More than a crappy remake: The Truth About Charlie (dir. Jonathan Demme, 2002) and the French New Wave

Image source: TMDB

Stanley Donen’s Charade is one of those classic movies so tied with its era that it’s hard to think anyone would ever be insane enough to remake it. Well, this happened twenty years ago in the form of The Truth About Charlie. Directed by Jonathan Demme of The Silence of the Lambs fame and starring Thandiwe Newton and Mark Wahlberg in the Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant roles, The Truth About Charlie scrounged only $7 million on a $60 million budget. Critics were aghast, classic movie fans were enraged, and everyone else opted to buy tickets for Jackass: The Movie.

No one talks much about Demme’s remake, but when they do the inevitable course they take is to compare it to Charade. And compared to Charade, that effervescent gem of a Hitchcockian thriller, Charlie is a dud. Newton and Wahlberg share no chemistry at all, the villains are all boring (you could accuse Charade‘s baddies of being cartoonish, but cartoonish leaves more of an impression than “the tall one with cardiovascular issues,” “the tough lady who randomly becomes sympathetic later,” and “that third guy”), and the attempt at a playful yet edgy tone is awkward rather than exhilarating. Charade balanced thrills, comedy, and romance, while Charlie tries all of these tones without being success at one, let alone competently blending all three.

It’s easy to pick Charlie apart as a remake, but I’m interested in another element of its conception. You see, Demme was not interested in a standard remake. While rewatching Charade with a group of friends, he pondered how while Donen was in Paris filming one of the last great Old Hollywood pictures, nearby young French New Wave directors Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard were rewriting the rules with their irreverent, energetic projects.

That’s when it hit him. Why not retell Charade using the techniques of the French New Wave?

For those unaware, the French New Wave was a movement lasting from 1958 to about 1970 mostly helmed by young film critics turned filmmakers. The movement rejected the conventions of traditional filmmaking and possessed a general countercultural spirit. Avant-garde editing, non-traditional storytelling, and an iconoclastic sensibility touching everything from social norms to politics prevailed. The influence of the French New Wave was immense, most notably spilling over into American film and resulting in the New Hollywood movement of the 1960s and 1970s. But by the early 2000s, even something as radical as the French New Wave had a touch of nostalgia to it, particularly for cinephiles. For some, it represents golden age of young, enthusiastic rule-breaking. No doubt Demme was among this lot.

Now, was combining an Old Hollywood classic with a New Wave sensibility an inherently dumb idea? Not necessarily. A similar approach was used for one of the French New Wave’s bonafide classics, Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player, which adapted an American hardboiled crime novel with cinematic playfulness. In fact, Shoot the Piano Player was Demme’s primary stylistic inspiration for The Truth About Charlie.

I suppose it would be helpful to lay out the stories of these two movies. An adaptation of David Goodis’ hardboiled crime novel Down There, Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player follows Charlie, a down on his luck pianist who works at a seedy bar. A mild-mannered, shy fellow, he’s drawn into a gang conflict when his criminal brother comes begging him for help. Charlie doesn’t want to get involved: he’s already on the run from his own tragic past and trying to deal with his burgeoning romantic feelings for a pretty waitress at the bar where he works. However, as it is with noir, the past isn’t so willing to lay down and die.

This synopsis makes the movie seem almost normal if you’ve never seen it, but don’t be fooled. Shoot the Piano Player is an odd duck of a film. It jabs at cinematic conventions (when Charlie has a woman in bed with him, he pulls the sheets over her bare breasts and says, “That’s how they do it in the movies”—Truffaut’s way of gently kidding cinematic standards of taste), injects silly comedy into otherwise serious scenes, stops the story for a weird music number, and de-glamorizes its noir protagonist by making him awkward with the woman he loves (he tries holding her hand but cannot—shades of Buster Keaton unable to take Kathryn Macguire’s hand in Sherlock Jr.).

