Friday, 5 June 2009

The Diary of Anne Frank (1959)

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Though it drags the weighty baggage of a prestige production somewhat at odds with its life-on-the-edge subject matter, Diary is exceptionally well-made by director George Stevens, a fine reversal on the elephantine soap-opera of Giant (1955).
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Strong in the concerted paranoia of its suspense sequences, and in its feel for tensions between a group of terrified, barely tolerant but civilized people in a desperate situation, Stevens’ roving camera cleverly divides his widescreen frame into cramping nooks and private universes, discovering in a broken window and the ratty flowers at its sill a world nearly as vast as that in Stevens’ Shane (1952).
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The film is finally, and almost irredeemably, hampered by a glossy sentimentality - which contrives to suggest transcendence at the moment of being caught and dragged off to starve to death in a concentration camp – and some opportunistic story licence, as a kind of painted-on smiley face for ‘50s inspirational purposes.
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Though it pays some tribute to Frank’s unshakable humanism, the film nonetheless can’t quite come to terms with the schism her story represents – looking for the best of mankind in the nadir of human history – in terms that aren’t pure Reader’s Digest. Undoubtedly, the editing the film underwent - lopping off an Auschwitz postcript in particular - because of bad test screening results may have helped sell the film at the time, and eternally hurt it for posterity.
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The style is too literal, the material stagy (it’s not taken from Frank’s book, but from a theatrical intermediary by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, who also wrote the screenplay), to discover a real poeticism: the hard, procedural intensity in the rigorous and complex group framings and long-take acting, and the observation of everyday detail that drives most of the film, are far more satisfying.
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Millie Perkins’ lack of capacity to project either keen intelligence or adolescent emotional acuity, vital for the role, doesn’t help either: it’s surely deliberate that she comes across like a bratty prodigy from the Upper West Side to make her all the more relatable for American audiences, but it hasn’t aged well as a choice (couldn’t she and Diane Baker have swapped parts?). The cast is otherwise excellent, with Joseph Schildkraut’s performance as Otto Frank perfection.
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2 comments:

zzi said...

Speaking of Mankiewicz.

http://filmjournal.net/livius/2009/06/25/5-fingers/

Roderick Heath said...

Well I'm always happy to speak of Mankiewicz although I, er, didn't in this post...But thanks for the link; I love Five Fingers. "Bombs were dropping. I felt I was in the way."