Narrative implausibilities don’t matter too much in film noir as it is a genre that deals with often grim mental states rather than the ‘real world’. This is particularly true in the films from around the middle of the last century in America when Dr Freud’s ideas had passed, in some form or other, into the mainstream. That’s fortunate for Whirlpool as the way Charles Bickford’s lieutenant conducts his investigation more than beggars belief. Gene Tierney is mixed up in murder having been entangled by Jose Ferrer’s bad guy; Ferrer is brilliant in the role. The narrative allows the husband to question his wife in the presence of the cop, and vice versa, and this highlights the investigation is into a woman’s psyche rather than into crime.
Tierney’s husband (a miscast Richard Conte – he was a great heavy) is a psychiatrist so we can be sure that what ails his wife lurks in childhood. And it is this that makes the film particularly interesting as the psychological villain turns out to be patriarchy: her father and later her husband. There isn’t any ‘reading between the lines’ required to work this out for the film explicitly states this. Many noirs focused on male insecurity, particularly of veterans, and the femme fatales that brought them down. Whirlpool deals with female insecurity and the men that bring her down.
This insecurity manifests itself as an entirely patriarchal creation: the belief that women were weak and easily hysterical. Tierney’s character’s kleptomania also draws on the idea that women mentally were weak consumers.
Preminger restricts his use of chiaroscuro lighting and doesn’t offer expressionist angles but shoots the film efficiently enough. Arthur Miller’s cinematography looks great, as does Tierney even if her range as an actor was limited she does embody the part very well.
After yesterday‘s peculiar mixing of styles I immediately stumbled across another example with this melo-noir. The reasons for the strange combination are easy to trace through the scriptwriters: Sam Fuller’s noir script, good guy brought down by bad woman (who is really good), was rewritten by Helen Deutsch of National Velvet (1944) fame. In its widest sense most films are melodrama as they require a contrived narrative and character types to function as mainstream texts but in this context the melodrama refers to the way, as Slant magazine has it, Deutsch ‘lobotomized’ the noirintentions.
Whilst the enigma of Patricia Knight’s femme fatale is interesting – is she as bad as she appears? – the schmaltzy home environment of the schmuck (Cornel Wilde), complete with ‘cute’ kid brother and smiling blind mother, suffocates the nihilism that John Baragrey’s bad guy struggles to sell (the ending is terrible).
Sirk’s expressionist visual style, that is celebrated in the melodramas that were to follow in the ’50s, is directly wedded to noir‘s visual style, if not the narrative. As can be seen in the publicity photo above, chiaroscuro lighting is present but my overall impression when watching the film was it is not one that relishes the noir visual style. Knight’s femme fatale, however, could be the cousin of Gilda who did go wrong. Sirk seems most interested in the interiors of the home, the key setting for melodrama.
Cornel Wilde has the thankless task of the parole officer who is unbelievably ‘good’. One thing noir movies reeked of was sex but Wilde’s far to anodyne here (not blaming him specifically – could be the script). It’s as if the Production Code had been swallowed when noir movies tended to push it as far as they could.
Apparently Sirk was so disillusioned with Hollywood after making the film he returned to Europe. Fortunately he came back to make some of the greatest Hollywood films of the era.
Here’s a film that’s lovely to look at and which features an ear-worm song cleverly stitched into the score by Alfred Newman. But in some ways it’s the production itself and the stories behind the script which make it a significant film. Let’s take the production first. It was released in August 1955 as one of the early Fox ‘CinemaScope and DeLuxe Color’ films. At this point, ‘Scope prints were still being released in their original 2.55:1 aspect ratio with a separate stereo soundtrack. The film must have looked and sounded fantastic – as long as you were in a big and refurbished Fox theatre. Director Henry King was nearly 70 when the film was released. He was arguably the most reliable director at 20th Century Fox, responsible for major features for nearly the whole of the studio period and completing over 100 films in his long career. King’s forte was literary adaptations but as soon as he finished work on this film, he started on Carousel (1956).
Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing is indeed a literary adaptation of the novel of the same title (but with British spelling) by Han Suyin. It is set in Hong in 1949 as the Chinese Civil War is coming to an end and the Korean War is about to begin. One of the most striking aspects of the production is that much of the film was shot on location in Hong Kong, offering some amazing coverage of the city, its waterfront and the hills above. The shooting of these scenes was the responsibility of Otto Lang who appears to have worked as a 2nd-unit director on several Fox productions. As far as I’m aware Leon Shamroy, like King, a Fox stalwart throughout the studio period, shot the whole film including the Hong Kong and California sequences (and the studio-set material). One of the concerns about early ‘Scope was the suggestion that the need for more light by the anamorphic lens would reduce the depth of field available and that the difficulties of composition would mean a reliance on relatively static medium shots. In this film Shamroy seems to deploy many long shots on the Hong Kong locations and even to some extent in the studio interiors. This is what makes the film so spectacular and a perfect advertisement for what ‘Scope could do. In many scenes he composes using the full width of the screen and includes several charcters in medium long shot (MLS).
