Monday, March 2, 2009

Brief Reviews

THE SET-UP (1949) * * * ½
The Set-Up recounts one crucial night in the life of a boxer, Stoker Thompson (Robert Ryan). Although the film is steeped in the milieu of the world of professional boxing, that milieu is so deglamorized and so filtered through the film noir look and sensibility that the movie transcends the boxing genre to become one of the key examples of the noir genre of the late 1940's. At 72 minutes, The Set-Up is lean and concentrated. Every detail is selected by director Robert Wise and cinematographer Milton Krasner to create a focused noir ambiance. The film's harshly lit nocturnal underworld is bounded by the dilapidated Paradise City Arena (boxing Wednesdays, wrestling Fridays), the shabby Cozy Hotel where Thompson is staying, a tawdry penny arcade called The Fun Palace, and a seedy night club called Dreamland whose garish dance music can be heard every time the action moves outside or a door or window is opened. Everyone in the movie is sleazy—the lowlife hustlers huddled in doorways or loitering on the sidewalks, the jaded, corrupt men who work at the arena, the vicious smalltime hoodlum who fixes fights, and especially the grotesques in the audience screaming for blood and mayhem. The boxers are portrayed as pathetic losers who start out as frightened kids and end up as punch-drunk burnouts. Somewhere near the end of this career arc is Stoker Thompson, who after twenty years in the ring is at the age of 35 considered over the hill. The one thing that keeps him going is the illusory belief that he is always just "one shot away" from a really important match that will make his dreams reality. The climactic bout between Thompson and a much younger boxer that caps the movie—brilliantly staged, photographed by multiple cameras, and edited to emphasize its brutality and arduous physicality—was clearly an influence on Scorsese's Raging Bull. Robert Ryan, in one of his rare starring roles, is uncharacteristically sympathetic, a dreamer who refuses to admit that any chance of success faded long ago, a man who no matter how badly beaten always struggles back to keep on fighting. As he says, "If you're a fighter, you gotta fight." And he keeps right on fighting until the end of the movie, when the relentlessly bleak world he inhabits finally breaks and then discards him.

GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933 (1933) * * * *
In the early 1930's Warner Bros. produced a series of musicals that established their own unique style, a down-to-earth working-class view of show business in keeping with the gritty movies the studio produced in other genres. The typical Warners musical features a story about the practical and financial problems of mounting an elaborate revue-like stage production. The musical highlights are the outlandish and often surreal production numbers of Busby Berkeley set to the songs of Al Dubin and Harry Warren as performed by Ruby Keeler, Dick Powell, Joan Blondell, and Ginger Rogers. The archetypal Warners musical is often considered to be 42nd Street (1933). But after seeing Gold Diggers of 1933 again recently, I would have to say that it is the better movie. The plot is constructed in such a way that rather than jamming all the production numbers into the last part of the movie as in 42nd Street and the similar Footlight Parade (1933), they are distributed throughout the movie, which opens with "We're in the Money" and concludes with "Forgotten Man," the latter perhaps the apotheosis of all Berkeley's production numbers. This results in a better balance, and more appealing mix, of music and plot. The plot itself adds new elements to the familiar "let's put on a show" story of other Warners musicals. It follows three showgirls as they pursue fame and romance—the innocent Polly (Ruby Keeler), the voluptuous and intelligent Carol (Joan Blondell), and the zany Trixie (a very funny Aline MacMahon, in a role reminiscent of Jack Lemmon's Daphne in Some Like It Hot). When these showgirls tangle with the members of a snobbish Boston family (Dick Powell, Warren William, and Guy Kibbee), it allows for the kind of pointed interaction between the working class and the privileged rich more typical of a Capra comedy. The Great Depression is an integral part of the movie, both onstage and off, providing a more topical context than the standard Hollywood musical. And while other 1930's musicals are often suggestive, this one—made the year before the Production Code began to be enforced in earnest—is at times downright bawdy. Gold Diggers of 1933 has enough serious elements and enough depth of characterization to give it greater substance than one might expect, but it never forgets that it is primarily an entertainment, and a very lively and thoroughly enjoyable one. Also worth noting are the fluid camerawork of Warners house cinematographer Sol Polito and the eye-catching Art Deco sets of Anton Grot.

