A PLACE IN THE SUN (George Stevens, 1951).
Montgomery Clift plays George Eastman, the poor relative of a rich
family, who is given a job at his wealthy uncle's factory. Lonely and
isolated, he secretly violates company policy by having an affair with
a co-worker named Alice (Shelley Winters). When his uncle starts to
move him up in the company, George falls in love with the beautiful
socialite Angela Vickers (Elizabeth Taylor). But his dreams threaten
to collapse when Alice tells him she's pregnant.
Stevens' fine spatial sense, and his subtle use of shadow and sound
to evoke the tensions of the main character, lends the picture a quiet
but powerful emotional impact. Clift, always an actor of moody inwardness,
centers the film with his haunted stare and vulnerable, on-the-edge
delivery. His chemistry with Taylor is marvelous, and her performance
is among her best - her sensitivity overcoming the limitations of her
status as a glamour icon. Still, although A Place in the Sun
is often memorable, it's not a profound or deeply meaningful work, and
this has a lot to do with the nature of the source material.
The story was adapted from Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy,
a gut-check of a novel about the crushing effect of the class system
on the human spirit. This version, by focusing on a love story between
the main character and the rich girl, instead of the novel's theme of
the protagonist's blind struggle to rise out of his lowly social position
at all costs, mutes Dreiser's message about the shallowness and injustice
of American life to the point where it is practically invisible. It
seems almost coincidental that George is torn between his working class
origins and the possibility of being a part of a monied aristocracy.
Instead, what counts here is that he loves Elizabeth Taylor and doesn't
love Shelley Winters. On top of all this, Taylor's character is portrayed
as an incredibly passionate, loyal, and understanding woman. So the
main character's conflict becomes more of a traditional triangle story
than the complex, fatal web that Dreiser weaved.
Even if you know nothing about the book, this subtle avoidance of difficult
issues concerning class diminishes the film's impact, beause the residue
of these themes remains as an undertone, contradicting the movie's romanticism.
Nevertheless, the picture is good at building tension, and it has a
trapped, doomed feeling about it that can really grab you.
FAITHLESS (Harry Beaumont, 1932).
A spoiled rich girl (Tallulah Bankhead) falls for a handsome advertising
man (Robert Montgomery), but their engagement is a stormy one. He wants
to move to Chicago to a new job, and support her by working. She wants
to go to Monte Carlo and live in luxury. They break up, and then she
loses everything in the Depression. They still love each other, but
further trials await them.
On the face of it, the story falls into the "independent woman gets
her comeuppance" category, a tiresome and all-too-prevalent genre in
1930s Hollywood movies. But Faithless breaks the mold by letting
its heroine be intelligent and sympathetic, and with some refreshing
surprises in its third act.
Bankhead was a famous Broadway star who never quite caught on in films.
Although she was notorious for her wicked wit and bitchy persona, she
was a versatile actress, and here she shows some range. Montgomery,
a most underrated actor, really shines here, in a lead role that lets
him step out of his typecasting as a light charmer and do some serious
drama. The picture doesn't pretend to be more than it is, and Beaumont
was never more than a competent director, but Faithless is a
diverting pre-Code morsel, and a good example of how even middle-level
MGM product often showed superior quality.
THE MOTHER AND THE WHORE
(Jean Eustache, 1973).
Alexandre (Jean-Pierre Léaud) is a young Paris intellectual,
feeling lost after his girlfriend has left him. Marie (Bernadette Lafont),
a boutique owner who is a few years older than Alexandre, supports him
and lets him live at her place. They are lovers, but he sleeps around
with other women too. He meets and becomes intrigued by Veronika (Françoise
Lebrun), who turns out to be even more promiscious than he is. Veronika's
intrusion into the Alexandre-Marie relationship has unexpected consequences
for all three of them.
Eustache gives his characters dimension by allowing us to observe them
behaving during stretches of real time, mostly in conversations with
one another at cafes, restaurants, or at home. Remarkably for a film
that is over three and a half hours long, this presentation of life
as lived "in the moment" is consistently absorbing. By resisting the
typology that tends to flatten things even in the most inventive dramas,
Eustache recreates the uniqueness of each particular character, with
all his or her limitations and defects, while refraining from jumping
to any hasty conclusions.
Léaud does arguably his best work here - his character is glib
and infuriatingly pretentious, yet Léaud brings out the complexity,
and the inner dilemma that underlies Alexandre's attitudes. The film's
title spells it out - the young man depends on the idea of woman as
mother (the nurturing and understanding Marie) for his emotional stability,
while turning to the idea of woman as whore (Veronika) for erotic satisfaction.
But this dichotomy is unsatisfying, and only reinforces his self-involvement,
because it's simply a projection. The actions of the women make this
more and more evident, until at the end of the film, he can no longer
ignore the contradictions involved in his chauvinistic attitudes towards
The female viewpoint continually intrudes on the traditional male-centered
stance in this film, until the fact that is being denied - female subjectivity
- can be repressed no longer. Veronika has internalized the same mother/whore
dichotomy. In a lengthy monologue towards the end of the film, she reveals
her anger and despair. Lebrun's performance is versatile and quite raw.
The opacity of her character's motivations gradually recedes, and the
result is bracing, and a bit shocking.
These multiple meanings of The Mother and the Whore reveal themselves
upon reflection, experienced between the lines, as it were, of the naturalistic
style. Few films are this good at exploring the many guises of conversation,
from the most elevated and visonary to the most banal. Eustache seems
to have been resisting the New Wave craze for enhanced mise-en-scene
- he uses a lot of discrete medium shots and close-ups, not moving the
camera very often, and avoiding stylistic flourishes in favor of a very
basic concentration on the voices and actions of the characters.
The picture caused quite a sensation when it was released, winning
prizes at Cannes and spurring critical debate. The Mother and the
Whore is about, among other things, how the "sexual liberation"
of the 1960s did not lead to liberation, but only reinforced the same
old tendencies - misogyny and objectification. But Eustache was not
advocating puritanism, or a return to "traditional" sexual mores. The
film, with its frankness about sex and its non-judgmental stance towards
its characters, is actually about honesty, and how the lack of it, both
with self and others, keeps people revolving endlessly in patterns of
non-awareness. As a portrait of the generation coming to adulthood in
the early 70s, it is very much of that particular time, yet it remains
relevant to our time through its rigorous search for personal truth,
undeterred by reservation or obstacle.
THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER
(Jean Epstein, 1928).
Epstein was among the first of the French avant-garde filmmakers, dedicated
to exploring the visual, as opposed to the merely narrative, aspects
of the medium. After a string of influential impressionistic works,
he tried his hand at independent commerical filmmaking, using symbolist
ideas and techniques. This adaptation of the Edgar Allan Poe story (which
also includes elements from the same writer's The Oval Portrait)
represents the climax of this phase of Epstein's career.
Roderick Usher (Jean Debucourt) is visited by his old friend Allan
(Charles Lamy) during a peculiar crisis in his marriage. While painting
a portrait of his wife Madeleine (Marguerite Gance), her vitality seems
to drain out of her as the painting gains in beauty. But Usher continues
to paint the portrait, and Madeleine ends up falling to the floor dead.
In an especially eerie sequence, her body is entombed in the Usher vault
on a lonely island nearby. But then, strange things begin to happen...
As might be expected from a director with his aesthetic concerns, Epstein
is less successful at telling a good story than at evoking moods with
his visual effects and strategies. The scenes are drawn out too long,
the acting is exaggerated (Lamy being particularly inept in his role),
and the plot is even a bit hard to follow at times. If you're looking
for a well-told, scary tale in the traditional sense, look elsewhere.
What Epstein does very well is create dreamlike effects on screen,
more sophisticated than anything done before, and in some respects never
surpassed since. He makes the wind blowing through curtains, or the
lightning flashing outside the castle, seem truly, uncannily otherworldly.
Using slow motion, multiple exposures, variable lighting, and slow tracking
shots, the film attains the quality of tangible nightmare and hallucination.
I could imagine these techniques, combined with a subtler, more advanced
narrative method than Epstein was able to muster, actually scaring the
wits out of me.
The Fall of the House of Usher was a major influence on Jean
Cocteau, and traces of its style can be seen in the Universal horror
films of the '30s, and in later works of that genre. It's worth seeing,
despite its shortcomings, as a great example of early visionary invention
outside of the mainstream.
SHOW PEOPLE (King Vidor, 1928).
Marion Davies plays Peggy Pepper, a naive girl who comes to Hollywood
to be a star, thinking it will be easy, and instead discovering that
tinseltown is not as friendly to newcomers as she thought it would be.
She meets an aspiring bit player (William Haines), who gets her a small
part in a movie at his studio, but instead of the dramatic role she
expects, she gets soda water squirted in her face. After the shock wears
off, she agrees to do comedy at this studio (modeled on, and in fact
shot at, Mack Sennett's Keystone) and becomes famous. Drafted into a
bigger studio to do romantic roles, she lets stardom go to her head,
changing her name to Patricia Pepoire, becoming engaged to a posturing
co-star (Paul Ralli) and generally denying her humble origins.
Hollywood poking fun at itself is not always a guarantee against tedium,
but in this case the result is a great deal of fun. The story is bright
and funny, and Vidor moves things along at a good clip. Most of the
credit, though, goes to Davies, an actress who spent most of her career
in costume dramas and romances, here showing her considerable flair
for comedy. The facial contortions her character puts on when she tries
to "act" are a scream - when Peggy becomes a glamour queen, Davies shapes
her mouth into a grotesquely clenched, Swanson-like oval that had me
rolling. (In fact, the character's career seems to be a parody of Gloria
Swanson's.) Another highlight is a scene in which a director tries to
get her to cry on cue, with a violinist playing "Hearts and Flowers,"
a man peeling an onion nearby, and the director coming up with one lugubrious
scenario after another in an attempt to force some tears out of her.
Made when silent movies were already doomed by the advent of sound,
Show People is something of a final tribute to the Hollywood
of that time. It features cameos from Chaplin, Fairbanks, William S.
Hart, Elinor Glyn, and many others. It also provides a fascinating glimpse
of the studio environment in the late 20s. It looks like it was great
fun to make, and today it's still fun to watch.
©2003 Chris Dashiell