Columbia Noir: Pushover (1954)

pushoverWatching old films for the first time from the vantage point of, in this case 2021, is that the perspective cannot be anything like watching a film when it first came out. In the case of Richard Quine’s 1954 noir Pushover, I suppose my viewing was skewed from having seen Fred MacMurray so many times in Billy Wilder’s The Apartment, and Kim Novak being, in my eyes, forever the doomed fantasy of Hitchcock’s Vertigo.

In MacMurray’s case, he will always be the slimy cheat Mr Sheldrake that I despised so much whenever I re-watched The Apartment growing up, so I had no problem at all with Pushover‘s greedy detective Sheridan, smitten by Kim Novak’s Lona McLane and tempted by the chance of what he thinks is easy, life-changing money. Far as I was concerned, its perfect casting – I seem to recall reading of people actually being shocked by his turn in The Apartment as they had previously watched him in his run of wholesome Disney family titles, but on the evidence of films like Pushover, it seems to me he was almost lazily cast to type in Wilder’s dark comedy. There’s a nervous edge to him that’s fascinating to watch and I’m almost surprised he didn’t have a career typecast as a Hollywood bad guy. There’s something wrong about him, and he’s perfect here; I believed in his fall from grace absolutely. Of course, he’d done much the same in Billy Wilder’s earlier noir classic, Double Indemnity.

As for Kim Novak, I’m beginning to think my film education needs some revision. Novak didn’t make very many films, really, considering how famous/infamous she is, and I’ve actually seen almost none of them. I grew up seeing her late in life in the frankly awful television series Falcon Crest in the 1980s, and nothing else until I caught up with Vertigo and was totally blown away. But that’s it, until I saw her in the very average thriller 5 Against the House  early last year (part of Indicator’s first Columbia Noir set), a film which did her few favours, really, but in Pushover she’s quite incandescent. In this she has star written all over her, and I believe this was her Hollywood debut, no less. There’s always some kind of tag line about someone being the hottest thing to hit film since whatever, but in this case it would have been very true- Novak is hot, hot, hot. Just twenty-one, I understand, when she made this film, her turn is at times daring (her dress in her first scene that is practically see-through), at times sympathetic, at times over the top… its a tour de force and frankly totally distracting. I couldn’t take my eyes of her and she really makes MacMurray’s fall not just believable, but actually inevitable.

After the pretty mundane Walk A Crooked Mile, this film is a real return to form for this fourth Indicator noir box- Pushover is totally noir, totally cool and totally dark and fascinating. I loved it. There is something wonderful watching a guy’s increasing desperation as his scheme continues to unravel and the clear futility of him trying to get things back on track. Novak’s character is surprisingly sympathetic, and I think its quite a pity she was never (as far as I know) cast as a genuine, scheming femme-fatale in some dark noir. You’d believe she could turn a man to anything and I suspect, on the strength of this film, that Hollywood missed a trick. Or maybe not: its actually curious how much her Lona McLane is like her Madeleine Elster/Judy Barton character in Hitchcock’s Vertigo. For a woman who seems so naturally gifted with an ability to bewitch and control men, she always seems so fragile and easily manipulated by them: almost a sweet girl in a body built for sin, quite a combination, and perhaps an indication of her real persona?

In any case, Pushover is a simply terrific noir: it looks ravishing at times, mostly shot at night in streets hammered by rain, and it has all the usual tropes of lots of smoking and drinking, with a rather disturbing dash of voyeurism when a cop spies upon McLane’s pretty neighbour who doesn’t realise she’s being watched and really shouldn’t be, especially by a guy who creepily has the hots for her while he should be watching her neighbour. There’s shades of the more uncomfortable moments of Hitchcock’s Rear Window, which curiously was released the very same year so while I thought, when watching Pushover, that it was simply mimicking Hitchcock’s classic, I should have given it more credit- I imagine both films were shooting pretty much concurrently and its just a case of Hollywood coincidence. 

