Friday, June 24, 2011

THE PRIZE: Swedish Mayhem

"C'mon, Eddie, do your Rico impression! Please?"
Thanks to the miracle of Print-on-Demand DVDs, one of my favorite Hitchcock pastiches, The Prize (1963), as in Nobel Prize, has become available from the Warner Archive. It couldn’t happen to a more entertaining movie! Loosely based on Irving Wallace’s best-selling 1962 novel, it’s quite appropriate that much of The Prize’s action takes place in Sweden’s Grand Hotel in Stockholm, since this lively, sophisticated yet impish international thriller plays like a cross between the classic movie adaptation of Vicki Baum’s Grand Hotel and Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (my favorite film of all time, for those who came in late).

The folks at MGM clearly realized screenwriter Ernest Lehman’s witty dialogue would be as important to the success of The Prize as it was to Lehman’s Oscar-nominated screenplay for North by Northwest (1959), so they lavished The Prize with plenty of smart, snappy lines in addition to the time-honored glossy MGM production values. They also cast The Prize with many actors who’d worked with Hitchcock before and/or after they became part of the Prize package, like Paul Newman (more about his Hitchcock experience shortly); Marnie’s Diane Baker; The Birds’ Karl Swenson, along with veteran character actor John Qualen, as bickering room service personnel at the Grand Hotel; and frequent Hitchcock supporting player Leo G. Carroll as the Nobel committee’s outwardly calm but inwardly worried head honcho, Count Bertil Jacobsson. Virginia Christine of Folgers Coffee commercial fame briefly appears in The Golden Crown nightclub scene with Baker and friends and a wine chaser. (Fun fact: Ms. Christine was married to Fritz Feld of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty and so many other comedies from 1940 to his death in 1993.) Fans of the classic private eye series 77 Sunset Strip (*snap snap*) may recognize Jacqueline Beer as another sexy secretary type, Monique, the mistress of Nobel Prize-winner Dr. Claude Marceau (Gérard Oury, renowned as a writer/actor/director in his native France). One of the more entertaining Nobel winner vignettes is a piquant running gag in which Newman as Andrew Craig, the Nobel Prize winner for Literature, agrees to help fellow Nobel-prize winner Dr. Denise Marceau (Micheline Presle) pretend they’re having an affair to make her hubby and fellow Nobel-prize winner Claude jealous, culminating in an almost-naked Newman winding up in Denise’s suite with her slow-burning spouse—but I’m getting ahead of myself. The Prize is that kind of movie—very busy (mostly in a good way)! 

Between The Prize and Charade, 1963 was a great year for playfully glamorous Hitchcockian thrillers! Director of Photography William Daniels, who also did the honors for TV’s I Love Lucy and the Oscar-winning The Naked City, got to have fun with trick photography. Great driving symphonic score by Jerry Goldsmith, too, augmented here and there by musical riffs from Bernard Herrmann’s North by Northwest score and another musical riff I swear I’ve heard on Star Trek! Is it just me? Incidentally, I liked the way the filmmakers got past the language issues of the international cast of characters, as decreed by major domo Mrs. Ahlquist (Edith Evanson): “During Nobel Week, nothing but English is to be spoken, even when you quarrel…Now don’t let me hear another word about this, especially in Swedish!”

Paul Newman plays our charmingly sardonic hero, the hard-drinking, womanizing, and of course, Nobel-winning author Andrew Craig, honored for his novel The Perfect State. Indeed, according to the media montage in the film’s opening credits, Andrew is the youngest author to be thus honored since Rudyard Kipling. (Would that make fictional Andrew Craig the Nobel Prize equivalent of real-life youngest Best Actor Oscar-winner Adrien Brody? But I digress….) Andrew is just interested in the money — and maybe also Inger Lisa Andersson (Elke Sommer), the cool, beautiful blonde Foreign Office attaché assigned to keep his scamp tendencies in line. We can feel the chemistry beginning, but Inger Lisa isn’t going to make it easy for him:
Andrew: “How much do you know (about me)?”
Inger Lisa:
“Your lack of regard for the Nobel Prize; your threat to turn it down; your decision to come to Stockholm only because fifty-thousand dollars…how did you put it in Time Magazine?”
“‘Ain’t hay?’…Yes, I think you have caught the outer man, Miss Andersson. But bear in mind that nine-tenths of the iceberg is generally hidden from view.”
Inger Lisa:
“In your case, it happens to be ice cubes.”
For Andrew, having Inger Lisa on his side is sheer delight!
When our irreverent hero gets around to schmoozing with his fellow Nobel Prize winners, he meets Dr. Max Stratman (Edward G. Robinson, another Team Bartilucci favorite), the Nobel Prize winner in Physics. Dr. Stratman is a native German who reluctantly cooperated with the Nazis only to keep his family safe. The endearing Stratman gently chides Andrew in a warm, fatherly way about his flippant, mercenary approach to his Nobel honor. Andrew and Dr. Stratman agree to get together over a bottle of schnapps the next day. But what a difference a day makes: when they cross paths again at the Nobel press conference, Dr. S. acts as though he’s meeting Andrew for the first time! Little does Andrew know that after they said their goodbyes the night before, Eastern Bloc spies kidnapped the real Dr. Stratman to drag him back behind the Iron Curtain, replacing him with his lookalike brother (Robinson pulls double duty here; wonder if MGM paid him twice?), who plans to use the Nobel ceremony to denounce the West before Dr. Stratman “defects.” What’s worse, his lovely niece Emily Stratman (Baker) is playing ball with the bad guys. But Emily’s mercurial behavior is puzzling; is she really a modern-day Mata Hari, or do the bad guys have a hold over her, or what? It’s interesting to watch Emily’s expressions throughout the film, with her sweet face and shifty eyes always at odds with each other; it intrigues and amuses me (granted, I’m easy to please).

Meanwhile, Andrew grudgingly reveals his dirty little secret at the press conference: acclaimed though they are, Andrew’s literary novels haven’t been selling well — but the “private-eyewash” detective novels he writes under a pseudonym are selling like fresh hot pancakes with lingonberries! (Hey, Andrew, if you don’t want the pulp fiction gig, I’ll gladly take it, and so would any number of writers I know!) Skeptical interviewers ask Andrew for an example of his ability to find story material in whatever situation is at hand. Naturally, Andrew improvises a storyline about a Nobel prize winner — who just happens to be a lookalike imposter. You can almost hear the alarm bells going off for Emily and the counterfeit Stratman. Before you can say, “George Kaplan,” Emily, Off-Brand Stratman, and a couple of sinister fedora-wearing jaspers in trench coats are doing their damndest to screw up whatever shreds of credibility Andrew has left (ah, the time-honored “Hide the Corpse” gambit never gets old). Failing that, they’re happy to make Andrew a dead man who’ll tell no tales!

Winning the Nobel Prize turns life upside-down for author Andrew Craig (Paul Newman) when neo-Nazi thugs in Swedes’ clothing decide he’s a man who knows too much!

Our award-winning amateur sleuth thinks he’s finally catching a break in the case at the Nobel banquet. Andrew overhears the wife of fellow Nobel honoree Dr. John Garrett (Kevin McCarthy, yet another Team Bartilucci fave) as she mentions seeing a patient at the local sanitarium who looked like Stratman. This leads to more double-crossing Mata Hari antics from Emily, and the movie’s highlight: Andrew is chased at night from the sanitarium to a nudist conference, in a sequence that winks broadly at North by Northwest’s classic auction scene. According to the IMDb, an uncredited young Britt Ekland is in that nudist seminar as well. With so many attractive blondes in the audience, it was hard to tell one from the other. I wonder what Hitchcock would have said? (Perhaps, to quote The Producers, “Ah-woo-wah, ah-woo-ah-wah!”)
Ironically, Newman is more successful as a Hitchcockian hero in The Prize than he was in Hitchcock’s own Torn Curtain (1966), which had its moments, to be sure (like that great farmhouse scene; you’ll never look at your gas oven quite the same way again). But with its action-packed script, great dialogue, and appealing cast, The Prize is simply more fun than Torn Curtain. If you’re somehow listening in the hereafter, Sir Alfred, no offense intended; we still love you and your movies!

These hairbreadth escapes are getting Andrew's goat!
Not only does Newman let his funny flag fly, but he has delightful chemistry with the irresistible Elke Sommer, she of the eminently kissable lips, in one of her earliest big-screen roles. Sommer won a Golden Globe as Most Promising Newcomer, and the sultry yet ultimately sweet Diane Baker was nominated for Best Supporting Actress. Director Mark Robson had worked with Lehman and Newman earlier in From the Terrace (1960), so I’m not surprised that they worked together so well on The Prize. 

Our hero's foe gets the point at Stockholm's Orpheus Fountain
As I mentioned earlier, the other Nobel honorees’ little subplots weave in and out of Andrew’s Hitchcockian hell. In addition to the jealousy charade that Andrew and Denise Marceau pull on Claude Marceau, the Nobel Prize for Medicine gets split as well, since the recipients all came by their findings independently; Dr. Garrett is hell-bent on proving that Italian doc Carlo Farelli (Sergio Fantoni from Luchino Visconti’s Senso) cribbed his research. Farelli brings his aging mother (Grazia Narciso, who guest-starred on Peter Gunn and Alfred Hitchcock Presents, among others) to Stockholm with him, though she seems to be there primarily as a sight gag. Sometimes all these mini-plots result in what Joe Bob Briggs would describe as “the plot getting in the way of the story” but they’re well-acted and entertaining overall. 

Elke Sommer wins Golden Globe over nominee Diane Baker.
Does that mean blondes really do have more fun?
The Grand Hotel has everything, including half-naked Paul Newman!

Sunday, June 19, 2011

X: THE MAN WITH THE X-RAY EYES: I’m Looking Through You

In honor of the Roger Corman Blogathon, created by fellow blogger Nathanael Hood of Forgotten Classics of Yesteryear, Team Bartilucci is blogging about X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes (1963).

Dorian's View:
The X... DVD includes a great commentary track by the sepulchral-voiced Corman himself, as well as the movie’s trailer and its original prologue, which comes across like a well-done documentary about people and their senses. Vinnie quipped, “This could turn into a nudist flick any minute!” In voice-over, we learn how people compensate when any of their senses no longer function (we see a deaf man using sign language and a blind man with his Braille Reader). Suddenly Ray Milland stumbles onto the screen, and we’re startled to see that his eyeballs are pitch-black—not as freaky as the opening Corman eventually opted for in the theatrical release, a long tight shot on a bloody eyeball, but either way, X… grabs your attention and doesn’t let go!
I can see for miles and miles: Ray Milland
Ray Milland had always said that The Lost Weekend and X… were the films that he’d been the most proud of during his long acting career. I can understand why; both movies hit you in the gut, the heart, and the mind. Milland plays Dr. James Xavier, a dedicated doctor and medical researcher. As is often the case in Corman’s movies, Jim’s an outsider, a maverick. His unorthodox but brilliant experiments in ophthalmology attract wary looks and accolades in equal measure. He’s developing an eye-drop formula that could bring human eyesight to another level, one that would enable physicians to help their hospital patients by literally “seeing inside them, as if they were windows…seeing their sicknesses with a clarity that would make X-rays a tool fit only for witch doctors.” Jim and his supportive, attractive colleague Dr. Diane Fairfax (stage actress Diana Van der Vlis) test Jim’s eye-drop formula on a cute little monkey in their lab—but the poor critter dies after getting, um, super-vision. “What did he see? What did he see?” the worried Diane wonders. She and their friend and colleague Dr. Sam Brant (Harold J. Stone) are supportive, but the skittish higher-ups who run their hospital cut off Jim’s funding. Jim decides to eliminate the middleman by experimenting on himself. Didn’t he learn anything from The Invisible Man, Dr. Jekyll, Andre Delambre, and so many other well-meaning but ill-fated scientists who came before him?

It’s all fun and games when Jim is able to see through party guests’ clothing thanks to the magic of Spectarama, a photographic gimmick that makes Jim’s X-ray viewpoint look kinda like those colorful crystal prism suncatchers you find in New Age novelty shops. Kudos to Diane for having a sense of humor about this wacky episode! (I got a kick out of the doctor guests using syringes to mix their cocktails.) Milland and Van Der Vlis have a charming, sophisticated chemistry together, making them a delightfully urbane couple. But when a fatal accident propels Jim into the life of a fugitive (director of photography Floyd Crosby does a great job here, especially with the suspenseful, claustrophobic scene where Jim flees down flights of stairs), X… becomes increasingly tense and thought-provoking. Jim doesn’t have a moment’s peace one way or another; he can’t even close his eyes to sleep because of his X-ray vision (note the progressively larger, darker, clunkier sunglasses he wears over the course of the film). When Jim snaps, “Get out of my sight,” you don’t know whether to laugh or cry, because that’s literally impossible for him now! The peril of playing God is a time-honored trope, but Corman and screenwriters Robert Dillon and Ray Russell do a great job of blending parables, suspense, and science fiction. Les Baxter’s quicksilver musical score ably covers the many moods of X… In addition to being a box-office hit, X… won the 1963 Best Film Award, The Silver Spaceship, at the First International Festival of Science Fiction Films.

This tight, tense, thought-provoking science fiction thriller packs a wallop, with excellent performances all around. Don Rickles was a revelation in a rare dramatic role as Crane, a sleazy carnival barker who makes the most of our beleaguered hero’s X-ray vision by casting him as “Mentallo” in a mind-reading act. Keep an eye out for Corman regulars Dick Miller and Jonathan Haze in the Mentallo scene, as well as an earlier scene with uncredited bits by character actors Morris Ankrum (I Wake up Screaming, Lady in the Lake) and John Hoyt, the most angular man in show business (My Favorite Brunette, When Worlds Collide, The Bribe, TV’s Gimme a Break).

How Dr. X. sees the world: This is Spectarama!
Vinnie's View:
This is rather an interesting change for us, 'cause it's the first time The Wife and I are writing about the same film. While her milieu is more the noir films, tongue-in-cheek thrillers, and other more respectable genres of film, I lean more towards the science fiction and fantasy areas, with a sub-major in comedy. So upon hearing about the Corman-a-thon, I took the initiative and suggested this film. I knew there'd be a dogfight for Little Shop, but X had always held a place in my heart for being a great example of what can be done under the guise of a simple B-picture.

After quite a bit of television work, Ray Milland made three films in rapid succession over two years for American International: The Premature Burial, one of Corman's Poe adaptations; Panic in the Year Zero, a classic Cold War thriller in which the bomb drops on L.A. and the people must do the best they can afterwards (which Milland also directed, and another film which I could go on about for quite a while) and the film we're discussing today, X: The Man With X-Ray Eyes. Milland took to the fast-paced world of independent film-making easily; Corman describes him as a good man to work with, and utterly professional.

Co-writer Ray Russell came out of the gate with a first script that was also a far better film than it's remembered being, William Castle's Mr. Sardonicus, based on Russell's own novella. He followed this up with The Premature Burial, and another all-but-forgotten madcap classic for Castle, Zotz! So he came onto X with a short but solid resume. Corman's initial concept was for a jazz musician to gain the titular powers after excessive illegal drug use; the final idea of a research scientist experimenting on himself gave them the ability to examine the question without being forced to portray the drug as "evil".

Milland does not play Dr. Xavier as a "mad scientist." His experiments are solely for the benefit of mankind, as he displays early in the film, where he corrects John Hoyt's diagnosis of a young girl's heart ailment by looking into her and finding a tumor that escaped being caught on x-rays. The implication is that continued use of the drops may cause mental instability, which seems the case when in a fit of anger he knocks his friend and fellow Doctor Sam Brant (played by character actor Harold J. Stone) out a window.

A theme throughout the film are the ways that people would use the ability to see beyond the visible spectrum. Diane has to ask what the practical uses would be; Xavier uses them to save the young girl's life. It's only after he's forced to play the fugitive that he explores the more mercenary advantages of the power. He hides out in a carnival, hiding in plain sight as a mentalist; people naturally assume his ability to see people's secrets is a simple sideshow con. One carny presumes that the power couldn't be real; if it were, such a person could rule the world with it. But Don Rickles (who damn near steals the film as the carnival barker Crane) realizes that the trick is no trick at all, and has an idea on how to exploit it. He opens up an office in the Skid Row area and lets the word spread that Xavier is a "healer", and doesn't charge for a consultation, but will happily take "Donations." It's an interesting scenario; he's taking advantage of the poor people's simplicity and fear of hospitals, but Xavier is giving them solid medical info. Dr. Fairfax tracks him down after a number of people come to her practice with exactingly correct diagnoses for their ailments. As he grows more desperate, only then does he use his abilities where everyone else would have gone first: Las Vegas. By this point the pressure is getting to him, and he grows swaggering and arrogant as he wins hand after hand. Bad move, as when they challenge him on his skills, he loses his protective goggles and reveals his transformation, shown through a pair of Sclera lenses that must have hurt like hell.

This film was shot in a mere 15 days of principal photography, a schedule Corman describes as luxurious for him, as most of the time he would shoot in 10. But even there, he had the time to make the film look bigger than it had a right to be. He drove to Vegas and the Long Beach carnival pier with his cameraman to get enough B-roll footage to make the end of the film look like the cast were there as well. To show the way Xavier saw the city, Corman got second-unit footage of buildings still under construction, cutting them together to make it look like the doctor was seeing the facades vanish, revealing the girders beneath.

