Sunrise

If you’re going to write about classic films, you have to stick your neck out — and take the chance others will stick their tongues out in response. OK, here goes. As much as I love Citizen Kane (1941), I think Sunrise (1927) is the better film. In fact, it may be the best film ever made.

If you’re not acquainted with the great silent films, such as Sunrise, Napoleon, October, and Greed, you may wonder how any film that’s missing an important component such as sound could possibly be superior to the best films that have the full palette of creative possibilities. That’s the wrong way to think about it. Silent film became a highly expressive art form precisely because it lacked sound. If you listen to your favorite songs on the radio, are you upset they don’t have accompanying pictures? Is a Vermeer painting incomplete because it doesn’t have a soundtrack? By the late 1920s, film directors had established a rich visual vocabulary and were continuing to explore new possibilities. That was cut short in 1927 with the marriage of film with sound. And there was no turning back.

Released on the cusp between the silent and sound eras, Sunrise (1927) played in theaters with synchronized music and sound effects via the newly developed Western Electric Movietone sound-on-film sound system. Even so, it’s a pure silent film. The story is told visually with a minimal number of intertitles. The director F. W. Murnau had complete control, just as Welles would have for Citizen Kane. Murnau had impressed Hollywood with his previous films from Germany, including Nosferatu (1922), The Last Laugh (1924), and Faust (1926). Though produced in Hollywood, Sunrise looks and feels more like a film from the German studio, UFA.

Murnau was trained as an art historian, and he brought a painter’s eye to all his films. Sunrise in particular is stunningly beautiful. In a 1958 Cahiers du Cinema poll, it was voted “the most beautiful film in the world.” Welles used his film techniques to move the characters and story forward, but Murnau was ultimately the more talented director because his techniques were more tightly integrated into the fabric of the film.

Some of the techniques are almost breathtaking in their originality and subtlety. For example, when the husband walks through the marsh, the camera follows him, then moves on ahead to discover the woman he is secretly meeting. The camera movement feels exactly right, as though it was taking the same steps we would take if we were there in the middle of the action. Other techniques are almost invisible to the viewer, yet the end result is a stronger visual composition that creates the right mood for the characters or the ideal space for the story to unfold.

For example, Murnau wanted to have deep focus shots, similar to the ones Welles would use in Citizen Kane. A painter could easily achieve the effect, but the lenses and film stocks of the 1920s couldn’t quite do it. So Murnau cheated. He created the illusion of extreme deep focus by playing with the perspective. He placed midgets and small tables in the back of the room to make it appear as though the focus was extending further than it really was. He also placed furniture up front that was larger than it would normally be, in order to simulate a closer focus than was physically possible. All for a single shot.

Fortunately, you don’t have to dig below the surface like this in order to enjoy Sunrise. This is an extremely accessible film where everything serves a single goal — to tell a simple story in the best possible way.

Sunrise
(1927; directed by F. W. Murnau; cable, dvd, and blu-ray)
20th Century Fox
List Price: $29.99 (Blu-ray), $29.99 (DVD, as part of Studio Classics: Best Picture Collection)

Monday, November 17 at 10:00 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

Yankee Doodle Dandy

Many people are surprised that James Cagney’s only Oscar was for his role in Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942). One reason is that the Academy doesn’t tend to reward performances in genre films, such as gangster, adventure, or science fiction films. It also doesn’t tend to reward performances in musicals, though Yankee Doodle Dandy was an exception.

If you think of Cagney’s roles in the gangster movies, it was his confidence that won you over. Only 5 feet 6 inches tall (short by Hollywood standards), Cagney could stare down anyone in the room. It’s just that kind of brash confidence that made him the perfect choice to portray George M. Cohan, who was just as cocky and full-of-himself in real life as Cagney was onscreen. Cagney also had the background needed to play the part. He started in Hollywood as a song-and-dance man, but was sidetracked into gangster movies when asked to switch parts at the last minute.

Cagney did get a chance to return to his song-and-dance roots with his role in Footlight Parade (1933). There, as in Yankee Doodle Dandy, he doesn’t come off as a polished singer or dancer. It’s his enthusiasm that wins you over. He becomes a terrific dancer almost be sheer will alone. If you’ve ever been told, “it’s not what you have; it’s what you do with it,” you’ll find all the proof you need in Cagney’s performance in Yankee Doodle Dandy

Of course, it takes more than a single strong performance to make a great film — particularly if that film happens to be a musical. Cohan’s deeply patriotic songs are real crowd pleasers, not just for their sentiment, but also because they’re the kind of songs that linger in the mind long after you first hear them. Though written for World War I era audiences, they were equally appropriate in 1942 when this movie was released — just months after Pearl Harbor. Even from our perspective, the songs and sentiment still ring true. Odds are you already know many of the songs from the film, which include “The Yankee Doodle Boy” (a.k.a. Yankee Doodle Dandy), “Give My Regards to Broadway,” “You’re a Grand Old Flag,” “Harrigan,” “Mary’s a Grand Old Name,” and “Over There.”

A heartfelt movie biography could easily fall on its face without a strong script. Credit here goes to Robert Buckner and Edmund Joseph, who adapted the screenplay from Buckner’s story. Director Michael Curtiz, whose Casablanca was released the same year, keeps the pace brisk with plenty of humor to take off the edge. Here are some snippets of dialogue:

Critic #1: I call it a hit. What’ll your review say?
Critic #2: I like it too, so I guess I’ll pan it.

George M. Cohan: My mother thanks you, my father thanks you, my sister thanks you, and I thank you.

Newspaperman: He’s the whole darned country squeezed into one pair of pants!

Sergeant on parade: What’s the matter, old timer? Don’t you remember this song?
George M. Cohan: Seems to me I do.
Sergeant on parade: Well, I don’t hear anything.

Michael Curtiz was perhaps Hollywood’s hardest working director in the 1930s and 1940s. He turned out an impressive 44 features for Warner Bros. from 1930 through 1939. Curtiz had an extraordinary range across a diverse group of genres. In addition to Yankee Doodle Dandy and Casablanca, he directed Black Fury (1935), Captain Blood (1935), The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936), The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), Four Daughters (1938), Angels with Dirty Faces (1938), The Sea Hawk (1940), The Sea Wolf (1941), Mildred Pierce (1945), Life with Father (1947), and The Breaking Point (1950).

The new Blu-ray disc released on October 14 looks great — and it’s a big improvement over the previous DVD versions. The generous selection of extras is essentially the same as on the two-disc special edition DVD. Unfortunately, the extras are ported directly over in the same standard-definition video (480i). The exception is the 1943 Looney Tunes cartoon short Yankee Doodle Daffy. Like the movie, it has been upgraded to a very nice 1080p video. This Blu-ray is an excellent way to experience this top-notch musical drama.

Yankee Doodle Dandy
(1942; directed by Michael Curtiz; cable, dvd, & blu-ray)
Warner Archive Collection
List Price: $21.99 (Blu-ray)

(also available on DVD from Warner Home Video)

Dodsworth

In the 1930s, just about everyone went to the movies. That didn’t mean every movie was targeted to the widest possible audience. In fact, many films were aimed at mature audiences seeking intelligent and restrained drama. Few films, however, dealt with the complexities of middle age and the day-to-day difficulties of maintaining a marriage.

Dodsworth (1936) is an unusually frank film about a couple who are growing apart amid concerns about growing older. Based on a 1929 novel by Sinclair Lewis, the story was adapted in 1934 by Sidney Howard into a popular Broadway play starring Walter Huston and Fay Bainter. Two years later, Howard teamed with director William Wyler to bring the story to film. Huston reprised his role as industrialist Sam Dodsworth and Ruth Chatterton replaced Bainter in the role of Fran Dodsworth, his wife. Mary Astor played the other woman, Mrs. Edith Cortright, though clichés about the other woman fall by the wayside as the movie progresses. Several minor parts were filled by actors who played the same roles on Broadway.

The movie version doesn’t feel like a staged play, even though there is plenty of dialogue. Here are some of the more memorable lines from the film:

Sam Dodsworth: Love has got to stop some place short of suicide.

Fran Dodsworth: Oh, you’re hopeless — you haven’t the mistiest notion of civilization.
Sam Dodsworth: Yeah, well maybe I don’t think so much of it, though. Maybe clean hospitals, concrete highways, and no soldiers along the Canadian border come near my idea of civilization.

Fran Dodsworth: Remember, I did make a home for you once, and I’ll do it again, only you’ve got to let me have my fling now! Because you’re simply rushing at old age, Sam, and I’m not ready for that yet.

Baroness Von Obersdorf: [to Fran] Have you thought how little happiness there can be for the old wife of a young husband?

Apart from the writing, much of the credit has to go to Walter Huston, in one of the best roles of his career, and to William Wyler, whose assured direction makes the characters’ progression feel like an entirely natural development. Dodsworth doesn’t come across as a message picture — you’re not beat over the head with gold-encrusted truths simplified to the point where a 10-year-old child could quote them verbatim. Instead, the audience steadily accumulates knowledge about the characters and their predicaments. By the end, the characters’ decisions make perfect sense based on who we know them to be as individuals, rather than as stereotypes.

Dodsworth
(1936; directed by William Wyler; cable & dvd)
MGM
List Price: $14.95

Friday, November 7 at 2:15 a.m. eastern (late Thu. night) on Turner Classic Movies

The Third Man

We talk about the great directors, yet it’s always a group effort. It takes a strong director to steer the many divergent elements in the same direction. When the process works, all the elements fit together so the result is equal to more than the sum of the parts. The Third Man (1949) is a film where everything meshes — the script, acting, camera placement, lighting, music. It’s probably the best British film made after World War II, as well as the best film noir made in Europe.

