The perennial noir favourite: Laura (Otto Preminger, 1944)

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I recently watched the much-beloved film noir Laura and didn’t wind up feeling much affection for it, but still respect it as a polished and sophisticated movie with a unique combination of various elements. The plot alone is genius: advertising executive Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney) is found murdered, only to seemingly reappear in her apartment while Detective Lt. Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews), having begun to fall in love with her while investigating her death, sleeps beneath her portrait on the wall. She’s now one of the suspects, whose number also includes ascetic radio commentator and journalist Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb), Laura’s wealthy aunt, Ann Treadwell (Judith Anderson), and Laura’s fiance, Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price).

Tierney was stunningly beautiful, but didn’t always deliver strong performances. It doesn’t help that Laura is meant to be more of a mystery than a person, or that Tierney appeared in the film strictly under contract obligations. Perhaps a different actress could have built a stronger character out of the script, but Laura stays a cipher here. However, every other actor in this small cast brings something distinctive to their role. Andrews has a troubled quality that befits a noir hero, and Webb is so perfect as the cynical, witty Lydecker that he would become somewhat typecast in other films. Price is just right as a lunk-headed playboy, while Anderson, an extremely capable actor, brings out every possible nuance in Treadwell.

The least convincing aspect of the movie is, for me, McPherson falling for Laura. It’s not that I don’t believe he would, but there’s simply little screentime devoted to showing what he’s feeling about her. Most of the first half of the movie focuses, through flashbacks, on all the other characters rather than the detective himself, or how he’s responding to what he’s learning about Laura. The only scene that really shows that he’s taking a personal interest in her, in which he explores her apartment, comes just before she reappears. The scene was nearly cut from the the movie, and its absence would truly hurt the characters. As it is, McPherson’s affections don’t quite seem strong enough, but Andrews does sell them in the detective’s interactions with Laura.

Some would call Laura a perfect film. Personally, I’m more drawn to a classic that’s a bit rougher and stranger, like Gilda. Nonetheless, Laura is undoubtedly an essential film noir, consumately made, with some talented actors, and a plot that’s great fodder for the imagination and a pleasure to watch unfold onscreen.

Taking a Shot: Bride of Chucky (Ronny Wu, 1999)

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There’s some interesting things going on in this shot. Plotwise, Tiffany is learning that Charles Lee Ray, AKA Chucky, never intended to marry her before he was killed, as she believed. Motivated by love, she’s spent ten years searching for the doll housing Ray’s soul, only to hear him laugh at her.

One of the best things about Bride of Chucky is that the relationship between Chucky and Tiffany has a great dynamic, and that Jennifer Tilly and Brad Dourif (with his voice, at least), play off each other so well. They take the characters seriously, exaggerated as they are, and the movie is all the better for it.

Ronny Wu emphasises Tiffany’s emotions here by using a diopter lens, so that Tiffany and Chucky are both in focus at once. I don’t always like this type of shot, but the image’s unreal quality suits the heightened nature of the movie, and what Tiffany’s feeling.

Wu’s strong sense of style elevates Don Mancini’s script. Perhaps inspired by Wu, Mancini used a range of visual techniques, including similar diopter lens shots, in his next two Chucky films, which were both self-directed. Seed of Chucky and Curse of Chucky had weaker stories than Bride, which was more of a problem than how they were filmed.

By some slip up, this camera was not fitted with a filter that Tilly jokes is the due of “a star of [her] stature.” As such, we can see the textures of Tilly’s skin, which, apparently, we would otherwise have been spared. These kinds of filters have been used thoughout the history of cinema and aren’t inherently bad, but it’s always worth questioning why conventional female beauty must be so unattainable for any woman, star or not.

On Rotation: Tom Waits, Midnight Juggernauts, Goldfrapp

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Tom Waits – Real Gone (2004)

Real Gone is a messy, messy album, and in some ways that’s a good thing. With the beatboxing and the recorded-in-a-bathroom sound, Waits finds a whole new way of being ramshackle, even though by 2004 he had been ramshackle for quite a long time. But the length of the songs and the overall length of the album weakens it. Of the fifteen songs on here, more than half feel a little unnecessary. “Don’t Go Into That Barn” never really goes anywhere (funnily enough), “Top of the Hill” is totally shambolic, and having “Trampled Rose” and “Dead and Lovely” on the same album is just redundant.

