Saturday, February 25, 2012

Ante Meridiem Theatre: David Cronenberg’s “Rabid”

A near collision culminates with Rose (Marilyn Chambers) pinned underneath a motorcycle in flames. She and the other rider, Hart (Frank Moore), are rushed to the nearby Keloid Clinic, where plastic surgeon Dr. Keloid (Howard Ryshpan) immediately begins surgery on Rose. He employs a revolutionary process called “neutral field grafts,” in which skin grafted onto the woman’s burned body would aid in the growth of new tissue. An unforeseen side effect is a slit underneath Rose’s left armpit, from which protrudes a stinger-like organ used for feeding on blood. What’s even worse is that Rose’s victims don’t die but rather turn into raving zombies that, in turn, attack and infect others.

David Cronenberg’s Rabid (1977) is an early film for the Canadian director but still displays the type of themes he would continually return to, including metamorphosis, physical or otherwise. It’s also an early movie for producer/director Ivan Reitman, who produced this movie and Cronenberg’s previous film, Shivers (1975/aka They Came from Within).

The sexual implications of Rabid are unmistakable. But what holds even more weight is a more general comparison of genders and a critical assessment, it would seem, of masculinity. One can’t help but associate some of Rose’s qualities – her new body part and its corresponding violence – with masculinity and the woman’s human characteristics – her guilt, expressions of pain, even her smile – with her own femininity. Or more simply: the monster is male, the human is female.

In the same vein, the majority of Rose’s victims are male, most of whom are aggressive or too brazen and seemingly deserve their fate. The rabid men’s attacks are ferocious – they hurl themselves at people while foaming at the mouth – but Rose feeds with a mere hug, and an arguably more potent result. She ends most attacks by gently stroking the victim’s hair, a compassionate act that further differentiates the monster (male) from the woman herself. Perhaps most significantly, the doctor, who’s essentially responsible for Rose’s condition, is a man who tries to improve the female body and fails miserably.

Cronenberg excels at perverting the ordinary. A crowded subway train becomes confined and inescapable when one of the infected passengers begins attacking others. A surgeon asking for a surgical instrument is really just asking for a weapon when he’s rabid and craving blood. Movie theatres aren’t relaxing, shopping malls are anything but leisurely, and hospitals are better at creating sicknesses than curing them.

Chambers, born Marilyn Ann Briggs, first gained notoriety in adult features before leaving the industry and starring in mainstream films. Rabid was her first starring role in mainstream. She returned to adult pictures and eventually starred in indie films. Chambers began her career as a model and was pictured on the box for Ivory Snow laundry detergent in the 1970s – she’s a smiling mother holding an infant. The multitalented woman was also a singer and had some success with the single, “Benihana”, which is featured in Rabid, playing on the radio while Hart is in the garage w
orking on his bike.

Sissy Spacek was reportedly the actress whom Cronenberg originally wanted to play Rose. In the film, actress Chambers passes a movie poster for Carrie, Brian De Palma’s 1976 movie starring Spacek.

A keloid or keloid scar – the doctor’s namesake in Rabid – is scar tissue growth that typically occurs following a skin injury.

So what’s the moral of Rabid? Well, it could be that men without inhibitions would turn into rabid, mindless, infectious, murderous freaks. Or maybe it’s that men should respect women and accept them as the stronger, more adaptable sex. But I like to think it’s this: Hugging a person you love is good. Hugging strangers or people you barely know is bad, especially if they’ve just undergone experimental surgery.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Classic Movie Dogathon: 101 Dalmatians

101 Dalmatians ranks easily as my favorite Disney animated feature. It puzzles me that it’s rarely mentioned among the Disney classics like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Bambi, and Pinocchio. While I admire those films, they fail to blend the critical animated film elements—well-developed characters, quality artwork, and strong narrative—with the ease of 101 Dalmatians. (Admit it, both Snow White and Pinocchio have their share of slow spots.)

Set in London, the well-known plot traces the courtship and marriage of Dalmatians Pongo and Perdy (and their human “pets” Roger and Anita). It’s a happy home until Anita’s wealthy “friend” Cruella De Vil pays a visit and decides that Perdita’s puppies would make “such perfectly beautiful coats.” Hiding her intentions, Cruella tries to buy the puppies. When Roger and Anita refuse, Cruella has her bumbling goons Horace and Jasper kidnap the pups.

It’s a lively, entertaining story rich with fully developed characters. Even the puppies get memorable personalities, with my favorite of the litter being the plump Rollie who spouts classic lines like: “I’m so hungry I could eat an elephant” and (a few minutes later) “I’m hungry, Mother…I really am.”

Anyone who has loved a dog will appreciate the care with which the animators have captured canine traits. Pongo drags Roger mercilessly on walks, shakes off water vigorously when wet, and sticks his butt in the air when getting playful.

Indeed, the entire film exhibits a delightful fondness for little details. Like all parents, Pongo and Perdy spell out certain words in front of their children—important canine words like W-A-L-K. As with many children, the puppies are glued to the TV screen for their favorite show (the adventures of the heroic dog Thunderbolt). The TV show is even sponsored by a children’s food (Kanine Krunchies). And when the the spotted dogs are pursued by Horace and Jasper, they roll into coal dust to disguise themselves as black Labradors. My favorite little touch, though, is the “twilight bark,” a canine telegraph system in which dogs howl important messages to one another each evening.

Technically, 101 Dalmatians boasts splendid animation. The London buildings and the rural countryside are painted with charm and detail (to include a flashing neon billboard for Kanine Krunchies). The use of shadows and silhouettes brings depth to the images. Even the direction is imaginative, as evidenced by the clever scene of Roger and Anita’s wedding. As the “camera” pulls back through a church window, we see that Pongo and Perdy are holding paws as part of their own matrimonial ceremony.

In my opinion, 101 Dalmatians was the last great American-made animated film until Disney revived the genre in the 1990s with Broadway-style musicals like The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast.

