Sunday, April 1, 2018


One of the joys which movies provide too rarely is the opportunity to see a literate script handled intelligently. "The Lion in Winter" triumphs at that difficult task; not since "A Man for All Seasons" have we had such capable handling of a story about ideas. But "The Lion in Winter" also functions at an emotional level, and is the better film, I think.

One of the flaws of "A Man for All Seasons" was that it was so graceful and bloodless. The characters were scrubbed; the sets were ornate; the dialog was delivered as a sort of free verse, especially when Paul Scofield got rolling. In the last analysis, the film provided a civilized version of a story that you sensed was not nearly so civilized at the time.

That's not the case with "The Lion in Winter." Henry II rules a world in which kings still kicked aside chickens on their way through the courtyard, and he wears a costume that looks designed to be put on in November and shed layer by layer during April. In this England, 250 years earlier than the time of Thomas More, there are dogs and dirt floors, rough furskins and pots of stew, pigs, mud, dungeons-and human beings. We believe in the complicated intrigue these people get themselves into because we believe in them. They look real, and inhabit a world that looks lived in.

The action is mostly contained within one day, a Christmas Eve. Henry II (Peter O'Toole) is 50 years old and wants to choose his heir before he dies. He has three sons: John, his favorite, a sniveling slack-jaw; Richard, the soldier genius; and Geoffrey, reserved and quiet. Henry calls a Christmas court, letting his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine (Katharine Hepburn) out of prison for the occasion. King Philip of France is also a visitor. He wants to know when his sister will be married to the heir to the throne. But, Henry has not been able to appoint an heir yet, and what's more, the girl's become his mistress.

James Goldman's fine script handles this situation in a series of meetings between the principals. He is as good as Shaw in getting people on and off stage; at one point, he has three people hidden behind tapestries when Henry visits Philip's room, and he gets them all out without faltering in his command of the scene. He gives his characters a most effective language; it seems direct, and yet it has a gracefulness and wit.

I imagine "The Lion in Winter" will be a leading contender for this year's Academy Award. I'm not convinced it's the best picture of the year, but I think Peter O'Toole's performance is of Oscar quality, and Anthony Hopkins and Timothy Dalton deserve nominations for their supporting roles as Richard and Philip. As for Katharine Hepburn, she is magnificent; what other actress could have played this role? Anthony Harvey, an experienced editor, has performed as a virtuoso in his second film as a director (after "Dutchman").

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Dunkirk is a pure cinematic experience

Does that make it the Best Picture? Our critics roundtable discusses the Oscar chances for Christopher Nolan’s big, audacious war epic  


Friday, March 16, 2018

‘La La Land’ Makes Musicals Matter Again

LOS ANGELES — The first time I watched Damien Chazelle’s musical, “La La Land,” I thought a lot about how it worked, about its form, his craft and how the lickable candy-colored costumes bring to mind both M&M’s and Jacques Demy. I thought about how Mr. Chazelle and his stars, Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, fit into the history of the film musical. When I went to see “La La Land” again, I was in a terrible state, and this time I just fell into it, gratefully. I surrendered. Afterward, I realized that this must have been what it was like to watch Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers during the Great Depression.

In “La La Land,” Mr. Chazelle has a shot at something that has eluded auteurist titans like Peter Bogdanovich and Francis Ford Coppola: to make musicals matter again. For decades, the genre that helped Hollywood’s golden age glitter has sputtered, resurfacing in Broadway adaptations like “Into the Woods” or sneaking in sideways in the “Magic Mike” movies, where the music is canned and the dancing grindingly dirty. About the only consistent sources for old-fashioned singing and dancing of the Turner Classic Movies kind has been Disney cartoons, television shows like “Glee” and TCM itself. Musicals have been for kids, for knowing winks and nostalgia.

A musical with big numbers, intimate reveries and adult feelings, “La La Land” is a boy-meets-girl tale with early 21st-century rhythms (mostly good, even if its white stars are nestled, more self-consciously than naturally, in a multicultural world). It grapples with love between equals in a story about an aspiring actress, Mia (Ms. Stone), who meets an ambitious musician, Sebastian (Mr. Gosling), Los Angeles-style during a traffic jam on a freeway: He honks his horn at her; she flips him the bird. It takes a while for them to get together — they meet, they retreat, repeat — only to end up swaying in that fading, soft-light time known as the magic hour, tapping and twirling yet never quite touching. After another encounter, they at last move as one — s’wonderful, as Astaire crooned.

