Thursday, March 24, 2011


My smart, funny hubby Vinnie and I have our Team Bartilucci caps on for this week’s double dose of The Producers. We adore writer/director Mel Brooks’ madcap satire in all its forms: the original Oscar-winning 1968 movie; the Tony-winning 2001 Broadway musical; and the movie version of the musical! How’s that for blanketing the field?
Dorian: “Money is honey…He who hesitates is poor!”
I know more people who can quote lines from The Producers than lines from Shakespeare’s works; make of that what you will! J People seem to either absolutely adore or utterly despise The Producers. But most folks I know agree with Vin and me that this nutzoid farce has "Love Power," to quote the late, great Dick Shawn as the ever-groovy, scene-stealing LSD, a.k.a. Lorenzo St. DuBois. Outrageously impudent yet surprisingly tender at times, it’s no surprise that writer/director Mel Brooks' zany tale of schemers trying to produce “the worst play ever written” and profit from it won Brooks his Best Original Screenplay Oscar and became a comedy classic. Need I say it’s also one of our family’s longtime favorites?
All singing! All dancing! All outrageous!
Two coffees, black, hold the bullets!
Meet our rascally protagonist Max Bialystock (Zero Mostel), who’s had an epic string of bad luck in recent years: “You know who I used to be? Max Bialystock, King of Broadway, six shows running at once! Lunch at Delmonico’s. $200 suits. (Max gestures at his stick pin.) You see this? This once held a pearl as big as your eye. Look at me now. Look at me now! I’m wearing a cardboard belt!” Even Max’s comb-over has seen better days. It’s been years since Max has produced a hit Broadway show, and he’s been reduced to using his powers of persuasion — and wheedling, and bellowing, and conning — to “launch… (himself) into Little Old Lady Land” to seduce money out of his rich elderly female backers, giving them “one last thrill on their way to the cemetery.” Afterwards, he collects checks made out to “Cash” (“That’s a funny name for a play.”) from the unsuspecting old dears. The most aggressively horny of them all is Estelle Winwood as “Hold Me Touch Me,” who loves to play games where she both insults and sexes up Max as her chauffeur, naughty stableboy, etc. I used to wonder if Winwood was born old, God bless her; I’ve never seen her as a young woman in any of her many films! She lived to the truly ripe old age of 101, stealing the show in all of her movies that I’ve seen, including this one.

Enter one Leo Bloom (Gene Wilder), a meek young accountant sent to do the books for Max’s most recent Broadway flop. It innocently occurs to the studious, honest Leo that “under the right circumstances, a producer could make more money with a flop than he could with a hit” by raising $1 million, putting on a $60,000 Broadway flop, and keeping the rest when the play theoretically closes on opening night. Of course, if the play was a hit instead, the producer would go to the hoosegow, since there’s no way he could pay back all the backers. A light bulb goes on over Max’s head. After Max badgers, er, persuades Leo to be his partner, the book-cooking begins, the hunt for a surefire flop play commences, and the wacky shenanigans escalate! Max and Leo find their worst play candidate, Springtime for Hitler, written by addlepated Nazi playwright Franz Liebkind, played by the recently departed Kenneth Mars, a longtime Team Bartilucci fave. Thrilled, Franz waxes rhapsodic about his beloved Fuhrer: “Hitler, there was a painter. He could paint an entire apartment in one afternoon! Two coats!”  But that’s only the beginning of our heroes’ audacious, hilarious odyssey, as they hire flamboyantly gay transvestite director Roger De Bris (Christopher Hewett, best known as TV’s Mr. Belvedere when I was a youngster), the aforementioned LSD, Swedish-speaking sexpot secretary Ulla (Lee Meredith), and one of the craziest chorus lines in movie history. No wonder this screamingly funny, no-holds-barred comedy helped to put former Your Show of Shows writer Brooks on the map as a filmmaker.

