Thursday, October 8, 2015

1943 - For Whom the Bell Tolls

It's been over six years now since I began this insane project that I initially thought would last about a year and a half. I suppose, though, if I drag this out long enough, there's at least a tiny chance that I'll make it into the cast of a future Best Picture nominee which, aside from the cool meta nature of having to review a film I'm in, would just be all kinds of awesome.

And in fact, one such opportunity may have already presented itself. Last week, I spent a morning shooting a scene opposite Annette Bening (who was absolutely lovely, I might add) for 20th Century Women, a film directed by Mike Mills. While none of his films have been nominated for the big prize just yet, you may remember that it was his Beginners for which Christopher Plummer won a well-deserved and long-awaited Oscar a few years ago. And Annette Bening is certainly Oscar bait, so it's certainly within the realms of possibility that Mills' latest film could find itself on the Best Picture shortlist. At the very least, Bening herself may be in contention for an award. Of course, judging her performance is difficult since I only have one scene to go on, and it's obviously way too early to speculate - in fact, this film may not be released until next year, making it eligible for the awards season after next, which would mean it's way, way too early to speculate - but this is Annette Bening we're talking about so you can never rule her out.

Anyway, here are my thoughts on 1943's next Best Picture contender...

For Whom the Bell Tolls
Sam Wood
Dudley Nichols
(based on the novel by Ernest Hemingway)
Gary Cooper, Ingrid Bergman, Akim Tamiroff, Arturo de Cordova, Vladimir Sokoloff, Mikhail Rasumny, Fortunio Bonanova, Eric Feldary, Victor Varconi, Katina Paxinou, Joseph Calleia

Academy Awards:
9 nominations
1 win, for Best Supporting Actress (Paxinou)

Based on the celebrated novel by Ernest Hemingway (as all the promotional material points out), For Whom the Bell Tolls tells the story of Robert Jordan (Cooper), an American soldier fighting with the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War. He is tasked with assisting a strategic assault against the Nationalists by blowing up a bridge at the precise moment of a planned air raid, and he is given three days to prepare. His local guide is Anselmo (Sokoloff) who introduces Robert to a gang of freedom fighters and Gypsies hiding out in a mountain cave. Robert enlists the help of the disparate gang, including its leader, Pablo (Tamiroff), an unpredictable drunk, and Pablo's wife, Pilar (Paxinou), a strong woman who is essentially in charge due to her husband's weakness. Robert also finds friendship and, later, romance with Maria (Bergman), a young Gypsy refugee with a horrifically sad story.

As has been discussed numerous times on this blog, films adapted from novels often suffer from a rushed feeling that is almost inherent when cramming a full-length book into two hours of screen time. Not so, however, in the case of For Whom the Bell Tolls, likely due to the source material being clear and straightforward in its own right (although, full disclosure, I've never actually read it). The tension in this story is in fact heightened by the fact that it takes its time. There is a single clear mission for the protagonist and, even if some of the details are a little murky, nothing ever feels hurried. Well, nothing except perhaps the speed with which Robert and Maria fall in love. But whirlwind romances and loves-at-first-sight are pretty much the norm for this age of Hollywood, so that hardly counts.

None of that is to say that the film lacks complexity. On the contrary. There is still plenty of nuance in For Whom the Bell Tolls, most of it found in the compelling characters. It's not always clear cut which of these people are the heroes. For instance, El Sordo clearly sides with the protagonists but the perverse pleasure he takes in his enemy's demise, laughing sadistically at their violent deaths, makes it difficult to get behind him as a hero. Conversely, Pablo commits some atrociously dickish acts, displaying a complete lack of consideration for others, yet he later experiences several crises of conscience, which elicits from us at least a tiny amount of sympathy.

As for the cast, it's a surprising display of diversity. Despite the fact that most of the characters are Spanish, the actors hail from Sweden, Greece, Hungary, Malta, Mexico and several from Russia. The only actual Spaniard is Fortunio Bonanova. Regardless of nationality, there are some truly powerful performances. Akim Tamiroff (pictured) is nothing short of superb as the emotionally erratic and conflicted Pablo. Playing his wife, Katina Paxinou also shines. Both were nominated in the supporting categories, but only Paxinou won. Then there's Ingrid Bergman, who is simply wonderful and often heartbreaking as the sweet Maria, earning herself a Best Actress nomination. In my previous post, while discussing Watch on the Rhine, I pointed out how I could never understand why Bogart didn't win Best Actor for Casablanca this year ... until I actually saw Paul Lukas' performance. In similar fashion, I always had trouble figuring out why Bergman wasn't even nominated for Casablanca. But now I understand. While her Ilsa Lund is still one of my favourite portrayals (and we'll get to that film shortly), her performance here in For Whom the Bell Tolls is genuinely captivating, so I can finally accept the omission. Of course, if the Academy just allowed a single actor to be nominated twice in the same category, then there probably wouldn't have been an issue in the first place, but rules are rules, I guess.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

1943 - Watch on the Rhine

With baby number two due in about a month and a half, I'm trying to cram in as many movies as I can before spare time becomes even more scarce. So let's get straight to it.

Here's a look at another 1943 film shortlisted for Best Picture...

Watch on the Rhine
Herman Shumlin
Dashiell Hammett
(based on the play by Lillian Hellman)
Bette Davis, Paul Lukas, Geraldine Fitzgerald, Lucile Watson, Beulah Bondi, George Coulouris, Donald Woods
Academy Awards:
4 nominations
1 win, for Best Actor (Lukas)

It seems somehow appropriate to follow up The Ox-Bow Incident with this picture. Both are confronting tales that deal with serious moral issues, albeit Watch on the Rhine leans more towards the political. Anti-Fascist activist Kurt Muller (Lukas) and his American wife Sara (Davis), arrive in Washington, D.C. with their three children after leaving a devolving Europe behind. They stay in Sara's wealthy family home with her mother (Watson) and brother (Woods), who Sara hasn't seen since she left America 17 years ago. Their arrival is complicated, however, by another house guest, Teck de Brancovis (Coulouris), a slimy Nazi sympathiser who threatens to expose Kurt to his German Embassy friends.

Watch on the Rhine is another in a long list of stage play adaptations that inherently suffers from its source material's wordiness. It's slow-moving, particularly at the beginning as the plentiful characters are introduced (many of whom turn out not to be all that important to the story, anyway). And with very little action, most of the major plot points are revealed merely through shocking announcements. In spite of all that, the picture remains intensely captivating, no doubt due to its grave central issue. Consequently, in what might seem contradictory to the film's slow pace, I hardly noticed its two hours go by.

This happens to be the first time I've seen this film and it had been on my watch list for a very long time, mostly because I've always wanted to see the performance of the guy who stole Bogart's Oscar. Starting with that bias, it's easy to write off Paul Lukas (pictured) as merely adequate. After all, his character is relatively calm and not overly emotional, requiring little nuance from the actor. Ironically, however, this composure only serves to accentuate the powerful intensity that Lukas reveals in the last few scenes of the film. Consider me a convert. I'll always love Bogie's Rick, but I'm humbled to admit that Lukas' performance is also award-worthy.

As the wonderfully pompous woman of means, Lucile Watson received the film's other acting nomination, and deservedly so. She delivers her catty lines effortlessly, but later is afforded the opportunity to show a soft interior, providing a well-rounded characterisation that is a pure joy to watch. Bette Davis, too, turns in a terrific performance in what is essentially an underwritten supportive wife role (despite her top billing). I guess her peers agreed since her performance also went unrecognised by the Academy.

Friday, September 11, 2015

1943 - The Ox-Bow Incident

Well, look at me. I'm posting again only a couple of weeks after the last one. The only explanation I can come up with is that this awards year is not full to the brim with three-hour epics (I'm looking at you, 1956) so it's been a tad easier to find time to watch them. The majority of 1943's contenders are under two hours, and in fact, the following review is for the shortest of the bunch, clocking in at only 75 minutes!

Here now is our next 1943 Best Picture hopeful...

The Ox-Bow Incident
William A. Wellman
Lamar Trotti
(based on the novel by Walter Van Tilburg Clark)
Henry Fonda, Dana Andrews, Mary Beth Hughes, Anthony Quinn, William Eythe, Harry Morgan, Jane Darwell, Matt Briggs, Harry Davenport, Frank Conroy, Marc Lawrence
Academy Awards:
1 nomination
0 wins

I usually like to avoid spoilers in my discussions of these films, but The Ox-Bow Incident is one of those pictures that is extremely difficult to talk about without referencing the climax, so consider yourself warned: spoiler alert!

It's the late nineteenth century and Gil (Fonda) and Art (Morgan) travel into the sleepy town of Bridger's Wells, Nevada. Almost immediately, they get caught up in a local controversy as a young man frantically enters the saloon with news of Larry Kinkaid's murder by some cattle thieves. With nothing else to go on, several townsmen gather to form a posse, intent on finding the culprits and literally stringing them up, lest the law take their time and allow them to slip away, or worse, be given a fair trial. Old man Davies (Davenport) attempts to dissuade the impulsive men - and one woman (Darwell) - from taking the law into their own hands. After unsuccessfully pleading with them to at least wait for the sheriff to return from the Kinkaid ranch, the mob sets off to find their prey. Davies, along with a few other dissenters and the two out-of-towners, tag along in the hopes of talking some sense into the men bent on revenge.

After happening upon three men, including Donald Martin (Andrews), the posse ties them up, preparing to lynch them. With a few pointed questions, the stoic leader of the posse, Major Tetley (Conroy), uncovers some circumstantial evidence that appears to link these men to the murder of Kinkaid, despite their pleas of innocence. Not wanting to seem unreasonable, Tetley agrees to abide by majority rule. Only seven men oppose the hanging, so at dawn, the deed is done. As the satisfied mob heads back to town, they run into the sheriff coming the other way, who reveals the unfortunate truth that Kinkaid is not even dead and the real cattle rustlers have already been apprehended. Oops.

The wordy opening scenes move pretty fast so you've got to pay attention from the outset. And in fact, at only 75 minutes, the entire tale is told from start to finish without wasting a lot of time. It's certainly well-paced and the story is intensely driven and captivating with its singular burning question - will the posse really go through with lynching these probably innocent men? It's edge-of-your-seat stuff right up to the powerful climax.

The film boasts a great array of colourful characters, including a bunch of engaging villainous archetypes. There's the calm and obstinate military man, the crazy laughing goon, the smug vindictive lawman misusing his authority, and plenty of other meanies, too. Facing off against them are the ineffective good guys - the old and wise voice of reason, the mild-mannered man of the cloth, and the son rebelling against his father's peremptory ways.

It's common to feel minor frustration at unreasonable movie characters. I mean, who hasn't yelled at the screen during a horror film when the protagonist decides to investigate a strange noise. On her own. In the dark. In this picture, however, the behaviour of the impulsively unreasonable mob positively makes your blood boil. The main members of the posse are, quite simply, pig-headed hypocrites who believe what they want and are unconcerned with serious fact-checking. This is all the more infuriating with the knowledge that people like this do, in fact, exist ... and in great numbers. And this aggravation arises regardless of how the story concludes. Even if it turned out that the three men did indeed commit the crime, I'd still be incensed by the posse's attitude. You see, it's not about whether what you believe happens to be true. It's about whether it's reasonable to believe what you believe. And even if these guys killed Kinkaid, there wasn't enough justification for the posse to be sure of that. Certainly not so sure that they were comfortable lynching them for it. (Whew. Movies sure have the power to make you feel things...)