In the 1950's the director Otto Preminger seemed deliberately to seek projects that challenged the Production Code. In The Moon Is Blue (1954) the offending subject was sex. In the courtroom drama Anatomy of a Murder (1959), an allegation of rape—a crime not supposed to be mentioned by name—played a large part. Advise and Consent (1962) was one of the first mainstream American movies to deal openly with homosexuality. In between these movies, Preminger tackled the taboo subject of heroin addiction in this film, based on a novel by Nelson Algren. Because of the film's notoriety and its source material, I anticipated a work of harsh realism and ground-breaking maturity. What I found instead was a subject daring for its time framed in strictly conventional Hollywood terms. The whole movie is filmed on a studio set that represents a city block of a down-and-out Chicago neighborhood. But as impressive as this set is, its resemblance to the real thing is superficial, its squalor relegated to a few suggestive touches. Frank Sinatra plays Frankie Machine, who has just returned from a jail term and treatment for heroin addiction at the federal facility in Lexington, Kentucky. Faced with the stress of a neurotically possessive paraplegic wife (Eleanor Parker) who is obsessively jealous of a pretty downstairs neighbor (Kim Novak) and whom he doesn't love, and with constant inducements to return to his criminal cronies and resume his use of heroin, he must use all of his willpower to resist falling back into his former life. The casting of Arnold Stang as his best friend, Leonid Kinskey as a quack doctor, Robert Strauss as a petty hoodlum, and Darren McGavin as a heroin dealer makes the atmosphere closer to Damon Runyon than Nelson Algren. The details of his life seem a Hollywood version of sleaze, more imagined than observed. The restrained Novak is surprisingly good, while Parker gives a florid, old-style performance that seems anomalous given the modern subject matter. The melodramatic contrivances of the plot also seem curiously old-fashioned. One definite plus is the cinematography of Sam Leavitt, whose camera glides elegantly around the set during Preminger's customary long, unedited takes, although in a sense that elegance seems incongruous with the grim nature of the story. Another plus is Elmer Bernstein's hard, brassy jazz score, although its jagged tone unintentionally emphasizes the flaccidity of other elements of the movie. The biggest plus is Frank Sinatra's earnest performance (which deservedly earned him an Oscar nomination), in which he convincingly portrays Frankie's desperation to be strong while battling his own inner weaknesses and external temptations. That performance alone makes the movie worth seeing, but aside from that, don't expect anything remotely resembling realism. This is a purely Hollywood approach to a social milieu the movie clearly doesn't have much understanding of.

PYGMALION (1938) * * * *
Anyone familiar with My Fair Lady (1964) should take a look at this film version of the play by George Bernard Shaw on which the later musical is based. It is an even better movie. The plot is essentially the same, as is much of the best dialogue—no great surprise, since the adaptation is by Shaw himself. Without interruptions for songs and with its brisker pacing, the wit of the dialogue and the social commentary of the plot are even more pronounced. Leslie Howard, who co-directed the movie with Anthony Asquith, is splendid as Prof. Henry Higgins, not so effete as Rex Harrison but still a self-centered academic insensitive to the feelings of others. Howard, a trained stage actor, gave many fine dramatic movie performances (The Animal Kingdom, Of Human Bondage, The Scarlet Pimpernel, Petrified Forest, Intermezzo), but I've never seen a better one by him than his comic turn in Pygmalion. As Eliza Dolittle, Wendy Hiller, also a trained stage actress, demonstrates amazing range in an even more demanding role. As Higgins attempts to transform her from a coarse Cockney flower seller into the simulacrum of a lady, she must show Eliza's innate intelligence and a growing awareness of the artificial nature of class distinction. In the scene where she has tea with the mother of Prof. Higgins, played absolutely deadpan, she is riotously funny. When she tells off Higgins for his coldness and lack of response to her feelings, she does so with a fiery spirit reminiscent of the young Katharine Hepburn. And at the end she must show that her experience of a new lifestyle has so altered her that she is riven with confusion and anxiety at no longer having any real identity. All this she does wonderfully in a subtly nuanced performance that is the center of the movie. She expresses all the phases of her character's transformation without ever losing the continuity of the character, convincing us that all of this playing about with social identity and self-presentation is happening to a real person. It is simply an astounding piece of acting. Even if you are thoroughly familiar with My Fair Lady, Pygmalion—with its brilliant balance of entertainment and social satire—is a film not to be missed.
Pygmalion airs on Turner Classic Movies on Sunday, March 8, at 4:00 a.m. Pacific time. Check local times.


