Wednesday, October 22, 2014

cinema obscura: Charles Chaplin's "A Countess from Hong Kong" (1967)

“The Girl,” the recent HBO film about the tortured relationship between Alfred Hitchcock and Tippi Hedren, makes it clear that while Hitch may not have succeeded in breaking the spirit of his star, he did leave her with a broken career.

The movie quotes Hitchcock (brilliantly incarnated by Toby Jones) telling Hedren (Sienna Miller)  that if she insists on breaking her personal contract with him, she will never work in film again. Not entirely true. While Hedren would never enjoy the A-level career she deserved (she’s magnificent in Hitchcock’s “Marnie”), she did land a role in an important – and prestigious – film three years after she and Hitch ditched each other.

Charles Chaplin’s “A Countess from Hong Kong,” released in 1967, had Hedren being handpicked by another legendary filmmaker (shades of her Hitchcock situation here) for a role in a highly anticipated film starring Marlon Brando and Sophia Loren. This was Chaplin’s first film in 10 years, his first (and only) film in color and it would be his final film.

Based on a script that Chaplin wrote in the 1930s as a Paulette Goddard vehicle, it has the contours of a filmed play, with Brando, witty as a 'tic-afflicted American ambassador en route to the States on his boat and Loren as a glamorous Russian countess who stows away on it.

Hedren had the third lead as Brando’s estranged wife who enters the last act. It was originally a small role that Hedren hoped Chaplin would enlarge but, given that the piece is largely a two-hander, its narrative arc made that impossible. It remained a small, but crucial role.

Hedren thought of leaving the production but, according to Wikipedia, “in the end, she remained in the film and later said that it was a pleasure working for (Chaplin).”

The finished film is odd and oddly charming, full of eccentric touches – such as Brando’s character feeling uncomfortable with the close quarters that he’s sharing with Loren and being particularly embarrassed by the idea of using the bathroom (to relieve himself) when she is so nearby. I mean, rude bodily noises. Brando, who has a terrifically guarded chemistry with Loren, plays this moment for all its neurotic idiosyncrasy.

Chaplin cast himself as the ship's steward, a cameo role - once again shades of Hitchcock.

Misunderstood and dismissed, “A Countess from Hong Kong” was not a success, with either critics or its audience. It’s something of a flawed masterwork (Chaplin considered it his best movie) that joins the ranks of such criminally underrated films as Michael Cimino’s “Heaven’s Gate,” Robert Aldrich’s “The Legend of Lylah Clare,” Peter Bogdanovich’s “At Long Last Love” and Hitchcock’s own “Vertigo” and “Marnie.” At least, the latter two have been rediscovered and reevaluated with a new appreciation.

"A Countess from Hong Kong," which has occasionally and uneventfully popped up on home entertainment without much enthusiasm from Universal, is ripe for the same attention and consideration.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

que sera

There are hundreds - nay, thousands - of movie blogs on the web.  Too many.  It can be overwhelming to those film freaks compelled to sample them all.  Personally, I reduced my movie-blog perusing to one, Vienna’s Classic Hollywood, which is hands-down, inarguably, the best.

Vienna's goal is simple - to treat us to an array of movie stills, posters and especially rare production shots, such as the one above of Vera Miles in a costume check when she was getting ready to star for Hitchcock as Madeleine/Judy in "Vertigo."  Vera left the production, of course, and Kim Novak came on board, turning in an iconic breakthrough performance.

It's difficult to separate Novak from"Vertigo," and one can only imagine how Miles would have read the role(s) if her pregnancy hadn't intruded.

I hope Vienna doesn't mind that I "borrowed" this shot from her site, but what better way to introduce you to Vienna's most essential blog?

Friday, October 10, 2014

arguably

Credit: Warner Bros. 
Annabelle Wallis as Mia in John R. Leonetti's "Annabelle"

Given the unruly number of movies made available for review - The New York Times covers a whopping 25 titles today - and the ever-dwindling number of critics to review them, it's no surprise that some (well, actually a lot) are shunted or simply fall through the cracks.

Exacerbating matters are tight deadlines that often necessitate hastily-written critiques.  And, of course, there's the matter of prejudgement of which all critics are guilty but which speeds things along so that one can move on to the next movie and the next review.

