Films: Drama/Romance


REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:

GRAHAM GREENE – The Third Man. Novella. Viking Press, US, hardcover, 1950. First published in the UK; included in The Third Man and The Fallen Idol (Heinemann 1950). Novelization of the screenplay.

THE THIRD MAN. British Lion Films, 1949. Joseph Cotten, Valli, Orson Welles, (Harry Lime), Trevor Howard, Bernard Lee. Director: Director: Carol Reed.

   Carol Reed’s film of THE THIRD MAN surfaced on my to-be-watched-again pile, so I decided to do a thorough job of it, and re-read Graham Greene’s novel (written at the same time as his screenplay) and Charles Drazin’s study of the film, IN SEARCH OF THE THIRD MAN (Limelight, 2000).

   Drazin’s book recounts the events in 1948-9 surrounding the making and marketing of THE THIRD MAN, and it reads like a novel, with director Carol Reed as the hero, writer Graham Greene as his weak-willed sidekick, producers David O. Selznick and Alexander Korda as comic relief, and Orson Welles as the villain of the piece.

   Reading this, one is surprised at how much of the film was simply a mater of convenience: Selznick, the prestigious producer of GONE WITH THE WIND, had money tied up in England that had to be spent there, so — with appropriate flourishes and ballyhoo — he formed a partnership with England’s Alexander Korda, a filmmaker of approximately equal splendour, who had money tied up in central Europe and needed a hit.

   Korda had known some success with Carol Reed and Graham Greene (FALLEN IDOL, 1948) and prevailed upon Reed to write a screenplay set in contemporary Vienna so he could spend his money there. For his part, Graham Greene had a story idea sitting around — something about a man probing the murder of a friend and getting some nasty surprises — and he saw a trip to Vienna as an excellent opportunity to cheat on his wife, so he was only too happy to accept the assignment.

   While Greene was in Vienna learning about sewers and Ferris wheels, Korda and Selznick spoke often and loudly to the press about their forthcoming masterpiece, hinting at a cast that might include Cary Grant as Harry Lime, Jimmy Stewart as his duped friend, and Ingrid Bergman as the woman they loved. Or Jennifer Jones. Or Ralph Richardson. What Selznick ended up putting out was two contract players he was paying anyway, Joseph Cotten and Alida Valli, while Korda financed the logistics by selling rights to release his old pictures in post-war Europe, found Orson Welles in need of money for OTHELLO, and signed him up — whereupon Welles proceeded to behave as obstreperously as possible (according to Drazin) showing up weeks late in Vienna, then refusing to act in the sewers, or much of anyplace else, really, requiring extensive use of a double on almost all the location shooting.

   So what you had here was a much-heralded mega-film made on hand-shakes, promises and pretense, and the wonder is that it turned out so damgood. Greene’s script is sharp, suspenseful and cleverly turned, the performances are real and moving — particularly Trevor Howard and Bernard Lee as a couple of weary MPs — and there’s a fascinating visual tension between Carol Reed’s carefully-composed images and the riotous look of a city that has been “bombed about a bit.”

   Characters go about dressed in elegant scraps of ill-fitting apparel, walking past palaces and rubble, and the dichotomy extends even to the memorable scene on the Ferris wheel, where Orson Welles speaks of death, taxes and heartburn while Joseph Cotten prepares himself to sell out or get sold.

   As for the book itself, it was planned by Korda and Selznick to be marketed in conjunction with the film for added publicity, and they thought that a rather neat trick in those early days before merchandising and product placement. And again, the wonder is that a book written as a matter of convenience should turn out so readable. Greene’s prose is crisp, witty, and not a bit rushed, and though the crux of the story is in no way original, he handles it well enough to make it seem fresh.

   I should note there’s an important difference between the ending of the book and the movie. Without giving it away, I may say Korda and Selznick thought the heroine’s action unrealistic for a woman who had been through what she had. They were wrong. As I read THE THIRD MAN I was impressed by the recurring theme of characters who have survived a war trying to put their lives back together, and Greene’s ending seemed to me a rather touching tribute to the resilience of the human spirit. And heart.


REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:         


THIEF OF HEARTS. Paramount, 1984. Steven Bauer, Barbara Wiliams, John Getz, David Caruso, and George Wendt. Written & directed by Douglas Day Stewart.

   A lush romantic fantasy dressed up as a crime film in the bright-pastel Miami Vice mode. So well done that you don’t mistake it for an actual crime film, it’s highly enjoyable on its own terms. And while I will discuss the plot in some detail here, I have to say I’m revealing no more than the original release trailer did.

   Hunky Steven Bauer, he of the chiseled face and biceps, plays a cat burglar extraordinaire, grown rich from preying on the very wealthy. So rich that he can afford a mega-warehouse apartment in San Francisco, a boat at the marina, a fancy sports car…

   You get the idea. This character is to be taken no more seriously than Raffles, Arsene Lupin, The Lone Wolf, or any of those International Jewel thieves who were once played by real luminaries like John Barrymore, Melvyn Douglas, or William Powell.

   Getting back to Bauer, though, he starts the film with a raid on an ultra-chic condo owned by John Getz and Barbara Williams, best-selling children’s book author and trendy interior designer, respectively. Writer-Director Stewart generates a certain amount of suspense here, and then…

   And then things take a turn for the Romantic. Amid the loot from the condo is a lock box containing Williams’ private journals, wherein she keeps her innermost thoughts and fantasies—for the millennials out there, that’s what folks used to do with their private thoughts and fantasies before there was Facebook.

   Anyway, Bauer reads the journals, becomes intrigued by the inner woman and sets out to seduce the outer one – a task made easier because he knows which buttons to push, and because her husband is a self-absorbed dullard. Even his publisher (a nice character part by George Wendt) says so.

   The seduction is carried out among the luxurious trappings one associates with old Ross Hunter films (All That Heaven Allows, Back Street, etc.) and if you can enjoy the long romantic scenes, the opulent music and gratuitous nudity (I could and did) time passes pleasantly till things come to a head.

   Getz (If you remember the actor as the nice red-neck bartender in Blood Simple you won’t recognize him here.) awakens to his wife’s new obsession, senses that Bauer is a phony, and sets out to investigate. At the same time, Bauer falls deep in love with Williams but finds himself emotionally crippled because he can’t open up to her. And for her part, Williams becomes increasingly put off by this man with something to hide who has invaded her life by way of her dreams.

   By now you may get the idea that this fantasy romance touches on some very real and complex emotions. It does, and it also works in some nice plot twists, as Bauer’s partner-in-crime (a very young, lean and repellant David Caruso) sees that it’s time to move on and wants to feather their retirement with one last big job: another raid on Getz and Williams’ condo.

   Which leads to a scene that actually got me a little misty, and I won’t spoil it for you. And to a full-blooded romantic conclusion I enjoyed and didn’t buy for a minute.

   Thief of Hearts is very much stuck in the 1980s, with the pounding music, artsy editing and garish décor – what Williams does by way of “decorating” Bauer’s apartment seems like a joke in the worst possible taste — but I found it easy to get around all that and love it for the Rom-Fantasy it is.

   And you might, too.


REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:


WORKING GIRLS. Paramount Pictures, 1931. Judith Wood, Dorothy Hall, Charles ‘Buddy’ Rogers, Paul Lukas, Stuart Erwin, Frances Dee. Director: Dorothy Arzner.

   A thoroughly enjoyable pre-Code comedy/drama, Working Girls may not have all that much to say to contemporary audiences, but has a lot to say about the time and place in which it was filmed. Directed by Dorothy Arzner, the first woman to direct a talkie, this Paramount Pictures release tells the story of two sisters from small-town Indiana as they try to balance work and love in New York City.

   June (Judith Wood) and Mae (Dorothy Hall) Sharpe arrive in Manhattan and take up residence at a woman’s boarding house. Within the first day or so, they are out and about looking for employment and for men to date. June ends up working for a Western Union telegraph office and dating a saxophone player (Stuart Erwin).

   Mae, on the other hand, finds work as a secretary for Dr. Joseph Von Schrader (Paul Lukas), who proceeds to fall in love with his much younger employee. Mae, naturally, doesn’t reciprocate the affection. Instead, she’s got her eyes on Boyd Wheeler (Charles “Buddy” Rogers), a Harvard graduate working in a Manhattan law firm who seems to really care for her.

   Or does he? It would seem that he’s got a fiancée from the wealthy suburbs who he plans to marry soon and that he is just using Mae for a good time.

   While I won’t tell you how the story turns out, I will let you know that Working Girls is simply a fun movie to watch. It’s loaded with sexual innuendo, has some great comedic moments, and benefits greatly from Judith Wood’s hard-boiled, cynical character who has a quick wit as well as stunning looks.

   For contemporary audiences who are all too familiar with romantic comedy tropes, it may not seem like there’s much new under the sun here, but bear in mind this was filmed in 1931. And if you watch it with that fact very much in mind, you’ll surely find a lot to appreciate in this lesser known pre-Code film.


REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:         


NORTHWEST RANGERS. MGM, 1942. James Craig, William Lundigan, Patricia Dane, John Carradine, Jack Holt, Keenan Wynn and Grant Withers. Screenplay by Gordon Kahn and David Lang, story by Arthur Caesar. Directed by Joseph M. Newman (as Joe Newman.)

   MGM’s notorious Manhattan Melodrama, re-made with Mounties.

   Yeah, well, okay so it’s Mounties. I mean if that’s what the kids are doing these days…

   Actually, Northwest Rangers ain’t all that bad except in comparison. It has all the gloss MGM lavished even on its B-pictures, John Carradine and Grant Withers make a fine pair of villains with plenty of screen time, Jack Holt is tough as ever, and Keenan Wynn does well with rather less as comic relief.

   If you’re not familiar with the story, you’ll recognize it right off: two pals, orphaned as boys, are adopted by doughty old Mountie Sergeant Jack Holt. One (William Lundigan) grows up to be a doughty young Mountie, the other (James Craig) makes his way as a gambler and general rakehell, and with all of Canada to bounce around in, they just naturally come into conflict with each other when Craig wins the local gambling hall from John Carradine, and his girl falls for Lundigan. Small world, ain’t it?

   Director Joseph M. Newman had his moments, and he handles this predestined obscurity with more class than it really deserves. The problem here is with the leads.

   In the 1950s, James Craig matured into a pretty good actor in bad-guy parts. But in the 40s he was MGM’s back-up for Clark Gable — or maybe for Gable’s 1st-string back-up — and all he does here is grin and try to look roguish, an effort clearly beyond him at this stage.

   As for William Lundigan, well, he was always William Lundigan.

   With these two carrying the story – unlike William Powell and Clark Gable in Manhattan Melodrama — it’s hard to give a damn, and about the nicest thing you can say about Northwest Rangers is that it passes the time easily and nobody famous got shot leaving the theater.


REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:         


LES MAUDITS. Ciné Sélection, France, 1947. Released in the US as The Damned (DisCina International ,1948). Marcel Dalio, Henri Vidal, Florence Marley, Fosco Giachetti, Jo Dest and Michel Auclair. Written by Victor Alexander and René Clément. Directed by René Clément.

   You probably don’t know about this film unless you caught it on TCM a year or so ago, and more’s the pity, because it’s what cineastes call A Real Grabber: a story of suspense and survival right up there with Wages of Fear.

   The Damned of the title are a group of high-ranking Nazis, well-connected sympathizers and their bed-warmers, slipping out of Germany via U-boat — ostensibly to carry on the fight from South America, but some have plans that have nothing to do with the Reich.

   When the General’s mistress is injured, Henri Vidal gets into the mix as a doctor kidnapped from a French port and carried off with the rest. Quickly realizing they plan to kill him, Vidal diagnoses a sore throat as a contagious illness to make himself less dispensable, and the result is a claustrophobic drama of manners as the Nazis and their sycophants quarrel and murder, and Vidal schemes to stay alive.

   Writer-Director René Clément paces the whole thing skillfully, alternating the cramped U-Boat conflicts with scenes above decks and on shore before it can get too confining. And he takes time to let his characters develop as he rings in plot devices like the fall of Berlin and the reactions to it. Like:

    “If the Fuhrer were really dead, they’d never let them announce it on the Radio.”

    “So he must be alive because they say he’s dead?”

   In fact, a great deal of the interest here comes from the collapse of Germany and the efforts of the Nazis to dodge falling rubble. In South America they find their bought-and-paid-for friends hard to locate and unwilling to help. When they find a German Tanker ship and refuel, word of the armistice causes a mass desertion. And yet – this is the gripping part — they react with the steely viciousness that got them where they are, leading to some unsettlingly visceral moments. And at the same time, Vidal’s captive Doctor Guilbert keeps plotting his own escape, giving the film a sense of progress and anchoring us to a character we can identify with.

   The result is a film of complexity and tension, with unexpected twists and depth of writing that keeps one watching. Early on I likened this to Wages of Fear for its suspense and sensitivity, and the comparison is apt. This is a classic to watch and remember.


HEADLINE SHOOTER. RKO Radio Pictures, 1933. William Gargan. Frances Dee, Ralph Bellamy, Jack LaRue, Gregory Ratoff, Wallace Ford, Robert Benchley, Betty Furness. Director: Otto Brower.

   William Gargan plays one of those old-fashioned newsreel cameramen whose lives consist 100 percent of their jobs and nothing but their jobs. A chance encounter with an equally scoop-conscious society writer (sob sister) played by Frances Dee (later Mrs. Joel McCrea) causes only sparks at first, but as it turns out, these are only partially nullified by the fact that Jane Mallory already has a fiancé back home in Mississippi. Take a look at the cast. You needn’t need me to tell you that Ralph Bellamy is the guy, and no, he’s not likely to keep Miss Mallory from slipping through his fingers.

   There are some comedy bits in this movie (such as Robert Benchley doing a short bit as the announcer of a beauty contest — over the radio), but what this short 60 minute film really is is nothing more (or less) than an entertaining romantic drama, set against a backdrop of newsreel footage of actual disasters: earthquakes, fires and floods. You might also guess, from seeing Jack Larue’s name in the credits, that there is a gangster subplot involved, one that tells Ralph Bellamy’s character more about his would-be wife’s true character than he wanted to know.

   I don’t think William Gargan had too many leading roles in the movies over the years, unless perhaps as a detective in charge of a murder mystery, and he seems out of place in this one. What Jane Mallory sees in Bill Allen is one those unexplained mysteries of life, I suppose. Otherwise this is a competently done melodrama that moves along quickly in very solid fashion.


Introduction: I have discovered something I did some 38 years ago and had totally forgotten about. A sizable chunk of Fatal Kiss #17, my DAPA-Em zine at the time, consisted of a diary of everything I watched on TV during the month of February 1981. This included movies watched on HBO as well as ordinary network shows. And naturally I’ve decided to share everything with you, warts (perhaps) and all. What will follow on this blog over time are not likely to be full-fledged reviews, but as I say, commentary written many years ago by me in diary format.

         February 1.

STARTING OVER. (1979) Burt Reynolds, Jill Clayburgh, Candice Bergen. [Movie watched on HBO.]

   Moderately interesting. As I understand it, Reynolds thought he should have won an Oscar for his performance in this movie, or should have been nominated, or something. He plays a confused sort of guy who can’t make up his mind between is ex-wife (Bergen) who as the movie starts is in the process of divorcing him, or his new girl friend (Clayburgh).

   He and his ex-wife still get along together — in bed — but only for a little while. His girl friend is sensitive about her relationships with divorced men, and rightfully so.

   In all truth, Reynolds shows a little more acting ability than has been required of him in most of the parts he plays, but I still think he’s playing himself again. Nothing wrong with that. John Wayne did it for years.

   Rated R, apparently for the occasionally foul language (“Tommy, she said the ‘F’ word!), and for the see-through blouse Candice Bergen wears at one point, as she’s trying to win Burt back.

NO PLACE TO LAND. Republic Pictures, 1958. John Ireland, Mari Blanchard, Gail Russell, Jackie Coogan, Robert Middleton. Produced & directed by Albert C. Gannaway.

   The cast of this little known noir film is ultra fine, the story is OK, but the problem is — although it does have its moments — the filming leaves a lot to be desired, to put it mildly. Produced late in Republic Films’ existence, the budget was tight, and it shows.

   It begins by focusing in on the swiveling gyrations of Mari Blancherd’s hips as she dances to the sound of a jukebox in a low-rent dive in the heart of produce country. Spurned by ace cropduster John Ireland, her character impulsively marries landowner Robert Middleton, which she regents immediately. Overweight, ugly and insanely jealous, Middleton is a petty villain without many equals.

   It is Ireland she continues to lust for, in spite of the marriage license now in her name. Fleeing her amorous advances (and wishing to avoid a confrontation with Middleton), Ireland finds a job on another farm quickly, and almost as quickly takes up with Gail Russell, the wife of its owner, who spends most of his time working off a drunk — or building up to one.

   You may thing this is enough of a plot, but there is more. Ireland’s assistant, Jackie Coogan, is injured saving their plane while in the air, and the diagnosis is not good. He will be blind in two months, the doctor says.

   It’s quite a mixture of story lines, the most prominent portion of which is Mari Blanchard’s role as one of the most fatal of femme fatales you will ever see this early in film history — bedding and romancing everyone in this film with pants on — or off, as the case may be — except for Ireland, who refuses her, and Middleton, whom she refuses, even though she married him. Before the story ends, more than one person will have died as a result.

   It’s quite a tale, and only its low budget production values keeps me from recommending it completely and totally. Of especial note is Gail Russell’s low key but still very effective appearance in this film. She was to make but one more movie before her untimely death. What a beautiful and talented actress she was!


