Films: Drama/Romance


REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:


SWORD IN THE DESERT. Universal Pictures, 1949. Dana Andrews, Märta Torén, Stephen McNally, Jeff Chandler. Director: George Sherman.

   Sword in the Desert marked Jeff Chandler’s first appearance in a war movie, a film about Jewish resistance fighters during the final days of British rule in Mandatory Palestine. The movie premiered in New York City on April 23, 1949. It remains a milestone both in Chandler’s then still burgeoning screen career and in representations of Israeli national identity, with one observer going so far as to label Sword in the Desert the first within a new American film genre, “the Israeli Film.” The latter would be replicated in American cinema with Edward Dymytrk’s The Juggler (1953) and with the formidable screen presence of Paul Newman as Ari Ben Canaan in Otto Preminger’s commercially and critically successful Exodus (1960).

   Although Chandler was not top billed in Sword in the Desert, the film nevertheless demonstrated his natural ability in portraying gruff and laconic men toughened by war and by circumstance, characters faced with numerous obstacles and constrained by difficult choices.

   Directed by George Sherman (1908-1991), who later worked with Chandler in two competently directed, but altogether undistinguished, Westerns, The Battle at Apache Pass (1952) and War Arrow (1953), Sword in the Desert is a quixotic and unevenly constructed war film set both chronologically and geographically on the margins of the Second World War. Although most definitely a war film, Sword in the Desert is as much a character study and a compelling drama as an action-packed epic about two opposing factions fighting over the same land.

   With a script and production by Robert Buckner, known primarily for his work at Warner Brothers in the 1930s and early 1940s, the movie follows the path, both literally and metaphorically, of Irish-American freighter captain, Mike Dillon (Dana Andrews), the nominal protagonist.

   As a smuggler of desperate and impoverished refugees, many of them Holocaust survivors attempting to gain entrance to Palestine, Dillon inadvertently gets mixed up with the Jewish struggle for political sovereignty in the late 1940s Middle East. The British authorities, however, are adamant at stopping the flow of illegal Jewish immigration. So Dillon is able to charge a sizeable fee for his efforts, something he won’t let his initial contact in the Jewish underground, David Vogel (Stephen McNally) forget.

   Initially skeptical about any cause larger than his own financial well-being, Dillon ultimately ends up sympathetic to, or at least more understanding of, the Jewish cause in Palestine. It is Chandler’s character, the Israel underground leader, Kurta, who serves as the catalyst for change in Dillon’s personal, political, and spiritual transformation.

   This occurs toward the end of the movie, when Dillon refuses to divulge Kurta’s secret identity to the British military authorities. For Andrews, this role, much like the role of a ship’s captain in Sealed Cargo (1951), made him “one of the silver screen’s most decent and desirable leading men.” Indeed, Andrews’s performance in Sword in the Desert, while certainly less known than his work in such films as Laura (1944) and The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), is nevertheless an exceptional one, one that demonstrates skill in conveying both gravitas and world-weariness.

   Although Andrews, well into his prime acting years, is a formidable screen presence, it is Chandler’s portrayal of Kurta that remains the highlight of the movie. The viewer first encounters the bronzed, tall, and proudly Jewish fighter some twenty-three minutes into the story. He is taking notes with a pencil while a fellow resistance leader, Sabra, delivers anti-British propaganda over the local airwaves.

   Sabra is portayed by Swedish actress Märta Torén, who would go on to co-star with Dana Andrews in the spy film, Assignment – Paris! (1952). After listening intently to Sabra, Kurta speaks. He delivers an impassioned speech about how freedom will come soon to the Jewish people of Mandatory Palestine, ending his broadcast with three poignant words: “God Save Israel.”

   Throughout the film, Kurta proves himself to be both tough and sensitive, determined in his goal to drive the British from Palestine. Although the viewer does not learn whether Kurta was born in Palestine, he does demonstrate all of the characteristics of a Sabra, a euphemism for a native-born Israeli taken from the name of a prickly pear characterized by a tough exterior and soft interior. But Kurta does not allow his idealism to get in the way of his pragmatism. He realizes that he needs Dillon’s assistance in bringing more Jewish refugees past the British naval blockade, and he is willing to overlook the freighter captain’s initial mercenary, if not borderline hostile, attitude toward the Jewish people’s struggle for independence from British control.

