Category Archives: Classics

Vicki (1953, Harry Horner)

Vicki is an object lesson in why not to cast against type. Richard Boone plays an obsessive, highly decorated police veteran who is also supposed to be wimpy (except, literally, when beating up helpless people). About the only time Boone isn’t absurd is when he’s stalking his suspects, breaking into their apartments, assaulting them. Then he makes sense. When he’s a punching bag for successful promotional agent Elliot Reid? Not so much.

The film opens with a montage of model Jean Peters’s advertisements all over New York City. The montage ends with the coroner taking Peters’s body out of her apartment. The next morning, Boone checks into a weird New Jersey motel and for a couple minutes it seems like the movie is going to be peculiar enough to be a lot of fun. But then Boone sees the newspaper stories about Peters and calls his boss to demand the case. He’s a man obsessed. And, even though he’s on a mandatory leave for being too intense, the boss lets him take the case.

Now it’s time for the flashbacks. At the police station, the cops are already sweating Reid, who’s one of the three suspects. It’s a really bad interrogation scene and doesn’t get much better when Boone arrives. It gets differently bad, which is sort of an improvement. All the actors playing the cops abusing Reid give lousy performances. Boone shows up—having already decided Reid is guilty—and wants to hear the whole story again.

While Reid kicks off one information dump, Peters’s sister, Jeanne Crain, comes into the station and gives her statement to the captain. Occasionally the movie will switch between flashbacks, Reid’s or Crain’s, but they never contradict. They’re the story of Peters getting famous because Reid and society columnist Max Showalter see her one night working in a cafeteria and decide she’s pretty enough to be famous. Reid’s actual intentions are anyone’s guess. He’s the prime suspect, Crain’s got a tragic crush on him (and no chemistry with him at all), while everyone thinks he’s in love with Peters, who he’s also got zero chemistry opposite. Reid’s not bad either. He’s fine doing the falsely accused man who might turn out to be the murderer still, he’s just not fine when he’s got to be a romantic lead.

For a while it seems like Showalter will be showing up to do a flashback, then maybe Alexander D’Arcy (as Reid’s talentless but beloved client and another Peters suitor). Only they don’t. Even though neither of them have alibis it turns out later.

Instead the movie stops with flashbacks—sending Peters off rather ingloriously given she’s ostensibly the point of the movie—and is instead just Boone trying to railroad Reid while Crain has to figure out if she’s going to help Reid or not. Because even though she’s supposed to be madly in love with him, she can’t even muster enough energy to be anything but indifferent to him.

Director Horner is not good with the actors. But given how completely off Boone is in the film, it also doesn’t seem like the actors having better direction would help anything. Especially since the mystery’s pretty dumb and a complete con job to manipulate the audience. Better script, better direction, better cast, maybe the film could get away with it. But not with what they’ve got.

Once Boone goes full crazy and physically assaults both Crain and Reid—he’s still justified as far as the department’s concerned here—Reid realizes he’s got to solve the murder himself, which leads to a one-off late second act flashback to remind when the movie was at least amusing. Showalter and Peters, in the flashbacks, appear to be having fun. No one has any fun in the present. They all seem miserable, which is appropriate for the story, sure… only Peters’s death doesn’t really seem to affect anyone. Other than presenting them with logistical problems.

Crain’s top-billed in the film, implying she’s going to have a lot to do. She doesn’t. She gets to moon over Reid, who’s the real lead. Then it’s Boone; Crain is a dragging third. Second-billed Peters has sort of a nice girl to femme fatale arc only she’s not really a femme fatale, she’s just opportunistic, which is the point. Crain’s first half of the picture, when she’s supposed to be mourning, scared of cops, scared of Reid, isn’t very good. Peters walks all over her in the flashback scenes, which feels like a strange balance (not just because Crain’s top-billed). It’s probably Horner’s fault, though Dwight Taylor’s script doesn’t do Crain or Peters any favors.

Vicki proudly gets an F on Bechdel.

Crain gets a lot better in the second half when she gets less to do, because having more to do in Vicki just hurts your performance. Reid’s uneven but compared to Boone’s crash-and-burn performance, almost anything would be fine. Not sure Reid’s ever believable as a successful promotion agent given he’s seemingly got no connections other than Showalter. But he’s more believable than Boone’s ostensibly nebbish copper. Peters’s arc is incomplete too.

