Monday, May 20, 2019

Billy Wilder's Irma la Douce

Irma and her dog Coquette.
After ill-advisedly arresting eighteen Parisian prostitutes, the well-meaning Nestor Patou (Jack Lemmon) is fired from his job as a policeman. He takes an interest in one of the streetwalkers, Irma la Douce (Shirley MacLaine), and defends her honor when her "manager" starts to get too rough. To everyone's surprise--including Nestor's--he wins a brawl against Irma's bad-mannered pimp.

Impressed with Nestor defending her honor, she takes him to her apartment and they become lovers. She also convinces Nestor to become her new manager. He's uncomfortable with the arrangement and considers getting a job, but Irma won't have it. She explains: "You don't want the other girls to think I can't support my man."

Shirley MacLaine and Jack Lemmon.
Determined to find a way to keep Irma off the streets, Nestor and a friend hatch a scheme. Nestor disguises himself as a wealthy British client, known as Lord X, who pays Irma $500 to play cards with him for two nights a week. She is thrilled with the arrangement! Nestor is pleased with the outcome, but now has to work secretly to earn the money to pay Irma. As his friend tells him, this is not a "sustainable economic model."

Irma la Douce (1963) and The Apartment (1960) share the same stars (Lemmon and MacLaine), director (Billy Wilder), and screenwriters (Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond). Although Irma was based on a French play and a successful Broadway musical, Wilder no doubt saw it as a likely extension of The Apartment. In his earlier film, Jack Lemmon's insurance worker loans out his apartment to his business colleagues in hopes of getting a promotion. That's not the same as a pimp, but he indirectly uses sex for financial gain. He becomes displeased with the arrangement only after learning that a woman he likes (played by Shirley MacLaine) is having an affair with one of the executives using his apartment.

Lemmon as Lord X.
Yet, while The Apartment was a superb sophisticated comedy-drama, Irma la Douce is a broad comedy that works reasonably well. Lemmon and MacLaine are still magical together and the best scenes--such as when Irma casually invites Nestor to share her bed--are the ones in which they share the screen. She earned an Oscar nomination as the streetwalker with a penchant for green (even her underwear is green) and who considers her job a profession. (Amazingly, she was Wilder's third choice after Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor dropped out). As in Some Like It Hot, Jack Lemmon essentially gives two performances, as Nestor and as Lord X (he is virtually unrecognizable, in appearance and voice).

James Caan as a client.
Lou Jacobi headlines the supporting cast as Nestor's unlikely friend, a bartender with experiences in pretty much every field of work. Look quickly and you can also spot a number of now-familiar faces: Bill Bixby, James Caan, Howard McNear (Floyd on The Andy Griffith Show), and Grace Lee Whitney (Janet Rand on the original Star Trek TV series).

If the great Billy Wilder had a flaw as a director, it was editing his own screenplays. Like several of his later movies, Irma la Douce is inflated at a whopping 143 minutes. Wilder could have easily trimmed a half-hour without losing any plot or characterization.  It's also puzzling that he chose not to include the musical numbers from the Broadway hit--especially once the multitalented MacLaine was cast as the lead.

Of course, Shirley MacLaine did get a chance to show her singing and dancing chops six years later in Sweet Charity (1969). Although she played a dancer-for-hire (or taxi dancer), her character was based on the titular heroine of Federico Fellini's Nights of Cabiria--who was a prostitute.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

5 Favorite Films of the 1950s Blogathon for National Classic Movie Day

To celebrate National Classic Movie Day on May 16th, we are hosting the 5 Favorite Films of the 1950s Blogathon. Per its title, the goal is for each participant to list his or her five favorite films of the 1950s and explain why they deserve such an honor!

The 1950s is a decade filled with outstanding movies in a wide array of genres: epics (Ben-Hur), science fiction (The Day the Earth Stood Still), Westerns (3:10 to Yuma), colorful musicals (Singin' in the Rain), intimate dramas (Marty), and laugh-out-loud comedies (The Court Jester).

It featured masterpieces from the world's greatest directors, such as Alfred Hitchcock, Billy Wilder, Ingmar Bergman, William Wyler, Akira Kurosawa, John Ford, Elia Kazan, Federico Fellini, and others.

If you don't have a blog and still want to participate, you can list your five favorite 1950s films on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and other social media on National Classic Movie Day on May 16th.

