Thursday, April 30, 2015

THE LAST HURRAH (Columbia 1958) Sony Home Entertainment

Teeming with oodles of Gaelic charm and imbued with its director’s inimitable wit and humanity, The Last Hurrah (1958) ranks among the finest – and woefully underrated masterworks – in John Ford’s illustrious oeuvre. The subject is only superficially political; that is to say, based on the novel by Edwin O’Connor – itself, a very transparent homage to Boston’s 4-term mayor, James Michael Curley. Yet, at its crux, The Last Hurrah is far more interested in telling the tale of a great man’s inevitable decline and defeat; Frank Skeffington, played with superior intelligence and uncharacteristic warmth by Spencer Tracy. Frank S. Nugent’s screenplay deconstructs this seemingly unrepentant political animal, driven by ego perhaps, though arguably, with his heart always in the right place as a benevolent pater to his loyal constituents and devout cronies alike.  And although well-oiled, the machinery behind Skeffington’s reelection campaign is hardly predicated on the time-honored ‘win at all costs’ graft and ‘spin-doctored’ media manipulations that today seem to have entirely run off with even the notion of politics as a higher calling to serve one’s community; instead, supplanted by the greedy understanding it can become a vocation, expressly exploited to one’s own advantage.
Rich in spirit, Frank Skeffington is otherwise a relatively poor man; risen through the ranks on the ether of the oft popularized American dream. In ‘honest’ political terms, this means he is a vessel to his people.  In one of the most understatedly eloquent moments in the film, Skeffington takes his nephew, Adam Caulfield (Jeffrey Hunter) on a walking tour of the old neighborhood; a dingy tenement and tight back alley that was home, not only to Frank, but also Adam’s father-in-law; now, the embittered and highfaluting, Roger Sugrue (Willis Bouchey); also, his eminence, the Cardinal Martin Burke (stalwart, Donald Crisp) who, in more recent years, has distanced himself from Frank and his political ambitions. Like all great leaders, Frank Skeffington is buffeted by self-righteous and fame-seeking usurpers, newspaper editor, Amos Force (John Carradine) and banker, Norman Cass Sr. (Basil Rathbone); each anxious to tear down Skeffington’s mantle of quality. Both lack integrity, politicizing Skeffington’s own as an affront to the city’s future prosperity – or rather, their inability to dictate to it from the sidelines as a puppet regime. For that, these enemies turn to political virgin, Kevin McCluskey (Charles B. Fitzsimons); an empty suit, reporting to be the new ‘everyman’, but with his head decidedly filled full of lies and dead air.
Ford pauses a moment here, just enough to pin his audience on their nostalgia for another time and a way of life that, like all having since passed before it, seems more richly satisfying and sweetly familiar. Thematically, Ford is drawing on a bottomless wellspring for inspiration. The Last Hurrah is a picture of such moments, loosely strung together to buoy the ‘re-election’ narrative. This is really the film’s backstory, not its primary focus. And Ford, a master storyteller, stealthily peels away the various layers of double-talk and hyperbole to slowly reveal the winning side. Alas, the winning side is not the one that wins the election; rather, he who graciously admits defeat, seemingly without dismay or a bitter heart. Herein, Spencer Tracy illustrates the gravity of a man’s life’s work in the political arena; the tenacity required to navigate through these proverbially shark-infested waters, manage the daily duties with a firm hand and clear-eyed view from on high, never talking down to those responsible for securing his office, but thoroughly unwilling to surrender even an inch to the backroom backstabbers who would deny him his place in the sun. Make no mistake; Frank Skeffington is a political animal, though undeniably the lesser of two evils facing voters at the polls.    
In preparing his movie, John Ford was challenged by an injunction from James Michael Curley, not on the grounds the movie might demonize his reputation, but rather, because Curley had sincerely hoped some film company would take an interest in doing a ‘legitimate’ bio-pic based on his real experiences in the political arena. The suit came to not; settled out of court, reportedly for a meager $42,000.  And Ford, conscious of the fact politics and cinema rarely made for phenomenal box office, worked diligently to ensure The Last Hurrah remained more centrically a character study than an exposé, in the process, managing to bring his production in $200,000 under its initial $2.5 million budget. Curiously, The Last Hurrah does not seem to suffer from Ford’s penny pinching. If anything, it has the look of a stately, if atypical, Columbia movie from the period, its greatest asset, a superb cast; most of them old-time alumni, appreciative to work with the old master one more time. Tracy’s performance is undeniably the standout. But he is flanked on all sides by some of the most respected names in the industry; the crème de la crème from Hollywood’s golden era, looking older and, perhaps, slightly frayed around the edges, yet nevertheless capable of commanding the screen.
In retrospect, it is one of Hollywood’s supreme ironies Spencer Tracy did not make the grade for a Best Actor Academy Award – not even a nomination! Historically, AMPAS has had a dodgy track record honoring noteworthy performances. While it may be argued the market then was saturated with such outstanding contenders, herein, the snub seems particularly unfair; Tracy marginally moving beyond his iconographic star presence, permeating this characterization with sentiment and sincerity; also a hint of playful petty larceny. His Frank Skeffington is neither the perfect politico nor entirely altruistic in his motivations. Four terms in the coveted hot seat, how could he have remained thus? But Ford’s direction, Nugent’s screenplay, and, Tracy’s performance all conspire to paint a portrait of a man unbowed, either by the weight of his office or by the necessary machinations forcedly observed and frequently equalized against the principles of his finer nature.  Late in the movie’s second act, Skeffington explains the art of the compromise to his nephew’s wife, Maeve Sugrue Caulfield (Dianne Foster) as knowing ‘what the people want’ but also ‘what you can settle for’; perhaps, the most succinct, yet factual definition yet made to define politics: the sideshow that thinks it is the whole circus.  
Caught in the crossfire of Skeffington’s reelection bid is nephew, Adam Caulfield, torn between familial loyalties, particularly as Rodger is one of Skeffington’s most vehement adversaries, and, the mayor’s blindly devoted ‘everyman’, Ditto Boland (Edward Brophy) – arguably, the novice of the piece destined to be stripped of his wide-eyed optimism.  Skeffington, a widower, who daily places a single fresh rose at the foot of his late wife’s portrait, prominently hanged in the front hall of the mayor’s mansion, is saddled with a devil-may-care for a son, Frank Jr. (Arthur Walsh); oblivious to practically everything except a good time and far more interested in preening glamor gals and golf than his father’s embattled race for a fifth term. Without belaboring the point, Ford casts a jaundice view on children born to privilege; their thoroughly misguided selfishness and inability to grasp at any reality without parental codependence – especially monetary support.
After an ebullient main title, featuring a torch-lit processional in support of Frank Skeffington (Spencer Tracy), our story begins in an undisclosed ‘New England’ city. Skeffington, a devout Catholic and a widower, who rose to prominence from the Irish ghetto, announces his plans to run for a fifth term as the city’s mayor.  Until now, Skeffington’s most valuable asset has been his own political savvy; figuring out ways to exploit the machinery of his ward heelers to do his bidding while maintaining an ever-loyal Irish Catholic constituency.  While rumors of graft have swirled around his administration for years, Skeffington’s reputation remains Teflon-coated, despite some heady opposition from Protestant Bishop Gardner (Basil Ruysdael), ruthless banker, Norman Cass (Basil Rathbone) and curmudgeonly newspaper publisher, Amos Force (John Carradine). His Eminence, the Cardinal Martin Burke (Donald Crisp) has also shied away from Skeffington’s cause, backing the candidacy of one Kevin McCluskey (Charles B. Fitzsimons), a cherub-faced young Catholic lawyer and war veteran with virtually no political experience.
At present, Skeffington’s nephew, Adam Caulfield (Jeffrey Hunter) is a sportswriter for Force’s paper. His father-in-law, Roger Sugrue (Willis Bouchey), is among those who bitterly oppose Skeffington; his venom frequently driving a wedge between Adam and wife, Maeve (Dianne Foster) whose loyalties are understandably divided right down the middle. Plucking Adam from his relative obscurity, Skeffington invites him to partake in this final election, purely as an unobstructed inside observer. He may cover the story from any perspective that suits his fancy; Skeffington laying down some ground rules as to how the modes of campaigning have shifted in his own time; from a hands-on approach to meeting the people, shaking hands and kissing babies, to the more prolific, but clinical, approach of building an audience through mainstream medias outlets like radio and – more importantly, television. Asked by Adam to quantify the reason why his publisher should so despise Skeffington, Frank explains how in years gone by Adam’s grandmother worked as a housemaid in Kaleb Force’s grand manor; accused of stealing a few overly ripe bananas and publicly cast out as an ingrate.  The pall of this inconsequential thievery has forever colored Amos Force’s opinion of the Skeffingtons.
Skeffington launches into his ‘last hurrah’ preferring to pursue old-fashioned politics, attending numerous rallies, luncheons, dinners and giving speeches that incur Force’s ire. Skeffington’s influence is such that when he elects to attend an unpopular old friend, Knocko Minihan’s wake, what ought to have been a quiet gathering for bereavement is suddenly transformed into a three-ring social mixer; even bringing out Skeffington’s opponents, like the bombastic, Charles J. Hennessey (Wallace Ford) in a show of faux communal support. Adam is frankly appalled by the orchestration of these events until one of Skeffington’s insiders, John Gorman (Pat O’Brien) points out without such attendance the deceased’s widow, Gert (Anna Lee) would have been left almost penniless by expenses incurred. Instead, the outpouring of sympathy – however manufactured – has come with a flood of donations, Skeffington quietly donating a cool $1,000 to the cause without publicizing it.
After Norman Cass’ bank turns down a loan for the city to build a housing development, Skeffington crashes the exclusive Plymouth Club to confront him, Force, the bishop, and other members of the social elite who are presently at luncheon. Bishop Gardner is likely amused by the intrusion; Skeffington playing hardball with Cass, accusing him and the rest of the gentlemen seated at his table being opposed to the clearance of slums in Ward 9. The confrontation quickly escalates after Skeffington is told it is his municipal administration that is hampering this development; Cass suggesting he clear his conscience by clearing out of city hall to make way for new blood. But Skeffington challenges Cass on his uppity blue-blood heritage. The city is being made to suffer because its civic-minded authorities are not of the same class or religious background as the Mayor and that is all. They are the ones holding Skeffington’s administration, and, by extension, the people hostage, not the other way around. Frank vows to push the housing development project through, with or without their help and furthermore, he threatens its’ grand opening will be on the most distinctly Irish of all national holidays: St. Patrick’s Day.
Not long afterward, Skeffington taps into an idea how best to humiliate Norman Cass; by appointing his dimwitted son, Norman Jr. (O.Z. Whitehead) as the city’s new Fire Commissioner; a post for which he is neither suited nor even modestly capable of defining, hence creating a public spectacle of himself, surely to chagrin the family name. Norman Sr. is outraged, considering Skeffington’s bluff a crude and shabby attempt to force his hand on the housing loan. But Skeffington forewarns he has no quam about leaving Norman Jr. to his own devices, to stumble and fall and embarrass himself thoroughly. Cass is over a barrel and knows it. He uses the Mayor’s phone to immediately put the load through; also, to contact Amos Force, offering absolute backing of Kevin McKluskey’s campaign. The next day, Adam takes notice of the Plymouth Club, decked out in red, white and blue as the official campaign headquarters for Kevin McKluskey.  However, in attempting to portray McKluskey as the all-American everyman with fresh ideas, the initial launch of his campaign platform hits a major snag when a scripted (though, supposedly spontaneous) interview on live television goes hopelessly awry. The dog hired to portray the family pet misbehaves and will not stop barking, causing Kevin to badly mangle his speech, while Mrs. McKluskey (Helen Westcott) is stricken with a paralytic bout of stage fright.
Cass had sincerely hoped Bishop Gardner would endorse McKluskey’s candidacy. But Gardner refuses, pointing out he would rather support a wily rake than a naïve fool. His Eminence, the Cardinal is equally disappointed by the lad’s performance, also morally outraged to discover a very large portrait of himself prominently hanging above the fireplace and featured in the TV interview, thereby giving the illusion the Cardinal is supporting McKluskey’s bid. Alas, McKluskey is no more a politician than he is a garbage man, incapable of knowing his own mind because he has never fully invested himself to learn about the issues at stake. He can be easily bought and manipulated – exactly the sort of Mayor both Cass and Force hope for to use to their own advantage.
As a show of pleasant protest, Skeffington has his torch lit campaign parade, complete with open top car and marching bands, pass slowly by the Plymouth Club, allowing Force and his cronies to quietly observe the spectacle in all its’ flourish. Afterward, Adam brings ‘Uncle Frank’ over to his house for dinner; an impromptu surprise for Maeve who is, at first, moderately reluctant. Almost immediately, Skeffington lays on the charm, his seasoned way with a kind word, the quintessence of authenticity. Maeve is completely won over, if not by the compliments; then, certainly by Skeffington’s art of the compromise. The election enters its final round, the voters going to the polls and Skeffington riding a crest of popularity he fervently believes will leave him comfortably ensconced in the Mayor’s mansion for a fifth term. Tragically, after some promising early returns, the tide turns against him. McKluskey sweeps the polls with unanticipated force, leaving Ditto distraught and in tears. Ever the pro, Skeffington invites the press in for a gracious consolation speech.
Afterward, refusing Adam’s invitation to return to his house for a post-election powwow, Skeffington instead takes a stroll past the Plymouth Club before heading home. The results have hit him harder than he anticipated. He suffers a stroke and collapses on the stairs. The next afternoon, Skeffington’s loyal campaigners rally at his home; Ditto fielding telephone calls and bouquets of flowers brought to the front door by devoted well-wishers, including Gert Minihan. Dr. Tom (William Forrest) advises complete bed rest. Frank is to see no one except his immediate family. Unhappy chance for Skeffington, his son has yet to grasp the gravity of the situation, preferring to stay out all night and only breeze in to check up at a glance on his old man. Adam steps in as his surrogate, the son Frank ought to have had, and Maeve rushes to be with her husband. Regrettably, she is accompanied by her father, who cannot wait for Skeffington to expire. But even Roger is bewildered to discover both Bishop Gardner and the Cardinal at Skeffington’s bedside. As Dr. Tom prepares for the worst, Roger cruelly mutters with utter malevolence, “I’m sure if he had it to do all over again, he’d do things differently” to which Skeffington, weak but still very much alive, proudly reiterates, “The hell I would!”
It is the penultimate moment of farewell for Spencer Tracy’s beloved and uncompromising politico; director John Ford, sparing us the exact moment of Skeffington’s passing with a beautifully composed metaphor in its place; Maeve and Adam descending the grand staircase, Adam pausing a moment on the landing before the portrait of Skeffington’s dearly departed wife to replace the softly wilted single rose as his Uncle Frank always did as a gesture of his enduring fidelity in their marriage. The last shot is as symbolic of the great man’s sudden absence; the staircase, lights dimmed, ascended in silence by a steady stream of Skeffington loyalists in half silhouette, their heads bowed. Ford’s artistry herein is faultless: a master craftsman, so confident in his ability to stir the heart and mind in tandem, so utterly secure in his storytelling decisions to convey all the funerary drama, sadness, etc., that he denies us its obvious aftermath in tears; replaced by impressionistic glimpses of what more genuine mourning involves.
Like all Ford’s greatest masterpieces, The Last Hurrah is immensely satisfying on an emotional level. Despite his own outwardly curmudgeonly façade, I suspect John Ford was a rank sentimentalist at heart; perhaps a man who masked his own tenderness behind those dark lensed glasses and perpetual scowl, chomping on his smelly cigar - a stone face by design - meant to prevent the outside world from recognizing what an ole softy he truly was. Without question, those who knew him best and readily appeared in his pictures, were both fond of the man and eager to come when he called. They did their best work for him too. In retrospect, The Last Hurrah is a perfect marriage between Ford’s storytelling prowess, perfect performances and Frank S. Nugent’s first-class screenplay. On its own, portions of the dialogue might be considered maudlin or, on occasion, too theatrical. Yet, put into the mouths of such skilled thespians, these same words becomes almost Shakespearean in nature, full of fire and music. The Last Hurrah might just as easily become heavily weighted toward the politics in the piece. But Ford, a man of deeper wellsprings than most his contemporary critics gave him credit for, exercises great restraint herein. He is impervious to rank schmaltziness, yet susceptible to the good cry. The finale to The Last Hurrah allows the audience just such a release. Critical praise for the film was immediate and nearly unanimous, Variety (the showbiz Bible) leading the charge, labeling The Last Hurrah a classic of Americana”.  Even so, the picture proved a financial disappointment, losing more than $1.8 million.
I’ve dug back a bit for this one. In the old days when Sony had yet to fully annex Columbia Studios via marketing, The Last Hurrah appeared as part of their signature ‘Columbia Classics’ DVD line. It bears mentioning herein that Sony has always taken the high road where film preservation and restoration is concerned. Despite being released to home video during DVD’s infancy in 1998, and even more impressive when critically compared to today’s level of expectations in hi-def, The Last Hurrah on standard DVD holds up remarkably well: impeccably, in fact. The anamorphic B&W image is crisp and solid with barely a hint of age-related dirt orscratches. Film grain is consistently rendered and there is a level of fine detail, particularly startling in close-up that is nothing short of astounding.  Bottom line: Charles Lawton Jr.’s cinematography looks magnificent. While I would respectfully champion Sony to reissue The Last Hurrah to Blu-ray with God’s speed, realistically, I cannot imagine how much better it might look in 1080p. The DVD is quite simply that good! The audio is Dolby Digital mono and equally as impressive. Skeffington’s night parade, as example, has an unanticipated aggressiveness. The one unforgiveable sin: no extras, except for a trailer. Personally, I’d like to see Criterion get a hold of this one and do an ‘extra features laden’ special edition. The Last Hurrah is certainly deserving of such a treatment. For now, this DVD rates my highest level of recommendation.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Tuesday, April 28, 2015

42ND STREET: Blu-ray (Warner Bros. 1933) Warner Archive

Busby Berkeley: colossal genius or masochistic joke? The debate over America’s premiere architect of the Hollywood musical from the 1930's rages on, fueled primarily by conflicting testimonials from the people who worked for him and by nearly six decades of fraudulent academic debate (most of it based in Freudian feminism) that has attempted to place Berkeley’s representation of the female form divine somewhere between mere oddity and compromised, fetishized, objectified ‘things’ to be ogled on the silver screen. Get over it! There is little to deny Berkeley’s vision. It isn’t about the dancer; rather, the art of movement and positioning; also, geometry and mind-boggling precision. The Busby Berkeley style is as much an exercise in the proficient micromanagement of a multitude of chorines, as placing the individual into the collective, only to pluck her once more from obscurity, often, employing a stunning array of highly stylized camera movements. Much more than superficial flights into fancy the semisweet center of a Busby Berkeley number does more than hint at conformity bordering on the fascistic – Berkeley’s ‘parade of faces’ oddly alike, yet each distinguishable from the rest. Alas, the same holds true for the way Berkeley handles men, though there are unmistakably less of them on tap.
Berkeley’s manipulation of the female body creates elaborate human kaleidoscopes that unfold as if by some great domino effect to produce an endless ‘exploitation’ of arms and legs, all preening and/or kicking in unison. Yet, Busby Berkeley liberates the chorine from her traditional nameless place among the backdrop and props. No more confined in long shot, Berkeley draws the focus of his camera inward to showcase bouquets of fresh faces blossoming with girlish pride. “We’ve got all these beautiful girls,” Berkeley used to say, “Why not let the public see them?”  One fact remains irrefutable. Berkeley’s camera work forever freed the art of dance on film from its stage-bound proscenium. The liquidity of his camera gave life – nee, excitement – to dance on film. In a Berkeley number it’s not only the dancers who twirl. But beyond the purity and polish of these art deco escapisms remains a tension – sexual and otherwise – as stark and uncompromising as the Great Depression and never further than arm’s reach.  
Perhaps, Berkeley took the Depression to heart. Fame can do strange things to people and in Berkeley’s case it only seems to have magnified his insecurities and self-loathing. After all, his personal life was another matter entirely and mostly a contradiction he never quite managed to overcome: struggling with lifelong melancholy and bouts of chronic alcoholism, married and divorced four times; bankrupt and bitter and almost myopically focused on his latest project.  A stint in the US Army artillery, conducting drill routines for parades, gave Berkeley direction and discipline. But he was forever ashamed of the fact he knew absolutely nothing about choreography in the traditional sense. Despite this handicap, Berkeley’s innovations in the theater quickly garnered him the attentions of Broadway's top dance directors, and, eventually, its reigning impresario, Florenz Ziegfeld Jr.  Until Berkeley’s debut in Hollywood, dance directors usually worked only on the choreography in films, the numbers later staged for the camera by the film’s director. Berkeley set a new standard: complete autonomy.
After 1931’s Flying High, an inhospitable creative experience working for Samuel Goldwyn, Berkeley made a break to Warner Bros. His timing could not have been more perfect although initially, not even Berkeley could see it. But the studio was looking for a ‘new deal’ to re-launch the big and splashy Hollywood musical. During the early sound era, musicals had been churned out like sausage; the public’s appetite for these gaudy revue-styled spectacles dying out quickly. The studio’s ‘new deal’ marketing promised something else. It also capitalized on President Franklin Roosevelt’s popularized ‘new deal’ politics. Bottom line: Warner wanted something spectacular and Berkeley was ready to give it to them. In the meantime, Warner’s production chief, Darryl F. Zanuck, had tapped into a honey of an idea for a backstage drama with songs: the result, 42nd Street (1933), a gaudy, bawdy, and thoroughly delicious little bauble that seemed to effortlessly straddle the chasm between musical escapism and the studio’s own ‘ripped from the headlines’ tabloid-esque film-making style. 42nd Street is the story of an emotionally embattled/cash strapped Broadway has been; Julian Marsh (played with skillfully frenetic fanaticism by Warner Baxter). Julian is in a bad way. A few years ago, he was Broadway’s golden boy. But that was before he burnt himself out and suffered a nervous breakdown.  Now, he desperately needs a hit. He could also use a good bottle of Scotch to steady his nerves.
Set against all this highly charged insanity of putting on a show, director Lloyd Bacon gives us a richly satisfying assortment of social-climbing starlets, delicious tarts, manipulative sugar daddies and stage door Johnnies with more than bouquets and jewelry on their minds. In the pre-code era, such salaciousness was openly tolerated. And in 42nd Street’s case, it seems very much in place and of the period: its’ representation of the clichéd ‘casting couch’ leading to all sorts of double entendre and scintillating innuendo.  42nd Street would go on to become the template for a certain kind of 30's musical all the rage at Warner Bros. under Busby Berkeley's creative tutelage. Alas, in some ways, Berkeley’s burst of unimaginable creativity clashes with Lloyd Bacon’s more standardized approach to telling the rest of our story. The principles dedicated to the drama (the lugubrious Bebe Daniels, perpetually pouty with her bee-stung lips) and George Brent, a dour and penniless suitor) are discarded for the bright and breezy, Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler (playing the traditional doe-eyed ingénue) in the musical numbers.  One can choose to debate the merits or pitfalls in parceling off the directorial duties as such, but personally, this disconnect is off-putting.  On its own, the comedy is great – even stellar and scathing in spots. And Berkeley, although obviously restraining himself on this first opportunity to show us his moxie, nevertheless hints at elements of the extraordinary work yet to follow and define his iconography.  
42nd Street still works, but more so as an artifact of its’ time than a period entertainment, and generally because of all the naughtiness taking place behind the scenes; Guy Kibbee's lecherous old bugger wanting to do 'something nice' with a quid pro quo from Bebe Daniels, or Ginger Rogers playing a saucy twenty-cent tart; all gams and glib one liners like, "It must have been tough on your mother, not having any children!"  I’ll confess; I have never been an admirer of Ruby Keeler; her nasally renditions of the Al Warren/Harry Dubin songs, a crushing blow to superb lyrics. She trills with all the pallid allure of a high school freshman who ought to have opted out of the glee club, and, as though someone were squeezing the tip of her nostrils together with a clothes pin. There's such anemia in her voice it all but deflates the magical properties and excitement. Dick Powell's crooning - again, the style of its time – fares better, perhaps because his voice is stronger and more sincere. He throws everything he has into a lyric, as when warbling the line "I'm full of vitamin 'A'" in Young and Healthy; giving out with a deliciously orgasmic yelp as though the elastic in his jock has just given him a wicked little snap. It's fun to watch, particularly from today’s perspective, because what it lacks in an air of legitimacy has been replaced by more than a whiff of camp. Whooooooaaaa!!!!
Interestingly, 42nd Street’s compartmentalized directorial duties necessitated Busby Berkeley (mostly left to his own accord), shoot his second unit at Warner’s Sunset Studios while Lloyd Bacon photographed the rest of the movie on six sound stages at the company’s First National facilities in Burbank.  Although there are seven songs in 42nd Street, Berkeley’s talents were only committed to three numbers; the chirpy ‘Shuffle Off To Buffalo’, energetic ‘Young and Healthy’ and gaudy and grandiose moving tableau to urban excess – the film’s finale ‘42nd Street’.  Viewed today, only the latter two numbers reveal Berkeley’s spark of ingenuity. Shuffle Off To Buffalo is hampered by Berkeley’s awkward attempt to maintain the illusion his number is taking place on a real Broadway proscenium. The camera does show us details no actual theater patron, sitting in anything beyond the third row could ever witness. But on the whole, Berkeley’s camera is restrained.  In hindsight, ‘Young and Healthy’ is clearly the precursor to Berkeley’s future artistic endeavors at Warner. Beginning with a bombastic verse and chorus from Dick Powell, the number evolves from one beautiful girl (sixteen year old Toby Wing, plump-cheeked, but ravishing in white fox fur and slinky, bare-back gown) into two, then four, then quite suddenly an army of carbon-copied blonde bombshells, identically attired and flanked by a chorine of male ushers. Berkeley’s mannequins mount a revolving dance platform, marching, strutting and even jogging in place in unison, counterclockwise to the rotating floor beneath their feet. It is a stunning effect, creating motion within motion, the whole spectacle strangely caught in pace and ‘in place’; the final shot photographed between the female dancers’ bare legs as the camera comes to rest on a close-up of Powell and Wing blissfully smiling.
For the finale, Berkeley uses his camera to pan across a recreated stage-bound series of false fronts, illustrating the infamous delights and hazards to be had on 42nd Street. Here is a showcase of scamps, tramps, tarts and molls, intermingling with haughty gals and their dapper Dan’s; the lowborn and the hoi poloi populating this faux New York landscape. Peering into various windows of an apartment complex, we witness a barber in mid-shave, a crap shoot in progress and a foiled rape unfold. Ruby Keeler appears in straight skirt with oversized buttons and a slit up the leg. The relatively realistic set parts down the middle and Keeler makes her way up a gigantic staircase to nowhere, a small army of male dancers with their backs to the camera, carrying blacked out/life-sized placards as they ascend on either side. Only when the stairs have been completely filled does this troop turn around, concealing their identities with replicas of New York’s towering skyline; the buildings swaying to and fro as Berkeley’s camera once again ascends the skewed perspective to reveal Powell and Keeler atop the Empire State Building. 
42nd Street was a colossal hit, perhaps beyond anyone’s expectations. It reinvigorated the Hollywood musical and propelled its glamor and popularity on to three more decades. Moreover, the movie cemented Berkeley’s iconography within the musical genre. Berkeley and composers, Harry Warren and Al Dubin all received 7 year contracts as a result, and Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler became the reigning musical sweethearts on the Warner backlot; present and accounted for in virtually all but two of Berkeley’s subsequent excursions into sweet escapism. Based on Bradford Ropes novel, the Rian James/James Seymour screenplay is a model of concision. This is in keeping with Warner Bros. in-house style: tight narratives with minimal talk that moved like gangbusters. At 89 min., 42nd Street packs a considerable wallop. It has sex, comedy, deception, romance, starry-eyed lovers and a human interest story about one man’s obsession to pull his sagging career and frayed nerves back from the brink; all of it infused with backstage glamor and guts, set in a pseudo-Broadway milieu. 
Immediately following the opening credits, we are thrust into the heart of New York’s theater district; a second unit sent to capture a few atmospheric aerial and long shots of the city to succinctly establish both time and place. Welcome to 1932 – the heart of the Great Depression. Ironically, we are spared the more dire consequences, whisked via montage into the offices of noted Broadway producers, Jones (Robert McWade) and Barry (Ned Sparks). Despite hard times, the duo has decided to put on a new revue: Pretty Lady, a musical starring Dorothy Brock (Bebe Daniels). Brock is a star teetering on the brink, resuscitated by her alliance with wealthy lecher, Abner Dillon (Guy Kibbee). She baits him with compliments about being the show's ‘angel’. Too bad for Brock, Abner’s real passion is not the arts. And doesn’t Brock know it, constantly walking the tightrope to maintain his interests in her without ever allowing them to come to something.  After all, she’s still madly in love with her old vaudeville partner, Pat Denning (George Brent) who is presently out of work. Pretty Lady’s director is another creative on very shaky ground: Julian Marsh (Warner Baxter). After years of suffering for his art, Julian also suffered a nervous breakdown. He’s back – sort of – his nerves easily frazzled, his fuse decidedly short, and his determination to make Pretty Lady a smash hit counterbalanced by an ominous warning from his doctor, that to continue with any show without sufficiently having recuperated is putting his life at risk.
Julian lost everything in the stock market crash. So, Pretty Lady has to be a winner.  He is not about to take any chances with the show. After learning of Brock’s two-timing Abner, Julian calls in a marker with local Mafioso, Slim Murphy (Tom Kennedy), who hires some thug muscle to rough up Pat. In the meantime, the open call brings in scores of young hopefuls to audition for their big break.  Pros and amateurs alike: or rather, the hard-bitten realists who need a job and are willing to do just about anything to succeed. Take, ‘Anytime’ Annie Lowell (Ginger Rogers) for instance; masquerading as an upper crust society dame, monocle and affected British accent included. She only said ‘no’ once and even then she did not hear the question. Her gal pal, Lorraine Fleming (Una Merkel) has the inside track, her relationship with dance director, Andy Lee (George E. Stone) the brunt of some charming double entendre.  While Andy manages to get his paramour and her best friend into the chorus, Julian lays everything on the line for his new inductees. They are about to embark on five of the toughest weeks of their lives. They are going to work day and night, rehearse until their feet bleed and their hearts are ready to give out. But in the end they will have a show!
Among the hopefuls is naïve newcomer, Peggy Sawyer (Ruby Keeler). She came to the Big Apple from Allentown, Pennsylvania with nothing more than a dream. Rough going for the true believers in this picture. Peggy gets duped by the sexually savvy chorines into nearly entering the men’s room, is cut from the initial call back during the first round of omissions, but is rescued from absolute defeat by the show’s juvenile, Billy Lawler (Dick Powell), whom earlier she accidentally stumbled upon in his dressing room in his skivvies. Nice work if you can get it? Not really. Despite being something of a minor veteran of the theater circuit, Lawler is a straight shooter and a good egg. He really has Peggy’s best interests at heart. Ironically, so does Pat, who is watching from the wings when Peggy, undernourished and overexerted, suddenly faints during her tap routine. After Pat is accosted by Murphy’s boys, Brock decides to break off their relationship…at least, for the time being. Pat leaves New York and eventually gets a stock job in Philadelphia.
The bulk of 42nd Street is a backstage pass to the seedy behind-the-scenes activity, seemingly an essential ingredient in the creation of great art – or, at least, the kind that sells tickets. To put things mildly, Julian’s rehearsals are a trial by fire. He is never satisfied with the outcome of all their hard labors, pushing his cast and crew to the brink in order to achieve a level of perfection only present in his own mind’s eye. In the meantime, Brock’s wily avoidance of Abner’s advances has reached an impasse. He is tired of shelling out for expenses and barely receiving so much as a peck on the cheek. So Abner finds a more willing participant: Annie. Things reach a crisis level when Brock breaks her ankle the night before the show’s opening in Philadelphia. Abner puts forth his new romance, Annie, as a viable candidate to replace Brock. But Annie openly admits she lacks the necessary quality to carry a whole show. Instead, and rather magnanimously for Annie, she sets Peggy up to become the star.
Julian is beside himself. His speech to Peggy has since become the template for the ‘hey kids, let’s put on a show’ ilk in Hollywood musicals. “Sawyer, you listen to me, and you listen hard. Two hundred people, two hundred jobs, two hundred thousand dollars, and five weeks of grind and blood and sweat depend upon you. It's the lives of all these people who've worked with you. You've got to go on, and you've got to give and give and give. They've got to like you. Do you understand? You can't fall down. You can't because your future is in it, my future and everything all of us have is staked on you. All right, now I'm through, but you keep your feet on the ground and your head on those shoulders and go out, and Sawyer…you're going out there a youngster. But you've got to come back a star!” No pressure there!
And even Julian doesn’t quite believe Peggy can pull it off, confiding to his backers, “I’ll either have a live leading lady or a dead chorus girl!” In the eleventh hour, everything comes together for Peggy. Billy Lawler confesses his deep-seeded desire to be her ever-loving man, and Brock, still hobbling about, makes an appearance to wish the ingénue the very best of luck, confiding she has decided to retire from showbiz and marry Pat. Peggy makes her debut, shuffling off to Buffalo and later, strutting those glorious gams on the mockup of 42nd Street. The show is a sensation. Julian and his backers breathe a heavy sigh of relief. Afterward, Julian lurks in the shadows, listening to the plaudits from patrons touting Peggy Sawyer as the next big name in entertainment. Paradoxically, no one seems to give Julian any credit for Peggy’s Svengali-esque transformation. Even more ironic, he doesn’t seem to care. And why should he? Pretty Lady is a hit, the kind he can retire on, presumably, to restore his health.
The premise for 42nd Street was a manuscript written by chorus boy, Bradford Ropes; a veteran of the stage with firsthand knowledge of his subject matter. Ropes had written a lurid account of sexual fetishisms, alcoholism, drug addiction and homosexuality. And although Warner Bros. had a reputation for producing entertainment that was ‘ripped from the headlines’ – too much of a good thing was still considered bad form – even during the pre-code era in Hollywood. Yet, in tempering Ropes’ prose the movie never shies away from its more suggestive subject matter. In fact, the squeaky clean persona of its star, Ruby Keeler and rather antiseptic ‘romance’ between Peggy Sawyer and his Billy Lawler is smartly counterbalanced by the more adult sexual relationship between Pat Denning and Dorothy Brock; even the seriously playful badinage between Abner and Brock and later, Abner and Annie.
Lloyd Bacon’s direction is competent, but pales to Busby Berkeley’s astonishing contributions. Without Berkeley, 42nd Street is a rather tepid dramedy with some ribald humor and solidly crafted performances factored in: Warner Baxter, Bebe Daniels, Ginger Rogers, Una Merkel and Guy Kibbee; great artists giving us everything they have and proving (as though proof itself were needed) their star quality is peerless and affecting. 42nd Street is undeniably the best known of the Warner Depression-era musicals. Indeed, it remains the only one to be successfully resurrected as a live Broadway show in the late 1970s. Only in retrospect does 42nd Street – the movie – fall short of the very best in this brief cycle of Busby Berkeley-anna. All subsequent backstage musicals have borrowed from 42nd Street’s slick style and craftsmanship; the homage transforming what once seemed cutting edge into very transparent cliché.  Nevertheless, 42nd Street remains the gold standard bearer; saucy and glossy, tune-filled and a lot of fun besides.
The Warner Archive gives us another pluperfect Blu-ray transfer. This is definitely getting to be a habit with them and a most welcomed one at that. The original nitrate film elements received a considerable restoration back in 1998. This new 1080p transfer improves on those efforts, revealing some startling clarity, exquisitely reproduced film grain and gorgeous black levels. Warner’s restoration of a movie made just a few short years after the dawn of the talkies is nothing short of miraculous. So prepare to be impressed. The DTS mono soundtrack is a little less than exhilarating, chiefly due to the inherent limitations of its source material. Lest we forget, Bacon and his crew were working with primitive microphones the size of Frisbees more attune to picking up static and background noise. Given these shortcomings, I still say you should be impressed. Dialogue is crisp, and, hiss and pop is eliminated.  
Extras have been imported from Warner’s old DVD release and include, ‘From Book to Screen to Stage’ – a comprehensive ‘making of’, plus a slew of vintage short subjects, including ‘Hollywood Newsreel’,  ‘A Trip Thru a Hollywood Studio’, ‘The 42nd Street Special’ and ‘Harry Warren: America's Foremost Composer.’  A pair of Merrie Melodies cartoon shorts, inspired by the movie, is also included. One bone of contention – a minor one. While Warner has afforded us chapter stops for each of the musical numbers they haven’t given the same consideration for the traditional chapter search option for the rest of the movie. I thought digital media was supposed to provide us with instant access to our favorite scenes. Hmmm.  Bottom line: 42nd Street on Blu-ray is a reference quality disc. Moreover, it ought to become the poster child for more B&W movies coming to hi-def in a manner befitting their original artistry. Bravo and thank you to WB! More of the same, please!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Monday, April 20, 2015

ODD MAN OUT: Blu-ray (J. Arthur Rank/Two Cities 1947) Criterion

Before succumbing to the elephantiasis of his later career, primarily known for lumbering would-be epics (The Agony and the Ecstasy, 1965) and big bloated musical extravaganzas (Oliver! 1968), director, Carol Reed was best known for crafting superb existential, metaphysical melodramas, directing, arguably, the greatest post-war mystery/thriller of them all; 1949’s The Third Man. However, in the shadow of this magnum opus remained two extraordinary masterworks (The Fallen Idol, 1948 and Odd Man Out, 1947); the latter, remarkable for its’ ubiquitous morbidity and unapologetically pessimistic view of the traditional heroic figure.  Thematically, Odd Man Out is a queerly complex amalgam of the noir thriller and Shakespearean tragedy; British cinema’s first major effort to peel back the agrarian façade of Ireland to reveal its unrepentant, dark urban landscape, populated by unscrupulous reprobates.  Almost from the beginning, the movie ran into complications at home and abroad; Reed’s desire to shoot F.L. Green’s scathing novel on location in Belfast, incurring the local government’s considerable ire, since virtually all of the actors to partake in this London-centric melodrama were not indigenous to the region.
Odd Man Out was distributed by J. Arthur Rank, but made for fiery Italian producer, Filippo Del Giudice’s Two Cities Production Company.  With Odd Man Out, Giudice sought to give Hollywood’s supremacy a real run for its money. Indeed, Odd Man Out is lavishly appointed with period recreations of Belfast that mark it as a ‘prestige picture’. Having left fascist Italy shortly before the war, Giudice was attracted to Odd Man Out primarily as a propaganda piece; appalled, in fact, to discover certain factions of the IRA were so desperate for their independence they had contemplated allegiance to the Nazis in order to hasten England’s demise. Green’s novel had described ‘the organization’ (code for the IRA) as an omnipotent plague; the book’s Johnny McQueen fermenting terrorism to split an already badly divided nation wide open. At the crux of the novel’s volatile story line remained a kernel of truth dedicated to the past: Ireland’s failed ‘War of Independence’ (a.k.a. Anglo-Irish War: 1919-1921) and its inevitable animosity created by the artificial partitioning of Ireland into six disparate counties in the north, dominated by a protestant majority, and twenty-six in the south, harboring a Catholic minority.
The novel, Odd Man Out is undeniably hostile toward the organization’s purpose. It’s also fairly unsympathetic regarding the fate of our antagonist, Johnny McQueen. In reinventing the story for British cinema, director, Carol Reed hired Green to adapt the screenplay, co-authored by R.C. Sherriff, whom Reed used as a buffer to expunge virtually all the novel’s politicized back story. Henceforth, Odd Man Out – the movie – would concentrate on the plight of a failed martyr; a man who, in grappling with his own fragile beliefs inadvertently jeopardizes not only his politics but also his life. Nevertheless, Odd Man Out is the first movie to openly deal with the harsh urban realities of Ireland. Gone is the cinema folklore dedicated to benevolent agrarians with their blarney stone charm for wee four-leaf shamrocks and the ‘little people’.  Odd Man Out ensnares our Johnny McQueen and his cohorts in an ever-constricting urban landscape of oppressive claustrophobia; Reed even employing elements of wind, rain and snow as the natural order casting its own judgement on Johnny and his friends.
While Odd Man Out reports to be taking place in Belfast, Reed had great difficulty convincing the government of his more altruistic intentions. Indeed, civic authorities denied him the necessary permits to shoot there; fearing depictions of their gun-toting police and brewing civil unrest would cast a very jaundice pall upon the nation’s aspiring tourist trade. Reed was successful at sneaking in a second unit. Yet, apart from the establishing aerial view of Belfast and a few choice master shots conducted at ground level, Odd Man Out is ultimately – and very effectively – the byproduct of that self-same London-centric film culture as its predecessors; photographed on sound stages at Denham Studios, including elaborate recreations of Belfast’s iconic clock tower as well as its famed Crown Pub; London’s Shoreditch district, sparsely populated, a wasteland dotted in abandoned bomb shelters and dingy tenement houses, supplying the necessary starkness and gloom. The movie’s bookends comparatively differ from the beginning and end of Green’s novel; Reed ordering a new opener to illustrate Johnny’s ambivalence toward committing the mill robbery (the book merely begins with a botched stick-up); the finale changed from its’ novelized murder/suicide to the cinema’s self-defense scenario. This latter alteration was made purely from necessity, to conform to Hollywood’s more stringent code of censorship and thus secure the movie’s release in America.
Odd Man Out’s stylistic design is a fairly transparent homage to America’s film noir movement; itself, borrowing heavily from German Expressionism and French poetic realism. Robert Krasker’s cinematography, with its harsh chiaroscuro lighting, densely shadowed alleys and crumbling rubble byways, lends a patina of Hollywood-esque magic and European exoticism to the postwar gloom; augmented by two neorealist deliria. In the first, Krasker employs skewed camera angles and lightly brushed Vaseline around the edges of his lens to suggest Johnny’s antipathy for committing the crime, even as he and his cohorts, Pat (Cyril Cusack), Denis (Robert Beatty), Nolan (Dan O'Herlihy) and Murphy (Roy Irving) prepare for their ill-timed rendezvous with destiny. Unlike the novel, the cinematic Johnny McQueen only commits murder after he is wounded by an assailant; thereafter, dogged by gnawing remembrances of taking another man’s life.  Near movie’s end, Johnny suffers a second hallucinogenic nightmare; impressively disturbing, as portraits painted by the mentally unsound artist, Lukey (Robert Newton) swoop down from the walls of his dilapidated studio, forming an army of panged and accusatory faces to confront Johnny; the benevolent figure of Father Tom (W.G. Fay) suddenly appearing amidst this motley crew to offer a fleeting glimpse of salvation.
Casting James Mason as Johnny McQueen adds a certain empathetic glamour to the role. Mason, who spends most of Odd Man Out losing an incredible amount of blood from his gaping shoulder wound, manages to skulk about these inhospitably desolate and seedy neighborhoods where once a happier childhood had likely been spent, looking perpetually panged, gaunt, emasculated and so very near to death, nevertheless, exuding the sort of megawatt ‘star quality’ that connects on an intuitive emotional level. His Johnny is a man of very few words, but his silent ambivalence lingers in the mind’s eye even when he is not on the screen. The case for Robert Newton is a little less convincingly made; chiefly because Newton’s Lukey, the tormented artist, is a grandstanding uber-violent drunk stricken with paralytic infantilism. He is incalculably depraved and perversely conflicted in his dubious vision quest for immortality via a bizarre painterly style. He wishes to paint Johnny McQueen as a martyr, to capture the look of death for his canvass. Talk about art imitating life!
Odd Man Out opens with a quietly frenetic pre-mill robbery discussion, Johnny holding court inside the cramped upstairs bedroom belonging to his darling, Kathleen Sullivan (Kathleen Ryan) and her staunchly supportive, Grannie (Kitty Kirwan). He’s been on the lam for nearly six months after a daring prison break, ordered by the organization to take part in a robbery to secure some badly needed funds. Pat, Nolan, Murphy and Denis listen intently to Johnny’s plans. He cautions them against using their guns, merely employing them to threaten rather than to kill. After the rest of the team has departed for their assigned positions, Denis informs Johnny of the men’s reluctance to have him lead their expedition. Johnny’s time in prison has made him soft. Johnny denies this claim. Kathleen begs him to reconsider. But it’s too late. The die has been cast. And so, the mill robbery takes place; Johnny hesitating momentarily on the steps, suffering from some sort of dizzy spell after the crime is committed; enough to be ambushed by a well-intentioned mill cashier whom he wrestles to the ground and shoots to death in order to escape.
Unable to successfully pull Johnny back into their getaway car, a panicked Pat drives off, leaving Johnny to fend for himself.  Disorientated, Johnny struggles to his feet, stumbling through a derelict neighborhood and taking refuge inside one of the abandoned fallout shelters left over from the war. There, he hallucinates being back in prison, telling what he thinks is a guard of his curious dream about robbing the mill; momentarily awakening from this stupor and realizing he has just confessed his crime to a little girl come in search of her wayward ball.  Night falls and Johnny is confronted by two young lovers endeavoring to use the shelter for their flagrante delicto.  In the meantime, Denis and the others rendezvous at Kathleen’s; Denis, appalled by their abandonment, orders the men to spread out in search of Johnny before the police find him. Alas, their ineffectual search draws undue attention and the police pursue them through a series of darkened allies and byways. Pat encourages Nolan and Murphy to stop off at Theresa O’Brien’s house of ill repute. However, Murphy does not trust the dowager and hurries along. Indeed, such split-second clairvoyance has saved his life. For after pretending to favor Pat and Nolan with a drink in her parlor, Theresa hurries off to warn her other guests to clear out; telephoning the police and divulging Pat and Nolan’s whereabouts. She then pretends to have come by a rumor the police are closing in; forcing Pat and Nolan into the street where they are gunned down by waiting officers.
Meanwhile, Denis locates Johnny. He is terribly weak and unlikely to survive in his present condition. As the police surround the area Denis creates a diversion to draw them away from the shelter. Johnny makes a valiant attempt at escape. However, he collapses in the street; momentarily rescued by Maureen (All Clery) and Maudie (Beryl Measor) who believe he has been struck by a passing lorry. When they realize who Johnny is their attitude towards him changes from helpful to cautious. A similar fate befalls Johnny after he gets into a hansom cab; its driver, Gin (Joseph Tomelty) nervously unloading his fare on the outskirts of town. Understandably, no one wants to align themselves with a fugitive from justice. As fate would have it, the beggar, Shell (F. J. McCormick) has identified Johnny. Desiring a handsome reward for Johnny’s return to the police, Shell toddles off to Father Tom. By sheer luck, Kathleen has also come to the rectory looking for guidance, having arranged passage for Johnny and herself aboard a freighter bound for the Americas at midnight.
Father Tom preys upon Shell’s naiveté and compassion as he persuades Shell to fetch Johnny. However, while dropping off his pet bird at home, Shell is accosted by Lukey (Robert Newton), the mentally deranged artist who shares residency inside the abandoned building each calls home. Lukey has been toiling to paint a portrait of martyred death, stumbling across the inspired notion to use Johnny as his model. Alas, both men are in for a rude awakening as Johnny, momentarily revived, stumbles into the Crown Pub. Its proprietor, Fencie (William Hartnell) immediately recognizes Johnny. However, desiring to remain neutral, Fencie hides Johnny in a private booth until after hours. Sensing Shell has deprived him of his art, Lukey descends on the bar, accosting its patrons and raising hell. Fencie chases his paying customers out to avoid a scene with the police, ordering Shell and Lukey to cart Johnny off before anyone is the wiser. Back a Lukey’s makeshift studio, Johnny is propped up in a chair for his portrait sitting.  Disgraced medical student, Tober (Elwyn Brook-Jones) uses his practical training to patch up Johnny's shoulder as best he can. Johnny suffers a vision of Father Tom and quotes aloud 1st Corinthians, baffling Lukey and Shell.
Back at the rectory, a light snow begins to fall. Father Tom lies to an empathetic police inspector (Denis O'Dea) searching for clues as Kathleen quietly slips away. Desperate to reunite Johnny with Kathleen, Shell starts off for the rectory with Johnny stumbling close behind. His general inability to reason between reality and fantasies grotesquely imagined through his dying haze leaves Johnny feeling even more isolated. The end is near. The police are closing in. Kathleen suddenly appears. At first, neither can believe the other is real; Johnny commanding if this apparition be genuine, for it to rush to his aid and embrace him with all her heart. Kathleen complies. She explains her plan of escape aboard the steamer. Alas, the ship has already left port. In this bittersweet moment of farewell, Kathleen realizes what she must do. She reaches for the gun in Johnny’s coat pocket. “Is it far?” Johnny inquires, still fanaticizing their departure. “It’s a long way, Johnny,” Kathleen tenderly confides, “But I’m coming with you.” Pointing the gun at the police, Kathleen fires several benign rounds. The police reciprocate with a hailstorm of bullets. Johnny and Kathleen are killed; Father Tom, led by Shell, discovering their lifeless bodies in the new fallen snow.
Although blunted from the novel’s original intent, the finale to Odd Man Out is unapologetically bleak. In retrospect, it plays to our present day appreciation for flawed humanity; Reed tempering the overwrought cynicism of the piece with William Alywn’s sobering and poignant underscore. Filippo Del Giudice’s fervent belief in the power of movies as great art has afforded Carol Reed unbounded opportunities to pursue his own cinematic passions, providing the old art lover with nothing less than a full flourish of inspired greatness.  Odd Man Out is perhaps Reed’s most triumphantly artistic movie, although devotees of The Third Man will sincerely disagree. It is impossible to compare these two films. Perhaps, the only similarity shared between them is Reed’s appreciation for two irreconcilable worlds: the bygone prewar gemütlichkeit and its postwar scarcity. However, whereas The Third Man takes rather playful advantage of American ‘star power’ (in the likes of Joseph Cotten and Orson Welles), setting its action amidst the crumbling ruins of old Vienna, with only flashes of its former decadence fleetingly in evidence, Odd Man Out explores the devastating isolationism of a Belfast one cannot imagine ever possessing such warmth or charm, seen through the eyes of a British star, yet to emerge as such on the other side of the Atlantic.
Depending on one’s point of view, James Mason’s autonomy either helped or hindered the movie’s popularity then. Herein, contemporary audiences, old enough to recall Mason’s Hollywood tenure, are at a greater advantage. Only in retrospect, is he already a star on par with a Cooper, Gable or Brando, and therefore, a distinct and familiar presence in this film. Is it this retrospective star quality we find intoxicating today?  Or rather, is it Mason’s innate ability to transcend ‘star quality’ and still appear queerly appealing as the nondescript, long-suffering and intellectualized fatalist of the piece that draws us into this story?  Mason’s career was built upon such weak and ineffectual men, always of a particular inner failing and incapable of escaping it, except in death. His Johnny McQueen is a mournful shill; a man whose conscience has suffered a conversion in prison that he cannot openly confess without betraying his ensconced political beliefs. The film’s nihilistic finale brings Reed’s focus full circle, back to the romantic dilemma facing young lovers torn asunder by the inhospitable hands of fate.  As a novel, Odd Man Out was a condemnation of Ireland’s volatile political landmines, its author casting a harsh pall upon the forces he believe responsible for its civil unrest. Deprived of this politicized backbone, the movie excels in an entirely different direction; the sad-eyed adieu to love amongst these ruins.
Criterion’s Blu-ray release of Odd Man Out falls just a tad short of expectations; presumably, at the mercy of less than perfectly archived materials, but the recipient of considerable clean-up and restoration.  Indeed, this is a new 2K scan apart from the one made from original nitrate 35mm prints held in trust at the BFI National Archive. By comparison, the British release of Odd Man Out appears slightly brighter and sharper than Criterion’s transfer, although shadow definition is superior on Criterion’s release. I am rather torn as to which 1080p transfer I prefer. Both have their pluses and minuses; the BFI shows untoward black crush and sharpness that may or may not be indigenous to the original film elements. I’ll side with the Criterion here, as it reveals a considerable amount of information to the right of frame; the BFI edition looking slightly cropped by comparison. At times, fine details in Criterion’s transfer are lost, as the image is decidedly darker overall.
Alas, the BFI edition is plagued by the prominence of age-related damage, infinitely more resolved on the Criterion, though not entirely eradicated.  Film grain fluctuates throughout this presentation. Do I love it or hate it? Hmmmm. Love it, I suppose, particularly when coupled with Criterion’s image stabilization. I still think the BFI image is superior in some regards to Criterion and vice versa; hence, my being torn to recommend one over the other.  Criterion’s PCM mono audio is adequate rather than spectacular; dynamic range limited by the elements, I suppose, but also lagging in intensity. Don’t worry about background hiss because there isn’t any, although higher frequencies suffer from some light unevenness. We get three featurettes to augment our appreciation of the movie: new interviews with British cinema scholar, John Hill, Postwar Poetry, a short documentary about the making of the film, and a rather truncated interview with music scholar, Jeff Smith discussing William Alwyn’s score. Perhaps the best extra herein is ‘Home, James’; a superb documentary made in 1972, following James Mason as he returns to his home town. Criterion loves its radio adaptations. I confess, I’ve never listened to one of the many featured on their discs in its entirety.  Finally, there’s a printed essay from critic, Imogen Sara Smith. Bottom line: highly recommended with caveats regarding the overall quality of the transfer.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Sunday, April 19, 2015

Jules Verne's JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH: Blu-ray Redux (2oth Century-Fox 1959) Twilight Time

The science fiction/adventure novels of Jules Verne were to undergo a fascinating cinematic renaissance throughout the 1950’s. Verne, the second most translated author in the world, sandwiched in popularity somewhere between English-language writers, Agatha Christie and William Shakespeare, was, in his own time, regarded as an avant-garde surrealist. In retrospect, his resurgence as a movie-land icon served a particular need in America; the nation emerging from the darkened years of WWII, at the cusp of an unprecedented economic boom and able, at long last to reflect upon the more quaint Victorian era with a hint of cultural sadness for all that had been lost in the frantic rush to modernity and industrialization, but now, poised ostensibly to realize at least part of Verne’s spectacular flights into fancy; travelling 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea (1954) or Around the World in 80 Days (1956) – the era of rocket ships, airplanes and submarines come to pass.  In retrospect, most of Verne’s novels are similarly themed, their central protagonists faced with a spectacular expedition in which a crisis of conscience inevitably arises.  
Henry Levin’s Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959) caps off the public’s resuscitated curiosity with Verne on an oddity; not the least for its transformation of the author’s Germanic hero, Professor Lidenbrock, into the more Anglo-friendly, Edinburgh geologist, Sir Oliver S. Lindenbrook (played with Teutonic fortitude and manly grace by a very erudite, James Mason). Mason was a rather unlikely star, and even unlikelier choice to play Verne’s proactive professor; usually cast as the weakest of men who succumb to their fears or foibles (or both) with a tragic implosion. Herein, he acquits himself rather nicely of a change of pace; his Sir Oliver one part sexist to two parts genius, the former inadequacy eventually giving way to a tenderer heart.  At the time of its release, Journey to the Center of the Earth was a smash hit, despite the fact not a whole lot takes place during its’ 2hr. plus runtime apart from some subterranean skulking; Sir Oliver accompanied on his fantastic voyage into the earth’s core by a nubile male protégé, Alexander McKuen (Pat Boone), engaged to Oliver’s niece, Jenny (the uber-placid Diane Baker); a stalwart, if enterprising mademoiselle, Carla (Arlene Dahl), widow of his rival, Dr. Peter Goetabaug (Ivan Triesault); a non-speaking guide, Hans Belker (Peter Ronson in a thankless part) and his beloved duck, Gertrude (oh, please…and no: no yellow-billed mallards were harmed in the making of this picture).
Despite its ineffectual use of matte paintings, clumsily aligned with some of the most obvious rear projection work ever achieved in movies; also, hampered by a few irrelevant interludes in song (because, of course, it’s Pat Boone…how can he appear in any movie in which he does not sing?!?), Journey to the Center of the Earth nevertheless maintains its axis as a fairly tantalizing bit of ‘silly’ cinema; implacably adorned in Hollywood hokum. Miraculously, the picture carries it off, in no small way due to Walter Reisch and Charles Brackett’s deftly written screenplay. This being a vehicle for Pat Boone, the narrative also serves up ample beefcake; whether taking a shower inside a crystal-licious cavern, where falling water appropriately obscures certain choice parts of his anatomy, or stripping down to some homemade shorts, before plummeting shirtless through a series of salt sink holes, Boone shows off his major assets. These, decidedly have nothing to do with his acting, though, nevertheless, they made him a star.
Arlene Dahl is a rather peculiar actress; her career begun in the late 1940’s and attaining a dubious popularity throughout the 1950’s. Yet, her beauty has an imperious quality, like a porcelain figurine. Her Carla is more admirable than amorous (always the kiss of death for a leading lady from this vintage…the movies preferring a little sauce with their tarts). But there’s zero romantic chemistry herein; Dahl’s corseted peacock, perpetually casting aside her mock independence for the stereotypical hapless/helpless/screeching female, her ‘come hither’ celestially blue orbs capable of piercing right through Mason’s dull-headed notion of the heroic martyr.  There is a wax mannequin quality to her poise, more stultified than stunning, though no one could say she was not a handsome woman. But she never comes alive on the screen. Dahls’ artificiality complicates the film’s denouement, as well as our belief this grief-stricken widow has come around for the soft touch of a confirmed old bachelor who doesn’t quite know what to do with any woman – even one as obviously willing and gorgeous as she.
If the central love interests are problematic, their ineffectualness pales by comparison to the wholesome milquetoasts that are Pat Boone and Diane Baker; a truly antiseptic pair of star-crossed sweethearts. Not surprising, Boone is at his most manly and enticing when he warbles Robert Burns’ immortal poem, ‘My Love Is Like a Red, Red Rose’, cleverly set to music by Jimmy Van Heusen. He attains a mature apex of seduction in this moment that belies Boone’s otherwise boyish appeal; a ‘come here, my woman and let me get to know you better’ quality Baker’s fresh-faced and demure ingénue doesn’t quite know how to handle. That’s a problem too. Not that her Jenny is given half the chance to be sexy as the enterprising Alec elects to accompany his mentor on his grand expedition with the likelihood he will not come back to his beloved alive – if, at all. Talk about commitment shy! And Boone’s aspiring man of the world has no quam, in fact, about attempting to woo Carla right under Oliver’s nose; the more womanly widow putting a decided stop to his awkward innuendoes by reminding him of all young men’s proclivities to follow most any pretty face down the primrose path to premature ejaculation. Carla is too much woman for him and she surely lets Alec know it. 
In the interim between 1959 and 2015 our cinematic tastes have veered more to the fantastic; apocalyptic movies, heavily laden with special effects. Yet, Journey to the Center of the Earth is rather sincerely more interested in the plight of its characters, perhaps because director, Levin intuitively realizes the technological wizardry mustered up by Johnny Borgese is sub-par for the expectations of his audience. Even by 1950’s standards, the cheese is spread fairly thick; purple glowing wind tunnels, an oceanic vortex that as all the frenetic allure of a drain plug having been pulled in the bathtub, and, reptilian alpha-males devouring one of their own; rejects from a Western Costuming experiment gone horribly awry. Nevertheless, our suspension of disbelief remains untrammeled; chiefly because the cast treats these absurdities as though they were a Median tragedy or Homer’s Odyssey. Reverence to Verne is genuine too; enough to counterbalance the not terribly prepossessing make-believe, about as terrifying as a romp through one of Knott’s Berry Farm’s ‘dark rides’.
Our story begins in Edinburgh, circa 1880: or rather, Hollywood’s reasonable facsimile of it; some gorgeous second unit cinematography by Leo Tover marred with inserts of James Mason’s bumbling Sir Oliver, still floating on a cloud of ether after being knighted, strolling through some obvious sets and/or looking very much like a Colorforms cut out, pasted against some slightly askew rear projection photography.  Badly done! Not to worry, however, as before long the film embraces its own artificiality a la a typical Fox Cinemascope production from this vintage; quaintly decorous and highly stylized. After his graduating class presents Sir Oliver with their gift in honor of his recent knighthood, his most admiring student, Alec McKuen remains behind to offer his own to the professor; a curious piece of volcanic rock with a remarkably uncharacteristic weight. Thanks to the carelessness of Oliver’s lab assistant, Mr. Paisley (Ben Wright) the laboratory is blown up, the rock yielding a plumb bob with a cryptic inscription. Oliver deciphers it as the work Arne Saknussemm; a scientist who, 300 years earlier, claimed to have discovered a hidden passage into the earth’s core. Of course, no one took Saknussemm seriously then. (Aside: in Verne’s novel it is the runic manuscript of an Icelandic saga written by Snorri Sturluson that serves as the impetus for Professor Lidenbrock’s journey.) But Oliver is on the cusp of being brilliant – or bamboozled – or, perhaps, a little of both as he prepares to make ready for his expedition: fundamentally, the same flawed path to fortune and glory.
Upon learning of Sir Oliver’s excursion, Professor Göteborg of Stockholm (Ivan Triesault) proposes a minor coup – to reach the center of the earth before Oliver and Alec, by whatever underhanded trick he can use to gain his advantage. In the barren far reaches of Iceland, Göteborg and his devious assistant (Red West) shanghai, knock unconscious, and finally, imprison Oliver and Alec in a remote feather merchant’s farmhouse. Mercifully, the pair is freed by the proprietor, Hans Bjelke (Pétur Ronson), who is devoted to his pet duck, Gertrude. Indeed, upon hearing the first signs someone is on the other side of the wall that divides them, Oliver and Alec suspect it a romantically involved couple by the sound of Hans kissing Gertrude and vice versa.  Not long thereafter, Oliver and Alec make their way back into town, demanding of the innkeeper (Edith Everson) to be shown into Göteborg’s room. Instead, they discover the door ajar and Göteborg murdered in his bed with some potassium cyanide crystals still lingering in his goatee.
Enter Göteborg's widow, Carla, overwrought by the news of her husband’s demise, though quickly regrouping in her sullen contempt for Oliver after he rather unceremoniously dictates his intensions to claim Göteborg’s espionage for his own. The papers Göteborg has acquired are, of course, Oliver’s. But a rift between Oliver and Carla leads to her refusal to comply. Instead, she suggests she would burn the research than share it with anyone else…that is, until she discovers her late husband’s diary among his personal effects and suddenly realizes what a scoundrel he has been in his pursuit of science. To make amends, Carla offers Oliver access to all her husband’s things. Her philanthropy comes with a loaded request: to accompany the men, along with Hans, on their mission. Oliver is apoplectic. After all, the center of the earth is no place for a woman. Regrettably, he can find no logical argument to dissuade Carla. And so, the team that was to have been two are now four…or rather, five: Hans electing to take Gertrude along for the trip. 
Göteborg was surprisingly well stocked in his plans to trump Oliver’s vision quest. Now, Oliver confiscates his adversary’s formidable array of supplies, including much prized Ruhmkorff lamps to illuminate the caves once they go below the surface of the earth. Regrettably, the team is dogged by the unscrupulous Count Saknussemm (Thayer David), a direct descendent of Arne and most determined to get to the earth’s core first. In fact, it was he who murdered Göteborg. So far, Journey to the Center of the Earth has been a fairly even paced ‘who done it?’ with an adventurist’s spirit tacked on for good measure. Tragically, once the two rivaling parties go below in search of fame the movie hits something of a brick wall. We are treated to a series of interminably episodic bouts of spelunking; a lot of matte work in long shot and full scale paper mache for medium and close-ups; thoroughly unconvincing at best. Count Saknussemm’s man servant is ordered to mark the cave with fresh symbols to confuse and lead Oliver astray. For some time this ruse works. After many days travel, Oliver and his party stumble upon a series of fossilized crystal caves, a sort of hot springs spa where everyone pauses for a respite and to bathe, although for rather obvious reasons, only Pat Boone’s Alec is seen partaking of these therapeutic waters.
Alec possesses all the curiosity of a ten year old boy, or perhaps a novice without a brain, presuming nothing tragic could happen alone, in claustrophobic conditions, miles beneath the earth’s crust. What?!?! Silly boy! As the audience already knows from the tired old cliché, dedicated to ‘curiosity’ and what it did to the proverbial cat, our tension exponentially grows as Alec skulks off to explore an adjacent cavern. Predictably, he becomes lost. In the meantime, fascinated by these crystalized crustaceans, Oliver decides to chisel away a sample for his collection back home. Too bad the density of the rocks is weak, crumbling under his hammer and exposing an underwater cistern that quickly floods the area, threatening to drown Oliver, Hans, Carla and Gertrude. At the last possible moment, a loose stalactite dislodges from the ceiling, allowing this foursome their escape. Back in the caves, Alec is disillusioned by his inability to find his way to the rest of his group. A leaden series of false starts ensues before Alec slips through a crack in the floor, down a slide of salt and ending up at Saknussemm’s feet where he discovers his man servant quite dead. Saknussemm suggests his hired help died of an accident. However, given the Count’s penchant for killing off the competition, this may or may not be the truth. In any case, Saknussemm now demands of Alec that he pick up his slack and carry all of his supplies. When Alec refuses, Saknussemm fires his pistol, wounding Alec in the arm. Oliver, Hans, Carla and Gertrude arrive on the scene; Saknussemm now threatening to kill them all until Oliver momentarily blinds him with a handful of salt.
Afterward, Oliver acts as judge and jury in the case against Saknussemm; the five compatriots having found him guilty of at least murdering Professor Göteborg, Oliver sentences Saknussem to death. Too bad he can neither convince Hans, Carla nor Alec to commit the execution; nor can he bring himself to kill the Count as an act of justice. Instead, Saknussemm will accompany them on the rest of their journey. Sometime later, the troop discovers a large antechamber full of life-size mushrooms. Presumably, never having heard some mushrooms are toxic, Alec freely eats them and then prepares food from their stalks for the others. Mercifully, the soups are nourishing rather than fatal. Saknussemm and Oliver are confronted by a family of dimetrodons; gigantic lizard-esque beings who cannot follow them into the water. At this point, one of the dimetrodons attacks Carla. She is spared by Hans’ quick thinking. He plunges several spears into one of the animals; the others swarming the carcass to eat their own. Bound on a makeshift raft buoyed on this subterranean ocean, too late Oliver discovers the conflicting magnetic forces of the polar north and south have created a whirlpool that threatens to suck their tiny raft under.  Without explanation, everyone is spared this fate. Instead, they sail away to the other side of the ocean, washing up exhausted on the sandy shore.
Meanwhile, back at home, Jenny pines and ponders the fate of her beloved fiancée and her uncle Oliver; waking in the middle of the night with terrible dreams. As the others rest on the shore, Saknussemm lures Gertrude to a nearby cave where he kills and eats her. Discovering the scattered feathers nearby, Hans attempts to strangle the Count. He is spared becoming a murderer himself when Saknussemm stumbles backward over a narrow precipice to his death, an avalanche crushing his body. The hole left behind from the collapse creates a wind tunnel partially blocked by debris. However, Alec has discovered how to create flint and a fuse to detonate the rocks and set everyone free. While preparing this explosion, the troop is attacked by a gigantic chameleon. Alec’s explosion rocks the earth’s interior, creating a hellish earthquake and lava flow. It consumes the giant lizard, but also gurgles and gushes until Oliver and company, who have climbed into a metal discus, are forced upward inside this volcanic shaft to the earth’s surface at lightning speed. Spewed at the crater’s surface into the ocean, Carla, Oliver and Hans are rescued by a nearby fisherman. Alec, however, has been jostled and inexplicably stripped naked in this deluge, landing atop a prickly pine tree near a convent. Unable to explain to the nuns who have rushed to his aid he needs pants to maintain his sense of modesty, Alec is further chagrined when the branch he is perched on breaks, knocking him to the grass. Comic relief kicks in as Alec grabs a wayward sheep from the pasture to conceal his unmentionables.
The narrative glosses over Oliver and company’s return to Edinburgh; the entire university turning out to welcome them home. Alec arrives in a wheelchair pushed by Jenny, who explains how he fell down a flight of church stairs. Oliver attempts, rather badly, to enlist Carla as his muse and secretary to help him pen his memoirs. As she bluntly refuses to remain his grunt or the brunt of his sexism any longer, Oliver confides he has fallen in love to get Carla to remain at his side. She willingly agrees, presumably because she too has begun to harbor affections for this ridiculously clinical man. Thus ends, Journey to the Center of the Earth as benignly as it began and without much fanfare; save a choral reprise of the student’s chant, ‘Professor of Geology’. 
Viewed today, one can definitely see Journey to the Center of the Earth’s enduring influences on other pop-u-tainment – and not only on the rather pathetic 2008 remake. As example, the rolling bolder sequence almost certainly inspired director, Steven Spielberg to concoct his similar peril for Harrison Ford’s Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). The 2008 remake of Journey to the Center of the Earth, starring Brendan Fraser, was a terribly sloppy visual effects extravaganza, relying on choppy 3D SFX (more suited for a video game than a major motion picture) to exert chills, spills and thrills. Few remained that did not upset the equilibrium. The ’59 original is hardly a masterpiece. And yet, it remains relatively engaging in all its uber-simplicity and ultra-naiveté. A lot of Fox’s sexless and gaudy Cinemascope ventures from this period have not held up nearly as well. This ‘Journey’ has. But it’s really James Mason’s ability to simultaneously pull off caustic and debonair that continues to weave its magic spell. His supporting players are adequate at best. The gooney special effects do not help his suit much – if, at all. But Mason is a pro unlike any from our current generation; a real actor’s actor who, given the right material (or even the wrong kind) could pull off its’ Victorian-inspired pastiche with a straight face and sell it as divine artistry. When all else fails to impress (and frequently, it does) Mason keeps Journey to the Center of the Earth from suffering a complete implosion.
Well, how to take Twilight Time’s brand new reissue of Journey to the Center of the Earth except with equal portions of elation and contempt; both emotions lobbed at Fox Home Video, who have ‘graciously’ provided their third party distributor with a much improved true hi-def 1080p transfer, although only after fans of this classic were morally outraged by Fox’s slipshod first effort. Fox Home Video has incurred my ire of late too. The studio definitely knows better, as this new 1080p reissue proves. So why not do it the first time around, instead of as an afterthought in a reissue? The obvious reason is Fox didn’t think anyone would care as much in the first place; ergo, they elected to slap to disc whatever elements were presently in their hopper, instead of approaching their catalog as true conservationists of cinema art ought! Okay, I’ll lay off the powers that be responsible for the first release of Journey to the Center of the Earth; chiefly, because this second trip to the well has yielded a spectacular resurrection of the image with a few minor caveats to be considered.
So, where to begin? With the new image harvest, of course: cleaner, with more vibrant and fully saturated tones, properly framed and lacking the Cinemascope ‘mumps’ effect that plagued the original release.  Fox is still having color-timing issues with their Cinemascope releases. They can argue its’ vintage DeLuxe color that is the culprit herein, but NO vintage DeLuxe color image has ever favored robin-egg blue (nee, teal) as a dominant palette. So, no – I’m not buying it either. There’s something remiss about the way whites favor the bluish caste. I should point out it’s not as egregious as some of Fox’s other Blu-ray releases of vintage Cinemascope. For starters, I can’t watch their hi-def rendering of either Desk Set (1957) or Inn of the Sixth Happiness (1958). I mean, even the whites of Ingrid Bergman’s eyes are blue. What a crock! But I digress. Journey to the Center of the Earth’s problematic color scheme is not as distracting. So cheer up. You’ll enjoy what you see – infinitely more than what you saw the first time around. Your old TT Blu-ray is now officially a Frisbee. Fling!  We get the same 5.1 DTS remastering effort as before, also the original 2.0 mix. Honestly, these were perfect the first time around, so kudos for the carry-over herein. Ditto for the extras: an audio commentary featuring Diane Baker, TT’s own, Nick Redman and film historian, Steven C. Smith. Good solid stuff in Julie Kirgo’s liner notes too. Bottom line: highly recommended. I just wish Fox would give their catalog the respect, time and consideration it so obviously deserves – you know, the first time around. Making everyone double dip for this title just seems greedy on their part. N’est pas?
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)