The Elephant Man (1980, David Lynch)

I am not being hyperbolic when I describe David Lynch’s narrative handling of The Elephant Man to be peerless. If I described it a splendid, there would be other films and narrative handling to compare with it. But this film is so singular–John Hurt as an exceptionally disfigured man in Victoria England, with Lynch concentrating on the medical and industrial revolution, the society, the ambitions of Hurt’s doctor (Anthony Hopkins) and then Hurt’s character himself. And Lynch does it all in grand Hollywood fashion. The Elephant Man’s greatest secret is its openness and accessibility.

Why wouldn’t the film be accessible? Because of Hurt’s disfigurements. Lynch doesn’t give the audience an easy path into the film and the visuals. In fact, he makes it worse with he and cinematographer Freddie Francis’s black and white photography, full of nightmarish images to get the audience thinking on their own. Instead, Lynch gives the audience a deadline. If the audience can’t get over Hurt in the makeup by point X, Lynch isn’t slowing the film for them. At what point is that deadline? Long before Hurt becomes the protagonist (with Hopkins giving it away) but sometime after Hopkins and Hurt meet. Lynch is careful with the emotions in Elephant Man. By the halfway point, the tragedy becomes intolerable; yet the film pushes on, through the intolerable, through the tragedy. Because the film’s openness and accessibility? It’s because of its humanism. Lynch, Francis, composer John Morris–they terrify the audience with the film’s visuals. Along with Anne V. Coates’s sublime edits, The Elephant Man is in a constant dreamlike state, yet undeniably real, which makes every moment even more affecting.

Francis’s black and white photography, the Victorian-era setting, Lynch’s magnificent Panavision composition–The Elephant Man looks epic. The black and white directly engages with the audience. Lynch already has them imagining the color in this historical reality, what else can he get them to imagine. But why are they supposed to imagine? Lynch asks the audience to imagine, to wonder, but he controls the question. He asks the question, steps back, presents the result. Peerless.

The film has wonderful performances. Hurt, on his journey to be the film’s protagonist instead of subject, does some truly phenomenal work. The script–from Christopher De Vore, Eric Bergren and Lynch–executes the transfer of protagonist over a somewhat lengthy sequence between the second and third act–just at the right time for Hurt. He’s ready (as his character’s narrative involves being subdued for Hopkins and the rest of the world, but eventually finds confidence to assert himself). And Lynch gets all these moments done right. It’s an impossibly heavy story, told in an aggressive fashion. It’s why the story can work as a big (or at least it looks big) studio picture.

Hopkins is excellent too. His role doesn’t have many subtleties, but its handful are all more than Hurt gets. But Lynch isn’t interested in Hopkins as a protagonist. He’s fine as a narrator, perhaps, but–even before Hopkins loses the lead spot–Lynch clearly doesn’t want him getting in the way of the film.

Freddie Francis is great as the villain. John Gielgud is great as Hopkins’s boss. Wendy Hiller is great. Anne Bancroft. Michael Elphick. Hannah Gordon has a very small part as Hopkins’s wife, but she’s great. All great.

There’s no way to improve The Elephant Man. It’s perfect.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by David Lynch; screenplay by Christopher De Vore, Eric Bergren and Lynch, based on books by Frederick Treves and Ashley Montagu; director of photography, Freddie Francis; edited by Anne V. Coates; music by John Morris; production designer, Stuart Craig; produced by Jonathan Sanger; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring John Hurt (John Merrick), Anthony Hopkins (Frederick Treves), John Gielgud (Carr Gomm), Wendy Hiller (Mothershead), Freddie Jones (Bytes), Michael Elphick (Night Porter), Hannah Gordon (Mrs. Treves), Dexter Fletcher (Bytes’ Boy) and Anne Bancroft (Mrs. Kendal).



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THIS POST IS PART OF THE LOVE HURT BLOGATHON HOSTED BY JANET OF SISTER CELLULOID.


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Predator (1987, John McTiernan)

Predator has a lot going for it. Acting, directing, editing. But not usually all at once. The film opens with a quick introduction–Arnold Schwarzenegger and company are on a special mission in the jungle (after establishing an alien space ship in the first shot). It feels very macho and very forced, but the editing is so incredibly good, it doesn’t matter. Even when Mark Helfrich and John F. Link are cutting together Arnold and Carl Weathers’s male bonding moments, the film works great. It just moves.

