Monday, June 24, 2019

Twelve movies

[One to four stars each. No spoilers.]

The Man Who Laughs (dir. Paul Leni, 1928). This film, from a Victor Hugo novel, has everything one might want from a silent. There’s a pathos-filled backstory of a child mutilated, his mouth turned into a perpetually leering grin; another child, blind, whose mother dies in a snowstorm; and a crazed-looking “professor” who takes both children into a traveling wagon. As Gwynplaine and Dea, Conrad Veidt and Mary Philbin play out a touching love story. And for good measure, there’s a jaded, trouble-making aristocrat, the Duchess Josiana, played by Olga Vladimirovna Baklanova, perhaps best known as the evil Cleopatra in Freaks. ★★★★

*

The Magnificent Ambersons (dir. Orson Welles, 1942). This adaptation of a Booth Tarkington novel appears to be a model for every television saga of a wealthy, messy family. But wealthy TV families stay wealthy; this film tells the story of the fall of the house of Amberson. The film is also the story of a city (Indianapolis) and of changes wrought by technology, present here by way of the automotive entrepreneur Eugene Morgan (Joseph Cotten). Told with great imagination, with narration by Welles and beautiful cinematography by Stanley Cortez, whose stark closeups and shadowy edges give the viewer the feeling of observing a lost world. ★★★★

*

The Children Act (dir. Richard Eyre, 2017). From Ian McEwan’s novel. Emma Thompson is such a good actor: here she plays a judge who must rule whether a minor (almost eighteen) can be compelled to receive a blood transfusion despite his religious objections. But things happen abruptly and oddly: we’re just minutes into the film when the judge’s husband (Stanley Tucci) announces that he wants to have an affair. Further developments in the judge’s public and private lives are both improbable and predictable. ★★★

*

Escape (dir. Mervyn LeRoy, 1940). Robert Taylor, Norma Shearer, and Conrad Veidt star in the story of a visiting American trying to rescue his mother (Alla Nazimova) from a concentration camp in pre-war Germany. The escape plot demands and rewards suspension of belief. Greater interest lies in the Taylor-Shearer-Veidt love triangle, or something triangle. I suspect I’m not the first viewer to suspect that this film had some influence on Casablanca. ★★★★

*

Mr. Skeffington (dir. Vincent Sherman, 1944). I haven’t seen that many Bette Davis films, but right now I’m thinking of this one as her finest. Here she plays Fanny Trellis, a beautiful woman with a social register’s worth of suitors. She marries the beta-male Job Skeffington (Claude Rains) and remains stuck in that marriage, then unstuck, before finally discovering, decades later, what real love is. An unusual element in this film: Skeffington is Jewish, and anti-Semitism, at home and abroad, is a significant element in the plot. ★★★★

*

Somewhere in the Night (dir. Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1946). The plot becomes a little muddled, but who cares? John Hodiak and Nancy Guild (rhymes with wild) star in a superior noir story: GI returning from the war, amnesia, steam baths, train station, night club, duplicitous bartender, police lieutenant who jokes about not wearing a hat when everyone in the movies does, mysterious dangerous woman, less mysterious but at least equally attractive (if not more attractive) helpfui woman, wisecracks and retorts, nightclub owner, fortune-telling gimmick, mental institution, lonely pier, mission house, and honest, I haven’t given away a thing. One of the film’s strengths is a supporting cast full of memorable actors: Whit Bissell, Richard Conte, Fritz Kortner (Pandora’s Box), Sheldon Leonard, Harry Morgan, Louis Mason (the unnamed man in The Grapes of Wrath who’s going back home to starve), Lloyd Nolan, and Houseley Stevenson (the surgeon in Dark Passage). A second strength: John Hodiak’s performance as a man who, like Oedipus, is determined to uncover the truth of his identity, whatever the cost. And a third strength: Nancy Guild’s nightclub singer/caregiver, a cross between Lauren Bacall and Teresa Wright. ★★★★

*

The Brasher Doubloon (dir. John Brahm, 1947). Films made from Raymond Chandler novels remind me of what it must be like to be caught in a three-card monte game: things start out slowly; you can follow the action; and then you’re lost. As I was here. No matter: George Montgomery’s Philip Marlowe is a cocky boor; Nancy Guild as Merle Davis is a private secretary who can’t stand to be touched until Marlowe wins her over. With support from Conrad Janis, Fritz Kortner, Houseley Stevenson. ★★★

*

Young Törless (dir. Volker Schlöndorff, 1966). From Robert Musil’s novel The Confusions of Young Törless, a story of brutalization and sexual humiliation at an Austrian boarding school for boys. The novel (1906) seems to anticipate later historical consequences of indifference and obedience in the face of cruelty. Sixty years later, the film makes one wonder what the boys of this story grew up to become. With a compelling score by Hans Werner Henze. ★★★★

*

The Scapegoat (dir. Robert Hamer, 1959). (dir. Joseph H. Lewis, 1945). From the novel by Daphne du Maurier. Alec Guinness in a dual role as a man who finds himself in a new role in life. The twist, which arrives late in the story, is the why. Would pair well with My Name Is Julia Ross. ★★★★

*

Le Plaisir (dir. Max Ophuls, 1952). From three Maupassant stories, with the author present as a voice in the dark. On screen, all is light and movement, with the camera moving from room to room, window to window, up and down staircases. Plot is of minimal importance here; the first and third stories are anecdotal. In the middle, a warm, funny story of a Parisian madame traveling with her ladies to the countryside for her niece’s first communion. ★★★★

*

L'École des facteurs (dir. Jacques Tati, 1947). A short film with Tati as an indefatigible novice postman. Wonderful physical comedy and sight gags, reminiscent of Buster Keaton and Laurel and Hardy. I must admit: I found my one try at a full-length Tati (Jour de fête) less than satisfying. But this short film is just right. ★★★★

*

Routine Pleasures (dir. Jean-Pierre Gorin, 1986). Partly an exploration of the world of model-train enthusiasts, partly an exploration of the world of film critic and painter Manny Farber. The link between the two worlds seems to be Farber’s idea of “termite art,” though that link is left largely unexplained. The train guys are a delight: rising through hidden doors to survey their layout, descending from on high to touch up land masses, they are as gods. But the film (just eighty minutes) feels interminable. ★★


[Click for a larger god.]

Related reading
All OCA film posts (Pinboard)

comments: 2

zzi said...

You pointed me in the direction of "Somewhere in the Night" with the pencil post. Watching for the first time, I rather enjoyed it. Now for 'The Brasher Doubloon'.

Side note: Can you use single quotes for titles?

Michael Leddy said...

You already have. :) The usual is italics for movies (or underlining, back in the day). But The New Yorker, for instance, uses quotation marks. American style is double; British, single. There’s no one way.