Tuesday, June 28, 2016

The Awful Truth (1937)

Jerry (Cary Grant) returns from a business trip in “Florida”, only he wasn’t really in Florida. With friends in attendance, he discovers that his wife Lucy (Irene Dunne) isn’t home. It seems her car broke down and she had to spend the night at her swarthy singing instructor’s house. All perfectly innocent, except neither are too sure. After an argument, they agree to get a divorce, because that’s what you do. During the required waiting period, Lucy starts a relationship with big lunk Daniel (Ralph Bellamy) but Jerry can’t seem to stop bumping into them.

Classic Hollywood screwball comedy. Nobody does anything untoward but it’s hinted at quite a bit. I can complain and say The Awful Truth was overly formulaic. The ending was forced and it bore more than a passing resemblance to My Favorite Wife, made three years later with Randolph Scott in the Ralph Bellamy role. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if they used many of the same sets. But I think I’m experiencing rom-com fatigue.

There were some amusing scenes and overall it did its job, and this was the era when directors won Oscars for such films. It’s no coincidence that the earlier rom-coms I saw are rated higher and I may need to back off of them for a while. Unfortunately, I have one more sitting on the DVR. I’ll find something refreshing to watch before I see it. AMRU 3.

“They forgot to touch second.”

Sunday, June 12, 2016

The Lost Weekend (1945)

Don Birnam (Ray Milland) is an alcoholic. His brother and his pretty girlfriend (Jane Wyman) try to help him, but when he is left to his own devices with a ten-spot, things go bad.

What does an alcoholic look like? Well, if you are in most movies of the 30’s to the 50’s, they were funny, harmless, frequently wore top hats, hiccuped a lot, and occasionally saw pink elephants. In The Lost Weekend, as in real life, they are well-intentioned, self destructive, rationalizing, and tragic. Also, not nearly as amusing as you’ve been led to believe.

This is my first film starring Jane Wyman I’ve seen. She was Mrs. Ronald Reagan at this time, but that wouldn’t last long. Ray Milland, having done a string of light comedies, wasn’t considered by many to be star material for an A picture, but the studio insisted. Milland, doubting himself, prepared by spending a night inside Bellevue Hospital. He would earn an Oscar. I was certain I had seen him in something else, but I don’t know what. Billy Wilder wrote the screenplay as an exploration of the life of Raymond Chandler after working with him on Double Indemnity. Chandler had an interesting relationship with the spirits.

The Lost Weekend is something of a departure for Billy Wilder. Not a comedy, and while it’s billed as Film-Noir, I don’t see it. It is a fascinating exploration of a tragic personality. Don means well but his demons intervene. If alcoholism has touched your family then this story will ring true. AMRU 4.
“We're both trying, Don. You're trying not to drink, and I'm trying not to love you.”

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Touch of Evil (1958)

A car carrying a rich old man and his hot young girlfriend, driving over the US-Mexican border, blows up killing them both. On the scene is Vargas (Charlton Heston), an educated, politically connected (totally non-rapist) Mexican police detective. He works with fat, sloppy American police captain Quinlan (Orson Welles) to solve the murder. At this time his hot anglo wife (Janet Leigh) starts being harassed by family members of the people Vargas has been prosecuting. Things get complicated.

This movie could be about finding the bomber, or about the crime family tormenting the hot Leigh, but it’s really about the culture clash between two nations so close to each other, and the prejudice that permeates their relationship. Quinlan is suspicious of Mexicans and disrespects Vargas, the Mexican crime family has a complicated relationship with America, and the Vargas’ themselves are torn between both worlds. All this in the late 50’s.

Heston agreed to the role because he thought Welles was going to direct. When he found out that the director hadn’t been selected yet, he insisted on Welles, and the studio agreed. It was Welles’ presence that also convinced Leigh to accept the roll, despite the low pay.

Upon completion the studio chopped up the film in editing. Welles was upset, and wrote a 58 page letter to the studio head. The version I saw was a recreation of Welles’ original vision, as can be determined from his letter.

The movie features Dennis Weaver (Gunsmoke, McCloud) in an early role. Zsa Zsa earned a bit part by being the producer’s boyfriend. Marlene Dietrich had a small but important role, and if you blinked you’d miss Welles buddy Joseph Cotten’s cameo.

Touch of Evil is a brave film, confronting racism head on. It’ll be remembered as having a Mexican played by Red Blooded, US ‘Merican Charlton Heston with a US ‘Merican accent, but its message that citizens on both sides of the border can be despicable and honorable alike may have been lost otherwise. The difference between art and craft is that craft needs to know we are ready to accept change while art tells us we must. The problem with putting minorities in lead roles is that studios want established stars, and until there is a large pool of established leading man minorities, it is hard to get the studio on board with hiring them. Catch-22. Maybe, in some small way, Touch of Evil slightly acclimated 50’s audiences to considering a lead minority. Either way, putting an unknown Mexican in the lead may have resulted in the film not being made, or at least not seen very much. At any rate, I find it easy to forgive the whitewash casting because of the its progressive message. AMRU 4.
“She don’t look Mexican either.”