Sunday, August 31, 2008

Seeing Red on The Red Shoes

I am often asked why The Red Shoes, of all our films, became such a success in every country of the world. More than a success, it became a legend. Even today, I am constantly meeting men and women who claimed that it changed their lives...I think that the real reason why The Red Shoes was such a success, was that we had all been told for ten years to go out and die for freedom and democracy, for this and that, and now that the war was over, The Red Shoes told us to go out and die for art.
--Michael Powell, A Life in Movies

Boris Lermontov: 'The Ballet of The Red Shoes' is from a story by Hans Andersen. It is the story of a young girl who is devoured by an ambition to attend a dance in a pair of red shoes. She gets the shoes and goes to the Ball. For a time all goes well, and she is happy. But at the end of the evening she is tired and wants to go home. But the red shoes are not tired. The red shoes are never tired. They dance her out into the street, they dance her over the mountains and valleys, through fields and forests, through night and day. Time rushes by, love rushes by, life rushes by, but the red shoes dance on.
Julian Craster: What happens in the end?
Lermontov: Oh! In the end she dies.
--from The Red Shoes, screenplay by Emeric Pressburger and Michael Powell

Melodrama! Kitsch! Ham! Entirely undistinguished choreography!
--Alastair Macaulay, New York Times Arts and Leisure section, Aug. 31, 2008

There are movie reviews that you read and disagree with, but enjoy for their spirited argument and wit. There are reviews that you disagree with and do not enjoy, but which you acknowledge are well-argued or have a certain misguided insight.

And then there are reviews that make you wonder why the critic bothered at all, so lacking is the piece in any affinity for the moviemakers, sense of history or ability to draw well-supported conclusions about the aims or accomplishments of the movie. Until today the Siren thought the 2008 Palme d'Or in such boneheadedness had been won by a certain ill-judged take on Sunrise. She was wrong. Alastair Macaulay, the dance critic for the New York Times, won it today with a "tribute" to the 60th anniversary of The Red Shoes.

He starts by observing the initial British release wasn't a huge financial success and that "nobody could guess that it would become one of the highest-earning British movies of all time." So right off the bat we realize Macaulay's research has been, let's just say light. Director Michael Powell didn't guess, he knew he had made a great movie and was extremely frustrated at the failure of the British distributors to give it a chance to build in U.K. cinemas. He found an ally in Bill Heineman of the board of United Artists, who lobbied hard to give the picture a chance in the U.S.: "If the public see this film, they'll go. Their kids will take them to see it." Heineman was right; the film was booked into a 200-seat New York theatre called the Bijou and marketed to balletomanes, which as Powell drily noted meant "half the little girls in America." It ran for two years and seven weeks.

This movie, filmed in a beautifully romantic style that was quite unlike anything seen before, and which influenced directors from Minnelli to Scorsese, to Macaulay "often looks as though it will turn into something much more conventional." It's about the "standard story of a woman's choice," you see, love or art. Standard, not classic or eternal, because isn't this life-versus-art thing something we've all worked out at this point? And the choice is "presented to the aspiring ballerina Victoria Page (Moira Shearer) at a melodramatically high pitch." This is the first occurence of the term melodrama used as a perjorative, but it will not be the last. Macaulay seems to think that the movie, with a central character based on two of history's most self-dramatizing impresarios and concerning itself with a theatrical art that conveys emotion through image, should really be toned down a bit. The best he can say for The Red Shoes is to point out a few scenes in which it "manages to transcend its own melodramatic and kitschy nature."

Other pearls follow.

"You look at the movie, and you marvel that these girls want to devote themselves to such an art." Because no one ever dreams of a consuming, lifelong devotion to a singularly beautiful and ephemeral art, especially not when it's lovingly filmed by the likes of Jack Cardiff.

"...its 'Red Shoes' ballet could never be danced onstage. (Its dissolving scene changes are sheer cinema, and the ballerina role is too nonstop for any dancer’s stamina.)" Right here we have the part that pissed off the Siren to the point that she sat down at the keyboard. Gosh no, no real dancer could magically jump into those shoes as Shearer does. Excuse me, Mr. Macaulay, but who gives a good goddamn? This is cinema, not a filmed performance. Those "dissolving scene changes" are what a cinephile calls "perfect editing" (by Reginald Mills). Show me the great movie production number that could be danced on stage. "The ballet ceased to be a naturalist conception," said Powell in his memoirs, "and became completely surreal...we were photographing images, not words...There was one contributor to our work whose collaboration was absolutely essential for the success of 'The Ballet of the Red Shoes,' and that was the audience." Preferably an audience that doesn't get all grumpy when they realize "The Girl Hunt Ballet" in The Band Wagon couldn't fit on a real Broadway stage.

