Mixed Bag: Criminal minds

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Hot Millions [Eric Till, 1968]

Is it true what Wikipedia says? I hope it is. I hope the only good interior footage of the Beatles’ short-lived Apple boutique — the only footage of it actually in use, the shopgirls and customers — has Bob Newhart in it. That would be fantastic. That’s the store where Newhart’s uptight American computer nerd chooses to treat Maggie Smith’s klutzy cockney spinster during her brief attempt to vamp him, in this oddly touching caper comedy.

Rarely does something call to mind A Fish Called Wanda, a film that the word “triumph” seems to describe, though a triumph of I’m not sure what . This comes close, with a caper plot that is really a very simple plan, a very unrealistic plan, and one that the characters frequently ignore, but not for random jokes, more like random moments of heart. Instead of rapid banter, the funny lines are Peter Ustinov’s W.C. Fields-esque asides and other characters’ bemused responses. Enjoy Newhart’s nerd-resentment, Malden’s Texan bravado, and Smith’s airheadery. To compensate for all these slow talkers, the editing is odd. Longish, witty conversations end with a sour note, like every character is unsatisfied with what just happened. Quick-cut montages, like when Ustinov is traveling around Europe setting up fake companies, or when Maggie Smith is getting fired from jobs, are really, really quick-cut. You’ll see an unhurried 20-second cut to establish that a montage is occurring, and the rest of the cuts are like half a second each, and then you’re back to another long conversation and gradually figure out what the heck that montage was about.

Then, as in A Fish Called Wanda, you have very sweet love scenes. Not sex scenes, but, like, people falling in love. These move slowly. We’re led to believe that Maggie Smith’s character can only do one thing competently, play the flute, and her life is aimless and hesitant because she isn’t the sort of person who gets a job doing that. Some scenes that are intended to be uproarious [like when she’s taken her dress off to change the typewriter ribbon] just don’t have the timing to make them anything other than gentle depictions of likeable people. This is especially true in the scenes with the absent-minded genuine computer expert whom Ustinov cons and impersonates. What a nice guy. When the setting shifts to the tropics it starts to seem like one of those soulless Tony Curtis comedies of the period, and hurries to the final scene [over which the credits roll], which returns us to the satisfying pleasantness that makes up most of the movie.

Elsewhere, Karl Malden’s character is the rare movie titan of industry who is unpretentious and thinks his company is doing good work, and even knows something about what the company does. I don’t know how much we can credit the director for this [Eric Till was making his first feature film, and has had a long career mostly in TV, mostly in Canadian TV even], but Till does make us feel fond of Ustinov’s character. Who is, after all, a non-charming, secretive con artist who has very dubious reasons for exploiting people the way he does.

It’s been lamented that Ustinov’s post-Topkapi roles largely came from how “audiences wanted him to be just a funny, foreign fat man”. All I can say is that if Peter Sellers was in this film instead of Ustinov it would have been hard to stand. This is just the sort of role Sellers used to play, and he would have brought such a superior attitude to all the comic exchanges that you’d be reduced to rooting for Bob Newhart and thinking Maggie Smith is certifiably mentally challenged instead of just inattentive to detail. 35 years later Ustinov was Friedrich III of Saxony in Till’s Luther [starring Joseph Fiennes].

”It happened because my favorite director is Eric Till, with whom I worked in the past, and in fact I got an Oscar nomination as a scriptwriter — in collaboration with somebody I never met, and have not met to this day — for a film called ‘Hot Millions,’ which Eric Till directed,” Sir Peter said, referring to the 1968 film in which he also starred. ”I figure he’s the best director I’ve ever worked with, and I’ve worked with several famous ones. He, at the age of 70, suddenly thought of me, at the age of 82, and thought I might be a good Friedrich the Wise.

”I didn’t have anything against it, except that I can hardly walk,” he said. ”But we coped with that because I leaned on things and staggered through the film in some measure. We saw eye to eye about everything, including the lack of a scene in the script, which went in eventually, in which Friedrich meets Luther. It makes it very feeble if he just looks through windows and says, ‘That’s the fellow Luther, down there — no, no, the one on the left.’ And then we were attacked by the theological advisers, who said, ‘There’s no record of them ever having met.’ I said, ‘There’s no record of most people ever having met.’ ”

See The Frog’s Eyebrows for lots more Hot Millions stills.

Straight Time [Ulu Grosbard, 1978]

Jenny: "You did great on your intelligence test." Max: "Yeah, well, you know, I could have told you that."

Ulu Grosbard hasn’t directed many films, but when he does, they’re believable, believable, believable. The camera doesn’t pay attention to anything but the actors, always following them, just a step ahead of their trajectory, in the TV-drama way. No clutter, nothing showy. Grosbard is mostly a theater director and seems to take quiet pride in how the props aren’t there to be an impressive tableau, they’re all things that might be useful to the actors. YouTube user uhhuhhim has uploaded a bunch of scenes from 1995’s Georgia, another Grosbard exemplar of directing that serves the acting. Here’s a domestic scene.