The story is relatively simple. Han Suyin is a doctor specialising in paediatric medicine in a Hong Kong hospital. She’s a widow with an extended family in Chungking. She meets and falls in love with Mark Elliott, an American war correspondent. He is married but separated from his wife who lives in Singapore. Mark struggles to get a divorce and Suyin goes back to her family to get their approval for remarriage. With war still in China and coming to Korea, Mark could be sent to cover action at any point. Though they love each other Mark and Suyin know that because she is ‘Eurasian’ (that’s the term used in the film’ for a person with a European and an Asian parent) they are likely to face prejudice whether they are in East or West. Suyin faces prejudice at home in Chungking and in Hong Kong from the racist wife of the hospital’s funder.
The story behind the script is that it is highly auto-biographical. Surprisingly though, Han Suyin (1916-2012) became a supporter of the People’s Republic of China, even though her first husband died in 1947 fighting for the Nationalist Kuomintang. In reality she fell in love with an Australian journalist rather than an American. Presumably she still had some control over the material and it’s interesting to find a Cold War film (with memories of Korea only a few years earlier) in which the Chinese CP is not completely denounced. Suyin’s family in Chungking reming me a little of the household in Springtime in a Small Town (China 1948 and 2002) – much larger, but clearly affluent despite the Civil War. In the hospital in Hong Kong, one of the senior doctors who admires Suyin urges her to return to China and offer her services to the new government. The real Han Suyin did return to China and also later wrote a novel in support of the Chinese-led rebellion against colonial rule in Malaya (she had then married a British officer in Malaya).
The casting decisions on this production will prompt comment today. William Holden plays Mark Elliott and he’s always reliable actor. He seems to have caused a stir in Hong Kong since the fandom that he provoked is a feature of the classic Hong Kong film Comrades: Almost a Love Story (HK 1996) in which Aunt Rosie one of the older female characters claims to have spent the day with Holden in his hotel during the shoot of Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing. The same actor who plays Aunt Rosie (Irene Tsu) supposedly had an uncredited part in William Holden’s other (British) picture made in Hong Kong, The World of Suzie Wong (1961). The controversial casting might now be seen as Jennifer Jones to play Han Suyin. As a bi-racial character I’m not sure how that casting would be seen today. Is it a case of ‘yellow-face’ casting – a Caucasian actor playing a bi-racial character? Chinese actors, including Chinese-American actors were severely under-represented in Studio Hollywood films. Jennifer Jones had form in this regard. In 1946 she starred opposite Gregory Peck and Joseph Cotten in (her husband) David O. Selznick’s Duel in the Sun (popularly known as ‘Lust in the Dust’) in which she played a bi-racial character as a ‘mestiza‘ – with Caucasian and Native-American parents. Jennifer Jones is convincingly made-up and has the poise to carry the costumes as Han Suyin – but of course that in no way detracts from the arguments about how such casting decisions should be undertaken today. Both Jones and Holden are convincing in their roles and Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing is a romance well worth watching.
It was the Friday of the second week of Mamma Mia 2 and our local cinema had to shift the screening upstairs to its 95 seat cinema since it was opening the latest Mission Impossible movie in Screen 1. I suggested we went early to get a good seat. I was proved right as the audience arrived en masse before even the ads started. There were a handful of older men in the audience, otherwise it was entirely female ranging from around 10 years-old to 80 plus. Usually when the ads play, they are loud and audiences speak quietly to each other. On this occasion I couldn’t hear the ads at all – the chatter, shrieks and laughter in anticipation of the film drowned out all the sound from the screen. When the ‘Intermission’ sign went up after the trailers I did wonder if there would be a riot at the prospect of waiting a further 10 minutes for the film to start. But the audience just chatted on and the projectionist seemingly found a way to start the feature earlier than usual. The audience quietened immediately and behaved impeccably (laughing, groaning and cheering appropriately) from then on.
I mention all this because professional film reviewers seldom see films with audiences and it certainly affects a reading when audience participation is part of the show. I should declare my own snobbery here. If I’d remembered that Richard Curtis was involved with the storyline of the film, I might have avoided it altogether. But I forgot and therefore enjoyed the experience like everyone else.
