(On Cable TV, February 2019) There is a weightiness to The Sundowners that makes it both respectable and a burden to watch. The story of a nomadic family trying to make ends meet in outback Australia, it’s a character study (adapted from a novel) of a man unwilling to settle down, something that his wife finds increasingly untenable. Robert Mitchum stars in a very manly role, with Deborah Kerr as his long-suffering wife—despite the mostly happy marriage banter between the two, much of the film’s central conflict is about whether or not they’ll be able to reach an accommodation, and the ending is far less definite than many would have wanted. But the real reason to watch the film may have less to do with plotting and more with the impressive colour cinematography—unusually enough for 1960, much of the film was shot on location in deep Australia, featuring plenty of koalas, kangaroos, sheep and sheep-shearing. Peter Ustinov makes an impression as a refined older man somehow found in the outback. It’s a solid drama that was eventually nominated for five Academy Awards (including Best Picture), but don’t expect much in terms of resolution.
(Archive.org streaming, November 2018) Structure isn’t always used as effectively as it could in movies, especially as a tool to reveal dramatic ironies. But The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is a film from 1943 that does it exceptionally well: It starts with an impetuous young British soldier disregarding orders to mock-capture an older officer as he’s in a Turkish bath. The older man seems like an object of ridicule with an overblown moustache, a portly belly and a pitiable insistence on following rules in war. But then the flashback begins, and so does our perception of the character through a forty-year span. Made at the height of WW2, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp isn’t your usual wartime propaganda film: it’s a sophisticated meditation on age, wisdom, unfulfilled romances, the sacrifices required to fight evil and the nature of friendships. Our protagonist (magnificently played by Roger Livesey at a variety of ages) is occasionally sympathetic but not always admirable—he causes diplomatic trouble for dumb reasons, derives the wrong lessons from his life and becomes increasingly fixed in his ways. In short, he’s an authentic character in a medium far more interested in easy archetypes. He escapes easy description, and that also goes for the entire film as it pokes and prods at British tradition, military customs and the changing dynamics between friends. Is it better to be ethical or victorious? Is it better to be young and dumb or old and inflexible? It’s an unexpectedly moving film, and one that escapes the kind of cheap rabble-rousing propaganda that emerged from the era. Deborah Kerr is fine in three separate roles, but Anton Walbrook is almost as good as a friend/foil of the protagonist. There’s some serious moviemaking skill in some of the film’s delivery (most notably in portraying change across a lengthy period), and the colour cinematography of the film makes it feel more modern than its early 1940s origins. Even if the version I watched was a poorly-compressed low-resolution digitization of a pre-restoration copy of the film (it was the most easily available way to see the film legally), the magic of the film still works. By the time we get back to the framing device, we no longer see the older man in the same way, nor do we think that the young man is completely right … but neither do we think he’s completely wrong either. Such nuances were rare in early-1940s cinema, and it’s one more reason why The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp has survived so well along the way.
(On TV, July 2018) So, so very boring. I should be sorry for saying so, but there it is: Despite liking all three lead actors a lot (Yul Brynner, Deborah Kerr, and especially Rita Moreno) and liking musicals a lot, and not being completely unreceptive to mid-fifties filmmaking, I found The King and I very long, very dull and unable to go beyond its familiarity. It doesn’t help that the film’s outlook on colonialism is, well, from the mid-fifties (if not earlier, given the film’s lineage to a Broadway production, then to a book, then to real-life experience). I’ll point out that my not liking a musical is not a surprise when the musicals are based on a Broadway/Hammerstein source—I find Broadway adaptations not as interesting as musical developed directly for the screen, and Hammerstein to be humorless. Otherwise, as The King and I demonstrates, it usually ends up being an unimaginative restaging of a theatrical production with very little in terms of purely cinematographic art. It doesn’t help that the source material is almost entirely devoid of anything looking like humour or playfulness. On the other hand, many of the individual components of the film are just fine. The scenery and costumes are terrific. Brynner is fantastic in the royal role, while Kerr and Moreno are also very good in their roles. And yet, I just couldn’t get or remain in the film, occasionally perking up at some of the better numbers but otherwise thinking “I’ve seen this already with Jodie Foster and Chow Yun-fat”.
(On Cable TV, July 2018) I’m not quite sure what I expected from a forties “nuns set up a school/hospital in the Himalayas” film (something with nuns and Nazis?), but Black Narcissus exceeded my expectations to deliver something I couldn’t have imagined. It is about nuns setting up a school/hospital in an abandoned building at the base of the Himalayas. But it is also about a man setting off erotic jealousy among the nuns, and Englishwomen thinking themselves at the vanguard of civilization being utterly defeated by India. It ends up with a nun casting off her habits, putting on lipstick, attempting the seduction the only white man within walking distance and trying to kill her superior. Considering that his film was made in 1947 England, you can imagine that it did push a few boundaries. Black Narcissus was ahead of its time in at least another aspect—the Oscar-winning colour cinematography is impressive, with bright colours and subdued tones orchestrated in a conscious effect. The film wasn’t shot on location despite impressively deceptive trompe-l’oeuils. Oh, there are certainly a bunch of issues with the film. Shot and released shortly before Indian independence, the film is redolent with colonialist rhetoric, and features at least two performers in brownface. (Much as I’d like to praise Jean Simmons for her role, there’s no getting around that she’s a white girl playing an Indian girl under layers of makeup.) Still, as noted, the ending finds the British nuns retreating from India, completely defeated. More interesting is the romantic triangle between two nuns (Deborah Kerr and Kathleen Byron) and a local fixer played by David Farrar. Byron is particularly striking once she removes her robe and goes on a rampage toward the end of the film—an authentically shocking moment that almost pushes the film toward horror. By the end, Black Narcissus delivers quite a bit more than what we could have expected from post-war English movies. It’s quite a surprise, and thanks to Jack Cardiff’s cinematography it’s still worth a look today.
(On Cable TV, May 2018) For all of the continued acclaim of From Here to Eternity as a classic piece of Hollywood Cinema, the film itself is often a disappointment. From its descriptions, you could maybe expect a sweeping drama set in pre-Pearl Harbor Hawaii, with high romance being interrupted by the beginning of the war. Alas, that’s just you going from the iconic beach scene and hazy memories of Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor—the reality of From Here to Eternity has more to do with it being an adaptation of a gritty dramatic novel in which nobody gets a happy ending. On the menu: a sordid affair (one of many) between a traumatized housewife and an indecisive soldier; physical abuse in the military; a character falling for a high-end prostitute (oh, OK, “hostess”); and the Japanese on their way to ruin the melodrama right before the end. Also on the menu; terrifying dumb decisions from the characters to ensure that they will not get what they want (often dying in the process). As a period piece, From Here to Eternity is not that successful—until the Japanese attack, the film feels far too intimate to reflect the reality of living on a military base and the way it spends nearly all of its time in small sets does undercuts its bigger ambitions. The image of the beach romance suggested by the film’s reputation is far worse in context: Not only is the beach frolicking limited to a few seconds, it’s in support of an adulterous relationship that’s not particularly admirable, and it leads straight to a soliloquy of intense personal grief. Frame the picture of Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr smooching if you want, but don’t expect the film to heighten the fantasy. This being said, much of this reaction is a reaction to the film’s sterling reputation—taken on its own, From Here to Eternity does remain a good dramatic piece, anchored by able performances by Lancaster, Montgomery Clift and (especially) Frank Sinatra, with Kerr and Donna Reed on the distaff side. Still, reading about the film (and the changes from the original novel) is often more interesting than the film itself. Overinflated expectations or under-delivering period piece—I can’t decide for now (and I suspect that watching three WW2 movies in a row due to Memorial weekend doesn’t help), although I am glad to have seen it to complete that bit of Hollywood History.
(On Cable TV, April 2018) I have dim memories of watching Quo Vadis as a kid (especially the last shot of the film) but watching it now is more an exercise in historical Hollywood than an enjoyable viewing in itself. Historically, Quo Vadis was the first big success of an era in film history where Hollywood headed to Rome in order to film epic movies on a smaller budget. You can see the result on-screen with a lavish production with countless costumes, credible historical re-creations and an ambitious Bible-related subject matter palatable to international audiences. Quo Vadis is a deep dive in Roman history in the decades when Rome fought the newly popular Christianity. It’s not particularly historically accurate, but it does revel in the imaginary imagery of the era, combining swords and sandals and political/religious conflict alongside a big dash of family melodrama. It’s tedious and impressive at once, especially when you try to keep up with the very large cast and equally long running time. It does help that the film features actors such as Robert Taylor and Peter Ustinov, alongside captivating actresses such as Deborah Kerr and Marina Berti. A long list of notables had small roles among the cast and crew, but the film’s biggest impact was financial, both in terms of revenues (it reportedly saved MGM from bankruptcy) and legacy (it paved the way for very similar epics). It’s not quite as good as many of the films it would spawn, though: the highlights are few and far between, while the film’s connection to the bible is tenuous at best. It does make for an impatient viewing experience—well-known but not particularly enjoyable, Quo Vadis is a bit of an imposed viewing … unless you like that kind of thing, of course.