The cast of Straight Time is a roster of people who would become iconic in late middle age or older. Sandy Baron seems about 25 years younger than he did in 1984’s Birdy or his most famous role in the nineties. M. Emmet Walsh seems about 15 years younger than he did in 1984’s Blood Simple. Harry Dean Stanton seems the same age as in 1984’s Repo Man, but he has a youthful Eric-Idle-in-1970 haircut. Gary Busey embodies the guy who never follows things through and resents those who do, in a more lazy than crazy role. Jake Busey, age 6, is adorable and we worry about him. As Busey’s wife, Kathy Bates [a very rare youthful film appearance for her] is a woman who’s embraced a tragic role in life, calling to mind Michelle Williams in Wendy and Lucy. The one actor I hadn’t heard of, Theresa Russell, has the thoughtful husky voice, long flat hair, serene self-assurance and free-spirited [but under control] approach to relationships that call to mind Scarlett Johansson in In Good Company.  Her character makes weird choices, but seems to know what she’s doing.

Although it’s closely based on a book by noted Los Angeles criminal Eddie Bunker, the movie could really be set in Wichita or Buffalo. Cinematographer Owen Roizman [Three Days of the Condor, The French Connection, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, Network] finds no beauty in the L.A. landscape, except maybe the desert vistas that no character wants to venture into. He shows Stanton’s beautiful suburban neighborhood and gleaming swimming pool in that ironic, down-with-superficiality way that makes us know Stanton’s going to whisper “Get me out of here.”

Some people get irritated by Dustin Hoffman, and what could be seen as his attempt to find the perfect pitch for his character and then play that one note throughout the movie. It sometimes seems like he’s being unhelpful to other actors, carrying on with this solo virtuosity. If you’re of the anti-Hoffman persuasion this film will not wow you [His character is Max Dembo. Max mumbles, has mood swings that he keeps to himself until he does something inexplicable, is a hard worker, and has a nice little smile], but to everyone else I can’t help but recommend it. In fact, it goes on the list of best Sidney Lumet films, no matter who directed it.

You know how at the beginning of Taxi Driver, Travis Bickle seems like a born loser starved of love, and you can’t stand the people who won’t give him a helping hand? Straight Time does that better. You know how Dog Day Afternoon has a trio of robbers each with a fatal flaw? Compare the dynamic in Straight Time‘s jewel heist. You know how  Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead has a doomed jewel heist? This one is carried out by guys who aren’t morons. You know the famous sequence in Sexy Beast when Ben Kingsley is recruiting Ray Winstone? Hoffman recruits Harry Dean Stanton away from his suburban lethargy to a new desperate endeavor, in an almost comforting way. They’re friends who love and admire but don’t trust each other. Like Sonny Wortzik’s plan, Max’s plan would go off perfectly, with no risk, unless something unlucky happens. How unlucky is he?

The Seven-Per-Cent Solution [Herbert Ross, 1976]

My memory of The Seven-Per-Cent Solution the novel is of a fairly flat adventure, what you’d expect from a Sherlock Holmes story informed by the mind-opening movements of the sixties and seventies, and with nuanced villains instead of a Rosicrucian cabal of transnational conspirators. In reality it’s far more of a study of Holmes’s addiction and compulsions. I just skipped those parts of the book as a teenager, I’m afraid, and  missed out on Sigmund Freud’s psychological revelations about Holmes’s childhood, an early instance of the “troubled backstory that justifies someone who no longer seems like a sympathetic character to our enlightened eyes” motif found in Batman Begins and Tim Burton’s Willy Wonka.

Now the movie, wow, well, the movie, coming right on the book’s heels, is a whole itinerary of fascinating points of interest, without adding up to a story with any suspense. It has some of the most charming period-styled credits you’ll see. It has a sandy-haired Sherlock Holmes [Nicol Williamson] who looks a great deal like Leslie Howard. It has an unrecognizable Robert Duvall as Watson, sounding like one of Terry Jones’s prim and pompous Monty Python stockbrokers. It has a very recognizable Alan Arkin as Sigmund Freud — that great voice is suited for the Freud accent. Even better, it has Alan Arkin, as Sigmund Freud, playing court tennis, in one of the most lovingly-painstakingly-crafted historical reconstructions outside Peter Weir’s Master and Commander.

It has other actors whose ludicrous Teutonic accents I was sure would turn out to be fake. It has an old-timey train combat climax that doesn’t match The Great Train Robbery or Emperor of the North Pole, but is likewise lovingly done. It reminds us that Holmes had not one but two Victorian superpowers — being able to read someone’s mind based on basic demographic knowledge, and access to a bloodhound. It has Sir Laurence Olivier as the world’s meekest man, Professor Moriarty. It has Sherlock Holmes tormented by reptilian visions out of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Even when healthy and unable to isolate himself, Holmes spends most of his time silently analyzing his inner turmoil, with brief bursts of detectiving inspired by his contempt for others. Which is what he did in the stories, but now it’s a process of healing.

Big Trouble [John Cassavetes, 1986]

The obvious response to Cassavetes’s bemusing final film Big Trouble [written by Andrew Bergman] seems like the correct one: he made it worth watching. The script gives us a bunch of characters that it would be almost impossible to make believable or relatable, but somehow we care. The film is edited in the style of Honey, I Shrunk the Kids and contains a bunch of noisy caricatures, but the actors believe in it. Everything said by Valerie Curtin’s character amounts to “Alan Arkin, I am a harpy who makes your life a living hell. I need a better lifestyle. Your family needs money.” but you perceive the subtle gradations of her motivating impulses, as many as Curtin can display.

