Tuesday, April 17, 2018

double bill: Paul Henreid's "Dead Ringer" (1964) & David Cronenberg's "Dead Ringers" (1988)

Double features - the pairings of two films - have been my fascination ever since I discovered the seductive power of movies. Now long gone, the double bill was once a ubiquitous mainstay of movie exhibition, was quite popular with audiences and came in assorted configurations.

There were the B-movie double bills, consisting of two genre films (vide SciFi and horror flicks from the 1940s and '50s as examples). Then there were the pairings of two major studio titles, replete with new display ads, for a second run (such as when Warners teamed its two 1962 musicals, "The Music Man" and "Gypsy," early in 1963). And in Philadelphia, there were the "all-day preview" pairings (always on a Wednesday) which brought together a movie that was playing its last day, ending its run, and a new one that was opening that day. This often involved films from competing studios which, surprisingly, cooperated with the idea.

Finally, there are the rep-house double bills, which still exist in larger cities and tend to be inventive. I remember the old Thalia Theater, way up on West 95th street in New York, mischievously pairing "The Virgin Spring" with "Singin' in the Rain." And the programmers at San Francisco's Castro Theater and Los Angeles' The New Beverly Cinema are particularly adept and resourceful with their double features.

That said, today, I'm inaugurating a recurring feature devoted to the double bills that have been rummaging through my mind for decades now.

First up:  The pairing of Paul Henreid's "Dead Ringer" (1964) with David Cronenberg's "Dead Ringers" (1988), not just because of the similarity of their titles but because they are among my favorite guilty pleasures.

"Dead Ringer" was casually dismissed the year it was released as a "Baby Jane" rip-off (thanks to Warner Bros.' publicity department making that connection, which is so not true) and is still unfairly underrated. It's a compulsively watchable melodrama with Bette Davis as both a wronged woman and the woman who wronged her - her awful twin sister.

Edie had met the love of her life, see, but he was soon claimed by her evil twin Margaret who, as the film begins, is now his wealthy widow. When Edie attends the funeral of her lost love, she learns that Margaret had lied about having a child who died. But the kid never died; he was non-existent. Because of this deception, Edie decides that Margaret must die. Immediately.

She efficiently murders Margaret, assuming her identity and privileged lifestyle, living off the now-deceased Mr. DeLorca's vast fortune. It's Edie who died, see? But there are complications. For one thing, there's this cop (Karl Malden) snooping around - a cop who was devoted to Edie. And there's the DeLorca dog, an imposing figure who hated evil Margaret but really likes Edie.

Then there's this gigolo (Peter Lawford), Margaret's paramour when the late Mr. DeLorca was still alive, who figures things out and decides to blackmail Edie/Margaret. For starters, he wants a fancy sports car.

"Dead Ringer" reunited Davis with two Warner cronies, cinematographer Ernest Haller, who shot the film in glorious, early '60s black-&-white, and former co-star Henried ("Now, Voyager" and "Deception") who directed with a distinctly old-fashioned touch and a clear generosity with his actors.

Bette is Bette, which is good; Karl Malden shrewdly elects to play his role with such sincerity and nobility that he produces a subtle form of camp, and Peter Lawford, looking well-fed and spoiled, is a hoot as a kept man who intends to remain being kept indefinitely.

The supporting cast is tops - Jean Hagen, Philip Carey, George Macready, Estelle Winwood, Cyril Delevanti, Bert Remsen, Ken Lynch, Henry Beckman, Charles Watts and George Petrie. And Perry Blackwell, who played the piano at the Parisian Room in Los Angeles for several years, provides the jazz piano renditions in the scenes set in the little L. A. bar/club owned by Edie. A touch suggested, perhaps, by the composer of the film's music - André Previn, who also attempted to provide a Max Steiner-type score. But it sounds like ... André Previn. (All his movie stuff sounds alike to me.)

