Friday, 31 October 2008

The Story of Louis Pasteur (1935)

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A cunning work, Louis Pasteur probably did more than any other sound film to define the biopic. Its plot patterns would be reproduced near-unchanged in subsequent pictures like The Life of Emile Zola, Dr Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet, A Dispatch From Reuters, Edison The Man, The Adventures of Mark Twain, et cetera, and still has influence upon flimsy modern contraptions like A Beautiful Mind and The Great Debaters. The single-minded heroic visionary forges ahead against the forces of reaction, bigotry, and pompous officialdom – usually embodied by some conveniently invented characters who have to either convert or eat their hats at the end. Here such a figure is Dr Charbonnet (Fritz Leiber), court physician for Napoleon III and all-round wanker, and his coterie of like-minded establishment dolts who relentlessly stand in the way of Paul Muni’s Pasteur.
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It is as entertaining as it is dubious an approach, as Pasteur gains credit for rescuing his nation from debt after the Franco-Prussian War as well as improving health and wellbeing everywhere. At no point is the curing of milk described. If the relentless prods to remind us of the nobility of the hero’s enterprise and the small-mindedness of bureaucrats and hidebound experts get a bit tiresome (though these days, reminders of why we should care are all too often missing from bio-pics), Muni’s performances never do. Tired of playing half-wit hunkies as in Scarface, Black Fury, and Bordertown, Muni pushed to make Pasteur against the resistance of Jack Warner who had no idea a new prestige genre would be born. Muni’s ability to play resources of wit and brilliance mixed with all-too-human moments of befuddlement, prickliness and even a longing for escape to simplicity, invested his Pasteur and Zola with liveliness beyond the hagiographic tendency of the screenplays.
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Dieterle's skilful direction is a great plus. The film begins with a startling communique from an era of pre-modern medicine, where a clumsy, filthy doctor is shot by the grief-stricken husband of a woman who died of infection after he delivered their baby. Dieterle has little chance with the cramped budget and necessarily talky subject matter to make such dramatic impressions, but he constantly finds inventive ways to reduce and communicate complex processes, from the political dissolution of Napoleon III's empire to the method of Pasteur's working to discover a cure for rabies. Dieterle builds to a haunting moment where Pasteur, rattled by lack of sleep, overwork, and his daughter's giving birth, slowly subsides into the black insensibility of a stroke.
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The quality often lacking from modern bio-pics, for all their warts and all approach, is that as they throw in all the moments of drug addiction, infidelity and mental illness we love so much, they usually leave out the context of achievement that Pasteur works so hard to present. Pasteur isn't as good a film as Zola, for that film's high drama came tied in a ribbon. But you could do a lot worse...like A Beautiful Mind...

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The horror movie fan in me notes that here Pasteur's wife is played by Josephine Hutchinson, who would later play Basil Rathbone's wife in The Son of Frankenstein, just as Zola's wife was played by Gloria Holden, of Dracula's Daughter fame.

Tuesday, 21 October 2008

Dracula’s Daughter (1936)

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One of the most interesting but under-appreciated of the classic Universal Horrors, largely because of its low budget and lack of overall gothic style, with only intermittently atmospheric direction (from Lambert Hillyer, a practised hand from quickie Westerns). Like Son of Kong, it’s intriguing to see cast and sets from an iconic predecessor – the kick of seeing the grand staircase set of Dracula’s castle reused, or the same carriage as in the original rolling into town – carried over in a film virtually unknown.


