Other Dashiell Writings:

Flicks - Febrary 2001
Xala
The Best Years of Our Lives
On the Waterfront
A Chinese Ghost Story
The Long Good Friday

Poem of Affliction
La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc

Sugar Blues
La Buche
Chocolat (2000)
Before Night Falls

 

 

THE SEA WOLF (Michael Curtiz, 1941)

Mysterious ship's captain Wolf Larsen (Edward G. Robinson) tyrannizes his passengers and crew. Curtiz, at the height of his powers, brings excellent visual acuity to this adaptation of the Jack London novel. The film's mood is dark - the director (and his DP, Sol Polito) alternate stark lighting with shadow and fog to maximum atmospheric effect. I wish Robert Rossen's screenplay had the same deftness, but the film is too talky by far. This is partly due to an overly reverential attitude towards the source. Without the narrative bulk achieved in the novel, London's philosophical concerns, his striving for big dramatic significance, seem overwrought and make the film top-heavy.

The acting also tends to the melodramatic, with John Garfield trying much too hard for big effects in his role as a rebellious crew member, Ida Lupino not faring much better as his love interest, and Barry Fitzgerald grating on the nerves as a motor-mouth stool pigeon. However, the picture boasts a very effective lead performance by Robinson, who manages to create a quite intriguing, complex character. At once frightening, pathetic, noble, and repulsive, Robinson keeps surprising you with unexpected and startling aspects of his character's tormented soul. Some of the best scenes involve a struggle of wits between the cruel skipper and a kind-hearted novelist played by Alexander Knox.

The Sea Wolf takes itself too seriously to succeed as well as it should. The plot is both confusing and hard to believe. But see it for Curtiz's visual poetry, and for the great Edward G.

ROMOLA (Henry King, 1924).

George Eliot's novel of the Renaissance was adapted to the screen in sumptuous fashion - shot in Italy on a massive set which reproduced the look of 15th century Florence in meticulous detail. The result is not really Eliot - not even close - but it is one of the more entertaining spectacles of the silent era.

Lillian Gish plays Romola, the idealistic daughter of an aged and noble scholar of Florence. She is loved by an artist (Ronald Colman) but her heart goes to a visiting noble named Tito (William Powell) who is actually an unscrupuloous, scheming pretender. Tito seduces a simple peasant girl (Dorothy Gish) while insinuating himself into a marriage with Romola, and a position of power on the city's ruling council.

The picture frequently suffers from that too common fault of silent films - lack of subtlety in the acting. The triumphant exception is William Powell, in his first major role. It is not commonly known that, for years prior to his emergence as a witty leading man, Powell played the "heavy" in numerous productions, often (as in this case) stealing the movie from the good guys. Powell does not overplay his hand as Tito. He is natural and contained, and the result is that his character is completely human and believable - a true climber and con man motivated by self interest, rather than a mere stage villain.

Dorothy Gish mugs embarrassingly, and generally overacts, but she does create some interesting physical mannerisms for her role as a naive girl, and at times even achieves genuine pathos. Oddly, the film's title role doesn't give her sister Lillian very much to do. The story also drags on too long, and the pall of melodrama tends to weigh things down, yet despite all of that the picture is more interesting and watchable than most Hollywood spectacles of the time. Credit is due to Henry King's talent for achieving a natural editing rhythm, the truly magnificent sets and costumes, and of course - William Powell.

INTIMATE LIGHTING (Ivan Passer, 1965).

This wry comedy of provincial life was one of the signature works of the Czech "New Wave." It concerns the director of a small town music school named Bambas (Karel Blasek), who is visited by Peter, an old musician friend (Zdenek Bezusek) from Prague, and his pretty mistress (Vera Kresadlova). The once-ambitious Bambas is now disillusioned, and occupied in the day-to-day vexations of home life - with wife, children and aged parents to take care of. During Peter's visit they go to a funeral - for which Bambas and his father play the music. Later they put together an impromptu string quartet and play Mozart (poorly) while the puzzled young mistress gets an education in country life from Bambas' wife and mother.

Instead of creating drama or portraying unusual situations, Passer focuses on the humor of the ordinary and routine. The film shows true affection and understanding for all its characters, even (and especially) in the midst of petty bickering and resentments. This is one of those films where nothing much happens, but we can recognize the universal in the banal. The contrast between the modern girl and the old-fashioned women plays to the advantage of both, because they each recognize the similarities underneath. Passer focuses on one character, and then another, amusingly frustrating our narrative expectations.The picture is then capped by a masterful extended sequence in which Bambas and Peter get drunk together after everyone else has gone to sleep. The things they say reveal, without being too explicit, what has been lost over time, and some of what has been gained.

How do the dreams of artistic triumph in youth measure up against the reality of adult responsibilities? Music, and a relaxed comic style that is akin to the rhythms of music, provides the background to this question, against which the characters' fumblings towards truth and connection appear pleasantly ridiculous - but not, in the end, without some dignity. Beautifully shot and acted, Intimate Lighting is a very rare thing for a comedy - a work of acceptance.

LA MARSEILLAISE (Jean Renoir, 1938).

Renoir's films were generally characterized by, among other things, a sense of intimacy and personal warmth. It would seem out of character for him to make an historical epic, with all of the sweep and pageanty associated with that genre. But that's just what he did with La Marseillaise, a commemoration of the French Revolution financed completely by trade union workers.

