The Umpteenth Blogathon: Beauty and the Beast (dir. Jean Cocteau, 1946)

This post is for the Umpteenth Blogathon, hosted by CineMaven’s Essays from the Couch. It’s a blogathon dedicated to the movies individual bloggers have watched obsessively over the years. Check out the other posts at this link!

SPOILER ALERT! Let it be known, I’m discussing this movie in a fair amount of detail including the ending. I imagine most people know how the Beauty and the Beast story ends, but just in case you’re uninitiated with this movie and want to go into this classic absolutely cold, then watch the movie before reading this.

Image source: MOMA

Some people cannot rewatch movies. They don’t see a point. You already know what’s going to happen. Comedies become less funny. Suspenseful films become less suspenseful. Mystery films are spoiled by knowing who did it. Even art films don’t evade these beliefs about diminishing returns.

Yeah, that’s not me. I love rewatching my favorite films, be they blockbusters or Bergman. Any film that tells its story well will still hold up on repeat viewings. Not every movie is a one-and-done affair and to suggest otherwise is an insult to cinema as an art form, if you ask me.

I also don’t care how astute a filmgoer you believe yourself to be: a movie with many layers cannot be understood on a single watch, especially when the viewer is coming in fresh. Case in point: Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast, a movie I have literally watched dozens of times and have yet to grow tired of, let alone fully comprehend.

Many might not get why that is the case. After all, aren’t fairy tales just simple stories for kids? Aren’t they full of bad advice about romance and happy endings? Songs like Maroon 5’s “Payphone” proclaim that “all those fairy tales are full of shit,” after all. Maybe when you get your understanding of fairy tales from popular culture, this might seem to be the case… but no. That’s not what fairy tales are, especially not Cocteau’s magnificent fairy tale film.

Fairy tales are not realist novels or self-help books. They reflect a complex inner reality in their presentation of humanity’s deepest desires and primal fears, but they are not meant to give you dating advice or comfort you with promises of a literal, concrete happily ever after. If anything, fairy tale worlds are perilous. In his book on Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, historian JB Kaufman describes the original context of fairy tales as less sunny than most imagine: “[F]airy tales were expected to contain elements of magic and enchantment but also commonly depicted a cold, forbidding, and dangerous world.” For that reason, Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast is my idea of the perfect fairy tale film. There’s nothing sugary or safe about it.

The basic outline should be familiar: Belle, a lovely young woman, takes her father’s place as the prisoner of a Beast who lives in a remote castle. At first repulsed by his animalistic appearance, she comes to see the goodness within him. Her love transforms the Beast into a handsome prince and they marry.

However, Cocteau’s version stands apart from other retellings in its strange details and surrealistic touches. For one thing, Cocteau adds a human suitor for Belle, the handsome but unpleasant Avenant (Disney would famously reincarnate this character into the meme-inspiring, antler aficionado Gaston). Cocteau also tells this enchantment-filled story with a surprising lack of spectacle, setting this film apart from other cinematic fantasies of the time, like The Wizard of Oz or The Thief of Bagdad. Those films seek to wow you with their spectacular effects and color. Not so in Cocteau’s dreamlike, black-and-white universe.

In Cocteau’s world, there is no real spectacle to Belle gliding down a corridor when she first enters the enchanted castle or the candles along the wall igniting by themselves as Belle’s father walks past them. The effects are antique even for the 1940s, yet they somehow make the magic seem more matter-of-fact, further immersing us into the tactile reality of this world.

The characterizations of the titular beauty and beast are no less unsentimental than the magic. Jean Marais’ Beast is as tragic a figure as any classic movie monster, desperate for love and ashamed of his ugliness. He has the soul of a sensitive poet, yet he is also tormented by a desire to kill when he hears wildlife rustling in the bushes. Unlike Disney’s angry and selfish Beast, Marais’ Beast is a victim of vengeful spirits rather than his own bad behavior, making him all the more pitiable.*

Josette Day’s Belle is arguably even more complicated than the Beast and not in a way that immediately endears her to the audience. Her characterization was downright baffling to me the first few times I saw the movie. Used to the feisty bookworm of the Disney version, Day’s Belle seemed aloof, even haughty. However, I’ve come around to the character because there’s a lot more to her than is readily apparent.

Jean Marais plays Avenant, the Beast, and the Prince, creating thematic links between the three characters.

In her introductory scene, Belle acts the archetypal Cinderella: dressed in rags, polishing the floor, protesting the ardent affections of Avenant. But even in this scene, as she defends her sisters from Avenant’s barbed comments and claims her father is her sole priority, there is a coyness to her interaction with Avenant, a slight flirtatiousness– of course, that flirtiness evaporates the moment Avenant decides to act like a caveman (dare we say, like a beast?), but it does imply Belle desires something beyond a life of household chores and somber filial duty.

