Monday, December 24, 2012

Christmas with George and Zsa Zsa

The Siren has had a busy holiday season that has included, in addition to the usual hoo-ha, many unexpected household tasks. She's kept up her spirits via activities like seeing Playtime in 70-millimeter and replacing Jingle All the Way in the Barnes and Noble DVD Christmas display with Auntie Mame. We all have our little holiday rituals.

Posting has been more than usually spotty, a situation that may alter a bit in January (we can only hope), but the Siren simply can't leave her blog bare for Christmas, although Myrna is doing her best for the banner. The Siren has posted a summary of this splendid, heart-warming Christmas story once before, but she assures you that of the many versions out there, the one to read is Brian Aherne's.

It is (probably) Christmas 1953, and the storied, brain-stumping marriage of the lovely Zsa Zsa Gabor and George Sanders is on the train to Reno, you might say. Zsa Zsa has begun to comfort herself with the attentions of "a famous international charmer" (probably Porfirio Rubirosa). Sanders reacts as any ordinary husband would; he decides the situation offers the perfect way to reduce his potential alimony payments. And here Aherne takes up the tale of Sanders:

Late at night on Christmas Eve, wearing dirty blue jeans, a sweatshirt and a beard...

[Pause. Chew on that image for a minute. Pour yourself a Christmas cocktail. Down it in one. Can you picture it yet? Me neither. Carry on.]

...wearing dirty blue jeans, a sweatshirt and a beard, accompanied by two detectives and carrying a brick that he had carefully gift-wrapped, [George] stealthily crossed the lawn of Zsa Zsa's house and placed a ladder against the wall. Followed by the detectives, he then climbed to the balcony outside her window. All was silent and dark inside when abruptly he shattered the glass with the brick, opened the catch, stepped into the room, turned on the light and, holding out his gift package, said "Merry Christmas, my dear!" Zsa Zsa's companion sprang up and rushed into the bathroom--too late, for the detectives had got their incriminating photos before the sleepers could realize what was happening.

Zsa Zsa behaved with perfect aplomb. Smiling and putting a lacy dressing gown, she said, "George darling! How lovely to see you! You are just in time to get your Christmas present, which is under the tree. Let's go down and have a glass of champagne and I will give it to you." She led the way downstairs, laughing gaily, gave George his present, gift-wrapped, and poured champagne for the detectives, who were enchanted with her. Indeed a good time seems to have been had by all on that festive occasion, except by the gentleman in the bathroom.

When the impending divorce was announced, their statements to the press were brief and typical. "George is a wonderful man and I shall always love him," said Zsa Zsa. "I have been cast aside like a squeezed lemon," said George.

The Siren thinks it's the detail of gift-wrapping the brick that really makes this anecdote. During the holidays, a time of stress for many, may we all behave with the grace and good cheer of this weirdly well-matched couple.

Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, Joyous Festivus, Happy (post-) Hanukkah, Gleeful Kwanzaa and a generally loving, warm and gentle-spirited holiday to all my patient readers. You make this occasionally rather cobwebby corner of the Web so very, very worthwhile.

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Razzia sur la Chnouf (1955)

A somewhat disorganized look at Razzia sur la Chnouf, the Siren's favorite among the movies she watched and re-watched last month during a long week stuck (mostly) at home. The Siren has recently been accused more than once of overpraising movies; well, as Pauline Kael used to say, tough, 'cause this one's a pip.

(Also, if you want to hear the Siren (over)praising Three Strangers and apologizing to the shade of the marvelous Geraldine Fitzgerald, hie yourself over to the Cinephiliacs and listen to her podcast with Peter Labuza.)

1. The title. Usually translated as Raid on the Drug Ring, which is as dully misleading as my high school teacher's solemn rendering of a certain French suggestion as "kiss me." "Razzia" migrated from Arabic to French and, surprisingly, turns up in American dictionaries. Most Web translators don't recognize "chnouf." The Siren's in-house translation service says it literally means "powder." Sort of like "blow," only more of a generic term for drugs, like "dope." Except of course, the word dope doesn't sound delightfully like a sneeze when you say it. In any event, in this movie, the chnouf is powdered heroin.

2. The score. Not the dope score, the music score--a restless blare of jazz composed by Marc Lanjean and arranged by Michel Legrand. As it plays over the credit sequence of Jean Gabin's arrival at Orly airport, the music promises that the film will have the same propulsive drive.

3. Jean Gabin. One year past Touchez pas au Grisbi, and in a similar role, as "Henri from Nantes," the ruthless manager of a nightclub that fronts for a drug ring. Gabin was not handsome; he had thickset, irregular features that grew positively lumpy as time wore on. By 1955 it was a face that made you wonder how many punches had landed on it. It's hard to come up with a precise visual explanation for Gabin's scorching charisma; there's the penetrating focus of his eyes, yes, but the Siren also thinks it's his stillness. Never ever do you catch Gabin making a superfluous movement. He lets the action come to him. And when he does put the moves on someone, as he does to Magali Noël, luring her upstairs and gliding up behind the girl to strip her down to her bra--oh daddy. Noël's character Lisette is 22, or maybe 23, the Siren had other things to concentrate on, and Gabin was 51 and looked every day of it. Why, then, should the Siren not look at this coupling with the same uneasiness with which she regards Gary Cooper (56) and Audrey Hepburn (28) in the otherwise delightful Love in the Afternoon? There is no explanation, other's Jean. Bloody. GABIN. It isn't so much that I believe Lisette would immediately want to seduce and be seduced by the man, it's that there's no way I'd believe she wouldn't. (Noël had a big hit with a fabulous little number about outré sexual tastes; it was released the year after Razzia, and who's to say whether Gabin was any part of her thoughts when she recorded it? Maybe we could ask one day, since Ms Noël is still gloriously with us.)

4. The ruthlessness. You want someone to match Gabin in toughness, if not in seen-it-all sex appeal, there are very few names to call; but one is Lino Ventura. He plays a viciously sadistic thug whom we see dispatch one luckless sad-sack of a smuggler with a pickax to the head. Also lending some male menace are Albert Rémy, who's mostly following Ventura's lead (hell, you would too) but is a scary dude nonetheless, and Marcel Dalio. Dalio, as you may expect, is more on the business end, but he's fantastically heartless all the same, like an investment banker who responds to a downtick by imposing the death penalty.

5. The sleaze. This is not a film that glamorizes drug addiction. It's brutally frank about the degradation of addiction without the least intention of preaching. There's a pulpy atmosphere to the whole thing, but the sleaze reaches its apex when Lila Kedrova comes on the scene as a heroin addict, Léa. It was Lila Kedrova's first film role, recreating the part she'd played onstage and won a French award for. Her wide-set eyes seem to contain both all the knowledge you'd get from hard living, as well as a faint hope that every once in a while her low expectations will be wrong. In one of the most astonishing scenes in a movie that frequently rocked the Siren back in her seat, Kedrova drags Gabin to a low-down nightspot. On the dance floor is a black man, moving sinuously to the music, and Kedrova, who's just had her fix, gets up and with heavy lids and back-tilted head, begins to move in time with him. He closes in on her, their dance becomes an unmistakable prelude to copulation and then they sink to the floor, and all we can see now are the backs of the club's patrons, as they close in to watch the rest of the show. The racial aspects of the scene are extremely disturbing, but as pure filmmaking and acting by Kedrova, it's extraordinary.

6. The cultural signposts. Such as Ventura, coming off a hard night beating the hell out of people, sliding into a booth and demanding that Gabin pass the paté. Which makes two movies (the other being Grisbi) where criminals plot their misdeeds over paté and a nice crusty baguette. Also: how everyone refers repeatedly to "Henri from Nantes" as though this is similar to saying "Henri from Dodge City," when all the Siren could think of was good King Henri and the Edict of Nantes--is that what she's supposed to get? Is it a nerdy joke, or Nantes a tough town? And one more: Gabin and Kedrova at a downmarket nightspot drinking what appears to be champagne--out of snifters. This is the sort of thing that obsesses the Siren. Is that a mark of French cool, snifters for the champers? If she were French, would that tell the Siren something about the club or the characters? (It didn't say anything to the Siren's Parisian husband other than, "That's weird.")


7. The twist. (Obviously you should skip this item if you don't want to know.)

Gabin's character turns out to be a cop. Now this is a twist the Siren might expect with, say, George Raft, who listened to Billy Wilder pitch the lead in Double Indemnity and asked about the "lapel bit." What lapel bit? asked a dazed Wilder. You know, responded Raft, "where the guy flashes his lapel, you see his badge, and you know he's a detective." Told there was no lapel bit, Raft refused the part. There's no lapel bit in Razzia but all the same, the Siren didn't twig to Gabin's cop-ness until just before the movie revealed it. And it's interesting, in that Henri is deep, deep undercover doing some very bad things. He sics the clearly psychopathic Ventura on that smuggler I mentioned, knowing the little guy is going to die, and die horribly. It makes Henri a truly complex character, one who never seems like a good guy even after the "lapel bit." (It was, according to David Shipman, the first time the perpetual rebel Gabin played a cop.)

8. The director. The Siren hasn't seen other films from Henri Decoin, although she certainly will now, but X. Trapnel, Yojimboen, Shamus and others would never forgive her if she neglected to mention that he was the first husband of none other than the divine Danielle Darrieux.

Which means he would have been a cool person even if his job involved sorting pencils at the Circumlocution Office. This year, the Siren discovered Jean Grémillon; and now she definitely hopes 2013 brings more Decoin into her life, including Battement de Coeur.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

A Bookish Cinephile Christmas

Over at Indiewire's Criticwire, the smart, fine and funny Matt Singer has been running a critics' survey for a while, and this week was the first time the Siren participated. The question was, "'Tis the season for gift giving. If someone's looking to buy a film-related book for the cinephile in their life this holiday season, what would you recommend?"

The Siren confined herself to one book, because naming more felt like cheating and because Matt, bless his heart, hasn't got all damn day. So the Siren picked City of Nets by Otto Friedrich, which she's mentioned here often.

But Glenn Kenny, in the same survey, brings up a salient point (as is his wont): what kinda cinephile are we talkin' about? Is our Hypothetical Cinephile someone who adores stars and their foibles? somebody who digs Hollywood history? an auteurist? a writer? an iconoclast? a consumer of deep-and-meaningful critical theory?

So the Siren decided to suggest a few more books she likes and has read recently, say over the past couple of years. And because the holidays don't need more frustration, this is also limited to books that are either in print, or easily available via ABE Books and the like.

(The last three books were written by people the Siren considers friends, but she admired these critics' writing long before she got to know them in person.)

The Lost One: A Life of Peter Lorre by Stephen D. Youngkin
An exhaustively researched book that appears to have taken up a substantial portion of its author's life, with impressive results. You can't imagine anyone wanting or needing to know anything about Lorre that isn't here. The cumulative effect is tragic, as are so many Hollywood stories, but The Lost One is also a conclusive argument for Lorre the artist. Every movie, every play or other work is treated with care, if not always respect--Lorre himself didn't have much respect for the likes of Mr. Moto. Youngkin recreates all of Lorre's worlds in such detail that you feel how strange it was to be uprooted to, say, Paris, and the boarding house where Lorre and his companion Celia Lovsky stayed with fellow refugees in 1933: "He and Celia lay in their twin beds, eyes open, without speaking. Sleep was impossible with the thunderous speeches of Hitler coming over the radio from the floor above and the angry, indignant rejoinders of their fellow Germans: 'False! False!...Lies.'"

Ideal for: The character actor connoisseur and anyone who's intrigued by the emigre experience in Hollywood.

Empire of Dreams: The Epic Life of Cecil B. DeMille by Scott Eyman
You know something? The Siren loves being wrong, when she finds out she's wrong in a good way. Which we will define as: The Siren thought she didn't like someone's movies, but in fact, she hadn't been looking at the right movies, and/or she hadn't been looking at the movies she knew in the right way. Which is a convoluted way of saying that the Siren rolled her eyes over a lot of Cecil B. DeMille for many years, and she shouldn't have. This biography, by the excellent writer and film historian Scott Eyman, helped immensely in knocking some sense into her. DeMille was far more complicated and even admirable as a person than he's usually been depicted, and he was a superb visual craftsman and storyteller. Meticulous detail about DeMille's huge role in Hollywood history, too. Superb opening that describes DeMille rewriting Billy Wilder's lines (yes, you read that right) on the set of Sunset Boulevard. Who else but DeMille would have had the nerve? Who else but DeMille would have gotten away with it?

Ideal for: Smart-alecs like the Siren who haven't been giving the man his full due.

The Sound of Silence: Conversations with 16 Film and Stage Personalities Who Bridged the Gap Between Silents and Talkies by Michael G. Ankerich

The Siren has strong preferences in interview books. She likes to hear from people who were a few rungs down, as well as those at the top. She loves a good story but she definitely wants to hear about the work. Above all, she wants an interviewer who knows his stuff, who has seen the movies. Michael Ankerich fulfills all those requirements. And so you get Billie Dove's tales of Marion Davies drinking to get through a horseback outing with Hearst, or how Blondie of the Follies was recut to make Dove the villain; Barbara Boundess, who had a bit part in the scandal of Paul Bern's suicide ("I learned a great lesson through this. It taught me never to go out alone with a married man"); Marcia Mae Jones ("The minute they say, 'Oh, you're that child actress,' I want to scream, because I know it's going to hurt me"); and the late, elusive Barbara Kent ("I've always thought one had to be an exhibitionist to be in pictures. That wasn't me"). Put it this way: this year, the Siren's asking Santa for Ankerich's other book.

Ideal for: The many people who adore this period.

Stormy Weather: The Life of Lena Horne by James Gavin
Admiring but unflinching account of Horne's great talent and also her flaws. Full of first-hand interviews with people who knew Horne. You get not only Hollywood, but also the simultaneous glamor and sleaze of the nightclub circuit and the people who frequented it. And my god, the stories in here--like Horne, called a "nigger bitch" by a 30-year-old white man at the Luau in Beverly Hills in 1960, throwing first a butt-filled ashtray at his head, then a hurricane lamp, then another hurricane lamp. The man wound up bleeding from a cut over his eye, and when the cops arrived and reproached her, Horne flashed back, "What do you want me to do? Apologize?"

Ideal for: Those with a passionate interest in music to go along with movie madness; anyone who wants/needs to know more about the history of black performers in Hollywood.

The Film Criticism of Otis Ferguson
Until a couple of years ago the Siren had read Ferguson only in snippets. Like all late converts, she's now an evangelist. The legendary New Republic critic joined the Merchant Marines at the outbreak of war and was killed in 1943 at age 36. While his collected film criticism is criminally out of print, it's still pretty easily obtained, and if the used bookstores of America experience a colossal run on Otis Ferguson, maybe somebody will reissue him. To his weekly reviewing duties Ferguson brought scalpel-clean perception and a supremely graceful prose style. Just now, at random, trying merely to pick a passage that would show off the man's writing, the Siren rediscovered the best description of James Cagney she has ever read:
He is all crust and speed and snap on the surface, a gutter-fighter with the grace of dancing, a boy who knows all the answers and won't even wait for them, a very fast one. But underneath, the fable: the quick generosity and hidden sweetness, the antifraud straight-as-a-string dealing, the native humor and the reckless drive--everything everybody would like to be, if he had the time sometime. But always this, always: if as a low type he is wrong, you are going to see why. In spite of writers, directors, and decency legions you are going to see the world and what it does to its people through his subtle understanding of it. And in The Roaring Twenties this genuine article has had the chance of his life; he has deliberately done much that a star would refuse to attempt, because hell, he isn't a star, he's an actor; and in this actor's range of life and death he is not only an actor but an intelligence. You do not even have to like that quicksilver personality to see its effect in art here. And if you do appreciate his personality-legend, his face on this screen will haunt your dreams.

Ideal for: The Siren is considering a program to leave this in hotel desk drawers at film festivals, à la the Gideons.

Mabel: Hollywood's First I-Don't-Care Girl by Betty Harper Fussell
In the early 1980s Fussell became entranced with Mabel Normand and set out to talk with just about anybody who was still alive and had known the actress. This twisty, highly idiosyncratic book chronicles not just the high times and ill fate of Mabel Normand, but also Fussell's relationship to the idea of Normand; what she saw on screen, what she learned from investigating. In many ways this is an exploration of what happens, good and bad, when an admirer digs deep into the life and myth of a star. Piece by piece, the actress whom audiences so adored emerges--not as a role model, a notion Mabel would have hooted at after you explained what the hell you meant, but still a warmhearted, talented woman laboring through some very, very bad breaks.

Ideal for: Silent movie lovers; lovers of a good mystery.

Barbara Stanwyck: The Miracle Woman by Dan Callahan
Anyone who's hung around these parts long enough knows the Siren's high opinion of Dan Callahan's writing on film. The Miracle Woman does something that is very unusual: The life is the backdrop to the work, and not the other way around. You want to know about the marriages to Frank Fay and Robert Taylor, the old rumors about Stanwyck's sexual preference, the sad story of her relationship with her son? It's all there. But the focus stays on the movies, with chapters organized around periods and themes in Stanwyck's work: "The Rough-and-Tumble Wellman Five," "Screwball Stanwyck," "Stanwyck Noir." Within those sections, Dan gives detailed looks at the choices Stanwyck the actress is making--the way each character walks, moves, gestures, reacts. He compiles sources to suggest what kind of thinking and goals the actress was bringing to each part, like Stella Dallas: "A fury rises up, crests, then falls as she pulls Laurel away from her father...'Get out,' she says to her husband, making it sound like a choked afterthought. Laurel is crying hard, and Stella takes the child on her lap and tries to comfort her. The little girl keeps on crying, and Stanwyck's face takes on a distant blankness as she says that Mummy is right here."

Ideal for: Stanwyck fans (so, everybody) and any cinephile who takes acting seriously.

In Lonely Places: Film Noir Beyond the Cities by Imogen Sara Smith
Also mentioned briefly here before. The Siren has often backed a fairly tight definition of noir, usually seen as an urban genre. Imogen argues, persuasively, for how noir "flourishes in marginal places...there are recurring noir images out here, too, evoking a transient, brutal, melancholy world." She traces noir in the suburbs (notably in a chapter delightfully titled "Maximum Security: Domestic Noir"), branching out through buses "with their miserable enforced communities of travelers," roaming down interstate highways, even into the plains and saloons of the Western. And brother, can she write.

Whether playing flawed heroes or redeemable villains, Dana Andrews found his niche as film noir's uneasy conscience. He was the most repressed of all tough guys. "It's not difficult for me to hide emotion," Andrews said, "since I've always hidden it in my personal life." His suits seem welded to him like armor. With that boxy mid-century silhouette, further fortified by the fedora, the glass of bourbon, the cigarette that stays jammed in his mouth when he talks, he looks oppressed by the masculine ideal of granite-faced impassivity. Those critics who called him wooden or monochromatic must not have looked into his troubled eyes.

Ideal for: The true noir fiend, the one who's been known to snap, "Why don't you quit cryin' and get me some bourbon?"

When Movies Mattered: Reviews from a Transformative Decade by Dave Kehr
Every week in the New York Times, and every month in Film Comment, we have an eloquent voice for film preservation, an advocate wandering the back rooms of studios worldwide to see what's unjustly been left on the shelf. Dave Kehr is, simply, a very great critic and one of auteurism's best advocates. This book of reviews from the Chicago Reader, spanning 1974 to 1986, consists solely of raves, or near-raves. You can pull When Movies Mattered off the shelf again and again, like any great collection of essays. When she read it, the Siren couldn't resist starting with The Leopard, even though that one's in the back: "A social portrait is only successful when it ceases to be strange--when we have the sense of sharing the characters' world, seeing it as they do. If the world of The Leopard seems extraordinarily real, it is because Visconti sees it as ordinary."

Ideal for: Discerning auteurists; aspiring film critics who want to See How It's Done, Kids; the many fans of Dave's splendid writing.

That ends the Siren's list. For the movie-lover who might require something a bit more esoteric, a handful of suggestions: Things I Did...and Things I Think I Did, by Jean Negulesco (not much on the movies but he gives good yarn); anything by Oscar Levant, but the best is The Memoirs of an Amnesiac, one of the most howlingly funny autobiographies of all time; Marlene Dietrich's ABC (contains her astrological, love and wardrobe advice as well as her recipe for schnitzel); An Orderly Man by Dirk Bogarde; any of Anita Loos' three books on Hollywood, but especially The Talmadge Girls.

The Siren has over the years found a large number of great film books via the kind suggestions of patient readers, so if you also know a good one, speak up.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

For the Love of Film III: The Payoff (and Bonus)

We've had a few months for laurel-resting after the hard work and great results of our third "For the Love of Film" blogathon. Together with the dauntless Marilyn Ferdinand and Roderick Heath, we raised money for the National Film Preservation Foundation to stream the three surviving reels of the six-reel silent movie The White Shadow, from 1924.

Its director, Graham Cutts, is a key figure in early British cinema. Even more important, The White Shadow is the earliest surviving feature on the towering resume of Alfred Hitchcock, as well as the earliest surviving film on which Hitchcock collaborated with his future wife, Alma Reville. Hitchcock worked on this movie as assistant director, art director, editor and writer.

Now it's time to savor our results. The two-month run of The White Shadow, which critic David Sterritt calls "one of the most significant developments in memory for scholars, critics, and admirers of Hitchcock’s extraordinary body of work" begins today, folks.

The Siren hands the mic over to Annette Melville of the NFPF:

The opening three reels of the six-reel feature were uncovered in 2011 during research by the NFPF to identify American silent-era titles held by the New Zealand Film Archive...The film was preserved at Park Road Post Production in New Zealand under the supervision of the NZFA and the Academy Film Archive of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

The White Shadow will be presented for free streaming, with the following extras:
· Program notes about the film by David Sterritt
· Newly recorded musical score created by Michael M. Mortilla who, with Nicole Garcia, reprises the performance from the gala premiere at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 2011
· A short bio of the New Zealand projectionist, Jack Murtagh, who salvaged the film
· Slide shows about the film’s discovery, the New Zealand Film Archive, and the Academy Film Archive

The 43-minute presentation, which will run two months, is made possible by contributors from around the world. “Not everyone has the ability to attend the special screenings of The White Shadow in Los Angeles, Washington, or New York,” said Jonathan Marlow, co-founder of Fandor, the curated on-demand movie service that is donating webhosting for the event. “We’re thrilled to play our part in making this fascinating discovery available everywhere.” Fandor’s gift matches cash donations raised through the Internet fundraising drive organized by the 2012 “For the Love of Film” Blogathon, spearheaded by Marilyn Ferdinand, Roderick Heath, and Farran Smith Nehme. The campaign mobilized support from more than 100 film fans across five continent

Almost everybody loves Hitchcock movies. We went one better. We helped get one back in front of thousands of viewers for the first time in decades. No modesty here: This film is online because we worked our tails off to help get it there.

A thousand thanks, Fandor. Mazel tov, NFPF. And kudos, gang. Spread the word.

Meanwhile, in celebration, the Siren decided to do something she has previously hasn't: offer a list of her Hitchcock favorites. She came up with a dozen. This is one of the richest filmographies imaginable, and yes, there are some towering titles missing, out of mere personal preference. There's another four or five the Siren would gladly rewatch this instant, including Foreign Correspondent, Rope, and The Paradine Case. (Yes. The Paradine Case.) Even so, it's marvelous to revel once more in this man's talent.

Consider this list as the Siren's way of throwing confetti.

1. Shadow of a Doubt
Dark, yes, but also comforting: "He thought the world was a horrible place. He couldn't have been very happy, ever. He didn't trust people. Seemed to hate them. He hated the whole world. You know, he said people like us had no idea what the world was really like."

2. Strangers on a Train
In a crowded field of unbelievable greatness, Robert Walker is the greatest Hitchcock villain of them all. Certainly he's the most psychologically interesting. And this film gave the Siren her most potent Hitchcock scare, when the painting is revealed.

3. Rebecca
An exemplary adaptation and a fabulous ghost story, with a touch of demonic possession. Plus twisted sexual yearnings all over the place, plus George Sanders coming in through the window. Pure beauty to rival any of Hitchcock's Technicolor masterpieces, and if you don't believe the Siren, just ask the folks at the magnificent picture blog Obscure Hollow.

4. Rear Window
If there is a heaven, and some good soul manages to get the Siren on the guest list, they'll let her borrow Grace Kelly's wardrobe.

5. Notorious
Hitchcock's sexiest and most romantic film. If you haven't already, please do read Sheila O'Malley on the love psychology of Dev and Alicia.

6. The Lady Vanishes
Left the Siren fated to spend the rest of her life wishing she could take a long, elegant train ride through a charming European 1938. And as allegory it's alarmingly prescient, isn't it?

7. The 39 Steps
The only thing that could make a train ride better would be if the Siren were handcuffed to Robert Donat (who in a just world would have worked with Hitchcock again). An extremely funny movie. "And this bullet stuck among the hymns, eh? Well, I'm not surprised Mr. Hannay. Some of those hymns are terrible hard to get through."

8. The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)
The Siren's essay on this one will be in the Criterion edition of the film, due in January.

9. Lifeboat
In addition to borrowing Her Serene Highness' clothes, the Siren will also get to hang out with Tallulah. "The trouble with you, darling, is that you've been reading too much Kipling. 'The sins ye do by two and two ye must pay for one by one.'"

10. North by Northwest
You know who needs a little more love for this one? Jessie Royce Landis, that's who. "I'm not nervous, I'll be late for the bridge club."

11. Vertigo
A dreamily gorgeous movie, but the Siren scratches her head when this one is called romantic. To her, it's a complete negation of the very possibility of romance, telling us instead that men and women are fated to bring one another nothing but agony. Peter Bogdanovich nails the Siren's feelings, but he also acknowledges that Vertigo is a great film, and the Siren agrees there, too.

12. Suspicion
So much more than the milk.

Thursday, November 01, 2012


All are well chez Siren. She's lucky, and grateful. But her city is suffering.

The banner is not a movie, but a shot of a workman on the George Washington Bridge, circa 1930. It seemed appropriate.

The Siren misses her blog, as she always does when life drags her away, and she'll be back very soon.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Cooking with Count Yorga

Halloween is almost upon us once more! Time to try for at least one scary post. This year, the Siren thinks she has a pretty hot entry.

It's Count Yorga's cookbook.

Or rather, the cookbook of the late Robert Quarry, the handsome star who played Count Yorga so well in two movies that the Siren saw as late shows on long-ago insomniac nights. Years ago the Siren acquired this off the freebie table in her apartment building. It has a price stamp of $5.95, and the Siren doesn't know how it was originally distributed, although the oddball punctuation and "Bulk Mail" address label on the back give her something of an idea.

Here's Quarry's presumably self-penned biography from the 1988 "Simply Wonderful Recipes for Wonderfully Simple Foods". This excellent, touching essay about Quarry at Cinefantastique depicts him as a wonderful raconteur with a great deal of charm, and that does show in the book.

Robert Quarry was born and raised in Santa Rosa, Calif., where, he says, his early culinary influences were a marvelous mixture of Italian, French, Spanish and Chinese cooking; influences that led his avocation as a chef.

His vocation, however, is as an actor, a career of some forty years. He began his career in radio during World War II appearing on many of the top shows of the time, including Lux Radio Theater where he was a member of that famed show's stock company.

After serving in the Army for two years he moved to New York and began a successful career during the early days of television, appearing on such memorable shows as Studio One, Philco Playhouse, Kraft Theater, Hallmark Hall of Fame and Playhouse 90.

He made his Broadway debut co-starring with Katharine Hepburn in "As You Like It," and after several successful plays was brought to Hollywood to appear with Joanne Woodward in "A Kiss Before Dying."

He has guest-starred on most of the top-rated dramatic series on television, but is probably best remembered for a series of horror films made while under contract to American International Pictures, most notably the "Count Yorga, Vampire" films and "Dr. Phibes Rises Again," co-starring with Vincent Price.

His cookbook, "You Can't Barbecue a Taco", will be published in the fall of '89.

Try as she might, the Siren has found no trace of "You Can't Barbecue a Taco." And try she has, mightily. However, she does have a theory as to why the bigger book never happened.

These "Simply Wonderful Recipes"? Are terrible.

Worse than Katharine Hepburn's brownies, worse than Bette Davis' baked chicken that involves a can of condensed cream of mushroom soup and crumbled Saltine crackers.

This cookbook came into the Siren's life when she was single and trying to learn to cook, and...put it this way, to this day the Siren's family is neither starving nor constantly pleading for take-out, but even the Siren's best friend would admit that her prose outranks her dinners. But she does all right these days.

Even back then, the Siren was not completely clueless. She knew enough to steer clear of anything called "Ham Croquettes" or "Avocado Mold With Crab Dressing," which begins with "1 6-oz. package lime gelatin" and ends with a crab dressing made with a full cup of sour cream, on top of the half-cup of sour cream that's already in the avocado mold.

Still, many other entries seemed pleasingly retro, the kind of thing that would make a lady seem like a Siren who could be dazzlingly domestic any old time she felt like it. The Siren loved the idea of cooking the recipes of Count Yorga, delightfully--no, wonderfully simple concoctions that would make men her neck-nuzzling slaves.

Yeah, OK, maybe the Siren should give her retro fetish a rest every once in a while. But looky here, look at the preface:

I realize that most people never read prefaces to books, but I hope you will give just a few seconds to reading this one.

Not that you will find deathless prose in the next few paragraphs. It is only that I feel compelled to explain my reasoning in putting this cookbook together.

You will not find anything resembling "Haute Cuisine", "Nouvelle Cuisine" or any other "Cuisine of the moment" recipes in this little book. A stew will be called a stew, not a "Ragout." A pork roast will not masquerade as "Roti du Porc", nor will eggs be referred to as "Oeufs."

There will be no mention of Quiche, Sushi or Thai recipes requiring Lemon Grass.

I had originally planned to title this book "The Little Bit of Difference Cookbook" because it seemed to say exactly what the content (and intent) would be.

The recipes presented here will, I hope, not be too mind-boggling. They do have different degrees of difficulty; but I think I have laid them out in clear and easy steps. They are, basically, recipes for foods we all know, but ones that with a few adjustments, take on a more intriguing "attitude".

So much for the Preface.

Bon Appetit (OOPS!)…I mean eat and enjoy!

Robert Quarry
Los Angeles -- 1988

He wasn't using fancy foreign terms! These were familiar recipes with intriguing "attitude"!

So here's a couple that the Siren tried. Maybe you're going to pop up and chirp that these seem perfectly all right to you. Maybe, you say, the little bit of difference was that Quarry was cooking this stuff, and not the Siren.

Fair enough. All the Siren can say is that she followed these to the letter, and with "Simply Wonderful Recipes," that's not such a hot idea.

Behold "Hawaiian Pork Stew."

2 pounds boneless pork shoulder
1/4 cup flour
1 teaspoon ground ginger
2 tablespoons oil
1 (8-ounce) can pineapple chunks in juice
1/3 cup bottled teriyaki sauce
1 pound sweet potatoes, peeled
1 large onion, cut into eighths

Step 1: Cut pork into 1 1/2-inch cubes. Combine flour and ginger and use to coat pork. Reserve 2 tablespoons flour mixture.
Step 2: Brown pork on all side in hot oil in Dutch oven.
Step 3: Drain pineapple and reserve juice. Add reserved juice, teriyaki sauce and 1 cup water to pork. Bring to boil, then reduce heat and simmer, covered, 1 hour, stirring occasionally.
Step 4: Cut sweet potatoes into 2-inch chunks. Add to pork and simmer, covered, 10 minutes. Stir in onion and simmer, covered, 20 minutes longer or until pork and yams are tender.
Step 5: Meanwhile combine reserved flour mixture and 3/4 cup water. Stir into pork mixture and cook until slightly thickened. Stir in pineapple and heat through.

This produces a big old gummy mass of sweetness, and the Siren learned the hard way, via the Irish writer she was trying to entertain, that the old canard about Irish culinary standards is just that. She wonders what became of him.

Disaster followed disaster. What Quarry assured readers was Burt Lancaster's favorite Lemon Cheesecake must have been a recipe the Bird Man picked up at Alcatraz. The bran muffins were leaden, the "Chicken Louisette" was a gooey mess, the Irish stew (which the Siren wisely did not serve to the Irishman) involved pickling spices that were hard to find for reasons that became crystal-clear once the stew was served.

Clearly the Siren should have cut her losses, but she is a stubborn little mortal.

So with a new, non-Irish dinner guest, against all common sense, she decided to tackle "Luxembourg Stew." Here's how Quarry lured her in:

Good veal is so expensive these days I'm giving you only one recipe…but it is terrific! The veal must be white, but the cut less expensive than other cuts, and I promise you a real lip-smacker! [Yeah, like that still up above, Count Yorga. -T.S.]

I found this recipe when I was in Luxembourg several years ago. There isn't a more gracious country in Europe (or, I should say 'Duchy') so it's no wonder that this stew is practically their national's as wonderful as the country and the people who live there.

The Siren has some in-laws who've lived in Luxembourg for many years, by the by, and when she ran a rough description of this dish past them they denied all knowledge of it. But maybe they've just been lucky. Here 'tis.

2 lbs. veal shoulder
3 tbsp butter
1 large onion, sliced
3 tomatoes, peeled and seeded
1 bay leaf
5 whole cloves
Pinch each of thyme and marjoram
Dash of cayenne
2 1/2 cups light beer
5 gingersnaps
Juice of half a lemon

Step 1: Cut veal into 1-inch cubes, roll them in flour and saute lightly in butter. Remove from pan and put aside for a moment.
Step 2: Saute sliced onion in same butter until golden.
Step 3: Put the meat and onion in a stewpan, add tomatoes (quartered) and all the seasoning. Add salt and pepper to taste.
Step 4: Add light beer, cover the pan tightly, and cook very slowly for 1 1/2 hours.
Step 5: Moisten gingersnaps (I add two more than the recipe calls for) with water, crush into paste and add to the contents of the pan. Put the lid back on and continue cooking slowly for 30 minutes more.
Step 6: Just before serving add the lemon juice. Serve with mashed potatoes.

The stew, as you may or may not be able to tell from the instructions, was a calamity, but here Count Yorga showed some mercy in the form of the beer. It tasted terrible in the dish, but the Siren and her guest drank the rest of the six-pack and along with the mashed potatoes it kept the man reasonably content.

Thus endeth the Siren's attempt to cook with Count Yorga. Whatever gourmet secrets the Count was keeping (ground wolf bone? the blood of a virgin bat?) were never vouchsafed to the Siren.

But in fairness, and because she remains kindly disposed toward Quarry despite all he did to her, the Siren is including what he claims is Vincent Price's recipe for bread pudding. If anyone is feeling adventurous and wants to try this (Tinky? you game?) do report back. Only, if you are single and trying for a romantic evening, take the Siren's advice and order Chinese as a backup.

This recipe was given to me by Vincent Price, but, in keeping with his evil movie persona, he left out one very important step in the cooking process. Fortunately I figured out how to beat the fiend at his devilish game.


1 cup firmly packed dark brown sugar
3 slices bread (I prefer egg bread, but it isn't the least necessary)
2 tbsp softened butter
1 scant cup raisins or currants (the amount is optional--I prefer a little less)
3 eggs
2 cups milk
1/8 tsp salt
1 1/2 tbsp white sugar
1 tsp vanilla

Step 1: Loosely pack brown sugar in top of double boiler.
Step 2: Butter three slices of bread with softened butter, and then dice bread. Sprinkle over brown sugar. Add raisins or currants, scattering them over the bread.
Step 3: Beat eggs, milk, salt, vanilla and white sugar together.
Step 4: Pour egg mixture over bread cubes but DO NOT STIR.
Step 5: Place over simmering water, cover (that's the part Vincent neglected to tell me) and cook 1 hour.
Serve cold or at room temperature. Turn out onto serving plate (preferably one with raised sides to catch the sauce). The brown sugar has by this time developed into the most delicious sauce.

According to Cinemafantastique, Price and Quarry didn't get along during Dr. Phibes, largely due to machinations by the producer, which is a shame. Price himself was a famous gourmet chef.

We'll close with one more quote from Quarry (the boldface is his):

And now we come to the more difficult part of dinner: THE MAIN COURSE!! This is the time that one does a lot of praying in the kitchen, comes to the table and waits for the first guest to say "Marvelous". If no one says anything, pretend to have a fainting spell and ask to be taken to the nearest emergency hospital. This will generate a lot of sympathy, and everything that went wrong can be blamed on poor health.

If the Siren ever cooks another "Simply Wonderful" recipe, she may have to give that suggestion a whirl.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Ernst Lubitsch's The Loves of Pharaoh, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music

Another alert for the Siren's patient New York readers: On Oct. 18 through Oct. 20, the Brooklyn Academy of Music is presenting the great Ernst Lubitsch's 1922 silent, The Loves of Pharaoh. Lost for many years, then thought to exist only in fragments, the movie has been painstakingly stitched back into close to its original form, and will be the inaugural screening for the BAM Harvey Theater's Steinberg Screen.

This is what you call a major film-preservation event.

The Loves of Pharaoh, says BAM, is being shown as part of its Next Wave festival, and will be accompanied "by the world premiere of a new score by Brooklyn-based composer Joseph C. Phillips be performed live by his acclaimed 18-piece new music ensemble, Numinous."

The Siren has been told that The Loves of Pharaoh is not typical Lubitsch; instead it's a splendid eyeful of an epic. Any chance to see a large-scale silent movie on a big screen, accompanied by live musicians and a full score, is to be seized at all costs. So the Siren is attending tonight's performance; Comrade Lou Lumenick of the New York Post plans to attend later this weekend. The Siren urges her patient readers to turn out for this event as well.

Morning-after update: Since cherished commenter Rozsaphile brought up the score, and in case anyone is on the fence, the Siren thought she'd add a few off-the-cuff thoughts. Indeed this is not what you think of as Lubitsch, although there is plenty of panting sexual desire. It's magnificent-looking, though, particularly on the big screen in the beautiful Harvey Theater, which has been updated with its crumbling atmosphere intact.

The restoration is superb. Missing footage is replaced, when possible, with stills, and this works much better for the silent Loves of Pharaoh--they're a bit like pictorial intertitles--than it does for, say, Cukor's A Star Is Born, where the sudden intrusion of stills throws the Siren out of the movie, every time. According to Dave Kehr, the German unemployment situation in 1922 basically meant they could have all the extras they wanted, and the crowd scenes will blow your mind. Lubitsch could, like Griffith and DeMille, show the teeming sweep of an army or a mob while still giving a sense of the individuals within. Certain scenes--such as one set in the inner chambers of Pharaoh's treasury--are heart-stoppingly beautiful. The tinting is exquisite.

The Siren loves how Kehr describes the way things worked out, in terms of film history: "After “Pharaoh,” DeMille folded his style into Lubitsch’s for his first version of “The Ten Commandments,” while Lubitsch, in one of film history’s tidier paradoxes, turned away from costume pictures to DeMille-style sex comedies on his arrival in Hollywood." Loves is no comedy. Plot elements include torture, violence, child murder, maimings, and a downbeat ending. There are maybe two or three laughs that the Siren would characterize as intentional jokes. Otherwise the laughter in the audience was mostly at instances of actorly excess, and some unfortunate (to modern eyes) choices like the wig on Ramphis (Harry Liedtke). Emil Jannings gives his side-eye technique quite a workout, and also gets to do the Great-Man-Brought-to-Depths-of-Degradation scenes that the guy must have had written into his contract somehow. (The Siren's not a huge Jannings fan.)

