Saturday, June 30, 2007


As someone who has not seen any Douglas Sirk film made before 1950 (i.e. pre-Universal), I was grateful for an occasion to see Lured (UA/), which has the extra bonus of being a Lucille Ball vehicle.

Often classified as a noir, Lured is more properly a thriller of the anglophile variety, closest in approach to the Sherlock Holmes stories/films. Sandra (Ball) is a ballroom dancer whose friend gets murdered by a serial killer snaring women through personals columns. She agrees to work with the police to lure the killer. There are elements of the gothic tossed in (Sandra falls for an untrustworthy dandy played by George Sanders), though properly speaking the film lacks both the syntax and the semantics of the true women’s gothic. Still, I will say it contains the most fantastic use of Baudelaire in a film this side of Club de Femmes.

The film’s style shares many of the tendencies of Sirk’s later melodramas, particularly in the reliance on deep focus. Staging in depth had become relatively common in the postwar years, but in Lured’s compositions, the depth of field seems artificially exaggerated.

This depth is often put to use in Sirk’s trademark tableau compositions, with doorways, mirrors, or other architecture serving as framing devices:

These suggest a self-consciousness about film narrative as theatrical artifice, and the dialogue makes some comment on Sandra’s role as actress. There is even a fun distanciating device tossed in, though its tone seems more Hitchcockian (playful) than Sirkian (shocking).

All told, these stylistic tropes do not cohere into a full aesthetic statement in the way they do in Sirk’s melodramas. In this period, Sirk seems most remarkable for a balanced synthesis of German and French cinematic traditions – one half expressionism, one half subtle camerawork and Balzackian use of architecture as commentary. Or perhaps it’s fair to say that the German tradition is more nuanced than is widely remembered.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Monsieur Verdoux

Over the course of this project, I'm likely to include 1947 films I've already seen to give a rounder sense of the year's output. Sad to say that Monsieur Verdoux is not on the "already seen" list, and this is not the only Chaplin film on my list of shame. It's easy to see why the film's flippant treatment of serial murder was a flop - the black comedy frankly seems ahead of its time and in any case is not a tone sustained through the film. My own assessment is that it's a film with often brilliant moments that fail to cohere into a brilliant whole.

Part of what weighs Verdoux down - yet makes it fascinating - is the yoking together of Chaplin's silent style with elements from whatever prestige style was prevalent in the mid 1940s. Thus, scenes can be staged in shockingly frontal, distant framing in long take (see right), while others use a repeated slight track in, a flourish that comes across as tic more than style.

I'm discovering, too, as I watch the studios' output from this year more closely that while violation of the 180-degree rule may have been rare in the classical years, it was more common than some might think:

And of course, I'm fascinated by the continual presence of the twin fashions of the postwar years: voiceover narration and documentary footage. The narration is perhaps closest in style to the Mankiewicz use (Letter to Three Wives): playful, literary, and readable as a voice. The documentary footage is more striking. The film is so farcical and ahistorical (it's hard to tell the film's setting in the French bourgeoisie of the 1920s from the 1880s) that the eruption of a typical Capraesque montage sequence into a newsreel procession of World War II seems disjunctive.

It's all tied to the ultimate thematics of the film (business=crime) that don't have the crime film conventions to justify their harsh vision of capitalism (and the military-industrial complex). It's the flip side of the argument that the crime films (say, Force of Evil could carry leftish content that more serious dramas could not; if the content could not be told in other genres without extreme resistance, to what extent did it get across in any?

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Good News

I’m not a connoisseur of musicals, but I’d say that Good News (MGM, Charles Walters) is a good example of a lesser-known (i.e. non-canonical) Freed unit musical. High-key, impeccable Technicolor production values, and complex mise-en-scene are matched to a frumpy-girl-gets-the-football-hero romance. (June Allyson as the frumpy girl, Peter Lawford as the football hero). I'm not sure much decoding is needed to figure out that Good News is about the chanelling of men's libido into socially acceptable women, but this strikes me as a subtext that plenty of contemporary viewers might only half get. (Changed courtship rituals undoubtedly undercut support for the musical as genre.)

I’d always known that the musical privileges long takes, following camerawork, and long shots to allow the virtuosity of the dancers’ bodies to show through. What’s striking about Good News is the maintenance of the longtake even when the actors are not dancing a virtuoso performance. Here's this one-minute take in the library scene:

The result is a pursuit of long take aesthetic as a formal device for its own sake. Incidentally, this musical number ends on a violation of the 180 degree rule (with a slight continuity error in actor proximity, no less). Granted this rule might be looser in transitioning between setups, but it’s jarring nonetheless to viewers used to classical Hollywood practice:

More conventional is this frontal composition, wherein the actress avoids direct address to camera.

Throughout, the set design and costuming is vibrant, even leading to abstract patterns.

By the way, I tend to resist teaching musicals in a general film studies intro class, worried that camp spectatorship (at best) or historical chauvinism (at worst) will drown out everything else. Is that fear justified?

The Senator Was Indiscreet

The current penchant for 2 hour 50 minute running times makes me appreciate the taut construction of a 75 minute feature even more. It’s hard to imagine The Senator Was Indiscreet (Nunnally Johnson/Universal, George Kaufman) as a B film, since its star power (William Powell as the senator of the title), its Park Avenue milieu, and its “witty” comedy script suggest first run aspirations. My offhand guess (evidence-free) is that as a Universal film, Senator could fill either slot on a double bill depending on venue.

The film is a political satire. The senator is a na├»ve, absent-minded old man who in Fred Thompson fashion is entertaining a presidential run without actually announcing one. Things get complicated when he loses his personal diary. Ray Collins’ turn as a political boss worried about the diary’s content is particularly engaging. I continue to find remarkable the distinctive political culture of the 1940s, which does find some expression in the topical films. Whereas today the implosion of the public sphere itself is the problem (when one makes a political satire today, it ends up being about television and the impossibility of true politics in a televisual world), in the 1940s film the press was simply one agent working antagonistically against a political machine that wanted to manipulate the public sphere.

The opening shots incidentally contain what appears to be the visual cliche of the postwar years: the extreme long shot of the Midtown Manhattan skyline.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

The Unconquered

Wow. Having made a specialty of sorts in Twentieth-Century Fox’s postwar films, I’ve gotten use to the promiscuous application of documentary across genres after 1945. But nothing quite prepares for the shock of a Cecil B. DeMille color epic from Paramount that begins with an aerial shot of postwar Pittsburgh and a voice-of-God narrator:
At the forks of the Ohio stands an American city, a colossus of steel, whose mills and furnaces bring forth bone and sinew for a nation.

The film soon discards the documentary, and the present day, and dissolves into a “period” shot of Fort Pitt, backdrop of the French-Indian War (at least that’s what the American textbooks call it).

Actually, The Unconquered is a Western in narrative but a historical film in iconography. Gary Cooper plays another the outsider hero, ruggedly individualist in his morality but committed to the Westward settlement of the English-speaking colonists. Watching so many studio-era films, I sometimes get inured to – accepting of, almost – Hollywood’s marginalization and poor treatment of nonwhite characters, but to me the virulent racism of this film was jaw-dropping. The dialogue shows little, if any, irony in calling native American tribes “savages” (the casting of Boris Karloff as Pontiac chief speaks volumes); the narrative turns on the treachery of allowing the tribes to defend their territory against white settlement. Furthermore, the strangeness of suppliant black slaves in a narrative claiming the unjustness of (white) slavery is glaring.

The thematic use of slavery as a metaphor for women’s relation to marriage and romantic love begs analysis. Paulette Goddard gives a turn as an Englishwoman (with a Long Island accent) wrongly accused and imprisoned to indentured servitude. Her character is a perfect illustration of Mulvey’s formulation of the star as “glamorous impersonating the ordinary” - in this case in turn impersonating the glamorous, when she puts on the designer dress and attends the king’s birthday ball as a London lady.

The Unconquered lacks much of the grand sweep one expects of a de Mille film. To be sure, the Technicolor is crisp (unlike Captain from Castile) and the narrative sweep “epic.” But the early colonial setting prevent the mobilization of architectural mise-en-scene and the grand cinematic gestures of the spectacle historical epic. The de Mille touch comes out best in the execution scene played out as “primitive” sacrifice ritual. The glee the film takes in Goddard’s torture is barely disguised (the historical savages stand in for and allow the contemporary spectator’s sadism), and the scene allows for a richer exploration of color and light than elsewhere in the film.

One other small thing. Wipes don’t look nearly so crisp or effective in Technicolor as they do in black and white.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

The Late George Apley

The Late George Apley (Fox, Joseph Mankiewicz) is the kind of overlooked gem I was hoping to find when embarking on my 1947 viewing. Not that Mankiewicz is an unknown director or that the film was not one of Fox’s more prestige offerings. George Apley, though, has lingered in relative obscurity, without a DVD release. And the advertisement and opening of the film made me fear another sentimental historical drama.

Quickly, it’s apparent that this period tale of a Boston Brahmin family is actually a loving but biting satire of the bluebloods. Maybe it was my years in Boston, but I relished it from start to finish. In any event, the satire gives the film a chance to take the class-sexuality nexus that seems the stock and trade of classic Hollywood melodrama and give them geographic and historical specificity as a moment in the transition to modernity. George Apley (Ronald Colman) is a Brahmin whose children’s love interests threaten to spoil the social arrangement goal of marriage.

The auteurists tend to hate Mankiewicz as symbol of a “sophisticated” director whose cinematic style fails to coalesce into anything significant. I find his fluid camerawork and blocking quite pleasing to watch, and George Apley strikes me as every bit assured and “cinematic” as, say Curtiz’s Life With Father. Take, for instance, this anticipatory track in to create off-screen space in an unexpected manner.

I have just finished an essay (to be part of the social problem film book) on the industrial and social shift in the prestige film from the 30s to the 50s. One project I would pursue further is a closer examination of the 40s prestige style. Once we step away from the evaluative questions that the auteurists have bequeathed us (Is this what cinema should be? How is genre cinema better than ‘serious’ cinema?) we may find a lot to look at. Mankiewicz interests me as a marker in a new kind of narrational voice in commercial cinema. Maybe it was not brand new, but something is different about these postwar prestige styles. Instead of chafing at the subservience of the cinematic to the literary, maybe we can read the “literariness” of prestige cinema in its positivity, for what new it brings to cinematic expression and for the new social functions it implies for a mass art.