Friday, 29 June 2012

Still waters fall deep… Niagara (1953)

I naturally expected Niagara to be all about its young blonde star and that she’d be the heroin. Well, kind of and…not really. That honour must go to the talented Jean Peters who’s acting ability made for a believable and quite modern hero.

Marilyn is indeed an impressive presence and, commenting on the cinematographic focus on her physique, the Variety review of the time nailed it well enough: “…the natural phenomena have been magnificently photographed on location…" giving equal billing to the falls and Miss Monroe herself.

Yet this film is much more than a chance to ogle nature’s charms, it’s an intense and unsettling full-colour “noir” that unflinchingly deals in the battle for life over surrender.

A young couple, Ray (Casey Adams) and Polly Cutler (a superb Jean Peters), have come to Niagara for a belated, modest honeymoon. They arrive, car tellingly packed full of books (how long have they been wed?) and yet with a naïve glow all over them: excited to be at the falls and with each other.

Ray is also thrilled to be within site of his company’s main factory and hopes to meet up with his senior colleague – the guy sure knows how to run a honeymoon!

If this sets a reassuringly prosaic scene, their meeting with the oddest couple in the Rainbow Cabins chalets soon spins things a bit further out. The Loomis’ have outstayed their welcome but Rose (Marilyn Monroe) pleads for them to be able to stay in the plum chalet, as her husband, George (Joseph Cotton), is unwell.

We first encounter George walking alone amongst the rocks at the base of the falls, he walks back to their chalet to find Rose seemingly still asleep (she isn’t). His early morning rambles are the first indication of a mind disturbed by the brutality of war, he can’t settle and Rose provides further provocation.

She is much younger than him and far too beautiful as well – we wonder at the circumstance that has brought these two together and we know for sure that they cannot last. But sometimes they’re together and you can sense that there may have been something once but George appears to be the one incapable of holding things together…or is he also being driven to distraction by someone who knows what she’s doing.

Rose steps out in the evening and joins in the hootenany running between the chalets. She puts on her favourite record and revels in the tune for a few moments, singing along lost in the words as Polly and Ray who marvel in their different ways at this oddly passionate woman.

But then George staggers out of his chalet and rips the disc apart – angered in just the way Rose intended. Poly follows him back into the chalet and bandages his bleeding hands…the first sign of her strength of character – George is unreasonable but she’s not going to let that stop her help him.

The next day the young could sight-see at the falls and Polly catches Rose in a clinch with a handsome young man. It’s what we expected but there’s more…

Rose and George continue to pick at each other and the former plans her escape. She tricks George into going to the tunnel under the falls where he is to encounter her younger, stronger lover.

Spoilers ahead: George goes missing and a body is found but… it’s not George and Rose feints as she discovers he has turned the tables. And that, might possibly have been that, had Polly not seen George alive and well… he confesses to her what had happened and it sounds like self defence. He wants Polly to let him “stay dead” and start afresh but she can’t see why he doesn’t just go to the police and give himself up.

A triangular game of cat and mouse begins during which George catches up with Rose with the inevitable fatal outcome… it’s not pretty and, tragically, George returns to the body in almost apologetic fashion.
On the run, George steels the boat that Polly and Ray are using for a fishing trip with his colleagues.  George heads off but with an unconscious Polly on board… the boat runs out of gas and begins to drift towards the falls in a tense finale…

Niagara is maybe the first time I’ve seen Marilyn Monroe playing a morally ambiguous character and in fairly straight fashion. She’s still the over-made-up, well-stacked dame of fifties sexual fascination but a real-life version. She’s used George to get her somewhere in life and now she’s heading off with someone else.

It’s interesting how, with a slight shift in emphasis, her meaning becomes darker. From someone seemingly flaunting her agenda in an obvious way she is transformed into someone who is still doing that but as a mask for deeper motives. She acts well and is of course a joy to behold. A natural redhead her whole act was exactly that anyway… how easily we confuse the myth with the Miss.

