Tag Archives: 20th Century Fox

Lifeboat (1944, Alfred Hitchcock)

Lifeboat never feels stagy, which is one of the film’s greatest successes. The entire thing takes place in a single lifeboat, with director Hitchcock not doing many medium or long shots of the lifeboat exterior. All the action is with the actors, Hitchcock using distinctive composition–Glen MacWilliams’s glorious photography helping quite a bit, of course–to work up a visual rhythm. Jo Swerling’s screenplay is mostly dialogue, but the narrative rhythm isn’t in the cadence of the lines or even in what character gets what material, it’s in the characters themselves. The script’s narrative focusing is its greatest strength and greatest asset to the film.

Because there’s only so much the characters in Lifeboat can do to influence events. They survive the ship’s sinking by chance, they survive on the lifeboat by chance. There is a certain predictability to the film and the characters. But then the first act does everything to establish them as not being predictable. Lifeboat’s biggest twist–maybe only twist–is one of the characters not being predictable. Hitchcock and Swerling aren’t so much fooling the audience as not even trying to give them enough information.

There’s almost no minutiae in Lifeboat. There’s sometimes expository dialogue covering what’s happened offscreen since a scene transition, but Hitchcock and Swerling have zero interest in showing the characters’ daily chores to maintain on the lifeboat. Lifeboat isn’t about minutiae, it’s about big ideas and as big of character drama as Hitchcock can do in confined space.

The survivors on the lifeboat are a swath of Allied civilians. Tallulah Bankhead is a celebrity columnist, John Hodiak is one of the crew, so are William Bendix, Hume Cronyn, and Canada Lee. Mary Anderson’s a nurse. Henry Hull’s a millionaire industrialist. Heather Angel’s British and heading back from New York. And Walter Slezak is the Nazi sailor they rescue.

One of the script’s nicest tricks is having Hodiak, Bendix, Cronyn, and Lee all have an indeterminately long history together. They’ve known each other for years. Helps when revealing character backstory. It can come up in conversation naturally. Bankhead and Hull know each other too. And then it turns out Bankhead speaks German and offers Slezak a sympathetic ear.

Lifeboat keeps petty in-fighting to a minimum. The characters are too desperate to be petty (even when it seems like they might be acting so). And everyone gets a nice arc. Nine characters, nine separate arcs (with some overlapping); all in ninety-six minutes. Hitchcock and Swerling seem to know they can only last in such a confined space for so long.

The big dramatic in-fighting scenes–the film’s set pieces (an argument is more compelling than a storm hitting the boat)–are fantastic. Sometimes character development points with intersect in these scenes. Eventually there’s some pairing off amongst the survivors and it changes how things play, not just to the audience, but to the other characters. And never stagy.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t add up to as much as Hitchcock and Swerling might hope. The ending is large scale action, followed immediately by a large scale morality message. Because Lifeboat is about big ideas, particularly in the treatment of Nazi Slezak–Hodiak, Bendix, and Cronyn are on one side, Bankhead and Hull are on the others. It’s the snobs versus the slobs. Hodiak has some great scenes arguing with the snobs at the beginning. And it turns out to develop into a lot more.

Anderson, Lee, and Angel are basically on the sidelines during the big idea scenes. There’s even some commentary about why they’re on the sidelines, when Lifeboat still seems a lot more ambitious in its progressive presentation of reality than it turns out to be. There are some great approaches and details in the film, but they’re not the point. With nine characters and ninety-six minutes–and maybe four bigger parts–the supporting material needs to be good. Appearing ambitious and being at least somewhat successful makes a lot of impression.

And it sometimes gives the actors great material.

Bankhead and Hodiak are the stars. Bendix and Hull are the main support. Slezak next. Then everyone else. Though Cronyn (doing a totally fine but peculiar English accent) does go sweet on Anderson, which gives them a little more time.

Bankhead’s good. Her character’s wobbly at times–particularly at the end–but Bankhead’s good enough to cover. Hodiak’s similiar, though it’s his dialogue–he has some big speeches–to wobble. Hitchcock doesn’t direct for the performance and the dialogue sometimes needs that touch. Bendix is awesome, but his part’s not great. Hull’s fine. He always comes through. Same with Slezak.

More sympathetic direction would probably have helped Hull. It’s the big idea speeches. Hitchcock can’t figure out how to do them. They need to be rousing and patriotic while still vaguely humanist and he sort of just pauses for them. He makes up for it in the next scene, usually with some great overlapping dialogue shots, but Lifeboat’s a propaganda picture. Hitchcock tries to ignore the propaganda instead of accepting it.

The uneven tone hurts the end of the film, which has already been through a way too rushed second-to-third act transition.

Excellent direction from Hitchcock, great photography, great performances. Fine script. Lifeboat’s about as good as a straight propaganda picture can get.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock; screenplay by Jo Swerling, based on a story by John Steinbeck; director of photography, Glen MacWilliams; edited by Dorothy Spencer, music by Hugo Friedhofer; produced by Kenneth Macgowan; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Tallulah Bankhead (Connie Porter), John Hodiak (John Kovac), Henry Hull (Charles J. Rittenhouse), Walter Slezak (Willi), Hume Cronyn (Stanley Garrett), Mary Anderson (Alice MacKenzie), Canada Lee (Joe Spencer), Heather Angel (Mrs. Higley), and William Bendix (Gus Smith).


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Enemy Mine (1985, Wolfgang Petersen)

Enemy Mine has one great performance from Louis Gossett Jr., one strong mediocre performance from Dennis Quaid, one adorable performance from Bumper Robinson (as a tween alien), and terrible performances from everyone else. The film’s most impressive quality is a tossup. It’s either Gossett’s performance (and makeup) or it’s how well Mine hides director Petersen’s ineptitude at directing actors for so long.

The film opens with Quaid narrating the history of the future. Humans in a space war with aliens. There’s some human fighter pilot stuff; not great acting, but it’s hurried and the emphasis is on the sci-fi. Petersen’s a lot more comfortable with showcasing the sci-fi setting than doing anything in it. Anyway, in the first act, the terrible performances from the actors are passable. Their presence is brief; once Quaid crashes onto an uncharted planet, they’re gone.

For a while, Enemy Mine then becomes this xenophobic look at Gossett’s alien–all from Quaid’s perspective–until the two finally clash. Some speedy contrivances lead to the two marooned warriors realizing they need each other and teaming up. There’s a lot of bickering, with some particularly mean stuff from Quaid (the movie opens with some casual misogyny from Quaid’s character, so the mean streak is well-established), but they learn to get along.

Despite being awkwardly plotted, the second act of the film is a big success. The scenes with Quaid and Gossett are fantastic, always because Gossett’s performance is so exceptionally good. It doesn’t matter how silly the scenes get, or how thin Edward Khmara’s dialogue for Quaid gets. Enemy Mine all of a sudden delivers on promise the first act didn’t even suggest it had.

The plot eventually comes in and takes away screen time from Gossett. Quaid goes on an exploration quest with troubling result. The exploration scenes are where some of Petersen’s narrative distance issues start to present. Petersen’s only comfortable with extreme long shot–to showcase the filming location–and reaction close-up. And the reaction (for Quaid) has to be to something dire. Otherwise, Petersen has no interest in how Quaid’s experiencing the exploration. Strange since he’s the narrator.

As the film goes into the third act, with Robinson coming into the film, it’s in a weaker condition. Not because of Robinson, who’s good (and gives Quaid something new to do with the performance), but because Khmara doesn’t write summary well and Petersen doesn’t direct it well. Then comes the action-packed third act, where Petersen is only comfortable in his extreme long shots. There are some close-ups to the action, but it’s poorly choreographed and terribly edited (by Hannes Nikel).

All of those third act long shots are of spacecraft. There’s the space station, there’s the bad guys’ spaceship. Somehow Quaid manages to never go anywhere with cramped quarters. And the production design is great. Rolf Zehetbauer’s production design on Enemy Mine is outstanding. All the set decoration. Just not Petersen’s direction of that design or decoration. Petersen’s misguided and committed.

Technically, Enemy Mine is a mixed bag. Tony Imi’s photography is all right. It doesn’t have any personality, but its lack of intensity slows down the rushed summary sequences in the first act. It helps give the film character. As does Maurice Jarre’s somewhat infectious and saccharine score. It too gives the film character. Not good character, as Jarre’s score is way too indulgent and detached, but character. Enemy Mine isn’t the most original film, but it’s distinct.

Terrible supporting performances. Brion James is worst because he’s in it the most. Then Richard Marcus and Scott Kraft. There’s something seriously wrong with how Petersen directed the supporting actors on Enemy Mine. Everyone’s bad but those three are just godawful.

But Quaid steps up for the third act and makes up for it. As much as he can. The film’s against him. It goes from the poorly directed Petersen action to a rushed finale. Quaid ingloriously loses his narration privileges for the denouement. A new, omnipotent (uncredited) narrator closes off Enemy Mine on a rather low point.

