Friday, February 20, 2009

Target #260: You Can't Take It with You (1938, Frank Capra)

TSPDT placing: #992

Directed by: Frank Capra
Written by: George S. Kaufman (play), Moss Hart (play), Robert Riskin (screenplay)

I'd forgotten how therapeutic a bit of Capra-corn could be. I sat down to a pleasant romantic comedy about two lovers overcoming their class differences, but ended the film practically in tears – tears of joy, as only Frank Capra could produce. You Can't Take It with You (1938) was the first of the director's collaborations with Jimmy Stewart. However, the heart of the film actually centres around another familiar Capra face, Lionel Barrymore – who, never to be forced into retirement by his painful arthritis, acts the entire film on crutches. Forget the dastardly Mr. H.F. Potter, his Martin Vanderhof is the "richest" man in town, not because he has very much money, but because his kindness and sense of community has made him more friends than he can count {this is a theme that Capra used regularly; see Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) and It's a Wonderful Life (1946)}. But the daughter (Jean Arthur) in the hopelessly-eccentric Vanderhof family has fallen in love with the son (Stewart) of a rich banker (Edward Arnold), incidentally the poorest man in town.

An evening with the Vanderhofs is something akin to a Marx Brothers movie, with each character doing their own thing without regard for what outsiders might think. While some family members test fireworks in the basement, sister Essie (Ann Miller) practices her ballet to the xylophone music of her husband (Samuel S. Hinds), as her uptight Russian instructor Boris (Mischa Auer) complains that everything "stinks." Mother Penny (Spring Byington) attempts to finish writing a play, and Alice (Jean Arthur) slides down the staircase banister. With twelve activities happening at once, it's the farce of Arsenic and Old Lace (1944) without those troublesome murders. But behind all this chaos is the unmistakable unity of a close-knit family, and (as in many Capra films) it only takes a recognisable musical tune to bring together the Vanderhofs – and the snobbish Kirbys – for a collective performance that is genuinely charming in its sincerity. At least you can always be assured that a Frank Capra film will always leave you feeling good about yourself, the world, and the people in it.

Alongside the compassionate performances of Barrymore and Edward Arnold, enjoyable performances are also given by James Stewart and Jean Arthur, such that they repeated their love affair in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939). You Can't Take It with You was adapted by Capra-regular Robert Riskin from a successful play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart. I found it interesting that the screenplay bore what appeared to be a socialist slant, with Martin Vanderhof decidedly rejecting capitalist labour in favour of performing his preferred tasks for a minimum wage. This approach, we are shown, leaves one happier and assists the wellbeing of the entire community. I'm not so certain, however, of Vanderhof's insistence on not paying income tax, on the basis that he's not getting anything back from the government – this doesn't seem socialist, nor does it sound particularly "American," either. Even so, everybody can sympathise with the notion that money isn't everything, and that a single kindhearted gesture can go much further than a thousand dollar bills.

Currently my #2 film of 1938:
1) Angels with Dirty Faces (Michael Curtiz)
2) You Can’t Take It with You (Frank Capra)
3) The Lady Vanishes (Alfred Hitchcock)
4) The Adventures of Robin Hood (Michael Curtiz, William Keighley)


Friday, February 13, 2009

Target #259: Once Upon a Time in the West (1968, Sergio Leone)

TSPDT placing: #73

Directed by: Sergio Leone
Written by: Dario Argento (story), Bernardo Bertolucci (story), Sergio Leone (story & screenplay), Sergio Donati (screenplay), Mickey Knox (dialogue: English version)

Sergio Leone may not have chosen the high-brow subject subject matter of his 1960s European contemporaries, but, boy, his films are pure cinema. Leone may have progressed beyond the charming but erratic editing style of his earliest Westerns – A Fistful of Dollars (1964) and For a Few Dollars More (1965) – but his use of the camera is unlike any other filmmaker I've ever seen. The director's wide frame, captured in Techniscope, is like a freshly-painted canvas, its watercolours glistening under the intense Western sun, and style dripping from every shot. Mostly gone is the slightest hint of parody that I observed in his earlier films; Ennio Morricone's score, rather than being joyously overwhelming as in The Good, The Bad and the Ugly (1966), instead meditates gracefully on the passions and losses of its major characters. This added grace recognisable throughout the film emerges no doubt from a far greater budget, the film bankrolled by Paramount Pictures and shot largely in the United States {with Leone paying tribute to John Ford through the use of his favoured Monument Valley}.