Following on from Mamma Mia! (2008), the sequel is in many ways actually a prequel. Amanda Seyfried as Sophie is ten years into her marriage. She’s pregnant but her husband is now in New York learning more about the hotel business. She plans a re-opening of the ‘bijou’ hotel she inherited from her mother Donna and invites all the characters from the first film to the opening. But this is also a time of introspection and the first of many flashbacks introduces Lily James as Donna back in 1979 graduating from university and heading to the Greek Islands. The narrative then moves backwards and forwards in time towards a finale when all the characters are together. The distributors tease the audience with expectations that both Meryl Streep and Cher are in the film. The former has some brief moments and the latter a little bit longer and the chance to sing ‘Fernando’ with a barely recognisable (by me, anyway!) Andy Garcia.
What to make of this $75 million ‘juke-box’ musical? Well, you can’t go wrong with Adriatic sunshine (Vis, Croatia), Abba songs and some excellent troupers. There is one moment of comedy genius from Julie Walters, Cher is worth her one song and the new younger cast members have plenty of energy. I felt a bit sorry for Amanda Seyfried who I think is up-staged by Lily James (who gets the better songs/production numbers). I remember being impressed by Ms James in The Darkest Hour in a very different role. Overall, however, I don’t think the narrative holds much interest and I couldn’t detect any sub-text. It also doesn’t make much sense. If Sophie was conceived in 1979 she would have been nearly 30 when she married in 2008 and nearly 40 now – or is this film set in 2009? It is indeed a juke-box musical. You pays your money and you get the songs. I didn’t feel short-changed. As the golden age musicals had it ‘That’s Entertainment!’
I feel that this second film is a bit more bland than the first and possibly a bit slicker and more ‘Americanised’. It’s still essentially a British-Swedish production but presumably there is more American money behind it. (I note that Wikipedia calls the two films ‘American musicals’, which is a bit rich.) The second film has so far followed the first in making much more at the box-office outside North America compared to the Hollywood ‘domestic’ market. The director is Ol Parker, best-known for the ‘Marigold Hotel’ films and Catherine Johnson, the original writer of the stage musical is still involved. But what happened to the original director Phyllida Lloyd? Will the dilution of the Streep role harm the second film’s ‘legs’ at the box-office? We’ll see. I’m assuming that the first film’s audience skewed older and female.
In 1953 Fritz Lang, in the last section of his Hollywood career, was pleased to be able to sign a two-picture deal with Harry Cohn and Jerry Wald at Columbia. In the space of a year this arrangement produced what is generally recognised as one of Lang’s best American films, The Big Heat, as well as one of his least appreciated films (by critics) in the shape of Human Desire. Oddly, both films have the same pair of stars, Glenn Ford and Gloria Grahame, so what is supposed to have gone wrong with the latter film?
It’s important to recognise that these two films were very different ‘properties’ that Columbia hoped to exploit and that the producers and director took a different stance towards each of them. I’ve been reading Patrick McGilligan’s book on Lang (faber and faber 1997) on the background to the two productions and I was intrigued that he doesn’t mention the key change in Hollywood during 1953 – the switch to widescreen. Fox introduced CinemaScope as a 2.55:1 aspect ratio in 1953 and the other studios had to respond. They could agree to adopt the Fox standard or develop their own formats In the immediate aftermath of Fox’s The Robe in September 1953. Columbia did eventually opt for CinemaScope, but for Human Desire, released in August 1954, they released a non-anamorphic or ‘spherical’ projection print in 1.85:1 black and white. ‘Scope required an anamorphic ‘squeezed print’. Columbia’s option meant masking a traditional Academy ratio (1.37:1) 35mm projection print. Such a print would need to be magnified to fill a wider frame with possible increase in grain, but using black and white stock in 1954 would still make it a superior image to Fox’s colour ‘Scope. All of this may sound fairly academic, but for this picture the image is more important than usual. The cinematography by Burnett Guffy includes some terrific footage of the immense diesel locomotives then in use by American railroads. Guffy was one of the leading Hollywood DoPs, known for work with Max Ophüls (The Reckless Moment, 1948), Robert Rossen (All the King’s Men, 1949) and Nicholas Ray (In a Lonely Place, 1950). The last of these featured Gloria Grahame, so he did know how to present the magnificent Grahame at her best. The print I watched was from MUBI, available online. It was ‘broadcast’ at 1.78:1, i.e. filling the 16:9 video or computer screen. Even so it felt like a significant improvement on the 4:3 TV screening I watched thirty or forty years ago.
Human Desire is an adaptation of the Emile Zola story that is probably best known from the earlier Jean Renoir film version, La bête humaine in 1938 starring Jean Gabin and Simone Simon. Columbia insisted on ‘Human Desire’ instead of the translation as ‘Human Beast’. The story is relatively simple. An engine driver falls in love with a married woman whose husband has forced her to become involved in a murder. Jean Gabin was, at the time and for many years after, the epitome of French masculinity in cinema and it is hard to imagine any Hollywood actor quite matching his mix of tough guy, heart-throb, hero, liberal icon etc. Simone Simon was one of several leading female actors in France to enjoy working with him. McGilligan refers to Glenn Ford and Gloria Grahame as “not quite A List”, which seems to me disparaging. He follows up with the suggestion that Ford was Columbia’s ‘go to’ star name, capable of playing a wide range of characters. Born in Canada but raised in California, Ford has that ‘ordinary but possibly heroic demeanour’. He’s cast here as Jeff Warren, a returnee from the Korean War who comes back to his job on the railroad. He returns also to lodge with his co-driver Alec (played by Edgar Buchanan), whose daughter is now grown up and has her eye on Jeff. It’s not long before Jeff becomes aware that Carl Buckley (Broderick Crawford) has become the railroad Yard Manager and only a little later that Carl’s wife Vicki (Gloria Grahame) is trouble of one sort or another. Crawford was probably best known then for his role as Willie Stark in All the King’s Men (1949) and also as Judy Holliday’s boyfriend in Born Yesterday (1950). Human Desire opened in the UK in September 1954, which was perhaps unfortunate timing since Broderick Crawford was about to become very famous as the Chief in the TV series Highway Patrol which began in the US in 1955 and became a staple of the new ITV programme schedule in the UK in 1956. Crawford’s role in Human Desire is actually rather sad – he’s a drunk who mistreats Vicki. The plot will manoeuvre Vicki into a situation where Jeff will have to try to keep her safe from Carl. I won’t spoil the narrative any further.
I can understand why the critics were disappointed with Human Desire. Part of the problem was that the studio couldn’t cope with the idea of Glenn Ford as the psychopathic character of Zola’s story. Lang argued that all three characters suggested the ‘Human Beast’, but instead, Cohn insisted on Grahame as a femme fatale who manipulates the two men. My advice would be to forget the original story and simply focus on Ford and Grahame, both excellent in underwritten roles. For Gloria Grahame in particular, the role she was offered doesn’t really allow her full rein. For me she is one of the sexiest and appealing of all female stars forever seemingly typecast except when she got the role that won her an Oscar in Minnelli’s The Bad and the Beautiful (US 1952). Columbia certainly messed up on this movie. Guffey had originally researched shooting in the Canadian Rockies which would have added a great deal to the action including a metaphorical ‘edge’ as the line went through mountain passes. As it was it seems that the main railway action was filmed on the Rock Island line in Oklahoma.
I think the film is definitely worth seeing and I note that IMDb users rate it at 7.2 which suggests that plenty of audience members rate it highly. It certainly could be a film noir. The soldier returning is a good man drawn into a dangerous relationship. Perhaps the studio did mess up with its changes to the property but with the talents of the actors, director and cinematographer, this is a film that offers plenty of attractions. Here’s brief clip from a key scene.
Robert Altman died in November 2006 aged 81. His last film, A Prairie Home Companion reached the UK early in 2007 and I presented a ‘1 hour Introduction to Altman’s films’ at Cornerhouse in Manchester. I’m wondering how Altman is remembered now and what younger audiences might make of his films (if they ever get the chance to see them). Here are the notes I produced for the intro, slightly updated in places and with a couple of final paragraphs added.
Robert Altman helped shape the progress of cinema in the second half of the 20th century in several ways. Here are four reasons why Altman should be remembered:
• for the longevity and diversity of his career;
• for bringing a ‘European’ sensibility to very American stories;
• for technical innovations in sound and camerawork;
• for his working relationships with actors.
There are other reasons as well, not least that he has left us a large body of work that includes some of the most interesting and enjoyable films of the period.
A long and varied career
Altman’s career spans film and television. It began in 1948 with a co-writing credit on Bodyguard, a B film noir directed by Richard Fleischer. But with no follow-up, in 1949 Altman moved into what might be termed ‘industrial film’ – documentaries and instructional films made for the Calvin Company of Kansas City, Altman’s home town, covering everything from basketball to How to Run a Filling Station (1953). In 1957 he made a teen exploitation picture, The Delinquents, for a local Kansas City cinema company and this received national distribution via United Artists. Altman followed this with The James Dean Story, a documentary based on still photographs and film extracts and made for Warner Brothers. But this didn’t prove to be Altman’s entry to Hollywood feature filmmaking. Instead he moved into television and for ten years worked on a wide variety of top shows including Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Whirlybirds, and Bonanza.
When he did begin a Hollywood feature career in the late 1960s, Altman was already an accomplished filmmaker with an understanding of a range of production contexts and popular genres and plenty of experience of working with actors. However, his first two attempts to make it in Hollywood flopped with Countdown (1968) on which he fell out with Warner Bros. and That Cold Day in the Park (1969), an independent production that I haven’t seen but which sounds interesting.
Hitting the bigtime with M*A*S*H in 1970, Altman became one of the group of ‘new’ Hollywood directors who were not bound by a background in the studio system and who brought new ideas from television or theatre. It was this group (which included Sam Peckinpah, Arthur Penn and Alan J. Pakula among others) rather than the more celebrated ‘movie brats’ such as Coppola and Spielberg who really challenged the Hollywood old guard. They were older and more experienced (Altman was 44 with all that TV experience behind him when he made M*A*S*H). He’d also had wartime experience in bombers during the Pacific War in 1943-5 and schooling by the Jesuits – Hollywood producers wouldn’t scare him. During the 1970s, Altman made a sequence of films that explored traditional genres in new ways. Films like McCabe and Mrs Miller (1971) and The Long Goodbye (1973) puzzled audiences and studio executives alike, whilst attracting the attention of cinephiles and other filmmakers. After M*A*S*H, few of Altman’s studio films made much money at the box office and the expensive failure of Popeye in 1980 prompted a move into independent cinema. (Whatever might be said about some of the Altman films in the 1970s, the sheer industry of the man is amazing – 15 feature films from M*A*S*H in 1970 to Popeye in 1980.)
In the 1980s, a difficult period for any vaguely radical/liberal filmmaker, Altman turned to small independent films, adaptations of intimate stage plays and television work, including acclaimed ‘political’ work such as the Nixon play Secret Honor (1984). He returned to relative commercial success with The Player (1992) and Short Cuts (1993) and in his 70s continued to produce films throughout the decade, scoring one of his biggest commercial hits with one of his few ventures abroad in Gosford Park (UK 2001).
Altman and the critics
M*A*S*H made a lot of money and effectively bankrolled Altman through the early 1970s. It wasn’t, however, quite such a critical success. This would come from films such as McCabe and Mrs Miller and The Long Goodbye. Altman emerged with ‘new Hollywood’ and the spread of interest in the relatively new (in North America) concept of the auteur. Altman was credited with being the American director most like the auteurs of European cinema. Here is Robin Wood (from Cinema: A Critical Dictionary, ed Richard Roud, Martin Secker & Warburg 1980):
. . . His films are curious, uneven, intermittently remarkable hybrids; the work of an American director who would like to be ‘European’, expressing himself not through the elaborate intermediaries of convention and genre but directly, through personal style and idiosyncratic choice of material . . . In general, one can recognise an Altman film as one can an Antonioni or Fellini, from its stylistic self-assertion; and The Long Goodbye, ultimately, has more in common with Antonioni’s Blow-Up than with The Big Sleep.
After 1980, Altman tended to fall off the critical radar. Ironically, the moment in 1975 when Nashville received such a tumultuous reception from Pauline Kael, then doyenne of American critics, was also the time of the success of Jaws. By the 1980s, the only American ‘auteurs’ who generated much interest were those who stuck more closely to the Hollywood ‘rules’ decreeing a strong storyline and a clear resolution of the narrative, something Altman never seems to have been particularly keen to pursue. ‘Rambling’ and ‘ramshackle’ are some of the kinder terms used to describe his narratives and the Altman ‘hero’ was often a marginal figure, a romantic ‘loser’ like McCabe or Marlowe.
Altman’s later films also suffer from the reception for an ‘old man’s films’ in a youth-orientated Hollywood world. More intriguing perhaps is the reception of Altman’s films in gender terms. Was he a ‘proto-feminist’ (3 Women) or a misogynist (Dr T and His Women – written by Anne Rapp)? And perhaps allied to this, were his films too ‘cold and calculating’, looking down on hapless figures – or warm and comfortable. Probably they were all of these things at different times.
Four lesser-known films
I’ll explore some of these ideas with references to some of Altman’s lesser-known films, chosen to represent different periods in his career and different kinds of film.
Thieves Like Us (US 1974)
Based on the same novel as the 1949 Nicholas Ray picture, They Drive By Night, is one of Altman’s genre explorations. Three escaped convicts go on a bank-robbing spree in the 1930s, supported by various relatives in Mississippi. The youngest of the trio, Bowie (Keith Carradine) falls in love with Keechie (Shelley Duvall). The story is similar to Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and the cycles of depression era rural ‘outlaw’ films set in the 1930s which were produced in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. However, Altman introduced several changes in style. Beautifully shot on location, there is a strong sense of surface realism, contrasted with a soundtrack commentary of contemporary radio programmes. Important events often happen off screen (relatively few of the bank robberies are shown and then sometimes in long shot) and the editing is elliptical. The film thus becomes more romantic melodrama than crime action. This was one of the films that Robin Wood selected as demonstrating Altman’s skill with zooms and long lenses.
