Monday, April 23, 2012

For the Love of Film Blogathon III Preview: Farley Granger and Hitchcock

The next film preservation blogathon, For the Love of Film III, is looming larger than Mount Rushmore. The Siren and her estimable blogging partners Marilyn Ferdinand of Ferdy on Films and Rod Heath of This Island Rod have already sounded the call for posts, but we are sounding it again.

Soon we'll be releasing information to the media about our drive to raise funds for the National Film Preservation Foundation and its White Shadow project. The NFPF wants to stream the movie for all to see and record the score by Michael Mortilla.

If you already signed up, there's no need to do so again; but if you haven't, and you plan to blog, step up and be counted. Leave a comment here, at Marilyn's place, or drop one of us a line at our emails, located right on the sidebars. Marilyn, Rod and the Siren welcome posts on director Graham Cutts, Alfred Hitchcock, film preservation, film scores, silent films, and if you've got something even more original, we're all ears. All are more than welcome, and by all means tell your friends.

Meanwhile, as an aperitif, the Siren is posting the complete version of a piece she did for the now-defunct Nomad Widescreen last year, on Farley Granger's two Hitchcock films. It's been revised and updated, and reflects the fact that the Siren has since read Granger's fine autobiography, Include Me Out.

Farley Granger’s own favorite among his movies was Luchino Visconti’s Senso (1954); he made several other highly regarded films, including Nicholas Ray’s They Live by Night (1949) and Anthony Mann's Side Street (1950), as well as some interesting curios like the pro-Soviet The North Star, and box-office successes that haven’t lingered in the public’s memory, like Hans Christian Anderson (which Granger synopsized as “boy meets girl; boy loses girl; boy gets boy”).

 But the two most widely seen Farley Granger movies are, and will probably remain, the two he made with Alfred Hitchcock: Rope, from 1948, and Strangers on a Train, from 1951. His death last year at age 85 prompted tributes to both films, especially the magnificent Strangers.

 The earlier movie, Rope, is the more problematic, but the Siren likes it, a lot. Each time she sees it, the film strikes her as more genuinely cinematic (see Glenn Kenny's discussion of this very concept with regard to the set-bound Carnage). Several moments are as chilling as anything in Hitchcock, and certain effects still knock the Siren sideways. She'll never get tired of watching the light gradually fade from the vast windows of the two murderers' apartment--New York as a brooding, implacable offstage character.

Rope is usually described as an interesting experiment that didn’t quite come off, a party line that Granger himself subscribed to. Hitchcock shot in long takes of up to ten minutes, breaking them up mostly by panning into an object that disguises the cut with a brief moment of dark screen.

There's definitely a “look ma, no hands” to the idea of Hitchcock, famous for the subtlety and rhythm of his compositions and cuts, throwing away those tools. Rather than being just stagey, however, Rope becomes a long game with the very notion of staginess, as the camera forces points of view that a theatre audience would never get. In one extraordinary instance, the lens stays trained on the maid who’s tidying up the chest that holds the dead body. The camera watches her clear the dishes from this macabre buffet table, blow out the candles, take away the tablecloth and prepare, perhaps, to open the chest; and all the while, just out of sight range, we hear the others discussing the dead man’s whereabouts.

The movie is based on the Leopold and Loeb murder case, two young men in Chicago who murdered a 14-year-old boy to demonstrate their intellectual superiority. It has often been argued that the two murderers were lovers. Montgomery Clift was offered Granger’s role in Rope but turned it down, quite possibly because he feared the light it would shine on his own life; indeed, Clift turned down Sunset Boulevard for similar reasons, because of his involvement with the much-older singer Libby Holman. Granger, who at age 22 had already embarked on a lifelong pursuit of both men and women, had no such hesitation. He later said that he always considered himself a working actor, not a star, and Granger didn’t fear the homoerotic subtext of either of the films he did for Hitchcock.

Mind you, in his autobiography Granger says he spent years disappointing critics and interviewers when asked about discussions with Hitchcock about just what was going on between Rope's two main characters: "What discussions? It was 1948." That didn't mean, though, that Granger himself and co-star John Dall were clueless. For one thing, Granger was talking to screenwriter Arthur Laurents, with whom he had just embarked upon an affair:
Arthur made sure that I was aware of what he felt was going on between the characters, and, of course, John Dall and I discussed the subtext of our scenes together. We knew that Hitch knew what he was doing and had built sexual ambiguity into his presentation of the material. Jimmy Stewart must have known that the film was based on Leopold and Loeb, but I'm sure he felt that as far as his character was concerned, any implied sexual relationship between his students was strictly their business.
Rope posits a classic case of criminal folie a deux, with Brandon (John Dall) as the more dominant partner, but Granger is no mere pawn, and that isn’t the way he plays it. After all, it is Philip who is strangling their friend in the opening sequence, not Brandon. Sure, Philip is weak, but that is never synonymous with powerless. Instead Philip uses his weakness to go after what he wants, which is to get caught.

That desire is there in his curt “don’t” when Dall tries to switch on the light after the murder. And it’s even more apparent when amateur psychic Constance Collier, when asked how his piano concert will go, tells him “these hands will bring you great fame”--Granger’s expression is not fear, but remorse. The steadily rising hysteria of Philip’s behavior is such that he’d have to be an idiot not to know that he’s giving the game away, and Philip is no idiot. He’s working toward his goal, using the weak person’s tools of manipulation and provocation.

So Granger’s most famous moment in the movie, when James Stewart’s ex-headmaster questions Granger and his more domineering partner in crime, isn’t simply about abject fear. He’s also playing regret and self-loathing: “Who’s the cat, and who’s the mouse?” The cat, in terms of manipulating the conversation and ensuring that Stewart becomes even more suspicious, may well be Granger himself. When Granger cracks at the end and threatens Dall with a gun, he plays the action with less agitation, not more--he’s come close to his desire at last.

Strangers on a Train, made three years later, gives Granger a similar premise and character. He plays another man, Guy Haines, trying to extricate himself from a situation he was lured into, the degree of Guy’s complicity being something even Guy can’t quite work out for himself. Certainly this handsome tennis player has violence in him, as when he grabs his scheming wife in front of a store full of customers and shakes her until a manager intervenes. Unlike Philip, Guy has enough of a self-preservation instinct to pull back at the last minute, however attractive he may find Robert Walker’s offer of murder, or indeed Walker himself.

Granger has less to say in Include Me Out about the themes of Strangers, figuring perhaps that they'd been hashed out enough elsewhere. He does tell a well-known story about seeing Hitchcock slouched and unhappy in his chair, asking what was wrong, and getting the response, "Oh, I'm just bored." The creative work was already done, and the director was transferring "from paper to film," no more excited than an author retyping a manuscript. Despite Hitchcock's ennui, Granger said Strangers was the happiest set he ever worked on.

Granger’s playing of that first scene on the train is a marvel. Walker leans in, his words pleasant and flattering, as the lines of his mouth and the glitter in his eyes imply all sorts of interest in the good-looking man across the table. Granger keeps his legs crossed and his body closed off. Guy's responses to Bruno's come-ons have the polite perfunctory quality he might use for a bore droning on about Eisenhower’s budget proposals, but the intensity of Granger's eye contact with Walker suggests a response that Guy may not even be admitting to himself. Later, confronted with incontrovertible proof that Bruno meant it all, Guy's disbelief seems ever more hollow.

Dan Callahan describes Guy as “one of Hitch’s most unappealing heroes,” and the Siren has to agree, although she's got other candidates. But what does Guy do, exactly, aside from shaking his wife? He doesn’t tell Bruno to murder anybody, and when he finds that Bruno has, he tries to bring him to justice. He plays tennis, he goes to dinner, he doesn't lie to his sweetie Ruth Roman about still being technically married. He even rescues a little boy in the carousel scene.

What’s unsympathetic in Guy comes from Granger’s performance--the shifting eyes, the impatient, petulant tone, the “everything happens to me” attitude he brings to so much of what happens; and that choice shows great nerve on Granger’s part. Given a role of ambiguous morality, he increases the questions about the character, rather than trying to emphasize the good-Guy qualities.

That service to both Hitchcock’s movies probably didn’t do Granger’s potential leading-man status any favors. A big male star may show violence, ambivalence, a lack of ethics, but those things are supposed to come roaring out from manly inner demons. Playing character flaws brought out by a stronger character’s manipulation isn’t a choice likely to vault someone to a spot above the title. In 2007 Granger told critic Stephen Whitty, “I wasn't going to listen to anyone saying you can't do this, you can't do that. I didn't care about that. I was just going to go my own way." Looking back at his two most famous movies from a distance of sixty years, there's no doubt that he meant it.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

You're Much Too Modest

It is a complicated business, and we are very insecure, we actors. We all feel--and fear--we are going to be found out at any moment. Someone is going to point and say, 'You are really not very good, are you?'
--Julie Christie

The Siren, as she's often said, likes and admires actors, more perhaps than some of the profession's members like themselves. Like all artists, the good ones usually have an accurate sense of their own work. But over her years of obsessive reading, the Siren has seen cases where something throws off the radar.

Not always, of course. Katharine Hepburn rued the reception of Sylvia Scarlet but was clear-headed enough to tell people, much later, that the film was simply ahead of its time. Peter Ustinov acknowledged the reverence accorded Lola Montes, but added in Dear Me that "there were precious few signs of this destiny during filming." Joan Fontaine had a lousy time making Rebecca but has said more than once that she knows it will always be her most celebrated role. Others, like Barbara Stanwyck, were too coolly professional to run down their own work.

Now and again, though, you'll come across an actor dismissing something that was good to great. The Siren is fascinated by these instances, not from smug hindsight, but because it goes against the common perception of stars as egomaniacs. You can speculate about the reasons, beyond genuine variance in taste, why an actor might be too hard on his own work. Maybe the actor hated making the movie. Maybe the movie was a box-office bomb, and the actor figured the public and the critics at the time were the best judge. Maybe the movie didn't fit with the image the actor wanted to project. Some, like Norma Shearer, never warmed to a great film (in her case, The Women, an unhappy experience for her) and instead venerated a lesser one; Shearer was fond of her performance in Romeo and Juliet, an opinion not widely shared these days.

And sometimes the actor just had, or learned to have, contempt for the entire business.

Here's a small collection, then, of actors being more critical of themselves and their movies than the Siren, and in most cases plenty of others, would say is warranted.

According to the reference books which consider it worthwhile collating such trivia, I have made about seventy films. Glancing down the list, I find I made things like Action in Arabia, Lured, and The Scarlet Coat. I can only assume that I was paid handsomely for them, but I am at a complete loss as to what action there was in Arabia, or who was lured where, and why. As to the scarlet coat, did I wear it, and if not who did?

George Sanders, in Memoirs of a Professional Cad, shrugging off Lured, an excellent thriller from the great Douglas Sirk that features our man George at his rakish best. The other two the Siren hasn't seen. The Scarlet Coat--a drama about Benedict Arnold in which Sanders, by some dreadful misjudgment, was NOT cast as the infamous traitor--was directed by John Sturges, and the Siren is willing to bet it's better than the actor says. Action in Arabia--well, he may have us there, but look at the synopsis and tell me you're not intrigued.

The worst picture, bar none, that I ever made.

Mary Pickford's tribute to Rosita in Sunshine and Shadow. While the collaboration with Ernst Lubitsch seems to have been happy at the time, Pickford later claimed the film gave her no end of trouble. She carried a grudge against Rosita for the rest of her life, not including it in the films she later handed over for preservation. It was extremely well-reviewed, however, and Scott Eyman has good words for it in his Lubitsch bio. The Siren hasn't seen Rosita (hard to track down) but come on, it's Lubitsch. How bad can it be?

She was in the middle of complaining about what a piece of crap the film was, and how lucky Rita Hayworth was because she turned it down…

Ava Gardner encounters Farley Granger in Rome during the filming of The Barefoot Contessa, as told in Granger's Include Me Out. Gardner, bless her, had little good to say about her entire career, as can be seen in her famous interview with Rex Reed. True, not everyone feels the love for The Barefoot Contessa, but the Siren has some heavyweights on her side.

You liked that?

Bette Davis' incredulous response to Whitney Stine's praise for Beyond the Forest. Davis spent years telling everyone the picture stank. The Siren says this King Vidor is a lot better than Duel in the Sun. Molly Haskell called it Davis' "wildest and most uncompromising film;' Kim Morgan admires it, too.


In Maximilian Schell's documentary, that's Marlene Dietrich's word for most of her Hollywood work, including the glorious execution scene in Josef von Sternberg's Dishonored and, if memory serves, The Blue Angel. Whether or not Dietrich, at that point in her life, truly believed it was all mostly kitsch is an open question, but say it she did, with the full force of the German pronunciation.

Movies bore me, especially my own.

Robert Mitchum discusses his career. In contrast to Dietrich, the Siren believes Mitchum meant this, to the extent that he ever meant anything he said. Although Mitchum always did have good things to say about The Night of the Hunter. Which brings us to...

I played in the movie, which was about the battle between good and evil. Parts of the film were excellent, but it was not fully sustained because Mr. Laughton did not want to 'ruin' Robert Mitchum's image by having him a play a thoroughly wicked man. In the earlier days of films, it would have been considered a triumph to play evil convincingly.

That, along with a terse paragraph about Charles Laughton's admiration for D.W. Griffith, constitutes Lillian Gish's entire tribute to The Night of the Hunter in The Movies, Mr. Griffith and Me. She did express similar thoughts to her director during filming, but Laughton biographer Simon Callow maintains that Laughton's allusion to Mitchum's image was basically a joke. Gish's curt assessment, and weird critique of Mitchum's seductively chilling work, may have owed something to dissatisfaction with her billing. The Bad and the Beautiful: Hollywood in the Fifties quotes her agent as saying that when Gish saw the movie poster, with only Mitchum and Shelley Winters advertised, she "blew her top."

Ridiculous. I made the picture because I couldn't afford a suspension--not with a daughter, a husband and a household to support.

Maureen O'Hara's verdict on Sinbad the Sailor, maybe not a pinnacle of art but an absolutely corking movie the Siren has adored since childhood. For the record, O'Hara is delightful in it. O'Hara also disliked Forbidden Street, another one the Siren thought quite fine. This Land Is Mine gets passing reference in two sentences, neither of which mention the director. Then again, good movies that actors neglect in their memoirs could be a whole different post. E.g.…

The four pictures I made at Warner Brothers were not great pictures, but they were very good pictures and excellent entertainment. In their category I do not see their like being as well made today.
The Siren's perennial crush, Basil Rathbone, gives backhanded praise to Tovarich, Captain Blood, The Adventures of Robin Hood, and The Dawn Patrol. Those four movies, all of them lovable and three of them eternal classics, take up just under two (2) pages of Rathbone's charmingly off-topic autobiography. Rathbone allows as how Errol Flynn was "monstrously lazy and self-indulgent," albeit genial, and Olivia de Havilland was very pretty. On the other hand, you do get quite a bit about Rathbone's dogs.

For its time, Side Street was a good-looking, well-made film that was not able to rise above the banality of its story.

Farley Granger again. The Siren says Granger, a smart man, underrated this excellent Anthony Mann noir. At least Granger gave himself credit for Strangers on a Train and Senso. Another actor with the same last name was much more cutting about his own career.

I've never done a film that I'm proud of.

Stewart Granger's oft-quoted line wasn't strictly true, as he did admit liking a few roles, such as Saraband for Dead Lovers, but he never thought much of his own abilities.

I don't want to be a silly temptress. I cannot see any sense in getting dressed up and doing nothing but tempting men in pictures.

Greta Garbo. Of course. When the Siren first encountered that remark she thought Garbo kind of had a point, until she found out the star was talking about the splendid Flesh and the Devil.


Montgomery Clift's summation of his work as Matt Garth in Red River. He was no huge fan of the overall film, either, particularly the end, and on that aspect he has some critical company. But when Clift watched it in a cinema, he knew Red River would make him a star. And so, according to biographer Patricia Bosworth, Clift went on one last pre-fame drinking binge, applying himself to the task with such intensity that he wound up in a New Orleans jail.

A crock of shit.

Humphrey Bogart offers his opinion of Billy Wilder's beloved Sabrina to a reporter on set. If he ever revised that evaluation, the Siren has not located where.

I did things like Shampoo and Heaven Can Wait. I don't know what those films were about. The women I played in them were not very empowered.

Julie Christie. We can debate Heaven Can Wait--the Siren enjoys it--but surely most of us hope she's changed her mind about Shampoo.

The picture was a big hit in spite of my wooden performance. I have only kept one review during my life. It is of Dodsworth and appeared in the Detroit Free Press. 'In this picture we were privileged to see the great Samuel Goldwyn's latest discovery--all we can say about this actor? Is that he is tall, dark and not the slightest bit handsome.' It has the place of honor in my lavatory.

Thanks to William Wyler's unvarnished manner and multiple takes, David Niven hated making Dodsworth. But he's very good, better than he was as Edgar Linton in Wuthering Heights, during which shoot William Wyler made Niven equally miserable a few years later.

There was the first of several visits to Italy to act for various aspiring Fellinis and Antonionis, among them Dario Argento, in Profondo Rosso, a.k.a. Deep Red; Deep Red Hatchet Murders; Dripping Deep Red; The Hatchet Murders and (why?) The Sabre Tooth Tiger. It could be said that there is often a connection between the absence of quality in a film and the number of its aliases.

David Hemmings on one of his more famous movies, from his 2004 memoirs. The Siren adds that when Glenn Kenny encountered Hemmings in Toronto just after 9/11, the actor was not so harsh.

Well, that wasn't much.
Joan Bennett, overheard as she left a 1981 tribute screening of The Reckless Moment. Given the present-day reputation of Max Ophuls' film, and Bennett's superlative performance, this is probably the biggest jaw-dropper of the bunch. It was not an opinion Bennett reached only in crotchety old age; Brian Kellow's biography records her saying years before that The Reckless Moment was "nothing exceptional…not like The Woman in the Window or Scarlet Street." Argento fans can also take note of Kellow's observation, about Suspiria's later cult status, that "it is unlikely that Joan knew or cared."

Monday, April 16, 2012

Blanche Fury (1948)

As the restless ghost of Herbert Kalmus is the Siren's witness, the 1948 Cineguild production of Blanche Fury is one breathtakingly gorgeous Technicolor movie, even streamed on Netflix, which to the Siren's eye usually sands some details off old movies. From the first ground-level shot of horsemen riding hell-for-leather, to the last symbol-freighted moments in the house that functions as a malevolent character of its own, the Siren's eyes were begging for mercy because she didn't want to blink.

According to the not-always-trustworthy IMDB, the exteriors were lensed by Geoffrey Unsworth. The cinematographer for the interiors was Guy Green, a name sacred to all lovers of early David Lean, although the Siren knew Green's work from this period mostly in black and white. Mind you, she also loves The Light in the Piazza, which Green directed later in color; Unsworth was a great cinematographer who cut his teeth as a camera operator for movies like this one. So sure, the Siren knew this film was going to look good. But good lord, not this good. Projected in a good print, Blanche Fury could well be Gone to Earth levels of beautiful, even if the drama doesn't quite measure up to Powell and Pressburger.

And director Marc Allegret is regrettably a blank to the Siren, but based on Blanche Fury, he had formidable talent. Yes, she should have seen Fanny by now, but she hasn't; the Siren has been waiting for a chance to gobble up that trilogy in a format that does it justice. The Siren does have Marie Chapdelaine on her DVR so she's hoping to get on that forthwith.

Longtime patient readers will understand at once why the Siren pounced, as Blanche Fury ticks off all sorts of little pleasure boxes. It's what the Siren calls an Old Dark House movie, and what others have called gaslight noir, with a 19th-century setting in a stunning stately home (this thread at Britmovie offers details on the real-life house). It's based on a novel by Joseph Shearing, pen name of Marjorie Bowen, who also wrote the books behind Moss Rose and the luscious So Evil My Love. Shearing was drawn to Victorian murders, which unsettling obsession the Siren shares.

The Siren doesn't know this real-life case, but it proceeds much as you'd expect. Valerie Hobson plays Blanche, who's fallen on hard times and must make her living as a paid companion to querulous old broads who pay her peanuts and whine if they can't reach the book on their bedside table. Blanche may not be sympathetic to everyone, but the Siren was on the character's side from the moment she tells off her latest employer, Hobson's body remaining in its ramrod servant's posture as she hurls her humiliation back in the old lady's face.

So when Blanche is invited to live with her cousins at Clare House, mere minutes after the movie begins, we already know she's had enough of standing on the edge of wealth and privilege, and we also know her anger could lead her to do all sorts of things. Upon arrival, Blanche meets Philip Thorn (Stewart Granger), the estate manager, a kindred spirit because he's the illegitimate son of the dead owner, forever barred from inheriting the house and land he loves more than anything else. Standing in Philip's way are the Fullers, who've usurped the name of Fury: Walter Fitzgerald as the stiff, unfeeling father, and the late Michael Gough as his weak, cruel son. Rounding out this cozy household is Lavinia (Susanne Gibbs), the sweet-natured child Blanche is supposed to look after.

In The Great Stars, David Shipman rather acidly implies that Hobson's career owed a lot to her being married to Anthony Havelock-Allan, the producer of Blanche Fury. Be that as it may, the Siren thinks Hobson is marvelous here, moving from avarice, to lust, to still more avarice and finally to belated conscience. Shipman points out that Hobson was always the ineffable British lady; well, yes, and in this movie that has to be the case. Otherwise everyone twigs to Blanche from the beginning, instead of just Philip, who smells out the woman for the fellow predator that she is.

The men behind the camera helped give the long bones of Hobson's face a sensuality that mere prettiness can't match. And the Siren took such delight in the progression of Blanche's costumes and makeup, which surely show the care and taste that went into every aspect of this film. Black dresses at first, Blanche evidently in mourning for whoever died and left her penniless; gray half-mourning as she settles in at Clare, makeup a bit more obvious; color blazing out from her gowns and her lips when she succumbs to her lust for Philip. Then black again after the murders, Blanche's guilt turning her face, even her lips, into the marble of a tombstone. When she's in the witness box preparing to send Philip to his doom, the costumer (Sophie Devine) has edged the mourning dress with beading, as if to signal that a deadly Fury still has allure.

The Siren has defended Granger before, and will do so again. Nobody did seething resentment quite like this actor, and all his best roles (Saraband for Dead Lovers, Moonfleet, the fantastic Scaramouche, to name just three of the Siren's favorites) use that ability. He was so handsome, and so fiercely, dangerously sexy on screen, that he could coax a decent love scene of just about anybody. ("I'm a very good actor," he once said, with the sarcasm he often showed when asked about his long string of romantic melodramas. "I played all those love scenes with Phyllis Calvert, and we didn't like each other very much.") Alas, the Siren must place part of the responsibility for the things that don't work in Blanche Fury on Granger's shoulders, along with the screenwriters. Granger is all the Siren desired (and then some) early on, so attractive that he asks for a drink at the pub and you already know he's slept with the barmaid. But a late scene, where Philip's ruthless yen for mastery of Clare Hall has completely taken over his personality, plays as stock villainy of the worst kind, and Hobson's performance becomes cliched too: "Philip…you're mad." Not much better is a scene where we're supposed to question whether Philip is crazy enough to lure poor Lavinia, Bonnie Blue Butler style, to her doom. Granger recovers his savoir-seethe in the courtroom scenes, but the transition remains a bit abrupt.

But--did the Siren mention how incredible-looking this movie is? Let's just tick off a few high points.

1. Opening and closing scenes in Blanche's bedroom, as she drifts in and out of consciousness, including a final shot that was visually and thematically perfect.

2. Blanche's carriage rolling over the snowy road, a composition so stark it resembles black-and-white in color.

3. The firelit interior of the house's parlor, the warmth and luxury seducing Blanche, while the shadows in the room give us a warning she's too greedy to heed.

4. The swell of Blanche's chest under her dramatic, blood-red dress when she lies on the couch in Philip's room.

5. The austere light and atmosphere of courtroom scenes, aided by all that bewigged paraphernalia you get with British trials, the one jolt of color being the judge's red robe.

6. The hulking, dark-hued shots of the house, a motif maintained almost to the end. The details of the exterior are doled out in bits and pieces, and the camera shows you Clare's whole length and breadth only in silhouette. Then you finally get a spectacular long shot of the whole house gleaming in the sun--and you instantly realize that this sinister place is preening for its final triumph.

Blanche Fury can also be watched on Youtube at the moment if you so desire.

(By the way, the great Sheila O'Malley has a doozy of a post on The More the Merrier. You should read it.)

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

A Conversation with Whit Stillman: "She's Like a Perfume Herself"

For Joan's Digest, the new online feminist film quarterly founded by Miriam Bale, the Siren recently found herself interviewing director Whit Stillman, whose Damsels in Distress opens Friday, April 6. Miriam is known around cinephile circles as a curator and critic for the L Magazine, among many other hats. She knew that the Siren is a longtime Stillman devotee, having fallen in love with Metropolitan at an impressionable age and followed him through Barcelona and The Last Days of Disco, and so Miriam arranged this meeting.

About three years ago, Dennis Cozzalio asked his readers which "living film director you most miss seeing on the cultural landscape regularly." Stillman's name was cited by at least a half-dozen of the hardcore cinephiles answering the quiz. Fourteen years have passed since The Last Days of Disco was released and (quite unjustly) failed to make back its money, a hiatus that's always mentioned whenever Stillman's name comes up. The Siren resolutely didn't ask him about that, on the grounds that he's discussed it in many other places, is no doubt heartily tired of the topic and at this point must have little to add to the sum of public knowledge about it.

Plus, to be honest, after seeing Damsels in Distress, the Siren had what she considered much better things to ask him about--like perfume, like Fred Astaire, like musicals. Damsels evokes all sorts of classic-film tropes, while maintaining its own surreal form of modernity.

The Siren thinks Stillman will strike most of her patient readers as a man after their own hearts, and as evidence she offers the following snippet from their conversation. For the rest of Stillman's musings on topics including who was Fred Astaire's best director and how Jean Brodie was ill-used, as well as why Stillman mimed putting a gun to his head when the Siren brought up A Damsel in Distress, you must click through to the article at Joan's.

Whit Stillman: ...The other thing I really love is from the Gold Diggers of 1935, and it's the original version of “Lullaby of Broadway.” It's just mind-boggling. And one of the things I'd like to do is The Gold Diggers of 2015. A Warner Brothers musical review set in the present day.

Joan's Digest: Oh yeah? Would you do wisecracking showgirls?

Whit Stillman: Of course, of course. You don't want any modern. There will be no punk rock.

JD: Wisecracking showgirls are one of my favorite things.

Whit Stillman: Well, I remember when we were getting a lot of grief for our talky films not being cinematic. And I remember favorite films, like Stage Door. And Stage Door is wall-to-wall dialogue.

JD: A lot of 30s movies are. So we have Sandrich, La Cava with Stage Door, probably My Man Godfrey too? Are there any other touchstones you go back to?

Whit Stillman: My Man Godfrey is actually not one of my favorites.

JD: Oh my god really? I love it. I'm so sorry.

Whit Stillman: No, I love the actors. I think they are better than the material. The material is a little subpar compared to other things. I wrote something in the Times in November about favorite holiday films, and I wrote about The Shop Around the Corner. I adore Margaret Sullavan, I like The Good Fairy also. There's so many films, even Three Comrades.

JD: Oh yeah. Margaret Sullavan is very big with the commenters on my blog.

Whit Stillman: Oh my gosh, she's so lovely. She's like a perfume herself.

JD: That voice.

Whit Stillman: Oh, the voice.

Ruggles of Red Gap (1935)

For the quite marvelous film site MUBI, home of my friend David Cairns' fabulous column The Forgotten, the Siren has written up the far-from-forgotten Ruggles of Red Gap. Because it's starting a one-week run at Manhattan's Film Forum, and because she loves it dearly. An excerpt:

The film assembles the kind of sterling character actors that we cinecrophiles grieve over on long winter evenings. McCarey, directing the legendarily difficult [Charles] Laughton, doesn't stint on the supporting players to favor his star; the film includes a lot of master shots that keep everybody in frame and in mind. Roland Young, so starchy at first that his shirts could walk off under their own power, may take the prize, as he learns the joys of egalitarianism via luscious blonde Leila Hyams. Mary Boland's Effie Floud, while clearly a climber, can still make you sympathize with what she has to cope with, such as an argument over her husband's hideous taste that ends with her calling him a "striped bass." And Charles Ruggles has some of his best moments gussied up in a morning coat and trying to get his valet drunk: "Come on over here, I want ya to meet somebody," he bellows down a Paris sidewalk, oblivious to snooty French stares and the fact that his own servant is trying to pretend he doesn't know him.

Ah yes, that Laughton drunk scene. Here's a foolproof way to judge an actor's fundamental competence: If he emphasizes the drunkenness, he's hopeless. A person who's truly lit, no matter whether the scene is tragic or comic, is fighting his state every step of the way. Laughton, of course, was far more than competent, and what makes his drunk act paralyzingly funny is that Ruggles isn't even admitting to himself that he's plastered. As he refuses to precede Floud into a carriage, Ruggles has the same old ramrod stance—but the face shows a hint of toddler-like glee, perhaps some inner mockery he could never show when sober. Yet the valet still tries to bring some dignity to each stage of the binge, finally posing on a carousel horse like an overdressed Cupid.

Read the whole thing here.

Sunday, April 01, 2012

The Dark Knight (2008)

Last week, while rewatching The Third Man, the Siren was immediately struck by the thematic and visual consonance between Carol Reed's masterpiece and this great neo-noir.

Specifically, the use of the urban environment in the cinematography, with modern-day Gotham City hearkening back to the ruins of post-war Vienna, and the magnetic Joker as the doppelganger for the amoral but not uncharming Harry Lime.

Oh god. Just kidding.

The Siren couldn't keep that up if she tried.

Real post tomorrow.