Saturday, February 28, 2015

Sullivan's Travels (1941)

Probably Preston Sturges' best-known film, though not necessarily the funniest or finest comedy he made during his brilliant streak of hits at Paramount from 1940-44. Engagingly acted by Joel McCrea and Veronica Lake, ably supported by Sturges' famous stock company of expert character actors, the film is at times quite uneven in tone, veering between fast-paced satirical farce and surprisingly dark moments of violence and grim social realism for a comedy.

The dramatic scenes make for some of the most self-consciously stylized moments in all of Sturges' filmography, particularly the courtroom sequence, in which McCrea is swiftly sentenced to a prison term while in a dazed and confused state, and the sequence in the Southern black church, where the chain gang inmates have been invited to join the congregation for a movie night, and the entire audience breaks down laughing hysterically at a Disney cartoon.

Where the film becomes problematic is in the heavy-handedness and contradiction of its message, that laughter is the most important thing of all to those who have nothing else ("It isn't much, but it's better than nothing in this cockeyed caravan," McCrea intones somberly at the film's conclusion). Sturges' point seems to be a bit more complex than that, and he offers as much an indictment of self-righteous Hollywood types who want to change the world instead of producing entertainment. But if Sturges' personal philosophy is indeed that laughter is the best medicine, and that Hollywood should stick to entertaining the masses rather than delivering a message, then his explicit dealing with that message here can't help but seem a bit hypocritical.

He Walked By Night (1948)

An atmospheric, tightly-paced police procedural, directed by Alfred Werker and an uncredited Anthony Mann, and groundbreaking at the time for its use of actual events from the case files of the LAPD. The plot follows the investigation into the murder of a policeman, and the search for the killer, an ex-police radio operator who uses his knowledge of the department's operations to stay one step ahead of the cops. Well-acted by Richard Basehart, Scott Brady, Roy Roberts and Jack Webb (whose own, later procedural TV series "Dragnet" was inspired by this film). It remains one of the best post-war police dramas, thanks largely to Basehart's intense performance as the criminal, its extensive use of LA locations (most memorably the complex underground sewer system, which is used quite effectively in the film's climactic chase sequence), and for its stunning, high-contrast B&W photography by the great John Alton. One of the best films of its kind.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

The Bribe (1949)

High-gloss, late-studio era film noir from MGM, about a Federal agent (Robert Taylor) sent to South America to arrest a group of crooks who have been defrauding the government by selling recycled war plane motors on the black market. When he arrives in the town of Carlota, he gets involved with a sultry, mysterious nightclub singer (Ava Gardner), who happens to be married to the chief suspect in his investigation.

This is one of those films that is so well-made at every level, with such care and precision typical of the studio system, that every strand of hair, every bead of sweat seems to be arranged perfectly in its place. Yet this does not detract from its dark and menacing tone. Directed by longtime MGM stalwart Robert Z. Leonard, it's a highly effective mystery-thriller, greatly aided by the performances of Vincent Price and Charles Laughton as the villains. This is not one of Laughton's greatest roles, but he still does his usually fine job as the fat, pathetic crook who has turned to crime just to get by.

Even at 98 minutes, the plot drags a bit at times, though it is consistently entertaining, with nice cinematography by Joseph Ruttenberg and an atmospheric (if at times a little too busy) score by Miklos Rosza. The highlight is a climactic showdown between Taylor and Price amidst a shower of fireworks, a visually stunning set-piece, though it is Laughton who quietly walks away with the film's great, last line.

The Man on the Eiffel Tower (1949)

Enjoyable, light mystery, starring Charles Laughton as Georges Simenon's Inspector Maigret. Laughton as Maigret is inspired casting, but unfortunately he is hindered by weaknesses in the script and direction. It is highly uneven; there is much that works, but just as much that doesn't. The improbable plot involves a man, torn between his mistress and his wife, who wants to see his aunt killed in order to collect an inheritance. The murder is carried out by a stranger who perhaps seems a little too eager to help, and it soon becomes clear that the killer sees it all as something of a sport, as he manipulates the different parties involved in a kind of intellectual gamesmanship.

Franchot Tone (who also produced) is superb as the somewhat fey, coldly intellectual criminal mastermind who leads Maigret on a merry chase, throwing out red herrings and false flags to trip up the inspector in his investigation, but whose own cunning proves to be his undoing. Burgess Meredith (who also directed) is the timid, poor man framed for murder, and brings a certain amount of pathos to the part of the man trapped in circumstances beyond his control. Laughton does his usual fine job as Maigret, but because of the shortcomings of the script, is reduced to often playing the role as an eyeball-popping, sputtering caricature, rather than being able to really mine the part for the little bits of character business that could have made this one of his great roles.

Then there is the City of Paris itself, photographed in the Anscocolor process by the great Stanley Cortez (though the photography is not well-served in existing prints of the film, which are quite faded and battered). Treated like a picture-postcard version of the city, Cortez isn't given the opportunity to do much more than capture the surface-level beauty of the city, especially around the River Seine and the Eiffel Tower. But it fails to move beyond this kind of "tourist's" perspective of familiar landmarks.

This is typified by the climax, a thrilling chase atop the Eiffel Tower, in which the characters clamber over the majestic structure like a massive jungle gym. While undoubtedly impressive at a purely visual level, the use of the Eiffel Tower feels arbitrary. It is tempting to speculate what a more skilled director could have done with the scene. There are certainly some suspenseful moments, but by this point in the film, there is too little invested in either the plot or the characters for the outcome to be of much concern to anyone, and is not helped by clunky staging and slack editing. The entire sequence ends rather weakly and anti-climactically, too, as if the filmmakers couldn't think of what to do when the characters finally reached the top of the tower. And, as in other scenes, Laughton is too often given little to do beyond sit by and watch the proceedings.

In the right hands, THE MAN ON THE EIFFEL TOWER could have probably emerged as a very effective mystery and even a minor classic of its kind. As it is, there are too many problems in the script and direction that keep it from ever being much more than a trifling, if nicely-photographed, diversion.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Cecil B. Demented (2000)

Very funny satire from John Waters skewering both the shallowness of Hollywood and the clich├ęd pretensions of guerilla/underground filmmakers. The premise involves a group of "cinema terrorists" called The Sprocket Holes who kidnap an A-list Hollywood movie star and force her to perform in their underground film, in which they rage against the Hollywood machine.

The satire here is more on-point and biting than in Waters' rather genial and tepid kidding of the New York art world in PECKER. Its characters are also less sweet and good-natured, but they're also a lot more fun to spend time with. Cecil B. Demented, the self-proclaimed "ultimate auteur", is played by Stephen Dorff in an incredible tour-de-force performance that never misses a beat, and he plays the part with the perfect amount of conviction, which makes the wildly over-the-top dialogue he's given all the funnier. He's supported by a fine cast including Alicia Witt, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Adrian Grenier, and many others who are given highly eccentric, richly-defined characters that they can really sink their teeth into. Melanie Griffith does a splendid job in her caricature of the self-centered, spoiled movie star, and convincingly portrays her transformation to cult celebrity when she realizes her career is quickly fading. Griffith really gets into the spirit of the absurd proceedings, and it is her performance that holds the film together.

Waters certainly seems to identify with Cecil and his merry band of cinematic misfits (they have the names of directors such as Warhol, Kenneth Anger, William Castle, and others tattooed on themselves), but he also presents them as ludicrously misguided in their crusade against Hollywood, such as the moment when Cecil admonishes his crew not to sully their talents with financial success, their taking vows of "celibacy for celluloid" until the film is finished, and their rather limp, pathetic climactic showdown against the police and moviegoers at the Bengies' Drive-in, in which the remaining members of the gang celebrate the wrap of their film by immediately having sex in front of the stunned crowd. Waters seems to be taking digs at those who take the idea of cinematic revolution a little too seriously.

Waters gets in some great digs at the local film scene, too, especially in the scenes with Cecil and his gang kidnapping Griffith at a fundraiser event being held at the Senator Theater, infiltrating a Maryland Film Commission luncheon at Harborplace, and creating chaos on the set of a fictional filmed-in-Baltimore FORREST GUMP sequel ("Gump Again") starring Kevin Nealon. It's also a lot of fun to see the various local movie theaters, especially the old Hippodrome in its pre-restoration phase. The satire of the movie business circa 2000 is understandably rather dated now (though the jokes about idiotic remakes and ill-conceived high concept pictures are just as relevant as ever), but it also serves as an interesting time capsule of that moment in the late 90s and early 2000s when there was a resurgence of interest in underground/DIY filmmaking.

While it doesn't rank with Waters' best work, it's still a great deal of fun, helped immeasurably by the excellent performances of Griffith and Dorff, mixed together with the outrageous charm of Waters' comic sensibility, and holds up as perhaps the best of his post-SERIAL MOM movies.

Up in Smoke (1978)

Cheech & Chong's first screen vehicle is a loose and episodic affair, but one with plenty of laughs for those who enjoy their distinct brand of comedy. It was wisely decided to translate their humor to the screen with little interference or changes to their characters or comedy style (not surprising, as Cheech and Chong wrote the script). The direction by Lou Adler -- who produced the team's comedy records -- is unobtrusive and generally effective enough, though it's perhaps a little too loose at times, with some scenes going on a little past their worth and dragging the pace a little. For the most part, though, the sprawling and ambling structure works -- it's certainly in keeping with the burnt-out, anything-goes nature of the comedy. Among the supporting cast, Stacy Keach does a fine job as the hot tempered, wildly exasperated narcotics officer on the trail of a massive pot smuggling operation, and Strother Martin and Edie Adams have a brief but memorable turn as Chong's parents. All in all, it's infectious, silly, good-natured fun, extremely vulgar but never mean-spirited, and almost certainly the best and funniest of the Cheech and Chong comedies.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

After Hours (1985)

Dark, offbeat comedy, intriguingly directed by Martin Scorsese, right after the dark, offbeat KING OF COMEDY. Scorsese was not the original choice to direct the film, and it shows: it bears little of his style, and seems to call for a director who would be more in touch with the absurd elements of the script. Tim Burton was apparently originally considered to direct, and it's tempting to think about what he would have done with the material, with a more self-consciously stylized approach and even an animator's sensibilities. As it is, the film's "look" is an uneasy mix of realism and fantasy. Though shot on location in New York, the city's streets have never looked more like a backlot set.

Griffin Dunne stars as a New York office worker who gets sucked into one crazy night of nightmarish events in downtown Manhattan, which begins when he goes to the apartment of a young woman whom he'd made a date with earlier that evening. From there, things spiral out of control, and his efforts to take care of one problem invariably leads to another one. Before long, all he wants to do is to get home, but this proves to be far more difficult than he could have ever expected.

The cast of characters that he meets along the way include Rosanna Arquette, Teri Garr, John Heard, Catherine O'Hara, Linda Fiorentino, Verna Bloom and the always-wonderful Cheech & Chong, who effortlessly walk away with the film's funniest moments as a pair of bumbling burglars. The talented cast really makes the film work, adding immeasurable value with their vivid and quirky characterizations.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Interiors (1978)

Woody Allen's first dramatic film is a fascinating if flawed work, admirable in many ways but frustrating in others, especially in his self-conscious stylistic aping of Ingmar Bergman after the delightfully original and fresh ANNIE HALL. There is much potential in the script to explore the dynamics between the family, greatly enhanced by the fine performances of the entire cast, but too often it is unwilling to explore the characters and situations fully, instead becoming devoid of serious insight, and falling back on stilted and cliched dialogue that comes dangerously close to being an unintentional parody of the brooding, moody Scandinavian art films that provide the model here.

The problem is that Allen, in his first dramatic effort, seems to equate seriousness with unrelenting pessimism and bleakness. The characters could be more human if he'd permitted them moments of happiness or humor. It is telling that perhaps the most sympathetic character, played by Maureen Stapleton, is the only one who exhibits any sense of humor, and is looked upon with disdain by the other characters for her cheerful vulgarity.

Still, there are some moments of real beauty, particularly in Gordon Willis' photography of the Southampton beachfront house. It remains one of Allen's most interesting films purely in terms of his use of the physical screen space, providing a palpable sense of depth and space in the film's indoor locations.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Annie Hall (1977)

Woody Allen's masterpiece. Funny, poignant, bittersweet and often painfully honest, it represents the summation of everything Allen had learned as both performer and filmmaker in the previous decade. The unique cinematic structure, part New Wave and part standup comedy routine, plays like a masterful jazz riff on a theme. Co-written by Allen and Marshall Brickman, the script is tightly-packed with enough gags and one-liners for several films. Allen and Keaton were never better, and they are ably supported by a fine ensemble cast (especially Carol Kane, Shelley Duvall, Colleen Dewhurst and Christopher Walken) that make each of their characters unique and well-defined even in their limited screen time.

One appreciates more than ever the value that Allen's collaborators, particularly editor Ralph Rosenblum and cameraman Gordon Willis, brought to the project. Willis' cinematography here ranks with the very best work he ever did, because it is so deceptively simple, unlike the later MANHATTAN or STARDUST MEMORIES, which dazzle with their shimmering black-and-white images. His work here need only be compared with the photography in Allen's recent efforts, which is too often strikingly flat and bland, in order to really appreciate what Willis brought to the table. The editing is equally masterful in its way, never allowing scenes to linger needlessly past their natural ending point, an essential contribution given the riff-like structure Allen is working in here.

It's a pity Allen did not continue to develop this cinematic style further. His following films would become either more stylistically subdued (HANNAH AND HER SISTERS), or, too often, self-consciously derivative (STARDUST MEMORIES, ZELIG). In ANNIE HALL, he struck the perfect balance between his earlier nightclub- and standup-infused structure, and a greater formal sophistication that marked his best mature work, and placed him firmly in the pantheon of the great screen comedians.

Saturday, February 07, 2015

Le Roi des Champs-Elysees (1934)

Following the disastrous and crushing end of his association with MGM in 1933, Buster Keaton appeared in this film in France for producer Seymour Nebenzal. On the surface, it might seem that such a project -- a Hollywood star, on hard times, accepting work in a foreign picture -- would be a step down for a star of Keaton's magnitude. For even following his period of fertile creative independence during the 1920s, his talking films for MGM -- while certainly a far cry from the brilliant work he'd been doing just years earlier -- still did well at the box office. Audiences had not forgotten his immense talents, even if studio executives seemed to. But there were Keaton's personal and professional problems behind the scenes that really came to a head in 1933, contributing to his swift downfall and acrimonious departure from MGM, which must have made his fall from grace seem all the more devastating, then.

But Keaton was very much what the entertainment industry now calls a "survivor". Where others might see a comedown, Keaton saw opportunity. Le Roi des Champs-Elysees is, at its best, a whimsical, visual comedy that contains much of the old Keaton magic. It is the tale of a hapless young man, Buster Garner, who lives with his mother and bounces from job to job trying to make something of himself. His most recent endeavor involves posing as a millionaire, in top hat and tails, and walking down the Champs-Elysees passing out bills of money that are actually coupons for a large company. However, when he accidentally gives away a stack of five million francs  -- set aside to cover the company's debts -- he is quickly fired. In the process of passing out the money, he has inadvertently saved a young woman from eviction, for which she is eternally grateful. Her sudden appearance at an outdoor cafe, where Buster has planned to consume poison in order to put an end to his failures, rejuvenates Buster's will to live, and he sets out to make good. As in most of Keaton's films, the girl is merely a plot device, their "romance" another goal that he works toward accomplishing throughout the film. Though the circumstances of their meeting and subsequent encounter at the cafe are played with a degree of pathos and sympathy uncharacteristic of Keaton, their remaining scenes underline the arbitrary nature of the relationship, as there seems to be little doubt (and therefore little dramatic tension) over the fact that Buster has already earned the girl's affection (their first kiss even causes Buster to display one of his very rare on-screen smiles!)

Fortunately for Buster, his mother works as a prompter in a local theater, and gets him a job in the company as a bit player in a prison drama. This leads to another set of complications, however, as Buster is the exact double of crime boss Jim La Balafre (Keaton, in a dual role), who has just escaped from jail and is waiting near the theater to be picked up by his old gang. Predictably, the two get switched, and Buster finds himself trapped in Jim's elaborate hideout. The last half of the film deals with the clever mix-ups and confusions that the appearance of the exact doubles cause for the gangster's moll and henchmen. When Jim finally discovers the inconvenient doppelganger, Buster has to escape with his life intact, and make it back to the theater in time to deliver his line in the play.

This plot has echoes of a number of Keaton's earlier films. The whole case of Buster being mistaken for a criminal formed the plot of his 1921 two-reeler The Goat. The criminal element also recalls the gangsters and crooks in his earlier two-reelers The High Sign and The Haunted House, as well as the features Sherlock Jr. and Spite Marriage. Indeed, with its elaborate passageways, trapdoors and revolving walls, the criminal lair here is strongly reminiscent of the similar contraptions in the gang's hideout from The High Sign. Keaton demonstrates his remarkable physical skill and timing in these scenes, proving that he had not lost the dexterity that he had used to such astonishing effect in his silent classics, and which had only been too rarely allowed to show itself in his MGM talkies. There is also some really impressive trick photography, too, with the two Busters appearing in the same frame. It is far more sophisticated than similar split-screen effects used in Hollywood films of the time, enhanced by expert editing, and more than once I had to pause and re-watch a certain shot to try and figure out how it was accomplished.

The film also gives Keaton a chance to demonstrate what a really fine actor he was. In essaying a dual role, he gets the chance to play both his usual characterization of the aimless young man, slightly befuddled by the world around him but always able to resourcefully adapt to the obstacles the universe puts in his way, and an uncharacteristically tough "heavy" role of the crime boss. In this latter role, Keaton achieves a striking balance in making the character both genuinely menacing but also funny, such as the moment he runs and clips his head on a rising gate, knocking him flat on his back -- an impressive bit of slapstick played with Keaton's typical flourish.

As "Buster", Keaton's character is a bit older and slower than his screen incarnation of a decade earlier, but still possesses the grace and poetic movement that defined his character. He certainly appears to be in better condition here than he had in his past couple MGM films, though his face is visibly aged and worn. He still moves with the youthful zeal and energy, though, which makes his portrayal of the bumbling boob funny rather than pathetic. Interestingly, because his lines are dubbed by a French actor, there is a disconnect between Keaton's body and his voice. This has the effect of showing how superfluous speech really is in Keaton's comedy, and distancing the audience from the unfamiliar voice while simultaneously focusing our attention on his inimitable physicality. The dubbing can be distracting at times but because so much of the performance is purely physical, it scarcely matters.

There are some wonderful moments taking place behind the scenes in the theater, including Buster getting caught on a set that rises to the top of the stage, swinging across the stage on a rope and disrupting the act, and the final on-stage melee between Buster and the gangsters, all of which recall the backstage antics of his earlier shorts The Playhouse and Daydreams, as well as his MGM features Spite Marriage and Speak Easily, both of which involve Buster inadvertently wrecking a show.

The best scenes, however, take place in the very opening of the film, in which Buster parades down the Champs-Elysees, dressed as a millionaire, throwing away wads of cash. His movements, not to mention the behavior of throwing away money, immediately create a funny contrast with his the station and status implied by his fancy costume. It is just that: a costume. We immediately wonder who this empty-headed millionaire really is. Keaton's appearance and behavior immediately bring to mind his turns as wealthy idlers in films such as The Saphead, The Navigator, and Battling Butler, where he drew a sharp, comic contrast between the character's apparent stupidity and helplessness, and the resourcefulness and cleverness with which he triumphed over adversity when confronted with it for the first time. Here, however, it soon becomes apparent that Buster is no millionaire, he's simply playing one for the sake of a publicity campaign. Like his theatrical role, and like his being mistaken for the crime boss, it is just another part he must play.

Ultimately, this is a comedy of identity, or rather multiple identities, with Buster forced to play many roles and succeed at each one in order to achieve success.

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Book Review: "The Marx Brothers: Their World of Comedy" by Allen Eyles

I was first introduced to Allen Eyles' writing on the Marx Bros. with his book "The Complete Films of the Marx Bros.", one of the late entries in Citadel's "Films of" series. His book was more involved than most in that series, providing in-depth analysis of each of the Marx Bros. films (rather than just the customary credits, synopses, and reviews as so many others did). I was delighted to learn that Eyles had written an earlier book on the team, which I finally tracked down a copy of a couple months ago at my local used bookstore.

"The Marx Brothers: Their World of Comedy" takes a quite similar approach as "The Complete Films of the Marx Bros." in providing critical analyses of each of their movies from THE COCOANUTS (1929) through LOVE HAPPY (1949), and indeed some of the sections of this book seem to have been adapted into the entries on the films in the later book. However, the level of analysis is, overall, deeper here, as Eyles thoughtfully examines the routines and gags of each film, providing real insight into the team's humor and how it works without getting lost in the mire of trying to explain why it's funny.

Eyles deserves much credit for giving equal attention to all of the films, not just the acclaimed classics like DUCK SOUP and A NIGHT AT THE OPERA, but also such lesser efforts as ROOM SERVICE and LOVE HAPPY. In his analysis of the former, Eyles is especially interested in detailing the differences between the film and the stage play on which it was based, as well as examining where the film falls short as a Marx Bros. vehicle. And in writing on the latter film, he offers a nice appreciation of how the film serves as a showcase for Harpo's talents, despite its other shortcomings.

Even when I found myself disagreeing with Eyles (for example, he really likes THE COCOANUTS, and considers its comedy scenes, when taken as a whole, superior to those in ANIMAL CRACKERS, which I consider to be one of the very strongest comdies), I am still drawn in by his superb writing and commentary that allow me to look at these old favorite films, which I've seen countless times, in a fresh light.

Some readers may find Eyles' writing style a bit dry or clinical in talking about this madcap comedy team, but the seriousness of his approach is certainly warranted given the brilliant insights he reveals about their work. He avoids a straightforward research approach, which may disappoint readers looking for facts about the performers or production histories behind the films. However, with his thoughtful and interesting analysis of these rich and delightful comedies, the book stands as one of the essential works on the Marx Bros.

Tuesday, February 03, 2015

Book Review: "The Comic Mind" by Gerald Mast

An excellent survey of screen comedy, from the earliest turn-of-the-century filmed comedy sketches through the films of the 1960s. Mast is less interested in a purely historical survey of names, facts and dates, instead undertaking a thorough and insightful critical analysis of key comedy performers, filmmakers and styles. The emphasis here is on comic film artists who did used the medium in unique ways or exerted some level of creative influence and control over their films. Thus there are no chapters on performers like Abbott and Costello, Bob Hope or Wheeler and Woolsey, for example.

The geniuses of silent comedy are well-covered here, with individual chapters on the great clown-filmmakers Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd and Langdon. While some silent comedy aficionados might see the emphasis on these four giants as limiting and redundant, Mast provides deep insight into their work, and is primarily interested discussing these comic artists in terms of their distinctive cinematic styles. Mast does look briefly at other distinctive film clowns like Douglas Fairbanks, Charley Chase and Larry Semon who made their mark on the medium. There are also discussions of the "fun factories" of such comedy producers and visionaries as Mack Sennett, Hal Roach and Al Christie.

The chapters on silent comedy rank alongside Walter Kerr's "The Silent Clowns" and James Agee's essay "Comedy's Greatest Era" as one of the finest critical surveys of that period. Mast is perhaps less eloquent than either Kerr and Agee in his descriptions of the clowns and their personalities, but he is highly perceptive in describing what makes the films of Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd and Langdon both incredibly funny and deeply profound.

Moving on to the sound era, Mast provides a thoughtful analysis of the principles of sound comedy before moving on to such masters of the form as Ernst Lubitsch, Rene Clair and Jean Renoir. He presents an interesting contrast in how Lubitsch and Clair use sound and image together in different but equally effective ways, and provides some much-welcome insight into Renoir's often-overlooked gifts for comedy. Mast then discusses three main modes of screen comedy in the sound era. First is the Dialogue tradition, represented by the great writer-directors like Leo McCarey, Preston Sturges and Billy Wilder. Mast also examines how directors such as Capra and Hawks imposed their distinctive directorial styles on writer- and script-dominated comedies.

Next is the Clown tradition, which examines how the distinctive personalities of performers such as W.C. Fields and the Marx Bros. shaped their films. Mast's observations on the Marx Bros. are particularly astute, differentiating between the invisible, intentionally artless filmic style they achieved under skillful craftsmen like Norman McLeod and Leo McCarey in their final three Paramount films, and the uninspired and clunky theatrical approach of their first two films for the studio. It's easy to mistake the plain and unassuming style of films like MONKEY BUSINESS, HORSE FEATHERS and DUCK SOUP for a lack of cinematic imagination, but it is in fact perfectly suited to what the Marx Bros. and their directors worked so hard to achieve. For example, a deliberately elegant style would be at odds with the roughness and anarchy of the humor of these films. Similarly, he argues that the more showy style of their first two MGM films essentially works against their comedy.

It is worth noting here that unlike the silent comedians discussed earlier, who were often heavily involved in the direction, writing and producing of their own pictures, these sound comedians rarely had such clear, direct creative control over their films due to hierarchical differences under the studio system. Thus, the films of clowns like W.C. Fields and the Marx Bros. have posed a special problem for critics (especially those trained in the auteurist approach) in determining the ways in which the performer could exert their personality on the film style even when they were not credited with the script or direction (although Fields wrote the stories for a number of his films under his variety of comic pseudonyms, and Mast takes the unique stance that Fields' films for Universal -- rather than Paramount -- represent his greatest and freest work since he was given greater independence in writing the screenplays). Mast does an admirable job of dealing with these films in terms of how the comedians were able to exercise varying degrees of creative control, both through their choice in collaborators and through shaping the cinematic style to suit their comic persona.

Finally, in the Ironic tradition, Mast discusses a select sampling of comedies -- including Max Ophuls' LA RONDE, Ingmar Bergman's SMILES OF A SUMMER NIGHT, and Stanley Kubrick's DOCTOR STRANGELOVE -- and how they work to subvert expectations and provide humor through their ironic comment on human behavior. Mast concludes the book with a thoughtful consideration of comedy's importance within the arts.

"The Comic Mind" is a thorough and perceptive survey of film comedy, and is certainly essential reading for anyone with an interest in the subject.

Mast, Gerald. The Comic Mind: Comedy and the Movies. Indianapolis and New York: The Bobbs-Merrill Company Inc., 1974.

Monday, February 02, 2015

White Heat (1949)

The last of the classic Warner Bros. gangster pictures, with James Cagney in his meanest, toughest role as a tortured, psychotic killer whose only friend his mother. His Cody Jarrett seems interested in a life of crime primarily in that it allows him to kill people, which he does so frequently and without remorse; the money and rewards from the various jobs he pulls off are almost secondary. Virginia Mayo as his wife is at once conniving and sympathetic as she tries to find an escape from Cody's sadistic control. Edmond O'Brien is the undercover cop who ingratiates himself with Cody while in prison, infiltrating his gang and eventually leading to the gangster's downfall. The climactic shoot-out in a nocturnal, brightly-lit California oil refinery is a visually stunning set-piece that reaches a fever pitch under Raoul Walsh's masterful direction and recalls his expertly-staged stand-offs in films such as HIGH SIERRA and COLORADO TERRITORY. It's also an interesting study in contrasts of style and genre, a key transitional film between the classic Depression-era gangster films and the post-war crime dramas, with Cagney giving his old gangster persona a terrifying new psychological dimension, and as much emphasis on the procedures used by the police to bring the criminal to justice.

Sunday, February 01, 2015

Behind Stone Walls (1932)

Ludicrous, improbable drama, with silent screen star Priscilla Dean as a district attorney's wife involved in an affair with another man, whom she kills after he wants to end the affair. Her lawyer son confesses to the murder in order to protect her, but when the case comes to trial, the son finds himself prosecuted by his own father. After the son is sentenced to life in prison, the victim's butler sets out to blackmail the DA's wife, whom he knows is the true killer.

With its funereal pacing and total lack of cinematic imagination, the film is only of interest as one of the very few examples of Dean's sound film work. One of Universal's biggest stars of the early '20s, by the middle of that decade her career had already slumped to the point where she was working in two-reel comedies for Hal Roach. Her performance here seems unsure and rather awkward, not helped by the clumsy, preposterous script, stilted dialogue and uninspired direction, though there are still glimmers in her screen presence of the qualities that had made her a star a decade earlier.