Then, as the film brings in the rest of the supporting cast (Weathers or Shane Black give the worst performance and both of them are totally fine), director McTiernan establishes the film’s visual style. Predator doesn’t have much of an action style when the alien finally does show; McTiernan handles it matter-of-fact (cinematographer Donald McAlpine doesn’t appear to have the ability to do much else), so McTiernan instead stylizes the dialogue sequences with particular close-ups and, even more, how he shoots the actors in relation to each other and the jungle they’re in. Predator never looks flashy, but it’s always thoughtfully visualized.

There is one great sequence with Arnold and company running through the jungle before he goes mano-a-mano with the monster. That sequence has McAlpine’s best photography and McTiernan’s best action directing. It’s fast-paced, hectic, but comprehendible and rather sympathetic. The concept–these big muscle men terrified of the unknown monster–works. It makes a lot of Predator work. But only because of the actors.

In the supporting cast, Bill Duke and Richard Chaves are best. Duke’s got the most character arc while Chaves has near the least, but is just really good with it. Then there’s quiet, stoic Sonny Landham and he sells it too. McTiernan’s direction is really important for these performances. Jesse Ventura and Elpidia Carrillo are both good. And, like I said, Weathers and Black aren’t bad. They just aren’t doing anything special; however, given the silliness of Weathers’s character (super-buff CIA stooge), it’s impressive how much Weathers resists caricature.

Nice, memorable music from Alan Silvestri.

The movie falls apart a bit in the finale, which is a little rushed. But McTiernan and his editors turn it around satisfactorily. McAlpine’s photography, which is too flat–both for action and the locations–does contribute to the film’s success. Predator plays way too thoughtful. McTiernan takes it way too seriously. The story is never consequential enough, but McTiernan and the actors ably pretend otherwise.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by John McTiernan; written by Jim Thomas and John Thomas; director of photography, Donald McAlpine; edited by Mark Helfrich and John F. Link; music by Alan Silvestri; production designer, John Vallone; produced by Lawrence Gordon, Joel Silver and John Davis; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger (Dutch), Elpidia Carrillo (Anna), Carl Weathers (Dillon), Bill Duke (Mac), Richard Chaves (Poncho), Sonny Landham (Billy), Jesse Ventura (Blain), Shane Black (Hawkins), R.G. Armstrong (Gen. Phillips) and Kevin Peter Hall (The Predator).


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Anastasia (1956, Anatole Litvak)

Anastasia manages that fine line between being dramatic and a constant delight. Ingrid Bergman’s performance is magnificent, with Arthur Laurents’s screenplay–and Litvak’s direction of her–never quite letting the viewer in. It’s a mystery after all–is Bergman’s Anastasia really the last Romanov. Laurents and Litvak construct a narrative where that question doesn’t matter anywhere near as much as why the viewer would ask it in the first place.

Of course, they can only sell that approach thanks to Helen Hayes, who plays Bergman’s potential grandmother. And Hayes only works as well as she does because she’s got Bergman and Yul Brynner to play off. Hayes is wonderful in the film. Let me check the adjectives–Bergman’s magnificent, Hayes’s wonderful–should Brynner be breathtaking? No. But only because he’s not. Except when Martita Hunt’s around to lust after him in one of the film’s finest subplots.

Brynner’s commanding, sympathetic, antagonistic. He’s the closest thing the viewer has to an ally in the film, if not an analogue. Initially, it’s Brynner who can prove, to the viewer, Bergman’s character’s authenticity. Then it’s Hayes. Then it’s Bergman. But, like I said earlier, the authenticity of identity isn’t the point of Anastasia. The characters are the point, the actors, the experiences, Litvak’s awesome direction.

Anastasia is a stage adaptation; it has a number of the telltale signs–distinctive supporting characters, a limited number of indoor locations where scenes take place–but Litvak breaks them over and over. He and photographer Jack Hildyard have this fantastic crane shots (sometimes “breaking” ceilings). They, and the CinemaScope frame, make Anastasia larger than life, right from the start. Because Litvak’s style for the film isn’t melodrama. It’s practically noir, with Brynner and (fantastic) sidekicks Akim Tamiroff and Sacha Pitoëff as these schemers planning a con. And Bergman’s able to fit into it and out of it. Her performance is, like I said, magnificent. Especially considering how well she weathers being out of the present action for two weeks. The film turns it into an unexpected boon for the final act. Laurents and Litvak. They do great work here.

