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.

Friday, October 17, 2014

façade: bob rafelson

Bergin and Shaw in Rafelson's "Mountains of the Moon"

In the early 1970s, when he was part of the exciting "new generation" of filmmakers and at the top of his form, Bob Rafelson reportedly told an interviewer, "I'll consider myself happy if I direct ten films in my career."

That comment, perhaps said glibly, has proven to be somewhat prescient because, some forty years later, Rafelson's filmography of theatrical releases adds up to ... ten titles.  Which makes one wonder.

Why?  Why only ten?

Rafelson emerged at a time - a rare time - when directors were permitted to dominate and chart the course of the film scene.  The moguls stepped aside for Robert Altman, Francis Ford Coppola, Peter Bogdanovich and William Friedkin, the young auteurs who commanded most of the attention, from both the studios and the media.  Woody Allen, Mike Nichols and Arthur Penn, I suppose, blazed the trail for them, making what were essentially independent movies for mainstream distribution.

Following closely behind were Paul Mazursky, Brian DePalma and James Bridges.  And then there were Hal Ashby and Rafelson who initially weren't given as much of the spotlight that the others enjoyed.

It's interesting that Rafelson and Ashby shared a similiar career trajectory in that their first halves of their respective careers are rich with edgy, original films, while the second halves are much less so. (I can't think of one movie aficionado who links Ashby with "The Slugger's Wife.")

After having directed several episodes of "The Monkees" TV series and making his feature-film debut with the Monkees movie, "Head," in 1968, Rafelson went on to direct "Five Easy Pieces" (1970), "Stay Hungry" (1976), the remake of "The Postman Always Rings Twice" (1981) and, arguably, his best and most idiosyncratic film, "The King of Marvin Gardens" (1972).  One word: Wow.

He took a break for several years (six to be exact) and then tried his had at a commercial thriller with two interesting actresses - Debra Winger and Theresa Russell - and the result was "Black Widow" (1987).  Something changed.  It was difficult to pinpoint, but even Rafelson's most ardent fans were unenthusiastic about "Black Widow" and the last three films he directed - "Man Trouble" (19092), "Blood and Wine" (1996) and "No Good Deed" (aka, "The House on Turk Street,"2002). (In 1998, he made "Poodle Springs," a Philip Marlowe film with James Caan, which played theatrically in Spain but was sold as a TV movie here.  I never saw it.)

Smack-dab in the middle of all this, Rafelson directed his most ambitious, atypical movie - 1990's "Mountains of the Moon," a detailed period piece about Captain Richard Francis Burton's and Lt. John Hanning Speke's arduous trek to find the source of the Nile river that also works as an intimate study of an intense friendship and its disintegration.

The excellent film features Iain Glen as Spek and a riveting Patrick Bergin as Burton, who shares a powerfully adult love story with Fiona Shaw who plays his wife, Isabel. Which brings me to another subject - Patrick Bergin.  He followed "Mountains of the Moon" a year later with an equally commanding performance as Julia Roberts' demented/dangerous husband in Joseph Ruben's "Sleeping with the Enemy" and he seemed poised to become a major film force.  But that never happened.

Anyway, "Mountains of the Moon," much like its director and star, is largely forgotten today.  IFC screened it a few time in 2008 and now, the resourceful people at Turner Classic Movies have claimed it, airing the film tonight (Saturday actually) @ 12:15 a.m.

Turner's brand, of course, is American and English-language narratives made between 1930 and 1960, but it's been expanding to include more foreign-language films, silents, documentaries and post-1970 titles.  (Animation is still under-represented.)   Turner has screened Rafelson's "Five Easy Pieces" several times (usually in graveyard time slots)  and, I believe, "The King of Marvin Gardens" at least once. The first impression is that "Mountains of the Moon" is a far cry from those two films, but the relationships in it are not that unlike those in Rafelson's seminal films.

It's at once old-fashioned and quite modern. 

Friday, October 10, 2014


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."

Note in Passing: Turner Classic Movies will air "Repulsion" @ 6:15 p.m. (est) on Friday, October 31 - Halloween!

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."

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


"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