Wednesday, 18 March 2009

The Letter (1940)

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Amidst the notable run of films that starred Bette Davis in the late ‘30s and early ‘40s - works that defined the sub-genre of female-centred melodrama - The Letter is a surprising beast, because it’s fundamentally a director’s film, rather than an actor’s showcase. This is confirmed by Davis’ relatively histrionic performance, as if she sensed she was not the centre of attention. Gale Sondergaard steals the film away from her without speaking a word of English, and James Stephenson’s morally conflicted lawyer Howard Joyce is just as close to the dramatic heart of the story, as he works against the better part of his conscience to save Davis’ icy murderess. But it’s William Wyler’s atmospheric, symbol-acute direction that turns it into a haunting work.
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Nonetheless, few film characters have an introduction as vivid as Davis has here, as Leslie Crosbie, who enters the film firing six bullets into a man, nor as darkly unsettling an exit, in her final moonlight-soaked march out to face the lurking demonic avenger. This last act is all she is left with after utterly breaking with her husband (Herbert Marshall), having laid everything to waste and crocheting madly all the time. She defeats the legal and domestic regimes with ease, but falls foul of her mirror image, the lethally offended Oriental woman, wife of her murder victim.
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The Letter is sourced in Maugham’s expose of the pretensions and failings of the British colonial mission, translated through Hollywood gloss as a darkly erotic and exotic tale of various forms of exploitation; it’s full of the drunks and philanderers Maugham saw so much of the Imperial mission as being leeched by. Leslie's outsized acts and deisres have to be observed with far more irony and detachment than the average Davis anti-heroine: she's not going to redeem herself, she's not sympathetic, she's not even a monster. She's merely a tawdry narcissist trapped in a tawdry world.
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The Letter works intuitvely as a spiritual prediction of the shattering of the Empire coming within a year, and Wyler’s moon-struck visuals perfectly evoke a somnolent threat drifting through the trees and in the shaded glow of the seemingly peaceful Malayan night. The days belong to sickly tangles of scheming, seen at its most uneasy when Joyce is carefully drawn into conspiracy and illegality by his clerk (a splendidly sleazy Victor Sen Yung), itself a kind of seduction.
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But night belongs to raw passion. We confront the moment when colonialist assumptions run onto the rocks, as Leslie’s rapacious desire hidden under a surface of bland civility, only to destroy a tenuous balance of east and west evoked by the unseen, but crucial marriage of her victim to Eurasian Mrs Hammond (Sondergaard), stirring a revenge that strikes out of the shadowed night as the very epitome of the repressed arising.
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Wyler charges the film with a glaze of eroticised mystery, and the most powerful scenes are virtually silent, as when Leslie and Joyce venture into Mrs Hammond’s world leading to a charged confrontation whose unspoken message, delivered instead entirely by looks, sees Davis, wrapped in virginal white veil evoking a medieval princess, demands she prostrate herself before the witchy Sondergaard – two loaded icons of feminine stereotypes that invoke hypocrisy and false innocence pinioned before a force of primal hate. The subsequent coup-de-grace, altered from Maugham's source play, is more apt.
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Tuesday, 17 March 2009

The Tender Hook (2008)

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Or, Who Killed The Australian Film Industry? Case No. 278. This sorry excuse for a period drama takes a cast and idea with potential – Rose Byrne, Pia Miranda, Hugo Weaving, in a Jazz-era gangster drama – and turns it into a sloppily paced and executed soporific. McHeath (Weaving) is a boxing promoter and gangster and functioning illiterate; for no apparent reason he’s given to singing Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen songs before bouts. 
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Anyway. There’s a boxer, Art (Matthew Le Nevez, armed with the total personality of a spittoon), who becomes McHeath’s latest protégé, over his unfortunately Aboriginal stablemate Alby (Luke Carroll). McHeath’s flapper moll Iris (Byrne) makes the goo-goo eyes at him. Sexual tension squelches under the surface.
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Miranda plays Daisy, a friend of Iris’s (these flower girls stick together) who keeps turning up in scenes unannounced. They practise dancing together and talk about “hooking up” with guys. In the 1920s. I stopped counting anachronisms after that. There’s a subplot involving Japanese beer and a backstory of Broome pearl fishermen. I don’t know what it was all about.
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For some reason that is not exactly (at all) explained, Iris puts cocaine in Art’s lemonade. McHeath thinks he’s a drunk and sacks him. Byrne plots and schemes to help him out again. She’s a big one for the plotting and scheming. Most of which causes trouble. McHeath’s two gunsels, portly Ronnie (John Batchelor) and Russian Donnie (Tyler Coppin), debate bumping off McHeath when he realises their part in one of Iris’s schemes, but Ronnie wimps out when he sees McHeath crying for Iris, after he’s found she’s betrayed him. Finally Iris has to do it herself with a golf club. A lot of practically incoherent scenes get in the road of the ending.
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Director Jonathan Ogilvie spends a lot of time working with cinematographer Geoffrey Simpson creating some pretty images, but utterly fails to generate a sense of style, which might have compensated for and decorated the wispy, pathetically underdeveloped script; unfortunately Ogilvie’s sense of film grammar, the lack of structuring of the scenes and exposition, is stunningly incompetent. In an early scene, Daisy suddenly appears in the car with the protagonists. How she got there, and indeed who she is, seems to have slipped Ogilvie’s mind. There are many more examples of this sloppiness. Where he chases poetic sparseness, he achieves only wan disinterest.
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He elicits awkward performances from actors who are normally reliable, badly miscasting Weaving and leaning on Byrne’s ability to project a kind of haunted doll-like humanity whilst saddling her with an incomprehensible character.
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It might not matter so much if the story had more substantial characters and stronger plotting preferably not stolen from a dozen old noir films, and festooned with witlessly employed pop-art style culture quotes. But it doesn’t. It’s boring. $7 million this cost, apparently. Made back $40,000. And they say Aussie filmgoers have no taste. They do, that’s the problem.
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Friday, 13 March 2009

