Category Archives: 1963

Love with the Proper Stranger (1963, Robert Mulligan)

Love with the Proper Stranger has a lot to resolve in its third act. There’s a somewhat sizable supporting cast, the act two cliffhanger for leads Natalie Wood and Steve McQueen’s romance is precarious–there’s a lot. So it’s striking when Proper Stranger just doesn’t do a third act. Director Mulligan loves the New York location shooting and he just embraces it for the ending, doing a big crane shot but otherwise being very vérité.

Proper Stranger is a melodrama about Wood getting pregnant, McQueen being the daddy, them not being married, and McQueen not really remembering Wood anyway. It doesn’t want to be a melodrama. Mulligan and writer Arnold Schulman do everything they can to avoid traditional melodrama; long, fantastic portions of the film are just McQueen and Wood looking at each other, trying to figure out what to say. Milton R. Krasner’s photography holds the actors’ faces, Mulligan giving them time to deliberate on how to approach the other. It’s a shame this method is entirely gone by the lead-up to the end. McQueen will be furtive, then not, with Wood’s reaction expresses slow to catch up. They’re wonderful to watch together.

Shame the script doesn’t keep up with them.

Schulman gets easily distracted. He’s got a lot of depth in his scenes, which focus on Wood and McQueen, but make sure to provide a lot of activity around them. So when the film quiets that activity to spotlight Wood and McQueen, it’s affecting. Mulligan trains the viewer how to watch the stars, how to wait for them to act out.

Oops, I got distracted by something wonderful in Proper Stranger, which writer Schulman never does. Instead, he gets distracted by the Italian ethnic comedy subplot he’s got going with Wood’s family. When Wood moves out, mother Penny Santon goes into bedridden conniptions. It seems like a significant subplot, given how much time is spent with Wood’s family during the film, but maybe not. Because resolving it would be difficult and Proper Stranger eventually just wants to ride it out on Wood and McQueen’s charm and the lovely, rending Elmer Bernstein score.

Schulman and Mulligan try very hard to give Wood her agency and McQueen some unpredictability, but they don’t know after the character and actor have had that moment. Both actors have big character arcs, which the film first embraces, then ignores. Once Wood moves out, she’s no longer a protagonist, she becomes subject. Her embrace of agency reduces her part. It’s real unfortunate. Especially since it’s not like McQueen gets the extra space. It’s just wasted. Schulman and Mulligan bungle the finish without any clear motive, except it’s time for the movie to stop.

Nice support from Edie Adams, Tom Bosley (in a way too thin part in Schulman’s ethnic comedy plot line), and especially Herschel Bernardi as Wood’s most protective older brother. It’s not a great part, but Bernardi does a lot with it. Because Mulligan gives him time to react and process the plot as it unfolds. Love with the Proper Stranger goes from being patient and deliberate to dispassionately rushed.

McQueen’s good, Wood’s good. Both have some great moments, both have some not great ones. Wood’s are usually because of the script, while McQueen’s are his ambitions for the performance just not clearing. There’s a very occasional Italian accent thing he does and it never works. But their great moments more than make up for the rest.

Krasner’s photography, Bernstein’s score. Excellent. Aaron Stell’s editing, not excellent. Some bad cuts, but it might be because Mulligan’s trying different things in scenes. He’s trying to avoid the melodrama, like one more New York location shot will elevate the film. Except he just goes with Schulman’s depressing comic sequences for Wood’s family. It doesn’t make any sense.

Kind of like how it doesn’t make sense the movie doesn’t have a third act. What Proper Stranger does get done is good, but should be better. Wood and McQueen deserve better. Their performances deserve a film wholly worthy of them.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Robert Mulligan; written by Arnold Schulman; director of photography, Milton R. Krasner; edited by Aaron Stell; music by Elmer Bernstein; produced by Alan J. Pakula; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Natalie Wood (Angie Rossini), Steve McQueen (Rocky Papasano), Herschel Bernardi (Dominick Rossini), Tom Bosley (Anthony Columbo), Edie Adams (Barbie), and Penny Santon (Mama Rossini).


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Alexander the Great (1963, Phil Karlson)

Had Alexander the Great gone to series instead of just being a passed over pilot and footnote in many recognizable actors filmographies, it seems likely the series would’ve had William Shatner’s Alexander continue his conquest of the Persian Empire. The pilot is this strange mix of occasional action, Greek generals arguing, and battle footage from Italian epics. The Utah location shooting is great, but director Karlson’s bad at the direction. John Cassavetes, Joseph Cotten, and Simon Oakland play the arguing generals. They can argue. But Robert Pirosh and William Robert Yates’s teleplay is lacking.

And there’s nothing to be done about integrating that battle footage. If Alexander the Great is going to be talking heads, which Karlson definitely directs better than the action, the action is going to have to be spectacular. And it’s not. There’s some tension with it in the original footage, but the reused stuff? The pilot doesn’t get any mileage out of it.

Cassavetes is pretty cool as this disagreeable young general. By cool, I mean he’s good at the yelling. His character yells. Cotten’s character counsels. Cotten’s good at the counseling. But the pilot doesn’t really know what to do with Shatner. It’s called Alexander the Great and everyone’s a lot more comfortable dealing with Cassavetes’s hurt feelings. Shatner’s appealing and he manages to get through the overdone dialogue, but he’s got no character.

He’s got a love interest–Ziva Rodann–and a sidekick–Adam West–but Pirosh and Yates don’t give either any attention in the script. Rodann’s biggest scene is with Cotten and West is part of the set decoration. Though he gets enough closeups to suggest he’d played a bigger part in the series.

It’s a long fifty minutes. The recycled battle footage and some red herrings drag it out too. It’s kind of too bad, for Alexander, but good for the rest of us it didn’t get picked up.

1/3Not Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Phil Karlson; teleplay by Robert Pirosh and William Robert Yates, based on a story by Pirosh; director of photography, Lester Shorr; music by Leonard Rosenman; produced by Albert McCleery; aired by the American Broadcasting Company.

Starring William Shatner (Alexander), Joseph Cotten (Antigonus), John Cassavetes (Karonos), Adam West (Cleander), Simon Oakland (Attalos), Ziva Rodann (Ada), John Doucette (Kleitos), Robert Fortier (Aristander), Peter Hansen (Tauron), and Cliff Osmond (Memnon).


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The Fire Within (1963, Louis Malle)

Director Malle sets up The Fire Within as a series of events. They don’t feel like events–or even vignettes–because protagonist Maurice Ronet is so transfixing. As the film progresses and the viewer gets to know Ronet better, gets to understand him better, Fire changes. The film is always about Ronet’s plans, Ronet’s actions and how the viewer anticipates them, but once it becomes clear he’s not in control… Well, it doesn’t just change the last third of the film, it changes the first two-thirds of it as well.

Ronet is a recovering alcoholic. He can’t get out of his recovery clinic. The first third of the film, after beautifully establishing his normal days by showing an abnormal one (visiting with his lover–and his absentee wife’s friend–played by Léna Skerla), is mostly just Ronet by himself. Fire is about monotony but never monotonous. Malle has to establish Ronet’s routines to best break them later.

The majority of the film takes place during Ronet’s day trip to Paris. He’s suicidal, saying goodbye to friends from his old life as an amiable, popular Parisian drunk. He’s not an artist, but he’s friends with artists. He’s not an intellectual, but he’s friends with intellectuals.

Fire is simultaneously an exploration of Ronet’s alcoholism (after the fact) and the society he’s abandoned. Malle’s able to juxtapose the two so successfully because of the film’s structure–Ronet moves from conversation to conversation, person to person, moment to moment. It wouldn’t work without the gorgeous black and white photography from Ghislain Cloquet but, technically, the marvel is Suzanne Baron’s editing. Whether cuts between scenes or cuts between shots, Baron brings a calm to even the most hectic moments. Given Malle frequently cuts to closer shots to emphasis Ronet, then out again to longer ones (though never too long, even outdoors), Baron’s ability to maintain that tranquility is even more impressive.

Acting-wise, Ronet is the whole show. He’s surrounded by great performances, but they’re all in small parts. Jeanne Moreau is wonderful, but it’s basically a cameo. Same goes for Bernard Noël. They’re great, but they’re great because Ronet’s so great. The chemistry between the actors, how Malle has a slightly different style for each interaction, all while maintaining a particular deliberateness.

The Fire Within devastates, but it’s also glorious in its intensity. It’s relentless and breathtaking.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Louis Malle; screenplay by Malle, based on a novel by Pierre Drieu La Rochelle; director of photography, Ghislain Cloquet; edited by Suzanne Baron; production designer, Bernard Evein; released by Lux Compagnie Cinématographique de France.

Starring Maurice Ronet (Alain Leroy), Jean-Paul Moulinot (Dr. La Barbinais), Bernard Noël (Dubourg), Jeanne Moreau (Eva), Alexandra Stewart (Solange) and Léna Skerla (Lydia).


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An Actor’s Revenge (1963, Ichikawa Kon)

I’m not sure what’s strangest about An Actor’s Revenge, but my leading two candidates are Ichikawa’s direction, which intentionally tries to make it feel stagy, or Mochizuki Tamekichi and Yagi Masao’s score, which alternates between jazzy and melodramatic. Both make Revenge a peculiar viewing experience and, while Ichikawa definitely has some talent as a director, his approach puts the film’s narrative back a bit. There’s always artifice.

The story is appropriate for stage, of course. Hasegawa Kazuo is an actor–the greatest female impersonator in Japan–who comes to a city on tour. Only he’s secretly there to extract his revenge on some bad guys who led to his parents’ deaths (through greed). Supposedly Hasegawa has a plan, but the way Wada Natto’s script is constructed, it never really matters. It does matter the viewer never finds out about it because it would inform Hasegawa’s character, but it doesn’t matter for the narrative. Wada serves up more and more melodrama until it all shakes it through coincidence.

There’s some good acting in the film–Yamamoto Fujiko is great as a local thief who falls in love with Hasegawa, but he’s already romancing the daughter of one of his targets, played by Wakao Ayako. When the film’s dealing with Wakao and Hasegawa, it feels like Shakespeare and Ichikawa’s stylistic choices make more sense. When it’s dealing with Yamamoto and the other thieves–this city is beset with thieves who give to the poor–it feels like slapstick. Ichikawa does a better job with the thieves, even though they’re pointless.

They shouldn’t be pointless either, as Hasegawa also plays the master thief. Is there some great comment on duality? No. An Actor’s Revenge is actually at its most interesting in why Hasegawa, as the actor, picked female impersonator, but no one dwells on it, not Ichikawa’s direction or Wada’s script.

A lot of Nishida Shigeo’s editing is fantastic. Kobayashi Setsuo does well with all the stylistic lighting. It’s visually stunning maybe fifteen percent of the time, but Ichikawa doesn’t do anything with it. He alternates between visually stunning and over-stylized to visually boring and over-stylized.

There are a lot of good pieces to An Actor’s Revenge, but they were poorly assembled.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Ichikawa Kon; screenplay by Wada Natto, based on a script by Itô Daisuke and Kinguasa Teinosuke and a newspaper serial by Mikami Otokichi; director of photography, Kobayashi Setsuo; edited by Nishida Shigeo; music by Mochizuki Tamekichi and Yagi Masao; production designer, Nishioka Yoshinobu; produced by Nagata Masaichi; released by Daiei Studios.

Starring Hasegawa Kazuo (Yukinojo the Actor / Yamitaro the Thief), Yamamoto Fujiko (Ohatsu), Wakao Ayako (Namiji), Funakoshi Eiji (Kadokura Heima), Hayashi Narutoshi (Mukuzu), Yanagi Eijirô (Hiromi-ya), Ichikawa Chûsha (Nakamura Kikunojo), Date Saburô (Kawaguchi-ya) and Nakamura Ganjirô (Dobe).


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