Tag Archives: rom-com

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

 

 

“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

A mildly entertaining gangster exiled to Rhodes movie

A fish-out-of-water story from 1960 is “Surprise Package.” The fish is American gang-leader Nico March (Yul Brynner, between “The King and I” and “The Magnificent Seven”), who is deported to a Greek island. (though not named in the movie, it was filmed on Rhodes) He conspires to steal the bejeweled crown of the King of Anatolia(!) played by Nöel Coward, who was much better than he would later be as the Witch of Endor. The surprise to me is that the stripper bimbo moll as played by Mitzie Gaynor is charming and also the wisest character in the movie. I was underwhelmed by her in “South Pacific” and “Les Girls,” but she was funny trying to bring sense to her boyfriend. Brynner was dressed as if he wandered over from a production of “Guys and Dolls.” Apparently, some viewers couldn’t understand his fast talk, though it presented no problem to me.

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George Coulouris provided the menace as an agent from the People’s Republic of Anatolia, determined to recover the ancient régime’s crown jewels. And the most comic character is the Hungarian spy (Guy Deghy) who responds to Brynner unmasking him: “”Of course, I am spying on you. That’s my profession. I’m a spy!”

A silly heist comedy and a silly rom-com, yet, but pleasant mindless entertainment from Art Buchwald and Staneley Donen. (Singin’ in the Rain, Charade) Coward and Gaynor perform the title song together btw. Donen made a far more interesting road picture in “Two for the Road” with Audredy Hepburn and Albert Finney in 1967.

 

©2018, Stephen O. Murray

 

 

Fukasaku’s “Fall Guy”

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Fukasaku Kinji (1920-2003), famed for making ultra-violent yakuza movies (such as “Battle Royale” and the “Battles Without Honor or Humanity” series), surprised (pleasantly) audiences with a behind-the-scenes movie with an important female part in the 1982 “Kamata kôshinkyoku.” The title derives from the beginning of the Shochiku Studio theme song. The English-language title “Fall Guy” is not bad, though “Bit Player,” the designation the hapless Yasu (Hirata Mitsuru) uses in self-designation (in the English subtitles) would IMO have been better.

Yasu is not a stuntman. He is one of the lackeys in the entourage of Ginshiro (a way over-the-top narcissist played by Kazama Morio) who gets nonspeaking parts in Ginshiro’s movies. Mostly he dies onscreen and pantomimes it on demand offscreen or does whatever else Ginshiro wants.

Not without reason, the very hammy Ginshiro is concerned that his star is waning and that Tachibana (Harada Daijirô) is being promoted to replace him. Ginshiro feels that he cannot marry Konatsu (Matsuzaka Keiko) who is bearing his child and asks Yasu to marry her and give the child his name.

Yasu had worshipped Konatsu, who used to be a star herself. Under his James Dean poster, he was one of her. He is willing to be the legal father of the unborn child.

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Ginshiro pays nothing for the support of the woman he impregnated and who loves him. To keep Yasu in his subordinate place, he forces him to watch as he more or less rapes Konatsu, who can’t resist Ginshiro.

To make extra money for his pregnant wife (-to-be), Yasu volunteers for stunts. As I already noted, he is a bit player, not a stuntman. He has no training in taking falls, but seeks them so he can support Konatsu and the baby she is carrying.

None of the professional stuntmen (none is shown in the movie) is willing to fall down 39 steps in a fight with Ginshiro, and without the big finish to the fight Ginshiro is worried that he will not be seen by audiences as the star of the (samurai) movie within the movie.

Both for the extra-high hazard pay and from devotion to Ginshiro, Yasu volunteers to take the fall. He is such a sap that he makes Ginshiro as large a beneficiary as Konatsu in the life insurance policy he takes out.

The movie is often farcical with exaggerated caricature of star narcissism and unreasonableness. At least I hope that the sadomasochistic relationship between star and entourage member is exaggerated! It does not differ in kind from the obedience and self-endangerment of low-level gangsters in Fukasaku Kinji’s yakuza movies, however. Indeed, the flunkies die for real on command of a gang leader or anticipating what the gang leader wants.

Fukasaku biographer Sadao Yamane points this out in a bonus feature that also explains the journey from novel to stage play to movie. He also explains the Japanese title and the oddness that after refusing to produce the movie Toei Studio permitted it to be made by Shochiky on its (often shown) Kyoto studio lot (where the original incident occurred) with some Toei staff utilized. In a booklet interview by Sadao, Fukasaku recalls that some of the Toei craftsmen who had been openly contemptuous of the movie while it was being shot were moved to tears when they saw the finished product.

Though I often winced at Yasu’s exploitation (and eagerness to be exploited) and at the narcissism of Ginshiro, I was moved by Matsuzaka Keiko’s performance and the resolve of her character to stand by her (substitute) man and to try to dissuade him from the very risky big fall. And after comedic postponements of shooting the climax, Ginshiro redeems himself by showing gratitude to Yasu.

There is also a trailer that shows practically nothing from the film (some outtakes).

The film swept the Japanese Academy awards, including best film, director, screenplay, music score, actress, actor, and supporting actor (Kazama). Hirata Mitsuru not only was named best actor but also won the newcomer of the year award. Kitasaka Kiyoshi’s cinematography was nominated, as were the lighting, art direction, and sound.

©2016, Stephen O. Murray