Alan Arkin and Peter Falk reprise their rapport from The In-Laws [also written by Andrew Bergman]. Beverly DeAngelo plays an ditzy version of the trophy wife/life-insurance beneficiary in Fletch [also written by Andrew Bergman]. Dialogue in the style of The Great Outdoors or the Dangerfield-Pesci exchanges in Easy Money is presented with true respect for the characters who utter it, with exceptions for the madcap Arkin-Falk-DeAngelo relationship. The wacky bright color scheme isn’t typical of the time [compare to Fletch — that’s a flashy comedy with a non-flashy look], it’s more a trick to heighten the emotions. The main characters are transplanted from a different age, like The Long Goodbye without the pathos.

It reminds me of The Hudsucker Proxy in how a big budget given to a usually-frugal director manifests in waves of minor characters, like the Chinese laborers, Arkin’s co-workers at the insurance agency, the security guards and cops and rival burglars during the invigorating final break-in sequence. Big Trouble is definitely, let’s say, the equal of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Less mean-spirited, less hilarious, and less predictable. Probably the best 1986 “Big Trouble” movie not to contain this man.

Mixed Bag: “She’s trying to replace me!”

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Having not seen The Red ShoesThe CompanyThe Turning Point, or any other Baryshnikov or Aronofsky films except Pi, I don’t want to presume that my thoughts about Black Swan [Darren Aronofsky, 2010] matter.  I usually don’t make haste to see movies with celebrated sequences of eroticism, but this was the interesting kind of cinema eroticism (awkward/ominous/confusing), not the joyful/healthy kind. See the end of this entry for more. First, a few other items that come to mind on the topic of women being jealous and unstable and creative and whatnot.

Inside Daisy Clover [Robert Mulligan, 1965] is a picaresque, tomboy variation on the Star is Born myth, with Natalie Wood as Daisy and Ruth Gordon as her sainted, crazy mother. The characters are more complex than strictly necessary –especially Daisy herself; her life with her mother and friends is given time to bloom into a memorable setting before the bright lights beckon. The weary, sapphic mother figure isn’t a caricature. Christopher Plummer [I kept thinking it was Ralph Richardson] plays the archetypal svengali, combining megalomania and a robotic need for success. TV actor Robert Redford, whom Miss Wood insisted be cast, has the always-tricky role of the well-known star who can’t be played by an actual well-known star. Obviously he’s perfect for that, with his inaccessible charm. We’re lucky to be in his company, for however long he wants.

The finely drawn quirky characters, and the obvious satire of the glimpses of Daisy’s career [like a musical number that would work if renamed “Tomorrow Belongs to Me”], made me sure it was based on a novel, probably a thoughtful one by Herman Wouk or Budd Schulberg or someone. Turns out the original book was more of a sordid potboiler — author Gavin Lambert [I Never Promised You A Rose GardenThe Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone] enhanced the propriety and chipperness for his screenplay, as well as encrypting the homosexual content. He also incorporates an absolutely epic metaphor or possibly synecdoche, right near the end. What’s the most large-scale piece of symbolism you can imagine, in a “Teen starlet jaded by Hollywood” story? Are you envisioning the actress, after a particularly tumultous betrayal, in a small glass booth surrounded by bored technicians, staring at her innocent self on a giant screen as she tries to re-record her saccharin vocals? Are you? You are? Good work!

The circus is a wacky world

The urgency inherent in the showbiz exposé is here, but it’s not quite the desperate situation where the starlet battles ten dozen other starlets for a part or a magazine cover. When she tells the svengali to take a hike, he’s thoughtful about it. When she’s a star, and she doesn’t bother to show up for the difficult second premiere, it’s not the end of the world. And the final scene is fantastic. Turning on the gas, turning it off, hearing the doorbell, hearing the phone, everything else. Click here for a piece about the locations and studio lots used on Inside Daisy Clover, by someone who hates the movie but loves studio lots.

The Legend of Lylah Clare [Robert Aldrich, 1968] made me angry and led to an uncomfortable question.  What the heck is the point of this movie?  I try to avoid asking that, either because I figure I missed something, or because a movie doesn’t need to have a point. But one reason this film is awful is that it’s so convinced that it’s doing something groundbreaking that it goes nowhere. If we’re supposed to be disturbed by how Elsa Brinkmann has her appearance, demeanor and personality steadily altered to resemble Lylah Clare…well, from the beginning of the film she’s a blank slate except for her obsession with Lylah Clare.  And more to the point, they’re played by the same actress!  It’s reverse stunt casting.  Can we make Kim Novak look so unlike Kim Novak that the audience gapes in astonishment when she becomes Kim Novak?  No, you can’t.

Are we supposed to be horrified by the Hollywood decadence?  As Time pointed out at the time, plenty of other films [e.g. The Carpetbaggers] had done that in a much less mannered way.  Are we supposed to be captivated by the mystery of Lylah Clare’s death?  Well, that’s never resolved.  Aldrich had made the undeniably creepy Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? six years earlier – now Lylah Clare alternates laughable with boring with impossibly overemotional.  26-year-old Roger Ebert agrees.

It’s worth watching the second half to see the requisite Ingenue-is-Finally-Ready-to-be-Introduced-to-the-Public scene and the few scenes leading up to it. Kim Novak II is brought out for the appraisal of a terrifying critic played by Coral Browne [The Killing of Sister George, The Ruling Class, late-in-life marriage to Vincent Price], and for once we don’t know what’s going to happen.

