Saturday, October 30, 2010

Halloween with Joe Breen

The Siren's patient readers know she is, not to put too fine a point on it, a wuss when it comes to horror movies. She'll do "subtly creepy," "atmospheric," and "ghostly" all day, but when we get to "utterly freaking terrifying," let alone "physically nauseating," she starts coming up with excuses. Like, "I can't watch Zodiac because Alida was counting on seeing Stand Up and Cheer." Yes yes yes, the Siren knows it's a procedural, but she'd been told it was a horrifying procedural.
Perhaps it will gladden the hearts of Trish and David E. and Filmbrain and Noel Vera and Tom Shone and and Glenn Kenny and Tony Dayoub and Kent Jones and oh, pretty much much her entire blogroll to hear that the Siren ran out of excuses last night and she watched Zodiac. Alone, with the kids in bed, curled up on the couch with a flannel blanket, a box of Kleenex for her head cold and a small glass of brandy to keep the beasties at bay. And yes guys, she liked it, more than The Social Network even, and the Siren liked The Social Network quite a bit. The Siren had a dilemma, however. She was going to write about something scary for Halloween, and Zodiac didn't scare her. Creeped her out, yes; made her clutch her blankie during violent scenes; showed her that Robert Downey Jr. is sexy even with a ghastly '70s beard; made her reflect that if she were ever to be picked off by a serial killer, and harbored hopes that the wheels of justice eventually would run the guy over, she really had better not get bumped off on the border between police jurisdictions. But scared, no. The Siren didn't even need the brandy, although she drank it anyway. So here it is, Halloween eve, and everybody else is doing scary stuff. The Siren wants to play too, so she came up with a solution. You what's scary?

This guy is scary. Joseph I. Breen, dean of the Hays Office, enforcer of the Production Code, scourge of toilet-flushing, decolletage and the word "lousy."

So grab your blankie and your brandy and return with the Siren to the days when the Great Bluenose From Philadelphia stomped through Hollywood, leaving in his wake piles of balled-up script pages and discarded film stock, as well as filmmakers rubbing their temples and reaching for the bicarbonate.

Let's see how Breen sought to protect us from too much sex in our horror movies, because isn't that what you think about when deciding which one to watch? That's the Siren's first concern with every horror movie, no matter the year: "Gee, I hope there's no sex."

The Hays Office did a great deal of its work before cameras ever turned, going through scripts and tossing out whatever ran afoul of the Code and their interpretation of it. What follows are some excerpts from correspondence about the 1940 Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, directed by Victor Fleming; they're taken from Gerald Gardner's The Censorship Papers: Movie Censorship Letters from the Hays Office, 1934 to 1968. These script notations are part of Joe Breen's memo to Louis B. Mayer, Nov. 12, 1940:
Page 38: The scene of the girl taking off her stocking must be done inoffensively and without any undue exposure. Please also do not overemphasize the garter… Page 47: The line 'I want you--want you every minute' is not acceptable… Page 49: Omit the underlined words in the expression 'the little white-breasted dove'… Page 63: The following broken line must be changed: 'Underneath I'm as soft as your white--' Page 56: The dialog that ends the scene beginning 'I'm hurting you because I like to hurt you--' is unacceptable by reason of containing a definite suggestion of sadism…
After the script had been edited to the censors' satisfaction, often a movie would be screened so they could be sure a director wasn't trying to screw them (a verb the Hays Office was striking as late as Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?). Screening Dr. Jekyll resulted in the following memo:
In the scene where Jekyll carries Ivy up to her room, delete the large close-up where Ivy's breasts are unduly exposed… In the first montage, delete all scenes [of Hyde] lashing the two girls. In the second montage, delete all scenes having to do with the swan and the girl, and the stallion and the girl… [Note from the Siren: Damn, I would have liked to see that.] In the scene in the cabaret, delete the crotch shot of the dancing girls...
Breen, ever ready to do a good deed, also warned the filmmakers that the British Board of Censors would probably delete a reference to Buckingham Palace. Fleming & Co. still managed to turn in a great S&M horror flick, even if the Siren prefers Rouben Mamoulian's 1931 Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Let us turn now to James Whale's very great Bride of Frankenstein, which began life in 1934, the year the Code came into full effect. Sex wasn't so much the problem with this one, although Whale received notice that the term "mate" was unacceptable as it implied that the monster "desires a sexual companion…we suggest that you substitute the word 'companion.'" No, the real trouble with the script was intrinsic to the very theme of all Frankenstein pictures, the idea of a scientist usurping the role of God--although some sex still had to be scissored, as well as icky words. From a memo sent by Joe Breen to Universal Pictures, dated Dec. 5, 1934, about the script then called The Return of Frankenstein:
Page A-12. We suggest changing the word 'entrails,' as it will be offensive to mixed audiences. Page A-16. We also suggest omitting this scene of the rat, as its portrayal has in the past proved offensive… Page B-7: We suggest omitting the line 'It was like being God.' This line in the past has proven somewhat blasphemous. Page B-20: For the same reason, we suggest omitting the line 'as they say, "in God's own image."' Page B-25: This scene of the miniature mermaid should be handled in such a way as to avoid any improper exposure. [Note: This may well be the Siren's all-time favorite Hays Office line.] Page B-26: You should omit the line 'If you are fond of your fairy tales' as a derogatory reference to the Bible.
James Whale responded to each point, changing the word "entrails" to "insides," for example, and altering the B-7 line to "it was like being the Creator himself." Whale also told the office that the mermaid was going to have very, very long hair.
It's worth noting that the Hays Office was, unbelievably, often more lenient than other censors. Despite all those protracted negotiations and extensive changes, Bride of Frankenstein was banned in Trinidad ("because it is a horror picture"), Palestine and Hungary, and shown only with extensive deletions in Japan, China, Sweden and Singapore. The Siren adds that Mr. Gardner cleared up her confusion about the poison in Ivy: "The word 'arsenic' was struck from many scripts on the theory that, deprived of this information, the moviegoer would never realize that arsenic was a lethal substance." Happy Halloween! The Siren, confident that she has fulfilled her obligation to frighten her readers, adds links with the same aim: Kim Morgan on Strait-Jacket. The Siren can't think of another film writer anywhere who could use this giddily bizarre flick to anchor the most respectful and deeply affectionate tribute to Joan Crawford that any fan could desire.
They Came From Beyond Hollywood, at Peter Nelhaus' place.
Flickhead visits the Hot L Whitewood, with a side trip to Chiller Theater.
The Futurist has been doing a lot of scary stuff for Halloween, but this takes the biscuit. Jacqueline T. Lynch reminds us of what might have been frightening people on other radio channels during that War of the Worlds broadcast. Complete with a newsreel of Orson Welles saying "Sorry, guys," a rundown on the 1953 movie and advice on how to handle a Martian invasion.
Every day is Halloween at Obscure Hollow. Just click over and bask in all the incredible screen grabs. The Siren may not be a horror connoisseur, but she loves this site to bits and pieces.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Intimacy at the Movies

A couple of weeks ago I was two-thirds done with the New York Film Festival. Certified Copy and Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives were mind-blowing, especially the former, I loved Another Year, and my favorite, Mysteries of Lisbon, was so good I'd sit through all four-and-a-half hours again. (The camerawork reminded me of Ophuls. I am still trying to write that one up.) It was glorious, it was rejuvenating.

But my old-movie habit wasn't being fed. Sometime around the two-week mark the withdrawal became too much and I posted on Facebook and Twitter that I was going to dig up a pre-1960 movie and watch it to the last frame. Maybe some followers thought I was being cute about how much I needed to do this. I was as serious as All Quiet on the Western Front.

And I watched Ivy. And it was good. So good I started to wonder if this was simple addiction. It did feel uncomfortably like I was one of those people who went to sleep in Shreveport and woke up in Abilene. "Come on, Oscar nominee from 1934, let's you and me get drunk." But surely nobody ever wound up in rehab because they couldn't stop quoting Bette Davis movies. I can, in fact, stop anytime I like. Don't look at me like that. I have a Netflix copy of Zodiac right there on my dressing table, you just can't see it because it's under the eyeshadow palette. I've had it three weeks and haven't watched it yet, but I'm telling you I could watch it right now if I felt like it and if my daughter weren't already downstairs watching the 1940 Blue Bird. I just don't want to. I'll watch Zodiac this weekend. Right now I need to keep watching old movies, I have too much else going on to quit something that isn't harming me anyway. Hey, did anybody else notice some benevolent soul has posted Hold Back the Dawn on Youtube?

I'm not going to quit--I don't have a problem--but I often have stretches of wondering why I do this, aside from the prestige of attending swank parties and announcing that I blog about movies a lot of people have never heard of, let alone seen. And I have had a small moment of clarity.

When I find a blog I like, I often read through the archives, and I was going through Tom Shone's blog, Taking Barack to the Movies. He writes mostly about contemporary movies and some politics, in his graceful and very witty style, and I love it even when he's making me feel guilty for not watching Zodiac. I found a post called "Best Films of the 1930s." Not that I am necessarily more interested in that topic than Sam Rockwell or anything, but I read it, and pulled up right here:

The films I most prize are the ones that look normal, and sound normal, and feel normal, but unfurl with the sinuous, sneaky logic of a dream. Movies that cast a spell. I don't mean surrealism — not a fan. I mean a big-budget studio picture that despite the involvement of hundreds of people, from money-grubbing producers to eagle-eyed costumiers, seems to have bloomed from the unconscious of a drowsy Keats...I recently had a spirited debate with my friend Nat about my theory that one cannot know and enjoy a picture made before you were born with quite the same casual intimacy of a film made in your lifetime. That older film can be 100 times better but it still doesn't breathe the same air you do in the same way that even a cruddy picture produced yesterday can.

Interesting. Absolutely bloody fascinating, in fact, because it's the precise opposite of the way I react to new versus old movies. It is this:

Some contemporary films do cast a marvelous spell for me; Avatar, the aforementioned NYFF films. I want to see more that can do the same. But if I want a film to speak to my most secret Siren soul, something to forget my life and the venue and possibly even the day of the week and whoever is sitting next to me, I'm looking at immensely better odds if I go pre-1960. Casual intimacy for me usually comes in black and white or Technicolor. Or sepia. Or Color by Deluxe. I've been intimate with sepia and Deluxe.

I don't want to argue (much), I want to attach an endnote. Clearly, it's true for Tom. Today we had coffee and I told him I was thinking about writing this and he's already got a lovely, lucid response right here. (This has got to be a personal best in terms of slow composition. I am now so slow that someone responds before I post.) His observation is probably true for most moviegoers. A chart based on the moviewatching feelings of the public as a whole might look like this:

    Item 1. Percentage of People Who Feel Casual Intimacy With a Cruddy Picture Produced Yesterday

    Item 2. Percentage of People Who Feel Casual Intimacy With a Movie That's 100 Times Better But Is Older Than They Are

    Item 3. Percentage of People Who Feel Casual Intimacy With Anything That Was Shot Before 1960 and/or Has Bette Davis

But the Siren is smack in the middle of Item 3, with most of her patient readers, god love 'em.

What is with us?

There is a certain Charlie Brown impulse at work for me, definitely. The Social Network is all over the Web, so I don't feel a need to write it up when every major critic and at least a dozen highly talented bloggers got there first. But see this one over here, gathering dust on IMDB with just two cursory external reviews? Not enough people are watching it. This movie needs me, Linus.

I hope nobody brings up nostalgia. I realize I am touchy on this issue, but gad I hate having that word attached to my movie tastes. Here's the moment from my girlhood when I realized nostalgia was bunk. I had just watched some damp-eyed TV documentary about this great swingin' party that I missed called the 1960s. And I said something to Mom along the lines of "Gee, you must have loved the 1960s, it looks like so much more fun than right now." And Mom (she might not even remember this) looked me in the eye and said, "What I remember about the '60s is that every time I got to liking a musician he died. And every time I got to thinking here's a person who can make the world a better place, somebody went out and shot him."

Nostalgia is for people who don't read much history, I think.

I could blame my parents, and have, like when Dennis brought up early viewing a few months back. They left me alone with the TV and gateway drugs like Busby Berkeley and John Ford and Vincente Minnelli and Shirley Temple (is Alida done with that one yet? OK, she's still watching). I could watch anything I wanted if it was old, but if I wanted to go to a current movie, my mother in particular was convinced that explicit sex or excessive screen violence would warp my mental development. See Raging Bull at too tender an age and the next thing you know I'd be under the patio torturing chipmunks or something. I need hardly add that this wasn't ironclad reasoning by my mother. I would watch the original Scarface or Busby Berkeley pushing the camera under the chorus girls' legs and believe me, I got it. My father was a great deal more laissez-faire; when I was about 12 years old he caught me carefully dog-earing the dirty parts of Lady Chatterley's Lover and all I got was a couple of raised eyebrows and "Time for dinner." But when they were deciding what I could go see at the local cinema he deferred to Mom. I'm pretty sure that I am one of the only film writers in captivity who didn't see an R-rated movie until they were actually, chronologically 17 years old.

Result was that I grew up watching old movies and thinking this was the way movies were supposed to look, lush or spare, shadowy or sparkling, the camera lingering or gliding and no such thing as acne or pores. And this was how a movie was supposed to sound, resonant, highly individual voices speaking wonderful dialogue against the gentle sonic hiss of the soundtrack, a score trailing the action like a cloud of perfume. Without those things, I can still be enthralled. But sometimes the lack of them is a small barrier to intimacy. "I see you have pores. Gosh no darling, of course it doesn't matter. I've seen them before. Is that a lamp on the side table, sweetness? You know, if we switch it on, we'll have light coming from three points…"

As usual, I wind up going to my commenters for the real insight. There's the friend who said simply, "There's something in the rhythms of these movies that's in tune with your own." There's David Ehrenstein, who maintains that "the 30s, not the 70s, was the great period for American commercial filmmaking," citing James Whale, Dorothy Arzner and George Cukor as directors doing genuinely experimental work. And there's Arthur S., who once remarked here that it isn't nostalgia if what you're watching is actually more daring and more radical than what's playing at the multiplex. There's an overarching style to classic cinema, but within it you can see astonishing variation and innovation, like poets ringing changes on sonnets or terza rima.

It is, essentially, an aesthetic preference like any other, one that was probably imprinted early by the circumstances of my childhood. Which brings me to my own children, now safely asleep. They watch a lot of Pixar, which is fine--Up and Wall*E? Brilliant. Spell-casters for sure. And heavily influenced by classic Hollywood. I haven't watched that many old movies with my kids. At ages seven and four they are already more in tune with popular culture than Mom. That's good in a lot of ways. Dragging Astaire and Rogers into everyday conversation didn't exactly make me queen of the Alabama schoolyard. Maybe I should just let my brood continue like that.

Fat chance. I'm ordering Chaplin at Keystone for them, and then I'm going to bed.

Monday, October 25, 2010

NYFF 2010: Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff

Let's say you've just had a nasty personal shock, and whoever happens to be with you at the moment wants to console you. A New Yorker will keep you company on a subway platform as you stand in a fog, patiently waiting as you let three trains pass. One of the Siren's fellow Southerners will offer you a Coca-Cola or, as they say in Alabama, Co-Cola, and that means the kind with sugar, hon, you need the sugar to perk you up. An Arab will make you coffee and make sure your cup is poured from the top so you get the foam. A French person usually offers the Siren a pastis, one of the many things that endears that country to her.

A cinephile, probably, would offer you Jack Cardiff, and that was what the Siren got the first day she went to the New York Film Festival, a day that already had announced itself as the rotten climax of a personally trying September. And she sat and drank every image to the dregs and felt a bit better, at least until the lights came up. So it feels churlish to say, as the Siren must, that the film is a rather pedestrian affair that will give a Cardiff fan little fresh insight. It's like telling the consolatory Frenchman there's too much ice in the pastis. All the same, despite its having provided much balm for the Siren, it's an odd duck of a documentary.

Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff gives you the work with Powell and Pressburger, zips back around to cover the Hollywood period with The African Queen, Pandora and the Flying Dutchman, The Barefoot Contessa, War and Peace, The Vikings and Errol Flynn's hell-raising. It then goes into Cardiff's work as a director, giving pride of place to Sons and Lovers and a bit of Young Cassidy before trailing off at the end with the likes of Rambo: First Blood Part II.

The film sticks almost entirely to the professional aspects of Cardiff's life; the one personal revelation is a brief discussion of his actor parents and his stint as a child actor. The Siren confesses to disappointment with this approach, although she knows she's supposed to pretend not to care. Cinematography is, to the Siren, the sexiest job on a set, and plenty of stills attest to the fact that Cardiff was a handsome devil. There must be more to tell than the old story about Ava Gardner wanting to be well-lit when she had her period. Oh well; Magic Hour didn't have much of the off-set life either.

Over at The House Next Door, Aaron Cutler goes into how the film was digitally projected. This the Siren, with her vast technical knowledge, registered as "hmm, the Powell-Pressburger stuff looked better at MOMA;" but with Cardiff it's an important point. The movies are represented mostly by rather brief clips, too brief for a Technicolor worshipper like the Siren. There's a great deal of Cardiff's musings on the artists that influenced his imagery; a painter himself, Cardiff loved Vermeer, Turner, the Impressionists. You also spend a lot of time with the still photos Cardiff made of actresses over the years, portraits that didn't give you much of the ladies' psychology but did show an unbelievable eye for their beauty. There are plenty of interviews--the Siren is pleased to report that Lauren Bacall looks great--but not much depth to the discussion. Cardiff talks a lot on camera but much that he says will already be familiar to anyone who's read Magic Hour.

The fundamental problem with Cameraman is that it concerns a figure who's a god to movie hounds, but (much as it pains the Siren to say this) is barely known to the general public. The director, Craig McCall, chose to pitch the movie to an audience only vaguely familiar with Cardiff. But the Siren suspects such people might not be watching a movie about a cinematographer in the first place, so why not get more daring? In another documentary screened at the NYFF, A Letter to Elia, Kent Jones and Martin Scorsese took a personal approach. So while A Face in the Crowd might be the consensus blogger vote for Best Kazan at the moment, it gets scant screen time compared with East of Eden, for which Scorsese feels a deep personal attachment. And the Siren didn't feel cheated at all. She felt like she needed to see East of Eden again.

So the Siren feels gratitude for the 86 minutes she spent with Cameraman, as she feels gratitude for the coffee, the pastis and the friend who finally waved her onto an F train. But if someone were to ask her which Cardiff scenes she'd like to see screened and discussed, in defiance of an audience wondering "hey, where's Black Narcissus," here are just three:

1. The love scene on the pier between Horst Buchholz and Leslie Caron in Fanny. The Siren would have loved to ask Cardiff about working with a director like Josh Logan, whose sense of cinematic visuals was, to put it charitably, nowhere near the level of Cardiff's own. Cardiff did say in his memoirs that he thought Logan's film had more heart than the original Pagnol trilogy.

2. The closing of King Vidor's War and Peace, with Audrey Hepburn in her red velvet dress standing out like a torch amidst the blanched ruins of her Moscow home. This movie could use some sprucing up, too, judging by the Siren's anemic-looking DVD.

3. Edmond O'Brien's telephone scene in The Barefoot Contessa, the one where he's trying to prevent a torrent of bad publicity from the title character's father having committed a murder. Shooting Ava Gardner beautifully is a wonderful thing, but getting the light just right on Edmond O'Brien's nerve-sweat is art, too.

More links:

Marilyn Ferdinand on Cameraman.

For balance, the delightful Amber Wilkinson at, who liked Cameraman more than either Aaron, Marilyn or the Siren.

Glenn Kenny on Cardiff, here, here, here, here and here.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

TCM Alert: Constance Bennett All Day, Oct. 22

The Siren can't believe she never noticed this before, but two of her most treasured, obsessive obsessions share a birthday, October 22. One is Joan Fontaine; the other is Constance Bennett. Tomorrow, Turner Classic Movies will be playing Bennett's films all day, and the Siren has several set to record.

And the Siren says, loudly, that the one worth clearing out the whole DVR for is George Cukor's What Price Hollywood?, which the Siren rhapsodized about at great length in May. Go forth and record, at 8:45 am Eastern, because it ain't on DVD.

Before we get into the other goodies TCM is bestowing on us, here is a bit from Brian Kellow's The Bennetts: An Acting Family. It was 1965, Constance had terminal cancer and was being admitted to the hospital for the last time. And did Death's icy outstretched hand cow Constance? See for yourself.

By midsummer, Constance's condition seemed outwardly stable. One evening in mid-July, she suddenly collapsed, and [husband] John rushed her to the nearby Fort Dix Hospital…Constance was quite unresponsive as she was wheeled in to the admitting desk. John began helping the nurse on duty fill out the entrance forms, but when the nurse asked Constance's age, a clear, strong voice called out from behind them, "I was born in 1914"--cleanly shaving off ten years.

The Siren loves this dame.

Here's what on TCM. All times Eastern.

22 Friday
6:00 AM
Lady With A Past (1932)

A good girl raises her popularity when she pretends to be bad. Cast: Constance Bennett, Ben Lyon, David Manners. Dir: Edward H. Griffith. BW-80 mins, TV-G

A comedy, which Constance excelled at; Kellow says she has "a special glow" in this one, and quotes one great line: "I talk so much to myself that I'm all worn out when I meet people." On the Siren's DVR it goes.

7:30 AM
Rockabye (1932)

A Broadway star tries to hold onto an adopted child and a younger man. Cast: Constance Bennett, Joel McCrea, Paul Lukas. Dir: George Cukor. BW-68 mins, TV-G

One of Constance's mother-love dramas, made the same year as What Price Hollywood? and good, via Cukor, who loved Constance and always spoke well of her: "Constance had one kind of romantic, Scott Fitzgerald look about her. It was the look of the 1930s--or perhaps the 1930s looked like her."

8:45 AM
What Price Hollywood? (1932)

A drunken director whose career is fading helps a waitress become a Hollywood star. Cast: Constance Bennett, Lowell Sherman, Neil Hamilton. Dir: George Cukor. BW-88 mins, TV-G

The Siren doesn't need to go on about this one again, does she?

10:15 AM
Outcast Lady (1934)

A spoiled rich girl sacrifices her reputation to preserve her dead husband's memory. Cast: Constance Bennett, Herbert Marshall, Hugh Williams. Dir: Robert Z. Leonard. BW-77 mins, TV-G

Oh look, let's see what Constance does to Herbert Marshall, shall we? David Shipman says it's a version of The Green Hat. Recording.

11:45 AM
Topper (1937)

A fun-loving couple returns from the dead to help a henpecked husband. Cast: Cary Grant, Constance Bennett, Roland Young. Dir: Norman Z. McLeod. BW-98 mins, TV-G, CC

Written up here. Most of the Siren's patient readers must be well familiar with this one, but it deserves its classic status.

1:30 PM
Topper Takes a Trip (1939)

A glamorous ghost helps a henpecked husband save his wife from gold-digging friends. Cast: Constance Bennett, Roland Young, Billie Burke. Dir: Norman Z. McLeod. BW-80 mins, TV-G, CC

Not as good without Grant, but still diverting.

3:00 PM
Merrily We Live (1938)

A society matron's habit of hiring ex-cons and hobos as servants leads to romance for her daughter. Cast: Constance Bennett, Brian Aherne, Billie Burke. Dir: Norman Z. McLeod. BW-95 mins, TV-G

All right, so it isn't My Man Godfrey, but it's an awful lot of fun just the same.

