Sunday, February 27, 2011

Simply Unbelievable

Lost Horizon, a rather uneven 1937 Frank Capra film about a utopia hidden among Tibetan mountains, begins with a simple question, spelled out in the film’s opening image of a book with calligraphy writing:

In these days of wars and rumors of wars – haven’t you ever dreamed of a place where there was peace and security, where living was not a struggle but a lasting delight?

The simple answer, of course, is “yes.” We have all, at one time or another, dreamed there is place within this world where we would worry less, struggle more moderately and enjoy ourselves a great deal more. Indeed, most of the major faiths in the world hold out the hope that our corporal existence, caught up as it is in growth decay, is but a stepping stone to an eternal life, in which much of what make human existence unsatisfying will be absent.

As a film, Lost Horizon (based on the James Hilton novel of the same name) is well aware of these shared beliefs, and it unintentionally functions as a kind of ideological litmus test. Either you believe – or want to believe – it is possible for a rural village isolated from the rest of humanity to function in perfect harmony or you think the entire premise is the farfetched plot device of a dreamer pounding out his foolish philosophy on a keyboard.

As for myself, I fall heavily in the latter category of viewer, and not entirely because I want to. Having read Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis and Thomas More’s Utopia and Aldous Huxley’s The Island (to name just a few), I was fully prepared to accept the idea that a fictional community, isolated from what we understand as the rest of the world, could theoretically develop in ways quite different from actual societies, and that the theoretical differences of the fictional community, no matter how idealistic or impractical, could help illustrate the strengths and weaknesses of a genuine society’s political arrangements. This is, after all, precisely what the aforementioned authors were trying to do.

More's Utopian dream
Unfortunately, Lost Horizon fails to match the literary explorations of social organization mentioned above precisely because it fails to present a political philosophy to account for its fictional utopia. What we have instead is what Pauline Kael called “high-flown cracker-barrel sentimentality,” in which the Tibetan village of Shangri-La is flush with affluence, health, happiness and peace for no other reason than one of the lead characters says so, and everybody around him behaves accordingly.

However, this is not to say the film is entirely without merit.

Capra’s overall direction is practiced and professional, and the cinematography and the sets are something to behold, even if Grahame Greene was right to quip that Shangri-La looked a lot like a Hollywood estate. Ronald Colman’s portrayal of British Diplomat Robert Conway and Jane Wyatt's turn as Sondra are both excellent performances, rendered even more so by the relatively amateurish efforts of their ill-used supporting cast (who at times disappear from the film's plot entirely).

The action proper begins with a chaotic scene at a Chinese outpost where Conway is helping to evacuate British subjects from the onrush of an unnamed war. After escaping with his brother on the last plane with a motley trio of passangers, there is a series of taut scenes in which the passengers gradually realize they are flying in the wrong direction. Bad goes to worse when the plane goes down in the middle of a mountain range whose cold and remoteness promise certain death. When the passengers are rescued and taken to Shangri-La, a peaceful valley shielded from the weather and the world by the size of the peaks surrounding it, the mystery concerning the film's whirlwind opening only deepens.

Looking for answers about Shangri-La
At this point, the table seems set for a rather delightful adventure story, full of mystery and suspense. Instead, in comes the ideology and out goes just about everything else. The set of characters on the plane and their complex interactions are dropped the moment they enter Shangri-La and the focus shifts to Conway and his internal struggle between his desire to remain in Tibet and serve what he believes is a higher purpose and his duty to his country in a time of impending war. The other characters, for the most part, are left to their own devices, appearing only sporadically and when the plot demands it. So unimportant do they become, they are left entirely out of the film's bizarre climax.

We never really learn what Shangri-La is, beyond the basic facts that it was created by a lost European missionary (Father Perrault) in the 18th century, and there is no war, seemingly no vice and no lack to make people unhappy. People in the valley also tend to live longer, hundreds of years longer. As a high official named Chang explains, the key to all this success has to do "with our general belief ... in moderation." (and here I was thinking it might have been Krispy Kreme donuts).

This is about as complicated as Chang gets, beyond an explanation that in Shangri-La people are encouraged to “be kind,” and since no one wants for anything, they abide by this advice and get along well with one another. The middle of the film is chock full of interminable scenes to detail how happy everyone is and how happy their happiness makes most of our stranded travelers – the plot demands, of course, that somebody is unhappy, and in this case, it is Conway’s brother, George.

