Happy birthday William Wyler

Today is William Wyler’s 120th birthday.

Wyler’s career lasted from the silent era to the dawn of the New Hollywood. He worked with many of the Old Hollywood’s biggest stars and put out a number of films which are now considered classics. And yet, he is rarely listed as one of the ultimate masters of cinema, despite his excellent track record.

You can blame the so-called “auteurist” critics who started dominating film criticism in the 1960s. The auteur theory essentially views the film’s director as the “author” of a movie. When applying auteurist analysis to a film, you’re essentially trying to discover connections between a filmmaker’s body of work. What are the repeated themes, motifs, and techniques? Think of Ford’s presentation of the old west, Kubrick’s cynical vision of society, or Hitchock’s affection for “the wrong man” trope. I’m not at all anti-auteurism and do believe this type of analysis can be applied to particular filmmakers. However, it becomes problematic when the romanticized notion of a “unified” body of work allows critics to turn their noses up at a great craftsman like William Wyler.

I’ve come to disdain the idea that a “well-directed” movie equals a self-consciously stylish movie. With Wyler, you never notice any stylistic flourishes on a first viewing because he utterly absorbs you into the world of the story. His direction of actors and choice of compositions are often second to none. His versatility with many genres goes to show he was a man who disliked repeating himself. What makes him uninteresting to the aueturists is ironically what makes him such a top-notch director.

I’m going to close out with my top five favorite Wyler movies. The man made such a number of classic films that it was honestly torture to narrow the number down so much, but if you were to ask for recommendations, these are the ones I would offer up as definitive examples of Wyler’s cinematic mastery.

Carrie

I couldn’t find a trailer for this one, so enjoy this small clip which demonstrates the assured direction and performances of this underrated movie.

Poignant is the best word to describe Carrie. Based on a grim urban novel by Theodore Dreiser, the film version strikes me as more emotional and tragic, with less of a clinical eye on its central characters, a young woman and her older lover whose fortunes progress in opposite trajectories. Wyler recreates turn of the century Chicago with great skill and doesn’t overplay the potential soapiness of the scenario. I also think this film showcases the career-best performance of Laurence Olivier, which is no small feat. He is truly heartbreaking.

Wuthering Heights

Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights is my favorite novel of all time. It is a complicated, emotionally raw work of art that has yet to be adequately adapted into a visual medium. The Wyler adaptation is often scorned by Bronte purists because it cuts off half of the novel, de-emphasizes the themes of cyclical abuse, and sands the more unpleasant edges off Catherine and Heathcliff, the novel’s doomed lovers. But I don’t care: Wyler’s Wuthering Heights is a glorious example of gothic melodrama with its chilly black-and-white cinematography and powerful performances. It has the same passion and quiet menace as later “Hollywood gothics” of the 1940s, like Gaslight or Dragonwyck.

The Collector

Even though Wyler loved tackling different genres, this dark psychological thriller seems such an odd fit for him. The story of an obsessed bank clerk who imprisons the woman he’s desired from afar in his basement, the material is disturbing, with heavy psychosexual themes and a complicated power dynamic between captor and captive. Considering this was also filmed during the 1960s, a period of radical change in both society and the film industry, one might think the older Wyler would not be up to the task. To the contrary, he does stunning work, keeping location fatigue from creeping into this one-setting thriller with his sharp eye for dramatic compositions and drawing out fantastic work from Terence Davis and Samantha Eggar.

Roman Holiday

Roman Holiday is known one of the great “a star is born” movies. I cannot imagine a more perfect first starring role for Audrey Hepburn, a sheltered princess who finds love and adventure with a charming journalist in Rome. While most discussion of the film focuses on Hepburn, Wyler’s direction is also deserving of praise. I love the subtle ways he generates humor, like the parallel shots of the princess looking up at the elaborate carvings along the ceiling in her lush bedroom, then later awaking in Gregory Peck’s apartment to ugly industrial pipes shot from a similar angle. And of course, there’s the wonderful handling of tone, which blends light humor with a bittersweet lyricism, building to one of the most perfect endings in film history.

The Heiress

I have not yet seen all of Wyler’s films (The Best Years of Our Lives is my biggest oversight in that regard), but to date, I think The Heiress is his masterpiece. Adapted from a play which was itself adapted from a Henry James novella, The Heiress follows a timid, affection-starved heiress (played by Olivia De Havilland in a career-best performance) in love with a handsome charmer who may or may not be more interested in her money than her heart. It’s a movie that could have easily devolved into campy melodrama, but the characters are all complicated, with even the antagonists showing a great deal more ambiguity than you would expect of such a film. Once again, Wyler shows great skill with the material. Beneath the mannered drawing room surface, this is one emotionally brutal, even cruel movie, so packed with little nuances in the acting and visuals that it absolutely merits repeated viewings.

On George Lucas, The Searchers, and cinematic quotations

This piece was supposed to be for May the Fourth—whoops.

To be honest, it switched focus many times—it was originally a simple analysis of the different 1950s movies which influenced Attack of the Clones, the second film in George Lucas’ Star Wars saga. However, I got caught up on one of these movies, a film that has a long-standing relationship with the Star Wars saga—John Ford’s The Searchers.

When you think about it, Ford’s movie seems an odd inspiration for a Flash Gordon-esque space opera. Yes, Ford was a master of composition and his images of the natural world have inspired a great many filmmakers, but when you look at the story proper, it doesn’t seem like Lucas inherited much of it at all—at least, not at first.

Image source: The Cinema Archives

Set in post-Civil War Texas, The Searchers opens with the return of Ethan Edwards (John Wayne), a Confederate soldier turned wanderer, to his brother’s homestead. His homecoming is interrupted by a Comanche raid in which most of the family is brutalized and killed. Ethan’s two nieces are captured by the tribe, leaving him and the family’s adopted son Martin (Jeffrey Hunter) to pursue the captives across the wilderness.

The older of the girls turns up dead and the search for the younger takes so long that it is almost a guarantee that she’s been integrated into the tribe, possibly even married to one of the men. Ethan’s hatred for the Comanche is so strong that it becomes clear he plans to kill the girl rather than rescue her. The only one in his way is the principled Martin, but will he be able to change Ethan’s mind before it is too late?

The Searchers is no simple adventure. Suffused with rage and despair despite its comic scenes, it questions the traditional “Cowboys and Indians” narratives of earlier westerns with a main character whose homicidal bigotry is hard to reconcile with his “compelling strength” as critic Edward Buscombe once observed in his book-length analysis of the film. It’s little wonder the film garnered more appreciation in the jaded 60s and 70s than when it was originally released. New Hollywood’s shining stars tend to list the movie as a favorite. George Lucas is no exception.

Lucas’ homage to The Searchers during the burning of the Lars farm was noticed and commented on even back in 1977. Second image source: Second Reel

The Searchers is often touted as a major influence on the original Star Wars film (also referred to as A New Hope once it became clear Star Wars would become a series), but the connections always seemed thin to me. Sure, you could draw broad comparison between weary war veteran Obi-wan Kenobi with weary war veteran Ethan Edwards—both fought on the losing side of a civil war, both serve as mentor figures to an idealistic younger man. However, Obi-wan is a positive figure while Ethan certainly is not, so the comparison does not run too deep. There’s also the famous quotation of the destroyed homestead in which Luke’s return to the Lars farm openly recreates Ford’s compositions in the 1956 movie. Otherwise, the original Star Wars is a light adventure in which grief and rage are shunted to the side. The movie quotes The Searchers without actually dealing with its themes. This is not a problem, mind you—any wallowing over the barbecued Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru would bog down the film and clash with the pulpy tone it’s going for.

However, A New Hope is not the end of Lucas’ quotations of The Searchers. There’s more of Ford in another, less regarded film in the Lucas saga—Attack of the Clones. Released in 2002, it was the second of the oft-maligned prequel trilogy and usually touted as the worst of the three, even in light of current re-evaluations of the prequel films. Mock the cheesy love dialogue all you want, but rewatching this movie again, I was struck by how much more meaningful the references to Ford’s film are.

One of the major plot threads in Attack of the Clones concerns Jedi apprentice Anakin Skywalker’s (Hayden Christensen) search for his mother Shmi (Pernilla August), who was left enslaved on the desert planet Tattooine at the end of the previous movie in the series. Plagued by nightmares of his mother’s distress and convinced these visions are prophetic, Anakin rushes back to Tattooine in the hopes of finding her. Instead, he discovers that Shmi, though briefly liberated and happily married to a farmer, was captured by the Tusken Raiders, a nomadic tribe hostile to outsiders. Anakin tracks down the Tusken camp and finds his mother just as she is dying, presumably from weeks of beatings. Enraged, Anakin kills every Tusken in sight—(in)famously “not just the men—but the women—and the children too!”