I do like the songs from this album more when they’re separated from each other and performed live. “Make it Rain,” in particular, is so much better in live versions.

Favourite track: “Hoist That Rag.” Love Waits barking the title, and the way the song’s complicated and rough at the same time.

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Midnight Juggernauts – Dystopia (2007)

I first heard this guitar-based electronica group on a mix album put together by fellow Melbournites Cut Copy. Midnight Juggernauts haven’t achieved Cut Copy’s level of success and, based just on this album, I don’t find them as appealing. They have a big, spacey sound that I like (what you see on the album cover is what you get in the music) but the lyrics are unremarkable, and the vocals have an affected quality I can’t warm up to. They have a few good songs on here, and the rest is just enjoyable for the sound.

Favourite track: “Worlds Converged.” The band often seem to be mixing elements that don’t quite fit together, but the contrasts in this one work really well.

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Goldfrapp – Supernature (2005)

My liking for Goldfrapp is largely based on their first album, Felt Mountain, and their singles. They tend to have uneven album tracks, when they’re not dipping into genres that I don’t much like. (I love 80s music, but Head First draws on some of the worst sounds to come out of the decade.) Still, it’s always interesting to see what they’ll try next, and when they’re good, they’re fantastic. That honky tonk piano on “Satin Chic” is weird and wonderful. (No, I haven’t heard Songs of Us yet. Maybe that’s another Goldfrapp album that will work for me in full.)

Favourite track: “Number 1.” A song I can listen to anywhere, anywhen.

A delightful romance: The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1947)

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I knew just enough about The Ghost and Mrs. Muir to not expect a good deal from it. However, I was curious to see Joseph L. Mankiewicz working again with Dragonwyck star Gene Tierney. Having low expectations left me open to the surprise of finding that this familiar story is far from trite, and sparkles with charm, intelligence and humour. In some ways, it reflects interestingly back on Dragonwyck. Most importantly, it creates a world that’s a pleasure to spend time in.

You probably know this story too, if not from the film, then from the 1960s sitcom of the same name. Widow Lucy Muir (Tierney) moves into a house by the sea, hoping to start a new life, only to find that the house is still occupied by the ghost of the former owner, sea captain Daniel Gregg (Rex Harrison). What develops is a love story with a lot of respect for plot pacing and character nuances.

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Lucy is a complicated woman. She thought she loved her husband, but found she was mistaken, after their wedding. She’s now more interested in escaping her mother and sister-in-law than mourning him. She has a prim manner and yet also has a rebellious streak. Tierney seems well suited to the warmth and good humour of the character.

Gregg may seem like a caricature, being salty as he is. Harrison has enough charisma, however, that this becomes unimportant. His funniest moment may be when Lucy (who he insists on calling “Lucia”) starts crying and he barks at her, “Belay that!” The character is a fine foil for Lucy, as he has no regards for the respectable standards that she also (inwardly) balks at. She finds his outrageousness delightful, even if she wouldn’t always admit it.

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The Ghost and Mrs. Muir has some visual similarities to Dragonwyck. They don’t share the same cinematographer; Charles Lang worked on the former, and Arthur C. Miller worked on the latter. While both had highly distinguished careers, I have to wonder if Mankiewicz had a strong influence on the look of both films. He’s generally more respected as a writer than as a director, but perhaps his visual style is underestimated by people who don’t look much further than films such as All About Eve and The Barefoot Contessa.

I praised Dragonwyck’s gothic atmosphere, and something similar can be seen again in a couple of scenes here. What I didn’t mention, however, is that Mankiewicz’s earlier film also sometimes had scenes in pleasant, open rooms; Gull Cottage looks much the same. The changing backdrops beyond the window in Lucy’s bedroom further open up the set.

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Dragonwyck’s outdoor scenes were also quite striking, and here, the coastline beyond Lucy’s house is always a treat. The sheep-dotted hillsides are another resemblance to that earlier film.

