Here is My Heart… On My Sleeve, Where You Can’t Miss It: “Moulin Rouge” (1952)

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By Scott Ross

Moulin Rouge is one of the most exquisitely beautiful movies of its time — 65 years after its release its lush images and extraordinary color palette pop off the screen. It’s daringly shot and edited, in a manner that, for a contemporary viewer, feels remarkably modern. (Bob Fosse modeled his style in Cabaret in part on John Huston’s vivid depiction of chic Parisian decadence here, particularly in the exuberant cancan sequence near the beginning.) Yet for all of its thick surface veneer, its bold imagery and twitting of the then-current Production Code ethos, and the sparkle of its verbal aperçus, it’s a resolutely square movie; its narrative arc, and much of its dialogue, is rigidly pedestrian, propelled by the hoariest of “biopic” clichés. There’s enough dazzle in the picture for any ten more conventional-looking movies, but the center somehow cannot hold. Things do not so much fall apart as float away.

Huston, himself a failed artist, clearly intended to evoke not merely La Belle Époque, but the period as refracted through Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s paintings and lithographs, and the movie succeeds best as a kind of animated Lautrec tableau, by turns garish and diffused. Working with the superb British cinematographer Oswald Morris, the director frames every shot as a living work of art, yet there’s nothing fussy about their approach. The long opening sequence at the Moulin Rouge has exactly the right haze about it, a chiaroscuro effect of rambunctious high-life as seen through a fog of cigar smoke and cheap liquor. There are also a pair of tours through Lautrec’s artwork, set to music, the first of which is astonishingly avant-garde for 1952; they give little pocket histories of the artist’s development while at the same time exposing images which, because they are the work of an acclaimed visual artist, carry the imprimatur of high culture even as they depict the sort of then-shocking eroticism no Western filmmaker could hope to replicate on a screen for at least another 15 or 20 years. I don’t think this is merely representational, or in any way an accident. Huston was stretching the limits of what was acceptable to a mass audience — and to the official expurgators of popular art. One can only imagine the consternation of the Breen Office when they got a look at it.

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Gabor as Jane Avril.

If a movie could be judged solely on its mise-en-scène, Moulin Rouge could be counted one of the most successful pictures ever made. Alas, narrative art requires more of its makers than the deliverance of arresting imagery, and it’s in the human elements that the picture falters. Huston and Anthony Veiller, who wrote the screenplay, might have been better served by concocting their own fiction; as it was they were dealing with established biography (or, in this case, fictionalized biography; the source was Pierre La Mure’s eponymous novel) and had to focus their narrative on Lautrec’s experience. It takes nothing from the pathos of that life to note that the story, such as it is, involves two tropes, both baldly overstated in words: That of the misunderstood artist and of the man of deformity who believes he can never be loved, only either scorned or pitied. That’s almost too much for any moviemaker to contend with, and Huston was far from the most sensitive man who ever looked through a viewfinder. Another nearly insurmountable obstacle is the genuinely terrible score by Georges Auric, which telegraphs every emotion (and, in the case of events such as Lautrec’s fateful adolescent accident, every fall) in the worst 1940s Hollywood manner. The song he composed for Jane Avril (Zsa Zsa Gabor), “Le long de la Seine” (“It’s April Again”) has a melancholic loveliness, however, graced by a beautiful and appropriately impressionist English lyric by the screenwriter Paul Dehn. It gained great notoriety later as, variously, “Here is My Heart” and “Song from Moulin Rouge,” with appropriately terrible pop lyrics of the sort that used to make record buyers swoon and poets cringe.

It’s difficult for me to judge Jose Ferrer’s central performance, because he has always seemed to me the sort of insufferable ham who overplays by underplaying. And then there is that voice, a basso without profundity, effective in supporting roles (as in The Caine Mutiny and Fedora) but uneasy in a leading role. I still suspect he won that Oscar for Cyrano by surrounding himself, as producer, with a cast even less heroic and histrionically adept than he was. Colette Marchand got herself an Academy Award nomination for playing the object of Laurtrec’s passions, but she’s either purring duplicitously or screeching with rage; she has no middle range. (It doesn’t help that her role devolves into that of a Gallic Bette Davis — in De servitude humaine, perhaps.) Gabor somehow got second billing for an extended cameo, and she looks spectacular, but when she opens her mouth on stage and Muriel Smith’s lyric soprano pours out, you don’t believe it for a moment.

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Ferrer as Lautrec.

The finest performance in the picture is unquestionably that of the great Suzanne Flon as Myriamme Hayam, whom Laurtec desires but cannot admit to loving. Flon does more with less than nearly anyone of the period; her sequence as the impoverished Baroness Nagle in Orson Welles’ Mr. Arkadin is, with Michael Redgrave’s, Katina Paxinou’s and Akim Tamiroff’s, one of four magnificent turns in that extravagantly entertaining mélange you can’t quite imagine the movie without. With Flon the slightest look, the merest gesture, the simplest intonation reveal more than most actors can convey in ten pages of dialogue. Among the smaller roles, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee show up (although not in the same scenes) as, respectively, Mryiamme’s would-be paramour and the pointillist Georges Seurat, later of course to become the subject of a vastly superior study of art by James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim.

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Suzanne Flon.

Ralph Kamplen’s occasionally kinetic editing, Julia Squire’s delicious costumes, and the mouth-watering décor by Marcel Vertès and Paul Sheriff could scarcely be bettered, and the splendid photographer Eliot Elisofon was credited as “special color consultant.” Vertès and Sheriff duly won Academy Awards; Morris, whose color work here stands with the finest ever achieved in a motion picture, was not even nominated. There’s a metaphor in that somewhere, or maybe a lesson. But like the articulated themes of Moulin Rouge it’s probably too obvious to state outright.

Text copyright 2017 by Scott Ross

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The cancan at Moulin Rouge in full roar.

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The Guns of Navarone (1961)

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By Scott Ross

Those born after 1980 will have difficulty believing it, but there was a time when the Hollywood studios did not routinely program huge, “high-concept,” multi-million dollar action spectaculars as their main source of revenue. Smaller movies, with life-sized (as opposed to larger-than-) characters, were the norm, and the spectaculars were fewer and further between, and even they had a peculiar tendency to be intelligent. These movies were made, as David Denby noted in his review of the 1987 reissue of The Manchurian Candidate, in another country, one where it was still possible to present a reasonably complex narrative without talking down to a media-surfeited, cranially-stunted audience, here and abroad. It was that country, in the year of my birth, which produced The Guns of Navarone.

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One of Howard Terpning’s designs for the poster.

I first saw The Guns of Navarone on televsion, in the early ’70s (that was in another country, too, one where the networks actually deigned to air movies on a regular basis.) Although it was, perforce, in pan-and-scan format—there were at the time actual FCC rules in force prohibiting the screening of widescreen images on television—the movie made a marked impression on me. The characters were vivid, the big set-pieces excruciatingly tense, and there were odd curlicues that remained in the memory: The machine-gun appearing from beneath the sails; the shipwreck on the rocks; the little girl holding a bouquet of flowers; the revelation of Anna’s treachery; the sudden, and shocking, Quisling behavior before the Germans of Anthony Quinn’s previously implacable Andrea.

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Carl Foreman, who both produced the picture and adapted Alistair MacLean’s adventure novel (and who, as a blacklisted scribe, did not receive credit for his work on The Bridge on the River Kwai a few years earlier) added two dramatic elements and altered an existing  third. In MacLean’s book, there is no conflict between Andrea, Mallory (Gregory Peck in the movie) and Miller (David Niven); Foreman grafted onto the narrative Miller’s unspoken antagonism toward Mallory, and Andrea’s vow to murder his compatriot, once the war is over, for causing the deaths of his wife and children. In MacLean, it is a male Greek partisan who is, or is suspected of being, the traitor; in Foreman, it is the mute Anna, for whom Mallory develops tender feelings, which dovetails neatly with the Mallory/Miller sub-plot. (It isn’t going too far to call Anna an informer, a special breed of loathsome to any blacklistee.)

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Corporal Miller smells a rat. From left, Irene Papas, James Darren, Anthony Quinn, David Niven, Gia Scala, Stanley Baker, Gregory Peck.

In an escapist novel, one can accept the lack of conflict between the leads; in a movie, some sort of complication is almost demanded, in an Aristotelean sense. It was a smart move on Foreman’s part, and he handled the additional dialogue with superb ease and intelligence; the Peck/Niven standoff precedes, and compels, the movie’s most poignant moment, then succeeds it, leading to the seemingly unflappable Mallory’s gesturing with his pistol in Miller’s direction (“You’ve got me in the mood to use this thing, and by God, if you don’t think of something, I’ll use it on you! I mean it.”) Niven’s mounting fury is remarkable to watch, particularly since we don’t expect it of this usually (and uniquely) charming actor, any more than we are fully prepared for a blast of excoriating rage from Peck.

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The marvelous Irene Papas.

Foreman likewise added the fierce but accessible Maria (the name of Andrea’s off-stage wife in the novel) and cast the great Irene Papas, whose superb face is one those images that absolutely stick with you. (Anna and Maria, neither of whom have counterparts in MacLean, could be said to stand in for Pilar and Maria of For Whom the Bell Tolls.) If Foreman lost the moving scene in which the young, injured lieutenant offers himself up as a sacrifice, he gained far more, in the main. That injury is transferred in the movie to Anthony Quinn’s “Lucky,” to whom Peck’s Mallory whispers contradictory information he hopes will be extracted by the Germans; it is this act which enrages the otherwise likable (if occasionally overbearing) Miller.

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J. Lee Thompson’s direction is, like Alan Osbiston’s editing, straightforward and un-fussy, yet beautifully sustained. Thompson (Lee-Thompson as he was later known) has a knack for keeping as many of his ensemble cast on-screen at the same time as possible, yet the set-ups never feel stagey, or even staged.

Oswald Morris’ cinematography is often strikingly effective, particularly in his vivid day-for-night shots, and even the rear-screen projection effects look better than usual, aided as they are by such events as a storm at sea. Dmitri Tiomkin’s main title theme adds an immeasurable kick, but he seldom over-stresses or strains for effect. Indeed, it’s notable how often he—or Foreman, or Thompson, or somebody—opts to leave a sequence alone and let the exciting visuals speak for themselves. At the movie’s end, Tiomkin repeats, not the big theme, but the plaintive “Yassou,” heard first in a soft, a cappella choral arrangement, closing the movie on a grace-note.

That’s something else that separates the country that produced The Guns of Navarone from our own.

Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

Fiddler on the Roof (1971)

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By Scott Ross

One of the most beautiful movie musicals ever made. The staggeringly successful Broadway original received splendid screen transference from the director, Norman Jewison (who, despite his name, and the content of this movie, is Gentile). Most of the great Jerry Bock-Sheldon Harnick score was retained although, of necessity, the show’s vividly theatrical, Chagal-inspired Jerome Robbins direction and Boris Aronson sets were not. (Robbins’ original choreography was recreated for by his long-time assistant Tom Abbott.) The movie is simply a different animal, a vibrant re-creation of Russian stetl life before the Revolution, and the Eastern European locations, shot by Oswald Morris, are ravishing.

Casting the Israeli actor Topol as Tevye the milkman was inspired; he’s so virile and appealing, so utterly right, you become aware of how disastrous the role’s originator, the great but oversized Zero Mostel, would have been in the movie. (Topol played the lead in the West End production.) Norma Crane is the steel-backed yet palpably warm Golde; Molly Picon brings a bit of classic Yiddish theatre to the meddlesome matchmaker Yenta; the late Leonard Frey is the sweetly timid Motel Zamzoil; and the wonderful Rosalind Harris plays the family’s eldest daughter. Curiously, while the source material had for many years the longest run of any Broadway show, the movie was not as correspondingly successful.

Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross