Review: Written on the Wind (1956)

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Douglas Sirk’s films are always lovely to look at, almost to the point of making you sick. The panoramas swell with color. They’re too perfect. The sets are gaudy — the cars the same — to the point of almost being unsightly in their over the top artificiality. Try to find any amount of authenticity and you will most likely fail.

The people within the frames are even more glamorous than the rooms they fill and arguably more colorful.  Namely the dashing Rock Hudson, a Sirkian mainstay and then Lauren Bacall, Dorothy Malone, and Robert Stack, all Hollywood talents playing character types with names and dialogue straight out of a trashy romance novella. We wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s exquisite.

Because everything is played with the utmost of seriousness from starting credits to the closing shot and yet it just doesn’t take. Sirk seems to be working against his material and that’s where the enjoyment of this picture really lies. It makes Written on the Wind the zenith of the soap opera tradition.

Like any good melodrama, it begins with a shooting, it ends with a murder inquest and the in between is filled in with drunkenness, romantic interplay, familial strife, impotence, fist fights, childhood dynamics, and anything else you can imagine in such a sleazy affair. Still, when everything has run its course, our leading man and his leading lady are able to drive through the pearly mansion gates off on a perfect life together.

Though Rock Huson and Lauren Bacall are arguably our stars, it is their fairly typical and straightforward roles lay the groundwork for the true show put on by Malone and Stack as the Hadley siblings.

Malone sheds her librarian role in The Big Sleep (1946) for the performance of her career as the uninhibited, diabolical, sex-crazed platinum blonde. And Stack is a far cry from Elliot Ness. He lives like he’s never even heard of prohibition as he lets his characterization go completely off the rails in a fantastic manner.

Their father (Robert Keith) is one of the richest oilmen around and they’ve grown up as brats accustomed to wealth and yet their lives are an utter shambles with flings, booze, and personal demons leaving a wake of tumult that rips through the tabloids.

Mitch Wayne (Hudson) and Lucy Moore (Bacall) meet in a boardroom as nice as you please. You would guess that romance is kindling except that the impetuous Kyle (Stack) inserts himself in the situation trying to win her over with jet flights and a steady stream of charm. Somehow it works and they are wedded soon thereafter. It has all the signs of a trainwreck given Kyle’s track record but miraculously it works for a while. But he’s devastated by some news from his local doctor (Ed Platt) which drives him back into a constant stupor and drunken tirades.

Meanwhile, his sister relishes watching him falter because they’ve never seen eye-to-eye on anything. Her main focus is seducing Mitch their lifelong friend who has never allowed himself to fall prey to her wiles. In retaliation, she looks to search out any man who can show her a decent time. She doesn’t much care who it is. But Mitch is hardly jealous for her, only protective, and his eyes are set on Lucy nee Moore anyways. If the entanglements aren’t clear already they present themselves obviously enough.  It’s gloriously sensationalized nonsense.

Still, so many others owe an undying debt to this film and those like it. Fassbinder came from here as did Todd Haynes. Dallas, Dynasty, or any other 80s soaps found their roots right here too. After all, this is the original version of “Who Shot J.R.” Thus, the debt must be paid to Sirk’s films and people have.

Because his style is very easy to admire. Contemporary audiences undoubtedly ate it up and we do now years later. The artificial interiors and the airbrushed Technicolor palette helps define what many people deem to be 1950s Hollywood. It’s luscious, easy on the eyes, decadent, all those apt superlatives. But if that was all that he had to offer, Sirk wouldn’t be as interesting to a great many people now.

It’s the very fact that he seems highly self-aware and he’s so wonderful at staging and creating this environment, beautifully photographed by his longtime collaborator Russell Metty, that the whole composition tells us something more. It’s rear projections and painted backdrops. Sets and stages that accentuate this piece of drama. It’s all sending us a collective wink to see if we get the joke. Those who do will be greatly rewarded.

4.5/5 Stars

 

Harper (1966)

harper1We are brought into the world of Lew Harper with a cold open full of character. There he is. Paul Newman. Soaking his head in a sink full of ice. Making his morning cup of Joe. Popping that first piece of chewing gum before heading off to his first appointment.

What follows is a narrative courtesy of Ross Macdonald’s The Moving Target and an up-and-coming screenwriter William Goldman. Really, the film pays tribute to all of Bogart’s great P.I. roles (even going so far as casting Lauren Bacall), becoming a ’60s revamp of The Big Sleep.

