Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Short Take: L'avventura

L'avventura is the most haunting of Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni's existential dramas. No film can better hold its own with the finest 20th-century literary fiction. The story is about an upper-class young woman (Lea Massari) who disappears during a yacht excursion to the Aeolian Islands off Sicily, and the efforts of her fiancé (Gabriele Ferzetti) and her best friend (Monica Vitti) to search for her in the area communities. But the effects and meanings are not carried by melodramatic tension and plot resolution. The missing woman is never found, and the search for her takes a backseat as the fiancé and the best friend become preoccupied with their romantic interest in each other. As with the most accomplished modernist fiction, the plot isn't really the point. The narrative is just a means to an end. Antonioni's actual subject is upper-class alienation, caprice, and emptiness. It's a place where romance and sex have become momentary escapes from anxiety and loneliness, and glamour and decadence walk hand in hand. Everything is conveyed through nuance, irony, and tone. The famous Antonioni tropes are all present: the aimless walking; people talking to each other with their backs turned; the grandeur of landscape and architecture contrasted with the petty self-absorption of the characters. But the use of those tropes is charged with meaning and never belabored. Antonioni's exquisite sense of shot composition and scene choreography is present as well. The film shows one of the great filmmaking styles at its most eloquent. Vitti and Massari are the standouts in a fine cast, which also includes Dominique Renchar and Renzo Ricci. The elegant black-and-white cinematography is credited to Aldo Scavarda. Antonioni collaborated on the script with Elio Bartolini and Tonino Guerra. The film's title has two meanings in English: "The Adventure" and "The Fling."

Monday, October 29, 2018

Short Take: Jaws

With Jaws, director Steven Spielberg didn't make the film he set out to. He delivered something far better--perhaps the most artfully made adventure thriller in the history of movies. Peter Benchley's original novel was just a pulpy page-turner. It's about a seaside resort faced with a man-eating shark off its beaches, and the efforts of the police chief, a local fisherman, and a young marine zoologist to find and kill it. The adaptation was conceived as an expensively literal-minded monster movie. But the life-size animatronic sharks that were built continually broke down during the shoot. Spielberg, in order to minimize their use, rethought the storytelling approach. Whenever possible, he indicated the shark's presence with tropes, which ranged from an assortment of props to John Williams' ominous score. His handling of the technique is powerful and remarkably assured. Spielberg demonstrated a stronger command of poetic effect than many much tonier filmmakers. He integrated it with his extraordinary gifts for picture composition, action choreography, and montage to create a spectacular--and at times terrifying--roller coaster ride. He let his lighter side show, too. Tropes are embraced for humor as well as suspense. The most clichéd shark signifier--the dorsal fin cutting the water's surface--shows up twice, and both times it's played for laughs. Spielberg also keeps things loose with the characters. The police chief, played by Roy Scheider, hits every note of man-of-action steadiness the story calls for, but he has funny bits, such as his startled reaction upon first seeing the shark, or the lovely bit of playacting he has with his son at the dinner table. Robert Shaw's fisherman--a bargain-basement Captain Ahab--is an outsize caricature of self-reliant macho foolishness. The zoologist (Richard Dreyfuss) is most memorable when mocking the fisherman's manly-man grandstanding. It all adds up to a splendidly crafted and entertaining film. The cast also includes Lorraine Gary, Murray Hamilton, and Jeffrey Kramer. The cinematography is by Bill Butler, and Verna Fields provided the superb editing. The script is nominally by Peter Benchley and Carl Gottlieb, but there were substantial uncredited contributions from Spielberg, Howard Sackler, John Milius, Matthew Robbins, Hal Barwood, and Robert Shaw.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Short Take: The Godfather

The Godfather, directed by Francis Ford Coppola, has a pretty fair claim to being the Great American Movie. It begins in 1945. At a wedding reception, the youngest son (Al Pacino) of a wealthy Italian-American family sits with his fiancée (Diane Keaton). He tells her a story about the ruthlessness of his Mafia don father (Marlon Brando). After seeing her shock, he reassures her, in complete sincerity, "That's my family... It's not me." The story ends a decade later, when she, now his wife, sees him called out for murder, and watches his father's lieutenants swear fealty to him as the new don. In between, the film dramatizes how the son became what he thought he would never be. One is also shown the irony that, despite two older brothers, he was the only one with the qualities necessary to be his father's true heir. It's a story of organized-crime intrigues, family loyalties, and hopes dashed by circumstance. In short, it's an epic about the corruption of the American Dream. Coppola presents much of the material with a quiet, stately tone. He renders the characters and situations with subtlety and nuance. On the occasions when violence inevitably rears its head, the horror has a grandeur that surpasses that of perhaps any other film. The cast is one of the finest ever assembled: Pacino, Brando, Keaton, James Caan, Richard Castellano, John Cazale, Richard Conte, Robert Duvall, Sterling Hayden, Al Lettieri, John Marley, Talia Shire, and Abe Vigoda. Production designer Dean Tavoularis and costumer Anna Hill Johnstone do a fine, unobtrusive job of evoking the period setting. Gordon Willis provided the handsome, dramatic cinematography. The superb screenplay, based on the novel by Mario Puzo, is by Coppola, Puzo, and an uncredited Robert Towne.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Short Take: Carlito's Way

