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Tag Archives: Drama

On the Waterfront (1954)

I watched On the Waterfront as a cinematic duty, fully expecting it not to be my cup of tea, partly having assumed that Marlon Brando was not my cup of tea. But On the Waterfront…I should have known, because usually there is a reason a film is celebrated. It it gripping, exciting drama, the kind of drama you want to lean in towards. But it was the ending in particular that impressed me, possessing an unexpected power that lingers after the film ends.

One the Waterfront was directed by Elia Kazan and written by Budd Schulberg, based on a real incident, about dockworkers who are led by union boss/crime boss Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb). He makes sure they get work and he gets a little extra in union dues. Anyone who does not play along does not get work. And anyone who rats on him gets killed.

When Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) unwittingly aids Johnny Friendly in killing Terry’s friend Joey, he begins to feel unsettled by Johnny’s methods. Joey’s sister, Edie (Eve Marie Saint), wants answers and wants Terry to help her find who killed Joey. The priest, Father Barry (Karl Malden), also wants Terry to help, but he wants all the workers to stand up against Friendly. Father Barry needs someone willing to go to the Crime Commission and testify…hopefully without getting killed. But everyone is too paralyzed with fear, too beaten down by life, and too locked in a mindset where the authorities are the enemy. One does not want to be a “cheese-eater,” a phrase repeated often throughout the story.

It’s partly a story of conflicted loyalty. Terry feels loyalty to his brother, Charley (Rod Steiger), who practically raised him, and to Friendly, who used to take him to ballgames and treats Terry well for the sake of his brother. But Terry also has a conscience bothering him and there seems no way to reconcile the two.

Marlon Brando and Eva Marie Saint

(Plot Spoilers Ahead) There is a marvelous scene when a member of the crime commission climbs to the roof where Terry keeps his pigeons. The man doesn’t directly challenge Terry or try to convince him to testify about Joey’s death. He simply and subtly manipulates Terry into admitting that Charley and Friendly used him while he was a boxer (having him take a dive), thus planting the seed that he really owes them no loyalty.

But what really convinces Terry to testify is when Friendly kills Charley. Friendly has begun to eat his own, so to speak, and now Terry’s motivation is more like revenge than anything else. He couldn’t quite do it for Edie’s sake, but he will do it for his own, since there is no longer that conflict of loyalty.

What really struck me, however, is that the climax of the film is not when Terry testifies. It comes afterwards. He testifies and suddenly his friends refuse to speak to him. All his friends, who resent Friendly, still turn their back on him and back up Friendly. It’s an amazing moment. Even Terry’s young friend turns his back on him, murdering all his pigeons. It’s actually shocking. That this child would feel so betrayed by Terry that he would murder the birds he’d cared for with Terry.

And that is when the entire dynamic of the film shifted for me. I spent a great deal of the film hating Friendly and wanting to see him brought to justice. But by the end of the film you realize that Friendly is not the problem. The problem is with the dockworkers. Even if Friendly had not existed, there would have been someone else.

In fact, it’s not even clear why, at the end, the dockworkers finally stand up against Friendly. Are they shamed by Terry – someone who is generally dismissed as a “bum” – or is it the sight of Friendly losing control of his temper to such an extant and thus revealing his vulnerability. Or is it the sight of Friendly and Terry fighting. Since Terry was always thought to be in the crowd with Friendly (because of being Charley’s brother), perhaps it is the visuals of watching them go at it (perhaps like a peasant watching a king fight with an aristocrat), thus revealing the weakness of the entire system.

On the Waterfront also won me over to Marlon Brando. I’ve always thought of him as a hyper-macho actor, but you can see why Edie falls for him. He may be a “bum” and not very bright, but he has a boyish charm and uncertainty, which sometimes manifests as a combination of aggressive shyness. He doesn’t know how to talk to Edie or express his feelings, but he doesn’t want anyone to see that, though Edie quickly catches on. I was also impressed with the hard-core and impassioned Father Barry, as played by Karl Malden. I grew up watching him in Pollyanna, the pastor under the thumb of Aunt Polly, and he’s loud and uncouth in The Hanging Tree, clearly possessing  quite an acting range.