But although the plot is not quite as incomprehensible as its predecessor, the greatest joy of this storyline is the witty repartee of Goldman’s pen paired with wall-to-wall star power. We have Newman and Bacall headlining as a gumshoe and his client who is looking rather half-heartedly for her missing husband. We have young blood with Robert Wagner and Pamela Tiffin. Then some old reliable talent in the likes of Janet Leigh, Julie Harris, Shelley Winters, and Strother Martin. The characters might not be the most insightful, but who needs that when they’re fun.

Lew Harper’s marriage is going down the tubes as he begins digging around for leads on the whereabouts of millionaire Ralph Sampson. He begins his inquiries which ultimately lead him to a washed-up starlet (Winters) who he pumps for information. He meets her charming husband and pays a visit to a nightclub singer (Harris) with a drug habit.

The dive musical halls, a rogue truck, and an encounter with a new age religious cult point Harper toward’s Sampson’s kidnapping, but he must piece together all the broken shards. There are twists, turns, and big reveals that are only fitting for a mystery of this inclination.

It’s certainly a nifty charade of mystery accented by a bouncy score courtesy of Johnny Mandel. But this sublimely Paul Newman role is more fun.  In his own words, “He’s a regular beaver,” a jaded cynic prone to smirks and sarcasm. He’s a sly dog even before Jim Rockford. He gives off an air of not being particularly happy in his work, but who would be thrilled to be a private investigator? On top of the lousy lifestyle and unglamorous dirty work, his wife is calling for divorce proceedings.

And yet he reveals moments of humanity and charm, whether he’s stacking up on tea sandwiches, chatting it up with his pal Albert, or pulling one over on his wife over the phone with paper towels stuffed down his throat.

Harper serves up exactly what we want with Newman grabbing hold of a cynical streak like he does best and riding the waves of Goldman’s engaging script. It’s not rocket science, but everything translates into a thoroughly enjoyable experience all around.

3.5/5 Stars

(After being beaten up again)

“Hey Lew, you alright?” ~ Albert

“I’m awful tired of answering that question” ~Lew

Review: The Big Sleep (1946)

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Philip Marlowe is undoubtedly Raymond Chandler’s character, but Howard Hawks and Humphrey Bogart brought him right out of a pulp novel and stuck him on the silver screen to ever be solidified in our minds. Needless to say, this is a quintessential film-noir coming right at the tail end of WWII, known as much for its incomprehensible plot line as it is the romantic pairing of Bogey and Bacall.The title credits role and the contours of our two leads can be seen in the background, cigarette in toe with Max Steiner’s furious score pulsing in rhythm. We find ourselves on the doorstep of a man named Sternwood. A hand is ringing the doorbell and a servant answers. The hand, of course, belongs to Humphrey Bogart or closer yet Philip Marlowe. Right off the bat, he gets the come on from the flirtatious younger daughter of Sternwood and he takes it in stride.

When he meets the sickly man of the house, he’s stricken to a wheelchair parked inside a greenhouse. He and Marlowe get chummy, and he calls upon the P.I. to find a man named Geiger, while bemoaning the trouble his daughters get into. For good measure, Marlowe also gets his first taste of Sternwood’s older daughter Vivian Rutledge who is more mature, but suspicious all the same. From then on the case is a series of storefronts, L.A. street corners, and car interiors. It’s hard to believe, but it also seems so dark and dreary with buckets of rain to boot. It must be L.A. in winter (or in an alternative universe). Bogey has a little fun masquerading as an antique book aficionado and every lady he interacts with feels like another Carmen Sternwood. Always ready to flirt and he usually gives them the time of day.
He stakes out a home and he investigates a piercing scream only to find a disoriented Carmen in a big mess. Next, a dead man is pulled out of a Packard near Lido Pier. The names keep piling up too. There’s A. G. Geiger, Sean Regan, Owen Taylor, Joe Brody, Eddie Mars, Harry Jones (Elisha Cook Jr.) and a number of others. Most are seen at one time or another but a few are not.
08bfb-bigsleepBy this point, The Big Sleep is less about all the facts and more about how we get there in the end. Obviously, the source material is from Raymond Chandler, but the witty script full of great patter is courtesy of William Faulkner and Leigh Brackett of all people. Bogey and Bacall have some fun on the telephone (You like to play games don’t you) which coincidentally has no bearing on the plot. Later on, they have some more spirited back and forth about horse racing. It’s at these times that you cannot help but chuckle at the rapier wit of the script. Philip Marlowe is a great character with a lot of great things to say indeed.
Soon we suspect there is something romantic going on between Eddie Mars and Rutledge. A few more stooges get it and Marlowe gets himself beat up in a dark back alley (Of course). Next thing we know is our new favorite gumshoe is tied up in a house with two ladies. Rutledge is there and the wife of Eddie Mars. What? He gets out of harm’s way thanks to Vivian, and the showdown that we have been waiting for comes to pass. Marlowe outsmarts everyone and puts the damper on the case. Everything seemingly comes to a smooth resolution, the audience just has little idea how we got there. But that’s not the greatest of concerns.

