Monday, March 30, 2009

Mrs. Dalloway

why can't I poke fun
at dear Clarissa and co.?
Woolf would have (she thought)

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Lessons Learned: Sunset Boulevard

Screenplay by Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder, and D.M. Marshman Jr.; Directed by Billy Wilder; Cinematography by John F. Seitz; Edited by Arthur P. Schmidt; Complete Credits. 110 min. 1950.

I already mentioned Sunset Boulevard in a post about point of view highlighting the film's effective use of voice-over, which not only gives us the protagonist's perspective, but also provides exposition and any other information necessary to make the story intelligible as it goes along. When I wrote about Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, I proposed it as a case in which a film exploited voice-over perfectly, but whereas Sunshine's Joel Barish is rambling and pathetic, Sunset's Joe Gillis is structured and authoritative. Admittedly, Joe’s voice-over is more stylized – people don’t really talk that way – but there’s a good explanation for such well-constructed monologues: he’s a writer.

Hollywood, 1950. Joe Gillis (William Holden) is a screenwriter with no money, hammering out short stories in a rented room, and he’s also behind on his car payments. Really behind. The company sends two men to give him a clear message: pay up or we take the car. Joe stalls them with some smooth lying and then heads out to dig up the 300 bucks he owes them. His best friend Artie Green (Jack Webb) can only give him 20. His agent thinks not having independent transportation means – and an empty stomach - will do Joe’s writing some good. Mr. Sheldrake (Fred Clark), the only movie producer Joe is still friendly with, doesn’t have any work to give him. To add insult to injury, almost everyone, including a bright young woman from the reader department named Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olson), seems to be telling Gillis that his ideas are stale.

Contemplating his defeat and inevitable return to his former desk job in Dayton, Ohio, Joe pauses at a red light on Sunset Blvd. - with the auto company collectors sitting in a car on the other side of the intersection. Joe’s proximity doesn’t go unnoticed. The light changes to green: he speeds down Sunset and makes a sharp turn off the road into a deserted driveway and gets a nice flat tire. He stashes the car and heads up to the house to ask if he can use the phone. And what a house – haunted mansion more like. He’s about to find out that it belongs to Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), former queen of the silent screen. The only other person in the huge place is her butler Max (Erich von Stroheim). You’d be hard put to decide which of them is more eccentric: the deluded ex-star or her chillingly devoted servant. Joe doesn’t know it yet, but he’s walking right into a trap.

Given the two previous paragraphs, you would think the movie opened with Joe sitting at his typewriter, but the film begins at the story’s end – with Joe floating in Norma’s swimming pool, photographers eagerly snapping his picture. Then we go back in time to Joe in his apartment. This beginning changes the driving question from: “what will happen to Joe?” to “how did this happen to Joe?” Since we know he’s doomed from the start, it gives the film a different tone. I could go on and on dissecting every scene – the film is filled with so many great touches and little twists – but I’ll try to stay focused.

Take the scene where Joe pitches his tired idea for a script to Sheldrake (starts at 5:16). Pay attention to a number of things: Joe pitches the project without looking Sheldrake in the eye – he speaks confidently, but we know that he doesn't have much faith in the idea. Joe naturally moves around the room until he seems to be standing at a random spot, but it's not random at all, since it places him out of Betty's line of vision when she walks in the room. That way, she blunders into saying exactly what she thinks of his synopsis. The subsequent exchange between them isn't just to bring forward the classic argument over quality in entertainment, but the script works in some literary references to show that Joe has an education. And, of course, the script sets up the storyline with Betty, which will become significant later on. (Function and content working together.)

Since so much of the plot revolves around Norma manipulating Joe, it’s easy to forget Max and what a tragic figure he is: once a great Hollywood director, now reduced to being Norma’s butler. Worse than that – he’s also one of her ex-husbands. But devotion has so warped him that he’s willing to hang on at any price. Notice that he always calls her Miss Desmond as though they’ve always been mistress and servant. The only time he calls her Norma is in the final scene when he’s “directing” her down the staircase and the irony is wrenching. It’s important to remember that he doesn’t have to be her servant, he chooses to be.

It’s also important to remember that Norma is rich enough to keep up the house and it’s a sign of her depression that she doesn’t, however well-dressed and groomed she is. She’s also rich enough to keep more than one servant, which is a sign of her reclusiveness, however flamboyant her personality is. She’s both overbearing and ragingly insecure, a lethal combination, but they show how Max isn’t the only one complicit in her neurotic behavior. Joe allows himself to be manipulated and by the time he breaks free, it’s already too late.

There are so many other things to mention: Max telling Joe not to run upstairs after he hears about Norma’s suicide attempt – so the musicians won’t understand what’s happened; Norma’s final lines, being too happy to go on with her scene, etc.; Cecil B. DeMille playing himself in a wonderful cameo; and, of course, Joe's character (probably my favorite performance by William Holden), who manages to be heartbreaking without being pathetic. The film is an intense experience – no question – I don't feel like watching it every day, but it's the kind of film that seems new every time you see it. As specific as the timeframe is, the film doesn't seem dated at all.

Though what I'm about to say sounds like blasphemy, I'll say it anyway: Sunset Boulevard is perfect material for a remake. But I would update the timeframe to the present and I would switch the gender of Joe and Norma to keep it from being a simple rehash. There. I've said it loud and placed it on the internet where everyone can see it. If you see a remake of Sunset Boulevard in the near (or less near) future – you read it here first.

Next week… Bullets Over Broadway, shifting gears to comedy again, but this time with a showbiz spin.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Monday, March 23, 2009

The Search for Cliff Notes

must be a let down
clicking on this site hoping
for easy answers

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Lessons Learned: Laura

Screenplay by Jay Dratler, Samuel Hoffenstein, and Elizabeth Reinhardt (and Ring Larnder Jr., uncredited); from the novel by Vera Caspary; Directed by Otto Preminger (and Rouben Mamoulian, uncredited); Cinematography by Joseph LaShelle (and Lucien Ballard, uncredited); Edited by Louis R. Loeffler; Complete Credits. 88 min. 1944.


New York City, mid-1940s. We fade in on an elegant apartment, slowly panning to the right as the smooth voice of town wit and revered columnist Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb) intones, "I shall never forget the day Laura died…"

Nice.

If you think you're going to get some weepy melodrama, think again. Murder, sex, jealousy, revenge, betrayal – all in less than 90 minutes and with a six character minimum. As opposed to The Big Sleep, which had more plot and characters than it knew what to do with, Laura is very compact: A knockout ad executive, Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney) leads a glamorous and successful life – until she’s murdered. Investigating this horrible crime - she was shot in face at close range with a shotgun – is Det. Lt. Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews). There are four suspects on his list: Waldo, Laura’s devoted friend and mentor; Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price), a charming, penniless playboy engaged to Laura; Ann Treadwell (Judith Anderson), Laura’s aunt and Shelby’s “friend”; and Bessie (Dorothy Adams), Laura’s obsessive maid. As McPherson questions them all, trying to unravel an intricate web of jealousy and lies, he goes through Laura’s letters and diaries, slowly, unnervingly finding himself falling for her.

Though it’s obvious why everyone is madly in love with Laura, she’s a somewhat incoherent character. On the one hand, she’s so assertive that she claims, “I never have been and I never will be bound by anything I don't do of my own free will.” On the other hand, she has no trouble letting Waldo dress her and change her hair style. It’s not impossible, just odd, and it’s probably the result of the film not only being adapted from a novel, but of the production switching hands, as you can see by the uncredited people involved. Since Waldo is the one who says that he styled her, you could argue that he simply made it up, but as Laura’s own behavior alternates between surprising naiveté and shrewd deception, I’m inclined to think it’s due to rival interpretations of the material. Like there was a good virginal Laura and a less pristine one that they combined. As I said, the final Laura is not impossible – only peculiar. The other characters are much more even.

Waldo, for instance – a kind of Oscar Wilde with an American accent – is a nifty piece of work. Everything is there from the beginning: the charm and the nastiness, the humor and the aggression. It's obvious that Waldo is judgmental and jealous, but notice the way his overbearing tendencies slip out in his dialogue – recommending a more attractive hairstyle for Laura, telling her what clothing suits her, etc. Notice his possessiveness - grouping Laura with the white carnation in his buttonhole and his walking stick. He loves her and he thinks well of her – that's also obvious from his adoring words – but there's a dangerous undercurrent, like a Professor Higgins gone wrong.

His sexuality is something of a question mark. It’s unclear whether he’s homosexual, latently homosexual, bisexual, or asexual. Part of his jealousy over Laura’s romantic relationships is from the mentor-protégée standpoint, but he’s also clearly disturbed by the idea of her being physical with other men. What remains unclear is whether he is physically interested in Laura. Given that the film was made in the 1940s, they couldn’t do more than hint, but even if the film was remade today, I think it would be better to leave it ambiguous. Not everything needs to be perfectly spelled out.

Another important element in Waldo’s character is that, despite his cynical, nasty demeanor, he’s actually heartbroken. Had he been cold and heartless, the plot couldn’t have developed in the same way. Waldo’s also a great foil for McPherson, another cynic hiding his vulnerability. McPherson’s street-smart cop is as worldly as Waldo’s snarky columnist, but from a completely different angle. Likewise, Shelby knows “a little about everything” – street-smart like McPherson, polished like Waldo, but nothing like either of them. All three in love with Laura, and all three complement each other perfectly. My personal favorite is Vincent Price. Shelby is actually quite a creep, but Price plays him like the adorable (play)boy next door.

I also love Judith Anderson’s portrayal of Ann, desperately in love with Shelby and doing everything she can to hold on to him. It would have been so easy to make her a pathetic joke, but Anderson gives her strength and a tangible edge. But aside from the interesting characters, it’s also good to notice how narrow the time frame is – only three or four days – and, aside from Waldo’s flashback, the progression is linear. The compact time-frame paired with the gradual unraveling of the mystery is what creates the tension, since there are no car chases, no sex scenes, and only a bit of onscreen violence. That doesn’t beat Notorious's record for zero onscreen violence. On the other hand, Notorious has much more kissing…

Next week… Sunset Boulevard. Get ready for your close-up.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Monday, March 16, 2009

Priorities

didn't ignore them
yes! I did what I should have
so I'm proud of me

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Lessons Learned: The Big Sleep

Screenplay by William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett, and Jules Furthman; adapted from the novel "The Big Sleep" by Raymond Chandler; Directed by Howard Hawks; Cinematography by Sidney Hickox; Edited by Christian Nyby; Complete Credits. 114 min. 1946.

Los Angeles, 1946. Life is good for private detective Philip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart). He's tough, he's always got a wisecrack handy and, lucky for him, not only is he constantly surrounded by beautiful women – from cab drivers to librarians to salesgirls to clients – they all like him. Really, really.

Right about now I should give a nice little plot summary, but The Big Sleep is too complicated a web to untangle in a reasonable amount of time. Basically, Marlowe has been hired by the ailing General Sternwood (Charles Waldron) to handle a blackmail case involving his younger daughter Carmen (Martha Vickers). Carmen might have gambling debts – she might have drug debts, or she could even be involved in pornography – they don't give too many details. All we know is this "pretty and pretty wild" girl is in trouble. She could also care less how much of it she gives to everyone else. Her older sister Vivian (Lauren Bacall), Mrs. Rutledge - briefly married, now divorced – though ready enough to cover for Carmen, wants to know why Marlowe was hired. To find Sean Regan, an employee of her father's who disappeared a month ago?