Conway and his unhappy brother
Bereft of any other data, we almost accept the circumstances on screen at face-value. I say almost because they are several flies in the ointment. The first comes when an incredulous Conway asks what a married man would do if another man was interested in sleeping with his wife. Without missing a beat, Chang replies that if the other man wanted the woman that badly, then the husband should be kind enough to offer his wife to the lustful suitor. Although Conway is initially stunned by this response, he ultimately accepts it at face value, and the filmmakers expect the same from the audience.

There are plenty of reasons the explanation is patently absurd, not the least of which is the fact that Hilton – or Robert Riskin, the screenwriter – seem to never have read Homer – or any of the other Greek classics, in which the emotional primacy of sexual possession, and the jealousy and rage it can provoke, is the meat of many a great drama. In addition to our civilization’s collective literary memory, we all have minds and organs and can well understand how the two often work at cross purposes and wreak havoc on us.

The film’s internal shortcomings are even further exposed during its climax, when Conway is convinced by his brother and his brother’s love interest that the High Lama was a madman and Shangri-La nothing more than an opulent prison. Conway, who has just been named as the replacement for said High Lama and has been extremely clever throughout the film, decides to take the pair at their word and depart with them for the arduous journey back to civilization. The notion of using his newfound power to figure out what’s what or confronting Chang or Sondra inexplicably seems to never to occur to him.

Wyatt's performance is a highlight
The climax is further tainted by this conundrum: If Shangri-La is truly a utopia, then why was Maria – the longtime Shangri-La resident involved with Conway’s brother – so desperate to leave? Having apparently lived there for hundreds of years, she must have known she would die – or, at the very least, age considerably and become unattractive to Conway’s brother – if she left the valley? And yet, she chooses to leave anyway. At the very least, this proves she was unhappy, something supposedly impossible in Shangri-La, right? No further motive for her subterfuge about Shangri-La or her decision to flee is ever provided.
In sum, a film about ideas especially a film that all but jettisons plot and characterization after an hour has to have ideas rigorous enough to withstand scrutiny or the effort fails. Lost Horizon is bold on sentiment – even if the entire Shangri-La enterprise seems somewhat excessive if the only real goal is to save cultural artifacts from "coming wars" – and it relishes exploring its central character's dilemma, but neither is enough to save it from its overt absurdities and our inability as audience members to continue to suspend disbelief. 

A miniature paradise...
If it works for anything, it works as a fine example of what an expensive picture looked like in the late 1930s. Lost Horizon's budget was in excess of $2 million – an absurd figure for that day and age.  When it was released, it was a poorly reviewed, box office failure that nearly bankrupted the studio. Capra himself is rumored to have been incredibly unhappy with the final product. Since then, it has achieved a kind of cult status as an exemplar of being ahead of its times (in terms of scale and setting) and foreshadowing many of the big blockbuster adventure films that followed in its wake. Both claims are undoubtedly true, but Capra undoubtedly made better pictures, and no amount of skill and production can overcome the simplicity of this source material.  

Thursday, February 10, 2011

A Tepid Departure for Brighter Shores

Film historians, critics and audiences everywhere have largely forgotten Jamaica Inn, Alfred Hitchcock’s final British film before he began working in Hollywood, and after watching it for the first time, I can hardly blame them.

Based on Daphne du Maurier’s novel of the same name, this 1939 film is bundle of confusing aspirations and failures, beginning with the fact that the creative team hardly seems certain on what sort of picture they wanted to make. Hitchcock’s defenders generally blame this on the machinations of Charles Laughton, the actor who produced the film, starred in it and supposedly overcame Hitchcock’s notorious ego and imposed his own creative vision on the final product. Such claims are impossible to confirm or deny, of course.

What we can talk about is what we see on-screen, and what we see is a historical drama that depicts a rather straightforward crime story through familiar elements of film noir and the swashbuckling/sword-play pictures popular from the 30s and 40s. If that mixture of genres sounds confusing, that is because it is.

Set in the 19th century, the film essentially follows the misadventures of Mary Yellen (played by Maureen O’Hara), an Irish orphan who falls into a nest of cutthroats when she lands in Cornwall to search for her aunt’s family. The cutthroats, who all work for Mary’s Uncle, play a deadly game that involves luring ships onto the Cornwall coast with false lights, killing the crew and then plundering the cargo. What little mystery there is in the film revolves around the identity of her uncle’s employer.

