Category Archives: Classics

The Reckless Moment (1949, Max Ophüls)

The Reckless Moment is self-indulgent. But in a remarkable way. A remarkable and good way. Director Ophüls and star Joan Bennett both find a way to get at the core of the story, which is a very limited character study of Bennett. The film is occasionally fantastic and sensational—though never melodramatic, even in the plotting—as upper-class Bennett gets involved with scumbag James Mason. Sure, he’s cultured and charming because he’s James Mason, but he’s Irish; he’s cultured and charming in a decidedly not WASP-enough way. But it’s always just about Bennett trying to manage her life.

Bennett and family live on Balboa Island, a nouveau riche Los Angeles suburb. Besides Bennett, there’s father-in-law Henry O’Neill, there’s all-American tween son David Bair, there’s art school daughter Geraldine Brooks. There’s also the maid, played by Frances E. Williams (a Black woman), who doesn’t even get credited even though she’s in every third scene with lines so thanks for the ick 1949.

Williams is important too.

Anyway.

The movie opens with Bennett heading into L.A. unexpectedly to meet with Shepperd Strudwick in a cheap motel. Not like that. In the closed bar, in one of the many scenes in Moment where screenwriters Henry Garson and Robert Soderberg give the film just a little bit of detail and Ophüls and his crew are able to amp it up. Lots of individual parts firing just right is what makes Moment such a special success. Because it’s also very noir-y. But also not.

Sorry—back to Strudwick. He’s carrying on with seventeen year-old daughter Brooks—she’ll be eighteen next month he tells Bennett during their initial confrontation. He’s one of the low class people Brooks has met because artists and he’s willing to give her up for cash money, something Brooks doesn’t want to hear from her mother when Bennett gets back. Family drama and some really effective lighter scenes between Bennett and son Bair ensue—Bennett having to single parent Bair gives her a lot of subtle character development. Consistently too. It’s always good. Because Bennett, Ophüls, the screenwriters.

Dad is a post-WWII civil engineer who’s making a fortune—presumably—traveling the globe and rebuilding war-torn countries with U.S. Steel. It’s important because it’s American and a success story. Bennett very knowingly, very deliberately revels in her class status and the privileges it brings. She wouldn’t initially be so sympathetic if daughter Brooks weren’t so obviously in the wrong and beau Strudwick so obviously a creep. Brooks is Moment’s weakest performance, by a lot. She’s all right by the end, but she’s a disaster before Bennett starts having to be a mama lion.

And Bennett has to be a mama lion because it turns out Strudwick’s a gambling man and he just can’t win. As collateral, he’s provided loanshark slash blackmailer slash general scumbag James Mason with all seventeen year-old Brooks’s love letters. They could ruin her. In more ways than one it turns out. Enough so Bennett has to deal with Mason at the same time she tries to deal with the Strudwick situation and get the house ready for Christmas. Reckless Moment has a very short present action. It’s a tight, noir-y thriller. Only it’s a character study, which is what makes it so special.

Bennett dips her toe in the water of disrepute and it doesn’t just fill her life with it, it changes how she experiences her life because of the new situations it brings. It turns out to be an awesome role for Bennett.

It’s a fairly good role for Mason too. He’s got his own subplot about crushing on Bennett, which she doesn’t know about and wouldn’t believe if she did. The only time Mason’s off is when he lays on the Irish too much, usually when he’s talking about Ireland, which isn’t too often. Not sure why Mason’s top-billed, other than patriarchy (though Bennett’s character would clearly approve of the man getting top billing… by would she by the end?).

Good supporting cast: O’Neill’s fine as the father-in-law, Bair’s amusing, Williams’s really good, Brooks’s uneven but comes out all right by the end, Strudwick’s appropriately scuzzy. Great black and white photography from Burnett Guffey. Nice editing and music (Gene Havlick and Hans J. Salter, respectively). Bennett’s house is absurdly big, but Frank Tuttle’s set decoration does a lot for the picture.

The Reckless Moment is short, quiet, and rather good.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Max Ophüls; screenplay by Henry Garson and Robert Soderberg, based on an adaptation by Mel Dinelli and Robert E. Kent and a story by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding; director of photography, Burnett Guffey; edited by Gene Havlick; music by Hans J. Salter; produced by Walter Wanger; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Joan Bennett (Lucia Harper), James Mason (Martin Donnelly), Geraldine Brooks (Beatrice Harper), David Bair (David Harper), Frances E. Williams (Sybil), Henry O’Neill (Tom Harper), and Shepperd Strudwick (Ted Darby).