The great Zero Mostel steals every scene in his uproarious, larger-than-life portrayal of Max. I’ve heard that Mostel could be a handful to work with, but it sure pays off in all his stage and screen performances. The Producers is no exception. Alas, Mostel wasn’t nominated for an Oscar, but Gene Wilder was nominated for Best Supporting Actor; his perfect balance of hysteria and sweetness played off blustery, wily Mostel beautifully. In particular, I’ve always liked the father-and-son vibe Mostel and Wilder develop over the course of the movie—including antic father-and-son-style arguments.
Anyone trying to make a comedy depending on controversy and questionable taste for its laughs should watch The Producers  first and see how a master does it! In fact, before the Broadway musical version of The Producers revitalized Mel Brooks’s career, I was thinking that maybe Brooks and Wilder should take the time to watch it again themselves. At that point in their careers, they seemed to need a refresher course in how to be funny after the duds they’d begun churning out. At their peak as writers and comedic actors, Wilder always seemed to be able to temper Brooks' mania for poo-poo humor, and Brooks always seemed able to help Wilder to better balance out his trademark hysteria/sweetness. In her 1968 New York Times review, film critic Renata Adler wrote that Wilder “played (Leo) as though he were Dustin Hoffman being played by Danny Kaye.” Her assessment is both on-target and ironic, considering Dustin Hoffman was originally cast as Liebkind, until he was offered the role of Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate. Brooks gave Hoffman his blessing, Mars moved into position, and movie history was made all around!
Much as my family and I also loved the Broadway and film editions of the musical version co-written by Brooks and Thomas Meehan, and starring the incomparable Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick (even though I felt that Broderick wasn't quite as good as Leo Bloom as Lane was as Max Bialystock. That said, together they have great buddy chemistry), the original is still the champ!

Vinnie: “Broadway!  Oh joy of joys! Oh dream of dreams!”
Upon first rumors of a Broadway adaptation of The Producers, the eyes of The Wife and I filled with a mania usually only seen in children approaching Christmas.  We riffed madly on what the show might contain: We guessed right on songs called “Where Did We Go Right?” and “Little Old Lady Land” (okay, the song was titled “Along Came Bialy,” but it was absolutely about Little Old Lady Land) and “Where Did We Go Right?”, while my guess of “Everything Goes Better with Dancing” was wrong. Nathan Lane as Max Bialystock was our only guess/choice, and when Mel Brooks showed up on Letterman with a contract for Nathan, we breathed a sigh of relief. Soon afterwards, we were strolling along NYC’s Theater Row during a picturesque Manhattan winter with our friend Jason, who casually remarked that tickets had gone on sale for the show, a moment we’d been watching for carefully. Suddenly time seemed to stretch and slow, and the snowflakes hung frozen in the air as Jason tried to recall which theater it was.  We dragged him through Times Square like we were Regina Lampert and Peter Joshua (et al) at the Paris Stamp Market in Charade, screaming, “Think, Jean-Louis, THINK!”  He eventually remembered the theater (The St. James) and we grabbed two seats for the first show they had, which was for the fourth night after opening.  Oh how we laughed.
Ulla -- Ulllll-la-la!

