Commentary Comments: Call Northside 777 (Henry Hathaway, 1948)

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I couldn’t not listen to Call Northside 777’s commentary after seeing that it was done by Alain Silver and James Ursini. These academics know their noir, and I warmed to Silver in particular after encountering page 4 of his introduction to The Film Noir Reader, where he interprets a critic’s misspelling of his name as “Alan.” He writes: “Nor am I suggesting that critical writing should be about crossing every “t” or including every “i.” This is particularly true with writers on motion pictures, who are addressing an expressive medium that is the most complex in the history of art. But Vernet’s assumption about how a particular name should be spelled is telling in that it reveals his tendency towards pre-judgement and exposes the problem with his critical outlook.” Ooh, burn.

Their commentary doesn’t disappoint – if anything, it’s more interesting than the movie. They know plenty of facts about the true story it’s based on, and contrast it with what wound up onscreen. For instance, Lee J. Cobb’s character was based on a woman, but this was changed for the film because audiences wouldn’t accept a female newspaper editor. The man convicted with Wiecek remained in prison for an additional five years, not being released until after this film came out.

They also mention heapings of similar or contrasting films and fill in many details about the cast and crew’s careers. For instance, they describe the sequence where McNeal goes to find a witness as having a closer resemblance to Hathaway’s The Dark Corner than to the rest of this film. Meanwhile, Richard Conte and Helen Walker are both playing against type here.

It’s interesting to hear Silver and Ursini’s subjective thoughts on the film. They like its strongly Hollywood elements more than I do, but readily say that the polygraph test is really goddamn boring. (My words, not theirs.) They talk about having trouble following the plot, and Ursini says that noir plots are usually labyrinthine things that eventually seem to just solve themselves. I’m relieved to hear that, as well as their amused comment that the film’s ending is “so corny.” They also point out how strange it is that James Stewart stands awkwardly in the background while Wiecek reunites with his family – just like John Wayne in The Searchers, they joke.

Silver and Ursini give some analysis of Stewart’s career, too. They discuss this role’s strains of Mr Smith, and the westerns Stewart would go on to make with Anthony Mann. The big shocker for me was their claim that Stewart revolutionised the star system by leaving his studio and taking on films for a smaller salary but also for a cut of the profits. That’s a significant fact that I was completely unaware of. A sign that I am still but a novice of film history, I suppose.

Glamour, grit and bad plotting: Eyes of Laura Mars (Irvin Kershner, 1978)

Faye Dunaway is Laura Mars, a photographer who sees more than she should.

Despite being an ultimately unsatisfying film, Eyes of Laura Mars has a lot going for it. Laura Mars is a renowned fashion photographer, known for producing violent and sexual images, played by Faye Dunaway. She begins to have psychic experiences in which she can see through the eyes of a killer – a killer who seems to be getting ever closer to her. While Detective Neville (Tommy Lee Jones) investigates, Laura is surrounded by suspects, including her ex-husband, Michael (Raul Julia), her ex-criminal chauffeur, Tommy (Brad Dourif), and her manager, Donald (Rene Auberjonois).

Though Dunaway shows some of the over-acting she’d become infamous for in Mommie Dearest, she makes Laura likeably compassionate and intelligent. The film takes concepts of objectification seriously and tries to explore them through Laura’s work. I don’t think it’s especially successful, but it’s still interesting to see Laura’s attempts to make people acknowledge violence by linking it with beauty and sex.

FASHION!

Laura Mars is a fascinating film to look at. It shows the grittiness of late 70s New York’s streets and waterfronts as well as the glamour of the city’s fashion industry. The photoshoots, accompanied by disco music, are full of energy. Laura’s photos were supplied by Helmut Lang, and having this fashion giant’s work in the film gives it added authenticity.

70s New York: not all pretty.

The costumes in Laura Mars are not only stylish, but have strong character touches. Laura often wears clothes that wrap around and conceal her (including an outfit that manages to combine two types of purple plaid), giving a sense of her introversion. (Though there’s plenty of shots of Dunaway’s legs, of course.) Donald dresses for drama, especially with the suit he‘s wearing at the beginning of the film. Tommy, meanwhile, clearly emulates some of his musical idols with his clothing and hair. He has a chauffeur’s uniform for special events, and that he would wear the cap with his regular clothes when he feels the need indicates how seriously he takes his job, and his wish to be respected.

Rene Auberjonois: fabulous when called for.