X, Y and Zee [Brian G. Hutton, 1972]

Six years after Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and four years after Boom!, Elizabeth Taylor is now in a baroquely bad marriage with Michael Caine.  This is a fantastic example of Taylor’s fearlessness in playing someone who is not just unlikeable, but uncharismatic.  Her character here is just an awful woman, like a cosmopolitan version of Bette Midler in Ruthless People.  She knows that everything she gets is by being passive-aggressive, manipulative or irritating, and she hates herself for it.

The husband is a classic Michael Caine character — unemotional, presumably moral, takes orders and makes big decisions in the course of his job [this time an architect]. Thinks most people deserve to be happy, but will never be happy himself until certain people are taken down a peg or two. Those people here are his wife and probably some of her friends. Scenes between Caine and Taylor have improvisatory fire, especially when she runs amok in the bedroom, starting to pack a suitcase or unpack a suitcase or play loud music or whatever annoys him the most.

Susannah York is the perfect quiet woman, and when he has dinner with her and her sons the scene is full of hope and promise.  Everyone who sees this film remembers the outrageously outlandish costumes, and the character played by Margaret Leighton whose alien style and dignity exemplifies the emptiness of “Swinging London”.  Personally I’d never seen a serious movie [except Blow-up] set in this world, so it was enjoyable from beginning to end.  As for the beginning, X, Y and Zee‘s lyrical ping-pong overture is one of cinema’s greatest credit sequences.  And as for the end, this is one of the rare instances of TCM extensively censoring a movie. You can tell that the film won’t end very conclusively, what with the great weariness of the two characters we like and the ineffectuality of Taylor’s character, but there is a climactic scene that either annoyed or offended quite a few critics at the time. Watching it on TCM I only saw the aftermath of that encounter, so I can’t say if it’s satisfying in its true form. Still a fun and worldly picture of emotional carnage.

Here’s a better blog-treatment of X, Y and Zee. Containing a bunch of representative dialogue, something I always appreciate.

Camille Claudel [Bruno Nuytten, 1988] was one of many foreign films on VHS my dad acquired in large eBay lots and gave to me, which then sat around my apartment for years until the pre-moving-out binge of tape-watching which let me know which ones to keep.  The first directorial effort by Bruno Nuytten after two decades as a cinematographer [Manon of the Spring, Possession, Barocco], it stars his romantic partner Isabelle Adjani as the legendary fin-de-siècle sculptress, Laurent Grévill as her sympathetic bourgeois brother, and Gérard Depardieu as celebrity art-factory proprietor Auguste Rodin.  It’s a labor of love, a biopic in which every scene could be shortened, but that’s not a problem.  If you’re interested in a movie about Camille Claudel, don’t you want to take your time and immerse yourself in her meticulously constructed world?  There aren’t going to be any more movies about Camille Claudel, so this three-hour film is basically a valuable historical reference in addition to being a complete emotional picture.

Camille Claudel depicts both genius and madness better than most other films that try.  Here the merging of genius and madness largely comes from other people treating the genius the same way they treat a disturbed person.  And the rational and manipulative Rodin, also prolific and creative but not touched by any spirit, seems almost like a pernicious symbol of capitalism.  This film is entirely about Claudel [and everyone else’s views of her] as much as Black Swan is about Nina. It shows what happens to her — internally and externally — with great objectivity.  She’s not necessarily to be identified with.  She never admits that she needs anyone, except Rodin.  As she is elsewhere, Isabelle Adjani is amazing when it comes to scarily freaking out in a sympathetic way.

By comparison, the far less interesting Artemisia [Agnès Merlet, 1997] idealizes its determined female art prodigy as a symbol of doomed, sexy rebellion.

As for Black Swan, it’s a spectacular cinematic experience for something filmed entirely indoors, seemingly entirely in cuts to and from closeups, and mostly in either tiny or dingy rooms. The sound design is fantastic — the pervasive classical music, the sounds of breathing and exertion, the inexplicable noises that cause unease.  My instinct is to complain about some of the Degrassi-level dialogue, but having seen True Grit the previous night — a movie in which every line is quirkified by 5-15% — I can appreciate the prosaic qualities of a script whose characters are thinking a lot about their inner lives and their bodies and not about how to phrase their thoughts.

There’s a line after Winona Ryder’s retiring ex-ingenue has been lashing out bitterly, when Thomas [Vincent Cassel] tells Nina, “Don’t worry — it’s typical.”  Don’t worry about what?  Typical of whom?

Nina (Natalie Portman) gets an unwelcoming look from Beth (Winona Ryder)

Nina’s home life is so odd and yet so well-organized that it’s clear the actors have in mind her complete psychological history, making her mother’s swings between “I knew you were under too much pressure!” and “I need to put more pressure on you!” plausible. Meanwhile, the thing that makes me want to see it again is that there are so many blurred lines between what’s actually happening and what Nina thinks is happening. Everyone who sees Black Swan will have a different impression of what actually takes place. We see just enough natural interactions among non-Nina characters to get a foothold on reality, and as for the rest, I’d call some scenes 50% real, some as 90% real, some 95% … so what you think is happening always depends on to what degree you take her to be imagining things. This sets it above other psychological thrillers. There aren’t major twists or turns or sudden shifts in perception, just progress through the story. Aronofsky is confident that we’ll care about everything that happens, not just the super-intense moments.

