Category: Hollywood

Sirk #2: The Tarnished Angels (US 1957)

TarnishedAngelsposter

This is a film I have wanted to watch for a long time. I think I once caught it on TV but abandoned the ‘pan and scan’ screening. I finally caught up with it via Masters of Cinema’s Blu-ray disc in its full Black & White CinemaScope glory. I was knocked out by what Douglas Sirk could achieve with limited resources and a small cast with four terrific leading players. The film was produced by Albert Zugsmith and written by George Zuckerman and the same pairing had been responsible for Sirk’s previous film Written on the Wind (US 1956). Three of the leads, Rock Hudson, Dorothy Malone and Robert Stack were all in the previous film and again gave everything for Sirk, alongside Jack Carson, who will for me always be remembered for his role in Michael Curtiz’s Mildred Pierce (US 1945).

The Tarnished Angels was adapted from the 1935 William Faulkner novel Pylons. Set in the early 1930s in New Orleans during Mardi Gras celebrations, the plot concerns Hudson’s alcohol-fuelled newspaperman who sees a human interest story in the tragic trio of Stack, Malone and Carson and the ten year-old boy who rumour suggests might be the son of either man. Stack is ‘Captain’ Roger Shumann, the World War One ace married to Malone’s LaVerne and Carson is the mechanic Jiggs who has followed his captain after the war. Shumann earns a living flying planes kept in the air by Jiggs in what is effectively a circus act – taking part in dangerous races around three pylons on a makeshift airfield (which in this case is by the sea in the delta). LaVerne also performs a thrilling parachute and trapeze act. Hudson’s character, Burke Devlin, is inevitably attracted to LaVerne but doesn’t initially realise quite how volatile the relationships between the three characters are.  Setting what a melodrama in this milieu is picked up again in two later Hollywood films, John Frankenheimer’s The Gypsy Moths (US 1969) with Burt Lancaster, Gene Hackman and Deborah Kerr and George Roy Hill’s The Great Waldo Pepper (1975) with Robert Redford. (I’m sure there are other earlier titles as well – and other Depression era narratives with similar ingredients.)

One of the noir scenes with Rock Hudson, Dorothy Malone and Robert Middleton. Note the classic table lamps throwing light upwards.

One of the noir scenes with Rock Hudson, Dorothy Malone and advertising sponsor Robert Middleton. Note the classic table lamp throwing light upwards behind Middleton. The costume design emphasise the effect by dressing Malone in black and white. Similarly, in the outdoor flying scenes, the planes tend to be ‘white’ or ‘black’.

I think what surprised me most was just how ‘expressionist’ the film was and how much it resembled classic films noirs in several nighttime scenes. I note that producer Zugsmith went on next to put together Touch of Evil (US 1958), often quoted as the ‘final’ noir of the classic period. Sirk had one outdoor set of the airfield, several studio interiors of offices/hotel rooms/hangars/newspaper room and a restaurant and then some presumably stock footage of the Mardi Gras. The giant heads of the Carnival are a gift to expressionist mise en scène and Sirk also makes good use of the fairground rides on the airfield on which the boy Jack ‘flies’ a plane while his father is in the air. The cinematographer is Irving Glassberg, about whom I know little except that he seems to have mainly shot Westerns (including one for Anthony Mann). He was born in Warsaw so perhaps he had a Central European feel for noir. He previously shot Sirk’s Captain Lightfoot (1955). He may not have credits for well-known noirs but his work on this film is excellent and is beautifully rendered on this MoC disc.

Dorothy Malone as LaVerne is the real star of the film

Dorothy Malone as LaVerne is the real star of the film

The visual qualities of the film are well-served by the casting. Stack is wonderfully stern, dark and brooding. I’m surprised that I don’t know that many others of his film titles – but as Eliot Ness in The Untouchables (US 1959-63) he was an essential part of my childhood TV viewing. Dorothy Malone is the revelation of the film. It’s a sensational performance in which her long hair, seemingly platinum blonde, is matched by a loose white dress for the parachute scenes. One of the extras on the disc reveals how uncomfortable the good Catholic girl from Texas felt about being ‘exposed’ in her costume. If she felt uncomfortable she doesn’t show it. She seems perfectly suited to Sirk’s 1950s films but after The Tarnished Angels, only Edward Dmytryk’s Warlock (US 1959) offered her a memorable role. Rock Hudson is also very good, though he does seem rather larger and more powerful than the standard representation of the newspaperman (although he reveals the character’s vulnerabilities very well). I would also have to agree with one comment I read which suggested that Sirk’s usual control was usurped by the wordy script which gives Devlin/Hudson a rousing speech in the last few scenes of the film.