The best part of this film, I would say, is that it gives great character actors Auberjonois and Dourif substantial parts. Donald is camp and funny, but is also authoritative. Auberjonois makes him a good friend and manager for Laura, while still keeping him a suspect. Tommy is devoted to Laura, but has a mad-eyed desperation that marks him as a wild card. We know, in the present day, that Dourif is typecast as dangerous crazies – but given that this is an early role for him, should we make this assumption about Tommy? These two actors are always a pleasure to watch, and the charged dynamic they create between is other is on its own enough to make Laura Mars worthwhile.

Brad Dourif’s crazy eyes: character clue, red herring, or did he just sit on something?

On to the film’s downside. Its script, penned by John Carpenter, is badly in need of a few more rewrites. It’s far too dependent on a romance between Laura and Neville; I suspect this is in there to try to make the film more appealing to women, but it’s totally uninteresting. Jones’s performance is a bit of a dud, and his scenes with Dunaway lack believability.

Tommy Lee Jones: not very good in this.

The film’s resolution is where it falls apart. This concept has a clear and satisfying inbuilt way for Laura to deal with the murderer: if she’s holding a gun while he heads towards her, she would be able to see through his eyes and know where he was, and where to shoot. It would be a reversal of the other times in the film where her second sight makes her helpless, and a great way to end the story.

Unfortunately, Laura Mars whittles its suspects off until only one remains. Then it reveals information that the audience could not possibly have guessed, and that depends strongly on further suspension of disbelief. As well as being a stark contrast to the way the film carefully explained Laura’s abilities earlier in the story, it’s poorly paced and it’s unconvincing on an emotional level. This is only a bigger shame because Laura Mars, with its its intriguing concept, interesting characters, and great style, so clearly had the potential to be better than it is.

Auberjonois, Dourif, and their 70s hair are better than you. And this movie.

A complex take on a complex war: Ride with the Devil (Ang Lee, 1999)

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A sweeping tale of conflicted allegiances and ambiguous moralities, Ride with the Devil does justice to the complexity of the American Civil War as fought on the Missouri/Kansas border. Its large cast is lead by Tobey Maguire as Jake Roedel, the son of a German immigrant, who sides with the political views of his loyalist best friend Jack Chiles (Skeet Ulrich). Joining up with Bushwhackers commanded by Black John (Jim Caviezel), they strike back at the Union and the Union-sympathetic Jayhawkers alike. Jake will eventually find himself following the infamous William Quantrill into a massacre that leaves dead more than 200 male inhabitants of Lawrence, Kansas. However, Jake has little stomach for the warfare practiced by Quantrill and the crazed Pitt Mackseon (Jonathan Rhys Meyers). He gradually loses his belief in the South as he meets Sue Lee Shelley (Jewel), a soldier’s widow, and Daniel Holt (Jeffrey Wright), a former slave attached to George Clyde (Simon Baker), Bushwhacker and son of Holt’s former owner.

It’s little surprise that Ride with the Devil was not a financial success – it asks the viewer to conider the perspective of the war’s losing side, but it’s persistent in showing their racism and brutality. Of course, this is not at all a bad thing. This film respects the viewer’s intelligence, letting them draw their own conclusions about why each of these people fought their neighbours as well as the Union. It also offers up detailed characterisation, elegant period dialogue, lingering landscape shots, and impressive action scenes that often involve hundreds of men on horseback. For all of these reasons, the film doesn’t deserve the relative obscurity into which it has sunk.

Ride with the Devil was clearly cast in the hopes (for naught) that its lead actors would draw audiences. Some of them are much less appealing in hindsight, but though I certainly wish the cast were different, even these late 90s heartthrobs don’t bring down the movie. The younger actors aren’t bad, but they don’t bring much to their roles. They’re missing something. Maguire probably looks the part – Jake is young, impressionable and not physically imposing – but he has little presence.  Meyers tries for pretty/crazy, but doesn’t have the off-kilter quality the character needs, and Ulrich is just uninteresting. As for Jewel… Well, why not? Even Ricky Nelson couldn’t ruin Rio Bravo, after all, and she doesn’t stop the movie for a song. With her imperfect teeth and round face, she doesn’t look quite like a typical starlet, either. There’s nothing at all objectionable about her performance, and I’m disappointed that she’s done little acting since.

Maybe I’ve been too hard on these younger actors – my preconceptions make me averse to all of them, particularly Maguire and Baker. However, it’s plain to see that there are better actors in this film. Zach Gremier and Mark Ruffalo convey a good deal with their little screentime. Caviezel shows the way John’s mindset shifts as the war progresses. Jeffrey Wright, meanwhile, runs away with the film. Even in his early scenes, where he doesn’t talk much, he manages to keep the viewer wondering who Holt is and what his motivations are. Watching his character unfold, and make his choices, is the most moving aspect of this story.

