Sunday, September 23, 2018

Hiding In The Dark

As the years go on it makes sense to ask if we change or the films. Do we outgrow them or do they become richer, deeper as we respond to their mysteries more than we once imagined. It’s been close to nine years since I first wrote about TWO WEEKS IN ANOTHER TOWN on here, a lifetime ago, maybe even a few lifetimes ago. Too much has gone on since then, more than I want to get into, but I still feel like I’m back in the same place. Maybe there’s something wrong with that. Since then, this film has been released on DVD by the good people at Warner Archive and now several years down the road they’ve put it out once again in an improved transfer on Blu-ray, looking better than ever. I’m just going to assume they released it because of me and please don’t say otherwise. It’s not a film that is generally ranked among the best made by the people involved so any reasons I have for why this is some sort of odd favorite is difficult to explain. Part of it is the fantasy of finding myself among the film elites in Rome circa 1962 and all that implies, but it’s also the richness of what the film is about, the idea of looking at yourself in the mirror at the darkest point of your life, the abyss you might get sucked into staring right back. And it feels like the film means it, getting lost in the middle of that frenzy, not sitting back and merely observing. This was all something I responded to years ago when watching it on a VHS taped off TCM and again after who knows how many DVD viewings so it means more than ever looking at it now on this Blu-ray which is so stunning, so luscious that I almost feel like I can step right into all that madness.

Former movie star Jack Andrus (Kirk Douglas), still recovering from a complete mental breakdown as well as the aftermath of a car accident which left his face scarred, is in a sanitarium when he gets summoned by his former director Maurice Kruger (Edward G. Robinson) to come and play a small role in the film he’s currently shooting in Rome. But when Andrus arrives in the ultra-decadent city for work at Cinecittà he learns that there really is no part or at least no part he could play with the way his face looks. But desperate to finish the film on time with his wife Clara (Claire Trevor) nagging him every step of the way Kruger enlists Jack to handle the dubbing of the film while filming continues. Fortunately, Andrus soon finds another reason to stick around when he meets the beautiful Veronica (Daliah Lavi) and quickly falls for her much to the upset of the film’s star Davie Drew (George Hamilton) who is already hostile towards the direction he’s receiving in the dubbing booth. But when Kruger suddenly has a heart attack Andrus takes it upon himself to complete the shooting of the film for his old friend, unaware of what surprises are still in store to reward him for his hard work before his two weeks in Rome are up.

Another question might be if we know that some of the films we love aren’t as great as we want them to be and how much it matters if we’re aware of the difference. Released in 1962, TWO WEEKS IN ANOTHER TOWN is very likely not one of the best films Vincente Minnelli ever directed but that alone doesn’t make me return to AN AMERICAN IN PARIS or LUST FOR LIFE multiple times instead. THE BAND WAGON or SOME CAME RUNNING would make a little more sense and returning to either one of those reminds me of how rich they are, how much joy and passion they offer. But the fact is, the ones we return to aren’t always the greatest and I’m not just talking about in a guilty pleasure sort of way. Sometimes it just feels like a film is part of our wiring and that’s the way it is. Vincente Minnelli himself was not happy with the studio interference that occurred during the making of TWO WEEKS that resulted in scenes clarifying plot and motivations being cut out so I’ll admit that it’s kind of a hot mess but I’ve still watched it endlessly, at times addictively, even multiple times in a week as if I was searching for something but didn’t know what, waiting for an all new answer to present itself.

But to back up for a second, not only have I written about this film before, I’ve also covered the ground of 1952’s THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL. Coming ten years later, TWO WEEKS is not a sequel to that film but it is a sort of follow-up reuniting director Minnelli and producer John Houseman with the same leading actor in a story which takes another biting look at the film industry only things have changed since the studios ruled everything. Some of returning composer David Raksin’s ferociously lyrical score even plays as if he were told that it was a straight sequel with minor plot elements and even pieces of dialogue (from the same screenwriter, Charles Schnee) recurring from one to the next, reflecting each film against each other in recalling what has come before. I guess if you stick around somewhere long enough connected with the same sort of people that’s going to happen. Almost picking up on the possibility of a reconciliation at the end of the earlier film, former movie star Jack Andrus has suddenly become a supporting character in his own world, trying to understand how he’s supposed to go back to the people who once betrayed him and put aside all the resentments. As always, Vincente Minnelli understands how to frame his leads and focus on their loneliness, their isolation in the worlds they find themselves trapped in, even if it’s only for two weeks. Filmed in glorious Metrocolor and CinemaScope by Milton R. Krasner it avoids the expected travelogue footage you’d expect as Jack Andrus drives around Rome in his snazzy Maserati 3500 GT, instead using the location shooting to find parts of the city that could burrow into his very soul.