Joseph Cotton is incredibly intense, an actor of strength and courage. He's quite hard work to watch - Orson Wells knew what he was dealing with here. He conveys all of the misery his unfortunate life has heaped on his narrow shoulders. He can’t sleep…he’s tense and nervous, can’t relax… (Ithankyou Mr David Byrne!) but he initially only kills in self defence and, ultimately, kills Rose in pity as much as revenge.

He’s decent enough to battle to save Polly even though it costs his own life: he’s dead already with Rose and he having mutually assured each other’s destruction.

Then there’s Jean Peters – of whom I knew nothing before hand – but who puts in an intelligent and compelling performance. There’s an almost feminist edge to her role in this film: she’s decisive, quick thinking and morally alert – far more so than her jovial if slightly shallow husband. When the men just want this all neatly wrapped up she persists until the truth is uncovered.

Apparently,  Peters always fought against her own “glamorisation” and there’s even a scene here in which Ray tries to get her to pose for a cheesecake bikini shot. The result was perhaps a more interesting persona that was more nuanced than many other actresses were allowed to be. But then film noire always did give room for people who had the chops to show shade along with light.

I’ll certainly be seeking out more of her films.

Niagara is frequently shown on TV and is also available from your friendly neighbourhood e-tailer.

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Vera Kholodnaya ‘The Queen of Screen’ … A Life for a Life (1916)

Yevgeni Bauer was the leading film director in pre-revolutionary Russia and it’s a joy to uncover more of his work. He operated on a similar level to the Scandinavians and Americans of this period in terms of setting out and defining film language with increasing depth and sophistication.

Watching A Life for a Life ( Zhizn za zhizn) from 1916 it doesn’t appear initially to be that ground-breaking or much different from many melodramas from the period but… the more you watch the clearer it becomes that Bauer is controlling almost every aspect of what you see with vision and verve.

Now this sounds obvious (and maybe it is) but I’ve rarely been as conscious of the actors acting when not centre stage - or of their movement and positioning indicating important issues of character or plot. The spaces they are in seem to be indicators both of emotion as well as circumstance.

As with the earlier After Death Bauer builds real spaces in which to act his dramas – they are spacious sets and built to the very edge of his relatively fixed camera frame and filled to brimming with flowers and ornaments. The actors use every inch of the stage and move around each other to be revealed in different parts of the set – reinforcing the impression of depth, solidity and the “real”.

The actors are in nearly constant motion and move back and forth and across the screen to signify different moods or developments in their relationships… I suppose you could call Bauer economical: no space goes unfilled and the actors’ movements not only tell the story they also create its rhythm.

Based on the novel by French writer, Georges Ohnet, Bauer sets the story in the Russian upper class set. Mrs Khromova (Olga Rakhmanova) is a wealthy industrialist who runs her factory very effectively – a strong female character and one you might not find in some other cultures at this time? She has a birth-daughter, the winsome but naive Musya (Lydia Koreneva) and another she has adopted, the beauteous Nata (played by Vera Kholodnaya famously Russia’s first film star ) .

Both girls are of marrying age and, whilst Nata has attracted the attention of the wealthy merchant Zhurov, (Ivane Perestiani) she does not love him. Into their lives comes the wastrel Prince Vladimir Bartinsky (Vitold Polonsky looking a little like an over made up Peter Capaldi…), who has no money and plenty of debts. He woos Musya as she is the only daughter who will inherit from their mother, yet, he has lost his heart to Nata who has no money nor, being adopted, the rights to any.

A bargain is struck between the two men and Zhurov offers to help the Prince marry Musya in return for having a free run at Nata… thus do both men abuse the trust of the family. Zhurov makes the Prince’s case to Madame Khromova but she is only finally swayed by the affection her daughter shows for this dubious character. Musya hardly knows what she’s getting into and her mother warily takes the chance.

There’s a superb set piece at the wedding when Bauer swoops the camera towards the wedding banquet and then out again after the speech: this is the heart of the story and we can only guess how things will now unfold. The omens are not good as Nata breaks down and confesses her true love to her mother who asks her to never put Musya’s happiness under threat.

