Sunday, November 30, 2008

Target #240: A Night at the Opera (1935, Sam Wood)

TSPDT placing: #196

Directed by: Sam Wood, Edmund Goulding (uncredited)
Written by: James Kevin McGuinness (story), George S. Kaufman (screenplay), Morrie Ryskind (screenplay), Al Boasberg (uncredited), Buster Keaton (uncredited), Robert Pirosh (draft, uncredited), George Seaton (draft, uncredited)

The Marx Brothers were anarchists. They shunned order in favour of spontaneity and irreverence, and their early work – both onstage and in their films with Paramount – is characterised by this loosely-structured chaos. Story? The Marx Brothers didn't need a story: all that was required was a woman for Groucho to insult, a uptight bureaucrat to whom Chico could speak his own peculiar version of Italian, and an over-sized prop that Harpo might abuse in whatever manner he pleased. When the comedy team (minus Zeppo, who, tired of being the straight man, struck out for greener pastures) moved to MGM, producer Irving Thalberg decided that their style of comedy needed to be combined with the musical extravagance for which the studio had already required a reputation. The Marx Brothers were given creative freedom, glittering sets, elaborate musical numbers and, above all else, a story. Some fans of the comedy troupe view this as an inconvenience, the narrative merely getting in the way of all the jokes, but I think it works.

As a result of MGM's influence, A Night at the Opera (1935) bears a remarkable resemblance to an Astaire-Rogers style film (despite most of these being produced at RKO), the only difference being that the bright pair of young performers (here played by Kitty Carlisle and Allan Jones) have the aid of three bumbling comedians to facilitate their happy ending. The tale revolves around young in-love opera singers Rosa and Ricardo, the latter of whom can't achieve the recognition he deserves, due to the overbearing influence of the stuffy virtuoso performer Rodolfo (Walter Woolf King). Groucho, proving that he does have something akin to a heart after all, agrees to help Ricardo achieve success in New York, though he takes a lot of coaxing from Chico and Harpo, who are really just along for the ride. Allan Jones fills in the void that would previously have been played by straight-man Zeppo, though Kitty Carlisle's dazzling opera singer is the highlight of the supporting cast. Also enjoyable is the ever-serious Margaret Dumont and Sig Ruman.

I've never really been the greatest fan of the Marx Brothers, but I nonetheless enjoy their witty style of humour – particularly anything that Groucho has to say – and, in this film, I appreciated the greater degree of class afforded by the opera setting. In keeping with MGM's standing as the industry leader in movie musicals, A Night at the Opera even includes several genuine opera performances, and it's the real singing voices of both Carlisle and Jones that you are hearing. Chico and Harpo, likewise, don't miss an opportunity to show off their own impressive musical talents, with the former dancing his fingers across the piano keys, and the latter doing likewise on both a piano and his signature harp. While Duck Soup (1933) may have the greater rate of jokes-per-minute, fans of the Marx Brothers can do much worse than to sit down and enjoy the first of the trio's two most commercial successful films {the other being A Day at the Races (1937)}. Going to the opera has never been this chaotic.

Currently my #5 film of 1935:
1) Top Hat (Mark Sandrich)
2) The Informer (John Ford)
3) The 39 Steps (Alfred Hitchcock)
4) The Raven (Louis Friedländer)
5) A Night at the Opera (Sam Wood)


Saturday, November 29, 2008

Target #239: La règle du jeu / The Rules of the Game (1939, Jean Renoir)

TSPDT placing: #3

Directed by: Jean Renoir
Written by: Jean Renoir (scenario & dialogue), Carl Koch (writer)

The Rules of the Game (1939) arose from Jean Renoir's desire to create a "pleasant" film about a society that he believed had become rotten to the core. His brand of satire, from a screenplay he co-wrote with Carl Koch {husband of animator Lotte Reiniger}, is razor-sharp and unapologetically direct. For the French Bourgeoisie, morals and integrity have become a thing of the past. Married couples frequently hold mistresses and lovers, such that to not have one is considered abnormal. Society not only accepts these transgressions, but encourages them, and neither spouse can justly object, for they each have their own alternate pair of arms in which they may seek comfort. When the film was initially released in 1939, many audiences didn't appreciate Renoir's apparent disdain for their existence, and the critical response was bitter and disheartening. One outraged cinema-goer even attempted to burn down the theatre! Thus, it's not hard to understand why the director subsequently removed critical scenes to cater to his critics, and it wasn't until the 1950s that a near-complete print was reconstructed.
This was my fourth film from Jean Renoir, but only his second feature-length offering, so I'm still trying to familiarise myself with the director's style. The Rules of the Game is enjoyable, of course, but one does idly wonder why it's held at the pinnacle of the cinematic pantheon. For one, there doesn't seem to be anything truly "cinematic" about it. Others have mentioned the pioneering use of deep-focus, which I admittedly never noticed (somebody must be doing their job right, I suppose), but the whole film had a vibe of theatricality that kept me detached from the story. In other words, the characters were on the stage, and I was sitting back in the audience, enjoying their shenanigans but never feeling a part of them. Compare this to a comedy from, for example, Ernst Lubitsch, in which we can readily relate to the characters because we feel a part of their close-knit group. Perhaps Renoir's use of largely unsympathetic characters, who treat human relationships as some sort of perverted game, played a pivotal role in my inability to be feel involved in their story.