Because each of the elements is so exceptional, director Carol Reed is rarely given the credit that’s due. He pushed to have the zither music in the movie. He also argued for the final shot being held much longer than writer Graham Greene or producer David O. Selznick thought appropriate. Selznick wanted to use studio interiors for the production, but Reed preferred the actual war-torn streets of Vienna as a backdrop. The camera and lighting compositions with their odd angles and surreal effects contribute significantly to the atmosphere of the story. The overall look combines the moody darkness of a film noir with the starkness of a you-are-there documentary.

Graham Greene’s script was developed specifically for this project. He also wrote it as a short story, but only to work out the ideas. In his book Ways of Escape, Greene explained, “The reader will notice many differences between the story and the film, and he should not imagine these changes were forced on an unwilling author: as likely as not they were suggested by the author. The film in fact is better than the story because it is in this case the finished state of the story.”

As good as Greene’s script is, the most famous lines from the film were written by Orson Welles. Onscreen for a comparatively short time, Welles’ performance as Harry Lime stands out as one of his best roles. Here are two nuggets from Welles’ self-penned dialogue, where Lime explains to Rollo Martins (played by Joseph Cotten) that it’s a dog-eat-dog world:

Martins: Have you ever seen any of your victims?
Lime: You know, I never feel comfortable on these sort of things. Victims? Don’t be melodramatic. Tell me. Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever? If I offered you twenty thousand pounds for every dot that stopped, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money, or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare? Free of income tax, old man. Free of income tax — the only way you can save money nowadays.

Lime: Don’t be so gloomy. After all it’s not that awful. Like the fella says, in Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love — they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.

Avoid the poor quality prints that were struck when the film temporarily lapsed into the public domain. The DVD from Criterion is the best way to see it — other than in a movie theater, of course. I haven’t seen the print that TCM shows occasionally, though that network is usually conscientious in trying to obtain the best available print.

The Third Man
(1949; directed by Carol Reed; cable, dvd, and blu-ray)
Criterion Collection
List Price: $39.95 (Blu-ray, out of print), $39.95 (DVD, out of print)
Lions Gate — StudioCanal Collection
List Price: $39.99 (Blu-ray)

Friday, November 7 at 12:15 a.m. eastern (late Thu. night) on Turner Classic Movies

Foreign Correspondent

Foreign Correspondent (1940) was Hitchcock’s second Hollywood film, though it was Hitchcock’s first Hollywood film in the sense that it was the first true Hitchcock film made in Hollywood. Rebecca (1940) was as much David O. Selznick’s movie as it was Hitchcock’s, which may explain why Rebecca was the only Hitchcock film to win an Oscar for Best Picture.

Foreign Correspondent, on the other hand, is pure Hitchcock. It’s the story of an innocent bystander who becomes involved in an intrigue — a storyline exploited successfully in The 39 Steps (1935), Young and Innocent (1937), and The Lady Vanishes (1938). It also blends suspense, comedy, and romance in a way that would later become synonymous with Hitchcock’s name.

All the actors seem perfectly cast, yet Hitchcock didn’t get his first choice for the title role. In a 1962 interview with Françoise Truffaut, Hitchcock explained how he ended up with Joel McCrea:

In Europe, you see, the thriller, the adventure story is not looked down upon. As a matter of fact, that form of writing is highly respected in England, whereas in America it’s definitely regarded as second-rate literature; the approach to the mystery genre is entirely different. When I had completed the script of Foreign Correspondent, I went to Gary Cooper with it, but because it was a thriller, he turned it down. This attitude was so commonplace when I started to work in Hollywood that I always ended up with the next best — in this instance, with Joel McCrea. Many years later Gary Cooper said to me, ‘That was a mistake. I should have done it.’

Most moviegoers wouldn’t consider Hitchcock to be a trailblazer with special effects, though he certainly was. Take a look at the perspective-distorting zoom or the psychological application of color in Vertigo (1958). Or check out the use of electronic sounds as bird noises or advanced optical printing techniques to simulate large flocks in The Birds (1963).

Foreign Correspondent includes a spectacular shot near the end of the film where a plane is diving into the ocean. You see the water appearing closer, as viewed through the cockpit windshield. When the plane hits the ocean, the water suddenly rushes into the cockpit. All this is contained within a single shot with no apparent edits or special effects, so how was it done? This is Hitchcock’s explanation from the Truffaut interview:

I had a transparency screen made of paper, and behind that screen, a water tank. The plane dived, and as soon as the water got close to it, I pressed the button and the water burst through, tearing the screen away. The volume was so great that you never saw the screen.

Here’s an odd bit of trivia for you. In his article “The Strange Case of Alfred Hitchcock, Part Three,” Raymond Durgnat writes that “Dr. Goebbels loved watching Foreign Correspondent.” Goebbels predicted it would make “an impression upon wide broad masses in the enemy countries.” Hitchcock later speculated that a print was probably brought in through Switzerland. Was this a case of an unscrupulous political manipulator recognizing the skills of a more benign artistic manipulator?

