Other Dashiell Writings:

Flicks - April 2002
Male and Female
No Man of Her Own (1949)
Employees' Entrance
The Legend of
the Suram Fortress
Dersu Uzala

Family Matters
Monsoon Wedding
The Son's Room
For My Sister

Rites of Passage
Donnie Darko
Y Tu Mamá También
Monster's Ball

 

 

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 her.

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 portrayal convincing.

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
CineScene