The picture follows a group of volunteers from Marseilles as they march north to Paris and join in the storming of the Tuileries in 1792. The idea was to show the Revolution from the common man's point of view - people occupied more with the exigencies of daily life than with the complexities of politics. Renoir's marvelous skill with the moving camera and graceful composition within the frame is much in evidence. The period detail is painstakingly true to life. Unfortunately, the Marseilles soldiers are more like stick figures than people. The character of Bomier, a plucky little everyman played by the rather unappealing Edmond Ardisson, verges on the condescending, with his crude humor and enthusiasm, like a parody of a working class role model. The film can't think of interesting things for these common folks to do or say, so they are reduced to debating the merits of the film's eponymous anthem. This weakness at the movie's heart does not completely ruin it - Renoir is too great a stylist for that - but it does reduce the film to a series of discrete episodes without much unity or dramatic thrust.

Ironically, the picture picks up interest whenever the story focuses on the aristocrats - particularly in the scenes involving the deliberations of Louis XVI, his queen, and advisors. The king is played by the director's brother, Pierre Renoir, and it's a beautifully modulated performance - amusing, sad, touching. It would seem that the director, despite his conscious intentions, is more interested in the losers of the great conflict, with all their follies, than in the winners.

La Marseillaise closes with an amazing set piece, in which Renoir proves that, along with all the other great things he was capable of, he could direct a big battle scene as well. The storming of the Tuileries is reenacted with tremendous dramatic impact. It is arguably the best simulation of the eighteenth century style of warfare ever filmed. The pre-battle tension is followed by explosive chaos and fear as the fighting shifts back and forth, and the sequence almost redeems the weakness of the film's earlier sections.

Although La Marseillaise was one of Renoir's favorites among his own works, an objective critic would have to rank it somewhere in the middle range of his achievements. The insight into human character, so important in his films, is only intermittently in evidence. However, with a subject as huge and intractable as the French Revolution, one can't help but admire the ambition of his attempt.

LOLITA (Stanley Kubrick, 1962).

Perhaps no film more pointedly illustrates the dilemmas involved in adapting literary fiction to the screen than Kubrick's Lolita. If you have read the Vladimir Nabokov novel, and are expecting a faithful adaptation, you are bound to be disappointed. It's not just that Lolita has been changed from a pre-teen to a very nubile teenager - a change which was probably necessary in order for the film to be made at all. Gone is the fascinating and sinuous voice of the book's narrator, Humbert Humbert, as well as the book's erotic charge and adroit sense of the dissonance between European mind and American energy. Despite the fact that Nabokov has full screenplay credit, this is really Lolita according to Stanley Kubrick.

Briefly, the plot concerns a professor who becomes obsessed with his stepdaughter. He establishes a relationship with her, but they live a life on the run, and eventually he is defeated by his own possessiveness and the machinations of an unknown antagonist.

Taken on its own terms, then, without comparison to its source, the film is interesting on several levels. Kubrick places the final confrontation between Humbert (James Mason) and his nemesis, Clare Quilty (Peter Sellers) at the beginning of the film, and then flashes back to the events leading up to this climax. This has the effect of darkening the story, even in its more comic moments, giving Humbert's obsession with Lolita a fatalistic quality, like an inevitable descent into hell. Kubrick also uses the central relationship of Humbert and Lolita to satirize both American culture and intellectual pretension - the distinguished and well-mannered Englishman is brought to his knees by a gum-snapping American teenager.

The first half of the picture has a great deal of comic brio, fueled especially by Shelley Winters as Charlotte Haze, the woman Humbert marries, even though he despises her, just so he can be near her daughter Lolita. This is perhaps Winters' best film work. She's deliciously funny without descending to a cartoon level, allowing us to see the pain and the need even while we're laughing. The film's second half becomes more ominous. Humbert's increasing jealousy, his inability to trust Lolita, plays out against the background of pursuit by a shape-shifting writer and trickster named Quilty, who is out to get Lolita for himself. Quilty is a sort of double for Humbert, a relentless force without conscience who toys with the professor like a cat with a mouse. Sellers plays the part with maniacal intensity - it's a fierce, almost overpowering performance, more frightening than funny. The character brings a bizarre, surrealistic quality to the picture that was a foretaste of things to come in future Kubrick productions.

At the center is Mason, an actor of integrity who gives it everything he's got but doesn't quite hit the mark. It's hard to say whether he's not up to the demands of the role, or (as I'm inclined to think) the part itself isn't developed fully enough. He portrays frustration very well, but only at the end does the passion come through convincingly.

For the title role Kubrick chose a 15-year old newcomer named Sue Lyon. Sometimes, in her more matter-of-fact moments, she is quite affecting. At other times her delivery is at odds with her character. It would certainly be a difficult debut for any actress. To her credit, the sadness and strangeness of the whole affair comes through very well in her tragicomic last scene with Mason, when the film achieves a potent mixture of irony and regret.

Lolita has a beautiful, distinctive visual sheen. The screenplay has its share of memorable lines. In mood and in point of view it stands apart from other films of its time. Yet I can't really count it a complete success. Kubrick fails to bring the material together into a convincing whole. Moments of interest are followed by exasperating longeurs. Still, it's the kind of a movie you think about for days after seeing it. The seemingly inchoate elements have a visceral impact that I can't adequatley explain. For all its flaws, it represents a breakthrough of sorts, and a declaration of independence, by one of the century's most interesting directors.

Chris Dashiell, 2001