3 Women (US 1977)
One of Altman’s puzzling art films, 3 Women is glorious to look at, but offers a rather abrupt conclusion to an intriguing narrative. Pinky (Sissy Spacek) is a naïve young woman who lands up in a job at a spa for the elderly in the Californian desert. She is taken under the wing of Millie (Shelley Duvall) a self-deluding character self-taught via magazines. The ‘third woman’ is Willie, a pregnant artist who with her drunken husband runs the Dodge City Saloon and the Purple Sage Apartments where Millie lives.
The idea for 3 Women supposedly came to Altman in a dream. Modernist in narrative terms (and reminiscent of films like Losey’s The Servant (UK 1963)), 3 Women is most notable for its colour scheme, cinematography and use of locations and set. These link the film closely to the widescreen compositions and choreography of The Long Goodbye (Altman 1973). Overall the film divided audiences. Some fans thought it one of Altman’s best, others loathed it – this split has often arisen within audiences for Altman’s films. Shelley Duvall became an Altman regular in the 1970s and her unusual but attractive features seem to work as a visual statement about Altman’s world.
Fool For Love (US 1985)
During the early 1980s Altman turned to ‘filmed plays’, still intensely cinematic despite the restricted settings. Fool For Love was written by Sam Shepard who also appears as Eddie, the cowboy who turns up at the motel on the edge of the Mojave Desert run by May (Kim Basinger). The two obviously know each other, but the audience is made to wait to discover what it is that forces them together and pulls them apart. In the background is May’s father (Harry Dean Stanton) and his presence and the setting and story elements led some critics to link Fool For Love to Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas (1984). Although in structural terms the film works like a stage play, it clearly references both the Western film genre (classical and contemporary) and the melodrama about marginal communities, both of which were familiar Altman subjects. The film is also notable for its use of a country music soundtrack – a collection of songs by Sandy Rogers and two from Waylon Jennings.
Cookie’s Fortune (US 1999)
Based on a script by Anne Rapp, Cookie’s Fortune is perhaps Altman’s warmest and most enjoyable film (depending on taste). Set in the kind of small Southern town that Altman might have remembered from his childhood, this could be argued to represent one of the ‘ensemble films’ for which Altman is now perhaps best known. Certainly it has a starry cast led by Glenn Close and it deals with a host of relationships and sub-plots. But where the more famous ensemble films such as Nashville (1975), A Wedding (1978), The Player (1992) etc. are often quite rambling and sometimes ‘cold’ views of relationships in a particular institutional setting, Cookie’s Fortune is slow and ‘mellow’, a comedy melodrama.
‘Cookie’ is a widow sitting in a large house and wanting to be with her dead husband. She commits suicide in a manner which is construed as suspicious and several family members become police suspects for murder. Altman plays with a range of ‘Southern types’. It has been suggested that the languid pace of the film derives from the lazy blues that feature at various times. Music – jazz, country, blues – is essential in Altman’s films and it is probably the single most important consistent element across the body of work. Ironically, the film which perhaps most represents Altman’s personal memories of music, Kansas City (1996), is the one which generated the least critical or commercial interest.
The Company (2003)
As part of my research into ballet films for work on Black Swan, I looked at this Robert Altman film. I remember its release – which I thought had not seen box-office success. I’d mentally bracketed it with Prêt-à-Porter from 1994, Altman’s earlier foray into the institutional world of high fashion. Stuffed with star names, that production failed very badly at the box office but The Company actually seems to have done quite well in some markets (though it must have struggled to recoup costs given a budget of $15 million). The Lumière database reveals that Altman had a strong following in Italy, France and Spain for several of his films, including this one. The other surprise was that I enjoyed the film and found its central premise as a feature film quite intriguing.
The ‘company’ in question is the Joffrey Ballet company of Chicago, though I think it is always referred to as ‘the company’. The director of the company is based on one of the two real-life founders of the Joffrey, Gerald Arpino, played in inimical style by Malcolm McDowell. The production appears to have come about because of the efforts of the Canadian actor Neve Campbell, best known perhaps for her starring roles in the Scream franchise of horror films from the 1990s. Campbell, like Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis in Black Swan, had been at ballet school (National Ballet School of Canada) as a child, but as far as I can see had continued with dance much longer up until age 16. At 28, roughly the same age as Portman in Black Swan, she was still in training to a certain extent and spent two years working with the Joffrey dancers to become recognisable as a company dancer. In The Company, Campbell plays a dancer who gets her big chance and takes it. She also has a relationship with a young chef played by James Franco. So far, so conventional, but that’s where it stops, Altman plays down Campbell’s central role and creates a feature that is less a recognisable Hollywood narrative and more a drama-documentary about the work of the company. Most of the other characters in the film are either dancers (i.e. Joffrey dancers) or relatively unknown actors. Campbell worked with scriptwriter Barbara Turner and producer Christine Vachon of Killer Films for two years in preparation for the shoot.
The narrative as such follows what happens to the company over a season, the high point of which is the performance of a modern ballet called ‘The Blue Snake’ which has been brought to the company by a top choreographer (and which Campbell had seen several years before in Canada). That’s it really. Instead of a ‘story arc’ in which we worry whether or not Ry (the Campbell character) will succeed in her part, Altman concentrates on the daily life of the company. The drama comes from the company’s collective response to budgetary constraints, injuries, new rehearsal techniques etc. The Campbell-Franco relationship is mixed well down and the only concession to conventional Hollywood drama is McDowell playing up his role. One of the disadvantages of this approach is that it is actually quite difficult to follow individual stories at all, especially watching on a small TV screen – how I wished I’d seen it on a big cinema screen! But this is the point, really. Altman wants us to see the company as a company – and it works.
The USP of the film is arguably the cinematography directed by Andrew Dunn who worked with Altman on Gosford Park. Working on HDCam, Altman and Dunn were able to use multiple cameras to shoot the dance sequences.
This Guardian piece invites several leading figures from the UK ballet world to comment on the film – they are all negative about it. That’s quite understandable really, but they do say some interesting things. A couple of the commentators admit that there were moments when the film presented the kind of behaviour they recognised in themselves and were embarrassed by. None of them like the choreography.
A Prairie Home Companion (US 2006)
It’s hard to imagine a film which more perfectly says farewell to its creator. ‘A Prairie Home Companion’ was the title of Garrison Keillor’s radio show for Minnesota Public Radio which was widely syndicated up to 2016. Keillor himself wrote the screenplay for Altman’s film. The closing scenes almost seem to invite the director’s demise (he knew he was terminally ill when he made the film). Yet, what fun everyone appears to have in the process! Meryl Streep appears to be enjoying herself immensely and the rest of the star-laden cast are similarly on top form. All the ingredients which audiences think are in some way ‘Altmanesque’ are in place.
There is only the faintest glimmer of a plot. It is the last radio performance of the radio show and the ‘axeman’ (Tommy Lee Jones), who represents the company which wants to close down the theatre where the show is based, is due to arrive. There is every indication of ‘the end’ and we know that a sudden reprieve for the show is unlikely. That’s it really. Altman gleefully follows all the performers and backstage crew from the wings onto the stage and back. All have stories – and songs. Altman’s love of radio and sound is indulged to the hilt with live sound ‘effects’ becoming a comic performance in themselves and old-time country and gospel music convincingly and lovingly played.
A quick glance at the comments on websites like the IMDB suggests that like every Altman film before it (40, not counting TV work), audiences love and loathe the film with equal passion. Film is a collaborative business and it is difficult to be ‘personal’ as a filmmaker, but Altman stuck to what he wanted to do, right to the end.
There are Altman films I haven’t seen (mainly from the 1980s) and films I have every intention of returning to. I think I’ll remember and be intrigued by McCabe and Mrs Miller and The Long Goodbye most of all, for a host of reasons I hope to explore at some point. Robert Altman was for me the last link to the Hollywood that attracted me as a young person. Perhaps one day I’ll look at Popeye (1980), his attempt to explore an American myth. It flopped, much like Buffalo Bill and the Indians (1976), which I did see and would like to re-visit. Altman wasn’t afraid to undermine myths and challenge conventions. It would be great to think his kind of film was still being made amidst all the superheroes and comic-book stories.
It was a real treat to revisit Dead End as it was a reminder that Hollywood, via independent producer Sam Goldwyn here, didn’t always ignore working class poverty. Adapted by Lilian Hellman from Sidney Kingsley’s hit play, Dead End focuses on a day in the life of a poor neighbourhood in New York. It melodramatically mixes poor and rich; road works necessitate the latter using the service entrance for their ‘high end’ apartments. While the focus is on the ‘dead end kids’, teens who are already delinquent (played by members of the original Broadway cast), the generation before them is where the real interest lies. Joel McCrea and Sylvia Sydney are the leads playing decent folk being worn down by the lack of opportunity; the Depression was still causing economic ruin. Humphrey Bogart and Claire Trevor play the gangster returning to his roots to see his old girlfriend.
Goldwyn often employed William Wyler to direct and Dead End is also graced with Gregg Toland’s cinematography. There are scenes of chiaroscuro lighting that suggest film noir – years before the genre started – and a few years later he was photographing Citizen Kane. The film has quality everything: script, stars, direction, cinematography and great set design by Richard Day. Kudos to Sam Goldwyn for pulling it all together.
