Category Archives: ★★★

The Scapegoat (1959, Robert Hamer)

Despite Bette Davis playing a French dowager countess, The Scapegoat always feels very British. It’s probably exaggerated a little because it takes place in France, features mostly British people (save American Irene Worth) playing French people. Nicole Maurey is the only actual French person in the film, certainly the only one with a French accent. It draws some attention to her and how little she fits with the rest of the film, but it somehow works pretty well, which the film acknowledges enough to take for granted.

Scapegoat is also a little strange because it’s a character study of lead Alec Guinness, who’s in the middle of a peculiar mystery. The film opens with Guinness arriving in France on holiday; he’s a bored bachelor school teacher who’s given up on doing anything but teaching French to rich little British snots. He goes to France every year for the holiday and this time he’s thinking of just staying. He gets his wish in the form of… Alec Guinness. See, turns out Guinness has a French double and his double is a French nobleman who’s got land, title, and a whole bunch of debt. French Guinness is also at least a sociopath and always up to some kind of no good, having—it turns out—just ducked out on wife Worth after she’s suffered a miscarriage, but he also skipped out on mistress Maurey. Neither woman ends up getting an explanation because when Guinness gets home to his estate, he’s not French Guinness, he’s British Guinness. The double got him pass out drunk, switched places, disappeared.

Going forward—British Guinness is always going to be Guinness and French Guinness is always going to be French Guinness. So Guinness doesn’t really get particularly interested in why French Guinness has changed places with him, as life on the estate is an unhappy mess. French Guinness had left under the pretense he’d had a schizophrenic mental breakdown and needed to go to Paris to party. As much as any Alec Guinness, French or otherwise, is going to party. All by himself. No families, mistresses, doctors. And nobody except daughter Annabel Bartlett really seemed to care. But Guinness Guinness is overwhelmed at all the double has around him. He’s got a great kid, a sympathetic wife, a mistress, an estate, a failing but beloved business, and a cranky but not actually dangerous bedridden mum, Davis. Guinness tries to fix French Guinness’s life, which is the character study. But there’s still the mystery. Even if Guinness doesn’t acknowledge it.

That mystery comes back in the last twenty minutes of the film. The first twenty minutes are kind of slow, the next fifty breeze, the last twenty are a little awkward. Guinness is never appropriately suspicious, there’s not enough with Bartlett in the finale, and the resolution is too abrupt. Those reasons, more than everyone speaking with a British accent save Maurey, are why the film feels so British. It’s almost like director Hamer is trying to direct a slightly different, more comedic mystery script while the script is actually trying not to be comedic or mysterious. Only Hamer wrote the script; based on a Gore Vidal adaptation of the novel. So I want to assume it’s Vidal who turned it into this character study but who knows. Because, based on a summary, the novel sounds a bit more melodramatic.

It works out pretty well in the end, all things considered, but just makes it.

Guinness is phenomenal. The script gives him these great quiet reflection scenes without any narration—his narration is always matter-of-fact and goes away after a while; his reflection scenes are always beyond subtle. He’s exceptionally patient. Then as French Guinness, he’s got this subtle character arc, which the script sort of hints at but Guinness takes it a different direction. It’s rather good.

The special effects putting Guinness on screen twice are all good. Hamer never goofs off too much with it. He’s got an enthusiastic workman quality to his direction here, with cinematographer Paul Beeson helping a bit, and the special effects scenes are just the same. It’s not a gimmick, it’s a scene.

Of the supporting performances, Davis’s is the most fun. She’s got maybe three scenes and manages to imply a character arc. Bartlett’s performance is the most important because she’s the reason Guinness gets so interested. See, French Guinness—despite driving her into town each week for a music lesson (but really so he could go see Maurey)—he always wanted a boy. Guinness has no such prejudice. He also doesn’t have any animosity with Worth, which French Guinness seemed to have cultivated. Worth’s fine. She rarely gets time enough to develop her character. Pamela Brown has a really good scene opposite “brother” Guinness (she’s otherwise background). So all the acting is good or better.

The Scapegoat just has tone problems the conclusion doesn’t resolve satisfactorily enough, which… seems very British to me.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Robert Hamer; screenplay by Hamer, adaptation by Gore Vidal, based on the novel by Daphne Du Maurier; director of photography, Paul Beeson; edited by Jack Harris; music by Bronislau Kaper; production designer, Elliot Scott; produced by Michael Balcon; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Alec Guinness (John Barratt), Annabel Bartlett (Marie-Noel), Nicole Maurey (Bela), Irene Worth (Francoise), Geoffrey Keen (Gaston), Noel Howlett (Dr. Aloin), Peter Bull (Aristide), Pamela Brown (Blanche), and Bette Davis (The Countess).