If you’ve seen Charade, then you’ll already know the basic premise of Charlie, as it’s pretty close structurally. Chic young Reggie Lambert discovers her mysterious husband has been murdered and a trio of dangerous types are after money he stole from the US government. They think Reggie knows where the money is, but she hasn’t a clue. Along the way, Reggie is aided by a mysterious stranger named Joshua Peter who isn’t what he seems, and even though she can never be sure if he’s friend or foe, he is awfully cute…

The Truth About Charlie employs self-conscious techniques to emulate the experimental qualities of the French New Wave. For example, when Regina meets Joshua Peter, Demme cuts between panning close-ups of the two actors. During a conversation between Regina and another character, we get constant jump cuts, copying similar technique in Godard’s Breathless. Like Shoot the Piano Player, there is a musical number and weird comic interludes, though they’re not half as enjoyable. Somehow, they result in mood whiplash rather than the charm of spontaneity.

So why does Truffaut succeed with his experiment and Demme does not?

It could be the amount of plot each movie juggles—and Truffaut has the easier deal. Shoot the Piano Player is straightforward: man has a broken heart, man’s happiness with a good woman is threatened by criminal associations, man has to fight to protect his possible future. Anyone can get that easily, so Truffaut’s improvisational style works well. He can divulge into weird musical numbers and goofy slapstick without giving the viewer a headache. The shifting from comedy to action to melancholy drama might not appeal to every taste, but you can follow the movie without tearing your hair out in frustration.

Charlie tries to be playful, but its constant zooms and jump cuts and shaky cam and weird close-ups feel more like obnoxious film student antics than anything. The mishmash of tones feels awkward, like Demme was copying Truffaut’s technique without understanding what made it work. Beneath the clowning, thrills, and noirisms, there is a strong strain of melancholy throughout Truffaut’s movie. The protagonist’s broken heart gives the movie a sense of consistency, even when it’s being silly. Charlie just jerks the viewer between thriller boilerplate and awkward romantic comedy, with no beating heart beneath. There are attempts at drama, particularly during the climactic confrontation, but it’s sloppy and too little, too late. The climax might actually be the worst offender in that regard– shot exclusively in close-up for some reason, incredibly anti-climactic, and trying for pathos for a character the film barely bothered to build up.

Truffaut is also comfortable with just riffing on Goodis’ story, changing plot points at will. Considering how hard Charlie is trying to be playful in the French New Wave mode, it shocks me how closely it hues its screenplay to Charade, which is famous for how convoluted and twisty its plot is. Any time the movie stops trying to feel improvisational and then gets back to its central mystery, the plot screeches the momentum of the pacing to a halt. All the jump cuts and shaky cam in the world cannot make exposition interesting, not without strong characters and fine performances—and aside from Newton, the movie’s got nothing to work with there.

Demme’s adherence to Charade‘s screenplay also reveals another shortcoming, perhaps the biggest one of all: this does not feel much like a New Wave movie. Oh sure, Demme uses jump cuts during his expositional conversations, doing his best imitation of Godard’s Breathless. He has his abrupt musical numbers. He shoots handheld footage of Paris to give a “you are there,” cinema verite quality not unlike The 400 Blows or Cleo from 9 to 7. Agnes Varda, Anna Karina, and Charles Aznavour show up in odd cameo roles. But at its most basic level, the movie is a by-the-numbers romantic thriller. There is no sense of true, youthful experimentation like you had with the New Wave filmmakers. Compare Charlie to truly visionary New Wave works like Shoot the Piano Player and Alphaville, and it becomes plain how skin-deep the homaging is. It’s an homage to someone else’s homage.

It’s also half-hearted in its iconoclasm and iconoclasm was a huge part of the French New Wave. Truffaut maybe less so than, say, Godard—but Truffaut is still sending up Old Hollywood conventions in his film even while it’s clear he enjoys those movies. Demme doesn’t really jab too much at the Old Hollywood elements of Charade, besides deliberately making Wahlberg an “anti-Cary Grant,” deglamorizing Paris, or having Newton get nude in the shower (a “reversal” of Cary Grant’s fully clothed shower). As I’ve tried to make clear, Demme is more interested in the French New Wave part of the film than redoing Charade… but his attitude towards the French New Wave is reverential. One of the last images in the film is even a shot of Truffaut’s grave.

Anna Karina’s cameo

Does that kind of reverence have that much of a place in this style of filmmaking? The New Wave filmmakers did eat, sleep, and dream movies, but they were radicals at heart. They smashed idols or at the very least lampooned them, but Demme has made these iconoclasts idols in and of themselves. Is that a paradox? I genuinely don’t know– I don’t want to suggest that this means you can’t homage the French New Wave– but I think it does somewhat compromise the film’s desire to feel like those movies.

So maybe after all this rambling, what I’m trying to say is The Truth About Charlie is so much more than a crappier Charade. Its failure is far more interesting than that. And I have to afford it some respect—if you’re going to fail, then fail spectacularly.

Sources:

https://www.ign.com/articles/2002/10/22/an-interview-with-jonathan-demme

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

The John Williams Blogathon: How to Steal a Million (dir. William Wyler, 1966)

This is for the John Williams blogathon, celebrating the great composer’s 90th birthday. Check out Taking Up Room for other contributions!

John Williams is most associated with the grand, sweeping scores that made him a household name in the 1970s and 1980s. However, the man’s talents are far more diverse than the casual movie fan might realize. This is apparent when examining Williams’ early scores, back when he was “Johnny” Williams.

“Johnny” Williams often collaborated on scores with other studio composers and worked as a pianist for movie music heavyweights like Henry Mancini and Jerry Goldsmith. He first cut his teeth on solo scoring while working on the 1958 B-picture Daddy-O. He would also write scores for television during the late 50s and early 60s. However, he started to enter the big leagues around the mid-1960s. Williams considers the 1966 caper comedy How to Steal a Million a landmark in this regard.

Before I examine his score, I’d like to give some background information as well as my opinion of How to Steal a Million, one of my go-to feel-good movies and in many ways the end of an era even if it was otherwise an early chapter in Williams’ career.

Image source: DVD Bash

How to Steal a Million marked the final collaboration between Audrey Hepburn and William Wyler, the filmmaker who made her a superstar in Roman Holiday. The star and director would make two more movies together. Earlier in the 1960s, they’d collaborated on The Children’s Hour, a socially conscious drama that took Hepburn out of her comfort zone as a schoolteacher accused of lesbianism. Wyler tried casting Hepburn as the kidnapped heroine of his 1965 suspense-thriller The Collector, but the darker material put her off. When he tried again with his next film, a heist movie based on the short story “Venus Rising,” Hepburn accepted.

Charles Bonnet: criminal or unconventional genius?

The plot follows Nicole Bonnet (Hepburn), the chic daughter of proud art forger Charles Bonnet (Hugh Griffith). Nicole is wary of her father’s profession while Charles sees himself as an artist who’s only ripping off silly rich people and therefore doing no real harm. While the two live well on his forged masterworks, this dubious livelihood is threatened when one of the fakes—the Cellini Venus, a nude statue passed off as a Renaissance original—is purchased by a museum that intends to scientifically test it for authenticity. Fearing her father will be arrested, Nicole teams up with the handsome Simon (Peter O’Toole), a so-called cat burglar, to steal the Venus before any tests can be made. Inevitably, the two fall in love during the heist, but is Simon who he claims to be?

Like any heist movie, plenty goes wrong, like our burglars being trapped in a broom closet.

One thing which sets Million apart from other Hepburn movies is the leading man. Peter O’Toole was only three years younger than his co-star, who tended to be paired with men old enough to be her father. While the two stars were polar opposites, they got along well, cracking one another up on the set much to Wyler’s chagrin (“They react on each other like laughing gas, and the trouble is they’re in almost every scene together.”). Their chemistry was so strong that the press tried stoking up rumors of an affair, but this was not the case.

Hepburn and O’Toole in a rare moment of not cracking one another up on the set. Image source: DVD Bash.

For the most part, filming went by smoothly. Wyler and Hepburn enjoyed working European hours (from noon until 8pm), and everyone seemed to be having a lark working on the lightweight material. Hepburn’s favorite designer Givenchy would clothe her in over twenty outfits, the most stunning being a black, lacy confection complete with a mask. Much to her joy, Hepburn also became pregnant during the production, though she did not let anyone on-set know.

This black, lacy outfit is one of my favorite movie costumes ever and I am so sad Hepburn only wears it in one scene. Image source: DVD Bash.

