Category Archives: 1959

The Song of Styrene (1959, Alain Resnais)

The Song of Styrene is gorgeous. The way director Resnais showcases the plastic press-styrene becomes plastic through chemical processes (Song of is an industrial promotional film)—it’s a solitary object, removed from the factory setting and just amazing and new looking. Even when something’s weathered, like the industrial plants, it all looks new. Very futuristic, very clean. When there’s the eventual shots of coal, it’s stunning how much it contrasts with the very clean, very futuristic look of everything else. Coal is elemental, even as the narrator talks about its mysterious origins (Song is from 1959).

You’d think someone might notice how the story of a created plastic whatever going backwards to being coal gas is visibly clean to dirty; there’s not a “look how this dirty rock turns into something beautiful” sentiment either. Song has narration. A lot of narration and narrator Pierre Dux goes from being excited about plastic being pressed to excited by the power of fossil fuels. Song is a very obvious promotion, albeit a visually impressive one.

It’s not an intellectually impressive one. Not even for 1959. Maybe it’s Dux’s narration or Pierre Barbaud’s music. Until the fossil fuel blathering starts, the Barbaud’s music is Song’s biggest problem. It doesn’t not match Resnais, cinematographer Sacha Vierny, and editor Claudine Merlin’s visual charting of an industrial plant, it just doesn’t add anything to the visuals. Resnais, Vierny, and Merlin have it covered. The music and narration are just noise, disingenuous noise.

During that visual survey of plants, tracking the pipes and so on, Song hits its peak, which is something given how cool the opening with the plastics gets. But Song tells the story backwards, which Resnais doesn’t—it’s not like visual sequences play in reverse—and it hurts the potential. For a 1959 energy company promotional video about the wonders of fossil fuel and how it makes everything clean and modern… Song’s pretty good. The visuals engage enough the narration and intent don’t really matter. But it doesn’t transcend that intent. The attention Resnais places on the solitary plastic press doesn’t carry over to the industrial plants; such a feat would be outside the technological capabilities of a 1959 promotional short. But it’s also what Song would need to be anything more. Resnais, Vierny, and Merlin letting loose instead of dancing in place, the script, narration, and music moving the film along instead of the actual filmmaking.

And opening with a Victor Hugo quote about the human condition is, in the end, a little much.

2/3Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Alain Resnais; written by Raymond Queneau; director of photography, Sacha Vierny; edited by Claudine Merlin and Resnais; music by Pierre Barbaud; produced by Pierre Braunberger; released by Les Films de la Pléiade.

Narrated by Pierre Dux.


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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).



Middle of the Night (1959, Delbert Mann)

Paddy Chayefsky adapted his own play for Middle of the Night and there are some clear alterations with original intent. Fifty-six year-old widower Fredric March is in garment manufacturing. His first scene has him hanging out with the other old guys in the factory, kvetching about how there’s nothing to do but visit their children. March’s character isn’t Jewish… but he was in the play. And apparently it was a big deal in the play. In the film, he’s probably Polish–though when he wows Kim Novak with Old World wisdom, it’s called a “European saying.” If it weren’t for Chayefsky’s dialogue for March and the boys–which comes up time and again–it wouldn’t be such a disconnect. Though occasionally March will do a light accent (with the exception of one scene where he goes all in) and it doesn’t come off. March is doing just fine. The film really doesn’t need the failed attempt at subtext leftover from the source play.

Novak is playing March’s twenty-four year-old receptionist. She’s recently divorced from musician Lee Philips (who, shockingly, originated the part on Broadway and isn’t in the film because the studio wanted some bland leading man type) and miserable. Confronted with Novak’s sadness, March shows some kindness. And becomes utterly infatuated with her. His business partner, Albert Dekker (in a devastating performance) is always out with younger women, but paying them for their time–well, putting it on customers’ expense accounts but March has no interest in that kind of thing. He feels sympathy and adoration for Novak. And finally works up the nerve to ask her on a date.

Now, until this moment in the film–the occasional awkward play adaptation aside–Chayefsky’s script hasn’t put any corners. Novak’s big opening scene where she breaks down to March is so thorough it looks like there’s added footage to her monologue (Carl Lerner’s editing occasionally has such problematic cuts it must have been something with the footage director Mann shot). Then the movie skips to their third date, when Novak has a hard talk with March. Now, she swears up and down she didn’t just keep going out with him because he was the boss and, based on the following ninety minutes of film, it’s more than believable. But then what was so successful about those first three dates? Sure, she’s lonely, but not actually alone (her best friend, Lee Grant, gets introduced in the last forty-five minutes but she should’ve been around at the time–not to mention kid sister Jan Norris who goes unmentioned until she appears at the same time as Grant). It seems like Chayefsky’s cutting some corners. And it sticks out. And it sticks out again when Grant and Norris show up, because why hasn’t Novak’s life been important until so much later… The movie wants a pass on it.

And I haven’t even gotten to the part where, after promising Novak he’ll leave her alone, March forces himself on her. At the factory, at night (presumably the Middle of the Night), and basically breaks her down into agreeing to their romance. But he’s good to her, even if it’s a little paternal. Or so she keeps saying. Their scenes together tend to be their problem scenes. March is incredibly likable so it’s all reasonable, he’s just always in a mood when he’s with Novak, which is all of her scenes in the movie until after the halfway point. Novak making their relationship seem real is a heck of a lot more impressive than what March has to put into it. He’s just got to puff out his chest because she’s this gorgeous twenty-four year-old who wants him. Or does a reasonable facsimile of wanting him.

Middle of the Night’s biggest defect is the utter avoidance of honesty between Novak and March. There’s a bit of a showdown scene in the third act, before a deus ex, but it’s too little, too late. They’re more than willing to be honest away from each other–the scene where Novak lays it out to best friend Grant is fantastic, ditto the one where March finally talks to Dekker about being a dirty old man (just a nice one)–and it’d have done wonders for the character development for them to be honest together. Especially if it had been in the first half of the picture or so, because Middle of the Night is kind of long at two hours.

It’s always well-acted, it’s beautifully directed and photographed (Joseph C. Brun’s black and white is breathtaking), and Chayefsky’s dialogue is always on point–when there’s not too much dialect flourish–so it’s not a bad two hours at all. The third act has some great pay-off, it just comes a little too late. All that time Chayefsky’s script skips over is apparently not just for the onscreen action, it’s like the character development paused for it too. Other than March’s puffed chest. Novak’s on pause for most of the movie.

With the exception of Philips, all the acting is good. March is great. Novak’s like one moment of onscreen realization away from being twice as good (the movie’s way too condescending towards Novak’s character). Edith Meiser’s good as March’s sister, who lives with him and doesn’t like the idea of Novak. Shocker. Joan Copeland plays one of two daughters–the other one doesn’t figure in at all. She’s really good at the beginning, when her writing is better; in the second half of the film, both she and Mesier are basically competing for bigger harpy. Martin Balsam’s fun as Copeland’s husband. It’s not a great part, but he does well with it.

On the other side of the proverbial aisle, Grant’s the best. She’s got one hell of a monologue about the misery of married life, which echoes Dekker’s–just separated by gender… and thirty plus years–she’s also the only one who’s able to make believe she’s got any concern for Novak. Sister Norris and mom Glenda Farrell at one point seem like they’re going to help Philips assault Novak, they’re so passively cruel and actively dismissive of her agency. The movie wants to say something about Norris being a young tart but doesn’t. And Farrell wins the harpy contest.

Every time Middle of the Night gets problematic, you just have to wait it out and eventually Mann will do something great or Brun will have an amazing shot and March and Novak will have gotten through whatever contrived problem they have and it sails on until the next problem. Then it just grinds until it passes again. And so on. March and Novak mesmerize, against the glorious black and white New York–fantastic score from George Bassman too. There are a lot of successful parts (the lead performances, the technical aspects–save those bad Lerner cuts, which don’t seem to be his fault), it’s just not a success overall. Someone needed to make some hard choices and neither Chayefsky nor Mann did.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Delbert Mann; screenplay by Paddy Chayefsky, based on his play; director of photography, Joseph C. Brun; edited by Carl Lerner; music by George Bassman; produced by George Justin; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Fredric March (Jerry Kingsley), Kim Novak (Betty Preisser), Edith Meiser (Evelyn Kingsley), Joan Copeland (Lillian Englander), Martin Balsam (Jack Englander), Glenda Farrell (Mrs. Mueller), Jan Norris (Alice Mueller), Lee Grant (Marilyn), Lee Philips (George Preisser), and Albert Dekker (Walter Lockman).



THIS POST IS PART OF THE LOVELY LEE GRANT BLOGATHON HOSTED BY GILL OF REALWEEGIEMIDGET REVIEWS and CHRIS OF ANGELMAN’S PLACE.


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Sleeping Beauty (1959, Clyde Geronimi)

Seven credited writers on Sleeping Beauty and none of them could figure out any dialogue to give the prince. Though, notwithstanding some cute banter between the three fairies, there’s not much good dialogue in Sleeping Beauty anyway. Villain Maleficent doesn’t even get any. Eleanor Audley’s great in the part, but it’s not because of the dialogue, it’s because of the visuals. Sleeping Beauty is all about the visuals, which is why it can usually get away with not having great–or any–dialogue.

