(On Cable TV, November 2019) It’s interesting how various genres of film age well (or not) due to different factors. Something often underestimated is thespian intensity, especially in those movies designed to be actor showcases. Separate Tables starts from strong dramatic material, being adapted from a pair of short theatre plays. This is most clearly seen in the strong dramatic unity of the result, taking place over a few days in a secluded hotel where two pairs of guests have largely separate subplots. On one side, a man (a typically intense Burt Lancaster) has to pick between his nice new girlfriend and his shrewish ex-wife (Rita Hayworth, glammed up to the point where she can be mistaken for Grace Kelly). The dialogue pyrotechnics here occasionally suggests Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolfe?, with a conclusion that may surprise you. On the other main subplot, an officer with a mystery past (David Niven, up to his high standards) beguiles a spinster (Deborah Kerr, strongly de-glammed) trying to get away from the influence of her mother. The addition of a bit of romantic comic relief between two young lovers helps ease into the film before the dramatic intensity starts. Under Delbert Mann’s direction, the film benefits from clean images, unobtrusive direction and full leeway for actors to deliver on the material. The result was nominated for nine Academy Awards (including Best Picture) and won two acting awards. Clearly, this showcase certainly worked, and it helps Separate Tables to be worth a look even today.
(On Cable TV, October 2019) 1930s Hollywood adaptation of literary classics are a specific category, but Wuthering Heights is in a category of its own even as a novel. Dismantling the archetype of the vengeful romantic hero, it presents protagonist Heathcliff as an obsessive monster destroying everyone’s lives in order to get what he wants. The glossy Hollywood adaptation, by necessity, does muddle the portrait: it lops off the more disturbing second half of the book, softens a few edges and provides a tragic romantic happy ending of sorts to the lead couple. (This being the second time in a few weeks that a classic Hollywood adaptation of a literary landmark features the heroine dying in the hero’s arms, I’m suddenly curious about the device.) Being what it is, Wuthering Heights doesn’t completely delve into the most unsavoury aspects of the protagonist’s issues, although even a cursory viewing establishes that neither of the protagonists are particularly admirable in any way. For movie fans, there’s a certain pleasure here in seeing a young and dashing Laurence Olivier playing a cad opposite the beautiful Merle Oberon, or an even younger David Niven in an early role as another suitor. To contemporary viewers, the heightened melodramatic tone of the film can have a certain deliciousness, even if ironic. The film certainly won’t be much of a primer for a novel that keeps going for an entire generation after the events depicted in the film. Still, Wuthering Heights remains a landmark of sorts, and the period atmosphere is worth a brief time-travel trip.
(On Cable TV, April 2019) Much of the interest in exploring classic films is not only experiencing solid movies that have wowed past audiences, but measuring them against our own modern standards, and seeing how some of them still make an impression even through decades of changes. Dodsworth is a more interesting case than many—it clearly reflects the standards of the 1930s, but it still manages to surprise through some unusual character work that goes beyond clichés and easy stereotypes. The story starts once a small-city mogul sells his company, with the hazy goal of doing nothing for the rest of his life, spending time with his wife and visiting faraway destinations. That’s already an interesting character (even though he’s warned by others that he won’t like a loafing retirement), but the situation becomes even more complex once his wife makes it clear that she does not approve of that plan. As is often the case, retirement doesn’t suit the couple, who steadily drift apart in many ways (none as simplistic as “he wants this, she wants that”—these are multifaceted characters, and so are their conflicts) until a mutual breakup that ends up confirmed by the end of the film. Walter Huston stars as the title character with Ruth Chatterton taking on the ingrate role of his wife, and small appearances from Paul Lukas and David Niven as suitors. Some 1930s tropes are indissociable from Dodsworth—the romance of long-distance cruises as the best way to cross the Atlantic, the details about the early decades of the automobile industry, the lingering remnants of the European class system as intertwined with the aristocracy, and the cut-and-tried gender roles of an American marriage: There’s a supposedly playful line said from the wife to her husband, “Will you beat me?” that betrays a whole lot. At the same time, there’s no clear gender stereotype here between the husband wanting to step away from workaholism, and the wife gladly lusting after other men. The characters are strong enough to avoid clichés, and I have some respect for the way Dodsworth makes the wife a gradual villain without quite becoming misogynistic. (Viewers are clearly meant to identify with the fun-loving husband rather than the wife increasingly revealed to be an arriviste.) There’s also something intriguing in the way director William Wyler ensures that the story—adapted from a theatrical play, even if that filiation is nearly obscured by the film’s globetrotting settings—makes upper-class ennui relatable by asking itself what would happen if people would be free to do that they wanted without artificial obstacles, and letting things play out. There are plenty of timeless lessons here even for modern couples, and it’s such things that ensure that Dodsworth remains relevant and interesting even after eight decades.
(On Cable TV, April 2019) There have been many charming Christmas movies, but The Bishop’s Wife has the undeniable advantage of featuring Cary Grant as an impossibly suave angel come down to Earth to resolve a bishop’s problems. Complications ensue when the bishop’s wife proves irresistible to him—although, this being a 1940s movie, it’s all handled tastefully. Grant couldn’t be better as the angel and completely steals the movie, whereas David Niven is good in the ungrateful role of the bishop (he was originally supposed to play the angel, but Grant was the better choice) and Loretta Young is luminous as the bishop’s wife. A few interesting special effects reaffirm that this isn’t a realistic Christmas movie. Easy to watch and imbued with a decent amount of Christmas spirit, The Bishop’s Wife is still worth a look today.