   On his lapel, Kurta wears a pin in the shape of a sword. It is meant to symbolize Kurta’s status as a leader in the Jewish underground. The film’s title is derived from a poignant scene in which Kurta, surrounded by troops outside Beersheba, drops the sword pin in the desert sand in an attempt to shield his identity from the British forces.

   Chandler’s final scene in the movie is both a noble and a tragic one for his character. Wounded badly by gunfire after a controversial and over-the-top sequence in which Jewish commandos raid a British military installation on Christmas Eve, Kurta thanks Dillon for not betraying him to the British authorities. He apologizes to the Irish-American captain for not being able to fulfill his earlier promise to escort him to Beirut so he could get back to his ship. With his final breath, Kurta instructs his subordinate David to ensure that Dillon, now squarely in the pro-Zionist camp, safely gets to Lebanon.

   As the first Hollywood film to depict the paramilitary struggle for the contemporary State of Israel, Sword in the Desert is also notable for being one of two movies in which Chandler portrayed an overtly Jewish character, the other the made-for-TV Biblical epic, A Story of David (1960). Although the film barely alludes to the nascent ethno-political conflict between the Zionist movement and Arab nationalism, its political sympathies could not be clearer. One could hardly imagine a major studio today wading into the Middle East conflict with such alacrity and daring.

   On the other hand, the film took perhaps one too many liberties with the historical record. This may have inadvertently weakened its chance at getting a wider reception. For instance, the film’s strident depiction of the British military forces in Mandatory Palestine as fundamentally unjust, as opposed to a more nuanced approach, actually weakens the story. Likewise, the historically inaccurate scene in which Jewish commandos attack a British military base does little to move the story forward and may have aided in sinking the movie into obscurity. Not surprisingly, the film’s release was controversial in the United Kingdom, leading at least one London movie theater to shut down a screening due to protests.

   While overtly sympathetic to the cause of Israeli national independence, Sword in the Desert was nevertheless geared toward the largely Christian-American movie-going public. This may help explain why Christian symbolism plays such an important role in the movie, such as when Dillon refuses to reveal Kurta’s identity to the British lest he become a “Judas,” the Christmas Eve celebration at the British military compound, and a brief visual reference to the City of Bethlehem at the very end of the film which bolsters the movie’s place within the “Judeo-Christian” tradition.

   It might also perhaps explain why Andrews’s character, Dillon, is of Irish heritage, as well as the character, Jerry McCarthy (Liam Redmond), an Irish nationalist who joined the Jewish cause in Palestine primarily as a means of fighting British soldiers. By way of contrast, Kurta never appears to be animated by any particular animus toward the British, so much as by a deep love for the Land of Israel. This helps make his character the most compelling and sympathetic one in the film.

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


SEVEN SINNERS. Universal, 1940. Marlene Dietrich, John Wayne, Albert Dekker, Broderick Crawford, Anna Lee, Mischa Auer, Oscar Homolka, Billy Gilbert, Samuel S. Hinds, Reginald Denny, Vince Barnett, Henry Victor. Written by John Meehan, Harry Tugend, Ladislas Fodor and Laszlo Vadnay. Directed by Tay Garnett.

   Lusty.

   That says all you need to know, but I’ll expand on it just a bit.

   Seven Sinners opens with a saloon-busting brawl of epic proportions and closes with another even better. In between times we get Marlene Dietrich doing a Miss Sadie Thompson bit as a notorious chanteuse plying her dubious trade among the islands of the South Pacific.

   She goes to work in Billy Gilbert’s Seven Sinners Saloon, meets and falls in love with naval lieutenant John Wayne, but the course of true love is obstructed by his officious superiors (Samuel S. Hinds and Reginald Denny at their stuffiest) and her earthy admirers, including muscle-brained Brod Crawford, jolly klepto Mischa Auer, and knife-wielding Oscar Homolka, whom she would rather forget.

   Director Tay Garnett lets things simmer nicely, teetering at the brink of violence like a drunk on a diving board while Dietrich and the Duke get the hots for each other—by some accounts a passion that extended off-screen as well. Whatever the case, the chemistry between them bubbles up on-screen quite palpably, as the story steams toward a climax that surprised and pleased me no end.

   But before that ending we get the definitive Saloon Brawl. One that matches and exceeds the exuberant melee in Dodge City, mainly because all the principals are right in the thick of things, swinging, kicking, walloping and smashing stuff with balletic abandon. Nobody just gets hit in this donnybrook; they go careening over bars and balconies, breaking tables, chairs, walls, windows and bottles—or having that stuff crashed over them.

   The result is a film of unforgettable energy: romantic, funny, surprising… and undeniably lusty.

REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:


TEN SECONDS TO HELL. Hammer Films, 1959. Jack Palance, Jeff Chandler, Martine Carol, Robert Cornthwaite, Dave Willock. Sreenplay by Robert Aldrich and Teddi Sherman, based on the novel The Phoenix by Lawrence P. Bachmann. Director: Robert Aldrich.

   Three years after Jeff Chandler portrayed a heroic U.S. Navy captain in Away All Boats (1956), he would co-star with Jack Palance in the stunningly well photographed drama, Ten Seconds To Hell (1959). Based on Lawrence P. Bachmann’s book The Phoenix, the plot follows a German bomb disposal unit tasked with dismantling unexploded ordinances in post-war Berlin. They are a coterie of men whose work would allow the German capital to rise, like a phoenix, from the ashes.

   Directed by Robert Aldrich, who had worked with Palance in The Big Knife (1955) and Attack (1956), Ten Seconds to Hell was a Hammer Films Production/Seven Arts Pictures feature and was the auteur’s only film to feature Chandler as an actor. Aldrich made apt use of not only both men’s acting skills, but also their imposing physicality, as both Chandler and Palance were tall men. In Ten Seconds To Hell, a sublimely claustrophobic film, they portrayed men locked in a peculiar existential struggle, who both literally and figuratively, towered over the other men in their unit. Although Chandler and Palance had appeared together as opponents in Douglas Sirk’s Sign of the Pagan (1954), that mediocre costumer failed to fully utilize either man’s talents in portraying strong men locked in battle.

   At the time of the theatrical release of Ten Seconds To Hell, the New York Times recognized the impact that Aldrich’s direction had on eliciting strong performances from the two male leads, noting that Aldrich “has drawn from Jack Palance a performance that is perhaps the finest of the actor’s career” and that he “has deftly maneuvered Jeff Chandler as [Palance’s] evil alter-ego.” It is also the case that the characters portrayed by Palance and Chandler, much like the actors’ performances, are best understood primarily within the context of their antagonistic relationship and the period of time in which both men live.

   Ten Seconds To Hell takes place at the end of the Second World War, but it still can be considered central to the World War II War film genre. Set in the ruins of Berlin, the film tells the story of a bomb disposal unit who work at the behest of Major Haven (Richard Wattis), a British officer working in the Allied-occupied city. The unit consists of six men, with Erich Koertner (Palance), a former architect, and the nasty, sarcastic Karl Wirtz (Chandler) as the two primary characters.

   Their distinct worldviews and opposing personalities create exacerbate the already existing tension of working as bomb disposal technicians. The other four men, Franz Loeffler (Robert Cornthwaite), Peter Tillig (Dave Willock), Wolfgang Sulke (Wes Addy), and Hans Globke (Jimmy Goodwin), are less prominently featured in the story, but serve to further highlight the antagonism between the more introspective Koertner (Palance) and the fatalist Wirtz (Chandler).

   What unites these men is their status as History’s losers. In their study of Robert Aldrich, Alain Silver and James Ursini note that the “men of the bomb disposal unit “. . . are defeated. They are literally so, as soldiers on a losing side. They are figuratively so as well, for when they return to Berlin at the beginning of the film, they are carrying that defeat as an emotional burden.” Indeed, none of the men, with the exception of Solke, has a wife or a child to return to.

   The movie opens with a camera shot of a train pulling into a rather dismal looking Berlin station. On board are soldiers, defeated men from the losing side of the cataclysmic war that left German cities in ruins. The first person off the train is Wirtz (Chandler), signifying the pivotal role he is to play in the movie’s narrative. But, as it turns out, he will not be the film’s protagonist. That role is reserved for Koertner (Palance), the soldier to immediately follow him off the train.

   Voice over narrative, conducted in semi-documentary style, tells the viewer that Wirtz is concerned primarily with his own survival and that he plays for “high stakes” and deals “from the bottom of the deck.” It’s a blunt characterization and is designed to intrigue the viewer into wanting to know more.

   The first speaking part for Chandler occurs soon thereafter. Wirtz, Koertner, and the other four men are meeting with Major Haven, their British liaison. Wirtz takes control of the salary negotiations, forcing Haven to provide the men with a higher salary than originally suggested. Soon, the discussion among the unit turns antagonistic, as Wirtz (Chandler) challenges Koertner (Palance) to a bet that he will outlive him.

   The stakes are high. As bomb disposal technicians, the men know that one false move can mean sudden death. But they agree to Wirtz’s bet, pooling half their salaries into a pool for the winner of this morbid game. It is here that we learn just how smug, arrogant, and selfish Wirtz truly is. He knows exactly how to taunt, how to push people’s buttons. Chandler is able to convey Wirtz’s ruthlessness not merely with words, but also with a smirk, body language, and posture. It is not so much that Chandler portrays Wirtz as vicious, as it is that he is able to instill a sense of what could only be best described as creepiness into Wirtz’s persona.

   Living in the ruins of Berlin, Wirtz and Koertner share a boardinghouse run by Margot Hoefler (Martine Carole), a Frenchwoman who married a German soldier during wartime. Margot is now both a widow and a societal outcast in Berlin. Carole, the French actress who had starred as the eponymous lead character in Max Ophüls’ Lola Montès (1955), portrays Margot in a rather subdued, although occasionally too melodramatic, manner. Like Koertner and Wirtz, she too is defeated, her status as a German war bride having left her a perpetual outsider, alienated from mainstream society.

   It does not take long for Wirtz, a man without shame, to make unwanted romantic advances on Margot. One evening he comes back to the boardinghouse inebriated. His loud voice wakes up Koertner, as the former attempts to seduce an unwilling Margot. Chandler portrays Wirtz in this scene with understated ferocity, in some ways similar to the character of Luke Darcy he portrayed in The Jayhawkers (1959).

   Wirtz is a man who utilizes pitiful attempts at humor to mask his rage, telling Margot that, “biology used to be [his] best subject.” and “Why not take Dr. Wirtz’s introductory course?” Koertner, awakened by Wirtz’s booming voice, rushes into Margot’s room and stops him from going any further. This scene fuels the increasing tension between the two primary characters and serves to delineate the men’s differing attitudes toward women. While Wirtz is a man who seeks conquest, Koertner is a man who seeks companionship.

   Koertner will go on to develop a romantic relationship with Margot, although this will not cause the ultimate rupture with Wirtz. Rather, it will be the discovery of the British thousand-pounder, a type of unexploded ordinance with which the team was unfamiliar. Not only does this type of bomb cause the death of team members, it plays a pivotal role in furthering the antagonism between Koertner, the brooding outsider and Wirtz, the dissolute cynic.

   When Koertner suggests that they call off the bet, Wirtz refuses, leading to a verbal confrontation between the two men. A distraught Koertner tells Wirtz that he would like to see him dead and blasted to hell. It is then that Koertner realizes that there is something bigger at stake in this dispute than just money. He tells Margot that it is a “battle for survival between the Karls of the world and the me’s of the world.” Koerner’s revelation stems, to a large degree, from his reaction to Wirtz’s radical selfishness, a particularly chilling worldview that he learned from his uncle.

   [PLOT WARNING] Ultimately, it is Koertner who survives the bet and who is freed from the shackles of Wirtz’s cynicism. In the film’s final sequence, we see Wirtz (Chandler) deep in rubble, defusing a bomb. With jazz music playing on the soundtrack, Koertner walks out of the abandoned building where Wirtz is working. Seconds thereafter, the bomb explodes, killing him. Koertner is now free, liberated from the bet and his existential struggle against Wirtz.

   But it’s not a joyous or celebratory victory, for Koertner still, in both a literally and metaphorical sense, walks alone. While the film ends with optimistic voice over narration and positive imagery of rebuilt Berlin, one cannot help escape the theme of post-war alienation just below the surface.

