Friday, August 27, 2010

Undercurrent (1946) Vincente Minnelli

It’s from Minnelli at MGM but this is no extravagant technicolor musical. It’s not really film noir either but more an interesting melodrama and sometime thriller. Although not his usual fare, director Minnelli does his best to build the slow-growing tension and suspense throughout the movie culminating in the somewhat exciting yet overwrought ending.

Tall, dark, and handsome Robert Taylor has a very strong role and plays his switching personalities very effectively. He sweeps Katharine Hepburn off her feet but she soon senses that everything may not be as it seems, or is it?

And Katharine Hepburn is the star, here playing a timid woman. Sometimes she’s a little over the top but on the whole she does a fine job and is enjoyable to watch as she slowly pieces things together.

The third character in this ever-evolving story is Robert Mitchum. And he is revealed throughout the movie without physically being there. He appears three short times, most compellingly in a scene with Robert Taylor in the stable. Light and shadows, good and evil, unerring cinematography, and a rearing horse make this one of the best scenes in the movie.

Minor roles that complete the picture are played by Edmund Gwynne, Marjorie Main, Jayne Meadows (in her first film role), and Kathryn Card, better known as Mrs. McGillicuddy, Lucy’s mother in T.V.’s “I Love Lucy.”

The usual MGM talent is present: Sound by Douglas Shearer, and Art Direction and Set Decoration by Cedric Gibbons and Edwin Willis, respectively. Shearer and Gibbons have been noted previously, and Willis needs special mention for being a talented Set Decorator with more than 600 movie credits and eight Academy Awards for his set designs.

Adding to the great atmosphere created in this film is the stunning cinematography of Karl Freund, who moved into television in the 1950s. (While working for Desilu Productions, Freund developed the three-camera system to film a television show and finished his career as the head cinematographer for “I Love Lucy.”)

And lastly, Irene Lentz Gibbons, who billed herself with first name only. Married to Cedric Gibbons’ brother, she became a gown designer for many stars, beginning with Ginger Rogers, and ended up with about 200 design or costume supervisor credits to her name. Her life did not end well but her name is always recognizable as the credits roll: “Costumes by Irene.”   

The best part of this movie is the atmosphere: storms, sinister shadows lurking everywhere, and mysteries abounding. It could have been a better movie with a different director but it is also the only movie Hepburn ever made with Mitchum, Taylor, or Minnelli. So maybe that in itself merits a viewing. And if you’re wondering about the memorable, uncredited music theme - it’s Brahms Symphony # 3, third movement.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Uncertain Glory (1944) Raoul Walsh

Although this film stars Errol Flynn, there is no swashbuckling, just Flynn in one of his better performances. Taking place in France during World War II, the movie has the Gestapo, Vichy France, and the French resistance providing the backdrop for the story.

Our central characters are Flynn, playing Jean Picard *, a possible murderous criminal, and his nemesis, Paul Lukas, as French Inspector Marcel Bonet. They take us on a journey that includes many twists and turns, some expected and others not. Flynn’s character has the charming insouciance present in most of his roles and he’s still a rake.  

Paul Lukas was a Hungarian stage and movie actor, usually confined to small film roles (around 100 film appearances, including that of Professor Aronnax in “20,000 Leagues under the Sea”). This was a big role for Lukas and he plays the serious, honest police officer very effectively. We watch him struggle throughout the film whether or not to believe Flynn. Sometimes he’s taken in, sometimes not - just like us. Flynn and Lukas play off each other very well and their many scenes together are fun to watch. (“How brave a gun makes a little man.”) The scene that takes place in a church is beautifully directed and filmed. Watch their faces as Flynn’s tale unwinds.

Lucile Watson plays a mother willing to sacrifice anything and anyone to save her son from death at the hands of the Germans. Dennis Hoey (Inspector Lestrade in a few Sherlock Holmes movies) is the town priest and moral compass. The beautiful Faye Emerson has a brief role as one of the women Flynn easily charms, and Jean Sullivan plays another. Sullivan resembles Jennifer Jones, made a total of four films, and plays this part sickeningly sweet.

Accents need to be ignored because they’re all different: English, Hungarian, American, and German, and Sheldon Leonard with his New York City accent playing a Frenchman.

Director Raoul Walsh, better known for “High Sierra,” “Public Enemy,” “White Heat,” and many, many more, also directed Flynn in “Gentleman Jim” in 1942. Sidney Hickcox did a notable job with the black and white cinematography, and Adolph Deutsch is credited with the original music.  

As befitting 1944, the ending is a little over the top as we watch Errol Flynn moving toward his destiny, buoyed up by huge swells of “La Marseillaise.”  Viva la France!

* Jean Picard was a famous French astronomer, 1620-1682. 

                Raoul Walsh

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Deadline - U.S.A. (1952) Richard Brooks

Humphrey Bogart made ten movies after this, and this one is not to be missed if you’re a Bogart fan. He’s a newspaperman, the editor of a family owned paper that just may be sold to a Rupert Murdoch type of conglomerate. While this drama is playing out, there are two newspaper stories being investigated. One pertains to a murdered woman found in a river, clad in nothing but a fur coat. The other story revolves around a notorious gangster who has so far avoided any criminal convictions (think Al Capone or Tony Soprano). All three plot lines eventually coalesce as the movie winds toward its dramatic, although somewhat abrupt, conclusion.

It’s a fascinating representation of how a newspaper was run and is also a strong commentary on the importance of freedom of the press. Bogart shines as the world-weary editor who retains his journalistic integrity with moral fervor.

Ethel Barrymore plays the widowed matriarch of the family who owns the paper and is also the mother of two daughters (“Stupidity isn’t hereditary; you acquire it by yourself.”). As would be expected, Barrymore plays her like the grand lady she is. Bogart and Barrymore have good rapport, and watch in particular for the sweet scene when they discuss life, love, and the newspaper business.

Kim Hunter (of Stella Streetcar fame) plays Bogart’s ex-wife and she doesn’t have much of a part. She has an inexplicable little role in the conclusion as well. The gangster is very well played by Martin Gabel. He practically seethes with evil and has the overwhelming confidence of a mobster who knows he’s in control.

The newspaper room is filled with hard-working, fast-living reporters, and you will find Ed Begley and Jim Backus among them. Backus has a great part in the newspaper “wake” and the entire wake is a wonderful, black-humor scene.

Faces you will recognize in the newsroom, even if you don’t know their names, include Warren Stevens, Paul Stewart, Willis Bouchey, and John Doucette. Henchmen of note include Robert Foulk and Joe Sawyer. All of these people have hundreds of movie roles to their credits. James Dean purportedly has a small role in the movie but I didn’t see him.

The director, Richard Brooks, also wrote the film. His previous experience as a reporter in New York City certainly helped the realistic tone of the newsroom. And his love of the newspaper business comes through in the film. It’s an early directorial attempt for film-writer Brooks who went on to direct “Blackboard Jungle,” “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” “Elmer Gantry,” and “In Cold Blood.” The production feels like a gritty Warner Brothers film but this was put out by 20th Century Fox.

Sometimes the idealism gets a little heavy-handed (e.g., a corpse falls on the printing press at one point; will it, and all it represents, stop the presses?). But overall, it’s a well-paced drama and an interesting depiction of journalistic integrity and the newspaper business.

“It may not be the oldest profession but it’s the best.”