But Belle does not totally subvert our expectations until she’s in the enchanted castle. At first terrified of the Beast, she quickly learns he means her no harm after he carries her to a sumptuous bedchamber and leaves her in peace. Courteous despite his hairy face and compulsive need to hunt, the Beast is the inverse of the handsome but aggressive Avenant. However, Belle’s attitude towards the Beast is just as complex as it is towards her human suitor. Despite claiming “I would never wish you the slightest harm,” Belle can be blunt and callous. For example, though she is aware of the Beast’s self-loathing, she calls him “an animal” when stroking him like a cat.

Though Belle denies any deeper feelings for the Beast, her attraction towards him is palpable. Roger Ebert famously observed how she “toys with a knife that is more than a knife” when rejecting the Beast’s first dinnertime marriage proposal. Later, she takes sensual delight in having him drink water from her bare hands. These scenes flaunt Belle’s erotic power over the Beast, complicating the idea that this is some Stockholm Syndrome fantasy. If anything, it is a power fantasy, with Belle becoming the imperious mistress she refuses to be in her own home. Even the scene where the Beast appears at Belle’s threshold, shirt undone and hands smoking with blood, every bit a virile force, Belle is the one who holds the power, cowering the Beast with a fierce look as she demands he clean himself up.

Unlike the Disney film, in which Belle’s love creates both inner and outer change in the Beast, the Cocteau film transforms both of the lovers. Belle returns to the dying Beast, tearfully confessing that “I am the monster” in failing to keep her promise to return to him. The Beast then transforms into a handsome prince– though that description is debatable if you aren’t fond of ruffled collars.

Happily ever after or a downgrade?

What are we to make of this transformation? The former Beast seems content enough (no more worries about shedding), but Belle is definitely conflicted. She’s astonished by this miracle and acts a bit coquettish when speaking with the prince, just as she did with Avenant earlier. However, disappointment is palpable when she confesses she will have to get used to the prince, who must seem all too ordinary compared to the magnificent Beast.

Some have taken this ending to be a true downer. Greta Garbo (or Marlene Dietrich, depending on what version of his apocryphal story you hear) famously wailed, “Give me back my Beast!” as she exited the theater. Cocteau himself forecasted a painfully ordinary happily ever after for Belle, in which she could only look forward to bearing children.

Maybe I’m more of a cautious optimist, but it’s hard for me to read the ending as THAT bleak, despite Cocteau’s intentions. The conclusion is undoubtedly bittersweet because the Beast was so majestic compared to the prince (but in the movies, isn’t suffering always more majestic than bedazzled bliss?), but that last image of the lovers ascending into the clouds is hardly a gloomy one and the triumphant music does not suggest a future of endless diaper changes and domestic squabbling. Whatever “ever after” these two encounter, it isn’t going to be as simple as “they lived happily ever after” or “and then they were miserable, life sucks doesn’t it?” From the start, nothing in this movie was that simple, so why should the ending be?

To wrap it up, La Belle et la Bete is a film I can return to again and again because that quiet, seductive magic humming in every gorgeous black-and-white frame has never died out for me. I have a sneaking suspicion that I will never wholly “get” this movie, for all my ruminations on the psychology of the characters or the nature of the magic. And to be honest, in a world where a great many movies are so simple as to barely make an impression beyond their runtime, that’s a wonderful, wonderful quality to have.

* Let it be known that if it sounds like I’m dumping on the Disney film, that is not at all my intention. The 1991 Disney film is a favorite of mine as well– my second favorite movie version of the story, actually. Now the 2017 remake– that abomination is another deal.

Sources:

Beauty and the Beast: Visions and Revisions of an Old Tale by Betsy Hearne

https://www.criterion.com/current/posts/1928-beauty-and-the-beast-dark-magic

The Fairest One of All: The Making of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs by JB Kaufman

https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/great-movie-beauty-and-the-beast-1946

http://www.thecinessential.com/beauty-and-the-beast-yearning-for-the-beast

Favorite posts of 2021

It’s been my wish to up my blogging game this past year. Instead of standard reviews, I’ve been trying to incorporate more research into my posts and actually offer something beyond “movie good, watch it.” On the whole, I think I was successful and I’m pleased with what I put onto this site over the last several months. In the new year, I plan on redoing the site contents, so if you want to see what else I have posted on here without scrolling endlessly you’ll be all set. Within the next two months, I have two blogathon posts in the making: a piece on Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bete and a look at an early John Williams’ score.

In the meantime, here are the posts from 2021 I am proudest of– they represent my best work on this website to date.

HB Warner, a retrospective of his career and a reflection on Mr. Gower

This was written for the Classic Movie Muse’s It’s a Wonderful Life blogathon. I’ve always loved Mr. Gower as a character, an alcoholic and melancholy figure in the rather idyllic setting of Bedford Falls, but I knew little of the actor who brought him to life beyond the fact that he played Jesus in the silent King of Kings. It was great to appreciate the man’s ample stage and film experience. Though forgotten today, Warner enjoyed a long career as both a star and character actor. Even if you’ve never heard of him, he’s probably been in one of your classic film favorites.

Carol Dempster birthday tribute

Controversy, thy name is Carol Dempster, DW Griffith’s one-time girlfriend and leading lady. While I would not consider myself a Dempster fan, I have always found her fascinating, going back to when I first read Richard Schickel’s DW Griffith biography when I was still in high school. Dempster was a teenage dancer when first discovered by Griffith, who tried to make a proper star of her in the 1920s. That never happened for a variety of reasons, but Dempster’s contemporary reputation was not the critical wash-out certain historians say. Inspired by a viewing of Isn’t Life Wonderful (in which Dempster gives a powerful performance) and fan magazine clippings which showed some movie fans did appreciate Dempster, I wanted to learn more about the woman.

The greatest hits of 1921

For Silentology’s Silent Movie Day blogathon, I wrote about the highest-grossing movies of 1921. It was interesting to see what drew audiences to the theater in those days– in a sense, there was more variety than now, when it seems like superhero pictures and endless franchise installments dominate the end-of-year top tens. However, audiences of yesterday also enjoyed their spectacle, particularly since 1921 audiences had also experienced a major pandemic and other assorted troubles they wanted to escape.

“If you thought you knew what terror was,” or that time Tarantino was a Broadway star

This was easily my favorite post of 2021, an examination of the critically reviled 1998 revival of Frederick Knott’s Wait Until Dark starring Quentin Tarantino of all people. While trying to find production information about the more famous (and better received) 1967 film version, I fell into a research rabbit hole with the revival once I came across old interviews with the actors, director, and producers, conducted months before the show became something no one wanted to discuss on the record, so cataclysmic was its failure. There have been online pieces looking back at this short-lived production, but few go beyond Tarantino’s allegedly wooden performance. I wanted to know what the revival was like, why this play (considered an old chestnut by sophisticated critics) was revived on Broadway to begin with, and how the creative team attempted to modernize it. The answers were all fascinating to me, making me think about the challenges of trying to revive yesteryear’s hits and the double-edged issue of using star power to draw an audience that might not have come otherwise.

The best of times, the worst of times…

Image source: MUBI

Good riddance to 2021. Not betting much on 2022, but I’m gonna start it off with some movie watching. I got a decent sized pile of DVDs and Blurays for Christmas, so time to break them in with a cup of tea and a box of chocolates (I’ll get back to cutting down on sugar when the holidays end!).

My official first watch of 2022 is the 1935 A Tale of Two Cities, a magnificent achievement in adapting Dickens for the screen. I saw this one on TCM some time ago and remember liking it. Coming back to it, I’m stunned by how well the filmmakers were able to condense the story down to two hours. It can be a bit overwhelming for those who have not read the book, but it’s not incomprehensible and moves at a good clip. By the time Darnay was tricked into going back to France, I was surprised at how much time had passed since I pressed play.

The movie makes a few changes from the novel, namely in buffing up the relationship between Sydney and Lucie. They actually feel like friends, whereas in the book Lucie seems to tolerate Sydney more than anything else. I also appreciate Elizabeth Allan’s performance– Lucie tends to set my teeth on edge in the book, while here she’s presented as a little less naive.

Really, all the actors are all exceptional. The 1930s acting style fits perfectly for Dickens’ stylized worlds, bringing more affected characters like Miss Pross, Madame Defarge, or Jerry Cruncher to more glorious life than a more “realistic and gritty” rendition would allow. Ronald Colman is particularly amazing, channeling both Sydney’s sardonic wit and tragic, self-loathing core.

Being a product of the mid-1930s– and therefore only half a decade into the 100% all talking era– A Tale of Two Cities features plenty of silent film style flourishes. Intertitles are used to transition between sections of the story. The repetition of Madame Defarge’s anguished “Why do you bear it?” during the Bastille sequence is something right out of the late silent period, yet it is a flourish that suits the intense drama of the sequence.

Watching this movie is to experience pure old-time movie spectacle: the sweep of actual, non-CG-generated crowds, elaborate costumes and sets, big emotions played out on a grand scale, no chance of a million sequels and spin-offs. Absolutely fantastic. Highly recommended.

Happy New Year’s, everyone!

It’s a Wonderful Life blogathon: HB Warner, a retrospective of his career and a reflection on Mr. Gower

This is my entry for the It’s a Wonderful Life blogathon. Go on over to the Classic Movie Muse’s blog to check out the other contributions!

Bedford Falls is populated by a variety of rich and memorable characters. Any fan of It’s a Wonderful Life certainly has their favorites. Mine has always been Mr. Gower, the alcoholic pharmacist played by character actor HB Warner. Warner is not exactly a household name, though if you’re a classic movie fan, you’ve undoubtedly seen him, either in It’s a Wonderful Life or as one of the “waxworks” playing cards with Norma Desmond in Sunset Blvd. However, he enjoyed a long career on stage and screen.

Harold Hartsell and a young HB Warner in a 1910 production of Alias Jimmy Valentine. Image source: Wikipedia

Warner was born in London, England in 1876. Acting appears to have run in his family: his grandfather and father were both prominent stage performers, and his sister Grace would become a stage manager. Despite familial expectation that he would study medicine, Warner studied acting abroad and joined his father’s stock company instead. He toured throughout England for many years before coming to America at the turn of the twentieth century, where he made his Broadway debut in 1903.

HB Warner as a morphine addict in the 1916 drama The Beggar of Cawporne. Image source: Wikipedia

Warner began his long association with the movies when he was cast in the 1914 film The Lost Paradise. He became a leading man in no time, playing everything from Ruritanian princes to morphine addicts. Unfortunately, many of his 1910s movies are unavailable for viewing, either from lack of access or their being lost. The most intriguing of these is Wrath, a film that was part of a series on the Seven Deadly Sins.

A magazine ad for When We Were Twenty-One, a starring project for Warner in the early 1920s. Image source: Wikipedia

During the 1920s, Warner worked both in Hollywood and on Broadway. Once again, many of the films he headed are unavailable for viewing, the most regrettable title being 1927’s Sorrell and Son, a role he would later replay when the story was turned into a talkie in 1934. However, some of the movies have made it to home video in recent years, such as Zaza, where he plays a respectable diplomat who falls in love with Gloria Swanson’s showgirl, and the historical drama The Divine Woman where he plays Lord Hamilton to Corinne Griffith’s Emma Hart.

Warner as Jesus Christ, his most famous role during the silent era. Image source: Criterion Collection

For a long time, Warner’s most famous film role was Jesus Christ in Cecil B. DeMille’s astonishing 1927 epic The King of Kings. Though older than the biblical Jesus by two decades, Warner made an ideal Christ, serene and compassionate as well as virile and persevering. He achieves an ideal balance between the mortal and divine sides of Christ, which is easier said than done judging by subsequent actors’ tendencies to favor one side over the other.

As convincing a Jesus as he was on-screen, Warner was a womanizer and alcoholic in real life. Regardless, DeMille was determined that Warner behave himself during shooting so as to not compromise the production’s sense of holiness. Warner responded by having an affair with an extra and drinking it up as usual. Much to DeMille’s irritation, his meek and mild Jesus also slept onboard a luxurious yacht every night.

Whatever Warner’s off-screen behavior, The King of Kings was a massive hit with a long shelf life. Even after the talkie revolution and the cultural dismissal of silent cinema, The King of Kings remained in circulation well into the 1950s and became an Easter staple on television.

Warner with Norma Shearer in a lobby card for The Trial of Mary Dugan. Image source: normashearer.com

Warner’s career was unaffected by the coming of sound. Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, he flourished as a character actor. Notable projects from this period of his career include The Trial of Mary Dugan, Five Star Final, Unholy Love, A Tale of Two Cities, The Rains Came, New Moon, Topper Returns, The Devil and Daniel Webster, and several Bulldog Drummond movies.

Warner’s health declined in the 1950s, but he was determined to keep working. By the time he agreed to take a small role in DeMille’s 1956 epic The Ten Commandments, he was living in a nursing home and had to be carried on the set in a stretcher. Regardless of his health, Warner’s presence awed the cast and crew, and he performed his last scene with poignancy. He would die two years later at the age of 82.

HB Warner in It’s a Wonderful Life. Image source: Vanity Fair

While his film work is extensive, Warner’s most notable output comes from his work for Frank Capra. He would appear in You Can’t Take It With You, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Lost Horizon, and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, but his turn as Mr. Gower in It’s a Wonderful Life is undoubtedly now his most famous role, silent or sound.

It’s a Wonderful Life, for all its small-town coziness and triumphant ending, is a dark, dark movie, and Mr. Gower’s poignant character attests to that more than any other in the film. Haunted and hard-edged, he could have walked right out of a film noir. It was an unusual role for Warner by this time. He gleefully told reporters that DeMille would just lose it when he saw he was playing “the damnedest, dirtiest bum you ever saw, a proper drunk.”

From the start, the Gower part is a reversal of the more dignified roles Warner was used to, even if this character is technically an important member of the community as the town pharmacist. Take Gower’s introduction. It does not leave a good impression: he’s tyrannical and drunk, bossing young George around. At first, we might think he’s just another crank like Mr. Potter. However, George and the audience quickly learn Gower was informed his son died of influenza and he’s turned to alcohol to dull the pain.

Gower’s distracted and irritable in his inebriation, so wrapped up in his suffering that he doesn’t realize he’s about to poison a child by mistake. Even worse, he deliberately slaps the hell out of young George when he thinks his failure to deliver the medication was due to laziness. When George explains his actions and Gower realizes how close he came to killing a kid, his remorse and relief are so beautifully presented.

Everything about Warner’s performance is so deeply felt. His work is never a broad portrait of drunkenness and we get to see enough of the goodness within him to where he feels like a genuine person. He literally makes me cry in some of his scenes, especially when he shows up at the bar during the alternate universe sequence, once again dazed and drunk, but this time with the additional burden of being a social pariah since George was never there to stop him from going through with his fatal mistake. He comes off like a figure out of the Inferno, damned even by the criminals and low-lives within the hellhole that is Pottersville.

It’s interesting how Warner’s two signature roles– Jesus Christ and Mr. Gower– could not be more different. Interestingly, both deal with redemption: Christ is obviously the one doing the redeeming in The King of Kings, while Gower is a lost soul redeemed through George’s kindness who then gets to return the favor at the end of the movie. It’s a dynamic part, one that I appreciate with every Christmas-time viewing of this classic film. It remains an integral part of the movie and a testament to Warner’s often unsung skill as a character actor extraordinaire.

Sources:

Empire of Dreams by Scott Eyman

The Epic Film: From Myth to Blockbuster by Constantine Santas

LIFE: It’s a Wonderful Life

Who Was Who in the Theatre: 1912-1976 Vol. 4 Q-Z 

Reflecting on my favorite version of A Christmas Carol

‘Tis the season to binge your holiday favorites! And few Christmas stories are as beloved as Charles Dickens’ enduring classic, A Christmas Carol. You might dread dealing with cranky relatives at Christmas, yet we all seem to look forward to revisiting fiction’s favorite misanthrope Ebeneezer Scrooge.

Pretty much everyone has a go-to adaptation of A Christmas Carol. God knows, there’s one for every taste. Want A Christmas Carol with a large dollop of Old Hollywood gloss? Here’s the Reginald Owen version! Enjoy warm sentiment and meta comedy? Here’s The Muppet Christmas Carol! Like your Dickens extra dark and moody? Here’s the George C. Scott movie! Want musical numbers and a campy as hell Jacob Marley? Here’s the Albert Finney version!

To name the 1951 Alastair Sim adaptation as my favorite isn’t going to score me any originality points. It’s one of the most popular versions, tied with the Scott movie as the definitive cinematic Carol. I watch at least three or four versions of this story a year when December rolls around, but the Sim version is the only one I put on without fail.

What sets the Sim version apart for me is its masterful tone. A great many Carols are too sentimental or sweet, taking the bite out of Dickens’ social criticism and blunting Scrooge’s redemption. And as admirable as I find a great many elements in the much-loved Scott version, I always thought it had the opposite problem, becoming so excessively grim that it undercuts Dickens’ palpable sense of holiday cheer and communal joy (that’s my unpopular opinion for the day—in the name of Christmas, please don’t put a stake of holly through my heart for it!).

Dickens’ original story is so beloved because of its multi-faceted nature. It’s a scary ghost story with a gloriously joyful conclusion. It criticizes society’s callousness towards the unfortunate while affirming that even the worst people can change. The Sim version achieves all of this perfectly and I think the key to that success is Sim in the lead. His characterization is so rich and dynamic. Some Scrooges are such monsters that we don’t want to see them redeemed, so it’s important that Scrooge not be 100% off-putting in his earliest scenes. The best Scrooges infuse their crotchety callousness with a grim sense of humor, and I think Sim managed that best of all.

Humor aside, what defines Sim’s approach to the character is its palpable vulnerability. To put it bluntly, this Scrooge is a sad man who hides his pain behind a hostile front. The most heartbreaking moment in the film is when the aged Scrooge realizes he ran out on his dying sister right before he could listen to her request that he take care of her newborn son. Scrooge’s body trembles with waves of regret and self-loathing. He sees firsthand just how hardened he became, even towards the one person who loved him most.

Fan’s early death and the absorption of Fezziwig’s company leave indelible wounds on Scrooge’s psyche. These avatars of love and warmth being utterly destroyed, Scrooge is left with the conclusion that money will be the sole means of protecting himself from pain. The young Scrooge’s line to Jacob Marley during their first meeting is telling:

“I think the world is becoming a very hard and cruel place, Mr. Marley. One must steel oneself to survive it and not be crushed under with the weak and the infirm.”

On that note, few other versions make Scrooge’s subsequent rejection of his fiancée (here renamed Alice) more credible than here. Contemptuous of weakness and poverty, his once-beloved Alice holds little allure for a man obsessed with “gain.”

Sim’s Scrooge also boasts a wonderfully credible transformation. This isn’t a case of some mean old man being scared into reformation through hellfire—this Scrooge is a man on the verge of total despair. It’s not that he just does not want to change: he also believes it’s too late. He’s already immured himself in the deceased Marley’s miserable, dilapidated house (a set which eerily resembles the Bates house from Psycho… or is it just me that thinks that?), treating himself with no more kindness than anyone else. Scrooge’s inner gloom is also reflected in the shadowy, filthy Victorian London sets, lit very much like any hard-nosed noir of the period.

And then Dr. Pretorious himself shows up.

Contemporary reviewers slammed the movie for its darkness, but this willingness to show emotional trauma, poverty, and despair only heightens the story’s moments of compassion and joy. They are no longer taken for granted. It is hard to do good in a seemingly unjust and hopeless world. It is hard to face the day— even Christmas Day— with a heart weighed down by grief and resentment. And yet, when we see the weary but good-hearted Alice comforting the poor at a shelter or the put-upon Cratchits making the best of their meager holiday feast, these moments hit the viewer that much harder because we understand their greater significance. These people have been beaten down by life. By all means, they should be as bitter as Scrooge and yet they choose compassion over self-isolation.

This too is why Scrooge’s awakening on Christmas morning gets me in the Sim version the way no other adaptation does. He’s EARNED it. His giddiness is palpable after so much inner struggle and reflection. I’ve got about every frame and line from this movie committed to memory, and yet this scene never fails to lift my spirits and make me smile like an eggnog-addled fool. It’s truly the perfect finale to a movie I would consider as close to perfect as movies can get.

Bernard Herrmann blogathon: On Dangerous Ground (1951)

This post is for the Bernard Herrmann blogathon hosted by the Classic Movie Muse. Check out the listings for more Herrmann-related material. The blogathan lasts from October 29th to October 31st.

Image source: Wikipedia.

On Dangerous Ground had a famously muddled production and has enjoyed an equally muddled critical afterlife. Director Nicholas Ray considered the movie a failure and producer John Houseman found it “sort of a mess… but awfully good.” Now that the passage of time elevated this once minor work to cult status, generations of critics and movie geeks have argued its merits. Is the story structure, severing the film into two tonally disparate halves, merely uneven or is it bold? Do the romantic elements complement the gritty noir elements or do they declare open war upon them?

The movie starts like any typical noir. Jim Wilson is a big-city cop who’s been hardened by constant exposure to corruption and criminality. His ordinary world encompasses darkened alleys and shabby apartments populated by every kind of scumbag. Not above beating the hell out of suspects to get confessions, Jim is too much even for the police force. His captain opts to send Jim to the snow-covered countryside where there’s a murderer on the loose, hoping the assignment will cool Jim off literally and metaphorically.

Depending on your perspective, this is either where the movie loses its way or gets interesting. Jim encounters a reflection of his own anger in the victim’s father, who swears bloody vengeance on the killer. During the search, he also comes across the lonely Mary Malden, a sensitive young blind woman who knows the killer’s whereabouts but is not willing to reveal him. It turns out Mary is the killer’s sister and she’s hoping he’ll agree to be hospitalized for his mental illness rather than continue to run from the law.

Image source: The Signal Watch.

On Dangerous Ground is definitely a film of two halves. While most people prefer the gritty urban fare in the beginning, I take more to the latter section. The desolate beauty of the wintry countryside sets the film apart from your typical city-bound noir, createing an atmosphere both dreadful and romantic. The black-and-white visuals make the sense of cold palpable, especially when the film goes inside Mary’s cabin, dominated by deep shadows and the intense white fire of the hearth.

What stands out the most in the story is the fragile relationship between Jim and Mary. Ryan and Lupino could both channel hardboiled toughness and soulful yearning, making them an ideal screen pairing. Their characters are desperately, even ontologically lonely people, lending a desperate quality to their budding romance. Not everyone likes this part of the script, feeling any love that doesn’t end in disillusionment or death has no place in noir. However, I think there’s room in film noir for movies that show some glimmer of hope in an otherwise corrupt world. Murder, My Sweet has a similarly romantic subplot between Philip Marlowe and a fresh-faced ingenue, and no one ever contests its noir status.

“The Death Hunt”

The one element of the film everyone agrees upon is the quality of Bernard Herrmann’s score. For his part, Herrmann liked the movie and claimed he was “very partial to it” in a 1971 interview. Herrmann’s score brings together the contrasting elements of menace and romance in a chocolate/peanut butter style combination. This contrast is especially clear in two pieces from the score: “Death Hunt,” an intense, brassy composition which plays while the men are pursuing the killer, and the gentle, romantic theme associated with Mary. The gentler music is soulful and moving, perfectly complimenting the central romance and the quiet, desperate yearnings of both lovers.

The suite

Whether you see On Dangerous Ground as a truncated curiosity or an underrated gem, there’s no denying the power of the film’s many parts. Herrmann’s contribution might just be the glue that holds everything together.

Sources:

A Heart at Fire’s Center: The Life and Music of Bernard Herrmann by Steven C. Smith

Happy birthday, Frederick Knott!

Frederick Knott and Grace Kelly on the set of Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder. I appreciate the pun on the back of Knott’s chair.

Playwright Frederick Knott was born 105 years ago today.

The son of Quaker missionaries, he had a distinguished resume by all accounts: he studied law and played tennis before serving in the British Army during World War II, attaining the rank of major by the time he left the service in 1946. But it is primarily for his theater work that Knott is remembered today, even if he did not write many plays.

Exposure to Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic operas instilled a fascination with the stage from a young age. The child Knott was so enamored with them that he staged his own versions in the family garden. Though he would make his name as a playwright, his first play would not be produced until he was in his thirties. Initially, he tried to make it as a screenwriter, most notably adapting material for horror legend Terence Fisher’s first Hammer project, The Last Page.

Knott’s breakout hit Dial M for Murder struggled to be realized—it was rejected repeatedly as having little box office potential. Frustrated, Knott managed to get the play produced for television by the BBC in 1952, where it made enough of a splash to garner the interest of the West End. The play would become an unexpected smash, quickly moving to Broadway and then attracting the attention of Hollywood. Alfred Hitchcock’s film version also proved a great success with Ray Milland and Grace Kelly headlining the project.

Dial M for Murder has been adapted for television multiple times over the years. The above image is from a 1958 production starring John Williams (who was also in Hitchcock’s famous version), Maurice Evans (a veteran of the Broadway production, and Rosemary Harris.

Like the later Columbo series, Dial M is less a “whodunit” than a “how will they be caught.” It follows the sociopathic and greedy Tony Wendice as he plots to have his unfaithful heiress wife murdered before she leaves him for her lover, taking her millions along. The plan is meticulous with seemingly no detail overlooked, but small errors during the execution make big problems and Tony has to improvise while his wife’s paramour (who just happens to be a crime fiction novelist) and a meddling detective wait in the wings.

From then on, Knott was most associated with thrilling potboilers, though he was hardly a prolific writer. There were years-long gaps between his plays: nine between Dial M and Write Me a Murder, and then five between Write and Wait Until Dark. In a sense, Knott became a victim of Dial M’s success: he expressed fears about getting into a “rut” by writing thriller after thriller, but his one attempt at dark comedy (Mr. Fox of Venice) failed to garner interest and so a master of twisty thrillers he has remained.

Knott’s two 1960s thrillers: Write Me a Murder and Wait Until Dark.

Write Me a Murder is an underrated piece of work following mystery authors David and Julie, a pair of illicit lovers who try to enact the perfect murder on the latter’s loathed husband. It had a respectable run, but would be overshadowed by Knott’s next and final play, Wait Until Dark, a sinister home invasion thriller. New York native Susy Hendrix is a blind woman targeted by a trio of cunning drug smugglers, their struggle culminating in a showdown that put both the characters and the audience in near-total darkness. Like Dial M, Wait Until Dark received a popular Hollywood adaptation, with Audrey Hepburn giving the final performance of her superstar heyday in the lead role.

Like Dial M, Wait Until Dark was enormously successful and has been revived often over the years, though never more infamously than the 1998 Broadway production with Quentin Tarantino as the villain. How I wish there was video of it.

Wait Until Dark’s success on stage and screen closed out Knott’s career. Though many an advance was thrown his way, Knott was content to coast off the continued success of his thrillers for the remaining decades of his life, even though he still had ideas for other stage work running through his brain. He would pass away in 2002 at the age of 86.

Knott has left an indelible impact, even if his name is only known to theater geeks and classic film buffs. His thrillers could almost be considered a trilogy on the myth of the perfect crime. All feature a criminal mastermind with a major case of hubris, his plans undermined by overlooked details and unexpected behavior from the potential victims.

Knott also had a good handle on witty dialogue and concise characterization. He had a particular talent for creating memorable villains, each unique and menacing in their own way, but his sympathetic characters like the meek but unrelenting Julie of Write Me a Murder or the vulnerable yet tough-minded Susy of Wait Until Dark are also well-drawn on the page, parts any actress would be proud to take on.

Knott’s writing is most remembered in the form of major Hollywood versions of his plays, like the 1954 Alfred Hitchcock Dial M for Murder. These films in turn have been ripped off or unofficially remade many times ever after, such as 1998’s A Perfect Murder, a sexed up reimagining of Dial M.

Knott’s wife Ann claimed he did not enjoy writing and only did so for the big, big money. If so, I’m glad he got past his dislike of writing to give us what he did.

So, happy birthday Frederick Knott—because of you, I haven’t opened a fridge or picked up a pair of scissors without thinking of murder ever since.

References:

https://www.bard.org/study-guides/about-the-playwright-dial-m-for-murder

https://www.playbill.com/article/frederick-knott-playwright-of-wait-until-dark-and-dial-m-for-murder-dead-com-110662

Kubrick in Color

This is one of my favorite videos on the internet. Set to “Blue Danube,” this montage features striking shots from Stanley Kubrick’s color movies, with the exception of Spartacus. It’s so well put together and lovely, it emotionally moves me.

The Classic Movie Ice Cream Social: The Hidden Fortress (dir. Akira Kurosawa, 1958)

Out of all of Kurosawa’s 1950s output, The Hidden Fortress may be the lightest. Seven Samurai may be more action-packed, but it still has numerous heavy dramatic moments and an ending tinged with melancholy. By contrast, Fortress is more of an adventure story and features more comedy, particularly in the peasant duo played by Minoru Chiaki and Kamatari Fujiwara, who almost resemble Laurel and Hardy in their bickering and friendship. The premise is simple: two peasants named Tahei and Matashichi end up unwittingly accompanying a disguised princess and general as they cross enemy territory with gold in tow. The peasants try to make a quick buck whenever they can and the princess experiences culture shock as she encounters the world outside the palace walls for the first time.

The charms of The Hidden Fortress are plenty: beautiful widescreen images, Tohsiro Mifune in shorts (swoon), and sweeping action sequences. There is plenty of comedy, but the story and its world are hardly made of sweetness and light. There is definite danger. Kahei and Matashichi, as hilarious as they are, have a sinister side: their first impulse upon seeing the princess for the first time is to force themselves upon her while the general is not looking. Even after traveling alongside her for days, they still try assaulting her in her sleep, staved off only by the fury of a sex worker the princess had rescued earlier and a big boulder! And yet, the two do possess qualities that endear them to the audience, such as their committed friendship.

For me, it is Misa Uehara who steals the show as the tough-as-nails teenage Princess Yuki. Severe with her eye make-up and masculine stance, she is nevertheless still vulnerable and human. Her sheltered upbringing makes her more curious about the lives of the common people. She is brave and kind, willing to help others at the expense of her own safety. She undergoes a spiritual transformation during the Buddhist fire festival, dancing and singing along with the peasants in abandon. Kurosawa isn’t known for having too many great female characters, but Princess Yuki is one of his best characters period. Out of all the characters in the film, her arc is the most dynamic and by the end, you’re left wondering what kind of woman she will grow to be.

The first thing most people hear about The Hidden Fortress is that it was the model for the original 1977 Star Wars. According to The Making of Star Wars by J.W. Rinzler, George Lucas’s early treatments of the plot were basically word for word the summary of Kurosawa’s film, though the story moved farther away from this outline with each subsequent draft. Star Wars does share much with this film, particularly its enchanting mix of light adventure and a gritty, dangerous setting. Still, the weird thing about The Hidden Fortress’s relation to Star Wars is that it resembles The Phantom Menace more than it does A New Hope! Think about it, both movies feature: 1) A member of royalty in disguise and a stoic warrior out to protect her, 2) prominent comic relief sidekick character(s), and 3) a journey into enemy territory that ends with an awards ceremony. But hell, I don’t need to tell you which movie is better, do I?

If you have never seen a Kurosawa film and you are intimidated by the run time of Seven Samurai or heavier fare like Rashomon or Ikiru, then this may be a good place to start. Accessible and fun, The Hidden Fortress is a great adventure.

This is part of the Classic Movie Ice Cream Social hosted by Movies Silently. Check out her blog for more sweetness!

A tale of two trailers: Barry Lyndon (dir. Stanley Kubrick, 1975)

At the time of its release in 1975, Barry Lyndon was a miss with audiences and some critics. Perceived as slow and boring, it has, like many of Kubrick’s films, grown in critical stature as time wears onward. Barry Lyndon is a major favorite of mine, my second favorite Kubrick film after A Clockwork Orange, but after seeing the original trailer, it is hard to see one reason why audiences may have stayed away– the trailer is absolutely terrible!

We are given little sense of plot from the trailer; we receive nothing but critical notices, all bland statements about the film’s cinematography and attention to detail. Those are two of its greatest strengths to be sure, but your average film-goer wants plot, a sense of character, none of which you get from this trailer! This movie is sad, funny, haunting, but from the original trailer it looks like any musty old Oscar bait piece. Blech!

Now compare this recent trailer for a 40th anniversary screening:

Now THAT’S a trailer, guys! Much better sense of editing and we actually get a feel for the story, that this is about an ambitious con man’s rise and fall, told through some of the most stunning visuals ever put to film. If you have not seen Barry Lyndon, then do so. Three hours well spent!