Category Archives: movie

Aldrich’s Desert Plane Crash Suvival Picture

[Rating:4/5]

Pros: cast, desert

Cons: musical overkill

I saw Robert Aldrich’s 1965 plane crash in the (Tunisian) desert movie “The Flight of the Phoenix” when it was newish and I was fifteen. Since then, my attention span has lessened and watching it again, I thought its 149-minute running-time excessive and the makeup (blistered faces) risible, BUT the conflicts among its all male characters and, in some cases grudging their co-operation to build an airplane from the wreckage as envisioned by an arrogant German (played by Hardy Krüger (who was so diffident in “Sundays and Cybèle”) remains absorbing. The captain (James Stewart in his flawed and bitter tough guy persona rather than the aw-shucks Jimmy Stewart) blames himself for flying into a sandstorm in a plane without a functioning radio. That defect relates to his alcoholic navigator/steward, played by Richard Attenborough. Their relationship seems lifted from a Howard Hawks movie with Attenborough playing something like the part Walter Brennan played in “To Have and Have Not” (or Thomas Mitchell back further in “Only Angels Have Wings” and Stewart more fallible than Humphrey Bogart and Cary Grant in those two Hawks movies.

Of course, Aldrich made a number of movies focused on male-male rivalries mixed with ambivalent co-operation, including “Vera Cruz,” “Attack!,”,” “The Longest Yard,” “Twilight’s Last Gleaming,” and “The Dirty Dozen” (which would be his next movie, released in 1967, with an overlap of three actors who were in “Phoenix”: Ernest Borgnine, George Kennedy, and Gabriele Tinti; Borgnine was more memorable as the extremely nasty scourge in Aldrich’s great but underrated “Emperor of the North Pole” in 1973, and had also returned (with Peter Finch and Gabriele Tinti) in Aldrich’s (1968) “The Legend of Lylah Clare”).

In addition to the flight crew (Stewart and Attenborough) chafing against the self-confident expert (Kruger), there is an insubordinate sergeant (Ronald Fraser) attached to an oblivious, hidebound officer, Captain Harris (Peter Finch), a wacked-out Ernest Borgnine eager to follow Harris “marching” across the Sahara (even while Sgt. Watson fakes being unable to walk), a cast-against-type milquetoast Dan Duryea, a heroic physician (Christian Marquand), and a badly wounded handsome Latin martyr (Gabriele Tinti). Inexplicably to me, the one who garnered an Oscar nomination was Ian Bannen (whom I thought was better in “The Hill”). (Krüger or Attenborough would have been better choices IMO. Krüger refused a Golden Glob nomination and the Academy voters probably took the hint.)

 

The estimable Joseph F. BIroc (who had lensed Stewart’s most beloved movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life” and would do more memorable desert work in “Blazing Saddles” (1974) (not to mention “Airplane!”, “Towering Inferno,” and Aldrich’s “Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte” and “The Longest Yard”, “Ulzana’s Raid,” etc.) shot the Arizona and California desert locations and the motley cast. Frank DeVol provided too much overwrought music (musical minimalism had not been invented yet, though Robert Bresson for one made movies with minimal musical underlinings). Aldirch’s usual (15-time) editor Michael Luciano (Oscar nominated for this and three other Aldrich movies, for two of which he won his own guild’s award) was deft with the action sequences, but could have cut more IMO.

 

©2019, Stephen O/ Murray

Juvenile delinquents of yore

The movies that launched a wave of 1950s dramas about rowdy urban kids/ violent juvenile delinquents were Richard Brooks’s “Blackboard Jungle” (1955) with future directors Sidney Poitier and Paul Mazursky as juvenile leads, and the “chicken” drag racers and switchblade-wielders with whom James Dean competed in “Rebel Without a Cause” (1955), which also starred Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo (the latter receiving an Oscar nomination as the needy Plato). Perhaps someone in Hollywood had seen Luis Buñuel’s gritty Mexican slum kid drama “Los olvidados” (1950), which certainly broke with the sentimental Dead End Kids and Bowery Boy movies of the late-1930s.

Don Siegel, fresh from the profitable low-budget sci-fi classic “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” directed “ Crime in the Streets (1956), based on a television drama by Reginald Rose (“12 Angry Men,” “Man of the West,” and the Sal Mineo vehicle “Dino”) in a few weeks on a single studio set of a street corner with a candy/soda shop owned by Italian immigrant Mr. Gioia (Will Kiluva), father of the 15-year-old Angelo ‘Baby’ Gioia on one side and the walk-up tenement in which the leader of the pack (a gang with jackets emblazoned “Hornets”), eighteen-year-old layabout Frankie Dane (future cinema vérité director John Cassaveates in his big-screen debut) lives with his adoring if intimidated younger brother Richie (Peter J. Votrian).

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The movie begins with a “rumble’ which the Hornets win and the beating and humiliation of a boy from the rival gang they capture. Mr. McAllister (Malcolm Atterbury) who lives above the Danes brings in the police who arrest Chuck (Doyle Baker) for having a pistol.

Social worker Ben Wagner (big-eyebrowed James Whitmore) tries to smooth things over and makes repeated attempts to engage Frankie and his exhausted mother (Virgina Gregg) in earnest conversation before Frankie commits some felony or another.

Frankie has enlisted “Baby,” who is (as in Sal Mineo’s character in “Rebel Without a Cause”) desperate for acceptance from the older hoodlum who shows some interest in him, and the psychopathic, dim-witted Lou Macklin (played by future director Mark Rydell, whose most memorable work before the camera is as Terry Augustine in Robert Alman’s “The Long Goodbye”) in a fantasy of slaying Mr. McAllister when he comes back late from bowling.

Siegel seems to have reveled in portraying very nasty criminals (Lee Marvin in the remake of “The Killers” with Cassavetaes as the one targeted, the scum skimmed by Clint Eastwood’s “Dirty Harry,” “Charley Varrick”). The movie plays well on smaller screens with extended close-ups of Cassaveates and Mineo (especially a tow-shot in which Mineo is in the foreground, nonverbally reacting to his father’s pleas from over his shoulder to be a good boy).

”Crime in the Streets” (1956) was a very tough for the 1950s melodrama about white slum gangs. It is available in the fifth volume of Warner Brothers “Film Noir Classic Collection,” released earlier this month, with Harold Clurman’s “Deadline at Dawn,” Phil Karlson’s “Phenix City Story” and five others. All had to adhere to the Production Code, and either punish criminals or save them somehow. “Crime in the Streets” is not as campy as the 1958 “High School Confidential! (1958) with pre-“West Side Story” Russ Tamblyn, and pre-“Bonanza” Michael Landon (and drugs, the staple of movies about young slum-dwelling gangstas now).