Contemporary American movies could use more s’wonderful, more music and dance, and way, way more surrealism. They’re too dull, too ordinary and too straight, whether they’re mired in superhero clichés or remodeled kitchen-sink realism. One of the transformative pleasures of musicals is that even at their most choreographed, they break from conformity, the dos and don’ts of a regimented life, suggesting the possibility that everyone can move to her own beat. It’s enormously pleasurable when an evening stroll turns into a rhythmic saunter and then bursts into dance — think of Gene Kelly walking, tapping, stomping and exulting in the rain.

Mr. Chazelle was studying film at Harvard when Astaire and Rogers first blew his mind. He had begun developing a playlist befitting the young and serious: He loved Alfred Hitchcock and the French New Wave, and was dabbling in the American avant-garde. He had watched musicals growing up but found it revelatory to see Astaire and Rogers cheek to cheek in “Top Hat” while watching Jean-Luc Godard and Maya Deren. “Suddenly, I started thinking of them as experimental movies in mainstream garb,” Mr. Chazelle said recently when we met in Los Angeles. “That was the initial thing where I woke up and went, ‘Oh my God, I’ve been sleeping on a gold mine.’”

At Harvard, Mr. Chazelle nurtured his love for musicals — he became obsessed with Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen’s “It’s Always Fair Weather,” a musical about loss, disappointment and masculinity — and started on his senior thesis film, which became his feature directorial debut, “Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench.” That film grew out of a discussion he had with another student, Justin Hurwitz — they were in a rock band together — and “me just asking him, ‘Hey, if I did something that was either a musical or kind of a musical that I needed original music for, would you do the music?’” Mr. Hurwitz did, going on to compose for “La La Land” and “Whiplash,” Mr. Chazelle’s second feature.

A near-musical, “Guy and Madeline” centers on a young jazzman and a free spirit who split after it opens, only to reunite later (perhaps). The film’s textures, jazz and bohemian milieu as well as its black-and-white visuals evoke the young John Cassavetes, while its playful embrace of the musical suggests the scene in Mr. Godard’s “Band of Outsiders” when three characters line dance in a cafe. (“Parenthetically,” Mr. Godard says, “now’s the time to describe their feelings.”) “I sort of thought of ‘Guy and Madeline’ as not a full musical,” Mr. Chazelle said, “but a movie that kind of becomes a musical.” Part of its charm is that — as he plays, and as she sings and dances — Guy and Madeline become themselves.

The shifts in “Guy and Madeline” from the everyday to its tapping, tuneful numbers is characteristic of musicals that blend the walking-and-talking ordinary world with the singing-and-dancing musical world. In “Top Hat,” Astaire and Rogers start dancing in a gazebo during a storm almost by chance. She’s dressed in a riding outfit while he’s in a jacket and tie, which underscores the ordinariness of their being together until, that is, he starts singing “Isn’t This a Lovely Day (to Be Caught in the Rain).” In the backstage musical, the numbers tend to be set off from offstage life (as in Busby Berkeley 1930s fantasias); a lot of musicals, including “Singin’ in the Rain,” combine these approaches.

“La La Land,” which opens Dec. 9, integrates its numbers, even the most fantastical, as if it were the most natural thing in the world for a guy to tap-dance on a park bench or a woman to dream herself into a waltz. Mia and Sebastian meet early but don’t connect until they bump into each other at a party. Later, while walking to her car, they end up in Griffith Park, a swath of Los Angeles that, like everything in the city, is part of movie history. (“A rock is a rock, and a tree is a tree. Shoot it in Griffith Park!” is an old industry maxim.) As the sky glows pink, Mia sits on a bench to change out of her heels. All at once, they’re both wearing spectator shoes and, as suddenly, they’re side by side. Their feet start moving together, and the rest follows.

In classic style, Mia and Sebastian somehow, amazingly, know how to dance together — they shadow each other in sync — without holding each other. As in the gazebo scene in “Top Hat,” which brings Astaire and Rogers’s characters closer and closer, the park dance in “La La Land” turns flirting into a performance, complete with a little tapping, a little twirling and several neatly executed barrel turns from Mr. Gosling. Throughout “La La Land,” Mr. Chazelle engages distinct genre tropes — the not-quite-touching dance, the constantly interrupted kiss, the miracle of synchronicity — to playful effect, allowing him to transform the everyday into what he calls the dramatically or comically “epic.”

