This posting is my contribution to The Great Villain Blogathon. Please take a look at the other postings, which cover an amazing range of films.
There’s something peculiarly chilling about a villain stalking you in your own house – especially when it’s the person who is supposed to be your soulmate. A number of films made in the era of noir explored the plight of wives psychologically tortured by their husbands (Rebecca, Suspicion, The Two Mrs Carrolls). The two versions of Gaslightare among the best.
Here are my thoughts on the two films – and the two villains of the piece, played by Anton Walbrook and Charles Boyer, with Diana Wynyard and Ingrid Bergman as their terrified wives. Both versions have great lead performances and it’s fascinating to compare them. In particular, Boyer and Walbrook are very different. To my mind the earlier film, directed by Thorold Dickinson, holds its mood better and is more truly frightening than the George Cukor remake, but both are powerful dramas in their own right.
Although there are many changes, in each case the main story is the same, focusing on a wife trapped within a Gothic house amid the darkness of Victorian London. A murder took place in the house years ago, with a woman being killed for her jewels, but her attacker failed to find the gems and went away empty-handed. Now the house is haunted by the memory of that crime. Every evening the gaslight dims – but is it really the wife’s mind which is fading? Her apparently attentive husband claims that she is showing signs of mental illness, yet it becomes increasingly apparent that he is the one driving her to a breakdown.
A Happy New Year to all readers of my blog, and thanks very much for your support, visits, comments and ‘likes’ during 2014. I’m hoping to post a bit more regularly here over the coming 12 months, so watch this space.
A while back, I launched a series of mini-reviews mentioning 5 films on a particular theme – I’m now resurrecting the idea for a quick look at some movies about New Year, in no particular order.
1. Cavalcade (Frank Lloyd, 1933): I’ve just got round to watching this pre-Code, an adaptation of a stage play by Noel Coward which revolves around a series of tableaux centred on momentous events in British life. It begins with New Year’s Eve at the dawn of the 20th century, and runs through to New Year’s Eve 1933. The way it blends together the story of two families above and below stairs clearly shows the way forward to TV series such as Downton Abbey and Upstairs Downstairs, while the intensely-felt central performance of Diana Wynyard as an aristocratic mother at times reminded me of Celia Johnson in Coward’s later classic, Brief Encounter. I really enjoyed it, despite the fact that many people don’t. Anyway, yes, it is episodic, but what great episodes. Also, the music is excellent, especially Ursula Jeans’ performance of Coward’s song Twentieth Century Blues – even if you don’t want to see the whole film, just treat yourself to this clip!
It’s over-sweet and over-long – but should not be overlooked. Anchors Aweigh tends to be regarded as something of a dry run for another film featuring Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly as sailors on shore leave, On the Town. When the earlier movie does get a mention, usually it’s just the celebrated dance routine with Kelly and Jerry Mouse which comes in for praise. However, Anchors Aweigh has a warmth and charm going beyond that sequence and Sinatra actually gets better solo songs here than he does in the more famous movie. The gorgeous Technicolor also helps to make it all hugely watchable.
Kelly and Sinatra play the two kindest and nicest sailors imaginable. It comes as a surprise now to realise that Kelly was actually third-billed, because his determined, slightly sarcastic screen personality dominates the film. His character, Joe Brady, blusters about his supposed relationship with a girl about town called Lola, and has several one-sided phone conversations with her – but she never actually puts in an appearance. Sinatra plays a delicate second fiddle as wide-eyed former choirboy, Clarence Doolittle, who hero-worships Joe and, at the start of the film, is seen literally following him around. The actors’ real-life friendship helps to create a convincing warmth and chemistry between them, even if it is hard to believe that any sailors serving in a war could be quite this well-behaved.