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The Heiress (1949, William Wyler)

My favorite moment in The Heiress is when Olivia de Havilland has a slight tremor, watching someone walk away after she’s just told them off. It’s this fantastic glimpse into her character. The film has something of a double twist ending, so it’s going to be hard to talk around various spoilers but suffice it to say de Havilland’s always got her guard up. You just don’t realize how guarded—shielded might be the better term—until later in the film. de Havilland goes through the film without a real confidant; there’s no opportunity to address de Havilland’s perception of the events. There are the occasional minor reveals in dialogue to provide character texture, nothing more. Otherwise, you’ve just got to trust de Havilland and director Wyler, without much to go on in the former’s case.

Wyler’s visibly breaking his ass from the start to do everything just right, however. Heiress is a play adaptation (of a novel) and de Havilland’s home is the main setting—with some big field trips away—but the house is the thing. Wyler and cinematographer Leo Tover compose these constrained, framed shots, which can’t be claustrophobic because de Havilland’s doesn’t feel trapped in the house. Quite the opposite, but Wyler and Tover still have to contend with the physical realities. Luckily the house is big enough and the floor plan’s right they can use tilts, drawing the audience’s attention to the importance of the passive information those shots cover.

It’s important later when characters are being (possibly) duplicitous and their body language is important. Heiress could open with a disclaimer informing the audience to watch people’s hands or they’re going to miss big plot moments.

Heiress runs almost two hours and the first ninety minutes or so has its own three act structure, based on the characters’ expectations. It starts with de Havilland getting ready for a party. It’s 1850, she’s the unmarried daughter of wealthy doctor Ralph Richardson, her mother is long dead and Richardson has done a crap job raising de Havilland for a combination of reasons but they mostly boil down, generally, to men are trash and, specifically, Richardson is an egomaniac. So his devil goatee is perfect. His sister, Miriam Hopkins, is a recent widow and has come to live with them, giving de Havilland a friend (though not confidant). Hopkins encourages de Havilland, something Richardson never does.

de Havilland’s shy, socially awkward, funny, smart, thoughtful, and kind. No one cares about those things in 1850, unfortunately; she’s supposed to be glamorous and sharp-witted. There’s some suggestion de Havilland’s the ugly duckling daughter of a famed beauty (who Richardson still blathers about), but basically she’s a “plain Jane” because she doesn’t pluck her eyebrows.

Enter Montgomery Clift, charming, well-spoken, and broke. It’s 1850 so it’s still possible to turn your blood blue in a single generation but Clift is more interested in enjoying life then working. He starts courting de Havilland, who’s immediately enamored because Clift’s a stone fox, but Richardson thinks he’s a gold digger. Clift’s interiority gets just as little reveal as de Havilland’s, which is important later on. Hopkins is on Clift’s side, which encourages de Havilland. For ninety minutes, Heiress is mostly about their courtship and its result. The last thirty isn’t epilogue but a complete readjustment of the narrative structure. The characters (and audience) thought the story was one thing, but it’s really another. Great work from Wyler on making that transition successful. Subtle and nimble.

Great performances from the four principals. The characters are constrained by “society” decorum, affecting options, decisions, reactions. Outside the box thinking is never an actual possibility so it’s never discussed but it’s considered and only in the actors’ expressions (or body language). Heiress is never a stagy play adaptation, but it’s still very much a stage adaptation. Wyler showcases the actors’ essaying of the roles, getting into the minutiae of the performances.

So they’ve got to be great.

And they are. de Havilland’s the best. She’s got an exceptionally difficult arc. Clift’s excellent, Richardson’s excellent, Hopkins is excellent. Even though it’s prime showcase for Clift, he doesn’t get the range of material as Richardson. And Hopkins gets all the subtly, because she’s all in on 1850s society thinking and she needs the world to make sense in those constraints.

Great photography from Tover, nice cutting from William Hornbeck; Harry Horner’s production design is key. And the Aaron Copland score is wonderful. Even if he didn’t really do all of it (Heiress had some behind-the-scenes turmoil). The screenplay, by Ruth Goetz and Augustus Goetz (who also wrote the source play), is excellent. Wyler, obviously, does superb work.

The Heiress is outstanding.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by William Wyler; screenplay by Ruth Goetz and Augustus Goetz, based on their play and a novel by Henry James; director of photography, Leo Tover; edited by William Hornbeck; music by Aaron Copland; production designer, Harry Horner; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Olivia de Havilland (Catherine Sloper), Montgomery Clift (Morris Townsend), Ralph Richardson (Dr. Austin Sloper), Miriam Hopkins (Lavinia Penniman), Vanessa Brown (Maria), and Betty Linley (Mrs. Montgomery).