   Ten Seconds to Hell is closest thing to an “art house” film that Jeff Chandler ever starred in. Indeed, Aldrich, who had caught the eye of French critics well before he became widely known in the United States, allowed Chandler to take on a role quite distinct from many of his previous films. His character, Wirtz, is not so much a villain as a spiritually defeated man tasked with a dangerous and dirty job. He is a man who has irreparably lost a moral compass – his center, as it were – in a chaotic, tumultuous society, a claustrophobic world in which the concrete possibility of an inadvertent horrific death looms large. He is most certainly not a hero.

   Andrew Sarris, longtime film critic for The Village Voice and a leading proponent of the auteur theory, has noted that Aldrich’s “films are invariably troubled by intimations of decadence and disorder.” When applied to Ten Seconds To Hell, Sarris’s observation seems particularly apt. Filmed in the ruins of Berlin, physical decay is visually omnipresent throughout the movie.

   But it is the theme of moral decay, however, that propels the narrative. It is largely Chandler’s alternatingly subdued and overpowering portrayal of the decadent Wirtz that propels the narrative forward to its simultaneously tragic (for Wirtz) and liberating (for Koertner) conclusion.

REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:


JUNE NIGHT. Svensk Filmindustri, Sweden, 1940. Original title: Juninatten. Ingrid Bergman, Marianne Löfgren, Lill-Tollie Zellman, Marianne Aminoff, Olof Widgren, Gunnar Sjöberg. Director: Per Lindberg.

   In director Per Lindberg’s June Night, Ingrid Bergman delivers a stellar performance as a rebellious small town Swedish girl trying to break free from her society’s puritanical mores as well as its prurient curiosity into other people’s private lives. Although the movie begins as a crime drama, it soon reveals itself to be more of a drama and trenchant societal critique in the manner of Warner Brothers pre-code films from the early 1930s. Issues of class, social conformity in Swedish society, women working in male dominated professions, and rapidly shifting changes in romantic expectations all take center stage.

   Bergman portrays Kerstin Norbäc, a small town girl of upper middle class origins who has engaged in an illicit affair with a working class sailor. Eventually tired of him and fully cognizant that they have no future together, she laughs at him. In a fury, he shoots her, wounding her severely and forcing her into emergency surgery. But things get even worse, for when she is forced to testify against her assailant, the national press begins a salacious campaign against her. And the local townsfolk aren’t particularly sympathetic to her plight either.

   Stockholm, the big city, offers an escape for her to begin a new life and to take on a wholly new identity. Changing her name to Sara Nordanå, however, doesn’t end all of her problems. She’s faced with new challenges, including those facing young women living on their own and working professional jobs in a big city. As would be expected, her former assailant eventually gets out of jail and comes to Stockholm to confront her and to win her back. And the Swedish press in the form of an intrepid dissolute reporter, an object of scorn in the film, continues to hound her despite her desire to be left alone.

   Although skillfully directed, June Night is nevertheless somewhat stilted in its presentation and plot. There’s a lack of urgency in the film, a lack of passion. The movie very much wants to say something about the role of women in Swedish society, but at the expense of fully fleshing out Bergman’s character. She’s mysterious and individualistic, but we know this more on an intellectual level than on an emotional one.

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


SAMSON AND DELILAH. Paramount, 1949. Victor Mature, Hedy Lamar, George Sanders, Angela Lansbury, Henry Wilcoxon and Russ Tamblyn. Written by Jesse L. Lasky Jr, Fredric M. Frank, Harold Lamb and Vladimir Jabotinsky. Produced and directed by Cecil B. DeMille.

   Readers of these pages know me as a man whose life has been a ceaseless, unending and redundant search for spiritual enrichment. Hardly surprising then, that especially at this time of year I should turn to Old Time Hollywood in search of enlightenment – where better?

   Actually, Samson and Delilah ain’t bad. In its own splashy way, it’s actually pretty good, with gaudy Technicolor, sumptuous sets and costumes, and a big finale when (SPOILER ALERT!) Samson brings the heathen temple down on the Philistines.

   Lasky and Frank’s script is mostly simple stuff, with clearly-defined Good Guys up against Bad Guys with mostly no redeeming qualities at all — although they go to some lengths to provide Hedy Lamar’s Delilah with some credible motivation for destroying Samson, and even embellish the Bible a bit by giving her a change of heart late in the show, where she even helps Samson (SPOILER ALERT!) bring the heathen temple down on the Philistines.

   Said Philistines are ably led by George Sanders, as the Saran of Gaza (more on this later) amply supplied with cynical quips, an army led by DeMille Stalwart Henry Wilcoxon, and staffed with reliable heavies like Mike Mazurki, Harry Cording, Lane Chandler, Fred Kohler Jr, Bob Kortman, Ted Mapes, John Merton, Ray Teal, Tom Tyler, Harry Woods… and that’s George Reeves as the wounded soldier who brings the news of defeat to the Saran’s court.

   The acting is variable rather than Biblical. Victor Mature’s brainless strongman is predictably smug, Angela Lansbury suitably vapid, and Hedy Lamar…. Well, she delivers her lines capably, but DeMille has her perform with a body language like a silent movie vamp waiting to pounce, knees akimbo, on our poor lummox or any guy on two legs who can’t outrun her.

   As I say though, this is mostly light and enjoyable and should be taken on that level – especially when Mature as Samson counsels the future King Saul (Russ Tamblyn) to put down that sling and make something of himself. And again, the smashing finale is worth waiting for, when the Saran wraps things up with a caustic comment while Samson (SPOILER ALERT!) brings the heathen temple down on the Philistines in a burst of beautifully done special effects.

   This is, in its own way, Great Filmmaking, along the lines of Forbidden Planet, Duel in the Sun or Mackenna’s Gold, and if you haven’t read any good comic books lately, I recommend it highly.

REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:


THE V.I.P.S MGM, 1963. Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Louis Jourdan, Elsa Martinelli, Margaret Rutherford, Maggie Smith, Rod Taylor, Orson Welles, Linda Christian. Director: Anthony Asquith.

   When he’s at his best, Richard Burton is the type of actor that I can just watch and wonder in amazement: how does he do it? How does he convey such raw energy and emotion merely by the cadence of his voice, by his posture, and by the fire in his eyes?

   There are some quiet moments in MGM’s The V.I.P.s in which Burton gets to showcase his talent, scenes in which for all practical purposes he overshadows his co-stars Elizabeth Taylor and Louis Jourdan. But unfortunately, the overall script of this drama/romantic comedy hybrid never allows for Burton’s character to develop naturally. Indeed, the film’s halfheartedly optimistic ending – one I won’t give away in this review – ends up wasting Burton’s investment in developing a character who never gets to complete his story arc in a compellingly realistic manner.

   Burton portrays British millionaire Paul Andros, a man who believes that he can obtain whatever he wishes with his checkbook. And for a while at least, it seems that he has gotten what he wanted, including a beautiful actress as a wife. But Frances Andros (Elizabeth Taylor) has her own agenda. After over a decade of marriage, she is ready to leave him for the wastrel playboy Marc Champ drops Frances off at Heathrow, unaware that she is about to travel to New York to elope with Champselle.

   The film follows the conflict between the couple, as well as between Andros and Champselle, while they wait at the airport as a fog delays all flights out. Also stuck on the ground: an Australian-British businessman (Rod Taylor) and his love struck secretary (Maggie Smith); a tax dodging film producer (an oddly cast Orson Welles) and his newest star (Elsa Martinelli); and the The Duchess of Brighton (Margaret Rutherford), the latter a character introduced solely for the purpose of comic relief.

   There are some very good moments in the film. Most of them are in dialogue or in snippets of conversation when the uber schmaltzy Miklós Rózsa ceases to overwhelm what’s on screen.

   Burton and Taylor would later appear in numerous films together, but The V.I.P.s was their first. The movie apparently did quite well at the box office, largely helped by the hype generated for the forthcoming Cleopatra (1963). From the vantage point of 2017, however, The V.I.P.s has an Old World charm, a sense of cinematic innocence that would be shattered later in the decade with the arrival of the New Hollywood auteurs.