In October 2015, I watched Mr. Chazelle shoot several numbers for “La La Land” at the Hollywood Center Studios, the same lot where Astaire made “Second Chorus” and Mr. Coppola started going broke making “One From the Heart.” Throughout “La La Land,” Mr. Chazelle plays with realism, moving from the recognizable now into full-blown fantasy, as when Mia and Sebastian walk into one of those sets that turn reality into an Impressionistic backdrop, in this case a city that’s distilled into the “Hollywood” sign and the Watts Towers. It’s a tricky scene that requires Ms. Stone and Mr. Gosling to enter a vibrant throng of dancing extras before they part ways.

On both days, Mr. Chazelle used an enormous crane with a telescoping column — the camera was at one end, the operator at the other — which allowed a wide range of fluid motion and high angles like those that punctuate “Singin’ in the Rain.” (“We needed that lift at the end,” Mr. Chazelle said later.) His mantra that day and the next was “It’s got to be head to toe,” a refrain that would have pleased Astaire, who liked to show the body fully in frame. Astaire disliked the fragmentation of Berkeley’s numbers, which could turn bodies into machinelike parts, insisting that “either the camera will dance or I will.” Of course, in great musicals it’s always a duet.

With the choreographer Mandy Moore, Mr. Chazelle worked with what Mr. Gosling and Ms. Stone brought with them. He also showed them favorites like “The Band Wagon” and Demy’s “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.” Together they tried to find “the little weird idiosyncrasies” of their characters’ body language, Mr. Chazelle said, “and then build numbers out of that.” Mr. Gosling was a child performer (“The All New Mickey Mouse Club”) and has a dancer’s posture and silky walk; Ms. Stone starred in the recent Broadway revival of “Cabaret.” Each dances and sings well enough to put the numbers in “La La” across, even as their wobble and strain keep them down to earth.

There are various reasons the American film musical fell out of favor, including the transformation of the old studio system and changing audience tastes, behaviors and more. We stopped dancing, except at clubs and parties; the film musical grew grim and then grimmer (“Cabaret,” “Saturday Night Fever”). Women’s liberation and changing gender relations confused Hollywood — and still do. The movie industry excels at recycling genres, stories and stereotypes, but it hasn’t been adept at making them work with emancipated women, who no longer need men to have their happily ever after.

The problem of the straight couple haunts the musical just as it does contemporary cinema. In his study “Pursuits of Happiness,” Stanley Cavell writes that certain screwball films of the 1930s and ’40s involve the creation of a new woman or what he calls “a new creation of the human.” He sees these films as “parables of a phase of the development of consciousness at which the struggle is for the reciprocity or equality of consciousness between a woman and a man,” which is a nice way to describe “Top Hat” and the rather different “La La Land.”

“I find it wonderful that in the same era in Hollywood as screwball comedies,” Mr. Chazelle said, “where everything was about this patter and conversations building to certain catharsis with a couple — that this series of musicals was able to do its version of that, but without any words at all and just with dancing.” For him, the only recent film that suggests such catharsis is “Pulp Fiction” — John Travolta and Uma Thurman dancing is the closest to Fred and Ginger that we’ve gotten. Of course, Fred never had to revive Ginger by plunging a hypodermic into her heart after a drug overdose, a scene that suggests why it’s hard for American cinema to again embrace the musical, even as the likes of “Pitch Perfect” and the cheerleading series “Bring It On” flirt with the genre.

Musicals are for idealists. One of the pleasures of classic film musicals is the chance to watch bodies become extraordinary — strolling and then singing and soaring — often in stories that suggest that with some choir practice and maybe an Arthur Murray dance lesson or two, you could soar, too. Musicals are liberation with a beat. When Judy Garland sang “Over the Rainbow,” she was telling her audience that it would transcend its terrible times. (No wonder gay men embraced her.) When the Nicholas Brothers danced in “Stormy Weather,” they offered a profound vision of the United States that few old Hollywood movies did: two brilliant black men who, despite the racial inequities of their country, could embody the sublime better than anyone else could.

