Tag Archives: John Sutton

My Cousin Rachel (1952, Henry Koster)

Olivia de Havilland is top-billed on My Cousin Rachel, but Richard Burton’s the star. For better or worse. Burton’s a young English gentleman, de Havilland is his cousin. And his cousin–and guardian’s–widow. She doesn’t appear for the first twenty-five minutes of the film, which instead have Burton becoming more and more concerned for his missing relative, who’s met de Havilland in Italy and impetuously married her.

The cousin calls for Burton because he suspects de Havilland (well, we don’t technically know it’s de Havilland yet because she isn’t in the movie yet) of poisoning him or somehow doing evil to him.

Burton’s trip to Italy culminates the film’s problems with rear screen projection. There’s some bad rear screen projection later, but pretty soon the movie is just set on the estate. The first act is rife with problems though. Joseph LaShelle’s photography never matches, contrast-wise, and director Koster shoots Burton super broody in front of those shots. Burton gets a lot better once de Havilland shows up, but at the beginning, he’s moody for no discernible reason. Other than him–at twenty-four–not being grown-up enough to be home alone (without the cousin who’s going to marry de Havilland… off-screen).

It causes a big disconnect as later on Burton’s often pouting about no one thinking he can put on his big boy pants by himself.

The Italy sequence is mostly indoors, with a couple too brief establishing shots. They don’t have problematic rear screen projection, they have problematic matte paintings. Again, it’s more the photography not matching than anything else causing the problems.

Once Burton gets back–after making a vow over his cousin’s grave to get to the bottom of his death–de Havilland shows up. She’s broke. Burton got all the money. He suspects her of being after it. Only it turns out she’s so sweet and sexy (even if she is thirty-five), Burton can’t resist her.

And then My Cousin Rachel turns into this wonderfully uncomfortable “romance” between de Havilland and Burton. Is she leading him on, how much is she leading him on, is she saint or villain. With a handful of exceptions, all of de Havilland’s scenes are opposite Burton. She gets few to herself, usually meant to raise or assuage the audience’s suspicions, but otherwise every moment is confusion. There’s Burton’s reliability, which gets more and more suspect as he gets more and more enraptured with her, but there’s also de Havilland’s actions and her timing of them. She’s definitely manipulating Burton; is it accidental or intentional. de Havilland has to raise those suspicions in scene and in subtext. There are no showdowns, no big revelations from her. She’s always a mystery. Only de Havilland doesn’t play it like she’s an intentional mystery.

The supporting cast oscillates between reinforcing suspicions and alleviating them. Burton’s guardian, Ronald Squire, is sometimes sure de Havilland’s good, sometimes sure she’s bad. Audrey Dalton, as Squire’s daughter and Burton’s initially presumed love interest, actually has the hardest part in the film because she’s got to get clued in to Burton’s obsession without ever seeing de Havilland encourage it. Given how things shake out in the end–and how badly the Italy interlude goes–Dalton probably should’ve been the protagonist (but not lead). She’s pretty much the only sympathetic character in the whole picture.

Then there’s George Dolenz as de Havilland’s Italian admirer and confidant. He’s another creep who might or might not be a creep. But since Burton gets to be quite the creep himself….

After a somewhat unsteady opening, the film gets quite good for the second and third acts. Burton’s a little too flat in his brooding, but de Havilland plays off it perfectly (apparently they couldn’t stand each other, which just seems to make their lop-sided chemistry all the better). And there’s even some great rear screen projection, albeit not of landscapes but for dream sequences.

The finale, however, is way too abrupt. The film forgets its been calling Burton’s reliability into question and only wants to concentrate on de Havilland’s. In the third act, even in good scenes, it’s hard not to notice there are only two female roles in Rachel–de Havilland’s succubus and Dalton’s saint. Even de Havilland and Dalton bring more to the parts, Johnson’s script doesn’t reward their contributions.

Franz Waxman’s score is all important. It’s dramatic, emotive, scary, lush, tragic, romantic. All the adjectives. The music is what gets the movie through some of the bad rear screen projection photography too. It implies a lot more going on in Burton’s head than Burton’s expressions or the narration do.

Koster’s direction is okay. It’s a little bland and it does nothing to get around the Code constraints, but some of those problems are Johnson’s fault, both as screenwriter and producer. Otherwise, Johnson’s script is excellent.

The movie just cops out with Burton, who’s the lead, even if he’s not top-billed. It’s constructed to cop out on de Havilland, but not on Burton, which is a shame. The film overcomes that first act and gets quite good thanks to de Havilland only to choke at its conclusion. Burton’s too flat on his own, sure, but it’s also on Johnson and Koster.

It’s a shame.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Henry Koster; screenplay by Nunnally Johnson, based on the novel by Daphne Du Maurier; director of photography, Joseph LaShelle; edited by Louis R. Loeffler; music by Franz Waxman; produced by Johnson; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Olivia de Havilland (Rachel), Richard Burton (Philip), Audrey Dalton (Louise), Ronald Squire (Kendall), George Dolenz (Rainaldi), Tudor Owen (Seecombe), and John Sutton (Ambrose).


THIS POST IS PART OF THE THIRD ANNUAL OLIVIA DE HAVILLAND BLOGATHON HOSTED BY PHYLLIS OF PHYLLIS LOVES CLASSIC MOVIES AND CRYSTAL OF IN THE GOOD OLD DAYS OF CLASSIC HOLLYWOOD.


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The Bat (1959, Crane Wilbur)

There ought to be something good about The Bat, but there really isn’t anything. Agnes Moorehead is actually quite good, all things considered, and Vincent Price seems game too. Moorehead’s a successful mystery novelist vacationing in a scary old house–summering, actually–and Price is a murderous physician. Why is Price murderous? So the audience can suspect his every action in the film.

After a protracted first act, The Bat gets underway with terrifying Moorehead. Only Moorehead doesn’t terrify, she tries to get to the bottom of the mystery. It ought to be a cool turn of events, but director Wilbur’s screenplay is as abysmal as his direction (The Bat’s a thriller without any thrills whatsoever) and he doesn’t give Moorehead anything to work with. He doesn’t give anyone anything to work with, but Moorehead is visibly capable of improving a thin part. She just doesn’t get the chance.

The dialogue’s usually expository (Moorehead’s got such a bad part, her sojourn to the country never gets a good enough description). Sometimes it’s so expository Wilbur has to backtrack to explain how the characters could possibly know something, given it’s against all their previous development.

Like I said, Price’s game but he has nothing to do. Gavin Gordon’s bad as the investigating detective and Lenita Lane’s awful as Moorehead’s sidekick. Elaine Edwards isn’t bad.

William Austin’s editing is weak, though with Wilbur’s dreadful composition it’d be hard to cut together a good scene out of any of it. I suppose Joseph F. Biroc doesn’t do too bad with the cinematography. It’s competent, anyway, though not scary.

The fault lies with Wilbur. His script’s bad, his direction’s bad. Between Moorehead, Price and an old dark, house, there’s no reason The Bat shouldn’t have been at least amusing.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Crane Wilbur; screenplay by Wilbur, based on a play by Mary Roberts Rinehart and Avery Hopwood; director of photography, Joseph F. Biroc; edited by William Austin; music by Louis Forbes; produced by C.J. Tevlin; released by Allied Artists Pictures.

Starring Agnes Moorehead (Cornelia van Gorder), Lenita Lane (Lizzie Allen), Elaine Edwards (Dale Bailey), Darla Hood (Judy Hollander), Gavin Gordon (Lt. Andy Anderson), John Sutton (Warner), John Bryant (Mark Fleming), Harvey Stephens (John Fleming), Mike Steele (Victor Bailey), Riza Royce (Jane Patterson), Robert Williams (Detective Davenport) and Vincent Price (Dr. Malcolm Wells).


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Thunder Birds (1942, William A. Wellman)

Thunder Birds runs just under eighty minutes and if one were to subtract the propaganda, both narrated and in lengthy monologues–not to mention the flashback to the stoic Brits–he or she would have a fifty-five minute love triangle set at an Army flight training base. The whole reason one leg of the triangle is British (John Sutton) is to rouse up support for the British.

Luckily, the movie’s love triangle is mildly effective, which makes the propaganda digressions tolerable. All of the credit for that success is surprisingly not Gene Tierney. Tierney’s great in the movie, bringing a combination of playfulness and maturity to the role. What’s surprising about the movie’s treatment of her is the constant sexism. There’s a terrible sequence at a Red Cross training with all the volunteers–all female–coming off as man-crazy and incompetent. Worse is Tierney’s grandfather, George Barbier, frequently deriding her (she’s “still a woman,” after all).

But that paragraph was supposed to be positive. Sutton’s quite good in the film, bringing a thoughtful sense to his role (an acrophobic doctor turned RAF cadet). He and Tierney have excellent chemistry; big surprise. Leading man Preston Foster is the last leg of the triangle and he and Tierney too have good chemistry. But when Foster’s with Sutton, the scenes are just bad. Foster’s very Hollywood acting doesn’t mix well with Sutton’s subdued, introspective performance. Either Tierney just worked well with Foster–her performance is a mix of charm and intelligence–or she manages to get good scenes out of anyone.

Since there really is less than an hour of story, there’s not much time for a supporting cast. Barbier’s good as the chauvinist pig (what makes it so disturbing is how he’s siding against his granddaughter’s wishes, which is a bit surprising in a Lamar Trotti script, but I guess Trotti is a servant to his source material). Richard Haydn’s great as Sutton’s friend who disappears way too fast. But Dame May Whitty’s brief, flashback role is a waste of time both for her and the film.

Where Thunder Birds really excels is in the Technicolor cinematography and the action sequence at the end. Ernest Palmer’s cinematography is great and the aerial photography is fantastic. But Wellman is just churning it out during these scenes. It’s all fine, but it’s never particularly significant. The end sequence, featuring Sutton (in a plane) saving Foster from a sandstorm is amazing. Great stuff, with some fine editing from Walter Thompson.

The story–the standard Fox war movie love triangle–does take an unexpected turn at the end. Wellman successfully milks the anticipation for the last five minutes, but then gets stuck with that narrated propaganda for a close. In the last ten minutes, I’m not sure Sutton even has a line–odd for the protagonist. The Fox propaganda movies were always decent and Thunder Birds is fine enough as one; it’s just a little emptier of actual content than I would have guessed.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by William A. Wellman; screenplay by Lamar Trotti, based on a story by Darryl F. Zanuck; director of photography, Ernest Palmer; edited by Walter Thompson; music by David Buttolph; produced by Trotti; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Gene Tierney (Kay Saunders), Preston Foster (Steve Britt), John Sutton (Peter Stackhouse), Jack Holt (Colonel MacDonald), May Whitty (Lady Jane Stackhouse), George Barbier (Gramps), Richard Haydn (George Lockwood), Reginald Denny (Barrett) and Ted North (Cadet Hackzell).


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