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Intermezzo (1939)

Intermezzo_Poster_-_ArgentinaAn intermezzo is “a short part of a musical work (such as an opera) that connects major sections of the work,” or more simply “a usually brief interlude or diversion” (these definitions come courtesy of the Meriam-Webster Dictionary). When pianists Thomas Stenborg (John Halliday) comes across his student, (Ingrid Bergman) playing an intermezzo with all the enthusiasm of “a climax,” he reminds her that she is giving the intermezzo of the piece too much importance. It’s a metaphor for her relationship with the married violinist Holger Brandt (Leslie Howard).

Intermezzo is an American remake of the 1936 Swedish film, which David O. Selznick liked so much that he bought the rights to the story…and coincidentally signed the leading lady of the film to a contract. And thus Ingrid Bergman came to American.

The plot is not really a plot, but more of a situation. Violinist Holger Brandt goes on long concert tours that keep him away from his family for months at a time and when he returns to his home in Sweden, his wife and his two children, he seems to be feeling a bit dissatisfied. He wants to run off with his wife and tour the world for a year.

But he soon meets his daughter’s piano teacher, Anita Hoffman (Ingrid Bergman), a student applying for a musical scholarship in Paris. She is young and has admired the great musician Holger for many years and before they know it, they fall in love. She feels a bit guilty, but Holger persuades her to go away with him and take that tour his wife would not take.

I have to admit that I like Leslie Howard much better in comedies or playing a character who is supposed to be a bit of a ham (like Professor Higgins in Pygmalion, or in The Scarlet Pimpernel or It’s Love I’m After). As Holger, he’s too mopey and indecisive. Characters are remarkably patient and forgiving considering his dithering and selfishness. What it seems to come down to is that he wants to feel young again, be free of responsibility. One can’t help but feel that he uses Anita because his wife wouldn’t take that year-long tour. Uses her to feel young again. Like he talked himself into feeling that he was deeply in love so he could justify his actions. If it’s true love, then he must be in the right…right? He’s a male Anna Karenina. Like Anna from the novel, he wins his point and goes off with the person he loves to Europe and travels and pretends to be sublimely happy and all the while is missing his family.

Intermezzo-2What holds the film together is Ingrid Bergman, who enters the film like a burst of warmth and sunshine that thaws out the film instantly. Last week I watched Notorious again and seeing Intermezzo not long after made for an interesting contrast. There are not many actresses who can convincingly portray innocence AND worldliness….not equally convincingly. Usually, one doesn’t quite buy one or the other. I think it’s the innocence that we believe least often.

I came across a quote recently by Lillian Gish in reference to her many roles with D.W. Griffith: “Virgins are the hardest roles to play, those dear little girls.To make them interesting takes great vitality.”

Lillian Gish possessed remarkable vitality. And although Ingrid Bergman is not quite as forceful as Gish, she too possessed the vitality necessary to play convincing and compelling innocent characters.

As Anita, she is warm, more girlish, innocent, without being naive or childish, and practically glows (the gorgeous cinematography was done by Gregg Toland). The plot never does much, but she graces it perfectly and she was the only character who commands sympathy and emotional investment.

She’s also the conscience of the film. Supposedly, Holger is suffering because of the deception of their affair, but he looks more annoyed at the inconvenience. It is Anita who is truly, deeply disturbed. And she’s fallen in love more deeply than Holger. However, one can’t help but be glad when she finally decides it is better to leave Holger and go on with her career. He’s not worth it and seems to be a rather needy person who would consume her life, though she does’t think of it in that way.

ingrid-intermezzo1939-1Intermezzo might best be called a romantic melodrama. The story never feels very urgent, it tends to drift along somewhat dreamlike, the dreamlike-quality perhaps owing to Gregg Toland. It really is a gorgeous film. Holger and Anita once tease about Anita being a phantom and in one scene Holger is looking up at Anita, who is standing at a second-story window and in the shadows she seems to be disappearing like a ghost. The use of shadows and light is breathtaking. As is Ingrid Bergman.

This post is part of The 2nd Wonderful Ingrid Bergman Blogathon, hosted by The Wonderful World of Cinema. Be sure to read all the other excellent posts about Ingrid Bergman, here!poster-3

 
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Posted by on August 29, 2016 in Movies

 

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Pitfall (1948) and Raymond Burr

Poster - Pitfall (1948)_09Two words to describe Raymond Burr in Pitfall are menace and ooze. He oozes menace, but he also just oozes. You almost shudder whenever you see him. When Lizabeth Scott’s Mona tells Dick Powell’s Johnny that she’s “seen some weird ones in [her] time, but that one frightened [her] half to death,” I believe her.

I grew up thinking of Raymond Burr as the upstanding Perry Mason, so I was mildly surprised to discover that before his career defining TV show, he often played villains in film noir. And not just villains, but nasty villains. Creepy, brutal, hulking, psycho villains. His MacDonald in Andre De Toth’s Pitfall is one of his nastiest.

Pitfall is something of a downer, even for film noirs. Johnny Forbes (Dick Powell) is an insurance agent who must reclaim for the insurance company all the items that a man named Smiley (Byron Barr) bought for his girlfriend using stolen money. Johnny is bored with his life, his wife (Jane Wyatt), but mostly it seems with himself. When he meets Mona Stevens (Lizabeth Scott), the girlfriend of Smiley, she snaps him out of his funk by demanding he not just be an insurance automaton, but a human being with sympathy. They embark on a brief affair, until she discovers that he’s married. She’s deeply hurt, but is too nice a person to make a stink about it and all seems to be over.

Except there’s MacDonald (Burr). He’s a private detective who was hired by Johnny’s company to find out what Smiley did with the stolen money and he’s decided that he’s in love. Mona is not interested, but MacDonald is not put off. He stalks her and when she threatens to go to the police, he threatens to tell Johnny’s wife about the affair. Once again, Mona is simply too nice a person to want to ruin Johnny and asks Johnny what she should do. But instead of telling Mona to go to the police, he says he’ll take care of it. He’s too scared to tell his wife or own up to his own actions, even though his wife knows something is wrong. His continued refusal to admit what he’s done causes Mona’s life, as well as his own, to spiral out of control.

Amazingly, everyone’s gut instinct seems to be to cover up. Johnny tells a friend of his what he’s done and his friend advises Johnny not to tell his wife (never mind that keeping Johnny’s secret is giving MacDonald leverage over Mona). Even Johnny’s wife’s initial reaction when she finally finds out what is going on is to demand Johnny not tell the police. In a telling scene where Johnny’s son has a nightmare, Johnny thinks it’s caused by the comic books he reads and tells him the secret to not having bad dreams is to essentially only look at nice things (ignoring the fact that his son is probably picking up on the unspoken tension in the house).

this scene never actually occurs in the film

this scene never actually occurs in the film

But MacDonald is a menace that cannot be ignored, covered up or dealt with by oneself. Johnny tries to play the tough guy and frighten MacDonald away, but MacDonald is not really deterred by that. He’s not deterred by anything. He honestly doesn’t seem to appreciate how repulsive he is to others, especially Mona. He really believes that if he can get rid of the men in Mona’s life then she would go away with him (as Princess Leia said, “I don’t know where you get your delusions, laser brain”). He’s a cunning man at exploiting people’s weaknesses, but in many ways he’s completely obtuse.

Of course, if everyone had simply gone to the police, the film would have been over halfway through and a lot of heartache, violence and betrayal could have been avoided. Dick Powell is possibly at his least sympathetic in this film, with his tendency to feel sorry for himself and his inability to deal with things squarely (like telling Mona he’s married, telling his wife what is going on – as his wife tells him, “either it’s a marriage or it isn’t” – and the way he tries to save his own skin and leaves Mona with few options in dealing with MacDonald). He covers one lie with another and betrays so many people, there’s no way he can ease his conscience by the end. He’s just going to have to live with himself. It’s an excellent performance.

I really like Lizabeth Scott in Pitfall, too. She’s often compared with Lauren Bacall, but in this film she is warmer, more vulnerable, and looks like a person who has been kicked around a lot by life and other men. But she’s also a thoroughly nice, sympathetic person and she ends up being the real victim of the film.

In the case of Raymond Burr, it’s hard to imagine anyone playing the role better, being sleazier, slimier, more sure of himself. When he visits Mona’s workplace where she models gowns and makes her model several for him, your skin crawls. There is no ambiguity about his character – he is pure evil. Ironically, he used to work with the police force and likes to position himself as being “in” with the police, but at the same time a simple call to the police probably would have solved everything. Is he meant to be symbolic? The dark side of the system (government, authority)? Moral rot? A presence that boredom, fear and insecurity allows to assert itself? Whatever he is, Raymond Burr makes him one of the creepiest villains in film noir.

This post is part of “The Great Villain Blogathon.” My thanks to Speakeasy, Shadows and Satin and Silver Screenings for hosting! Be sure to check out all the other villainous posts, here.

villain-2016-anderson

 
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Posted by on May 18, 2016 in Movies

 

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Seeing Double Indemnity on the Big Screen

dipst-lgOn Sunday, TCM presented Double Indemnity across the country at select theaters and I promised myself that come rain or shine, sickness or in health, I would be there. And so I was. It was the first time I had seen any classic film on anything other than my puny and unimpressive TV and the experience was exhilarating, even more so because Double Indemnity is one of those films I never grow tired of watching.