But, hey, it ends better than expected.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Harry Horner; screenplay by Dwight Taylor, based on a novel by Steve Fisher; director of photography, Milton R. Krasner; edited by Dorothy Spencer; music by Leigh Harline; produced by Leonard Goldstein; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Elliott Reid (Steve Christopher), Jeanne Crain (Jill Lynn), Richard Boone (Lt. Ed Cornell), Max Showalter (Larry Evans), Alexander D’Arcy (Robin Ray), Aaron Spelling (Harry Williams), Carl Betz (Detective McDonald), and Jean Peters (Vicki Lynn).


This post is part of the Jeanne Crain Blogathon hosted by Christine Of Overture Books And Film.

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Rain (1932, Lewis Milestone)

Rain is an adaptation of an adaptation. Maxwell Anderson’s script is based on John Colton and Clemence Randolph’s stage script of a Somerset Maugham story. The story’s from 1921, the play first ran in 1922, Rain is from 1932. Maugham’s story is a first-person account, the play is not but does follow the original narrator, Rain does not. In Rain, he seems an afterthought, which is kind of the problem. Rain has a lot of good scenes and good moments. Director Milestone has a great time showing off camera movement and editing to convey their intensity. He’s also got a lot of excellent montage sequences (he and editor Duncan Mansfield go wild). But he doesn’t have a good sense of the story. Not how to tell it. He knows where it needs to be effective, but he doesn’t know how to keep the energy up between those scenes.

Rain is just over ninety minutes and the last fifteen or twenty minutes feel like an eternity. It just won’t hurry up and do something. In fact, it gets really low towards the end, only for the finish to save things. Luckily there’s enough drama to interest Milestone and there’s enough heavily veiled (pre-Code or not) material in the script for stars Joan Crawford and William Gargan to get some gristle. Rain works out; just. It might help if the ending didn’t just reveal yet another potentially more interesting character in the narrative to follow.

The film, play, story are about a working girl (Crawford) who ends up marooned—there’s cholera on the connecting ship—on a South Seas island with a crazy Christian reformer (Walter Huston). Gargan’s a marine stationed on the island’s naval base who takes a liking to Crawford, regardless of her past. Meanwhile, Huston and his good Christian wife Beulah Bondi set about trying to slut shame Crawford and then ruin her life. They’re all staying in American ex-pat Guy Kibbee’s general store and hotel. Matt Moore and Kendall Lee are another American couple, traveling with Huston and Bondi. Moore’s a doctor, going to be stationed where Huston and Bondi are traveling to missionary. Crawford’s also going there, which horrifies Bondi who gets Huston worked up. Moore’s out on the slut shaming, which you’d think might lead to some kind of scene where Lee talks to him but I’m not sure she ever does. Lee’s never anything but background. It’s a missed opportunity.

Moore’s lack of material is probably the only not missed opportunity in the picture, which is weird since he was the narrator of the short story and still had stuff to do in the stage version. Much of Rain is from Crawford’s perspective. Some of it is from Gargan’s. Some of it is from Kibbee’s. The balance is all way off. The way Milestone directs the film, it needs to be a lot more focused on one. Crawford’s got a pretty significant arc; while it does eventually work into a big pre-Code infer not elucidate, the film would’ve worked much better with a tight focus on her. But then the same goes for… Gargan, Kibbee, Bondi, Huston, probably Lee, probably not Moore. Bondi and Huston can’t be the protagonists because the film’s got a lot to say about Christian missionaries. Kibbee would make it a black comedy sitcom for most of it then something darker. Lee would’ve worked. Gargan would’ve been a little off too. And Milestone doesn’t care. He’s too busy with the great montage sequences and occasional deft camera move. The script isn’t in his sphere of interest.

Neither are the performances. Bondi spends the movie a caricature, which is a really bad move considering how things turn out. Huston’s a little too intense. He’s standoffish in his scenes with Crawford, who tries hard but the lack of insight into her character is the film’s biggest failing. Either way it could go, will she be saved or not, the film makes it about Huston being loud and determined not Crawford’s experience. What ought to be the film’s most striking scenes, when even Milestone realizes it’s time to go to close-ups on a stage adaptation, get tedious instead. Crawford and Huston’s performances just might incompatible. She’s got this long close-up with no dialogue as she starts to break down from his booming preaching and she’s great and the shot’s long enough to see how she’s great… but it doesn’t go anywhere. Instead, the movie drops her for a while so there can be a couple surprises.

Rain had all the parts, someone just needed to think about how to make the stage narrative into a film one. Someone like Milestone, who does a bunch of great stuff, he just doesn’t support his cast’s performances. At all. It ought to be an amazing part for Crawford, Huston, Gargan, maybe Kibbee. But no. Crawford, Gargan, and Kibbee weather it best. Huston eventually gets rained out.

Oh, and awesome bit part from Walter Catlet at the beginning.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Lewis Milestone; screenplay by Maxwell Anderson, based on a play by John Colton and Clemence Randolph and a story by W. Somerset Maugham; director of photography, Oliver T. Marsh; edited by Duncan Mansfield; music by Alfred Newman; released by United Artists.

Starring Joan Crawford (Sadie Thompson), William Gargan (Sergeant O’Hara), Guy Kibbee (Joe Horn), Walter Huston (Alfred Davidson), Beulah Bondi (Mrs. Davidson), Matt Moore (Dr. Macphail), Kendall Lee (Mrs. Macphail), and Walter Catlett (Quartermaster Bates).



Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956, Don Siegel)

The longest continuous stretch of Invasion of the Body Snatchers is about fifteen minutes (the film runs eighty). Small California city doctor Kevin McCarthy and his long-lost lady friend Dana Wynter have just spent the night holed up in his office, hiding from their neighbors, who have all been replaced by “pod people.” The pods are giant seedpods. They birth human facsimiles, down to scars, memories, and current injuries. They just don’t have any emotion. The evening before is another lengthy sequence, but not continuous like this fifteen minute one, which comes at the end of the second act. It doesn’t exactly end the second act because the third act is really wonky (Body Snatchers had just about as much studio post-production interference as a film can have, down to the studio literally cropping director Siegel and cinematographer Ellsworth Fredericks’s framing by ten percent).

After a big hint McCarthy and Wynter consummated their reuniting—it’s a shame McCarthy doesn’t get to talk about it, from his third scene in the film he’s constantly chatting up the ladies—the bad guys arrive and give McCarthy, Wynter, and the audience an information dump. It’s all about where the pods come from—outer space—and how McCarthy and Wynter are just going to love being passionless. Despite being a tell-all moment, the dump doesn’t feel like one. Daniel Mainwaring’s script is great—especially when characters get to monologue (save when Wynter gets lovey-dovey in an even more panicked moment)—and the actors’ not quite emotive enough delivery is perfect. Siegel does a great job directing his actors; at least the actors who matter. The occasional gas station attendant gets a pass.

As McCarthy and Wynter are faced with their loveless (sexless?) future, they start to break down before thinking their way out of the situation only to end up betrayed by their humanity and on the run into the mountains surrounding the town and, presumably, the third act.

But that third act is the wonky thing I mentioned before. See, Body Snatchers has a framing device—McCarthy telling disbelieving doctors and state troopers about what’s going on in his hometown. The pods have taken over, they’ve got to believe him, it’s almost too late to save everyone from being the same! Okay, he probably doesn’t say the thing about being the same at the beginning because part of the wonkiness is how much Body Snatchers just gives up on internal consistency. There’s three layers to the narrative. McCarthy on screen in the framing, McCarthy on screen in the flashback, McCarthy narrating the flashback (from the frame). The third, the narration, proves the most problematic in the third act. There are plot holes to jump over or at least to address and the narration plows over them instead. It’s a big missed opportunity, especially since it takes the film away from omnipresent protagonist McCarthy at the end.

Though it doesn’t help the frame already forces a protracted distance from McCarthy, which the narration and the actual story help to correct. Right up until the third act smacks it even further away than before.

The entire thing hinges on McCarthy. Body Snatchers isn’t about the fear of being replaced, it’s about the panic of being in danger. When the film starts and McCarthy is hearing about all the slightly weird stuff going on in town, people desperate to get an appointment then cancelling, kids not thinking their parents are their parents anymore, the opening has the audience primed for how it’s all going to play out. It plays out gradually, with recent divorcee McCarthy pursuing even recenter divorcee Wynter as fast as he can. He literally can’t keep his hands off of her. There’s the lovey dovey in the script and there’s some chemistry thanks to the direction, but you know McCarthy’s crazy about Wynter because McCarthy appears to be uncontrollably crazy about Wynter. And their romance subplot introduces some more information about the goings on before the first pod person shows up.

McCarthy’s pal, King Donovan, ruins their date because he’s found what appears to be a body and wants McCarthy to take a look at it. For a while, Donovan and Carolyn Jones (as his wife) are the main supporting leads. Because they’re panicked and they’re active so they end up around McCarthy. When it seems like Wynter isn’t going to be part of this core, McCarthy brings her into it. Very smart script, plotting-wise. Once McCarthy and Donovan start investigating, they’re going to discover missing bodies, strange gatherings in suburbia, and what’s better than dry martinis for putting on the steaks.

Because even though they’re in danger of being replaced by the pod people, they’re not going to miss out on steaks and martinis. It’s the fifties and they are Americans, after all. Panic can only drive you so far. If you skip martinis, the pod people win. And, somehow, magnificently, it all works. When Body Snatchers is being quiet about the culture it’s portraying, it excels. When it tries to explain what that portrayal means… the opposite. Are the “pod people”—who are without love, desire, ambition, faith—stand-ins for communists? Stand-ins for McCarthyists (no relation)? McCarthy (actor Kevin) apparently thought it was a comment on “Madison Avenue”-types. But it seems like something, only it’s really unfocused and the narration plays directly against what’s described and portrayed in the action. By the end, McCarthy is just ranting nonsensically, not because he’s panicked, not because he’s exhausted, but because the script doesn’t have the answer.

Excellent acting from McCarthy throughout, with really strong support from Donovan and Larry Gates. Jones is good. Wynter is… often good, sometimes thin. She’s got too much of an English accent, which the film explains by her living in England for five years but… really?

Jean Willes and Virginia Christine are good in the other two biggest roles. Most of the townsfolk, pod or not, are background.

Great direction from Siegel. You wish you could see the other ten percent of his framing. There are a lot of night exteriors and Fredericks’s photography on them is glorious. Fredericks’s photography is superb throughout, but those night shots are exceptional.

Good enough score from Carmen Dragon, good enough editing from Robert S. Eisen.

Great production design from Ted Haworth.

Even with the three times clunky finish—even without the framing device, it’s impossible to imagine what the film would play like without the added narration and since that narration screws up the third act, there’s not a lot going right outside the spectacular technical filmmaking-Invasion of the Body Snatchers is exquisite. It’s a step higher than almost great (so pretty great?). It just should and could be better. And—rather frustratingly—would have been better, had the studio just kept their hands off it.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Don Siegel; screenplay by Daniel Mainwaring, based on a story by Jack Finney; director of photography, Ellsworth Fredericks; edited by Robert S. Eisen; music by Carmen Dragon; production designer, Ted Haworth; released by Allied Artists.

Starring Kevin McCarthy (Dr. Miles J. Bennell), Dana Wynter (Becky Driscoll), Larry Gates (Dr. Danny Kauffman), King Donovan (Jack Belicec), Carolyn Jones (Teddy Belicec), Jean Willes (Sally Withers), Ralph Dumke (Police Chief Nick Grivett), Virginia Christine (Wilma Lentz), and Tom Fadden (Uncle Ira Lentz).


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Secret People (1952, Thorold Dickinson)

Secret People is a very peculiar propaganda picture. It’s mostly set in 1937, almost entirely involving Italian immigrants, and it’s very pro-British. The film downplays the idea fascist regimes are dangerous (fascist regimes in 1937, remember) while getting behind the idea of doing whatever the British government says, even if what they say is appease. Or don’t not appease. Secret People, if it had been made in 1938 and not 1951, would have been very pro-Chamberlain. Only it’s not from 1938, it’s from 1951 so there’s seemingly got to be a reason director and co-writer Dickinson is so wishy-washy. Because the propaganda of Secret People isn’t about a fascist Italian general (Hugo Schuster) killing an Italian Gandhi-type, but about how anti-fascist groups are bad and you should rat them out to the cops. The cops who will then use you as bait to catch the anti-fascists and almost get everyone you know killed because they kind of meander when it comes to dangerous work. Literal tea time and that sort of thing.

So it’s weird propaganda. And the finale is problematic. Dickinson desperately tries to go for melodrama and heart strings and kind of fails at both. It’s a strange failure too because the direction’s nothing special. Dickinson and cinematographer Gordon Dines fill the relatively mundane film with a bunch of great sequences, only to screw up the most important one. It needn’t be the most important sequence of the film; it’s the script’s most important moment (and the script fails) because the last third of the film is a bit of a mess. But even that messy third, right until the last scene, is at least rather well-made. Dickinson knows how to direct the script, he just doesn’t really know how to write it. And he’s got a great cast.

The film opens in 1930, with Italian immigrant to Britain Charles Goldner finding out his old friend, the aforementioned Italian Gandhi-type, is sending his daughters to Goldner for their safety. Turns out news of their father’s execution beats them to England, they just don’t know. So very, very heavy stuff, with Goldner doing a great job comforting mostly older sister Valentina Cortese. The younger sister, as soon as the film jumps ahead, is going to be Audrey Hepburn. Until then, the younger sister is pretty much off screen.

The time jump is seven years. It starts with Cortese, now working in Goldner’s cafe (and helping make it more successful), and Hepburn, now Hepburn (and, we’ll soon find out, an aspiring dancer), getting their legal British citizenship status. Like good immigrants. There’s even a line about how British only like good immigrants who don’t start trouble. At the time, it seems like the guy saying it is supposed to be a xenophobic dick but maybe he’s not? At least, not on reflection after watching the rest of the picture.

Anyway, Cortese sees a poster advertising Schuster coming to the UK on a speaking tour. Got to hear both sides of the fascist nationalist debates, after all. Again, at the time, it seems like Secret People is anti-Schuster, anti-fascist. Because, after all, he did murder Cortese and Hepburn’s wonderful dad.

Goldner sees Cortese is upset and decides—thanks to them being legal residents—it’s time to go to Paris for the weekend. In Paris, Cortese runs into her old paramour (Serge Reggiani) who has become a dashing international journalist. Only he’s not really a journalist, he’s an anti-fascist resistance fighter. And he tells his people he can get Cortese to help them assassinate Schuster.

Meanwhile Cortese just thinks she’s found the love of her life again and Hepburn is about to break out in at a society function doing a dance solo. Goldner, however, he can tell there’s something up with Reggiani. And so begins the thriller. It turns out to be a very different kind of thriller, a deliberately paced one, with some great direction from Dickinson and some fine writing. But the picture’s all about Cortese and her performance. It’s phenomenal. Until the third act when everything gets a little too silly, then it’s just good but they’ve also taken the movie away from her so whatever she can do is something.

For most of its runtime, Secret People doesn’t just succeed in spite of its weird propaganda elements, it excels, all thanks to Cortese’s performance, the peculiar plotting, the strong direction. But Cortese holds it all together. The other performances are all strong, they just don’t make the film work. Cortese makes the whole thing work, whether it’s her romance with Reggiani, her protective and supportive sister stuff with Hepburn, her vulnerable but not relationship with Goldner; all of it.

Goldner’s good, though he gets less and less to do as the action moves on. Hepburn’s good; she gets some great moments, but not a great character arc. At least not on screen. Her strongest scenes are when her mostly off-screen arc breaks through to the main action. She doesn’t really get to do much character development; after all, she’s just going to be caricatured so Dickinson can get the ending he wants.

Reggiani’s uneven, but convincingly horny as he’s always trying to seduce Cortese until it’s time to give her a bomb. In a better version of Secret People, Reggiani’s character would be just as important as Cortese’s. But in this one, he’s not. So the uneven rarely matters.

Megs Jenkins is great as Goldner’s live-in cafe employee and maybe housekeeper. It’s unclear what she does in either the cafe or the living quarters, but Jenkins does all of it rather well.

Secret People is shockingly good, considering all its big problems; sometimes excellent direction from Dickinson, the surprising storyline, and the leads’ acting makes the difference.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Thorold Dickinson; screenplay by Christianna Brand, Dickinson, and Wolfgang Wilhelm, based on a story by Dickinson and Joyce Cary; director of photography, Gordon Dines; edited by Peter Tanner; music by Roberto Gerhard; produced by Sidney Cole; released by General Film Distributors Ltd.

Starring Valentina Cortese (Maria), Serge Reggiani (Louis), Charles Goldner (Anselmo), Audrey Hepburn (Nora), Megs Jenkins (Penny), Irene Worth (Miss Jackson), Reginald Tate (Inspector Eliot), and Hugo Schuster (General Galbern).



THIS POST IS PART OF THE AUDREY AT 90: THE SALUTE TO AUDREY HEPBURN BLOGATHON HOSTED BY JANET OF SISTER CELLULOID.


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