Hungry Hill (1947, Brian Desmond Hurst)

I have never read Hungry Hill: The Novel, but even before I finished watching Hungry Hill: The Film, I’d decided it’s one of the worst novel-to-film adaptations. It’s impossible know what point novel author Daphne Du Maurier was trying to make but it didn’t come through in the film. If she was even just going for an engaging yarn, it didn’t come through. If she was even just going for rank, trite melodrama, it didn’t come through. Hungry Hill: The Film, which is dropping the subtitle from here on, isn’t even successfully melodramatic. It’s not successfully anything.

And maybe the weirdest thing about the film and it being an unsuccessful adaptation is the co-screenwriters… Du Maurier co-wrote the screenplay. She helped gut (based on my read of a synopsis online) her novel and reduce it to….

Not drivel (not exactly). But to the muck. She helped reduce it to the muck.

The first hour ends up being a love triangle between top-billed Margaret Lockwood and brothers Dennis Price and Michael Denison. It doesn’t start as a love triangle involving Lockwood, who takes forever to finally arrive and then doesn’t make things any better. The not better things are Price and Denison’s dad, Cecil Parker; he’s an asshole who pits his kids against each other but clearly favors Denison. Price ends up being the protagonist though, so Parker’s favor means little. Lockwood likes Denison because… he’s rich? At least with Price, she can like his unrestrained passion—Price and Lockwood share some of the flattest, most passionless movie kisses ever caught on celluloid. Especially since Lockwood’s supposed to be a big-time flirt. She’s just a big-time flirt who has zero interest in kissing.

For a while there are also two sisters—Jean Simmons and Barbara Waring. Waring’s around for background scenery and Simmons is there to give Price a chance to be a cool guy even though Parker hates him and Lockwood prefers his brother.

Once the film starts jumping ahead six months every two scenes, it’s only a matter of time before Simmons is presumably going to age out. She’s supposed to be the kid sister, after all. The film ingloriously dumps her and Waring, then remembers to start putting Parker in some old age makeup.

The last thirty or so minutes of Hungry Hill is all about the next heir, Dermot Walsh, clashing with grandfather Parker while mom Lockwood shields him from accountability. The film has lots of time jumps in this last thirty, but they’re rarely identified. Walsh never has to put on old age makeup, though I think his hair style changes. It’s all about him being a self-destructive blue blood alcoholic prick who’s in love with his brother’s fiancée (Eileen Herlie), who leads him on whenever the opportunity presents. There’s like one scene with Herlie and Lockwood (who’s in a bunch of old age makeup but’s still glamorous) and if they’d just chuck the script and have it about them rolling dudes in Monte Carlo or something… well, Hungry Hill would be saved.

Alas, no.

Hungry Hill is a multi-generational family epic with no interest in the family or the epic. The time it spends on Price and Lockwood’s… whatever isn’t just absent chemistry, it’s also narratively pointless given the third act. Again, whatever Du Maurier’s point for the story, for her 400-ish page novel, it never comes across. There’s a whole warring families thing between blue blood Parker and working class Arthur Sinclair but it’s never dramatic, which is an astounding failure given how the plot perturbs. It’s all over the title hill, where Parker is putting in a copper mine. Sinclair’s family used to own the land but Parker got it somehow because blue blood vs. working class. The kicker is Parker doesn’t even need the mine’s profits. He just wants to mine. Parker’s thoughtless, exploitative capitalist scum, Sinclair’s an annoying dick. Not exactly the fight of the century.

Price is likable and gives the film’s de facto best performance. Simmons is likable but she’s just there to prop up the mens. Walsh is terrible. Lockwood’s all right, all things considered. All right over all. She’s really boring at the beginning. Director Hurst seems to think her cleavage is the most important thing about her character. Parker’s bad. They’re all playing badly drawn caricatures. The film’s got no time for character development. The first act doesn’t skip months and years every scene but it tends to skip days and weeks. And it’s not like the actors get any help from Hurst, whose direction lacks even the wooden passion of the film’s kisses.

Real quick about Hurst. His direction is pretty bad, but some of it seems to be a lack of budget. At some point there just aren’t any exteriors available and establishing shots are rare—there’s always a lot at the mine though, like it’s the only real exterior they could shoot on. Hurst can show enthusiasm, however. For the fist fights. The film’s got two brawls and one mano a mano. Hurst all of a sudden remembers he can shoot things on an angle when the fists fly. Terrible, terrible angles.

Desmond Dickinson’s photography isn’t very good. Alan Jaggs’s editing makes no impression and is therefor fine. John Greenwood’s music starts out all right but gets utterly detached from the onscreen “drama.” It’s like Greenwood didn’t see the movie. Lucky him.

Hungry Hill does get one interested in the novel, if only to see what it was supposed to be like, though the film version might curse—oh, yeah, there’s a pointless Irish curse thing—anyway, the film version might curse the well. The hill. Doesn’t matter: the hill is an utterly unmemorable peak on a matte painting.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Brian Desmond Hurst; screenplay by Francis Crowdy, Terence Young, and Daphne Du Maurier, based on the novel by Du Maurier; director of photography, Desmond Dickinson; edited by Alan Jaggs; music by John Greenwood; produced by William Sistrom; released by General Film Distributors.