I’d like to say that seeing it on the big screen was a revelation, but since I already knew it so well, the affect was less revelatory than it was heightened. The sound was much improved, naturally, so the moment when the gun goes off and Phyllis shoots Walter had more impact, less a pop gun and an actual murder attempt that takes him unawares and even startled me a little. And apart from my initial viewing, the moment when they are in the car and about to make their getaway and Phyllis can’t start the car did not make me feel truly tense, despite my enjoyment and appreciation. But this time, I could feel the tension, palpably.

The theater was not even half full (which seems a pity for such a great film), but it was interesting to watch with a crowd of people and their reactions. I went with six other people, some of whom do not usually watch classic films and it is curious how the knowledge that other people are seeing it for the first time changes how I view it. I always knew that Double Indemnity contains dialogue that no one ever would speak, but this time I really noticed it. It didn’t bother me – I think it’s brilliant – but it did become apparent to me how stylized it is. It’s dialogue that fits together like a mechanical watch, so closely fitted that to remove anything might unwind the whole, each line inevitably leading to the next. There is no casual conversation going on in Double Indemnity.

MV5BMTgxMTI4MDc5Nl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTYwMTUxNjQ2._V1_SX640_SY720_I was once again struck with how brilliant Edward G. Robinson is. Almost every time someone laughed in the theater, it was in response to one of his lines. His energy partly is what propels this film.

I am delighted to say that everyone I went with enjoyed it. But in talking to people, I discovered that I have difficulty expressing why I love this movie so much. Talking about the plot or saying I like the dialogue or actors doesn’t seem to really capture it.

I once read someone describe watching Double Indemnity as listening to a Mozart symphony. That seems to best epitomize why I love the film. It is one of those perfectly plotted films, each scene leading inevitably and smoothly into the next, informing the next scene. I can revisit it the same way I keep listening to my favorite pieces of music. There is so much going on in every scene, characters playing on multiple levels of communication between each other and to the audience.

For example: Walter has just told Phyllis that he is going to kill her husband; he is going to plan everything and do it right without any weakness or sloppiness. He thinks he’s in control, calming an apparently hysterical woman who says she can’t stand living with her husband anymore, doing a good impression of someone who might run out into the night and reckless bump off her husband, come what may. But after Walter tells her what he is going to do, she stands up and there is a look of such supreme satisfaction on her face that you know she has just gotten what she wanted. Barbara Stanwyck is playing two parts, the part Phyllis is playing for Walter’s benefit and the part of Phyllis, the cold-blooded killer.

imagesAnother example: Walter is in Keye’s office and Keyes is telling him how he has figured out the murder was committed. Once again, he is acting on two levels. There is the part he is playing for Keyes, the friend and confident, and the part of the murderer, who knows the man Keyes is hunting for is him. It’s brilliant stuff and most of the scenes are like that.

When Lola goes to Walter to tell him that she suspects that Phyllis killed her father, now Walter has to react on three levels. He is talking to Lola and trying to calm her down, he is afraid that through her the entire plan could bust in his face and he is hearing from Lola a new and decidedly disturbing side to Phyllis’ character that he had not previously comprehended.

I also love watching the characters move and act and speak. The way Phyllis throws away her cigarette and reaches for her gun, expressive of so much control, contempt and determination. The scene where Keyes cites statistics and pretty much shows up his boss as a fool, the charged expressions Phyllis and Walter give each other during that scene, the endless lighting of cigarettes on Walter’s thumb nail and offering it to Keyes, the way Phyllis pointedly drops a piece of lemon into Walter’s tea and says “Fresh.”

Another great scene is when Keyes goes into his spiel about why Walter should become a claims manager, describing it as a combination of surgery, religion, detection, psychology, human drama and even the judicial system. His eloquence and passion flow on, pausing only to answer the phone, and then continues without skipping a beat. But what also makes the scene great is that he is describing his job as a calling, something he believes in, bolstered by his own moral sense. Walter is not interested because of the cut in salary – he does not view his work as a calling – and Keyes’ passion is contrasted with the phone call from Phyllis, who is telling Walter that her husband is taking the train after all, so they can go ahead with their plan to murder him.

double-indemnity-3To me this is the key scene of the film, where Walter could have chosen to back out and gone Keyes’ way, but does not. In fact, he never seriously considers it, but the chance is there.

Finally, what I love about this is film is that despite all the cynicism, violence, manipulation, weakness, and lust there is still warmth to be found in the film, especially between Walter and Keyes. Walter is capable of nobler feelings, for Lola and his friendship with Keyes, and it is these emotions that make you care what happens to the characters and make the ending all the more tragic.

 
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Posted by on July 20, 2015 in Movies

 

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