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On the whole, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir feels open and airy, and full of story possibilities. It’s no surprise, really that this story was adapted for TV. It seems at various points as though it could have gone in a number of directions. The addition of George “Memoirs of a Cad” Sanders as a potential suitor for Lucy is only one of them, though Sanders is not unwelcome. Neither is the quick passage of many years towards the end of the story, which is unexpected, but thoughtful and well-paced. If you’ve never seen this film and thought there probably isn’t much to it, take a look anyway; Mankiewicz, Tierney and Harrison may surprise and delight you.

Noir on a dark night: Sorry, Wrong Number (Anatole Litvak, 1948)

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Sorry, Wrong Number’s plot is based in 1940s technology that well and truly dates it, but the film has lost none of its suspense over the years. The technology in question is the telephone, the clunky kind, with operators and switchboards keeping the connections going behind the scenes. Leona Stevenson (Barbara Stanwyck), a bed-ridden heir to a toiletry products empire, overhears a disturbing conversation when she tries to make a call. It seems to be about a plan to kill a woman at 11:15 that night. Alone in her house, she calls everyone she can think of to try to prevent the murder, but encounters disinterest from the authorities and a bafflingly complex mystery involving the people in her own life. The danger may be closer to home than she first thought.

Leona is not a likeable character. The more we learn about her marriage and her illness, the more selfish and pathetic she becomes. It would be a mistake not to see that this is how Stanwyck plays the part. Aside from Leona’s old college friend, Sally (Ann Richards), everyone else in the film is only barely more pleasant, from Leona’s husband, Henry (Burt Lancaster), to her magnate father, J.B. (Ed Begley). None of them seem especially malicious, per se, but Sorry, Wrong Number is a true film noir in which anyone, no matter how well-intentioned, can be corrupted or simply make terrible mistakes.

The film is not just bleak, but at times achieves a downright eerie quality. Much of the story is told in flashbacks from multiple perspectives, strongly influenced by the teller’s bias or lack of knowledge. When Sally describes following Henry out to Staten Island, the things she witnesses are mystifyingly strange. The music and day-for-night filming make the mystery unnerving. And one of the last phone calls Leona takes is thoroughly cryptic, even as it tells us the facts we have been waiting to hear. The painting shown in this caller’s hotel room would be haunting even if Leona’s next call didn’t reveal how it reflects upon what that caller intends to do next.

Sorry, Wrong Number was adapted from a radio play, and clearly would work in audio form. However, Anatole Litvek gives the film some nice visual touches, such as Sally at a train station, trying to stay on the phone but out of her husband’s sight, or the scenes on Staten Island. He uses several long shots that tell a story in themselves, whether by moving slowly around a room to show the occupant’s belongings, or moving from a clock over to Leona in bed, then out her window and down a level to show a figure outside her house.

Sorry, Wrong Number is based upon a premise that is irresistible despite being dated, and involves a mystery that manages to be truly mysterious. We can easily guess that Leona may be the woman intended to die at 11:15, but the why of it is a complex question. The film has strong performances, particularly from Stanwyck and Lancaster. In fine noir style, it depicts a dark world in which everyone is connected and yet help still could not be further away.

A few thoughts on Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity

– David Stratton complained that one scene kept Gravity from being a masterpiece, so I spent the whole movie waiting for it. It wasn’t hard to spot. I like the scene, but the dialogue was weak, and on the whole was definitely one of the movie’s flaws.

– Cuarón and his long takes. The first cut is seventeen minutes in, but by that point I was too wrapped up in what was happening to notice.

– I’m not sure if there’s a whole lot of rewatchability to Gravity. I do want to see some scenes again because I can’t take everything in at once in 3D, and so missed plenty of details. Still, the visual impact and sense of tension won’t hold up as well at home.

– At first I shook my head (not true, I spent the whole movie sitting quite still and clutching my arms) at the sight of liquid touching the lens, remembering that blood splatter in Children of Men. The last shot showed, however, that the way the liquid reacts to the lens is significant. Very clever.

– I kept expecting a Moon-meets-The Grey ending, but didn’t get it.

– It took me a little while to get used to things happening without sound. The music compensated, but it still felt odd. Curiously, there’s a bit at the end where the music cuts out as the camera goes underwater (why do that underwater and not in space?!), and moments where sound is still present, but not in the way that the person onscreen is hearing it.

– Nitpicking much? Sometimes that’s the only way to react to a movie that’s so assured of itself, and so ambitious, and has already been roundly praised by just about everyone.

Bette outshines film: Dark Victory (Edmund Goulding, 1939)

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In Dark Victory, Bette Davis gives one of her most legendary performances as fatally ill socialite Judith Traherne, but the curious thing about this film is that’s there’s not much to it other than its lead actor. Though competently made, it has hardly any substance beyond Davis’ commitment to playing a character who manages to transcend limitations that, before she developed her brain tumour, she never knew she had.

The supporting cast do little to distinguish themselves. Amongst them are: George Brent as Doctor Frederick Steele, who diagnoses Judith, falls in love with her, and tries to cure her; Geraldine Fitzgerald as Ann King, Judith’s secretary and best friend; and, most bizarrely, Humphrey Bogart as Michael O’Leary, the Irishman who runs Judith’s stables. Perhaps the actors are at fault for not bringing much to the screen, or perhaps the film is designed to make them barely more than cardboard cutouts for Davis to react to. There’s also an actor who plays one of Judith’s drunken friends, who is so underwritten that I found myself wondering how it felt to be in that part. My sympathies were misplaced; not being an American, I didn’t instantly recognise the actor as Ronald Reagan.

Dark Victory is built around how Davis plays her role. Headstrong but playful, Judith is a far cry from Davis’ usual commanding, selfish divas. She’s a sympathetic character, though not without her flaws. Her gradual acceptance of her fate, and her ability to meet it with eyes open, is terribly moving. It doesn’t even matter that the film is hugely manipulative and takes sudden religious overtones in its last moments that had not been hinted in anything that had come before.

One of the reasons I watch so many Bette Davis films is that they are often interesting for reasons beyond her performance, more so than is the case for plenty of equally talented actors. Dark Victory, however, while not a bad film, is focused upon Davis to the exclusion of almost everything else. As such, she’s the only reason to watch it.

Unfulfilled possibilities: Einstürzende Neubauten’s Ende Neu

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Endu Neu was my first Einstürzende Neubauten album, which worked out well, considering that it’s their most accessible. It’s a collection of largely straightforward, frequently repetitive songs that still display the band’s intellectual outlook and unconventional approach to instrumentation. It’s enough to whet the appetite, but feels rather milquetoast and uninspired in comparison to much of their other work. Their earlier albums often showed a near-unmatchable primal chaos, while their later albums would display a honed refinement befitting a mature band. Ende Neu is caught in the middle, released in 1996, when EN were in the process of creative transformation, both in their lineup and in their music. Even in its title, Endu Neu (Ending New) clears the way for new directions, which it hints at but will not be embarked upon with confidence before the future additions of band members Jochen Arbeit and Rudi Moser.

In all of their incarnations, EN have a particular alchemy in their onstage performances that mean the live versions of their songs are usually better than those you’ll hear on their albums. This is markedly the case with Ende Neu‘s songs, half of which won’t reach full fruition until performed onstage with Arbeit and Moser. “Installation No. 1” and “NNNAAAMMM,” both playful and terribly danceable, are at their best on 9-15-2000, Brussels or at the 20th Anniversary Columbiahalle concert. In Alexander Hacke’s monumental basslines, Arbeit’s jangling and scratching guitar, Moser and N. U. Unruh’s percussive interjections and Blixa Bargeld’s unpredictable vocal loops, the songs come alive. “Was Ist Ist,” a supposed celebration of new potentialities, wouldn’t take its truest form until the Palast der Republik performances, where a choir of enthusiastic fans added their voices, both in guided chants and personal additions. Personally, I find “Ende Neu” pretty dull (the way the verses decrease in length by one bar as the song progresses is the only interesting thing about it), but it does improve when live, with Moser and Hacke bringing full force to their plastic drumming.

Of the other tracks, “Der Schacht von Babel” is a complete throwaway, while string-heavy “The Garden” is nice enough, but so repetitive and subdued that it doesn’t withstand multiple listens. (I wish EN would stop playing it at their concerts, let alone opening with it.) “Stella Maris,” however, is a lovely ballad. While it barely hints at Meret Becker’s great talents as a singer and performer, she makes a fine foil for Bargeld in this duet. Bargeld’s wavering guitar is also pleasantly melodic. That’s a phrase that stands well at odds with EN’s earlier work; it’s no wonder that original band member F.M. Einheit, who would soon part with the group, looked in on the recording of “Stella Maris” and felt total disinterest.

The song from Ende Neu that I feel represents EN at its mercurial finest and can’t be improved upon is “Der Explosion im Festspielhaus.” Silence and subtlety would be an increasingly dominant component of EN’s future work (as is underlined in the title of their next album, 2000’s Silence is Sexy), and they’re vital to this song. It describes the creation of the universe, an erotic event, wth a smooth bass line, a barely-there organ, the scratching of pen on paper, and male and female vocals. Bargeld delivers much of the lyrics in a bass rumble, but is joined by Becker and Jennifer Levy in a multi-layered choir of whispering and keening, announced by the clatter of a metal plate.

Ende Neu is EN’s slightest album, containing uncertainty that weakens it and possibilities that largely won’t be fulfilled here. However, it does display the band’s palette of electric, plastic, metal, and still more unlikely sounds, as well as concepts that come uniquely from the mind of Blixa Bargeld. Biba Kopf provides liner notes that describe how and why the songs were made, which adds to an appreciation of the album. Ende Neu cannot, I think, fail to give the new listener a sense of excitement about all that they have yet to hear from Einstürzende Neubauten.

Grave and grim: The China Syndrome (James Bridges, 1979)

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The China Syndrome’s warning about the dangers of nuclear power could hardly have been more timely; the film was released only days before the Three Mile Island incident. This message, however, in no way lessens how successful The China Syndrome is as entertainment. It stars Jane Fonda as Kimberly Wells, a popular TV reporter who wants to move away from puff pieces and into serious stories. While filming at a nuclear power plant, she witnesses an accident that supervisor Jack Godell (Jack Lemmon) barely brings under control. Her cameraman and old friend, Richard Adams (Michael Douglas), films the whole event, but The Powers That Be block them from making the story public. While they investigate further, Godell reluctantly realises that the plant is far more dangerous than anyone could have guessed.

The China Syndrome is a grave film. There’s no extra-diegetic music, outside of the title sequence. Each shot is carefully placed. The plot moves, for the most part, with restraint, and a pivotal moment occurs with great understatement. Aside from its stars, the cast look like ordinary people, grounding the film in reality. All of this only adds to the tension and a belief that by the end of the film, anything could happen. A happy ending is in no way guaranteed.

Jane Fonda plays her role in a natural fashion, and shows a certain overlap in Kimberley’s onscreen and offscreen demeanours. She may have to read ridiculous stories, but something of her compassionate side is evident in her delivery. Likewise, her confidence in front of the camera isn’t an act, but part of her everyday composure. We can feel her frustration at being used as eye candy by her bosses.

Lemmon is adept at playing anxiety, which is vital for Jack. The character is in a position of incredible responsibility, while having no real control over how the plant is run. For much of the film, his fears are tempered by his trust in the plant’s design. It’s a credit to how Lemmon and the writers construct the character that when Jack finally succumbs to sheer panic, it shows just how dire things are: he’s not someone who loses control without reason.

Michael Douglas produced this film, and spent years trying to get it made. He’s also a last minute replacement for Richard Dreyfuss, who was supposed to play Richard. Dreyfuss would have been far better in this role, which requires a sort of edgy energy that Douglas can’t give without being unlikeable. As it is, Douglas is an irritant, but one that can be overlooked.

The China Syndrome seems sceptical about the notion of truth, or at least the way that the public is aware of it. Who will accept Kimberley’s story? Who won’t be bought? Who will make the difficult choices? Will the facts see the light of day, or will they be distorted? What can be done when big business has the power? Kimberley, Jack and Richard’s efforts come at great cost but may not, in the end, have done any good at all.

Taking a Shot: The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (Michael Curtiz, 1939)

The loudest thing this shot is saying to you is LOOK AT ERROL FLYNN’S LEGS. You ought to listen.

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It also tells you, perhaps, that this is a rare film in which the male lead is more objectified than the female lead, and they have a passionate romance nonetheless. It clearly indicates that the woman is the one in a position of authority. You can probably guess that the age and power differences between them will be contentious matters in their relationship – as will the fact that these differences even exist.

It is for those reasons that I can say with all seriousness that if you’re not looking at Errol Flynn’s legs, you’re watching the movie wrong.