Every character is shallow enough that you know them completely after the first thing they say — but all the acting is great. As for Cassel not being convincing as a genius…it’s not just his clichéd speeches about spontaneity and letting go. His decision to pick Nina is based entirely on his ego, experimenting to see if he alone can bring something out of her that nobody sees.  That’s not a good way to run an organization, and it’s surprising when other characters express deep respect for him.  He sees ballerinas in general as unstable, but he ignores the consequences of that.  And he clearly didn’t learn the message of Nicole Holofcener’s films (Please Give, Friends with Money), that if someone is basically a miserable person who doesn’t enjoy the company of others, it’ll be hard for her to make others happy [unless she can give them money].

[Black Swan picture stolen from Demeter Clarc]

I Thank the Extraordinary Seaman Alarm!

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Since starting this blog, although it has no regular readers except my mother and my friends Andy and Carly, I have started thinking “What do I write about this?” throughout entire movies. This is unhealthy and leads to joylessly expending too much focus on things which may be objectively interesting but which I don’t enjoy. To break that habit, let’s address three TCM movies that did not seem very good, but were good enough to watch while reading something else and occasionally leaving the room.

Cause for Alarm! [Tay Garnett, 1951]

There are a couple of bloggers [John Greco, Michael Troutman] citing this as a classic of non-hardboiled, suburban suspense. As someone who doesn’t know much about black-and-white suspense thrillers except the words “noir” and “Hitchcock”, that should be interesting. And I hate to criticize something for looking too cheap [and being too cheap — filmed in 2 weeks in about four rooms, plus an excursion to the beach], but that’s how this movie lost me. Which may be a male-chauvinist response. I love films like Detour, D.O.A., and He Walked By Night, where the low budget and limited soundtrack conveys the grittiness of the setting and the protagonist’s lack of options. But when the protagonist is played by Loretta Young, an extremely likeable actress who would later be famous for wearing sumptuous ball gowns while introducing morally edifying vignettes on her eponymous TV show, I can’t embrace the suspense. Would this woman live on such a cheap set? Aren’t these stock characters [the unsympathetic cop, the continually friendly ex-suitor and now-friend] too one-note to really exist? Why can’t I identify with her as the trapped protagonist, when I identified with Audrey Hepburn in Wait Until Dark? Do I need a “woman’s picture” to be visually interesting or cleverly written, while I have no such standards for a movie about Edmond O’Brien?

Cause for Alarm! is set in Dennis the Menace or Beaver Cleaver’s neighborhood, and Young’s protagonist Ellen is one of his mom’s friends, though without any children of her own. We see a flashback to her single days during the war, and it’s clear that this is a cautionary tale about what happens when you marry the charismatic and unpredictable guy [Barry Sullivan] instead of the stable Ralph Bellamy type. If he becomes bedridden from some mysterious disease, his self-confidence will vanish completely and he’ll become paranoid about what she’s doing when she’s not with her no-long-exciting husband.

The synopsis on TCM’s website really boils it down:

A woman fights to intercept a letter in which her husband tries to prove her guilty of murder.

The dropdown description when it comes on on TV is even better. I think I memorized it:

Loretta Young spends almost the entire film trying to retrieve an incriminating letter.

And that would probably have been a better movie, or more interesting, than this one, in which she doesn’t become aware of the letter until about halfway through. I think it’s an exercise in making people feel sympathy for Loretta Young, as she’s emotionally victimized, first mildly without realizing that it’s intentional, then intensely after she figures out the depth of George’s psychosis, and then even more intensely after she’s suspected of murder as a result of said paranoid letter. I don’t know much about Loretta Young, but I know she was one of America’s top sweethearts and this film may have been to 1951 what, say, Stepmon was to 1998 [See Julia Roberts try to be nice! See Julia Roberts treated abominably! How can they do that to her?]. It’s hard not to feel manipulated, and it’s also hard not to be sure there will be a deus ex machina. But still, there aren’t many films in this sort of setting that have this sort of intense noir-style [hapless protagonist gets into no-win situation through no fault of his own, makes the situation worse] plot. Bosley Crowther certainly thought it was something new.

I Thank a Fool [Robert Stevens, 1962]

Susan Hayward: a woman synonymous with the three-handkerchief melodrama. Peter Finch: not a man best suited for romantic comedies. A Peter Finch character should be the last honest man, or the last angry man, or someone who thinks he’s figured out the world but doesn’t trust others with this information, or someone who just cannot believe everyone else’s nonsense and wants to be left alone. Here they are in a small, restrained thriller about a crazy woman [Diane Cilento, shortly before marrying Sean Connery] and how she got that way. Both have many opportunities to look around with confused disappointment; this is definitely Finch’s forte, but as Crowther spends most of his review pointing out, Hayward may be better suited to participating in histrionics than observing them sadly like the nursemaid Finch’s character unethically hires her to be. Director Stevens [In the Cool of the Day, 42 Alfred Hitchcock Presents episodes] falls into the Cause for Alarm! pattern of making us meditate at length on how our poor heroine is being mistreated by these malefactors.

The elderly and uncredited defence counsel is no match for Peter Finch's prosecutor.

The presence of Hayward and Finch makes I Thank A Fool [why is it called that?] seem more important than it is. It’s sort of in the tragic thriller mold of Gone Baby Gone or In The Bedroom, where everyone has a good reason for keeping their secrets, but that dishonesty leads to their downfall. It’s not exactly an action-packed story, compared to those two films, and when something exciting happens or gothic details are revealed, it seems like it detracts from the somber human drama. It’s like if Double Jeopardy was set largely in one house starring Cate Blanchett and Joaquin Phoenix. Just no fun.

Diane Cilento looks much better outdoors than in.

The story: Winnipeg-born doctor  [Hayward] goes to prison and is disbarred from medicine [does the word “disbarred” apply to medicine?] for allegedly euthanizing her lover, based on the energetically contemptuous prosecution of Peter Finch and the testimony of a heavily Liverpool-accented nursemaid. A surprisingly short courtroom scene is followed by a van ride with some prostitutes, no scenes inside the prison at all, and a fruitless job search with an FPS-ish focus on the back of her head. A mysterious aunt recruits her for charity work that turns out to be taking care of Finch’s supposedly mentally damaged wife Liane [Cilento], who longs to return to Ireland. Why does he hire her? Does he feel bad about prosecuting her? She certainly doesn’t trust him. After one idyllic day in his sunny, gloomy and secluded house reminiscent of The Deadly Bees, her worries grow about whether this isolation is good for Liane. Her sympathy grows when Liane’s charming father [Cyril Cusack] arrives, and the two women sneak off to Ireland, with unhappy results.

Diane Cilento [the schoolmistress in The Wicker Man] seems born to play a flighty and impulsive woman with little self-esteem. Cyril Cusack exaggerates both sides of his character, striding about the room in a stately fashion as if he’s under the proscenium arch. He’s convincing as the impishly charming gentleman failing to hide his secret sorrow, even with the handicap of not having a charming Irish accent. Cusack actually was Irish, but he sounds like Sir Ralph Richardson compared to the brooding Irish farmhand [Kieron Moore] or the small-town lawyer/coroner [J.G. Devlin]. Near the end of the film Devlin introduces some fresh air to this somber affair, with the actor having fun with his dialogue and the lawyer having fun with his unaccustomed power over the visitors.

Somehow this woman looks like Susan Hayward's character AND Diane Cilento's character.

Though it’s a muted treatment of the sort of plot that would take up a fragment of a Thomas Hardy novel, I Thank a Fool contains hints of something hip and interesting. The opening credits, for one, look like a series of Blue Note album jackets. You can see pre-Beatles teddy boys in the few scenes of downtown Liverpool, set to energetic music. And this is the rare film that surprised me by having an inconclusive ending. We spend the whole movie knowing exactly what Susan Hayward’s character knows, every plot detail is put plainly in front of us, and then at the end…well, we still know what she knows, and she’s confused. I may be a stupid old woopid but I was not clear who, if anyone, was guilty at the end, or who was happy or relieved. It’s a realistically messy return to daily life.

The Extraordinary Seaman [John Frankenheimer, 1969]

Oh, boy. It’s hard to know where to begin, because this movie does everything wrong. If I didn’t know John Frankenheimer was under 40 at the time and had just made several massive hits,  I’d think this was one of those films like Skidoo, in which directors and producers whose heyday was long past tried to construct a hippie-friendly edifice of nonsensical rebellion from old-Hollywood material. Although frankly, unlike Mae West in Sextette or Jackie Gleason in Skidoo, David Niven, almost 60, is the only actor who has an idea what the point of his character is or what the movie is doing. This is in a cast with Faye Dunaway and [in his first starring role, though it came out after Paper Lion] Alan Alda! Mickey Rooney and funnyman Jack Carter have the other major parts, along with Manu Topou as the hulking Native American who never talks.

Information about this movie’s origin is not easy to find, on the internet at least. Wikipedia reports, citing Charles Champlin’s Frankheimer interview book, that the director called Extraordinary Seaman “the only movie I’ve made which I would say was a total disaster.” That’s a lot more information than can be found on the Wikipedia pages of any of its stars. TCM may have the only extensive description out there. It describes an almost Gilliam-level troubled production, but still, it’s hard to imagine how this could have become a good movie.

Let’s presume that it started out as a sort of magical realist story about Niven’s character. Commander Finchhaven claims that he roams the earth, dead but not a ghost, until he can accomplish the warlike endeavor that will let him rest in peace. He talks to his ancestors, he has a fantastic sense of duty and propriety about some things while ignoring others, and he has certain supernatural powers but no real ability to impose his will on people. He’s a fascinating character. Does anybody in the movie notice?

It’s World War II, in the Philippines, and he’s been waiting for an opportunity, in his little ship the Curmudgeon, for 25 years or so. The peacetime adventures of the Curmudgeon and Finchhaven are mentioned in an off-hand reminiscence, possibly were intended to make up a significant portion of the movie, and could have been entertaining. I can imagine a story involving other fantastical elements, and I can imagine a story in which the extraordinary seaman encounters real-life characters of various types. The movie itself is an encounter between him and a band of US navy misfits led by Alda, their response to him is as muted as you could possibly imagine, and the whole thing lasts less than 80 minutes, including a dozen pieces of stock footage.

