Saturday, May 30, 2009

Lessons Learned: The Adventures of Robin Hood

Screenplay by Norman Reilly Raine and Seton I. Miller (and Rowland Leigh, uncredited); Directed by Michael Curtiz and William Keighley; Cinematography by Tony Gaudio and Sol Polito; Edited by Ralph Dawson; Complete Credits. 102 min. 1938.

You have to love this story: noble knight turned highwayman, robs from the rich to feed the poor, gets the girl (or lady fair in this case), and restores order to his country by helping the real monarch return to power. It’s neat and clean, good guys against the bad guys, no need to think about it too much. We’ll have some sword-fighting here, some kissing there, some standing up for the little guy yonder, and we all get to go home happy after it’s over. It’s not surprising there have been so many versions of Robin Hood over the years, or that one is filming as we speak. Like any good story, it’s been worked and reworked from several angles and the treatment usually reflects the spirit of the times in which it was made rather than the actual period of the story (the late 12th century).

The Adventures of Robin Hood, made in 1938 (and doesn’t the full title pretty much say it all?) is a showcase for the cutting-edge technology of Technicolor and the plucky optimism of a country trying to shake the Great Depression and unknowingly about to collide headlong into World War II. It fits in perfectly with a decade of films dominated by madcap screwball comedies and Fred & Ginger dancing their way through fluffy, threadbare excuses for plots. The decade reached its peak in 1939 with The Wizard of Oz, the story of a sweet mid-western girl (and her little dog too) trying to find her way home, literally making a transition from uninspiring black and white to gorgeous color. But let’s not get carried away with symbolic readings.

As I was saying, The Adventures of Robin Hood is about as realistic as Fred & Ginger, the difference is the film has the aforementioned solid story. And it’s funny because no matter how hard later versions have tried to make the setting realistic, they tend to fall flat. Although Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves gets kudos for finding a halfway plausible excuse for casting Morgan Freeman, its only other saving grace is Alan Rickman’s high-strung Sheriff of Nottingham. Mel Brooks’s loving parody Robin Hood: Men in Tights pays homage to Adventures while skewering Prince where it needs to be skewered.

Men in Tights also underlines something undeniable about the 1938 version: it can’t be replicated. Yes, we all know it’s a highly sanitized version of the Middle Ages – everything is clean, colorful, and all issues concerning religion and crusading are marginalized – but it’s such a smooth blend of romance, action, comedy, and drama(-esque) elements that it’s hard to resist. We can poke fun at its wholesomeness, we can roll our eyes all we want at its quaint charm, but in the end, we have to admit we like it – unless we are cynical to the core. The only film better than Adventures for cracking through someone’s cynical shell is Singing in the Rain and if that doesn’t work, then probably nothing else will.

Though the film is blissfully lacking in complication, it’s not entirely simple. It gives you a number of small twists: First, they let the main villain, Sir Guy of Gisbourne (Basil Rathbone), be as handsome as the hero, Sir Robin of Locksley (Errol Flynn). That’s not a minor detail, considering it shows resistance to a code of good=beautiful, bad=ugly. Second, it’s not love at first sight for our hero and Maid Marian (Olivia de Havilland). True, they’re not at odds for very long, but still, it’s interesting that they start out as antagonists before they fall in love.

Third, they make the usually formidable Sheriff of Nottingham (Melville Cooper) a buffoon, while Prince John (Claude Rains) is the menacing one. Together with Sir Guy (who, though Rathbone is doing his best, has as much dimension as cardboard), that’s almost too many bad guys for one story. It almost makes sense to condense them into one super-villain for the sake of efficiency, but then you lose out on the additional function each character serves: the Sheriff is pure comic relief and so he has to be ridiculous; John is necessary to serve as King Richard’s antagonist; and Sir Guy is not only Robin’s antagonist in terms of the power struggle over Sherwood, but there’s additional tension from Sir Guy’s romantic interest in Maid Marian. Granted, he doesn’t have a chance against our hero, but the story benefits from an extra degree of complexity, though it’s slight.

An action movie with a brain and a heart, once you’ve seen The Adventures of Robin Hood, you can spot its influence elsewhere. The Princess Bride is the most obvious example, and not surprisingly, Cary Elwes, who plays Westley like a cross between Robin Hood and Captain Blood, was later cast as Robin in Men in Tights (and not just because he can speak with an English accent). Though the action sequences inevitably seem a little dated, Adventures is a good lesson in sheer entertainment.

Next week… The Mark of Zorro, continuing this adventure trend.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Monday, May 25, 2009

The Humanities

thoughts taken apart
stitched up and then ironed out
it's not so abstract

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Lessons Learned: The Lion in Winter

Screenplay by James Goldman (from his original Broadway play); Directed by Anthony Harvey; Cinematography by Douglas Slocombe; Edited by John Bloom; Complete Credits. 134 min. 1968.

Ahh, Christmas. A time for gathering the family around the hearth, placing presents under the tree, catching up on new events, reminiscing about the old, and of course the time-honored tradition of letting all the resentment and jealousy pent up year after year totally run wild and destroy everything. Which brings us to the cozy castle at Chinon, France, 1183 AD, and the dizzyingly dysfunctional family of Henry II (Peter O'Toole), King of England and France, son of the House of Plantagenet and great-grandson of William the Conqueror. His equally legendary wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine (Katharine Hepburn), has been imprisoned in England for a good decade. There are really only so many civil wars you can stir up against your husband before he does something about it. However, Eleanor will be attending this Christmas reunion due to Henry's – highly calculated - magnanimity.

Of Henry's many (many) children, legitimate and illegitimate, his three sons from Eleanor come home to battle over who gets to be the next king: Richard the Lionheart (Anthony Hopkins), his mother's favorite; Geoffrey, Duke of Brittany (John Castle), no one's favorite; and John (Nigel Terry) the weak and sniveling, who is Henry's favorite, believe it or not. Oh yes, and there's Henry's (latest) mistress Alais (Jane Merrow), the half-sister of the young King Philip of France (Timothy Dalton), who was raised by Eleanor to be the wife of Richard. There are some complicated details involving provinces and who has what and why it's necessary to hold on to this county or that one, but we won't go into it.

Basically, what makes this Christmas extra special is not only the family gathering and the ensuing debate over the succession, but King Philip's arrival to push for Alais's marriage to Richard. As you can imagine, it's problematic. Henry is fifty and in the 12th century - especially for a king in the 12th century - that's no small achievement. With a wife like Eleanor, three scheming sons, and a long list of other enemies, it's practically miraculous. And Henry is no saint. Between all the warring and conquering, he's had more than enough mistresses, lovers, and subsequently more than enough illegitimate children to make thousands of unknown descendants. (If you factor in Eleanor's ten children, my guess is most of us are somehow related to this bunch.)

It may be 1183 and they may be squabbling over who gets to be the next King of England, but they might as well be arguing about who gets to take over the family business. It would be a mistake to read this film as a period piece, costume drama, or some other alternative fantasy genre. Historical embellishments notwithstanding, what's really important is who cheated most, who was the favored child and why, who has Oedipal issues, and who's afraid of dying. In a tense banter-packed period of twenty-four hours, these people metaphorically stab each other - practically – to death. And then they do what "real" people rarely do – they literally pull out the daggers to put an end to the emotional tumult. But it's only for a moment. No one's physically hurt. The holiday party breaks up with everyone more emotionally scarred than usual, if that at all seems possible.

Between Henry, Eleanor, Richard, Geoffrey, and John, it's difficult to say which is the worst, as in the most treacherous or conniving. John is certainly the least attractive, which has a lot to do with being favored by his tyrannical, histrionic father – it seems Henry cultivated as unthreatening an heir as possible. Geoffrey, being no one's favorite for no apparent reason – and subsequently the underdog – is relatively easy to feel sympathy for, despite being as remorseless and cunning as any of them. But that's just the thing – every character, no matter how treacherous or conniving manages to wring sympathy from you at some point.

Eleanor is perhaps the most poignant - locked up indefinitely, without many resources save her considerable wits and charm – she has to endure countless defeats, betrayal, and the pain of hating a man she can't help but still love. With practically nothing to look forward to, Eleanor has to make what she can of this Christmas holiday, but whether it's to win her freedom, make Richard the next King of England, reconcile with Henry or destroy him, is uncertain. Judging from her character, it's probably all of the aforementioned.

The dynamics and motives are a tangled mess. Richard hates and loves his father – hates him for always preferring another son (whether it’s John or his dead brother, Henry the Young King) and yet loves him so much that he’s still starved for his approval. Henry, for his part, admires his son for being strong and scheming, but is still smarting over Eleanor’s using Richard’s love and devotion as a replacement for his own. On top of which is the inconvenient fact that Alais, Richard’s intended, is now Henry’s beloved mistress. According to the treaty with Philip, Alais must marry Richard, or there will be dire political consequences.

Among all the characters, Alais is the easiest to read and probably the sole “innocent victim” in the cast. She loves Henry – she doesn’t even care whether she marries him or not as long as she gets to be with him, but by the end of the story Alais also acquires a ruthless edge in order to get what she wants. Whether it ultimately costs her Henry’s love is open to debate, but it brings the story to its final boiling point (there’s more than one): the boys are too weak to kill their father and the father isn’t murderous enough to kill his sons.

Ironically, between all the plotting and counter-plotting, all the confusion, resentment, and jealousy, the two characters that understand each other best are Eleanor and Henry. The number of wounds they have inflicted on each other by the story’s end is excruciating, but there’s nothing you can do – there’s too much water under the bridge, no matter how dirty some of it is. They send each other off laughing even though nothing has been resolved, even though everything is actually worse than when the story started – even though she’s going right back to prison and he has even fewer allies than he thought – like two brilliant actors who have just given the performances of their lives, Eleanor and Henry laugh loudly at their respective misery. It’s not only a fitting end to this overwrought family circus, it’s a welcome relief.

Next week… The Adventures of Robin Hood, making a turn toward adventure.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Monday, May 18, 2009

Johnny Depp

yes, yes, you're off-beat
but can't you do a rom-com
just for a change, please?

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Lessons Learned: All About Eve

Screenplay by Joseph L. Mankiewicz; Based on a story "The Wisdom of Eve" by Mary Orr; Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz; Cinematography by Milton R. Krasner; Edited by Barbara McLean; Complete Credits. 138 min. 1950.

As usual, so many things to say and so little time. The basic setting: New York City, 1950. The movie opens on an award ceremony at the (fictional) Sarah Siddons Society, which gives statues and accolades to the theater world's most worthy inhabitants.

Exposition. Addressing us directly, acid-tongued theater critic Addison DeWitt (George Sanders) tells us precisely where we are and who we’re looking at. He introduces everyone we need to know in short order and all the background information we need about them, like a good natured gossip columnist, only not as bitchy. He’s the perfect character for initiating us into this world – he’s entertaining and completely unsentimental. The cast: Bill Simpson (Gary Merrill), a theater director who’s surprisingly unpretentious; Lloyd Richards (Hugh Marlowe), star playwright and husband of Karen (Celeste Holm), proper housewife, impeccable lady, and loyal friend; Max Fabian (Gregory Ratoff), ace producer, with requisite eastern European accent and ulcers; Margo Channing (Bette Davis), a Broadway legend with a knack for making the room revolve around her; and last, but certainly not least - Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter) – this season’s breakout performer, potential theater legend, and Margo's former protégée.

Entrances. Pay attention to the look on each character’s face as Addison introduces them (and then watch them again at the end of the film as Eve makes her acceptance speech). Also notice that Eve is appropriately revealed last of the characters, with the camera actually freezing frame before the award is handed to her. Doesn’t she look modest and innocent? Doesn’t everyone else look cynical and disillusioned?

Structure. We open with what should technically be the climax of the plot and then flashback several months earlier to “the beginning”, when Karen first meets Eve, setting off the sequence of events. Eventually, we come back to the award ceremony – then we have three short scenes before the credits roll. Because we know where the characters are supposed to end up from the start, it neutralizes a certain kind of tension, and in its place creates another. That is, we know what will happen, but we’re not sure how or why.

Throughout the extended flashback the structure plays on our supposedly knowing what the bottom line is, misleading us into thinking the story will play out one way even though it’s not going to play out that way at all. For example, you think Eve is going to take everything from Margo, and though she succeeds in the field of acting, she fails in every other area. Personally, I thought she was going to seduce Bill just by batting her eyelashes, but it turns out to be one of Eve’s first major missteps, as not only does she expose her true character to him, but also to Addison, who’s right outside the door.

Multiple narrators. Much like the award ceremony, Addison's narration frames the movie - a secondary character with privileged information. The only other two characters who narrate are Karen and Margo, Eve’s main victims. Bill and Lloyd don’t narrate and neither does Eve. In that sense, we never get their direct point of view – but it’s not necessary. The story doesn’t need to be cluttered by too many perspectives. And it’s especially important that we never have direct access to Eve’s thoughts and voice, because a certain distance needs to be maintained. It also reinforces the idea that she’s utterly void of actual substance – she’s just a copy of whoever she’s imitating at the moment.

Characterization. Despite having just said that Eve is void of real substance, it’s useful to remember that this is not about good vs. evil – wronged woman vs. conniving bitch. Margo is not Little Red Riding Hood being terrorized by the Wolf. She's bitch enough in her own right, the difference is that she's apparently not a backstabber. This is where foils come in handy as an indirect characterization tool. We have three actresses:
1. Margo – a bitch, but not conniving.
2. Eve – a conniving hypocrite, playing the ingénue to get what she wants.
3. Claudia (Marilyn Monroe) – conniving, but not a hypocrite. She’s an “honest” version of Eve, as in she’s not pretending to be anyone’s friend. She’s trying to get to the top and she doesn’t care who she has to sleep with to get there.

Addison is an intriguing character. On the one hand he’s demonic – like the devil offering you your wildest dreams in exchange for your immortal soul - but some of the things he says are not demonic at all, they’re just the plain, unpleasant truth. The line about Eve’s lie being an insult to dead heroes and the women who loved them also shows that he’s not lacking in human feeling. The fact that he can be so cold-blooded without being despicable is impressive. Pay attention to the way he calmly insults Margo time and time again – it’s almost impersonal. He thinks she’s a wonderful actress, but he doesn’t feel particularly inclined to dance to the tune of whatever mood she’s in.

Irony. There’s a lot to the movie, but I think more than anything, it reveals a truth about ambition: some people can claw and bite their way to the top, but once they get there it won't be long before they plummet back down again. Addison thinks Eve is a unique, magnificent piece of work until after she wins her award and it’s clear she’s not capable of handling her achievement. The look on Addison's face when he realizes Phoebe (Barbara Bates) is going to do to Eve what she did to Margo is priceless – he couldn't be more entertained. It also reiterates a theme you can spot in many movies with a show business setting: that sometimes the more important performances are the ones played off-screen. Eve can dominate the stage for two hours, but off of it, she can't keep playing Eve Harrington. It's especially ironic given Margo's conversation with Karen about not knowing who "Margo Channing" is and what will happen to her when she can't be an actress anymore.

And, just because I didn’t get a chance to mention her earlier - Birdie (Thelma Ritter), Margo’s personal assistant/housekeeper – is not only a total scene-stealer but is also the first character to see through Eve’s ingénue act. She doesn’t have many scenes. Now that I think of it, she completely disappears in the third act, but every line she says counts.

Next week… The Lion in Winter, another dialogue-heavy drama.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Previously on Stellascript...

Valencia revealed to Colt that she tricked Pierce into proposing to her just so she could humiliate him by leaving him at the altar in front of all their friends – payback for standing her up all those years ago on prom night. Emboldened by her revelation, Colt avowed his secret passion for Valencia, leading them to spend the night together. The next day, however, Colt was already feeling anxiety over the possibility Valencia could simply be using him to add insult to Pierce’s planned injury.

Meanwhile, in a blog across the river, Stella continued to look at various films to see what useful insights could be used to improve her craft. Continuing a string of romantic comedies, Stella scrutinized It Happened One Night, Some Like It Hot, and Ninotchka, before moving on to a series of bleaker films including The Third Man, The Big Sleep, Laura, and Sunset Boulevard. Turning to comedies with a showbiz backdrop, Stella covered Bullets Over Broadway, Shakespeare in Love, Singing in the Rain, and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Continuing the comic train of thought, His Girl Friday and Ball of Fire rounded out the quarter’s technical endeavors.

As always, there was also much to be mused about in minimalist pictorial format: Constructive Criticism, Acceptance Speech, Interference, Parody vs. Satire, Research, Free Time, New Kid on the Block, Shameless, Childhood Standards, Procrastination Prevention, Compliments, Word Association, and Mad Muse.

Between learning and musing, things were still buzzing at The View from Here, whose crew and subscribers continued to grow. Diplomatic answers for infuriating questions were suggested in Line of Defense; the components of the common writer were distilled and quantified in A Writer’s Basic Ingredients; and The Insanity Test provided a meticulous profiling system for monitoring the health of all writers.