These scenes are well worked with the characters moving on and off the dance floor and a breeze gently blowing Nata’s wedding viel across her face… ‘tis and ill wind…

The Prince and Musya go off on an extended honeymoon and on their return it is clear that the Prince has continued his wayward lifestyle and is gambling his wife’s dowry away. To make matters worse, the Prince is soon reunited with Nata in spite of her protestations that she now hates him. She can’t resist him and begins to help him defraud her husband. This Prince is something like the male version of a “vamp” bringing destruction to all those he touches…

There’s an horrific moment in which he re-encounters Nata and she gives in once again to his advances. Musya opens a curtain to recoil in horror as the two make love. It’s a great reaction from Lydia Koreneva.

Spoilers ahead: Zhurov uncovers the fraud and quickly sees the truth of his wife’s relationship with the Prince. He and Madame Khromova agonise over what course of action to take. She wants the Prince disposed of and he wants to tell the police but this course will only bring shame on them all.

No one seems capable of resolving the situation and the Prince prepares to brazen his way out by saying that there is no way to prove his guilt. But he reckons without the superior moral courage of Madame Khromova who taking the gun intended for his suicide, shoots him dead from across the room and then has the presence of mind to plant the weapon in his dead hands.

My teenage daughter and I were high-fiving at this point, possibly inappropriately, but in recognition of Khromova’s strength of character and willingness to act. Her daughters are both distraught but the evil in their lives has been removed. Not such a morally-questionable resolution in Russia in 1916...and it's difficult to not see political overtones.

It is also really striking to find such a strong female character in a story from this period and to find none of the men heroic.

The five leads all play well, especially Olga Rakhmanova as the matriarch, whilst Vitold Polonsky is wonderfully weasily as the pointless Prince.

The stand out though has to be the powerfully-enigmatic Vera Kholodnaya who is remarkably beautiful and also a fine naturalistic actor. Her expressive face – huge illuminated eyes – is matched by a dancer’s poise (she had classical ballet training at the Bolshoi Theatre no less) which suited Bauer’s mobile agenda, and an expressive physicality. At one point she almost shivers with disgust – a violent shake of her shoulders – whilst at other times she is more understated than you’d expect: carrying a lot within even though in torment.

A Life for a Life was the film which inspired the actor/singer Alexander Vertinsky to dub her ‘the Queen of Screen’ – he was besotted along with many of his countrymen, and she went from strength to strength as world war gave way to revolution in Russia.

Kholodyana made over 50 films but sadly only five remain. She died in the spanish flu pandemic in early 1919 and the Milestone DVD I watched has footage from her funeral in Odessa; a sad coda to a film that shows her in such vibrancy. The attendance at her passing was huge and she was much loved yet by the mid-twenties the communist regime had ordered the destruction of most of her films. We are lucky that enough remains to show us her talent and to enable her to live on as an artist.

Vera’s other extant work is difficult to find but there are reasonable copies of the following on youtube…it may be a good time to learn Russian though…
Children of the Age - Deti Veka (1915)
Be Silent, My Sorrow, Be Silent - Molchi, grust... molchi (1918)
The other titles¸ The Mirages - Mirazhi (1915) and A Corpse Living - Zhivoy trup (1918), are proving harder to track down!

A Life for a Life is available direct from Milestone as Volume 9: High Society of their Early Russian Film collection. It is based on the BFI restoration from the early 1990s and features a stirring piano accompaniment from Neil Brand. In addition to the main feature there’s also a winsome short comedy, Autosha Ruined by a Corset … proof that the Russians were equally capable of laughing as crying.

Immensely spirited, Bauer and Kholodyana are deserved of more attention. Overcome by events and ill-health they were major figures of world cinema at a time of great advances as well as social and political instability.

Friday, 15 June 2012

Ben Hur (1925), Carl Davis and Philharmonia Orchestra, Royal Festival Hall, London

Roman Novarro

Guest blogger:
In a departure for ithankyou, we welcome film historian Dr Sylvia Hardy as guest commentator...