Writers are Phillip Rock [no other credits of note] and Hal Dressner [The Eiger Sanction, Sssssss, the “Catch-22” sitcom pilot]. Mickey Rooney and funnyman Jack Carter don’t establish any character traits. They look confused, and they mutter to each other. Alda’s character is confused as well, but his no-nonsense determination, whether in the service of something useful or something pointless, is just what Finchhaven has been waiting for all these years. The things that happen in the movie are so unfunny that it’s almost impressive that its simple story proceeds with so few tangents. Even Niven, who makes the character convincing, is bound by the script and doesn’t do anything spontaneous.

I can’t figure out what Faye Dunaway is doing here. She plays the super-competent woman who’s secretly indispensible if they want to accomplish anything, she orders everyone around when she wants, and one of the many frustrations at this film’s lack of an ending is when she doesn’t turn out to have any goal in mind.

Look at these two posters and try to figure out what The Extraordinary Seaman was supposed to be. Somewhere between The Deer Hunter and Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine, presumably. It certainly accomplishes that!

The baffled actors and the Point-A-to-Point-A script only make the film intriguingly boring. What makes it infuriating is the whole ironic anti-war satire thing. The characters’ mundane struggles are juxtaposed with wartime training and propaganda films, showing you how out-of-touch the military spokesmen and bureaucracy are, in their dream of perfect competence. This happens over and over in scene after scene.

Some of this is interesting, especially when the physical actions of our characters are similar to those in the propaganda clips. Most of it is annoying. Yes, show us the woman unable to break a champagne bottle at the launch of a ship — that’s a nice unsubtle metaphor for the way plans go wrong from the start. Don’t show it to us so many times! What on earth are you thinking? What is this, the Ludovico technique?

The non-stock-footage parts of the film are likewise full of Sousa and other martial music. This would make sense in a light-hearted movie about the wacky exploits of Commander Finchhaven. Here the irony is just overbearing. The only thing I got out of The Extraordinary Seaman was a sense of confusion that it was made well before M*A*S*H, of which it seems to be a cynical imitation. This is just a reminder that although M*A*S*H may have been groundbreaking in its style, anti-war films of an almost nihilist level of satire were well established by the late sixties.

Mixed bag: What freaked people out in the 1930s?

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When Were You Born? [William McGann, 1938]

Although it’s an interesting time capsule, this is a painfully earnest movie with a limited plot done in a flat way.  The early sequence onboard a luxury liner is fascinating in a time-capsule way, but after the murder the film gets really slow for an hour as Anna May Wong gradually convinces the cops that this obscure “ancient Chinese astrology based on the Greek zodiac” technology can really uncover somebody’s secret criminal nature more reliably than old-fashioned police intuition.  After the 5th or 6th revelation that this modest Asian lady’s connection to the stars lets her know more about the rest of us than a clean and sober Sherlock Holmes equipped with Batman’s cell phone spy network, the cops start doing what she suggests — and there’s a pretty cool chase through Chinatown followed by justice.

The introductory spiel by Rosicrucianologist, motivational speaker, UFO enthusiast and philosophical theorist of Masonic soteriology Manly P. Hall builds up the movie to sound about five hundred times as important as the murder mystery it turns out to be.  When you look at the introduction, the cast being listed by zodiac sign, and the random melding of incompatible cultures, you get what looks like an artifact of a fleeting intellectual fad, albeit one with an unusually benign view of the Mysteries of the Orient.

Everything about When Were You Born? is half-assed, making all the more maddening its suggestions that things which are obviously impossible are obviously possible and people are crazy not to open their minds.  How does this astrology stuff work?  Is it supernatural or not?  Why aren’t the police using Anna May Wong’s amazing powers on any other cases, now that they’re convinced?  Manly P. Hall must have been really disappointed in how this turned out.

Nice touch: the stock newspaperman is named “Juggler Barrows”.  “Juggler”, I guess, because he’s always doing a bunch of things at once, always striving, got his finger in a dozen pies and his ear to the ground and his eye out for a hot scoop.  Yeouch.

Noted style icon Anna May Wong (seen here in Nikola Tesla's cloning device) is in no way stylish or vampish in "When Were You Born?". She's the maiden aunt who uses her knowledge of human nature to figure out whodunit, except she has no knowledge if she doesn't know your birthday.

Thirteen Women [George Archainbaud, 1932]

This one is dumb too but in a captivating way, looking and sounding a lot better than WWYB?.  It’s a pretty relentless horror thriller – there’s no surprises, but there’s a lot of eerie moments, like the look in Myrna Loy’s eyes, the moment when the Swami Yogadachi becomes a pawn, the desperation of Irene Dunne when her son keeps getting suspicious gifts…the emotions are pretty intense and it’s hard to look away from the close-ups.  Donald C. Willis compares it to Village of the Damned, in that the victims harm themselves when they can’t ignore thoughts someone else is putting in their heads.  The idea of killing people by sending them really bleak horoscopes and then relying on them to commit suicide seems…like it would be a bit unreliable.  Climactic scenes are on a train and are much more exciting than anything in the first 80% of the movie.