Very often watching these ‘old’ movies, I see familiar names in the credits, catching my eye- in this case, that of Arthur Morton, who composed this films effective score but is much more famous to me for his later career as a Hollywood orchestrator, chiefly for the scores of Jerry Goldsmith, particularly Alien, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Poltergeist, First Blood, Innerspace… you name it, practically  every soundtrack by Goldsmith I ever bought has Morton’s name in the credits. I didn’t actually appreciate he worked as a film composer in his own right, so hey, you learn something new every day. 

Director Richard Quine had earlier directed the excellent noir Drive a Crooked Road and would later direct one of my favourite comedies, How to Murder Your Wife, which I have on Blu-ray and really need to watch again sometime soon. He also made two more films that starred Kim Novak which I have on my watchlist already: Bell Book and Candle and Strangers When We Meet, which like too many older movies are just very hard to get hold of, certainly on Blu-ray. If only Indicator could turn their attention to them and treat them to that magical Indicator TLC.

 

If you ever watch this again, you never saw it before

some1Last night I watched Someone To Watch Over Me and The Front Page, a double-bill like in the old days when I used to have plenty of time for such things. There was no calculated decision regards which two films would make a good double-bill (i.e. Jaws and Alien = two films about Killing Machines!) – this was one of those accidental things, simply two of my recent purchases. Someone To Watch Over Me on Blu-Ray came in a box alongside with Columbia Noir #3 from Indicator a few days ago (yes folks more noir reviews coming soon-ish), and The Front Page on Blu-ray came from Amazon Germany (‘ExtraBlatt“). I’d noticed the latter had come back in stock at last, and as its one of the few Jack Lemmon films available on disc that I don’t own (and a Billy Wilder film at that) I thought it was past time I bought it, especially as it was just about £7.00. Now that I think I’ve pretty much caught up with these Lemmon/Wilder films available only in foreign territories (The Fortune Cookie last December and Avanti! sometime before that) no doubt Arrow or Eureka! will announce UK releases shortly.

I remember watching Someone To Watch Over Me back in 1987 when it came out at the cinema, and later on VHS- yeah the ‘old days’ indeed. At the time it was a very odd film for Ridley Scott, coming after Alien, Blade Runner and Legend and at a time when Scott was claiming he wanted to be the ‘John Ford of genre films’ or something of that nature. It was obvious even at the time that after the financial and critical drubbing of both Blade Runner and Legend, Scott was in the movie industry sin-bin and was having to find lower-budget, less-ambitious film projects in order to get a gig. Its funny now, with the hindsight of his later filmography to put things in better perspective, how at the time Someone To Watch Over Me seemed to me such a betrayal of Scott’s promise and ability. Its one of his weakest films, as low as any of his films are regards ambition or originality, and was clearly so at the time. Sure, it looked pretty, but it was more pretty vacuous, and even though Scott would later make worse films these days Someone To Watch Over Me is pretty low in the list of his movies that people even remember.   

I hadn’t seen the film myself in maybe twenty years, so I was pretty shocked when watching it how much came back to me, even being able to predict what characters were about to say (I could recall some dialogue verbatim) and elements in the plot and shots etc. What can I say, I must have had a better knack of committing films to memory back then. Its unfortunately one of those films that doesn’t really improve with age, so there’s no re-discovery of a lost classic here. Indeed, I had one of those moments when watching this last night that I wondered if I would ever watch the film again, which is a bit disconcerting when I’ve just plumped down money for a new Blu-ray edition, but being an Indicator release it does come with a few special features, including a new audio commentary (by filmmaker and film historian Jim Hemphill which will give me reason for at least one more watch). Anyway, I’m certain I’ll watch it again someday regardless of commentary track; its a Ridley Scott film, isn’t it? There’s a certain fun in spotting Blade Runner-lite shots in the location shooting and the cast is pretty great; I never understood why Tom Berenger didn’t have more success (although I guess maybe flops like this one did more harm than good) and Lorraine Bracco is quite terrific. Mimi Rogers is great too; its not a bad film, but its Ridley Scott, you know? Its my own personal baggage from when the film originally came out, I just can’t shake off the feeling, even after all these years, of comparing lightweight stuff like this to Alien and Blade Runner.