This chapter of the film almost operates as a condensed remake of The Searchers. Anakin’s scouting out the camp and the later funeral scene openly quote shots in Ford’s movie. And then there’s the basic dramatic trappings: the quest for a captive loved one, the obsessed warrior driven by hatred and grief, and even, to a smaller extent, the emphasis on the individual’s psychological need for belonging in a community. Ford extensively explores that third point through the romance subplot with Laurie (Vera Miles) and his depiction of close-knit settler families, while Lucas makes those notions more implicit in Anakin’s alienation from the stoic Jedi Order and how this divide pushes him to the dark side.

Everyone talks about how Anakin is meant to evoke James Dean’s red-jacketed teen hero in Rebel Without a Cause, but he shares way more DNA with Ethan Edwards. For both characters, the genesis of their never-ending rage comes from the violent death of a mother (we see it plainly in Attack of the Clones, while this bit of Ethan’s backstory is only evidenced by the information on Mrs. Edward’s gravestone). Erotic transgression troubles both characters as well: Ethan is in love with his brother’s wife Martha (Dorothy Jordan) and the supposed-to-be-free-of-romantic-attachments Anakin is in love with Padme Amidala (Natalie Portman). For these anti-heroes, love becomes twisted into something obsessive and ugly, turning each into monsters unable to connect with anyone. In the end, both are redeemed by love, though neither will ever fully escape their isolation from the greater community.

Image source: The Cinema Archives

Beyond showing George Lucas understands film history, what does all this referencing really do? It’s easy to take the standard cynical view that it’s yet another example of the shallowness of postmodern art. While damning the similarly allusion-happy Sergio Leone, Peter Bogdanovich once accused Lucas and others of his generation of “simply making movies they grew up with, over again.” Bogdanovich’s criticism suggests a man caught up in his childhood loves, doomed to a grotesque Peter Pan career.

But I can’t go there, especially since Attack of the Clones shows a decided upping of the ante in Lucas’ engagement with The Searchers. He’s in dialogue with Ford in a way he was not before, actually dealing with Ford’s themes head-on. Maybe it’s because Lucas was older by the time he got to the prequels and therefore better able to understand the tragedy of The Searchers than when he was young. In that sense, he’s not only having a dialogue with The Searchers, but with A New Hope, and arguably with his younger self as well. This suggests not some Peter Pan with a camera, as Lucas’ detractors would define him, but an artist whose worldview evolved between youth and old age. Whatever one thinks of the overall quality of the Star Wars prequels, one cannot accuse Lucas of treading water with them or with his relationships to the movies that shaped him in his youth.

Sources:

https://kitbashed.com/blog/the-searchers/

https://kitbashed.com/blog/there-was-once-a-certain-kind-of-cinema

The Searchers: BFI Classics by Edward Buscombe

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.

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

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!

They Remade What?! Blogathon: The Most Dangerous Game, A Game of Death, and Run for the Sun

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This is a submission for the “They Remade What?!” blogathon hosted by Phyllis Loves Classic Movies. Check out her blog for more remake related posts!

Richard Connell’s 1924 short story “The Most Dangerous Game” concerns a hunter named Rainsford who finds himself on the other end of the chase when he is marooned on the island fortress of General Zaroff, a madman who hunts humans for sport. Of course, the piece piqued Hollywood interest early on, leading to the famous 1932 Cooper and Schoedsack adaptation of the same name starring Joel McCrea, Leslie Banks, and Fay Wray. This film is the most well-known cinematic adaptation of the story, but Hollywood did not visit the well only once: there were two remakes produced in 1945 and 1956, A Game of Death starring John Loder, Edgar Barrier, and Audrey Long, and Run for the Sun starring Richard Widmark, Trevor Howard, and Jane Greer. Made in three very different decades of Hollywood moviemaking, how does each differ from the one before it? Let’s dive right in and find out!

Before we start, I will share the version I saw first. I found The Most Dangerous Game on YouTube about two years ago and just fell in love with it, snapping up the Criterion Collection DVD immediately. Now onto the review!

