You have a solid noir set-up: Guy walks into the homicide division of a police station to report a murder - his own - then details his pursuit of the unknown and mysteriously motivated poisoner. You have talent behind the camera in the person of Rudolph Maté, who worked as a cinematographer on such films as The Passion of Joan of Arc, Prix de Beauté, Dodsworth, Foreign Correspondent, To Be Or Not To Be, and Gilda, not to mention Charlie Chan's Secret. And for your noir star you have Edmond O'Brien, whose connection with The Killers is enough to recommend him. This sounds awesome! But something goes terribly wrong. Well, "terrible" in relation to expectations anyway. First of all, what happened to low key lighting, huh? How can you possibly tell this story without shadows? or depth? or texture? I mean, sure, (slim) Edmond O'Brien can be bland at times, but you don't need to compromise the look of the film to match. (Come to think of it, was Gilda so much different?) And then there's Dimitri Tiomkin's ridiculous bright and absurd score, from the musical "whi-whoo"s every time a pretty girl catches our hero's eye, to the bombastic finale. It's all so wrong. And, for once, the absurd number of twists and turns work against the tale, stupidly shifting the focus from our protagonist, who knows that every minute he moves that much closer to death, to less interesting motivations of the hardly compelling antagonists. All in all, a narrative sharply at odds with its presentation, which would be entertaining if it weren't so damned disappointing.
PELLE THE CONQUEROR (Bille August, 1987)
This Oscar-winning foreign film depicts the struggle of a Swedish father and son who emigrate to Denmark in search of a better life. Working on a farm practically as slaves, life in Denmark turns out to be less pleasant than hoped. The pastoral scenes are nicely filmed and well acted (especially by Max von Sydow as the weak-willed father), but it doesn't really add up to much. Adapted from a multi-part epic novel, the focus is perhaps too broad, with too many peripheral characters distracting from the father-son relationship. Pelle is thus very novelistic in feel, but in transposing images from page to film, the culmination of meaning has been more or less obscured.
Dirk Borgarde narrates this BBC documentary that examines Alexander Korda's attempt to produce a film version of Robert Graves' books I, Claudius and Claudius the God in 1937. Featuring interviews with Graves, director Josef von Sternberg, and stars Merle Oberon and Emlyn Williams (and the script girl), and footage from the thirty days of filming (before Merle Oberon's car accident forced an end to the project), the film has much to recommend itself.. As a documentary, it's a bit awkward at times, with interviewees providing seemingly scripted segues and moving across rooms in obviously rehearsed ways (quite detrimental to credibility), but the behind-the-scenes reminiscences are colorful enough, especially when discussing Charles Laughton's temperament and his struggle to find the character of Claudius. The real prize here is the footage, which seems quite hit-or-miss. Having just watched countless hours of Derek Jacobi as Claudius, it was difficult for me to accept another interpretation; but Laughton's performance began to grow on me, despite seeming a bit inconsistent, so that, by the end, I really wanted to see the rest of this nonexistent film. Also great to see a shot of Sternberg showing up to direct wearing riding boots, a vest, and a silk turban of sorts (with that mustache, he looked very grunge), but I was strangely disconcerted when the film opened and closed with "Thus Spake Zarathustra" (I had to remind myself that this was three years before Kubrick's use of it). The I, Claudius miniseries, by the way, is quite entertaining, due almost entirely to the pleasure of watching the performances of Jacobi, Sian Phillips, and Brian Blessed. John Hurt (as Caligula) just freaked me out.
Tthe original Sam Wood version of Chips, starring Robert Donat, is one of my favorite films, which explains why I put off watching this remake for so long - there being nowhere to go but down. But, turning on TCM one afternoon and seeing that this movie was just about to begin, perverse curiosity got the better of me. Peter O'Toole is quite good. I accepted him as Chipping and, to my surprise, did not begrudge him his resulting Oscar nomination. When I saw Terence Rattigan's name in the credits, I began to think this could actual turn out quite well, as I quite enjoy The Browning Version. But, to my mild consternation, Rattigan seemed to be making some very interesting adaptation choices. For instance, he takes this beautifully simple story (whether from the original film version or from James Hilton's novel) of a teacher's love for his students, and the manner in which that love is affected by his love for a woman, his new wife - and distills it to a heretofore unknown essence: the love story between a man who just happens to be a teacher and a woman (Petula Clark) who, for reasons yet unknown, just happens to be a singer (the students receding far, far into the background). And not just any love story, but a love story with epic pretensions! Okay, so that's disappointing to me, being as I had no problems with the original focus; but who knows? Maybe there's a somewhat separate but equally good story to be told here. That, however, I will never know. Because in the middle of this film, for some reason, the teacher and the singer began, well, singing ...singing songs detailing the progress of their developing relationship (oh, that's why she's a singer). Yes, so at various intervals, we are treated - yes, treated! - to montages of the two lovers continuing their epic romance accompanied by their plaintive voices singing about the situation (the songs are mostly done in voice-over mind you). Now, being generous, I suppose that there's some way that this could work. That is, if the songs (by Leslie Bricusse) weren't so god-bloody-awful. Wholly unmemorable, with utterly banal lyrics, all sang in the rare key of saccharine melancholia. Well, let's just say that this abomination, together with other needless and practically irreverent changes to the story, certainly satisfied my perverse curiosity.
UNFAITHFULLY YOURS (Preston Sturges, 1948)
I knew Preston Sturges was, in a word, supercool. But little did I know that Rex Harrison was also supercool. The energy in his performance here is breathtaking, from the slapstick antics, to rapid fire dialogue, to over-the-top frenzy, to the more sophisticated comedic elements. Nice touches throughout and great use of music, all highlighted by the wondrously gleeful, er, use of a razor.
A film which easily lived up to its reputation, mainly due to another great physical performance, this time by the late Jack Lemmon. Interesting to see Fred MacMurray play such a bastard in the middle of his work in live action Disney films. Nice balance in tone. All in all, quite delightful.