It’s unfortunate but not a surprise given how much trouble Petersen and Khmara have with, you know, the storytelling.

Great performance from Gossett. Truly amazing given the make-up and so on. Quaid provides able support to Gossett, stepping up when he’s got to do the same for Robinson. They make Enemy Mine something special.

Well, them and Chris Walas, who does the makeup.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Wolfgang Petersen; screenplay by Edward Khmara, based on the story by Barry Longyear; director of photography, Toni Imi; edited by Hannes Nikel; music by Maurice Jarre; production designer, Rolf Zehetbauer; produced by Stephen J. Friedman; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Dennis Quaid (Davidge), Louis Gossett Jr. (Drac), Bumper Robinson (Zammis), Brion James (Stubbs), Richard Marcus (Arnold), Carolyn McCormick (Morse), Lance Kerwin (Wooster), Scott Kraft (Jonathan), and Jim Mapp (Old Drac).


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Alien Nation (1988, Graham Baker)

A film like Alien Nation encourages a lot of thought. For example, I think I’ve decided I want to say the film is badly directed (by Baker) while being poorly lighted (by Adam Greenberg). I already know I wanted to say it was atrociously edited. Kent Beyda’s cuts don’t just jump (there’s a car chase where it appears the cars have turned around and gone back the way they came), they also pop. The sound levels pops, which isn’t exactly Beyda’s fault, it’s more Baker’s fault or the producers’ fault, but there’s got to have something Beyda could do to trying to keep the background noise between shots consistent. Or maybe not. Maybe that base level of post-production care is beyond Alien Nation.

I mean, fixing the editing wouldn’t fix the music and fixing the music wouldn’t fix the script and fixing the script wouldn’t fix the acting. I suppose it’s possible a better script would’ve helped the performances but Baker’s still such a crap director, it’s hard to imagine it.

About the only thing good about Alien Nation is the make-up. Only not so much on the featured cast. Like Terence Stamp’s Mr. Big. His alien make-up is bad. And alien cop Mandy Patinkin’s make-up is occasionally inconsistent between scenes. At least it’s not between shots in scenes, which–really–is kind of a surprise given the way the rest of the film plays out, production-wise.

So Patinkin is the idealistic alien cop while James Caan is the grumpy, bigoted (and questionably skilled) human cop. Writer Rockne S. O’Bannon writes terrible police procedural, but he also writes terrible cop banter. The bonding scenes between Caan and Patinkin are painful. Partially because they’re so poorly written, partially because you just feel so bad for the actors. Caan’s got a lousy part from the opening. Patinkin has potential for a good part but the script is so bad. And the direction, can’t forget Baker’s bad direction. Oh, and if Patinkin does manage a decent delivery–you know, if his makeup isn’t off-center–it’s more likely than not Beyda will screw something up in the cutting.

There are no winners in Alien Nation. There are no gem performances. The production design isn’t special. Maybe the best performance in it is Roger Aaron Brown and only because all he has to do is act like James Caan is a tiresome prick. Caan is a tiresome prick. Alien Nation takes place over like three or four days. It’s about one case. Caan gets Patinkin as a partner for the single purpose of exploiting him being an alien to solve an alien-related murder case.

Odd thing? They never catch the guy Caan is after. They never even try to find out his identity. It’s not only a mess, it’s a forgetful mess.

Not even the short runtime–maybe ninety minutes even–helps things. Because it’s not like the scenes are short. The scenes are painfully long. Watching Baker and O’Bannon try to change tempo during a scene? It’s excruciating.

The whole thing is excruciating. The anguish starts with the opening titles and goes all the way to the finale voiceover.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Graham Baker; written by Rockne S. O’Bannon; director of photography, Adam Greenberg; edited by Kent Beyda; music by Curt Sobel; production designer, Jack T. Collis; produced by Gale Anne Hurd and Richard Kobritz; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring James Caan (Matthew Sykes), Mandy Patinkin (Sam Francisco), Terence Stamp (William Harcourt), Roger Aaron Brown (Tuggle), Peter Jason (Fedorchuk), Tony Perez (Alterez), and Leslie Bevis (Cassandra).


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The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951, Robert Wise)

The Day the Earth Stood Still opens with these sensational titles. 3D text jumping out, set against the backdrop of space, Bernard Herrmann’s score at its loudest; the titles suggest the film is going to be something grandiose. It is and it isn’t. For the first act, director Wise moves quickly, short scenes setting up the world’s reaction to a flying saucer circling the planet. Newscasters report, air traffic control investigates, people worry.