Starring Margaret Lockwood (Fanny Rosa), Dennis Price (Greyhound John Brodrick), Dermot Walsh (Wild Johnnie Brodrick), Cecil Parker (Copper John Brodrick), Michael Denison (Henry Brodrick), Jean Simmons (Jane Brodrick), Barbara Waring (Barbara Brodrick), Dan O’Herlihy (Harry Brodrick), Eileen Herlie (Katherine), Arthur Sinclair (Morty Donovan), Michael Golden (Sam Donovan), Siobhan McKenna (Kate Donovan), and F.J. McCormick (Old Tim).



It Happened Tomorrow (1944, René Clair)

At first blush—with the way too obvious exception of Jack Oakie—It Happened Tomorrow seemingly has all the parts needed for success. Seemingly. Dick Powell’s an affable lead; only the role requires no heavy-lifting, which is problematic considering he spends much of the film in one mortal danger or another. Linda Darnell’s an appealing love interest; only she gets less than squat to do in the film. Director Clair does really well with some of the sequences; only other ones he doesn’t. Powell and Darnell are at least consistent—he’s consistently affable and his role consistently requires very little, she’s consistently appealing and she consistently gets treated like scenery. Sometimes inanimate scenery. Clair’s frustratingly back and forth.

Tomorrow has some really saccharine bookends, which Clair and co-screenwriter Dudley Nichols sort of bungle. It goes on way too long, it’s never as cute as Clair seems to think, and it’s just there to manipulate audience expectation. The film then settles into the flashback setting—the late nineteenth century (as embodied by studio backlot) newspaperman Powell has just gotten his big promotion to reporter. He’s written his requisite 500 obituaries, it’s time for the front page. Only he’s nervous about it (and completely blotto); kindly newspaper archivist John Philliber talks fancifully about how if only Powell had tomorrow’s paper, he’d know what he was going to do. Powell doesn’t think much of it and goes out for more drinking, ending up at Oakie and Darnell’s magic show.

It’s love at first sight for Powell and Darnell (well, Powell anyway). Oakie’s her protective uncle, who starts the film with a bad Italian accent, which later disappears without any comment because apparently he’s not actually Italian. It never gets mentioned but it’s also not like you could tell if Oakie was doing a bad sincere Italian accent or a bad insincere one. His performance is abysmal. It must have played different in 1944 because Clair lets him crowd everyone out of his scenes with these protracted deliveries. They never amount to anything. The main plot is Powell and the future newspapers Philliber (who’s not good) ends up giving him, but the ostensible main subplot about Powell and Darnell becomes Powell and Oakie. Once Darnell gets some potential, the film dumps her back into the set dressing category.

At least guys aren’t just ogling her then.

Everyone’s ignoring her. I’m not even sure she’s in some of the shots she’s supposedly in. At one point she doesn’t get to participate in Powell trying to get rich quick because nineteenth century sexism but it’s a movie about magical newspapers so why can’t Clair and Nichols let her into the betting room?

Because there’s not enough room. Because Oakie’s already pushing Powell out.

The first half or so Tomorrow is okay build-up; the second half is constant disappointment.

Edward Brophy has a small part as the betting guy and you wish you could hug him. The film doesn’t have very many wholly successful performances, big parts or small. For example, Edgar Kennedy ought to be great as the police inspector who knows something’s up with Powell and his fortuneteller reporting-style, but it’s—again—a lousy part.

There are a couple great moments in the film. Powell and Darnell’s first date, where they get distracted by their chemistry. And when Darnell’s got to wear one of Powell’s suits. There’s some promise in that scene. Shame Darnell gets downgraded right after it.

The scene where she protests she won’t be treated like anyone’s property then somehow gets treated even worse is foreboding, but even it doesn’t foretell the excessive use of Oakie in the second half.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by René Clair; screenplay by Helene Fraenkel, Dudley Nichols, and Clair, based on a play by Lord Dunsany and a story by Hugh Wedlock Jr. and Howard Snyder; directors of photography, Eugen Schüfftan and Archie Stout; edited by Fred Pressburger; music by Robert Stolz; produced by Arnold Pressburger; released by United Artists.

Starring Dick Powell (Lawrence Stevens), Linda Darnell (Sylvia), Jack Oakie (Cigolini), Edgar Kennedy (Inspector Mulrooney), John Philliber (Pop Benson), and George Cleveland (Mr. Gordon).


This post is part of the Made in 1944 Blogathon hosted by Robin of Pop Culture Reverie.