The participants are listed below. Please check out each of their five favorite films of the 1950s. We guarantee that you'll enjoy reading the lists!

(Note: Due a last minute technical glitch, we may have omitted a couple of participating blogs. If you don't see your blog, please leave a comment and we will add it promptly!)

Another Old Movie Blog
Caftan Woman
Cinema Essentials
Classic Film & TV Cafe
Classic Film Obsessions
Critica Retro
4 Star Films
The Flapper Dame
Hometowns to Hollywood
The Lady Eve's Reel Life
Love Letters to Old Hollywood
Maddy Loves Her Classic Films
The Movie Night Group's Guide to Classic Film
Movie FanFare
Old Hollywood Films
Once Upon a Screen
A Person in the Dark
Realweegiemidget Reviews
Shadows and Satin
A Shroud of Thoughts
Silver Scenes
Silver Screen Classics
Silver Screenings
The Stop Button
The Story Enthusiast
Taking Up Room
Totally Filmi
Twenty Four Frames
Various Ramblings of a Nostalgic Italian
Whimsically Classic
The Wonderful World of Cinema

Five Favorite Films of the 1950s--Toughest Blogathon Ever!

To celebrate National Classic Movie Day 2019, we're hosting the Five Favorite Films of the 1950s blogathon. Naturally, the Cafe staff is participating, too--but who knew it would be so brutal to whittle our favorite 1950s films down to a Top 5?

Sadly, we've been forced to omit many film faves! The fact is that the 1950s was a banner decade for cinema around the world. Alfred Hitchcock was at the peak of his career. Otto Preminger was breaking film censorship barriers. The wonders of real-life science inspired a number of science fiction movie classics. Colorful big screen musicals introduced new stars and provided worthy vehicles for existing ones. Great filmmakers in Europe and Japan emerged from the ashes of a world war.

Our selections below are our personal favorites, but we'd argue that one ranks with the greatest films of all time and the other four are iconic pictures that have withstood the test of time.

Kim Novak and James Stewart.
1. Vertigo (1958) – This richly-layered masterpiece reveals its big twist when least expected--turning the film on its proverbial head. It causes love to blur with obsession and greed to give way to guilt and perhaps love. I think it’s Alfred Hitchcock’s best job of writing (as usual uncredited) and directing…plus we get superb performances (especially from James Stewart and Kim Novak), a marvelous San Francisco setting, an unforgettably disturbing score from Bernard Herrmann, and nifty Saul Bass titles. Like all great films, I glean something new from it or appreciate another facet every time I watch it. My last viewing reminded me just how brilliant James Stewart is in the lead. In a career filled with fine performances, I think Stewart does his best work as a typical Stewart “nice guy” who evolves into a man obsessed with an illusion. Contrast Scotty’s (Stewart) playful banter early on with Midge with his climactic confrontation with Judy—his eyes ablaze with confusion, hate, and something akin to love. It’s a brilliant and chilling transition.

Stewart as the defense attorney.
2. Anatomy of a Murder (1959) – Otto Preminger’s enthralling courtroom drama requires multiple viewings to be fully appreciated. When I first saw it, I focused on the riveting story, which treats the viewer much like the jury. We listen to testimonies, watch the lawyers try to manipulate our emotions, and struggle to make sense of the evidence. When I saw it a second time, I knew the case’s outcome and was able to concentrate on the splendid performances. James Stewart, Arthur O’Connell, and George C. Scott earned Oscar nominations, but the rest of the cast is also exceptionally strong. In subsequent viewings, I’ve come to appreciate the film’s well-preserved details, from the small town upper-Michigan atmosphere to Preminger’s brilliant direction (e.g., in one shot, as Scott cross-examines a witness in close-up, Stewart—the defending lawyer—is framed between them in the background).

Gort--Hollywood's coolest robot.
3. The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) – If there were a Hall of Fame for Timeless Movies, then one of its founding members would be The Day the Earth Stood Still. I've probably watched it at least once every decade since I first saw it on NBC's Saturday Night at the Movies in the 1960s. When I was a youngster, the film's fantastic elements--and Gort, the coolest robot in the history of cinema--appealed to me. When I was a teen, its stern warning about the perils of nuclear war resonated with me. With each subsequent viewing, The Day the Earth Stood Still has revealed something new: presenting itself as a Biblical analogy, an editorial on the influence of media on public opinion, a portrait of fear of the unknown, etc. Its themes never fail to thrill me…making it much more exciting than any action-oriented sci fi film.