 
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Posted by on May 3, 2017 in Movies

 

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The Seventh Veil (1945)

The Seventh Veil is an excellent British psychological melodrama with a dreadful ending. Not quite on par with the ending of Suspicion, but pretty bad nonetheless. Though The Seventh Veil is actually in the top ten highest grossing films of all time in Britain (adjusting for inflation), so perhaps I am in the minority. Or perhaps the ending is simply overlooked for the sake of a fascinating film, and it is a very fascinating film.

The film begins with psychologist Dr. Larsen (Herbert Lom) treating a concert pianist, Francesca (Ann Todd), who is suicidal and has a fixation about her hands, convinced that she can no longer play the piano.

Dr. Larsen’s contention is that psychology is like surgery, you must unclothe the mind in order to operate. He says the mind has seven veils – like the notorious “Dance of the Seven Veils” in the opera Salome (though I’ve read that some sopranos like to do the dance of the eight or nine veils, just so they can leave a veil or two on). Employing narcosis, he induces Francesca to tell him about her past, which the movie reveals in a series of flashbacks.

As an orphan of fourteen, Francesca was sent to live with her distant cousin Nicholas (James Mason), a brooding, wealthy, sophisticated and rather sinister woman-hater with a limp who has little use for a child in his house (but he likes cats!). However, when he discovers that she loves music and can play the piano, he sets out to transform her into a concert pianist, teaching her himself for hours a day. The film follows his oppressive hold over her and her many attempts to break free of his influence, all the while indeed becoming the great pianist that he dreamed she would be.

In some ways, it makes me think of Red Shoes. Francesca can’t live without her music any more than Vicky Page can live without ballet. And they both have a Svengali-like controlling influence hovering over them, who are necessary to their success.

James Mason as Nicholas is, of course, perfect. Nobody can brood better than Mason, or be suavely sinister and yet intense at the same time in the way he can. He absolutely dominates her life…almost living musically through her, like she’s possessed by him.

Ann Todd and James Mason

And Ann Todd’s cool reserve as an actress actually enhances this, because although we know she cannot live without the piano, she rarely seems to take much pleasure in it. Her oppressive fear of Nicholas and of injury to her hands (going back to a childhood caning that destroyed her chance of a music scholarship, later exacerbated by Nicholas’s constant focus on her hands) seems to sap all the transcendent joy of playing. She’s like a zombie at times.

The film is highly claustrophobic, echoing Francesca’s sense of being trapped in a small world of Nicholas and her music. And who knew a piano concert could be so tense? At her debut, where she plays Edvard Grieg’s piano concerto, her psychosomatic fear of her hands swelling makes one honestly wonder if she will make it through the concert.

Ann Todd also does an excellent job of “playing” the piano. Pianist Eileen Joyce taught Todd how to move her hands and arms and look convincing as a pianist and it is clear Todd must have worked very hard at it, though any close-ups of her hands at the piano were done by Joyce. But the film by no means shies away from showing Todd at the piano and the result is very convincing.

(Plot Spoilers) But that ending! The film has its share of a melodrama’s improbabilities (the psychological angle makes for great cinema, but is hardly realistic, and Ann Todd is not even remotely convincing as a fourteen year old child in the beginning), but I confess that it is the ending that irked me. Though there are two other men who Francesca loves at different times in the story, by the end she is rescued from her suicidal thoughts by Dr. Larsen and realizes that her true love is…Nicholas! Abusive, controlling Nicholas.

Ann Todd, Herbert Lom, and a nurse

It’s the inverse of Red Shoes. Instead of killing herself because she cannot have both love and her piano, she sidesteps that issue by centering both her love and music on Nicholas. But I have a hard time believing that she could love him. She spends the entire film clearly resenting and fearing his control, unless we are to mistrust her flashback memories (which would ironically give the lie to Dr. Larsen’s idea that he can strip away all the veils). It seems inconsistent, and Nicholas far too sinister, for it to be a satisfactory resolution to the story. It would be like Trilby marrying Svengali and the author expecting his readers to rejoice. Or perhaps we are supposed to be made uneasy by the end?

But apart from the ending, it is a compelling movie that is well worth watching, especially for those who like James Mason or British cinema. The film fits squarely in that time period when Hollywood was also obsessed with psychology. The Seventh Veil was even released before Alfred Hitchcock released Spellbound. It’s well-acted (Herbert Lom is also excellent as the kindly Svengali-like psychologist), very much of its time, and has great music. It is also currently available on youtube.

 
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Posted by on April 10, 2017 in Movies

 

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Les Miserables (1952)

It’s a testament to the inherent power of Victor Hugo’s story that even in a lesser film adaptation of Les Miserables, something of that power comes through. The 1952 adaption by 20th Century Fox is definitely a lesser adaptation, but there is something about that story of a convict hunted by the law and struggling to do right that never fails to uplift: redemption, mercy vs. the law, love, suffering, persecution, and revolution – good stuff.

The story occurs during the reign of Louis XVIII, who was restored to the throne after the overthrow of Napoleon, and Louis-Philippe. The convict and fugitive, Jean Valjean, is portrayed by Michael Rennie, fresh off his success as Klaatu in The Day The Earth Stood Still. His nemesis, Inspector Javert, is played by Robert Newton (who ineluctably made me think of a pirate). Sylvia Sidney appears as the doomed prostitute, Fantine, and her daughter, Cosette, is played by Debra Paget. Cameron Mitchell is Cosette’s love interest, Marius. The Thenadiers are entirely eliminated from the film, along with their daughter, Eponine. The good bishop who shows mercy to Valjean is Edmund Gwenn (of Kris Kringle fame).

Adapting Les Miserables is always a challenge, though it certainly hasn’t stopped anyone. There are numerous adaptations. Characters and subplots have to be cut. The key seems to be creating a thread that holds it all together and keeps the film from turning into episodic snapshots. For the musical, the central thread can best be summed up in the song “Do You Hear the People Sing” – “will you join in our crusade/who will be strong and stand with me/somewhere beyond the barricade/is there a world you want to see.

In the excellent 1935 film – starring Fredric March and Charles Laughton – all other characters fade and the film becomes a deeply felt conflict between the two men, who represent mercy and the law respectively. Their interactions crackle with tension and Charles Laughton in particular is compelling as Javert.

Valjean (Rennie) and Fantine (Sidney)

That central tension is missing in the ’52 adaptation and the film becomes somewhat episodic and aimless. There isn’t a central focus. Part of the problem is the script and the other part is the cast. Robert Newton is a marvelous Long John Silvers and a marvelous Bill Sykes, but as Javert, he lacks the kind of concentrated intensity and conviction to make one believe that he would kill himself because of an inability to reconcile mercy with justice. As my sister put it, it’s like he chases Valjean into the sewers because he’s personally affronted that a convict would show him pity.

Michael Rennie himself looks rather dashing, occasionally reminding me of Douglas Fairbanks Jr. in his voice and manner. He seems a bit young to be Jean Valjean. The years of suffering and conviction are missing. Which might explain why the last bit of the film turns into a kind of love triangle between him, Marius, and his ward, Cosette.

Debra Paget as Cosette by far gets the most to do of any Cosette I have ever seen. Cosette is usually overshadowed by Fantine, by Eponine. She often comes off more like a plot device, a motivation for nearly every character, rather than an actual character herself. However, in this version she is more integrated (somewhat at the expense of Javert). She knows the history of Valjean. She seems to have more freedom of movement, more agency (deciding whether to stay with Marius or go to England with Valjean). But the film plays around with the idea that Valjean loves Cosette and Marius certainly believes it, thinking Valjean is using Cosette’s gratitude to keep her near him. It’s an odd twist for the story to take, pushing it into soap opera territory.

On the whole, it is an underwhelming Les Miserables, but as I said, some of that inherent grandeur remains. It’s just such a great story. The confrontation between Javert and Valjean over the sickbed of Fantine. The chase in the sewer. The slaughter of the revolutionaries. The forgiveness and grace of the bishop towards Valjean. Javert’s suicide. Valjean confessing that he is the convict to a court about to condemn an innocent man. These are the moments that make it into every single adaptation and never lose their impact, though that impact varies. If you have to see only one Les Miserables, however, I would recommend the 1935 version with March and Laughton.

 
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Posted by on March 14, 2017 in Movies

 

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