Friday, September 23, 2016

In The Light Of Truth

For whatever reason I sometimes think of a declaration remembered from film school, maybe it was said by Dani Michaeli, but it’s so long ago now that who knows. It was a simple statement once while watching a film: “Pans suck.” That’s all it was, probably spoken during a film which contained a camera pan that most likely sucked. And I’ve always remembered that brief utterance, making me think of every bad pan I’ve ever seen, maybe some of them in the context of clunky student films and how false they were. Sure, you could bring up a million examples of good pans by Scorsese or whoever and, really, there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to this sort of thing. But maybe there’s some truth to it, that the falseness of a pan is something to avoid and you should find some other way to frame your shot until you’ve figured it out. The reason I’m saying all this is that recently I was watching THE LETTER, a William Wyler-directed Bette Davis vehicle released in 1940, one of those goddamn Warner Brothers epics that opens with the familiar Max Steiner fanfare and everything about it speaks to the quality you’d get from films that were churned out by the studio system. As I get older there’s something about those goddamn Warner Brothers epics that stands out—yes, the familiar actors, but also that studio’s particular type of storytelling, a stylishness which sets it apart from the silvery aura of Paramount or the glistening perfection of MGM. It’s an extremely well-made film, heightened by performances which match the story and tone perfectly. At one point I found myself drawn in and fascinated by the direction, the way Wyler was staging a certain key moment and how the impeccable camerawork added to the way the story was being told. There was an undeniable elegance to every single moment in the deliberateness of the framing that Wyler was bringing to this particular shot. What I’m trying to say, and maybe it says something about the film as a whole, is that THE LETTER has some really good pans.
Late at night on a Malaysian rubber plantation, a man is shot six times by Leslie Crosbie (Bette Davis) wife of Robert Crosbie (Herbert Marshall) the estate manager. The man is Geoff Hammond, another British local who Leslie claims entered her house with the intent to make love to her, resulting in what happened. No one disbelieves Leslie’s story and while she is arrested to go to trial no one has any doubt what the outcome will be. Until her attorney Howard Joyce (James Stephenson) learns about the existence of a letter written by her to Hammond, begging him to come to her home that night. And that letter now belongs to his wife (Gale Sondergaard) who has certain demands, leading Howard to refrain from telling Robert what is in the letter while working with Leslie to do whatever he can to suppress it, allowing for her acquittal whatever the real truth may be.
It’s not all about pans, of course. Some might wonder why I’m writing about a Bette Davis film and not immediately focusing on Bette Davis since, after all, a film like this is presumably all about Bette Davis who represents the type of strong woman portrayed during this era, up against the men trying to understand them and the impossibility of it all. Bette Davis was the star, she was why the film existed. Not so much the director or the original source material and certainly not her co-stars who as usual are all dapper gentlemen (some with moustaches, some without) forced to eternally play second fiddle to her, those “he looks thirty-two” types Davis’ Margo Channing later referred to in ALL ABOUT EVE. And I have no problem with writing about Bette Davis. Or Joan Crawford, for that matter, but equal time for her will have to wait until I get around to AUTUMN LEAVES. So in comparison to the star power on hand, maybe pointing out something as presumably insignificant as a pan shouldn’t be that big a deal. That was the job of the people who made this film, after all, to make sure those touches added to making it as good as possible without anyone even dwelling on such things.
And THE LETTER (screenplay by Howard Koch, from the W. Summerset Maugham play and also previously filmed in 1929) is that good, I almost want to say it’s a “cracking good yarn” or something old school like that, as well as a reminder that William Wyler is one of those Golden Age directors not talked about enough anymore. After serving in the Air Force and directing several documentaries during World War II (like George Stevens, documented in Mark Harris’ book Five Came Back) he returned home and took many of his feelings about the experience coming back from the war to make 1946’s THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES. That film won the Best Picture Oscar and is a confirmed classic by now but still feels underappreciated, its post-war context forgotten as other films, possibly made by more esteemed auteurs, have continued to be lionized. That one’s his masterpiece, not so much THE LETTER which may not even be the greatest film made by Warner Brothers during this period but of course they can’t all be CASABLANCA or TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT. But I’ve been watching THE LETTER multiple times over the past few weeks getting lost in its sumptuous atmosphere and found myself with a growing “damn, this really is good” appreciation for what it does, weaving its story through a tight running time of around 95 minutes without an ounce of fat and yet infinitely complex on a thematic and visual level. Frankly, you’d think that’s what more films should be. It’s one of the best examples of this sort of filmmaking that doesn’t get talked about much anymore as the past recedes further into the distance. It’s a great film regardless of when it was made.
It’s also the moon. The moon stares down at the film’s star throughout, recurring in its imagery while silently judging and hiding all secrets. To bring up a film like CASABLANCA, directed by Michael Curtiz, it’s hard to imagine that director ever paying much attention to something as heavily symbolic as the moon. The directness of the storytelling is one of his strong points and in some ways is part of what makes his movies play so well today, almost modern at times. He had Bogart & Bergman in CASABLANCA, he had Crawford in MILDRED PIERCE, John Garfield in the sadly underappreciated THE BREAKING POINT. Compared with the emphasis on that star power, William Wyler’s directorial style in THE LETTER feels somewhat ornate and even a little stately, more about laying out the shots in an elegant way and placing his own leading lady within it. He explores that setting and what it means within the film’s world, allowing for moments where that setting is the story, including the opening which establishes the plantation setting, rubber dripping down while giving us a look at the workers living in their bamboo huts, all that tension hanging in the air.
Because of its appearances in Chuck Workman-type montages, THE LETTER is maybe best known today for the early shot of Bette Davis firing a pistol into her unseen victim as she moves down a small set of stairs, her face a mask of pure determination the whole time. But then beyond the fury of those iconic seconds the camera moves in slowly on her face, no rush to cut away from it, trying to get us to see what is really in there since the film is, after all, about what lies inside that stare. It feels like half the story of THE LETTER is told through those eyes and because of that specifics of plot machinations laid out through exposition don’t seem to matter as much. It’s her face and the people and places around her that matters, just like the deep focus in some of BEST YEARS’s most famous moments which link those characters together. Even during Bette Davis’ multiple lengthy speeches where she describes in detail the events that lead up to the shooting, whatever sort of truth we eventually learn they contain, it’s almost about how she’s saying it and how the men around her are listening as much as the specific words, however elegant the dialogue is. Anything she says, anything she wants others to think is almost covered up by the lacework she seems to spend most of the film busy crocheting, representing those lies that she tries to cover herself with, to avoid the truth of what was in that letter. There’s a clearness to the storytelling which focuses on all this behavior and the movie never wastes any time; even the crucial trial sequence, something that could easily drag down the middle section of the film, is condensed down to a few crucial moments. We don’t even see the cross-examination heard about in dialogue to reiterate what we’ve already heard, only the closing summation by her conflicted friend and attorney which focuses on his own doubts about what he’s being made to do by this woman.
Of course, since this is a film made in 1940 shot on the Warner lot in Burbank its version of Malaysia is probably more Generic Exotic Movie Setting than anything having to do with reality but still presents an evocative look at this place where the English live but in their veiled racism still dream of a more ‘civilized climate’, even as Bette Davis kills a man then proceeds to cook for everyone who’s come over to investigate. When they have to go to the Chinese quarter to retrieve the letter in question, Leslie speaks of never having been there, assuming that it’s ‘a bit creepy’, clearly more interested in being with her friends who seem to have nothing to do but flitter about planning parties. The locals are basically all treated as servants or worse, which becomes part of how it’s obviously dated but also an element of the subtext since it’s those locals treated with such disdain who always seem to be quietly one step ahead of the lead characters. It’s almost as if they’re quietly pulling the strings of the story, waiting things out until the final moments--Sen Yung as Howard Joyce’s clerk who alerts him to the existence of the letter admits to being motivated by money but there’s clearly something more than that being left unsaid. It’s as if the camerawork itself is affected by them, even those pans seem controlled by certain characters to shift the focus back over to them.
Since it’s her vehicle Bette Davis is just about the only character in the film who gets any close-ups—the only possible exception is Gale Sondergaard as Mrs. Hammond (it’s not much of a role beyond her physical presence but Sondergaard herself is an interesting figure, later blacklisted after taking the fifth when being questioned by HUAC), the only other female of importance in the film but one who only appears in a few scenes and with no spoken dialogue in English. She’s basically a stereotypical dragon lady, I guess meant to be Eurasian, with fuzzy motivations at times but it all gives the impression that what plays out between the women, between their stares, matters more than the men around them who talk about nothing but Plot. It’s the unspoken passion involving the man who’s been killed that matters more than the trial or dollar figures bandied about which in the end are really semantics. The men remain off to the side, fretting or drinking (“Mix me another,” one says to the servant as soon as a round arrives) while husband Herbert Marshall thinks a kiss on the cheek from him will make everything all right, trying to deny the obvious truth for as long as possible. He has no idea.
Bette Davis famously shot her big confession near the end for director Wyler under protest, saying no woman would ever look a man in the eyes while she said such a thing. My experience is generally that they have no problem with this when they finally reveal the truth and destroy you, but that’s an argument for another time and maybe that one last ounce of defiance from her is what’s needed here. Besides, that confession almost seems minor compared with the unreality of the final moments however the production might have been forced into such an ending by the production code. The last several minutes are essentially without dialogue, pure cinema, and Bette Davis’ frozen expression involving the mystery of a certain dagger’s return appearance seems to involve an acceptance of destiny. THE LETTER is possibly better as a goddamn Warner Brothers epic than a simple Bette Davis vehicle as if she correctly knew that would be better for her anyway to be part of this film as opposed to fashioning it entirely around her. The very last moments even seem to say that she’s not important anymore, the world has already moved on. As a certain party continues in the background, only the moon knows the real truth and as far as it’s concerned those secrets will be kept.
Bette Davis plays her role with every bit of intensity needed, since much of what Leslie is projecting is a performance anyway, her eyes forever searching for the next piece to keep her lies going, trying to avoid the glare of someone who may call her on it. It’s not about realism, no one ever said a Bette Davis performance had to be about realism anyway, it’s about what she’s trying to express up front while hiding behind that mask which seems to crack more as the film goes on through her own self-loathing and determination to make all this go her way since she can’t imagine any alternative. Herbert Marshall, playing the husband, has no real chance up against her; it’s sort of a thankless role anyway, waiting around to be devastated but he plays it with just the right pitch as if it never occurs to him to consider the real story. As her lawyer and confidant, James Stephenson finds the truth in what also might have been a normal supporting performance designed to fade into the background but he matches her and brings an extra level of tension all on his own, playing it with the unspoken belief that there’s more going on here than any of them can understand hanging through every line, becoming a lesser man than he was before but with no choice in the matter. Stephenson received a Supporting Actor nomination for his performance but unfortunately died less than a year after the film’s release—his one of seven nominations the film received, also including Davis, director Wyler and for Best Picture but all involved went home empty handed.
In the end, guilt matters. What you’ve done matters. Late at night that’s all there really is. Sometimes we gaze up at the moon, hoping for forgiveness and that the past might be wiped away. It doesn’t happen. I’m not sure why I decided to write about THE LETTER but whatever that reason is probably isn’t very important. There’s the skill behind it, the star power, the atmosphere it exudes, the wit in the dialogue. And those pans. Again with those pans. Not very much point in obsessing over pans. Just like there’s not much point in obsessing over the past but that never stopped me before. Sometimes when you try to figure these things out you’re just left with the film and whatever it is as you watch it, never fully understanding why beyond the fact that deep down for you it’s a good thing it’s there. It’s not an answer. Maybe you never get an answer. But it’s better than nothing.

Monday, September 12, 2016

The Standard Of Living

It’s the easiest thing in the world to focus on what’s in front of you, making you miss the bigger picture. Sometimes you realize right away. Sometimes it takes a little longer. Either way, the outcome isn’t going to be what you want. Released in 1966, DEAD HEAT ON A MERRY-GO-ROUND is about just that sort of thing, a heist film with some of the expected fun touches but also a soberness to it that indicates how nasty some of the actions are, that the fun and games of a rollicking mid-60s heist aren’t just fun and games. Plus it has James Coburn, the epitome of cool in this star vehicle that came between the two FLINT films, at the height of his breakout with that enormous toothy smile just flashy enough to almost make you forget what sort of person he’s really playing. The KCET Cinema Series sometimes screens one of his films in conjunction with the James & Paula Coburn Foundation and this past August they played a gorgeous 35mm print of this film, something I had never expected to see. Remembered these days mainly for being the feature debut of a certain other legendary star in a bit role, DEAD HEAT is almost too aloof to be a classic, it’s almost daring you to call it anything other than aloof, never asking for your love but within the fractured quality of its story its own cool rhythm comes to play. It may not be a masterwork of the genre but regardless, there aren’t many days where I’m going to complain about getting to see a 60s heist movie anyway and this one definitely has its pleasures.
Recently released from prison and breaking parole after seducing his psychologist, con man Eli Kotch (James Coburn) begins to put his plan into effect to pull off a master bank heist at the Los Angeles Airport at the exact time the Russian premier arrives for a trip to the city. But first he must pull off a number of smaller jobs to pay for the blueprints that will give him the information he needs for the plan and sets out across the country to begin earning that money. During his travels he meets the lovely Inger Knudsen (Camilla Sparv) under the guise of an intellectual writer named ‘Henry Silverstein’, marries her and continues the con by moving her out to Los Angeles. As he makes his own way out west to assemble his gang of fellow thieves (Aldo Ray, Severn Darden, Michael Strong) for the crime, federal agent Milo Stewart (Robert Webber) who is overseeing the visit by the premier, is working to have the airport tight as a drum for the premier’s arrival and very intent on making sure absolutely nothing goes wrong.
Eli Kotch doesn’t care about anyone else around him, they’re only shadows, just like the shadows seen on a wall in the film’s opening shot as if for him the whole world is just sitting there, waiting for him to take advantage of it all and get what’s his. Written and directed by Bernard Girard (various feature & TV credits, including a number of ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS), DEAD HEAT ON A MERRY-GO-ROUND is an odd, chilly film that makes you wonder just when the story is going to start instead of spending valuable time on scenes where apparently not much of anything happens only to discover that was the story, just like how you realize after the fact in life that what you were waiting for already came around. It’s a slippery narrative with an extremely detached layout and manages to be enjoyable even when you haven’t quite caught up to what’s going on. At times it’s as if half the scenes don’t even matter and, of course, they do it’s just not always clear exactly why. Along with the fun, it almost dares to be alienating in its storytelling; much of the pleasure in heist films involves laying out whatever the plan is, so we know what the characters know and even what they don’t, allowing for twists to occur in both directions. “Here’s what we’re going to do,” someone like Danny Ocean will say as we cut to the explanatory montage. Going totally against that grain, part of the goal of DEAD HEAT seems to be to clarify as little as possible as Eli Kotch puts his plan into effect, with what seems like whole chunks of plot skipped over through ellipsis and then offering still less info, never making it clear right away as a new scene begins what exactly is important, what we should be focusing on. One imagines watching the film on local TV with commercials during the 70s just assuming that scenes have been cut but as it turns out everything is right in front all along.
The film leaves it up to us to put the pieces together as Eli Kotch expresses all the confidence in the world without giving away the details even to the people around him. We’ll see the setup of the con, many of which involve getting women to open themselves up to whichever character he’s playing at the moment to take advantage of them, to help him ‘identify their desires’—a southern-accented funeral director from Berkeley, a French-accented shoe salesman from Switzerland who lives in Denver, returning a missing dog to a Boston heiress, but we see almost nothing of the actual jobs being pulled as if that’s secondary to the schemes and once he’s got the plan going the end result is a fait accompli. Characters are introduced, set up, then gone before we realize it, as the film and its lead character speed off to a different locale leaving them behind and clueless as to what really happened. The jigsaw puzzle layout does become clearer over multiple viewings but even then plays as if certain details are left unexplained because the film just isn’t interested in them, even if it would allow for just a little more clarity. But it does give DEAD HEAT ON A MERRY-GO-ROUND its own unique vibe and in some ways is the perfect vehicle for Coburn in his 60s persona. He’s Mr. Iconoclast, not needing anyone around him, facing straight ahead and not looking around for any cars that might be about to hit him as he walks out into the road. Just like he does, the film decides on what’s important and since you’re only an observer you don’t get a say in the matter.
And that main character remains an enigma, given little more than an extended speech in the very first scene in which he reveals a childhood betrayal which no doubt shaped his worldview. It may be the only truthful thing he reveals about himself, presuming he hasn’t simply made it up for the benefit of the prison psychologist he’s using to aid in his early release. Either way aside from that we get next to nothing else in the way of character detail outside a close-up of him staring at a newspaper headline announcing the impending arrival of the Russian premier which must be the date of his job, eyes on that prize, fixed on the goal no matter anything else and it’s the only thing that matters. DEAD HEAT ON A MERRY-GO-ROUND is a good, smooth time that continually clicks along—the pacing never slacks off so there’s a tightness to the direction through each new stage of the plan and it never seems to rest for a second. The jaunty score by Stu Philips keeps it all light hearted but never fully swings as much as you’d want it to in that 60s way as if it wants to keep things close to the vest, never fully indicating what kind of film this is, never wanting to reveal the next crucial twist, let alone what’s going to happen as a result. Eli Kotch talks about playing ‘that invisibility game’ in his cons and he’s right since the shadows he encounters, all those easy marks, never take too much notice of him. He already seems to know how helpful and open the world is going to be whether it’s the women he takes full advantage of or the people he encounters briefly who almost always seem to mention how pleased they were to have met him and help him out, never knowing the fast one he’s pulling on them. He even dismisses worry about how fast he’s putting this heist together, insisting that it can’t wait; you wait around, you get fat, he says. As if to prove his own viewpoint, the entire world around him is going crazy, stuck in their own world of worry about whatever their particular problems are.
It’s a film where almost everything is a put-on, including when one of the crooks is introduced wearing prison garb only to have it revealed to us that he’s working as a Hollywood extra. Even the preparations for the premier’s visit are all about what’s being shown on the surface, how it’s “the standard of living we want to project” and we’re seemingly told more details about the preparations for the visit, which as far as we know is of incidental importance to the plot, than the heist itself. As confusing as it might be the pacing keeps things feeling controlled, so careful that it’s a movie where the heist finally kicks off and the lead basically goes for a quiet stroll with us still not entirely sure what he’s waiting for. DEAD HEAT could have been made by its own lead character—“Eli Kotch” was even the original title—since it gives you pleasure for a little while, pulls a fast one and then that’s it. “Whoever remembers anyone by their name?” one of the women asks which is what Kotch seems to already know and he’s right, just about every choice he makes is absolutely right except for the one thing he doesn’t bother with. When he wins the heart of Camilla Sparv’s Inger Knudsen by pretending to be some sort of intellectual writer named ‘Henry Silverstein’ he doesn’t seem to know how good he has it and how good it can be with her, even if the two of them are only in some tiny apartment where they have to hide the fact that they’re cooking in a place where it isn’t allowed. She even puts on a little performance when they’re staying over at her wealthy employer’s house as if it really belongs to them, playing at the game that he takes very seriously. “Oh, Henry,” she coos to him, as if to foreshadow the final twist. Unable to believe that he’s fallen for her so fast, she couldn’t be sweeter to this total shit and he just doesn’t care. The movie is almost about the behavior that gets put out there for the world to see, whether truthful or not and what it can be during those lonely moments when we let our guard down like how Coburn pauses outside of Sparv’s building when he departs, for a few seconds aware of what he’s leaving behind. For once in a heist film, the suspense almost seems beside the point.
There’s also some neat location work giving us a pretty good glimpse of what LAX looked like back in those days, with the “International Back of Commerce” oddly located on the street level of the famous Theme Building (I always think of it as Encounter and was surprised to discover the actual name, so the things you learn). Even with the Russian premier coming through to this international airport it still seems like a pleasant commuter stopover compared to now. Other portions of the film feel somewhat backlot bound, typical of studio releases of the time, so much so that it’s almost a surprise when actual Boston locations turn up for that section. Because of the 60s vibe and airport setting some have compared it to CATCH ME IF YOU CAN, obviously a much warmer film, but there is also a certain amount of MAD MEN’s Don Draper as well in the behavior of this film’s lead character with his willingness to put on a false front and just take off, forgetting about what’s being left behind, nothing that matters but the possibility of what’s next. DEAD HEAT ON A MERRY-GO-ROUND is a little like the feature equivalent of James Coburn cackling with that huge grin of his only in this case he doesn’t get to hear the punchline to his own joke. And it’s a pretty good one.
As Eli Kotch, Coburn glides through every encounter with all the confidence in the world, making even the smallest moments effective. Once he’s given his first big speech at the start, that’s all we need to know as he uses his sly grin blowing smoke rings, confident that each new guise is going to work like all the others—at one point he even reuses his Australian accent from THE GREAT ESCAPE, not that it’s much better this time around. Camilla Sparv (also in MURDERERS’ ROW and DOWNHILL RACER) doesn’t have much to do but project sweetness and vulnerability but it’s what the part needs, enough for us to remember how much she’s being used. The various other women include Rose Marie in a brief cameo and Nina Wayne (sister of the more recognizable Carol Wayne from Blake Edwards’ THE PARTY; I had to check the credits to make sure they weren’t the same person) who as Frieda Schmid is given some of the cleverest dialogue in the film as her character somehow manages to contradict each thing she says within seconds ("I'm always on time. It's one of my failings.").
As Kotch’s cohorts, Severn Darden (both CONQUEST and BATTLE FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES, among many other credits) and Michael Strong (Stegman in POINT BLANK) each do something with their thinly written roles displaying quiet nervousness that adds to the tension for their part in the job. But it’s hard to imagine Aldo Ray (who appeared with Coburn in Blake Edwards’ WHAT DID YOU DO IN THE WAR, DADDY? the very same year) doing much less with his own vaguely defined role—by a certain point it’s hard to remember if he even has any dialogue in the film. Along with dependable work by Robert Webber who gets moments of comical impatience in a fairly thankless role and Roy Glenn of GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER as a helpful airport cop, a few familiar faces appear briefly including Vic Tayback and Al Nalbandian, recognizable from small roles in a few Coppola productions (including THE CONVERSATION, AMERICAN GRAFITTI and TUCKER; he still has his own flower stand in San Francisco). In addition, as much as the world already knows, Harrison Ford makes his film debut here as a bellhop who briefly gets confused by Coburn pulling one of his many cons. It’s cool to see him here, but the film deserves to be known for more than that.
Since it’s not a film that warrants a huge response from a crowd I wasn’t even sure how it was playing that night and was pleasantly surprised when the final moment got a big response from the audience—the joke landed, essentially. The KCET Cinema Series screening included an enjoyable talk before the film with DEAD HEAT producer Carter DeHaven (this was his first feature producing credit; others include THE EXORCIST III which sadly did not come up) who discussed convincing a reluctant studio head to cast Coburn in the lead, the changing of the title, how Robert Evans tried to keep then-wife Camilla Sparv from doing the film as well as Harrison Ford getting cast in his first role. It was a stunningly pristine print which didn’t look like it had been played in decades; my thanks again to Lynda Erkiletian of the James & Paula Coburn Foundation for the invite. There’s a chilliness to DEAD HEAT ON A MERRY-GO-ROUND which sets it apart while fitting in perfectly with other Coburn films from the 60s. “It all depends on what you need,” goes a line near the end and sometimes that one thing can be all you think about, where all your focus is so you miss what else is there. Maybe you eventually notice it. Maybe you notice it too late. Sometimes these films keep things so light that there’s no time for such truths but DEAD HEAT ON A MERRY-GO-ROUND has just the right amount of sting to it. Besides, there’s nothing wrong with a little nastiness just when you think things are going your way. Except when it happens to you, of course.