Ride with the Devil would be better with a less of-the-moment cast. However, neither its lead actors, nor audiences’ disinterest upon the film’s initial release, are indicators of how rewarding it is as a nuanced presentation of history.

Gloriously gothic: Dragonwyck (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1946)

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Adapted from the novel by Anya Seton, Dragonwyck is set in the 1830s. Miranda Wells is a Connecticut farm girl who’s been raised by God-fearing parents, but dreams of a more extravagant life. Her wishes seem to be granted when Nicholas Van Ryn, a distant relative and wealthy petroon, calls for her to come to his mansion, Dragonwyck, and be a governess to his young daughter. However, Dragonwyck holds many secrets. Nicholas disappears for long periods at a time into his high tower. His wife and child seem neglected and fearful. His grandmother allegedly killed herself at her harpsichord, and can still be heard singing in times of disaster. The real key that all is not well is that Nicholas is played by Vincent Price.

Dragonwyck is a fairly trifling film and is certainly not original, but it’s executed so well that it’s totally enjoyable. It has a heavily gothic atmosphere, aided by the lighting, which is in turns stark and shadowy, shifting with the movements of candles. It’s also well seated in its historical and political context; the tension between the Dutch petroons and the people who work their land, but aren’t permitted to buy it, is an interesting detail. The sets are wonderfully textured, and the costumes often extravagant. Nicholas’ dressing gown, with a dragon embroidered on its pocket, is particularly nice.

I’m not entirely sold on Gene Tierney as an actress, but to her credit, she does convey the most important change in Miranda’s character: after a significant time lapse, Miranda has lost her naivety and is markedly more worldly and self-assured in her demeanour, even under difficult circumstances. Meanwhile, Glenn Langan doesn’t impress in his role as the local doctor, but Walter Huston, Jessica Tandy, and Harry Morgan make for a fine supporting cast.

Price gives the best performance in the film, however, and not just because he looks the part. (Nicholas first appears onscreen whilst Miranda’s father is trying to get her to read some repressive passage from The Bible along with him, and the sudden sight of Price in a magnificent tailed coat makes for a clever juxtaposition.) He’s given the opportunity to show some range here. At the beginning of the story, Nicholas is aloof and imperious, so it’s all the more surprising when he seems to have an outburst of true delight. He manipulates Miranda in a subtle way, and it’s unclear when he’s being sincere and when he’s being duplicitous, and what his motives are. His mysteries are eventually revealed, at which point Price shifts into being totally unhinged. Predictably, this is rather fun to watch.

Dragonwyck is rich with gothic tropes, including suppressed psychological undercurrents, but it’s also rather knowing about itself. When asked what he could possibly do up in his tower, Nicholas responds, “Anything from pinning butterflies to hiding an insane twin brother. Actually, I read.” A sense of humour is just another thing to enjoy about this slight but well-crafted film.

Taking a Shot: Stop Making Sense (Jonathan Demme, 1984)

It’s true that Stop Making Sense was put together from footage filmed at three different Talking Heads shows, and that the band rerecorded some of the audio to cover technical issues. It’s certainly not a raw concert film, nor was it meant to be. However, this takes nothing away from the energy and chemistry apparent between the musicians. The performances are fundamental in this regard, but it helps that Demme avoids music video style quick cuts, using plenty of longer shots to get the viewer involved in what the musicians are doing. The most obvious example of this is “Once in a Lifetime,” which goes more than four minutes without a cut. I’m fond of one particular shot from near the end of “Burning Down the House,” however.

The camera starts over here, with David Byrne and Alex Weir strumming away madly together…

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…then, wavering slightly, it follows Weir as he goes over to his microphone…

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…then it moves, blurring the image in its enthusiasm, over to Byrne in the middle of the stage…

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…and then over to Jerry Harrison, Lynn Mabry and Edna Holt doing something joyous and indescribable.

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This film is supposed to make the viewer feel as though they, not the people who attended the shows, are the audience. In shots like this, the camera moves as if it’s the viewer’s eye, looking across the stage and back again. If we were there, we wouldn’t be able to take everything in, because there would be too much to see. Demme makes that clear within this single shot, which also connects five of the band in order to show how caught up they are in the music they’re all making together.

A director/star’s indulgence: Pollock (Ed Harris, 2000)

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I made a concentrated effort to find something to appreciate about Pollock, largely because it was a highly personal project for Ed Harris, who directed it in addition to portraying the infamous Jackson Pollock. He had wanted to make the film since the late 80s, and contributed some of his own money towards it. However, I’m left with the conclusion that Pollock is a vanity project with only a few aspects that elevate it above being just another dull biopic.

The film details Pollock’s life from around the time he met his future wife, fellow artist Lee Krasner (Marcia Gay Harden), through his struggles with fame and alcoholism, to his accidental death in 1956. As is the problem in biopics with this broad a focus, it feels disjointed, made up of moments that stand in for longer-term changes in Pollock’s life, and that hardly flow into each other at all. Harris gives us, with his performance, as much of an insight into Pollock and his inner torment as anyone seemingly could. Harden is even better as Krasner, portraying a woman who sacrificed much of her own life and career to support the man and artist she believed in, and got little in return. Another actress may have made Krasner flat or harpyish, but Harden shows how tragic, and important, she really was. These performances are not enough, however, to compensate for the film’s lack of energy.

Pollock does come alive in the scenes depicting the artist at work. Harris developed his own painting abilities to make these moments better, and they do quietly convey an exciting creative process. There’s an intense irony in the fact that Pollock’s technique can be accurately imitated due to film sources such as those made by Hans Namuth, and yet this film suggests that working with Naumth drove the artist back to drinking.

With little sense of focus or progression, Pollock doesn’t form an engaging narrative and it raises many ideas that it doesn’t sufficiently explore. The film skirts around putting Pollock in a larger context, not delving deeply enough into his cultural significance or the theories that informed (or even didn’t inform) his work. Mostly, the film shows Harris performing as Pollock, and in this I suspect, it has far more meaning to the actor/director than it will to just about anyone else who watches it.

The myth of Max Schreck: Shadow of the Vampire (E. Elias Merhinge, 2000)

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Shadow of the Vampire is a film about film that manages to be both playful and cerebral. It gives a fictional retelling of F. W. Murnau’s making of Nosferatu, drawing on the myth that unconventional leading man Max Schreck was himself a vampire.

The film is grounded in its performances. The supporting cast is an eclectic bunch, including Udo Kier, Catherine McCormack, Cary Elwes and Eddie Izzard. The real draw, however, is the two stars, John Malkovich and Willem Dafoe; they are given dream roles as Murnau and Schreck, respectively. Malkovich’s particular strain of intense fervour is well suited to Murnau. Dafoe has the more difficult task, acting from beneath transfigurative makeup whilst wearing a corset and platform shoes. He is contorted towards resembling Schreck’s Orlok, but Dafoe embodies the character in his own way. His movements and expression are mesmerising whenever he’s onscreen, to comedic, tragic and horrific affect. He received a Best Actor in a Supporting Role Oscar nomination for his performance.

Shadow of the Vampire is reverential of Nosferatu even while deconstructing it. Snippets of the original film appear, blending into Merhinge’s as though affirming Murnau’s dream of creating something eternal. Certain scenes from Nosferatu are recreated, vividly and with affection. Many other scenes show Murnau at work, which brings to life the process of creating silent film.

Film as an art form is Shadow of the Vampire‘s central concern, but the viewer many simply be wondering if Schreck really is a vampire, or if he and Murnau are just deluded. The revelation occurs in the midst of the truly unpredictable final scene. It’s a thrilling conclusion that casts the film in a different light, and demands that the viewer question and think about what they’ve seen here.

A mishmash noir: Call Northside 777 (Henry Hathaway, 1948)

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Following the financial flops that were Magic Town and It’s a Wonderful Life, James Stewart decided it was time to shed his earnest, boyish image. He started with cynical reporter P.J. McNeal in docu-noir Call Northside 777. This film was based on the true story of a man who was falsely convicted of killing a policeman, and was released more than 11 years later thanks to the investigative efforts of reporters at the Chicago Times. It sits a little uneasily not only with Stewart’s image, but also with its own melange of stylistic choices.

Call Northside 777 was filmed in various locations in Illinois, and these scenes have a fascinating realism. The panopticon in the Illinois State Penitentiary and the streets and bars of Chicago’s Polish quarter definitely don’t feel like places commonly shown in a film. Stewart ably blends into this world, McNeal often treating the people he interviews with disinterest and disbelief.

The film doesn’t fully adhere to realism, however. Various scenes, particularly towards the end, are studio bound and feel more strongly scripted. These parts of the film aren’t bad, but they are less distinctive and contrast uncomfortably with the grittier scenes. As McNeal grows more committed to freeing Wiecek, he begins to resemble his famous Mr Smith, which also jars with the character we saw at the beginning of the story.

One of the best sequences in Call Northside 777 feels disjointed with the scenes around it, in a different way. When McNeal goes to a key witness’s apartment, the film takes on more stylised noir lighting. A stairway, a bedroom, and a passing train become striking pieces of light and shadow, greatly enhancing a sense of danger in the scene.

Call Northside 777 amounts to being something of a mishmash. It mixes authentic locations with studio sets. It gives James Stewart a different character type to play yet draws on his most famous role. It can drop some of its elements, such as its narrator or the character of McNeal’s wife, for more than half the film. (The narrator reappears, but she doesn’t.) It spends a good deal of time dwelling on (then modern) technology such as a polygraph machine or a miniature camera, often at the expense of drama, and yet the dramatic scenes can involve a piece of symbolism as obvious as a jigsaw puzzle. It boasts its realism and yet its final act is very Hollywood. These aspects don’t make for a consistent film, but it is a curious one, at the least.

Poitier takes to the screen: No Way Out (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1950)

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Sidney Poitier makes his film debut in No Way Out, and befittingly, it’s a daring drama about racial hatred. Poitier is Luther Brooks, a recently graduated doctor who has already faced prejudice and financial difficulties, but whose life takes a turn for the worse when he falls afoul of Ray Biddle (Richard Widmark). Ray and his brother Johnny are injured in a stickup, but Johnny dies while Brooks tries to treat him for an unrelated but more serious illness. Ray was already a rabid racist, but Johnny’s death gives him a vendetta against Brooks and the nearby African-American community. Meanwhile, Edie Johnson (Linda Darnell), Johnny’s ex-wife, can’t bring herself to help Brooks at the expense of her own reputation.

No Way Out is, obviously, a message film, and to its credit, it gives quite a bit of subtlety to the message. Ray is ferocious in his hatred for black people, hurling invectives left and right in a way that‘s still shocking. However, even people who work with and know Brooks use a few of those words themselves. Doctor McNally tries to remain colour blind, supporting Brooks as he would any other competent doctor, but Brooks and the hospital head alike consider him naïve for not acknowledging the issues right under his nose. Brooks is always under inequitable scrutiny. Other black characters in the film are only too willing to respond to an oncoming race riot by starting one themselves. Few people in No Way Out, black or white, are able to escape the circumstances they’ve been born into, and how these have shaped them.

No Way Out is a little lacking on the entertainment side. The pace is slow from beginning to end, and sometimes the way the story fits together is too obvious. However, it does have thick tension and some strikingly shot moments, particularly the riot. Poitier is, predictably, a charismatic presence, Darnell makes Edie a tough but troubled character, and Widmark plays Ray without restraint. (I’ve read that he apologised to Poitier after each take.) All of this makes No Way Out a film to watch if you’re in the mood for one that’s about something, even if it’s not quite satisfying as a thriller.

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni – The Mistress of Spices

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In The Mistress of Spices, Divakaruni wraps a fantastical premise around the experiences of Indian immigrants in the USA. Though Tilo appears to be an elderly woman living in Oakfield, California, she is in fact a Mistress of Spices, able to give her store’s customers the spices they need to achieve happiness. She has devoted herself to the spices, who have granted her immortality and magical abilities but will punish her harshly if she pursues desires of her own.

The fantasy aspects are original and the story has some poignant moments, but The Mistress of Spices is neither as rich nor as surprising as the premise suggests. Tilo is blatantly unsuited to her position: she’s vain and passionate, becomes attached to others too easily, and longs for earthly love. It’s just a matter of time before she surrenders to temptation.

Tilo’s romance with the mysterious Raven shows a strong chick-lit streak and is harder to accept than the novel’s magical elements. Raven is very wealthy and attractive, and can clearly see that Tilo is not as she appears, which makes it all too perfect and too easy. Their relationship does have some serious conflicts beyond the obstacles of the jealous spices and Tilo’s illusory body. However, these are not the story’s focus. At the point where the characters do acknowledge them, the plot whips back and forth so abruptly that the novel’s conclusions, both literal and philosophical, aren’t given enough room.

Meanwhile, the writing too often fumbles in its attempts to create sensuous imagery. The metaphors are frequently forced. From these smaller details to its underlying structure, Divakaruni’s novel fails to live up to her her insights and imaginative ideas.