Four hundred years later (or so it seemed) we were in our seats in the mezzanine, and the air was filled with a shared joviality. The show had already been declared a hit, but these first few shows were filled with Mel Brooks fans who had, like ourselves, bought our ticket sight unseen, based purely on our love for the man, the film and his entire catalog.  A party of people across the aisle from us were decked out in tuxedos and Viking helmets, like the ones seen on the boys in the cut (and presumed lost) scene where they take the Siegfried Oath in the original film. The show went through a few changes. With the musical now set in the 1950s instead of the late ’60s, Lorenzo St. DuBois and his classic protest ballad “Love Power” was gone entirely, and Franz Liebkind’s part grew in kind when it’s he who is originally cast as the Fuhrer with the classic line, “That’s our Hitler!”  Pretty much everybody’s part got bigger – Ulla graduated to full female lead, complete with romantic subplot. Roger DeBris and Carmen Giya got a big bump up, with Roger eventually having to play Hitler, with riotous results.  Lots of new songs, all written by Mel on the only musical instrument he knows – the tape recorder.  He made the songs up and sang them into a waiting microphone, and the musical staff transcribed and arranged them. Thomas Meehan clearly took the Gene Wilder role and kept Mel from going too crazy – there’s clearly a lot more “Later Mel”-isms in the show (“I can assure you, even though we’re sitting down, we’re giving you a standing ovation”), but it’s kept well in check.  Plus, the boys (and Ulla) get a traditional Broadway Happy Ending, crammed in at the end after the rehearsal of “Prisoners of Love”, with the show opening on Broadway and Max and his new partner taking their place as
Kings of the Great White Way. While Lane and Broderick are the best-known actors in the parts of Max and Leo for the musical, there are a few folks who have taken the roles who I would have killed to see.  A limited performance in L.A. featured Jason Alexander and Martin Short – indeed, Short was Mel’s first choice for the role of Leo.  In Britain, Lee Evans played Leo with Lane as Max again. Lane and Evans teamed in Gore Verbinski’s first major live-action film, Mouse Hunt, and while his career in the U.S. was limited, Evans is a national treasure in England.  Reece Shearsmith of The League of Gentlemen played Leo later in the run as well.  And in a run in Manchester, U.K. standup comic Peter Kay played Roger DeBris.
Anyway, back in America

At the premiere party of the musical, which went on to win a well-deserved 12 Tony Awards including Best Musical, Harvey Weinstein said to Mel, “We gotta make a movie of this!”  Mel replied, “We MADE a movie of it; it was called ‘The Producers’!” So there was little doubt there would be a film of the musical…of the film. Lane and Broderick were back, as were Gary Beach and Roger Bart as DeBris and Carmen
.  Nathan Lane was perfection as usual, using his magnificent mix of equal parts Zero Mostel and Lou Costello.  But Matthew Broderick’s performance, both in the musical and the film, always fell a bit flat for me.  He never reached the level of panic that Wilder did (which I imagine Lee Evans and Martin Short did in their turns), and comes off more uncomfortable than hysterical.  Uma Thurman hung her performance on a passable accent, but ultimately, she seems better cast for action roles than comedy. Will Ferrell has yet to give a poor performance, and his manic Liebkind is no exception. Cameos from Andrea Martin as one of the little old ladies and one of the Queer Eye boys, Jai Rodriguez, as one of DeBris’ in-house staff (Jai graduated to playing Carmen later in the Broadway run) are a nice treat as well.  Don’t blink or you’ll miss Brad Oscar, Broadway’s Franz, as a cab driver. Speaking of Oscars, check out the newspaper the usherettes read in the first number; the Funny Boy review byline is “Addison DeWitt,” the role for which George Sanders won his All About Eve Oscar.

Susan Stroman directed the Broadway production and was chosen to direct the film, but as has happened many times with adaptations of musicals, it felt very much like a filmed stage show, not really taking advantage of the larger stage.  Somehow, the scenes that DID venture outside, the performances of “We Can Do It” and “Along Came Bialy,” still felt flat and staged. Like so many before, the film is merely a good approximation of the stage musical.

A little bit of trivia is revealed by Stroman on the DVD commentary: at the close of the film as the camera pulls back to reveal the many marquees of Broadway, we see a bit of the Lunt-Fontanne theater’s marquee on the left; specifically, the letters “ANNE”. That’s a tribute to Mel’s wife Anne Bancroft, who had died shortly after the opening of the musical, last appearing in the Producers-centric episode of Curb your Enthusiasm.

To her dying day, The Wife’s Mom swore she had seen The Producers “in its first run on Broadway.” We tried endlessly to tell her it had started as a film, and she was patently mistaken, but no number of IMDb listings would change her mind. (We suspect that she’d innocently mistaken it for one of Mostel’s other Broadway hits.) It’s nice to know that we got to see it — I can only hope it was as good as the production she remembered. 