4:45 PM
Unsuspected, The (1947)

The producer of a radio crime series commits the perfect crime, then has to put the case on the air. Cast: Claude Rains, Joan Caulfield, Constance Bennett. Dir: Michael Curtiz. BW-103 mins, TV-PG, CC

Looking forward to this one. The Siren has a copy of the novel, with a great movie tie-in cover, and it's Curtiz, after all.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

DVD Alert: No Greater Glory, Address Unknown, Other Titles From Sony

Boy is the Siren fashionably late on this one--about a month late, in fact--but it is still well worth trumpeting. Following the success of the Warner Archive Collection, Sony has inaugurated a manufacturing-on-demand service that at last turns up some devoutly hoped-for films. Lou Lumenick wrote about it here. They have started with 100 titles, and more are promised each month.

The site itself is fairly easy to navigate, and in a welcome bonus, includes clips from each film. The prices (around $20) are commensurate with Warner Archive.

What follows is a list of films the Siren recommends to her readers, and others she hasn't seen but wants to. She starts with the best.

No Greater Glory. A shimmering masterpiece from Frank Borzage's sound period, this story of the war games played by groups of boys in a warehouse lot comes with the Siren's highest possible endorsement. George Breakston plays Nemecsek, whose yearning for the friendship of a handsome leader in his gang leads him to reckless acts and, finally, martyrdom. A sequence in a lamplit park where Nemecsek tries to spy on the opposing "army" is as haunting as anything in Borzage's silents; Joseph H. August's cinematography is the equal of his work for John Ford. No Greater Glory was taken from a novel by Ferenc Molnar, The Paul Street Boys, published in 1906, and it carries all the intensity of childhood loves and griefs. It is also as wrenching a statement about war as Paths of Glory. Under Borzage's guidance the gifted young cast performs with sensitivity and restraint. In addition to Breakston, the Siren was particularly taken with Frankie Darro, as the leader of the opposition who comes to see the qualities in Nemecsek that his own friends do not. (The fate of Jimmy Butler, who plays the object of Nemecsek's adoration, adds a piercing coda: An artillery private, Butler died in action in France in 1945, aged 24.) The movie deserves a full-fledged restoration and all-out DVD packaging, but if this is the form we've got, we should still pounce. TCM has shown this at least once, to the Siren's knowledge, but it belongs in the collection of anyone with a serious interest in Borzage, black-and-white cinematography, 1930s cinema or indeed the art of film.

Address Unknown. Directed by William Cameron Menzies, a towering figure who needs a MOMA retrospective, a definitive biography and his own damn DVD box set. Until that day, MOD discs will have to do. It's a parable about the friendship between a Jewish art dealer and his German partner, who returns to the Fatherland just before World War II and is drawn, step by ominous step, into Nazism. Whether the German has adopted the full ideology, or is motivated by ambition and greed, is one of the film's central questions, as well as which ties demand loyalty, and which do not. The movie softens up Kathrine Kressman Taylor's memorably dark, bitter epistolary novel, and that's a pity. But the magnificent look of it (that screen grab is the merest taste) will give incredible pleasure. Cinematography by Rudolph Mate. Here's an excellent write-up by primo blogger David Cairns.

10 Rillington Place. Kim Morgan is a fan. That's good enough for the Siren.

Counter-Attack. Screened during the Shadows of Russia series that the Siren co-programmed with Comrade Lumenick, it includes one of Paul Muni's better performances and has wonderfully claustrophobic tension, as Muni, playing a Russian soldier, and a female resistance fighter battle a small group of Germans in a bombed building. But you don't need to know any of that. The only thing you need to know is that the cinematographer was James Wong Howe, as close to a sure thing as Hollywood can offer us in this cockamamie world.

Footsteps in the Fog. The Siren already has an under-the-counter version of this gaslight thriller, which stars her beloved Jean Simmons and Stewart Granger. She hasn't watched it yet, but the pedigree suggests it is well worth a flutter.

Hot Blood. Nicholas Ray, and the clip looks gorgeous, although even ardent auteurists often strain to say something nice about this Gypsy melodrama with Jane Russell and Cornel Wilde. The Siren isn't completely sure she wants to buy this movie, actually, even if she knows Glenn Kenny would say "Siren, it has mise en scène!" But the DVD cover is pretty goshdarned fabulous, isn't it?

Mickey One. The death of Arthur Penn has brought this film back into the blogosphere conversation. The Siren found it deeply odd, but in a good way, and Warren Beatty does great work in it.

The Guilt of Janet Ames. A Rosalind Russell vehicle the Siren has long wanted to see.

Song Without End. Once more, say it with the Siren: James. Wong. Howe.

The Spiritualist. Released in the U.S. as The Amazing Mr. X. A legendary film noir/horror movie that is probably a pip for Halloween. The Siren is definitely buying this one. Cinematography by John Alton; check out DVD Beaver's screen caps.

Friday, October 15, 2010

"Two Grown Men Acting Like...Grown Men!"

Strictly to cheer our Friday, the Siren's favorite Joan Crawford cameo, with Doris Day looking lovely and Dennis Morgan as affable as always. And the great Jack Carson, who's 100% right about that gingham dress.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

TCM Alert: Kim Morgan and Lou Lumenick on Critics' Choice (with update)

Update: Kim's piece on Something Wild is up at Sunset Gun. The Siren watched it and testifies that the movie is all she says, and then some. More than worth your time, a highly original piece of filmmaking. And Kim's chat with Robert Osborne showed her far-ranging classic-film chops, and the way she responds to a great film not just with her considerable intellect, but with deep emotion as well.

This month Turner Classic Movies is doing a great series called Critics' Choice. A number of film critics were asked to pick a double feature of favorite films. Two of the Siren's favorite critics--and dear friends--are appearing, and they both made splendid, offbeat choices.

Tonight (Oct. 13) goddess Kim Morgan will be discussing Something Wild, directed by Jack Garfein and starring Carroll Baker, at 11:30 pm Eastern time; and at 1:30 am Thursday morning Kim introduces the superb He Ran All the Way, directed by John Berry, with cinematography by genius James Wong Howe. As the Siren's patient readers already know, it's the last film of John Garfield, an actor Kim and the Siren both yell about from rooftops and barstools and passing convertibles and whatever else is handy.