"Wallbrook [sic] plays Lermontov not quite realistically; the story’s feverish melodrama comes from him, and he seems at once absurd and hypnotic." The Siren admits that even some lovers of The Red Shoes have had problems with Anton Walbrook's performance. They're wrong, however. Lermontov is generally seen as a stand-in for Sergei Diaghilev, but Powell said he was "really more like" film producer Alexander Korda, whose outsized manner the director wrote about at great length. Some personalities truly are much, much larger than life, larger even than a movie screen. Lermontov's job is to be imposing, a taskmaster who can fire up the artists under his control. In no sense is Walbrook overplaying, and here Powell agrees with the Siren, calling Walbrook "powerful" and "subtle...he goes underneath every line of dialogue, every emotion."

"The film pays fetishistic attention to all of ballet’s detailed contrivance: the elaborate makeup, the constant audience-consciousness, the endless attention to minutiae of musical timing and technical articulation." The Siren loves ballet but admits to a lack of formal knowledge. Still, correct me if I am wrong, but should a dance critic really be characterizing "musical timing and technical articulation" as "minutiae"? And again with the perjorative adjectives: "fetishistic." The movie is about a commitment to art that drives an artist to her grave, and Powell's dedication to showing the incredible preparation that must go into a single performance is part of the movie's realism.

I said realism and I meant it. The ultimate accomplishment of The Red Shoes is the way it combines the dream world of a ballet performance and the spiritual dedication to art, with the actual backbreaking work of the artist and the life sacrifices that ballet demands. Vicky's death scene is sneeringly described by Macaulay as "sheer Tosca" and "sheer Anna Karenina," as though either source is a hallmark of kitsch. Powell's memoirs, which Macaulay might greatly benefit from reading, remark on how the bloodiness of that scene struck the British critics as "bad taste." "The whole point of the scene," Powell countered, "was the conflict between romance and realism, between theatre and life." Indeed, that's the whole point of the movie.

Postscript: Yes, the Siren is back, and the jet lag is hitting her hard this time. She has been up since 5 am this morning and so reacted rather badly to having The Red Shoes, which hit her like a thunderclap when she saw it on the big screen years back, dissed by the paper of record.

I avidly read every comment on every post and ask my patient readers to forgive me for the lack of reciprocal comments on them. In Normandy I had no Internet access at all and in Paris time was short indeed. France was as wonderful as ever, however, despite the strange French habit of insisting "ça n'existe pas" when they can't find something (in this case, the Region 2 of Make Way for Tomorrow, which certainly does existe and which I bought.) I'll let Mr. Powell have the last word on France, where The Red Shoes was shot in part: "Everything that I had been missing over the bitter years came rushing back to me. I knew, as I have always known, that there is no culture like the French culture, taste like French taste, no ménage like a French ménage."

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Movies About Movies Blogathon: The Bad and the Beautiful (1952)

"You know how it is. You hate your dentist while he's pulling your teeth. But the next day you're playing golf with him again."
—Billy Wilder, explaining why he was considering working again with Marilyn Monroe after she gave him hell during Some Like It Hot

The Siren pours herself a single-malt Scotch and settles in for Goatdog's Movies About Movies Blogathon. Now this is a good topic, one that has inspired great work from director after director. And here's the thing: these movies are always such fun. When it comes to narcissistic self-contemplation, nobody does it better than Hollywood. As Jack Carson said in Mildred Pierce, "There's something about the sound of my own voice that fascinates me."

The Bad and the Beautiful may be an obvious choice, but damn, the Siren loves this movie. Melodrama? Hell yes, this is full-throated, unapologetic melodrama, a movie about Hollywood and its sins that dares to use all sorts of Hollywood cliches to tell the story. Good Hollywood navel-gazing always has a roman à clef aspect and Vincente Minnelli's movie is no exception. The game of "guess who THIS is" is fun and all, but basically irrelevant, and writers Charles Schnee and George Bradshaw signal that in part by keeping the connections so flippin' obvious. Lana Turner's father-obsessed starlet stands in for Diana Barrymore, the Southern writer (Dick Powell) who hates Hollywood and wants to go home is a blatant take on Faulkner, the director (Barry Sullivan) plays Jacques Tourneur to Shields' Val Lewton on a movie called "Attack of the Cat Man"—with that last one you wonder why they even changed the names. Aside from the Lewton echo, the Shields character rings a bell, or more like a cathedral, for David O. Selznick, what with Shields producing a large epic with a big death scene (although set in Russia and not Georgia), then moving on to Dick Powell's sexy Southern epic, The Proud Land (Faulkner would have thrown up, but never mind). So in 1952 you would have guessed who everyone was right away (and if you're a nerd like the Siren, you still do) and then you could concentrate on the plot segments, the same way Hitchcock stuck his cameo in the first part of a movie so people wouldn't spend all their time looking for him instead of getting caught up in the story.

We all have our irrational cinema loves, and for some reason the Siren is obsessed with multi-story anthology films, which as an old Lewis Carroll fan she calls portmanteau movies. This is just about the slickest example ever made, three interlocking stories all centered on Kirk Douglas' as Jonathan Shields. Handsome, ruthless, possessed of unerring instincts and able to seduce men and women alike, Douglas is every big producer's self-image as magnified by the Hubble Telescope. Douglas shows his character's supreme selfishness while making you believe there is talent to match. As for the man's inner life, is it there? Or has Shields learned to feign emotions, even a hint of conscience, for those rare Hollywood occasions where being a sociopath is not an advantage? The genius of Douglas' performance is that not only can you never be sure, perhaps Shields himself can't be, either.

The structure is a thing of beauty, with an elegant framing device, one story prompting another, each with its own distinct tone and all leading to the same conclusion. But the arc of each segment is the same: Green, raw talent is discovered by Shields, inspired and/or dragged into a career-making success while simultaneously boosting the producer's relentless ambition, and then that now-flourishing talent is nastily betrayed.

One of the standard cinema-studies takes on Minnelli is to emphasize the role that transformation plays in his movies. Here we have a threefold transformation theme, three important characters utterly changed by the same catalyst, Jonathan Shields. And the betrayals, presumably as in Bradshaw's original theater-set story "Tribute to a Bad Man," become worse as the movie progresses and Shields' power grows.

He starts with the simple decision to take director Sullivan's latest picture away from him and give it to an established name. Shields follows up by seducing nervous, insecure actress Georgia (Turner) into giving a great performance, then sleeping with someone else on the night of the premiere. Georgia's acting debut finds her playing a scene of tearful repentance over some Russian uniform's deathbed scene. (The varying costumes and scenery prompted producer John Houseman to ask "What kind of a picture are they trying to make anyway?" Minnelli wrote, "Frankly, I think only Kirk Douglas knew.") In his memoirs, Minnelli described how he did his own variation on the celebrated boom shot in Citizen Kane, the one that pulls us up from Kane's mistress on the opera-house stage to a stagehand in the flies, holding his nose. Minnelli switched it around by having the technicians pay rapt attention, although it's hard to think the Shields picture is anything but high-toned kitsch.

The shot also plays up an ever-present contrast between the low end of the business and the glamourous high end, moving from gleaming Lana to the slightly grubby technicians. There's another marvelous bit earlier, when Shields and the director are stuck making a B picture and the down-market props man is trying to sell them on the rattiest cat costumes you ever saw. Sullivan and Douglas stare in disbelief as the man twitches the fake fur this way and that, all the while chomping on a cigar that is no doubt enhancing whatever odors already cling to the items. It's their determination not to use the costumes that has Shields hitting on the inspired idea never to show the "cat people." The whole sequence does a lovely job of showing the creativity that could go into B features, despite the tendency to view them as a purgatory to be shed as soon as possible.

In the second section the grit comes also from Elaine Stewart, absolutely superb as starlet-on-the-make Lila, providing the low-end contrast to Lana's pedigreed (if nervous and alcoholic) star-on-the-rise. Oh how the Siren loves Stewart slinking down the staircase on the night of the big premiere, shattering Georgia's romantic ideas about Shields with a nasal hiss: "Picture's finished, Georgia. You're business. I'm company...I forgot to tell you, Georgia. I saw the picture. Thought you were swell."

If the Siren has a problem with The Bad and the Beautiful it's the way the grimy side of the business disappears entirely by the final sequence. That's the one about Dick Powell's writer, married to a fluttery belle who destroys his concentration and is dead certain to cheat on him sooner or later. Gloria Grahame's performance, which won an Oscar, irritates some people, but the Siren thinks it's an accurate take on a certain type of phony Southern charm, a grasping harpy concealed by more sugar frosting than a 10-tier wedding cake. Grahame's accent is overdone, but even that works for the character, as such women often emphasize the accent after years of hearing besotted men tell them how cute it is. Shields recognizes that the wife is a millstone and sets her up for an affair with Latin sex symbol Gilbert Roland (wonderful in one of his late-career character parts). She runs away with her loverboy, and they're killed in a plane accident, capping the producer's worst-yet act of manipulation.

"Send the commie bastard to me. I'll hire him."
—John Ford's oft-quoted remark when hearing of a blacklisted talent

When the Siren told Mr. C about this latest blogathon he made a moue and she demanded to know why, loving the genre as she does. "It's like the Oscars," he said shortly. Pressed to explain, he said, "It's all about how great they are, isn't it? A lot of self-congratulation. I mean, you love movies so of course you love movies about movies." Told which movie the Siren had picked he did say, "Oh, that was a good one." But the Siren must admit that her better half has a point. Ultimately, The Bad and the Beautiful shows how a desire for excellence often finds creative people working with those they detest on a personal level, but that's hardly something that only those in Hollywood find themselves doing. What Minnelli's film, and even much harsher movies about movies, emphasize is that at least these people are producing things that give great pleasure, perhaps even attain the status of art. Ultimately, this genre isn't skewering, it's apologetics.

The ending of The Bad and the Beautiful has the three characters that Shields used and abused gathered in producer Walter Pidgeon's office to hear Shields, on the telephone from Paris, make one more pitch. They are about to get up and walk away—the wounds are too deep, it seems.

But wait, here's Turner outside in the waiting room, lifting the receiver to listen on the extension, and Powell and Sullivan joining her. It's an "open" ending, but the Siren always thought it was quite obvious they were going to make another Shields picture. After all, the whole theme is the primacy of talent, that it overrides even the worst betrayals. "It was a harsh and cynical story, yet strangely romantic," said Minnelli, one that illuminated "the philosophy of 'get me a talented son-of-a-bitch.'" Whether in 1952 or the present, the idea that talent always reigns supreme is indeed a romantic fantasy. But the Siren still finds it irresistible.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Esther Williams: A Brief Belated Happy Birthday

The Siren finds some genres slow going and the aquatic musicals of Esther Williams are definitely in that category. Williams was wonderfully pretty, had a smile that could power a small city and the best figure in Hollywood until Mitzi Gaynor came along to give her some competition. But the swimming and the posing underwater, even with a genius like Robert Alton or Busby Berkeley in charge, is only intermittently interesting to the Siren. And then the curiosity is usually clinical, such as how long did that take to rehearse? weren't those sequins awfully heavy in the water? is this the one where the crown on her head could have killed her?

Talk about a vanished aesthetic--there is really nothing around these days to compare with Williams and her movies. Then again, nowadays if you get a person who is famous for something nondramatic, and decide to make her a star, you plunk her into a reality show. As with just about everything else, the Siren prefers the old days. Skirts Ahoy! may not be The Magnificent Ambersons but it sure ain't The Girls Next Door, either. There were other non-acting celebrities that Hollywood gave the star treatment, notably Audie Murphy (a better actor than people give him credit for) and Sonja Henie (so, so, so much worse than you imagine--not even Tyrone Power can make her bearable). I like Take Me Out to the Ballgame, an enjoyable movie from Stanley Donen that Williams was utterly miserable making, due she says to ceaseless put-downs from both Donen and costar Gene Kelly. Nevertheless she's charming in it, and her singing voice was pretty good. Fiesta has its moments too. Williams and Ricardo Montalban were one hell of an eyeful (though they were playing brother and sister, alas).

But unlike some genres and directors that the Siren has given up on, she still watches Williams's water movies from time to time, largely due to the lady's delightful 1999 autobiography. Brutally honest about herself and others, Williams has intelligence, humor and self-deprecation to spare. Here she is, talking about the unique approach to the art of acting at MGM:

Lillian Burns was the drama coach, and she clearly made her mark on the leading ladies of MGM. Burns was a proponent of the one-size-fits-all school of acting. She was oblivious to the fact one might be taller, fatter, thinner, older, younger than she. When she left a room, she left in a huff. Up went her shoulders, up went her chin. Then she snapped her head back--you could almost hear it--and sailed out the door. We all learned the same mannered technique. Ava Gardner snapped her neck; so did Lana Turner and Jane Leigh. Even little Margaret O'Brien left a room that way. It's a wonder we all didn't end up at the chiropractor's.