Still, I wonder if the gulf between a film like “Top Hat” and, say, “Pulp Fiction” is too vast to bridge for contemporary moviegoers, who might be too knowing, cynical, segmented or self-absorbed to be transported by — and believe in — two people who spontaneously sing and dance as one. (Among the more familiar dance images of the last decade are the Apple ads with silhouettes dancing alone to their iPods.) I hope not. Because while “La La Land” engages with nostalgia, it also passionately speaks to the present just by asking whether it’s possible (finally) for a romantically involved woman and man to get past the struggle part of the struggle for reciprocity, to borrow Mr. Cavell’s language. We know men and women can go toe to toe, but can they still dance cheek to cheek?

Monday, February 26, 2018

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo - Original Swedish Version

"The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" is a compelling thriller to begin with, but it adds the rare quality of having a heroine more fascinating than the story. She's a 24-year-old goth girl named Lisbeth Salander, with body piercings and tattoos: thin, small, fierce, damaged, a genius computer hacker. She smokes to quiet her racing heart.

Lisbeth is as compelling as any movie character in recent memory. Played by Noomi Rapace with an unwavering intensity, she finds her own emotional needs nurtured by the nature of the case she investigates, the disappearance of a young girl 40 years earlier. As this case is revealed as part of a long-hidden pattern of bizarre violence against women, memories of her own abused past return with a vengeance.

Rapace makes the character compulsively interesting. She plays against a passive fortysomething hero, Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist), an investigative journalist who has six months of freedom before beginning a prison sentence for libel against a Swedish tycoon. Mikael, resourceful and intelligent, is hired by an elderly billionaire named Henrik Vanger (Sven-Bertil Taube), who inhabits a gloomy mansion on a remote island and broods about the loss of his beloved niece Harriet. She vanished one day when the island was cut off from the mainland. Her body was never found. Because the access bridge was blocked, the killer must have been a member of Vanger's large and greedy family, which he hates. Three brothers were Nazi sympathizers during the war.

The notion of a murder with a limited list of suspects was conventional even before Agatha Christie. Niels Arden Oplev's "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" pays it lip service, with Mikael covering a wall with photos of the suspects. But this is a new age, and in addition to his search of newspaper and legal archives, he uses the Internet. That's how he comes across Lisbeth, who has been investigating him. She's described as Sweden's best hacker, a claim we have no reason to doubt, and the intensity of her focus, contrasted to her walled-off emotional life, suggests Asperger's.

They team up on the case, and might become lovers if not for Mikael's diffidence and her secretive hostility. They become efficient partners. Scenes involving newspaper photographs and Internet searches create sequences like a "Blow-Up" for the digital age. The film is unique in my memory for displaying screen shots of an actual computer operating system, Mac OS X, and familiar programs like e-mail and iPhoto. Ever notice how most movie computers work like magic?

The forbidding island setting, the winter chill, the frosty inhabitants, all combine with dread suspicions to create an uncommonly effective thriller. It's longer than average, but not slow, not after we become invested in the depravity of the case. There are scenes involving rape, bondage and assault that are stronger than most of what serves in the movies for sexual violence, but these scenes are not exploitation. They have a ferocious feminist orientation, and although "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" seems a splendid title, the original Swedish title was the stark "Men Who Hate Women."

The novel, one of a trilogy which Stieg Larsson completed before his untimely death at 44 in 2004, was an international best-seller. It is destined to be remade by Hollywood. That remake may turn out to be a good film, but if I were you I'd be sure to watch this version. The Hollywood version will almost certainly tone down the sexual violence. I can't think of an American actress who could play Lisbeth. Kristen Stewart, who I respect, has been mentioned. Dakota Fanning. I dunno. A younger Jodie Foster, maybe. Someone able to play hard as nails and emotionally unavailable. Make her a Swede, and simply cast Noomi Rapace.

This is not a deep psychological study. But it's a sober, grown-up film. It has action, but not the hyperkinetic activity that passes for action in too many American movies. It has sex, but not eroticism. Its male lead is brave and capable, but not macho. Its female lead is sexy in the abstract, perhaps, but not seductive or alluring. This is a movie about characters who have more important things to do than be characters in an action thriller.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Film Noir Meets Welles' "Touch of Evil"

Come on, read my future for me.You haven't got any. What do you mean? Your future is all used up. So speaks a fortune-telling madam, played by Marlene Dietrich, to the drunken sheriff of a border town, played by Orson Welles, in "Touch of Evil."

Her words have a sad resonance, because Welles was never again to direct in Hollywood after making this dark, atmospheric story of crime and corruption.