THIS POST IS PART OF THE FOURTH ANNUAL BETTE DAVIS BLOGATHON HOSTED BY CRYSTAL OF IN THE GOOD OLD DAYS OF CLASSIC HOLLYWOOD.


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The Emperor’s Candlesticks (1937, George Fitzmaurice)

The Emperor’s Candlesticks starts with an exceptional display of chemistry from Robert Young and Maureen O’Sullivan. They’re at the opera, it’s the late nineteenth century, it’s a masked costume ball, Young is a Grand Duke dressed as Romeo, and O’Sullivan is the sun.

Then it turns out O’Sullivan is working with a bunch of Polish nationalists who want to kidnap Young and ransom him for a political prisoner getting a pardon from the Czar (Young’s dad). Young and O’Sullivan aren’t the leads of the picture, the leads of the picture are William Powell and Luise Rainer. Powell’s an ostensibly apolitical Polish noble who’s more interested in philandering than revolting, Rainer’s a Russian noble who’s a professional spy. So Powell gets the mission to bring Young’s letter to the Czar and get the prisoner freed. Simultaneously, Rainer’s compatriots have discovered Powell’s actually a spy too. So she’s charged with bringing evidence of his treachery to St. Petersburg.

They both have a mutual acquaintance in Henry Stephenson, who wants Powell to take a pair of candlesticks to a Russian princess Stephenson is courting. The candlesticks have this awesome hidden compartment and Powell’s more than happy to do Stephenson the favor, since the hidden compartment is perfect for the letter he’s got to transport.

Powell gets ahead of himself and puts the note in before taking possession of the candlesticks, which Stephenson wants to have delivered to Powell at the train station. Seems like everything’s going to be fine, until—just missing Powell—Rainer pays Stephenson a visit and he can’t resist showing her the hidden compartment either. Powell’s worried about getting his document into Russia, Rainer’s worried about getting her documents out of Poland. It doesn’t take much for Rainer to charm Stephenson into letting her deliver the candlesticks to his lady friend. Rainer puts her documents in the other candlestick; they’re distinguished by some slight damage.

So there’s already the trouble—for Powell—of catching up to Rainer and getting at the candlesticks. But then there’s Bernadine Hayes, Rainer’s maid, who’s let thief Donald Kirke talk her into robbing her mistress of her jewelry… and her candlesticks. So then there’s going to be trouble for everyone, leading to a sometimes joint effort from Powell and Rainer, sometimes separate, across the continent. Powell’s mission has a timeline (the prisoner’s execution is set and, therefore, Young’s is as well).

Powell and Rainer falling in love doesn’t help things, especially for her, since she knows about her mission and its repercussions for Powell (he’ll be arrested, then shot by firing squad), while Powell is just trying to make sure neither the prisoner or the Grand Duke run out of time.

Powell and Rainer falling for each other pretty early, which works out well because they’ve got to bring enough chemistry to overshadow the memory of Young and O’Sullivan’s at the beginning. They do, with Rainer doing the heavier lifting as she’s falling for a man she’s condemning, but the film’s got to keep that angle pretty light—Powell’s whole persona in the picture is based on him not acting at all like a secret agent, but a playboy, including when he’s hustling to get the candlesticks. He’s doing it—he tells Rainer—because as a gentleman he should be aiding a lady in distress. Little does he know he’s causing Rainer a great deal more distress than she anticipated.

With the exception of Frank Morgan’s out-of-place introduction (he’s Young’s sidekick, in and out of captivity), Candlesticks is a joyous. Powell and Rainer are wonderful, O’Sullivan and Young are great, Stephenson’s fun. Morgan’s a little much but not enough to hurt the experience. And Morgan’s fine, he just takes up time Young could be spending with O’Sullivan.

Fitzmaurice’s direction is good. Every once in a while Candlesticks will go to second unit exteriors, which gives it a nice scale. With the exception of a (second unit-fueled) montage sequence, Conrad A. Nervig’s editing is poor. Lots of harsh cuts, a handful of severe jump cuts. Some of it is lack of coverage, but Nervig doesn’t have a good rhythm. Luckily the actors are so good and the Harold Goldman and Monckton Hoffe script is so strong, Nervig’s rough editing doesn’t do much damage. It’s occasionally grating.

Otherwise, the film’s technically solid.

Thanks to Powell and Rainer (and Young and O’Sullivan), The Emperor’s Candlesticks is a constant delight.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by George Fitzmaurice; screenplay by Harold Goldman and Monckton Hoffe, based on a novel by Baroness Emmuska Orczy; director of photography, Harold Rosson; edited by Conrad A. Nervig; music by Franz Waxman; produced by John W. Considine Jr.; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring William Powell (Baron Stephan Wolensky), Luise Rainer (Countess Olga Mironova), Robert Young (Grand Duke Peter), Maureen O’Sullivan (Maria Orlich), Bernadene Hayes (Mitzi Reisenbach), Donald Kirke (Anton), Frank Morgan (Col. Baron Suroff), and Henry Stephenson (Prince Johann).


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THIS FILM IS ALSO DISCUSSED IN SUM UP | LUISE RAINER: AN INCOMPLETE FILMOGRAPHY.

The Maltese Falcon (1931, Roy Del Ruth)

Not to be too obvious, but I really wasn’t expecting a twist ending for The Maltese Falcon. But only because I’ve… read the book, seen the 1941 version, seen spoofs of it; I sort of figured I’d be able to guess the plot turns. And I did, right up until the end, when Falcon shows its been doing an entirely different kind of subterfuge than usual. The film even takes a moment to acknowledge that twist and take a bit of a bow. It’s all quite the surprise.

But Maude Fulton and Brown Holmes’s script always seems too good for the production. Falcon is an early talkie. Director Del Ruth has no idea how to do close-ups—he and cinematographer William Rees—don’t match the angles right, the actors aren’t in the same spots, editor George Marks isn’t doing any extra favors (he doesn’t know how to cut line deliveries). The film does have some good visual storytelling ideas, but they’re mostly transition stuff; who knows maybe the script has the transitions. Or they’re just where Del Ruth has the best ideas. But—throughout—it’s clear this script deserved a better execution. Not as an adaptation of the source novel, but the script itself.

It’s not just the choppy filmmaking, it’s the acting. The best performance in the film is Una Merkel as Ricardo Cortez’s girl Friday. There’s a lot of implication they’re having an affair, but she doesn’t mind playing wing-girl for him hooking up with every other woman he meets in the movie until the last scene. Like, Cortez is a shocking man slut, so much so it forgives his performance. He comes off like a bit of a dandy, but then he’s able to toggle into being tough; he’s better at being tough. He’s a sociopath. So’s leading lady Bebe Daniels. Or is he falling for her and blind to it? Or vice versa? And those aspects of both characters is straight from the script, from how they behave, react to outside stimuli, whatever. It comes through in the film, but isn’t really presented well. It’s like the script has a point to make about the source novel, but the actual film doesn’t get the script is trying to make a point, but still precisely follows the script.

Falcon’s also pre-Code, so lots of sexy, lots of scanty. Since the film revolves around Cortez and Cortez is apparently only in the private detective racket so he can score with vulnerable women… even though Del Ruth and Rees can’t figure out how to match a shot perspective between close-up and two shot, they do manage to create a fantastic narrative distance. It’s just it needs to be identified, which doesn’t happen until the twist ending.

Back to the acting.

Cortez is okay. It works out, but it’s occasionally a little much. He’s only got like two things he can do. Three if you count him putting his hands in his vest pockets. Daniels is similar. She’s got some really good moments, but they’re spread out wrong. The film doesn’t know how to emphasize its actors’ deliveries, which is most on display with ostensible scenery-chewer Dudley Digges. Digges is a sweaty mess of vague but obvious sinfulness with major interpersonal communication issues. And somehow Del Ruth, Rees, and Marks manage to drain all the momentum from his deliveries with how they cut between shots. Maltese Falcon has a lot of pacing issues, down to reaction times for actors. There’s a lot of talking in the film; the vast majority of the film is just talking. And Del Ruth never figures out how to keep up the momentum of it. It’s like it ought to be stagy, but isn’t. Del Ruth is overenthusiastic when it comes to emphasizing the performances.

And it mostly hurts Digges. Hurts Matieson a bit, but not as much. Matieson doesn’t bit down on a sofa arm and rip it apart. Digges goes wild.

Walter Long’s good enough as Cortez’s partner. Thelma Todd is about as good but wasted as Long’s wife, who Cortez is having an affair with; naturally. Though, again, the twist. It covers a lot of storytelling choices from the script, including who gets screen time and how. Robert Elliott is annoying as the by-the-books cop. He comes off as an idiot, not a capable crime solver. J. Farrell MacDonald is fine as the good cop. They’re around a lot, but they don’t really matter because they’re not women Cortez can try to make time with.

The Maltese Falcon is way too blasé about itself. It’s got an exceptionally good script, but Del Ruth doesn’t seem to know what to do about it. Or with it.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Roy Del Ruth; screenplay by Maude Fulton and Brown Holmes, based on the novel by Dashiell Hammett; director of photography, William Rees; edited by George Marks; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Bebe Daniels (Ruth Wonderly), Ricardo Cortez (Sam Spade), Dudley Digges (Casper Gutman), Una Merkel (Effie Perine), Robert Elliott (Detective Lt. Dundy), Thelma Todd (Iva Archer), Otto Matieson (Dr. Joel Cairo), Walter Long (Miles Archer), Dwight Frye (Wilmer Cook), and J. Farrell MacDonald (Det. Sgt. Tom Polhouse).


THIS POST IS PART OF THE MYSTERY MANIA BLOGATHON HOSTED BY ROBIN OF POP CULTURE REVERIE.


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Room (2015, Lenny Abrahamson)

Room is the story of a woman (Brie Larson) and her son (Jacob Tremblay) who, after seven years in captivity by rapist Sean Bridgers (Tremblay being born as a result of one of those rapes), escape and have to adjust to the outside world. The film is from Tremblay’s perspective, with some occasional narration. Though never when the film actually needs narration. Screenwriter Emma Donoghue adapted her own novel, which kind of explains why the perspective is so unchanging, even when it’s not working on film. There are these scenes with Tremblay without narration where his behavior begs explanation. Instead, Donoghue and director Abrahamson just let the audience ponder. Abrahamson actually ignores the presence of the narration because he’s concentrating on Larson. Room wants to be both through Tremblay’s perspective but really be Larson’s movie.

It doesn’t work out in either department. Larson gets this amazing character and character arc, but then when the movie needs her to go away, she’s gone. Only the movie then sticks with Tremblay, which makes sense if it’s a first person novel, but not the movie because just because child Tremblay doesn’t understand what’s going on, the audience does. It’s a dodge. But then the film doesn’t really go deep on Tremblay, instead it just shifts that perspective to Joan Allen and William H. Macy as the grandparents. Of the two, Allen gets the better part but Macy gets the better scenes. There’s never enough with Larson and either of them, since it’s all got to be tethered to Tremblay.

However, outside its problems with perspective—both in the direction and on a fundamental level with the screenwriting–Room is outstanding. Abrahamson and editor Nathan Nugent work up this harrowing pace for the captivity sequence. Again, there are the nitpicky perspective things, but the film effectively and immediately drops the audience into this extraordinarily confined existence with Larson and Tremblay. The opening present action isn’t too long. The film starts on or just before Tremblay’s fifth birthday. The rest of the action plays out in the next week. For that section. The second half’s present action appears to take months but doesn’t really matter once Larson’s no longer narratively relevant.

So while Abrahamson never wows for thriller sequences or sublime ones, he also never tries for a wow only to miss. His direction is confident and deliberate, which the film does need. Room has so many ways it could go wrong and can’t really afford any missteps because they’d mess up the momentum of Larson’s performance. Because even though Tremblay has the bigger adjustment—she been telling him the real world was just something on the TV until the middle of the first act—Larson’s got a lot more repercussions. Though, again, both Larson and Tremblay get cheated out of dealing with those repercussions on screen.

Basically there needs to be a dramatic stylistic shift somewhere in the second half and there isn’t. Abrahamson never gives the impression of guiding the film. He’s always sticking to the script and doing well directing it, getting some amazing moments from his entire cast, but Room never quite feels organic. It feels raw—though the occasionally too smooth digital video hurts that impression rather than helping it. Oh. And the wide Panavision aspect ratio, which… just… no.

Larson’s performance is spectacular. She’s got a lot of big, dramatic moments and she nails them all. Even when the script doesn’t stick with her. In fact, Larson sort of sums of the problem with Room. Abrahamson knows the movie needs to be all about Larson’s performance and how her character arc affects Tremblay. Meanwhile, Room is actually from the perspective of Tremblay. The script doesn’t care what Abrahamson or Larson come up with.

But the script’s also excellent. It’s just… got a perspective problem.

Tremblay’s quite good. It’s impossible to imagine Room without Tremblay, but it’s also impossible to imagine a Room where Tremblay’s the protagonist and not the erstwhile subject of the picture. Because it’s not his movie, his part has nowhere near the possibility of Larson’s.

Allen’s good, Macy’s good. Tom McCamus is good. Bridgers is terrifying. Amanda Brugel has a great scene as a cop (with Joe Pingue as her “holy shit, men are useless” partner).

Stephen Rennicks’s music is effective.

Room’s story is bold. Not ostentatious, just bold. It’s a bold story, with a bold performance from Larson. It’s just not a bold film. It’s not a boldly produced film. It’s safe. It’s quite good, often spectacular, but it’s way too safe.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Lenny Abrahamson; screenplay by Emma Donoghue, based on her novel; director of photography, Danny Cohen; edited by Nathan Nugent; music by Stephen Rennicks; production designer, Ethan Tobman; produced by David Gross and Ed Guiney; released by A24.

Starring Brie Larson (Joy), Jacob Tremblay (Jack), Joan Allen (Nancy), Tom McCamus (Leo), William H. Macy (Robert), Amanda Brugel (Officer Parker), Joe Pingue (Officer Grabowski), and Sean Bridgers (Old Nick).


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