Tag Archives: soap opera

1958 somewhat revisionist western, “The Big Country”

I like both Gregory Peck and Jean Simmons a lot, so was inclined to like William Wyler’s “The Big Country” (which I saw on tv many decades ago). In some ways it is a revisionist western, somewhat like “High Noon,” not as radical as “The Searchers,” or even “The Gunfighter” (with a mustachioed Peck), the first of the revisionist westerns of the 1950s.

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Peck played James McKay, a Yankee sea captain, who has come west to wed Patricia Terill (Caroll Baker), the devoted (to an unhealthy degree) daughter of doting cattle baron, Major Henry Terrill (the gravel-voiced Charles Bickford). McKay refuses to prove his masculinity in public, though the audience is privy to demonstrations his fiancée is not, including fighting the major’s foreman, Steve Leech, played by a surly Charlton Heston, in a memorable knock-down, drag-out fistfight shot from far above. There is also a God’s eye (well, at least canyon rim top) view of the final one-on-one gunfight between the stubborn patriarchs (Burl Ives, winning his Oscar). There are more conventional, closer-up shots of the duel between Peck and the eldest, weasliest son of Rufus Hannassey, “Buck” (Chuck Connors).

None of the four Hannasey boys is a testimonial to good child-raising. As the eldest, “Buck” had to have had more time with a mother. His father deplores him, but has to have a major share of the blame for Buck’s character. Rufus otherwise seems a perspicacious observer and interpreter of what is unsaid. And he is either the only one who remembers despicable deeds by the major, or the only one with the courage to allude to them. (I don’t know what the major did that so riled Hannassey, and Patricia certainly won’t listen to anything disparaging of her father.)

In addition to the Hannassey’s Blanco Canyon (shot in Kern County, California’s Red Rock State Park) and the major’s vast holdings (shot in the Sierra foothills east of Stockton), there is a river with year-round water, the Big Muddy, on land owned by Julie Maragon (Jean Simmons), who allows access to the water to both the Terrill and Hannassy cattle. She lives in town and teaches school, the ranch she inherited (form her grandfather; I have no idea what happened to her parents) is fallow (well, ungrazed). She and Pat and the major are friends, but she abides by her grandfather’s promise to allow the Hannasseys access to the Big Muddy.

Having resisted offers to sell from both sides, Julie precipitously accepts an offer from McKay to buy the property. Steve and his henchmen drive Hannassey cattle away, though neither Julie nor McKay would support this. (I don’t think Steve knows the deed had changed hands, and am not sure whether he is acting on his own or following orders from the major.)

Buck seizes Julie. The major’s mini-army is set to go in the narrow canyon to rescue her. McKay knows this is just a pretext and goes in himself to get her out. Violence follows, if less than the threatened “river of blood.”

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McKay is as stubborn as the two patriarchs, though trying to make peace between two clans that do not want that and not at all given to public posturing, in contrast to the senior antagonists and their junior ones (Heston and Connors). Peck was very, very good in the role (fresh from the monomania of Captain Ahab), as were the old enemy patriarchs Ives and Bickford played.

I can’t see McKay being so smitten by the superficial Patricia as to give up his way of life and go to wed her in her own (that is, her father’s) turf. It is obvious that Julie is smarter and more compatible. Do they love each other? I’m not sure, and though they are together at the end, there is no indication they will live together happily ever after, or at all. And the heirs of both Terrill and Hannassey ranches are less prudential than the patriarchs, and it is difficult to foresee McKay keeping the peace that he has tenuously established by pushing the old men to fight each other rather than to sacrifice surrogates to their enmity.

Veteran cinematographer Franz Planer (who was Oscar-nominated for Wyler-directed “Roman Holiday” and “The Children’s Hour”) did good work. Presumable the shooting from up and away was Wyler’s decision. Jerome Moross’s rousing western score (kicking in in the opening credits; thankfully this is one 1950s western without a ballad!) foreshadowed scores by Elmer Bernstein and Ennio Morricone, and was Oscar-nominated. (Dimitri Tiomkin won for “The Old Man and the Sea.”)

The adaptation to a big-screen, all-star, 165-minute-long movie from a story by Donald Hamilton (creator of Matt Helm) was credited to Wyler and to Jessamyn West, the author of Friendly Persuasion, which Wyler had directed an adaptation of (not crediting her work beyond the novel) in 1956. It centers on a pacifist who was played by Gary Cooper (who took up arms in Howard Hawks’s “Sgt. York”).

I’m still not sure that Burl Ives deserved the Oscar for his part here, but for me the alternative choice would have been his “Big Daddy” in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” He definitely peaked in 1958! His Golden Globe for 1958 was also for his role in “The Big Country,” btw. And Wyler went on (even before shooting was complete) to Rome to direct Heston in the title role of “Ben Hur,” for which both won Oscars.

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

 

 

 

 

Minor Kinoshita soap opera: “Wedding Ring” (1950)

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The title of Kinoshita’s 1950 very predictable soap opera “Konyaku yubiwa” was translated into English as “Engagement Ring,” but the ring often shown in closeup is a diamond wedding ring, and the current Criterion/Hulu title “Wedding Ring” is far more accurate a title.

At the start, the very conscientious young physician (his vocation is established immediately, since the bus conductor is his patient) Ema (Mifune Toshirô) who rushes onto an SRO bus is literally thrown into the lap of an older woman riding on the bus. Mrs. Kuki (Tanaka Kinuyo). They both have given names (Takeshi and Noriki, respectively) but always address each other as Mr. Emi and Mrs. Kuki.

