Monday, August 12, 2013

cinema obscura: Martin Ritt's "Five Branded Women" (1960)

Silvana Mangano (far left) and fellow prisoners Jeanne Moreau, Vera Miles, Carla Gravina and Barbara Bel Geddes face off with Nazi Richard Basehart in Ritt's "Five Branded Women" (1960)
In 1960, Martin Ritt joined forces with super producer Dino DeLaurentiis for a most provocative war-time drama, abetted by five talented, diverse actresses who, in tandem, bring an international flair - and constrasting acting styles - to "Five Branded Women." For the resourceful DVD addict, Ritt's film would make a fine double-bill with John Ford's similar "7 Women" (1966).

Silvana Mangano, Jeanne Moreau, Vera Miles, Carla Gravina and Barbara Bel Geddes - all cast as Yugoslavians - are the titular women, ostracized by their country's Partisans for having had sexual relations with a Nazi officer, initially played with an all-American swagger by Steve Forrest.

As further punishment for their shared transgression, each one is branded by having her hair shaved - a symbol of their shame. Hence, the title. (The film's working title was "Jovanka and the Others" - Jovanka being the Mangano character.) Forrest's Nazi doesn't exactly get off easy: He's castrated by the Partisans and few scenes are as bluntly memorably as the moment when Forrest shouts from a window, "I am no longer a man!"

The film then follows the women, unknown to each other and suspicious of each other, as they reluctantly band together for the sake of survival - stealing food, dodging rapists and picking up guns and fighting.

The script by Ivo Perilli (with uncredited help by Michael Wilson and Paul Jarrico) is based on the novel, "Jovanka e le altre," by Ugo Pirro and takes time out for some quiet introspective moments as each woman shares what she hoped to gain from her relationship with Forrest. One of the women turns out to be pregnant; another attempts suicide.

And she never even slept with Forrest.

"Five Branded Women," directed by Ritt with his usual fluidity and political conscienceness, is grim and yet it's a startling testament to human resilience - and an examination of the torments of guilt and separation.

Its fine supporting cast includes Van Heflin, Harry Guardino and Richard Basehart as another Nazi. Its harshly atmospheric black-&-white cinematography is by Fellini favorite, the great Giuseppe Rotunno, who also did "All That Jazz" and "Carnal Knowledge." It looks very European.

Now ... where's the DVD?

Note in Passing: If Vera Miles hairline always looked suspicious to you in Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho" (1960), it's because she had to wear a wig throughout the production. Miles had made Ritt's film immediately prior to "Psycho" and her hair was still crew-cut length, requiring a wig.

Thursday, August 01, 2013

cinema obscura: Marc Klein's "Suburban Girl" (2007)

A sense of discovery, what used to be among the more simple pleasures in one's moviegoing life, has become such a rare and fleeting event nowadays that it is unappreciated and often misunderstood.

We've been conditioned to assume that any film - either a mainstream monstrosity from the studios or an indie darling from the festivals - that isn't hyped is suspect and must be bad. And must be avoided.

Marc Klein's first feature as a director, "Suburban Girl," went missing back in 2007 when it somehow fell off the fillm-fete assembly line and disappeared.  It played Cannes and the Tribeca Film Festival and all of the major markets in Europe but never quite made it back home.

Klein, a screenwriter whose credits include "Serendipity," "A Good Year" and, more recently, "Mirror Mirror," has fashioned a bittersweet relationship film (not to be confused with your standard romcom) about a young woman with some minor father issues who becomes involved with an older man with major daughter issues. He based it on two short stories, "My Old Man" and "The Worst Thing a Suburban Girl Could Imagine," from Melisa Bank's "The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing," which was the film's working title. ("Suburban Girl" is a most unworthy moniker.)

Set in Candace Bushnell's New York, Klein's film is what one would expect from an episode of  "Sex and the City" written and directed by Woody Allen:  It is observant, literate, occasionally witty and quite tart.

And in the lead roles, Sarah Michelle Geller and Alec Baldwin do alert, deeply shaded variations on the Carrie Bradshaw-Mr. Big duet, adding some fascinating new wrinkles to an all-too-familiar theme. 

Geller, a solid actress who operates too often under the radar, is Brett Eisenberg, an associate editor whose talent and ambition are being smothered by her new boss at the publishing house where she works. 

Baldwin is Archie Knox, the Mailer-esque author - part writer, mostly womanizer - who wants to seduce and mentor her at the same time, forgetting that Brett is neither his mistress nor his daughter, but his equal. 

While this is very much Geller's film, which she carries with exquisite, attractive ease, Baldwin is commanding, both suave and sexually intimidating - and also touching - as an older man who is also an aging lothario.  Baldwin, whose life as a promising leading man in movies self-aborted, found his second act in Jack Donaghy, a character that, for better or worse, has invaded some of his other recent performances.  But not here.  Archie Knox is a character/performance that stands very much on its own, free of any Donaghy/Baldwin, Baldwin/Donaghy tics.

The large supporting cast includes turns by James Naughton as Brett's beloved father, Maggie Grace as her BFF/confidant and Mirian Seldes (Mr. Big's mother herself!) as a tony literary critic.

My theory on why this film fell through the cracks:  It's not really an indie and it's not really mainstream either,  which poses a marketing problem.  Klein, I suppose, could have easily made this for a major studio, but it's doubtful if either Baldwin or Geller would have been the leads.

Which would have been a loss. 

The difficult-to-see "Suburban Girl"  can be found these days on the fringes of cable TV, usually Showtime.  Check it out or (given the inconvenient hours that it's usually shown) record it. You'll be suprised and gratified.

I hope.