(In French, On Cable TV, September 2018) The biggest surprise about The Pink Panther is that it turns out to be an ensemble bedroom romp with a limited role for Peter Sellers’s Inspecteur Clouseau—and, in fact, he gets played like a fool for the entire film, with a conclusion that doesn’t do the character much good. Sellers did such a striking job with the role that later instalments, starting with the follow-up A Shot in the Dark, would develop the Clouseau mythology in earnest. In the meantime, what we have here is a tangled mess of characters lusting for one another, with Clouseau unaware that his wife (the lovely Capucine) is carrying an affair with the master thief (the wonderful David Niven) that he’s chasing. Meanwhile, the gentleman thief is trying to seduce a princess (Claudia Cardinale!) who own the titular diamond, while his nephew is also trying to seduce Clouseau’s wife. It takes a diagram to figure it out, but fortunately the film is much easier to absorb as it gradually introduces its character as they converge on a European ski resort. Comedy director legend Blake Edwards slowly tightens the funny screws, culminating in a bedroom sequences in which characters hide under the bed and exit through windows while Clouseau remains blissfully unaware of how many pretenders his wife has within purring distance. It takes a while to get going and does end on a less jolly note, but the ski resort sequence of the film is a small success in creating a sexy comic atmosphere. Even out-of-nowhere moments, such as Fran Jeffries crooning an Italian song around a communal fireplace, are more charming than puzzling. Niven does stellar work here as an impeccable gentleman thief, but Sellers was simply spectacular enough that the series would therefore focus on him. So it goes—plans never unfold exactly as everyone thinks they will, especially in the Pink Panther universe.
(Second viewing, On Cable TV, September 2018) On paper, I’m sure Casino Royale was a great idea. In fact, the film does work better from a conceptual viewpoint than a practical one … which is a fancy way of saying that the film is a mess. From a cold viewing, the film makes no sense: it’s an attempt to satirize Bond, and it goes off in all directions at once, making failed jokes in multiple segments that barely relate to whatever plot we can identify. Some moments are funnier than others, and the high-spirited finale is pure comic chaos (in the good sense of the expression), but much of the film simply falls flat. Coherence is a major issue when entire scenes have their own idea of what humour is, and when the actors aren’t following the same plan. And what a list of actors! A young Woody Allen, a remarkably fun Orson Welles goofing off with magic tricks, First Bond Girl Ursula Andress playing (a) Bond, David Niven as “The original” Bond (before Connery ruined the name), Jean-Claude Belmondo for thirty seconds and a bunch of other cameos. Peter Sellers is occasionally fun, but he seems to be acting in another film entirely. The film’s production values are high enough that we’re left to contemplate a bizarre result, clearly made with considerable means but without a coherent plan. What to make of it? The key to understanding Casino Royale is to read about the film’s unbelievable production. It started with the intention of copycatting Connery’s Bond film series through the rights of Fleming’s first Bond novel, but was realigned to a satirical comedy once Connery made himself unavailable. Then, for some reason, the film became a creation from five different directors, with a sixth trying to patch the gaps between the sequences. Then Peter Sellers, who wanted to play a dramatic Bond, started sabotaging the production before leaving it entirely before his scenes were completely filmed. Given all of this, it’s a minor miracle if Casino Royale makes even the slightest sense. That doesn’t make it a good movie (although there are maybe twenty minutes of good comedy here, as long as you keep only the scenes with Sellers, Welles and Allen) but it certainly explains how we got there. There may have been messier productions and movies out there, but Casino Royale is a case of its own. (I saw the film as a young teenager, but the only moment I remembered from it was Allen’s line about learning how to tie women up in the boy scouts. Go figure. Or don’t, given that I was a boy scout.)
(On Cable TV, November 2017) Watching some films from bygone days is almost an anthropological experience. Not just for what’s shown on-screen, but what led to what’s shown on-screen. Around the World in Eighty Days is one such curio, not only portraying the world of 1872 as seen from 1956 (84-year difference), but also telling us much about 1956 Hollywood from today’s perspective (61-year difference). The basics of the film are simple enough, adapting Jules Verne’s globetrotting adventure tale into a lavish three-hour-long spectacle. But it’s the way it is put together that captivates as much as the narrative of the story. Famously filled with cameos, Around the World in Eighty Days regularly grinds to a halt as then-famous faces grin at the camera to remind us that they’re in the movie. Of course, sixty years later, it’s hard to identify most of them unless you’re a dedicated movie buff: what remains are nearly incomprehensible skits revolving around famous people without us knowing that they’re famous people. (The Fernandel and Frank Sinatra examples are particularly egregious, except that Sinatra is still somewhat recognizable.) David Niven is good but occasionally inscrutable as the main character, while Cantinflas (wildly popular then, almost unknown now) is a revelation as Passepartout. Around the World in Eighty Days remains strange and kind of charming in its own way. What’s not quite so funny is the cavalcade of ethnic stereotypes that parade through the entire film. Nobody escapes unscathed, whether it’s the British (eccentric to a fault, and never willing to sacrifice tea in the middle of a crisis) or the Americans (frontier barbarians obsessed with electioneering) or any of the non-English-speaking nationalities. The Native-American segments are particularly tough to watch, but by no means the only uncomfortable moment in the movie. Still, the film moves with a decent amount of action, humour and scenery—while largely filmed on Hollywood studios, the production did spend a lot of effort to make sure that the details were correct, and did travel to foreign countries in order to capture establishing shots. The result is one-of-a-kind. I’d normally welcome a remake, except that a loose comedic remake was completed in 2004 and has since already sunk away from view so thoroughly that I still haven’t seen in on TV or any of the major streaming platforms after a year of searching. In the meantime, the original Around the World in Eighty Days remains available for anyone’s viewing pleasure, but if there’s a film that screams out for pop-up notes, it’s this one.