It turns out (what a coincidence) that Emi is on his way to the seaside town of Ajiro to treat Mrs. Kuki’s husband, Michio (Uno Yûkichi). The couple was married shortly before the husband went off to war and he returned with tuberculosis, so they have not had conjugal relations except very briefly when they were first married.

How could she not be attracted to the robustly healthy young Mifune (ten years her junior), having a husband in name only? She couldn’t and he is attracted to her as well (though it seems to me that he had the freedom to encounter many other and more attractive women).

Though not immune to jealousy, Michio recognizes that his wife is unfulfilled sexually. He likes his doctor and that doctor is not only conscientious in his treatment of his patient but very correct in curbing his desire for the yearningly available wife.

Mrs. Yuki watched Emi go swimming in the absurd swimsuits extending above the navel of the day (later, Emi strips down to his underwear and reveals his navel…). There are frequent shots in early Kinoshita movies of people from the knee down walking, and Emi’s footwear is observed closely by Mrs. Kuki and by the camera.

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There are many artful compositions concocted by Kinoshita and his brother-in-law and usual cinematographer, Kusuda Hiroshi, while, as was often the case, Kinoshita’s brother, Chûji, was guilty of musical overkill (in the Max Steiner tradition). The flopping around resisting temptation, but ultimately doing the right thing is very, very predictable, as if the Hollywood Production Code was regulating Japanese movie (under the US military occupation at the time, it unofficially was).

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

 

 

 

 

Ichikawa’s 1983 adaptation of Tanizaki’s “The Makioka Sisters”

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A decade-plus or so ago, the 20th-century Japanese whose work most interested me was Tanizaki Jun’ichirô (1886-1965). I am currently on an Inoue Yasushi (1907-1991) binge, and the Japanese writer I most enjoy remains Dazai Osamu (1909-48). Tanizaki’s foot fetishism eventually tired me along with his lack of interest in such male characters as were necessary evils in his focus on women. And I have not yet tackled his Big Novel/family chronicle Sasame-yuki, which means small snowflakes. In English, both the novel and Ichikawa Kon’s 1983 screen adaptation of it are titled “The Makioka Sisters.”

The movie is set in Osaka during the years 1938-40, years in which Japan was already at war conquering Manchuria and China, male concerns that are only fleetingly signaled, though the novelist and the film-maker were as aware of the rush to disaster as readers and viewers are.

The elder two daughters Tsuruko (Kishi Keiko) and Sachiko (Sakurma Yoshiko) are both married. Not just married but with husbands who have “married in,” that is, taken the Makioka name, which only social inferiors would consider doing.

The youngest sibling Taeko (Kotegawa Yukô) has a serious of disastrous “romantic” liaisons. I don’t recall her smoking in the film, but she goes to a bar alone, wears western clothes, and has a business (albeit it is doll-making, not a masculine one). Takeo cannot marry until the third sister, the diffident Yukiko (Yoshinaga Sayuri) does. Tsuruko has torpedoed a number of matches quite late in the match-making process, Yukiko has rejected some, and Takeo’s notoriety scares off a few more.

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Insofar as “The Makioka Sisters” is a Japanese Gone with the Wind, Yukiko is something of a Melanie, Taeko a headstrong selfish Scarlett. Tara is in danger, not of the bombers who are still in the future, but because Tsuruko’s husband, Tatsuo (Itami Jûzô), is being pressed by the bank that employs him to move to Tokyo. And the upsetting of the Old Order is not the war Japan will lose, but the rejection of tradition by Takeo.

Having read a lot of Tanizaki, I am sure that the book’s literary qualities exceed those of Margaret Mitchell’s blockbuster, but, like GWTW, “The Makioka Sisters” is a soap opera, and there is strong illicit desire (Sachiko’s husband, the delicate Teinosuke [Ishizaka Kôji] for Yukiko the functional equivalent of Scarlett’s for Ashley who married Melanie). And keeping up appearances is a major concern in both movies, though the Makioka sisters do not need to retailor curtains: they have a veritable museum collection of kimonos.

The males in the movie are not as negligible as they are in much Tanizaki fiction. The attention to women’s clothes and exposed flesh (including one longing look at Yukiko’s feet by Teinosuke) is very Tanizaki. Tanizaki was “effeminate” in the older sense of the word in English: a man preoccupied with women and everything about them rather than woman-like. Ichikawa was not and made many movies mostly focused on male characters.

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Though she had retired from writing screenplays at the time her husband undertook the Tokyo Olympics documentary in 1964 and died in 1983, it is difficult for me to believe that Wada Natto (née Mogi Yumiko in 1920) did not supply at least some advice for the adaptation of The Makioka Sisters. (She had been credited with the screenplay adapting Tanazaki’s The Key, which was luridly titled in English “Odd Obsession. [1959].)

The eye is Ichikawa’s with gorgeous and fluid camerawork by Hasegawa Kiyoshi (who also shot “The Devil’s Ballad” in 1977 for Ichikawa, a movie I had not heard of before looking at Hasegawa’s screen credits).

I consider “The Makioka Sisters” a late masterpiece from a great master, albeit a movie that I don’t especially like. Its appeal is more for a Douglas Sirk audience than a samurai or Godzilla movie audience.

The Criterion DVD looks great. The only bonus feature on the disc is a trailer. There is a booklet essay by Audie Bock that is excellent, but I’d forego bonus features to see more Ichikawa films. I could easily wish-list a box of them (for the Eclipse series?).

©2016, Stephen O. Murray