   The best moments in the film are those played with pathos and raw emotion (watch for the brief, but incredibly well constructed dialogue between Burton and Maggie Smith), but my sense is that the audiences who flocked to this one may have been more enthralled by the spectacle and the unforgivably maudlin ending than by the anger and fury projected by Burton’s character in the far better first hour of the movie.

REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:


GEORGIA. Miramax, 1995. Jennifer Jason Leigh, Mare Winningham, Ted Levine, Max Perlich, John Doe, John C. Reilly, Jimmy Witherspoon. Director: Ulu Grosbard.

   There are few onscreen performances that I can think of where an actor so intensely takes on the role of the character so as to completely disappear into it. Heath Ledger’s uncannily vicious Joker in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008) is one example. Jennifer Jason Leigh’s performance in Ulu Grosbard’s Georgia is another.

   In one of the best performances of an actress in 1990s indie cinema, Leigh portrays Sadie Flood, a tortured lost soul who wants nothing more than to be a singer like her talented and successful sister, Georgia (Mare Winningham). She portrays Sadie with such grit, pathos, and tortured anguish that it’s at times almost painful to watch. But I suppose that was the whole point of Grosbard’s direction and his approach to the project. What is more sad – pathetic, even — than an artist who has no real talent, but has all the demons often associated with the tortured musical genius. Alcoholism, heroin, unstable romantic relationships, Sadie’s got them all and more.

   Not Georgia though. Georgia is emotionally distant, cold even. She’s married to the laid back Jake (Ted Levine), lives in her childhood home, and has two young kids. The contrast between these two is evident from the get go.

   But sibling rivalry isn’t the real them of Georgia. The film’s real theme is talent. Who has it and who doesn’t? Can talent be gained or learned or are some people just born with it? Who is more authentic? A singer with pure raw emotion and no talent or a completely talented professional with a cold heart and no real passion?

   Grosbard, who worked extensively with Dustin Hoffman, Robert Duvall, Jon Voight, and Robert DeNiro, knows a thing or two about spotting and directing talent. But in Georgia, he leaves the question open-ended, culminating in a final sequence in which the two sisters, at completely different musical venues, perform their own renditions of Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times Come Again No More.”

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


VOICE IN THE WIND United Artists, 1944. Francis Lederer, Sigrid Gurie, J. Edward Bromberg, J. Carol Naish, Alexander Granach, David Cota, Howard Johnson, Herman Schumm, Louis Alberni and Martin Garralaga. Written and directed by Arthur Ripley.

   I was all set to watch something else after The Chase [reviewed here], but somehow the story of that film’s director, Arthur Ripley, stuck in my mind and I ended up watching this instead.

   It’s a film of deranged genius, as freaked-out as anything by Ulmer, Fuller, or Joseph H. Lewis. It’s also artsy, pretentious and incredibly cheap, but I got over that.

   There are some unsettling parallels here. It’s about refugees from war-torn Europe who want to get into the U.S. but have to settle for the Island of Guadalupe. They are victimized by the crews of “murder boats” who promise to smuggle them to the U.S. then rob them and dump them at sea.

   As if all this didn’t sound familiar enough, there’s a flashback to a lavish military parade in occupied Czechoslovakia, and a Nazi spin doctor explaining how a concert selection of Czech music was actually a tribute to their German liberators — before arresting the pianist.

   The star of this thing is suave, sophisticated Francis Lederer, and he spends most of it as a crazy mute, staring wildly into space. Quite a change from his usual air of slightly sleazy worldliness. As the film opens, he rushes soaking wet into a tatty waterfront bar, struggles to speak, then just sits at an old piano and begins playing classical music.

   Flashbacks eventually reveal that he was once a renowned classical pianist in Prague, until the Nazis marched in and began their program of cultural unity. When he plays Smetana’s “Moldau” (Google this and have a listen if you don’t know it off-hand), he’s arrested by the Gestapo and tortured until his mind snaps. In a rather unlikely moment he escapes on his way to a concentration camp, and a few scenes later he’s working on the crew of a murder boat.

    Which brings us up to the present (I think) where it seems he torched the murder boat and now his erstwhile co-workers are trying to decide whether to kill him or not. These marauders are a colorful lot, including Alexander Granach, who thinks it’s bad luck to murder a madman, J. Carrol Naish, who thirsts for revenge, and spaced-out David Cota, who wouldn’t mind murdering anyone at all, but likes Lederer’s piano-playing.

