Other Dashiell Writings:

Flicks - January 2009
The Great Moment (1944)
Love Affair (1939)
Destiny (1921)
Spring in a Small Town
Born to Kill (1947)

Che

Spare Change?
A Film Snob's Favorites of '08

 


WHY CHANGE YOUR WIFE?
(Cecil B. DeMille, 1920).

Gloria Swanson and Thomas Meighan play Beth and Robert Gordon, a married couple who have lost their spark. Beth wants to be respectable and highbrow, so she scorns her husband’s lack of culture and is always criticizing and trying to improve him. When he buys her a revealing negligee, she is mortified. The sales girl at the clothing shop (Bebe Daniels) has no such qualms, and Robert ends up divorcing his wife and marrying her. Later, Beth realizes she wants him back, undergoing a total makeover with glamorous clothes, hair style, etc. (here Swanson doffs her frumpy disguise and becomes her famous star persona) to lure him away from his new wife, who has turned into a bit of a nag herself.

This was one of a series of comedies about marriage that DeMille did with Swanson before he started making sword-and-sandal epics. But instead of his usual cornball scriptwriter, Jeanie Macpherson, he used Olga Printzlau to adapt a story by Sada Cowan and his brother William DeMille. The screenplay is therefore somewhat better, more genuinely lighthearted, than is usual in a DeMille comedy. The film depicts situations that would be familiar to most married couples, such as the wife constantly getting in the husband’s way in the bathroom while he’s trying to shave, and the husband’s clumsy attempts to help her button the back of her dress. Some of the dialogue from the intertitles is mildly amusing (“Remember the alimony!” says Swanson at one point). But the movie’s sexual politics haven’t worn well.

The onus is on the wife, for instance, to stay sexy and to be compliant with the husband’s wishes, but the husband is not assigned any such duty to be attractive—it’s enough that he’s the husband. Robert is a limited, passive character, and Meighan doesn’t project any excitement as an actor either. So we’re left wondering why Beth would care about him in the first place. The wife’s cultural interests are portrayed as silly and pretentious, and the husband’s simpler pleasures as endearing, so the deck is stacked against the wife, who is supposed to change in order to keep a man.

It’s remarkable how superficial the relationships in the film are depicted as being—attractiveness is identified with modern consumer goods and fashions. The supposedly glamorous negligee is actually rather appalling, and Swanson’s outfits in the latter part of the film are typically outrageous, but I suppose this was part of the new fantasy world being projected at the dawn of the Jazz Age. The picture’s message is that you shouldn’t give up being a sweetheart when you become a wife. At the time, few wondered what it might be like if men and women were equal partners. Why Change Your Wife? is a modest, tepid little comedy, a cut above the usual for DeMille, and watchable chiefly because of Swanson, who is vivacious here, and seems thoroughly at ease.

QUAI DES ORFÈVRES
(Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1947).

Marguerite (Suzy Delair) an aspiring music hall singer with the stage name of Jenny Lamour, flirts with everyone she can in order to get ahead, arousing the jealousy of her husband and piano accompanist Maurice (Bernard Blier), a sullen, morose songwriter. He reaches his limit when he discovers that Jenny has gone to the home of a lecherous old movie producer. Pistol in hand, he goes there himself, but finds the producer already dead.

Clouzot’s style was dark, and his views on society acerbic. His corrosive fable of fear and suspicion, The Raven, had touched a nerve, and it led to his being banned from directing, first by the Germans, and then by the postwar French movie industry. After the blacklist ended, he produced this little gem, which was less confrontational but still bears the marks of his peculiar style. It’s a vivid portrait of the lower regions of society in Paris after the liberation. The fascinating, seedy world of French music halls and cabarets, in which weary urbanites gathered in smoke-filled theaters to enjoy singing, rude comedy, and even animal acts, is the perfect setting for the furtive actions of the obsessed sad sack Maurice. It’s a tough life that Clouzot depicts, but not completely without hope—Jenny and Maurice really do love each other, after all.

The murder mystery element is, truth to tell, rather far-fetched, and Clouzot doesn’t put a lot of energy into it. It mainly serves as a device for the introduction of the film’s third major character, Inspector Antoine, played by French theatre legend Louis Jouvet. The unprepossessing Inspector, with his little mustache, bow tie, and hawk-like nose, is a relentless, cunning interrogator with a subtle wit, who says things like, “Shake my left hand; it’s closer to my heart.” We find out that he dotes on his mixed-race teenage son, his one gift from years in the Foreign Legion. Jouvet pretty much steals the picture. The film is at its best in his scenes, and in the claustrophobic police headquarters on the titular Paris street, where the chaotic goings-on provide a window into Paris’s sad urban underworld.

Also in the mix is Jenny’s friend Dora (the stunning Simone Renant), a photographer specializing in erotica. In her love for Jenny she goes so far as to try to conceal evidence—it’s the love that couldn’t speak its name, of course, at least not in 1947--but in one of the film’s most intriguing exchanges, Antoine makes the truth clear for those in the audience able to make the connection.

Quai des Orfèvres boasts shadowy, evocative black-and-white photography by Armand Thirard, and impeccable production design by the great Max Douy, whose credits included Renoir’s The Rules of the Game. But from Clouzot one must not expect an expansive poetic style—here as ever, ambivalence is the primary element in the director’s world view.

CHLOÉ IN THE AFTERNOON
(Eric Rohmer, 1972).

Frédéric (Bernard Verley) is a young lawyer in his third year of marriage to a college professor (Françoise Verley, no relation) who is now pregnant for the first time. Frédéric loves his wife and doesn’t want to spend his life with anyone else. At the same time, he finds himself attracted to almost every woman he sees. He knows that he’s restless and bored, knows that this will lead nowhere, yet continues to fantasize a lot about other women. Then he runs into an old friend, Chloé, played by popular model, singer, and hip 1960s French icon Zouzou. Chloé was the lover of one of Frédéric’s best friends. She’s something of a rebel and bohemian—smart, sexy, and engaging. They start to spend the afternoons together talking, mostly about Chloé’s troubled life. Gradually it becomes evident that Chloé is in love with Frédéric, and it seems almost inevitable that they will have an affair, but Frédéric has difficulty making the leap.

The romantic point of view has been the dominant one in movies since forever. Rohmer’s films are a notable exception. In his stories, self-centeredness is arguably the most prominent human characteristic, but instead of adopting a judgmental attitude towards this, Rohmer accepts it as a normal part of life, and then explores ways in which this aspect is challenged and (sometimes) overcome. The daydreamer Frédéric seems more than a bit callow, and his wife rather chilly, yet this doesn’t detract from the issues around relationships, fantasy, and fidelity that are raised—I would argue that it makes them seem more urgent, since Rohmer defies the comfort of conventional moralism and its heroes and heroines. A viewer with life experience will not be surprised that a man with a pregnant wife would suddenly get a roving eye, and be tempted to have an affair. The only surprise might be that the subject is dealt with so frankly in a movie.

It’s a shame that Zozou’s drug addiction prevented her from doing more after the 1970s. Here she gives vibrant and compelling life to the character of Chloé. What is tempting about Chloé for Frédéric is not that she’s sexually attractive, but that she’s such an interesting and adventurous person. The messy impulsiveness and imbalance of her character has a vivifying effect on Frédéric’s rather blasé inner life. She has her own motives for connecting with him, of course, but it’s a mistake to see her as some kind of manipulative femme fatale. She is a fully-rounded human being, complex and intriguing, and I even found myself rooting for her, vicariously experiencing Frédéric’s temptation. Admittedly, Rohmer puts his finger on the scale here: we don’t see enough of Frédéric’s wife Hélène to get a solid feeling for her character, so Chloé just seems much more interesting, but this is all part of the emotional web the film is weaving.

The style is typically spare and ascetic. Everything seems straightforward and matter-of-fact, even in an odd early sequence where Frédéric imagines possessing a magic amulet that would allow him to have his way with any woman. Rohmer doesn’t go for dramatic emphasis; he prefers a gentle approach in which the audience is allowed to make up its own mind about things. Néstor Almendros lends his soft and lovely palette to the photography. Of Rohmer’s so-called “Six Moral Tales” from the 60s and early 70s, this final one seems the most accomplished to me, and the quiet revelations of character seem most just.

HEARTS OF DARKNESS
(George Hickenlooper & Fax Bahr, 1991).

This is a documentary about the making of Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 Vietnam epic Apocalypse Now. Interviews with many of the principals are interwoven with documentary footage, deleted scenes and extended takes, and (most importantly) footage shot during the production by Eleanor Coppola, the director’s wife. After the blockbuster success of his Godfather pictures, Coppola set out to make the ultimate Vietnam film, using the story of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as a core element. It was an incredibly ambitious undertaking, and it ended up being plagued with bad luck. Harvey Keitel was fired from the lead role and replaced by Martin Sheen, who then had a heart attack, which halted production for a while. The Philippines shoot was interrupted by terrible weather, including a typhoon that destroyed hugely expensive sets. The Philippine government was erratic in its lending of helicopters to the project. Drinking and drugging by cast and crew slowed things down as well. Most crucially, Coppola’s own lack of clarity as to where the story was going took its toll, and the picture became a massive money pit in which the director ended up having to throw his own savings. It’s a miracle that the final product ended up as good as it is.

Hearts of Darkness is generally considered to be the first important “making of” film—the father of all the DVD featurettes that are now so ubiquitous. Unlike most of those, however, this film’s purpose is not promotional—its focus on the chaos and dysfunction of the project is unflinching. Eleanor Coppola’s interviews and other footage showing her husband’s agony and self-doubt, alternating with bluster and grandiosity, forms perhaps the most intimate portrait on film of a director in action. There is no denying the foolhardy aspects of the enterprise, and Coppola comes off as a bit of a nut in his public pronouncements, but the film’s details help you appreciate the immense difficulties he faced.

The capper to all the misfortune is the final arrival of Marlon Brando, overweight, unprepared, and ultimately uncooperative with what Coppola wanted to do. Brando comes off badly in this episode, which I can only guess was symptomatic of a very troubled period in his life. Watching the film clarified some of my own views on the relative flaws of Apocalypse Now—I’ve always been one of those who consider the Kurtz sequences at the end to be a failure, not up to the general excellence in quality of the rest of the movie. I have often remarked that Coppola seems to misunderstand Conrad’s story, drawing what I would consider a superficial conclusion from the character of Kurtz that is at odds with the story’s deeper significance. I still think so, but now I see that the idea might have worked if Coppola hadn’t made the mistake of hiring Brando to play Kurtz. Of course, Brando’s big marquee name was a sure-fire way of getting audiences to attend the film, and there was no way for Coppola to know that his star would fail to commit himself fully to the project. But to cast Brando as Kurtz was to automatically place too much importance on the Kurtz sequences, creating a dramatic imbalance. And throughout the film, Sheen’s voiceover keeps ratcheting up our expectations concerning the final encounter with Kurtz. Coppola would have had to come up with a really amazing ending to justify these expectations. He didn’t have one. But with a different actor as Kurtz, a good one (Gene Hackman?) who didn’t have the heavy aura surrounding Brando, and with less foreshadowing, the ending might have been suitably tragic and downbeat without the exaggerated and pretentious quality of the film we have. Oh well. Hearts of Darkness is a fascinating portrait of the perils that attended big-budget visionary filmmaking in that great bygone period.

JOURNEY INTO FEAR
(Norman Foster, 1943).

Joseph Cotten plays Howard Graham, an American armaments engineer on an advisory mission to the Turkish government. On a stopover in Istanbul with his wife, he is met by his company’s agent (Everett Sloane) who ends up taking him out on the town. Then, during a magic act at a nightclub, Graham narrowly escapes being assassinated. At the police station, Chief Inspector Haki (Orson Welles) tells him that the Nazis are behind the murder attempt, and that Graham needs to send his wife to safety and then take a tramp steamer to a safe haven in Baku, on the Caspian Sea. But once on the ship, Graham finds that the assassin has followed him there.

Welles produced the film as a kind of quick knock-off in order to fulfill his three-picture deal with RKO. The studio’s relationship with Welles had soured after Citizen Kane flopped at the box office (while inspiring unwanted controversy as well), leading to the troubles besetting Welles’ second film, The Magnificent Ambersons. It was to be a simpler affair: a spy thriller adapted from an Eric Ambler novel and co-written by Welles and Cotten. The showy, expressionist style has Welles’ fingerprints all over it, and the cast is stocked with Mercury Theater veterans (Cotten, Sloane, Ruth Warrick, Agnes Moorhead) and also stars Welles’ lover at the time, Dolores Del Rio, as a seductive mystery woman on the ship. There are conflicting versions of what happened; the most probable being that the studio brought in one of their directors, Norman Foster, to keep their errant bad boy in line.

If Foster really directed this film, he did a good job of imitating Welles’ style. There are some good macabre touches, notably the habitual playing of a scratchy old record by the weird, pudgy assassin (Jack Moss). The atmospheric cutting and camera movement are the opposite of the usual Hollywood “seamless” style. But it appears that someone went at the film wildly with a pair of scissors. It’s barely over an hour long, the story is jumbled and confusing, and some of the characters and scenes seem haphazard and tangential to the plot. Welles later claimed that the film was intended to be more intellectual but that the studio tried to make it into an action film. In the end this is a minor work, sometimes puzzling but never bad. The collection of oddball characters on the ship keeps the viewer off guard, and overall the movie is fast-paced and fun. I can understand, though, why Welles always denied that he directed any of it. It is only an entertainment, offering little to nothing in terms of ideas about life.


©2009 Chris Dashiell
CineScene