Not surprisingly, Warner Bros.' "Annabelle," ostensibly an "evil doll" thriller, is a movie that first-string critics avoided and that second- and third-string reviewers handily dismissed.  And why not?  Much like animation these days, there's a new thriller or two coming off Hollywood's relentless assembly line seemingly every week.  Reduced to a brief synopsis, "Annabelle" is about a young pregnant woman whose husband buys her another antique doll for her collection and all hell breaks loose.

But, frankly, the wicked doll is the least necessary element in the film, as are the images of walking dead that the heroine seems to hallucinate.

Strip them away and, at its deepest core, "Annabelle" plays like a nifty 99-minute reference to "Repulsion."  Yes, "Repulsion" - Roman Polanski's "Repulsion."  And it's just as artfully done in its intense focus on a young woman who's easily spooked and possibly being driven mad.

And that's the real theme of "Annabelle."

John R. Leonetti, the cinematographer making his directing debut here, examines his heroine's descent in images and gliding camerawork that are eerily dreamy but never nightmarish or even unpleasant.

And his work is abetted and complemented every step of the way by the assured, nuanced and very serene performance of Annabelle Wallis (the British actress from "The Tudors") in the lead role. It's no accident, I suspect, that Wallis captures the placid cool of Catherine Deneuve here.

As if to reward her, Leonetti even named the film after Wallis, a conceit that has escaped everyone who has reviewed it.  No, Annabelle is not the name of  the grotesque doll.  Fact is, the darn doll has no name.

The director also pays homage to another Polanski film - Wallis's character is named Mia, after the star of "Rosemary's Baby" - and to the California Lumière/crazy lady thrillers of Robert Aldrich ("Baby Jane"/"Charlotte") by setting his film first in sun-struck Santa Monica and then Pasadena.

"Annabelle" opened on October 3 in tandem with David Fincher's bravura 149-minute ”Gone Girl” and nearly matched it at the box office, taking in $37,134,255 to "Gone Girl's" $37, 513, 109.  I'm not about to overrate "Annabelle."  It doesn't match the Fincher film in any other way and is, in fact, its polar opposite - tight and uncomplicated. Rather simple.

But it's so much more than its advertising and reviews have implied, largely because of Annabelle Wallis, whose work here is equally on par with Rosamund Pike's breakthrough performance in "Gone Girl."

Catherine Deneuve as Carol in Roman Polanski's "Repulsion"

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

the. worst. production. number. ever.


When did Bob Fosse's "Sweet Charity" (1969) become so cheesy?  Or was it always cheesy?

I liked this musical - a lot- when Universal released it 45 years ago.  (Forty-five years?  Yikes!)

It's become one of those films that gets worse with each viewing, so much so that I finally gave in and gave up my DVD of it.  But not before watching it one more time to try to figure out exactly what went so wrong.

More than four decades later, one is aware of all the unfortunate decisions that Fosse (in his movie directorial debut) made.

One dubious decision after another.

There are the arty, sepia-toned still shots that occasionally dot the 149-minute film and that are utterly pointless and way pretentious.

There's the "Rich Man's Frug" number - a triptych of gratuitous dances that's set in a glitzy disco, circa 1969 and overburdened with Fosse's annoying choreographic mannerisms. Along with the cringe-worthy Sammy Davis, Jr. number, "The Rhythm of Life," this number immediately dated the film. Badly.

There's the casting of Shirley MacLaine, a personal favorite, who on paper seemed perfect for the title role and who actually has some great moments in the film.  But in retrospect, her reading of the lovelorn heroine, Charity Hope Valentine, is a little too much of a rehash of Ginny Moorehead, the equally lovelorn (more pathetic) character she played ten years earlier in Vincente Minnelli's "Some Came Running..." (1958).

Lots of self-pitying tears here. Too many tears.

There's the transparent ploy of toning down Charity's "floozie" qualities whenever the character has a scene with Oscar (John MacMartin), the nice guy who could rescue her from her nowhere life. (Sorry, that's cheating.)