There are also twins in Cronenberg's piece of medical mischief, "Dead Ringers" - twin gynocologists, no less, who can't be told apart and who are played by a very game and very witty Jeremy Irons. Identical twins Beverly and Elliot Mantle are famous and much in demand by the women who patronize them and who are often fooled by them, the scamps.

While Beverly and Elliot may be identical, they couldn't be more dissimilar in personality, with Elliot the more confident, aggressive and dominant of the two. Beverly is is definitely passive and subservient in comparison and often inherits a woman when Elliot tires of the her. For example, they both date an actress named Claire Niveau (Geneviève Bujold) but, like the other women, she's under the impression that she's seeing one man.

The sharing and comparing of women is a noxious plot point and it is upended when the shy Beverly falls in love with Claire. A drug addiction that ensnares both brothers exacerbates their issues and Cronenberg adds to the carefully planned creepiness of his film with the introduction of curious gynocological equipment that the brothers have invented, reported to be friendlier to the female body, and that adds to their fame.

Cronenberg has directed the movie in a fashion that makes it seem as if it is slithering, not just moving, and abetting his distinct vision are the contributions of composer Howard Shore and cinematographer Peter Suschitzky. Visually, the film is drop-dead gorgeous. In tandem with Irons' jaw-dropping one man/two man show, the creators here have made sure that the film is all of one piece. Everyone involved was clearly on the same bizarre wavelength, as if they were, well, conjoined. "Dead Ringers" is that rare movie that is at once difficult to recommend but also a must-see. 

Note in Passing: Should I decide to turn my fantasy into a triple bill, I'd gladly add  François Ozon's provocative ”Double Lover”/”L'amont Double" to the mix. It also involves twins. Of sorts.

Two sets, in fact.

Regarding Comments: All comments are enthusiastically appreciated but are moderated before publication. Replies signed "unknown" or "anonymous" are not encouraged. Please sign any response with a name (real or fabricated) or initials.  Be advised that a "name" will be assigned to any accepted post signed "unknown" or "anonymous." Thank you.

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(from top) 

~Poster art for "Dead Ringer"

~exterior shot of the Thalia theater

~Poster art for "Dead Ringers"

~Bette Davis and Bette Davis in "Dead Ringer"
~photography: Warner Bros. 1964© 

 ~Perry Blackwell

~Jeremy Irons and Jeremy Irons in "Dead Ringers"
~photography: Twentieth Century-Fox 1988©

~Original French poster art for "L'amont Double"/"Double Lover"


~a 1979 program from the Thalia theater
click on image to enlarge

Monday, April 09, 2018

richard quine, at columbia and beyond

Richard Quine never settled. Even as a house director at Columbia, where he was largely assigned work during the 1950s and '60s, he summoned an uneasy, idiosyncratic personal touch that made him a closet auteur.

Back then, he came in under the radar and, in some cinema circles, still does. Case in point: The critic J. Hoberman. Still hanging on the coattail of the late Andrew Sarris, Hoberman incited mild rage when - in his 2014 DVD review of "The Moonshine War" in the New York Times - he wrote: "Adapted by Elmore Leonard from his novel, 'The Moonshine War' was directed by Richard Quine, a minor auteur described by Andrew Sarris in 'The American Cinema' as 'an inoffensive imitator of his betters.'"

Fair enough, I guess. Everyone has an opinion (particularly about movies), but Hoberman's is a second-hand one. Besides, Quine enthusiasts do exist.

Another case in point: The critic Dave Kehr. Quine's name was invoked regularly - and with some admiration - on Kehr's much-missed site, "reports from the lost continent of cinephilia." And then there's the intrepid Scott Foundas, who has reviewed for The Village Voice, Variety and Film Comment and who wrote a terrific essay for the LA Weekly when the director was the subject of "Richard Quine at Columbia," a mini-retrospective presented by the film arm of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art back in 2008. When Quine's wonderful ”It Happened to Jane” (1959) was screened in 2011 at the Colonial Theater, a rep house in Phoenixville, Pa. the recommendation came from Foundas.
Quine remains a particular favorite of this site, not only because he coaxed the most naturalistic, least mannered screen work out of Jack Lemmon (sorry, Messrs. Wilder and Edwards), but precisely because his style was so uneasy and idiosyncratic - much like the man himself, who apparently was complex and troubled. Foundas has keenly observed that Quine was attracted to "lonely, broken people ensnared by desire."