On Wednesday, Oct. 20 at 11 pm Eastern, Lou Lumenick, the Siren's fearless Shadows of Russia comrade, shows his great taste in classic film with the seldom-screened, exceptionally good The Last Flight, directed by William Dieterle, who deserves a much higher profile. And at 12:30 am Thursday morning Lou introduces All Through the Night, directed by Vincent Sherman, one of the Siren's favorite stalwart studio directors, and starring Humphrey Bogart and Peter Lorre.

Fire up the DVRs, y'all.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Literary Interlude: "They Hated Roosevelt" (with links)

This week the Siren begins what are scheduled to be regular monthly postings at Fandor, a new site that describes itself as "a curated service for exceptional independent films on demand." The piece itself is behind the subscription firewall, but can also be accessed via Facebook, here. Up first: the Siren's review of the documentary The Eleanor Roosevelt Story, which won an Oscar for Best Documentary in 1965. The film can be viewed on the Fandor site.

Revisiting the Roosevelt era while a midterm election looms sent the Siren's mind whirling through past and precedents. So, with a hat tip to buddy Glenn Kenny, from whom she has shamelessly lifted the "Literary Interlude" conceit, the Siren offers this passage from Since Yesterday, Frederick Lewis Allen's book about the 1930s in America. The Siren is crazy about both Since Yesterday and Allen's preceding book about the 1920s, Only Yesterday. His picture of both decades has done a lot to flesh out her perceptions about the movies made then, and she returns to both books over and over.

The chapter section is called "They Hated Roosevelt."

He set out to champion the less fortunate, to denounce such financiers and big business men as stood in his way, and as their opposition to him hardened, so also did his opposition to them…

It was natural, then, that men and women of means should feel that the President had changed his course and singled them out as objects of the enmity of the government. It was natural that they should have become confirmed in this feeling when, with half an eye to undermining Huey Long's "Share Our Wealth" offensive, he backed in the summer of 1935 a revenue bill which stepped up taxes on the rich. It was even natural that they should have felt so strongly about what had happened since 1933 as to seem to forget that there had been anything wrong with the country before 1933.

Yet the lengths to which some of them went in their opposition, and the extent to which this opposition became concentrated, among a great many of them, into a direct and flaming hatred of Roosevelt himself, constituted one of the memorable curiosities of the nineteen-thirties.

All the fumbling of a government seeking to extricate the country from the world-wide Depression which had followed the slackening of nineteenth-century expansion; all the maneuverings of an Administration trying to set right what seemed to have gone wrong in the financial world during the previous decade, to redress the disadvantages under which the common man labored, and simultaneously to maintain its political appeal to this common man--all these things were reduced, in the minds of thousands of America's "best people," to the simple proposition that Franklin D. Roosevelt was intent upon becoming a dictator at their expense. Much that Roosevelt did lent a color of justification to this version of history; yet in reducing so much to so little these people performed one of the most majestic feats of simplification in all American history…

Sometimes the anti-Roosevelt mood was humorous. On the commuting trains and at the downtown lunch clubs there was an epidemic of Roosevelt stories, like that of the psychiatrist who died and arrived in Heaven to be whisked off to attend God Himself: "You see, He has delusions of grandeur--He thinks He's Franklin D. Roosevelt." But there was nothing humorous in the attitude of the gentlemen sitting in the big easy chairs at their wide-windowed clubs when they agreed vehemently that Roosevelt was not only a demagogue but a communist. "Just another Stalin--only worse." "We might as well be living in Russia right now." At the well-butlered dinner party the company agreed, with rising indignation, that Roosevelt was "a traitor to his class." In the smoking compartment of the Pullman car the traveling executives compared contemptuous notes on the President's utter ignorance of business. "He's never earned a nickel in his life--what has he ever done but live off his mother's income?" In the cabanas at Miami beach the sun-tanned winter visitors said their business would be doing pretty well if it weren't for THAT MAN. In the country-club locker room the golfers talked about the slow pace of the stock market as they took off their golf shoes; and when, out of a clear sky, one man said, "Well, let's hope somebody shoots him," the burst of agreement made it clear that everybody knew who was meant.

There was an epidemic, too, of scurrilous Roosevelt gossip. Educated and ordinarily responsible people not only insisted, but sincerely believed, that "everybody in Washington knew" the whole Roosevelt family was drunk most of the time; that the reason why Mrs. Roosevelt was "so all over the place" was that she was planning to succeed her husband "until it's time for the sons to take over"; and that Roosevelt was insane. Hadn't a caller recently sat with him and tried to talk public affairs, only to be greeted with prolonged and maniacal laughter? From this point the gossip ran well over the line into the unprintable…

Yet to the extent that it stopped factual inquiry and thought, the Roosevelt-bashing was costly, not only to recovery, but to the haters themselves. Because as a group (there were many exceptions) the well-to-do regarded the presence of Roosevelt in the White House as a sufficient explanation for all that was amiss and as a sufficient excuse for not taking a more active part in new investment, they inevitably lost prestige among the less fortunate.


The Siren finally has been catching up on her blog reading, and here are some highlights.

Rectifying a slight committed in the midst of a dire September, the Siren urges you to read Flickhead's tribute to the late Claude Chabrol. She traces her own fascination with this great filmmaker to Flickhead's encouragement. There has been no greater champion of the director on the Web, and no better analyst of Chabrol's work. The Siren heartily echoes Flickhead's advice: "You shouldn't read about these films before seeing them." Chabrol films are best viewed as cold as possible. But once you've seen them, you will want to read Flickhead.

This is also from a while back, but the Siren never linked to it here, and oh lord she should have: Gregory Peck asks Pauline Kael why she's picking on him. At the Man From Porlock, Craig Porlock's marvelous blog.

At Cinema OCD, Jenny the Nipper's funny, lovingly comprehensive post about Jane Eyre and movie Rochesters down the years inspired the Siren's new banner. Jenny on Colin Clive's performance: "Clive is surely all wrong: he's congenial and handsome, and when he says he's been living in torment for 15 years his tone of voice seems to say, 'It's dashed inconvenient having an insane wife, you know, old sport. Bloodcurdling screams interrupting house parties and all that.' "

Zipping back to the New York Film Festival, of which you have not heard the last here--the favorite of just about everyone the Siren spoke to was Abbas Kiarostami's magnificent Certified Copy. Her favorite write-up so far was also the first she saw: Jaime Christley at Unexamined Essentials.