Even though Lana Turner, Donna Reed, Debbie Reynolds, and Janet Leigh all swore by her, Lillian Burns and I were a mismatch. I knew instinctively that a five-foot-eight-inch girl could not behave like a feisty indignant little poodle with quick, jerky movements. Lillian's teaching consisted of reading chunks of dialogue in her style, which we were then expected to imitate, but her melodramatic incantations didn't work for me. I though I had avoided picking up most of her mannerism, but seven years of classes were bound to leave their mark. I remember watching Neptune's Daughter and when I saw my nostrils flare and my eyes pop out of my head, I thought, 'Oh Lillian, you sneaked those into my subconscious!'

On Aug. 8 she turned 87, and her swimwear line is still going strong. Ms. Williams, the Siren thinks you're fabulous, and the next time Dangerous When Wet comes on television I am by golly going to watch it.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Kay Francis on TCM in September

A signal goes up from Brooklyn to James Wolcott on the Upper West Side:

Looks like Turner Classic Movies' September Star of the Month is our own Kay Francis. The Siren has written before of her love for mellow-voiced, velvet-eyed Kay, her inimitable way with a chic frock and her ability to combine sophistication with a sense that life was wounding her. Francis had peaked by the mid-1930s and her films are not easy to come by. The Siren has been complaining privately to pals that TCM seemed to be slipping a bit in its commitment to programming the rarities. She takes it all back.

Here are the ones the Siren wants to catch. All times EDT:

Cynara (1932), directed by King Vidor. An early piece about adultery, discussed in David Shepard's book on Vidor. Kay plays the wronged wife, Ronald Colman the straying husband, Phyllis Barry the shopgirl who turns into an early form of bunny-boiler. (Sept. 11, 9:30PM)

Jewel Robbery (1932) (William Dieterle). The Siren likes Dieterle and this movie matches Kay with her One Way Passage costar, William Powell. (Sept. 4, 9:15 PM; Oct. 9, 6:15 AM)

The House on 56th Street (1933). (Robert Florey) The Siren's long-ago intro to Kay, discussed at length in Lawrence Quirk's The Great Romantic Films. She wears a terrible blonde wig for most of the film but the Siren has fond memories of this movie, which combines Doomed Romance with Sacrificial Mother Love. (Sept. 12, 11:15AM)

The Keyhole (1933) (Michael Curtiz). A blackmail melodrama with a plot highly typical of Kay's pictures of the period. (Sept. 19, 8:45AM)

Living on Velvet (Sept. 5, 6:45AM)
Stranded (both 1935) (Sept. 25, 3:15AM)
These are the two films Kay made for genius Frank Borzage, the great high-Romantic director whose films are about as easy to come by as reservations at the Waverly Inn. Consequently we cinephiles are starving for more and the prospect of two with Kay has me drooling. Although, to be honest, so scarce are this auteur's movies that TCM could drop me a line promising "Friday at 10 AM: PIECE OF KITSCH, directed by Frank Borzage" and the Siren would be dragging out the blank discs. Of everything on the schedule these are the two I will cry if I don't manage to record.

Stolen Holiday (1937) (Michael Curtiz). Aside from Curtiz, the Siren is intrigued by Kay opposite Claude Rains, who plays a crooked financier in over his head. (Sept. 11, 4:30AM)

Finally, just as a bonus, three that apparently aren't on the schedule, darn it:

Let's Go Native (1930) (Leo McCarey) Kay has a small part in this early musical farce directed by the great McCarey. Kay has a duet with Jack Oakie, "I Gotta Yen for You." This the Siren gotta see.

The Virtuous Sin (1930) Extremely early Cukor film co-directed with Louis J. Gasnier. Possibly (probably?) not very good but there aren't many Cukor movies the Siren hasn't seen so she's got a filmography to finish off.
Girls About Town (1931) See The Virtuous Sin, except this one is all Cukor and it's supposed to be good. Plus it has gold-diggers and the Siren loves gold-digging movies.