 

What surprised me most about “Crime in the Streets” was that its jazzy music score was written by Franz Waxman, whose scores were generally for A-pictures and neo-romantic (Rebecca, Suspicion, the Oscar-winning ones for Sunset Blvd. and A Place in the Sun). Of course, there is also rock’n’roll for dancing in the street, which involves some rough handling of a few girls by the more numerous boys hanging outside the Gioia store.

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I knew that Robert Altman directed industrial documentaries and many television dramas, including “Bonanza” and “Combat!” before the gritty junkie movie “That Cold Day in the Park” (1969) and his break-out (1970) “M*A*S*H, but did not realize he had made a documentary “The James Dean Story,” in 1957, and in the same year a low-budget black-and-white movie title “The Delinquents.” It has a very heavy-handed voice-over frame, imploring parents to supervise their teenagers so they don’t become hoodlums (and gangster molls if female). ”The story you are about to see is about violence and immorality — teenage violence and immorality, children trapped in the half-world between adolescence and maturity…”

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As Scotty, the future Billy Jack (Tom Laughlin) is miffed that the parents of his girlfriend Janice Wilson (Rosemary Howard) forbade her to go out with him any more (let alone “go steady”). A devious but presentable gang leader Cholly (Peter Miller) volunteers to pick Janice up and deliver her to Scotty. She does not want to go to a party (with beer and “Dirty Rock Boogie.” in an abandoned house, but Scotty feels obligated.

I won’t reveal how Scotty and Cholly meet, since that is the best part of the movie. The movie has some interest for showing 1950s conceptions. The last third, a “woman imperiled by a psychopath captor” is not bad. Altman was able to borrow cops from the Kansas City, MO to appear in the movie, his first feature-length (well, at 75 minutes, B-picture) fictional movie.

There is no overlapping dialogue, and the cast is small.

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The feature-film debut of writer-director Jim Jarmusch (born in Akron, Ohio), “Permanent Vacation” (1980; also running 75 minutes) includes a car-jacking, and a young slacker who knows where to offload a stolen car, but no gangs.

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The voiceover is not The Voice of Authority clucking at those darn kids, but the would-be artiste Aloysius ‘Allie’ Parker (giraffe-necked Chris Parker with a greasy pompadour) who reads Lautreamont’s Maldoror (in the Penguin Classic edition, not in French) and wanders around having sort of encounters with various spaced-out New Yorkers, including his mother in a mental hospital, a rep cinema popcorn vendor who pays even less attention to him than the girlfriend of sorts on whose floor he sometimes crashes, Leila (Leila Gastil). That allows an homage in the form of the movie poster of Nicholas Ray’s The Savage Innocents.” There’s also a Latina madwoman, a black man who talks to himself, and a paranoid schizophrenic white man: New York human wreckage of the early 1980s as paraded by a pretentious recent film-school student who had seen too many Godard movies, and perhaps the Beat “Pull My Daisy”?

To my total lack of surprise, Jarmusch’s first movie showed no narrative gift, but the tedium was relieved by occasional eccentricities, as “Dead Man,” and other later Jarmusch films are. (There are more parts of “Mystery Train” (1989) that I like, and I like most of” Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai” (1999).)

“Permanent Vacation” is available currently as a bonus disc of the new Criterion edition of “Stranger Than Paradise” (1984), the odd black-and-white movie of visiting Hungarians in Cleveland unable to see Lake Erie through the snowfall when they go to the lakeside. John Lurie of the Lounge Lizards plays the slacker whose teenage Hungarian female cousin descends to disrupt his life in NYC in “Stranger.” Lurie is the saxophonist acting out the Doppler Effect in “Permanent Vacation,” though it is Allie Parker who quotes saxophonist Charlie Parker about living fast and dying young… (Lurie was also in “Downtown 81,” the documentary about a day in the life of graffiti artist Jean Michel Basquiat that has also recently become available on DVD.)

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The Criterion DVD of “Stranger in Paradise” includes a booklet by Gary Indiana praising the verisimilitude of “Permanent Vacation.” No one is going to praise the pacing or tightness of construction, I’m sure!

Allie is just passing through, next stop Paris (quel surprise!)

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None of these three movies has much interest beyond the talents they introduced to movie screens (Altman, Cassaveates, Jarmusch, Rydell) or were otherwise newish (Mineo, Siegel). Plus some as time capsules of alienated mid-1950s and early-1980s youth. (Altman’s “Delinquents” were middle-class and I infer that Allie’s pre-Manhattan background was middle-class Middle America.)

©2019, Stephen O.  Murray

 

Jennifer Jones at her slinkiest

The IMDB Jennifer Jones pages opens: “One of the world’s most underrated Academy Award-winning actresses” World’s? And woudn’t that be Cher? Jones was nominated for her performances in four movies in addition to “Song of Bernadette” for which she won (in 1943): Since You Went Away (1944), Love Letters (1945), Duel in the Sun (1946), and Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing (1955). I saw a part of the last of these last week and though (again) that Jones was terrible as the Eurasian physician who enraptured William Holden. I also remember has pretty ludicrous in “Duel in the Sun” and nothing special in “Since You Went Away,” but I remember her being compelling as “[Sister] Carrie”, and as the ethereal Jenny of “Portrait of Jenny,” amusing as “Cluny Brown” and in “Beat the Devil,” touching in “Towering Inferno” (for which she received a Golden Globe nomination for best supporting actress), “Good Morning, Miss Dove,” and “The Barretts of Wimpole Street,” better than OK in “Indiscretion of an American Wife” and “The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit,” unimpressive in the prestige pictures “A Farewell to Arms” (1957) and “Tender Is the Night” (1962), though far better than fellow 1940s Oscar-winner Joan Fontaine in “Tender.”

 

As “Ruby Gentry” (1952) she undergoes two major changes. At the start (the farthest back flashback) Jones was unconvincing as a woman of about 20 who hunts and fishes with the good old boys of some North Carolina tidewater town whose Great Love (the ever-wooden and often seething with resentment Charlton Heston with the strange name of Boake) has just returned from South America. She is eager to pick up where they left off in high school, but he wants to revive the Tackman estate that was swallowed by the Atlantic Ocean, for which he needs money. Plus, he is the scion of an of elite family, which though it has lost its economic base, still has a judgeship.

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So, he marries money (Phyllis Avery, who has very little screentime as Tracy McAuliffe). Ruby is unwilling to be his backstreet (backcountry) mistress. Besides being very stacked (emphasized in the first part) she has couth thanks to quasi-adoption by the long-invalid Letitia Gentry (Josephine Hutchinson) a lady of genteel background who married beneath her to the rough-edged Jim Gentry (in a role Karl Malden would reprise in/with “Baby Doll,” a far more entertaining movie…).