It's also worth pointing out the effective final scene in which Gil reads aloud a letter that Martin wrote for his wife once he accepted his inevitable death at the hands of the posse. It's a heart-breaking sequence but the reason I bring it up is the uniquely interesting framing while Gil reads the letter (pictured above). His eyes are covered by the brim of Art's hat, which I'm sure must be a metaphor for something but I can't figure out what exactly. Either way, it's a beautiful shot and very powerful.

Speaking of powerful, Henry Fonda is insanely watchable in a mostly subdued performance. Effective as his sidekick is Harry Morgan (later of M*A*S*H fame) who is inexplicably credited as Henry Morgan. Dana Andrews is compelling as the sympathetic victim. And in fact, the entire ensemble is impressive, each bringing their unique characters to life with intensity. Look out for the Wicked Witch of the West, Margaret Hamilton, as a housekeeper near the beginning.

Despite its powerful screenplay, imaginative direction and persuasive performances, the film was surprisingly only nominated for Best Picture and that's it.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

1943 - Heaven Can Wait

Yes, I know. It's been ages since my last post ... again. So what's new? In that time, my episode of Maron has aired, I got cast in an Annette Bening movie, and Kat, Charlie and I spent three weeks in Australia, catching up with friends and family. Oh, and we have a new baby due in a couple of months! Which will likely destroy any chance of this project's pace speeding up.

But enough of life. Let's get back to the movies. Here's the next of 1943's contenders for Best Picture...

Heaven Can Wait
Ernst Lubitsch
Samson Raphaelson
(based on the play "Birthday" by Leslie Bush-Fekete)
Gene Tierney, Don Ameche, Charles Coburn, Marjorie Main, Laird Cregar, Spring Byington, Allyn Joslyn, Eugene Pallette
Academy Awards:
3 nominations
0 wins

Upon his death, Henry Van Cleve (Ameche) decides to skip the Pearly Gates and head downstairs first, convinced that Hell is where he belongs. The Devil (Cregar), who seems surprisingly amiable, is skeptical of Henry's claims of leading a terrible life and so Henry begins to tell his life's story. He relates tales from every decade or so, covering his precocious childhood and his early womanizing through to his rocky relationship with Martha (Tierney) and his twilight years.

The opening scene of Heaven Can Wait is charming in a silly sort of way - a recently deceased man engages in civil conversation with the Devil - which erroneously sets up the film to have a slightly twisted view of reality. I say 'erroneously' because, while what follows is quirky with plenty of comic relief, there is no more offbeat supernatural humour until the conclusion. The scenes in Hell are merely bookends to what is essentially a sincere, albeit witty, story of one man's life.

The first couple of sequences feel a little light on substance. Still funny, but light and fluffy. Sort of a 1940s version of one of Tom Hanks' early comedies. But once Henry and Martha meet, things become a bit more compelling, even though much of the action is not particularly believable. Then again, it's a rom-com, so I suppose you just have to accept that people fall in love at first sight and elope at the drop of a hat. (You also have to set aside the latent misogyny in a storyline that is essentially a man badgering a woman until she agrees she's in love with him. Sign of the times, I guess.)

Long and wordy scenes fill up the film's almost two hours, reminding us that it was based on a play. However, the banter is delightful so it's enjoyable to watch. And for a film that attempts to cram an entire lifespan into one story, Heaven Can Wait feels very appropriately paced. It's so easy for films of this nature to rush through certain ages, but here, it's not too fast and it's not too slow. We spend a decent amount of time in each age bracket witnessing certain milestones before skipping ten years to the next one, allowing for a feeling of truly knowing this man. By the end of his life, we've seen Henry and those around him age so slowly that it is genuinely a moving experience.

As the meant-to-be lovers, Don Ameche and Gene Tierney (pictured together) have great chemistry, making it easy to accept them as lifelong partners. Tierney's comic delivery, however, leaves a little to be desired. Not to worry, though, because Ameche (over 40 years before his Oscar win for Cocoon) is incredibly engaging as the initially pompous cad with a heart of gold. Charles Coburn also offers up some grand comic relief as Grandpapa. Not too surprisingly, though, the film didn't receive any acting nominations. Instead, its three nods came for Ernst Lubitsch's direction, Edward Cronjager's cinematography and, of course, the picture itself.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

1943 - In Which We Serve

For as long as I can remember, I've loved hearing behind-the-scenes stories about movie production, whether in books or documentaries or actual behind-the-scenes tours. So with delight, Kat and I joined a visiting friend recently to take the Warner Bros. VIP Studio Tour in nearby Burbank. The Warner Bros. lot has a lot of history and I always enjoy visiting backlots. There's just something about the fake buildings that fills me with a sense of awe and wonder. The tour also included a stop at the Warner Bros. Museum, which housed special exhibits of the Batman and Harry Potter franchises. But it was the tiny corner dedicated to Warner's past Best Picture winners that had me fascinated. Hint: this blog's current year of review resulted in a win for Warner Bros. so I have a little treat for you when I get to reviewing that picture.

For now, let's have a look at a British entry in 1943's Best Picture race...

In Which We Serve
Noël Coward and David Lean
Noël Coward
Noël Coward, John Mills, Celia Johnson, Kay Walsh, Bernard Miles
Academy Awards:
2 nominations
0 wins

As the opening narration informs us, this is the story of a ship. Specifically, it's the story of the HMS Torrin, a British destroyer during World War II that is attacked and sunk by German aircraft bombers. As the survivors, including Captain Kinross (Coward), stay afloat in a lifeboat enduring further aerial gunfire, they share tales of their own experiences during the war and reminisce about the history of the Torrin.

The overt patriotism of In Which We Serve is a little off-putting, perhaps only because it's something one would expect from an American military film, not a British one. It's a propaganda film, no question. The sailors love their ship more than their wives, and the wives are pretty much okay with that. It's all for king and country. And the enemy is nothing short of pure evil. Granted, the enemy are the Nazis in this case, so it's hard to argue that point, but from a purely narrative standpoint, it's a detriment to have no single personification of the enemy. We see Nazi planes and Nazi ships, but we almost never see an actual Nazi, which I understand is part of the propaganda to dehumanise the enemy, but all good screenwriting how-to books will tell you that you have to include an antagonist. Even if your hero's main enemy is a corporation or organisation, it's far more effective to have an identifiable character to serve as its representative, rather than leave your hero to fight a nebulous enemy.

I also have to admit that I had some trouble following the action. The plot is somewhat episodic and it is sometimes difficult to figure out who's who, partly because there are so many sailors to keep track of, but also because they're all wearing the same thing! Stupid sailor's uniforms. So, during a flashback, when we see someone in civilian clothes, it takes a little time to recognise exactly who it is. And speaking of the myriad flashbacks, is this perhaps the genesis of the cliched wavy flashback transition? To a modern audience, the watery effect may seem cheesy, but in this instance, I suppose it couldn't be more appropriate.

Not only did Noël Coward (pictured) write, co-direct and star in the movie, but like Chaplin before him and Eastwood after him, he also composed the film's score. So there's no denying this is Coward's baby. As the captain of the ship, his is not your average melodramatic performance of the 1940s. In fact, it could be argued that he goes too far in the opposite direction, making Captain Kinross oddly understated. Playing his wife, Celia Johnson stands out with a charmingly natural portrayal of a woman with bittersweet feelings about her husband's job. And look out for a young Richard Attenborough in his film debut.

In Which We Serve also has a rare distinction in Oscar history, receiving recognition in two separate awards years. It received a non-competitive Honorary Achievement award at the 1942 Oscars, since that was the year it was released in its native UK. Then, one year later, it was nominated for Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay, after having its qualifying US theatrical release.