   I think this is what makes Voice work: Ripley’s loving attention to his characters, from Lederer’s tormented soul to Louis Alberni’s comically cheerful bartender, and even the Nazi torturer. They all take moments to be real characters, and it lifts the film from allegory to genuine drama.

   With its non-linear plot and non-existent continuity, Voice in the Wind is certainly not for all tastes, but I found it more like an experience than a movie — and one I won’t forget.

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


PORT OF SHADOWS. Les Films Osso, France, 1938. Original title: Le quai des brumes. Jean Gabin, Michele Morgan and Michel Simon. Screenplay by Jacques Prevert, from a novel by Pierre Dumarchais. Directed by Marcel Carné.

   A dark, poetic film that looks forward to film noir and the later novels of David Goodis.

   Jean Gabin, the French Bogart-before-there-was Bogart, plays an army deserter heading for Le Havre, looking to find a ship to flee the country. What he finds are a stray dog that adopts him on the highway into town, and a lot of have-nots willing to share their meager fortunes with him, and discourse Goodis-style on life, love and dreams.

   Also hanging around town are a few local hoods in some kind of scrape with a shady store-keeper and his daughter (Michele Morgan, looking more radiant and lovelier here than in any of her American films) and it’s not long before Gabin and his mutt find themselves in the proverbial thick of things as he tries to understand the tangled relationships and get out of town.

   I’ll say up front that this thing is awfully contrived; characters turn up in unlikely places with no more reason for being there than to move the plot along. But I’ll also say that Director Carné handles it so gracefully one doesn’t want to notice.

   The small-time gangsters are evoked with just the right measure of terse absurdity, their put-on hard-boiled act melting away at Gabin’s genuine toughness, and the winos and poets fill in the background vividly, talking with that awesome redundancy one finds in dark artists like Woolrich, Goodis and Jim Thompson.

   The outcome is as pleasingly phony as the rest of it, but I have to say Carné rings in a moving surprise at the very end. The final image of the little dog walking down a highway to nowhere in particular is one that will stay in my mind long after whole other movies are forgotten.

REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:


VERBOTEN! RKO Radio Pictures, 1958/Columbia Pictures, 1959. James Best, Susan Cummings, Tom Pittman, Paul Dubov. Screenwriter-director: Samuel Fuller.

   Highly uneven and overly didactic, Samuel Fuller’s Verboten! is a quirky, stagey film about an American GI in Occupied Germany at the end of the Second World War. After he loses two of his colleagues and he himself gets injured in combat, Sergeant David Brent (James Best) finds himself the houseguest of an anti-Nazi German girl (Susan Cummings) who nurses him back to health. To no one’s surprise — certainly not to this viewer — Brent falls in love with his German companion. But since marriage and fraternization between the two is forbidden — verboten! — Brent decides to leave the Army and to serve in the civilian occupation of Germany.

   Little does he know that his wife’s friend Bruno Eckhart (Tom Pittman) and her younger brother are both secretly working with the Werwolf, the underground pro-Nazi “resistance.” Much of the movie is filled with heavy-handed dialogue about the difference between ordinary Germans and Nazis and the ways in which Hitler manipulated the German people into following him.

   Some of this is effective; a lot of it is over the top and actually serves to take away from the potency of the subject manner. There is, however, a stunningly effective sequence in which Eckhart attempts to rally a coterie of young, angry men to the Nazi cause in the rubble of occupied Germany. Pittman, who was a compelling screen presence, tragically died in a car crash in late 1958 at the young age of 26 several months before Verboten! was released in theaters.

   Fuller, always a maverick, utilizes Beethoven when showing the Americans in combat and Wagner for the Germans. That aesthetic choice, along with the choice to insert highly graphic newsreel footage from the concentration camps in the film, has the unusual effect of giving the entire movie a semi-documentary feel in which fiction and fact are intertwined in a decidedly ambitious, but ultimately mediocre war film. Verboten! is a movie wants to say a lot, to shout it from the rooftops, but does so in such a frenetic manner that the message gets drowned out by its own unfortunate shrillness.

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