of New York.
Luke at The Musings of a Movie Maestro on Nicole Kidman in Moulin Rouge!.
Lylee from Lylee's Blog on Jane Powell in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.
Cal from Shake Well Before Use on Henry Fonda in 12 Angry Men.
As Cool as a Fruitstand on Scarlett Johansson in Lost in Translation.
Erich Kuersten from acidemic-film on Jon Voight in Runaway Train.
Cinefille from For Cinephiles by a Cinefille goes for Katharine Hepburn in The African Queen.
Bob Turnbull from Eternal Sunshine of the Logical Mind looks at the entire cast of Network.
Damian at Windmills of My Mind on Liam Neeson in Schindler's List.
Arden at Cinephilia picks Mark Ruffalo in You Can Count on Me.
Midento from when i look deep in your eyes selects Ninón Sevilla in Aventurera.
Glenn Dunks from Stale Popcorn on Drew Barrymore in Scream.
Peter Nellhaus from Coffee Coffee and More Coffee on Sean Connery in From Russia With Love.
Kimberly from Cinebeats on Barbara Shelley in Dracula: Prince of Darkness.
Chris from Drunken On Celluloid on Robert de Niro in Raging Bull.