The Siren has already seen, and highly recommends, One Way Passage (1932), one of the most romantic movies ever made and, no matter what you've heard, bright and snappy, not mushy at all; Lubitsch's great Trouble in Paradise (1932), Kay's best film and Miriam Hopkins's best as well; and Mandalay, a fast-moving trek through some dens of iniquity and atmospheric rear-projection, directed by Michael Curtiz.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Anecdote of the Week: Barrymore's Blackboard

Fellow redhead Sheila O'Malley is never better than when she's got her Irish up, as she does over Peter Manso's Brando biography. James Wolcott already covered this one, but it bears another look. Sheila was particularly incensed by Manso's snide referrals to Brando's reliance on taped cue cards, as though the process somehow diminished the performance.

So this one is for the magnificent Sheila, and her superb collection of film books. May her series about them continue forever, or at least down to the very bottom shelf. This anecdote is from Garson Kanin's Hollywood, which is not the most unimpeachable of sources. In this case, however, the Siren catches a whiff of authenticity. See if you agree.

It's 1938, and Kanin is filming The Great Man Votes with John Barrymore, a star whose reliance on lines scrawled on blackboards owed more to a memory dented by years of diligent alcohol abuse than technique. How much Barrymore really needed them is anyone's guess--he could recite Shakespeare by the page even in the very depths of his binges--but insist upon them he always did. On this film Barrymore's "blackboard man" was named Henry, and Kanin came on set one day to find that Henry was about to mix it up big time with the principal gaffer.

The gaffer spoke. "Listen, I've put up with this goddamn pest every day since we started, but enough is enough. He doesn't have to be in here with that goddamn sliver. I need this spot for my key light and I want him the hell out of here."

Henry, a dignified old gentleman, said, "I know my job and I"m going to do it and no one's going to prevent me from doing it. My job."

I was confused. "What job? What do you mean 'sliver'"?

Henry held up a blackboard the size of a child's slate. On it was written the word "Yes."...

I went over to Barrymore...

"We have a little problem," I explained. "You know the scene. We're outside here with the camera. Miss [Katharine] Alexander knocks on the door. You open it. She says, 'Are you Gregory Vance?' You say 'Yes.' She walks in and that's it."

"Fine," said Barrymore. "What seems to be the trouble?"

"Well," I explained, "Henry here sems to feel that he has to be standing here with this little slate that says 'Yes.'"

"Oh by all means!" said Barrymore.

I did not grasp his meaning at once. "You mean it's all right for him not to be here. Is that it?"

"No, no," said Barrymore. "I'd like to have him here. With his slate."

I was losing patience, struggling for control. "But let's be reasonable, Mr. Barrymore. All she asks is, 'Are you Gregory Vance?' And you are, so what else could you possibly say?"

Barrymore thought for a long moment, then looked at me and said, "Well, I could say 'No,' and then where would you be?"

We found a spot for Henry and his slate.


This week marks the start of a long-awaited vacation for la famille Campaspe. We'll be in France for three weeks, hence the banner change. The itinerary is Paris, then Normandy, then Paris again, then back home. I will have Internet access in Paris although Normandy is something of a question mark. In any event I have set up some posts via Blogger's spiffy new advance-post system, as well as my piece for Mike "Goatdog" Phillips's "Movies About Movies" blogathon. I will be checking in when possible but I hope you guys still chat amongst yourselves.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Dead Reckoning (1947)

"It seems to me that the Bogie fad has faded, returning him to his real admirers," observed X. Trapnel recently. The Siren hopes that's true, because Humphrey Bogart, compared with other "icon" actors such as Marilyn Monroe and James Dean, gives the Siren the most consistent thrill of pleasure, again and again, even in a relatively bad movie. This was brought home to her when she saw Dead Reckoning.

The Siren was startled to find she'd written little to nothing about Bogart, then realized the omission makes a sort of sense. Bogart is somebody a cinephile covers early on. Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon, High Sierra, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The African Queen, The Big Sleep--unlike trying to fill in other filmographies, these are not items you have to hunt down one by one like so many peppercorns rolling to the far corners of the kitchen. Even his smaller parts from the 1930s, like Dead End and The Roaring Twenties, are absorbed early. He's so much a part of history, even for those barely aware of a time before color, that discussion seems superfluous, and yet discussing him is very rewarding. He was a highly technical actor, conscious of every effect, right down to the tremor in his cheek to signal anger (which Kenneth Geist says irritated Barefoot Contessa costar Marius Goring no end).

