Category Archives: 1946

24 Hours in the Life of a Clown (1946, Jean-Pierre Melville)

Per 24 Hours in the Life of a Clown, those twenty-four hours go from sad to happy. Well, wait; they actually go from narrating man in the shadows, face in said shadows, only the brim of his fedora visible—because l’inconnu fantôme wants to tell you all about Beby the clown.

Once the short gets past that opening narration, which is way too much for what the short turns out to be. It’s a look at the life of a clown—Beby—in his late sixties as the world and the place of the circus in it are changing. It’s never clear how much of the film is Beby, outside his keepsakes (but was it his idea to showcase the keepsakes), and how much of it is director Melville. Most of the dialogue in the film is the narrator paraphrasing the actors’ muted dialogue. Even when Beby is speaking, it’s not matched with the image. Clown obviously took some putting together and Melville doesn’t address how that process affects the narrative distance.

So while Beby’s “performance” looking through his old photographs isn’t amazing, the sequence itself becomes amazing thanks to the story told through those photographs. It’s also the first time the short addresses Beby being “real.” If you weren’t familiar with him going in, there’s no indicator Clown is documentary not fiction.

There’s also a cute dog and the suffering wife or maid or daughter person. She doesn’t even get credited. Neither does the dog, which just makes things fair, I suppose.

The next day—the twenty-four hours are from after one night’s show through the next night’s show, which is a great framing—Beby meets up with partner Maïss (who was in the beginning) and they go about doing their research. They just watch life. As they watch life, Melville finds the calm beauty of humanity, even when it’s being a little slapstick.

Then the evening’s performance is excellent and the twenty-four hours are up.

The Phantom Stranger comes back, unfortunately, to tell us so. Because film noir tough guys are all about the circus clowns.

But even with that unfortunate flourish, Clown’s a great little film.

3/3Highly Recommended

CREDITS

Written, produced, and directed by Jean-Pierre Melville; directors of photography, Gustave Raulet and André Villard; edited by Monique Bonnot; music by Henri Cassel.

Starring Beby (a clown) and Maïss (a clown).


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The Big Sleep (1946, Howard Hawks)

A lot goes unspoken in The Big Sleep. It’s very much set in a wartime Los Angeles, but there’s never much said about wartime conditions or Los Angeles. When private detective Humphrey Bogart goes around the city, investigating, he’s only ever encountering women (beautiful women at that, because director Hawks’s Los Angeles is solely populated with beautiful women who find Bogart enchanting). Sure, book shop purveying is a reasonable career for Sonia Darrin and Dorothy Malone, but then there’s Joy Barlow as Bogart’s cabbie confidant. Barlow’s definitely taking a traditional male job (cab driver) and role (cab driver confidant to detective). She just happens to find Bogart irresistible.

There’s also a lot of texture in Bogart’s banter with copper Regis Toomey; particular phrases and observations referencing wartime conditions. There’s no mention of the war, there’s no mention of the home front, but it’s there.

Of course, Big Sleep doesn’t just not talk about its texture, it also doesn’t talk about… you know, the solution to the mystery. Or even what mystery is what. Rich, sick old man Charles Waldron (in a wonderful performance) hires Bogart to pay off some guy blackmailing one of his daughters. Martha Vickers and Lauren Bacall are the daughters. Vickers is the one getting blackmailed; she’s younger, Bacall’s protective. So Bacall intercedes with Bogart.

The reason Big Sleep doesn’t worry about its exposition is because it’s got Bogart and Bacall. Their first scene together, while energetic, is nothing compared to where the film’s going to get them. The first scene has them talking over one another, constantly interrupting thoughts and dialogue, frustrating each other. It’s a competition without a clear goal–Bacall wants to know what Waldron gave Bogart to do, but Bogart isn’t going to say and maybe Bacall thinks he’s going to crack, maybe she doesn’t. They irritate each other. It’s marvelous.

In their third scene, Bacall’s got to scratch an itch in her nylons and–it just occurred to me–maybe it’s a metaphor for their relationship at that point.

But more on them in a bit. First, Bogart’s got to investigate–leading him to fetching booksellers Darrin and Malone, then on to blackmailer Louis Jean Heydt (who’s not on screen yet, he’s just been mentioned in dialogue and Bogart tracks someone to his residence–Big Sleep doesn’t slow down at all, you’ve got to keep up–when Bogart sits and thinks things through, he doesn’t share what he’s thinking). Eventually there’s a murder and a coverup and Bogart trying to protect Vickers.

There’s a lot of movement in the first act. It also establishes what will become some of the film’s familiar settings. There’s some exterior shooting, but a lot of the outdoor shots are on sound stages and they’re gloriously done. Beautiful photography from Sidney Hickox, great direction from Hawks (throughout, but also moving around those settings). The physical personality of The Big Sleep is deliberate and thoughtful, even if it’s not the draw of the film. Big Sleep is a bunch of expertly done background to its stars’ romance.

Because, pretty soon, Bacall’s pushed her way back into Bogart’s investigation. Even though he doesn’t know why and she isn’t really explaining why, at least not honestly. They’re adversarial but dispassionately. They’re far more passionate about the rapport they’ve discovered. Turns out Bacall’s got a gambling problem too, just with a different gambling establishment than Vickers. John Ridgely runs Bacall’s favorite spot and Bogart finds himself contending not just with Ridgely, but with his thugs too. They want him off the case he’s not investigating.

Although Bogart’s not officially investigating this case no one wants him on (because Waldron didn’t hire him for it), Bogart’s still actually doing it. And is aware he’s doing it. He’s interested and concerned. He’s sympathetic without ever being a sap, which eventually leads to some great quiet moments in Bogart’s performance. His run in with junior league tough guy Elisha Cook Jr. is affecting, for instance, and his constant attempts at fending off Vickers are nice. There’s a lot going on concurrently in Big Sleep, so much with the mysteries–there are the two murders in the first night of the present action, plus two suspected murders before the film begins–but also with the various players (not just murder suspects, but blackmailers and gamblers and then the sisters). Toomey’s police presence is omnipresent when established but always a little out of focus. He doesn’t bother Bogart too much, just enough to remind everyone he exists.

But none of that background–the story–is as important as Bogart and Bacall. Bacall’s character arc has her melting but she never loses the demeanor as she becomes more fragile. And Bogart doesn’t become more protective as she softens either. They’re enthralling throughout–not so much separately because Bacall’s never alone–but as the film progresses, their rapport and relationship take the spotlight off the action and never give it back. Not even during shootouts.

Everything’s good in Big Sleep. Vickers is exceptional, Ridgely’s good, Waldron, Malone’s fun, Charles D. Brown is a hoot as the butler (spoiler: he didn’t do it). Great script from William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett, and Jules Furthman; the dialogue’s better, but only because of Bacall and Bogart, otherwise the plotting would be the winner. Hawks’s direction is spectacular. It starts strong and just keeps getting better, never losing any of the deliberate texture (implied or active).

Good score from Max Steiner (very familiar, incidentally, if you know his King Kong one) with some very nice moves once it gets romantic. Christian Nyby’s editing is excellent as well.

The Big Sleep is phenomenal; Hawks, Bogart, and Bacall make something singular here.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Howard Hawks; screenplay by William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett, and Jules Furthman, based on a story story by Raymond Chandler; director of photography, Sidney Hickox; edited by Christian Nyby; music by Max Steiner; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Humphrey Bogart (Philip Marlowe), Lauren Bacall (Vivian Rutledge), John Ridgely (Eddie Mars), Martha Vickers (Carmen Sternwood), Charles Waldron (General Sternwood), Regis Toomey (Chief Inspector Bernie Ohls), Sonia Darrin (Agnes Lozelle), Louis Jean Heydt (Joe Brody), Dorothy Malone (Acme Book Shop Proprietress), Bob Steele (Lash Canino), Elisha Cook Jr. (Harry Jones), Charles D. Brown (Norris – the Butler).


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THIS POST IS PART OF THE SECOND LAUREN BACALL BLOGATHON HOSTED BY CRYSTAL OF IN THE GOOD OLD DAYS OF CLASSIC HOLLYWOOD.


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The Best Years of Our Lives (1946, William Wyler)

If it weren’t for the first half of the film, The Best Years of Our Lives would be a series of vingettes. The film runs almost three hours. Almost exactly the first half is set over two days. The remainder is set over a couple months. Director Wyler and screenwriter Robert E. Sherwood don’t really do much summary in the second half. Subplots run through a series of the vingettes, never all of them–the film’s unequally but definitely split between its three male leads. Wyler and Sherwood reveal develops through attitude and dialogue. Time passes through Dana Andrews’s gradual resignation. Through Harold Russell’s depression. Alternately, I suppose, it also passes through Fredric March and Myrna Loy’s re-familiarization.

The film opens with Andrews, Russell, and March returning from World War II. Dashing Andrews was an Air Force captain, sailor Russell has lost his hands, older guy March was just an Army sergeant. The first ten minutes sets up the characters, their hometown (the fictional, vaguely midwestern Boone City), and the people waiting for them.