Foreign Correspondent
(1940; directed by Alfred Hitchcock; cable, dvd, & blu-ray)
Criterion Collection
List Price: $39.95 (Blu-ray-DVD combo)

Wednesday, November 5 at 5:45 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies
Saturday, January 17 at 8:00 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

North By Northwest

Roger Thornhill should have known he was in trouble when he walked through the lobby, and the hotel’s music system played “It’s a Most Unusual Day.” Of rather, we should have known. He may not know it, but we do — he lives inside a Hitchcock film, so we can expect a healthy dose of sly humor and calculated thrills. If you’ve never seen it, don’t miss this one. I would pick North by Northwest (1959) as the third best Hitchcock film (after Vertigo and Psycho).

As an advertising executive, Thornhill (Cary Grant) deals in public perceptions and appearances. His job is to make real life seem more than it really is. It’s a fitting profession for someone who is less than he seems. Thornhill is bored with life and his predictable role in it. That’s about to change when he becomes entangled in a case of mistaken identity. He will be steadily stripped of his identity and forced to assume the role of another man. Along the way, he’ll encounter a mysterious woman (Eva Marie Saint), a suave-but-sinister villain (James Mason), and a larger-than-life monument (Mount Rushmore). And once again, we have a terrific musical score from Bernard Herrmann.

The most famous part of the movie is the stark sequence in which Cary Grant is chased by a crop duster. In a 1962 interview with Françoise Truffaut, Hitchcock explained how he got the idea:

I found I was faced with the old cliché situation: the man who is put on the spot, probably to be shot. Now, how is this usually done? A dark night at a narrow intersection of the city. The waiting victim standing in a pool of light under the street lamp. The cobbles are ‘washed with the recent rains.’ A close-up of a black cat slinking along against the wall of a house. A shot of a window, with a furtive face pulling back the curtain to look out. The slow approach of a black limousine, et cetera, et cetera. Now, what was the antithesis of a scene like this? No darkness, no pool of light, no mysterious figures in windows. Just nothing. Just bright sunshine and a blank, open countryside with barely a house or tree in which any lurking menaces could hide.

Here’s an interesting bit of trivia. Jessie Royce Landis, who portrays Grant’s mother in the film, was either 10 months younger or seven years older than Grant (she may have lied about her age).

North by Northwest
(1959; directed by Alfred Hitchcock; cable, dvd, and blu-ray)
Warner Home Video
List Price: $34.99 (Blu-ray), $19.95 (DVD)

Saturday, November 1 at 10:45 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies
Monday, December 29 at 2:15 a.m. eastern (late Sun. night) on Turner Classic Movies

Touch of Evil

Touch of Evil (1958) became a great film because of a misunderstanding. Charlton Heston had agreed to appear in a police drama for Universal Pictures, but only because he thought Welles was signed to direct it. Welles, in fact, had agreed only to act in the film.

In a 1965 interview with the French magazine Cahiers du Cinéma, Welles explained:

Universal did not clear up his misunderstanding; they hung up and automatically telephoned me and asked me to direct it. . . I set only one condition: to write my own scenario! And I directed and wrote the film without getting a penny for it, since I was being paid as an actor.

Welles hated Universal’s scenario for the movie. He changed the locale from San Diego to the Mexican border. He also chose a supporting cast that Pauline Kael described as “assembled as perversely as in a nightmare.” It included Akim Tamiroff as a smalltime thug, Dennis Weaver as an outrageously inhibited motel clerk, Zsa Zsa Gabor as a strip club owner, and Marlene Dietrich as a madam. Heston plays an incorruptible Mexican narcotics agent, and Janet Leigh portrays his new bride. Welles turns in a towering performance as Hank Quinlan, a no-nonsense police captain whose hunches and leg twinges have helped put away hundreds of criminals.

Universal re-edited the film against Welles’ wishes before it was released in 1958. It received no previews and little fanfare. In 1998, Rick Schmidlin supervised a re-edit of the film, following the suggestions from a 58-page memo Welles had prepared after learning he wouldn’t have the final cut. Schmidin restored much of the material that was originally cut out.

This re-edited version is the film that’s currently available on DVD and shown occasionally on cable. It’s a big improvement over the theatrical release, both in the clarity of the storyline and the power of the imagery. Most famously, Welles had created a long, carefully timed tracking shot at the beginning of the film that ends with a dramatic surprise. Universal had cut the shot and placed the opening titles over what was left, greatly diminishing its effect. The re-edit restores this critical shot and places the credits at the conclusion of the story, as intended.

If any film can be referred to as baroque in its visual style, that film would be Touch of Evil. Even after 50 years, it continues to fascinate. Perhaps the most innovative film of the 1950s, it was decades ahead of its time. This is Welles’ third best film (after Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons) and the most daring of his Hollywood films.