The Most Dangerous Game (dir. Irving Pichel & Ernest Schoedsack, 1932)

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While some viewers perceive The Most Dangerous Game as a sort of trial-run for the more-famous King Kong due to the two films sharing a jungle set and actors, it is a fine piece of entertainment in its own right, one of the greatest productions in the early 1930s cycle of Hollywood horror and a marvelous example of economical storytelling in any medium.

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The film begins the same way as the story: world-famous big game hunter Rainsford asserts that he is a hunter and that “nothing on earth can change that” right as his ship sinks. After surviving the fakest shark attack in the history of cinema (in one of the film’s most deliciously over-the-top moments, one of the crew is snatched by a shark and shrieks “Ohh— they got me!!” before finally being dragged under to his doom), he washes up on an island and wanders off to an ominous castle populated by Count Zaroff, a refugee of the Russian Revolution and hunting enthusiast, and his handful of servants, the most memorable being played by African-American film pioneer and character actor Noble Johnson. There he meets fellow castaways, the drunken Robert and the reserved Eve. Over coffee and cigars, Zaroff boasts of having found “the most dangerous game,” which he hunts on the island. Though Rainsford urges him for an answer, Zaroff won’t tell and sends everyone off to bed—everyone but the annoying Robert anyway, whom he wants to show his trophy room…

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That night, Eve awakes Rainsford, worried for her brother’s sake and suspicious of Zaroff’s intentions. Wandering down into the trophy room and finding decayed human heads mounted upon the wall, they manage to cross paths with Zaroff, who has Robert’s body in tow. Turns out that “most dangerous game” he hunts are human beings. And unless Rainsford plans on joining Zaroff, he and Eve are going to be finding themselves in the jungle and on the opposite end of the count’s rifle.

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Though some purists take issue with the embellishments of the 1932 screenplay, particularly the addition of a love interest, I rather like the way the filmmakers fleshed out Connell’s story. While I do miss the original story’s haunting and ambiguous ending, this is still an effective piece of writing and I think the changes make the 1932 an interesting variation on some of the original’s ideas. For one thing, Rainsford’s rather cold and worldly character is transformed into a genial if naïve young man, played to perfection by a young (and sexy!) Joel McCrea, whose ideas about the hunter/hunted relationship seem more a product of his youth than genuine hardness or lack of empathy. Fay Wray is ravishingly gorgeous and her character does display a little more intelligence than your garden variety damsel early on, but unfortunately once the chase gets underway, all she really has to do is scream and gasp whenever Zaroff’s around.

tmdg8Leslie Banks’s Count Zaroff dominates the film. Simultaneously urbane and savage, genuinely menacing and campy as hell, he ranks among my favorite screen villains. Sure his Russian accent is as phony as that shark attack, but just listen to the way he delivers his lines with such relish (apparently they had two Russian language consultants on the set to make sure Banks pronounced things correctly, but his accent is pretty comical nonetheless). I cannot help but say them along with him with every re-viewing. “Hunting was beg-in-ing to BORE me!” “When I lost my love of hunting, I lost my love of life! Of love!” “Im-POSS-ible!” “Kill, then love! When you have known THAT, you have known ec-stasy!”

That last quote reveals one aspect of the character invented by the screenwriters: Fay Wray isn’t just there to scream and look jaw-dropping. Zaroff pretty much states outright  he cannot indulge in the pleasures of the flesh without killing something first (“One passion builds upon another…”), that he, as Bruce Eder puts it in his excellent commentary for the Criterion Collection, “links killing and hunting with sex.” With his hungry gazing and excited reaction at the sight of Eve in that tattered dress, it does not take much speculation to surmise what Zaroff plans on doing to her after the hunt. And that’s not even mentioning the almost orgasmic delight on his face which comes about after he believes he has killed Rainsford (notice how he lights up a cigarette afterward too).

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Though this film is often sold as an adventure flick a la King Kong, The Most Dangerous Game fits neatly into the early 1930s cycle of Hollywood horror. Zaroff’s castle is a gothic hunting lodge in which Dr. Frankenstein or Dracula would be right at home. The parlor where Zaroff and his guests indulge in coffee and conversation is dominated by a large staircase and tapestry depicting a vicious-looking centaur with a half-nude woman swooning in his arms. And then there’s the infamous trophy room, where human heads are either hanging mummified upon the wall or pickling in a jar. Apparently more of the trophy room was supposed to be shown, with a proud Zaroff showing Rainsford the maimed bodies of his most noteworthy victims stuffed and on display, but the disgusted reaction of the preview audiences had the studio reaching for the scissors right away.

