Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Auteurs Gone Wild: A Look at the Series at Anthology Film Archives

Recently, over breakfast at their favorite neighborhood joint, the Siren’s close personal friend Glenn Kenny twitted her gently about that time in the very recent past when she made a crack about auteurism. The Siren thought about it and told him, “You know how people talk about à la carte Catholics? I’m an à la carte auteurist.”

In other words, the Siren has some problems with the rock-ribbed Cahiers-carrying version of auteurism. But let’s face it, the Siren also has pets.

And Anthology Film Archives, via programmer David Phelps, has done an uncanny job of selecting eight of her favorite directors for the now-playing series “Auteurs Gone Wild.” The premise is simple and delightful: A look at those times when genius took a left turn at Albuquerque and wound up making something that doesn’t fit neatly with the other work. The schedule is here, it's all on 35mm, several are not on DVD, and any Siren readers in the New York area should definitely try to catch a few.

The Siren wrote up You and Me a while back, and it’s enchanting. There’s a particularly good analysis of The Bitter Tea of General Yen in Dan Callahan’s Barbara Stanwyck book, and the Siren recommends it. (Victoria Wilson, in volume I of the monumental Stanwyck bio that You Should Be Reading, doesn’t seem to like Bitter Tea all that much, but she gives an excellent rundown on its making and reception.) The Siren doesn’t have a lot to say about A Countess From Hong Kong; it’s often amusing, even sweet, but it’s hard to get over the casting. (Did Sophia Loren and Marlon Brando ever look more sulky?) The Siren wants to get reacquainted with A Woman of Paris, the other Charlie Chaplin film in which he did not star, and she also hopes to see The Saga of Anatahan, Josef von Sternberg’s Japanese-made swan song.

At Mubi's Movie Poster of the Week, Adrian Curry celebrates the series with ravishing posters for all the films. Meanwhile, some thoughts on the others.

The Siren was surprised to find herself heartily disliking Under Capricorn, which Hitchcock made in in London in 1949. The plot concerns a carefree young man (Michael Wilding, a little too lightweight) who goes to colonial Australia to seek his fortune. He finds childhood love Henrietta (Ingrid Bergman) has also moved there after marrying several rungs down the social ladder, and that her sole recreation in this remote location is drinking herself into insanity. The husband is former groom Sam Flusky, played by Joseph Cotten as the most grating, self-pitying nudnik in all of Hitchcock. (Hitchcock said Burt Lancaster would have been better, but the character’s beyond even Lancaster’s redemptive charm.) Hovering around to add to Henrietta's peril is Margaret Leighton as the sinister maid. Made just after The Paradine Case and Rope, Under Capricorn shares those films’ obsessively intricate takes, although the biggest plus here comes from genius Jack Cardiff’s Technicolor. Formalists tend to worship Under Capricorn, and this is one gorgeous film. The confession scene with Ingrid Bergman unfolds in an eight-minute take that seems to make the camera itself an instrument of her isolation and breakdown.

So yes, Under Capricorn looks good. It plays, however, as po-faced and rancid, a romantic melodrama about love with an emotionally abusive spouse — Gaslight, if she tried to work things out with Charles Boyer. Hitchcock later admitted he had little affinity for the material; Cardiff said the long-take process led to a fatal “loss of tempo” for both the actors and the film. Both men knew what they were talking about. The Siren continues to prefer Rope and The Paradine Case (now there’s a Hitchcock whose fans get mighty lonely). But a rare 35mm screening is the ideal place to see for yourself.

Edward, My Son
 is somewhat marred by a (possibly Production Code-mandated) framing device that has an aged Spencer Tracy shuffling up to the camera to ask for a moral judgment from the audience. He plays Arnold Boult, a man whose obsession with an easy life for his only child turned his son into a monster. Or did it? Edward is never seen on camera, a device that Donald Ogden Stewart’s script carries over from the play by Robert Morley and Noel Langley. The effect turns Edward into the picture of Dorian Gray: a reflection of the main character’s gradual corruption. Leaving Edward out of sight leaves the audience to decide whether Boult truly ruined his son, or whether the child was always doomed to inherit the father’s worst qualities. After all, as Edward’s upstanding mother Evelyn (Deborah Kerr) points out in her most emotional scene, many people spoil their children, without the kid turning into a liar, a thief and a bully. Even Edward’s evident alcoholism may be genetics at work, since Evelyn herself turns to drink as Boult's deeds get darker.

George Cukor’s biographer, Patrick McGilligan, labels this one “an ambitious dud,” but the Siren thinks it’s full of great twists and question marks; Tracy never lets you see Boult as a complete villain. Leueen MacGrath, a gorgeous and multitalented woman who was married to George S. Kaufman, is superb as Boult's secretary/mistress, moving from cool calculation to heartbreak. Kerr is excellent early on, but MGM goes crazy with the old-age makeup later in the film, when logic suggests her character is still south of 50, but some smartass added a dowager’s hump. Still, Cukor offers Kerr a haunting fadeout. The camera focuses on Tracy and devoted family doctor Ian Hunter, while a drunk and heartbroken Kerr climbs the steps of her mansion, moving out of the frame for what we know will be the last time.

And in terms of technique, the Siren thought this was the most intriguing film of all, a play that never feels stagey. Cukor uses massively long takes, with sly changes in angle and slow, elegant camera moves that smoothly shift your attention within the frame. It’s one of his most ineffably subtle films.

Henry Hathaway's The Sons of Katie Elder is a Siren favorite. He directed Lives of a Bengal Lancer, which Ben Urwand has been so diligently reintroducing to the public, and Hathaway made a string of great noirs in the 1940s. Peter Ibbetson is definitely none of the above. It’s a dreamy romantic fantasy rather like Smilin’ Through, only considerably darker and with a leading lady — Ann Harding — far more nuanced than Norma Shearer. The title role is played by Gary Cooper. He’s a young man whose childhood sweetheart Mary (Harding) has married a much-older duke (John Halliday in full glower). The duke discovers their love, tries to shoot Peter and winds up dead himself. Peter is sent to prison, but his love for Mary is so powerful that they are able to meet in their dreams, acting out the love that was thwarted in life.

David Shipman says this film did not fare well at the 1935 box office. It’s a delicate conceit that strikes some, like Nick Pinkerton, as positively sappy. Well, the Siren, perverse mortal that she is, adores this movie. The lovers’ connection is entirely spiritual; there’s not the slightest hint that their dreams find them doing anything more carnal than romping through meadows together. Peter was born in France and raised in England; Cooper does great work without the slightest alteration in his sandy Montana voice. The screenplay (based on George DuMaurier’s novel) is utterly, at times painfully sincere. But there are few films more committed to the notion of soul-deep love than this one. Charles Lang’s cinematography, full of light-shafts and dreamy mists, will thrill anyone who loved the Criterion Blu-Ray of The Uninvited. He and Hathaway create a black-and-white world that seems supernatural well before it gives way to the lovers’ dreams. The first section, with Dickie Moore and Virginia Weidler playing the lovers as children, is heartrending. Yes, Virginia Weidler; the Siren shall snub her no more.

“One of his worst films,” is how Scott Eyman describes Broken Lullaby in his biography of Ernst Lubitsch. The Siren recommends Eyman’s book, but she doesn’t agree about the haunting Broken Lullaby at all. It’s far from Lubitsch’s most incongruous movie; the Siren would give that honor to Loves of Pharaoh. But it’s definitely an anomaly, with an opening that evokes nothing so much as All Quiet on the Western Front. Phillips Holmes plays Paul, a former French soldier racked with guilt over killing a German boy, Walter Hoderlin, in the trenches. (Like Lew Ayres and Jimmy Butler of No Greater Glory, life had some grim ironies in store for Holmes.) Paul mails the German’s last letter home, then goes to Walter's home town in search of what we moderns would call “closure.” Herr Hoderlin, a kindly old doctor played by Lionel Barrymore, feels bitterness toward the French; Walter's mother (Louise Carter) and fiancee (Nancy Carroll) are still numb with grief. Paul finds himself embraced by the family, and must decide whether to tell them the truth.

It’s based on a play and marks Lubitsch’s first collaboration with Samson Raphaelson, although Broken Lullaby was shot after The Smiling Lieutenant. ("It came out just as morbid and unattractive as I thought it would," was Raphaelson's review.) Bad box office led a desperate Paramount to change the title, post-release, to Broken Lullaby from the original The Man I Killed, babies presumably being an easier sell than corpses. (The Siren likes the original title much better, with its echo of Thomas Hardy’s poem.) The ending can be seen as equivocal, although the Siren points out that Lubitsch is not known for his punitive attitude toward his characters. One shot hooked the Siren. Walter's mother is at his grave, and there are any number of possible ways to film that: the flowers on the grave, the earth, the headstone, the back of the actress’ head. Lubitsch moves in on the mother’s hands unsnapping the clasp of her pocketbook, so close we can see that virtually all it contains is a handkerchief.


So, should this series meet with enough success to get a sequel, what offbeat films would the Siren's patient readers suggest? Her own nomination would be Otto Preminger's charming Centennial Summer, because the last thing she expected Otto to do was remind her of Meet Me in St. Louis.


Casey said...

The series sounds fascinating. Unfortunately, I'm in LA, so I'll miss it all. But it can be interesting to look at a director's missteps. Not much good to say about Countess from Hong Kong, but I think Under Capricorn says a lot about Hitchcock. The Shining doesn't rank with Kubrick's best, but it still has some remarkable stuff in it. I think Peeping Tom is Powell's least successful work as a filmmaker, but one of his most interesting works as an artist. I think it can be good thing for a director to step out of their comfort zone, even if the end result isn't a masterpiece.

Vanwall said...

Missed steps and mis-casting to a degree on all of them, perhaps less the directors than the scripting, or the management. Interesting to see them all in one basket.

barrylane said...

I believe you are proving that 'auteur' has no meaning except, on those occasions, sitting in the park, when you rail at injustice and redefine 'art.'

Peter Nellhaus said...

It's been a while since I saw Peter Ibbetson, but I do remember liking it, even though it's unlike everything else I've seen by Hathaway. I should some day see Anatahan again, now that I have seen the better part of von Sternberg's work.

An auteur gone wild? Maybe, maybe, maybe Robert Aldrich and The Killing of Sister George.

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gmoke said...

I suggest for the next series Francis Ford Coppola's "You're a Big Boy Now" starring the late Peter Kastner, a sweet guy whom I knew after his acting career was over and he was teaching high school in Cambridge MA. It's different from anything else Coppola ever did.

Skimpole said...

I'd suggest "Murder on the Orient Express." Sidney Lumet adds a touch of Lubitsch. I've never seen "One From the Heart" either.

The Siren said...

Casey, Peeping Tom would have fit nicely with this series, or possibly They're a Weird Mob, which NOBODY I know has seen. (Anybody out there?) I read that novel years ago when I was dating an Australian and he told me that book is to Oz what Confederacy of Dunces is to New Orleans.

Vanwall, the last 3 I really like a lot. Sometimes a slightly flawed movie is more interesting to discuss than a masterpiece. Edward My Son is definitely like that; completely fascinating despite some torn seams.

Barrylane, I like to think of this whole blog as the equivalent of me sitting on a park bench railing to passersby. When I started it, I remarked that it would keep me from accosting people in video stores, those things still being in existence nine years ago.

Peter Ibbetson is unbelievably left-field for Hathaway and as I've never read much about his life, I have no idea how he got hooked up with the project. It's a natural for Borzage but I like it the way it is. I haven't seen Sister George and I should!

Irene, I saw Phillips Holmes in HER MAN not too long ago and he was a whole different kettle of fish, playing a rough-and-tumble sailor and not bad at all. It just struck me that it was ironic he was killed in a WWII training exercise after starring in such a stark antiwar film, and poor Jimmy Butler was KIA. Ayres of course served as an ambulance driver but the way his conscientious objector status affected his life was also a sad, strange thing.

The Siren said...

Gmoke, that's an excellent one. I hope Kastner turned out well and happy as a teacher.

Skimpole, Murder on the Orient Express is so much fun. When I saw it as a kid I daydreamed for months afterward about being stuck in a snowdrift on a luxury train.

Casey said...

Thanks for recommending They're a Weird Mob, Siren. I had never heard of it. So I went to IMDB and read the user comments. First, I think all the comments were from Australians. Second, they all loved it. It's also interesting that many of them see the film as a time capsule that captures all the best aspects of Australia in the sixties. Now I'm dying to see it.

Kathleen Geier said...

I'd suggest John Ford's Wee Willie Winkie, for which I have the Siren to thank for getting me to watch. Also another great Siren pick: David Lean's Madeleine.

The Siren said...

La Faustin, Raft is unexpectedly lovable in You & Me.

Casey, I just got an email from someone who has seen it too and loves it; apparently very detailed about manual labor.

Kathleen, isn't Madeleine a weirdly feminist delight?

Peter Nellhaus said...

I did see They're a Weird Mob on an imported DVD a while back. For a comedy about a people and a country, I'll take Preston Sturges' The French they are a Funny Race.

gmoke said...

Here's an example of Peter Kastner teaching:

Skimpole said...

"Lucky Lady," "Saturn 3" and "Blame it on Rio" are certainly different Donen films. I'm just not sure anyone would actually want to watch them. "Quintet" seems so strange I'm actually curious to see it. And also, on a lower level of enthusiasm, is "Pirates." But one film I can recommend is "The Adventures of Goopy and Bagha" from Satyajit Ray.

yojimboen said...

Walk, don’t run to see They’re a Weird Mob; I think it started out in life as a travelogue and somehow tripped and fell into a narrative feature genre. I got it down off the shelf and sped through it to refresh the memory. Oops. Granted it’s technically competent, professionally shot (think medium-budget industrial film), but it doesn’t miss a single Aussie cliché – not one – and the humor is cringe-worthy from frame one till The End; which is very surprising given that Pressburger is credited as co-writer. The only good thing that can be said about it is Powell got to do Age of Consent after it – this movie would indeed have been a terribly sad swansong.

The Siren said...

These are all great suggestions (never seen The French They Are a Funny Race) but I'm with Skimpole, Blame It on Rio would be a thin tribute to the great Donen.

Yojimboen, what I didn't admit above was that I didn't really get the novel all that much, which at the time I attributed to not being Australian. Someone emailed me offline to say he's seen it and that the detailed depiction of manual labor was very interesting. I'm not exactly sold.

On the other hand, another friend emailed about how much she liked The Man I Killed so My Work Is Done, folks. One thing I liked about Peter Ibbetson was the way the script/film dealt with his life sentence for an obvious case of self defense: Cut from Cooper in milady's bedroom trying to figure out what just happened ... to Coop in jail getting beat up by the screws. Then a flashback to a distressed Harding testifying to no avail. When your plot development makes no sense, just dispense with all formalities and present it to the audience as a fait accompli.

yojimboen said...

The now and forever delight of The French They Are a Funny Race… has less to do with the film than with the story behind the title.

Les Carnets du Major Thompson (the original French title) is atypically Sturges: very uneven – gut-bustingly funny in parts… in others, not so much. It isn’t really helped by the presence of Jack Buchanan (for those unfamiliar with him, imagine if you will Jack Buchanan essentially played himself in The Bandwagon [he did] and you get the idea), but Martine Carole was at her gorgeous peak.

The film languished for a couple of years before being acquired for US distribution in 1957. The French title obviously wouldn’t fly in the US so they asked Sturges what he wanted to call it; hence The French They Are a Funny Race… and hence the most famous H’Wood in-joke ever. The distributor had no inkling about the phrase of the title, but anyone who’d spent any time in Europe around 1914-18 (including a million or so Yankee Doughboys) knew at the time, that France was uniquely famous for two things, fellatio and Savate [French kick-boxing] which gave rise to the adorable couplet:

“The French they are a funny race,
They fight with their feet and fuck with their face.”

The first time I heard that story I wept with joy. Despite the monstrous tragedies of his career, yes, mostly self-inflicted, Preston Sturges did - finally - laugh last.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Peter Ibbetson was greatly admired by the surrealists for obvious reasons. it's unlike anything Hathaway ever did. So much so one suspects another party deserves auteur credit much in the way the production designer on Blade Runner is far more important than Ridley Scott.

One From the Heart is a grievously neglected gem. You're a Big Boy Now is very 60's with Elizabeth Hartman's character obviously inspired by Edie Sedgwick.

The Saga of Anatahan is a must for anyone who cares about Sternberg. It's deliciously weird.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Stanley Donen is making a comeback!

His girlfriend Elaine May has written a script about the making of a movie and she's determined that it will be made by him.

Elaine usually gets her way.

Beth Ann Gallagher said...

I agree with you about The Loves of Pharaoh! It was the only film of his I've seen so far that I did not at least like. That makes it his worst film for me, too. So heavy handed a film for someone who would show such a light touch later.