The filmmaker Brian De Palma has done brilliant work in many modes: cultural satire, postmodern suspense thrillers, epic-scale social realism. But more than anything he is a showman. The finest outing for that side of him is perhaps the romantic crime drama Carlito's Way. The setting is mid-1970s New York City. Al Pacino stars as Carlito Brigante, a former Spanish Harlem druglord who is released from prison when his conviction is thrown out. Now middle-aged, he wants nothing more to do with the criminal life. He has two goals: to raise enough money to buy into a Bahamas rental-car partnership, and to rekindle his romance with the dancer (Penelope Ann Miller) he was involved with before his imprisonment. But he cannot put his past behind him. While he was away, he developed a near legendary reputation among the Spanish Harlem underworld. The prosecutor (James Rebhorn) who put him in jail is determined to send him back. Various associates, including his corrupt lawyer (Sean Penn), keep trying to involve him in their criminal schemes. Most gratingly, he has to contend with a rising mobster (John Leguizamo) who's the mirror image of himself as a young man. De Palma presents much of the material in one grandly executed set piece after another. He's particularly enamored with capturing the most elaborately staged action in extended long takes. One is often staring at the screen in astonishment at his flamboyant assurance. The other kinds of scenes--the actors' dialogues; the suspensefully edited drug deal gone bad in the first act; the comic, then swooning "Where's my cheesecake?" love scene--all are handled terrifically well. The most impressive sequence is a chase that begins at a Spanish Harlem nightclub, continues through the New York City subway, and ends in Grand Central Station. The moments before the chase's climax, presented in a breathtakingly sustained moving-camera single take around the Grand Central escalator, may be the most spectacular piece of filmmaking of De Palma's career. But for all the bravura, he keeps the story foremost in a viewer's mind. The film is so powerfully immersive that even though one is told the ending early on, the scene still packs a wallop when it comes. The entire cast--Pacino, Penn, Miller, Leguizamo, Rebhorn, Luis Guzmán, Viggo Mortensen, the various bit players--is superb. The support artisans all do first-rate work. They include production designer Richard Sylbert, cinematographer Stephen H. Burum, editor Bill Pankow, and composer Patrick Doyle. The source material is a pair of novels, Carlito's Way and After Hours, by New York City judge Edwin Torres. David Koepp has sole credit for the script, although there was substantial input from De Palma, Pacino, Torres, Luis Guzmán, and producer Martin Bregman.

Monday, October 22, 2018

Short Take: City Lights

Charles Chaplin is the sweetest of the great filmmakers, and City Lights is his loveliest film. Chaplin plays his trademark Little Tramp character, who falls in love with a blind flower girl (Virginia Cherrill), and becomes determined to finance an operation to restore her sight. Along the way he saves the life of a millionaire (Harry Myers), who considers the Tramp his best friend while drunk, but has no recollection of their friendship while sober. The farce of this situation is handled with terrific wit and brilliant physical comedy. But the most hilarious slapstick set piece doesn't feature the millionaire. It's the boxing match in which the Tramp repeatedly evades his opponent by maneuvering himself behind the referee. The comic edge of the film is heightened by Chaplin's inventive use of the soundtrack. The movie is silent only in the sense that there is no recorded dialogue. There are sound effects galore, and Chaplin plays them for delightfully humorous effect. The best aspect of the film is that the love story never gets lost. The screenplay, by Chaplin and an uncredited Harry Carr, deftly weaves it and the overtly comic material together. The final scene, in which the Tramp shifts from trepidation to joy in response to a question from the girl, may be the most beautiful moment in the history of movies. Chaplin composed and oversaw the recording of the film's score. The leitmotif that accompanies the flower girl is taken from the song "La Violeteria," by José Padilla. Roland Totheroh and Gordon Pollock provided the cinematography.