Leone has stated that "the rhythm of the film was intended to create the sensation of the last gasps that a person takes just before dying." That most of his set-pieces end in a bloody shootout suggests the aptness of this analogy. However, like Leone says, the heart of his pictures is not to be found in the moment of death – however gratifying we may find it – but in the final gasps for air. Once Upon a Time in the West opens with an astonishing ten-minute prologue in which three armed outlaws (Woody Strode, Jack Elam and Al Mulock) impatiently await the arrival of a train. The minutes pass by almost without dialogue. In the sweltering heat, the men lazily brush away flies; a windmill creaks as it spins idly in the breeze; a telegraph machine chatters inside the railway station. This simple act of waiting, in less talented hands, could easily have been tedious, but Leone rejects the standard perceptions of time by allowing the viewer to immerse themselves in the canvas that he has just painted.

As in the director's previous effort, the film's main characters blur the line between "good" and "bad" (and "ugly"), but the clear villain of the piece is, memorably, Henry Fonda as Frank. His against-type performance is wonderful, not because it's a far cry from his usual persona, but because it isn't. Close your eyes, and you'll hear that same righteous drawl that spoke with such rectitude in 12 Angry Men (1957). But Juror #8 he certainly isn't; Fonda adds a nasty, sadistic sneer, and Leone focuses most closely on the actor's hypnotic blue eyes. It's almost frightening how Fonda's squeaky-clean persona can be corrupted so readily. Claudia Cardinale plays Jill McBain, a stunning widower who refuses to bow down to those who murdered her husband and his family. Morricone's score only has good things to say about Jill, but Leone appears to admire her precisely because she, like her male cohorts, is not a hapless innocent. A former prostitute, this lady from New Orleans has absolutely no qualms about sleeping with the enemy. No pride, only objectives – that's how you survive in the West.

Currently my #2 film of 1968:
1) 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick)
2) C’era una volta il West {Once Upon a Time in the West} (Sergio Leone)
3) Whistle and I’ll Come to You (Jonathan Miller) (TV)
4) The Odd Couple (Gene Saks)
5) Rosemary’s Baby (Roman Polanski)
6) Night of the Living Dead (George A. Romero)
7) The Party (Blake Edwards)


Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Target #258: The Grand Illusion (1937, Jean Renoir)

TSPDT placing: #25

Directed by: Jean Renoir

WARNING: Plot and/or ending details may follow!!! [Paragraph 3 only]

Re-reading my review of Stalag 17 (1951), I see that I referred to it as the template for every prisoner-of-war film that followed, including The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) and The Great Escape (1963). Once again, my relative inexperience with cinema seems to have caught me out; this film from Jean Renoir uses a similar formula, and predates it by almost fifteen years. Billy Wilder must certainly have seen The Grand Illusion (1937) – since it features Erich von Stroheim, whom he himself used in Five Graves to Cairo (1943) and Sunset Blvd. (1950) – and so Renoir's influence is present throughout. It's a WWI film, but we see no combat. Whereas most anti-war films illustrate their stance by pounding the all-too-familiar adage "war is hell" through images of death and destruction, Renoir's approach is considerably more understated. He highlight the futility of war through human interaction, both between the captured French prisoners and between the Germans who watch over them.

Just what is "the grand illusion?" Renoir derived his film title from "The Great Illusion," a 1909 non-fiction book by Norman Angell, in which the author argued for the impossibility of a large-scale European war for economic reasons. That WWI broke out five years later obviously proved detrimental to Angell's arguments, and Renoir deliberately plays on the irony of this knowledge. More significant, however, is that the book was released in a revised edition in 1933, the general argument modified to assert the utter utility of waging war, a theme that supports Renoir's stance: this would not be the "war that ends all wars." With WWII just around the corner, there's an bitter urgency to what the film has to say; just three years later, the director would be fleeing France. The topicality of the film's message proved especially successful overseas, and The Grand Illusion was unusually nominated for the Best Picture Oscar in 1939.

Of course, no Jean Renoir film is complete without some class-related social critique. Most striking in this regard is the relationship between Capt. de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay) and Capt. von Rauffenstein (von Stroheim), from which, scandalously, it is implied that one's class forms a more binding camaraderie than that of nationality. The two men, both multilingual upper-class aristocrats who sense their social dominance is drawing to an end, seek solace in each other's company, and feel closer to one another than to the lower-class men of their own armies. However, there is hope in Renoir's vision of society. The age of aristocracy is coming to a close, and a new social order – in which all men are accepted as comrades – is at the cusp of existence. Boeldieu accepts this inevitability, and, despite the initial suspicion of his fellow Frenchmen, ultimately offers his life to allow two "lower-class" companions to escape. He betrays von Rauffenstein in favour of duty to his country, even if his death provides only temporary relief from the inescapable futility of war.