It was named best film at the 1958 Brussels World Fair (Godard and Truffaut were on the jury), but in America it opened on the bottom half of a double bill, failed, and put an end to Welles' prospects of working within the studio system. Yet the film has always been a favorite of those who enjoy visual and dramatic flamboyance. “I'd seen the film four or five times before I noticed the story,” the director Peter Bogdanovich once told his friend Orson. “That speaks well for the story,” Welles rumbled sarcastically, but Bogdanovich replied, “No, no--I mean I was looking at the direction.”

That might be the best approach for anyone seeing the film for the first time: to set aside the labyrinthine plot, and simply admire what is on the screen. The movie begins with one of the most famous shots ever made, following a car with a bomb in its trunk for three minutes and 20 seconds. And it has other virtuoso camera movements, including an unbroken interrogation in a cramped room, and one that begins in the street and follows the characters through a lobby and into an elevator. The British critic Damian Cannon writes of its “spatial choreography,” in which “every position and movement latches together into a cogent whole.”

Welles and his cinematographer, Russell Metty, were not simply showing off. The destinies of all of the main characters are tangled from beginning to end, and the photography makes that point by trapping them in the same shots, or tying them together through cuts that match and resonate. The story moves not in a straight line, but as a series of loops and coils.

Some of those loops were removed when Universal Studios took the film from Welles and re-edited it, adding closeups and chopping scenes, so that it existed for years in a confusing 95-minute version, and then belatedly in a 108-minute version that still reflected the studio's meddling. Now at last Welles' original intentions (explained in a 58-page memo to the studio) are reflected in a restored version that is three minutes longer and contains 50 changes, some large, some small. This version was produced by Rick Schmidlin and edited by Oscar winner Walter Murch, inspired by a crucial 1992 article in Film Quarterly by Chicago critic Jonathan Rosenbaum.

The story takes place in Los Robles, a seedy Mexican-American border town (“border towns bring out the worst in a country”). It's a place of bars, strip clubs and brothels, where music spills onto the street from every club. In the opening shot, we see a bomb placed in the trunk of a car, and then the camera cranes up and follows the car down a strip of seamy storefronts, before gliding down to eye level to pick up a strolling couple. They are newlyweds, Mike and Susan Vargas (Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh); he's a Mexican drug enforcement official.

At a border checkpoint, they're eventually joined by the doomed car, which has been delayed by traffic and a herd of goats. Mike and Susan are completing the check when there's an offscreen explosion--and then finally a cut, to the burning car lifting in the air. (I've always felt this cut is premature; better to hear the offscreen explosion, stay on Mike and Susan as they run to the burning car, and then cut.)

Everyone awaits the arrival of Sheriff Hank Quinlan (Welles), a massive, sweaty, rumbling figure who looms over the camera. (Welles was not that big when he made the picture, and used padding and camera angles to exaggerate his bulk.) Quinlan takes charge, “intuiting” that the explosion was caused by dynamite. Vargas, a bystander, finds himself drawn into the investigation, to Quinlan's intense displeasure; the movie becomes a competition between the two men, leading to the sheriff's efforts to frame Vargas and his bride on drug and murder charges.

Viewers familiar with the earlier version will not feel they are seeing a different film, but may be able to follow the plot more easily. The most important changes take place in these opening minutes, when the stories of the Heston and Leigh characters are now intercut (the studio positioned all of the wife's hazards with a local gang after her husband's dealings with Quinlan). Another significant change: The opening shot is now seen without superimposed credits (they've been moved to the end), and with music from car radios and clubs, instead of Henry Mancini's title theme (Welles thought source music and sound effects would better establish the atmosphere).

Welles fills his story with a meaty selection of supporting characters, including Quinlan's faithful sidekick Menzies (Joseph Calleia), the slimy local crime boss Grandi (Akim Tamiroff), the local madam (Dietrich), a butch gang leader (Mercedes McCambridge), an ineffectual district attorney (Ray Collins, from “Citizen Kane”) and particularly a sexually obsessed motel night clerk (Dennis Weaver), whose peculiar skittishness may have given ideas to Anthony Perkins for “Psycho” two years later.

These figures move back and forth across the border, through a series of grim and grungy locations. Although the plot line is possible to follow, the real point is the way Quinlan veers from the investigation to follow his own agenda. He's prejudiced against Mexicans, resents Vargas for invading his turf, and supports “hunches” by planting evidence. When Vargas calls him on the fraud, he vows to destroy him.