Although we unsurprisingly get a hopeful ending it’s not exactly happy and the rich are shown for the heartless leaches that they are. If McCrea and Sidney are a little too nice there’s no missing the menace of Bogart’s wanted man who’s found a life on the run is not good enough despite his wealth. The brief scene where he and his old flame are reunited is electric; Trevor easily matching Bogart’s understated brilliance. She’s had to become a prostitute and has one of those coughs that signify the character is dying. The joy they feel at seeing one another again after many years shows what might have been but their poverty ‘insisted’ instead that they lead lives of degradation. The scene is cinematic brilliance.
Apparently there’s some deep focus cinematography in the film, which Wyler was to become well-known for, but that didn’t strike me. The shootout between McCrea and Bogart, the chiaroscuro I noted earlier, is brilliantly done. They don’t make ‘em like this any more. Film noir was about to enter Hollywood and became the darkness on the edge of its town.
MUBI also includes in its streaming schedule some Hollywood films from the recent past (see below for definitions of ‘recent’). This last week saw two Sydney Pollack titles added to the roster (the other is Tootsie with Dustin Hoffman). Pollack had a forty-year career as a director, producer and actor working with the leading stars from 1965 to 2005. As a director he made conventional mainstream films with strong narratives, often dealing with outsider figures from a ‘liberal’ perspective. Absence of Malice pairs Paul Newman and Sally Field. I was a fan of both actors in 1981 but I don’t remember watching this at the time. I always loved Newman as a star, wishing only that he would make more films as a director – Rachel, Rachel (1968) and Sometimes a Great Notion (1971) are films I’d happily watch again. Sally Field is still active but her peak film career was probably from the mid 1970s to the mid ’90s when Hollywood’s sexism cast her as the older woman destined for character parts. Earlier she had often been paired with male stars ten or more years older (Burt Reynolds, James Garner et al.) and therefore a romance with Newman was par for the course.
‘Absence of malice’ is a legal term relevant to libel law in the US. A newspaper may print a story that may not be true about a person as long as they do so in good faith, not knowing that it is false. Whether the film’s plot actually works in terms of the US legal system appears to be open to question. The basic premise is that Megan (Sally Field), a news reporter for a local Miami paper, runs a story about an FBI investigation of a local rum importer, Michael Gallagher (Paul Newman) who is assumed to be a suspect in the disappearance of a local union leader. Michael’s father was a ‘rum runner’ during prohibition with contacts in organised crime. Michael was sent to good schools and is ‘clean’. The news report creates major difficulties for Michael with the withdrawal of labour by his unionised workforce and loss of business with local restaurants. He begins his fightback by confronting Megan about where she got the story.
As the narrative progresses it becomes clear that the local FBI boss is ‘fishing’ for leads and that the District Attorney has his own election issues. Throw in that Michael and Megan have an attraction for each other plus there is a third person with an emotional attachment involved in Michael’s situation and an intriguing narrative develops. The Miami setting is well handled and the film begins with a documentary montage detailing the hot metal process for newspaper printing that should be an eye-opener for younger viewers. Megan is an interesting character. She’s without a significant back story and it could be argued that she finds herself trapped between her boss (the editor played Josef Sommer) the FBI team (at least one of whom is an admirer) and Michael – all older men. But she remains her own woman. It’s good to see Sally Field playing her real age (34) and coming across as a professional woman rather than simply as the plot’s romance interest. In her best line she reminds Michael that she is a woman of 34 who doesn’t need courting. Some reviewers at the time saw her character as an example of a ‘bad journalist’ (in the context of All the President’s Men in 1976). That seems a mis-reading to me. Megan certainly uses the tricks she knows to get a story but I don’t think that makes her ‘bad’, especially given the pressure on her to sensationalise – which she tries not to do.. I won’t spoil the narrative by explaining Melinda Dillon’s character as Teresa, but she won an Oscar nomination for her part. There were also nominations for Newman and for the main writer Kurt Luedtke who had been a newspaper reporter and editor – he wrote two further scripts for Pollack, Out of Africa in 1985 and Random Hearts in 1999.
A couple of days before I saw the film, someone suggested to me that some younger film programmers saw 1980s films as ‘classic cinema’ now. I was initially shocked but now I can see that there is evidence to support this. Absence of Malice seems more like the tail-end of 1970s Hollywood. Aspects of the plot are similar to several of those 70s movies that find darker, ‘murkier’? elements in cities like Miami. I did find some of the costumes odd. Newman is beautiful in his mid fifties, still slim and still with those piercing blue eyes, but in one scene he wears high-waisted jeans with a tight check shirt which didn’t work for me in terms of the character. Sally Field has a smaller version of that 80s ‘big hair’ trend and a succession of suit outfits with heels which make her look uncomfortable in the heat of Miami (especially when clambering into Michael’s boat. But these are minor worries. What does seem ‘classic’ is that this is engaging entertainment over 116 minutes for an adult audience without a contrived tacked-on ending. It’s good to be reminded that Hollywood could once do this on a regular basis.