Thursday, March 17, 2011

THE QUIET MAN: “Impetuous! Homeric!”

Those of you who’ve been reading TotED blog posts for a while now might be thinking, “‘The Quiet Man?’ Isn’t that an Irish romantic comedy with John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara? What, no Hitchcockian suspense, chases, guns, murder, derring-do?” Derring-do, no; action and tension along with the romantic comedy, aye! Based on Maurice Walsh’s short story, there’s a lot going on in director John Ford’s justifiably beloved 1952 comedy-drama both  action-wise and emotion-wise, including a memorable cast of characters and, in my opinion, the funniest, rowdiest marathon fistfight in movie history—take that, Fight Club! 

The Quiet Man (TQM) has been one of our family’s favorite films since I was a kid growing up in New York City. My late mom’s side of the family is Irish-American, so every St. Patrick’s Day, our family would drive from the Bronx to Manhattan to see the big parade on Fifth Avenue. Afterward, we’d all eat at what was then our favorite Irish restaurant, Limerick’s on Second Avenue and 32nd Street, for a fine dinner including corned beef, steak, baked potatoes, Irish soda bread, and for the grownups, Irish Coffee. Nowadays, we of Team Bartilucci make our own corned beef and cabbage St. Patrick’s Day dinner at home, including my yummy (if I do say so myself) gluten-free Irish soda bread, and of course, we watch our 2002 Collectors’ Edition DVD of TQM, with all its wonderful documentary featurettes, including interviews with John Wayne’s grown children—all of whom traveled to Ireland with their dad and played roles in the movie, along with Ford’s veteran actor brother Francis Ford, and so many other friends, loved ones, and longtime colleagues in front of and behind the camera, including Ireland’s Abbey Players. The film is the richer for it; each actor, from star to bit player, is memorable and engaging. Our DVD includes a marvelous commentary track by Maureen O’Hara herself (Miracle on 34th Street, The Fallen Sparrow, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and a great many other films with John Wayne, and so much more!) with all kinds of heartwarming, hilarious, and fascinating anecdotes about the making of the film. (Fun Fact: O’Hara took notes in shorthand for Ford in the script’s early stages.) How fitting that making TQM was a family affair for director John Ford, winning him his fourth Best Director Oscar (his other winners being The Informer, The Grapes of Wrath, and How Green was My Valley), especially since watching and quoting TQM have long since become a family tradition in our own home.

“Always hated a flabby handshake myself.”
Let the feud begin!
Filmed mostly on location in Ireland, with the film’s fictional town of Innisfree (or “Innishfree,” as it's often pronounced onscreen) played by the village of Cong in County Mayo, TQM was a labor of love for Ford and Company—and just like so many other cinematic labors of love now hailed as classics, Ford had a tough time getting it underway despite his enviable critical and financial success. Potential backers feared there wouldn’t be enough of an audience for Ford’s fairly simple, sentimental story (no Angela’s Ashes, this) about Sean Thornton (Wayne), born in Ireland, raised in Pittsburgh, PA, and now returning to Innisfree to stay. Along the way, Sean reconnects with such colorful local characters as tippling matchmaker and bookie Michaleen Ogh Flynn (Barry Fitzgerald, beloved in films ranging from Bringing Up Baby to The Naked City to his Oscar-winning turn in Going My Way, and more!); Catholic priest Father Lonergan (Ward Bond, one of Ford’s regular cast members), who’s been trying to catch the same bass for years; and Protestant Reverend Playfair (Arthur Shields, who was actually Fitzgerald’s older brother!), whose enthusiasm for boxing reveals Sean’s secret: in the U.S., Sean was prizefighter Trooper Thorn until he accidentally killed his opponent in the ring, leading him to quit boxing and live a, well, quiet life. Quiet goes out the window when Sean falls in love with spirited Mary Kate Danaher (O’Hara), whose temper is as fiery as her flame-red hair—and so are their love scenes. Not a stitch of clothing is removed, but the chemistry between Wayne and O’Hara has as much heat as a forest fire; no wonder the pair co-starred in five films together, as well as being close platonic friends offscreen! But it’s Mary Kate’s bullying older brother, “Red” Will Danaher (Victor McLaglen, whose wide array of memorable roles include not only his Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for TQM, but also Gunga Din, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, and The Informer, for which McLaglen won the Best Actor Oscar in 1935), who really gets his Irish up. Will’s nasty temper and overall obnoxiousness blow up in his face after our hero asks to buy White O’Morn, the house Sean grew up in. The Widow Sarah Tellane (Mildred Natwick of The Trouble with Harry, The Court Jester, and Barefoot in the Park, among many others) takes issue with Will’s entitled attitude. Sean gets the house and a new enemy in Will. This is a bargain?

With lovely Mary Kate Danaher around,who needs Little Bo Peep ?
Sean and Mary Kate wed after the townsfolk pull a fast one on Will to make him think The Widow Tellane might become Mrs. Danaher. When Will finds out he’s been had, all hell breaks loose, and a battle of traditions begins as the loving but strong-willed newlyweds have to contend with overall culture shock; Will’s refusal to give Mary Kate her dowry and furniture; Sean’s refusal to fight back when Will gets in his face, and the resulting unfair accusations of cowardice; and, being an American, Sean’s difficulty in understanding why it’s so important to Mary Kate to have a dowry in the first place. She tries to explain that it’s not just about the money: “Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve dreamed of having my things about me…Until I have my things, I’m no married woman. I’m the servant I have always been.”  Will those roses Sean planted turn into a bed of thorns (with plenty of horse fertilizer), or will he realize sometimes you literally have to fight for what you want? Well, let’s just say there’s a reason the exciting, hilarious epic fistfight between Sean and Will is a classic!

It’s practically a miracle that TQM even got made! Wayne’s long-standing contract with low-budget Republic Pictures turned the tide, since its head honcho Herbert J. Yates wanted to upgrade Republic to a big-budget studio. Ford formed Argosy Productions and they signed a three-year contract with Ford and partner Merian C. Cooper (yep, King Kong’s Merian C. Cooper), but the antsy Yates wanted to make sure he got his money’s worth. So before filming TQM, Ford, Wayne, and O’Hara filmed Rio Grande (1950)—and it was a smash hit, resulting in a green light for TQM.  In addition to Ford’s Best Director Oscar, TQM also won for the gorgeous Technicolor cinematography by Winston P. Hoch and Archie Stout, with nominations for Best Sound and its art direction and set decoration.

Sean and Mary Kate are soaked to the skin,
but who’s complaining?

Sean's walking his baby back home!

Wonder what kind of sweet nothings Mary Kate is whispering in Sean’s ear?
Read our friend and fellow blogger Clara Fercovic of Via Margutta 51

Friday, March 11, 2011

ARABESQUE: Burnoose Notice

This post has been revised and republished  as part of the My Love of Old Hollywood Horseathon, hosted by Page, from May 25 through May 28, 2012. Saddle up, y'all!

After Stanley Donen’s Hitchcockian romantic comedy-thriller Charade (1963) became a smash hit, Donen had a decision to make: play it safe and make another film just like it (this was in the days before filmmakers sequel-ed popular films to death, lazily giving them titles like Hit Movie Part 2), or boldly go where he hadn’t gone before? Donen opted for a little of both with Arabesque (1966). Arabesque has just about everything a moviegoer could want in a fun escapist movie: spine-tingling suspense; international intrigue; delightful onscreen romantic chemistry between Oscar-winners Gregory Peck and Sophia Loren (though the Oscars they won weren't for Arabesque; Peck won his Best Actor Oscar for To Kill a Mockingbird in 1962, while Loren had won her Best Actress Oscar the previous year for Two Women); witty dialogue and sight gags; eye-catching English locations; jazzy Henry Mancini music with autoharps and mandolas providing exotic Middle Eastern-sounding motifs; inventive visuals with a pop art vibe; and the beguiling Sophia in fabulous Christian Dior frocks and footwear, courtesy of  the scene-stealing villain played by renowned character actor Alan Badel (Day of the Jackal; This Sporting Life; Children of the Damned) as our heroine's foot-fetishist sugar daddy! What’s not to love?

The eyes have it, and Prof. Ragheed's gonna get it!
If the delightful Charade was Alfred Hitchcock Lite, then Arabesque is Hitchcock Lite after taking a few classes in James Bond 101, including an opening title sequence by Maurice Binder, who also did the honors for Charade as well as for most of the Bond movies. Gregory Peck plays David Pollack, a hieroglyphics expert and Yank professor at Oxford who finds himself embroiled in Middle Eastern intrigue while decoding the MacGuffin, a cipher (which also happens to be the title of the Gordon Cotler novel which inspired the film, adapted for the silver screen by Julian Mitchell, Stanley Price and Pierre Marton. More about Marton shortly).

Our hero finds himself up against four Arabs who want to know what’s on that cipher:
* Prime Minister Jena (pronounced “Yay-na” and played by Carl Duering), who’s in England on a hush-hush mission;
*Nejim Beshraavi (Badel), the shipping magnate whose ships may be laid up for good if Jena signs a treaty promising to use English and American tankers;
*Yussef Kasim (Kieron Moore of Crack in the World fame, among others), whose penchant for then-hip lingo a la Edd “Kookie” Byrnes on 77 Sunset Strip belies his ruthlessness;
*And last but far from least, Beshraavi’s
In any language, nobody can resist Yasmin!
beautiful, unpredictable lover Yasmin Azir, played by the dazzling, hazel-eyed Loren. She’s sharp, witty, and alluring as all get out in her fabulous Dior wardrobe, including a beaded golden burnoose!

Kieron Moore reads the Arabesque script: "I talk like Kookie
and get knocked off how?!"
John Merivale, the character actor who put the "Adrian Messenger" in The List of Adrian Messenger is memorable as Sloane, Beshraavi’s put-upon henchman, who gets a memorably tense opening scene in a doctor’s office with hapless Dr. Ragheed (George Coulouris of Citizen Kane; Murder on the Orient Express; Papillon) and is treated as a combination lackey and punching bag for the rest of the film. I almost—only almost—felt sorry for the guy. Anyway, some of David’s new associates have no qualms about stooping to murder, and soon the chase is on, with suspenseful scenes at the Hyde Park Zoo, Ascot, and a construction site. Our man David is subjected to truth serum and knockouts, and I don’t just mean the lovely Loren: “Everytime I listen to you, someone either hits me over the head or tries to vaccinate me.” Poor David doesn’t know where to turn, especially since he can never be sure whether he can trust the mercurial Yasmin.

The usual ever-so-slightly wooden note in Gregory Peck’s delivery is oddly effective as he tries to loosen up and deliver witticisms in the breezy style of Cary Grant, Donen’s business partner and original choice to play David Pollack. (Rumor has it Grant and Loren were romantically linked once upon a time; wonder if that’s why Grant didn’t take the role?) It helps that those witticisms were written by none other than
If the shoe fits, Beshraavi will have Yasmin wear it!
Charade alumnus Peter Stone under the nom de plume Pierre Marton. Peck may not be Mr. Glib, but he’s so inherently likable (he won his Oscar for playing Atticus Finch, after all. Ask Vinnie, my husband, to do his Gregory-Peck-Impersonating-Cary-Grant impersonation sometime!) and seems so delighted to get an opportunity to deliver bon mots after all his serious roles that he’s downright endearing, like a child trying out new words for the first time. Besides, the bewitching Loren can make any guy look suave and sexy. Badel, looking like a swarthy, polished Peter Sellers wearing cool shades, virtually steals his scenes as the suave-bordering-on-unctuous villain with a foot fetish. Shoe lovers will swoon over the scene with Badel outfitting Loren with a roomful of fancy footwear and a comically/suggestively long shoehorn.

Giddy-up, giddy-up, let's go! Let's vanquish a foe!
Speaking of things of beauty, Christopher Challis’s dazzling, inventive cinematography won him a BAFTA award (the British equivalent of the Oscars), and Christian Dior got a BAFTA nomination for Loren’s elegant costumes. The only thing that disappoints me about Arabesque is that director/producer Donen didn’t seem to like this sparkling, twist-filled adventure as much as our family and so many other movie lovers do. Specifically, he felt the script needed work. In Stephen M. Silverman’s book about Donen’s films, Dancing on the Ceiling, Donen is quoted as saying about Arabesque, “We have to make it so interesting visually that no one will think about it.” Boy, did they ever! In an article about Arabesque on the TCM Web site, Stone had said that Donen “shot it better than he ever shot any picture. Everything was shot as though it were a reflection in a Rolls-Royce headlamp.” I don’t think Donen gave himself or the movie enough credit, though. If you ask me, Arabesque is a perfect example of one of Alfred Hitchcock’s best-known quotes: “Some films are slices of life; mine are slices of cake.” Now that Arabesque is finally available on DVD (my own copy is part of Universal’s Gregory Peck Film Collection, a seven-disc DVD set that Vin bought me for Christmas 2011), I wish someone would get Donen and Loren together to do the kind of entertaining, informative commentary Donen did with the late Stone for Criterion’s special-edition Charade DVD, while they’re both still alive and well enough to swap stories, or perhaps even put out a whole new deluxe edition of the film!
Our heroes saddle up for action! Nice horsies!
At Ascot, that's the ticket - to frame our man David Pollock for murder!

Reflections in two sexy spies! (Great F/X work!)
Odd, I don’t usually get hieroglyphics in my fortune cookies!
Double-cross Beshraavi, and you’re in for a date with the falcon—
and we don’t mean George Sanders!
Now that's what I call breakfast in bed!

Friday, March 4, 2011


Miss Plimsoll, won't you join me
in a duet of "Baby, It's Cold Outside"?
Sir Wilfrid's Monocle Test never fails!
Christine Vole: Hostile Hottie Witness!
Witness for the Prosecution (WftP), another one of my all-time favorite movies, sizzles, sparkles, and surprises from its opening credits in the Old Bailey, to its rollercoaster twists and turns, to its jaw-dropping climax. In fact, one of the things I love about the plot twists of this 1957 thriller is that they play fair with the audience, unlike so many films that don’t care if a twist doesn’t make a lick of sense as long as viewers get a momentary shock, however cheap and sloppily executed. The Billy Wilder Touch adds cynical wit to his sparkling adaptation of Dame Agatha Christie's suspenseful, internationally-beloved courtroom drama with some of the best lines in a Wilder movie since Double Indemnity, thanks to writers Wilder, Harry Kurnitz, and Larry Marcus.  Sir Wilfrid’s query about the features of defendant Leonard Vole’s eggbeater, "Is that really desirable?" has become a catchphrase in our household, as well as the title of one of Team Bartilucci's blogs.  Indeed, the only thing keeping me from putting WftP on my list of “Best Alfred Hitchcock Movies That Hitchcock Never Made” is the fact that even Hitchcock himself admitted that courtroom dramas weren’t among his considerable strengths or interests.

