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
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
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
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
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
Chris Dashiell, 2001