As it happens, Marlowe used to know Sean and soon he's trying to figure out what Sean has to do with all this. And how does this involve Eddie Mars (John Ridgley), a gangster with a gambling establishment and a real estate business? And where do Joe Brody (Louis Jean Heydt), a former "friend" of Carmen's, and his current girlfriend Agnes (Sonia Darrin) come in? Linking them all is Arthur Gwynn Geiger, rare book dealer, blackmailer, probable drug and pornography peddler as well. We never see or hear him, but he ends up dead at Carmen's feet. If I try saying anything else, my brain will turn to jelly.

The story twists and turns like a hiking path up a craggy mountain – just when you think they've reached an impasse, they find a way around it. It's not the neatest job in the world; a few things are forgotten (like Geiger's encoded customer list) and there are some continuity errors (like Mrs. Rutledge telling Marlowe about Sean running off with Eddie Mars' wife, only to have him tell her the same thing later as though she didn't know) – showing that there must have been some a good deal of fiddling with the story, trying to work everything out. Still, they keep up the suspense with a quick pace, and whenever it gets too confusing, Marlowe usually gives us a rundown by explaining something to another character.

Given the complicated plot, there are a lot of characters running around. Some only have one or two scenes and a handful of lines. My personal favorite is the salesgirl at the Acme bookshop (Dorothy Malone), who gives Marlowe some important information about Geiger - she's smart, sassy, and memorable. Despite having no real impact on the plot, she's there for two purposes: to give Marlowe information and to emphasize the lady-killer aspect of his personality. Another character could have given Marlowe the same information – a bespectacled old gentleman or a bookish college boy. It's gratuitous in a way, since practically every female on screen eyes Marlowe as if they skipped breakfast, but the point is that they take a minor character with a simple function and add that extra dimension.

The best part of the film, to my mind, is the somewhat antagonistic relationship between Marlowe and Mrs. Rutledge. As I've mentioned on previous occasions, I have a penchant for wisecracks, and the exchanges between Marlowe and Mrs. Rutledge, though they get a little heavy-handed with the metaphors from time to time, crackle with tension. The volley isn't just for the sport of the thing, they're both hiding information from each other, and a lot of the dynamic is driven by two opposing forces: their mutual attraction and their separate fear that one is hiding something damaging to the other. They get closer for a moment and then they withdraw – again and again, almost until the end. It's crucial because, frankly, at least as far as I'm concerned, their relationship is much more interesting than the who-killed-Geiger-where-is-Sean-Regan investigation. Granted, their relationship is a product of that investigation, but if the scenes between Marlowe and Mrs. Rutledge weren't as interesting as they are, the film would be far weaker.

As a final side-note, and it's a small one, note that Mrs. Rutledge is a Mrs. rather than a Miss. First, it means she's not a virgin, which puts her in a comfortable gray area of sexuality – she's experienced without being a tramp like her younger sister Carmen. Second, it means she's entitled to have racy habits like drinking and gambling. All this enables her to be on a more equal footing with a rough type like Marlowe. Rather than being a pampered heiress unevenly paired with a street-wise detective, Mrs. Rutledge has just enough edge to keep up with Marlowe without being a cheap dame like Agnes.

Next week… Laura, a romantic film noir, as funny as that may sound.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Monday, March 9, 2009

Three Word Haiku III

incorrigible
pseudo-psychological
ridiculousness

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Lessons Learned: The Third Man

Screenplay by Graham Greene; Story by Graham Greene (and Alexander Korda, uncredited); Directed by Carol Reed; Cinematography by Robert Krasker; Edited by Oswald Hafenrichter; Complete Credits. 104 min. 1949.

Before we begin, just a side note – which I should've mentioned at the end of last week's post – the British version of The Third Man runs 104 minutes and the US version is about ten minutes shorter because the sewer scene was cut down. It doesn't affect the meaning (i.e. we get different information), but the longer scene increases the suspense. On the negative side, in the British version Carol Reed does the opening voice-over instead of Joseph Cotten, which leaves you wondering who the heck is this guy doing the voice-over and what does he have to do with the film? But it's not really important - only a very minor gripe of mine.