Danny Kaye and Basil Rathbone.
4. The Court Jester (1956) – My favorite comedy is a spot-on, delightful spoof of swashbuckling films. In a rare role worthy of his talents, Danny Kaye gets to sing, dance, use funny voices, contort his expressive face, and excel at physical comedy (such as walking in magnetized armor). The supporting players are all at the top of their game, too. Basil Rathbone has a grand time parodying past roles such as Sir Guy of Gisbourne in The Adventures of Robin Hood. Angela Lansbury displays a deft comedic touch, while Cecil Parker steals his scenes as the bored king whose only interest appears to be “wenches.” The Court Jester also includes Danny’s most famous routine—the one that involves the pellet with the poison in the chalice from the palace, the vessel with the pestle which has the brew that is true, and (finally) the flagon with the picture of a dragon (which is used for the brew that is true after the vessel with the pestle is broken). And did I mention that Danny and Basil Rathbone engage in the funniest sword duel in movie history?

Crosby and Kaye performing "Sisters."
5. White Christmas (1954) – There was a time when I grumbled because White Christmas was shown every Yuletide season while Holiday Inn (1942) only made sporadic appearances. Most critics consider the latter film, in which the song “White Christmas” was introduced, to be the superior musical. It was only after my wife and I acquired both films on video that I recognized the virtues of White Christmas. It’s a near-perfect blend of music and comedy, with the cast and crew at, or near, the peak of their careers. The dance numbers are staged energetically, with the highlight being Danny Kaye and Vera-Ellen dancing outside a nightclub to the melodic “The Best Things Happen While You’re Dancing.” Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney generate a more subdued, but no less effective, chemistry. Their duet “Count Your Blessings” was the big hit song from the film. The most effective pairing in the film, though, is the one between Crosby and Kaye. They’re a sensational team, whether doing musical numbers or comedy (their version of “Sisters”, done originally as a joke on the set, is hysterically funny).


Be sure to check out the 1950s film favorites from all the other blogs in this blogathon by clicking here to view the full schedule.

Monday, May 13, 2019

David Niven Says Bonjour Tristesse to Deborah Kerr

Jean Seberg and David Niven.
Seventeen-year-old Cecile and her wealthy, widower father split their time between Paris and the French Riveria. Their goal in life is to have fun. The middle-aged Raymond (David Niven) woos young attractive women, keeps them around for a few months, and then discards them. Cecile (Jean Seberg) likes the company of handsome, young men, but she also has no intent of fostering a relationship. Why should she? She has her father and that is all she needs.

Their world gets turned upside down when Raymond invites Anne, a friend of Cecile's deceased mother, for an extended visit at their coastal summer home. Anne (Deborah Kerr) is a strong, self-assured woman with a successful career as a fashion designer. She resists Raymond's obvious charms, which only makes her more attractive to him. Cecile quickly develops a love-hate relationship with Anne, who provides stability in the midst of the "fun first" chaos.

Jean Seberg as Cecile.
Everything changes again when Raymond falls in love with Anne and proposes marriage. Cecile decides that the nuptials cannot take place and develops an elaborate scheme to break up Raymond and Anne. Her actions set into motion an inevitable tragedy.

Author Francoise Sagan was nineteen-years-old when she wrote the then-scandalous novel Bonjour Tristesse in 1954. It quickly became a bestseller and attracted the attention of Otto Preminger. The famed director had completed Saint Joan, an adaptation of George Bernard Shaw's play about Joan of Arc, in 1957. The picture and its star, an unknown named Jean Seberg, had been skewered by the critics.

One suspects that the controversial subject matter of Bonjour 
Tristesse--the film vaguely hints at an incestuous father-daughter relationship--drew Preminger's interest. After all, he never shied away from controversy in films like The Moon Is Blue, The Man With the Golden Arm, and the later Anatomy of a Murder. The challenge with the film version of Bonjour Tristesse (1958) is that, despite two classy leads, a beautiful setting, and plenty of style, the story and characters are simply too shallow.

David Niven as Raymond.
As played by Jean Seberg, Cecile is a petulant brat and her father lacks any parenting skills. When Anne tells Cecile to study for her exams, the latter pouts and appeals to her father. He takes the easy way out by siding with Anne. From that point on, Cecile spends all her time plotting an exit for Anne.

