Ball of Fire

Ask any Howard Hawks fan to name Hawks’ best comedies, and you’ll likely be stuck in a twenty-minute conversation. Almost everyone agrees Bringing Up Baby (1938) and His Girl Friday (1940) are top notch, but after that, the choices begin to differ. I would place Twentieth Century (1934) right up there, as well as Ball of Fire (1941). Far superior to Hawk’s own remake (A Song is Born), Ball of Fire sparkles with intelligent wordplay and shines with immediately likable characters.

Written by Charles Brackett, Thomas Monroe, and Billy Wilder, Ball of Fire is the story of seven encyclopedia writers who venture out into the world after nine years of cloistered research. Having just completed their entries on Saltpeter and Sex, they discover their books aren’t up-to-date enough for their entry on Slang. Led by Professor Bertram Potts (Gary Cooper), they encounter Sugarpuss’ O’Shea (Barbara Stanwyck), a fast-talking compendium of street idioms. They learn “shove in your clutch” means “get lost” and a “crabapple annie” is a stuffy, prudish person.

Sugarpuss O’Shea: Do you know what this means – ‘I’ll get you on the Ameche?’
Professor Bertram Potts: No.
Sugarpuss O’Shea: ‘Course you don’t. An Ameche is the telephone, on account of he invented it.
Professor Bertram Potts: Oh, no, he didn’t.
Sugarpuss O’Shea: Like, you know, in the movies.
Professor Bertram Potts: Well, I see what you mean. Very interesting. Make no mistake, I shall regret the absence of your keen mind; unfortunately, it is inseparable from an extremely disturbing body.

Though Wilder denies it was done consciously, the script plays out as a twisted Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Here, Snow White isn’t so innocent, the prince is one of the seven dwarfs, and the dwarfs are called on to save the day. Much of the humor derives from how sheltered the encyclopedists have become in their quest to study life from a distance. Almost all Hawks films explore the dynamics of a closed group, and how it handles threats from the outside world. Ball of Fire fits squarely into that canon, though it’s more gentle than the other top Hawks comedies (the seven men are almost the antithesis of the reporters in His Girl Friday).

Ball of Fire
(1941; directed by Howard Hawks; cable & dvd)
MGM
List Price: $14.98

Sunday, July 12 at 4:00 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

The Shop Around the Corner

Some stories are so good, they’re worth telling over and over again. Take, for example, The Shop Around the Corner (1940), Ernst Lubitsch’s romantic comedy starring Margaret Sullavan and James Stewart. It was remade in 1949 as In the Good Old Summertime, with Judy Garland and Van Johnson. In 1963, it was converted into a Broadway musical, titled She Loves Me. And more recently, it was remade as yet another movie, You’ve Got Mail (1998) with Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks.

At its core, the story is quite simple, which is why it’s so easily adapted. A man and woman, who dislike each other intensely in person, have each found love anonymously in a correspondence with a stranger. What they don’t know – and we do – is that they’re corresponding with each other.

The plot wasn’t entirely original to Lubitsch. Screenwriter Samson Raphaelson adapted it from a Hungarian play. Even though Lubitsch isn’t credited with the screenplay, he and Raphaelson worked closely to write the dialogue on all their collaborations. Here’s an example of the dialogue from the film:

Marton: Remember the girl I was corresponding with?
Pirovitch: Ah, yes . . . about those cultural subjects.
Marton: Well, after a while, we came to the subject of love, naturally, but on a very cultural level.
Pirovitch: What else can you do in a letter?
Marton: Pirovitch, she’s the most marvelous girl in the world . . .
Pirovitch: Is she pretty?
Marton: She has such ideals, such a point of view on things . . . She’s so far above the girls you meet today, there’s simply no comparison.
Pirovitch: So she’s not so very pretty.

In a letter to Herman G. Weinberg (written on July 10, 1947 — just months before his death), Lubitsch suggested his three best films were Trouble in Paradise (1932), Ninotchka (1939), and The Shop Around the Corner. Lubitsch cited The Shop Around the Corner as his best “human comedy.” He wrote, “Never did I make a picture in which the atmosphere and the characters were truer than in this picture.” He chose Trouble in Paradise for its style and Ninotchka for its satire.

While Lubitsch is the master of the sophisticated comedy, you don’t always identify with his characters in the same way you identify with the characters in the comedies of Frank Capra and Leo McCarey. That’s certainly not the case with this film. With its sparkling dialogue, winning performances, and measured pacing, it’s one of the best comedies of the 1940s.

The Shop Around the Corner
(1940; directed by Ernst Lubitsch, cable & dvd)
Warner Home Video
List Price: $19.95

Saturday, July 11 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)

Wednesday, July 8 at 10:00 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

The Red Shoes

A great film depends on everything coming together into an unlikely alignment. If a director, actor, screenwriter, cinematographer, composer, or other essential component is lacking, you may end up with only an interesting film that shows promise.

With The Red Shoes (1948), so many things that could have gone wrong, didn’t. Michael Powell could have chosen to use actors who could dance, rather than dancers who could act. His strategy was high risk, but promised to pay off big — if he could find the right dancers. Basing the story on a dark fairy tale from Hans Christian Anderson was equally perilous, unless Emeric Pressburger’s script could successfully emphasize the warmth and humanity of the ballet company, as much as their artistic spirit and integrity of purpose. And inserting a 17-minute ballet sequence, not at the end of the movie as an emotional climax, but near the middle to place the emotional conflicts into stark relief, would have been commercially foolish if not handled skillfully. That all these things succeeded so spectacularly, when any one of them could easily have failed, is a credit to those involved, but also a fortunate happenstance that all the participants agreed to come onboard.

Much of the audience’s empathy is dependent on the acting talent of Moira Shearer, who was just 21 years old at the time. A dancer at Sadler’s Wells (later renamed the Royal Ballet), Shearer wasn’t eager to put her dancing career on hold, as she explains in this 1994 interview with Brian McFarlane for An Autobiography of British Cinema:

I held out against that film for a whole year. The director Michael Powell was extremely put out by my continued refusal. It never occurred to him that a young girl wouldn’t be overwhelmed by his offer. But I didn’t like the story or the script, which seemed a typical woman’s magazine view of the theatre, and I also realized he knew very little about the ballet. Also, at that time, 1946, I had just started to dance the ballerina roles in the big classics and the last thing I wanted to do ‘was to interrupt this difficult work with a sugary movie.’ Powell bombarded me for weeks in 1946 and I remember thinking, ‘I have to get rid of this man.’ However, he finally got the message and went off in a huff, saying to me, ‘I am now going around the world to find the perfect girl for this part.’

He came back a year later; presumably he hadn’t found his perfect girl, though he had now engaged Leonide Massine and Robert Helpmann, both of whom I knew well, as dancer-actors and to arrange the choreography. Powell went on and on at me and I think he must have bombarded Ninette de Valois because she called me to her office and amazed me by saying, ‘For God’s sake, child, do this film and get it off your chest — and ours, because I can’t stand that man bothering us any longer!’ I asked one question, ‘If I do it, can I come straight back to Covent Garden when the film is complete?’ and her answer was, ‘Yes, of course you can.’ And I did — but not happily. There was a lot of jealousy and bad feeling. I’m afraid I was very naive. Helpmann told me later that the only reason de Valois wanted me to make the film was to give advance publicity in America for the first coast-to-coast tour of her company in 1949. Which, of course, is what happened.

Jack Cardiff also wasn’t eager to join the project. He had worked as the cinematographer for Powell on A Matter of Life and Death (1946) and Black Narcissus (1947), but wasn’t enthralled with the idea of photographing a movie about a ballet company. Powell asked Cardiff to regularly attend the ballet at Covent Garden, where he saw the possibilities of what he could bring to the film. One example was a special camera Cardiff designed that let him vary the film speed while the dancers performed. By slowing down their movements imperceptivity, he enhanced the visual impression they were soaring through the air or reaching extreme heights. Cardiff was probably the finest Technicolor cinematographer ever, and two of his films — Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes — are often cited as the best examples of what can be achieved with the Technicolor process.

Though risky, The Red Shoes was a financial success. In the U.S., it began quietly with a 110-week run at The Bijou in New York City and was then picked up for national distribution. It had a strong influence on Hollywood musicals. The extended ballet-like sequences in An American in Paris (1951) and Singin’ in the Rain (1952) might never have been approved without proof there was an eager audience for this merging of art forms.

The Red Shoes
(1948; directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger; cable, dvd, & blu-ray)
Criterion Collection
List Price: $39.95 (Blu-ray), $39.95 (DVD)

Tuesday, July 8 at 11:30 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)
Warner Home Video
List Price: $26.99 (Two-Disc Special Edition DVD)

Saturday, July 4 at 8:00 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

Passion of Joan of Arc

If the historical figure at the center of The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) could be said to embody uncompromised dedication, the same could be said of the film’s director, Carl Theodore Dreyer. Consisting entirely of close-ups and medium shots, with only the sparest of backgrounds, Dreyer relentlessly focuses in on the characters and conflicts. It may be the closest we’ve ever come to a pure narrative cinema. As you might expect, reactions to this pared-down style vary. Most film historians view this as one of the greatest silent films ever made. I wholeheartedly agree. Others see it as too extreme. You’ll have decide for yourself.

Much of the emotional appeal of this film can be attributed to the remarkable performance by Maria Falconetti as Jeanne d’Arc. It is often cited as the finest performance ever committed to celluloid. In a 1965 interview with Cahiers du Cinéma, Dreyer explains how he chose Falconetti for the part:

I went to see her one afternoon and we spoke together for an hour or two. I had seen her at the theatre. A little boulevard theatre whose name I have forgotten. She was playing there in a light, modern comedy and she was very elegant in it, a bit giddy, but charming. She didn’t conquer me at once and I didn’t have confidence in her immediately. I simply asked her if I could come to see her the next day. And during that visit, we talked. That is when I sensed that there was something in her to which one could make an appeal. Something that she could give; something, therefore that I could take.

For, behind the make-up, the pose, behind that modern and ravishing appearance, there was something. There was a soul behind that facade. If I could see her remove the facade it would suffice me. So I told her that I would very much like, starting the next day, to do a screen test with her. ‘But without make-up,’ I added, ‘with your face completely naked.’

She came, therefore, the next day ready and willing. She had taken off her make-up, we made the tests, and I found on her face exactly what I had been seeking for Joan of Arc: a rustic woman, very sincere, who was also a woman who had suffered. But even so, this discovery did not represent a total surprise for me, for, from our first meeting, this woman was very frank and, always, very surprising.

Dreyer based the script on the original trial transcripts from the year 1431, as well as a novel by Joseph Delteil. The film took a year and a half to complete, in part because Dreyer insisted that the costumes, church, courtyard, gestures, and other aspects of the production were as authentic as possible. The whole construction was painted pink, rather than white, to give it a gray tint against the sky.

According to Ebbe Neergaard’s book Carl Dreyer: A Film Director’s Work, Dreyer demanded absolute silence and banished anyone who wasn’t needed whenever Falconetti had an important scene. Neergaard writes, “She was, as it were, activated into expressing what Dreyer could not show her, for it was something that could only be expressed in action, not speech, and she alone could do it, so she had to help him. And she realized that this could only be done if she dropped all intellectual inhibitions and let her feelings have free access from her subconscious to her facial expression.”

The Passion of Joan of Arc
(1928; directed by Carl Theodore Dreyer; cable & dvd)
Criterion Collection
List Price: $39.95

Monday, June 29 at 12:00 a.m. eastern (late Sun. night) on Turner Classic Movies

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

Sunday, June 28 at 6:00 a.m. eastern 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 discs from Criterion and Lions Gate are 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)

Saturday, June 27 at 1:15 a.m. eastern (late Fri. night) on Turner Classic Movies

Out of the Past

It’s interesting to note that my two favorite film noirs of the 1940s — Double Indemnity (1944) and Out of the Past (1947) — also have the two best femme fatales (Barbara Stanwyck and Jane Greer). Which one is the deadliest? If both were in the room, I would say keep your eye out for Greer. She’s much better at convincing those around her that she couldn’t possibly be doing what you think she is doing.

In Out of the Past, Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum) describes Kathie Moffat (Greer) as “a bit cold around the heart.” Jeff knows he is being conned, and that he is going to have to pay big time for it, but he can’t help himself (just like Walter Neff in Double Indemnity).

This was Mitchum’s first starring role, and he wasn’t the first choice. Both John Garfield and Dick Powell turned down the part. This is arguably Mitchum’s best role and a perfect launching pad for his career. Kirk Douglas plays Whit Sterling, who sends Jeff to look for Kathie, his mistress. Daniel Mainwaring (using the pen name Geoffrey Homes) wrote the screenplay based on his novel, Build My Gallows High.

Director Jacques Tourneur expertly guides the viewer through the various plot twists and double dealings. Tourneur is best known for his previous collaboration with Val Lewton on the atmospheric horror films Cat People (1942) and I Walked with a Zombie (1943), though Out of the Past is probably his finest film. He came by his talent naturally. His father was Maurice Tourneur, a well-respected Hollywood silent film director.

Here’s a trivia question for you. When the film was remade in 1984 as Against All Odds, what part did Jane Greer play? She was cast as the mother of her original character.

Out of the Past
(1947; directed by Jacques Tourneur; cable, dvd, and blu-ray)
Warner Archive Collection
List Price: $21.99 (Blu-ray)
Warner Home Video
List Price: $19.95 (DVD)

Friday, June 26 at 1:00 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

The Big Sleep

What if someone created a murder mystery so entertaining you didn’t care who did the murder? That’s the case with The Big Sleep (1946). Based on Raymond Chandler’s first novel, the story draws private detective Philip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) into an ever expanding circle of corruption and conspiracy. Eight deaths are woven throughout the book and film, making it unusually hard to keep up with the various murderers and victims. Director Howard Hawks phoned Chandler long distance during the film’s production because he couldn’t figure out who murdered the man who was dumped in the ocean along with his car. According to Hawks, Chandler was unable to provide an adequate solution.

William Faulkner worked on the script, along with Jules Furthman and Leigh Brackett. Faulkner had teamed with Hawks, Bogart, and Lauren Bacall the previous year on To Have and Have Not (1944). If you’re familiar with Faulkner’s novels, it’s an interesting game to try to spot the Faulkner dialogue throughout the two films.

Here are a few examples from The Big Sleep that Faulkner may have had a hand in crafting:

Vivian: Speaking of horses, I like to play them myself. But I like to see them workout a little first, see if they’re front runners or come from behind, find out what their whole card is, what makes them run.
Marlowe: Find out mine?
Vivian: I think so.
Marlowe: Go ahead.
Vivian: I’d say you don’t like to be rated. You like to get out in front, open up a little lead, take a little breather in the backstretch, and then come home free.
Marlowe: You don’t like to be rated yourself.
Vivian: I haven’t met anyone yet that can do it. Any suggestions?
Marlowe: Well, I can’t tell till I’ve seen you over a distance of ground. You’ve got a touch of class, but I don’t know how, how far you can go.
Vivian: A lot depends on who’s in the saddle.

Mars: Convenient, the door being open when you didn’t have a key, eh?
Marlowe: Yeah, wasn’t it. By the way, how’d you happen to have one?
Mars: Is that any of your business?
Marlowe: I could make it my business.
Mars: I could make your business mine.
Marlowe: Oh, you wouldn’t like it. The pay’s too small.

Marlowe: Hmm.
Sternwood: What does that mean?
Marlowe: It means, hmm.

Based on the running time of 114 minutes, it looks like TCM will be showing the 1946 theatrical release of The Big Sleep. The DVD includes the theatrical release, as well as the less-familiar 116-minute prerelease version from 1945. The earlier version has an easier-to-follow, more linear plot. The release version moves along faster, sustains the film noir mood better, and is an overall superior film.

The Big Sleep
(1946; directed by Howard Hawks; cable & dvd)
Warner Home Video
List Price: $19.95

Friday, June 19 at 11:30 a.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

Greed

Ask any film archivist what would be a great find, and you’ll probably hear the words, “the complete Greed.” Greed (1924) was voted one of the twelve best films of all time by an international jury at the 1958 Brussels Exposition. Yet the release version, which runs about two hours, is only a quarter the length of the original rough cut and about half the length of the edited version that director Erich von Stroheim was willing to accept. It prompts the question: If the two-hour butchered version is so good, how much better might the original four-hour or eight-hour versions be? Unfortunately, those versions no longer exist. Whether they were in fact better or not, we may never know.

The first three films Stroheim directed were big financial successes: Blind Husbands (1919), The Devil’s Passkey (1920), and Foolish Wives (1922). His realistic style, obsessive attention to detail, and unflinching character portrayals inspired Jean Renoir to become a film director. Renoir’s realistic style — in turn — inspired the Italian Neo-Realist movement of the late 1940s and early 1950s. By 1922, Stroheim had attained the kind of clout in Hollywood held only by Chaplin and Griffith. When the Goldwyn Company agreed to back his next project, a film based on Frank Norris’ naturalistic novel McTeague, the studio had no idea Stroheim would adapt the entire book and make no effort to sugarcoat the story’s grittiness and stark pessimism.

In his book Saint Cinema, Herman G. Weinberg wrote of Stroheim and Greed:

His fanatical quest for more realistic portrayals sometimes led him to extremes, and Jean Hersholt tells the story of the filming at Death Valley, where Stroheim actually drove his actors frantic until they were in such a state of wrath that they had no difficulty in playing the scenes of the fight at the end of the picture. Stroheim is said to have told them to look at each other with hatred, as if they were looking at him.

Based on the production stills and continuity script, we can piece together what the complete film might have looked like. Weinberg published a book in 1972 titled The Complete “Greed,” where he reconstructed the original cut using 400 stills. In 1999, Rick Schmidlin took the effort even further by combining the existing footage with 650 stills. Through optical pans, zooms, and iris effects, Schmidlin was able to bring a cinematic touch to the stills and successfully fill in many of the gaps in the narrative. This version runs 242 minutes.

Neither the theatrical release or Schmidlin’s reconstruction are currently available on DVD. Turner Classic Movies shows both versions from time to time. All things being equal, it would probably be best to see the theatrical version first, but because they turn up only occasionally, you may want to dive right into the reconstructed version. Either way, you’ll be amazed at the emotional power and visual subtlety that could be achieved with silent film.

Based on the 129 minute running time, it appears that TCM will not be running Rick Schmidlin’s reconstructed version of Greed on June 15.

Greed
(1924; directed by Erich von Stroheim; cable)

Monday, June 15 at 12:00 a.m. eastern (late Sun. 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

Friday, June 12 at 3:00 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

Mr. Arkadin

Mr. Arkadin (1955) has always been a difficult film for Welles fans. Visually and thematically, it plays out like a baroque variation on Citizen Kane (1941). Once again, Welles portrays a wealthy megalomaniac who attempts to control how others view him, even to the point of buying their adoration. But unlike Citizen Kane, Mr. Arkadin’s technical flaws prevent the story from completely jelling. It also hasn’t helped that the film could only be seen in blurry, incomplete prints with sometimes obvious voice-overs (Welles personally dubbed-in the voices for 18 of the minor characters). Most critics wrote off Mr. Arkadin as a failed attempt to rekindle Welles’ creative flames.

Even sympathetic Welles scholars felt the need to mix their praise for the film with a strong disappointment in its shortcomings. Here’s what Joseph McBride had to say in his book Orson Welles:

If The Stranger is self-parody, albeit unconscious, Mr. Arkadin is something more dangerous and more interesting: a work, like Sternberg’s The Devil Is a Woman or Ford’s Donovan’s Reef, in which the artist pushes his style past its limits, treating his most personal themes self-consciously, with a measure of irony, and in a manner not pretending to physical or psychological realism. The result, if successful, is a refinement of the artist’s themes to a high pitch of intensity, an intoxicating liberation. The given story is kept purposefully simple so as not to hinder the free expression of character and motif. The pitfalls of such excess are obvious, though for Sternberg and Ford the problem is less acute because on a basic level the concerns of the director and the general audience coincide . . . Welles pretends to no such level of common response, and in this we may see the essential failure of Mr. Arkadin.

We may be due for a major reassessment of this often overlooked film. Criterion has released a new three-disc DVD set it has optimistically titled The Complete Mr. Arkadin. The package contains no less than three versions of the film: the 99-minute Corinth version, which is the earliest English-language version; the 98-minute Confidential Report version, which is the European release that was completed by producer Louis Dolivet after he and Welles had split; and a new 105-minute comprehensive version that may be as close as we’ll ever come to what Welles had hoped the film might become.

The DVD set also includes a book version that in the true Wellesian tradition may — or may not — be a work by Orson Welles, since it appears to be “an unaccredited English translation of a French text adapted and translated from Welles’ writing by a friend and ghostwriter.” Intrigued? Welcome to the many mysteries that surround this unusual project.

Mr. Arkadin
(1955; directed by Orson Welles; cable & dvd)
Criterion Collection
List Price: $49.95

Thursday, June 11 at 6:45 a.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

Rashomon

Rashomon (1950) might have been just a concept film — a fascinating idea trapped inside a mediocre movie. Instead, director Akira Kurosawa gave us a film that’s equally rich in character and imagery. It was so successful, the title became synonymous with its plot device, that four witnesses could recount radically different versions of the facts. Another director might have steered us toward the conclusion that one of the four versions is the true version. Kurosawa strives for a deeper understanding, that we inevitably filter reality through various psychological, social, and religious prisms.

While much is made of Rashomon’s inspired depiction of subjective truth, you rarely read about its other innovations. Compared with his previous efforts, including Drunken Angel (1948) and Stray Dog (1949), Rashomon represents a significant shift in Kurosawa’s approach to filmmaking.

In Something Like an Autobiography, Kurosawa explained how he wanted to recapture his childhood enthusiasm for film as a purely visual medium:

Since the advent of the talkies in the 1930s, I felt we had misplaced and forgotten what was so wonderful about the old silent movies. I was aware of the aesthetic loss as a constant irritation. I sensed a need to go back to the origins of the motion picture to find this peculiar beauty again; I had to go back into the past.

In particular, I believed that there was something to be learned from the spirit of the French avant-garde films of the 1920s. Yet in Japan at this time we had no film library. I had to forage for old films, and try to remember the structure of those I had seen as a boy, ruminating over the aesthetics that had made them special.

Rashomon would be my testing ground, the place where I could apply the ideas and wishes growing out of my silent-film research. To provide the symbolic background atmosphere, I decided to use the Akutagawa ‘In a Grove’ story, which goes into the depths of the human heart as if with a surgeon’s scalpel, laying bare its dark complexities and bizarre twists. These strange impulses of the human heart would be expressed through the use of an elaborately fashioned play of light and shadow.

The lights and shadows are enhanced by intricately orchestrated camera movements. Much like the camera movements in Sunrise (1927), Rashomon’s camera sometimes follows the characters, sometimes leads the characters, and sometimes moves in opposition to the characters. In Sunrise, the camera movements reflect the husband’s moral hesitation in meeting with the city woman. In Rashomon, the camera movements reflect the viewer’s struggle to find a common path through the four stories.

Kazuo Miyagawa, the film’s cinematographer, carefully mapped out the scenes where the viewer is led through the forest, often at breakneck speeds. Miyagawa broke with cinematic conventions when he aimed the camera directly at the sun as it moved in and out of the trees. The same effect was copied in Hollywood throughout the 1950s and 1960s, both for movies and television. Kurosawa and Miyagawa chose to photograph the Rashomon gate in pouring rain to enhance its bleakness. After running a series of tests and determining the rain wouldn’t be visible, they added black ink to the rain so it could be seen against the gray sky.

This movie improves with each viewing, not because the plot is overly complex, but because it has so much to offer visually, aesthetically, and philosophically.

Rashomon
(1950; directed by Akira Kurosawa; cable, dvd, & blu-ray)
Criterion Collection
List Price: $39.95 (Blu-ray), $19.95 (DVD)

Monday, June 8 at 2:30 a.m. eastern (late Sun. night) on Turner Classic Movies

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