The first ten minutes establishes how much of the film is going to be on the actors’ faces. Watching real-life amputee Russell contend with the polite and not polite–among fellow servicemen–dominates. Whatever nervousness Andrews and March are experiencing, they’re always aware of what’s going on with Russell. And they aren’t comfortable. The bond between the three builds with that comfort, which Russell (and Sherwood and Wyler) determinedly demand. Much of the first half of the film is spent examining the three men; both for character development and just plain characters looking at each other. The men are strangers when the film begins, polite ones, but strangers.

Once they arrive home, it gets more complicated. Sure, the trio aren’t looking at each other, but they’re discovering the ground situation. Wyler and Sherwood lay it out for the audience and the characters. All the characters. Best Years focuses on the three men’s return home, but their supporting cast gets a lot of establishing and developing. March’s homecoming to wife Loy and children Teresa Wright and Michael Hall sets up two big subplots and sort of Loy’s character arc. Russell’s return suggests something similiar–he’s got a literal girl next door fiancée (Cathy O’Donnell) waiting for him–but it doesn’t end up being as big. Russell gets less screentime in the second half. The film always returns to him at just the right moment, when he’s been away too long.

He’s got the “simpliest” subplot–his depression and how it affects his relationship with O’Donnell. Andrews has got PTSD a rocky wartime marriage (to Virginia Mayo), and a flirtation with someone he shouldn’t be flirting with. March has got a drinking problem, a work problem (back banking for chickenhawk Ray Collins), as well as feeling uncomfortable at home.

Most of these details get introduced in the first half. Mayo shows up just at the end with some foreshadowing for turmoil, but nothing onscreen. Same goes for March’s work problems. Andrews and March get these subplots second half; Russell doesn’t.

It’s unfortunate but the film’s so good, it gets a pass on that one.

The first half also brings the characters back together. March drags Loy and Wright out on the town, running into Andrews and then Russell. They’re all at Hoagy Carmichael’s bar. Carmichael is great as Russell’s wise, piano-playing uncle. He defuses situations, which Andrews, March, and Russell frequently need.

Even if it’s just making Loy and Wright less annoyed. They–and the audience–don’t really understand the extent of March’s drinking at the start. Because Best Years is slow to reveal its subplots, slow to foreshadow. One of the reasons it can get away with giving Russell so much less (though his eighth billing isn’t okay) is because what it does give him is so good. Because Russell’s so good. Best Years of Our Lives is, spared down, about a bunch of people who really want to cry and never let themselves. Russell’s the only one who gets to go through that on screen.

Meanwhile, Andrews has to combat his stoicism. His arc is this complicated ego one, with the PTSD an undercurrent; along with the romantic troubles.

So Andrews and Russell have the toxic masculinity arcs. March doesn’t. His resignation and rediscovery arc is much quieter, far less dramatic, and awesome.

Because the film’s so long and goes into vignette, the actor giving the best performance isn’t always consistent. Overall, it’s probably March. But Russell. But Andrews. Supporting it’s easily Loy… though Wright and O’Donnell are both outstanding. Loy’s just got the least screentime for her own arc. She’s always supporting someone else’s. So watching her character develop, rarely in close-up, is special.

Because Sherwood and Wyler are great at maintaining and building on details through the subplots. Andrews and Russell, independently and then together, deal with some real homecoming nastiness (as well as general disinterest), but it’s in the March subplot where it dramatically culminates.

Such a good script. Sherwood’s pacing is phenomenal. Even when, for example, Russell’s subplot is almost overdue, the film hasn’t been dragging. Best Years of Our Lives never drags.

Wyler’s direction is precise, deliberate, patient. He’ll have silences–either filled with mundanely urban background or Hugo Friedhofer’s excellent score. He’ll have noisy–almost anywhere outside Carmichael’s bar and March’s apartment is packed with people. He’s nimble too. He’s got this over the shoulder shot he repeats a few times in the third act, with the divine Gregg Toland photography (there’s no other word). He doesn’t use the shot earlier. He does some similar things, at least with how he places the actors, but it’s this distinct stylistic thing he’s moving towards throughout.

The Toland photography is perfect.

It’d be the most jaw-dropping technical feature–and I suppose, really, it is because it’s the photography–but Daniel Mandell’s editing is a masterpiece of smooth, fluid, and emotively considerate cutting. The editing is exquisite, simultaneously bold and subtle.

The Best Years of Our Lives is a remarkable motion picture.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by William Wyler; screenplay by Robert E. Sherwood, based on a novel by MacKinlay Kantor; director of photography, Gregg Toland; edited by Daniel Mandell; music by Hugo Friedhofer; produced by Samuel Goldwyn; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring Fredric March (Al Stephenson), Dana Andrews (Fred Derry), Harold Russell (Homer Parrish), Myrna Loy (Milly Stephenson), Teresa Wright (Peggy Stephenson), Virginia Mayo (Marie Derry), Cathy O’Donnell (Wilma Cameron), Hoagy Carmichael (Butch Engle), Marlene Aames (Luella Parrish), Gladys George (Hortense), Roman Bohnen (Pat Derry), Minna Gombell (Mrs. Parrish), Walter Baldwin (Mr. Parrish), Michael Hall (Rob Stephenson), and Ray Collins (Mr. Milton).


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Undercurrent (1946, Vincente Minnelli)

Undercurrent is the story of newlyweds Katharine Hepburn and Robert Taylor. She’s recovering from being in danger of old maidhood–despite being raised by two scientists, she’s content just cleaning up after widower father Edmund Gwenn’s home laboratory. Taylor is a captain of industry; he created some invention to help win the war. It’s love at first sight, followed by a whirlwind courtship, with marriage then taking Hepburn (and the viewer) from undefined, but quaint and snowy small town life to Washington D.C.

There she meets Taylor’s powerful friends, gets a new wardrobe, and starts hearing about Taylor’s former business partner and now missing brother. Taylor can’t talk about him without flying into a rage. Everyone else seems to think he was a miracle over for sainthood. Hepburn finds herself with an invisible third in the marriage and decides to save her new marriage, she has to help Taylor resolve the internal conflict.

Only it just keeps getting more and more mysterious and Hepburn finds herself overwhelmed.

Director Minnelli handles the film without sensationalism. It’s good direction, with a lot of attention paid to composition for Hepburn and Taylor’s relationship as it progresses through the film, but it’s not sensational. Hepburn’s not obsessed with her investigation; obsession would give her too much personality. After the setup with Gwenn and Marjorie Mann (in a fun little part), Hepburn’s character is about her reactions to Taylor. And the film is all about the viewer’s reactions to Taylor (as Hepburn observes his behavior).

Edward Chodorov’s script could be a lot better. Long portions of the film skate by just on Hepburn and the supporting cast. Chodorov wants to tease, Minnelli wants to interest. It’s like Minnelli’s too patient, too confident in being earnest; Undercurrent needs a little zest to it. Hepburn’s obsession is never an obsession, for example. A lot of big reveals just come off too thin, like if Minnelli had done straight melodrama, it could be a big moment, except the script is thriller–and shallow thriller. It’s not like Taylor’s got a better part than Hepburn. Sure, he gets more dramatic moments, but they’re dramatically and narratively acceptable, not outstanding.

After a lackluster finish to the second act, the third one starts out like it’s going to bring Undercurrent up higher than one might think it could get. Then the finale fumbles; the film can’t deliver on its promises. Chodorov’s script just gives the actors nothing. It seems like Jayne Meadows is going to have a good scene, but then it fizzles out quickly, Hepburn literally rushing from the room. Because Chodorov.

Same goes for Robert Mitchum, who plays a caretaker who reluctantly gets involved. He’s got three scenes, with the film building him up more and more, then kind of fizzling out on him too.

Taylor gets through the film mostly clean. He’s mostly either being charming, suspicious, or charming and suspicious. And he and Hepburn are quite good together.

Hepburn makes it through the film, carrying it on her shoulders. She doesn’t even stumble when Chodorov’s script throws her a third act curve and no time to recover; she, Taylor, and Minnelli get Undercurrent done.

Oh, and Johannes Brahms. Brahms is essential in getting Undercurrent to the finish. The film uses a Brahms symphony as a plot point and Herbert Stothart uses it as a theme in his score to wonderful effect.

Karl Freund’s photography is fine. Though not foreboding at all. His best moments are actually the exterior sets; he shoots those beautifully. The interiors are fine, but kind of dull. And Ferris Webster’s editing is fine too. Though he chokes a bit on the action editing. He can cut the conversations, the romance, the suspecting, but he’s lost in the action scenes.

Solid support from Leigh Whipper and Clinton Sundberg in sort of too small parts. Undercurrent is overlong, but it has too small parts for its cast. Chodorov’s plotting is goofy.

Thank goodness for Hepburn, Taylor, and Minnelli.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Vincente Minnelli; screenplay by Edward Chodorov, based on a story by Thelma Strabel; director of photography, Karl Freund; edited by Ferris Webster; music by Herbert Stothart; produced by Pandro S. Berman; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Katharine Hepburn (Ann Hamilton), Robert Taylor (Alan Garroway), Edmund Gwenn (Prof. ‘Dink’ Hamilton), Jayne Meadows (Sylvia Lea Burton), Leigh Whipper (George), Marjorie Main (Lucy), Clinton Sundberg (Mr. Warmsley), Dan Tobin (Prof. Joseph Bangs), and Robert Mitchum (Gordon).