Touch of Evil
(1958; directed by Orson Welles, cable, dvd, & blu-ray)
Universal Studios
List Price: $29.98 (Blu-ray), $14.98 (DVD)

Wednesday, October 29 at 10:00 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

Kwaidan

What’s better than a chilling ghost story? How about four ghost stories rolled into one? Kwaidan (1965) is based on a collection of Japanese ghost stories published in 1904. The author was Lafcadio Hearn, a folklorist of Greek-Irish ancestry, who based his stories on translations of old Japanese texts.

Sixty years later, Japanese director Masaki Kobayashi transformed four of those stories into one of the most beautiful ghost movies ever made. Highly stylized with lavish sets and lighting effects that resemble surreal paintings as much as realistic settings, the movie is less frightening than dreamlike, with images that seep deep into your consciousness. Speak with anyone who has seen it, and you’ll discover it makes a strong impression. It’s fair to say the recent renaissance in Japanese horror films — sometimes referred to J-horror — can be traced directly back to this movie (and, to a lesser extent, to Ugetsu).

In each of the four stories, humans come face to face with the supernatural in the guise of materialized ghosts. How the humans react will determine whether they’ll be harmed by the experience. In the first story, “The Black Hair,” a man leaves his loving wife for a rich woman, realizes his mistake, and returns to find his wife, who is strangely unchanged. The second story, titled “The Woman of the Snow,” centers on a promise made by a woodcutter that he won’t reveal the phantom who saved his life with her icy breath. In the third story, “Hoichi, the Earless,” a blind musician tries to protect himself from the spirits of two warrior clans. His protection is to paint prayers all over his body. And in the last tale, titled “In a Cup of Tea,” a warrior sees the reflection of someone else when he gazes into his tea. Later, that same figure challenges him to a duel.

The DVD includes only the movie and theatrical trailer. Given that the film runs 161 minutes, I’m happy the available space on the disc is devoted mostly to the movie. Anamorphically enhanced for widescreen televisions, the transfer is a wonder to behold. Kwaidan leaves a lasting impression — but only if you’re able to see it in a richly detailed print.

Kwaidan
(1965; directed by Masaki Kobayashi; cable & dvd)
Criterion Collection
List Price: $29.95

Wednesday, October 29 at 12:15 a.m. eastern (late Tue. night) on Turner Classic Movies

Mildred Pierce

Mildred Pierce (1945) is the kind of competently directed Hollywood film from the 1940s that seems better each time you watch it. Like Michael Curtiz’s other outstanding drama from that decade, Casablanca (1943), everything seems to click — uniformly fine performances, a terrific script that never misses a beat, and a first-rate musical score (Max Steiner in both cases).

Joan Crawford won the title role only after it was turned down by Bette Davis and Rosalind Russell. Shirley Temple was considered for the part of the teenaged daughter, Veda Pierce. Fortunately, fate (or good sense) prevailed, and it’s now hard to imagine anyone else in any of the roles. Ranald MacDougall, Catherine Turney, and an uncredited William Faulkner adapted the screenplay from the novel by James M. Cain. The movie downplays much of the sexual frankness of the novel, which Curtiz handles obliquely. You may recognize Cain as the author behind The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946).

A key strength of the film version of Mildred Pierce is that it doesn’t fit easily into a single genre. It begins with a murder and failed attempt to frame an innocent man — classic elements of a film noir. The distinct lighting and emotionally charged music also point to that genre. In the flashbacks, however, we’re thrown into an entirely different film genre, sometimes referred to as “weepies” or “women’s pictures.” Here we’re sympathetically drawn into the story of a woman struggling to give her children a better life. The arc of the film is the collision of these two types of movies. Ultimately, one of the genres has to win out, and it’s the interplay between the two storylines that makes this film especially appealing.

It’s also remarkable how the various elements mix together so seamlessly. The comic lines (delivered by Jack Carson as Wally and Eve Arden as Ida) reinforce what we’ve already learned about the characters. For example, Ida sums up Mildred and Veda’s relationship with this biting comment, “Personally, Veda’s convinced me that alligators have the right idea. They eat their young.” Similarly, Wally acknowledges his own failings when he says, “Oh boy! I’m so smart it’s a disease!”

While you can make a case against the restrictiveness of the Hollywood studio system, movies such as Mildred Pierce represent the best argument for the advantages. The film’s high-buff polish and overall consistency are a direct result of a well-oiled studio machine.

Mildred Pierce
(1945; directed by Michael Curtiz; cable & dvd)
Warner Home Video
List Price: $19.95

Monday, October 27 at 12:30 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies
Monday, December 1 at 3:15 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

The 39 Steps

The 39 Steps (1935) is one of Hitchcock’s most accomplished early films. It’s also the movie that caught the eye of Hollywood, and the rest — as they say — is history. On the surface, it’s a story about spies and vital information that can’t fall into the wrong hands. Dig deeper, and you’ll find a thrilling adventure of a man wrongly accused of a crime (a favorite Hitchcock theme), as well as a romantic comedy that’s centered on an unlikely couple.