Edward Van Sloan repeats his performance as Dr Van Helsing with his characteristic canny aplomb, but doesn’t get much to do, as he contends with being prosecuted for killing the Count and Renfield, trying gamely to mount a defence whilst begging his one-time student, the psychiatrist Jeffrey Garth (Otto Kruger) to affirm his sanity. But Dracula’s corpse is stolen away by a mysterious woman calling herself Countess Zaleska (Gloria Holden), who commits his remains to a funeral pyre in the film’s most visually striking scene: she is of course his eponymous daughter, hoping now for release from the family curse. When Dracula’s destruction fails to lift this, she turns to Garth, hoping his scientific rationalism can conquer her obscene needs.
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The treatment doesn’t prove of much worth, so the Countess, who suffers a major case of erotic transference in falling for Garth, tries to force him to become her undead lover by kidnapping his secretary (Marguerite Churchill) back to Transylvania.
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Daughter is like a ‘30s Woman’s Picture in Horror drag, with the familiar figure of a rule-breaking woman looking for a way back into a more traditional identity. Other critics have noted its possible influence on Sunset Blvd., but it could also be, if one subtracts the Goth froufrou, a film with Barbara Stanwyck or Bette Davis – Dark Victory with fangs. This is laid atop the more suggestive reflexes of the genre, allowing darker, euphemised but still definable sexual metaphors. There’s the familiar Byronic quality of Zaleska, longing for death that is a release. And also, if the classic Dracula myth exploited anxieties over sexual frustration, foreign invasion, and social xenophobia, Daughter spins a clever, if not exactly progressive, expansion on these. Zaleska is presented as a bisexual boho-aesthete, verging on a caricature of a type, redolent of a black-draped beatnik art teacher who's an on-the-quiet member of the Daughters of Sappho.
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Tied to an alternative existence, she searches desperately for normal fulfilments. But she also knows her essential nature is to consume and destroy, as confirmed in the most (relatively) famous scene, when she cannot keep herself from assaulting a young suicidal girl (Nan Grey) hired to model for her, a scene electric with perverse undercurrents - the girl's fragile mood, the hints of prostituion and rape, the use of the poor for the satisfaction of the rich, and sickly sense of forbidden sexuality.
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Zaleska can’t help but be exultant when she blackmails Garth into becoming her lover any more than she can help consuming the unfortunate girl. Garth himself is hardly a standard-issue hero, being a brilliant but prickly, pushy, no-nonsense chap who maintains a running argument-cum-flirtation with Churchill, who constantly pricks his puffed-up ego. Kruger, underused by Hollywood except in bad-guy roles, nonetheless has a brusque, vivid charisma. Armed with a literate script, Holden and Kruger lend proceedings an unusually adult sensibility. Irving Pichel has a somnolent presence as Holden’s creepy manservant; the traditional bad comic relief policemen are at least dispensed with early. The film builds to a finale that isn't exactly pulse-pounding, but at least cranks the peculiar roundelay of passion to a fitting end: Holden, threatening to vampirise Churchill, to snare Kruger, and enraging the jealous Pichel to the point where he conquers her with an arrow - never before has the stake through the heart looked so much like a phallic symbol.
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A Double Life (1947)

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The headlines in the morning: HAM ACTOR KILLS GIRL, SHAKESPEARE. Seriously, the great weakness with George Cukor’s otherwise fine film of a strong Ruth Gordon-Garson Kanin script is in the sequences purporting to show the brilliant performances by Tony John (Ronald Colman) and ex-wife Brita (Signe Hasso) in Othello. They’re woefully bad. Colman lurches about like a ingénue in a high school play and moans stiltedly, irresistibly calling to mind the two immortal actors in Blackadder The Third.
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In general, however, though dated, A Double Life is still strong, distinguished by Cukor’s subtly superb direction. The premier spit-polish artisan of the High Studio Era of a decade before, seems to relish breaking out into the real world for some deft location shooting, and energises him for some intriguing sequences: Cukor does an excellent job of communicating Tony’s schizoid breakdown, as he tries to block out the pestering voices that pursue him through parties...
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...and the streets, and drive him to murder waitress Pat (Shelley Winters).
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The murder, and the on-stage climax, are striking in their use of lighting and settings, reflecting the dissolving barriers between life and art in Tony’s brain with the alternating shadows in Pat’s apartment and the looming faces of justice staring at him through the stage scenery, actors in the play and the policemen come to arrest him indistinguishable, evoking a disintegrating personality and perspective.
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I’ve mentioned in the past my intense disinterest in the life-imitating-art idea of the crazed actor, and the plot of A Double Life at no point bears up to scrutiny, but the dialogue is cutting and the characters rich enough to make it more than just another tinny melodrama. The sense of both street life and theatrical life is pungent. Colman, who got an Oscar for his work, is affecting when not being Othello, wearing his crumpled nobility like a five o’clock shadow.
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The Andromeda Strain (1970)

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Patronised upon release, one of Robert Wise’s best late-period films now stands firmly as a seminal work: in melding a pseudo-documentary approach with technocratic, procedural stylisation, wedded to a plot of apocalyptic bi-fi fantasy, sporting a nascent attitude of cynicism towards government and military use of science, light years from the easy way they meshed in ‘50s sci-fi films, and now highly clichéd. It’s obviously cast a long shadow over many another pop-culture phenomena, from The X-Files to CSI.




Wise spurns overt hysteria and melodrama for a uniquely intense and detailed situation, in which a band of brainiacs played by a handful of excellent character actors (Walter Hill, James Olson, Kate Reid, Paula Kelly and David Wayne) are gathered together to investigate a deadly organism brought back from outer space by a crashed exploratory satellite, within the confines of a super-duper control laboratory that proves to be more dangerous than the bug itself. Author Michael Crichton’s relentless fascination with the notion of the ghost in the machine (as well as his glib veneers of social satire and faked hard sci-fi specifics) is much in evidence.



Wise’s direction is cool and intricate, utilising then-cutting edge cinematic ideas without needing to try too hard to seem with-it, (unlike the characters on screen, who remind us too often that this film was made in 1970).


The script’s not always so hot, and the film is too long, but the strong cast (especially the terrific Reid, virtually inventing a new cinematic character – the tubby wisecracking girl-nerd) and intense telling sustains a film that refuses to give into hype until the last ten minutes, which erupts in one of the most breathlessly entertaining races against time ever shot.


This could be the only film ever made where a microscopic blob of green and a malfunctioning computer’s eerie noises come to evoke infinite threat more effectively than a dozen CGI alien armies.


Monday, 13 October 2008

The Portrait of Dorian Gray (1945)

.Albert Lewin’s adaptation of Oscar Wilde is admirable and a failure for roughly the same reasons: it refuses to be a sensationalist, ghoulish melodrama, instead floating like a Chinese lantern upon a sea of suggested depravity only really portrayed in the finite sadistic curl of Hurd Hatfield’s lips.



It takes a while to notice, however, that the film often leans upon Wilde’s bon mots – all spoken with delicious acidity by a perfectly cast George Sanders as Lord Henry – like a cripple boy on his crutch, whilst Lewin’s direction creeps along.
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For every felicitous shot – there’s a particularly intelligent framing where, after Gray has seduced girlfriend Sibyl (Angela Lansbury), he writes her a brush-off note, with the bed where the evil deed was done, her photo, and his act all in the one shot, such being the tangential way you had do things in ’45 Hollywood – there’s a dozen dull-witted ones, and the last act moves intolerably slowly. Lewin’s over-insistent visual and aural symbolisms get tiresome: don’t you just so get the point when Dorian knocks over a toy knight amongst his childhood memorabilia after Sibyl, who dubbed him “Sir Tristan”, has killed herself. Fernando Croce recently described the film as a “Nouveau-Riche garage sale”, with some aptness.
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But the film has an insistent quality, sustaining in many patches a kind of dissembling much like its anti-hero’s, whose spotless face conceals a loathsome character. In this way, Lewin’s flat affect rather aids the rare mood of dread. Gray flits through both his perfect, object-d’art-riddled house and a London nightlife cleverly invoked by Harry Stradling’s brilliant photography, with the same elegant savagery, encountering the shells of people he’s used and abused, set to the sonorous tones of Chopin preludes and Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata”.
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Beneath this placidly melancholy surface lies hints of murder, perversion, and destructiveness, that only clearly manifests in two moments – one where he stabs one friend and blackmails another, the latter actually rather more violent. Wilde’s bitter vision of a society built on surreptitious indulgence, love of perfect image, and constant fear of dreadful revelation comes through successfully. And of course there’s the portrait festering away upstairs, a brilliant piece of work by Ivan Albright in which Gray’s gross soul looks not dissimilar to Freddy Jones in The Elephant Man. Now there’s an evil fate.
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