WEB OF DANGER. Republic Pictures, 1947, Adele Mara, Bill Kennedy, Damian O’Flynn, Richard Loo, Victor Sen Yung, Roy Barcroft. Director: Philip Ford.

   In spite of the title, Web of Danger is not a crime film at all, and to tell you the truth, I can’t even tell you what the title means. In a small, rather slight degree, you might possibly call this a thriller, but since the danger caused a bridge-building crew by flooding far upriver, except for one specific scene, any suspense that’s conjured up is more in the mind of the viewer than from anything seen onscreen.

   What it is, more than anything else, is a romantic drama, with the supervisor and foreman of the crew (Bill Kennedy and Damian O’Flynn) fighting it out (literally) over the hand of waitress Peg Mallory (Adele Mara) — as if she had no say in the matter.

   Except for the accidental death of one of the crew members (see above), the story plays out in light and frothy fashion. Another exception is the rescue of the families whose homes are threatened by the levees about to break, which is perfunctory and anticlimactic. The part that’s light and frothy is well done, though!


REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:


NOTORIOUS. RKO Radio Pictures, 1946. Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman, Claude Rains, Louis Calhern. Screenplay: Ben Hecht. Director: Alfred Hitchcock.

       A lot of ink has been spilled on interpreting Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious, the romantic thriller starring Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman. Some critics have posited that the film is primarily a romance in which love, despite numerous obstacles, ultimately triumphs at the end; others that it belongs in that every amorphous cinematic category known as “film noir.”

   Others have focused less on the film’s plot and more on its signature visual style and the manner by which Hitchcock creates and refines the very language of cinema. The one through which he is able to tell the story through both the placement of inanimate objects and the imposition of meaning to them.

   All of the above, I think, are valid ways in which to interpret Notorious. I personally have my doubts whether this particular RKO release should be considered a proper film noir. Yes, it’s on the more cynical side of things and its subject matter – in which the U.S. government through the persona of one of its agents, T. R. Devlin (Cary Grant), essentially prostitutes Alicia, a deeply damaged young woman and the daughter of a convicted Nazi spy (Ingrid Bergman), persuading her to infiltrate a group of Nazis in postwar Brazil – is obviously less pure than many of the morale boosting films put out by the major studios during the Second World War. But it’s a far cry from the cynical and gritty lower budget crime dramas that are now rightly considered films noir.

   For me, the film is essentially about losing and winning, both on the personal level (romance) and on the political (thriller). It’s the universalism of this subject matter that makes it compelling to viewers seventy some odd years after it first premiered. The plot, as Hitchcock himself agreed, boils down to a man who is forced to choose between his emotions (his love for Bergman’s character) and his duty to his country.

   More significantly, it’s about Devlin’s desire to win at nearly any cost. He wants to win Alicia over his competitor, the Nazi industrialist (Claude Rains) whom she has been spying on for Uncle Sam. He wants his country to win over the Nazis even after the war has ended. There’s rarely a moment in the film in which Devlin ceases to want to win on both a romantic and political level. There is no “dark night of the soul” for Devlin in which he questions his ultimate desires and goals.

   If we are to see Alicia as the film’s main character – and I think she is – then the question becomes whether Notorious is fundamentally all that different from other motion pictures about women who want to change their lives. As the film’s title indicates, she’s notorious. She drinks and has numerous love affairs with men. Devlin knows this. Yet he’s deeply conflicted about it, which is why he is alternatively madly in love with her and deeply cruel to her.

   By the end, she thinks that she has changed, that she has found her white knight in Devlin who carries her down the stairs and out of harm’s way. But no one realistically thinks that this is a fairy tale ending. Once the mission is complete and Devlin realizes he has won against the Nazi villain in two ways, will he want to stick around to “make things work,” as modern family therapists would say, or will he be poised for the next assignment?

   I should note that I recently watched the brand new Criterion Collection blu-ray release of this Hitchcock classic. There are some truly worthwhile supplemental features including an illuminating 2009 documentary about the film in which the political context at the time of the film’s writing and release is discussed by leading film critics and historians.

   Of note is the fact that soon after the Nazi concentration camps were liberated, Hitchcock directed a short documentary film about the horrors discovered there. This was one of his main completed projects before working directing Notorious, which of course features Nazi industrialists who have relocated to South America after the war’s end.

   In 1946, the Cold War hadn’t yet made West Germany a vital ally to the United States so Nazis, rather than the communists, were still the villains. It’s doubtful whether such a film would have been of as much interest to studio executives had screenwriter Ben Hecht and Hitchcock pitched the film in 1950.


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