While The Third Man is often cited as a film noir classic, I'm not going to relate much to its noir-ness. In fact, though the next couple of titles I'll be dealing with all qualify as film noir to a certain degree, I won’t be discussing film noir. Rather, I'm taking a break from the romantic-comedy extravaganza that's been going on for the past six weeks. I've been walking around fighting the urge to spontaneously burst into song about love, springtime, and cookies – and we can't have that, can we?

The Third Man is certainly an effective antidote. Set up as a kind of murder mystery, it's an examination of good and evil, and questions whether you can or should remain loyal to a person who has forsaken his or her humanity. Before I go on, I'd like to give a special warning: if you haven't seen the film, I am about to spoil it completely. You proceed at your own peril.

Vienna, post-WWII. The city – or what's left of it after the heavy bombing - is divided into four zones: American, French, British, and Russian. Teams of soldiers made up of members from all four powers patrol together to keep the peace. Basically, it's a diplomatic nightmare, especially since those pesky Russians are up to something.* The black market is flourishing and everyone looks depressed as hell. Enter Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten), an American who writes cheap novelettes, drinks too much, and hasn’t a cent to his name. He’s never been to Vienna (or Europe apparently), but Holly’s here to see his dear old friend Harry Lime, who’s offered him a job writing for a medical charity he’s running.

Seriously – I’m about to completely wreck this movie. You can still turn back and (hopefully) read this post after you’ve seen it.






Okay.

Holly rings the door to Harry’s apartment only to find out from the porter that his funeral is being held today. Poor Harry – hit by a car. Can you believe it?

You’ll have to excuse my sarcasm, but given that Harry is played by a very prominently billed Orson Welles, it’s difficult to believe he’s actually dead. I kept expecting him to show up, so when they eventually revealed that he’s not dead – and it’s way into the film – the surprise was non-existent. This movie has hardly any flaws at all, but the ones it has are pretty annoying. And it’s a damn shame because they took a lot of trouble not to show any pictures of Harry and avoid using flashbacks – but hey – it’s Orson Welles. He has to show up some time, ergo his character is alive and kicking. But I’m supposed to be talking about all of the good things – and there are too many to list.

Let’s start with Harry. Forget for a moment that he’s charming, funny, smart, and played by Orson Welles. The guy is a callous murderer. He made a profit – a big one - selling diluted penicillin to injured soldiers, women in childbirth, and sick children. And if all that’s not enough, he sells out Anna (Alida Valli), his former girlfriend (former only since he died, it’s not like they broke up), as a pledge of good faith to the Russians. But we like him anyway, we like him almost instantly – from that first smirk on his face until his final moments running from the police in the sewer. If we don’t like him, the movie doesn’t work. Anna refuses to sell him out to the international police even after knowing he sold her out to the Russians, and Holly, to the last, can hardly bear to do it. Watch the grim look on his face when finally he has to shoot Harry. None of that makes any sense if they don’t manage to convey Harry’s charisma, that once at least, he was a great guy, and somehow – blame the war, if you like – he’s gone bad, and what a tragedy that is.

On the other hand, take Maj. Calloway (Trevor Howard), heading the investigation of Harry’s gang of racketeers. His no-nonsense, upright - unmistakably British - attitude does not make him endearing at first sight. (Britons forgive me.) It takes a while to get the hang of him, to realize that he may not be cuddly, but he’s a good guy working in difficult conditions. Holly and Anna’s interaction with Calloway and their reminiscing about Harry, respectively condition us to dislike the one and like the other. This is similar to something I mentioned about Notorious where the bad guy, Alex, is sensitive and charming, you can hardly believe he’s a Nazi trying to restart the war, while Devlin, the hero, is abrasive. In Notorious, we watch Alex go crazy over Alicia’s betrayal, giving us an idea of what he’s really like, but with Harry in The Third Man, there’s no “crazy” turning point.

In the scene where he and Holly meet after Holly discovered he faked his death, we watch Harry exhibit a wide range of emotions: he’s glad to see Holly, he’s sorry about Anna, he’s flip, he’s serious, he’s philosophical, he’s trivial, he’s murderous, he’s merciful, he’s calculating – and dangerous, very dangerous. Everything is mixed up together – we seem to see the Harry Anna and Holly eulogized, but he’s submerged in a cold-hearted murderer. Similarly, Calloway doesn’t have a specific moment when his character shifts gears and suddenly becomes sympathetic. Even after we discover that he’s chasing Harry for good reason, he’s still the same man – we just understand his motivation better. So the film works backwards.

Holly is different because his character undergoes serious change within a matter of days. Harry and Calloway, while complex, remain who they were at the start of the film. Holly, the anti-hero who writes cheap westerns about sheriffs always getting their men, is forced to act heroically – and there’s nothing glamorous about it. Un-dashing and unromantic (though I really don’t think Joseph Cotten has to hide his face under a paper bag), he eventually does the right thing but feels pretty lousy anyway. Plus he doesn't get the girl as a reward, and who wants him to, really? – but I’ll get back to that. Anna has a point: Harry saved her, how can she do anything to hurt him? But with that good comes a lot of bad and Holly is the one who is forced to pull the trigger. There’s no conflict for Calloway – he’s just doing his job and he doesn’t owe Harry anything. To make it worse, Harry gives Holly that little nod - he’s already bleeding to death and will probably die in minutes anyway - but Harry seems to say, “Go ahead.”

As for Anna, my reading of her changes every time I watch the film. She manages to be both entirely sympathetic and incredibly infuriating. You want to shout at her that she’s totally delusional for remaining loyal to Harry though you can certainly see why she would be. When she snubs Holly, you completely get why she wouldn’t want to be with him, but you think she’s an idiot for not understanding that Holly’s the real hero, however uncharismatic or latent. It’s a sign that she’s a complex human rather than a convenient type: you can’t reduce her to a single label. She’s not quite a love-interest because she’s clearly not interested in Holly. She’s not a heroine or a villain – she acts as a catalyst and a blocker, alternately.

Since I've spoiled everything anyway, here are the final two minutes of the film, which, while undoubtedly heartbreaking, are also cathartic. (I specifically cited it as an example when I wrote about endings.) As mentioned, the final scene and image have a lot of impact. The setting is dismal: it’s a cemetery and it’s autumn. These scraggly leaves are falling from skinny trees. Anna walks by Holly without giving him so much as a glance. Holly lights his cigarette and throws away the match. And that’s it, movie over. Holly needs that extra moment to say goodbye, mentally, at least – and so do we, I think.

Notice that throughout the film, most of the camera angles are sharp diagonals or the shot compositions are off-kilter. Cumulatively, it’s very unsettling, and the final shot emphasizes this not only by being perfectly symmetrical but by lasting almost a full two minutes. The road stretches into the distance in a perfectly centered convergence point. A certain balance has been restored, maybe only temporarily and at a great price – and don’t ask me between what this balance was exactly – but the last sequence still spells equilibrium to me. (Open acknowledgement: my spelling is not always the best.)

I’ve rambled on longer than I planned. I didn’t even get to the excellent supporting characters: Sgt. Paine (Bernard Lee), Calloway’s assistant; Harry’s black market cronies, Baron Kurtz (Ernst Deutsch), Popescu (Siegfried Breuer), Dr. Winkel (Erich Ponto); and the porter (Paul Hörbiger).

Next week… The Big Sleep, because it’s time for some Bogart and Bacall.


*Admittedly, I wasn't in Vienna during the immediate post-war years, but I think one of the film's few flaws is that, given the Cold War tension, it's more than a tad anti-Russian. I'm not saying the Russians were angelic sugar-cookies, but the film clearly has an agenda. It gets particularly heavy-handed when a unit of the wonder patrol comes to officially arrest Anna – the American, French, and British soldiers are all pointedly kind to Anna, while the Russian is surly. Harry’s cooperation with the Russians is part of the story, so that’s all well and good, but this scene seems almost purely for the sake of going “boo hiss” at them.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Monday, March 2, 2009

Three Word Haiku II

inadvertently
uncategorizable
approximation