The film opens in prologue. There’s a new royal baby and she’s about to be blessed by three fairies–Verna Felton, Barbara Jo Allen, and Barbara Luddy contribute the voices–only then Audley shows up, a magnificent, malevolent “mistress of all evil.” She curses the baby then disappears. It’s up to Luddy to cast a spell to save the baby best as possible (Audley’s too powerful a mistress of all evil to just invalidate the curse).

The story jumps forward sixteen years, to when the curse is supposed to take effect. Mary Costa is voices the grown baby–though, frankly, Costa’s semi-sultry voice is a bit off for a teenage girl. Well, maybe not for Sleeping Beauty since the other part of turning sixteen is her parents to get marry her off to a prince, thereby bringing peace or something.

The only visible clash between Costa’s father (Taylor Holmes) and the prince’s father (Bill Thompson) is Thompson wants Holmes to get drunker than Holmes wants to get. Sleeping Beauty isn’t great on logic. When a movie looks like Sleeping Beauty, it doesn’t need to be great on much else.

The film starts in live action, a dolly into a storybook (Sleeping Beauty), which opens and the illustrations become the animation, the book’s text becomes the narration, and so on. But from the start, the animation is lush and wide. Sleeping Beauty is “Technirama,” a widescreen frame, and Technicolor. Supervising director Geronimi plays a lot with depth, as the fairies are raising Costa in hiding. The great palace is only visible in the background, something Costa has no interest in. Instead, she sings with the adorable forest wildlife and meets a dashing young man.

Sadly, she’s promised to a prince. There’s some drama, but not a lot. A lot of drama would mean less songs and more dialogue. I’m not sure Costa has any dialogue after she gets to the palace to celebrate not having fallen victim to Audley’s curse. Except Audley’s smarter than everyone else, maybe because the fairies are more adorable than they are smart, and the royals are all idiots.

Sorry, back to the visuals. The depth is amazing. The forest goes on and on, filling the frame, with jagged plateaus and endless trees. Geography doesn’t really matter in Sleeping Beauty. There’s apparently only one house in the whole forest, because when Costa’s young man comes calling, he finds the place right away. Too bad she’s off at the castle to meet her prince and Audley’s waiting to capture… someone. It’s never clear. Logic, like I said, isn’t Beauty’s strong point.

The evil stuff is evil, even when it’s amusing–Audley’s got some Gamorrean guards she zaps with force lightning when they’re dumb, which is all of the time. In her first scene to herself, it turns out the only reason Audley’s in such a pickle trying to get her curse to work is because her lackies are all complete idiots. No one’s very smart in Sleeping Beauty, except Audley some of the time and Costa’s young man’s horse more of the time.

But it doesn’t matter. It’s beautiful. The character designs are exquisite. When Costa and the prince stop talking, their expressions are still phemonenal. The animation’s not incredibly detailed on the faces–the fairies get expressions, Audley sort of gets them, no one else–but there’s so much visible emotion. The music, which has its ups and downs (just like the songs), gives the film its progression. It all takes place in a day and a half so there needs to be something to soothe the halty plotting. The music, often adapted from Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty Ballet, does the trick. George Bruns handles that adaptation.

There are some okay songs. The one with Costa in the forest with her animal friends and then the young man is great. But because of the way the young couple dance their way through the frame–Sleeping Beauty loves to play with reflections and there’re lakes in the forest. The fairies don’t get songs, they get banter. Luddy gives the best performance, mostly because she’s the only one to get any characterization.

The third act, which is a narrative mess, is also a breathtaking action sequence. Geronimi and editors Roy M. Brewer Jr. and Donald Halliday create this phenomenal sequence. It’s not entirely successful–it’s a little rushed and there’s not really any nailbiting–but it’s breathtaking. Even when Sleeping Beauty is uneven, it’s gorgeous to behold.

It’s a beautiful film. Also one with a lot of problems.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Clyde Geronimi; screenplay by Erdman Penner, Joe Rinaldi, Winston Hibler, Bill Peet, Ted Sears, Ralph Wright, and Milt Banta and based on a story by Charles Perrault; edited by Roy M. Brewer Jr. and Donald Halliday; production designers, Ken Anderson and Don DaGradi; released by Buena Vista Film Distribution Co.

Starring Verna Felton (Flora), Barbara Jo Allen (Fauna), Barbara Luddy (Merryweather), Eleanor Audley (Maleficent), Mary Costa (Princess Aurora), Taylor Holmes (King Stefan), Bill Shirley (Prince Phillip), and Bill Thompson (King Hubert).


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