This is where the new score comes in. It's strikingly modern, not a type of music the Korngold-loving Siren would have necessarily chosen. She thought it worked extremely well, however. Composer Joseph C. Phillips clearly took Loves of Pharaoh seriously and gave it music that played the emotions of the scenes straight, not campy. The score kept the audience focused, kept nervous titters to a minimum and complemented the emotions. You can't ask much more than that.

So you don't want to miss this, if at all possible. For those who can't make it to BAM, Loves of Pharaoh is available on DVD and Blu-Ray.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

To Save and Project: MOMA Screens Wild Girl (1932) and Call Her Savage (1932)

On Thursday, Oct. 11 (that's tomorrow) the Museum of Modern Art in New York kicks off its 10th edition of To Save and Project, their annual series of screenings dedicated to film preservation. The Siren need hardly tell her patient readers how this very notion makes her eyes light up. The series runs until Nov. 12, with multiple screenings of most films. It includes such rarities as the silent Dumb Girl of Portici, starring Anna Pavlova in her one film role; Jacques Demy's Lola, starring Anouk Aimee; and George Cukor's seldom-seen Justine, a film that (correct me if I'm wrong, David) David Ehrenstein has mentioned favorably around here. The latter two will be introduced by the grandly beautiful Ms Aimee herself.

And, to top it all off, the vast majority of the films will be screened in glorious 35-millimeter, the way God and Orson Welles (a tautology?) intended. (You can read more about that topic in Dave Kehr's excellent full roundup at the New York Times.)

Opening day brings two restored pre-Codes: Call Her Savage from 1932, and from the same year, the out-of-sight-for-eons Wild Girl, directed by Raoul Walsh. The Siren got a chance to see both when they were screened for the press.

Wild Girl, starring Joan Bennett in her lissome blonde phase, is based on "Salomy Jane's Kiss," a story by Bret Harte. Salomy Jane (Bennett) isn't really wild, she's just in tune with nature, a girl-woman roaming the forest and playing with the local children.

Walsh has the magnificent ability to mash up genres and keep control of the tone and pacing. Here we have a Western, complete with a stagecoach, a corrupt and lascivious businessman with designs on Salomy Jane, and a handsome stranger (Charles Farrell) who rides into town on a mission of revenge. Except, it's also something of a fairy tale. The movie was filmed in the Sequoia National Forest, and the enormous trees give Walsh ample opportunity to film Bennett among the enormous roots and trunks like a tiny woodland sprite. Even Eugene Pallette, as a lovably cowardly stagecoach driver, looks like a doll in such a setting.

And it's also a comedy, with Pallette showing how many ways he can imitate a horse's whinny. It's a pre-Code, with Bennett bathing naked in a pond, only to be surprised by a man in mid-splash. (Where there's a woman bathing naked outdoors, there is always a man; this is an immutable Hollywood law of any era.) It's a romance, as of course Salomy and the stranger will find each other and fall in love. It's a social drama--a lynching scene mid-movie includes a haunting, blurry camera effect and is genuinely harrowing. Pierre Rissient, who knew Walsh, was in attendance, and told some writers gathered afterward that the movie drew on a lynching that Walsh himself witnessed as a boy.

The characters are introduced as though leafing through the pages of a book, and the fadeout between scenes is made to resemble a page turning, both emphasizing the literary origin. Except that the volume's cover, shown at the beginning and end of the movie, is labeled "Album," causing the Siren's pal Glenn Kenny to guffaw, "Wanna see some pictures from that summer the stagecoach got robbed and there was a lynching? Fun times!"

As for Call Her Savage, for years the Siren had been told that the film was a lulu, even by the freewheeling standards of the early 1930s. Not only is the film as gratifyingly insane as its reputation, its craziness looks wonderful thanks to the restoration.

It was Clara Bow's comeback vehicle, tailored by Fox to reassert her stardom after a bad period that included sex-tinged scandals as well a lawsuit brought by a former employee named Daisy DeVoe. On top of that, the insecure and emotionally fragile Bow had a bad case of what they called mike fright.

Well, you won't see it in this movie (and like John Gilbert, Bow sounds fine). What you will see is Bow engaging in scenes so pointedly lurid that even the jaded folks in the MOMA screening room were agog. Bow first appears riding a horse--bareback, what else. A snake causes her horse to throw her, she whips the snake (uh-huh) and her temper fit gets her laughed at by childhood pal Moonglow (Gilbert Roland, so sexily male that silly name doesn't matter). So naturally, she beats him around the head and shoulders with her riding crop.

But even that can't prepare you for the sight of Clara Bow, nipples erect under the sheer blouse that's already torn from the earlier scene, rolling around on the floor with an enormous and clearly un-neutered Great Dane. It was a vulgar reference to an old rumor about Bow's supposedly insatiable appetites, but now it just plays Let the Siren put it this way--in 2012, which big-time actress would play a lewd scene opposite a dog?

It's all supposed to be part of her nature, you see, as the title signals. Nasa thinks she's the daughter of an unscrupulous tycoon, but in fact she's the daughter of an Indian chief who impregnated her mother while Father Was Away on Business. And when you mix Noble Savage with Sexually Frustrated White Woman, according to this movie what you get is bipolar behavior that would flummox Freud. One minute, she's taking a ranch worker's guitar and smashing it over his head when he won't stop crooning (which is drastic, but it does earn her the audience's gratitude). And the poor slob hasn't even had time to pick the splinters out of his eyebrows before Nasa turns to Moonglow and gurgles "Oh Moonglow, I'm going to love Chicago." The idea that anything can explain Nasa, let alone an accident of birth, is ludicrous on its face, but she's one of the most enthralling women in all of pre-Code cinema--hell, cinema period.

The breakneck plot defies summary, logic and medical probability, and it's every bit as fun as that sounds. Via director John Francis Dillon, it looks good, too, from the nightclubs and dives of Chicago, New York and New Orleans, to the the Indian attack on a covered wagon that opens the film. (The Siren walked in a minute after the movie started and had to whisper "what is this?" to a fellow critic to make sure she hadn't accidentally stumbled into a Tom Mix screening.) There's a wonderfully done montage of Nasa's free-spending ways, showing clubs and shopping and bills; you find out that an Elizabeth Arden facial set you back $25 in 1932. In this film at least, Dillon had a fascination for mirrors to rival Douglas Sirk; they're a recurring motif, the camera often observing Bow's reflection, emphasizing her dual nature. Toward the end, there's a terrific montage of all the many ways that men have screwed Nasa, ending with Bow shrieking "MEN!" and shattering a mirror with one blow. If there's a merciful deity up there, somebody will one day put that bit on Youtube--maybe for Valentine's Day.

The cast includes Monroe Owsley, lip curled and cigarette pinched between thumb and forefinger, as the dirty cad who marries Nasa, only to desert her for former love Thelma Todd. The Siren hadn't seen Todd outside of her sidekick work for the Marx Brothers, and it was sad to discover that had she not been murdered at age 29, she could have done well in bitchy other-woman roles, too. Roland's part is absolutely nothing--a loyal, supportive "half-breed" (this movie's flagrant racism is a given, alas). But he gives Moonglow warmth and gentleness; combined with his stellar work in the 1950s, including The Bad and the Beautiful, The Furies and The Bullfighter and the Lady, the Siren has become a big Roland fan.

The main attraction, no question, is Bow. She spends a lot of time in barely-there costumes, she looks ravishing, and Dillon's camera ogles her breasts so often--the cleavage when she's bending over, the profile, the view from below, the 45-degree side angle--that after seeing Call Her Savage you can piece it together and truthfully say you've seen Clara Bow topless. Her dress strap slips and the Siren thinks, "Eat your heart out, Marilyn." Despite that rather degrading scene with the Great Dane this is, in many ways, an ideal vehicle for Bow because it requires simmering physicality and the nerve to go all-out in nearly every scene. When Owsley rises from the bed where he's been confined by a slight case of tertiary syphilis and tries to rape Bow, she really fights, like a cornered animal fights. A brawl in a Greenwich Village dive shows that she could really throw a punch. And a mid-movie tragedy, and her scenes with Roland, also show that grief and tenderness were very much part of Bow's range.

Bow's comeback, for the record, worked; Call Her Savage was a hit. She wouldn't make many more movies, however. She married cowboy star Rex Bell and retired in 1933 to become a wife and mother. Biographer David Stenn (whose Runnin' Wild the Siren recommends) concludes that Bow was schizophrenic, and that, ironically, retiring was the worst thing she could have done. Without the outlet and identity that film work provided, there was no place to escape the demons.

As entertaining as Call Her Savage is, it takes on a sad tinge for those who remember that one of Clara Bow's first great loves was Gilbert Roland. Toward the end of her life, after she'd spent years in and out of institutions, Stenn says Roland was one of the few people Clara Bow still wanted to see: "Still handsome, and still my favorite actor," she would say after his visits.

If you are in New York, go see these movies, OK?

Monday, October 01, 2012

Tay Garnett: Light Your Torches and Pull Up Your Tights

The Siren has written before about director Tay Garnett: his marriage to actress Patsy Ruth Miller, and his script for and direction of One Way Passage, which the Siren would unhesitatingly cite as one of the best films of the 1930s. And since the 1930s was a great film decade, period, well, you do the math. The Siren has enormous regard for The Postman Always Rings Twice (Garnett on the set above, with the poor unphotogenic creatures who were his stars), thinks Trade Winds, where Joan Bennett went brunette, is a pip, and so is China Seas, thinks a large number of Garnett's many, many other films are subject for further research, as a great critic used to put it.

All this, and Garnett wrote a corking autobiography, called Light Your Torches and Pull Up Your Tights, after the on-set directions he got as an extra in a historical epic. The Siren has, as we all know, read way too many Hollywood memoirs so believe her when she says that this is one of the liveliest, most enjoyable and original you will ever pick up. If you can pick it up, that is. It's out of print.

Now his daughter Tiela has embarked on a project to get the book back into circulation, and at the same time resurrect her father's memory with the public. The Siren hasn't pointed out Kickstarter campaigns before, and has no plans to make a habit of it, but she can't resist this one, because the book really is wonderful. (David Cairns thinks so too; he calls it "magnificent," not an adjective he slings around with abandon.) If Tiela gets sufficient funding, she plans to write a coda to her father's book. The Siren hopes it will fill out the story of his lifelong love for the mysterious Joan Marshfield, which forms such a romantic throughline that would have fit perfectly in one of Garnett's own movies.

The description of the project is here.

Friday, September 28, 2012

In Memoriam: Herbert Lom, 1917-2012

The Siren felt a bit of eerie coincidence on hearing that Herbert Lom had died at the venerable age of 95. Less than three weeks ago, she saw the fine old British psychiatric romance The Seventh Veil. In it Lom plays the silken, sexy-voiced head-shrinker to Ann Todd's suicidal concert pianist, but he does not fall in love with her. Instead, he puts her under hypnosis with the aid of an injection. Narcosis, he calls it. (Do such drugs exist, where you get shot up and presto, you remember your whole life in screenplay-perfect detail? Frankly, the Siren hopes not.)

As Dr. Larsen, Lom's plot function is to reveal to Todd which of the three men in her life she truly loves. This he does by sitting just out of her sightlines and asking wise, perceptive questions, until the end, when he gets out of the office and does some detective work by asking wise, perceptive questions of the people who know the pianist. The notion that talk therapy, with or without magic injections, can yield life-resurrecting results in a mere matter of weeks deserved skepticism in 1945, and these days such claims are on par with losing 20 pounds in two weeks without dieting. Yet The Seventh Veil is a marvelously entertaining film, utterly committed to its premise, and full of memorable scenes. (Todd said strangers talked to her about the scene where James Mason strikes her hands with a cane for the rest of her life.)

About 20 minutes in, the Siren's better half plopped on the sofa to watch a bit too, drawn by the music. He kept watching, and a little while later when he piped up, it was to say, "The shrink is great."

It's true, Lom is wonderful, as soothingly intelligent and trustworthy as Claude Rains' Dr. Jaquith. Dr. Larsen is a hard part to play, all that sympathizing and empathizing and commiserating and you don't even get the girl. Twenty years later, Lom was cast as a psychiatrist in a TV series and according to the Guardian, he groused: "All I had to do was sit behind a desk saying, 'And vot happened next?', and the terribly interesting patient got all the good bits." Some part of him may have been thinking about The Seventh Veil too, massive hit though it was. He must have known how good he was, though, and that it would have been a lesser movie without him. Lom's listening is so active, so engaged, his faith in his charge's rescue-ability so strong--your belief in the whole concept depends on him.

Lom's obituaries reveal a vividly interesting life that included his escape from Czechoslovakia just ahead of the Nazi invasion. His Jewish girlfriend died in a concentration camp after being turned away by British authorities. Later, when Lom wanted to make a career in Hollywood--which would have been lucky to have him--he ran into a brick wall with American immigration for reasons that don't appear to have amounted to much of anything. In those days, they didn't have to. He married three times and had three children. He wrote two novels that the Siren would love to read.

Lom's a type of actor that fascinates the Siren. A name known to many, but never a big star, and not a character actor with one instantly recognizable film-to-film persona, either. But an actor who worked for decades--a few leads including this one, plenty of heavies, comic parts, stage, TV, and films, whatever came along. El Cid, The Ladykillers, he racked up some indelible films over a six-decade career. The Siren enjoys his pirate in Spartacus and his wonderful Napoleon in King Vidor's underrated War and Peace. Lom played Bonaparte two other times--once on stage, once on film for Carol Reed in Young Mr. Pitt--and wryly called the Emperor a "much-maligned gentleman," which gives a hint of why his portrayal avoided biopic dullness.

Lom's obits give pride of place to his Chief Inspector Dreyfus in the Pink Panther films, which is understandable, although the Siren has admitted before that the series isn't her taste. But the role certainly shows Lom's versatility; how often do you get an actor who can play both brilliant farce, and utterly terrifying criminality? All right, Peter Sellers himself did, if you've seen this one.

But hey, Lom did it too, many times, including the great Night and the City. As the crime boss Kristo, his all-purpose accent standing in for Greek this time, Lom got to play an ending so bleak they shied away from it in the weak 1992 remake. Probably it was lack of nerve, but the lack of Herbert Lom didn't help.

One of the many reasons the Siren loves to write about actors is that the good ones reap so much from such tiny, tiny choices. It's miraculous to her. In Night and the City, Kristo's rackets include wrestling. His father, Gregorius, is a wrestler, an honorable one, who nonetheless has been caught up in the get-rich-quick schemes of Harry Fabian (Richard Widmark). Here Gregorius, and Fabian, make the fateful mistake of tangling with Mike Mazurki's Strangler.

At around the 5:15 mark, you hear one word from Lom as Kristo: "Papa." You don't see him utter it, but the whole backstory's in his voice: hero-worship, concern, tenderness, old father-son disputes, and above all, a warning that spins every head in that room in the crime boss' direction. You see all that, too, in the way Lom drapes a robe across Stanislaus Zbyszko's shoulders.

After Gregorius staggers to the store room and Kristo helps his father lie down, the wrestler asks his son to close a window that isn't open. Then he asks a second time, when the camera is on the back of Lom's head, and the responding nod is so small it's barely perceptible. It speaks of Kristo's dread and denial, as if keeping the acknowledgement tiny will somehow change the fact that Gregorius is already growing cold. Ditto Kristo standing and resting his hand on the closed window; Lom's back is almost entirely to the camera again, we have just a sliver of his profile. He can't give his father his full face when he's lying. There's the perfectly calibrated timing of how long Kristo embraces Gregorius' dead body. Kristo's been a villain from the beginning, but from the moment he raises his head, Lom makes the character something else, an executioner. God it's brilliant, one piece of why Night and the City is a superlative film.

And for Herbert Lom, it was one screen performance among more than a hundred.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Cobweb (1955)

(For the one and only Yojimboen, here's a complete and slightly spruced-up version of the Siren's 2011 essay on The Cobweb, from the now-defunct Nomad Widescreen. Curtain going up...)

Here’s a little Siren idea for a film programmer: a double feature of Samuel Fuller’s scalding 1963 Shock Corridor, about a journalist who goes undercover in a hellish mental institution, with Vincente Minnelli’s 1955 The Cobweb, about a high-end loony bin where the inmates play croquet on a verdant lawn and make art projects in a chic studio.

Discussion to follow: Which movie is crazier? And the answer should be, “The one in Eastmancolor.”

The Cobweb certainly has every bit of the lush color and striking compositions you find in something like Minnelli's Gigi. It has standout work from John Kerr, Oscar Levant, Susan Strasberg, Charles Boyer, Lillian Gish and above all Gloria Grahame. What it doesn’t have is a huge emotional hook. Shock Corridor (and Anatole Litvak’s The Snake Pit, from 1948) also bring up questions of who’s truly insane: the inmates, their keepers or the world at large. In its genteel way, though, the Minnelli, with its posh setting and leisurely pace, makes the strongest case for the craziness of the keepers.

The patients at Castlehouse, the aptly named mansion where wealthy people go for what they used to call “rest cures,” just don’t seem that sick. Sure, Sue (Susan Strasberg) is agoraphobic, Mr. Capp (Levant) is depressed and mother-fixated, and Steven (Kerr) is depressed and father-fixated, but they and the other patients have no problem conducting a meeting in the library according to proper parliamentary procedure. They help each other, they don’t speak out of turn, they go back to their rooms and have little parties with a phonograph playing and everybody laughing. One old woman can even handle her own wheelchair.

The staff, on the other hand, can’t even order a set of drapes without causing a chain of catastrophes.

Despite the simplicity of the goal--just remember, everybody wants their own drapes--the plot is a mess, but here goes. New clinic head Richard Widmark is bringing his newfangled notions to the staid clinic. His main goal is self-government for the patients, an idea whose appeal increases the more you get to know the staff. Widmark is married to Gloria Grahame, who’s at home with the kids and a maid and in need of something to do. Grahame decides she should take over ordering new drapes for the library. But Widmark wants Kerr, who is a painter of talent, to design the drapes. Beautiful Lauren Bacall, as the clinic's art therapist, agrees with Widmark. She's the understanding character: She understands Kerr and Strasberg and Widmark, heck, Bacall even understands what the deal is with the drapes. But Miss Inch, the secretary (played by a marvelously sour, embittered Lillian Gish) wants to get new curtains on the cheap. So there are three sets of drapes...Can I stop now?

The Cobweb’s best-looking effect is undoubtedly Gloria Grahame, all dewy perspiration, smudged makeup and hair flopping in and out of her eyes, as she flits around convinced that Widmark will surely rekindle their sex life, if only she can change the drapes. She seethes with repressed lust as she picks up Kerr on a road outside the hospital, talking to the teenager in a way that suggests she might throw herself at him at any minute. Grahame wiggles around a concert in a blinding white evening gown, her mouth a slash of red lipstick--no wonder Charles Boyer, as the alcoholic ex-head of the clinic, is dying to seduce her.

Widmark, though, is all zipped up with concern about whether his patients will be able to exercise their democratic right to make their own interior-design choices. Therefore he can walk into a bedroom, spot Gloria Grahame half-out of the covers--and walk right back out. I told you the staff's as crazy as the patients.

Strasberg is gentle and affecting as the phobic teen, especially in a scene in the town cinema where she goes to see Seven Brides for Seven Brothers with Kerr. She stands to leave, the carefree young people pouring around her, and she timidly follows Kerr out of the theatre and onto to the sidewalk as panic starts to well up in her eyes. Minnelli keeps his camera back and the couple slightly off-center as Kerr takes her arm and leads her away, and she relaxes once more. The simple tenderness of the moment would have fit perfectly in the director’s great romance, The Clock.

Widmark’s straight-arrow character mostly channels Charlton Heston at his most righteous, but the movie finds its other affecting moments in his few scenes with his politely stoic son. The little boy moves quietly around the kitchen after his parents have a fight, and makes his own breakfast while Gloria Grahame storms off to have another fabric-related crisis. As Widmark tries to talk to his son, you see the doctor wondering if, perhaps, their parenting is creating a future patient.

And of course, there is Oscar Levant in his last film role, singing “Mother” while sitting in a hydrotherapy bath and waiting for his sedatives to take effect. When he looks at the nurse and tells her, “You remind me of my mother,” the line is so funny, and so sinister, that the Siren gets a fleeting sense the movie is about to go all Hitchcock. It doesn’t, of course; the next morning, it’s back to the library and fabric selection.

The deep drape focus has come in for a lot of head-scratching over the years. The Siren wonders, do they show this one in interior design class at a place like FIT? They should, they should. Drapes. Good lord, did even Cecil Beaton get this worked up over window treatments? Wouldn’t furniture be, well, weightier?

This Maguffin has some batty logic, though. The Cobweb is about a clinic staffed by people who are (with the exception of Lauren Bacall’s too-good-to-be-true teacher) way, way too self-absorbed, so much so that paisley versus floral versus silkscreen becomes an existential life crisis. The movie slyly suggests that the patients are picking up on the staff’s narcissism, and not the other way around.

The Cobweb’s original running time was two-and-a-half hours, and producer John Houseman convinced Minnelli to cut it down. Despite the fact that the film is in no way boring, that was probably a good choice. At its present length, The Cobweb's beauty and roiling, neurotic cast retain a headlong charm.

Toward the end, Widmark’s character tries to make the case that the fuss about the drapes was a metaphor for all the passions they unleashed, but he convinces no one. Levant, who spent a lifetime in and out of psychiatric treatment, came much closer to the heart of the matter in a remark he made on set. Director and actor quarreled a lot during the shoot, and Levant muttered to the assistant producer after one spat with Minnelli: “Who’s crazy, anyway--him or me?”

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Jean Grémillon

This week, at the site MUBI, the Siren has a long essay about Jean Grémillon and the new DVD set of three of his films (Le ciel est à vous, Lumière d'été and Remorques) from Criterion's no-frills Eclipse label. This is part of the discussion of Remorques, the Siren's favorite of the four she's seen, the other being Gueule d'Amour. (New Yorkers, take note: Remorques plays at the Film Forum today, at 1 pm, 4:40 pm and 8:20 pm.) They are all wonderful; discovering Grémillon has been a highlight of the Siren's cinematic year.

All three of the movies are deeply rewarding, but it's the simplest one, Remorques, that has the greatest beauty. It's helped by the presence of Michèle Morgan and Jean Gabin, two stars so blindingly charismatic that their merest eye contact is worth pages of exposition. To this Remorques adds Prevert's gorgeous dialogue (he rewrote much of the script), and Grémillon's passionate feel for the freedom of the sea and the confinement of land.

Gabin plays André, a tugboat operator ("remorques" translates as "towline") who makes a dangerous living rescuing boats from the storm-tossed waters off the Brittany coast. He's married to Yvonne (Renaud again--Grémillon loved this actress, with good reason); their relationship is loving, if not quite happy. She's grown tired of André's profession, tired of constantly fearing for his safety. Quietly, persistently, she's trying to persuade him to give it up. But he doesn't want to, not really, despite his frequent expressions of disgust for the low pay and wretched conditions. Gabin plays his scenes with Renaud with a mixture of real affection and wariness; she's trying to detach him from his one source of excitement, the one place where he's strong and in control. Yvonne is a Spanish-moss spouse--lovely but potentially suffocating.

André's crew rescues the vessel of Marc (Jean Marchat), a craven captain who's willing to let his boat go down so he can collect the insurance. His wife, Morgan, naturally has come to loathe him. Unable to spend another minute with the man, she takes a raft to Gabin's boat. Morgan and Gabin snipe at one another on board, they meet again onshore, they talk...

Remorques is a romantic melodrama, and these films are always built on emotions that are common, even when the situations are not. Here's a man who has lingering love for a good wife whose needs have become dreary and whose presence is no longer exciting; and here's a woman married to someone whose once-thrilling attentions turned out to be a cover for contempt and abuse. And the two connect, as such unhappy souls easily might in reality.