As Vargas and Quinlan jockey for position in the investigation, Susan is endangered in scenes that work as a terrified counterpoint. Vargas unwisely checks his wife into a motel run by the local gang, and young thugs terrorize her. Her perils sometimes border on the ludicrous, especially in a scene where they shine a flashlight into her room. Later, a gang rape is implied, but the movie curiously ignores or forgets its repercussions for Susan.

Menzies, the deputy, has been faithful to Quinlan because the sheriff once stopped a bullet intended for him. The movie establishes his gradual enlightenment, as Vargas proves that Quinlan planted evidence and framed innocent people. Why does Quinlan stoop so low? Thirty years earlier his own wife was murdered, and the killer went free; now he boasts, “That was the last killer that ever got out of my hands.”

The final sequence involves the disillusioned Menzies wearing a concealed microphone while prompting Quinlan into a confession. Vargas shadows them with a radio and tape recorder. This scene is visually effective, as the sheriff and deputy follow a garbage-strewn canal, but it's not logical. Vargas wades through water and climbs mountains of debris to stay within radio range of the talking men, when he could simply have hidden the tape recorder on Menzies. And he inexplicably leaves the radio turned up, so Quinlan can hear the echo of his own voice. That works as showmanship even while it fails as strategy.

The surface themes of “Touch of Evil” are easy to spot, and the clash between the national cultures gets an ironic flip: Vargas reflects gringo stereotypes while Quinlan embodies cliches about Mexican lawmen. But there may be another theme lurking beneath the surface.

Much of Welles' work was autobiographical, and the characters he chose to play (Kane, Macbeth, Othello) were giants destroyed by hubris. Now consider Quinlan, who nurses old hurts and tries to orchestrate this scenario like a director, assigning dialogue and roles. There is a sense in which Quinlan wants final cut in the plot of this movie, and doesn't get it. He's running down after years of indulgence and self-abuse, and his ego leads him into trouble.

Is there a resonance between the Welles character here and the man he became? The story of Welles' later career is of projects left uncompleted and films altered after he had left them. To some degree, his characters reflected his feelings about himself and his prospects, and “Touch of Evil” may be as much about Orson Welles as Hank Quinlan. Welles brought great style to his movies, embracing excess in his life and work as the price (and reward) of his freedom.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

ALL ABOUT EVE - Fasten your seatbelts, it's going to be a bumpy night!


Growing older was a smart career move for Bette Davis, whose personality was adult, hard-edged and knowing. Never entirely comfortable as an ingenue, she was glorious as a professional woman, a survivor, or a bitchy predator. Her veteran actress Margo Channing in "All About Eve" (1950) was her greatest role; it seems to show her defeated by the wiles of a younger actress, but in fact marks a victory: the triumph of personality and will over the superficial power of beauty. She never played a more autobiographical role.

Davis' performance as a star growing older is always paired with another famous 1950 performance -- Gloria Swanson's aging silent star in "Sunset Boulevard." Both were nominated for best actress, but neither won; the Oscar went to Judy Holiday for "Born Yesterday," although Davis' fans claimed she would have won if her vote hadn't been split, ironically, by Anne Baxter, who plays her rival and was also nominated for best actress.

When you compare the performances by Davis and Swanson, you see different approaches to similar material. Both play great stars, now aging. Davis plays Margo Channing realistically, while Swanson plays Norma Desmond as a gothic waxwork. "Sunset Boulevard" seems like the better film today, maybe because it fits our age of irony, maybe because Billy Wilder was a better director than Joseph Mankiewicz. But Davis' performance is stronger than Swanson's, because it's less mad and more touching. Daviswasa character, an icon with a grand style, so even her excesses are realistic.

The movie, written by Mankiewicz, begins like "Sunset Boulevard" with a narration by a writer - -the theater critic Addison DeWitt (George Sanders), bemused, cynical, manipulative. He surveys the room at a theatrical awards dinner, notes the trophy reserved for Eve Harrington (Baxter), and describes the survivors of Eve's savage climb to the top: her director Bill Sampson (Gary Merrill), her writer Lloyd Richards (Hugh Marlowe), Lloyd's wife Karen (Celeste Holm), who was her greatest supporter. And the idol she cannibalized, Margo. As the fatuous old emcee praises Eve's greatness, the faces of these people reflect a different story.