Corman is legendary for his work, and for the people he's mentored into Hollywood's upper echelon. Ron Howard got to talk about him when he got his honorary Oscar in 2009. I include the speech here as a testament to a man who can squeeze a nickel and get two dimes, and take an idea about a guy that can see naked people and get a classic.

2009 Governors Awards - Ron Howard toasts Roger... by dreadcentral

Friday, June 10, 2011

ALL ABOUT EVE: How Do You Like Those Apples, Eve?

The Antoinette Perry Awards, a.k.a. the Tony Awards, are taking place this coming Sunday, June 12th, 2011 (easy for me to remember, since the Tonys are always awarded sometime around my birthday :-))! What better film to write about this week than All About Eve (AAE)? Writer/director Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s wickedly witty, silkily cynical, sumptuously sophisticated comedy-drama, based on Mary Orr’s story and radio play “The Wisdom of Eve,” is one of the juiciest, most entertaining films about show business ever made. The movie begins with a close-up on an award trophy, described in voice-over by theater critic Addison DeWitt (George Sanders, the King of Suave himself, at his droll, unflappable best in the role he was born to play) as the “highest honor our theater knows: the Sarah Siddons Award for Distinguished Achievement.” By the way, although Sarah Siddons was indeed a much-admired Welsh stage actress, Mankiewicz in fact created the award itself specifically for AAE. Life imitated art in 1952 when a group of eminent Chicago theater-goers began giving notable Chicago actors an award modeled on and named after the one in the film. Need I say that AAE stars Bette Davis and Celeste Holm were eventually among the Sarah Siddons recipients? I wonder why they didn't use the Tony for Eve’s triumph, though? After all, it had been around since 1947. Rights issues, maybe? But I digress….

In flashbacks, we see how well-meaning Karen Richards (Celeste Holm), the wife of Broadway playwright Lloyd Richards (Hugh Marlowe), found young Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter, who’d won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for 1946’s The Razor's Edge), a down-on-her-luck fan and hopeful ingénue, waiting outside the stage door night after night for a glimpse of her idol, Broadway diva Margo Channing (the one and only Bette Davis). Once Karen brings Eve inside Margo's dressing room after a performance of her current hit play, Aged in Wood, Eve is encouraged to relate her poignant story to them: she was an only child who loved acting and make-believe. She grew up to be a secretary in a Milwaukee brewery who fell in love and married a radio technician named Eddie, only to lose him as a casualty of World War 2. Since then, Eve’s only joy has been going from city to city to watch Margo’s plays from the cheap seats. In today’s stalker-centric age, many folks might find that kinda creepy, but in the innocent early 1950s, who could resist a sweet, lonely, self-deprecating waif who loves the theater so? Almost everyone in the room is moved to tears by Eve’s life story except Margo’s tart-tongued dresser Birdie (Thelma Ritter, one of Team Bartilucci’s faves from Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window and so many others), whose assessment comes off as a tad cynical: “What a story! Everything but the bloodhounds snappin’ at her rear end.” But even the jaded Margo is touched by Eve’s poignant tale, taking “the kid” under her wing and into her home as her assistant. Ah, but who’s really being taken in?

As theater diva Margo Channing stands next to a caricature of the Southern belle she plays in her current Broadway smash Aged in Wood, she’s stunned when theater critic Addison DeWitt informs her that her adoring young fan/assistant/protégée Eve Harrington has insinuated herself into yet another aspect of Margo’s life. It seems Eve has become Margo’s new understudy, and her line readings are, as Addison puts it, “full of fire and music.”  Oh, yeah, that’s just what an insecure Broadway diva of a certain age wants to hear!  
Margo and her Broadway pals shouldn’t have been so quick to scold Birdie. As AAE continues on its merrily jaundiced way, it becomes increasingly clear that fresh-faced ingénue is Eve is more like that tempting snake in the Garden of Eden. As New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther said in his 1950 review, “the self-seeking, ruthless Eve (makes) a black-widow spider look like a lady bug.” Baxter’s subtle transformation from seemingly selfless sweetheart to ruthless predator is magnificent, with that throb in her smoky voice and that figurative stiletto in her dainty hand.