Next time on Stellascript… Delilah comes clean about her involvement in the kidnapping of Onyx’s boyfriend. Will Onyx forgive her or swear to get revenge? Don’t miss Cliff’s triumphant return from the Sahara – only to find wife and true love Amaryllis in bed with his brother Caleb! Is Amaryllis faithless? Or is this another one of Caleb’s evil schemes to hurt his older, more successful sibling?

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Monday, May 11, 2009

New Order

I've lost you... lost you...
heaven knows it's got to be...
ooh you've got green eyes...

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Lessons Learned: Ball of Fire

Screenplay by Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder; Story by Billy Wilder and Thomas Monroe; Directed by Howard Hawks; Cinematography by Gregg Toland; Edited by Daniel Mandell; Complete Credits. 111 min. 1941.

Last week I wrote about His Girl Friday, wherein the two leads hurl wisecracks at each other in a nearly continuous volley of irony and scoffing. As Hildy Johnson and Walter burns are evenly matched, it’s really only a question which one of them will break down first and admit they still love the other one. In Ball of Fire, however, not only does she wipe the floor with him for the better part of the movie, but the pairing is highly unlikely to begin with.

“She” is Katherine “Sugarpuss” O'Shea (Barbara Stanwyck), hard-bitten showgirl. She has a heart of solid gold, of course, but let’s just say it’s got a padlock on it for the time being. “Him” is Professor Bertram Potts (Gary Cooper), English expert and supervisor of the Daniel S. Totten Foundation’s encyclopedia project. While Sugarpuss was getting “brought up the hard way,” Bertram, though barely in his teens, was attending Princeton. He’s about as worldly and hip as Sugarpuss is innocent and well-read, but who says two wrongs can’t make a right?

Pairing a showgirl with a professor needs a good explanation, to whit: writing an article about slang for the encyclopedia, Bertram heads out to the real world and the common people to gather his data. Wandering from pool halls to park benches to street corners, he finally wanders into a night club where Sugarpuss is the headliner. One drum boogie later and Bertram knows he's struck linguistic gold. He hands her his business card and invites her to take part in a slang symposium at the foundation (really). Sugarpuss tells him to take a hike - she has bigger problems: the D.A. is itching to subpoena her to testify against her gangster boyfriend Joe Lilac (Dana Andrews).

While Joe's top thugs Pastrami (Dan Duryea) and Asthma (Ralph Peters) try to figure out where they can stash Sugarpuss, she decides to pay Bertram a midnight visit at the foundation. It's already a full house. Besides Bertram, there are seven other professors in residence, each goofier than the next: Prof. Gurkakoff (Oscar Homolka), Mathematics; Prof. Jerome (Henry Travers), Geography; Prof. Magenbruch (S.Z. Sakall), Physiology; Prof. Robinson (Tully Marshall), Law; Prof. Quintana (Leonid Kinskey), Philosophy; Prof. Peagram (Aubrey Mather), History; and Prof. Oddly (Richard Haydn), Botany. There's also Miss Bragg (Kathleen Howard), the prim housekeeper, who takes one look at Sugarpuss and can already foresee the collapse of civilization.

Never mind how, but Sugarpuss talks Bertram – "Pottsie" – into letting her stay while he works on his slang, and the results, which are predictable in one sense (i.e. the two fall for each other), are not predictable in any other. How the slang queen and the English professor find a common language is one of the narrative’s strongest threads. Pottsie's marriage proposal (a.k.a "cracking that padlock on Sugarpuss’s heart) not only demonstrates the change in his character or the beginning of the change in hers, it also shows the different way they use words: her breezy vernacular keeps her conveniently invulnerable while his carefully chosen metaphors leave him utterly exposed.

Just as a side note, it's to the credit of the movie that Bertram doesn't invite Sugarpuss to the symposium because she's aesthetically pleasing, nor does he have any problems keeping his hands to himself. The same goes for the other professors, who obviously get a kick out of her sassy personality. What could have been a sleazy scenario – one showgirl hiding out with eight men – is squeaky clean instead. And, in an adorable twist, Sugarpuss learns to love them as much as they love her. It’s also to the movie’s credit that the other professors are not stuffy intellectuals with patronizing attitudes and sarcastic comments. Rather, they’re very kind to those who have far less education, even when they’re not long-legged showgirls.

