This is my contribution to the Diamonds and Gold blogathon, which is looking at actors and actresses later on in their careers. Please do visit and read the other contributions! This piece is also the (somewhat belated) launch of my projected series of reviews about films starring Laurence Olivier – I aim to write about a few more between now and early May.
Laurence Olivier and Carol Lynley
When it comes to his film career, Laurence Olivier is of course best known for his classic roles, including his great Shakespearean performances. He’s certainly not the first person you’d think of to play an ageing police superintendent in a 1960s thriller set in swinging London, and featuring a pop group like The Zombies! However, that’s just what he does in Otto Preminger’s Bunny Lake Is Missing, a compelling Hitchcock-style thriller in black and white which had me on the edge of my seat. I won’t be giving away any of the later plot twists in this review, as it is the sort of film where the shocks are all part of the experience. (Preminger copied Hitchcock with Psycho by decreeing that nobody could be admitted to the cinema after the film had started.) As well as featuring Olivier, it also has highly enjoyable late-career performances from Noel Coward and character actress Martita Hunt, best-known for her portrayal of Miss Havisham in David Lean’s Great Expectations. Yet another plus is an early role for Anna Massey. The film is available on DVD in both region 1 and region 2
This great romantic melodrama from Douglas Sirk shares a lot with his film from the previous year, Magnificent Obsession. It has the same intense Technicolor, combining with music from Frank Skinner to give a dream quality, and much of the cast is the same, including leads Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson. However, for me this film is even more powerful than its predecessor, partly because the plot is not so far-fetched – stemming more from the characters without so many exterior twists.
The story of this film can in some ways be seen as a role reversal take on Magnificent Obsession. In the earlier movie, Rock Hudson played a rich character who had to embrace a whole new philosophy and change his way of life for the sake of love. This time around, it’s Jane Wyman who has to follow a similar path. She plays Cary Scott, a well-off but lonely widow who doesn’t have enough to do now that her children are grown up. It looks as if the only life she can have now is one revolving around an empty succession of cocktail parties and country club meetings. When her children visit, they seem extremely keen to consign her to a premature old age (Wyman was still in her 30s here, though the character is clearly older), complaining if she wears a low-cut dress and apparently hoping she will make a “suitable” marriage to the staid, boring Harvey. Their solution for her loneliness is to order her a TV set, even though she doesn’t want one. The television set and the layers of ornaments all seem like so many ways of trapping her in a gilded cage.
This is my contribution to the Sleuthathon organised by Movies Silently. Please do visit and read the other entries. The film I’ve chosen is controversial because of some plot elements. I won’t discuss this aspect until the end and will give a spoiler warning, since, as so often with Hitchcock, this is a film where you definitely don’t want to know what’s coming in advance!
Jane Wyman stars as young actress Eve, who turns detective to prove the man she loves is innocent of murder. That’s the starting-point for this unusual Hitchcock thriller, also starring Marlene Dietrich and Michael Wilding. For my money, the movie disproves the claim that he couldn’t do comedy, with many hilarious moments from British character greats such as Alastair Sim and Joyce Grenfell. At times the humour does slow the pace, but it’s all so enjoyable that it’s hard to care – and the tension still builds to an unbearable level whenever the plot calls for it. In particular, the ending of the film is increasingly tense, achieving the same sort of edge-of-the-seat agony as many better-known Hitchcocks.
Hitchcock was keen to work in London at this time because daughter Patricia was at drama school there, and he gave her a small part as a character with the wonderful name “Chubby Bannister”. Despite a mainly British cast, probably with an eye on the US box office, he chose an American actress for the lead role. I’ve just been watching Jane Wyman’s most famous films made with Douglas Sirk, so I was interested to see her in a very different part here. This was made only four years before she played an older woman in Magnificent Obsession, yet here she is cast as a fresh-faced ingénue who still lives at home with her mother. Well, with her mother (Sybil Thorndike in sublime grande dame form) half the time, and her father (a gloriously grumpy Alastair Sim) the other half.
A quick note to say I haven’t had much time for posting here lately, so have decided to carry on writing about Douglas Sirk films through the rest of March, as time allows – though I will take a break from him to write about a Hitchcock film for the Sleuthathon on March 16! I’ll then go on to write about Laurence Olivier in April (I’ve signed up to take part in a couple of blogathons then too, writing about his films). And I’ll get on to Marlene Dietrich in May… rather than March as originally planned.
Please note I do discuss the whole plot of this film. So far I’ve written about a couple of lesser-known Douglas Sirk films. Now I’m on to one of his more famous melodramas, the glossy romance Magnificent Obsession – said to be one of the greatest weepies of all time. I’ll admit I stayed dry-eyed. For me the problem is that the soapy plot is just so far-fetched, even by the standards of this genre, and it’s hard to suspend disbelief enough to go with the emotions. Having said that, lead actors Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson are both excellent, Sirk’s direction is seductively smooth, and there are many great scenes and moments along the way.
One of those is the film’s opening. It is exciting, glamorous – and likely to hook most viewers from the start. Handsome, rich playboy Bob Merrick (Hudson) is at the helm of a hydroplane which clearly cost a fortune, ignoring warnings from bystanders as he heads out across the lake and piles on speed. In an action film, this kind of sequence would be designed to make the audience marvel at the hero’s daring – for instance, with the pre-credits stunts in Bond films. It has much the same effect in this “women’s emotion picture”, as you find yourself willing Bob to avoid the inevitable crash. Yet, at the same time as demonstrating his courage, it also shows the character’s fatal recklessness and self-absorption – something underlined by the comments of those surrounding him. “Doesn’t that guy have a brain?” “He doesn’t need to, he’s got four million bucks.”
Mention Douglas Sirk, and the type of film that immediately comes to mind is a glossy colour melodrama. However, he did also make some black-and-white films – including this early 1950s production. Like his previous film, Has Anybody Seen My Gal?, this is a period piece (it’s set in 1910). Also like the earlier film, it again paints a portrait of small-town America which is deeply nostalgic and wistful and yet, at the same time, clearly draws out the narrowness and judgemental attitudes of the community. At its centre is Barbara Stanwyck, giving a powerful and multi-layered performance.
Where does the time go? February’s half over and I’m only just getting on to my Douglas Sirk season – sorry to be slow, but hopefully I’ll still manage to fit in a few reviews! The earliest film included in the 7-DVD UK/region 2 Douglas Sirk Collection is the charming, bitter-sweet Has Anybody Seen My Gal? This is a small-town tale in gorgeous Technicolor (though sadly a bit faded on the DVD), as typical of Sirk, but, since it is a comedy, the mood is rather lighter than in many of his films. Unusually, it’s also a sort-of musical, with occasional brief bursts of song and dance, although none of them really come to much. This is a period piece, set in the 1920s, and it’s full of loving observation and beautiful sets and costumes to create the mood.
Top billing goes to Piper Laurie and Rock Hudson, who went on to work with Sirk on several better-known films – but make no mistake, this is Charles Coburn’s film all the way. In his mid-70s when he made this movie, the comedy great dominates throughout, and playing the lead rather than a smaller character part gives him the chance to show more layers to his grumpy but kindly screen persona. Once again, he plays a grandfather type loaded with money, as in earlier comedies like Bachelor Mother – but his wealth certainly doesn’t seem to be making him happy. As the film opens, he is pining away in bed, nursing imaginary ailments and making the lives of his employees a misery as he barks out cruel but witty one-liners.