The only debilitating production issue came from George C. Scott, originally cast as an American art collector intent on procuring both the Cellini Venus and Nicole’s heart. He was repeatedly late, leading to his being fired from the film. Wyler was able to get Eli Wallach to leave the Broadway production of Luv on short notice so he could fill Scott’s part. While Wallach was reluctant to abandon his previous commitment, his understudy Gene Wilder was able to take over. Wallach ultimately enjoyed working with Hepburn, who he saw as considerate and professional. In his memoir, he recalled her kindly offering to remove her shoes to accommodate his height during an on-screen kiss.

Million was released to tepid reviews and positive though not phenomenal box office. The lightweight, unapologetically silly material put off critics like Pauline Kael (who described the film as “blah”) and Bosley Crowther (who accused the script of being “preposterous”—meanwhile, water is wet). This negative perspective remains touted by many critics—read any Hepburn biography or Wyler retrospective and Million is still marked as superficial and laborious. However, hang out with classic movie fans and you’d think it was considered an ironclad comedy classic. I’m certainly among them, though I think I can sort of get why the critics react as they do… even if I still think they are 100% wrong.

This movie also has the distinction of featuring the thirstiest “cleaning up for fingerprints” scene of all time, as seen here when Nicole practically kisses the places where Simon touched the frame.

How to Steal a Million came out during a strange time in Hollywood history. Old Hollywood had yet to give up the ghost, but it was clear by 1966 that former tastes were going into eclipse. The big epics and splashy musicals that had packed people in were no longer selling as readily as they once did. Many of the classic era stars were either retiring or found their glamorous images falling out of fashion. Arguably, there had not been such a disruptive shift in moviegoing tastes since the dawn of talkies in the late 1920s.

Image source: DVD Bash.

You could call Million a last hurrah for the Old Hollywood that made Hepburn and Wyler famous. You could even argue it’s at heart a 1930s screwball comedy in 1960s clothes. Wyler would shortly retire after making two more movies (one of them being the classic comedy Funny Girl). For a brief time, it seemed Hepburn would continue to make films, ones more in keeping with the times. Her two subsequent projects before her semi-retirement, Two for the Road and Wait Until Dark, would be far more evocative of the changing world of the 1960s: Two for the Road with its unconventional structure and troubled view of marriage, and Wait Until Dark with its gritty crime elements and brutal finale. This drastic shift was done in part to keep Hepburn from losing touch with her public, perhaps even in response to How to Steal a Million’s relatively lukewarm box office. Hepburn herself might have been concerned about the critical consensus which claimed she was on autopilot in Million, playing a smitten ingenue long after she was too old to essay such roles (she was 36 at the time of filming).

For my money, Nicole Bonnet was Hepburn’s last great comedic role.

I can see where they’re coming from in that Nicole is essentially another variation on Sabrina Fair or Jo Stockton, a wide-eyed young woman just awakened to romantic love. But autopilot? No way! I think Hepburn’s comic timing and sizzling chemistry with O’Toole set her performance apart. She knows she’s in a silly movie but never goes too over the top in her approach. The same applies to O’Toole, who proves a great comic and romantic partner. He screened several Cary Grant movies while preparing for the role, hoping to evoke Grant’s iconic blend of humor and elegance. He succeeded, striking the golden mean between goofiness and Prince Charming dreaminess with his lanky body and big blue eyes. The two are a movie team for the ages and it’s sad they never made more films together.

Overall, this is just an enjoyable lark of a film, a sexy but innocent caper suffused with mod Parisian glamor and enhanced by Wyler’s confident, polished direction. The heist is undoubtedly improbable and the love story is nothing less than a fairy tale in which two beautiful, witty people fall for one another within minutes– but the movie was never going for stark realism! If the movie has a chief flaw, it’s that it’s about fifteen minutes too long for such a frothy confection. However, the majority of the movie is so delightful that it hardly seems worth it to protest. This is the sort of movie you watch to escape the doldrums of reality, not to be reminded of it.

But how about the music? What does our “Johnny” Williams contribute to How to Steal a Million?