Next week… All About Eve, another dialogue-heavy film.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Monday, May 4, 2009

Katharine Hepburn

nevah mind sweethaht
about trying to keep up
I weah the trousahs

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Lessons Learned: His Girl Friday

Screenplay by Charles Lederer; from the play "The Front Page" by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur; Directed by Howard Hawks; Cinematography by Joseph Walker; Edited by Gene Havlick; Complete Credits. 92 min. 1940.

Yes, I know. This is not only the third post about a Cary Grant movie, it's also the third post about a Howard Hawks movie. It's not (totally) my fault; both have filmographies that would make even the most arrogant, self-satisfied genius cry with envy. Hawks, by the way, is one of those rare directors who made successful films in practically every genre, and without their having a numbing sameness. The Big Sleep and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (and His Girl Friday for that matter) are as similar as apples and oranges (and bananas). (I won’t even start with Cary Grant.*) I bet that if you showed them to an audience, few would guess that Hawks was behind all three, which shows that you don’t have to specialize in a genre or find a particular niche.

But I’m supposed to be talking about His Girl Friday.

A very basic plot summary: New York City, 1940. Top reporter Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell) is ditching her job and her editor ex-husband Walter Burns (Grant) in one swoop. No more chasing after stories and scoops and scandals. No more battling and bickering with Walter, loud-mouth champion and insensitivity king. It’s nothing but blue skies from now on – purely domestic bliss with husband-to-be Bruce Baldwin (Ralph Bellamy), mild insurance salesman, gentleman, and gold medal-winner of the sweetheart competition.

Walter is not happy about this remarrying and quitting business, but that’s not the only complication. However, it’s the only complication I’m mentioning because it’ll take too long to explain the rest (though it’s not as confusing intricate as The Big Sleep). Let’s face it, if Walter weren’t being played by Grant, he would probably seem a lot worse than he is. He’s more than a little rough around the edges – the fact that he’s so funny is what makes it easier to take. It also helps that every once in a while he shows that he has a human heart beneath all the hollering and the sarcasm.

Bruce, the sweet loser, is smart but not slick and so preciously sincere – like he’s never told a lie in his life and never will, unless it’s for the best of reasons. But note that as goofy as he is, Bruce is not a wimp. His calm, naïve allure is the perfect foil for Walter’s edgy magnetism. You have to like him without wanting Hildy to end up with him. Ironically, that’s more or less how Bruce describes Walter – he has a lot of charm but he’s not the man for her.

Now let’s not neglect Hildy. It’s a fine line that Russell has to tread in sparring with Walter – returning each volley without sounding like she’s going for his jugular. She’s assertive without being nasty – not that a character can’t be nasty. Elsewhere it could work, but not here, since it would taint the comedy with an inappropriately bitter flavor. It’s why Hildy can say something like: "Now, get this, you double-crossing chimpanzee: There ain't going to be any interview and there ain't going to be any story. And that certified check of yours is leaving with me in twenty minutes. I wouldn't cover the burning of Rome for you if they were just lighting it up. If I ever lay my two eyes on you again, I'm gonna walk right up to you and hammer on that monkeyed skull of yours 'til it rings like a Chinese gong!" – though five minutes later she's calling Walter on the phone about her scoop. If Hildy and Walter look like they really hate each other’s guts, the story makes no sense.

Notice how narrow the timeframe is – maybe five or six hours, with strictly linear progression – and without so much as a flashback or a montage. The first ten or twenty minutes give us all the back-story we need, no additional scenes required. What’s more, notice how plain the sets are – about three altogether, simple, almost laughably uninteresting in design. Aside from the actors’ salaries, it looks like they must’ve had a budget of fifty bucks. But really, between the newspaper offices, the jail’s press room, and a low-key bar/restaurant, there’s not much space for visual embellishment – nor is there any need for it. Also, given that the film was made in 1940, it’s not surprising that it was made in black and white – Technicolor was far from cheap – but this is one of those films where you don’t want color. I’ll risk over-analysis and say that the gray palette is better-suited to the “gray” subject-matter, but that’s as far as I’m going.

Next week… Ball of Fire, another comedy with wall-to-wall talking (and yes, it's also directed by Howard Hawks).


* Okay, I have to a little bit say something about Grant. It’s often said that he simply played variations on his suave, elegant persona, but take a closer look at some of his performances: Devlin in Notorious is nothing like Adam-Alex-Peter-Brian in Charade, even though they’re both government agents. Walter Burns is nothing like Johnny Case in Holiday, though they’re both “men of the people.” And I could go on. In short: don’t underestimate him.