Brideshead Revisited (2008)

A dreary affair. I was pulling for it to work on its own terms. The Granada mini-series is one of the great works of television, flat out, but it's also not sacrosanct: Clive James and other critics attacked it with some accuracy for being drawn-out and literal where Waugh is concise and witty. Hence my feeling there was room for a film version. Just not this film. Though it's only two hours where the series is thirteen, it feels longer. The tale is all about nuance, and it's the nuance that's entirely been cut away. Where a kind of daydreaming impressionism might have captured the flavour required, director Julian Jarrold's work reveals entirely how he's inherited the mantle of the likes of Jack Clayton, Nicholas Hytner, and Richard Eyre, as the earnest, clodhopping Middlebrow English Non-Auteur of the moment. Despite the publicised efforts to explicate the gay themes and central menage-a-trois, it renders the romances far more limp, and infinitely less sexy, before building to a synopsised edition of Waugh's Catholic triumphalism. Not helping is the cast, entirely inferior to that in the mini-series: Hayley Atwell's laughable, sub-drama school rendition of Julia's fountain-side monologue, delivered with the force of true religiose tragedy by the great Diana Quick back when, is the worst, but not only, example. Ben Whishaw's Sebastian is a spindly, spineless twerp totally lacking charisma, and Matthew Goode's Charles is passive and dour to the point of becoming soporific. Worse yet, almost everything that's really interesting is surgically removed: the satire and dry humor are gone, replaced by a leaden blandness; Anthony Blanche shrunken to a cameo; ditto Cordelia; and Rex Mottram reduced to a snaky villain. Emma Thompson delivers a surprisingly good Lady Marchmain, and Jarrold does manage to visually, and not merely verbally, communicate the oppressiveness of her regime. But otherwise the filmmaking is cliched and shapeless - cavorting in the surf to communicate innocent abandon and dashing through Venetian shadows in a puerile scene of romantic disillusion. Avoid.

Tuesday, 3 March 2009

Secret Agent (1936)

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A juicy advertising still from this film shows Madeleine Carroll, stumbling in a rubble-strewn hell with a trickle of blood sliding down from under her blonde mane, promising the emblematic image of a Hitchcock heroine – battered, dazed, robbed of elegance, stranded amidst a world that’s crumbled, but still standing.

And yet in Alfred Hitchcock’s lengthy career, Secret Agent was one of the bigger busts, and is anything but an emblematic Hitchcock film. Made on the back of the roaring success of The 39 Steps and just before the domestic holocaust of Sabotage, Secret Agent freely adapted Somerset Maugham’s droll semi-autobiographical novel "Ashenden", an account of the ratty spy culture that developed in Switzerland during WW1. With such source material, and an interesting cast including Steps alumnus Carrol, John Gielgud in his singular moment as a matinee idol, Peter Lorre and Robert Young, actors on the rise in very different ways.

What went wrong?
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The fact that the novel has not much plot, and describes the vast gap between romantic ideas of spying and the seamy reality, didn’t help. Maugham’s novel influenced Graham Greene (whose film criticism retained an almost personal animus against Hitchcock forever more after he 'spoilt' two of his favourite novels, "Ashenden" and Buchan’s "The Thirty-Nine Steps" before it) and other descendents like Eric Ambler and John LeCarre. Hitchcock and his writers, including Charles Bennett, who had penned helped Steps, extrapolated this from Campbell Dixon's stage adaptation, a common ploy at the time, because it reduced the distance for filmmakers to cover between literature and dramatisation, but which rarely boded well for cinematic imagination (look at Tod Browning's hamstrung adaptation of Dracula). The film arrived on screen as a frustrating grab-bag of approaches. In places, as in the bizarre opening when Ashenden’s fake funeral sees a one-armed soldier trying to pick up an empty coffin, or most of the sequences involving Lorre’s hyped-up diminutive fiend of a General (a kind of foreign, murderous Harpo Marx who's dubbed “The Hairless Mexican” for not being hairless or Mexican, though in the book he was both), Hitchcock’s native black comedy is pitched at an absurdist, almost Theatre of the Grotesque level it would never reach again. In other patches, it’s trying for the same blend of screwball romanticism and intrigue that Hitch had just pulled off so memorably and would do so again, except that it’s all between Carroll, as Ashenden’s naïve, sporty fake wife Elsa Carrington, and Young, as villainous Robert Marvin, a German spy who poses as a nice guy American sitting out the war, and not the actual heroic/romantic pairing, being Carroll and Gielgud. Carroll and Young’s ambling banter hardly crackles, and Carroll and Gielgud’s romance barely keeps you awake.
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And yet that’s one of the more interesting aspects of the film – it’s Hitchcock experimenting with his own formulae, and working against the grain of expectations in terms of the morality that insistently bubbles to the surface of his films. The movie-fit romance occurs between heroine and villain, and the hero is an astringent, dour artist playing spy and driven to perform acts both according to and contradictory to his private moral code.
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The film’s most integral scene, comes in half-way, and sees Ashenden and the General assassinating a gentle German refugee, Caypor (Percy Marmont), after being misled by a stray button into thinking he’s their quarry. As they are escorted into the mountains by their intended victim, Elsa sits with Marvin and Caypor’s wife (Florence Kahn), bemused by the spectacle of the man’s dog howling in forlorn alarm at the moment he’s given a shove off the cliff by the General, with Ashenden observing through a telescope.
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It’s a great sequence that tackles motifs Hitchcock would later develop – the voyeuristic complicity of Rear Window, the numbing murder of Torn Curtain, the intricate, associative cross-cutting of Strangers on a Train – and hits a queasy-making crescendo. Ashenden’s distance from the event, and yet his intimate guilt, is a poignant visual formulation of urgent ideas – the appearance of guilt and the reality of it; the concept of patriotic duty and the nature of officially-sponsored bloodshed. The dog's haunting yowl suggests some external, unrevealed force, that ties the actors in the piece all together and binds them into a tragic relationship. The poor match between gayblade dash and withered cynicism in the romantic relationships opens a door to a larger catastrophe where the good guys commit a murder that proves indefensible, revealing a void in their moral certainty, and what seems beneficent and that which seems not to be quickly invert. After the murder, Elsa, profoundly depressed, confesses her adoration of the hardened, terse, stoic Ashenden, on the face of it almost incomprehensible, except that in his person is encapsulated everything that isn’t quick, easy, and glib.
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The trouble though is that these are only stand-out sequences in the film; worse yet, it unbalances it. The rest is oddly ramshackle, lacking Hitchcock’s technical confidence too often. The sound design bears out Hitchcock's creativity best, especially in the unnerving sequence in a church when a body is found slumped over an organ that's been blaring out an incessant noise, a moment that may have influenced Chinatown's car horn. But the action finale, which sees the plot wrapped up by an aerial attack on a troop train, the sort of sequence Hitch would usually have relished, is clumsily shot and tackily staged. Hitchcock, the supposedly clockwork-minded master, is fumbling to fuse his ideas and working elements into a film, and failing. Gielgud was later sure he disappointed Hitchcock with his performance, in a part that the director had offered him with the description of Ashenden a “modern Hamlet”. Indeed, Gielgud’s a lame romantic presence – it’s clear Carroll attracts him as much as a washed-up herring – though his acting is fine, and his delivery of some of the dryer lines impeccable. It’s not all his fault by a long-shot, but the fact that Ashenden’s a largely boring hero hardly helps the lack of a strong plot with a stake for tension to rise. The story is strung out along mostly thinly conceived set-pieces (sporting some listless local colour, like a slack suspense sequence in a chocolate factory, which begs too many questions about the spies’ torturous methods) and sporting a particularly perfunctory MacGuffin – something to do with the war in the East that’s hardly compelling in itself.
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Hitchcock was relatively new to this business of being “the Master of Suspense”. Though his stand-out films until the mid-‘Thirties had generally been thrillers, he had just as often been a director of straight dramas and as much of a general handyman as any other British director, until The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) confirmed his niche. Secret Agent attempts to meld the quick, slick verve of Man and Steps with a deeper, more critical kind of genre material, whilst not jettisoning the winning hand he’d played in the previous two successes. The mutually recriminating, bipolar courtship of Carroll and Gielgud anticipates the troubled partners in the likes of Notorious and Marnie. But it’s not fused to the dramatic impetus half as well, or investigated with half the depth. Using the boyishly handsome Young as the bad guy likewise presents the classic Hitchcock charming heavy, one with an almost pathological desire for the heroine that sees him destroyed by his own lust, and also anticipates the sly casting that gave us Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates. Young gives a sharp performance, turning on a dime from too-cute ingratiation to a grimly suspicious, yet romantically vulnerable anti-hero.
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The conclusion is doubly a failure because it provides a deus ex machina that solves the moral crisis that has been arrived at, lets Ashenden and Elsa off the hook, disposes of Marvin and the General neatly, and leaves the film fangless. With Sabotage, Hitchcock would hit a balance where everyday human behaviors, and observations of how private conscience and generalised angst can collide, are superbly articulated. Secret Agent is a revealing failure, divided against itself, but in an interesting way, in that Hitchcock would solve the problems this work presented to him with what would eventually seem to be astounding ease.
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