Watching the 1925 silent film, Ben Hur at the Royal Festival Hall on Saturday evening was an extraordinary experience. The remastered print was accompanied by a new score, written and conducted by Carl Davis and the combined effect was magnificent. At the end of the two and a half hour performance the orchestra was given four standing ovations.

Roman Novarro and Francis X Bushman square up
Would the film have been as impressive without the accompaniment? Almost certainly not. Because the music both reflected and augmented the actions and emotions of the characters and the events of the story it was hard to realise that this was a silent film. As Kevin Brownlow points out, although film editing became more complicated mechanically with the introduction of sound, ‘it was never more challenging aesthetically than at the height of the silent era’; he cites the chariot race from Ben Hur as an example.

The greatest spectacle in cinematic history?
Equally impressive is the huge action sequence earlier in the film when the pirate ships ram the Roman fleet and Ben Hur is freed from his shackles as a galley-slave. Both these episodes were enormously enhanced by recurrent musical themes which reach a triumphant conclusion.

48 cameras were used to film the sea battle
The religious, semi-mystical aspects of the film – an important aspect of the film - were also brought out and developed by the musical accompaniment. Possible traces of sentimentality – after all, conventions of representation in such areas have changed considerably since the 1920s - were expunged, and unlikely incidents became genuinely moving.

Betty Bronson as Mary
Dr Sylvia Hardy is an academic specialising in Edwardian Literature and British Film. She is a former secretary of the Wellsian Society and author of H.G. Wells and British Silent Cinema: The War of the Worlds (published in Young And Innocent? The Cinema in Britain, 1896-1930).

She attended the screening of Ben Hur because her son-in-law was up a soggy mountain in Scotland...

I've only watched the film on DVD and the full spectacle of live orchestra and big screen sounds something else. Superb action and powerful performances from Novarro, Bushman, Bronson et al. Encore Mr Davis!!

Monday, 11 June 2012

Phenomenal Mary Pickford… The Hoodlum (1919)

There’s been a great deal on Mary Pickford over recent weeks in this thing we may still call the blogosphere, chiefly as part of the excellent Pickford Blogathon run by Classic Movies.

I have to confess to knowing very little about this powerhouse of early silent film. Her fame pretty much matched that of Chaplin and she was arguably the most famous woman in cinema, if not the World, during the Great War and beyond.

I’d seen her act very intelligently in the Griffiths short, The New York Hat but had been put off further investigation by an impression that she acted “under her age” and in flimsy comedy-dramas that were of strictly "pop" appeal.

Well, once again, I was wrong and now it’s my turn to gush...

Mary Pickford was the most popular actress of this period because she was undoubtedly technically advanced and because she controlled the quality of her productions. She also looked the part and watching The Hoodlum from 1919, she projected an easy-going likeability that was no doubt the result of many years work in perfecting her craft but which also came from within. She was natural, relaxed and good looking - someone you could easily connect with.

Here the script is a bit wayward but it matters not because Mary holds it all together with a sureness of expression that is quite remarkable. She’s next-door naturalistic all the way through from the spoilt brat at the beginning to the street hustling dice player who wins over the Craigen Street locals and then the lover who stands up for the wronged man at the end.

Pickford had a comic touch that seemingly transcends common sense: she takes us with her with a nod and a wink of massive energetic eyes that convey almost unlimited emotional intelligence.

Mary plays Amy Burke the grand-daughter of the fearsome multi-millionaire Alexander Guthrie (Ralph Lewis) who lives in the lap of 5th Avenue luxury getting her way whenever she likes. She throws tantrums, tortures her poor cat and drives like a mad woman.

Her father (Dwight Crittendon) is absent, involved in some vague research down town where he lives amongst the poor people of Craigen Street documenting their living conditions and doing good work.

Grandpa Guthrie asks Amy to come travelling with him but she refuses wanting to spend more time with her father. This does not go down well and we see a space open up between the two as she heads for a new experience below her class.