It would be great enough to watch The Big Sleep for the sass and repartee which it is positively dripping with. Thanks to the reworking of the film in 1946, the Bogey and Bacall dynamic became more prominent and fun. Although it is slightly disappointing that a lot of Martha Vickers performance ended up on the cutting floor, it is made slightly better by a memorable appearance by a young Dorothy Malone. All in all, there is very little to complain about if you just sit back and enjoy this very engaging film-noir for what it is. Howard Hawks brought us yet another unassuming post-war classic that is unequivocally American.

4.5/5 Stars

Written on the Wind (1956)

WrittenOnTheWind2Here is a film that wholly personifies an over the top melodrama or soap opera. Douglas Sirk’s film is full of complicated romances, tense relationships, drunkenness, and murder. Yet when the two stars drive away through the gates of the Hadley Estate everything is resolved (at least to a degree).

It seems that Sirk undoubtedly knew how over the top his story is and he reinforces it with his blatantly loud colors, dramatic music, flashy cars, gaudy interiors, and so on. He embraces a style that seems stereo-typically 1950s Hollywood and he makes it work.

Ironically Rock Hudson gives a good performance and Lauren Bacall is okay but the real drama flows from Robert Stack and especially Dorothy Malone. They are the black sheep of the Hadley family and by the end of the film they definitely deserve the moniker. Except there is more to them then that. Kyle is a tragic figure to be sure and despite her sex-crazed ways there still is a bit of sympathy for Marylee.

I cannot wait to see more Sirk because he seems quintessentially 1950s.

4.5/5 Stars

Dark Passage (1947) – Film-Noir

74b1d-dark_passage_film_posterStarring Humprey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, the film opens with a man escaping San Quentin prion for supposedly killing his wife. Along the way he is helped by a sympathetic young artist, a friendly cabbie, and a plastic surgeon. He must evade the police while getting mixed up with another murder and some nosy people. Ultimately, he does find the actual killer but he has no way of proving it. He flees to South America where he is finally reunited with his love. This film is memorable for being shot from Bogart’s perspective early on. It makes good use of San Francisco scenery and some of the supporting characters are enjoyable to watch. However, the film’s ending seemed anticlimactic and abrupt without any real closure.

3.5/5 Stars

In honor of Lauren Bacall

The Big Sleep (1946) – Film-Noir

e3d1f-bigsleep2This noir, crime-drama starring Bogey and Bacall with director Howard Hawks, follows private eye Phillip Marlowe (Bogart) in Los Angeles. His difficult and ever changing case has him interrogating every one under the sun and following every lead. In typical Bogart fashion, Marlowe is a tough guy who does not shy away from danger and he has the eye of many a woman. What starts off as a normal case quickly turns deadly, setting the plot off. The constant twists and new characters complicate Marlowe’s case and get him in numerous messes. However, thanks to his grit and wit he comes out on top, falling for the girl, and overcoming his adversary. One word that sums up this film is incomprehensible. Despite the confusion with the plot, this film is very enjoyable and seems to work itself out.