It’s based on “Tiffany Thayer’s startling book“, which is an understatement based on Wikipedia’s description of said novel.  The Irene Dunne plot would be enough for a movie in itself, without all the other women, without the trapeze malfunction, without even the Swami Yogadachi.  I liked how amazingly implausible elements, like the chauffeur’s double life, are treated so matter-of-factly, sacrificing scary/dramatic moments for the sake of making the story somewhat believable.  Myrna Loy’s evil mastermind [being a “half-Hindoo, half-Japanese” woman who came here from India, her name is “Ursula Georgi” of all things] has some long and sincere speeches about her isolation at school, and how irrational it was that “you whites and your Kappa society” refused to accept her.  The commercial failure of this movie might have to do with how this character, who looks like a stereotypical villain, gets to explain herself in an articulate way instead of just being a target for boos and hisses.  [Kind of like Freaks.]  See Filmbrain’s “The Orientalization of Myrna Loy” for more.

She’s made up here to look a lot like Merle Oberon in The Scarlet Pimpernel, albeit with warped eyes and eyebrows, and hair severely pulled back.  If Thirteen Women had been made three years later it might be better because it might have had Oberon, who was an actual mixed-race woman who came to Britain from India.  The mostly-female cast is an interesting mix and all the actresses are good.  Irene Dunne is great as a mother, I don’t remember Jill Esmond’s character but I do now know that she was married to Laurence Olivier, and I think it’s Mary Duncan whose exclamation of “Hazel Cousins!” has just stuck with me, as one of those one-person inside jokes.  Hazel Cousins herself has a strangely truncated part in the movie, which makes sense when you learn that between the time the film was shot and when it was released, actress Peg Entwhistle committed suicide in the most melodramatic way possible.

Freaks [Tod Browning, 1932]

The lasting impression you get of Freaks is all the little everyday scenes of the circus.  Bathing, gossiping, flirting, celebrating a birth, lighting cigarettes without arms or legs, wearily shooing a seal into a trailer.  Any scenes where the “freaks” seemed at ease with each other, or confident in what they were doing, were fascinating.  There’s no attempt to show any of them [other than the “pinheads”, as in Zippy — his dress is based on a microcephalic from this movie] as childlike or foolish.  They’re prepared for normal-looking people [“civilians”?  “normals”?  What’s the word?] to condescend to them, and they’re prepared for normals to treat them with respect.  Affairs and romances among freaks, and even between freaks and normals, are treated with humor, not as an insult to nature.  There’s a couple great moments with the conjoined sisters Violet and Daisy, and how one can feel it when the other’s touched.

That’s part of the legend of the movie — how it was ahead of its time in not treating the characters as monsters, how it was too ambitious even for a director coming off the success of Dracula, how it was critically wounded by cuts by the studio and ended up neither a successful drama not a successful chiller.  To my mind the failure is more in the crime story that provides its plot.  This was based on part of the story Spurs by Tod Robbins, as indicated in the credits, and much like Thirteen Women, the film’s plot is substantially less weird than the source material.  The crime story [a particularly neotenous but dignified dwarf named Hans is betrayed by Cleopatra, the normally proportioned trapezeuse who marries him for his inheritance] is hackneyed and it just isn’t affecting.  It’s melodrama transplanted from a Grimm’s Fairy Tale into the middle of a realistic and human milieu.  Amid dialogue like this…

  • Venus [wearing cute hat]: Well, make it snappy.  I’m all dolled up for the occasion.
  • Phroso [sitting in bathtub]: Sorry, kid.  Can’t do it now.  We’ll make it some other time, eh?
    [he slides through hole in bathtub, she turns away.]  Aw, don’t feel that way about it.  I just got this idea all of a sudden, I gotta finish it.  Hey, funny gag, isn’t it?
  • Venus [sarcastic]: Yeah.  I’m laughing myself sick.
  • Phroso [approaching her for an embrace]: Aw, say!  Come on.  Honey, hey!  Come on, come on, come on.  Now, now, now, now. There, much better.

…we have Frieda saying things like “Oh, Hans.  This is the first time since we have been engaged you have spoken to me so.  Why is it?”

Harry Earles was a sought-after silent star and the actor of choice for roles requiring men to impersonate toddlers [WFMU’s Beware of the Blog really is the best blog ever], but he’s not nearly as natural here as the other freaks.  He has a German accent and a very high reedy voice, his good-girl love interest [who’s obviously his sister] sounds similar, the femme fatale has a Russian accent, and the 1932 recording technology just makes the viewer strain to hear what’s going on.  I wished I was watching all the other characters instead, the creative guys and gals from Baltimore or Brooklyn or Iowa or wherever.  W.r.t. the studio’s extensive re-cutting, I think the carnival-barker framing device and the Road to Utopia-style happy ending were improvements.  Anyone would probably love to see the “number of comedy segments” that were cut, but the more graphic elements of the violent climax wouldn’t have added much.

Almost the whole film takes place during the circus’s engagement in one place, so when the wagons where they live finally start getting pulled to the next town, you get exciting action on moving vehicles. The energetic slices of life in Freaks are worth anyone’s time, and the slow and awkward exchanges between Cleo and Hans are balanced by her fun scenes with co-conspirator Hercules [the charismatic Henry Victor].  Don’t expect to be terrified, unless you think you might faint just from seeing a girl born with no arms doing everyday things.

If Netflix asked, Freaks would get “Really Liked It”, Thirteen Women “Liked It”, and When Were You Born? “Didn’t Like It”.

"Oh, Hans, don't worry about TCM. TCM will be around forever."