And then there's that big production number, "I'm a Brass Band" (music by Cy Coleman, lyric by Dorothy Field) that is not only jaw-droppingly bad but makes no sense whatsoever.  Why would anyone, much less Charity Hope Valentine, equate being in love with marching with a brass band?  Huh?  The number, staged in the courtyard of Lincoln Center, no less, and with dozens of chorus boys, goes on and on and on, with Shirl huffing and puffing, screeching and straining her ligaments to little avail.

It stops the film.  Cold.  And the film never recovers.

On its way from stage to screen, "Sweet Charity" lost several songs, including at least one good one ("Baby, Dream Your Dream") and gained a few new ones, including one great one ("My Personal Property").  Cy Coleman also wrote a new - and improved - melody for the title song.

Universal released it as a big roadshow production which failed to engage both the media (it received scant coverage) and audiences (poor box-office returns).  After its lackluster reserved-seat engagements, the studio punished the film, so to speak, by chopping out 30 minutes for its general release.  (Paramount did the same thing to George Sidney's 1967, 143-minute "Half a Sixpence" after it underperformed as a roadshow.)

Gone, among other elements, were those sepia still shots and the second of those three deadly disco numbers. (The Davis number remained intact.)

The re-edited version of "Sweet Charity," pared down to two hours, was actually an improvement (while "Sixpence" was unnecessarily harmed by its cuts).  Too bad Universal didn't airbrush out most of Charity's tears.

"Sweet Charity" will be screened by Turner Classic Movies @ 5:15 p.m. on Sunday, October 12 and again @ 8 p.m. on Sunday, November 16 and @ midnight on Friday, January 30, 2015.  Judge for yourself.

Note in Passing: The DVD of "Sweet Charity" contains an alternate - happy - ending in which Charity and Oscar reunite.  The theatrical release of the film ends sadly but, as a title card promises, "hopefully."

Monday, October 06, 2014

indelible moment: "The Graduate" (1967)

It's 1967. The movie is Mike Nichols' "The Graduate," adapted by Buck Henry and Calder Willingham from Charles Webb's novel.

Dustin Hoffman, as recent graduate Benjamin Braddock, is talking with Elisabeth Frazer, as Joanne, a friend of his parents, when they are interrupted by Mr. McQuire, played by Walter Brooke.

Mr. McQuire's one-word recommendation to Benjamin brought gales of laughter in theaters - and still does, even though that word has proven to be eerily prophetic.

Joanne: "What are you going to do now?"
Ben: "I was going to go upstairs for a minute."
Joanne: "I mean with your future - your life."
Ben: "That's a little bit hard to say."
Mr. McGuire: (interrupting them) "Ben."
Benjamin: (to Joanne) "Excuse me."
Benjamin: (turning away from Joanne) "Mr. McGuire!"
Mr. McGuire: "Ben."
Benjamin: (voice trailing off) "Mr. McGuire."
Mr.McGuire: "Come with me for a minute. I want to talk to you. Excuse us, Joanne?"
Joanne: "Of course."

(pause)

Mr. McGuire: "I just want to say one word to you. Just one word."
Benjamin: "Yes, sir."
Mr. McGuire: "Are you listening?"
Benjamin: "Yes, I am."
Mr. McGuire: "Plastics."
Benjamin: "Exactly how do you mean?"
Mr.McGuire: "There's a great future in plastics. Think about it. Will you think about it?"
Ben: "Yes, I will."
Mr. McGuire: "Enough said. That's a deal."

Friday, October 03, 2014

fincher's "persona"

Credit: Merrick Morton/Twentieth Century Fox and Regency Enterprises

Crime films that detail how a murder or robbery is planned are nothing new, and in the past few years, David Fincher has come up with two of the best - "Zodiac" (2007) and "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" (2011), both of which brought exacting detail, and intelligence, to the formula.

But few modern police procedurals have veered away from the norm as daringly as Fincher's film version of Gillian Flynn's on-going best-seller, "Gone Girl," in which victim and victimizer continually swtich places until their personalities seem to meld together into a kind of rorschach-like blur.

One could say, and without exaggeration, that "Gone Girl" is the "Persona" of policiers.  To make matters even more Bergmanesque, there is a hint of "Scenes from a Marriage" in Fincher's depiction of the lengths to which both Amy and Nick Dunne (Rosamund Pike and Ben Affleck) will go to deal with a marital arrangement that has become more rancid than stale.

