Wednesday, January 5, 2022

The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes

As the opening credits of Billy Wilder's The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes roll, the personal effects of John Watson (Colin Blakely) are examined. Among them are letters from Watson to his heirs. One of those letters talks about his days with Sherlock Holmes (Robert Stephens).

Wilder was a Holmesian and had tried unsuccessfully twice before to make an adaptation. (A musical, no less!) Now finally given the opportunity, he and I.A.L. Diamond initially came up with a film that ran over three hours long. It's this heavy editing that makes the final product clunky; you can tell that it's missing something in its flow.

While not as strong as prior Wilder-Diamond collaborations, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes has a certain charm to it. The film serves as both a parody and a deconstruction of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's most famed (and most personally loathed) creation. It's little wonder it served as inspiration for Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss when they made Sherlock.

That said, the film doesn't have Wilder's particular touch to it. Lacking the sharp cynicism and sardonic wit usually found in the director's work, it also has elements that are out of place for both Wilder and Doyle. Still, there's a particular amusement amid the oddity.

The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes may not be top-tier Wilder but seeing Hollywood was beginning a new movement, he shows that he's not going to retire like his contemporaries just yet. (He'd make four more movies after this.) That being said, it was clear that he was becoming old hat. Oh, well; nobody's perfect.

My Rating: ***1/2

Tuesday, January 4, 2022

Winchester '73

Anthony Mann's Winchester '73 starts off like your standard western: Lin McAdam (James Stewart) and "High-Spade" Frankie Wilson (Millard Mitchell) pass through Dodge City while on the trail of Dutch Henry Brown (Stephen McNally). Lin and Dutch compete in a shooting contest, where Lin wins the titular rifle (and Dutch promptly steals it). And that's where the story kicks off.

A simple premise, yes, but that's not the point of Winchester '73. As Mann demonstrated with Raw Deal two years before, it's more about the characters in the story, how their interactions shift the narrative. It was something Mann was good at depicting.

Stewart -- now in the second stage of his career -- drifts away from his idealistic screen image in favor of something a little darker. As he showed previously with It's a Wonderful Life and Rope, Stewart displays a cynical streak in Lin. And as later shown in Vertigo, he also displays a menacing one.

And Winchester '73 is photographed beautifully, thanks to cinematographer William H. Daniels. Hot off the heels of an Oscar win for The Naked City the year before, he goes from the looming buildings of New York City to the open outdoors of the western frontier. You genuinely feel that you're there.

Winchester '73 brought back the dying genre with a vengeance. Other westerns throughout the decade would have that nasty streak coursing through them, a morality more in focus than in years before. And a lot of that can be traced back to Mann and his film.

My Rating: ****1/2

Monday, January 3, 2022

Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?

You know how there are some movies that even after all these years still click. Their stars have long passed on, the politics of their day have shifted, and some elements aren't as risque or daring as they once were but regardless, they click. (Maybe Nietzsche was right about time being a flat circle.)

Frank Tashlin's Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? -- while deviating from the premise of George Axelrod's original stage play -- is such an example. In the sixty-five years since its release, its satirical portrayal of celebrity and fan culture is all the more prevalent thanks to the advent of social media. (Good thing Tashlin isn't around to see fiction become reality.)

Being a former animator, Tashlin's background is very apparent throughout Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? With enough visual gags that wouldn't look out of place in your standard cartoon, it shows that he was one of the more unique directors working at the time. It's little wonder that Tashlin was a mentor to Jerry Lewis.

On a similar note, there's enough fourth wall-breaking in Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? to warrant calling a mason afterwards. Be it towards the stars' private lives or their professional ones, Tashlin's script spares no expense. (Man, comedies from the 1950s were something else, weren't they?)

Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? starts to lose steam by the third act but Tashlin and the cast make it work nonetheless. Being made when sex comedies were becoming commonplace, it has the distinction of being just a touch classier than later titles. (Faint praise, granted.) Hey, the sexual revolution (and the MPAA's fruition) was only a few years away.