Richard Quine started out as a contract player at Columbia in the 1930s and '40s and, as an actor, is perhaps best known for his role as Frank Lippincott in the 1942 Rosalind Russell film, "My Sister Elieen." He made his directing debut in tandem with William Asher on 1948's "Leather Gloves," whose cast included a young actor named ... Blake Edwards.
Many of Quine's Columbia films were made in collaboration with Edwards. Quine and Edwards, for example, wrote the script for the 1955 musical remake of  ... "My Sister Eileen," which Quine directed. (In the remake, the role of Frank that Quine played in the original went to Bob Fosse, who also choreographed the film.) After "Leather Gloves," Quine worked on shorts for the studio before directing his next film solo - the 1951 Frankie Laine musical, "Sunny Side of the Street," his official directorial debut.

He broke out in 1954 with two terrific titles, "Pushover," a gem that starred Fred MacMurray and introduced Kim Novak, and "Drive a Crooked Road," which started a quite interesting collaboration with Mickey Rooney.

In addition to Edwards and Rooney, his main connections at Columbia were studio head Harry Cohn (who promoted Quine to director), Lemmon (with whom he made six films and whose screen test he directed) and Novak (with whom he made four films there). Novak was entrusted to Quine by Cohn to groom into an actress and, more to the point, a star.

He directed Judy Holliday in two 1956 titles ("Full of Life" and "The Solid Gold Cadillac") and three films that paired Lemmon and Ernie Kovacs - "Operation Mad Ball," a 1957 service farce that predates "M*A*S*H" with its irreverent humor (and featrues a wild turn by Rooney), 1958's beguiling "Bell, Book and Candle" (also with Novak) and the aforementioned "It Happened to Jane" (in which Kovacs does a wicked impersonation of Harry Cohn, who died during the filming of "Bell, Book and Candle").

Novak became Quine's muse-cum-fiancée, and when they made 1960's "Strangers When We Meet," whose plot revolves around a swank Malibu home being designed for a famous writer, Columbia displayed its respect for Quine - and also supported his relationship with Novak - by building a real house for the film and then giving it to them after the shoot as "a wedding present."

But the couple parted ways during the filming and much of the anxiety in Novak's performance in the film (her best) may have stemmed directly from the real-life break-up. Between 1948 and 1960, Richard Quine directed 17 titles for Columbia before leaving the studio when his contract was up. It was yet another parting after "Strangers When We Meet" which, by the way, remains Quine's masterwork. Arguably, of course.

Working outside the axis of the Columbia lot on North Gower, Quine's work took on a different dimension. Early on, he had been "loaned out" by Columbia (to Universal) for the Tony Curtis-Gene Nelson musical, "So This Is Paris" (1954), but his extracurricular professional life really started in earnest in 1960, the year he made "Strangers When We Meet," when he directed William Holden and Nancy Kwan in the film version of the Paul Osborn play, "The World of Suzie Wong" for Ray Stark and Paramount.

Quine returned to Columbia two years later in 1962 and reunited with both Lemmon and Novak for the superior comedy-mystery, ”The Notorious Landlady,” a clever, intricate take on Hitchcock. And then he dove into three back-to-back, star-powered comedies - "Paris - When It Sizzles" (1964), with William Holden and Audrey Hepburn; "Sex and the Single Girl" (1964), with Tony Curtis and Natalie Wood, and "How to Murder Your Wife" (1965), his final film with Lemmon - the three made for Paramount, Warner Bros. and United Artists, respectfully.