The other clever aspect of the script is to introduce Willa Cather’s 1918 novel My Ántonia to the narrative. LaVerne is a country girl seduced by the excitement of Shumann’s appearance as the ‘barnstorming pilot’ when the air circus hits her Iowa farm country. Cather’s novel of 1918 was seen as introducing ‘Western’ lives to the literary world. The link between LaVerne and Devlin is made through the novel which she discovers in his room. The farm life promises something much more secure that LaVerne has abandoned to follow Roger (though agrarian life in the US would suffer greatly during the Depression).

Roger Shumann (Robert Stack) has 'no way out' in the noir melodrama

Roger Shumann (Robert Stack) has ‘no way out’ in the noir melodrama

But what’s the narrative really about? (Spoilers coming!) Sirk was certainly interested in flying and he’d tried to adapt Faulkner’s novel when he was at Ufa in the 1930s. For the Stack character, flying is not only exciting but also provides both a means of escape and possibly a means of displacement for his love for Laverne. The central moment of the narrative is when Roger searches for a replacement plane after a crash. He needs a new plane for the big race but the only one available needs an overhaul and it belongs to Matt Ord (Roger Middleton) the big-time sponsor. For Roger to fly requires Jiggs to work all night on the plane’s engine – but only if LaVerne can ‘persuade’ Ord to let Roger have the aircraft. Roger in effect ‘uses’ both of the people who love and respect him. This is a melodrama and we know what will happen. It is Sirk’s brilliance that makes the ensuing drama so compulsively watchable. In his interviews with Jon Halliday (Sirk on Sirk, faber & faber 1997) Sirk discusses the concept of échec which he argues means more than simply ‘failure’ and conveys the sense of being ‘blocked’ with no way out. Sirk’s characters can’t be ‘redeemed’ with a happy ending. Roger can only attempt to ‘save’ LaVerne and Jack by taking away what they most want – his love. Poor old Jiggs seems to be discarded completely. The irony is, too, that the ostensible star of the film, Rock Hudson, is in effect only the narrator (whose interventions move the story forward) – the real protagonists are Roger and LaVerne. From my perspective it seems like Dorothy Malone’s film and she emerges as the noir melodrama survivor.

The Tarnished Angels runs a little over 90 minutes and the Blu-ray is packed with extras, all worth exploring. It looks wonderful in Black & White ‘Scope, the perfect format for this melodrama. I’m tempted now to go back to other Sirk B & W melos.

The Hateful Eight 70mm Road Show

the-hateful-eight

I saw this, not in Edinburgh or London, but in Barnsley at the Parkway Cinema. This is one of four Parkway Cinemas and it is sited right in the middle of town just opposite the Travel Hub. You can get there from Leeds in about 45 minutes [sometimes longer] by road and around the same amount of time by train and bus. The cinema was originally an Odeon outlet, and the interior architecture is recognisable. Now there are two screens. Screen 1 is the converted balcony. Screen 2 is the original auditorium and seats about 400. It is fairly spacious with comfortable seats and plenty of room.

The management, clearly possessing get up and go, arranged a booking with the Entertainment Distributors for the film and set about converting for 70mm. They even adjusted the masking to accommodate the 2.76:1 ratio of Ultra Panavision 70. In fact we had a short introduction before the feature explaining the conversion, lots of hard work. We also had a digital copy of an old Cinerama Trailer: nearly the same aspect ratio.

The 70mm print was in good condition with only a few scratches. It looked fabulous, especially the exterior shots. This really is the top end of cinema viewing with the highest resolution you can enjoy.

This is Quentin Tarantino’s eighth feature and it is the best since Kill Bill Vol 1 (2003) or even Jackie Brown (1997). It is typical in many ways of Tarantino’s work. So it has a host of references to earlier westerns, but at the same time there is an overlap with Reservoir Dogs (1992). This is both in terms of some of the casting but also of the plot. There are secrets and revelations and characters soon turn out to be rather different from how they appear. There is an amount of blood and gore, but mainly in the second part.

Tarantino and his team have produced a good facsimile of the classic Road Show presentations. There is an overture, and intermission and something like 20 more minutes of film that in the digital release. The first part sets up the characters and stories and runs just on a hundred minutes. The twelve minute intermission is followed by the final eighty minutes. Here there is not only more gore, but more action and some tricky plotting. It might seem a little convoluted, though less so than the review of the film in Sight & Sound.

The greatest pleasure in the film is the cinematography by Robert Richardson: think of The Aviator (2004). From comments I had supposed that the film was predominately interiors. However, there are frequent and beautifully composed landscapes. The snowy setting rivals The Revenant (2015). One has to think back five decades for earlier Ultra 70mm features: say The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) or Khartoum (1966). It is a great format. Besides the quality of the image there is the width of the perspective. The opening shots as a coach ploughs through snow by a weather worn Crucifix looks great. But equally, interiors and close-ups, including one of Jennifer Jason Leigh, are terrific. At times it was a pleasure  just watching the folds and hues of faces: the props and furnishings of the sets: and the wintry scapes.

The casting is good. I especially enjoyed Samuel Jackson’s ex-Major. The film is tricky with characters, as the plot progresses one has to revise one’s ideas of who are the key characters of the title. The whole production design and supporting crafts are excellent. And there is also the pleasures of a Morricone score: at times very familiar but also for certain sequences quite distinctive.

The film has been criticised for not being epic, and so not justifying the length or the format. I think this is a misnomer. It does not offer the gravitas of The Fall of the Roman Empire, but it has more character and more complexity than Khartoum. Black people and women do come off rather badly, especially on the receiving end of violence. But this is partly the period in which the story is set. I did think that the liberal use of ‘nigger’, [as in Django Unchained, 2012] was partly down to Tarantino’s delight in teasing/provoking the audience.

Anyway it is some time since I spent three hours in the cinema with so much pleasure. The good news is that The Parkway is providing additional screenings: on Sunday evening April 17th; then on Monday and Thursday evening and Wednesday afternoon. Worth the trip. Apparently they have had film buffs from as far afield as Bournemouth.

Hail, Caesar! (US-UK 2016)

Alden Ehrenreich as singing cowboy Hobie Doyle cast in a 'sophisticated' comedy directed by Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes). This is one of the standout scenes of Hail, Caesar!

Alden Ehrenreich as singing cowboy Hobie Doyle cast in a ‘sophisticated’ comedy directed by Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes). This is one of the standout scenes of Hail, Caesar!

Following Keith’s advice,  I watched Hail, Caesar! in Bradford’s Pictureville Cinema in 4K. It certainly looked good – but whether I would have noticed any difference if it was a 2K print is something I feel unable to judge. Anyway, the film proved an enjoyable distraction for a couple of hours. But, I’m not sure if it was a film that added up to more than its parts.

As the promotional material suggested, the Coen Brothers expertly create the Hollywood studio environment of the early 1950s in loving detail. Strangely, there are some basic mistakes if the setting is supposed to be 1951 as some publicity suggested. (The worst error concerns screen shapes and aspect ratios – a Western is shown in a cinema with a credit for VistaVision which Paramount didn’t use until 1954 and White Christmas.) On the whole, however, taken as an amalgam of Hollywood practices, ‘Capital Pictures’, the studio in the film, represents the period from roughly 1949 to 1953 very well. As several reviewers suggest, the Coens are not really interested in a plot as such, but more in the vignettes of production of different kinds of films and the way in which studio practices are changing – or not.

The two plotlines of note involve the studio ‘fixer’ based on the real Eddie Mannix who worked at MGM. We see him trying to repress gossip stories about the studio’s stars, grapple with his own family and work situation – and find a missing star played by George Clooney in ‘doofus’ mode. None of this adds up to much but does allow the Coens to play with ideas about the US Communist Party, religious sensitivity towards films and the ethics of the military-industrial complex. There are terrific set pieces including a Channing Tatum dance sequence riffing on Gene Kelly and Alden Ehrenreich as a Roy Rogers/Gene Autry ‘singing cowboy’ who for many viewers no doubt steals the picture. There are also two scenes featuring delicious Jewish jokes/characterisations. And yet . . . the film has not attracted huge audiences. It might be that fans will return for repeat viewings but somehow the Coens don’t quite get the excellent parts (performances, sets, cinematography, music etc.) to make something whole. For me, the last really funny Coen Brothers film was O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000). I’d rate the ‘serious’ films as better value, with both Inside Llewyn Davis (2013) and A Serious Man (2009) as effective recent titles.

GFF16 #10: Woman of the Year (US 1942)

Kate and Spence

Kate and Spence

This year Glasgow Film Festival has instituted a set of free screenings of classical Hollywood films under the heading of ‘The Dream Team’ with pairings such as Bogart and Bacall, Doris Day and Rock Hudson, Butch and Sundance etc. Tickets are only obtainable 30 minutes before the screening at 10.30 am. I rolled up to find a queue outside GFT but there was plenty of room in GFT1, the largest auditorium, and everyone was easily accommodated. The pairing was Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy in their first film together, Woman of the Year. The screening was introduced (as all GFF screenings I’ve attended have been) but, unlike on most other occasions, co-director Allan Hunter said quite a lot about the film, offering us information about the production and the long loving relationship between Hepburn and the still married Tracy hat started on this film shoot. The intro was well received by an audience that wasn’t totally made up of pensioners. For younger members, Hunter’s insights were no doubt very useful.

Woman of the Year was an MGM production on which Hepburn had a considerable input since she sold the script package to the studio and chose both Tracy as her leading man and George Stevens as director. Hunter told us that she thought Stevens could talk to Tracy about sports. I was partly attracted to the film because of Stevens – who later directed Shane in a manner rather different to his pre-war films. I wondered if the film would have been different if George Cukor had been agreed by Hepburn (she had previously worked with both directors). Stevens had a good pedigree in comedy and Woman of the Year fairly zips along with great dialogue exchanges. Hepburn is Tess Harding – a character based on the leading American female journalist of the period –who is elected ‘Woman of the Year’. Tracy is Sam Craig, the leading sports columnist on the same paper. When they meet they fall for each other immediately and marry quickly despite their obvious differences in background and tastes.

I found the film refreshingly sharp and witty with two great players and a tight script by Ring Lardner Jr. and Michael Kanin. The two actors seem to feed off each other. The main interest in the film today is in the ending which legend has it was the result of studio bosses wanting to see the strong assertive woman cut down to size and ‘behaving herself in a man’s world’. The final sequence was not in the script that Hepburn brought to the studio and though its force was slightly ameliorated by the writers, even so it is seen as dating the film because it wouldn’t be acceptable post 1960s feminism etc. I’m not sure if that analysis makes sense (whatever the studio’s intention). Tess has behaved badly (in her treatment of a refugee child). This is mainly because she has lived the life of a wealthy and privileged woman and doesn’t understand a few basics. The final scene sees her trying to appease Sam by making him breakfast in the kitchen of the new apartment he has taken after leaving her. Since she knows nothing about cooking or kitchens, everything goes wrong in a glorious sequence of blunders with untameable food technology. Stevens began his career photographing Laurel and Hardy films for Hal Roach and he organises this well. Tess’ failure to cook is demeaning not because she is doing ‘women’s work’ but because she is a rich young woman who has never done menial work in the home. She isn’t being ‘punished because she is a woman but because she has no contact with the world of the everyday for most people. It’s also true that the costume Kate is wearing is immensely impractical and gets in the way of cooking. Personally I can never see Ms Hepburn as a submissive woman on screen – she always seems to be in charge. Having said that, Allan Hunter told us that the normally assertive Katharine Hepburn was remarkably subservient to Spencer Tracy in their personal relationship. So, ‘that’s acting’ as more than one female star has said.