Amy learns early on that she must blend in to preserve her father’s “life’s work” and not give the game away. She quickly transforms from a spoilt brat into a street wise, wise-cracking bowery babe, playing craps, dancing in the street and playing the local police for fools.

A mysterious stranger arrives to stay, Peter Cooper, who is quickly revealed to the audience as Guthrie in not very convincing disguise… He has come to observe his grand daughter and is appalled - what has happened to his princess?

But Amy is now part of this new society and helps to look after her neighbours…helping to stop the feud between two neighbours by setting up a mock fight for one to rescue the other, getting help for a sick mother unable to tend to her many children and generally pitching in using her energy for good.

She also takes a shine to a young man, John Graham (Kenneth Harlan) who is seemingly an impoverished painter but who is actually hiding a secret: he was wrongly found guilty of fraud and, after serving his time, is trying to gather evidence to regain his good name.

The man he holds responsible for his misfortune is one Alexander Guthrie …oh dear.

Amy begins to drag the bearded old man into events and, reluctantly at first, her Grandfather begins to see the benefit of giving and he sees that this experience has made Amy a better person. But things come to a head as Amy, finally learning John’s secret, helps him break into her Grandfather’s house to steal the ledger that will show his innocence.

Things go awry and they are caught by the police and then by Guthrie. Devastated by Amy’s seemingly criminal betrayal, he tells the police that he will deal with them. Amy tells him of John’s situation and then Guthrie is revealed to be the caring and generous Peter Cooper… There are more twists and turns than in a Regency play but everything works out in the end and we finish with Amy marrying John and heading off to happiness after one last comic flourish.

So…The Hoodlum is no earnest masterpiece of social commentary but it is a very entertaining film and you do care for the characters. A lot of this is down to Mary Pickford and her peculiar gift must have been to carry films no matter what the premise and the quality of script.

She just has it all within her range and you believe her. Whether you’d believe her as a 12 year old girl or even a boy is another matter but here she’s reasonably close to her age (26 at the time, playing maybe late teens?) and the setting is contemporary and realistic.

Craigen Street would have been a recognisable reality for most of the cinema audiences and Mary was someone they could easily identify with even after the opening scenes of comic tantrums. They would trust in her ability to become one of them and to reflect their lives on screen just as much as Chaplin.

I watched a VHS of the Milestone edition of The Hoodlum which features an vigorous score from Bonnie Janofsky. As you all probably know, Milestone have done much to maintain Pickford’s memory and are the leading source of her films on DVD. It’s a shame more films aren’t more readily available but visit the Milestone site and I challenge you to come away empty handed!

The titles alone say it all about the Pickford phenomenon, everyman adventures with laughs and uplifting endings... Amirilly of Clothes Line Alley, Tess of the Storm Country and Heart O' the Hills. We can kid ourselves that we've moved on but no one is more sophisticated than Mary Pickford. She helped invent film acting and works on levels that still move to this day.

There’s also a very good Mary Pickford documentary on YouTube, it’s the PBS film and narrated by the exemplary Laura Linney.

I know a bit more about Mary Pickford now and will watch more with interest. Can anyone recommend any good biographies?

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Under-the-surface tension… La Piscine (1969)

Under an unrelenting Provençale sun, a couple lounge around a swimming pool stirring only to slip into the water or to make love. In the sun soaked silence the two seem beaten down into their own stillness by the heat and content to just be where they are in spite of the proximity of “suffering St Tropez”.

So begins Jacques Deray's La unflinching examination of humanity by the pool, stuck between holiday and horror.

Alain Delon plays Jean-Paul Leroy, an advertising copywriter who would rather be a novelist, if he could really find the time and good fortune. His wife is Marianne (Romy Schneider) who is happy to be with her man as he takes a break from the unsatisfying search for perfect copy and the disappointment of his latest book rejection.

The two have a sado-masochistic relationship with Marianne asking Jean-Paul to scratch her back – “no one does it like you…” whilst in the evening the latter takes a leafy branch to gently beat her bare back. There’s something vaguely unsettling in the nature of their relationship although clearly Marienne dotes on Jean-Paul but he is a man deep in disappointment.