Superb though Baxter is, I must admit I was particularly touched by Davis’s performance as Margo, whose imperiousness and diva demeanor mask her heartbreaking insecurity. Margo’s constantly worried that her lover, director Bill Sampson (played with no-nonsense charm and sympathy by Gary Merrill, who became Davis’s real-life husband for the next ten years), who happens to be eight years Margo’s junior, will leave her for a younger woman. Of course, Eve would be only too happy to fill Margo’s shoes in every aspect of her life! You want to smack Margo one minute for having temper tantrums and making cutting remarks that only make it easier for Eve to slither in with her soothing pseudo-sympathy and forward passes, yet you can’t help wanting to hug and comfort Margo once you remember all the cracks beneath her armor (shown here in a lovely scene where Margo lets her hair down). Davis has her signature delivery and gestures, yet her portrayal of Margo never turns into caricature. By turns, she’s poignant, powerful, and self-deprecatingly witty. Davis had always claimed she based her portrayal on the great Tallulah Bankhead, but I strongly suspect there’s plenty of Davis herself in there, too, and it works beautifully. Oh, and that actress playing stage hopeful Miss Caswell from “The Copacabana School of Dramatic Arts” who was reluctant to call the party waiter “butler…somebody’s name might be ‘Butler’” was quite the scene-stealer, too. Maybe you’ve heard of her—a cute blonde starlet named Marilyn Monroe? According to the IMDb, audiences got a taste of budding star Monroe in several films that year: AAE, The Asphalt Jungle, A Ticket to Tomahawk, Right Cross, and The Fireball—busy gal, and rightly so!

Watching AAE multiple times is just as fun as watching the film for the first time, if not more so! Once you’re onto Eve, AAE is like watching one of Alfred Hitchcock’s wittier thrillers, with a soupcon of Barbet Schroeder’s 1992 suspenser Single White Female. We see the calculated scheming hiding behind Eve’s gimlet eyes while those poor jaded theater folk are lulled into trusting this alleged innocent. Once we viewers realize the truth about Eve, we want to yell warnings to Margo: “Run, Margo! The little bitch is trying to kill your career, not to mention your happiness!” Wow, Hitchcock’s Stage Fright should have been like this!

Every character in this scintillating Broadway satire gets a chance to shine and a kick in the ego to one degree or another. Each line of dialogue sparkles, including Davis’s immortal “Fasten your seat belts, it’s going to be a bumpy night!” In fact, it’s another one of those great movies in which writing down all of the stars’ best lines would result in me transcribing pretty much the whole damn script! AAE won six out of its record-setting 14 Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Best Costume Design for the ever-awesome Edith Head (black-and-white division), Best Director and Best Screenplay for Mankiewicz, Best Sound, and last but far from least, Best Supporting Actor for George Sanders. (Fun Fact: The all-time Best Picture Oscar-nominee runners-up to date are 1939’s Gone with the Wind and 1953’s From Here to Eternity with 13 nominations each.)

I only wish everyone else nominated for acting awards in the film could have won, too, even if it would’ve meant ties for Best Actress nominees Davis and Baxter as well as Best Supporting Actress nominees Thelma Ritter and Celeste Holm. The Academy ought to institute some kind of Best Ensemble Cast Oscar, like they have at the Screen Actors Guild awards. To be fair, I can’t complain about the wonderful actors who did win: Best Actress Judy Holliday for Born Yesterday, and Best Supporting Actress Josephine Hull for Harvey. Tough choices that year, with other worthy Oscar nominees including Sunset Blvd., The Third Man, Adam’s Rib, Father of the Bride, and King Solomon’s Mines; we need more Oscar years like that!

Friday, June 3, 2011

There’s Something About LAURA

Welcome to the House of Spoilers! Enter at your own risk!
Private investigator Sam Marlow: “Dana Andrews was swell in Laura, but what if Bogart had played Lt. McPherson? Yeah, Bogart... smoking a cigarette and looking up at that portrait, thinking Laura was dead, but still in love with her. What a love scene. And neither of them naked!”
The Man with Bogart’s Face by Andrew J. Fenady
When Vera Caspary’s romantic suspense tale Ring Twice for Laura proved to be a popular serial in Colliers in 1942, Houghton Mifflin published the serial as a best-selling novel, now simply titled LauraIn 1944, the movie version of Laura hit the silver screen, fated to be movie bait against all odds (more about that in a moment)!  The film and David Raksin's haunting theme song were so popular, they were affectionately parodied with much gusto in many ways, including a spoof by no less than Spike Jones and his City Slickers, an honor akin to Weird Al Yankovic's song parodies (much beloved here at Team Bartilucci H.Q.).  

The film starts off on an appropriately ominous note with the voiceover, “I shall never forget the weekend Laura died.” These are the words of Waldo Lydecker, a waspish New York columnist (blogs hadn't been invented yet :-)), played by scene-stealing former silent film actor/ballroom dancer/stage actor Clifton Webb in the role that made him a full-fledged movie star and Oscar nominee. In case you had any silly notions that Waldo was the shy retiring type, he allows Detective Lt. Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) of the NYPD to grill him as he sits in the bathtub of his opulent bathroom. (Perhaps Waldo hoped Mark might want to take a dip in the tub himself, the old slyboots!) Waldo multitasks, typing one of his devastatingly sharp columns on a tray in his bathtub while answering Mark’s questions about lovely, smart advertising executive-turned-murder victim Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney), found violently killed with a double-barreled shotgun blast at close range

Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb) is glad to assist Det. Lt. Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews), as long as it doesn't interfere with his daily ablutions. Good thing electric typewriters weren't invented yet; we can't have Waldo accidentally electrocuted so early in the movie!

But by all accounts, to know Laura was to love her, and why not? Even her maid Bessie (the uncredited but memorable Dorothy Adams) adored Laura, not only “on account of the thousand sweet things she done for me; it was because she was so sweet herself!” Laura was as winsome as she was beautiful; sophisticated, yet hard-working and down-to-earth.  Who’d want to kill her? Someone who loved her too much, perhaps? Maybe Waldo, her longtime mentor and friend? Or could it be Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price, then best known as a stage actor; his great horror films came later), Laura’s fiancé and colleague at the advertising firm Bullitt & Company (how eerily appropriate, considering how she died), who Waldo sneeringly characterizes (not unfairly) as “a male beauty in distress”? Mark’s investigation brings him into Laura’s glamorous world, and quickly discovers it’s also a world of ambition and danger, obsession and desire. In spite of himself, tough detective Mark realizes he’s getting so deep into the case that he’s falling in love with Laura—her portrait, anyway, all that’s left of her. Or is it? When Mark falls asleep while on stakeout in Laura’s apartment, he’s awakened by Laura herself! But if the shocked, bewildered Laura isn’t dead, then who is? (Fun Fact: The famous portrait of Laura was originally painted by the wife of Rouben Mamoulian, who’d been chosen to direct before producer Otto Preminger opted to direct as well. The portrait was touched up to make it look more like an actual painting of Tierney.)

"Now that is aht!"
It turns out the murder victim was Bullitt & Company model Diane Redfern, who dropped by Laura’s apartment for a heart-to-heart with Shelby while our heroine was away in the country trying to thaw out the cold feet she’s developing about marrying him. I don’t blame her, considering Shelby was apparently two-timing Laura (in his Southern-gentleman way, the rake!), as well as the ever-awesome Dame Judith Anderson as Laura’s aunt, Ann Treadwell (Susan Treadwell in the novel). Ann may or may not have an agenda of her own, considering she’s only too happy to “lend” Shelby large sums of money at the drop of her stylish hat, and she can obviously afford him. I guess that’s what happens when you know too many good-looking layabouts with too much time on their hands—get a job, you moochers! But now that Laura’s not dead after all, the police consider her a suspect in Diane’s murder!  Can Mark get the real culprit, as Waldo would say, “trundled off to the hoosegow” before it’s too late? Come to think of it, why is Waldo so eager to get his grandfather clock back ASAP? Funny how it’s just the right size to hide a double-barreled shotgun….