And then the ship lands. The special effects in Day the Earth Stood Still are excellent without ever being sensational or outlandish. There are only a couple major effects sequences–the space ship landing, the titular incident–otherwise, the film’s rather quiet. It starts big, then Edmund H. North’s script starts closing it in, making it smaller and smaller until it can fit into a house. Specifically, into second-billed Patricia Neal’s boarding house. She’s just a resident, a widow living there with her son, Billy Gray.

They’re there, listening to the radio, when a new boarder arrives. That boarder, Michael Rennie, is the space man, escaped from the Army hospital (some grunt shot him after he walked out of the space ship and got out a gift for the President). At that moment, the film changes. Or, more accurately, perturbs in an unexpected, gentler direction. Rennie’s quiet, reserved, inquisitive, and gentle. Sure, he’s got a giant robot with laser vision, but Rennie just wants to see what humans are like.

Rennie’s mission to Earth is simple. He wants to address the world leaders. The United States government, its nipples hard at the thought of a prolonged Cold War, is no help. So Rennie decides he’s going to try the scientists, starting with Sam Jaffe. Only Jaffe’s not home when Rennie comes to visit.

Until the middle of the movie, North’s script never takes the focus off Rennie. Gray’s around a lot, but he’s never the focus. It’s Rennie, the alien, who acts as the viewer’s guide through the film. And the film keeps the viewer informed about Rennie’s plans and, often, his thoughts. Eventually, Neal has to take the lead–she’s got to stop her idiot boyfriend Hugh Marlowe from dooming the planet–and she stays in the lead until the end of the film, but the first half is all Rennie.

Besides the big Earth standing still sequence, there’s also a big chase sequence at the end involving a military dragnet. Wise and editor William Reynolds are methodical with it, tightening the net around Rennie in real time, tightening viewer expectation as it progresses. The viewer knows to be concerned more than Rennie, who’s cautious but not enough. He’s kind of powerless, after all. Interplanetary traveller or not, the film establishes right off he can be hurt. It also establishes most Earthlings are more than happy to shoot first and not ask any questions at all.

But the film’s never cynical. It can’t be with Gray around. He’s thrilled to have a new friend in Rennie, who acts as babysitter so Neal can hang out with Marlowe. She just thinks Marlowe’s pushy, not an abject tool. Gray and Rennie’s day out, which includes the first visit to Jaffe’s house, also has the unlikely duo visiting Gray’s father’s grave in Arlington Cemetary. The war isn’t mentioned but it’s omnipresent, kind of like government bureaucracy; the film does extremely well with its Washington D.C. setting and some of the city’s locations. The scene at the Lincoln Monument is particularly effective.

Gray’s lack of cynicism stands up to a lot of pressure, including some from Neal–her rejection of cynicism is what hands the film off to her. It’s too bad the film drops Gray in the second half; Day only runs ninety minutes, there’s not a lot of room. It’s either got to be Gray and Rennie or Neal and Rennie active in the main plot.

Much of that main plot takes place indoors, in the ordinary. People are scared, unsure about what’s going on with the flying saucer and the spaceman on the loose (Rennie’s incognito at the boarding house). Wise and cinematographer Leo Tover have these confined–but never cramped–shots inside. Outside they open up, especially when they get to do location shooting, but inside… well, Rennie wanted to find out how people lived, didn’t he?

The Day the Earth Stood Still is always methodical and never ponderous. Wise, screenwriter North, editor Reynolds, they all keep things moving. It’s fantastic but in a mundane, thoughtful way. Just like Rennie. He keeps an even keel throughout his adventures on Earth, no matter how dangerous things get for him.

Excellent performances from everyone–Rennie, Neal, Gray, Marlowe, Jaffe–it’s not a big cast. It’s a big story, sure, but the film keeps that story contained. The human element is most important; even during the big effects set pieces, Wise makes sure the human reaction is present. He ably scales the human element when needed. Confined to big, big to small. It’s reassuring. Just like Rennie.

Day is a fine film. It’s got its limits, but Wise and company accomplish what they set out to do. Though, maybe, not what those 3D opening titles suggest they’re going to set out to do.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Robert Wise; screenplay by Edmund H. North, based on a story by Harry Bates; director of photography, Leo Tover; edited by William Reynolds; music by Bernard Herrmann; produced by Julian Blaustein; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Michael Rennie (Klaatu), Patricia Neal (Helen Benson), Billy Gray (Bobby Benson), Hugh Marlowe (Tom Stevens), Sam Jaffe (Professor Jacob Barnhardt), and Frances Bavier (Mrs. Barley).


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