Category Archives: 1949

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).



Jour de fête (1949, Jacques Tati)

It’s about fifteen minutes before lead (and director) Jacques Tati appears in Jour de fête. The film opens with a travelling fair arriving at its destination and starting to set up. Paul Frankeur and Guy Decomble are the two main fair workers–actually they’re the only fair workers with anything to do except Santa Relli as Decomble’s wife. Besides starting to set up the merry-go-round, Decomble has time to make eyes at local girl Maine Vallée. Delcassan plays another resident, an old woman who narrates the goings on for the benefit of the audience–and, presumably, the goat she’s always got with her. The device is rather charming. Tati usually employs long shots, letting the action play out gradually, individual elements building until they intersect–for example, Tati, as actor, gets introduced in dialogue when Relli sends Decomble to mail a letter instead of making eyes at Vallée.

Jean Yatove’s music perfectly accompanies the gentle action.

Tati–as actor–arrives as some men are trying to put up a pole for the fair. Decomble and Frankeur are on the sidelines, offering unhelpful commentary, then draft Tati into action. He’s a bicycle postman, he gets around, he should know how to put up a pole. For most of the film, Jour is a series of intricately connected vingettes. Tati and cowriters Henri Marquet and René Wheeler occasionally pause one vignette to move on to another–Tati’s postman is easily distracted, whether by putting up a pole or getting blasted at the café, making the movements organic.

There’s a lot of physical comedy and callbacks to previous gags. Tati introduces himself biking into town and battling a bee. As he moves, in the distance, across the frame, the bee jumps forward to pester the farmer who’s in the foreground of the shot, before returning to Tati as the bicycle moves past the farmer. There’s a lot of subtle, inventive shots. There are also some obvious sight gags, which usually work–and manage to be charming thanks to the filmmaking and, particularly, the music–but are still kind of cheap.

After introducing Tati’s postman and getting the fair setup on track, the film jumps ahead a bit–with Delcassan offering some more commentary–as the townspeople head to square for the fair, which includes a cinema. The cinema becomes important later. Before it does, however, there’s a lot more with Tati. He can’t refuse the multiple invitations to drink at the café, culminating in Decomble and Frankeur–in a genial malice–getting him incredibly drunk. Sober, Tati’s postman is scatterbrained. Blasted, he’s wholly incompetent.

In between some of the drinking, Tati sees a short film in the cinema showing the U.S. postal service, which implements all the latest technology to deliver the mail. Latest technology like helicopters and skydivers and stunt motorcycles. How can the French compete. Especially since Tati spends the rest of the day in the bar before heading out at night to finish his deliveries. The townspeople have gone to bed, leading to multiple complications, before Tati just passes out drunk.

The next day, however, he’s invigorated and ready to show off how fast he can deliver the post. No surprise, Decomble and Frankeur have given him multiple bad ideas on how he can increase his efficiency.

Tati’s wild ride–which includes some incredible physical comedy and elaborate action direction–happens about an hour into the film’s ninety minute runtime. It doesn’t take the whole last third, but most of it. It’s always inventive, always amusing (or better), but somewhat detached from the rest of the film. Jour’s no longer about the townspeople or the fair, now it’s all Tati and the hyper-speed mail delivery.

Tati, as director, brings it all together for the finish but far less organically than anything else in the picture. The long sequence works–Tati’s hitting familiar places populated by now familiar faces–but it doesn’t fit with the rest. The wrap-up is well-executed, effective, closes all the open threads, but is far from seamless. It treats Tati’s wild ride as a tangent, while the rest of the film built up to the wild ride as though it were the intended result.

So a disjointed–while still more than adequate–finish.

Wonderful direction from Tati throughout. Great composition, great pacing, whether he’s setting up for comedy or narrative–though, really, it’s always both. Mostly excellent cinematography from Jacques Mercanton and Jacques Sauvageot. The day-for-night is somewhat lacking but the content makes up for it. Similarly, Marcel Morreau’s editing only has any hiccups when they’re trying to get goats and chickens to behave.