The best piece the Siren has read about Bogart remains Louise Brooks's "Bogie and Bogart." Its portrait of a cultivated man, doggedly pursuing stardom even as he's beset by his own attractions to impossible women (that is, until Bacall came along) jibes a lot more with what's on screen than just Bogie the tough guy. Certainly his persona was tough, but his characters also fall frequently for the femme fatale. He catches on, of course--he's Bogart--but not before almost becoming just another sap.

Which brings us back to Dead Reckoning. What a weird experience this movie is, like getting into a sleek car that keeps shuddering into a stall. Bogart's character runs through rain-slicked streets in a Southern town called Gulf City (standing in for Panama City? it certainly isn't New Orleans) and winds up in a church confessing to a just-discharged Army padre, even though he isn't Catholic. (Joe Breen must have loved that.) Then the movie skids into flashback about a trip to Washington as Bogart wants his buddy to accept a Medal of Honor--stall. Startup again as the buddy runs away and Bogart pursues to a rather Grand Hotel-ish accomodation in Gulf City. He finds out his buddy was once suspected of murder, but then his friend's body is discovered, charred beyond recognition. Off to the casino to find Lizabeth Scott, the buddy's true love. Scott sings a song--movie doesn't just stall here, it slams into a telephone pole.

Anyway, the Siren avoids excessive plot summary and you see where this is going, yes? In its fitful way Dead Reckoning hits all the noir themes. Soldiers in mufti. Buddy in trouble. Den of vipers. Cops no help. Woman shady, or maybe not, or maybe yes. Smooth-talking casino owner (Morris Carnovsky, not bad but demonstrating that George Macready deserves a LOT more credit for being so damn brilliant in the same role in Gilda). There were five writers on Dead Reckoning and boy does it show--the narrative arc is more like Morse code. Director John Cromwell gets some nice shots in here and there and some interesting visual motifs. Bogart and his dead pal were paratroopers and this is used as a recurrent image of falling, most interestingly when Bogart is knocked cold at a key moment in the film. But Cromwell wasn't a great enough talent to smooth out a script like this.

The script also robs the actors of the ability to create fully formed characters. The dialogue is too wordy (not a complaint the Siren often makes) and people run around with half-baked motivations. There is also a corpse stashed in a trunk at one point and while it's possible I missed the line, I could swear no real explanation is ever given as to where the poor slob winds up.

Despite all this the Siren couldn't stop watching, as Bogart kept giving her moments to love. There's one bit when the cops hammer on his hotel door at a bad time. He stashes the corpse (the same guy that eventually winds up in the trunk), changes out of his clothes, answers the door and while the cops are questioning him, he nonchalantly gets into bed in his silk jammies with black piping, still daring the coppers to hassle him. I tried to imagine Dick Powell doing this and couldn't--the movie would immediately turn into "Honeymoon Hotel," no matter how tough Powell had been acting beforehand.

The Siren thinks Bogart's needling is a key part of his cool. In real life he was famous for unapologetic rudeness to anyone who struck him as a phony. On screen he plays it the same way, a guy unable to resist mouthing off even if it's about to get him slugged, maybe even because it's about to get him slugged. Did anyone ever take a punch like Bogart? He gets beat up about midway through, mimes extreme pain quite well and yet you wholly believe that sneer that remains plastered to his face throughout, even as that bad attitude makes the thug even angrier.

Another element: his rock-solid sense of belief. At one point Bogart's character is driving along with Lizabeth Scott (and the corpse in the trunk, but let it slide) and he goes into a bit of dialogue about how a woman should be shrunk down to four inches tall and kept in your pocket until it's time to er, blow her up. I would have transcribed this exactly, but shock made me drop the pencil--you can read it here. Anyway Bogart delivers this mind-boggling speech with the same conviction he gives everything else--he doesn't wink or condescend no matter what kind of drivel he's speaking. But give him a good line and he'll wipe the floor with it, as when he's threatening Carnovsky with an incendiary device: "How do you like yourself, medium rare?"

It isn't a bad movie, just a mediocre one, a noir that has all the requisite elements--maybe too many requisite elements--and still misses the mark. But Bogart, playing a character whose shifting moods and motivations could give another actor whiplash, still fascinates. For the Siren he always will.