Be sure to check out the rest of the films in the Classic Movie Dogathon. Click here for the full schedule.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Classic Movie Dogathon: Courage of Lassie

A litter of beautiful Collie puppies is running around and playing in a forest that borders on a lake. They are fearless and happy and occasionally kept in place by their mother. A boat arrives, driven by Frank Morgan, and collects the mother and pups, taking them away with him, except for one who has gone off on an adventure of his own. We follow this little guy as he plays with other animals and then realizes he has been away from his pack for a long time. We share his angst as he realizes they are traveling far away on the boat and he cannot get to them. This begins to instill the courage that the pup will need to survive.

Courage of Lassie was the second of three Lassie films helmed by Fred M. Wilcox. It is fascinating in that it is truly a dog's tale, as opposed to being a story that focuses on people who happen to have a dog. This work introduces us to a remarkable pup who ends up being tried in court. Wilcox had a gift for focusing on the visual aspect of film. The opening scene is devoid of people and dialogue for several minutes until Morgan arrives. Then the dialogue ceases again until the pup has grown over a few months, is almost drowned, and is shot by two boys. This is when the Collie meets a lovely young girl named Kathie, Elizabeth Taylor in her second Lassie film, who nurses him, loves him dearly, and names him Bill.  Kathie's family is hard working and she trains Bill to herd the family's sheep.

This dog's life is not an easy one and he undergoes many harrowing moments including making rescues in a blizzard and on a battlefield (he has been renamed Duke at this point). Courage of Lassie is a movie that draws the viewer in and keeps him firmly planted in his seat. It is frightening to see the Collie's actions on trial when he cannot speak for himself. Frank Morgan tries to speak for him but doesn't know or understand many of the circumstances that have brought Bill to this point.

Courage of Lassie tugged at my heartstrings especially in two ways. First, in many scenes in which the dog couldn't just say "My name is Bill and I live with Kathie. Won't you take me home, please?" Had anyone put a collar on him with a phone number or address it would have communicated this for him. Second, it highlighted the fact that war dogs can suffer Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder just like human veterans.

Pal is the wonderfully talented male Collie who played Bill/Duke. He starred in all seven Lassie films and played Lassie in four of them. In The Painted Hills he was named Shep. Pal actually played Laddie in The Son of Lassie.

Be sure to check out the rest of the films in the Classic Movie Dogathon. Click here for the full schedule.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Classic Movie Dogathon: Greyfriars Bobby

In 1865, on Cauldbrae Farm, sheepherder Old Jock (Alex Mackenzie) travels to Edinburgh, since the family he works for can no longer afford to pay him. The family dog, a Skye Terrier named Bobby, has taken a liking to Old Jock, and the fiercely loyal canine follows the man for the 20-mile distance to Greyfriars Place. Old Jock, however, is an ailing man, and he succumbs to pneumonia. He’s buried in Greyfriars Kirkyard, where Bobby evades the cranky caretaker, Mr. Brown (Donald Crisp), and sleeps atop Old Jock’s grave.

Before long, Bobby has his routine down: He spends his nights in the kirkyard, and his days in the city, some of the hours spent at a diner that Old Jock frequented. The restaurant owner, Mr. Traill (Laurence Naismith), a
lready acquainted with the terrier, feeds him each day – at Bobby’s own table. Bobby wins over everyone, from Mr. Traill to the city’s children and even Mr. Brown and his wife, who appreciate the terrier killing the rats in the kirkyard. It seems that everyone wants to claim Bobby as their own, but eventually it’s a matter of specifying ownership: the local authorities wish to identify an owner to pay an expensive licensing fee, or the stray dog will be taken away.

Greyfriars Bobby (1961), directed by Don Chaffey, is a Walt Disney film based on Eleanor Atkinson’s 1912 novel of the same name, from a true story about a dog in 19th-century Edinburgh who slept on his master’s grave for 14 years. Chaffey does a superb job of presenting Bobby as the film’s protagonist, keeping the camera at the dog’s level, particularly when no humans are around. Bobby is an adorable ball of fur, and there are endless shots of the dog sprinting across open land, a wonderful and delightful sight.

The movie is not as depressing as the plot might suggest. It’s an inspiring tale, not only of a dog’s loyalty and devotion, but also of the good which he instills into the people he surrounds. There’s a remarkable scene when the children, all of poor families, bring Bobby to Mr. Traill for a promised shilling
. The man first feeds Bobby, and the kids are unquestionably envious that a dog is eating stew made with real chicken. Mr. Traill takes the children to the kitchen, and they have what he calls a picnic, an act which sparks a genuine relationship between the diner owner and kids. Likewise, the barely restrained animosity between Mr. Traill and Mr. Brown progressively dissipates the more time they spend with Bobby.
Highlights of the film: Old Jock sneaking Bobby into a lodging house in a knapsack; Mr. Brown’s never-ending allusions to the kirkyard regulation of “No Dogs Permitted” (even picking up Bobby at one point so that the wee dog, presumably, can read it for himself); Mr. Traill’s obvious unhappiness at the family taking Bobby back to the farm; and Mr. Brown’s wife coaxing her husband, who doesn’t hide his aversion for the terrier, into giving Bobby a bath.

Bobby steals the film, but the performances from the humans are solid all around. Naismith is especially good, particularly his scene in which he makes an argument in court against any person being Bobby’s owner and refuses to pay the fee out of principle. It’s also a treat to watch two patrons of the diner, both of whom make snide
remarks about Bobby, being put in their place by Mr. Traill – including a veiled threat against a man who suggests striking the dog.

A kirkyard is not technically a graveyard, but a churchyard. This is why, in the movie, Old Jock’s former employer believes it “grand” that he’s buried there – it’s consecrated ground. (It’s chosen for the sheepherder because it’s the closest place for a proper burial.)
Crisp started in Hollywood as an actor and became a director during the silent era. He later returned to acting full time and had a successful career, earning an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for How Green Was My Valley (1941). Naismith was a regular on the TV show, The Persuaders! with Roger Moore and Tony Curtis, and also had a small part in the 007 film, Diamonds Are Forever (1971).

