THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE
(Robert Siodmak, 1946).
In a small town in 1916, a madman is murdering handicapped women. Helen
(Dorothy McGuire), a mute who lives as a servant to an invalid (Ethel
Barrymore) in an old mansion, is afraid that she'll be next.
The film mixes gothic horror elements with the serial killer theme
popularized by Hitchcock. Audiences screamed in terror, and the picture
has retained something of a critical reputation, but what I saw, I'm
sorry to say, was a stinker.
Siodmak does display great skill with his editing and shadowy visual
style, which he put to better use in his crime thrillers. I wish he
had found time to restrain the actors - Barrymore hams it up terribly,
and George Brent (as her son) supplies the mustard. Rhonda Fleming is
on hand, along with several other underachievers, and everyone telegraphs
their emotions as if the movie itself was made in 1916. The script is
an embarrassing mishmash of laughable motivation and utterly improbable
plot developments - with the longest thunderstorm in history raging
outside the scary old house, the only diversion is trying to guess which
one of the boring characters is the killer. The constant intrusion of
spooky music telling us that we should be really frightened achieves
overkill long before the end of the film's running time. Brief moments
of diversion from Elsa Lanchester, in a small part as a tipsy servant,
and the evocative set design from the RKO art department, aren't enough
to save this turkey.
I suppose the bag of tricks that were pulled out for The Spiral
Staircase - such as the close-ups of the unknown killer's insane
eyes - represented something new to the audiences that flocked to see
it. Time has made these techniques seem old hat, but even if we make
such allowances, the movie is overbaked, lacking the sense of style
of, for example, the Universal horror movies of a decade earlier. Rarely
have I been so disappointed in an older film that has been written about
in such glowing terms. If you value your time, avoid this one.
ON THE TOWN
(Stanley Donen & Gene Kelly, 1949).
Arthur Freed, MGM's great musical producer, gave Donen and Kelly their
first chance at directing in this adaptation of a hit musical. It's
about three sailors (Kelly, Frank Sinatra, and Jules Munshin) on shore
leave for one day in New York. Kelly sees a subway ad featuring "Miss
Turnstiles" (Vera-Ellen), falls for her, and then spends much of the
day looking for her. Sinatra hooks up with a sassy cabdriver (Betty
Garrett) and Munshin with an anthropologist (Ann Miller). Of course
it's all an excuse for various song and dance numbers.
Freed decided that most of the songs - music by Leonard Bernstein,
lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green - were too offbeat for a mass
audience, so he had veteran Metro tunesmith Roger Edens write new ones.
Such were the times - exemplified by "it's a helluva town" in the "New
York, New York" number becoming "it's a wonderful town." It's too bad,
really, because the songs that were cut are better than the new ones,
and the numbers that were kept - "New York, New York," "Come Up To My
Place" (Sinatra and Garrett), and the delightfully funny "Miss Turnstiles
Ballet" are among the film's high points. Yet, despite this handicap,
the directors created a film of great charm and exuberance, one of the
very best postwar musicals.
Most of it was shot in the studio, but they managed to get in some
excellent location shooting, especially in "New York, New York," the
number that starts the film. This dazzling bit of virtuosity shows the
trio of Kelly, Sinatra, and Munshin singing the song at different city
landmarks - the sequence beautifully times its jump cuts with the movements
of the actors and the song's rhythm, and features a breathtaking 360-degree
pan atop the RCA building, followed by a sudden tilt down to the sidewalk.
Nothing could ever beat this opening, but there are still some marvelous
moments, such as the "Prehistoric Man" number in the Museum of Natural
History (Ann Miller, to whom I'm usually allergic, is great here) and
the title tune on top of the Empire State Building.
A couple of the Eden songs cross the line from fun to dumb, and there's
a subplot with Alice Pearce as Garrett's homely roommate that I find
insulting. But Kelly is in top form, the underappreciated Garrett is
a joy, and overall you could hardly ask for a more entertaining romp
than On the Town. The Kelly-Donen team would top themselves three
years later with Singin' in the Rain.
LES BONNES FEMMES
(Claude Chabrol, 1960).
Chabrol's fourth feature, a box office failure at the time, follows
four young women, who work together in a Paris shop, as they seek to
have fun and to escape from the boredom of their lives. Brash and mischievous
Jane (Bernadette Lafont) is picked up by a couple of lechers in the
movie's deft, lengthy opening sequence. There is never a doubt of her
ability to fend them off. The reserved Jacqueline (Clotilde Joano) is
being followed by a mysterious man on a motorcyle, to whom she feels
a strange attachment. The beautiful Ginette (Stéphane Audran)
is concealing her second job as a music hall singer from her friends.