4.5/5 Stars

In honor of Lauren Bacall

To Have and Have Not (1944)

1b537-to_have_and_have_not_1944_film_posterStarring Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Walter Brennan, Hoagy Carmichael, and with director Howard Hawks, this film is very reminiscent of Casablanca. On the small Vichy-controlled island of Martinique, a hardened seaman spends his days steering his boat and his nights at the local hotel. The French resistance stir up his life by asking for his help but he refuses. Everything changes however when he meets a mysterious young woman (Bacall). Their playful banter eventually leads them to a mutual affection. Wanting to help his new found girl get home, Harry Morgan finally does agree to help the French and in the process he shows his true colors. Cementing Bogey and Bacall as a star couple, and immortalizing a certain line about how to whistle, this film is a good one. It has everything you come to expect with Bogart and it gives you something special in Bacall.

4/5 Stars

In honor of Lauren Bacall

Key Largo (1948) – Film-Noir

5b446-key_largo432Starring Humphrey Bogart, Edward G. Robinson, Lauren Bacall,  with director John Huston, the film takes place on a sweltering day during the hurricane season. Bogart is passing through Florida to say hello to the relations of a dead war buddy. In the process he and the others at the hotel are held hostage by the mobster Johnny Rocco (Robinson). Bogart seems to back away from conflict but he is only biding his time with the villainous gangster. Through a series of events the war veteran is supposed to pilot the mobsters to Cuba, however he ultimately turns on them and brings justice. This is a fairly good film with Lionel Barrymore, Claire Trevor, and Jay Silverheels in support. It must be mentioned that this was the final film pairing of Bogey and Bacall. Get ready to sweat it out in Key Largo.

4/5 Stars

In honor of Lauren Bacall

The Shootist (1976)

24767-shootist_movie_posterIn his last film performance, John Wayne stars alongside Lauren Bacall, Ron Howard, and James Stewart in this tale about a notorious old gunfighter, who comes to stay in a small western town. J.B. Books gets a medical diagnosis from an old friend, and the doctor confirms that he is slowly dying from cancer.

 Brooks pays for a room in the home of a local widow (Bacall) where his reputation and actions one night scare off tenants. He receives a visit from the uneasy local sheriff (Harry Morgan), gets an offer for a book to glorify his life, has an old flame drop in on him, and old rivals and young guns are bent on killing him.

His lifestyle impresses the young man Gillom (Howard), but his mother openly disapproves of Brooks. Amidst all this, Brooks desires to live his last days in peace and he is waited on by Bond, and the two of them become to respect each other as her boy also comes to idolize Brooks more. The shootist sets everything up to die on his 58th birthday, going so far as ordering a special tombstone and sending three separate notes to different gunmen in town. He leaves his horse to Gillom and bids farewell to Bond before heading off for one last showdown. 

In the saloon, he is met by three men bent on killing him. Brooks is wounded but proves his skill one last time. In a cruel moment, however, Brooks is gunned down right in front of the horrified Gillom, who in a single instant ceases to be an innocent boy and becomes a man. 

This film was the perfect swan song for Duke because in many ways the character he plays mirrors his real-life western persona. Gone were the days when he was a kid in Stagecoach, a courageous sheriff in Rio Bravo, or even the gritty old codger in True Grit. He was truly reaching the twilight of his career.

Even it was one of the most storied of acting careers it was finally coming to an end. In just three years he would die of stomach cancer, and there was no gunshot to go with it this time around. During this movie, he still has life in him though, and even when he shares scenes with the whitening and tired-looking icon James Stewart, Wayne seems as resilient as ever. The Shootist is certainly not his greatest film or best performance, but I think it can be said John Wayne went out on his own terms just like Brooks.

4/5 Stars

Star of the Month: Humphrey Bogart

The man with the memorable speech impediment acquired from a WWI injury, Bogart began in the movies as a bit player in gangster films such as The Petrified Forest (1936) and Angels with Dirty Faces (1938). He finally made is major breakthrough as Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon (1941) directed by John Huston, and from that point on he never looked back. He followed it up with his trademark performance as Rick Blaine in Casablanca (1942), then two Huston classics The Treasure of Sierra Madre (1948) and The African Queen (1951). The 1940s also saw the inception of his romantic pairing and eventual marriage to Lauren Bacall. They acted together in To Have and Have Not (1944), The Big Sleep (1946), Dark Passage (1947), and Key Largo (1948). Bogart continued to star in films in the 1950s including Sabrina and The Caine Mutiny before his death in 1957. He is undoubtedly one of the cultural legends of Hollywood with so many great film credits to his name. He could be a tough guy and a softie but he did it all with that iconic face and voice. Here’s looking at you Bogey.