Jour de fête is superb. Sure, the last third has its problems, but they’re masterfully, sublimely executed problems.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Jacques Tati; written by Tati, Henri Marquet, and René Wheeler; directors of photography, Jacques Mercanton and Jacques Sauvageot; edited by Marcel Morreau; music by Jean Yatove; produced by Fred Orain and André Paulvé; released by DisCina.

Starring Jacques Tati (François), Guy Decomble (Roger), Paul Frankeur (Marcel), Jacques Beauvais (Bondu), Santa Relli (Germaine), Maine Vallée (Jeannette), and Delcassan (Old biddy).


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Batman and Robin (1949, Spencer Gordon Bennet)

Batman and Robin is fifteen chapters; all together, it’s just under four and a half hours. It is not a rewarding four and a half hours. Not at all.

Of the fourteen credited actors, one gives a good performance. Don C. Harvey. He gets to be chief henchman for a while. But not even half of the serial. After Harvey, uncredited Lee Roberts becomes chief henchman; Roberts is terrible. Though he’s less awful once he becomes lab assistant to the mysterious, masked serial villain, The Wizard. The Wizard is stealing technology to remote control moving objects and, eventually, turn himself invisible. The invisible thing is a lot more amusing. Shame it’s only in the last few chapters.

Besides Harvey, the best performances are from George Offerman Jr. and Eric Wilton, both uncredited. They both have rather significant parts–Offerman is leading lady (and literally only lady in Batman and Robin) Jane Adams’s good-for-nothing crook brother while Wilton is faithful butler Alfred. Wilton gets some decent comic relief, Offerman actually has subtext in his performance; they’re all-stars in Batman and Robin.

Because besides those three, the acting in the serial is quite bad. Leads Lowery and Duncan are terrible. The perverse thrill of watching Lowery try to steal scenes while he’s in costume–chirping the thin, exposition-heavy dialogue–runs out somewhere around the halfway point. It’s a very, very, very long fifteen chapters. Most of the chapters’ “plots” relate to the Wizard and his gang wanting to steal something and Lowery and Duncan trying to stop them or something involving discovering the Wizard’s identity. Lowery and Duncan always screw something up–or just get beat up–and then Lowery bosses everyone around like he shouldn’t have egg on his face.

When Lowery’s not in costume, he’s much worse. For a while, Lowery–as Bruce Wayne, millionaire playboy and fop–is advising police commissioner Lyle Tablot (who’s usually tolerable) on important matters. Most of these scenes happen in the first half of the serial, when Adams is still in it more regularly; she spends most of her scenes complaining about Lowery being such a lazy good-for-nothing. Who apparently is a police consultant, which she never notices. Because her character is terribly written. As her brother, Offerman gets more to do–unbilled and in a handful of chapters–than Adams ever does. It’s not like there’s any chemistry between Adams and Lowery. He seems stuck up and she seems to loathe him.

Duncan probably ought to loathe Lowery too since Duncan basically just spends his days in the Batcave trying to science things but being too stupid and having to wait for Lowery. But Lowery’s too busy teasing Adams about something. Batman and Robin’s first chapter does most of the Batman setup–the Batcave, stately Wayne Manor (or just a suburban house), the Batmobile (Lowery and Duncan just drive around Bruce Wayne’s car, telling people they have permission). It starts dumb. It starts a train wreck. Then it just keeps going and going and going and going.

When Harvey’s still lead thug, there’s a certain fun to the serial. The bad guys all walk around in sync; it’s visually amusing. Of course, they’re usually walking around the same handful of locations–Batman and Robin has at least two lengthy chase sequences in the same office building hallway sets, maybe three. But Harvey makes it seem fun.