The seemingly calm Rita (Lucile Saint-Simon) is engaged to a man who
seems more concerned with pleasing his uptight parents than with loving
Chabrol follows their actions with an extremely controlled, somewhat
distant visual style. The "slice of life" approach to narrative gives
the film a beguiling air, as if we were casual eavesdroppers, feeling
a bit guilty about what we see, but unable to stop watching. Of the
four actresses, Lafont practically steals the show. She conveys a recklessness,
an amoral glee in the pursuit of fun in any form, that makes her seem
like a force of nature. All the men in the film appear, in stark contrast
to the women, to be figures of contempt. As it turns out, Chabrol is
mounting a rather bitter attack on the idea of romance, which is seen
not only as an illusion, but a dangerous one. Throughout the apparent
formlessness of the narrative, a growing sense of disillusionment and
menace leads us to a climax that, although it might seem predictable
nowadays, was something new in 1960. Les Bonnes Femmes is an
impressive achievement - subtly disorienting in its strategies, chilling
in its vision of male-female relationships.
THE SERVANT (Joseph Losey, 1963).
Tony (James Fox), a rich, callow young Englishman, buys a London mansion
and hires a manservant named Barrett (Dirk Bogarde), whose overly attentive
manner gets on the nerves of Tony's fiancee (Wendy Craig). After Barrett
brings in his supposed sister Vera (Sarah Miles) and persuades Tony
to hire her as a cook, a complex game ensues in which the servant turns
the tables on his master.
The movie was adapted from a Robin Maugham novel by Harold Pinter,
and it has the flavor of a Pinter play through and through - the clipped,
elusive dialogue, suspense giving way to grotesque comedy, all of it
portraying, through the most indirect means, the raw dynamics of power
and domination. This was the first of the American expatriate Losey's
three films with Pinter - the styles of the two men were well matched.
Most of the film takes place within Tony's house. Losey starts with
a very smooth style, with longish takes and tracking shots. As developments
become more bizarre, the style becomes increasingly jagged, with more
cuts and strange camera angles and effects. The black and white photography
(Douglas Slocombe) is stunningly crisp - the visual texture matches
the story's cold point of view. The house itself takes on a labyrinthian
quality, like the servant's elaborate trap for the master.
Although it's been taken for a satire on the British class system,
The Servant is a psychological study rather than a social drama.
It attacks the very idea of "service" as a symptom of a sort of mental
disorder - Barrett's desire for power and Tony's desire to submit are
equally unhealthy. Both exhibit an inability to do anything meaningful
in the world outside of the insulated realm of the house. Those looking
for an affirmative message about human nature would be advised to watch
another movie - Losey and Pinter have only the darkest view of the social
roles by which people usually interact.
The performances are excellent, but best of all is Bogarde in the title
role - his shift from inscrutable correctness to open resentment and
then to a kind of bitchy familiarity is both compelling and hilarious.
He was already a star, but The Servant confirmed that he was
a great actor.
DAVID COPPERFIELD (George Cukor, 1935).
Filming a classic is always a perilous undertaking. The movie will
never be as good as the original, and if a director tries to do too
much, it can be bewildering for a viewer who hasn't read the book. George
Cukor's version of the great Dickens novel, made under the auspices
of Metro producer David Selznick, is one of the finest efforts of this
kind. It succeeds because it reveres the source material, yet is modest
enough to evoke the novel's essential feeling without trying to be exhaustive
in its treatment.
Always a subtle director of actors, Cukor is helped by superb casting.
Freddie Batholomew, a most sensitive child performer, plays David as
a boy. It's without a doubt his best work, giving the point of view
character a freshness and vulnerability that makes him believable and
brings out the best in the other actors. Edna May Oliver shines as the
cross Aunt Betsey, as does Jessie Ralph as Peggotty. Roland Young is
a perfect Uriah Heep - it's rare that an actor matches one's imagination
exactly, but he does. And the casting of W.C. Fields as Mr. Micawber
was a brilliant stroke. Although Fields' American accent sticks out,
his delivery of Micawber's complex locutions is amusing indeed, and
he manages to restrain his vaudevillian tendencies enough to make the
Most of all, the production, with its superb photography (Oliver Marsh),
and design (Cedric Gibbons), along with the director's sure hand, captures
the feeling of a reader's cherished memory of the book. Seeing it again
after many years, I realized that I love the film not only on its own
terms, but as a way of revisiting a novel, experiencing its charm again,
without having to reread it. Of course, huge chunks of the book have
been sacrificed in order to make a two-hour movie: Traddles is missing,
and Rosa Dartle, to mention only two examples. In addition, the first
part of the film, dealing with David's boyhood, seems richer and more
carefully paced. Once he grows up (and Bartholomew is replaced by the
less appealing Frank Lawton) things start to seem a bit rushed, as the
film tries to squeeze as much of the narrative in as it can.
Still, the picture is beautiful, satisfying, and tasteful, in the best
sense. The final shots of Ham and Steerforth at the end of the storm
scene, for instance, are done without words. A lesser director would
have David saying something, or would feel the need to underline the
tragic irony in some way. But Cukor was an artist of rare virtues -
one of which was restraint.
©2002 Chris Dashiell