When Lettie dies, Jim proposes to Ruby. The misalliance is accepted by none of the local snobs (there is an outsider physician narrator played by Bernard Phillips who was keen on Ruby but respects Jim’s property rights). After a scene at the country club, Jim and Ruby go sailing, and only she returns. The good people of the town are certain she murdered him. They don’t realize that it is not a good idea to be nasty to the person who more or less owns the town now.

Jones is great as the coldly vindictive widow. In addition to class snobbery, she must contend with a Christianist fanatic brother Jewel (! played by James Anderson) and there is a very melodramatic chase through the swamp (which was surely a studio set; Morro Bay, CA stood in for the NC town).

The movie directed by King Vidor (who had directed Jones in the over-the-top western soap opera “Duel in the Sun” to an Oscar nomination and also directed the way over-the-top “The Fountainhead”) had a top-rate cinematographer in Russell Harlan (Red River, Rio Bravo, Run Silent Run Deep, (and most germanely) To Kill a Mockingbird) who shot the town crisply and the swamp fog-enshrouded (but mostly shot Jones, who is in every scene and almost in every frame of the 82-minute movie).

The cast tried for Southern accents in the first part, but then dropped them. The intolerant Bible-thumping hypocrisy might seem laid on thick, but consider the successful champion of “family values” the next state South this weekend (six decades after the movie was made)!

 

The musical theme was a hit and a mainstay of movie music programs for more than a decade. I have never heard the lyrics (they are not sung in the movie).

 

©2012,  2019 Stephen O. Murray

Alan Arkin terrorizing a blind but resourceful Audrey Hepburn

Audrey Hepburn was very, very good in two 1967 movies. She received an Oscar nomination for the more popular one, “Wait Until Dark.” As a frightened by resourceful blind woman, she was menaced by the seemingly trustworthy, soothing Richard Crenna (in a sort of Cary Grant turn, see “Charade,” a corrupt former cop (Jack Weston) and a psychopath in dark glasses (in one of his three disguises) played by Alan Arkin. Arkin also had a very good year, being nominated for the best actor Oscar as a Russian submarine commander run aground on Long Island in “The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming.”

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“Dark” is obviously based on a stage play (in marked contrast to the traveling around the south of France in “Two for the Road.” Initially, it seems to share having a mean, spoiled young girl, though Gloria (June Herrod) turns out to be useful rather than horrid.

There have been so many sadistic criminals on screens since 1967, that Arkin is less shocking that he was to 1967 audiences, with the exception of one scene.

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There is little opening out from the apartment—really, only to a VW van across the street parked in front of a phone booth that gets a lot of use from the plotters. (As in “Charade,” Hepburn does not know what she has and what she has does not belong to her husband or the three conspirators to get the prize.) The play that was filmed was written by Frederick Knott, who also wrote the frightened woman “Dial M for Murder” that Alfred Hitchcock adapted to the screen.

Hepburn was often paired on screen with much older men (Gary Cooper, Humphrey Bogart, Fred Astaire). Her husband here was played by Efrem Zimbalist Jr., who was a mere eleven years her senior. And her ostensible romantic interest through much of the film, Crenna, was only two years her senior.

Nasty as her psychological (and, eventually, physical) assailants are, it is difficult to understand why Hepburn does not lock/bar the door while they are out. For that matter, I don’t understand why she is so determined to hold onto the doll, knowing that the woman for whom her husband held it is dead. Or why she does not remove their advantage of lighting sooner. But, if one can suppress such questions and go with the flow, the movie is frightening and perhaps inspiring.

If the Oscar went to a Hepburn that year (it did), it went to the wrong one (Katharine for “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?”). Much as I adore Audrey Hepburn (a lot!) and knowing that she was going to stop making movies, if I had an Oscar ballot, I’d have to mark it for Edith Evans’s harrowing performance in “The Whisperer,” however. And I’d have nominated Arkin for a supporting actor award.

I wish that Arkin, Crenna, and Hepburn had more good roles in subsequent years (I was a fan of Crenna in the TV series“Slattery’s People” in the mid-1960s and in Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1972 “Un flic”, also the 1984 “Flamingo Kid”).

Alan Arkin is fairly interesting recalling feeling bad at having to torture the radiant Hepburn. Her then husband and producer of the movie, Mel Ferrer, had little of interest to say. It did not take this movie to establish that she could act (try “The Nun’s Story,” if not “Two for the Road”!).

©2019, Stephen O. Murray

 

Audrey Hepburn, Cary Grant, and Paris

Can there be anyone who is not charmed by Audrey Hepburn? Or who doesn’t like “Charade,” the rom-com/thriller Stanley Donen made with her and Cary Grant with Paris backdrops in 1963? Something of a gender-reversed “North by Northwest,” I’d hope that Alfred Hitchcock regarded it as an homage. There is no cornfield buzzing and the hanging over a precipice is more prosaic than Mount Rushmore. And Martin Landau’s villain is multiplied to include three then-rising stars with Oscars in their futures: James Coburn, George Kennedy, and Walter Matthau. It’s not hard to recognize any of them, but there are the pleasures of looking back to when they were less well-known than they became.

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There is a plot involving a quarter of a million dollars of gold bullion that the four (plus Ned Glass) GIs liberated from the Nazis and did not deliver to their own government at the end of World War II. Hepburn’s husband, who is thrown off a moving train in the first scene seems to have returned first to claim it, and his partners believe Hepburn must have it.

She is befriended under suspicious circumstances by Cary Grant, who was the male star and suspect in Hitchcock’s “Suspicion.” before being pursued for reasons unknown to him in “North by Northwet.”  He goes through a series of names and exchanges snappy dialogue with Hepburn and the competitors for the loot. There is a pretty obnoxious child, if not as horrible as the one in Donen’s 1967 “Two for the Road,” —the American girl there may count as someone who did not like Audrey Hepburn.

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Donen, who died 21 Feb at the age of 94, was on a roll, having made the move from musicals (of which “Singing in the Rain” is his most famed) to nonmusical movies with major stars (Surprise Package, The Grass Is Greener, Arqbesque). My favorites both starred Audrey Hepburn: “Charade” and “Two for the Road.” (Donen also directed Hepburn in a musical with another of her many aged costars, Fred Astaire, “Funny Face” in 1957). For uncomplicated enjoyment, “Charade” has to be the choice. Among other things, it has better music from Henry Mancini. Both have attractive French backdrops (18-times-nominated for Oscar cinematographer Charles Lang shot “Charade”; Christopher Challis “2 4” and “Arabesque.”)

 

The Criterion Edition has an entertaining and informative commentary track laid down by Donen and screenwriter Peter Stone.

 

©2019, Stephen O. Murray

 

 

A mature 1967 look at love being ground down by marriage

Producer-director Stanley Donen’s 1967 “Two for the Road” made me glad not to have children, The movie is less shocking a revelation of marriage killing romance than it was at the time, but in a rare instance of the elfin but often emotionally tough Hepburn being paired with younger man, Audrey Hepburn was beautiful and funny as Joanna. As Mark, Albert Finney was already something of a bully (officially 5’9”, perhaps compensating for his lack of height?) but there is chemistry between him and Hepburn. When she says, “I’ll never let you down,” he realistically responds, “I will” —and does, though they are still together (if bickering) at the end of the movie.

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The American couple (Eleanor Bron and William Daniels) with a very spoiled daughter (Ruthie) is horrifying, yet Hepburn accepts Finney’s marriage proposal when it comes, and soon they are estranged with a difficult (if not as monstrous) a daughter. He has casual infidelities, she one (with Georges Descrières) that is open and definitely pains her husband.

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Screenwriter Frederic Raphael (1931-) was no romantic, having already won an Oscar for the screenplay of “Darling” and later to adapt Schnitzler for Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut” (he also adapted Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd with a sometimes pragmatic, sometimes passionate Julie Christie and Henry James’s Daisy Miller for Bogdanovich, a film I think much underrated). His screenplay for “Two for the Road” was Oscar-nominated.

I don’t remember films jumping back and forth in time without any date titles back in that day. Hepburn had many, many changes of clothes. I noticed a long list of coutures in the opening credits. There are also multiple cars driving through the south of France on annual summer trips over the course of 10 or 12 years of the relationship.

I don’t like Henry Mancinni’s soundtrack. The movie did not earn back its production costs, btw, even with that pop Midas touch.

Both Finney and Donen died earlier this year. I think that “Two for the Road” has aged better than Donen’s other 1967 movie, which I once liked, “Bedazzled.” (Then he made the really terrible “Staircase”, the mediocre “The Little Prince,” and “Lucky Lady,” which I may be the only person to like, having been at the Mexican location where some of it was filmed).

 

©2018, Stephen O. Murray

 

 

 

Nuns (3): Nasty Habits

Dame Muriel Spark (1918-96 )repeatedly wrote about small casts of character in relatively closed-off social worlds, such as boarding schools (The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, The Finishing School), a boarding house (Girls of Slender Means) ,an old-age home (Memento Mori), shipwrecked on an desert island (Robinson), and the convent in The Abbess of Crewe. That wickedly funny and short 1974 novel was her version of the fall of Richard Nixon in the Watergate cover-up.

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Although the abbesses in the movie are very English (Edith Evans, Glenda Jackson), the abbey has been transplanted to Philadelphia. The old abbess (Evans) dies before naming Sister Alexandra (Jackson) her successor. Sister Alexandra has some of Nixon’s paranoia and the same need he felt to know what his rivals were up to.nasty.jpg

The young free-love nun (who is openly having a sexual relationship with a Jesuit novice), Sister Felicity (Susan Penahaligon) bears no resemblance to Senator George McGovern. Although Sister Alexandra is contemptuous of Sister Felicity and her unconventional attitudes, it seems that she had as little need to sponsor “a third-rate burglary” as Nixon did. Sister Alexandra also has already had her office and much of the rest of the convent bugged. This is known by her henchwomen, the chain-smoking Sister Walburga (Geraldine Page) and Sister Mildred (Anne Jackson) whereas if I recall correctly, the men on whom they are modeled, presidential advisors Bob Haldemann and John Ehrlichman did not knows of the Oval office taping. And certainly John Dean did not, though his stand-in, Sister Winifred (an extra-gawky and toothy Sandy Dennis), does. And in one of the funniest adaptation of Nixon’s teams, Melina Mercouri jets around the world and issues gnomic advice in the manner of Henry Kissinger.

Sister Alexandra lacks Nixon’s self-pity. Glenda Jackson is more confident and regal. Still, she repeats many of his lines as she scapegoats Sister Winifred and eventually sacrifices Sisters Walburga and Mildred, as Nixon eventually sacrificed Haldemann and Ehrlichman. The attention of the press on an obscure convent is not altogether plausible. Sister Alexandra is answerable to Rome. The Monsignor traveling to Philadelphia to investigate (a stand-in for the folksy Senator Sam Ervin?) is played by Eli Wallach. And Anne Mears plays Gerald Ford.

The cast also includes Rip Torn and Jerry Stiller as Jesuit co-conspirators. The production values do not match the quality of the cast (or those of “Brideshead Revisited” which Michael Lindsay-Hogg went on to direct shortly after directing “Nasty Habits”).

Corruption among the pious has not ceased, as the recent failed coverups of DOnald Trump payoffs and the revelations about coverups of serial pedophilia of Catholic priests (and Muslim imams) attests, along with another White House bent on widespread surveillance and proceeding in secrecy reprises Nixon’s.

The pace slackens with two ludicrous money drops in public lavatories. And Susan Penahaligon is so overmatched by Glenda Jackson that it seems silly to enter into such serious strategizing to foil her. I realize that it was similarly insane to do what Nixon did, but he had used dirty tricks every step of the way up, while what Sister Alexandra’s concerns and tactics seem not just unnecessary but out of character (though she is careful to distance herself so that she can simulate plausible deniability of responsibility). Nevertheless, watching Jackson before she retired from acting to run for Parliament is the main pleasure afforded by “Nasty Habits.”

The DVD transfer is not very good and there are no DVD bonus features, but it does give viewers the opportunity to enjoy seeing actresses no longer around to perform (Jackson retired from acting (though recentyly returned to stages as King Lear); Dennis, Evans, Mercouri, Page have been dead for years).

©2006, Stephen O. Murray

Nuns (2)

I’ve read none of the 60+ books published by Rumer Godden (1907-1998), though I remember that my mother owned one of her novels (A Breath of Air). Before the word was coined, I saw her as a purveyor of chick lit, albeit chick lit that drew some major film directors—Jean Renoir to The River, Michael Powell to “Black Narcissus,” both of which concern young Englishwomen in the India in which Godden grew up. Although I admired the color photography of both of those movies, I found the stories overly hysterical. Along with the screen adaptations of The Battle of Villa Fiorita and The Greengage Summer (released here as “Loss of Innocence”) that I have not seen, they are “chick flicks.”

Godden’s name was not what drew me to watch “In This House of Brede.” Rather, it was the 1975 BBC movie’s star, the estimable Diana Rigg, who has had far too few good big-screen roles. It was Rigg who piqued my interest. (I was a devoted fan of the original “Avengers” as an adolescent; I was also a big fan of the movie “Becket” in those days, and remembered Pamela Brown from it.)

Mrs. Peel would seem an unlikely nun (as do Ingrid Bergman, Audrey Hepburn, Rosalind Russell, Jane Fonda, Anne Bancroft, Melina Mercouri, Glenda Jackson, Gladys Cooper, and others who have triumphed playing roles as nuns). In “In This House of Brede” she seeks the veil after a successful career in business. Like Audrey Hepburn in “The Nun’s Story,” she is a lot smarter than those around her in the convent and extirpating her pride and self-confidence and the awe some of her intellectual inferiors feel for her (and the backlash of her intellectual inferiors who are her elders in the convent…) are problems for her.

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Hepburn played a much younger entrant to an order that sent out medical missionaries to the Belgian Congo. Rigg plays a widow who is fluent in Japanese in a Benedictine order in England that receives postulants from Japan (some years after she has become Dame Phillipa (it’s not as if she knew that her new vocation was going to involve her familiarity with Japanese culture and language). Before becoming Dame Phillipa, an Oxford graduate, she also knew Latin, so that beginning Latin classes are more than easy for her.

The Abbess of Brede who had encouraged her to explore a contemplative religious vocation dies almost as soon as Phillipa becomes a postulant. The successor, Dame Catherine (Gwen Bradford), is sympathetic to Phillipa’s difficulties and conflict with the self-righteous and resentment-filled Dame Agnes (Pamela Brown), who is the teacher of Latin and later is determined to learn Japanese with no help from Dame Phillipa. (It is very fortunate for Dame Phillipa that Dame Agnes was not elected abbess!)

A cheerful younger postulant from the neighborhood of the convent, Joanna (Judy Bowker), is eager to be Dame Phillipa’s protege. The girl reminds Dame Phillipa of her own child who was killed in an automobile accident and her maternal concern is seen by the petty Dame Agnes as sensuality, and a suspect bond that must be broken.

Dame Phillipa mortifies herself by working in the infirmary (though the convent badly needs her business acumen to sort out its financial affairs, that would build pride and foster even more resentment).

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The film is well-acted and the convent (really St. Mary’s Abbey Grammar School in Mill Hill within London) is well-photographed. The stifling of talent for mortifying the self is not a program for which I have sympathy, but if that’s what Dame Phillipa wants, she manages it without destroying anyone else. Patience not being one of my virtues, I was somewhat impatient with Dame Phillipa learning patience which is just as unnatural to her as it is to me.

The music is dated and sometimes overly intrusive. The liturgy and details of convent routines have been lauded by those with personal familiarity with them. But if it weren’t for Dianna Rigg being the central focus, I probably would not screened the DVD or finished it if I came upon it.

“In This House of Brede” was directed by George Schaeffer, a frequent “Hallmark Hall of Fame” director and lensed by Chris Challis (The Tales of Hoffman, Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines, The Deep).

“In This House of Brede” is not as good as “The Nun’s Story” and is definitely no where nearly as funny as “Nasty Habits” but I found it considerably more plausible than “Black Narcissus” (if less colorful than the studio Himalayas in that (movie also based on a Rumer Godde novel) or the Africanlocations in “The Nun’s Story”) .

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“The nun,” (2013), based on Diderot’s 1760 “La religeuse,” “a film by Guilllaume Nicou,” is in color and has full-frontal nudity of hits vocationless, involuntary nun, played by Pauline Etienne who is tortured by one mother superior (Louise Bougon) and then coddled by a lesbian one played by Isabelle Huppert, who fails to seduce her (even after getting into the young nun’s bed). The movie adds a happy ending (escape from the convent) and a more spirited Suzane. Yves Cape provided beautiful cinematography, but the direction was very slack.

 

©2018, Stephen O. Murray

 

Happy and fraught holidaze movies

In writing, I always wish people “Happy Holidaze,” not out of sensitivity to non-Christians but out of sarcasm about the frantic (and often drunken) efforts to be merry and to cater to the multiple neuroses (holiday ones and other ones) of family and friends. The date 25 December seems more a continuation of the rebirth of the sun after the winter solstice than a date with any credible historical tie to Jesus, and any religious meaning of Christmas was long ago swamped by commercial machinations to sell “the right” presents and be bummed out if not receiving “the right” ones. Although I suspect that even Charles Dickens might say “Bah, humbug” about the Christmas industries of today, I enjoy an English tradition of eating goose and plum pudding on 25 December. I avoid the pre-Christmas shopping frenzy by buying Christmas presents during the summer (which makes me want to put Preston Sturges’s minor (64-minute) movie “Christmas in July” (1940) starring Dick Powell inflating and deflating on my list of movies…).

Another compelling reason for my title is to include “Home for the Holidays” (1995, directed by Jodie Foster, her second directorial outing) on my list. I was puzzled that it had not appeared on any of the lists here that I’ve seen (proliferating in number). In the decade since it was released, I managed to forget that it was set on the Thanksgiving weekend instead of at Christmas. Another warrant for the plural “holidays” is that the word needs to be plural since the season of celebrations (an family gatherings) includes Thanksgiving, New Year’s Eve, Boxing Day (in Canada and the UK), along with the historically spurious tradition of Kwanza and the promotion of Chanukah as a Christmas for Jews, as well as gift-gifting celebration of el dia de las tres reyes (the day of the three kings, 6 January).

Moreover, the focus of many “Christmas movies” is on the run-up to Christmas (e.g., “Miracle on 34th Street,” which features the Thanksgiving Macy’s Day Parade, and “Love Actually”) or on Christmas Eve (e.g., “It’s A Wonderful Life,” Twas the Night Before Christmas,” “The Shop around the Corner,” “Joyeux Nöel,” and more than half of A Christmas Carol).

I really don’t have anything original to say about the inevitable inclusions:

A very young Natalie Wood and Edmund Gwenn as a Macy’s Santa with a real beard are engaging in Miracle on 34th Street (1947, directed by George Seaton). Do I ever need to see it again? No.

Ditto for Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life (1946). I enjoy Beulah Bondi (in everything in which I’ve seen her) and Henry Travers (usually), and grew up watching “The Donna Reed Show” (albeit for Paul Peterson more than for her). I’m a Gloria Grahame and James Stewart fan and an admirer of the work of cinematographer Joseph Biroc (here and elsewhere). If the movie was less ubiquitous, I might be able to manage some enthusiasm for it… (But, in passing, let me recommend “Movie Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool” with Annette Benning’s Gloria Grahame passing in it and no Christmas angle).

There has to be a version of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. I think that “Scrooge (1951, directed by Brian Desmond Hurst) with Alastair Sim in the title role is probably the best one. The 1937 high-gloss MGM version (that had been designed for Lionel Barrymore, who read the book on the radio every year) is mercifully short (70 minutes) and the one I’ve most recently seen. Directed by Edwin L. Marin with Terry Kilburn as Scrooge, it seems to me to transform Scrooge too quickly. Also the Cratchit home is far-removed from “Dickensian” poverty, even in its genteel form. George C. Scott was typecast in a more recent and not bad “Scrooge.”

The 1983 sitcom TV movie of Ralphie (Peter Billingsley) and his BB gun, Jean Shephard’s own adaptation of his “A Christmas Story” doesn’t much move me, though many other people adore it.

And for an earlier generation (Baby Boomers) the live tv broadcast (captured on kinoscope) of Menotti’s inspiring back-to-Bethlehem “Amahl and the Night Visitors” remains inscribed in some brain cells.

Some other upbeat golden oldies

As in “Wonderful Life,” there is an angel (Cary Grant) involved in sorting out the marriage of a(n Anglican) bishop (played by David Niven) trying to build a cathedral and his wife (Loretta Young) in The Bishop’s Wife (1947, directed by Henry Koster). It, too has been overplayed.

Once was enough for another Loretta Young Christmas movie, Come to the Stable, also directed bye Henry Koster two years earlier (1945). In it, Young and Celeste Holm play French nuns (with another building project, a children’s hospital in New England). Elsa Lanchester is (as usual) a treat, and Dooley Wilson sort of adumbrates Sidney Poitier helping innocent nuns in “Lilies of the Field,” but Loretta Young sets my teeth on edge, as does being set in a town named “Bethlehem” (Connecticut).

I don’t remember The Bells of St. Mary (1945, directed by Leo McCarey) very well, though I remember that that Ingrid Bergman was still very beautiful hidden in a habit and that Bing Crosby had his usual charm (reprising the easy-going Father O’Malley part that somehow won him an Oscar in “Going My Way”), as they try to save the slum school at which they teach by different fund-raising approaches. Lots of cute urchins along with the cute, chaste couple.

I prefer Barbara Stanwyck in another classic Connecticut Christmas movie (romantic comedy), creatively titled Christmas in Connecticut (1945, directed by Peter Godfrey). Stanwyck plays a sort of Martha Stewart of the pre-television WWII era who can write convincing advice about domestic matters, but can’t cook and is not at all the rural persona of her columns. Her editor (a sly Sidney Greenstreet) thinks that it would be good publicity for her to make Christmas dinner for a war hero (Dennis Morgan) on leave. Complications are many (centering on a borrowed baby and borrowed chef) and the ending predictable, but it’s a genial screwball comedy.

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Stanwyck’s other Christmas movie also involves her character passing as something she is not and has a predictable happy ending. Although her costar in Remember the Night (1940, directed by Mitchell Leisen from a script by Preston Sturges) was Fred MacMurray, there is little to hint at their incendiary later pairing in “Double Indemnity.” I guess she is a sort of femme fatale in “Remember,” though a petty crook rather than a seductress murderer/murder-recruiter. She’s been arrested (a third offense) for shoplifting and is being prosecuted by Fred MacMurray, who feels sorry for her having to spend Christmas in jail and (only in movies!) takes her home to Mama (Beulah Bondi again) and a family quite unlike her own. She melts everyone’s heart, though her prosecutor’s was none too frozen before the sojourn.

Stanwyck’s Christmas movies involve quite a bit of duplicity, but she is redeemed in both of them. I’m more into movies about dysfunctional families than ones portraying lovey-dovey families (prototypically the Cratchits in A Christmas Carol), though this does not preclude transformation of bitter (etc.) losers.

Dysfunctional people have to navigate family holidays, too

One of my favorite Christmas movies is Three Godfathers, directed by John Ford with John Wayne and Pedro Armendériz. I had not realized that the story of three robbers who find a dying woman and undertake to save her newborn son had been filmed before, and by William Wyler at that. The 1929 Hell’s Heroes has the basic plot in a mere 68 minutes, and appears to have been shot on location, which was very difficult with the new very unwieldy sound cameras then. The head bank robber who finds a woman about to give birth by a dynamited empty spring was played by the always gruff Charles Bickford. (There were also 1916 and 1936 versions, IMDB tells me.) The Ford version is the best with Monument Valley filmed in gorgeous color, but the Wyler one bears checking out. It’s shorter and a bit less sentimental.

We’re No Angels” (1955. directed by veteran Michal Curtiz) also involves a trio of bad guy (escapees from Devil’s Island) overcome by Christmas spirit: Humphrey Bogart, Peter Ustinov, and Aldo Ray helping out the family of Joan Bennett and Leo G. Carroll, while being pursued by the ever curish Basil Rathbone. I enjoyed it, though no one would mistake it for a great film.

Christmas aspects are not what I remember about  “The Lion in Winter” (1968), but for a warring family gathering — with the succession to the English throne as the prize —, it’s right up there! With memorable performances by Peter O’Toole as Henry II and Katharine Hepburn as his very estranged (usually imprisoned) wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine (and a young Anthony Hopkins as the future Richard the Lion-hearted). I don’t remember anything about “Die Hard,” though I only rated it 5/10 stars on iMDB.

101 Reykjavik (2000, directed by Baltasar Kormekur) features an Icelandic slacker who lives with his mother. Her Spanish flamenco teacher Lola (Victoria Abril) moves in with them for Christmas. While his mother is away on New Year’s Eve, he seduces and (it turns out) impregnates his mother’s lover. And everyone lives happily ever after, raising their new product?

Although it was made for tv (HBO), I saw The Christmas Wife (1988, directed by David Hugh Jones) in a theater (the Kabuki). In it Jason Robards plays a recent widower whose son has chosen to make the first Christmas without his beloved wife also the first one without the company of the descendant two generations at the family cabin. Instead of going to join them, John hires a companion for the day, a nervous Julie Harris (or is that redundant?). The movie is decidedly not heartwarming, but Robards and Harris are formidable.

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I really like the theme music for piano from Billy Wilder’s Oscar-winning The Apartment (and used to play it on the piano). Fred MacMurray is closer to his “Double Indemnity” than to his “Remember the Night” character in it, and Shirley MacLaine pours on the charm to a prototypically manic and confused Jack Lemmon. I find “The Apartment” considerably nastier than Wilder’s commercial flop Kiss Me, Stupid, which was condemned for immorality that isn’t there.

For drunken and catastrophic Christmas celebrations, the one in Schlöndorff’s Coup de Grâce has to be a serious contender. It is an object lesson in what can go wrong.

Things go pretty badly wrong with a junkie mother in Holiday Heart though Ving Rhames as a drag queen (!) makes things somewhat better.

A lot goes wrong for the newlyweds in George Roy Hill’s adaptation of Tennessee Williams’s genial comedy about impotence and insufferably condescending in-laws, Period of Adjustment, with Jim Hutton and Jane Fonda both more than a little overwrought (showing male and female hysteria).

I’ve already noted that I learned that a reason Home for the Holidays is not on other people’s list of “best Christmas movies,” is that it is set at Thanksgiving. It begins with Holly Hunter having a really bad day, of which losing her job is only a part. She is already dazed before getting joining her relatives. Her parents are an overbearing Anne Bancroft and a complaining, passive-aggressive (or perhaps just out-of-it?) Charles Durning. Robert Downey, Jr. steals the movie as Hunter’s high-energy (manic?) gay brother, who has brought  Dylan McDermott, a seeming new lover home. Geraldine Chaplin is on hand as a wacky aunt, and Steve Guttenberg as a conventional foil (brother-in-law). Plus Clair Danes (Hunter’s daughter) and David Straithern (wandering in directly from parts as a derelict in John Sayles movies

Geraldine Page played Sook, the somewhat simple-minded, holiday-fruitcake-obssessed elderly cousin of Truman Capote in The Thanksgiving Visitor (1967) and A Christmas Memory (1969). Capote narrated both elegies for his frail childhood friend, Frank Perry directed both (and two other Capote stories that were combined to form “Trilogy”). The late, great Conrad Hall shot the latter. Page won an Emmy for the former, one of the oustanding works from ABC’s “Stage 67” that should be released on DVD (the best of all is the version of Katherine Anne Porter’s “Noon Wine” starring Olivia de Haviland and Jason Robards, Jr. and directed by Sam Peckinpah.) Those who have not seen Page might enjoy the longer 1997 tv movie “A Christmas Memory” with Patty Duke and Piper Laurie. The sweet relationship is dysfunctional for the ten-year-old boy, devoted as he and Sook are to each other.

or just act out around Christmas:
as in Christopher Plummer’s bank-robber in “The Silent Partner” (from a screenplay by Curtis Hanson of “LA Confidential fame”) shot in Toronto, and the comic squatters in the squishier (more sentimental) “, but still entertainingIt Happened on Fifth Avenue.” And the puppet-master rich guys who orcchestrate the “Trading Places” of  Dan Ackryod and Eddie Murphy in John Landis’s 1985 comedy. Ernst Lubitsch’s 1940 “The Shop around the Corner” ends on Christmas Eve, with Christmas sales at the department store where James Stewart and Margaret Sullivan work important to the plot. Plus there are Thanksgiving dinner in the heist movie “The Lookout” (2007), starring Joseph Gordon-Levit and Jeff Daniels. Other run-up to Christmas movies include the 2003 anima “Tokyo Godfathers,”“Christmas without Snow” starring John Houseman and Michael Larned, “Fracture” (also from 2007, starring Anthony Hopkins and Ryan Gosling), Tery Zwigoff’s quirky “Art School Confidential” (2006, starring Mad Minghella and John Malkovich), the bland “The Object of My Affection,” (1998, starring Paul Rudd and Jennifer Aniston) Woody Allen’s acclaimed “Hannah and Her Sisters” (1986, with Michael Caine, Diane Wiest, and Mia Farrow), and the farcical “Down and Out in Beverly Hills” (1986, starring Bette Midler and Richard Dreyfuss).

Whit Stillman’s “Metropolitan” (1990) is set in December, with highly decorated Manhattan backdrops and a band of yuppies (plus one, Tom Townsend, played by Edward Clements). It’s not really a Christmas movie, but I like it, OK? And Stillman’s “Last Days of Disco” and “Barcelona” even more. Both deserve to be better known IMO.

A movie that fully justifies the “daze[d]” part of “holidaze” is the 1971 “Wake in Fright,” directed by Ted Kotcheff, in which a teacher (Gary Bond) at a remote Australian outback one-room schoolhouse does not make it back to Sydney and is plied with beer (and, eventually, whisky) by the many swaggering drunkards of Bundanyabba (the mining town of Broken Hill, NSW). It is a “horror movie” in which hell is other people.

And a more conventional thriller/horror movie with a very tense Thanksgiving dinner is “Deadfall” in which Eric Bana holds a family headed by Sissy Spaceck and Kris Kristofferson hostage while demanding dinner be served as normal.

Other contenders:

I haven’t seen “Absurd Person Singular” or “An Old-Fashioned Thanksgiving” or “Jul i skomakergata.” I also don’t remember the perennial (once upon a time) “The Spirit of Christmas” at all clearly, nor “White Christmas” (the movie, that is; the song is indelibly inscribed in my brain, alas), nor “Holiday Inn” (don’t even remember the title song that Bing Crosby crooned from/in it) very well. I saw “Charlie Brown’s Christmas” multiple times (add it to the overplayed pile). I don’t remember the Christmas angles of “L.A. Confidential” (even though I rewatched it recently), “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence,” “Night of the Hunter,” or “The Boys of St. Vincent.” What I do remember of these movies does not involve a lot of cheer, Christmas or any other kind. And I was bored by the flow of profanity and attempts to shock the audience in “Badder Santa,” which is a conventional upbeat Christmas redemption movie under a coat of vomit.

I think that John Huston’s reach at literature often exceeded his grasp, but his final movie, a luminous 1987 adaptation of James Joyce’s “The Dead,” starring Huston’s daughter Anjelica is very satisfying and more than a little triste, though not a “Christmas movie,” for all its snow-falling.

The first episode of one of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Decalogue) (and one the best) centers on what turns out to have been a fatal Christmas present, but I decided that doesn’t make it a “Christmas movie.” The third, “Christmas Eve” is boring and pointless — qualifying as “Christmas” but not among “best.”

The Gift of the Magi” is probably the weakest of the omnibus “O. Henry’s Full House,” though based on Mr. Porter’s most famous story.

I do remember “Home Alone,” which has some inspired moments of comic mayhem.

Battleground was ruined for me by the Christmas Day ecumenical sermon (so also fails the “best” test). Maybe Sam Fuller’s (1951) “The Steel Helmet” can qualify as a poignant Buddhist Christmas movie? Most of it takes place in a Buddhist temple. No noticeable “Christmas spirit” in it, however.

Although there is a family (couple) plot within “Joyeux Nöel” (2005, directed by Christian Carion) the movie about an impromptu ceasefire in the trenches in 1914 is more about Christmas (über alles) than about World War I with all the soldiers (except for one German Jewish officer) — Scottish, German, and French — apparently being Roman Catholic (and the German Jewish officer is moved by the mass and the music sung by the couple.

. I think that “Love Actually” (2003) is hit and miss with more hits (especially Emma Thomson, Hugh Grant, Andrew Lincoln, Thomas Sangster, Laura Linney and Rodrigo Santoro; Joni Mitchell’s older “Both Sides Now” and the Beach Boys “God Only Knows”) than misses (Heike Makatsch, Martin Freeman and Joanna Page. It includes Chiristmas trees and other decorations, gift-shopping, gift disappointment, and a Christmas pageant, but skips from a tumultuous Christmas Eve to a month later, skipping Chistmas Day.

What I call the Chicagorican (a Puerto Rican family back home in Humboldt Park) Christmas movie, Nothing Like the Holidays (2008), also has too many characters and a scattergun plastering of stories (most of them not comic even with John Leguizamo and Debra Messing in the cast). I think it has some striking moments in addition to being the established in the US Latino Christmas movie.