Based on a famous novel by John Buchan, the author was initially upset with the changes Hitchcock made for the film. Years later, he acknowledged Hitchcock had improved the story. In a 1962 interview with Françoise Truffaut, Hitchcock explained his approach to adapting the story:

I worked on the scenario with Charles Bennett, and the method I used in those days was to make a treatment complete in every detail, except for the dialogue. I saw it as a film of episodes, and this time I was on my toes. As soon as we were through with one episode, I remember saying, ‘Here we need a good short story.’ I made sure the content of every scene was very solid, so that each one would be a little film in itself.

Given Hitchcock’s remarks, it’s a wonder the movie doesn’t feel disjointed. Hitchcock was such a skilled director at this point in his career, he was able to hold the episodes together through the strength of the characters and thrill of the chase. As in many of Hitchcock’s films, the origins of the crime or espionage are unimportant. We don’t care what the 39 steps are, and neither does Hitchcock. He even has to insert a few lines at the end to remind us what all the hubbub was about.

The film is filled with deftly rendered vignettes, such as the sequence with the farmer and his wife. Richard Hannay (played by Robert Donat) encounters them as he flees the police. Based on just a few gestures and glances, we immediately understand the couple’s relationship. When a handcuffed Hannay evades detection by joining a Salvation Army parade, and then is mistaken for a political speaker (he’s hustled onto the platform to improvise an election speech), we willingly go along for the ride. And when those same handcuffs bind Hannay with a woman (played by Madeleine Carroll) who despises him, we savor the improbable circumstances that ultimately bring the two together together. The 39 Steps is only 81 minutes long, but it has more thrills, comedy, romance, and understated wit than the vast majority of films you’ll see. As Hitchcock explained to Truffaut in the interview, “You use one idea after another and eliminate anything that interferes with the swift pace.”

The two-disc-set DVD of The 39 Steps includes a bonus documentary titled The Art of Film: Vintage Hitchcock. It’s an excellent introduction to Hitchcock’s early British films, which include The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), Sabotage (1936), Young and Innocent (1937), and The Lady Vanishes (1938).

The 39 Steps
(1935; directed by Alfred Hitchcock; cable, dvd, & blu-ray)
Criterion Collection
List Price: $39.95 (Blu-ray), $29.95 (DVD)

Thursday, October 23 at 2:30 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

Mutiny on the Bounty

If you haven’t heard of the director Frank Lloyd, you’re not alone. Even though he directed, produced, and/or appeared as an actor in more than 180 films from 1912 through 1955, he isn’t well known. He is best remembered for his masterful direction of Mutiny on the Bounty (1935). Lloyd was the ideal choice to helm this true-life British naval mutiny from the late 18th century.

Born in Scotland, Lloyd watched his father install turbines and engines into all kinds of boats, including Tall Ships. His family traveled throughout Scotland, England, and Wales as his father looked for work. When Lloyd became a Hollywood film director, he searched for interesting tales about ships and the sea. Before being offered Mutiny on the Bounty, he had directed a surprising number of boat- and sea-related films, including The Sea Hawk (1924), Winds of Chance (1925), The Eagle of the Sea (1926), The Divine Lady (1929), Weary River (1929), and Cavalcade (1933).

Lloyd knew he could turn the incident into a rousing, yet deeply human motion picture. He later wrote:

When I finished reading Mutiny on the Bounty, I felt a definite excitement running through me. I knew I’d follow the simply history of a little ship – a character in itself – on a long journey. That aboard is a small group of men, courageous, sometimes sullen, always genuine. That the ship and the men reached Paradise and saw its beauty, were forced to leave that Beauty and mutinied. I knew that there was a thrilling adventure, a great and simple theme, the qualities of laughter and grief, and superb characters. And I knew that I could sell a combination like that to any audience.

The production was no small undertaking. It took two years to complete with a budget of almost two million dollars. Clark Gable had to be convinced to shave off his “lucky mustache,” because facial hair wasn’t allowed in His Majesty’s Navy at the time. Charles Laughton contacted the London tailor shop that had outfitted the real Captain Bligh 150 years earlier, in order to recreate Bligh’s uniform. The portly Laughton lost 55 pounds so he could match Bligh’s exact measurements.

The result is one of Hollywood’s best seafaring movies (John Ford’s The Long Voyage Home may be the very best). It was a huge hit for MGM, despite the staggering $1,905,000 budget. It went on to earn $4,460,000 at the box office and win an Oscar for Best Picture.

In 1962, the story was remade as Mutiny on the Bounty, with Marlon Brando as Fletcher Christian and Trevor Howard as Captain Bligh. There’s a strange link between the two movies. Movita Castaneda, who played Fletcher Christian’s Tahitian wife in the original film, later married the real-life Marlon Brando, the Fletcher Christian in the remake.