And it is, indeed, every bit of an arrangement.

The layered,psychology-tinged performances of Affleck and Pike make it difficult not only to empathize with either, but also to fully dislike them.  Pike's Amy had disappeared even before she physically departed from their home, and Affleck's Nick was never really there to begin with.  The so-called "crime" that drives the film is much less commanding than the narcissistic motivations of a couple trying to,well, consciously uncouple.  

With "Gone Girl," the crime film becomes post-modern.

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

janet

"Who are your favorite actresses?"

That's one of the stock questions that I was inevitably asked during my years as a working critic.  It's also a no-win question because the person asking it usually expects your choices to mirror his/hers or expects, at the very least, a litany of all the usual suspects - you know, Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis, Rosalind Russell, Meryl Streep, yada, yada.

But mine have always been Shirley MacLaine (a sentimental, childhood favorite), Ginger Rogers (for her amazing versatility in every genre imaginable) and ... Janet Leigh, admired because she was such a pleasing screen presence and a particularly unassuming actress.  I sensed that her success had something to do with being a damn good team player.

Which made her even more pleasing.  And affecting.

Her evolution from a scrubbed, sweet-faced starlet to a no-nonsense woman with an abrupt comic manner and tough resilience was one of genuine growth. Her sexual appeal was the real deal - she's what James Agee would have called "a dish" - and she never trivialized it, her credibility as an actress being more important to her.

She had grace. Style.

This came through when we shared a podium at a book fair sponsored by the Sacramento Public Library so many years ago.  Leigh was there to talk about her new career as an author (she had written two books - a novel and a reminiscence of the making of Hitchcock's "Psycho") but mostly about her former career as a studio-schooled actress  - the tough moguls who gave her orders and roles (some choice ones) and the actors and directors who taught her the craft of movie acting.

None of her comments was negative.  I brought up "Bye Bye Birdie" because I had read that she was not so much disappointed by the film but by its director, George Sidney, who betrayed her. Leigh had worked with Sidney immediately prior to "Birdie" on two films - the all-star extravaganza "Pepe" and the hilarious "Who Was That Lady?" - and, once he coaxed her to do "Birdie," he became smitten with its ingénue, Ann-Margaret, turning the film into a showcase for her, at the expense of the material and the other stars.

Her response was simple: "Of the movie musicals I made, I prefer 'My Sister Eileen.'"

That said, we moved on to discuss a filmography that included unexpected turns by Leigh under the direction of  a collection of mighty auteurs - Alfred Hitchcock ("Psycho"), Anthony Mann ("The Naked Spur"), John Frankenheimer ("The Manchurian Candidate") and Orson Welles ("Touch of Evil"), among others.  She made a Martin-and-Lewis comedy ("Living It Up") and pretty much came of age on film in a string of titles with her ex-husband, Tony Curtis.  Janet and Tony - they were very much an item.
Leigh certainly deserved more credit and acclaim during her lifetime than she received. "I don't know what it is I exude," Leigh once quipped. "But whatever it is, it's whatever I am." 

I wish she could have read what critic Carrie Rickey had to say about her in a 2010 essay on Carrie's Flickgrrl blog for The Philadelphia Inquirer.

"One of her distinctive features was the chorus-girl bod that was such a startling contrast to her woman-of-the-world voice," Rickey wrote.

That pretty much encapsulates Leigh's singular appeal.

Note in Passing:  Although not generally known as a singer, Janet Leigh vocalized - and pleasingly - in a few film musicals, among them "Birdie," "Eileen" and "Two Tickets to Broadway."  She also sung in Jack Webb's "Pete Kelly's Blues" (1955).  And she proved herself a pretty good dancer, too, especially in "My Sister Eileen," where she held her own against the likes of Bob Fosse, Tommy Rall and Betty Garrett.

*   *   *

Janet Leigh is being celebrated throughout October by Turner Classic Movies as its Star of the Month with a list of 34 Leigh films including everything from her debut vehicle, Roy Rowland's"The Romance of Rosy Ridge" (1947) to a later work such as Mel Stuart's unfortunate Trish Van Devere vehicle, "One Is a Lonely Number" (1972) to Blake Edwards' lost ”The Perfect Furlough” (1958), one of her films with Curtis (below).