Short Take: Pandora's Box

The silent film Pandora's Box, starring Louise Brooks, is a great example of an actor taking a famous character and making it so completely their own that no one else is imaginable in the part. The character, Lulu, was the protagonist of a pair of popular German plays, Earth Angel and Pandora's Box, by Frank Wedekind. She is a free-spirited, promiscuous young woman who inevitably brings ruin to those who fall in love with her. The 22-year-old Brooks, a former Ziegfeld Follies dancer, was three years into a Hollywood career when Austrian filmmaker G. W. Pabst brought her to Berlin to make the film. She had a distinctive look: a lithe, athletic figure and, most famously, a carefully maintained Dutch-bob haircut that defined the "flapper" style for women of the period. She was also, as the film demonstrated, perhaps the most fluidly expressive performer to ever appear in movies. As Lulu, one sees her beauty, her graceful movements, and her spontaneous, flirtatious manner, and one immediately knows why the film's men (and one woman) are so smitten with her. The funniest moment is when the prosecutor at her murder trial has to fight his attraction to her while presenting his case. Brooks gives Lulu an innocent quality, but she's not entirely without guile. An unforgettable bit is the triumphant smirk Brooks wears when Lulu scandalizes a lover's fiancée into breaking off their engagement. But most impressively, Brooks makes Lulu's happy-go-lucky brazenness all of a piece with the forlorn air she has in the later scenes, when the character is turning tricks in a London slum. It's a marvelous performance, and deserving of its iconic status. G. W. Pabst gives Brooks a terrific stage. His style is generally described as German Expressionist, and he certainly has a penchant for design-conscious chiaroscuro lighting and slightly unreal sets. But he also maintains a naturalistic tone with the characters. The actors keep everything fairly understated, and never veer into hyperbole. In many ways, this is a silent dramatic film for people who as a rule dislike them. The cast also includes Fritz Gortner, Francis Lederer, Alice Roberts, and Carl Goetz. The art direction is credited to Andrej Andrejew and Gottlieb Hesch. Günther Krampf provided the cinematography. Pabst collaborated on the scenario with Ladislaus Vajda. The Criterion Collection DVD release gives a viewer four choices for the musical accompaniment. Peter Raben's "modern orchestral score" complements the film the best.

Friday, October 19, 2018

Short Take: Sherlock, Jr.

The silent comedy Sherlock, Jr. features actor-director Buster Keaton at his most magical. Keaton plays a movie projectionist with ambitions of becoming a detective. He's also in love with a local girl (Kathryn McGuire) whom he wants to marry. The latter hope is seemingly dashed after a rival suitor (Ward Crane) frames him for the theft of her father's pocket watch. Banished from her home, he returns to work, and falls asleep after starting up the night's picture. He dreams the girl, the rival, and the father have assumed the identities of the film's characters, and the rival has stolen a valuable family necklace. The projectionist then enters the film to become Sherlock, Jr., the world's greatest detective, and he solves the crime. The dream sequence, which takes up half the film's 44-minute running time, is as visually astonishing as films get. When the projectionist first enters the movie-within-the-movie, he confronts and interacts with a series of changing tableaux. The shifts and action are so immaculately staged and timed that they appear to be occurring in a single unbroken shot. The chase that caps the dream sequence may be the most dizzingly inventive and sleekly executed piece of extended slapstick ever. It begins on foot, with Sherlock escaping the villain's lair by jumping through a dress box, after which he's disguised in the clothing it contained, and then by jumping into an open suitcase, at which point he (briefly) disappears. Things continue with Sherlock riding the handlebars of a moving though (for the most part) driverless motorcycle, and then into a car with the girl, with pitfall after pitfall after pitfall narrowly and at times fantastically avoided. One can hardly believe what one is seeing. Keaton sets a standard only the finest comedy and action filmmakers have approached, much less achieved. The film's scenario was written by Clyde Bruckman, Jean Havez, and Joseph A. Mitchell. Byron Houck and Elgin Lessley provided the cinematography. Keaton is credited with the masterful editing.

Short Take: Citizen Kane

Orson Welles, at the absurdly young age of 25, produced, directed, co-wrote, and starred in Citizen Kane, widely considered the finest film ever made by an American. The picture begins with the death of a celebrity newspaper publisher (played by Welles). A reporter (William Alland) is tasked with finding the meaning of the publisher’s dying word. From various sources, he pieces together an intimate portrait of the man’s extraordinary life. It’s a forceful drama on first viewing, but what makes it so compulsively watchable with later ones is the exuberant wit and imagination with which it is crafted. Every element--the structuring of the scenes to end with comic and dramatic punchlines, the rich use of space in the staging, the cinematography’s gorgeous chiaroscuro and depth of field, the striking condensations of time through the editing, the detailed sound design--it's all thought out in terms of bravura effect, and the artful flamboyance is irresistible. To top it off, Welles, with his command of nuance, outsize presence, and terrific voice, is at least as compelling an actor as he is a filmmaker. The picture is a marvelous entertainment on every level. The fine cast also includes Joseph Cotten, Dorothy Comingore, George Colouris, Everett Sloane, Agnes Moorehead, Ruth Warrick, and Ray Collins. Herman J. Mankiewicz collaborated with Welles on the script. The cinematography is by Gregg Toland, and Robert Wise is credited with the editing. Van Nest Polglase designed the outstanding sets.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Short Take: The Maltese Falcon

The 1941 film version of The Maltese Falcon was Hollywood's third try at adapting Dashiell Hammett's 1930 novel. It was by far the best effort, and it has become the archetype of the private-detective thriller. It is still one of the most entertaining films from pre-World War II Hollywood. Humphrey Bogart plays Sam Spade, a San Francisco private detective who finds himself in the middle of the intrigues of a group of rival artifact smugglers. John Huston, who wrote the script and directed, was quite faithful to the book. It's not one a filmmaker would need to rework. Hammett's style is quite literal: straightforward action and dialogue, and nothing more. Huston brought what was needed, namely a lack of squeamishness about the rather misanthropic tone, and the recognition that a no-frills, fast-paced presentation--the cinematic equivalent of Hammett's prose--served the material best. The staging, camerawork, and editing are handled with remarkable precision. They serve the story so well that it almost seems to tell itself. The Spade character isn't softened. He's a smug, mercenary bully, and the mix of alertness, cynicism, and drive that Bogart gives him is just about perfect. The performance doesn't have the resonance of Bogart's best work elsewhere--there are no notes of melancholy--but he has never been more exciting to watch. Huston plays the supporting cast off him terrifically well. The characters all have their defining qualities--the pity-me duplicitousness of Mary Astor's femme fatale, the effeteness of Peter Lorre's Joel Cairo, Sydney Greenstreet's unctuous expansiveness as Casper Gutman--but the actors underplay, and it creates a striking and at times droll counterpoint with Spade's aggressiveness. The other players include Elisha Cook, Jr., Lee Patrick, and Gladys George. The cinematography is by Arthur Edeson. Adolph Deutsch provided the over-emphatic score.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Short Take: Casablanca

In some ways, Casablanca is the most confoundingly great movie of all. On the surface, it doesn't appear to be anything special. It's a wartime melodrama set in 1941 Morocco, when it was controlled by the Nazi-collaborating French Vichy government. An expatriate-American nightclub owner (Humphrey Bogart) has to decide whether to help a Czech resistance leader (Paul Henreid) and his wife (Ingrid Bergman) escape the city and the Nazis. His decision is complicated by his bitterness over a past affair with the wife, whom he still considers his one true love. The screenplay, credited to Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein, and Howard Koch, is well-structured, but the plotting isn't especially clever. While the filmmaking is skillful and lively, director Michael Curtiz doesn't have any particularly artful moments. The acting is solid, though largely conventional. It's no surprise that accounts of the film's production say no one involved thought the project was anything out of the ordinary. But a truism of the arts is that greatness often blindsides its makers. Casablanca, without meaning to, tapped into the 20th-century cultural zeitgeist more powerfully than perhaps any other film. The Bogart character fuses alienation--the major theme of 20th-century art and literature--with old-fashioned moral ideals to create a modern style of romantic heroism. The film acknowledges society is unjust, that people are unfairly victimized by circumstance, and that the temptation to turn inward is both powerful and understandable. But it also treats ideals as a source of redemption, and the most admirable quality is the savviness needed, in the face of corruption, to do the right thing. Humphrey Bogart didn't have a broad range as an actor. But this film did the most to make him Hollywood's greatest star. It's because his screen persona so completely embodied the world-weariness, intelligence, and determination needed for the film's new heroic paradigm. Bogart makes a viewer feel the nightclub owner's pain, but there's no doubt of how formidable the man is when it matters. Other key elements, such as Ingrid Bergman's lovely presence, and the nostalgic melancholy of the "As Time Goes By" theme song, all enhance a viewer's sense of the fellow's dilemmas. The film also has its lighter side. It draws a clear distinction between vice and evil, and Claude Rains' often comic performance as the police chief makes vice very entertaining indeed. A number of the script's famous lines--it has as many as one of the best Shakespeare plays--score off the chief's crookedness. The cast also includes Dooley Wilson, Conrad Veidt, Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet, Marcel Dalio, and Madeleine LeBeau. Max Steiner contributed the music, although "As Time Goes By" was composed by Herman Hupfeld. The cinematography is by Arthur Edeson. The script was based on the unproduced play Everyone Comes to Rick's, by Murray Burnett and Joan Allison.

Monday, October 15, 2018

Short Take: Meet Me in St. Louis

Meet Me in St. Louis, directed by Vincente Minnelli, is a charming movie musical, and one of the most visually exquisite films ever produced in Hollywood. The setting is St. Louis in 1903 and 1904, concluding with the World's Fair that spring. The film is a year in the life of an upper-middle-class family, seen mostly through the eyes of the second-oldest daughter (Judy Garland). There are two major story threads: the Garland character's interest in the boy next door (Tom Drake), and the family's trepidation over the plans to move to New York City after the father (Leon Ames) accepts a job transfer. As sentimental as the picture is, it is not sappy. Two sequences--the misadventures of the youngest daughter (Margaret O'Brien) on Halloween, and her Christmas Eve upset over the prospect of moving--have a greater emotional intensity than most Hollywood dramas. Vincente Minnelli's handling of the story's tonal complexities is strikingly assured, and his realization of the film's world is awe-inspiring. The rich color design and the lavish attention to period detail all but set the standard for other pictures. Judy Garland is a sweet presence, and she has some of her finest singing moments, with songs including "The Boy Next Door," "The Trolley Song," and most memorably, "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." The cast also features Mary Astor as the mother, Lucille Bremer as the eldest daughter, and Marjorie Main as the family maid. George J. Folsey is credited with the gorgeous cinematography, and the costumes are by Irene Sharaff. Cedric Gibbons, Lemuel Ayers, and Jack Martin Smith contributed the magnificent production design. The screenplay, credited to Irving Brecher and Fred F. Finklehoffe (there were several uncredited hands), is based on a memoir by Sally Benson. Most of the songs are by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Short Take: Children of Paradise

Children of Paradise, directed by Marcel Carné from a script by Jacques Prévert, is a triumph on many levels. It's a superbly realized evocation of 1830s Paris, a marvelous tribute to the theater of the period, and a haunting treatment of unrequited and semi-requited love. The main character is Garance (Arletty), a beautiful woman who drifts from man to man. Her suitors, all based on real-life figures, include the mobster Pierre Lacenaire (Marcel Herrand), the actor Frédérick Lemaître (Pierre Brasseur), the aristocratic Comte de Montray (Louis Salou), and the great mime Baptiste Deburau (Jean-Louis Barrault). If any could be said to be her true love, it is Deburau, but their happiness together may be the most fleeting. Jacques Prévert's script elegantly weaves the story of Garance's affairs and the men's careers together. His dialogue is beautifully written. It manages to be poetic, romantic, and down-to-earth all at once. Arletty imbues Garance with a quietly flirtatious worldliness that leaves no doubt as to why men are immediately smitten with her. Jean-Louis Barrault is even better. His mime-work as Deburau's signature Pierrot character is astonishing, and his performance off-stage is richly expressive--Deburau's thoughts and feelings seem to surround him like an aura. The rest of the cast, which also includes María Casarès, Pierre Renoir, and Étienne Decroux--is first-rate. Director Marcel Carné, working with production designer Alexandre Trauner and the costumer Mayo, does a magnificent job of recreating the historical setting. The 1830s Paris theater district, called the "Boulevard of Crime," is one of the most impressive outdoor sets in the history of movies, and Carné keeps it teeming with life. His staging of the various theatrical performances, along with their audiences, is superb, and the handling of the character drama is nuanced and note-perfect. The fine cinematography is by Roger Hubert and Philippe Agostini. Joseph Kosma provided the film's score. Maurice Thiriet, who received the on-screen credit, was the orchestrator. The Comte de Montray character, the only one of the suitors without a historical namesake, was inspired by the Duc Charles de Morny, an early sponsor of the actress Sarah Bernhardt.

Friday, October 12, 2018

Short Take: The Red Shoes

One may not immediately think of The Red Shoes, written and directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, as a film musical. There's no singing, and only one extended dance sequence. But it's hard to think of another picture that's had a bigger impact on the genre. It's also a great film regardless of categories. The story begins with a London ballet impresario (Anton Walbrook) hiring two up-and-coming talents for his company: a ballerina (Moira Shearer), and a composer/conductor (Marius Goring). He makes both of them stars with the company's treatment of the Hans Christian Andersen story "The Red Shoes," but they fall in love, and neither can maintain the obsessive, perfectionist focus he demands. Powell and Pressburger take a viewer right to the heart of artistic dedication veering into monomania, and the wrenching conflicts between professional ambition and the need for a fulfilling personal life. The film is also a compelling tribute to the ballet art form and the world of professional dance. The centerpiece, an 18-minute scene featuring the debut performance of "The Red Shoes" ballet, is among the finest production numbers in movie history. It's a poetic treatment of the film's themes, the imagery is hallucinatory, and it is breathtakingly danced by Shearer and the other performers. Shearer also handles herself well in the dramatic scenes, and she even holds her own with Walbrook, whose performance is a masterfully rendered portrait of ambitious determination and enigmatic self-containment. Every aspect of the production--including Jack Cardiff's color cinematography, Hein Heckroth and Arthur Lawson's sets, and Brian Easdale's score--is gorgeous. Robert Helpmann, who plays the ballet company's dance director, choreographed "The Red Shoes" dance sequence, and is featured as its boyfriend character. The screenplay is based on an unproduced script by Pressburger about the relationship between ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev and dancer Vaslav Nijinsky.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Short Take: The Third Man

The Third Man, directed by Carol Reed, may remind some of Alfred Hitchcock's work, but no Hitchcock film ever had this level of gravitas or resonance. The setting is Vienna in the aftermath of World War II. An American pulp writer (Joseph Cotten) travels there at the invitation of a college friend who has offered him a job. But the friend was killed shortly before the writer's arrival. At the funeral the writer is informed by British military officials that the friend was a racketeer. He becomes determined to clear the friend's name, and he discovers a world far more complex than anything he had crafted in his fiction. He finds evil isn't necessarily malicious. It's often opportunism unchecked by conscience, and ruthlessly pragmatic. Further, noble intentions can have horrible consequences, and there is usually no reward for doing the right thing. The screenplay, by novelist Graham Greene, strikes an elegant balance between the demands of a mystery-adventure story and his gritty, existential themes. Carol Reed handles the character and thriller elements exceptionally well, and he makes extraordinary use of the Vienna locations. The rubble-laden city is a potent visual analogue for the worldview of the script. The imagery is heightened by the atmospheric chiaroscuro of Robert Krasker's gorgeous black-and-white cinematography. The cast, which also includes Alida Valli, Trevor Howard, and Wilfred Hyde-White, is uniformly excellent. The stand-out is Orson Welles, who plays the film's villain. His sleek, urbane manner helps to create an unforgettably chilling portrait of cynical amorality. The memorable score, performed on a zither, is by Anton Karas.

Monday, October 8, 2018

Short Take: Summer Stock

Judy Garland and Gene Kelly had wonderful chemistry on-screen, and the combination with their outsize musical talents made them one of the most appealing movie duos. Summer Stock, the last of their three co-starring vehicles, is their best film together. The story is a romantic-comedy variation on the here's-a-barn-let's-put-on-a-show plot. Garland plays the young heir to a family farm, and devoted, against all odds, to making it a success. Her flighty sister (Gloria DeHaven) returns home with her new beau (Gene Kelly), an aspiring theater impresario. They've brought their troupe with them, with plans to stage a play in the barn. Garland's character reluctantly agrees, but on the condition the troupe serve as farm laborers for the season. As time passes, she's bitten by the performing bug, and she and Kelly's character fall in love. "You, Wonderful You" (sung by Kelly) and "Friendly Star" (by Garland) are among their best performed love songs, and "Portland Fancy" may be their most charming dance duet. But their solo routines are what dazzle the most. Garland's rendition of "Get Happy" is the most joyous song-and-dance set piece of her career. Kelly's dancing in the "You, Wonderful You" instrumental reprise is perhaps his finest screen moment. As the painter Kurt Schwitters incorporated objets trouvés in his pictures, Kelly makes use of bruits trouvés in his dancing. He plays the sounds of his dance-taps against those of a rustling newspaper and a creaky floorboard, orchestrating them with his characteristically bold movements into an astonishing cinematic collage of sounds, dance, and music. The scene goes beyond wit or artistry; it's magic. The cast also includes Phil Silvers, Marjorie Main, and Eddie Bracken. George Wells and Sy Gomberg are credited with the script, and Harry Warren and Mack Gordon wrote the songs. Charles Walters directed, and also staged the "Get Happy" number. ("Get Happy" was shot several months after the rest of production wrapped, and Garland is conspicuously thinner than in the rest of the film.) Gene Kelly choreographed "All for You," "Portland Fancy," and the "You, Wonderful You" reprise. The other production numbers were overseen by Nick Castle.

Short Take: Rashomon

Friedrich Nietzsche, in perhaps the greatest passage in his 1887 treatise On the Genealogy of Morals, called for what he described as a “more complete objectivity”: the more perspectives brought to bear on a subject, the more completely objective one’s understanding. The darker implications of the passage have had a powerful resonance. Truth is relative--a matter of perspective--and objective truth is therefore unknowable. Perceptions of reality are shaped by the viewer’s experiences, prejudices, and agendas. This philosophical notion was powerfully dramatized in Rashomon, directed by Akira Kurosawa. The setting is 11th-century Japan. During a rainstorm, three men take refuge in the ruins of a castle gate. The first two tell the third of a murder trial they watched. A bandit (Toshiro Mifune) raped a noblewoman (Machiko Kyo), and her husband (Masayuki Mori) was killed by a stab wound to the heart. The bandit, the woman, the dead man’s spirit, and a witness all provide accounts of what happened. However, none of the accounts agree. Further, each account paints the teller in the most self-serving terms, and the other principals are depicted as personifications of what appears to be each teller’s feelings of self-loathing. Kurosawa and co-scenarist Shinobu Hashimoto aren’t presenting a mystery melodrama. It’s impossible to tell from the accounts if the husband’s death was a suicide or a murder, and if the latter, who committed it. The only knowable thing, as the film presents it, is that human egotism and venality will always stand in the way of honesty and justice. It’s a despairing view of human nature, but the film ends on a hopeful note: redemption can be found in generosity and selflessness. Kurosawa’s direction is masterful. His treatment of each account is stylized in accord with the tone the teller strikes. The bandit’s version is portrayed in romantic action-adventure terms, while a soapy series of over-emphatic close-ups are used to render the woman’s histrionics. The husband’s story, centered on feelings of betrayal and disgrace, is given an austere, lonely ambience. The witness’s telling is blackly farcical slapstick. Kurosawa and cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa give the locations a distinctive look. The forest where the assault took place is an intricate weave of shadows and light, while the rain in the framing sequence is so vivid one can almost feel the water. The film is an unforgettable experience. Kurosawa and Hashimoto based the script on a pair of short stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa. Fumio Hayasaka is credited with the fine musical score.

Short Take: Singin' in the Rain

Singin’ in the Rain, directed by Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen, all but tops every other movie musical. The film is set in the late 1920s, during the transition from silent pictures to talkies. A star leading man (played by Kelly) has his dilemmas, almost all of them centered on the aggravations from his regular leading lady (Jean Hagen). He has to convert their latest picture to sound while somehow getting around her crass, grating voice. She also promotes the fiction that they’re a real-life couple, which creates multiple challenges when he falls in love with a talented bit player (Debbie Reynolds). Screenwriters Adolph Green and Betty Comden craft this affectionate satire of 1920s Hollywood into a terrific farce, and as good as the script is, it still takes a backseat to the musical numbers, which are among the finest in all of film. Gene Kelly triumphantly stakes his claim to being Hollywood’s greatest song-and-dance man. His romantic charm is on lovely display in the courtly “All I Do is Dream of You,” and his infectious pop exuberance is close to its peak in the “Broadway Melody” medley near the film’s end. Romantic charm and exuberance come together in his classic solo treatment of the title song. Donald O’Connor, who plays the Kelly character’s sidekick, can hold his own with Kelly’s graceful athleticism and masterful dance timing, and he’s a great clown besides. The two are a marvel to watch together in the “Fit as a Fiddle,” “Good Morning” and “Moses Supposes” set pieces. O’Connor’s solo number, “Make ‘Em Laugh,” may be the best sustained piece of slapstick wizardry ever. The standouts among the supporting players are Jean Hagen, who makes the haughty, vulgar leading lady a comic delight, and Cyd Charisse, whose balletic vamp in the “Broadway Melody” sequence is sexy, slinky perfection. The film’s only weak point is Debbie Reynolds. She has a fine pop singing voice, and a good sense of comic delivery. But she’s a mediocre dancer, and she doesn’t know how to get her body into her acting. As lively as she is above the neck, she’s stiff and inexpressive below it. That said, the picture is so gloriously entertaining one may not even notice. Harold Rosson provided the bold color cinematography, and the gorgeous production design is by Cedric Gibbons and Randall Duell. Walter Plunkett did the costumes. The songs, most of which first appeared in 1930s Hollywood musicals, are by Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown. Kelly and Stanley Donen choreographed all the production numbers.

Saturday, October 6, 2018

Short Take: The Band Wagon

The Band Wagon, directed by Vincente Minnelli, with song and dance numbers staged by Michael Kidd, is a delightful, grandly produced mix of backstage musical and romantic comedy. Fred Astaire plays a middle-aged former star of Hollywood musicals. He returns to New York, where a pair of playwright friends (Nanette Fabray and Oscar Levant) tell him of their newest effort, a musical-comedy stage play that could be a perfect comeback vehicle. But the director (Jack Buchanan) sees the play as a modernist reworking of Goethe's Faust. He transforms the light musical into a pompous spectacle. He also casts a rising-star ballerina (Cyd Charisse) as the female lead. Screenwriters Betty Comden and Adolph Green set up a hilarious clash between artistic pretension and popular-entertainment values--the latter win out--and the romantic comedy is built around the protagonists' proud devotion to their dance styles: him with tap and other pop hoofing, and her with the tonier ballet. They eventually realize they're not so far apart, and they gloriously rework the show after its doomed premiere. The most ambitious set piece is "Girl Hunt," a send-up of pulp-fiction private-detective stories. It features Astaire as the detective and Charisse as both the blonde and brunette femmes fatales. The narration is a clever parody of pulp prose ("She came at me in sections... more curves than a scenic railway"), and the only aspect that outdoes the terrific dancing of Astaire, Charisse, and the supporting players is the gorgeous color design of the outfits and sets. Even more impressive is "A Shine on Your Shoes," a slapstick-tap number set in an arcade, and featuring Astaire in a partial dance duet with Leroy Daniels as the shoeshine man. But the finest moment is "Dancing in the Dark," with Astaire and Charisse. The characters stroll through Central Park, and as the stroll becomes a dance, the two fall in love. Their blossoming rapport is beautifully rendered by the unisons and counterpoints in their movements. It is one of the most sublime dance numbers in all of film, and easily holds it own with the best of Astaire's celebrated work with Ginger Rogers. The other numbers include "By Myself," the surreal slapstick "Triplets," and two performances of "That's Entertainment!" The cinematography is by Harry Jackson, with contributions by the uncredited George J. Folsey. E. Preston Ames and Cedric Gibbons did the magnificent production design. The songs are by Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Short Take: Duck Amuck

The high point of cartoon animation may be the seven-minute Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies shorts produced by Warner Bros. between the late 1940s and the early 1960s. The characters--Bugs Bunny, Road Runner, Daffy Duck, and many others--had strong, sharply etched comic personalities, and the films, directed by Charles M. "Chuck" Jones and others, feature some of the most imaginative slapstick set pieces ever. Choosing the best one is a challenging task, but one of the obvious candidates is Duck Amuck, directed by Jones and featuring the high-strung, quick-tempered Daffy Duck. The story, credited to Michael Maltese, has a simple, straightforward conflict: Daffy versus the animator. All Daffy wants is some semblance of normality, but the animator (silent and unseen until the end) keeps arbitrarily changing things--the sets, the costumes, Daffy's appearance, and even his voice--all to Daffy's ever-mounting rage. The film is a hilarious slapstick dramatization of the formal aspects of picture construction and animated filmmaking. Additionally, it's a testament to the conceptual strength of the Daffy character. No matter how much his appearance and voice are altered, his personality is always unmistakable. And though the subtext is never emphasized, the material also functions as a wry parody of absurdist-existential narratives featuring an individual in conflict with a capricious God. The film is an extraordinarily artful and witty effort. The music is by Carl Stalling. Mel Blanc designed and performed the voice characterizations. Bugs Bunny, the most popular Warner Bros. character, has a cameo.

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Short Take: A Star Is Born (1954)

The 1954 version of A Star Is Born, directed by George Cukor, appears to have one overarching ambition: to establish Judy Garland as the greatest all-around performer in the history of movies. It succeeds, and then some. Garland plays an up-and-coming singer and actress who becomes romantically involved with a Hollywood leading man (James Mason). But as her career takes off, his goes into decline, and he descends further and further into alcoholism. Garland is fully up for the romantic-comedy tone of the first half, and she delivers an emotionally raw intensity that perfectly suits the second half's soapiness. But the glory of any Garland performance is the musical numbers, and these are a grand slam. Her sweet, rich, powerhouse voice has one of its best showcases with the torch song "The Man Who Got Away," performed in an early nightclub scene. There's the the seven-song medley "Born in a Trunk," a spectacular pastiche of the movie-musical set pieces of the period. The most charming number is the light, slapstick "Someone at Last," performed in the characters' living room after they are married. The most wrenching is "Lose That Long Face," where the film's music and melodrama collide. It's the showiest dramatic scene Garland has ever played. She's a dynamo, and James Mason must have been especially inspired, as the performance he turns in is perhaps the finest work of his career. He effortlessly conveys his character's matinee-idol charm, and he fully catches a viewer up in the fellow's self-destructive pathos. The two actors live up to the large scale of the production, and George Cukor brilliantly orchestrates every element. The performances, Gene Allen's production design, Sam Leavitt's color cinematography--oh, and everything else--are all superb, and all of a piece. The cast also includes Jack Carson, Charles Bickford, and Tommy Noonan. The songs outside of the "Born in a Trunk" medley are by Harold Arlen and Ira Gershwin. The screenplay, credited to Moss Hart (there were several uncredited hands), is based on the one for the original 1937 non-musical film, which was written by William Wellman, Robert Carson, Dorothy Parker, and Alan Campbell. There are two other film versions: a 1976 production, directed by Frank Pierson, with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson, and a 2018 one, starring Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga, directed by Cooper.