Tag Archives: David Niven

Separate Tables (1958, Delbert Mann)

Despite taking place in a very English hotel with very English residents–all of them long-term residents, not temporary guests–Separate Tables hinges almost entirely on the Americans. Burt Lancaster is one such American. He’s a regular resident (even ostensibly engaged to manager Wendy Hiller; they’re definitely carrying on illicitly anyway). And Rita Hayworth is the other American. She’s one of the two inciting incidents. Though, arguably, Hiller and Lancaster’s engagement is the root inciter on that one.

The other inciting incident is retired British Army major David Niven getting into a bit of scandal. Niven is a blowhard, genially annoying to all his fellow residents–except Deborah Kerr. She’s there with her mother, Gladys Cooper. Cooper’s a nasty upper class widow, Kerr’s her terrorized, utterly controlled daughter. Cooper browbeats her, while Kerr resents her own day dreams. Only with Niven does she get a little bit of relief.

Cooper disapproves, of course, and is very glad to manipulate Niven’s scandal to hurt both him and Kerr. In a very British upper class sort of way. Cooper’s the film’s villain, but of course she’s a villain. Her behavior can’t be anything but reprehensible, given her character. Hard to feel malice towards her.

The Niven scandal–and Kerr’s reaction to it–is half the story. The other half is Hayworth and Lancaster. They used to be married. She’s a former fashion model, he’s an author of some renown. Their marriage ended with Lancaster in prison for assaulting her. But now she’s heard he’s fallen on hard times and was in London meeting her fiancé’s family and thought she’d look him up. To provide moral support. And, you know, seduce him. Because brute working class guys made good is the only thing ever to do it for her.

Except Lancaster still resents her for forcing him into the assault–she denied him his conjugal rights. Hearing Lancaster complain she didn’t let him treat her as property kind of undermines his sympathetic potential. Though, as it turns out, even though the Americans keep Separate Tables moving, they’re not really supposed to be the sympathetic ones.

They’re an extreme. Cooper (and Cooper’s way of thinking, which influences Kerr and even Niven) is another extreme. Tables is all about finding the balance.

The film takes place over a particularly eventful sixteen or so hours. Just before dinner to breakfast the next day. Tables runs a couple minutes under a hundred minutes, with the first act establishing a bunch of characters. The other residents include Cathleen Nesbitt as Cooper’s partner-in-crime, Felix Aylmer as a stuck-up retired public school teacher, May Hallatt as a horse better, and Rod Taylor and Audrey Dalton as two indiscreet lovers. Taylor’s studying for his surgical exams. Dalton’s ostensibly there to help, but she mostly just seduces him–literally–away from them. Initially, it’s through Taylor and Dalton the implied activity of sexual congress–which Cooper, Nesbitt, and Alymer–all find so distasteful, gets mentioned.

Cooper and Lancaster have just been doing it in secret for years before the engagement, which is still tentative and super-hush hush.

Separate Tables is a lot of talking, a lot of listening, a lot of silent, pained emoting. Once Niven breaks down in the first fifteen minutes–see, he knows the scandal is about to become known–it’s obvious the film’s tone is going to be somewhat peculiar. Director Mann relies entirely on the performances. He’s got a handful of showy moves, which all work beautifully, but it’s almost entirely shot to facilitate the performances. With Charles Lang’s gorgeous black and white photography. The film’s technically stunning–great music from David Raksin, great production design (it’s all on sound stages, including the exquisite exteriors) by Harry Horner. Except the editing. Every once in a while, Charles Ennis and Marjorie Fowler’s cuts will be jarringly bad. And even when they’re not jarringly bad, they’re never fully in sync with the performances. It never ruins a scene or really hurts one overall, but the editing causes some stumbles. It’s worst when it’s in a Hayworth and Lancaster scene, because they’re already a little rocky.

Hayworth’s cold, shallow, calculating former fashion model is kind of perfect counter for the cold, calculating, but repressed Brits around her. Hayworth’s best when she shows humanity, which rarely happens around Lancaster. Lancaster’s best when he’s opposite Hiller, just because his scenes with Hayworth are usually a combination of silent rage, silent lust, or noisy exposition dumps. While both Lancaster and Hayworth are good, they’re the weakest parts of the film. Especially when they’re together.

Meanwhile, the trouble brewing over Niven is positively enthralling, as Cooper musters her fellow residents in a revolt and each of them works through their personal feelings about the situation. Only Kerr gets to explode. And the movie–through Cooper–has been promising Kerr will explode since their first scene together (which is the second or third scene in the picture), so there’s a lot of anticipation.

Kerr doesn’t disappoint. Not once in the picture, even though much of her performance is just sitting looking upset. Niven never disappoints either. He’s got the biggest character arc and kind of two parts to play. One and a half at least.

Hiller’s great too, sort of better than the film deserves. It only makes it because of her. She’s able to support her costars enough to get them through their sometimes perfunctory or abbreviated character development.

Separate Tables is deliberate, careful, thoughtful. Mann and screenwriters Terence Rattigan (adapting his play) and John Gay pace it all perfectly. It never feels stagy, never feels confined, never feels perfunctory. At least not in the plotting or events. Sure, sometimes the character development is a little too slick, but it is only a hundred minutes and the present action is only sixteen or seventeen hours. The performances are sublime, the production (save the editing) is sublime. It’s a lovely, often impeccable film.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Delbert Mann; screenplay by Terence Rattigan and John Gay, based on the play by Rattigan; director of photography, Charles Lang; edited by Charles Ennis and Marjorie Fowler; music by David Raksin; production designer, Harry Horner; produced by Harold Hecht; released by United Artists.

Starring Burt Lancaster (John Malcolm), Rita Hayworth (Ann Shankland), Deborah Kerr (Sibyl Railton-Bell), David Niven (Major Angus Pollock), Wendy Hiller (Pat Cooper), Gladys Cooper (Mrs. Railton-Bell), Cathleen Nesbitt (Lady Matheson), Felix Aylmer (Mr. Fowler), Rod Taylor (Charles), Audrey Dalton (Jean), Priscilla Morgan (Doreen), and May Hallatt (Miss Meacham).


THIS POST IS PART OF THE DEBORAH KERR BLOGATHON HOSTED BY MADDY OF MADDY LOVES HER CLASSIC FILMS.


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The Moon Is Blue (1953, Otto Preminger)

William Holden never seems out of place in The Moon Is Blue, but occasionally the film seems out of place having William Holden in its lead role. He’s not mundane, he’s a star. The film isn’t about the mundane but it needs to acknowledge the possibility of it. Holden ain’t it.

He’s top-billed but not the protagonist. At the start, it plays like he might be, but no. The protagonist is Maggie McNamara. The film just follows Holden because–star wattage or not–he’s a lot easier to figure out than McNamara. The film covers the first twenty or so hours of them knowing one another (it’s a play adaptation). In that time, Holden picks up McNamara at the Empire State Building, they have dinner at his apartment, she meets his neighbors (David Niven and Dawn Addams), her father (Tom Tully) punches Holden out, Holden watches her on TV (she’s an aspiring actress, he’s a successful but not famous architect). A lot happens in the film’s ninety-nine minute runtime.

Being a stage adaptation, there are limited locations. About seven total. Most of the film takes place in Holden’s apartment, where he and McNamara stop off before an impromptu dinner date. They get there by cab, which is when Moon starts forecasting its twist. McNamara is going to talk real–Moon was infamous at time of release for the onscreen use of the word, “virgin”–and she’s fairly aware of what Holden (and then Niven) have in mind for her.

So a lot of Moon Is Blue is McNamara saying something honest and unvarnished to Holden or Niven (sometimes both) and the men reacting. It plays out, usually, in an approximation of real-time. Holden goes into the evening aware of McNamara’s disinterest in being seduced, Niven comes into it wondering (but very gently) if he can get around it. Age also plays a factor. Twenty-two-year-old McNamara wants a middle-aged man; thirty-year-old Holden (well, thirty-five playing thirty) isn’t old enough. Forty-one-year-old Niven (actually forty-three) more fits the bill, but by the time she meets him, she’s smitten with Holden.

Of course, Holden’s just broken Niven’s daughter’s heart. Addams is the daughter. She and Holden’s failed romance subplot gets introduced quietly in the first act, but really plays through in the second. Second act is where Moon gives up the pretense of not being McNamara’s movie.

She’s excellent. The part’s quirky and McNamara keeps up with it, always ready for Holden or Niven’s reactions. Holden’s good but his part is thin. Thinner than Niven’s, who’s just a rich, lovable lech. Moon stops Holden’s character development at the end of the first act (even when there are later revelations, they don’t turn out to be consequential at all). It’s not his story, it can’t pretend to be. And Holden keeps getting better, the less there is for him to do. Wonky third act material or not, Holden’s great in it.

Niven’s hilarious. He doesn’t have much character development, but Niven’s performance is so loud it both doesn’t matter and seems like there’s more depth to him.

Addams is basically caricature. She’s fine. Great costumes for her (courtesy Don Loper). While her character is important to the narrative, it’s not a big part for Addams. Intentionally, the costumes end up doing a lot of the heavy lifting.

F. Hugh Herbert’s screenplay (from his stage play) is good. The dialogue is better than the plotting, which falls apart in the third act.

Preminger’s direction is superb with the actors, strong with the pacing, troublesome with the composition. He’ll compose these excellent two or three shots, in medium or long, but his close-ups are dull. It works because the performances are so good, it just doesn’t excel. Much in Moon Is Blue excels. Preminger doesn’t keep pace, stylistically.