John said...

Coincidently, I am just finishing a review of my own on “Gold Diggers of 1933” which I will be posting in a few days or so. Glad to see you liked it and I agree with you on saying that this is a better film than “42nd Street.” I also liked your comparison of Aline MacMahon’s role to Jack Lemmon’s in “Some Like it Hot.” I would have never made that connection. MacMahon is a wonderful actress though I have only seen her in this film and in “Heat Lightening”, itself an interesting if not wholly successful film. The film is somewhat reminiscent of “The Petrified Forest” however, MacMahon is the real reason to watch, well at least her and the beautiful Ann Dorvak who plays her kid sister.

Robert Ryan is such a great actor. He is so convincing and menacing in everything he does. Have you ever seen “Act of Violence”, an excellent film with Ryan hell bent on vengeance. I believe as you do that this had to have an influence on Scorsese when he was making “Raging Bull.” The film is well paced and I’m sure that has to do with Wise’s prior experience as a film editor. He has certainly made his share of good films.

Interesting comments on “The Man with the Golden Arm.” I haven’t seen this film in many years (at least 40), and my memory is mostly of Sinatra’s harrowing performance, glad to hear it holds up and also, that you liked Novak. I always thought she was underrated. The use of studio settings to reproduce Chicago, New York or wherever, which seemed acceptable years ago is now definitely detrimental to a film’s look now. Audiences are generally more sophisticated today and illusions that were acceptable forty, fifty or more years ago mostly do not hold up today especially if you are dealing with realistic subject matter like this.

R. D. Finch said...

John, thanks for your comments, perceptive as always. I like MacMahon too and have seen her in a couple of other things. She did a great comic turn (with Frank McHugh) in the romantic soap "One Way Passage" with William Powell and Kay Francis, an excellent film of its type. I saw her in later dramatic roles in Zinneman's "The Search" and in the Mann-Stewart Western "The Man from Laramie." She was excellent in these too. Don't recall seeing her in anything else; I don't think she made many movies after the 30's.

I recall your mentioning Ryan and "The Set-Up" in an earlier comment that inspired me watch this on DVD since TCM didn't seem to be showing it anytime soon. I did see "Act of Violence" and thought it very good--an excellent cast including Ryan, Van Heflin, a very young and sweet Janet Leigh, and especially Mary Astor (one of my favorites) as the sympathetic, aging prostitute.

And thanks again for the Dardos!

Sam Juliano said...

A fecund round-up of a quartet of classic (except, admittedly for the Preminger) films, informed as usual with your exceeding attention to the disperate elements that conspire to create film art.
I am a huge fan of Robert Wise's THE SET-UP, and am unfailingly mesmerized every time I invest 72 minutes toward it. I must say I love your writing here. For example, this:

"The film's harshly lit nocturnal underworld is bounded by the dilapidated Paradise City Arena (boxing Wednesdays, wrestling Fridays), the shabby Cozy Hotel where Thompson is staying, a tawdry penny arcade called The Fun Palace, and a seedy night club called Dreamland whose garish dance music can be heard every time the action moves outside or a door or window is opened."

I particularly appreciated your mentioning that the boxing nature of this films transcends into film noir ambiance, and that everyone in the film is "sleazy." I agree that Robert Ryan delivers a knock-out performance, and Milton Krasner's cinematography is stunning. A top-rank film with an extraordinary piece of writing here.

I agree with you wholeheartedly (and with John) that GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933 is a stronger film than 42ND STREET, and there's no question the film is deeply rooted in the Great Depression, and is gloriously informed by Sal Polito's ravishing cinematography and the striking Art Deco sets. It's a vibrant and pulsating work.

Otto Preminger's THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN ARM may have been daring for it's time, but I'll have to agree with you that it's cinematic transcription is definitely "old fashioned" and it's maligned by the "contrivances of the plot" you mention here. It is redeemed (again as you rightly point out) by Frank Sinatra's strong performance, and by that superb jazz-infused Elmer Bernstein score, one of his finest. (My favorite Elmer scores by the way are FAR FROM HEAVEN and TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD--I prefer his lyrical strain myself)

I agree that PYGMALLION is a greater work of art than MY FAIR LADY, but I stilll find the effervescent 1964 musical a joyful work of cinema. And as you allude to here, Rex Harrison is unforgettable. I do not take issue with Marni Nixon's dubbing of Audrey Hepburn, just as I don't have a serious issue with WEST SIDE STORY for the same reason, but I know a number of people do.
PYGMALLION has a compelling performance from Leslie Howard, and I love your observations of Wendy Hiller:

"In the scene where she has tea with the mother of Prof. Higgins, played absolutely deadpan, she is riotously funny. When she tells off Higgins for his coldness and lack of response to her feelings, she does so with a fiery spirit reminiscent of the young Katharine Hepburn."

And yes, most crucially this exquisite film balances social satire with riveting entertainment.

Thank you George Bernard Shaw!

Tour de force roundup here R.D. Your talent and passion really combine for some definitive essays!

Sam Juliano said...

Incidentally R.D., I think I must annoint Preminger's underestimated BONJOUR TRISTESSE, a Cashirs du Cinema favorite, as his greatest 50's film. In fact I think it's his best film period.

R. D. Finch said...

Sam, thanks for your detailed comments. I certainly appreciate them coming from someone I consider such a good judge of films and film writing. As you might have been able to tell, I really enjoy writing these Brief Reviews. I began them awhile back because I couldn't come up with a subject that I wanted to analyze in detail. Skimming the surface of a film rather than doing a deeper analysis, I found, allowed me to enjoy the writing process more. My longer pieces tend to be exercises in extending and developing core ideas. These Brief Reviews, in contrast, involve a process of paring them down to essentials. So I find that doing them adds variety to the writing experience.

As for "My Fair Lady," I like the movie very much. The songs are incomparable. When I got rid of my vinyl discs, I kept only two, and one was the original cast recording of "My Fair Lady." Audrey Hepburn is one of my favorites of all time, and it's a shame her performance wasn't more appreciated when the movie was first released. Harrison, of course, made the role of Higgins his own. I like the movie now better than I did when it was released. I'm not a major fan of movie versions of Broadway musicals, but this is one of the best. I do wish, however, that Hepburn had been permitted to do her own singing, as she was promised. As she proved in "Funny Face," she had a thin but adequate voice. I've also heard the version of "Loverly" that she recorded for the movie, and it is charming. And it sounds like her speaking voice. I just can't get over Deborah Kerr, Natalie Wood, and Audrey Hepburn sounding like the same person when they break into song! I heard an interview with Marni Nixon on NPR a few years ago, and she seemed a nice person. I also saw her in a movie ("I Think I Do" 1997), and she was a good comedienne.

Thanks again for your comments, and I hope you'll be able to revisit The Movie Projector in the future.