Alfred Newman’s score is also important. It’s this overtly Russian stuff, which doesn’t always fit the scene exactly right. Newman emphasizes the Russian influences over the scene’s “needs;” it’s perfect. Because Anastasia is about Russia, while still being very much about Bergman (as a movie star).

I haven’t seen the film in years and, from the first scene, I remembered how much I love it. Just gets better on every viewing.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Anatole Litvak; screenplay by Arthur Laurents, based on a story by Guy Bolton and a play by Marcelle Maurette; director of photography, Jack Hildyard; edited by Bert Bates; music by Alfred Newman; produced by Buddy Adler; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Ingrid Bergman (Anna Koreff), Yul Brynner (Bounine), Akim Tamiroff (Boris Adreivich Chernov), Sacha Pitoëff (Piotr Ivanovich Petrovin), Martita Hunt (Baroness Livenbaum), Ivan Desny (Prince Paul) and Helen Hayes (The Dowager Empress).



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THIS POST IS PART OF THE WONDERFUL INGRED BERGMAN BLOGATHON HOSTED BY VIRGINIE OF THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF CINEMA.


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The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942, William Keighley)

The Man Who Came to Dinner is, a little too obviously, an adaptation of a play. There are occasional moments outside the main setting–the home of Grant Mitchell and Billie Burke–but director Keighley doesn’t do anything with them. All involve Richard Travis’s character, which suggests maybe his subplot (local reporter in the center of a media sensation) should have been expanded. Except Travis wouldn’t have really done anything with it so maybe not.

Instead, Travis is simply a cog in Dinner’s gear, much like everyone else.

The film concerns Monty Woolley getting injured while visiting Mitchell and Burke’s house (under duress) and having to stay. Woolley’s character is a famous radio personality who, in private, is a manipulative, abusive egomaniac. The screenplay, from Julius J. and Philip G. Epstein, never quite works as various characters see Woolley being viciously mean to other characters, yet still warm to him. It makes everyone in the film a moron (except Woolley), even Bette Davis, who plays his suffering secretary.

The film’s at its most honest when Woolley, (an annoying) Jimmy Durante and (an utterly misused) Ann Sheridan get together and bask in the fruits of their manipulations. It’s a cruel, mean-spirited film and utterly tone-deaf about it. Seeing as how it’s a studio picture about celebrities secretly being atrocious, I guess the tone-deafness shouldn’t be a surprise. But Keighley’s direction is pretty lame anyway.

The best performance is easily Davis, though Sheridan eventually gets some good material (when she’s not just there to be Woolley’s stooge). Mitchell and Burke are both good. Travis is likable if weak. Mary Wickes is great as Woolley’s nurse; she manages to weather the film, which plays his cruel treatment of her entirely for laughs, with dignity.

As for Woolley… is he good as an utterly reprehensible jerk? Sure. Is there any point to watching almost two hours of it?

No.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by William Keighley; screenplay by Julius J. Epstein and Philip G. Epstein, based on the play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart; director of photography, Tony Gaudio; edited by Jack Killifer; music by Friedrich Hollaender; produced by Jack L. Warner; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Bette Davis (Maggie Cutler), Ann Sheridan (Lorraine Sheldon), Monty Woolley (Sheridan Whiteside), Richard Travis (Bert Jefferson), Jimmy Durante (Banjo), Billie Burke (Mrs. Ernest Stanley), Reginald Gardiner (Beverly Carlton), Elisabeth Fraser (June Stanley), Grant Mitchell (Mr. Ernest Stanley), George Barbier (Dr. Bradley), Mary Wickes (Miss Preen), Russell Arms (Richard Stanley), Ruth Vivian (Harriet), Edwin Stanley (John), Betty Roadman (Sarah), Charles Drake (Sandy), Nanette Vallon (Cosette) and John Ridgely (Radio Man).


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THIS POST IS PART OF THE 2015 SUMMER UNDER THE STARS BLOGATHON HOSTED BY KRISTEN OF JOURNEYS IN CLASSIC FILM.


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