Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Underrated '47 - Everett Jones ""

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Underrated '47 - Everett Jones

Everett is an avid movie watcher and user of Letterboxd like myself - follow him there: - I've gotten many good film recs this way.
I don't love all the movies, but Fritz Lang's post-Germany, Hollywood career has always intrigued me. As I like to think of it, it's as if James Cameron suddenly found himself transformed into Sam Fuller, from lavish spectacle and meticulous control to scrappy, modestly budgeted studio programmers. Meanwhile Hitchcock, another European emigre, had the American career Lang might well have felt entitled to after his great career in Germany, building longterm relationships with powerful studios and stars and making himself a star in his own right. The comparison is particularly irresistible because this Fritz Lang film seems so clearly patterned after Hitch's second American effort, and first big hit, REBECCA. According to Patrick McGilligan's excellent Lang bio, THE NATURE OF THE BEAST, SECRET BEYOND THE DOOR was pretty much seen as a botch at the time, including by the people who made it, but it's been one of my favorites from the irascible Austrian auteur's spotty U.S. output since I first saw Olive Films's gorgeous Blu-ray. It's at least a fascinating failure, and maybe even a success on its own strange terms. The plot resembles a typical Gothic romance/thriller, like REBECCA or JANE EYRE, with an innocent woman romanced by a potentially dangerous man, except passed through a blender. Disappointed in love, Joan Bennett's heroine meets artist Michael Redgrave during a trip through the Southwest, at an old Spanish church. Per the genre, they quickly fall in love and marry, and, since he comes from New England old money, head back east to live in his family manse. However, Redgrave, being an eccentric artistic sort, has quirkily outfitted the house's entire first floor with a series of rooms modeled after famous murder sites: Jack the Ripper and so on. Moreover, one room is always kept locked, leading Bennett to suspect it's been designated as the site of a yet-to-happen murder. This synopsis doesn’t even capture the extent of SECRET’S insanity; if REBECCA had one mysterious, menacing character, Judith Anderson’s Mrs. Danvers, SECRET has a full supporting cast’s worth. It never even starts working as a conventional thriller, but in an odd way, in its disavowal of even pretending to take place in anything resembling our reality, this 1947 film could be the first David Lynch film ever made. (The actual Lynch was one year old at the time.) Fritz Lang helped pioneer or outright invented so many film genres: high-tech action-adventures, espionage thrillers, serial killer movies; space odysseys; it would just be fitting if he also invented another director’s filmography.
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I knew the name, but until recently, I’d seen very little of actress Jean Simmons, outside of her early, short roles in BLACK NARCISSUS and GREAT EXPECTATIONS and thankless “love interest” one in SPARTACUS. But just in the last few years, I’ve seen her in the likes of SO LONG AT THE FAIR, HOME AFTER DARK, and THE HAPPY ENDING, and the result is that I’ve become a fan. A recognizable but probably never household name, the late star might best be described as a British Audrey Hepburn, with the same swan-necked, fine-boned beauty, but with the character actress’s ability to fill different parts, rather than a superstar’s unchanging persona. This British period film, made after her attention-grabbing cameos in NARCISSUS and EXPECTATIONS but before she struck out for Hollywood under contract to Howard Hughes and married to Stewart Granger, might be the still-teenaged actress’s first proper starring vehicle. It’s not one of her meatier parts; she’d go on to play a psychopath in ANGEL FACE and evangelist in ELMER GANTRY, but here she’s essentially just the rather clueless heroine, an heiress and ward of the titular uncle whom everyone but her can see is pure evil. Maybe to compensate for the predictable plot, director Charles Frank treats it almost as a parody of a 19th century melodrama, with Derrick De Marnay’s Silas as outrageously untrustworthy as Simmons’s Caroline Ruthyn is trusting and innocent. The movie’s real star isn’t Simmons, though--much as I’d recommend it to fellow fans of hers--or the lesser-known but superb De Marnay--but cinematographer Robert Krasker, of THE THIRD MAN and other Carol Reed classics, who fills the running time with superbly Gothic, expressionistic images. They look like they’re from Lean’s OLIVER TWIST, which is just about the highest praise I can think of.

The move toward location filming and documentary style in ‘40s Hollywood, important as it clearly was at the time, viewed nowadays tends to be less enjoyable and, ironically, less innovative-seeming than the artificiality and stylization it replaced. Henry Hathaway, a journeyman- or craftsmanlike director, depending on how you’re generous you’re feeling, made something of a specialty of this style at the time, maybe because it matched up well with his own no-nonsense straightforwardness. That was the main hallmark of his over 40 years of mostly thrillers, adventures, and Westerns, capped off by the Oscar-winning TRUE GRIT. Following up the espionage hit THE HOUSE ON 92ND STREET, here Hathaway cast James Cagney as an O.S.S. spymaster trying to ferret out traitors while readying men for a mission into Occupied France. Building on 92ND STREET’s more stringently documentary-like style, the film begins as if a staged training film, and then becomes pulpier as it goes. It’s like Anthony Mann’s great T-MEN in that way, going from documentary storytelling to hallucination (though here without the equally hallucinatory expressionist visuals.) Cagney--whose post-thirties performances can seem a little checked-out and on autopilot--gets an unforgettable moment here to rival his apocalyptic work in WHITE HEAT.
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This film from THE UNINVITED director Lewis Allen is most easily described as a Technicolor noir, but in fact the pulp fiction elements--the setting of a crooked Southwestern gambling town and nominal hero character of Burt Lancaster’s two-fisted sheriff’s deputy--are sidelined in favor of wild, heady melodrama, dripping with innuendo. Spoiled rich girl Lizabeth Scott falls in love with newly returned, troubled gamber John Hodiak, but Scott’s mother, iron-fisted town boss Mary Astor, is insanely jealous of her; likewise Hodiak’s partner, Wendell Corey, of him. Meanwhile, there’s the matter of Hodiak’s wife’s mysterious death on the bridge leading into the isolated desert town, years before. In the midst of all this, future superstar Lancaster has little to do but stand tall, wait for the passions among the main players to burn themselves out, and occasionally punch someone. Noir authority Eddie Muller has described DESERT FURY as the “gayest movie” of classic-era Hollywood, and screenwriters Robert Rossen and (uncredited) A.I. Bezzerides, in adapting Ramona Stewart’s novel, seem to revel in hinting at sexual taboos, of then and now. Astor, only 16 years older than Scott and looking very little like her, treats her more like a trophy girlfriend than a daughter. Corey, meanwhile, never seems to be anything but the younger Hodiak’s sugar daddy, complete with anonymous pickup backstory. The resulting movie never come close to cohering, let alone to matching proper B&W noirs like THE KILLERS or OUT OF THE PAST, but it’s hugely entertaining in its own repressed, hysterical, Technicolor way.
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Outside of what is still probably the most successful version of PORTRAIT OF DORIAN GRAY, the films of director Albert Lewin have never been as readily available on video as they should be, at least not in transfers that flatter their beautiful photography. That’s a shame; like horror producer Val Lewton, Lewin was a former David O. Selznick disciple, and, like Lewton, seemed to carry through his subsequent career some of his old boss’s priorities, like a taste for literary properties and period details, without the accompanying bombast and bloat. Fortunately, THE PRIVATE AFFAIRS OF BEL AMI is now out on a lovely-looking transfer from the commendable Olive Films, as is yet to happen for Ldwin’s Gaugin biopic THE MOON AND SIXPENCE or the Jack Cardiff-shot PANDORA AND THE FLYING DUTCHMAN (available on Blu-ray, but not in North America’s Region 1 format.) Even if they did, though, I think BEL AMI would still stand for me as Lewin’s best film, not to mention one of George Sanders’s best, and possibly most George Sandersest, performances. Playing, of course, a “cad,” Sanders is a recently discharged soldier in 1890s Paris without a sou to his name, who resolves to seek fame and fortune through the most obvious route: journalism. The rest of the cast includes John Carradine, Warren William, Ann Dvorack, and Angela Lansbury, mostly playing the friends or lovers whom Sanders discards on his Rupert Murdoch/J.J. Hunsecker-like crawl to the top. As in other adequately-but-not-extravagantly budgeted period films of forties Hollywood, falling between the thirties’ soft-focus gloss and fifties’ Cinemascope spectacle, the film feels pretty set-bound. But even if the settings never suggests the actual Belle Epoque Paris, or any other brick-and-mortar place, they’re evocative and dreamlike in their own right, another hallmark of ‘40s films. Lewin’s DORIAN GRAY didn’t seem to have quite enough story, at least that was filmable under the stringent Production Code, but the progress of Sanders’ antihero could easily fill up a season’s worth of HBO noaways. The resulting movie, lush but not extravagant, feels like an epic in miniature, and a testament to the economy of another era’s storytelling.
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