As my quarterly reports seem to be getting longer and longer, and because I’m watching more movies of late, I’m trying a monthly capsule in place of my usual quarterlies. At least this month. If I see fewer movies in future I may go back to the quarterly model, or perhaps a bimonthly accounting.
As ever, click on the highlighted titles for longer reviews.
Neil Berkeley’s surprisingly sweet, even moving, portrait of the comedian Gilbert Gottfried.
Anything Goes (1954)
A mess, with compensations. Not content with re-jiggering the 1934 original, the adapting writer Herbert Baker turns a resolutely 1930s Cole Porter show into a “Roaring ’20s” musical and, favoring idiot Charleston dance breaks and “Runyanland”-inspired stage antics, cuts one of Ethel Merman’s best numbers (“Buddy Beware”) and leaves Bert Lahr, as the gangster Moonface, without his solo (“Be Like the Bluebird”). He also turns Billy (Frank Sinatra) into an agent, renames him “Harry” and has him pining for Merman’s Reno Sweeney, rather than, as in the original show, the other way around. Okay, I get it: They had to trim the play to fit the 60-minute Colgate Comedy Hour format, so Billy’s inamorata Hope had to go and the role of Reno’s English fiancée Evelyn Oakley (Arthur Gould-Porter) became practically a walk-on. But that’s no excuse for the raging inanity that marks much of the rest.
The commercial release on DVD comes courtesy of the lyricist Stephen Cole, to whom Merman’s heirs gave her kinescope copy, and it looks terrific. Nor can an aficionado complain about the casting; the opportunity to see Lahr in his prime is worth sitting through the thing. It’s also, as he would have said, a kick to see Sinatra, at the peak of his form, in a live broadcast. Merman was identified with the role (or at least, with its songs) but she’s an odd choice for Sinatra’s love-match; I kept looking at her big frame and flabby, middle-aged arms and wondering what the hell that healthy young man was doing making love to a fat, braying old broad.
That’s the problem with having stars re-create their big roles decades after the original premieres, although Merman is in great voice throughout. Lahr, of course, as the comic has no such problems, and this Anything Goes at least preserves for generations who never saw him perform live, or who know him only as The Cowardly Lion, his peerless way with a line and his trademark “g-nong, g-nong” expression, lifted and slightly altered by Curly Howard in the ’30s. Still, it’s hard to credit that this tasteless mélange was produced by Leland Hayward and Jule Styne. Styne has been dead for years, but if someone had done this to one of his musicals, we’d still hear him screaming about it.
Walt Disney’s first animated feature still delights — and terrifies — 80-plus years later.
Sleeping Beauty (1959)
One of the most visually compelling of the animated features made at his studio while Walt Disney was alive, Sleeping Beauty, initially released in Super Technirama 70mm, is a knockout on a wide theatre screen… a pleasure I am sorry to say few in America will ever enjoy again as I did with Disney cartoons, often, in my youth. It still looks good on a plasma screen, and its climax is beautifully animated, but it’s a rather cold movie — a triumph of design over substance. Disney, busy with his park, let Eyvind Earle impose his style, based in large part on John Hench’s evocations of the Unicorn tapestries at the Cloisters in New York, on the picture, and often backed Earle over his animators. The major problem with Sleeping Beauty is that what should be its central character is little more than a cypher. Cinderella, the previous Disney animated feature focused on a young woman (as opposed to the girl Alice in Alice in Wonderland) gave its heroine rich character, and dimension, from the very first scene. She was kind, and generous, and we understood that, while laboring in terrible circumstances, she never wasted a moment feeling sorry for herself, even if she occasionally (and deservedly) expressed resigned irritation. The teenage Brier Rose/Aurora, this story’s princess, has only one important sequence (directed by Eric Larson) before she falls under the wicked fairy Maleficent’s spell, and while it’s a lovely one, and lengthy, it isn’t enough. And in its aftermath, when she learns her identity from the fairies who raised her and is told she’s betrothed and can’t see the boy she’s met in the forest, her reaction seems petty, like a petulant schoolgirl throwing an after-school fit because her mother’s grounded her.
None of the other characters are especially fulsome except Maleficent, and that’s largely due to Marc Davis’ animation (he also animated Aurora) and Eleanor Audley’s superb vocal performance. Three who come close to being well-defined are the good fairies, Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather, animated almost entirely by Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston. (Milt Kahl’s Prince Phillip has dimensions, but he’s no more fully sketched-in than the Princess.) Wolfgang Reitherman, who later took Disney animation into an almost entirely sentiment-free realm as the director of every feature between 1961 and 1977, was responsible for the picture’s most effective sequence, the epic battle between Phillip and Maleficent in the form of a great dragon. Interestingly, Reitherman’s mediocre work as the director of the hipper, less emotionally plangent titles of the ’60s and ’70s, is bordered by two of the studio’s best features, 101 Dalmatians and The Rescuers. Somehow, something more came through in those pictures. Whatever it was, a tincture or two should have been applied to Sleeping Beauty.
The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)
Although it physically sickens me whenever I think about what RKO did to it, I tend to see what could have been Orson Welles’ masterwork more or less yearly as I get older, and, as with Citizen Kane, usually notice something fresh in it I hadn’t quite seen before — some little detail, or even just a look on one of the actors’ faces, that had previously eluded me and that enriches the experience. And each time I see it, Agnes Moorehead’s performance moves me more. It’s among the most naked jobs of acting in movies; I don’t think the kind of shrill, bitter, self-pitying loneliness she evokes as Fanny Minifer has its equal anywhere in American film, and she doesn’t make you wince; despite yourself, you pity her. That Moorhead was herself as plain as Fanny in the story makes her work doubly impressive, and poignant. And she isn’t afraid to look ugly, as when she mocks Georgie (Tim Holt); you understand, without being told (although it’s made explicit later in the picture) that she has put up with this spoiled brat’s mean-spirited teasing for 20 years, and is giving back in the same, immature, vein — the only response possible. Although Welles maintained that Moorehead’s best scene was removed from the picture and burned, she has two sequences that are almost shocking in their raw emotionality. One, famously, is near the end, when insupportable reality drives her to hysteria. But the first, when she realizes just how terrible are the consequences of her hurt carelessness, is, although briefer, in its way even greater. The way, leaning over on the staircase nearly in pain, Moorehead moans out Fanny’s misery and regret (Oh, I was a fool!) as if she’d like to push every harmful word she’s ever spoken back down her own gullet, and choke on them, is so utterly without guile or calculation it’s almost a new form of acting. Stanislavsky would have had little to teach her.
Anatomy of a Murder (1959)
Otto Preminger was a superficially gifted filmmaker who, perhaps because he was as publicity-conscious as Hitchcock, routinely got credit for more than he deserved, and ink for outraging the system, itself largely out of proportion to his achievements. (Groucho Marx: “I drove by Otto Preminger’s house last night… or is that A House by Otto Preminger?”) I give him a certain amount of credit for unblinkingly depicting addiction and withdrawal in The Man with the Golden Arm (1954) and for twitting the idiot Production Code with The Moon is Blue (1953) but his alleged genius eludes me. That said, Anatomy of a Murder stands not merely as the finest of all courtroom dramas, and a sneakily subversive one, but as one of the greatest of all popular American movies. Much of the credit goes to the sceenwriter, Wendell Mayes, for taking a mildly diverting (and somewhat self-serving) novel by a former Michigan County Prosecuting Attorney — and then state Supreme Court Justice — and improving it in nearly every way. I don’t know how much of this revision was guided by Preminger, but the movie’s deep sense of ambiguity, regarding the law, the behavior of its characters and the case itself was surely shared by the picture’s director. James Stewart gives a career-high performance as the wily defense attorney, and he’s met blow-for-blow by the supporting cast: Lee Remick as a curiously sensual rape victim (one can just hear today’s “a woman never lies” crowd gnashing their teeth and murmuring, “How very dare they!”), Ben Gazzara as her intelligent brute of a husband, Arthur O’Connell as a bibulous former attorney, Kathryn Grant as the murder victim’s heir, George C. Scott as a sneering prosecutor, Orson Bean as an Army shrink, Russ Brown as a trailer park caretaker, Murray Hamilton as a hostile witness, John Qualen as a prison deputy, Howard McNear as an expert witness, Jimmy Conlin as an habitual drunkard happy to sacrifice his liberty for a case of fine liquor, Don Ross as a shady con, Joseph N. Welch — himself lately, and famously, a defense attorney for the Army against a certain Senator from Wisconsin — as the presiding judge and, sublimely, Eve Arden as Stewart’s wry and long-suffering secretary. Few months have passed since my seeing this movie the first time that I haven’t had occasion to hear Arden’s “If I was on that jury I don’t know what I’d do. I really don’t know” reverberate softly in my head.