Since it’s a serial with a masked, mysterious villain, there are a bunch of suspects. There’s radio newscaster Rick Vallin. He broadcasts out of his living room, presumably in a house down the street from Batman’s. Michael Whalen is a private investigator who never really figures in but the script talks about all the time for a few chapters. William Fawcett’s mad scientist, who’s wheelchair-bound but zaps himself in a special chair to walk. Fawcett’s the prime suspect. For most of the serial, whenever he has a scene secretly zapping himself, it cuts to the Wizard entering his cave lair. His cave lair, incidentally, is much cooler than Lowery and Duncan’s. Probably because it’s a converted suburban basement.

The serial doesn’t do much with the suspects. They’re just suspicious as needed, particularly Vallin. While Fawcett’s certainly acting suspiciously, no one ever finds out about the walking zapping, so he’s only a suspect for the audience. In fact, Fawcett’s walking is such a nonstarter the serial eventually just drops the wheelchair. Instead, Fawcett walks around with no one acknowledging a difference. It’s not even a fun stupid, it’s just stupid.

Technically, the serial doesn’t impress much. It does a little–Ira H. Morgan, so long as there’s not much action, shoots day-for-night rather well. It gives some character to the otherwise boring backlot-shot city scenes. It’s not like director Bennet brings anything to them. He’s thoroughly competent but never interested in anything. It might be contempt. Contempt for Batman and Robin is, frankly, a perfectly good excuse for not doing your job on it. Why bother.

There are some okay special effects; they usually come off better when Mischa Bakaleinikoff’s picked some good music for them. There’s no original music for Batman and Robin, but musical director Bakaleinikoff utilizes some more than adequate stock music themes. Certainly more adequate selections than the serial deserves (or needs).

The costumes are bad. Batman and Robin’s anyway. The Wizard’s costume ends up looking all right in the exterior action scenes. Not so much Batman or Robin. Sometimes Duncan has an obvious stunt double for Robin. Lowery at least has the mask, which doesn’t fit right so he’s always peering down his nose, head tilted back. Combined with the way Lowery folds his forearms (does he think bats hold things like squirrels or something), it leads to some silly visuals. Especially when Lowery tries to be authoritative. He’s not, the dialogue’s not just bad but factually ludicrous, and he looks like a jackass. He’s a bore.

But neither Lowery or Duncan are ever good. They’re terrible. Duncan’s a bad actor. Lowery’s a bad actor. Lowery’s a little more unlikable because he teases Adams whenever he gets the chance, costumed or not. It’s obnoxious. Even if Adams isn’t any good.

I’m sure Batman and Robin could be worse–I’m sure someone involved actually improved what the cast and crew were doing (I mean, probably they did)–but I can’t imagine how it could be any more boring. Somehow the chapters manage to move well–the plots are stupid but the pacing is competent–while still being exasperatingly insipid and dull.

It doesn’t help the opening titles for each chapter have Lowery and Duncan, in costume, running around in front of black backdrop and getting confused. Of course they’re confused, they’re jackasses. Each chapter starts with a threat of their inevitable stupidity.

Actually, wait, I did think of a way to improve Batman and Robin. A laugh track.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Spencer Gordon Bennet; screenplay by George H. Plympton, Joseph F. Poland, and Royal K. Cole, based on characters created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger; director of photography, Ira H. Morgan; edited by Dwight Caldwell and Earl Turner; produced by Sam Katzman; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Robert Lowery (Batman / Bruce Wayne), Johnny Duncan (Robin / Dick Grayson), Jane Adams (Vicki Vale), Lyle Talbot (Commissioner Jim Gordon), Don C. Harvey (Henchman Nolan), Lee Roberts (Henchman Neal), William Fawcett (Prof. Hammil), Leonard Penn (Carter), Rick Vallin (Barry Brown), Michael Whalen (Private Investigator Dunne), George Offerman Jr. (Henchman Jimmy), and Eric Wilton (Alfred Beagle).


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