Summertime (UK-US, 1955)

When the living is uneasy

The opening scenes of this melodrama look like a travelogue graced by Jack Hildyard’s gorgeous Technicolor cinematography. I guess tourism was becoming more popular in the post-War era and the shots of Venice would no doubt have tempted many to visit. All these scenes lack is a complacent voice over selling us the place’s charms in a twee way. Fortunately the film stars Katharine Hepburn.

The slight ‘holiday romance’ story was adapted, from Arthur Laurent’s play, by director David Lean and H.E. Bates (and the uncredited Donald Ogden Stewart). Hepburn’s ‘independent woman’ persona is to the fore at the start as she’s touring on her own but finds the ‘romance’ of Venice casts her loneliness into the foreground: cue Rossano Brazzi’s Italian charmer, Renato di Rossi. What makes the film distinctive is the way Jane Hudson’s (Hepburn) loneliness is portrayed as it isn’t just something that is presented as a ‘narrative lack’ to be fulfilled ‘happily ever after’ at the film’s conclusion. There’s real pathos in Hepburn’s performance as she hesitates to go for the ‘holiday fling’. Her ‘middle aged spinster’ characterisation takes up a fair proportion of the film and the scriptwriters don’t compromise with their ending.

In a striking scene, when di Rossi first sees Hudson we get that rare beast: the male gaze directed at an ‘older’ woman (Hepburn was 48 at the time). We see him appreciatively look at her body, particularly her exposed calf. Even the ‘cute’ kid isn’t too irritating though Lean’s tendency to shoot a lot of the conversations in long takes and an immobile character tends to drain the drama. However, the numerous shots of Hudson wandering around a crowded Venice are skilfully executed.

Apparently the adultery fell foul of the Production Code and scenes were cut: the film leaves us with a firework display. Hepburn received one of her numerous Oscar nominations; Lean, too, was nominated.

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Puzzle (US, 2018)

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A puzzle as why Kelly MacDonald isn’t a bigger star

I had my doubts as to where this melodrama was going near the start of the film. I wasn’t fussed by the unusual milieux (jigsaw puzzle contests) just worried I’d seen it all before: mousy, downtrodden woman finds her voice. It’s not that that’s not an important narrative arc but it is well weathered so needs freshening up and this remake of the Argentinean Rompecabezas (2009) does just that.

Even if it hadn’t the performances are enough to make the film worthwhile. MacDonald is sensational as Agnes and Irrfan Khan’s charisma carries him a long way. David Denman, as Louie Agnes’ husband, is also very good and his character never becomes a simple sign of patriarchal repression. Cinematography (Christopher Norr) is great too: light floods into Agnes’ home which, nevertheless, remains gloomy. The film is about a darkness of the American Dream.

Spoilers ahead: but what makes the film stand out is Agnes who doesn’t take long to develop into an independent woman. Instead of a slow burn of realisation she gets it quickly and acts accordingly. MacDonald’s brilliance is that she convinces us of the fairly rapid transformation.

Superbly made, director Marc Turtletaub produced Little Miss Sunshine (US, 2009), this made me almost want to do a jigsaw.

BlacKkKlansman (US, 2018)

Emotional truth

Spike Lee’s brilliant return to form has been criticised for not being true to the facts. Although it is based on Ron Stallworth’s memoir of infiltrating the KKK, most of the film is fiction. Anything that’s ‘based on a true story’ is unlikely to be trying to be a documentary so assuming the film must be entirely based on actuality is nonsense. That said, if it hadn’t been based on a true story, black cop infiltrates the KKK but needs a white cop to appear in his stead, the central premise would seem ridiculous. As it is, we get a slightly surreal situation entirely in keeping with the stupidity of racists, even though Jasper Pääkkönen’s portrayal as the demented Felix is slightly too ‘swivel-eyed’. However, it must be remembered that ‘going over-the-top’ is how Lee often works as he is a melodramatist at heart.

Lee’s also a political filmmaker with his focus on racist America and his Do the Right Thing is rightly lauded as a classic on this topic. Melodrama and politics are somewhat antithetical as the former couches its narrative in terms of individuals whilst the latter requires analysis of society. Lee overcomes this, to a degree, with Brechtian devices, where he draws attention to the fact that we are watching a film in order to get us thinking. For example, in BlacKkKlansman a discussion of blaxploitation films of the time (it’s set in the early ’70s) is illustrated with split screen film posters: the ‘fourth wall’ is clearly broken. More powerfully the film ends with footage from Charlottesville, August 2017, and Trump’s disgraceful excuses for the fascists: there’s no doubt what Lee is saying about now.

Spoiler alert: Jack Lowe’s critique that the film whitewashes the police force makes some good points. The scene where the overtly racist cop is arrested contradicts Flip’s (the Jewish cop who was Stallworth’s proxy) statement earlier in the film that the police are ‘family’ and so even tolerate racists in their ranks. Both the chief of police and Stallworth’s sergeant come across as too liberal particularly as Stallworth was the first black cop in Colorado Springs; the conventions of portrayals of the time, from a liberal perspective, would suggest that Stallworth would have had a much harder time. The arrest of the racist cop is so unbelievable that maybe that was Lee’s point and the seemingly happy resolution is a fantasy. Lee saves his trademark ‘double-dolly’, a shot where characters ride on the camera and are moved without walking, for the final scene when Stallworth, and his black activist girlfriend, move forward in tandem, guns drawn, as a KKK cross burns in the distance. This shot signifies that the characters are not in control of events and so further undermines the happy ending. That this is followed by the Charlottesville montage is further evidence of this.

Lee proselytises through Kwame Ture’s (aka Stokely Carmichael) rousing speech and Harry Belafonte’s cameo, discussing ‘old time’ racism with youngsters. These are powerful scenes. In addition, whilst at film school (New York University) Lee almost didn’t get to complete his studies as some in the faculty objected to his short ‘The Answer’ where he emphasised that the ‘classic’ The Birth of a Nation (1915) is a racist film. His professors (as did mine) merely used it to demonstrate innovative film craft rather than a disgraceful recruiting tool for the KKK. Lee incorporates footage of the film where, in different places, both the activists and the KKK watch the film with predictably different reactions.

It’s gratifying to see BlacKkKlansman do good business at the box office, Lee won the Grand Prix at Cannes for the film, and kudos to Jordan Peele (of the brilliant Get Out) for suggesting Lee make the film and for Blumhouse Productions for producing.

Hombre (US 1966)

Soulful eyes

Hombre is a revisionist western where the ‘savage Indian’ is shown to actually have been the victims of rapacious white men. I was slightly worried at the start of the film where we see Paul Newman as an Apache (above) but we find he was merely adopted by the Native Americans and it’s not a case of ‘whitewash’ casting. The ‘good but indecisive’ Mexican stereotype, however, is embodied by Martin Balsam; we shouldn’t go too far in condemning racist conventions of the time (though we can condemn the practice now – see Emma Stone in Aloha, 2015, and others) particularly in a film that is trying to be progressive. It should be noted, however, that there are no speaking parts for Native Americans; as is often the case with liberalism, ‘white man speak for all’!

The narrative is driven by Richard Boone’s brilliant bad guy chasing down a disparate group on a stagecoach who defer to ‘hombre’s’ (Newman) expertise in survival. Blessed by James Wong Howe’s widescreen cinematography (the western landscape looks tough), and Martin Ritt’s (the sixth and final film he made with Newman) careful compositions, the film’s modernity stands up well 50 years later, not least in the ending. It presaged ‘New Hollywood’ – heralded by Easy Rider – by a couple of years but probably would sit comfortably alongside Little Big Man (‘probably’ because I haven’t seen it for a long time). According to Wikipedia (citing Variety – behind a paywall) Hombre took $6.5m in rentals at the domestic box office, it was the 14th top film of the year, though well behind Bonnie and Clyde, another movie that showed the type of films made by the Hollywood studio system were about to be consigned to the past.

One link to the past, in the film, is the casting of Frederic March, one of Hollywood’s heart-throbs of the 1930s. Diane Cilento, an Australian who spent most of her career in Britain, is excellent as a ‘moral conscience’ despite her admission that, even though she is unmarried, she shares her bed with the local sheriff. It was unusual for such a ‘loose woman’ to be presented as such; she’s not a victim like many ‘tarts with a heart’ played by, for example, Claire Trevor in Stagecoach. I liked the line when she is – for purely practical reasons – trying to persuade the sheriff to marry her: “I don’t say ‘no’ when you wake me up in the middle of the night”. She’s rebuffed but she’s not bothered; the character is a strikingly modern woman for the time (sexual emancipation in the 1960s framed women as sexual active at the service of men). The screenplay’s based on Elmore Leonard’s novel so sparkling dialogue is to be expected.

The film was produced by Hombre Productions; presumably created to produce this one film. It was distributed by 20th Century Fox.

The Sound of Fury (aka Try and Get Me!, US, 1950)

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Katherine Locke as the ‘wallflower’

Blimey!

In my trawl through films noir I haven’t seen The Sound of Fury is a real find. A short Internet search shows me that it is (relatively) well known but there doesn’t seem to be a video copy available (I saw it on FilmFour).

It’s based on Joe Pagano’s novel (and adapted by him) The Condemned which was derived from real events that happened in San Jose in 1933. The film starts off following family man Howard (Frank Lovejoy) who is desperate for work. He falls in with ‘wide boy’ Jerry (played with demented vigour by Lloyd Bridges) who leads him off the ‘straight and narrow’. Some of the early scenes have a documentary feel emphasising that Frank’s predicament was experienced (and still is) by many; even though he is a good guy trying to provide (this was the patriarchal ‘50s) for his wife and kid, society gives him nothing. As things spiral out of control director, Cyril Endfield goes expressionist as guilt, booze and the attentions of a desperate ‘wallflower’ (Hazel) send him over the edge.

Hazel’s played by Katherine Locke who was better known as a stage actor; here she is simply sensational. I mentioned a few posts back the impact Claire Trevor made in a small role in Dead End; Locke is even better. She conveys the desperation of a woman who feels her looks are fading and her chance of ‘love and romance’ hang by a thread. She manages to convey her fears and hopes in her facial expressions with dazzling speed as she tries to believe that Frank (who is only with her for an alibi) might be the ‘one’.

The climax of the film is truly terrifying and brilliantly staged by Endfield who is better known as Cy Endfield the director of Hell Drivers (UK, 1957) and Zulu (UK, 1964). He was blacklisted by HUAC, directed under a pseudonym for a number of years and moved to Britain. The mob scene at the end has a newsreel quality that makes it even more effective. It’s rare to see a film that mixes so many visual styles and it works brilliantly.

Truly terrifying

The only false note the film strikes is through the character of a visiting lecturer who mouths the social message. However, maybe Pagano was right that the audience for the film at the time needed to be explicitly told that mob rule is wrong. Richard Carlson plays the newspaper man guilty of whipping up the violent fervour and he does well even though the role is slightly underwritten; his sensationalism could have been made clearer.

That said, The Sound of Fury is a great film. Fritz Lang’s 1936 Fury was based on the same events and it would be interesting to compare them. I haven’t seen the Lang for nearly 40 years; I doubt it’s better than this. Further reading here.

Salomé (US, 1922)

Fabulous costume and set design

It’s not often that you get a chance to see a silent film with live accompaniment; Salomé, with Circuit des Yeux, was screened in Leeds and London in the UK. In notes given out at the screening, Haley Fohr (who is Circuit des Yeux) asks that we:

‘re-contextualize [the film] in a new kind of satire… When I see Salomé’s need for John the Baptist I see a woman’s need to be heard, not desired.’

The score certainly did ‘re-contextualize’ as its modernity clashed, dialectically not in opposition, with the images to both heighten the drama and offer a 21st century frame to view the nearly one hundred year old text. However, I didn’t find Fohr’s reading of Salomé convincing and, disastrously, the protagonist was literally silenced because the intertitles were omitted; Fohr explains this is ‘perhaps… a bold choice’. The effect was to break the spell of the film every time the screen went blank where the intertitles would have been! It wasn’t difficult to follow the story but the immersive effect of cinema was entirely lost. Not a ‘bold choice’ but a stupid one.

My experience of the film was therefore fragmentary but it’s certainly an interesting production; apparently the major studios wouldn’t touch it and it wasn’t released until 1924 when it flopped. As one of the first American art films that wasn’t surprising. Salomé is played by Russian emigre Alla Nazimova who was the driving force behind the film, an adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s play. It uses Aubrey Beardsley’s original drawings as the basis for the costumes which were ‘brought to life’ by Natacha Rambova (an American who was married to Valentino for a time). Charles Van Enger’s cinematography looks fabulous in a pretty good print; he worked with Lubitsch at Warners and his career lasted into the 1990s. The ‘dance of the seven veils’ was more of a convulsion and has nothing of the eroticism of Debra Paget in The Indian Tomb (1959). Disconcertingly Louis Dumar, playing someone with whom Herod’s wife flirts, looks like David Cameron, complete with supercilious grin; further evidence, if it were needed, that it was difficult to concentrate on the fragmentary film.

Fohr’s score might best be described as jazz with minimalist episodes. Her terrific vocals have an eastern vibe and, as noted above, add much to the film. If only there had been intertitiles.

 

 

I, Tonya (US, 2017)

The burden of representation

Although I remember Tonya Harding’s name and vague details of her ice skating notoriety I didn’t know the detail. Presumably I do now though the playfulness of Steven Roger’s script and Chris Gillespie’s direction allow for uncertainty; Tonya says to camera, when she fired a gun at her husband, “That never happened!”. This ‘kitchen sink’ approach works with the subject matter because Harding was clearly a no-holds barred woman and Margot Robbie portrays her brilliantly. Also impressive are the skating sequences where Robbie appears to be executing the extremely difficult ‘triple axel’ (see here for how it was done) Gillespie’s fluid camera with the sound of skate on ice high in the mix make the routines as thrilling as they should be. However…

In a sense my problem with the film isn’t the film’s fault. Harding was a working class woman who had to overcome economic difficulties, not to mention a monster-mother, and class prejudice: the skating establishment routinely under-scored her because her face didn’t fit (there’s an interesting story in that). I, Tonya, however, is a straightforward – apart from the stylistic tics noted above – biopic and the focus is on the stupidity of her husband and his crony, Shawn. The latter, in particular, is milked for his delusional self regard and the fact his is a ‘fat pig’ (the latter emphasised through close-ups of him incessantly eating). The impression I get is that these are typical working class people who are uncouth, stupid and pathetic; but working class people aren’t typically like that. The absence of the class from films in general means when they appear the burden of representation falls heavily on the text. During the end credits video footage of the actual Shawn shows him to be exactly as he is portrayed; so you can hardly blame the film.

Ultimately I found the representations offensive and even (Oscar-winner) Allison Janney’s mother is no more than an appalling cipher.