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The famous jungle set is no doubt artificial, but that enhances the sense of claustrophobia. The lighting therein is evocative of a Gustave Dore illustration. While its use in Kong has made it so iconic, I always felt it was never more foreboding than in this film.

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The Most Dangerous Game’s finest moments are in the last half-hour of its runtime, when the hunt begins and Rainsford and Eve must fight to survive the jungle terrain, Zaroff’s bow and rifle, and finally a bloodthirsty pack of hounds (which were on loan from Harold Lloyd!). These scenes are tense and well-edited, perfectly complimented by Max Steiner’s heart-pounding score. Contrary to popular belief about the cinematography of the early sound period, the camera is quite fluid as it follows McCrea and Wray through the dense jungle foliage. I really dig that one close-up of Zaroff’s face as he’s in pursuit of his prey, an expression that’s both hilariously over-the-top yet perfect in showing how focused he is on coming for the kill.

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Overall, The Most Dangerous Game is essential for pre-code lovers and highly recommended for everyone else. Unpretentious, entertaining, and well-crafted, it stills stands as grand fun after eighty-plus years. And being a well-made Hollywood flick, is it any surprise it was remade more than once?

A Game of Death (dir. Robert Wise, 1945)

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After the moral guardians of the nation cracked down on Hollywood in 1934, RKO was unable to re-release The Most Dangerous Game due to the much stricter enforcement of the Hayes Code, which took issue with the film’s less than subdued content. Thus in 1945, a remake under the direction of Robert Wise was put into production and released in the fall of that year.

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The plot clings close to the 1932 adaptation with some differences: the Russian Count Zaroff is now the German Erich Kreiger, no doubt due to the film’s production coinciding with the end of World War II. Rainsford is still a big game hunter who maroons on Kreiger’s island lair, makes friends with a sibling duo, Robert and Ellen, and then finds himself and Ellen hunted by Kreiger and his hounds. Noble Johnson reprises his role as the mute manservant, only this time he looks like a cast member from Disney World’s Pirates of the Caribbean ride. Robert Clarke is an additional servant who is perhaps the least threatening henchman in film history, coming off as mildly disgruntled and praying his eccentric boss will give him a raise.

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This version is the least regarded of the three adaptations, most likely due to its being an uninspired and almost shot-for-shot redo of the 1932 production. I would love to offer a revisionist opinion, but in this case, the popular consensus is right: A Game of Death is inferior to The Most Dangerous Game in just about every area, coming off as bloodless and dull. For one thing, the look of the film is pedestrian (save for the footage borrowed from the 1932 original). Zaroff lived in a gothic castle repurposed as a hunting lodge, complete with atmospheric lighting emphasizing greys and shadows. The mise-en-scene made the place feel huge. In comparison, Kreiger’s island abode is cramped, small, and overlit, not nearly as foreboding.

Being a Hayes Code era picture, A Game of Death also does away with the more objectionable elements of the original, so don’t expect to see Rainsford breaking someone’s back or partaking in any other sort of enthusiastic violence. As for the sexual aspects, Kreiger does exhibit an unhealthy interest in Ellen, reusing Zaroff’s “ecstasy” spiel and giving her longing glances every now and then; however, as with the violent stuff, don’t expect Kreiger to have the same hungrily deranged look in his eye that Zaroff gives Eve once he thinks the game is won or for him to ask his servants to bring her down from her prison for a post-victory “celebration.”

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To call the performances second-rate would be too cruel, but not a one of them is particularly strong. John Loder’s Rainsford is much less interesting than McCrea’s for a variety of reasons. While McCrea came off as a callow young man with a character arc, one who will bear scars from his encounter with Zaroff even if he did win the day and get the girl in the end, Loder is a mature adult, a white-hatted hero if there ever was one and just as boring as you’d expect him to be from that description. Nothing really flaps him. When McCrea discovered what “the most dangerous game” was, he became indignant and horrified at the “logical conclusions” of his own ideas about life and death. Loder is mildly shocked, but otherwise unruffled. Audrey Long’s Ellen, while strikingly pretty, is completely wooden, lacking the likeability Wray brought to the already threadbare Eve.