Currently my #2 film of 1937:
1) Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (David Hand)
2) La Grande Illusion {The Grand Illusion} (Jean Renoir)
3) Shall We Dance (Mark Sandrich)
4) A Damsel in Distress (George Stevens)
5) The Awful Truth (Leo McCarey)


Monday, February 2, 2009

Target #257: Duel in the Sun (1946, King Vidor)

TSPDT placing: #540
Directed by: King Vidor, Otto Brower, William Dieterle, Sidney Franklin, William Cameron Menzies, David O. Selznick, Josef von Sternberg (all but Vidor uncredited)
Written by: Niven Busch (novel), Oliver H.P. Garrett (adaptation), David O. Selznick (screenplay), Ben Hecht (uncredited)
Starring: Jennifer Jones, Joseph Cotten, Gregory Peck, Lionel Barrymore, Herbert Marshall, Lillian Gish, Walter Huston, Charles Bickford, Harry Carey, Orson Welles (voice)

WARNING: Plot and/or ending details may follow!!! [Paragraph 3 only]

With Duel in the Sun (1946), David O. Selznick was obviously trying to emulate the massive success of his Gone With the Wind (1939), and, though the picture is now widely regarded as a failure, I found it remarkably entertaining. This overcooked multi-million-dollar Western epic is dripping with its excesses – the music is loud and sweeping, the melodrama is almost operatic, and the dazzling Technicolor palette is a feast for the eyes. When Selznick gives us a sunset, he damn well gives us a SUNSET! Such an achievement, guided by the producer's fastidious tastes, demanded the efforts of no less than seven directors, including Selznick himself, though only King Vidor received on screen credit; William Dieterle, Josef von Sternberg and William Cameron Menzies were among the filmmakers whose efforts were disposed of during the course of production. 'Duel in the Sun' might also be the most "epic" two-hour film I've ever seen. The story covers an extraordinary amount of ground, and the vivid cinematic style, making copious use of close-ups, is occasionally prescient of Sergio Leone's Spaghetti Westerns.

Then there's the cast, of course. Jennifer Jones plays Pearl Chavez, a half-breed Injun who is invited to live on a respected Texas ranch after her father (Herbert Marshall) murders his unfaithful wife and her lover. Pearl's ethnicity is shamelessly exploited to perpetuate the stereotype that Native Americans inherently possess some sort of uncontrollable base sexuality; Pearl spends most of the film fighting to keep her clothes on, and she is instinctively drawn to Lewt (Gregory Peck), a downright bastard with almost adolescent sexual urges. Joseph Cotten plays the selfless McCanles brother, and Lillian Gish and Lionel Barrymore (probably the only Hollywood actor to carry on a prolific career from a wheelchair) are excellent as the owners of the ranch. The cast is rounded off nicely by Charles Bickford as a genial rancher, and Walter Huston, who hilariously overplays his role as a preacher ("The Sinkiller") and steals every scene. Indeed, most of the performers overplay their roles, perhaps recognising that the story (adapted from a novel by Niven Busch) would not work if played entirely straight.What I found most interesting about Duel in the Sun is how, even as early as 1946, it subverted the traditional notions of honour and nobility that formed the backbone of the Western genre. Joseph Cotten's character remains the film's only decent male, and yet he is dismissed mid-way through the film, and must settle on marrying a woman who is far less sensuous and desirable than Pearl Chavez. The film's climax involves two lascivious lovers scrambling through the dirt to each other's arms, only seconds after mortally wounding each other with bullets (inspiring the film's derisive nickname "Lust in the Dust"). Their attraction is purely physical – Pearl is disgusted by Lewt's moral decadence, and yet is inexplicably drawn to his embrace, even after sealing his demise. If the film's intention was to present Pearl's struggle for acceptance into "honourable" white society, then she nevertheless ends the film as she started, stranded between conflicting instincts and emotions that she can't control. Her bid for nobility has failed. Perhaps this is the birth of the Revisionist Western.

Currently my #3 film of 1946:
1) It’s A Wonderful Life (Frank Capra)
2) The Big Sleep (Howard Hawks)
3) Duel in the Sun (King Vidor)
4) Notorious (Alfred Hitchcock)
5) The Locket (John Brahm)
6) The Dark Mirror (Robert Siodmak)
7) The Blue Dahlia (George Marshall)
8) Dragonwyck (Joseph L. Mankiewicz)
9) A Night in Casablanca (Archie Mayo)