I think that “Un conte de Noël” (A Christmas Tale, 2008) is too long, and that its opening is too cute, though it delivers a rather astringent gathering with the banished son (Mathieu Amalric) allowed to return and act out some more to the considerable irritation of the sister (Anne Consigny) who had him banished. Even less compelling a French Yuletide dysfunctional characters is “La Bûche” (1999), despite its showcasing the great Emmanuelle Béart.

And “The Ref” with burglar Dennis Leary mediating the bickering couple of Kevin Spacey and Judy David on Christmas Eve, directed by Ted Demme? Haven’t seen it. Nor have I seen Robert Downey Jr. and Andrew McCarthy in “Less Than Zero” (1987), “The Christmas That Almost Wasn’t,” “Mr.Magoo’s Christmas Carol” or “Muppet Christmas Carol.”

And Thanksgiving bonus features: Planes, Trains, and Airplanes a comedy carried by John Candy (who was already carrying plenty of weight…), “The House of Yes,” Ang Lee’s even edgier “Ice Storm,” and Arthur Penn’s “Alice’s Restaurant” with Arlo Griffith expanding upon his lengthy song.

©2018, Stephen O.  Murray

“The human heart would never pass the drunk test.”

Skillfully adapted by Isobel Lennart (1915-71, she wrote the play “Funny Girl” and the screenplays for “Anchors Away,” “The Inn of the Sixth Happiness,” “The Sundowners,” etc.) from Tennessee William’s Christmas comedy about adults with adult problems (consummating marriages, stagnating in boring jobs bossed around by jerks, managing neuroses and real estate…), the 1962 movie “Period of Adjustment” is remembered, if it is remembered at all, as a breakthrough role for Jane Fonda. It was also the first movie directed by George Roy Hill, who had directed it on stage and went on to direct “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” “The Sting,” and “Slap-Shot” (all with Paul Newman).

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The first half hour of the movie shows events that are told in the stage-play: nurse Isabel (Jane Fonda) dancing attendance on George Whittaker (Jim Hutton) at a VA hospital, her chagrin that they are setting off from the wedding in a big, black 1939 hearse with 140,000 miles on it, and land in a bar with no other female customers, then in a dingy motel on their wedding night; and her outrage that George quit his job without telling her. The story of a quick romance and rocky start of George and Isabel’s marriage is intercut with Dorothea (Lois Nettleton) urging her husband Ralph (Anthony Franciosa) to apologize to her father (Ralph McGiver), who is his boss in a Memphis-area dairy company. Drunk the night before, Ralph had told his father-in-law what he really thought of him. Hung-over, Ralph is more than usually irritated by his son whom Ralph is alarmed will grow up to be a sissy.

Instead of apologizing, Ralph quits his job and Dorothea, who was visiting her mother (a smarmy Mabel Albertson), decides to stay in her parents’ house. With his own marriage and life in complete chaos, Ralph is happy to receive a visit from his Korean War Air Force buddy George and welcomes Isabel. Ralph is less disconcerted than Isabel that George drives off after depositing all of Isabel’s luggage except what she wanted, a zippered blue bag. Isabel sputters out her dismay about the marriage that has failed in every respect to match her dreams. Having been abandoned by a spouse toward whom he is ambivalent (having married her for the prospects of inheriting the family business), Ralph is soothing. (Isabel is not ready to be soothed. When Ralph tells her: “They don’t make them any better,” she retorts: “If they don’t make them any better than George Haverstick, they ought to stop making them!”)

When George eventually returns (with a bottle of champagne to share with Isabel, who does not drink…), Ralph tries to talk some sense into George, while George spins fantasies about returning to west Texas and raising stately longhorns. (Property and commercial concerns are almost as recurrent in Tennessee Williams works as couples clawing at each other: indeed, clawing for anticipated inheritances is a Williams leitmotif.)

Besides Dorothea’s parents’ eagerness to retrieve their daughter and everything they gave the couple, there is a group of male carolers agreeing to stop for a drink at each household until they are very rowdy, and a police station in which Jack Albertson calmly listens to charges of “planned embezzlement” (i.e., Ralph selling off some of the couple’s possessions). He sends everyone, including the inebriated carolers, home. Ralph drives the hearse and has it out with Dorothea in the front seat. There is an intercom turned on, so that George and Isabel hear the painful revelations. A certain solidarity against Dorothea’s parents merges with cringing at what they hear, and in the end, all four are trying to be more considerate of their partners (and of the other couple). They have learned some things about themselves and their partners, and—it being a romantic comedy, and a Christmas Eve one at that—the movie ends with optimism that the thin-skinned human beings will build on their hard-won insights and live less unhappily ever after.

Although Fonda seems to me to overplay, the part calls for silliness and a hysterical breakdown (when calling home to Daddy). Her accent is consistent; whether it is Texan, I will leave to others to assess. It seems more Southeastern to me, as does Franciosa’s. Franciosa is very good in a nuanced portrait of a man who loathes himself for selling himself to a man he detests and for failures as a husband and father. (Franciosa was near the end of a half-decade string of good screen roles that began with one in Isabel Lennert’s screenplay for the charming romantic comedy directed by Robert Wise “This Could Be the Night”).

 

Jim Hutton was good at screwball comedy and at the spluttering vulnerability often called for in screwball comedy leads and the cover of brutality for insecurity often called from in Tennessee Williams plays. John McGiver naturally looked puffed-up and was a master of pomposity. Lois Nettleton was affecting in the difficult role (of a kind Geraldine Page played in other Williams plays and films) of a woman whose mousiness and lack of pulchritude disappointed her parents and who is painfully aware of that she was “saved from spinsterdom” without much love.

I think that Lennart and Hill did an excellent job of taking the play out from its one set, of showing some of what the stage George and Isabel tell, of getting Dorothea onscreen more and much earlier than she gets onstage, providing additional motivation for Dorothea’s father’s resentment (specifically, that he played the part of sh_t-eating son-in-law to get the business himself), keeping the best lines, and pruning dull patches from the play. Paul Vogel’s black-and-white cinematography is crisp with some deep-focus echoiong Gregg Toland’s (in “Little Foxes,” another play set in the South about greed and marital ambivalences).

Not much was censored (or self-censored): the suggestion of a homosexual neighbor, the words “horny” and “excited” (in the priapic sense). There is still a coded discussion of potency and impotency, and though the Production Code stipulated that married couples had to have twin beds, at the end each couple is together in one bed (not in the same room).

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(The meaning of the line I’ve taken for my review’s title, as explained by Ralph, applies widely in William’s work: “If you took the human heart out of the human body and put a pair of legs on it and told it to walk a straight line, it couldn’t do it. It never could pass the drunk test.”)

 

©2003, Stephen O. Murray