Talk about powerhouse stars! Charles Laughton plays Sir Wilfrid Robarts, a.k.a. “Wilfrid the Fox,” a brilliant veteran barrister who won’t let his cardiac health issues stand in the way of helping a client beat a murder rap riddled with circumstantial evidence. This adds extra suspense during the trial as the audience nervously wonders if Sir Wilfrid will keel over with a heart attack from the strain of it all! Laughton’s real-life wife Elsa Lanchester is a delightful foil for him as his chipper but no-nonsense nurse Miss Plimsoll. Laughton and Lanchester shine in the most engaging performances of their careers, garnering well-deserved Oscar nominations. (WftP also earned nominations for Best Picture, Billy Wilder's direction, Daniel Mandell's editing, and Gordon Sawyer's sound recording, but it was The Bridge on the River Kwai's year.) The comic sparring chemistry between Sir Wilfrid and Miss Plimsoll, and the playful warmth and understanding that's grown between them by movie's end (like the nice little bit at the very end with Sir Wilfrid actually smiling and putting his arm around Miss Plimsoll), had my husband Vinnie opining that if another movie was made featuring these characters, Miss Plimsoll would probably end up as Mrs. Robarts before it was over. What a delightful series that could have been, kind of like a British Thin Man (okay, so Laughton was chubby; it makes him cuddly!
) except that Sir Wilfrid would be the eager crime-stopper while Miss Plimsoll would make a show of tut-tutting until she finally went along with Wilfrid the Fox’s schemes, smiling!

Tyrone Power is the client in question, Leonard Vole (look up “Vole” in the dictionary, and you’ll see how devilishly clever the name really is). An unemployed but likable inventor, Leonard’s a real lady-killer, it seems: he’s accused of murdering rich, lonely, aging widow Emily French for her money. Mrs. French is played by one of my favorite character actresses, Norma Varden (of Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train, among others); Varden and Power work together beautifully in their scenes, portraying Mrs. French’s sweet-natured longing as funny and poignant at the same time.
Speaking of beautiful, Marlene Dietrich is absolutely mesmerizing in both looks and acting talent as Leonard’s German war bride Christine, she of the duplicitous tactics, malleable marriage contract, and unshakable alibi against the gobsmacked Leonard!  Is Christine truly the ultimate bitch, or is there more to her agenda? The entertaining flashbacks that Wilder and company deftly weave throughout the film to give it more verve and movement work beautifully, especially in Christine and Leonard’s sexy meet-cute/fall-in-love/dig-those-legs scenes. Dietrich and Power are dynamic in their scenes, whether it’s love or hate or payback time!  It's a shame Dietrich’s brilliant, multifaceted performance wasn't nominated for an Oscar as well, on account of the producers not wanting to spoil a certain crucial surprise twist. Tyrone Power's usual ever-so-slightly wooden delivery actually serves him well as defendant Leonard Vole; somehow it adds to his air of feckless innocence. Veteran character actors Henry Daniell, John Williams, Ian Wolfe, and Torin Thatcher provide able support, too, with original Broadway cast member Una O'Connor stealing her scenes as Mrs. French's loyal Scottish housekeeper Janet MacKenzie, who’s suspicious and “antag’nistic” to the beleaguered Leonard. Sadly, WftP was the last film for both O’Connor and Power before they died within a year of each other, but what a memorable swansong they had. 

Maybe it’s a British thing, but I was struck by how people took Sir Wilfrid’s cantankerous side in stride.  It’s a refreshing change from what Vinnie calls “gas-permeable people” whose overly-fragile feelings are crushed by any response that’s less than 100% sweet and sensitive. I love how nobody takes Sir Wilfrid’s cranky pronouncements to heart, including Miss Plimsoll, who gives as good as she gets, like when she reveals she knows all about the cigars hidden in his cane (not to mention the brandy he’s squirreled away).

I promised Vinnie I’d carry on the great tradition of not revealing the stunning surprise ending of WftP.  While you’re at it, don’t blab to your friends, either! I’ll only say I'd have paid good money to see the sequel that the ending implies. The film’s suspenseful surprises were so zealously guarded that when WftP was shown in London for a Royal Command Performance, even the Royal Family had to promise beforehand not to reveal the surprise ending to anyone else! Here's the heads-up:

“Notice! To preserve the secret of the surprise ending, patrons are advised NOT to take their seats during the last few minutes of Witness for the Prosecution.”

Looks like Leonard doesn't have a leg to stand on,
but Christine sure does!

Hear Sir Charles Laughton and Elsa Lanchester in their romantic duet, "Baby, It's Cold Outside"!
Here's the YouTube link: