Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Short Take: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920)

Historically, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the 1920 adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson's 1886 novella, is probably the first significant feature-length horror film produced in the United States. As for the picture itself, it is most notable for John Barrymore's flamboyant performance in the dual lead. He's all but unrecognizable underneath the Hyde make-up, but it never stunts his portrayal. He brilliantly uses the make-up to enhance the flourishes of his characterization. Barrymore's Hyde is a potent Expressionist depiction of the extremes of human malevolence: low cunning, delight in the degradation of others, and murderous violence. The misanthropic German artist George Grosz couldn't have come up with a more effective visual treatment. The stage for Barrymore is marvelously set by director John S. Robertson. The picture does a remarkable job of evoking the squalor of Victorian London; it doesn't soft-pedal the poverty, the commonplace prostitution, or the seedy opium dens. Barrymore's Hyde is a pig wallowing in the mud of a horribly ideal sty. The film also has some striking flourishes beyond Barrymore's performance, such as the dream sequence in which Hyde, personified as a gigantic spider, attacks Jekyll in his bed. Nita Naldi co-stars as the dance-hall performer whom Hyde brings low. The cinematography is by Roy F. Overbaugh. The screenplay is by Clara Beranger, and borrows elements of Thomas Russell Sullivan's stage adaptation of Stevenson's novella.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Short Take: Charade

The 1963 comedy-thriller Charade, directed by Stanley Donen, recalls the more lighthearted films of master suspense filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock. It’s not as sharp a confection as it could have been, but few films can match it for wit or glamour. An American woman in Paris (Audrey Hepburn) is suddenly widowed. Her husband has been murdered, and she finds herself a target of three of his former partners (Ned Glass, James Coburn, and George Kennedy). The men are after a fortune they and the husband helped steal, and they’re certain she’s the key to finding it. A CIA official (Walter Matthau) claims to want it back for the U. S. government, but he’s perfectly content to leave her unprotected from the trio of thugs. The wild card in the intrigue is a mysterious though charming fellow (Cary Grant), who may be working with the thugs, or a thief out for himself, or the only ally the woman has. The superbly crafted script, by Peter Stone and Marc Behm, is full of ingenious twists, surprising gags, and terrific romantic interplay between the Hepburn and Grant characters. The most refreshing aspect of the love story is that Hepburn’s character is the assertive one. Stanley Donen’s direction is somewhat uneven. The pacing is strong, the Paris locations are used well, and he brings out the glamorous charm of his two stars. But he doesn’t seem to know how to handle violence. The film is grisly when it should be discreet, and the explicitness works against the tongue-in-cheek tone. The picture quickly gets back on track after these lapses, but they may still leave one with a bad taste in one’s mouth. Yet despite the flawed moments, the picture is still one of the most entertaining Hollywood films of the early 1960s. The fine, varied score is by Henry Mancini, and Hepburn’s elegant wardrobe is courtesy of Givenchy. Charles Lang, Jr. provided the cinematography. The script is adapted from Peter Stone’s novel The Unsuspecting Wife, which was based on an earlier screenplay by Stone and Marc Behm.