On tap are Stanley Donen's delightful "Fearless Fagan" (1952) and the aforementioned "My Sister Eileen," Richard Quine's original 1955 film musical, which boasts a solid score by Jule Styne and Leo Robin and clever choreography by Bob Fosse (then billed as Robert) - who also co-starred in the role that Quine played in the Roz Russell version of the material.

And, yes, "Bye Bye Birdie" is in the mix, too.

The ensemble cast of Richard Quine's fabulous "My Sister Eileen": (from left) Richard York (aka, Dick York), Lucy Marlowe, Robert Fosse (aka, Bob Fosse), Janet, Jack Lemmon, Betty Garrett, Kurt Kasznar and Horace McMahon, all atop a marquee

Sunday, September 28, 2014

cinema obscura: Blake Edwards' "The Perfect Furlough" (1958)

"The Perfect Furlough," circa 1958, is that rare Blake Edwards movie that has unaccountably disappeared.

And it doesn't help that no one remembers it.  With reason.

Written by Stanley Shapiro, the films is a mash-up of service farce and sex comedy and, as the latter, anticipates the material that Shapiro would subsequently whip up for Rock Hudson and Doris Day, beginning a year later with "Pillow Talk."  Standing in for Rock and Doris here are Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh, who were very much happily married at the time.

Anyway, the plot is about an enlisted sex addict, Paul Hodges (Curtis), who wins an Army-sanctioned three-week "date" in Paris with Sandra Roca (played by Linda Crystal), a notorious sex symbol - a dubious idea dreamed up by Army psychologist Vicki Loren (Leigh) to help buoy the morale of enlisted men.  But the catch is,  Paul and Sandra can't sleep together and so Vicki is also dispatched to Paris to keep things platonic.

Shapiro would also collaborate again with Edwards and Curtis on 1959's "Operation Petticoat," a film that unaccountably has never disappeared.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

cinema obscura: Ken Hughes' "Wicked As They Come" (1956)

The joys of moviegoing/moviewatching can be neatly divided into two camps.  First and foremost, there's the guaranteed joy that comes from watching a favored film over and over and over and over again.

No less important, however, is the joy of discovering a new movie - not something current that just opened at your local cineplex but an older title that's been around for some time, without your even knowing about it.

Falling cozily into the latter camp is a little (and little-known) 1956 gem from Columbia Pictures, "Wicked As They Come," directed by British filmmaker Ken Hughes, whose diverse résumé includes Peter Finch's "The Trial of Oscar Wilde" (1960), The Sherman Bros. musical, "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" (1968) and the Alan Price remake, "Alfie, Darling" (1972).

"Wicked As They Come" aired on Turner Classic Movies during its annual Summer Under the Stars outing in August as part of a day devoted to its star, Arlene Dahl.  I caught it quite by accident.  My viewing was totally unplanned.  For the life of me, I can't remember how or why I started to watch it - the film was an unknown entity to me - but I'm glad I did.

It's a keeper.

Filmed by Mike Frankovich's production company largely in London with a British crew and a cast of  Anglos and Americans, "Wicked As They Come" casts Dahl as Kathy Allen, née Allenborg, a restless Boston woman from a deprived background with an indifference to all men.


Kathy sets out to rebuild her life, starting with her eye on Miss Stylewear, a local newspaper-sponsored beauty contest that's conveniently fixed in her favor.

She shrewdly exploits the affection that the newspaper's editor feels for her and, once the contest is over and won, she abandons him and, with her cash winnings, moves to London, where she flits from man to man, each progressively older, wealthier and more prominent, scamming them all.

Kathy's advance is witnessed by another American expat, advertising man Tim O'Bannion (Phil Carey), who is both fascinated and repelled by her transparency. O'Bannion at once wants to expose Kathy, punish her, rehabilitate her and ... ensnare her.

His fascination inevitably turns into obsession.

Sound remotely familiar? Well, the basic core of "Wicked As They Come" is nearly a dead ringer for Alfred Hitchcock's "Marnie" from 1964.

"Wicked As They Come" isn't nearly as accomplished as "Marnie," and, true, there are major differences. Still, there are so many small narrative similarities here that it's difficult to believe that Hitch wasn't a fan of Hughes' modest little film from eight years earlier. ( It should be noted, however, that Jay Presson Allen's script for "Marnie" was based on a novel of the same title by Winston Green, while "Wicked As They Come" was adapted from another book, "Portrait in Smoke," by Bill S. Ballinger.)

Dahl and Carey could be playing prototypes for the characters ultimately essayed by Tippi Hedren and Sean Connery in "Marnie."  Like Connery in "Marnie," Carey's character keeps popping up in the heroine's life, and there's a sequence in which Carey shows up at the office where Dahl is working that could be a template for the same scene in "Marnie." "Wicked As They Come" even comes with a Hitchcock specialty - the final-curtain psychological explanation, a theory for Kathy's troubled behavior.

Not surprisingly, like Marnie, Kathy's damage was caused by a sexual trauma from earlier in her life.

It's gratifying to see the terrific Carey at last in a rare leading role, and Dahl, an actress who was made for Technicolor, is even more beautiful in black-&-white.

The cinematograher Basil Emmott (a name new to me) achieves a soft, smokey  image here that is gorgeous, and hugely flattering to Dahl, absolutely first-rate.

A little symmetry here:  While "Marnie" is one of those aforementioned favored films that I'd gladly watch over and over and over and over again, and have, its modest doppelganger, "Wicked As They Come," is a decidedly new favorite. Someday, these two will make a terrific double-bill.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

cinema obscura: Michael Hoffman's "Gambit"

I've said it before, but it bares repeating: Hollywood routinely makes and releases awful movies - on  a weekly basis, no less - and spares no expense marketing them.

I reiterate this in preamble to the fact that Michael Hoffman's 2012 remake of "Gambit" (material that hardly deserved revamping) is no better or worse than the junk currently littering your neighborhood cineplex.

Actually, it's my hunch that it's probably much better than the movie you paid $50 (including concession "food") to see last weekend.

But someone at CBS Films, its American distributor - someone apparently overpaid to make dubious decisions - decided that the new "Gambit" is an offensive embarrassment, despite its pedigree.  Two years after it toured the rest of the world,  CBS elected to release the movie last April in a handful of cities in America.  If you live in New York, for example, where the film temporarily played, you probably didn't know where to see it because there were no display ads.  (But a belated New York Times review thoughtfully guided potential moviegoers to the Village East Cinema.)

The original "Gambit," directed in 1966 by Ronald Neame, was a standard '60s caper flick which paired the then-hot Michael Caine with Shirley MacLaine, who was experiencing one of her rare down periods.  (Universal, the film's producer, would next cast her in one of her greatest roles, "Sweet Charity.")  Caine and MacLaine played a cat burglar and a dancer who team up for a heist of a sculpture that exploits both their talents.

It was all fairly tepid.

The remake teams Colin Firth (an apt stand-in for Caine) and Cameron Diaz (who doesn't play a dancer here, but a cowgirl - don't ask) in the heist of a painting.  They are backed by a trio of A-list supporting players - Alan Rickman, Stanley Tucci and Tom Courtenay - and they get to read dialogue written by no less than Ethan and Joel Coen.  This version of the material is a step up from tepid, thanks largely to the way the Coens have fiddled with their script; the odd chemistry shared by Firth and Diaz, and especially Hoffman's off-kilter direction. Which is no surprise. At least, not to me.

Hoffman has always marched to a different drummer, amassing a refreshingly eclectic filmmography - "Some Girls," "Soapdish," "One Fine Day," "Restoration," "The Last Station," "Promised Land" and his Kevin Kline-Michelle Pfeiffer "A Midsummer Night's Dream."

He's an original.  His new film - no so much.

Both Firth and Diaz have experienced a few career bumps of late, so it's so surprise that they would bump into each other here.  Diaz made a good film that was dismissed - Ridley Scott's "The Counselor." And Firth has made two good films that were dismissed - Atom Egoyan's "Devil's Knot" and Jonathan Teplitzky's "The Railway Man." And both have starred in disappointing comedies - Firth in "Magic in the Moonlight" and Diaz in two, "The Other Woman" and "Sex Tape." "Gambit" is another bump.

But it's really nothing more serious than that.  Honest.