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Edgar Barrier gives the best performance in the film as Kreiger. He’s not nearly as charismatic or fun as Banks’s Zaroff, but he does give Kreiger a low-key sense of menace and culture. His best moment comes when he believes Rainsford sees eye-to-eye with him on the natural order of things; the ecstatic expression on his face as he speaks of murdering other people is chilling. Still, even he has a lot of moments where he’s just phoning it in and when he flatly says lines from the original production, you cannot help but hear Banks’s enthusiastic delivery in the back of your mind. In fact, when he gives the whole “hunting was beginning to bore me” speech, his delivery is so uninteresting that only the background music is able to liven the leaden exposition up. (Speaking of music, I’m really missing Max Steiner; A Game of Death’s soundtrack is so stock, I couldn’t even hum it even five minutes after I finished the movie!)

The biggest changes in this version are Robert’s characterization and an added middle sequence preluding to the big chase. Armstrong’s Robert is an irritating drunk who slurs his words and gets in everyone’s personal space. When he’s killed by Zaroff, we aren’t too sorry for him, but his death does establish our villain as a monster and build up sympathy for Eve. While Russell Wade is inoffensive as Robert, he isn’t nearly as memorable and overstays his welcome, leading us to the flabby middle section of the movie. Instead of killing Rob and getting us to the chase, A Game of Death decides to have the heroes discover what Kreiger’s “game” is ahead of time and then plot an unsuccessful escape mission. It’s such a waste of time and kills the pacing.

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That’s not to say this film is a total clunker: Wise’s direction is capable (though his talents were put to much better use in The Body Snatcher with Boris Karloff, also released in 1945), Barrier is an entertaining enough villain, and on its own merits, it is a passable if poorly paced thriller. But whether judged on its own or in relation to The Most Dangerous Game, the big issue with A Game of Death is that it just isn’t that impressive. Not a single shot or performance haunts you the way the earlier film did. Its finest moments are taken straight from the 1932 picture and none of its own offerings enhance the story in any way. This one is at best a competent programmer.

Run for the Sun (1956)

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Run for the Sun’s behind the scenes stories are more discussed than the film itself, particularly the one about Jane Greer contracting a tropical disease that nearly killed her. Not being a fan of 1950s Hollywood cinema, I confess I was not looking forward to this version. Reviews of the movie did little to comfort me, with many a critic and viewer finding the film mediocre, though it does have a small group of fans. That said, I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed the film, though it does share a great deal of flaws with A Game of Death, flaws which keep Run for the Sun from being as effective as it could have been. Unlike A Game of Death, Run for the Sun stands on its own two feet apart from The Most Dangerous Game. It owes much more to the 1932 movie than it does Connell’s story, thus justifying its position as a remake, but it fleshes out the story to an even greater degree than the earlier film, giving the romantic subplot a good deal of screen time.

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The movie starts off with journalist Katherine “Katie” Connors landing in Central America. Her mission: get the scoop on the long-lost adventure novelist Mike Latimer, who she’s tracked to a remote Mexican fishing village. Finding him there and striking up a friendship with her target, the two get more than they bargained for when they fall in love, though Mike is unaware of Katie’s true motivation for seeking him out. Once Katie learns that the reason for Mike’s reclusiveness was being betrayed by the woman he loved, she finds herself unable to use his misery for an editorial and attempts to return to New York; however, Mike says he wants to fly her to Mexico City in his plane first, an offer which she reluctantly accepts.

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The trip goes about as well as can be expected when one is living in a movie based off “The Most Dangerous Game”: the plane runs out of fuel, causing them to crash land in the middle of a jungle. The injured travelers soon find themselves in the care of Run’s two versions of Zaroff: the English Browne and the Dutch Anders, who live in a hacienda nearby. While the house is cozy and the food is great, Katie does find it rather odd that attack dogs prowl the estate every night and Mike is shocked to find their plane has gone missing. More complications ensue when Mike discovers Katie’s true identity, though once he realizes their hosts are escaped war criminals, he’ll have to learn to trust her again as they flee for their lives in the jungle beyond.