Preminger frames the film so that Cecile tells the story in flashback as she reflects on the emptiness of her and Raymond's lives. To emphasize the impending tragedy, the "current day" scenes are shown in harsh black & white while the flashbacks with Anne are in color, apparently signaling happier times.

Deborah Ker as Anne.
Deborah Kerr gives the best performance by virtue of having the most interesting role. Anne is a character to be admired for being practical while surrounded by a sea of frivolity. However, at the same time, she is not wholly likable and is quick to jump at conclusions. When she sees Cecile and her boyfriend passionately kissing, her reaction is to ban Cecile from seeing the young man.

While Bonjour Tristesse flopped at the box office, all the principals recovered nicely. Preminger made Anatomy of a Murder--arguably his best film--in 1959. David Niven won an Best Actor Oscar for Separate Tables that same year. Deborah Kerr co-starred with Cary Grant in one of her most famous pictures, An Affair to Remember, in 1957. And Jean Seberg became a French icon with her performance in Jean-Luc Godard's New Wave masterpiece Breathless in 1960.

For the record, Bonjour Tristesse translates to "hello sadness." Juliette Greco warbles a woeful, depressing song of the same title during one of the opening scenes.

Monday, May 6, 2019

Albert Finney Hunts Wolfen in NYC

Albert Finney and friend.
For years, I felt an irresistible impulse to indulge in Albert Finney's two 1980 horror/sci fi films whenever they were available. I finally got over the urge to watch Looker after reviewing it for this blog a few years ago. It's a terrible movie and I think that documenting that in writing "cured" me. That brings us to Finney's other 1980 film, Wolfen, which I recently discovered on Vudu...and ended up watching, of course.

The film opens with the vicious early morning murders of a rich industrialist, his wife, and their chauffeur in a New York City park. A high tech security firm and the police suspect that it's the work of a terrorist group. However, detective Dewey Wilson (Albert Finney) is puzzled by the nature of the savage wounds, missing body organs, and a hair from an unidentified animal. When a similar hair is found on the body of a dead bum in the slums, Dewey concludes that the two crimes must somehow be related.

A rundown church is the setting for one of the best scenes.
Wolfen unravels effectively for most of its 113 minute running time as Dewey gradually connects the pieces of the puzzle. There are plenty of red herrings along the way, including a group of Native Americans suggesting that shape-shifters may be at work. But make no mistake, Wolfen is not about werewolves. To its credit, it has loftier ambitions--even if it ultimately fails to achieve them.

The film's biggest challenge is its gaps in narrative structure. This is not surprising considering that director Michael Wadleigh delivered a 4 1/2 hour cut of Wolfen and was promptly removed from the post-production process. It may explain why we never learn the destiny of a dog that accompanied the couple in the opening scene or why Dewey goes to a bar to have Edward James Olmos painstakingly explain the film's premise to him. The latter is especially awkward; I felt ripped off being given the answer after spending so much of Wolfen trying to figure out what was going on. Still, things like that are bound happen when you leave over two hours of edited footage on the cutting room floor.

Gregory Hines.
Finney and his co-star Diane Venora never flesh out their characters and their one-night stand is superfluous to the plot. Perhaps, the blame can once again be attributed to the lost footage and not the actors. Gregory Hines, on the other hand, is excellent as a potato chip-eating medical examiner whose decision to help Finney's detective results in more bloodshed. Incidentally, one of the first victims is played by Anne Marie Pohtamo, who won the the Miss Universe title in 1975 (she was Miss Finland). She only appeared in one other film role.

Director Wadleigh avoids showing the Wolfen for most of the film. Instead, he relies on the old trick of showing us what the creatures see. To inject some additional visual interest, he uses a process similar to thermal imaging. It's an effective technique at first, but wears thin about the fifth time he employs it. To Wadleigh's credit, though, when we finally see the Wolfen (after about 80 minutes), it's a tense scene and the creatures are impressive-looking.

Anne Marie Pohtamo.
The screenplay was loosely based on Whitley Streiber's 1978 debut novel The Wolfen. Streiber's story is more streamlined (no terrorist plot) and I suspect it works better than the ambitious, but flawed, film adaptation.

Wolfen is the the only fictional film directed by Michael Wadleigh. His other films are documentaries, though one is pretty famous. It's called Woodstock.