Williams’ music suits the movie perfectly. The key adjective for every element of Million is “playful,” and the score is no exception. Williams has a field day with different styles and instruments, particularly a brief electronic piece that drips with 60s-ness. This isn’t the grand Williams of Jaws and Star Wars. Here, he’s clearly indebted to Henry Mancini. As with Mancini’s work on The Pink Panther franchise, Williams’ music here is jazzy and bright, but also multi-faceted enough to never become predictable or mere glamorous background noise.

The main title music perfectly establishes the lighthearted tone and Parisian ambiance.

In his excellent podcast episode on Williams’ score, The Baton host Jeff Commings observes how Williams uses the movie’s central theme in different emotional contexts throughout the story. Over the opening credits, the theme captures the farcical business of the heist, promising comedy and light thrills. Later, the same melody is played in a romantic manner when Simon kisses Nicole for the first time. Both Hepburn’s reaction and the swooning music emphasize how Nicole’s strait-laced world has just been upturned.

The hectic main title reimagined as a tender love theme.

(The love theme was also turned into a marketable pop ballad titled “Two Lovers,” complete with cheesy lyrics. Needless to say, I absolutely love it.)

“Two lovers stealing through the night/To steal what might be always”

One interesting element of the score that Commings notes on his podcast is that Williams avoids using too many French cliches despite the Parisian setting. The concertina makes an appearance in one place and the French national anthem is briefly referenced, but otherwise, Williams rejects to do the obvious, showing how willing he was to challenge himself even on a light comedy.

Other themes are used for humor and suspense. The fanfare which plays when the Cellini Venus is transported in an armored truck is serious and varied, playing up the humor of the passerby’s awe of what they don’t recognize as a fake. For example, as the truck passes a group of priests, the music briefly booms with church organs as the holy men cross themselves in reverence for the Cellini.

During a delightful sequence often referred to as “the key scene” by fans (I won’t spoil it if you haven’t seen the movie), Williams concocts a light, groovy melody with electronic instruments (apparently his first time using electronics in his work). Musically, it’s a stand-out moment because of this difference in instrumentation, but it doesn’t feel out of place or dissonant at all. It always makes me smile and is destined to get stuck in any viewer’s head for hours afterward.

I could not find the truck fanfare or the key theme in isolation, but they are included in this suite from the wonderful Soundtrack Fred on YouTube. The truck fanfare is at 3:11 and the key theme is at 9:14.

On the whole, the score is a joy to listen to, even isolated from the movie. Like Million itself, the lightness of the music often causes critics to undervalue it. I have heard some complain there is nothing of the later, more iconic Williams on display here, that this is all just “typical 60s fluff,” and therefore this makes the music subpar. That’s a pretty lame criticism. As it is, this is an above average effort, an infectious soundtrack with memorable melodies that perfectly accentuate the accompanying film.

Both How to Steal a Million and Williams’ music deserve their just dues—no, not as high art, but as cinematic champagne from a turbulent era. Charming and funny, the film is a fond farewell to Hollywood’s golden age and the perfect antidote to a bad day. I will always go to bat for both movie and score, critics be damned!

Sources:

Audrey Hepburn by Barry Paris

Enchanted: The life of Audrey Hepburn by Donald Spoto

“Episode 13 – How to Steal a Million,” The Baton podcast, https://thebatonpodcast.podbean.com/e/episode-13-how-to-steal-a-million/

The Good, the Bad, and Me: In my anecdotage by Eli Wallach

John Williams interview, https://www.gramophone.co.uk/features/article/john-williams-interview-it-s-not-hard-work-that-makes-success-it-s-sustained-hard-work-that-makes-success

Peter O’Toole: A biography by Nicholas Wapshott

William Wyler: A guide to references and resources by Sharon Kern

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

Anti-Damsel blogathon: Hilda of Horus, Prince of the Sun (dir. Isao Takahata, 1968)

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Much like silent film, too many people make the mistake of considering animation a genre rather than a medium, yet in the United States, that’s kind of an understandable mistake. For decades, mainstream American animation has been restricted to comedy, “adult” satire, and the family friendly, rarely permitted to wander into any other realm or demographic. In the 1960s, future Studio Ghibli co-founder Isao Takahata was given a chance to direct a feature-length production for Toei, a studio which considered itself the Disney of the East with its lush animated features. They had made the first color animated feature in 1958, The White Serpent, a picture most famous for inspiring a teenaged Hayao Miyazaki to pursue a career in animation.

Takahata’s feature directorial debut was The Great Adventure of Horus, Prince of the Sun, or Horus, Prince of the Sun as it is also called. The plot involves a teenaged boy who, after his father dies, saves a fishing community from a monster fish and helps them to overcome an evil sorcerer named Grunwald. One of the major figures of the story is the more than a little troubled Hilda, a lonely young songstress with connections to Grunwald himself and her own inner demons to battle. The executives expected another safe family film with cute comic relief and musical numbers, but after a troubled three year production, the film which emerged was not what they wanted, something truly revolutionary. Freelance critic Daniel Thomas MacInnes puts the film’s impact down better than I could:

Horus, Prince of the Sun, essentially, created modern anime. It pushed animation into the realm of serious, adult, complex themes – addressing socialism, the student union movements, and the war in Vietnam, wrapped up in the guise of a thrilling adventure. The film is loaded with visual and technical innovations, aggressive camera movements that would only be copied in the age of CGI, and in the tragic heroine Hilda, the most psychologically complex character ever created for an animated film.”

It’s not a perfect film, certainly: juvenile elements such as the maudlin talking bear Coro and cutesy small child Flip drag the film down at moments, and a few big action scenes are relegated to still frames over which the camera pans, obviously a cost-cutting maneuver. But a film does not need to be perfect to be great or influential. Being that this piece is for the Anti-Damsel blogathon, I will restrict my discussion of the film to the character of Hilda.

Here's to a complex animated heroine.

Here’s to a complex animated heroine.

Oh, Hilda. When people praise the likes of Frozen for being “revolutionary” in the depiction of female characters in animation, your complexity goes to show just how low we’ve set the bar in the States. When we first encounter Hilda, she seems to be little more than a melancholy variation of Disney’s Snow White: a pretty face flanked by animal sidekicks and equipped with a lovely singing voice. We expect she and Horus will fall in love and be going steady by the time the credits run up. Yet as Horus and the villagers come to know her, we find she is not at all another princess type, but a clever deconstruction of what we might expect from an animated heroine. Hilda’s role in the narrative is not straightforward; she is alternatively heroine and villain, least of all Horus’s love object or a damsel to be rescued. She is a complex figure, tormented by survivor’s guilt, loneliness, and a crippling terror of mortality. The sinister owl and friendly squirrel following her about are not there for kid appeal and merchandizing purposes, but to make concrete the two sides of her character, her misanthropy and desire to belong.

Hilda's singing makes her a popular figure in the village, but her social skills are... rusty.

Hilda’s singing makes her a popular figure in the village, but her social skills are… rusty.

We see this conflict most clearly in Hilda’s relationship with the village. The simplicity of the community’s members grates upon her. Though the people have lost family members to the monstrous fish Horus slays in the first act, Hilda knows none of them can comprehend or understand her own tremendous loss: that of her entire village. As the village gets ready to celebrate a wedding between two sweethearts, Hilda is unable to join in the celebration. When the village women gently tease her for her lack of domestic skills, Hilda flies into a rage and condemns their communal merrymaking. So scarred by loss and death, Hilda can no longer tolerate joy, for how can anyone remain joyful in a world where everything is doomed to end with death, to become nothing but “ashes”?

Hilda’s girlish exterior cannot fully belie this internal torment. We are told her singing is her sole joy in life, but even this is infected with the character’s pain. Her musical numbers do not focus on optimism, romantic longing, or disappointment as a Disney heroine’s would, but despair and alienation. When her squirrel pal says her songs are “a little sad,” it’s an understatement. When she sings, “Perched high upon a narrow branch, a bird is always singing, a bird always alone, a bird always alone,” she may as well be describing her own situation. Here’s one of her darker songs, which features senseless violence, ill-will toward others, and a violent God who seems apathetic to suffering:

In the past, in the past,
the good God rose and said
“Good night to you all,
my kind children”

In the past, in the past,
an otter said
“Pity my God, remove the
claws of the brown bears.”
“Good night my dear otters, the
brown bears do not have any more claws.”

In the past, in the past,
a small animal said
“Pity my God, the otters devour all the fish”
“Good night my dear children,
I threw the otters in the fire”

Once upon a time,
the Lord God stood and said:
“Sleep well, everyone
all of my dear children”

Hilda's isolation is juxtaposed with the communal joy of the villagers.

Hilda’s isolation is juxtaposed with the communal joy of the villagers.

It is fascinating to compare Hilda’s lonely, sad songs with the musical numbers of the villagers. The melodies, lyrics, and movement of the villagers emphasize community, joy, and life. During the wedding feast, we see the community members hand-in-hand, singing and dancing through the streets before the camera pans over to Hilda, standing solitary and utterly separated from the action.

Hilda’s loss and trauma consume her whole being and make bleak her worldview, rendering her unable to fully love others or embrace life. Her bonding with one of the village children and conflicted feelings toward Horus are a few chinks in her armor, brief flashes of humanity in a character who seeks to eradicate all that is human about herself. The villain Grunwald coaxes Hilda into accepting life as his “sister,” thus making her immortal and isolated, as well as automatically making her Horus’s enemy. The trailers for the film pose the question of Hilda’s identity: is she a human being or a demon?

Hilda saving the milding irritating comic relief, but it's the thought that counts.

Hilda saving the mildly irritating comic relief, but it’s the thought that counts.

In the end, Hilda’s humanity wins over all. Coming across Coro and Flip dying in the blizzard, she relinquishes her immortality by placing the medallion around Coro’s neck, allowing the duo to be transported back to safety. In the most haunting moment of the movie, standing alone, she allows the snowy winds to pummel her until she finally collapses, surrendering herself to death. However, she awakes in a springtime landscape, astonished. Hilda has undergone what anime historian Mike Toole deems a “transformative moment” after a long period of doubt, can finally embrace her own humanity, and thus finally join with community along with Horus.

Embracing humanity... well, technically a squirrel here.

Embracing humanity… well, technically a squirrel here.

The famed Ghibli Heroine finds its earliest incarnation in Hilda, and yet, arguably few of her spiritual successors have matched her in complexity. The closest is Miyazaki’s San from Princess Mononoke, who struggles between her sense of belonging with the forest gods and human identity. Certainly no female figure in mainstream theatrical American animation has yet to do so, at least none that I have encountered (I won’t say anything regarding television animation, as I rarely watch TV). Now just as then, Hilda remains a unique and fascinating figure in animation history.

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The Wonderful World of Puss ‘n Boots (dir. Kimio Yabuki, 1969)

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While Toei Doga is not a household name amongst most filmgoers, they were an important part of the history of Japanese animation, most notably a training ground for Studio Ghibli founders and internationally acclaimed filmmakers Isao Takahata and Hayao Miyazaki. Toei produced the first color feature length animated movie in Japan, The Legend of the White Serpent, and from then on, strove to distinguish itself as the Disney of the East with similarly lavish features throughout the remainder of the 1950s and into the early 1970s. While Takahata’s revolutionary directorial debut Horus, Prince of the Sun is considered the crowning achievement of Toei’s golden age, my personal favorite is its immediate successor, The Wonderful World of Puss ‘n Boots. Certainly a palate-cleanser after the gritty darkness and hellish three-year production of Horus, Puss ‘n Boots is a light-hearted adventure with a great heaping of slapstick and romance. It would go on to be considered a classic in its home country, a pinnacle of animated comedy.

Swashbuckling feline in boots Pero (Susumu Ishikawa) has been condemned to death by an all-cat council for sparing the life of a rodent, but before the sentence can be carried out, he manages to escape in true Errol Flynn-fashion. Pursued by a trio of feline assassins, Pero comes across Pierre (Toshiko Fujita), a young human boy whose cruel brothers have cast him out of his home. The two outcasts strike up a friendship, traveling to a nearby kingdom where the sovereign is looking to marry off his beautiful daughter, Princess Rose (Rumi Sakakibara). Pierre is smitten at first sight, but his peasant status renders him ineligible for Rose’s hand. Pero, wanting his new friend to be happy, starts to cook up a matchmaking scheme.