"Ring around the rosy, pocket full of posies..."
It amazes me that nobody wanted to make this witty, suave, suspenseful adaptation of Caspary’s classic mystery novel! Even when it got the green light, it was initially slated to be a throwaway “B” picture for 20th Century-Fox. I’m also flabbergasted to hear that the bewitching Gene Tierney, who had the amazing ability to be at once approachable and exotic, wasn’t the first choice to play the title role; Jennifer Jones and Hedy Lamarr both turned it down. Their loss! It just goes to show what the right polish and the right talent can do, with Tierney and tough-yet-tender Andrews up against that fabulous cast. Like Witness for the Prosecution and other favorite films of mine, discovering who really dunnit doesn’t spoil the fun of watching Laura again and again, especially with those beautiful clothes, the Oscar-nominated set design/decoration, and of course, listening to composer David Raksin’s rapturous music (which also deserved an Oscar nod, if you ask me)! Indeed, if you pay closer attention to real killer Waldo on a second viewing, you’ll catch more of the clues to his true nature that you were having too much fun to notice the first time around. For example, during Waldo’s flashback-laden dinner conversation with Mark about Laura, you suddenly realize how truly obsessed and self-centered Waldo really is. Note that everything he says about Laura really ends up being more about him than about her: “She deferred to my tastes...the way she listened (to me) was more eloquent than speech….” 
"Mark, get me away from these wackos!"
As Waldo, acid-tongued Webb’s bon mots are so delightful you want to commit them to memory. He steals the show with his viciously witty lines—and just as important, the angry heartache underlying them. (He does this to superb effect in The Dark Corner, too.) If I start quoting Webb’s best lines, I’ll be transcribing almost every word out of his mouth! Still, the great nest-of-vipers cast hits all the right notes in Preminger’s spellbinding adaptation of Caspary’s novel. The book told the tale from the respective perspectives of Waldo, Shelby, Mark, and eventually Laura herself. In the movie, like in all the best book-to-film adaptations, Laura stays faithful to the novel while keeping it tight to fit the movie’s sleek 87-minute running time—89 minutes in the restored version on DVD, with Waldo narrating over a montage of Laura being made over into a society glamor girl. Supposedly, that footage stayed out of the film for years because the studio was afraid the sequence’s allegedly “decadent” focus on luxury wouldn’t sit well with 1944’s wartime audiences, who were doing without many things they’d once taken for granted. (Suddenly I’m imagining Laura and Waldo double-dating with Vertigo’s Scottie Ferguson and Judy Barton after Judy gets Madeleine Elster’ed!) Webb, Price, and Anderson make wonderful wolves-in-chic-clothing among Laura’s circle of friends and hangers-on. Andrews and Tierney’s chemistry sends sparks flying even before they actually share the screen after the Act 2 twist. Tierney is quite convincing as a sophisticated yet soft-hearted young woman whose kindness almost does her in; as Andrews aptly points out, “For a charming, intelligent girl, you’ve certainly surrounded yourself with a remarkable collection of dopes.”  Amen to that! On a related note, this might sound odd, but I’ve often felt that Laura is almost a dark precursor to the 1998 modern comedy classic There’s Something About Mary! Think about it: both films are about magnetic women who don’t realize how much their looks and charm drive men mad, sometimes literally.

Laura was nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Director for Preminger; Best Supporting Actor for Webb; Best Adapted Screenplay by Jay Dratler, Samuel Hoffenstein, and Betty Reinhardt, with an uncredited assist by Ring Lardner Jr.; and Best Interior Decoration.  But it was Director of Photography Joseph LaShelle who went home with an Oscar for his atmospheric black-and-white camerawork. Incidentally, Tierney and Webb were reunited in The Razor’s Edge (1946), for which Webb earned another Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination. Webb didn’t win, but co-star Anne Baxter snared a Best Supporting Actress Oscar, four years before her Best Actress Oscar nomination for All About Eve.  No nomination for Tierney, alas; she got her only Best Actress nomination earlier for the psychological thriller Leave Her to Heaven (1945).

"I coulda been a contendah!"
Laird Cregar, The Man Who Would be Lydecker

I must admit there’s only one thing about this otherwise perfect romantic suspense film that makes me think, “Oh, what could have been!” When Rouben Mamoulian was going to direct the film, he wanted Laird Cregar to play Waldo Lydecker! (I can hear my fellow Cregar fans sighing and squealing longingly even now!) Much as I adore Clifton Webb’s performance, I must admit Cregar would have been fabulous, too, with his silky voice and imposing bulk; the nattily-dressed fat man (yes, Waldo was indeed described as fat in the novel, unlike whippet-thin Webb in the movie) hiding his resentment and heartache under a veneer of venom-tipped quips. Alas, Zanuck ultimately decided that since Cregar was already best known as a smooth-talking yet physically imposing villain, casting him as Waldo might have tipped off the audience to his true evil too soon. Yeah, I see their point, but still….  In any case, Webb and Laura’s screenwriters re-teamed in 1946 for The Dark Corner, which had enough elements in common with Laura to be considered as sort of a Laura 2—and I mean that as a compliment!

By the way, Carly Simon does a gorgeous live rendition of David Raksin's Laura theme: