Monday, January 29, 2007

Changes to our ratings system

You might have noticed that instead of the usual star rating I gave a grade to The Fountain in my latest review. I have decided to change over to a grade system to rate films since I find it more flexible and precise. Besides, everyone uses star ratings these days and those who know me well know that I like to do things differently from everybody else (Dave (Burns) is also going to change over to a new rating system but will use the 0-10 scale (like on imdb) instead).

A = brilliant
B = good
C = fair
D = average
E = poor
F = deplorable

("+" and "-" ratings reflect the high- and low-end scales within each category, so a "B+" film equals a "very good" rating)

Sunday, January 28, 2007

The Fountain (2006)

It’s not often that I go to see a film more than once theatrically, if only for the reason that I try to see as much as I can each year and to cover as many films as possible for this blog. But The Fountain provoked such an intense gut response from me that I kept going back to it in my mind, and eventually I found myself in the cinema again on Saturday afternoon to lose myself in the film once more and to digest what I had seen the day before.

The Fountain is a labour of love for Aronofsky brought to fruition after a troubled gestation over several years, a picture so openly, nakedly personal that it leaves itself vulnerable to derision and scathing criticism. Indeed, chances are that what you may have read about The Fountain is that it is preposterous and plainly terrible: the picture’s approval rating at Rotten Tomatoes which garners all available print and internet reviews in the US is at 50 % split down the middle while British critics have variously called it “the greatest auteur folly since Lady in the Water”, “narcissistic and flimsy” and “confused”. What frustrates me about the mixed-to-negative reception is that many critics seem to have taken the easy route of dismissing the film with a derisive blurb, foregoing any proper discussion.

One constantly reads that the film is supposedly incoherent and doesn’t make a lick of sense but the truth is that it really isn’t that hard to follow if you are prepared to actively participate in a conversation with it. Equally, the notion that the film is confused about its own purposes strikes me as a lazy and easily-dismissed charge: it is open to various interpretations as any good art should be but they do not conceal or complicate the central themes that Aronofsky wants to impart in The Fountain. Nobody, even the film’s most ardent admirers and defenders, is going to argue that it isn’t without shortcomings (some of them serious, some of them coming down, I think, to individual taste), but only a few detractors seem to have tried to engage with the film properly (for critical but balanced assessments, look no further than Michael Wilmington’s take in the Chicago Tribune and Matt Zoller-Seitz’ blog review). Apart from my own review, you’ll also find praise in thoughtful and eloquently articulated pieces by Slant’s Nick Schager and Walter Chaw from FilmfreakCentral.

Spanning three centuries and intertwining as many storylines set in the past, present and the future, The Fountain tells the story of three characters (all played by Hugh Jackman) on a quest to gain immortality. In the Age of Discovery, Conquistador Tomas is sent by Isabel, Queen of Spain, whom he loves, into the country of the Mayans to find the Fountain of Youth, i.e. the Tree of Life so that Isabel can repel the challenge of the Inquisition. In present-time America, neurologist Tommy Creo is conducting experimental surgery on monkeys with samples taken from a Central American tree to find a cure for his cancer-stricken wife Izzi before she dies. In the 26th century, Tom, a shaven-headed astronaut travels in a bubble spaceship which also houses the Tree of Life to the nebula of the dying star Xibalba in the hope to be reunited with his dead wife.

Part science fiction, philosophy, adventure, fantasy and melodrama, The Fountain ambitiously tackles grand themes of life in the face of death and mankind’s desire (and folly) to overcome mortality. On its basest level, however, the film is about love. It deals with and celebrates true love between two human beings, a love that goes so deep that it defies boundaries, love that lasts a lifetime and beyond, love that transcends death. It articulates a strong-held, romantic belief in genuine faith and devotion in a relationship. One reason for my strong response to The Fountain is that I share its belief in values that today often seem to be dismissed and compromised. The film presents and upholds these beliefs with a sincerity and austerity that although it can sometimes stifle the picture, I find uplifting and very refreshing. This is not merely because the film mirrors my own beliefs but also since, as a gay man, I sometimes feel like being in a minority within the minority when the idea of real commitment is so often dismissed out of hand (I wouldn’t advocate nor do I believe in commitment merely for the sake of it but I am romantically inclined and I don’t agree that companionable love and dedication is impossible or not desirable).

I think it essentially boils down to this: you get from The Fountain what you bring or are prepared to bring to it and what you take from it depends on how you choose to respond to the way the film communicates its messages. Anyone with a cynical disposition is bound to have a terrible time with it and it may well be too much even for some of those who are willing to accept the film for what it is. It walks a fine line between the sublime and the ridiculous and occasionally it becomes both at once. How Aronofsky visualises Tom’s space travel is a case in point: picture a bald Hugh Jackman in pyjamas floating in a bubble through space in the lotus position and then imagine him practicing Yoga in silhouette, and you get a good idea of how The Fountain tests its audience’s readiness to go along with whatever the film throws their way.

As it happens, the space travel has been the most ridiculed aspect of the film, yet ironically it’s arguably the most complex narrative as it invites not only a metaphorical but also a literal reading (even if that is not clear until the film’s closing scene), and the images that Aronofsky has come up with here are absolutely stunning (the effects were almost exclusively achieved by using micro-photography of chemical reactions and look and feel very organic). I also find it to be the most moving part of the film, irrespective of how sentimental (and yet sincere) the conclusion is. Whether you choose to read it as a metaphor for how Tommy handles or struggles to handle Izzi’s fate, or as a literal continuation of the present story in which Tom seeks to be reunited with his wife, the journey to Xibalba is powerful and intensely moving in that it shows to what lengths a man can go in an act of love. It made me think of the final scene in Don’t Look Now where the smile on Julie Christie’s face movingly proves how love lasts beyond the event of death. There’s another aspect to the 26th century scenes that stood out for me, an otherworldly mood and surrealist quality that I found somehow comforting and soothing: the dreamlike visuals and the subtle use of silence with sporadic sounds and music works to great effect. Clint Mansell’s score, performed by the Kronos Quartett and the Scottish rock band Mogwai, is exceptional and by my reckoning one of the few film soundtracks that removed from its original context is likely to stand on its own.

A few words about the narrative set in the present which concerns Tommy’s race against time to find a cure for Izzi’s tumour: it’s the centerpiece of the film that informs and drives the other two storylines, being as they are manifestations of Izzi and Tommy’s mind. Aronofsky establishes clear parallels both in the images (consider the dissolve from the tree to Izzi’s leg etc) and in content, and repetitions of shots and dialogue lines give further clues so that the connection between the three narratives is by no means as nebulous as some critics have implied. Still, this part of the film is missing an human element which is all the more damning considering that The Fountain is meant to be about the driving force of emotion. Tom and Izzi feel less like human characters than a concept of a person which matters less with Tom if only Hugh Jackman’s terrific performance imbues the character with some recognisably human traits, but Izzi feels too much like a mouthpiece to convey the film's ideas through.

It’s in those scenes where the film’s didactic slant is most noticable and, frankly, alienating. Didacticism can work as it does in some of Kurosawa’s later films like RAN (from Ikiru, Aronofsky burrows the trick of temporarily muffling the sound to show how Tommy has closed his mind off to his surroundings) but generally speaking, abstract cinema of ideas holds little to no appeal to me. I feel that films should captivate us with a good yarn first and let us discover the meaning beneath it second, as, for example, Hitchcock’s films allow us to. I find films that have artistic concerns but announce and present themselves explicitly as art intolerably pretentious and self-absorbed which explains my intense dislike for Peter Greenaway and some of Godard’s films. The Fountain can feel as distancing itself though Jackman’s performance is so passionate and heartfelt that it makes Tommy’s love for Izzi and his despair and grief tangible. Jackman’s acting transcends the film’s clinical detachment for me but that may not hold true for others.

I have read people arguing that Weisz’ character displaces her fear by writing her novel about conquistador Tomas but I don’t really see this reflected in Tomas’ story. It reflects how she sees Tommy (I have the theory that this can also apply to the missing chapter which Tommy eventually writes though the film is ambiguous enough to allow us to equally read it simply as Tommy’s version) but it adds nothing to her character. The present-day narrative feels compromised, Izzi’s fight with cancer too clean and dignified but an extended cut on DVD might give this middle section greater emotional depth and conviction.

It’s interesting to note that Andrew Sarris of the New York Observer felt that the film’s “outlook on life remains too constantly pessimistic (…) and too completely joyless”. What the film is trying to say (made clear at the end of each of the three narratives when Tom as his past, present and future self comes to accept the futility of defeating death and finds redemption in the process) is that death is an intrinsic part of life, making every moment of our lives so precious that we cannot afford to squander it. Couple that with the film’s unwavering belief in love as our means to sustain ourselves and each other, I found the picture invigorating and life-affirming. Even when it falters, The Fountain is a film of singular beauty that stimulates and lingers in the mind.


Burns's 2006-7 Film Log

Burns's ratings system

* * * * * Brilliant
* * * * * Very good
* * * * * Good
* * * * * So-so
* * * * * Poor

Our Man in Havana (1959). * * * * *
Stand by Me (1986). * * * * *
Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962). * * * * *
Quatermass and the Pit (1967). * * * * *
Dracula, Prince of Darkness (1965). * * * * *
Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (1964). * * * * *
The End of the Affair (1955). * * * * *
Dead Poets Society (1987). * * * * *
Shortbus (2006). * * * * *
The Wizard of Oz (1939). * * * * *
Tirez sur le pianiste (1960). * * * * *
The Maltese Falcon (1941). * * * * *
City Lights (1931). * * * * *
The Wild Bunch (1969). * * * * *
Au revoir, les enfants (1987). * * * * *
Young Frankenstein (1971). * * * * *
The Bespoke Overcoat (1956). * * * * *
Scarface (1932). * * * * *
The Squid and the Whale (2006). * * * * *
Everyone Says I Love You (1997). * * * * *
The Hound of the Baskervilles (1938). * * * * *
Great Expectations (1946). * * * * *
Bell, Book and Candle (1958). * * * * *
The Searchers (1956). * * * * *
Swiss Family Robinson (1959). * * * * *
Georgy Girl (1966). * * * * *
Vera Cruz (1954). * * * * *
Shane (1953). * * * * *
Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1953). * * * * *
In the Mood for Love (2000). * * * * *
Swing Time (1936). * * * * *
The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957). * * * * *
I Heart Huckabees (2004). * * * * *
Scrooge (1951). * * * * *
Gremlins (1984). * * * * *
Bend of the River (1952). * * * * *
Jules et Jim (1962). * * * * *
Scrooge (1970). * * * * *
The Ox-Bow Incident (1943). * * * * *
Ninotchka (1939). * * * * *
The Grapes of Wrath (1940). * * * * *
Secrets and Lies (1996). * * * * *
Four Sided Triangle (1952). * * * * *
The Browning Version (1951). * * * * *
Pygmalion (1938). * * * * *
The Man from Laramie (1955). * * * * *
My Darling Clementine (1946). * * * * *
Stolen Face (1952). * * * * *
Johnny Guitar (1954). * * * * *
Across the Bridge (1958). * * * * *
The Curse of the Mummy's Tomb (1965). * * * * *
Take the Money and Run (1969). * * * * *
Dracula (1979). * * * * *
Dracula Has Risen from the Grave (1968). * * * * *
Green for Danger (1946). * * * * *
London Belongs to Me (1947). * * * * *
The Heart of the Matter (1953). * * * * *
Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (2006). * * * * *
Marty (1955). * * * * *
The Band Wagon (1953). * * * * *
To Be or Not to Be (1942). * * * * *
The Conversation (1974). * * * * *
Dracula (1958). * * * * *
The Dreamers (2003). * * * * *
The Dirty Dozen (1968). * * * * *
The Fallen Idol (1948). * * * * *
The Devil Rides Out (1967). * * * * *
Mysterious Island (1962). * * * * *
Gunfight at the OK Corral (1957). * * * * *
The History Boys (2006). * * * * *
The Abominable Snowman (1957). * * * * *
Fanatic aka Die! Die! My Darling! (1965). * * * * *
Night of the Big Heat (1967). * * * * *
Odd Man Out (1947). * * * * *
Sherlock Holmes and the Deadly Necklace (1962). * * * * *
Juggernaut (1974). * * * * *

Wait Until Dark
(1967). * * * * *
The Old Dark House (1932). * * * * *
The Swimmer (1968). * * * * *
Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1941). * * * * *
Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1932). * * * * *
Revenge of Frankenstein (1958). * * * * *
Circus of Horrors (1960). * * * * *
The Reptile
(1966). * * * * *
Domiciles Conjugales (aka Bed and Board, 1970). * * * * *
Room at the Top
(1959). * * * * *
The Entertainer (1960). * * * * *
The Face of Fu Manchu (1965). * * * * *
A Study in Terror (1965). * * * * *
The Witches (1966). * * * * *
Another Thin Man
(1939). * * * * *
After the Thin Man
(1936). * * * * *
Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948). * * * * *
The Day the Earth Caught Fire
(1961). * * * * *
The Haunting (1963). * * * * *
The 39 Steps (1959). * * * * *
Curse of the Fly (1965). * * * * *
Captain Clegg
(aka Night Creatures, 1962). * * * * *
The Brides of Dracula
(1960). * * * * *
The Hound of the Baskervilles
(1958). * * * * *
The Thin Man
(1934). * * * * *
The Invisible Man
(1933). * * * * *
The Innocents (1961). * * * * *
Pillow Talk (1959). * * * * *
Les vacances de Mr. Hulot
(1958). * * * * *
Partie de campagne
(1936). * * * * *
The Harder They Fall
(1956). * * * * *
Baisers Voles
(aka Stolen Kisses, 1966). * * * * *
Antoine et Colette
(1962). * * * * *
(2004). * * * * *
Ordinary People
(1980). * * * * *
Masculin feminin (1966). * * * * *
Les Diaboliques
(1955). * * * * *
As Good as It Gets
(1997). * * * * *
Presque Rien
(2000). * * * * *
9 Songs
(2004). * * * * *
Grand Canyon (1991). * * * * *
Dracula (aka Horror of Dracula, 1958). * * * * *
Maurice (1987). * * * * *
Night of the Big Heat (1966). * * * * *
Quatermass and the Pit (1967). * * * * *
Y Tu Mama Tambien
(2001). * * * * *
Edge of Seventeen
(1998). * * * * *
Manhattan (1979). * * * * *
She (1965). * * * * *
Hands of the Ripper
(1971). * * * * *
The Da Vinci Code (2006). * * * * *
Torture Garden (1966). * * * * *

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Oscar nominations are in

Without further ado, here are the most relevant nominations for the 2007 Academy Awards:

Best picture
The Departed
Letters From Iwo Jima
Little Miss Sunshine
The Queen

Best actor
Leonardo DiCaprio, Blood Diamond
Ryan Gosling, Half Nelson
Peter O'Toole, Venus
Will Smith, The Pursuit of Happyness
Forest Whitaker, The Last King of Scotland

Best actress
Penelope Cruz, Volver
Judi Dench, Notes on a Scandal
Helen Mirren, The Queen
Meryl Streep, The Devil Wears Prada
Kate Winslet, Little Children

Best supporting actor
Alan Arkin, Little Miss Sunshine
Jackie Earle Haley, Little Children
Djimon Hounsou, Blood Diamond
Eddie Murphy, Dreamgirls
Mark Wahlberg, The Departed

Best supporting actress
Adriana Barraza, Babel
Cate Blanchett, Notes on a Scandal
Abigail Breslin, Little Miss Sunshine
Jennifer Hudson, Dreamgirls
Rinko Kikuchi, Babel

Best directing
Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Babel
Martin Scorsese, The Departed
Clint Eastwood, Letters From Iwo Jima
Stephen Frears, The Queen
Paul Greengrass, United 93

Best foreign language film
After the Wedding, Denmark
Days of Glory (Indigenes), Algeria
The Lives of Others, Germany
Pan's Labyrinth, Mexico
Water, Canada

Best adapted screenplay
Sacha Baron Cohen, Anthony Hines, Peter Baynham, Dan Mazer and Todd Phillips, Borat Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan
Alfonso Cuaron, Timothy J Sexton, David Arata, Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby, Children of Men
William Monahan, The Departed
Todd Field and Tom Perrotta, Little Children
Patrick Marber, Notes on a Scandal

Best original screenplay
Guillermo Arriaga, Babel
Iris Yamashita and Paul Haggis, Letters From Iwo Jima
Michael Arndt, Little Miss Sunshine
Guillermo del Toro, Pan's Labyrinth
Peter Morgan, The Queen

Best animated feature film
Happy Feet
Monster House

Best art direction
The Good Shepherd
Pan's Labyrinth
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest
The Prestige

Best cinematography
The Black Dahlia
Children of Men
The Illusionist
Pan's Labyrinth
The Prestige

Reminded me that I still have a few pictures to catch up with: Dreamgirls and Letters from Iwo Jima are still to be released here and I'm going to try to rent Little Miss Sunshine on DVD. The 2007 line-up strikes me as a better selection than recent years even if some choices are still baffling: Leo getting a nom for Blood Diamond instead of The Departed? Surprised too at the snub of Children of Men in the technical noms except the cinematography (pleased to see The Black Dahlia in there) and the lack of major nominations for Dreamgirls which I thought would carry some momentum over from its Golden Globe wins into the Oscars but it only ended up with Supporting Actor entries. The Best Director category stands out for me: Scorsese (who surely is going to win it this year? Even if The Departed is not among his best work, it still is a wonderfully entertaining film and a better choice to award him the Oscar for than either Gangs of New York and The Aviator), Greengrass (United 93), and Eastwood (not seen Letters yet but it got very good reviews).. The only suspicious name in the list seems to be Alejandro Innaritu (reactions to Babel are all over the place).

Best Picture? personally, I'd pick The Departed or Letters (The Queen will be recognised with a surely dead-cert win for Helen Mirren in the Best Actress category).. realistically though, I wouldn't be surprised if Little Miss Sunshine emerges as the big winner of the night.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Bunuel, Hitchcock and the Oscars

The Guardian has a couple of interesting reads on its film website which I wanted to share with you: Peter Bradshaw appreciates Louis Bunuel's work on the blog, former Oscar nominees talk about their experiences at the Academy Awards and there's a review of a very promising-sounding book on Hitchcock and his collaboration with Bernard Herrmann and other composers.

Monday, January 15, 2007

DVD: The End of the Affair (1955)

I was pleasantly surprised by the tone of this adaptation of the justly famous Graham Greene novel. I expected it to be heavily bowdlerized, but despite only ever hinting at sex, the film comes across as strikingly adult, and poignant in its treatment of the themes of adultery, love, jealousy and religion.

The story is fairly faithful to its source, with one major exception: The character of Father Richard Smythe, here called Father Crompton and played very well by Stephen Murray (London Belongs to Me, Four Sided Triangle) is divided into two characters, the other of whom is an atheist, played by Michael Goodliffe (633 Squadron, The Gorgon). It's not entirely clear why the writer (Lenore J Coffe) decided to do this; perhaps as a foil to Kerr's newfound faith, although it seems unnecessary.

Among the cast, Deborah Kerr, Peter Cushing and John Mills acquit themselves excellently. Van Johnson is the weakest link, the poor man's Sterling Hayden, but the performance is adequate rather than bad.

One of the strongest aspects of the film is the photography and lighting by Wilkie Cooper (later more famous for lensing a string of Ray Harryhausen fantasies). Benjamin Frankel's score starts off like a pastiche of Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No. 2, famously used in Brief Encounter a decade earlier, but settles down into a mostly unsentimental and often quite haunting style.

The London locations, including Hyde Park Corner and the elegant Chester Terrace (also the setting for Hammer's The Nanny, whose DVD release I look forward to immensely later this month), are a joy.


This is a first release for The End of the Affair on Region 2. It's a Sony release (originally a Columbia Picture), and it is the barest of barebones editions, without so much as a proper menu (see picture). It would have been nice to see a bit of an attempt to present the menu nicely.

To their credit, they have subtitled the film in both English and French, and (though not for me) dubbed it into several languages.

The print is very grainy, but the contrasts are great, serving the cinematography well.

Film: * * * * * (4/5)
DVD: * * * * * (3/5)

PS. If you enjoyed this one, check out Greene's The Heart of the Matter, also released for the first time last year.

Monday, January 08, 2007

The Wizard of Oz (1939) at the Liverpool Phil

What a treat. Maestro John Wilson transcribed Harold Arlen's magnificent score and conducted it in a live performance with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra last night (with the accompanying film, of course).

On the downside, there were a few spots where it was really hard to get the acoustic balance right, and some of the dialogue was either muffled or insanely loud and tinny. Even this did not detract from the magic of the evening, however. It was a truly special occasion. The Philharmonic Hall was packed out (1500? 1800?), and watching other audience members in their fancy dress, I was half-wishing I'd donned pigtails and a pinafore and come as Dorothy Gale.

I really enjoyed the opening sepia sequence. Seeing the prologue on the big screen drew my attention for the first time to the beautiful, sweeping camerawork by cinematographer Harold Rosson, later to film Singin' in the Rain (1952), also for MGM. The subtler, less showy lensing of Somewhere over the Rainbow was perfect.

The film is a non-stop delight. Part of the magic for me was seeing how a film almost 70 years old still has a mesmerizing effect on children. Try getting the average kid to sit down and watch a film of which a third is in black-and-white. Just doesn't happen, and yet Oz still holds its power to enchant even today.

I highly recommend the 3-Disc Collector's Edition of the film (Region 1, Region 2). A fascinating set for devotees like myself.

My rating? * * * * * (5/5)

Sunday, January 07, 2007

The Maltese Falcon SE (3-discs) (R1)

Sat down Thursday afternoon to watch The Maltese Falcon (1941) which was reiussed by Warner in the US and Canada in a three-disc Special Edition last October. When I first saw the film more than ten years ago, I found myself more admiring than really liking it though I guess my indifference at the time had more to do with the fact that other films and genres held greater appeal to me.

As a bored teenager who sometimes wished that his life was more exciting, the work of David Lynch was like a tonic for me in those times: it began with seeing Twin Peaks on television and then Blue Velvet on video. I identified strongly with Lynch's admission that he yearned for something extraordinary to happen, like an accident, to escape from the almost unbearably perfect idyll of his own childhood. Lynch's cinema appealed to me most at that time since the dreamlike and surrealist qualities, the violence, the nightmares and the unflinching look into the deepest recesses of our psyche in Blue Velvet and Eraserhead represented to me everything extraordinary, daring and out of the norm whereas films like The Maltese Falcon represented classical Hollywood which then seemed too "conventional", and most particularly, too talky to me.

I recall distinctly how shocked and yet enthralled I was when I first saw Blue Velvet, especially during the extended scene in which Frank Booth goes on to rape Dorothy Vallens as Jeffrey, trapped in the cupboard, looks on. Seeing Blue Velvet gave me a curious sensation: on one hand I realised I was watching something special, a film perfect in its expression of the sensibility and concerns of Lynch as an artist. Yet I could also understand why the picture had provoked such outrage in 1986: it shocked me and I could see where those who were offended by the film and actively hated it came from even if ultimately I didn't share their feelings. Few films have equaled the pure thrill of that two-fold sensation of the elation of discovering a great film and being disturbed but also positively excited by the film's courage to go where few others dare to tread.

That was then. I don't mean to say that I've cooled on Lynch completely in the ten-to-fifteen years since I first saw The Maltese Falcon and then his films. I still think that Blue Velvet is a masterpiece and a key film of the 1980s. Eraserhead is the type of picture that genuinely deserves the much-abused label of a cult film. The Elephant Man is strong also but eventually, I feel, psychologically a bit one-dimensional in the way the writers insist on John Merrick's pure goodness.

But before I digress too much: the point is that Lynch's surrealism still appeals to me to some extent and I'd probably add one or two of his films to my collection but it's other directors, Ozu, Renoir, Melville, Hawks, who get all the love these days. Basically, I reverted back to preferring films from the 1930s to 1960s (loved early sound-era comedians like Laurel & Hardy and the Marx Brothers as a kid), especially 1950s Japanese cinema and Golden Age Hollywood. What I loved as a kid and then seemed unattractive in my teens now charms me again in my late twenties, and more so than ever. This brings us neatly back to The Maltese Falcon and I'm happy to say that the picture won me over second time round.

The Maltese Falcon was the debut of John Huston as director and he got the job after he impressed Warner with his input on screenplays as diverse as Jezebel (1938), High Sierra (1941) and Howard Hawks’ Sergeant York (1941) (by the way, is anyone else not convinced by this film? Compared to the likes of His Girl Friday, Bringing Up Baby and The Big Sleep, I find that York feels too much like the honourable but dull prestige picture; that and a terrible, terrible performance by Joan Leslie). A nice bit of trivia: Huston also contributed additional dialogue for Universal’s 1931 adaptation of the Poe whodunit The Murders in the Rue Morgue. His script for The Maltese Falcon is a master class in economic yet nuanced storytelling and there are many cracking lines (“Haven’t you tried to buy my loyalty with money and nothing else?” – “What else is there I can buy you with?”), the majority reportedly taken verbatim from Hammett’s novel.

The pic starts with San Francisco detectives Sam Spade and Miles Archer being enlisted by Brigid O’ Shaughnessy, who is using a pseudonym when she first meets Spade, to trace down her sister who is on the run with a man named Floyd Thursby. Spade and Archer agree to trail Thursby but then Archer and Thursby are found shot dead. As Spade has no alibi for the time when Thursby was killed, the police suspect him of Thursby’s murder. Shaughnessy confesses that she has made up the story about the sister gone missing but is reluctant to reveal more to Spade. Trailed by a shady man in trenchcoat, Spade continues his investigations and becomes involved with two men, Joel Cairo and Kasper Gutman, who are trying to locate a golden bird statuette, the Maltese Falcon.

Up until The Maltese Falcon, Bogart was a very solid performer who was often cast as a gangster or a man with connections to the underworld (his supporting turn in Michael Curtiz’ excellent Angels With Dirty Faces comes to mind) but this is the picture universally regarded as the one where he came into his own. He is the perfect casting for Sam Spade: he has seen enough to know how to read the game and his amused, knowing smile makes clear that he isn’t buying Shaughnessy’s half-calculating, half-desperate act. Bogart is excellent in the way he brings across the different shades of Spade’s personality: he can be playful when the situation calls for it, feigning anger at Gutman’s refusal to reveal the Falcon’s value and grinning with delight when his con pays off. But he is equally ruthless and capable of a cruel streak: consider the snarl and relish with which he lays into Wilmer and Lt Dundy. Spade’s determination, unwavering sense of loyalty towards his dead colleague but also his single-mindedness shine through in Bogart’s energetic turn. So does the genuine warmth and affection he shows for his secretary Ellie who is played with great conviction by Lee Patrick who has wonderful chemistry with Bogart.

From the supporting actress to the leading lady: I have to admit I’m in two minds about Mary Astor’s performance. It’s crucial not to confuse the flimsy acting of her character with the actress’s performance, a mistake a considerable number of people seem to be making when watching the film, and yet at the same time I find something lacking from Astor’s performance. I guess it strikes me as too inconsistent. At times, she is excellent. Think of the surprised and delighted smirk that lights up her face when she is seeing that Spade concocts a goofy story to prevent the policemen from questioning them both; think of how earlier in that sequence she viciously kicks out at Cairo. I find it’s in her final scene with Bogart where the melodramatic overacting of her character gets the better of Astor. It’s a difficult character to play and Astor does well for the most part but the rest of the cast is so consistently good that when she falters it is are all the more noticeable.

The Maltese Falcon was not just Huston’s directing debut, it was a first one too for Sidney Greenstreet, an English actor from Kent, who came to America in the 1930s and played in theatre, including Shakespeare, before he arrived in Hollywood. The then sixty-two-year old has an imposing presence in appearance and character (which supports hints that he dominates Wilmer and possibly Joel Cairo, too) and he delivers his often memorable lines with great relish: “I distrust a close-mouthed man. He generally picks the wrong time to talk and says the wrong things. Talking's something you can't do judiciously, unless you keep in practice”.

It was also his first of altogether nine pairings with Peter Lorre who plays Joel Cairo, Gutman’s partner in seeking out the Falcon. Cairo is an intriguing character, a camp gay man with pretensions. Lorre’s voice here sounds to me slightly more affected, higher pitched than usual and then there are the gestures and his reactions: first, the manner in which he holds his cane to his mouth almost as if he is licking it, then his concern over his appearance as he berates Spade and later Shaughnessy for the cuts in his face. Lorre’s performance is camp but not aggressively so, and his angry outburst in the finale is quite startling.

Cairo likes to present himself as a man whom you should underestimate at your peril but who is really quite a weakling. He is easily overpowered and intimidated which, come to think of it, makes him and Wilmer quite alike. When Spade twice hits Cairo hard in the face and tells him that “When you’re slapped you’ll like it and take it”, it really makes you wonder just how much of it is Spade exhibiting his cruel streak and asserting his superior strength over the other man, and how much of it is actually laying bare the truth, that Cairo is the submissive type. If Wilmer is easily cowed by the domineering father figure of Gutman, what does that suggest about the relationship between Gutman and Cairo? For a studio picture under the watchful eyes of the Hayes Code, the film is surprisingly sexually suggestive and explicitly gay. Then again, you only need to think of the double entendres between Bogie and Lauren Bacall in The Big Sleep to remind yourself of how the more astute directors managed to circumvent censorship.

The Maltese Falcon is a talkative film but unlike, for example, some of David Mamet's films it never feels stagy, partly because Huston's setup of shots isn’t theatrical like Mamet's (Gutham's imposing personality is emphasised by medium shots of Greenstreet from a low angle although Huston often shoots from the low angle throughout the film as if to suggest how easy it is to be overpowered by the corruption in this world). Also, Huston never lingers on a scene unnecessarily (this is not meant as a swipe at Mamet): transitions are handled with swift dissolves and wipe-cuts and the plot moves along at a high tempo, almost surprisingly so, given how dialogue-driven the film is. If there’s an aspect of the pic I didn’t warm to it’s Adolph Deutsch’s score which I found a bit overbearing but then it’s more or less representative of the film scores of the time.

* * * * * (out of five)

The film’s restoration looks highly impressive. Were it not for some slight damage in two scenes, this would be a perfect image but even so it still looks very strong for a film this old, with excellent contrast and sharpness for a standard DVD. It’s not quite reference material like the image for Casablanca and White Heat but anyone who has seen this film on faded copies on television or video, will be really pleased with this re-release. Dialogue was absolutely clear at all times (so much so that the overdubbing of Sydney Greenstreet by another actor for two lines is very noticeable now) and with no hiss or other age-related noise marring the audio track.

A note for our R2 readers: The Maltese Falcon SE is going to be released in Region 2 on the 5th of February albeit only as a 2 disc set without The Maltese Falcon (1931) and Satan Met A Lady (1936) and the radio adaptations. The second disc will contain the A Magnificent Bird documentary and Bogart trailer feature (Why are Region 2 buyers still getting shortchanged like this even from the likes of Warner? The artwork is identical with the R1 but with different, and frankly, garish colours).

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Universal Film Noir R2

Great news for film noir fans in the UK coming with Universal's announcement to release eight noir classics, Out of the Past, The Killers, Glass Key, Crossfire, The Blue Dahlia (not to be confused with Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia; the former is based on a Raymond Chandler novel), the Philip Marlowe mystery Murder My Sweet (aka Farewell My Lovely), The Big Steal and a repackaged version of Double Indemnity on the 12th of February. Because of the low price (£9,99), I assume that these will be barebones DVDs but with Universal's recent track record, we can at least expect solid transfers (and I do like the artwork which seems to be inspired by the cover of Sin City). Personally, I'm most intrigued by Murder My Sweet and Out of the Past and, as an aside, a bit disappointed if not surprised that Universal didn't take the opportunity to bolster their Double Indemnity reiusse by porting over the extras from the fabulous Region 1 Special Edition (R2 losing out again...).

Murder My Sweet and Out of the Past are available in Region 1 individually or as part of Warner's Film Noir Classic Collection Vol 1 reviewed here; The Killers gets its Region 2 debut (Criterion have issued it in Region 1 as a double bill with Don Siegel's 1964 remake), The Glass Key and The Blue Dahlia don't seem to have had a release anywhere in the world up to now so that makes them a first for Region 2 (!), The Big Steal (another Siegel noir) is currently only available on a French DVD (review here), the Graham Greene adaptation The Gun For Hire already has a R1 release.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Robert Altman tribute

Came across this nice little tribute to Robert Altman (printed to coincide with the UK release of his last picture, A Prarie Home Companion) in today's Guardian. The film opens this Friday.