He made another return to Columbia in '65 to direct Stella Stevens in the addiction drama, "Synanon," done verité-style; segued into Warners' "Hotel" (starring Rod Taylor) in '67 and, the same year, had another reunion - with Roz Russell, directing her in the film version of the Arthur Kopit play/curiosity, "Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma's Hung You in the Closet and I'm Feeling So Sad," for Paramount.

In 1969-1970, Quine did two solid Richard Widmark films - "A Talent for Loving" for Paramount" and the aforementioned "The Moonshine War" for MGM - neither getting much of a studio push. Quine's last two films, both disposable Peter Sellers vehicles, were Universal's "The Prisoner Zenda" (1979) and Warners' "The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu" (1980), which he started but never completed. Piers Haggard is credited for "Fu Manchu."

Nine years later, Richard Quine would die from a self-inflicted gun shot. His career had been winding down and, sadly, he never achieved the wide-spread recognition that his peer and friend Blake Edwards enjoyed. Perhaps he missed the kind of movie he made so easily at his original home base, Columbia, where - again, arguably - he did his best work.

Perhaps, he was that rare filmmaker who worked best as a hired hand, a contract director, and not as a transient free-lancer. Who knows?

The standout among his final films is an unsung title reminiscent of his "Pushover"/"Drive a Crooked Road" days working for Cohn. "W," a tidy thriller that Quine made in 1974 for Cinerama Releasing, fell through the cracks the minute it was released, barely noticed. And it is now forgotten.

As he did with Kim Novak decades earlier, Quine nudged a credible, often appealing performance from Twiggy, cast as a woman hounded by a serial killer whose sole clue is the letter W left at the scene of each crime. It was her second film, following Ken Russell's "The Boy Friend" in 1971, and her sincerity and drive to give a valid performance is palpable. I can recall only a few performers who have worked so hard and with such sincerity to be so good - and much of Twiggy's success in the film, I surmise, comes from having Richard Quine as her director.

I've a hunch that his uneasy, idiosyncratic touch inspired her.

Notes in Passing: Quine and Billy Wilder both served as "best men" at Jack Lemmon's marriage to Felicia Farr in Paris during the summer of 1962, when Lemmon and Wilder were there for "Irma La Douce" location shooting.

Kim Novak was there, too. It was during that same summer that "The Notorious Landlady" was released. And, finally, Quine served as narrator for Lemmon's 1961 service comedy with Ricky Nelson, "The Wackiest Ship in the Army."

Regarding Comments: All comments are enthusiastically appreciated but are moderated before publication. Replies signed "unknown" or "anonymous" are not encouraged. Please sign any response with a name (real or fabricated) or initials.  Be advised that a "name" will be assigned to any accepted post signed "unknown" or "anonymous." Thank you.

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(from top) 

~Richard Quine directing Jack Lemmon and Kim Novak in "The Notorious Landlady" 
~photography: Bob Willoughby/Columbia Pictures 1962© 

~Studio shot of Richard Quine
~photography: Columbia Pictures 1958©

~Doris Day, Jack Lemmon and Sam the lobster relax during the shooting of "It Happened to Jane"
~photography: Columbia Pictures 1959©

~Betty Garrett, Jenet Leigh, Jack Lemmon and Bob Fosse in "My Sister Eileen"
~photography: Columbia Pictures 1955©

~Mickey Rooney in "Operation Mad Ball"
~photography: Columbia Pictures 1957©

~Kim Novak in "Strangers When We Meet"
~photography: Columbia Pictures 1960©

~Natalie Wood and Tony Curtis in a scene from "Sex and the Single Girl"
~photography: Warner Bros. 1964© 

 ~ Dust jacket for the RCA soundtrack for "Oh Dad, Poor Dad,  Mamma's Hung You in the Closet and I'm Feeling so Sad"

~ Lobby card for "W" 

~Jack Lemmon and Kim Novak - in color! - in the otherwise black-&-white "The Notorious Landlady" 
~photography: Columbia Pictures 1962©