Mary’s unexpected arrival at the inn, and her subsequent discovery of the racket, is the convenient catalyst that launches a whirlwind of chases, captures, escapes, pistol shots and dramatic confrontations with raised voices. Unfortunately, none of it feels very dangerous, due to the ham-handed foolishness of the cutthroats, one of whom cannot stop whistling, and the quick revelation of the existence of a lawman in the gang’s midst (played by Robert Newton, the famous swashbuckler himself). Low production values that include bad sound, special effects that age poorly and some awfully obvious makeup work on Laughton do not help matters, either.
Foul deeds done at night...

I also struggled to follow the film’s timeline. The action seems to occur in just two or three days, but with the vast majority of scenes all taking place at night, it is difficult to say that for certain. Being something of a Gothic affair, the choice of nocturnal settings does not surprise me. Unfortunately, the quality of the camerawork is not up to the challenges demanded by the plot, and as a result, we must suffer through scenes that are incredibly dim (see the above snapshot).
It is not all doom and gloom, though.
Laughton’s performance as Sir Humphrey Pengallan has been criticized by some, but I found his portrayal of a gentrified madman absolutely mesmerizing. The first clue that all is not well with Pengallan comes when he brings his horse into his dining room (precisely the sort of thing Caligula did). As bizarre as this is, it is not readily apparent to the audience that Pengallan is crazed until we witness his mania for luxury goods when he is in the company of the cutthroats he employs to further his aesthetic proclivities.

From that point on, he literally bounces jovially from scene to scene, excusing all manner of iniquity by his ironic claim of exceptional breeding (madness runs in his family) and his open desire to serve his preference for the good life, regardless of human cost. Such is the level of Laugton’s sinisterly-enduring performance, Frank S. Nugent is absolutely correct to write, “we can’t recall when we’ve ever held a monster in such complete affection.”
Laughton excels, almost saves the film.

Hitchcock takes a stab at a further bit of psychology by chronicling the complicated and tender dysfunction of Joss and Patience Merlyn’s marriage, in which Joss beats her, abuses her verbally but ultimately takes care of her and stands up for her needs, which in turn, breeds affection and loyalty from her. More of this might have elevated the film beyond a plot that runs too fast between scenes to show what happens next, but instead, we are left with Laughton, and our curious pity for him at the end. That, too, might have saved this effort, as he is clearly the best thing going here, but Hitch’s usually astute radar for balancing motivation and action is slightly askew in most of this film.
O'Hara and Newton
Somewhere, inside this uneven jumble, there is a great movie trying to break through and blossom. The shame of it all is that it the breakthrough never occurs, the proverbial petals remain closed and we end up stuck in a valley of mediocrity, peering up at hill full of brilliant roses that might have been. Nugent argues Jamaica Inn “doesn’t seem like Hitchcock.” And while I cannot agree with that sentiment, because there are too many Hitchcock tropes on display here, I can understand why he wrote it. Hitchcock made better movies before Jamaica Inn (see Secret Agent or Sabotage), and less than a year later, he made Rebecca, which won him an Oscar. Compared to that record, to say nothing of all his other Hollywood masterpieces, this is disappointing. Period.

Monday, February 7, 2011

As Cool As They Come

The first in our series of biographies focuses on Humphrey Bogart (1899-1957), the iconic American actor who defined toughness and cool in 75 classic films.
Born in New York City in 1899, Bogart is thought of today as the prototypical leading man and exemplar of all things American and masculine during what many consider to be Hollywood’s golden era of studio filmmaking (roughly 1930 through 1950). However, he was not a leading actor until the early 1940s and he did not win an Oscar until 1951’s The African Queen.
Bogart’s eventual enshrinement atop the Hollywood pyramid as AFI’s Greatest Male Star of All Time in 1999 is somewhat curious if one examines some of his constituent parts.

Bogart broods in Casablanca.
He is not, for example, a large man. Indeed, he is almost impish and diminutive on-screen. Not quite angular enough to be considered handsome, he has the odd appearance of resembling paper crumpled into a ball and then straightened back out again. In terms of speech, he is a kind of one-man quote machine, who spit out lines in an almost irreverent fashion, only to see them enshrined as paragons of good dialogue, quoted down the decades, even by people who probably have not seen his films. Among the more notable:
  • "Here's looking at you, kid"
  • "The stuff that dreams are made of."
  • “Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship."
  • "We'll always have Paris."
  • "Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine."
Were it not for Bogart’s extraordinary on-screen charisma and confidence, his jerky mannerisms and machinegun style of talking could easily have condemned him to eek out a career as the odd kind of character actor we generally associate with Peter Loire. What saved him, beyond his obvious talents, was his incredible on-screen presence and the fact his devil-may-care coolness has never been equaled (not even by Brando or Dean).
Oddly irresistable?
Early in his career, he was typecast as a gangster or a hood, leading him to complain that “nobody likes me on sight. I suppose that’s why I’m cast as the heavy.” Later, he was typecast almost as the opposite: A private detective, soldier or silent idealist, waiting for the right moment to shrug off his skin of overt cynicism and act heroically (see Casablanca). In all these roles, he was something of a stoic, prone to quietly accept the various inequities of the world, even as he secretly smoldered against them.
He also cultivated an image of being working class, competent and opposed to phonies, dilettantes and authority in general. In this, his real-life expulsion from Andover and his subsequent rejection of whatever elite he encountered seeped on the screen. But for all his rebellion, both real and imagined, Bogart was a classic Hollywood insider. Spencer Tracy gave him his nickname, “Bogie.” And Bogart’s fourth – and by far, most famous wife – was none other than Lauren Bacall, whom he met while filming To Have and Have Not.
B&B, an ultimate power couple.
If his career suffers from anything today, it is a lack of range. The aforementioned typecasting (common to the era) meant that Bogart was never really given the chance to exhibit his true abilities as a performer. Indeed, as I have already expressed elsewhere on this blog, many of his portrayals seem so similar as to be entirely indistinguishable from one another (see his turn as Sam Spade and Philip Marlow, performances which almost exactly mirror each other). Bogart nearly always played Bogart, and there is nothing wrong with that, because it is Bogart we are talking about here. Other actors may founder on their persona and their inability to disappear into a role, but Bogie’s presence overwhelms any shortcomings in his craft. He was, quite simply, a movie star of the first order.
Career Highlights Include:
The Maltese Falcon
The Treasure of Sierra Madre
The African Queen (Reviewed here).
The Caine Mutiny
The Big Sleep

An official Bogart website can be found here.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Dinner Theater Done Right

It is not everyone’s favorite dish, but if you like the sort of old-fashioned mystery wherein a great detective magically solves a crime involving what initially appears to be unrelated people and unrelated facts, then Sidney Lumet’s Murder on the Orient Express is probably your best bet, in terms of quality and craftsmanship.

The 1974 film based on Agatha Christie’s novel of the same name is bolstered by a heavyweight cast of actors that includes Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, Sean Connery, Michael York, Anthony Perkins, Albert Finney and Vanessa Redgrave. Bergman collected one of her trio of Oscars for her portrayal of a Swedish missionary whose faith in God far outstrips her command of English.

The highly talented cast

I will not attempt to describe the plot here, as it would be difficult to do and would remove the satisfaction of seeing it play out on screen with total ignorance. Suffice to say, a murder happens to happen on the Orient Express, the grand dame of all great railway lines (it ran from Istanbul to the coast of France) and Hercule Poirot (Christie’s fastidious detective) happens to be on board when the foul deed is committed. In the wake of the killing, the film’s plot revolves around Poirot’s skillful set of interviews with the train’s first-class passengers, none of whom, of course, are what they initially seem.
The man with the moustache, Hercule Poirot
There is a fine line in these kinds of endeavors between success and failure. That is, like the police procedural, there is a rather plain formula at work in these kinds of films (indeed, the audience almost expects the formula, and consequently is disappointed if it is absent). Therefore, the game for the creative team behind the film is how to reinvigorate old tropes so that they feel new – even when they are not – and in the process, keep the audience guessing. This is, after all, a mystery – and it should be mysterious, right?
Put into practice, this involves enlivening conversation, as much of these films revolve around clues revealed via dialogue, and creating a memorable set of characters who must manage the complicated feat of standing out and avoiding obviousness at the same time. Typically, as with all of these kinds of potboilers, the actors chase their goal through lavish overacting.
Poirot confronts his suspects on the Orient Express
The trick, of course, is to keep the overacting within the bounds of acceptance and away from the bounds of annoyance. For the most part, Murder on the Orient Express manages this tightrope dance quite well, and even injects some humor into the proceedings, via some snappy remarks and not-so-subtle sarcasm. The film looses some of its early vim in the middle portion, and I cannot help but feel like the final revelation fails to deliver on the early promise that plays out in a wonderfully eerie opening montage.
But make no mistake: This is dinner theater done right, if that is your thing. A wonderful cast, high production values and a lighthearted aura of whimsy make this film well worth the time of both the mystery aficionado and the viewer in search of some simple entertainment that does not involve clashing robots, superheroes or various other platforms for incindiary special effects...