The movie creates Margo Channing as a particular person, and Eve Harrington as a type. Eve is a breathless fan, eyes brimming with phony sincerity. She worms her way into Margo's inner circle, becoming her secretary, then her understudy, then her rival. Faking humility and pathos is her greatest role, and at first only one person sees through it: crusty old Birdie (Thelma Ritter), Margo's wardrobe woman. "What a story!" she snaps. "Everything but the bloodhounds snappin' at her rear end."

Margo believes Eve's story of hard luck and adoration; no actor has much trouble believing others would want to devote their lives to them. Good, sweet Karen also sympathizes with the girl, and arranges to strand Margo in the country one weekend so that Eve can go on as her understudy. Karen is repaid when Eve tries to steal her playwright husband, after an earlier, unsuccessful attempt to steal Margo's fiancé, Bill. He is played by Merrill (Davis' real-life husband), who turns her away with a merciless put-down: "What I go after, I want to go after. I don't want it to come after me."

Eve is a universal type. Margo plays at having an ego but is in love with her work -- a professional, not an exhibitionist. She's the real thing. But the sardonic tone of the film is set by Sanders, as DeWitt. He's the principal narrator, and with his cigarette holder, his slicked-down hair and his flawless evening dress, he sees everything with deep cynicism. He has his own agenda; while Eve naively tries to steal the men who belong to the women who helped her, Addison calmly schemes to keep Eve as his own possession. Sanders, who won the Oscar for best supporting actor, lashes her in one of the movie's most savage speeches: "Is it possible, even conceivable, that you've confused me with that gang of backward children you play tricks on? That you have the same contempt for me as you have for them?" And: "I am nobody's fool. Least of all, yours."

Glittering in the center of "All About Eve" is a brief supporting appearance by Marilyn Monroe. This film, and John Huston's "The Asphalt Jungle" earlier the same year, put her on the map; she was already "Marilyn Monroe," in every detail. She appears at Margo's party as DeWitt's date, and he steers her toward the ugly but powerful producer Max Fabian (Gregory Ratoff), advising her, "Now go and do yourself some good." Monroe sighs, "Why do they always look like unhappy rabbits?"

It has been observed that no matter how a scene was lighted, Monroe had the quality of drawing all the light to herself. In her brief scenes here, surrounded by actors much more experienced, she is all we can look at. Do we see her through the prism of her legend? Perhaps not; those who saw the movie in 1950, when she was unknown, also singled her out. Mankiewicz helped create her screen persona when he wrote this exchange after the Monroe character sees Margo's fur coat.

"Now there's something a girl could make sacrifices for," Monroe says.

"And probably has," says the director.

"Sable," Monroe explains.

"Sable?" asks the producer. "Did she say sable or Gable?"

Monroe replies: "Either one."

If Monroe steals her own scenes, the party sequence contains Davis' best work in the movie, beginning with her famous line, "Fasten your seat belts. It's going to be a bumpy night." Drinking too much, disillusioned by Eve's betrayal, depressed by her 40th birthday, she says admitting her age makes her "feel as if I've taken all my clothes off." She looks at Bill and bitterly says: "Bill's 32. He looks 32. He looked it five years ago. He'll look it 20 years from now. I hate men."

It was believed at the time that Davis' performance as Margo was inspired by Tallulah Bankhead. "Tallulah, understandably enough, did little to dispel the assumption," Mankiewicz tells Gary Carey in the bookMore About All About Eve."On the contrary, she exploited it to the hilt with great skill and gusto." Press agents manufactured a feud between Davis and Bankhead, but Mankiewicz says neither he nor Davis was thinking of Bankhead when the movie was made. Davis could have found all the necessary inspiration from her own life.

Davis smokes all through the movie. In an age when stars used cigarettes as props, she doesn't smoke as behavior, or to express her moods, but because she wants to. The smoking is invaluable in setting her apart from others, separate from their support and needs; she is often seen within a cloud of smoke, which seems like her charisma made visible.

The movie's strength and weakness is Anne Baxter, whose Eve lacks the presence to be a plausible rival to Margo, but is convincing as the scheming fan. When Eve understudies for Margo and gets great reviews, Mankiewicz wisely never shows us her performance; better to imagine it, and focus on the girl whose look is a little too intense, whose eyes a little too focused, whose modesty is somehow suspect.

Mankiewicz (1909-1993) came from a family of writers; his brother Herman wrote "Citizen Kane." He won back-to-back Oscars for writing and directing "A Letter to Three Wives" in 1949 and "All About Eve" in 1950, and is also remembered for "The Ghost and Mrs. Muir" (1947), "The Barefoot Contessa" (1954) and "Guys and Dolls" (1955). He remained sharp-tongued all of his days. When "All About Eve" was recycled into the Broadway musical "Applause," Mankiewicz observed that the studio had received "infinitely more" in royalties than it paid him for writing and directing the film. He said he had no complaints. The reason they have the "no refunds" sign in the theater ticket window, he said, is to keep the rubes from calling the cops.

Monday, February 5, 2018

The Enduring Power of "The French Connection"

"The French Connection" is routinely included, along with "Bullitt," "Diva" and "Raiders of the Lost Ark," on the short list of movies with the greatest chase scenes of all time. What is not always remembered is what a good movie it is apart from the chase scene. It featured a great early Gene Hackman performance that won an Academy Award, and it also won Oscars for best picture, direction, screenplay and editing.

The movie is all surface, movement, violence and suspense. Only one of the characters really emerges into three dimensions: Popeye Doyle Gene Hackman, a New York narc who is vicious, obsessed and a little mad. The other characters don't emerge because there's no time for them to emerge. Things are happening too fast.

The story line hardly matters. It involves a $32 million shipment of high-grade heroin smuggled from Marseilles to New York hidden in a Lincoln Continental. A complicated deal is set up between the French people, an American money man and the Mafia. Doyle, a tough cop with a shaky reputation who busts a lot of street junkies, needs a big win to keep his career together. He stumbles on the heroin deal and pursues it with a single-minded ferocity that is frankly amoral. He isn't after the smugglers because they're breaking the law; he's after them because his job consumes him.

Director William Friedkin constructed "The French Connection" so surely that it left audiences stunned. And I don't mean that as a reviewer's cliché: It is literally true. In a sense, the whole movie is a chase. It opens with a shot of a French detective keeping the Continental under surveillance, and from then on the smugglers and the law officers are endlessly circling and sniffing each other. It's just that the chase speeds up sometimes, as in the celebrated car-train sequence.

In "Bullitt," two cars and two drivers were matched against each other at fairly equal odds. In Friedkin's chase, the cop has to weave through city traffic at 70 m.p.h. to keep up with a train that has a clear track: The odds are off-balance. And when the train's motorman dies and the train is without a driver, the chase gets even spookier: A man is matched against a machine that cannot understand risk or fear. This makes the chase psychologically more scary, in addition to everything it has going for it visually.

The movie was shot during a cold and gray New York winter, and it has a doomed, gritty look. The landscape is a waste land, and the characters are hardly alive. They move out of habit and compulsion, long after ordinary human feelings have lost the power to move them. Doyle himself is a bad cop, by ordinary standards; he harasses and brutalizes people, he is a racist, he endangers innocent people during the chase scene (which is a high-speed ego trip). But he survives. He wins, too, but that hardly matters. "The French Connection" is as amoral as its hero, as violent, as obsessed and as frightening.

The key to the chase is that it occurs in an ordinary time and place. No rules are suspended; Popeye's car is racing down streets where ordinary traffic and pedestrians can be found, and his desperation is such that we believe, at times, he is capable of running down bystanders just to win the contest. I had an opportunity at the Hawaii Film Festival in 1992 to analyze the sequence a shot at a time, using a stop-action laserdisc approach, at a seminar honoring the work of the cinematographer, Owen Roizman. He recalled the way the whole chase was painstakingly story-boarded and then broken down into shots that were possible and safe, even though actual locations were being employed. Lenses were chosen to play with distance, so that the car sometimes seemed closer to hazards than it was. But essentially, the chase looked real because its many different parts were real: A car threads through city streets, chasing an elevated train.

The other key element in the film, of course, is Hackman. He was already well known in 1971, after performances in such films as "Bonnie and Clyde," "Downhill Racer" and "I Never Sang for My Father." But it's probably "The French Connection" that launched his long career as a leading character sta r-- a man with the unique ability to make almost any dialogue plausible. As Popeye Doyle, he generated an almost frightening single-mindedness, a cold determination to win at all costs, which elevated the stakes in the story from a simple police cat-and-mouse chase into the acting-out of Popeye's pathology. The chase scene has, in a way, been a mixed blessing, distracting from the film's other qualities.