My Rating: ****

Sunday, January 2, 2022

Dragonwyck

There's no denying that Joseph L. Mankiewicz boasted quite the illustrious career in Hollywood. Be it as a writer, producer, or director, he and brother Herman had stories to tell and succeeded in their endeavors. It's little wonder that the name "Mankiewicz" still means something in that town.

By the time Mankiewicz made his directing debut with Dragonwyck, he had been well-established for several years. (He got the gig because original director Ernst Lubitsch fell ill.) And boy, you'd never know this was his first time directing as you watch it. (Granted, he also co-wrote the script so already he had an idea of how the film flowed.)

Bearing elements reminiscent of Rebecca six years earlier, Dragonwyck is the kind of film that Hollywood -- barring Crimson Peak, perhaps -- doesn't make anymore. And that's a shame, really; it's a genre that has a little bit of everything (with more focus on some elements than others) and it's a solid deviation of the standard romance. (Because -- let's be honest -- romance itself is more complex than what Hollywood has us believe.)

Having more screentime together here than in their previous collaborations (Laura and Leave Her to Heaven), Gene Tierney and Vincent Price have excellent chemistry together. And Price -- after years of bit parts and supporting roles -- finally has a meaty role to sink his teeth into. (It was originally going to be Gregory Peck but he dropped out after Lubitsch did.) Makes you wonder had he gotten more roles like this throughout his career.

Dragonwyck is one of those few directorial debuts that works after all these years. With stunning cinematography by Arthur C. Miller and a chilling score from Arthur Newman, it just proves that Hollywood has been playing it safe for too long. Take more risks, Hollywood, like you did before the MPAA came to fruition.

My Rating: ****1/2

Friday, December 31, 2021

Film and Book Tally 2021

Well, this year of viewings and readings was slowed down a bit by me wanting to focus more on fiction writing (as well as helping out around the house). Still, I manage to squeeze some time in for these. Anyway, you know the drill. (Heads up: it's not an impressive list.)

Thursday, December 31, 2020

Film And Book Tally 2020

Well, this year started off promising...and then coronavirus happened. But I try to stay positive in light of such situations; for instance, I got some reading in because of the quarantine but even then, it fell short of my goal. Still, take what you get, y'know? Anyway, my year-end list (a bit shorter than I would like) starts after the jump:

Monday, September 28, 2020

City Streets

Nan Cooley (Sylvia Sidney) of Rouben Mamoulian's City Streets leads a charmed life. Her racketeer father ensures a comfortable life for her and she gets involved with circus sharpshooter The Kid (Gary Cooper). But then she gets sent to jail for being an accessory to murder, and Nan wants nothing to do with the criminal life...which is a problem because The Kid has since gotten into the business.

In contrast to Mamoulian's more lavish productions like Queen Christina and Blood and Sand, City Streets is more bare-bones to the director's other works. That's not to disregard it, far from it. If anything, we get to see glimpses of what would become fixtures in his later career.

Similar to what Mamoulian would do with Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, he depicts the duality of both Nan and The Kid's personalities in the life of crime. She seems fine with a sense of normalcy after her prison stint whereas he fully embraces the thrill of criminal behavior after first balking it. But what will this shift in attitudes mean for the couple?

Also on display in City Streets is a sort of misogyny that becomes more prevalent in later films in the genre. A moll becomes blind with jealousy as her man blatantly makes passes at Nan (who isn't interested) but her anger is directed solely at the other woman. Frustratingly, she's the only other female character of note in the film. Still, better than Nan being the token woman in a male-dominated film.

City Streets is surprisingly seedier than other genre titles of the era. In comparison to those starring James Cagney, there's an obvious emptiness in the opulence on display. (Material goods to make up for emotional vacancy?) And Mamoulian would feature that in later works too.

My Rating: ****1/2

Saturday, September 26, 2020

Love Letters

The tone of William Dieterle's Love Letters is established in its first scene as Alan Quinton (Joseph Cotten) writes a letter for his friend Roger Morland (Robert Sully). Alan loathes the idea of writing love letters to a girl neither man has met, feeling that she'll fall in love with the letters than the actual man. It's particularly jarring since the film is written by Ayn Rand. (Yes, you read that right.)

If that sounds familiar, that's because it should. Rand had deviated from the source novel in favor of making Love Letters more of a modern-day telling of Cyrano de Bergerac. But in stark contrast to the events of Edmond Rostand's play, the aftermath of Alan writing in Roger's name has far dire consequences than anyone could've imagined that's darker than what usually came out of Hollywood at the time.

Similar to Portrait of Jennie -- the next collaboration between Dieterle, Cotten, and Jennifer Jones -- it has Jones' character having an otherworldly nature to her. Her Singleton has no memory of her past, only faint glimmers of what has transpired. It's when we learn of her history that we learn how dark her past is.

But in contrast to Portrait of Jennie, Love Letters is decidedly more cynical in nature. Being a survivor of war, Alan is just tired of what the world is capable of inflicting. It's when he meets Singleton that he finds a light in this dark time in his life.

Love Letters is more pessimistic than other romance titles of the era but at the same time, it's somehow more realistic. Love is far from being a panacea (as Hollywood likes to claim) but with enough compassion and empathy towards the right person, the weight of some of your problems lightens. (Still seek out proper treatment regardless.)

My Rating: ****1/2

Raw Deal

The narration from Pat Regan (Claire Trevor) in Anthony Mann's Raw Deal shows an undying loyalty to Joe Sullivan (Dennis O'Keefe) as she helps him escape from prison. But when his caseworker Ann Martin (Marsha Hunt) becomes a begrudging accomplice (they need another getaway car), it then drips with jealousy as Pat fears the presence of the other woman.

If anything, Raw Deal is less about a criminal on the run as it is about the people they've encountered. Be it the women that love him or the men that betrayed him, the film shows how those that encounter Joe invariably have their lives changed. And more often than not, it isn't for the better.

Along with westerns, film noir was the genre where Mann thrived. As he would do with Side Street soon after, he shows a keen eye towards the darkness within humanity. Some become resigned to the fact that illegal activity is how they'll survive in the world while others fully embrace this new life.

And boy, does Raw Deal live up to its title. Its morality is a murky gray at best, neither black nor white. John Alton's cinematography exemplifies this atmosphere, the shadows playing as much of a role as the actors. (The fact that Alton was recognized only once by AMPAS -- though thankfully won -- is something of an insult when it comes to cinematography.)

Raw Deal marked a decided change in how Hollywood told stories. Titles in the years to come had a streak of danger to them, their way of seeing how far they can push the envelope. And Mann was the one who instigated this shift. (Just look at the westerns he made with James Stewart a few years later.)

My Rating: ****1/2

Friday, September 25, 2020

The Mortal Storm

Frank Borzage's The Mortal Storm begins innocuously enough. The family and students of professor Viktor Roth (Frank Morgan) celebrate his birthday. During a small gathering that evening, his student Fritz Marberg (Robert Young) announces his engagement to Viktor's daughter Freya (Magaret Sullavan). And Adolf Hitler is sworn in as chancellor of Germany.

Like a switch, the tone of The Mortal Storm gets darker. The respect for Professor Roth turns into contempt as his peers and students fully embrace Germany's new rule. Freya breaks off her engagement to Fritz, preferring the company of family friend Martin Breitner (James Stewart). And the small town they reside in begins to strain amid political tensions.

To no surprise, The Mortal Storm resulted in MGM's entire library being banned in Germany despite the studio making it vague about where the film is actually set. That being said, it was certainly daring to tackle the political atmosphere of the time. You certainly don't see anyone do something that daring nowadays.

In contrast to his earlier film Three Comrades, Borzage keeps the political message of the source novel in The Mortal Storm. Again, to make this during that time period was brazen to say the least. As Casablanca would do three years later, it effectively showed that Nazis were (and frustratingly still are) nothing more than fearmongering bullies.

The Mortal Storm is unnerving to watch eighty years later knowing that such attitudes still exist in some people. To judge someone on aspects they have no say in (i.e., race, gender, heritage) is far from the best way for society to run. What would future generations think of such backward thinking?

My Rating: ****