Preminger will never be a favorite of mine, but this movie certainly is.
I hope it isn’t true, as I have read, that Millennials and their even younger counterparts don’t know, have not heard of and have never seen, one of everybody else’s favorite movies… but I suspect it is. Because it’s in black-and-white? Because it’s older than Star Wars? Because it’s concerned with people, as opposed to special effects? Well, they don’t know who Jack Kennedy was either, or care that he was probably murdered by their government. Whatever the reasons, the losses are theirs entirely. Or soon will be. And then they’ll be the world’s.
Still… imagine a time, 40 or 50 years from now, when no one remembers Casablanca. I’m glad I’ll have been long dead.
My Dinner with André (1981)
In the nearly four decades since this nonpariel movie was released, I don’t think a week has gone by without my recalling something André Gregory said in it. So much of what he and Wallace Shawn discuss seemed at the time both extreme and all too possible. Now their conversation feels entirely prescient.
Wallace Shawn: “I actually had a purpose as I was writing this: I wanted to destroy that guy that I played, to the extent that there was any of me there. I wanted to kill that side of myself by making the film, because that guy is totally motivated by fear.”
Key Largo (1948)
This adaptation, by Richard Brooks and John Huston, of Maxwell Anderson’s 1939 blank verse drama retained little but the basic narrative set-up, a character or two, and the title. The antagonists of the reactionary Anderson’s play were Mexican bandidos, and the Humphrey Bogart character was a deserter from the Spanish Civil War. (He’s also, in typical poetic/nihilist 1930s fashion, killed at the end, after redeeming himself. Huston and Brooks let Bogie off that unnecessary hook.) As a high-tension melodrama, the picture is vastly entertaining as long as you don’t take it seriously for a moment.
Among the things that can’t take much scrutiny is Huston’s desire to make a cheap hood like the Edward G. Robinson character stand in for all the evil of the post-war world. But if you ignore the unworkable metaphors and Lauren Bacall’s inability to do much of anything except smolder and concentrate instead on the performances by Robinson, Bogart and, especially, Claire Trevor as a broken-down alcoholic former gun-moll, as well as the thick Florida atmosphere, the mechanics of the thriller plot, the bits of dialogue that don’t strain for profundity and the best moments of Huston’s direction, Key Largo always makes for a robust evening’s entertainment. The Max Steiner score is a little easier to take than some of his earlier bombast, and the cinematography by Karl Freund is really sumptuous. Freund was the lighting director on some remarkable silents (The Golem, 1920; The Last Laugh, 1924; Variety, 1925; Metropolis, 1927; and Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis, 1927) as well as the 1931 Dracula and the 1936 Camille. He was later responsible, in conjunction with Desi Arnaz, for the development of the three-camera technique for television comedy and was, from 1951 to 1957, the director of photography on I Love Lucy. That hasn’t anything to do with Key Largo, but it’s impressive.
Night Moves (1975)
Paul Vitello, in his 2013 New York Times obituary of the Scottish novelist and sometime screenwriter Alan Sharp, wrote that “his best-known narratives created and then disassembled audience expectations about all the usual Hollywood verities, especially the triumph of justice, love and friendship,” and it seems pretty obvious it was Sharp whose sensibilities most informed this little-seen but essential 1970s detective thriller. It’s as dark and nihilistic as Chinatown, and while I would not claim for it the richness of that landmark of ’70s cinematic Americana, it’s an infinitely better movie than some of the more well-known Arthur Penn-directed pictures of the time like Little Big Man and The Missouri Breaks. Gene Hackman plays Harry Moseby, a Los Angeles P.I. with a crumbling marriage, on the trail of a runaway teenager (Melanie Griffith). The mystery isn’t that search — Harry finds the girl fairly easily — but what is going on with her stepfather in Florida, and why she is suddenly killed, seemingly by accident.
It’s not a perfect movie, by any means. As the femme fatale, Jennifer Warren’s line-readings are so odd they eventually become false and off-putting, a key telephone answering machine message goes un-listened to and with no dramatic payoff, in an early appearance as a mechanic James Woods doesn’t just chew the scenery but every engine in sight, and some of the scenes don’t seem fully shaped. But it’s wonderfully observed, always intelligent, often witty, and even Griffith is good in it, perhaps because she’s an adolescent and, for once, her little-girl voice is appropriate. The terrific supporting cast includes Susan Clark, Edward Binns, Harris Yulin, Janet Ward and John Crawford, Michael Small composed the brief but effective score, and the beautiful photography is by the great Bruce Surtees.
I don’t know how a movie this implausible can be, conversely, so cleverly contrived, so intelligently written and so engagingly acted. Sahara certainly had some impressive writers involved in it: The screenplay was by John Howard Lawson (with an un-credited assist by Sidney Buchman) and Philip MacDonald wrote the story. The main titles tell us that the picture was based on “an incident depicted in the Soviet photoplay The Thirteen” (Тринадцать, or Trinadtsat, listed in the credits as 1936 but actually 1937) but a cursory look at the plot for that Russian movie suggests that Sahara is in fact a direct adaptation; the only aspects that seem notably different are the setting (the African desert in 1943 as opposed to Turkestan before the war), the antagonists (Nazis rather than Asian bandits as the besieged heroes’ bêtes noire) and their much greater number. The picture concerns the remnants of a tank crew, a troupe of British Medical Corpsmen its members encounter while on retreat, a Sudanese soldier and his Italian prisoner, a duplicitous Nazi (as if there were any other kind), a phalanx of German soldiers and a desert well. Although not above the occasional war-movie cliché, Sahara is refreshingly restrained and only rarely gives out with one of those bits of Allied propaganda that were de rigueur during the War but which have induced cringes in audiences ever since. The incidentals, such as Rudolph Maté’s crisp, glorious cinematography, Miklós Rózsa’s prototypical score and the Imperial County, California locations, could scarcely be bettered.
Zoltán Korda’s direction is straightforward and without fuss, yet takes time to examine the faces of the actors, and they’re worth lingering over: Humphrey Bogart, of course, as the tank commander, the amusingly named Joe Gunn, but also Dan Duryea in an immensely likable performance as Bogie’s pilot; Bruce Bennett as his navigator; Richard Nugent as the British Captain; Rex Ingram as the Sudanese; and J. Carrol Naish as the Italian. Lloyd Bridges shows up just long enough to get strafed by machine-gun fire, linger a bit, and die, and Peter Lawford is alleged to be among the British but I didn’t spot him. Naish is splendid as the conflicted prisoner (he got an Oscar® nod for it) and if Ingram with his distinctive speech patterns couldn’t be anything but American and isn’t any more believable a Sudanese than he was an Arabian djinn in the Kordas’ 1940 The Thief of Bagdad, anyone who quibbles about that is just spoiling for a fight.
Having recently re-encountered The Maltese Falcon, Casablanca and Key Largo, I’m in a Bogart mood these days; this entry, while on no account one of his best, made for a more than adequate diversion. And at 98 minutes, Sahara was exactly the right length.
Cutter’s Way (1981)
A beautifully observed study of three more or less desperate people in the form of a grungy thriller, based on an interesting novel, and improving on it. Jeffrey Alan Fishin wrote the incisive screenplay, the recently-deceased Ivan Passer directed with economy and compassion, and I don’t see how the performances by the leads (Jeff Bridges, John Heard and Lisa Eichhorn) could be improved upon. One of the last gasps of 1970s personal cinema, and one of the best arguments for it.
Text copyright 2020 by Scott Ross