Friday, August 01, 2008

Anecdote of the Week: Ingrid Also Loved Charles

This one is for Dan, Gloria, X. Trapnel, Karen and all the other Charles Boyer lovers.

He was such a peerless actor. I remember he was in Jean Paul Sartre's play Red Gloves in New York. I was in the theater and there were two women sitting behind me and as soon as he came on they started, "Good God. Is that Charles Boyer! So small! And that stomach! And he's nearly bald." And after a few seconds of this I turned around and said, "Just wait. Just wait until he starts to act." And they waited. And he acted. He acted like he always did with such magic, he held the audience in his hand. And the two ladies didn't say anything else. Only applauded very loudly at the end. And didn't look at me as they went out.

--Ingrid Bergman, My Story


The Siren's favorite links from the past week:

At Cinema Styles, the Siren's beloved Joan Fontaine tells Adlai Stevenson a joke. Jonathan, did you know that they dated? It ended when Adlai took her to lunch and told her that in his position, he simply couldn't marry an actress. Joan froze, then came back with "It's just as well. My family would hardly approve of my marrying a politician." In a nice bit of synchronicity, Jonathan also celebrates his witty new banner with a post on Gaslight through the years.

At House of Mirth and Movies, a simple list of 25 favorites, assembled with unerring taste and the best screen caps this side of Six Martinis and the Seventh Art.

The fearless Goatdog, Nick Davis and Nathaniel R forge ahead with their Best Pictures from the Outside In, this week tackling the double-Cs of Cavalcade (1933) and Chicago (2002).

A lovely tribute to the late Jo Stafford, with song links, at Another Old Movie Blog. The Siren has had "Shrimp Boats" stuck in her head all week.

Two from Category D: a brief meditation on lens flare, which effect always says "instant hippie" to the Siren, but in a good way. And another, longer and equally interesting one: Are Themes Important? ("It's not just that historical distance has allowed us to see art in classical Hollywood, but that even the flimsiest A pictures - and many Bs - borrowed a thematic approach from literature.")

Stinky Lulu posts about the odd habit of nominating tots for Oscars, as part of the Rugrats Blogathon at My Stuff 'n Crap. (The Siren would love to see Lulu write up Bonita Granville, the deliciously evil child villain of These Three, above.) Next up for Supporting Actress Sundays in August: 1966. StinkyLulu welcomes participation from anyone with a blog who's able to screen the movies.

The Cinetrix shows herself a kindred spirit: "I kinda don't want to see The Dark Knight. I know that's wrong and it's a cinematic achievement so magnificent it'll also do my taxes..." Another take on The Dark Knight, from Filmbrain, focuses on how pans from Keith Uhlich and Jurgen Fauth resulted in a fanboy inferno it would take Irwin Allen to film.

At Carole and Co., a post, with photos, about Marion Davies' stupendous beach home, Ocean House. It's gone now, like so many other beautiful buildings of the past. The Siren still curses the name of Pia Zadora, not for Butterfly--okay, maybe a little for Butterfly, but mainly for pulling down Pickfair.

An appreciation of Tod Browning's great The Unknown, with awesome screen caps, at Long Pauses.

Did the plot of Kevin Costner's Swing Vote seem familiar? According to Lou Lumenick, if you are a fan of John Barrymore, it definitely should.

Yes, it's another Greenbriar Picture Shows link. What can I say. This one is about trailers and is not to be missed.


For those who read the Siren's post about Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father, the documentary will be playing in New York August 8-14, and in Los Angeles August 22-28. Here is the schedule:

In New York, screenings will be at

IFC Center
323 Avenue of the Americas
New York, NY
Showtimes: 1:25 PM and 6:40 PM daily

Tickets are/will be available for purchase at the IFC Center Box Office or on line at

In Los Angeles, screenings will be at
Arclight Hollywood
6360 W. Sunset Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA

Friday 8/22 - 5:05 PM, 9:45 PM
Saturday 8/23 - 12:00 PM, 7:20 PM (Q&A with director Kurt Kuenne follows the 7:20 PM screening)
Sunday 8/24 - 2:30 PM (Q&A to follow this screening), 9:45 PM
Monday 8/25 - 12:00 PM, 4:45 PM
Tuesday 8/26 - 2:35 PM, 7:15 PM
Wednesday 8/27 - 5:05 PM, 9:45 PM
Thursday 8/28 - 12:00 PM, 7:20 PM