This great comedy really is a film that has its wedding cake and eats it. James Stewart sums it all up beautifully in two caustic lines – on the one hand: “The prettiest sight in this fine, pretty world is the privileged class enjoying its privileges.” That’s certainly a big selling point for a movie set in an impossibly luxurious mansion on the eve of a grand wedding, amid a whirl of champagne and gowns by Adrian. But, on the other hand, as Stewart snarls on the phone: “This is the Voice of Doom calling. Your days are numbered, to the seventh son of the seventh son.” The Philadelphia Story, one of the greatest of screwball comedies, celebrates the quirkiness of rich society families, as epitomised in Katharine Hepburn’s haughty, upper-crust heroine, Tracy Samantha Lord. But it also suggests that their days are indeed numbered, and shows this American aristocrat having to change and bend with the times.
The opening scene is a brief silent drama which shows Tracy’s violent break-up with her husband, CK Dexter Haven (Cary Grant), as she contemptuously breaks his golf clubs and he retaliates by pushing her through a door, deciding against hitting her. From this dramatic break-up, it’s a case of going full circle and getting back to the point where the couple fall in love. Just as Tracy is about to marry a safe but boring businessman, George Kittredge (John Howard), Dexter turns up at the eleventh hour and starts turning everything upside down. He brings in a reporter and photographer from a gossip magazine, Spy, (he has been blackmailed into doing so) and things are soon becoming more complicated, and comic, by the minute. It turns out that the reporter, Macaulay/Mike Connor (Stewart) is really a poetic short story writer, and Tracy starts to fall under his spell, threatening her forthcoming marriage – while the rest of her eccentric family are busy causing their own brand of mayhem.
Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn made a total of nine films together, but, for my money, Adam’s Rib is the best. It’s a film with just about everything, from a sharp script to a great performances by the central couple as rival lawyers. It was also ahead of its time in its trenchant querying of the sexual double standard, a theme flagged up in the title. And there is a fine supporting cast, headed by Judy Holliday. You can see why this film was such a shot in the arm for the romantic comedy at a time when the genre was starting to struggle.
I’ve always been fond of films where couples work together, which tends to make for great dialogue as their personal relationship becomes messily entwined with rivalries and tensions in the workplace. Tracy and Hepburn had already made one good film where they are rival journalists, Woman of the Year (1942), though that one is marred by a cringe-making ending. In Adam’s Rib they are married colleagues again, but this time they play lawyers.
The shadow of Casablanca hangs heavy over Tokyo Joe, as Bogart attempts to recapture the mood of his most famous romance in a drama made by his own production company, Santana. Once again, Bogart plays an expat nightclub owner, this time wandering through the battered landscape of post-war Tokyo. And once again he rekindles his love for a glamorous old flame (Florence Marly) who is now married to someone else. There is even a song running through the film, this time the standard These Foolish Things.
Inevitably, the film, directed by Stuart Heisler, loses by the comparison with its celebrated predecessor, and I’d have to say it is relatively minor Bogart – but then, even minor Bogart is so watchable. He brings his unique blend of dry wit and underlying passion to the role of Joe Barrett, and is so compelling that at the start of the film I was really excited and thought it was a little-known masterpiece. Sadly, it isn’t – the pacing falls away in the middle and there are too many unlikely plot twists, as well as a stereotyped Japanese villain.
This posting is my contribution to the Funny Lady blogathon being organised by the Movies, Silently blog. Please do visit and read the postings on a host of actresses from different eras.
If there’s a film moment that sums up Margaret Rutherford’s screen personality, it is probably the opening glimpse of her in David Lean’s adaptation of Noel Coward’s great comic play, Blithe Spirit. She is seen on her bicycle, doggedly riding up a hill as her cape billows out around her. Somehow the image is both hilarious and poignant, and it gives the essence of the character she plays in this movie, one she originally created on stage, eccentric medium Madame Arcati.
Rutherford does not get top billing in this film and isn’t given all that much screen time, even though she makes such a vivid impression. The star with his name above the title is Rex Harrison, who plays Charles Condomine, a crime author looking for a sensational new story idea. He invites the village mystic to his cosy Home Counties cottage, assuming that when she organises a séance the whole thing will be a con trick, and provide him with a generous helping of material.