Even with the third act hiccups and the bland close-ups, The Moon Is Blue is still an excellent comedy. McNamara, Holden, and Niven do no wrong.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Otto Preminger; screenplay by F. Hugh Herbert, based on their play; director of photography, Ernest Laszlo; edited by Ronald Sinclair; music by Herschel Burke Gilbert; produced by Preminger and Herbert; released by United Artists.

Starring Maggie McNamara (Patty O’Neill), William Holden (Donald Gresham), David Niven (David Slater), Dawn Addams (Cynthia Slater), and Tom Tully (Michael O’Neill).


THIS POST IS PART OF THE 3RD ANNUAL GOLDEN BOY BLOGATHON HOSTED BY MICHAELA OF LOVE LETTERS TO OLD HOLLYWOOD, EMILY OF THE FLAPPER DAME, AND VIRGINIE OF THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF CINEMA.


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Murder by Death (1976, Robert Moore)

Writer Neil Simon did not adapt Murder by Death from one of his plays, which I’ve always assumed he did. While the film does have a more theatrical structure–a great deal of Death is the cast in one room–the action does follow the characters around and some of their experiences would be impossible without cinematic storytelling.

Simon’s structure for the film, which takes its time not just introducing the characters, but the mystery and all the elements involved, is brilliant. Death‘s a spoof and practically a spoof of a spoof, something Simon plays with in the dialogue. He’s very playful in the dialogue–there’s a great exchange with David Niven, Alec Guinness and Maggie Smith where Smith’s character gets tired of listening to Simon’s banter. And Simon discreetly gets it in. Death isn’t about misdirection, it’s about being so constantly funny the viewer can no longer anticipate gags.

Besides the actors–everyone is outstanding, with Eileen Brennan and James Coco probably being the best. James Cromwell is also really good as Coco’s sidekick. And Peter Sellers as the Charlie Chan stand-in can only get funnier with Peter Falk’s Sam Spade analogue harassing him. It’s hard to list all the funny moments because there are ninety-some minutes of them.

Moore’s direction is ideal. He doesn’t get in the way of the cast or the script. Great Dave Grusin music.

Death is utterly fantastic. It doesn’t even matter the film’s narrative doesn’t work. Simon’s a very funny guy.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Robert Moore; written by Neil Simon; director of photography, David M. Walsh; edited by John F. Burnett; music by Dave Grusin; production designer, Stephen B. Grimes; produced by Ray Stark; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Eileen Brennan (Tess Skeffington), Truman Capote (Lionel Twain), James Coco (Milo Perrier), Peter Falk (Sam Diamond), Alec Guinness (Bensonmum), Elsa Lanchester (Jessica Marbles), David Niven (Dick Charleston), Peter Sellers (Sidney Wang), Maggie Smith (Dora Charleston), Nancy Walker (Yetta, the cook), Estelle Winwood (Nurse Withers), James Cromwell (Marcel) and Richard Narita (Willie Wang).


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Bachelor Mother (1939, Garson Kanin)

I’ve seen Bachelor Mother at least twice before but didn’t remember the most salient feature of the film. I even forgot what a big part Donald Duck plays in it (though I did remember David Niven’s watching the clock to wait to say “good afternoon” as opposed to “good morning”).

No, what I forgot was the romance between Niven and Ginger Rogers. It’s the most important thing in Bachelor Mother. The baby Rogers gets stuck with through the bullheadedness and “altruism” of others is secondary.

It’s a lovely romance mostly because it’s so unexpected to the characters. Niven and Rogers are, at best, friends when they go out and discover their attraction. Their friendship scenes are also wonderful, as Niven tries to help Rogers raise this baby he’s unknowingly saddled her with.

He gets his comeuppance at the end (the third act is mostly about him identifying, avoiding, then wanting than comeuppance) and it’s just fantastic.

Kanin’s direction starts off incredible–the first shot is outstanding–then it runs into some problems as it becomes clear he didn’t have enough coverage for editors Henry Berman and Robert Wise (or they just did a terrible job of it). It eventually resolves itself, with the shots matching a lot better after about twenty minutes.

Rogers and Niven are both great, Charles Coburn is hilarious as Niven’s father and Frank Albertson is good.

The film has a brilliant narrative structure (the present action is a few days) and it moves fluidly.

Simply wonderful.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Garson Kanin; screenplay by Norman Krasna, based on a story by Felix Jackson; director of photography, Robert De Grasse; edited by Henry Berman and Robert Wise; music by Roy Webb; produced by Buddy G. DeSylva; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring Ginger Rogers (Polly Parrish), David Niven (David Merlin), Charles Coburn (J.B. Merlin), Frank Albertson (Freddie Miller), E.E. Clive (Butler), Elbert Coplen Jr. (Johnnie), Ferike Boros (Mrs. Weiss), Ernest Truex (Investigator), Leonard Penn (Jerome Weiss), Paul Stanton (Hargraves), Frank M. Thomas (Doctor), Edna Holland (Matron), Dennie Moore (Mary), June Wilkins (Louise King) and Donald Duck (Himself).


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