Meanwhile, the princess is not happy with her potential suitors, all of whom are rather foppish and foolish. Matters get worse when the last suitor appears in a demonic whirlwind: it’s the devil himself, Lucifer, the lovelorn prince of darkness (Asao Koike). When jewels and power do not sway Rose, Lucifer threatens to level her kingdom should she not agree to be his bride in three days. Luckily for Rose and Pierre, Pero has come up with a plan to make both happy: he passes Pierre off as a duke and swears to the king that not only is Pierre an eligible suitor, but he’s also going to stop Lucifer. Of course, the road to love and victory is not entirely smooth, what with Pierre’s discomfort with the elaborate lie, especially as he and Rose fall harder for each other every passing moment, and the aforementioned assassin trio after Pero at every turn.

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There is a great deal of Disney influence in several of the 1950s/1960s Toei films, and Puss n’ Boots is no exception. The watercolor illustration style of the backgrounds, musical numbers, and plethora of animal side characters are quite reminiscent of the early Disney features such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. In fact, one of the cat assassins is more than reminiscent of Dopey with his floppy sleeves and position as the runt of the group, and the first stage of the climax, where Lucifer uses his powers to transform into different animals, brings to mind the celebrated wizards duel in Disney’s Sword in the Stone.

And yet, even though there is a great deal of Disney in this film, Puss n’ Boots, in addition to the other Toei films of the period, exhibit a charm that is all their own. Puss ‘n Boots is at its heart a zany comedy, filled to the brim with chases and slapstick in the vein of Chuck Jones; later Disney comedies such as Aladdin and The Emperor’s New Groove are a lot like Puss ‘n Boots with their fast paces and goofy moments. The highlight of the picture is its dizzying castle chase climax, an explosion of hilarity and tension with lots of Looney Tunes and even a little Hitchcock thrown in for good measure. A young Hayao Miyazaki was one of the key animators in this sequence; the similarity of this climax to the clock tower chase at the end of Miyazaki’s 1979 feature debut Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro makes one wonder if he had Puss ‘n Boots at the back of his mind ten years later.

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As you can expect from the title, Pero is the star of the show. Clever, witty, mischievous, and resourceful, in addition to having an adorable design, he would go on to become the mascot of Toei and feature in two sequels, though from what I have read, neither one was as successful commercially or artistically as the original. Nevertheless, Pero is a fun character, the true hero of the film.

The other highlight of the film is its villain. Lucifer is a great example of comic villainy, very much in the tradition of Pegleg Pete or Bluto: he can be quite funny when he’s mooning after Rose or whining like a petulant child, but the film never makes you forget his innate evil, especially toward the end. And then, there’s Pierre and Rose, the young lovers around whom much of the plot centers, and while they may be the least interesting members of the cast, they could have been much blander. Pierre in particular reminds me a little of Buster Keaton, with his sleepy eyes and the way he bursts into wild action for the sake of the girl he loves. And I would be lying if I claimed I did not enjoy some of the romantic interludes: Rose’s balcony ballad about her lost happiness is the finest song in the picture and Pierre’s confession of his peasant status to Rose in the garden is sweet, but kept from sinking into mawkishness by Pero’s conducting a choir of singing mice, providing a diegetic soundtrack for the lovers.

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How I wish the Toei features were more well-known by animation fans in the States! If any of their films were a gateway drug into this period of Japanese animation, then Puss ‘n Boots would be an excellent candidate, along with the more serious Horus. The Wonderful World of Puss ‘n Boots was given a good DVD release courtesy of Discotek Media, complete with the vintage English dub as a bonus. Unfortunately, it has since gone out of print; however, I snagged a used copy for about thirty bucks last summer. A little pricey for a disc with next to no bonus material, but well worth the investment. While you’re at it, pick up the new DVD release of Horus, Prince of the Sun, which does happen to come with a wealth of insightful bonus features—we need to encourage more Toei releases out of Discotek!

Anyways, since there seems to be so few images of this film on the internet, enjoy some screenshots:

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