Their retreat is disturbed by a phone call from Harry Lannier (Maurice Ronet) one of Jean’s oldest friends and a long-time ex of Marienne’s. He’s in the area and has somehow tracked them down. Marianne is pleased at the prospect of seeing their gregarious and energetic friend but Jean-Paul is reluctant.

Harry arrives in an impressive sports car and with his 18-year old daughter, Penelope (Jane Birkin) the result of a long-ago relationship. He’s an extrovert working in the music industry and who has friends all over the place which makes us wonder all the more just why he had to interrupt the Leroy’s holiday for two…

Harry stirs the couple out of their sun-stroked stupor and is warmly received by Marienne – we’re not sure if she’s over Harry and we’re clear that he isn’t over her although whether he’s driven by anything other than the needs to “have” just another beautiful possession is not clear. Harry’s a bit boorish and quite selfish. Marienne, as becomes increasingly clear, is quite self –less.

Jean-Paul is cold towards Harry. Only later do we fully understand how far their relationship goes back. They are boy-hood pals ultimately in long-term competition and not really friends anymore: it’s clear who Harry’s here for.

Harry returns from a trip to St Tropez with a take-away, ready-cooked party – sports cars, guitars and short skirts abound. As things ramp up Harry dances with Marianne, rather too intimately for Jean-Paul to bear.

Already interested in Harry’s daughter, Jean-Paul takes off with her to go swimming… The two arrive back very late and a line has been crossed. Marianne – never convinced that her hold on Jean was absolute and always willing to set him free – offers to leave if Jean wants to pursue Penelope.

Harry and Jean argue in a very male way… not directly addressing the obvious and getting drunk. Harry goes off to St Tropez and returns home late at night… Jean is waiting for him and the two are finally able to tell each other what they think of their poisoned relationship.

Spoilers... Harry falls into the swimming pool and Jean overcome with years of his own failures and Harry’s successes and spurred on by Harry’s over-familiarity with Marianne… drowns him. This scene is horrible to watch as first Harry falls into the pool and then Harry pulls him back but then lets him go… up until the last we expect him to pull Harry free but the act is committed in slow motion fits and starts… Jean making his mind up as he goes along. The cruelty we had seen with Marianne now manifesting itself fully and sickeningly with his pushing Harry slowly and firmly back into the depths.

Jean covers up his crime but after the funeral Inspector Lévêque (Paul Crauchet) arrives from Marseilles homicide to dig deeper than the local police have managed…

Will Jean escape with his crime and will he even admit it? And will Marianne stand by him in spite of what looks like their ruined relationship? She has already sacrificed a lot for this intense and disappointing man will she walk away for herself or stay for him?

Delon and Schneider – who were married in the early 60s – make an excellent couple. There’s an unspoken edge to their relationship that creates a strange mood from the start as they lounge about weighed down by the sun and the pull of the water in the titular pool. They are being sucked together and may never be able to escape from their situation.

Delon is understandably one of the leading men of the period, extreme good looks matched by an enigmatic presence and emotional discordance.

Schneider is easily his match both in terms of emotional intensity and in having the bluest eyes in cinematic history. If you really have to spend two hours watching a couple of actors in bathing costumes…you’d struggle to do better.

Jane Birkin plays well as the bored teenager who provides the tipping point for their marriage breakdown but she’s a little stiff in comparison and even I can pick up her English accent and a rather stilted delivery. But maybe that’s the point.

Maurice Ronet’s Harry is a successful failure who largely has only his own interests at heart. His appreciation for his daughter is more as an object to make him look good – like his sports car – and he only wants Marriene for two things (his need to humiliate his “friend” Jean being the other…).

All is filmed superbly by Jacques Deray who uses the beautiful location to almost claustrophobic effect: the Provençal hills always pressing down on the house, its inhabitants and the swimming pool.

Needless to say the new Blu-ray disc transfer is crystal clear - it's available from all good Amazons... I look forward to my trip to the south of France in summer but there won’t be a pool where we’re staying...