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Ironically, the most effective aspect of Run is the love story between Mike and Katie. Understated and mature, the romance feels integral to the characters and not like an afterthought. Continuing on that note, Widmark’s Mike is the best character in the movie. He was certainly given a more developed character to play than either McCrea or Loder and Widmark plays him with enthusiasm and depth of feeling. Greer is game as the reporter who gets in over her head, though sadly she becomes little more than window dressing once she and Widmark crash land on their way to Mexico City. I will say that I felt the first thirty minutes of the film were more interesting than anything in the jungle: perhaps Run might have been better had it been a character study of this reclusive and creatively dried-out Hemingway-ish author than a redo of “The Most Dangerous Game.”

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And that’s the weird thing about Run: what should have been given the most attention turns out to be the least interesting aspects of the production: the villains and suspense. Unlike Zaroff and Kreiger, Browne and Anders are not enthusiastic big game hunters chasing the hero and heroine for the thrill of the chase. They want Mike and Katie dead solely because they know they are Nazi war criminals. That’s not nearly as chilling as a privileged nutcase who views other people as prey and expects the hero to share his pathology. Even more unfortunate is that neither Howard nor van Eyck do much to make their characters interesting nor do they ever come across as especially threatening.

While the earlier versions had a nightmarish atmosphere, Run never reaches the same levels of excitement. The action sequences are few and not edited that well. We see the obligatory bloodthirsty hounds, but they never feel like that much of a threat. The villains are so overconfident and incompetent that they aren’t that scary either, and you never feel Mike and Katie are in danger for even a moment. While it’s nice that the filmmakers went on-location to shoot the jungle sequences, we never get that same sense of claustrophobia found in The Most Dangerous Game or even the watered down rendition of that in A Game of Death. Thus the final third of the movie, what should be the highlight of the film, turns out to be a major anti-climax.

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While I think Run for the Sun isn’t as bad as some have claimed and would even argue it is in some respects underrated, it is uneven. The screenplay should have either focused on the character elements or the suspense-filled “Most Dangerous Game” plot, because when trying to juggle the two, nothing gels. Widmark’s performance and the romance with Greer do make it worth a gander though.

Conclusion

These three films are only the most well-known adaptations. There have been countless others which operate more on the plane of Run for the Sun, using Connell’s outline. Bloodlust!, Surviving the Game, and The Pest are only a few of the latter day adaptations which use the idea of people hunting people for their basic plot. The influence of the story also lives on in novels like Battle Royale and The Hunger Games.

Throughout this post, I think it’s pretty clear I feel that in the case of The Most Dangerous Game movie adaptations, you just can’t top the original. While I’ve heard some people decry the 1932 The Most Dangerous Game as melodramatic or silly in comparison to, say, Run for the Sun, I have to just say that’s part of what makes it so much fun. And while it embellished upon the original short story, it still manages to keep its storytelling economical and its pacing pitch-perfect. Combine all that with striking visuals, breathless action, a great villain, and pure 1930s gothic horror atmosphere, and you have a magnificent piece of entertainment which has weathered the better part of a century quite well.

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The Great Villain Blogathon: Laurence Olivier’s Richard III

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It’s good to be king

Out of all his cinematic Shakespeare adaptations, I adore Laurence Olivier’s 1955 Richard III most. Not only is it a gorgeous film with its rich color palette and cinematography giving every frame the feel of a medieval Book of Hours come to life, but it contains one of the finest villains in world literature, Shakespeare’s demonic interpretation of Richard III. Historically inaccurate in the extreme, true, but there is no denying the character’s popularity in Shakespeare’s body of work. Olivier’s Richard is a multilayered villain, a purely evil man who takes delight in his own villainy who becomes more loathsome and then vulnerable after he procures the crown. Like Macbeth, Richard becomes a paranoid wreck once he’s king and it is this that aids in his demise, but before that, he’s fun to watch, scheming and tricking less smart people.

Before I begin, I would like to say that this post will not be much of analysis of the character of Richard himself or the 1955 film adaptation, but of what makes Olivier’s interpretation of the character so successful.

Great versatility is required when playing Richard III, for the character himself is an actor of sorts, pretending to be a loving kinsman, a pious politician, a faithful friend, an ardent lover, or whatever else he needs to be to get what he wants, and he plays all these parts with great finesse and believability. We can understand why all his victims trust in him and why we the audience enjoy his awful antics: this Richard is as grand an actor as the man playing him. There’s no winking to the audience, no chuckling behind his fingers when his in-story audience is in the frame. He’s throws himself into every role with relish, making his evil palatable and entertaining as we watch amazed, seeing how he gets away with it all.

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Well, she got over the “he murdered my husband and father-in-law” thing real quickly…

One of Richard’s most convincing roles is that of the lover and his success in this area is surprising given the way the other characters perceive him and even Richard himself claims he is not fit to be a lover in the play’s opening soliloquy. Richard is constantly described by the other characters as loathsome and ugly. Richard himself claims he is not “shaped for sportive tricks.” Yet his scenes with Lady Anne (played brilliantly by Claire Bloom) have an undeniable sexual charge. From the moment he pulls out the bedchamber line as she accuses him (correctly) of her husband’s murder, you can see Anne begin to succumb to his false vows of love and bold sensuality. As she walks away, she casts her eyes down for a moment, as though astonished by the feelings this horrid man arouses against her will. Just compare this with the same scene as interpreted in the 1912 version; here we see a rather repulsive caricature woo the enraged widow, appealing to her vanity and winning her over in a rather improbable manner.

Even the otherwise brilliant 1995 Ian Mckellen version cannot fully convince the audience of the seduction. Anne is so angry at the beginning of the sequence and swayed to affection for Richard much too quickly to make the scene wholly believable.

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Bloom’s enigmatic performance makes the seduction come off more credibly.

Really, the seduction scene in and of itself is ridiculous, yet Olivier makes us believe, not only due to his splitting the scene into two separate sequences, but also through his sexual magnetism, his matinee idol reading of the lines, and the pacing. It is death to make the scene go by so quickly. Of course, Bloom carries a lot of the weight too; we have to believe she is vulnerable enough to be seduced.

For the first half of the film, we, like Anne, find ourselves charmed by Richard despite our full knowledge of his wickedness. He addresses the audience directly as he shares his plans and mocks the other characters, allowing us have a rather intimate relationship with him. Though he runs the gamut of villainy, he does it with such energy and flair, bouncing about like a gleeful child in some instances, that one cannot help but enjoy watching him come closer to his goal.

The baffling thing is that once Richard gets that crown on his head, we don’t like him so much anymore and he becomes less fun as a character. During the coronation scene, Olivier eliminates the wicked gleam from Richard’s eye, drains all the evil charm from his demeanor. As he seats himself upon the throne, his face is stony and unpleasant, his back stiff; he seems nervous and unsure of himself.

In his excellent audio commentary for the Criterion release of the film, playwright Russell Lees speaks about the Richard/viewer relationship and how the dynamic shifts once Richard has achieved his goal of ascending the throne and betrays Lord Buckingham:

“[After fooling the crowd, they] all drop character, but Richard lets drop a second character: the part of Buckingham’s friend. And this is a surprise both to Buckingham and to us, the audience. We’ve been privy to Richard’s plans, but this is something he’s kept from us. I think it is at this point in the film that we as an audience begin to turn against Richard. We do feel Buckingham is a stand-in for us and we have been betrayed in the same way Buckingham has.”

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If there is one flaw in Olivier’s version of the character, it is the excision of one key sequence, the aftermath of Richard’s post-Bosworth nightmare soliloquy. After being cursed by his victims one by one in a nightmare sequence, Richard is slightly shaken, but quickly gather composure as he speaks with his men who came running to his tent, alerted by his cries. Yet in the original play, Richard speaks to himself in the tent, suddenly aware of the evil within himself and frightened by it. For a moment, it seems as though he will repent, but in the end he realizes there is no turning back; he must fight to the bloody finish. This moment gives this gleeful villain a moment of depth and lends an air of tragedy to his inevitable demise. It was a mistake for Olivier to cut this sequence; no doubt, it would have enriched the film and given us the pleasure of seeing such a great actor perform one of Shakespeare’s finest soliloquies. Still, that does not prevent Olivier from bringing any sense of sadness to Richard’s end. Though he is ruthless and amoral, Richard’s intelligence and ambition remain impressive; that he uses these skills for evil and brings about his own demise grants a sense of tragedy to the character.

There have been great screen Richards and as long as the play is still relevant to our modern world, there will likely continue to be other great screen Richards as well. Still, Olivier’s performance is a hard one to top; not that it cannot be done, but for me at least. whenever I think of Shakespeare’s Richard III, it is Olivier’s hawk-nosed villain which comes first to mind. If you have not seen this film, I suggest snapping up the Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray or DVD release; pricey, but it comes with good bonus features and of course, this treasure of a performance.