Chaffey is perhaps best known for his fantasy films, including Jason and the Argonauts (1963, featuring Naismith as Argos, whose ship is the Argonauts’ namesake), One Million Years B.C. (1966) and Creatures the World Forgot (1971). He also directed episodes of notable TV series, such as The Prisoner (including the first episode), Danger Man (aka Secret Agent), The Avengers, Fantasy Island, Charlie’s Angels and T.J. Hooker.

Atkinsons book also provided the basis for the 1949 film, Challenge for Lassie. Interestingly, actor Crisp appears in the film as Jock, companion to Lassie, the Bobby substitute. Another adaptation was released in 2006 as The Adventures of Greyfriars Bobby. Bobby in this movie is a West Highland White Terrier, chosen in lieu of a Skye Terrier for purely visual reasons. Christopher Lee has a small but significant role in the film.

It’s very difficult not to associate a dog’s hanging tongue with a smile. When dogs are happy, the panting commences, and tongues invariably fall out. The canine hero of Greyfriars Bobby spends much of the film’s duration flashing his doggie smile, and it seems impossible not to smile along with him. Bobby is always by Old Jock’s side, despite not being the man’s dog, because as Mr. Traill says, “a dog chooses his own master.” Is the title of the movie a reference to everyone in the city as Bobby’s owners? It’s more likely that Bobby owns the city, from the people’s hearts to a monopoly on cuteness.

Click here to see the full schedule for the Classic Movie Dogathon.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

Who runs Washington? How does one become a congressperson, a senator, or the president? These questions were asked in 1939—and are still being asked today. Americans would like to think that idealists like Jefferson Smith (James Stewart) go to Washington to serve the best interests of those they represent.  Yet, in reality, few idealists ever get to Washington, and if they do get there they are quickly disillusioned by the political process.  Most rational Americans today know that the political process has been corrupted, but I’m not quite so sure that people were so aware of what happened in Washington back in 1939—the year this film, like so many other classics, hit the silver screen.
mr-smith_M_jpg_627x325_crop_upscale_q85Nominated for eleven Academy Awards (Best Picture, Best Director [Frank Capra], Best Actor [James Stewart], Best Supporting Actor [Harry Carey and Claude Rains], Best Score, Best Sound Recording, Best Film Editing, Best Interior Direction, Best Screenplay, and Best Original Story [winner Lewis R. Foster]), the film was almost put on the shelf after the outbreak of WWII in Europe.  It would seem that some thought the film presented the shining beacon of democracy as a corrupt cesspool operated by political thugs.  And, really, those people were partly right, but there’s more to the story than that.  Sure, director Frank Capra shows the dirt under the political rug, but he also brightly polishes the true meaning of patriotism and republicanism. 

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is the simple story of a common man thrown into a complicated situation.  Jefferson Smith is called upon to represent his state (never identified) as a junior senator when his predecessor, Sam Foley, dies.  Needing to fill the position with someone who will be easy to control, mr_smith_taylorGovernor "Happy" Hopper (Guy Kibbee) chooses Mr. Smith because he is regarded as a hero and loved for his work with the Boy Rangers (think Boy Scouts)—plus, he has no political experience whatsoever.  As such, he represents, in the words of the governor, “the perfect man, never in politics in his life, wouldn't know what it was all about in two years, let alone two months. And the important thing it means votes. A hero of 50,000 boys, and a hundred thousand parents.” 
Why is it so important that the governor find a “yes” man?  Because he and every political office holder in the state are beholden to political boss Jim Taylor (Eddie Arnold). Taylor has bought up land surrounding a canyon along Willet Creek and wants his political stooges to push through a bill that will provide government funding for a dam—which would mr_smith_bad-guys1-500x375allow him to sell the land he’s bought up for a huge profit. Quite simply, it’s the blue ribbon of political pork. Taylor controls everyone, even Senator Joe Paine (Claude Rains), a man some think might be the next president. Indeed, Senator Paine is admired by many, especially by Mr. Smith, whose father was Paine’s best friend. Ah, the dangers of hero-worship.

Capra is quite crafty in how he juxtaposes the backroom dealings of a corrupt political machine with Mr. Smith’s honest reverence for freedom and democracy.  While Taylor, Hopper and Paine are always working the system in closed rooms (they choose who’s allowed in), Mr. Smith revels in the openness of the monuments of Washington (where everyone is welcome).  Even the Senate chamber (expertly mr-smith-goes-to-washington1recreated by Lionel Banks) is used to show the many faces of the political process. While Smith sits at his desk, once occupied by Daniel Webster, he can see common, everyday people looking on in the gallery. Yet, in this same chamber, you can see senators working the system and attempting to stymie the wheels of truth and justice.

There is an educational bent to the film as well. Mr. Smith’s secretary, Clarissa Saunders (the top-billed Jean Arthur), is supposed to make sure he shows up for roll call and that he votes how the machine wants.  In the beginning, she thinks he’s a big dope and refers to him as Daniel Boone and Don Quixote.  You see, she is the cynical Washington insider who knows how things work, and when some country bumpkin starts spouting off about the virtues of democracy smith_wash01she thinks he’s beyond naïve. She’s also not pleased that he wants to write a bill to start a national boy’s camp.  And, this is where the educational bent comes in.  Trying to dissuade him from his idea she explains the very long and tedious process of what it takes to get a bill passed.  Just her explanation alone is a civic lesson in itself—and perhaps an eye-opener for many audience members.  You must remember, they didn’t have School House Rock and “I’m Just a Bill” in 1939!
Of course, the fact that he wants to build this camp along Willet Creek also creates another problem for Saunders—as she knows about Taylor and Paine’s porked-up plan.  What to do?  Like many secretaries of the 1930s, Saunders is smarter than the boss and so she holds his hand as he first presents the bill and then gives himrsmithfilibuster2m a crash course in political trench warfare after Paine and the machine discredit and crucify him.  And, this brings us to the famous 23-hour filibuster, where Mr. Smith refuses to yield the floor by reading from the Constitution and various other documents in the hopes that someone, specifically Paine, will clear his good name. Jimmy Stewart always played his righteous characters with just enough instability that they didn’t seem sanctimonious and/or preachy.  You see the complete destruction of his character in these scenes.  At the beginning of the filibuster he seems hopeful and self-assured—surely he will be able to convince the 011809mrsmith-300x211chamber that he is innocent.  But slowly, his strong voice and straight as a rod back start to falter.  His posture droops, his voice cracks, his clothes wrinkle, his hair musses.  What did democracy look like in 1787? Perhaps like Jefferson Smith when he began his filibuster—confident and composed. What does democracy look like in 1939? Like Mr. Smith at the end of his filibuster—defeated and disheveled.  Ah, have heart, there’s more to the story than that, but you need to watch it for yourself to find out. 

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is a political morality tale about living up to the principles of republicanism—government of the people, by the people, for the people.  Who knew a monument could play a supporting role in a film? Everyone, even Lincoln himself, plays their part well. Eddie Arnold is the epitome of the vile political boss whomsgwa_stl_5_h will stop at nothing (not even running children off the road) to get what he wants. Claude Rains takes the part of cynical politician to a whole new level—you either want to slap or hug him.  Jean Arthur is her usual wise-cracking self, playing a Washington-weary woman just waiting for the right man to come along so she can show her heart of gold.  And, James Stewart does naïve as only he can—desperation and despondency never looked so believable. 
Final assessment: we could use more Jefferson Smiths in America today. Oh, and the film is quite good, too.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The Price of Political Ambition in "Posse" and "The Candidate"

This month's focus on politics in movies continues with two films from the 1970s, each a labor of love for its star: Posse and The Candidate.

Kirk Douglas produced, directed, and starred in Posse, an ambitious political Western about Texas marshal Howard Nightingale, a candidate for the U.S. Senate. Nightingale has built his campaign around capturing the notorious railroad-robbing outlaw Jack Strawhorn (Bruce Dern). Unfortunately, with the election approaching quickly, Strawhorn's capture has proven difficult--even for Nightengale's posse of six highly-paid professionals. However, when a payoff reveals Strawhorn's whereabouts, Nightingale and his posse burn down the barn containing Strawhorn's men and the $40,000 loot obtained from their latest robbery. To the marshal's extreme displeasure, Strawhorn manages to escape...though not for long.

If Posse was intended as a cynical editorial on the politically-turbulent 1970s, it never quite reaches that goal. Its message is ultimately muted, but there are still pleasures along the way. Douglas and company nicely convey that political strategies have changed little over the last 120 years. Nightingale's campaign speeches consist of vague promises like being tough on crime. He fights with a local newspaper editor played by James Stacey. He employs his own photographer to make sure that no photo opportunities are missed (even when he poses solemnly after burying one of his posse). Nightingale even travels in a luxurious train car, courtesy of the railroad--it's no coincidence that his populist rhetoric stresses the importance of railroads in building the country's future.

Yet, while Nightingale's future looks promising, the same can't be said for his posse. Their boss proudly informs the gunmen that he has secured them jobs as security guards for the railroad for $100 a month. Their response: We make more than that now. When a Native American member of the posse notes that the railroad doesn't hire Indians, Douglas replies with an offhand: "We'll have to work that out." Yes, trouble is brewing within the ranks of the posse.

Kirk Douglas directs with a sure hand, though at the expense of fleshing out what really makes Nightingale tick. Bruce Dern fares much better as the charming and crafty Strawhorn. Remarkably restrained, it may be my favorite Dern performance.

An unnecessary death mars what could have been one of cinema's all-time great endings--but it's still very good. In the end, Posse is a satisfying, offbeat portrait of political ambition and its consequences.

The same theme gets a very different treatment in The Candidate, Robert Redford's inconsistent tale of a young California lawyer's rise from small-time crusader to the U.S. Senate. Redford stars as Bill McKay, the son of a popular former governor, who has no political aspirations--until an astute campaign manager (wonderfully played by Peter Boyle) seeks him out. McKay is reluctant to agree to run for office. He wants a guarantee that he can "say what I want, do what I want, go where I please." Boyle's character agrees, noting that it means McKay will lose the election.

The campaign gets off to a promising start, with the press embracing McKay's frank views. But when his message fails to click with the public, his campaign team shifts to vague rhetoric and (amusingly) empty TV spots that capitalize on the candidate's looks while saying nothing of substance. McKay starts to rise in the polls and suddenly seems capable of unseating his three-term incumbent opponent.

It's easy to see what Redford and director Michael Ritchie wanted to do with The Candidate. Three years earlier, they had teamed for Downhill Racer, a sharp portrait of an inconsiderate human being who also happened to be a great skier. Unfortunately, the lead character in The Candidate simply lacks interest. We should feel something when McKay realizes--quite belatedly--that he has sold out. Instead, it means little because we never really got to know McKay in the first place. He is a bland enigma at the start of the film and remains so at the end.

To his credit, Ritchie provides an absorbing insider look at the campaign trail, from the musty hallways of the hotels to the camera crew following the candidate around, hoping for a snippet that can be used in a TV spot. His use of handheld cameras is effective at first, but quickly grows weary.

Despite its shortcomings, The Candidate was a boxoffice hit. Redford was on the verge of superstar status and the film was certainly timely (it was released during the 1972 Presidential primaries). However, if you're seeking an original political picture from the 1970s, then I recommend you ride along with Kirk Douglas's Posse.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Poldark: Romance, Adventure, and First-Rate Drama in 18th Century Cornwall

Before Downton Abbey, there was Poldark. Despite having nothing in common in terms of plot and setting, these British television series share a fervid following in Great Britain and America. The difference is that Downton has benefited from today's entertainment-obsessed media. Poldark had to build its following the old-fashioned way through a few glowing reviews and word of mouth. Still, over 35 years since its original broadcast, Poldark remains immensely popular. When the Cafe included it among our 10 Must-See Classic British TV Series, Poldark fans from across the Twitterverse clamored for a review dedicated to their favorite show. So, when Acorn Media released the complete series in a value-priced DVD set on January 31st, it seemed like the ideal time to post a piece on Poldark.

Robin Ellis as Ross Poldark.
Set in late 18th century Cornwall, Winston Graham's sweeping historical drama centers on the Poldark and Warleggan families (although there are plenty of subplots involving other characters). In the opening episode, Captain Ross Poldark, supposedly killed during the American Revolution, returns home to find his father dead, his estate in ruins, and his fiancee Elizabeth about to marry his cousin. Rather than becoming bitter, the resolute Ross (Robin Ellis) sets out to get his affairs in order. His biggest challenge is Elizabeth (Jill Townsend), who still loves Ross but has developed doubts about his "dark side." Elizabeth's rejection of Ross impacts not only their lives, but ultimately those of two other key characters:  Demelza Carne (Angharad Rees), an impoverished young woman employed by Ross, and George Warleggan (Ralph Bates), the ruthless son of a nouveau riche banker.

Th rocky beaches of Cornwall.
The first Poldark series, broadcast in 1975, was based on four novels written by Winston Graham between 1945 and 1953.  Known for his historical accuracy, Graham (who also wrote the novel Marnie) was also an accomplished storyteller capable of interweaving commentary on social injustices, class differences, and politics. For example, although Ross's estate is modest compared to other landowners, it's apparent that he's considered affluent among the the poor residents of coastal Cornwall. The majority of the men work in copper mines, oblivious to the risks to their own health. They sometimes poach from the rich, even though a squalid life in prison awaits anyone who is caught. And they aren't above plundering the wreckage of any ship that washes ashore the rocky beaches ("There be pickings for all!"). Even Ross, weighed down by his own debts, agrees to hide smuggled goods for money.

The first season of Poldark was intended to be the only one, but the series' immense success--coupled with two more Graham novels published in 1973 and 1976--prompted Poldark 2. The original cast returned, except for Richard Morant who had played the emotionally-scarred Dr. Dwight Enys (he was replaced by Michael Cadman). Although the second season was shorter than the first (13 episodes instead of 16), the producers recognized the need for a longer storyline and asked Graham to write a third novel while the series was in production. Hence, The Angry Tide was published in 1977, the same year that Poldark 2 debuted on television.

Jill Townsend as Elizabeth.
The second season, while still revolving around the Poldarks and Warleggans, expands the storylines for its supporting characters even more. The middle episodes are based on The Four Swans, my favorite of the novels. The title refers to four central female characters:  Elizabeth, whose attempts to save her marriage end in tragedy; Demelza, who questions her faithfulness to Ross; Elizabeth's cousin Morwenna (Jane Wymark), whom George marries off to the pompous, self-centered Osborne Whitworth though she loves another man; and Lady Caroline (Judy Geeson), a wealthy young woman who struggles to create a life of contentment with Dwight. If these subplots sound soapish, it's only because I've done a poor job describing them. Graham's ability to create vivid, interesting characters makes Poldark addictive (but in a good way).

Like many fine series, Poldark benefits from the presence of a strong protagonist and a worthy nefarious adversary. Ross Poldark, while often heroic, struggles to overcome his flaws. He is quick to defend the downtrodden and never turns his back on friends in need. However, he sometimes lets his temper get the best of him, is not above ignoring the law, and--in one instance--commits a questionable act that threatens the happiness of the two women he loves.

A smug greeting from George.
In contrast, George Warleggan is a greedy man who embraces grudges and shows little consideration to others. Yet, he truly loves his wife (though he married her for the wrong reason) and remains sensitive to his status as a nouveau riche gentleman among elitists. Still, he is unquestionably a villain, as evidenced by his treatment of Aunt Agatha Poldark, an elderly woman kept alive by one thing: her 100th birthday party. When the spiteful George learns that she will really be only 99, he cancels the celebration. The disappointment drives Agatha to her death, but not before she exacts a horrible revenge on George.

Angharad Rees as Demelza.
The Poldark cast is practically perfect (though, like many fans, I prefer Richard Morant as Dwight and missed him in the second season). Robin Ellis, Angharad Rees, and Ralph Bates are all superb--and I've subsequently sought them out in other roles (e.g., Ellis in The Europeans, Rees in Hands of the Ripper, and Bates in several Hammer films). Today, Ellis lives with his wife Meredith in France and has written a popular cookbook for diabetics (click here for our interview with him). Angharad Rees designs jewelry and sells it online. Ralph Bates died in 1991 at the age of 51.

Since I first watched Poldark with my mother and sister on Masterpiece Theatre in the 1970s, I've shown it to college roommates, my wife, my in-laws...practically anyone I could talk into it. The result is always the same: Watch one episode and you're hooked. I can't think of a better endorsement for any television series.

Acorn Media provided a copy of the DVD boxed set for this review.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

The Man in Grey (1943)

First off, please don’t tell me I’ve misspelled “grey”—as this is a British film, so the title will be spelled in proper English.  Second, I am not surprised that you haven’t seen this—it’s rarely (if ever) shown on TCM and is unavailable on DVD in the USA. Lastly, you should find a way to see this, as it is so outrageously different from anything in early-1940s English-speaking cinema.

The Man in Grey (1943) is a Gainsborough Pictures melodrama starring James Mason as Lord Rohan (literally the man in grey) and Phyllis Calvert as Clarissa (AKA Lady Rohan).  Ah, but they weren’t the real stars of the film, as Margaret Lockwood got top billing playing one of the most deplorable characters of her career—Hesther Barbary!  Based on Lady Eleanor Smith’s 1942 novel of the same name, the film is set during Regency England (1811-1820) and tells the story of how a beautiful, ebullient woman has her life ruined by a callous husband and a calculating “best” friend.  Quite simply, if I didn’t know the story was written by an Englishwoman, I would have thought it was French!

How can I describe this without telling you everything—thus ruining it (sort of) if you ever see it for yourself?  Little known British director Leslie Arliss must have been given free reign to do whatever he liked with Margaret Kennedy and Doreen Montgomery’s adapted screenplay—that should tell you all you need to know: woman author + 2 woman screenwriters = wickedness gone wild (especially for 1943).  In addition, it’s a costume melodrama, so the wardrobe and sets are somewhat gothic, which gives the film an almost otherworldly feel. 

Calvert’s blonde Clarissa represents innocence and goodness; Lockwood’s brunette Hesther represents evil and sinfulness. They meet at Miss Patchett's school for young ladies, where Clarissa is beloved by all and Hesther is shunned by everyone but Clarissa. When they meet a gypsy fortune teller (Beatrice Varley) she sees bad things to come for the two girls.  Obviously foreshadowing and foreboding are necessary elements of any good melodrama, so this is no surprise.  What is a surprise is how these bad things happen and by whom. 

Eventually, Hesther runs off and elopes with a local soldier and Clarissa meets and marries the man in grey, Lord Rohan.  To say that he his less than doting would be an understatement.  When asked why he married her, Rohan says Clarissa was pretty, healthy and able to produce an heir. James Mason is beyond brooding as Rohan, and, I must say, every bit the S.O.B. He lives by his family crest, which reads “He who dishonors us dies.”  Hence, he enjoys duels.  He also enjoys bad women, so when Clarissa brings the recently widowed Hesther into their home he finds her to his liking.  Hesther’s been through some hard times and has turned into quite the opportunist since her school days.  She wants everything that Clarissa has and she has no qualms about getting what she wants. I can’t recall Lockwood ever playing such an out-and-out bitch.  She makes you hate Hesther—there is nothing, and I mean nothing, redeeming whatsoever about her. 

Yet, don’t feel too sorry for Clarissa. Once she produces a son (which she and we never see) Rohan lets her do whatever she likes as long as it doesn’t dishonor his name. Also, for some reason, she is completely oblivious to the fact that her husband and best friend are carrying on a torrid affair—though I doubt she would have cared anyway, but it would have made her less likely to trust Hesther’s advice in her own illicit affair. Yes, Clarissa must have been attracted to no-good men, because she falls for another rogue in Rokeby (Stewart Granger).  And, this sets up two very shocking events, both of which Hesther plays a crucial role.  I won’t say what happens, but you will be both repulsed and outraged. 

There are a few things that make this film standout (some good, some just bizarre).  The affair between Rohan and Hesther is brazenly presented for our eyes. One scene has her leaving Rohan’s bedroom in the middle of the night and creeping back to her own. Just so many amoral characters running about in 1943 England when the Brits are trying to win WWII just seems wrong, but this is the only good thing about the film.

Another thing that stood out for me was Clarissa’s slave boy Toby, played by Harry Scott.  Okay, please don’t get upset about what I’m about to say, but what the hell! If you have seen this, please explain to me whether Harry Scott was black or if he was a white child in blackface.  When I checked on IMBD he only had one film credit and there is no information listed about him.  I know it sounds strange, but every scene he was in I couldn’t take my eyes off him (and not because his performance was great because it surely was not), because I was so shocked.  They couldn’t find a black child somewhere in England to play this part?  The things I find fascinating!

Okay, so what’s the final assessment?  The Man in Grey is an average movie with an above-average cast.  The final ten minutes of the film are what makes it memorable. Once you see how far Hesther will go to get what she wants you will never forget it—nor what she gets in return for her loathsome behavior. If you are interested, email me and I will inform you where you can procure a viewing.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

John Frankenheimer Counts Down "Seven Days in May"

John Frankenheimer followed his classic The Manchurian Candidate (1962) with this equally original political thriller. Rod Serling’s taut screenplay interweaves the stories of three men: President Jordan Lyman (Fredric March), whose popularity has plunged as a result of pushing for a nuclear arms treaty with Russia; General James Mattoon Scott (Burt Lancaster), the influential, egotistical head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and Marine Colonel “Jiggs” Casey (Kirk Douglas), a key member of Scott’s staff.

The still-timely political debate is neatly conveyed in the opening scene of protestors marching outside the White House. One group is holding up signs that proclaim: “Peace on Earth or No Earth at all!” The other protestors wave posters with slogans like: “Don’t ban the bomb Stupid—Ban the Treaty.”

The President.
After this prologue, Colonel Casey sets the plot in motion when he learns of a top secret message involving a Preakness Stakes betting pool. Later, he meets Colonel Henderson, an old friend, who makes an odd comment about his Army unit: “It’s funny…we spend more time training for seizure than prevention.” Casey continues to collect more unusual clues—none of which means much individually. However, they slowly lead him to a stunning realization that has ramifications upon the very nature of our democracy.

Part mystery, part suspense film, Seven Days in May is a rare motion picture in which the outcome is always in doubt until the climax. That uncertainty is a testament to Frankenheimer’s craftsmanship as a filmmaker. He also excels in making excellent use of his settings and in making time an important element in the film. Frankenheimer gives us a complete tour of the nation’s capitol—from the Pentagon’s chambers to the President’s study to dark alleyways where deals are made. And, after cueing us into the fact that something will happen on Sunday, he counts down each day, leading his characters to their inevitable confrontation.

The General.
In Serling's screenplay, President Lyman and General Scott initially appear to be polar opposites. Scott comes across as a strong, charismatic leader convinced that a nuclear threat is the only way to hold the Soviet Union in check. Lyman, on the other hand, seems bland, weak, and unpopular (his approval rating is a disasterous 29%). Lyman can't even convince his own military leaders that peace is the best option. However, as events unfold, these initial perceptions are put to the test. One realizes that Lyman's conviction to stay his course despite an onslaught of criticism is a testament to his inner strength. In contrast, Scott's impatience and ego propel him to attack the very foundations of our country, using its best interests--as interpreted by him--as an excuse.

The man in the middle.
Though March and Lancaster are compelling as the protagonists, Kirk Douglas grounds the film with his excellent performance as Jiggs. It's a great role, as Jiggs is the man in middle whose compass shifts from one man to the other--as the audience moves along with him.

Seven Days in May represented a career peak for director John Frankenheimer. He continued to make interesting movies in the 1960s with The Train (1964), the cult classic Seconds (1966), and Grand Prix (interesting from a technical standpoint). However, his career faltered in the 1970s, with critics drubbing Prophecy (1979), an entertaining monster film with an environmental message. Toward the latter part of his career, he earned recognition again with well-reviewed made-for-cable films.

Ironically, Seven Days in May was remade as the 1994 cable movie The Enemy Within, but it was not directed by Frankenheimer. The cast featured Sam Waterston as the President, Jason Robards as the general, and Forest Whitaker as Casey.

Monday, February 6, 2012

May "The Best Man" Win

Russell (Fonda) contemplates
his future.
A political convention provides the backdrop for The Best Man, a 1964 adaptation of Gore Vidal's stage play about the maneuverings of a pair of would-be presidential nominees. Henry Fonda plays William Russell, the current Secretary of State and a self-confessed egghead who spouts quotes, jokes with reporters, and avoids rumors about his philandering. Cliff Robertson portrays his opponent, Senator Joe Cantwell, a fiery politican who rose from humble beginnings and gained fame trying to connect the mob to communists. With Russell holding a slim (but undecisive) lead among the delegates, each man seeks the endorsement of the party's popular former president, Art Hockstader (Lee Tracy).

In a candid conversation with Russell, Hockstader reveals that he's dying from cancer. It's clear that these men value their friendship and respect each other, but Hockstader also harbors concerns about Russell's indecisiveness. He confides to his friend: "Sometimes, you get so busy thinking how complex everything is that the important problems don't get solved." After the meeting, when Russell's wife and his campaign manager ask if he got the endoresement, Russell replies: "It's what he (Hockstader) didn't say. He's going to support Joe Cantwell."

Cantwell confronts an accuser.
Cantwell, though, is convinced that the former president will endorse Russell. He meets with Hockstader and shows him medical documentation that Russell once suffered a nervous breakdown. Cantwell believes this knowledge will sway Hockstader to shift his support. Instead, the plan backfires. Hockstader, already aware of Russell's past, tells Cantwell: "I don't object to you being a bastard. It's your being such a stupid bastard that I object to." As Cantwell storms out of the hotel room, Hockstader informs him that he just lost the endorsement.

That evening, during the pre-convention dinner, Hockstader surprises everyone when he endorses no one. Without a clear favorite, the party's nomination is truly up for grabs--and that's when the political chess moves really begin.

The former president endorses no one.
A heavy dose of cynicism permeates The Best Man, most notably in the unexpected ending. Vidal, who adapted his play, takes potshots at everything from the candidates' posters ("Hustle with Russell") to their carefully orchestrated political ploys. In one scene, as Russell and his staff view a "spontanteous demonstration" on the convention floor, a staffer comments that it's supposed to last for twenty-two minutes. One suspects that Hockstader best represents Vidal's own views, with dialogue such as (spoken to Cantwell): "It's par for the course when you fool people."

Still, The Best Man is a film with neither heroes nor villains. Cantwell may be ruthless, dangerously ambitious, and willing to distort the truth. However, he is also a faithful, affectionate husband who is innocent of key accusations made against him. Furthermore, as Hockstader notes, he "knows his own mind"--which might make him a better president than Russell. As for Russell, he is certainly more likable, but has cheated on his wife, may lack decisiveness, and finds himself a hostage of his own ego ("I never pass a mirror I don't look in...I wonder why?").

Fine performances abound in the The Best Man, with Robertson and Fonda at the top of their games. Lee Tracy steals many scenes, but then Vidal gives Hockstader most of the juicy dialogue. Tracy originated the role in the 1961 stage version of The Best Man and won a Tony. He received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor for the film version (losing out to Peter Ustinov in Topkapi).

An intelligent examination of American politics, The Best Man shares many similarities with the earlier Advise and Consent (e.g., Fonda is a nominee for Secretary of State in the latter film, Robertson and Don Murray cope with similar allegations). It may lack the intensity of Advise & Consent, but it's a rewarding, still relevant film. It also foreshadowed two of the darker periods in American politics: In 1972, Senator Thomas Eagleton, George McGovern's running mate, resigned as the vice presidential nominee when it was revealed he had been treated for depression; The Best Man was filmed at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, the place where Robert Kennedy would be assassinated in 1968.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

The Reckless Moment (1949)

Who knew a 1949 film starring James Mason and Joan Bennett would be so obscure? It took me years to finally see this, and this would not have happened if TCM hadn’t finally premiered it this past January.  TCM has been on the air for almost thirty years, you would think The Reckless Moment might have found its way to the airwaves before now.  Yet, sometimes there are reasons a film doesn’t show up on TCM very often: it’s not popular, contract rights, lost prints, etc. Or, in the case of this film, it’s just not that good and not many people are clamoring to see it.  I suppose if the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die book hadn’t listed it in its first edition many people wouldn’t have requested that TCM show it.  Ah, so much anticipation but so much disappointment—it reminds me of my first (and only) encounter with caviar.  For years I’d seen rich people on TV and in movies praise the glory of this delicacy, so imagine my disappointment when I tasted what amounted to salty Pop Rocks (without the sugar) in my mouth at a college luncheon.  How can you tactfully spit out such swill when you are surrounded by inquisitive academics who have a really bad habit of invading your personal space?  Perhaps my experience with The Reckless Moment wasn’t as bad as the one with caviar, but it was such a letdown.
The great Max Ophuls only directed four Hollywood films: The Exile (1947), Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948), Caught (1949), and this less than stellar endeavor. Of the four, only Letter from an Unknown Woman showcases his true brilliance. Many critics would disagree with my assessment of The Reckless Moment, as one has went so far as to call it a masterpiece on par with Ophuls’ French marvels The Earrings of Madame de…(1953), Lola Montes (1955), and La Ronde (1950). I can’t bring myself to say this for many reasons—the most important being I can’t decide what type of film it is.  Is it a film noir or a melodrama?  Personally, it feels like a combination of both, and I don’t like to mix oil and water together. 
Joan Bennett plays Lucia Harper, mother of two and fixer of all.  When her incessantly annoying teenage daughter Bea (Geraldine Brooks) gets involved with an unsavory older man named Darby (Shepperd Strudwick), she pays the man a visit and threatens him.  After an unfortunate accident involving her daughter, in which Darby falls from the Harper’s pier and unto an anchor, Lucia must drag the body out to sea and dispose of it.  Not long after this unusual chore, a very calm Irish thug named Martin Donnelly (James Mason) shows up and demands $5,000 for some letters Bea wrote to Darby.
Donnelly’s interactions with the entire Harper family can only be described as bizarre.  I think this is what I most dislike about the film.  There are few would-be movie gangsters that I recall being polite and friendly to those from whom they are extorting money.  He gives horseracing tips to the father-in-law (Henry O’Neill) and helps Lucia’s son (David Bair) fix something on his car.  Oh, and then there is his quick infatuation with Lucia herself. Mind you, an infatuation he knows can’t go anywhere since she thinks he’s scum.  Perhaps it was the short running time (a brisk 82 minutes) or the Hollywood constraints Ophuls found himself working under, but I couldn’t believe the sacrifices that Donnelly makes for Lucia.  While unfulfilled love is a consistent Ophuls’ theme, it does not work here.
The acting is not the issue, as both Mason and Bennett give good performances. He is quietly menacing and she is confidently controlled.  Mason comes off as his usually does—as though he isn’t trying.  To me, Bennett’s character is the more interesting of the two.  No matter what comes her way, Lucia always seems to steady herself and continue on with a cigarette in one hand and a plan in the other.  Thrown into a world so unlike her own she never seems to change—it’s perfectly natural that a blackmailer is in her living room and that her father-in-law wants to invite him to dinner. Perhaps if Ophuls had had more time to develop the story, or if the writers had written a better adaptation of Elizabeth Sanxay Holding’s “The Blank Wall”, Bennett’s strange performance could have saved this picture.  Who knows?
One thing, on a sort of side note, that we do know is that Bennett would personally find herself in a somewhat similar situation in 1951 when her husband, Walter Wanger (who produced this film), shot Bennett’s agent, Jennings Lang, because he was having an affair with Bennett.  Wanger’s sensational attempted-murder trial rocked Hollywood. Wanger pleaded temporary insanity (the crime of passion defense) and served four months.  Oddly enough, Bennett and Wanger remained married until 1965.  It is said that the clandestine meetings between Bennett and Lang were an inspiration for Billy Wilder’s The Apartment (1960).  The event effectively ended Bennett’s film career, she would only make a handful of movies following the incident.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Preminger Takes an Insider's Look at Politics in Advise & Consent

Like The Day the Earth Stood Still, Advise & Consent is one of those rare films whose themes never seem to age. Even its plot has held up remarkably well. When I watched it a few years ago, President George W. Bush was encountering opposition from the Senate—and his own party—on the appointment of Robert Bolton as United Nations ambassador. In Advise & Consent, the President (his name is never given) clashes with the Senate and his own party on his nomination of a liberal academic to become Secretary of State.

Fonda as the President's pick.
His nominee Robert Leffingwell (Henry Fonda) isn’t even sure he wants the job at first. But the President (Franchot Tone), whose ailing health threatens the future of his policies, remains steadfast in his choice. Even a potentially scandalous secret from Leffington’s past can’t convince the Commander in Chief to alter his position. The President’s unyielding stance sets into motion a political chess match in which Senators take sides and people become pawns. (The chess analogy is an interesting one: Walter Pidgeon, who fights for Leffingwell, wears a dark suit; Charles Laughton, who opposes him, wears white).

Laughton on the Senate's floor.
The characters come alive courtesy of an exceptional cast: Laughton as the curmudgeonly senior senator from South Carolina; Pidgeon as the President’s right-hand man; Don Murray as a bright well-intentioned junior senator with his own secret; George Grizzard as an overly ambitious right-winger; Peter Lawford as a team player who finally sees through the hypocrisy; and Lew Ayres as an ignored vice president who may be stronger than people think.

My favorite aspect of the film, though, is its “behind the scenes” look at Washington politics. A powerful senator, not selected for a subcommittee, pulls strings so he can influence a hearing as an “observer.” Strategists project votes to determine when they think they have enough to make their move. An ambitious junior senator campaigns to be selected as a committee chair. There are subtle threats of blackmail and not-so-subtle ones. Allen Drury, who wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning bestseller on which the film was based, spent several years as a political reporter. His insider look is revealing and engrossing.

Pidgeon and Gene Tierney,
Preminger's Laura.
I'm often surprised that director Otto Preminger is mentioned so rarely in conversations about great directors. It may have to do with his versatility. Many of the great filmmakers are associated with certain types of films, such as Hitchcock and suspense, Ford and Westerns, and Lubitsch and comedy. But Preminger, like Billy Wilder, could make a movie about anything: film noir (Laura); comedy (The Moon Is Blue); social drama (The Man With the Golden Arm); courtroom drama (Anatomy of a Murder); or suspense (Bunny Lake Is Missing). His direction is subtle and flawless in Advise & Consent, inconspicuously moving along the dialogue-driven plot.

The 1960s were a banner decade for political dramas. The Best Man (1964), about two men seeking their party’s presidential nomination, is a fine companion piece to Advise & Consent (interestingly, it also shares a key subplot and also stars Henry Fonda). And though it’s more of a thriller, Seven Days in May (1964) provides a sharp portrait of a president facing a leadership crisis. All three films hold up amazingly well today and come highly recommended.