The story was remade yet again in 1984 as The Bounty, with Mel Gibson as Fletcher Christian and Anthony Hopkins as Captain Bligh. The 1984 film is the better of the two remakes. It also adheres more closely to the historical facts by portraying Bligh as repressed and authoritative, rather than mad and egotistical.

If you’ve seen only the usual print of this film on television, prepare to be duly impressed by the recently-released Blu-ray. It features a photochemical restoration of a recently discovered original nitrate camera negative. The print looks great with a consistently sharp image and smooth graytones. The audio is clear throughout, though there’s some shrillness in the louder portions, which is fairly common with movies from the early- to mid-1930s.

Both the Blu-ray and DVD include an interesting short, titled Pitcairn Island Today (1935), which shows the descendants of the crew and their living conditions on the island.

Mutiny on the Bounty
(1933; directed by Frank Lloyd; cable, dvd, & blu-ray)
Warner Home Video
List Price: $34.99 (Blu-ray), $19.98 (DVD)

Wednesday, October 15 at 2:45 a.m. eastern (late Tue. night) on Turner Classic Movies

Bringing Up Baby

I had a difficult time compiling my Top 20 Screwball Comedies list. The biggest challenge was where to put Bringing Up Baby (1938). In the end, I gave it the number two spot, right behind Duck Soup (1933). Andrew Sarris referred to Bringing Up Baby as the screwiest of the screwball comedies. In an article titled “The World of Howard Hawks,” which appeared in the July and August 1963 issue of Films and Filming, Sarris wrote:

Even Hawks has never equaled the rocketing pace of this demented farce in which Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn made Barrymore and Lombard in Twentieth Century seem as feverish as Victoria and Albert. The film passes beyond the customary lunacy of the period into a bestial Walpurgisnacht during which man, dog, and leopard pursue each other over the Connecticut countryside until the behavior patterns of men and animals become indistinguishable.

Sometimes it can be instructive to analyze the structure of a comedy, and this one is ripe for that kind of analysis. The world of Dr. David Huxley (Cary Grant) is dead or dying — dinosaurs, fossils, and museums. Huxley is almost as lifeless. He has no sense that life could be more than it already is. The world of Susan Vance (Katharine Hepburn) is just the opposite. It’s full of possibilities. In her world, the animals are very much alive. Her life is unpredictable because she’s willing to fail. And wouldn’t you know it, she fails a lot. This isn’t just an unlikely couple. This is a clash of world views. Neither world is complete unto itself, hence the need for a happy ending to merge the best qualities of both.

In the end — no matter the structure — either the dialogue, gags, and characters are funny, or they aren’t. Bringing Up Baby excels in all three. Hawks had a gift for drawing relaxed, seemingly improvised performances from his actors, especially in the comedies. Everything feels effortless and natural, even though almost all of it was carefully planned. Along with the fast pacing, there’s a rhythm to the dialogue that’s both realistic and engaging. Here’s an example:

Susan: You mean you want me to go home?
David: Yes.
Susan: You mean you don’t want me to help you any more?
David: No.
Susan: After all the fun we’ve had?
David: Yes.
Susan: And after all the things I’ve done for you?
David: That’s what I mean.

The two-disc special edition DVD of Bringing Up Baby features a digitally remastered print, as well as a commentary by filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich, whose comedy What’s Up, Doc? (1972) was inspired by the film. The second disc includes The Men Who Made the Movies: Howard Hawks (1973), a first-rate documentary from Richard Schickel that mixes relevant clips from Hawks’ films with an extended interview with the director.

Bringing Up Baby
(1938; directed by Howard Hawks; cable & dvd)
Turner Home Entertainment
List Price: $26.95

Tuesday, October 14 at 12:00 a.m. eastern (late Mon. night) on Turner Classic Movies
Tuesday, December 23 at 1:15 a.m. eastern (late Mon. night) on Turner Classic Movies

Only Angels Have Wings

Only Angels Have Wings (1939) is one of Howard Hawks’ best and most personal films. Hawks was a master of taking on the conventions of a genre and adding deeper meaning to its clichéd elements. At the same time, he was able to reinvigorate the entertainment aspects of the genre, so the end result is a far richer film than you would expect. Only Angels Have Wings is a teeth-clinching adventure film about a band of outcast pilots who bravely agree to fly a South American mail run — in weather conditions that would turn back any other pilot.

As in later Hawks films, you’ll find the themes of loyalty, personal responsibility, and group cohesion. Underneath those themes is a web of complex personal relationships. And within those relationships, you’ll encounter the problem of how we deal with — or choose not to deal with — the issue of our own mortality.

In an interview published in the February 1956 issue of Cahiers du Cinéma, Hawks describes a scene where two of the pilots deal openly with the inevitability of death:

Adventure stories reveal how people behave in the face of death — what they do, say, feel, and even think. I have always liked the scene in Only Angels Have Wings in which a man says, ‘I feel funny,’ and his best friend says ‘your neck is broken,’ and the injured man then says ‘I have always wondered how I would die if I knew I was going to die. I would rather you didn’t watch me.’ And the friend goes out and stands in the rain. I have personally encountered this experience, and the public found it very convincing.