"You push me one more time and you’ll wear this suitcase as a necklace!": a line that might come in handy on the subway sometime. Back in April Laura Wagner gave gorgeous, tough tootsie Ann Sheridan her due in a tribute to Torrid Zone, which Laura considers an unjustly neglected classic. The Siren has fond memories of the film herself; Sheridan and Cagney were a fabulous team.

God it's good to have Greg Ferrara back, as demonstrated by his list of "BAMFs." (The straitlaced Siren wasn't familiar with that acronym, and if you too need it explained you'll just have to click through.) Amen to Rosemary's Baby.

Edward Copeland, prompted by Tony Curtis's passing, looks at The Boston Strangler, and mostly likes what he sees. He points out that this was Richard Fleischer's follow-up to Doctor Dolittle, which bit of trivia the Siren will probably spend all week recovering from.

"No matter how godawful you may think the [Hollywood] present looks, in five years' time it's going to look better": The Siren had a great time listening to Tom Shone's recent podcast about his witty history, Blockbuster: How the Jaws and Jedi Generation Turned Hollywood into a Boom-town. She highly recommends the book, even if it covers an era outside her usual jurisdiction. (Hey, if you asked the Siren to name something great this country has produced, aside from the Roosevelts, her blink-of-an-eye choice would be Myrna Loy, but that doesn't mean the Siren can't appreciate a well-stated case for somebody who definitely isn't Myrna Loy.) And Tom says nice things about James Cameron; the Siren likes Cameron too.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

New York Film Festival 2010: Tuesday, After Christmas

Attend, please, to the Siren's tale of the venerable New York Film Festival, a tale with moments of pathos and a Code-mandated happy ending. In 2008, her friend Filmbrain prodded her to apply for press accreditation, and so the Siren did, with a neatly filled-out online application and a brief diffident email that never got a response. She was disappointed, but unsurprised.

Scroll down to the summer of 2009. Filmbrain, warmly supportive and lovely man that he is, once more encouraged the Siren to apply. She composed a longer supplication, which she paraphrases here: "Behold, I have a blog. This blog has readers. Nice readers. Smart readers. See the nice smart people who read my blog and blogroll it and link to it. Please, permit me to attend your filmgoing hoedown at Lincoln Center's Walter Reade Theatre in the heart of Manhattan."

This time the Siren received a polite, but firm reply telling her she had applied too late and the cupboard was bare. How well the Siren took this second rejection may be gathered from the email she sent a friend comparing herself to Stella Dallas at the birthday party.

Another year, 2010, and an even more desperately detailed application, in which the Siren fought to keep herself from quoting Vertigo: "Couldn't you like me just the way I am?"

And the NYFF press office said, "Please don't cry anymore. I'll get you in somehow. Come on. I had an Aunt Em myself once."

Just kidding. The Siren got an email with the press schedule and details of where to pick up her pass, which was adorned with a picture she pretty much hates, although she was the one who sent it in so she can't complain too much.

Nevertheless, for three weeks the Siren had the whole world on a plate. She was at the New York Film Festival. She met wonderful people and saw movies. Really good movies.

Now it's time to justify the press office's possible pity pass and start posting some things about the movies. In last week's Barron's the Siren had a brief review of the excellent Inside Job, Charles Ferguson's documentary about the 2008 financial crisis, which was shown at the festival. This followed on the heels of the Siren's full page review, also in Barron's, of Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps. The Siren assures you that the Ferguson film justifies her assertion that real-life Wall Street types are much funnier than in Stone's movie, sometimes even when they are trying to be.

Meanwhile, first up here at the Siren's place: what everyone was calling "the Romanian adultery movie" before it screened. The Siren was calling it that, anyway. If no one else was, it would not be the only time her take on this film diverged from others. Remember Oleanna, the David Mamet play and later movie about sexual harassment and the scourge of political correctness? The Siren saw it off-Broadway. Remember how Oleanna was supposed to divide everyone along gender lines, with women thinking the female character was a righteous avenger and men thinking "geez, poor William Macy"? Balderdash. It didn't play that way at all. That woman looked crazy to just about everybody, and she was meant to.

Tuesday, After Christmas, however--here we apparently have an actual gender-based Rorschach test.

Radu Muntean has made a brilliant movie; it was the Siren's first encounter with the so-called Romanian New Wave, and she loved it. This simply constructed domestic drama is composed of long widescreen takes in naturalistic light, but at no point does it seem static. Tuesday is indeed an adultery tale, opening with Paul (Mimi Branescu) in bed with his lover Raluca (Maria Popistasu). Paul is vaguely but gainfully employed, married to the faded and comparatively unexciting Adriana (Mirela Oprisor), and they have a nine-year-old daughter, Mara, played by a marvelously genuine child actress whose name the Siren hasn't been able to discover.

Raluca is a dentist, and Paul's decision to take Mara to his lover for braces prompts a scene between all four main players in Raluca's office. Raluca is none too pleased to be confronted with the entirety of Paul's domestic life. Adriana doesn't suspect anything, but neither does she want this pretty young woman pushing her into making hasty decisions about her daughter's teeth. Paul stands in acute discomfort, aware that Raluca is getting upset, and he tries to get his wife to agree to the damn braces so he can get out of there. Mara, in fourth grade but still so mentally young she believes in Santa Claus, just wants to look at the sheet with the colored bears on it, happy to let the clueless adults make the decisions. The long, agonizingly tense scene is a testament to just how good a film can be when all you do is turn the camera on gifted actors and let them tear into their characters.