Based on a novel by Irwin Shaw (somewhat loosely, so I hear, but I’d still like to read it someday), the film is overheated in just about every scene with a cluttered, colorful frame set in a Rome where no one ever seems to sleep, where the streets and hotels are always full. It’s the end of the studio system and ‘everybody’s’ in Rome so we never set foot in California as if Hollywood has become a gold rush town that’s been stripped and deserted. The party’s over and Jack Andrus is confronted by his own past, the director he once revered, the woman he once loved, an industry where he once ruled. With that facial scar always there to remind him (even if it’s just a movie scar that we can easily forget about) it’s all gone now with seemingly nothing left of it but an Oscar that’s just a knick-knack to be left in a drawer. I’m not even sure if some of these people are even supposed to be plausibly human, particularly his ex-wife Carlotta played by Cyd Charisse all purring and taunting him for reasons we never fully understand, but then again even this feels believable considering some late night phone calls I’ve had. It’s all part of those regrets of the past that we think about the most in the middle of the night and in my earlier piece I even said the whole thing feels like a movie from the middle of the night anyway, one where logic doesn’t always play into it. But it also contains the possibility of what could be in a pure world as seen in the form of love interest Daliah Lavi who later played vixens in the likes of THE SILENCERS and CASINO ROYALE ’67 but here is the vision of all things innocent, no particular life of her own, no awareness of films and not even a last name that she ever reveals (“Veronica what’s-the-difference,” is the reply when asked). She’s simply the way for the hero to once again find something meaningful in the world as he talks about his memories of being a star when everything in the world was available to him and for a brief time as the sit on a beach together all she wants is to be by his side, nothing more.

But when Jack Andrus first arrives in Rome, a former mental patient being let loose into a very different kind of asylum, he has nothing, has become nothing and when he tries to work with Davey Drew in the dubbing room he’s told he’ll get nothing in another one of those dialogue echoes of the earlier film. Everyone else is worn down, bitter and even the one celebration turns into a melee of jealousy. Edward G. Robinson’s Maurice Kruger, presumably meant to be a god among directors, is on the outs with the major studios back home and the little we see of him on set there isn’t any evidence of supposed greatness beyond how much he shouts at people. His past glory is only seen when he screens for Jack one of the films they once made which is never named (it seems like no film is ever named here, not even the one they’re shooting) but it’s THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL, that remnant of past greatness only a decade old at the time but in the way they talk about it is a distant memory of a bygone age. In private for Kruger it’s all insecurities and being yelled at by his wife played by Claire Trevor who never stops screaming at him in a marriage of mutually beneficial co-dependent misery, presumably getting back at Edward G. Robinson for the way he treated her in KEY LARGO—every part of this movie seems to collide with another movie. The women, aside from Dahila Lavi and a few bit players, are generally spoiled at best, horrible at worst and ready to stab somebody in the back at a moments’ notice. Even Kruger tells Andrus, “All women are pure Monster” and it’s not what the film is saying though it never tries very hard to dispute that either. But even that is part of the simmering resentment between director and former star which always seems like it’s waiting for the final explosion of old grudges to go off, whichever one decides to get back at the other first.

More than anything, though, it’s the vibe of Rome, the eternal city that blankly stares back as the music crashes all around, with Kirk Douglas looking like his mind is about to burst from his skull as he stares out at it. So it’s little surprise that the location shooting has much more vibrancy, when they’re really stopped out in late night heavy traffic or when Douglas stops to play a quick round of football with some kids in the street which might have been rehearsed within an inch of its life but still feels loose and off the cuff. So it becomes a disappointment when scenes like that cut to something likely filmed on a backlot, not even an Italian backlot like Cinecittà, and all that rear screen driving footage throughout helps drain away any feel of verisimilitude; much as I love this film, I suspect they didn’t really shoot as much in Rome as I’d like to think they did. With a sense if impeccable staging in every single scene, Minnelli was one of those studio directors whose shooting style made the most sense when it could find the balance between the real and the artifice, especially with all those opulent sets like that screening room I’d love to spend a few days in. Sometimes, like in a few moments here, the balance falls over and the spell is momentarily broken. But those pieces of late night Roman life we see thanks to the location shooting during one montage makes me wish I could drive around in them even if I am stuck in rear projection for part of my visit and I sometimes obsess over some of the places they stop at in my mind, making me wonder what goes on each night over in that corner of the town. Plus it’s those odd bits that emerge from the insanity of it all like the sight of Rosanna Schaffino dancing with a few lounge lizards to Bruno Martino’s “Dracula Cha Cha Cha” as it drowns out the intense drama occurring nearby, a reminder that these glamorous Italians aren’t too far from being full-on vampires.

Among the many things that come to mind when I think of LA DOLCE VITA is the quiet in the air when the dawn hits and no one ever seems in a rush but this film, with a time constraint indicated by its title, barrels forward through the dubbing and shooting and all that driving around so unlike other MGM films of the time which are too staid it has an edge, a danger along with that gloss with some shots practically drowning in the color red as if to remind us of all that decadence everywhere. The rich, luscious shooting even includes one shot in the Hotel Excelsior elevator where we travel up from the lobby to the next floor, as if we’re floating through this city with the danger of being dragged where we don’t want to go. The plot seems to hold in place for a long time as if just as unsure of what to do as the main character is until it’s forced to rush towards the delirium of the final half hour as Andrus finds his passion, learning how to once again really be part of the world, when he takes over the director’s chair.

The climactic party is probably the most blatant stray into LA DOLCE VITA territory, essentially populated by the zombies of decadent, wealthy Rome but it all goes by too fast to strongly register, glossed over as possibly another casualty of the cutting. Leslie Uggams belts out a sad rendition of “Don’t Blame Me” for the crowd (that song was in the earlier film too) and Carlotta’s taunting of Jack builds up to what is possibly the most notorious sequence in the movie. After reaching the breaking point with whatever the hell Carlotta is doing to him a frenzied Kirk Douglas speeding off into the night in his Maserati as Cyd Charisse screams furiously, endlessly, in the passenger seat, filmed in a way that is almost deliriously impressionistic in its blatantly fake use of rearscreen projection that becomes genuinely hypnotic in its own unreality. There was, again, a similar scene in THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL with Lana Turner having a breakdown in a crashing car done all in one take which worked there—maybe opening up the concept to color and Scope is a step too far and all the fakery feels like stylization that doesn’t quite come off but the delirium still fits the film perfectly somehow, along with how unrelenting Kirk Douglas is in his psychosis, determined to dare this car to finally do the job already. After all, if you’re going to stare into the abyss with any hope of survival you have to go right up to the very edge. That’s what makes sense in the middle of the night.

In some ways the greatest betrayal is what happens between people who depend on each other. You have to figure out what matters, as difficult as that is while facing the wall dead ahead while admitting the mistakes you made. What matters in the end is that you cleanse yourself of all regrets, saying to hell with the past, to hell with those people you thought you needed in your life no matter what. Although, as I watch the film now I’m not even sure why Jack Andrus is gladly racing off at the end since it feels a little like he’s walking away from a happy ending being handed to him on a platter. Something about getting it on his own terms and no one else’s, I suppose, but the literal rushed nature of the final moments almost feels like it wants to end before we ask too many questions. It answers what was asked at the end of THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL by stating that those reconciliations can never work out. What’s done is done. But maybe finding that answer for ourselves while shutting out all that bitterness and resentment is what we have to do. As long as we accept that we can never know what the future holds.

But TWO WEEKS IN ANOTHER TOWN is also about the pure ferocity of Kirk Douglas, as if he’s still straining against a world that has turned from black & white to Technicolor while throwing his entire body into the emotion of any given moment. He goes big but you can feel that sense of confusion within him, of wondering where his old life went, sometimes able to calmly reflect but he’s really just waiting for his next chance to unload on someone. Edward G. Robinson is the perfect choice for someone who can command a room and cut down anyone in it with just a few words, making his drunken power felt along with his uncertainty while knowing just how to manipulate his old friend as if he knows that this may be his last chance. The ideally angelic Daliah Lavi is the perfect counterpoint to all this and some of the supporting players like James Gregory as journalist “Brad Byrd” fit right in (Mino Doro as Tucino, the impatient producer of Kruger’s film, was actually in both LA DOLCE VITA and 8 ½) while some are used mainly to be positioned into frame and little else, particularly Rosanna Schaffino who as the film’s female lead has next to no English dialogue so her performance is mostly posture and wardrobe. George Hamilton never quite sells the intensity as a star who’s crashed and burned (eyebrow work from George Hamilton is always a delight, however, even in the early 60s) but Cyd Charisse with all her teeth remains unaccountably bizarre even after multiple viewings, no awareness of anything else around her and certainly not a care beyond reacquiring her ex-husband even after she’s married again, knowing she’s above it all and nothing will ever come crashing down. And, yet, in the middle of all this it kind of makes sense.

Reading over the older piece, I’m not even sure if my mind has changed much at all but what I wrote then was probably shorter so my apologies. But we are what we are. Maybe TWO WEEKS IN ANOTHER TOWN isn’t as good as THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL, whatever that’s supposed to mean, but to me it feels more vibrant, more willing to fly off the rails and I connect that much more to all that Technicolor insanity and desperation. Even if it has nothing to do with the reality of whatever filmmaking in Rome was at the time, it’s still about trying to hold onto yourself when you become stranded in the middle of whatever madness has a hold on you. Because that feeling is never going to change and it’s a film I’ve never quite been able to shake—I even remember where the side break was on the old laserdisc during my first viewing long ago. A flop when released, TWO WEEKS has its admirers on Film Twitter and I’ll just dream of a time when I can have a meal with the likes of Glenn Kenny, Miriam Bale and the Self-Styled Siren so we can all discuss our love for it. Even at the time Peter Bogdanovich called Minnelli’s film, “a grand melodrama, filled with passion, lust, hate, and venom, surely the ballsiest, most vibrant picture he has signed,” so maybe he’ll show up for the party. Godard loved it too and it feels like the perfect film to watch right before CONTEMPT. I should point out once again that this Blu-ray from the Warner Archive is a stunner and my thanks to them for putting it out. Suffice it to say, if you have any interest in this title or any of the people involved or just filmmaking in 60s Italy in general, I can’t recommend the disc more highly. It’s the best way to keep returning to this film as I hopefully continue to change. It’s probably inevitable that someday I’ll have seen this film enough times. Hasn’t happened yet.

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