It isn’t all doom and gloom. Only Angels Have Wings has a central life-affirming message and plenty of lighthearted moments. The pilots enjoy themselves all the more because they understand life can be fleeting. The audience’s misgivings are embodied in the Bonnie Lee character played by Jean Arthur. While she is initially repulsed by the men who appear to be insensitive to the loss of their friends, she comes to realize (as we do) that this may be the only way they can do their jobs and remain sane.

No other adventure film, that I’m aware of, does a better of job of presenting both the good effects (intense personal friendships) and bad effects (emotional scaring) that flow from a constant exposure to danger. Even more impressive is the film’s exploration of the intricate interplay between the good and bad effects. Insight into the human psyche on top of an exhilarating adventure story — what more could you ask from a Hollywood film?

Only Angels Have Wings
(1939; directed by Howard Hawks; cable & dvd)
Sony Pictures
List Price: $27.95

Sunday, October 12 at 1:00 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies
Tuesday, December 16 at 2:45 a.m. eastern (late Mon. night) on Turner Classic Movies

The Maltese Falcon

The Maltese Falcon (1941) is often cited as the very first film noir. Whether it is or not depends on your definition of a film noir. It has many of the elements we associate with the genre. On the other hand, director John Huston’s tight script and well-paced direction give it a lift that’s missing from the vast majority of film noirs.

This was Huston’s first directorial effort, and it’s one of the better first films from a Hollywood director. Huston’s father, actor Walter Huston, has a brief role as the ill-fated captain who delivers the all-important package. John Huston was working as a screenwriter for Warner Bros and was anxious to direct one of his own scripts. He chose Dashiell Hammett’s 1929 novel of the same name, which must have seemed an odd choice as the studio had filmed it twice already.

The 1931 version, originally titled The Maltese Falcon, was later retitled Dangerous Female so it wouldn’t be confused with Huston’s 1941 remake. As a pre-code movie, it incorporated some of the seedier elements from the novel, though it lacked the novel’s gritty atmosphere and dramatic tension. A second adaptation titled Satan Met a Lady (1936), starring Bette Davis, was directed with a lighter touch — almost as a comedy.

Huston’s version was a success largely due to his extraordinary skill in creating fully formed characters through dialogue. The script even pokes fun at the conventions of the genre, which is especially remarkable when you consider that Huston was bringing some of those conventions to film for the very first time. Here are a few examples:

Spade: You, uh — you aren’t exactly the sort of a person you pretend to be, are ya?
Brigid: I’m not sure I know exactly what you mean.
Spade: The schoolgirl manner, you know, blushing, stammering, and all that.
Brigid: I haven’t lived a good life — I’ve been bad, worse than you could know.
Spade: That’s good, because if you actually were as innocent as you pretend to be, we’d never get anywhere.
Brigid: I won’t be innocent.
Spade: Good.

Gutman: I distrust a close-mouthed man. He generally picks the wrong time to talk and says the wrong things. Talking’s something you can’t do judiciously, unless you keep in practice. Now, sir, we’ll talk if you like. I’ll tell you right out, I’m a man who likes talking to a man who likes to talk.

Wilmer: Keep on riding me, and they’re gonna be picking iron out of your liver.
Spade: The cheaper the crook, the gaudier the patter, eh?

Gutman: By Gad, sir, you are a character. There’s never any telling what you’ll say or do next, except that it’s bound to be something astonishing.

In addition to launching the directorial career of John Huston, this film brought Humphrey Bogart from the second rank of actors and made him a star. His role as the hard edge — but not heartless — private detective Sam Spade would strike a chord with audiences and cause Warner Bros to seek out similar properties for Bogart. Without the success of The Maltese Falcon, the studio might not have been as eager to film Casablanca (1942) or The Big Sleep (1946).

Bogart’s role in The Maltese Falcon was originally offered to George Raft, who turned it down because he didn’t think the film would be important enough. Had Raft taken the part, Bogart might not have been considered for any of his later roles. And this version wouldn’t have been as successful or influential.

The upcoming Blu-ray looks terrific with deep dark tones in the shadows and an appropriate level of film grain. If you’ve only see this film over the years on a small television, you’ll be amazed at how wonderful it looks on a big screen.

An added bonus on the Blu-ray disc is a studio blooper reel titled “Breakdowns of 1941.” Who knew that Jimmy Stewart, Pat O’Brien, and James Cagney would laughingly curse after flubbing a line? I guess these actors were human after all.

The Maltese Falcon
(1941; directed by John Huston; cable, dvd, & blu-ray)
Warner Home Video
List Price: $24.98 (Blu-ray, available October 5), $29.98 (Three-Disc Special Edition DVD)

Tuesday, October 7 at 9:30 a.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

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