It is all building to a confrontation, of course. The Siren knows of no adultery movie, past or present, that doesn't end in crisis--discovery, confession, murder, something. But the scenes in Tuesday that get you to that big moment--and when it comes, it's a lulu--are a marvel. The Siren particularly adored the sequence where Raluca, agitated after the braces debacle, goes home to her mother. Paul shows up; Mom knows who he is, and she quietly, cordially loathes him. Raluca's in the shower, so Mom offers him some cake, a social nicety that plays as the most hostile act possible short of cold-cocking the man. Mom slices into the cake like it's a frog in biology class. Paul chews with an expression appropriate to biting into a Tylenol capsule and Mom watches him, high hopes for his having a brain aneurysm stamped all over her face. Not since Meet Me in St. Louis had the Siren been this enthralled by cake-serving.

Who gives a damn if it's an old theme, when it's played with such brutal, entrancing authenticity?

[Extensive spoilers lie ahead, although this movie's plot will surprise no one.]

So now you are wondering, where is this alleged gender split? The Siren didn't realize there was one until she started reading the reviews, most of them by critics who were also enthusiastic about the film. She liked the reviews, and the Siren isn't picking on anybody; she was just gobsmacked at how differently she perceived the movie.

You see, the Siren despised Paul as much as Raluca's mom did. She thought this was a movie about a man who got bored with his wife, took up with a beautiful woman who had poor taste, pursued the woman even when her conscience started to bother her and finally, with lordly disregard for anything he might owe his wife of about a decade, let alone the daughter whose innocence is underlined every time she appears, decides to go off with his girlfriend because he's "very much in love."

The Siren can muster all sorts of sympathy for all sorts of adulterers, and she has the posts to prove it. But Paul is a toad. And the Siren is completely, fully, firmly convinced that the movie shows he is a toad. However, a lot of critics don't see it that way, and, well, they're all men. So, permit the Siren to make her case.

Let's start with that opening scene. The Siren was startled to read Robert Koehler at Film Journey describing it as "erotic." Look at the still above. There is gorgeous, stark-naked Raluca, and believe me you get a much closer look when she gets out of bed. If you are a man, OK, erotic. But, ahem, what is the Siren supposed to look at there? The stereo speakers? The couple's banter played as relaxed and intimate to Mike D'Angelo; the Siren shuddered as she listened to Paul bragging about his penis size, whining for a cigarette and blowing raspberries on Raluca's stomach. At this point the Siren didn't hate Paul, however. She thought he was a charmless oaf, but she didn't hate him. Charmless oafs have feelings too, you know.

Nor did the Siren turn on Paul when the scene shifted to a mall. In fact, the Siren felt a twinge of sympathy; Adriana tries on a purple shirt that doesn't fit and would be frumpy even if it did, and Paul has to tread around this fact in a way familiar to every man who ever went shopping with a woman. Vadim Rizov, in the Siren's favorite review of Tuesday, After Christmas so far (please, go read, it's excellent) saw the movie largely in terms of what it said about modern Romania, and mentions the mall as a shiny temple of Romanian capitalism. The Siren's notes, on the other hand, read verbatim, "Jesus Christ the clothes in Romanian malls are hideous." This does not count as a gender split, since Vadim and I are both right.

Vadim and I diverge on that opening though; he says "widescreen and plausibly warm light turn the potentially sordid into something that glows as much as the couple." The Siren emailed him to say she missed the part where Paul glowed and Vadim replied that "by the baseline standards of recent Romanian cinema, that guy's a dreamboat." The Siren told Vadim that if her choices are Mr. Lazarescu and "that guy," it's still a man's world, all right.

Paul goes to pick up Mara at school en route to the fateful brace-fitting. In the opening, Raluca gave him some nicotine gum to chew so his teeth wouldn't get stained and ruin his boyish looks. As Paul drives, lost in apprehension over the possible unraveling of his lies, he fails to notice Mara opening the package and popping a piece of Nicorette into her mouth.

That was when the Siren began to despise him. Oh, there are some arguable moments, like the scene where Adriana is cutting Paul's hair. He's naked, full frontal, turning around as she cuts, and you can read it as emasculation--his wife is absorbed in her task, his nudity irrelevant. But the Siren remembered the opening scene, which establishes so much more than it seems to, where Paul was bragging about his endowment. In a movie full of straight-on shots, this one scene is shot from a slightly higher angle. And there's this effect called foreshortening. Maybe this was a play for sympathy. But the Siren thought it pointed straight back to Paul's egotism.

Later Adriana, out of camera range, has Paul massage her foot, clad in a decidedly anti-erotic white athletic sock. Paul rubs it and stares off into the middle distance, while she makes happy, oblivious noises. It's a moment of intimacy that could escalate, if she tried to be seductive instead of domestic and cuddlesome, or if he had tried to rekindle things instead of taking his needs elsewhere. But it doesn't. He's already wondering how the hell to get out; his thoughts are, as always, with himself.

Paul confesses to the affair and the showdown begins, in a scene Aaron Cutler saw as the wife focusing solely on being turned into a fool. (Aaron's piece is very personal and touching.) But the Siren saw it as Mary Corliss at Time did. Adriana throws her hurt at her husband with increasing venom and violence, at one point almost spitting out that Paul had his daughter in the dentist's chair being examined "by the same hands that were giving you a hand job." And he cringes--how can she be so crude? Well, because she's right. The Siren has never been to Bucharest (pop. 2 million), but she's willing to go out on a limb and say it has multiple dentists. He didn't have to take his daughter to Raluca. Everything Adriana says is true, and Paul's sole reaction is defensiveness.

She tells him there's no way he is taking away her child. His expression tells you this was the first time the thought of who got Mara had occurred to him. She asks him whether he's going to have another child with Raluca, and he responds that he hasn't completely decided, for all the world as if asked whether he and Raluca were going to trade up to a two-bedroom. Much more than anything else, it's Paul's lack of thought, any thought, about Mara that breeds contempt.

And it is Mara to whom Muntean gives undiluted sympathy. In the final Christmas sequence, Adriana shows up, looking pretty for the first time, hair down, dressed up and still furious, not one bit interested in getting her husband back. Mara is lured away to sing Christmas carols so the adults can put out the presents from Santa; they're going to tell her about the mess her father has made of her life after Christmas. And what will the girl's fate be? It's right there in her Biblical name: Mara, "bitter."

(A great review by Marilyn Ferdinand, much more detached than mine, right here.)