These disagreements aside, The Rules of the Game is all about the dialogue, which is both frequent (a catastrophe when you're trying to read subtitles) and frequently witty. The story, particularly the second half, kept me consistently entertained; I laughed my head off at Shumacher (Gaston Modot) chasing Marceau (Julien Carette) around the house with a revolver, and the rather nonchalant manner in which the house guests responded to the disruption. Renoir's own character, Octave, was my favourite, a chubby middle-aged man with plenty of friends but no lovers. It's not difficult to see where Robert Altman got some inspiration for Gosford Park (2001), particularly in how he compares and contrasts the extravagant upper-class and their servants (who aren't really all that different in their unscrupulous sexual urges). Renoir himself also used similar would-be philandering hijinks in the more light-hearted romantic comedy Elena and her Men (1956), with Ingrid Bergman. I look forward to enjoying some more of the director's work.

Currently my #6 film of 1939:
1) Mr. Smith Goes To Washington (Frank Capra)
2) Only Angels Have Wings (Howard Hawks)
3) The Wizard Of Oz (Victor Fleming, Mervyn LeRoy, Richard Thorpe, King Vidor)
4) Gone with the Wind (Victor Fleming, George Cukor, Sam Wood)
5) The Hunchback of Notre Dame (William Dieterle)
6) La règle du jeu {The Rules of the Game} (Jean Renoir)
7) Dark Victory (Edmund Goulding)
8) Another Thin Man (W.S. Van Dyke)
9) Drums Along the Mohawk (John Ford)


Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Target #238: Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948, Max Ophüls)

TSPDT placing: #74

Directed by: Max Ophüls
Written by: Stefan Zweig (story), Howard Koch (screenplay), Max Ophüls (uncredited)

WARNING: Plot and/or ending details may follow!!!

Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948) signals a tragedy from its earliest moments. The film's carefully-constructed narrative structure, with the entire story unfolding through flashbacks narrated by a dying woman's final letter, prematurely reveals a romance doomed from the outset. Whatever meetings take place, whatever promises are made, whatever hope is afforded us, we are always fully exposed to the knowledge that misfortune is only just around the corner. As such, a blanket of melancholy has descended upon every scene in the film, and all emotions seem stifled and distant; not through any fault of the filmmakers, but rather through the audiences' individual empathy for the heroine's ill-fated affection, towards a charming womaniser who can't even recall her name. This was undoubtedly the tone for which director Max Ophüls was striving; if you're looking for an uplifting romance to conclude a bright and happy day, this isn't it. However, there's a certain sedateness that the film struggles to overcome, the hollow feeling of a story not going anywhere, a train having already arrived at its destination.

Not surprisingly, given the director's nationality, Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948) has the feel of a European film. It's a bit difficult to put my finger on exactly why this is, but the Viennese setting probably contributed. Additionally, American romances – both of that time, and today – usually seem so anxious to please, doling out hope with every new meeting, and typically ending with the heroine carried off into the sunset in her eternal lover's arms. It's for its acknowledgement of the hopelessness of love that Ophüls' film, and others such as Lean's British-made Brief Encounter (1945), are regarded above most romantic pictures; after all, is there any love more poignant and memorable than unrequited love? Joan Fontaine, a favourite actress of mine, is as delicate as a flower, a quality that Hitchcock notably exploited twice in both Rebecca (1940) and Suspicion (1941). Her love for the dashing French pianist Stefan Brand (Louis Jourdan) is so incredibly passive that you already know that she's going to lose him.

Throughout the film, Lisa Berndle watches her lover from afar; she listens to his music through the physical barrier of a door; she quickly comes to know him, but only later comes to meet him. Fontaine's character is simply too weak to succeed in love, and only in her dying moments does she realise that her strength of will was required to bridge the gap between herself and the womanising, forgetful Stefan, who probably loved Lisa but never realised it. Though Ophüls' narrative framing device suggests the intervention of fate – that faceless, indifferent force to which most failed cinematic romances are attributed – into the couple's doomed romance, the blame instead falls to the two lovers. Their personal failings not only denied them love, but ultimately granted them death. That we are alerted to these inevitable eventualities in advance (both through the framing device, and a coldly-brutal sequence that indifferently alerts us, but not Lisa, to a typhis outbreak) makes it all the more difficult to bear.

Currently my #7 film of 1948:
1) The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (John Huston)
2) Ladri di biciclette {The Bicycle Thief} (Vittorio De Sicae)
3) Rope (Alfred Hitchcock)
4) Oliver Twist (David Lean)
5) Macbeth (Orson Welles)
6) Key Largo (John Huston)
7) Letter from an Unknown Woman (Max Ophüls)
8) Secret Beyond the Door… (Fritz Lang)
9) Musik i mörker {Music in Darkness} (Ingmar Bergman)
10) Fort Apache (John Ford)


Thursday, November 20, 2008

Target #237: Odd Man Out (1947, Carol Reed)

TSPDT placing: #394
Directed by: Carol Reed
Written by: F.L. Green (novel & screenplay), R.C. Sherriff (screenplay)
Starring: James Mason, Robert Newton, Cyril Cusack, Kathleen Ryan, F.J. McCormick, William Hartnell, Fay Compton, W.G. Fay, Elwyn Brook-Jones, Maureen Delaney, Denis O'Dea

A few years ago, when I first watched The Third Man (1949) {needless to say, one of the top ten films ever made} I made the mistake, as I'm sure many amateur film buffs do, to assume that this was the only film of note produced by director Carol Reed; a one-of-a-kind fluke. From here, I subscribed to the all-too-common but completely erroneous idea that Orson Welles had directed parts of the film, which might explain why it turned out so damn good. That I hadn't ever heard Reed mentioned as a distinguished veteran of British cinema is disheartening and ludicrous, for, even after only three of his films, I see no reason why he should not be held aloft alongside the likes of Michael Powell/Emeric Pressburger and David Lean. The Third Man had an Ealing-style whimsy that worked superbly well in the lopsided streets of post-War Vienna, but Reed's Odd Man Out (1947) is equally engrossing, a sombre and straight-faced exploration of political unrest in Northern Ireland. Though his film follows – and, to an extent, sympathises with – the activities of an IRA-like organisation, Reed largely avoids making any sort of political statement. The story opens with a brief title-card in which we are assured that "it is not concerned with the struggle between the law and an illegal organisation, but only with the conflict in the hearts of the people when they become unexpectedly involved." The involvement of a "terrorist" organisation in the story is not to show support for the IRA or similar causes, but to suggest how political differences have eroded society's morals to such an extent that perfectly decent people will not extend their hand to help a dying man. As Johnny McQueen (James Mason) stumbles through the bitter winter snowstorm, frozen and bleeding following a botched robbery attempt, he is passed from one person to another, each of whom either turns him back out into the cold, lest they become implicated in his crime, or they exploit him for their own selfish means.

What works so magnificently about Odd Man Out is how authentically Reed is able to establish mood. The story unfolds in a single day, the bulk of which is spent in the darkness of a cold winter's night, snowflakes falling delicately to the ground, lending the film an icy chill that, even though it's approaching summer down here, had me drawing the clothes tighter to my body. No small praise should go towards Australian-born cinematographer Robert Krasker, whose elegant photography captures both the cold despair of the winter snowstorm, and the persistent warmth in the eyes of McQueen's young love, Kathleen (Kathleen Sullivan). In American noir, you usually come face-to-face with grotesque characters who are frightening and ugly; in British films, and I'm not exactly sure why this is, there's a certain charm about the grotesque. F.J. McCormick plays a doddering bum who tries hopelessly to profit from his discovery of Mason's dying fugitive, and yet his character is oddly likable. Robert Newton, likewise, plays an eccentric, humorously-flamboyant artist whose one obsession is to paint the portrait of a doomed soul.

Currently my #1 film of 1947:

1) Odd Man Out (Carol Reed)
2) The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (Joseph L. Mankiewicz)
3) Monsieur Verdoux (Charles Chaplin)
4) Out of the Past (Jacques Tourneur)
5) Dark Passage (Delmer Daves)
6) The Lady from Shanghai (Orson Welles)
7) They Won’t Believe Me (Irving Pichel)
8) The Fugitive (John Ford, Emilio Fernández)
9) Bush Christmas (Ralph Smart)
10) Song of the Thin Man (Edward Buzzell)


Repeat Viewing: Citizen Kane (1941, Orson Welles)

TSPDT placing: #1

Directed by: Orson Welles

Orson Welles' debut feature Citizen Kane stands as one of the twentieth century's most revered films, and, indeed, the title of "The Greatest Film Of All Time" has often been bestowed upon it, from as early as Sight and Sound's 1962 rankings, when it indefinitely dethroned De Sica's Bicycle Thieves (1948). After two viewings, I can't say that I find it to be the greatest film of all time, but any work with such a label would find it extremely difficult to live up to impossible expectations. Having said that, however, Citizen Kane is nothing short of masterful. In 1939, in an unprecedented studio contract, RKO offered young prodigy Welles, fresh from his success on the stage and the radio, a two-picture contract with full artistic control (a promise that ultimately wasn't kept). Borrowing elements from the lives of tycoons Robert McCormick, Howard Hughes, and Joseph Pulitzer, but especially American newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, Welles and fellow screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz weaved together the tragic story of Charles Foster Kane, poignantly highlighting the inescapable shortfalls of American Dream.

Charlie Kane (Welles) rises from humble beginnings to become one of the most famous and powerful people in America. At a very young age, Kane's mother inherits a gold mine and becomes suddenly wealthy, sending away her son to live with Walter Parks Thatcher (George Coulouris), his mother's banker. Proving something of a disappointment for Mr. Thatcher, Kane shows little aspirations for success until the age of twenty-six, when he decides to head the 'Inquirer,' for the simple reason that he "thinks it would be fun to run a newspaper." Kane eventually becomes rich and powerful through publishing "yellow journalism," which, though frowned upon by most critics, proves immensely profitable. Decades later, after two unsuccessful marriages and a failed bid for public office, Kane sits alone in his massive, unfinished Xanadu mansion (the most massive, impersonal and even sinister abode ever to grace the silver screen), pining for the lost innocence of his childhood. This is the story of a tragic life, and the ultimate testament that money can't buy happiness.

The most remarkable thing about Citizen Kane is its narrative structure. The film opens with Kane's death. As the image fades into a large "NO TREPASSING" sign on the gate of Kane's vast and lonely dwelling, we progressively cut to images closer and closer to his house, witnessing the enormity of Kane's wealth, and yet all his riches seem to be in disrepair. A lone lit window stands eerily amidst the snow, before the light inexplicably goes out, the figure hunched within suddenly plunged into darkness. We see Charles Foster Kane's withered hand clasping at a snow-globe, and his lips utter the mystifying words, "Rosebud." With a sudden crash, the snow-globe slips from Kane's hand and shatters on the floor. A maidservant enters the room and covers the dead man's body with a blanket. Following his death, the producer of a newsreel about Kane asks a reporter, Jerry Thompson (William Alland), to uncover the significance behind Kane's final words, a well-meaning but rather naive attempt to encapsulate a man's entire life in a simple seven-letter name.

A criticism often levelled at Citizen Kane is that it feels less like a warm, involving biopic than a formal masterclass in film-making technique. It's true that Welles was exploring largely unmapped cinematic territory at the time, and there's a certain sense of experimentation about the film. Mankiewicz and Welles constructed the screenplay as a series of fragmented, non-chronological flashbacks, each sequence filling in the missing parts of Kane's life, sometimes even showing the same event from differing perspectives. Greg Toland's elaborate cinematography makes unprecedented use of deep focus, in which everything in the frame – foreground, background and anything in between – is constantly held in sharp focus; the end result is a film that feels far more dynamic and "animate" than anything preceding the French New Wave. All innovation aside, anybody who suggests that the life of Charles Foster Kane is somehow uninvolving really needs to revisit the film; Welles pours his heart and soul into portraying the arrogant, tormented and ultimately lonely millionaire, and it's uncanny how the director's own tragic career drew clear parallels with that of his most memorable character.

Currently my #1 film of 1941:
1) Citizen Kane (Orson Welles)
2) The Maltese Falcon (John Huston)
3) The Wolf Man (George Waggner)
4) Shadow of the Thin Man (W.S. Van Dyke)
5) High Sierra (Raoul Walsh)