But whenever I do re-watch this film, it always reminds me of those days when Blade Runner was such a flop and critical failure, before it was ‘reappraised’; these days people forget how badly that film fared and how disastrous Legend was with its heavily-delayed American release and soundtrack change and how it was so badly edited. I so clearly recall the years when Blade Runner was the very definition of ‘cult film’.

Here’s another thing: when I first watched this film in 1987, it was way before Babylon 5. Andreas Katsulas, having to make do with a badly underwritten part here as bad guy Joey Venza, would be magnificent under lots of make-up as Ambassador G’Kar in Babylon 5, usurping expectations over a number of seasons turning a villain into a deeply nuanced hero. Its difficult to watch this film knowing, now, just how good an actor Katsulas was and how he deserved a better script here. Venza is terribly one-dimensional; there’s no attempt to add any depth or substance to him: he’s simply background noise, a plot mechanism to get Tom Berenger and Mimi Rogers together. Its not that Someone To Watch Over Me is lazy film-making… or maybe it is, maybe its indication that Scott was just working as director for hire, here, because usually however simple a Ridley Scott film can be, usually there’s some nuance and depth, some sleight of darkness in his better films. 

Films are of their times and when examined on that criteria alone, something like Someone To Watch Over Me makes sense when considering Scott’s film career-path. I wonder what might have been had audiences been ready for Blade Runner and had Legend been given a decent chance (you can see Blade Runner‘s failure all over Scott’s second-guessing regards Legend, even in its European cut). Would Scott really have turned towards more low-key, real-world character drama, or would he have been off making another sci-fi or historical epic? I remember James Cameron commenting (I believe it was after T2) that he was weary of big blockbuster film-making and wanted to turn to a smaller, more intimate film and he never did (unless Titanic was his twisted idea of ‘intimate’). Likewise George Lucas always went on about making smaller, more experimental films after Star Wars, and he never did (well I guess one could describe Howard the Duck as an experiment). But Ridley Scott did, even if it wasn’t actually wholly by choice or totally successful. His road back to genre films was a long one and itself not wholly successful (Prometheus, Alien: Covenant)- it was too long a road, perhaps, over too many years. Maybe I should have guessed that back in 1987 when I watched Someone To Watch Over Me with such puzzled frustration- I can make my peace with the film now; its not a bad film, really, but it does have whiff of DTV/ ‘cable movie of the week’ about it, and for a Ridley Scott film that is… well, that’s about as bad as it gets.

 

Avanti! (yet again)

av1Yes I’ve watched Avanti!. Again. Isn’t it weird how one of Billy Wilder’s most easily-dismissed films has yet cast a bewitchment on me that keeps on pulling me back. Mind, I’m sure of all us who love movies have one or two curios which we return to or love quite irrationally. I don’t know why it is, but its… well, I rather think its an emotional thing, a connection we possibly can’t even explain. Maybe part of it is nostalgia, either for the time/experience when we first saw the film or for the period the film was made, what it represents, or the world it has frozen in time on celluloid. Certain films grab hold of us, and they never let us go.

The world of Avanti! no longer exists; perhaps it never did. Sometimes film can be strange that way, either fooling us into thinking its real or represents a heightened reality, like musicals do, or suggesting a better world, a picture of how we would like to be, or a world we would love to be in. Who wouldn’t like to stay in the Hotel Excelsior and be pampered by the fussy Carlo Carlucci, or meet Pamela Piggott and go for a swim in the early-morning ocean?

Who can resist revisiting it every year, watching the film again? Not me.

Der Glückspilz, or, The Fortune Cookie (1966)

fortuneYou never know, with how physical formats are these days, if foreign releases of some films are the only way of ever getting hold of them, which may themselves go OOP by waiting too long (it doesn’t seem possible to buy the Italian Blu-ray of How to Murder Your Wife, which I purchased a few years ago, any longer, for instance). No doubt a Eureka! UK release of both that and The Fortune Cookie will be announced soon now that I bought this German edition from Amazon Germany shortly before Christmas (doubts regards the Brexit deal at the time swung me into buying it, and it does seem importing stuff into the UK even with a deal is more difficult/slightly more expensive now). Regular readers of this blog will know of my passion for the films of Jack Lemmon- well, the best of them, anyway- and its been something of a mission of mine to buy copies on DVD and now Blu-ray when the chance arises, which is all too rare to be honest. Barring a few examples mostly dictated by the vagaries of region coding, I have most of the films starring Lemmon that are available on Blu-ray, but to be honest there’s few of them. Certainly far fewer than there should be.

The Fortune Cookie, from 1966, is a film I first caught on a lazy afternoon network airing some decades ago now. I really enjoyed it at the time, and have watched it several times since- in all honesty its a lesser Billy Wilder film that lacks the sharpness of The Apartment, and Jack Lemmon himself is hardly stretched at all, not having any opportunity to really shine as he should or bring any of his special qualities to it. I think both issues are, ironically, caused by Walter Matthau stealing the film- Wilder seems distracted  by him to such an extent he’s more interested in Matthau’s scheming, conniving lawyer and Lemmon just seems happy to sit back and let Matthau get on with it.  To be clear, Lemmon may get star billing, but its Matthau’s film and it only really seems to come alive when he’s on screen, which is a pity almost because it leaves those scenes featuring Lemmon and Ron Rich (as the unfortunate football player Luther ‘Boom Boom’ Jackson) feeling flat and uninteresting, as if Wilder’s attention is already on the next scene when Matthau’s going to be on set (Matthau actually went on to win a few awards for the film, notably an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor). 

fortune 2That being said, even a lesser Wilder film is better than most director’s finest efforts, and the on-screen magic of Lemmon and Matthau together onscreen is a veritable feast. There’s just an unfortunate suspicion that this film could and should have been better; it just lacking a certain spark. Whether its, as I have noted, a lack of the sharpness of The Apartment or the wackiness of Some Like It Hot, I can’t say. Not all films are equal to the sum of their parts and I think The Fortune Cookie is one of them. Its not a total miss-fire and certainly has its moments but… could have been better. Lemmon and Matthau would next appear together in The Odd Couple (1968) a far better film (albeit not directed by Wilder), which is much sharper and wittier and focused on getting the best of both of them. 

There’s quite a few Lemmon films available on Blu-ray in Germany- why Germany and not here I cannot fathom, but naturally the Blu-ray is UK-friendly with English soundtrack and boasts an image, as one would expect, much more crisp and detailed than my previous DVD copy from several years back. Special features are limited to the film trailer (how ironic many much more well-featured releases lack trailers) and a stills gallery that is actually quite illuminating, featuring press materials and all sorts of odd international film poster designs.  A reversible sleeve naturally keeps the German title but loses that ugly green certificate rating.

One, Two, Three (1961)

oneOh dear. I suppose all directors have their ‘off days’, Hitchcock did (particularly in his later years), so has Spielberg, Ridley has had a few (although his have always looked pretty) so its understandable that the great Billy Wilder would too. Its just that, although I haven’t seen everything -or indeed even the majority- of his output, certainly nothing pre-1940, this is the first of his films which has had me responding with a “ugh, that was pretty terrible.” Indeed, with Wilder’s track record and all the great films of his that I have enjoyed, this film really came as something of a shock, how bad it was. No, I really didn’t care for this one at all. So it would seem that Wilder was only human after all.

I think part of the problem may be its age- a typically sharp-witted comedy, I’m sure, I think part of the problem with this film is that its cultural references, no doubt topical at the time, are inevitably lost and puzzling to viewers such as myself coming to it fresh with the perspective from 2020. Its been close to sixty years, after all. Its still disappointing though- I don’t think the comedy of Some Like It Hot, The Apartment or the Fortune Cookie, for instance, have dated pretty much at all since they first came out. But One, Two, Three just feels dated, anachronistic. Maybe its the madcap pace of the thing- its deliberately a rapid-fire comedy, Wilder and his regular script partner I A L Diamond consciously pushing the pace as far as they could- its relentless really, and ultimately quite tiring, exhausting. When the one-liners drop like lead it just makes the fast pace increasingly irritating. The heightened pace is equalled by the heightened caricatures of the characters, the exaggerated performances. Crucially however, considering its supposed to be a fast-paced comedy, it commits the sin of simply not being at all funny.

Really, I find it quite alarming that this film is how Wilder followed his magnificent The Apartment, one of my favourite films.

I don’t know why, but I find myself comparing this film to Spielberg’s 1941, it seems to suffer the same pitfalls, the exaggerated characters and general hectic pace of the storyline. Maybe you either buy into it or not, maybe its one of those ‘marmite’ films, and maybe One, Two, Three has its fervent fans in just the same way as 1941 seems to, but its telling I didn’t enjoy either of them.

Still, speaking as someone who will defend the oft-maligned Irma La Douce against its detractors, it was a big disappointment. I think its telling that Irma followed One, Two, Three because I can tell it shares some of its irreverent humour and style, you can see a connection between the two. So why does Irma work for me and One, Two, Three doesn’t? Is it as simple as the casting of Jack Lemmon? Maybe it is. I can’t say I was particularly enamoured by James Cagney in his leading role in One, Two, Three at all- indeed none of the cast really caught my eye, they all felt ‘off’ somehow. Everything in this film feels ‘off’, its like nothing works at all.

I Walk Alone (1947)

walkI was rather frustrated by this one- a film noir starring Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas (the first of several films they would appear in together) which also features Lisbeth Scott, who was so good in Dark City, which I saw a little while ago, albeit here in a fairly insipid role that’s unworthy of her. This film on paper promises so much but I don’t think it really worked. It gets bogged down with the frustrations of Frankie Madison (Lancaster) who has returned to his old haunts of New York after 14 years in prison to find he has been betrayed by his bootlegging partner Noll Turner (Douglas). Turner has no intention of honouring their deal to share in the proceeds of the criminal business they partnered in and that Madison did time for. The film seems to get so burdened with it -Madison takes an irritatingly long time for it to dawn upon him that he’s being ditched- and gets further weighed down by the unlikeliest of sudden romances when he seems to make an unlikely connection with Turner’s girl, Kay (Scott), who is getting strung along and ultimately betrayed, too, by Turner.

Yeah Turner’s quite a cad, yet another who seems to think he can go clean and turn his criminal empire into a legit business. Indeed the basic plot is very familiar, a trope of many crime/mobster flicks. In Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America Max looked after Noodles interests while he did time inside but ultimately when his own ambitions turn to going legit he realises he has to cut Noodles loose in similar fashion to how Turner wants to cut Madison out here. In America, Max’s betrayal of Noodles is complete -he even gets Noodles girl- but here Turner proves undone by his overconfidence and his woman scorned.

Douglas is very good as the lousy slime-ball Turner; the actor had a natural bent to such roles and to me his intensity always made him a more convincing villain, or flawed anti hero, than a traditional leading man (see his magnificent performance in Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole). I think much of this is just Douglas’ strong personality, his obvious drive and apparent ruthlessness in the real world as an ambitious Hollywood player that leaked into his performances (or maybe I’m reading too much into it).

In any case, its impressive that Douglas manages to hold his own against the man-mountain Lancaster, whose massive physique is quite intimidating when measured against everyone around him. While he snarls and clenches his fists its easy to accept him as a thuggish brute, the brawn against Turner’s brains who realises he’s been wronged and sees violence as his only recourse, but his performance often slips over towards the over-dramatic, lacking the subtlety of Douglas, and as I’ve noted, there seems little convincing about his sudden romance with Kay. It feels tacked-on.

Ultimately the film fails to be the sum of its parts, but maybe my real issue is just that over-familiarity of the plot, which is likely more to do with all the films made in the decades since than a fault in the film itself, which may have seemed quite original back in 1947. I suppose what seems predictable in 2020 can sometimes just be the benefit of  hindsight from all the films between: the cross we film fans just have to bear.

A Severed Head (1971)

severedSo this is some kind of shocking Horror film, right? Er, well its certainly shocking. Seriously, I came into this (I’d never heard of it before, which in hindsight is not surprising) expecting a horror film or murder mystery, maybe something like a Hammer or Amicus film. Its actually a British comedy film, something to do with sexual politics, social etiquette… it was possibly one of the most bizarre things I have ever seen, utterly crazy and strange and…utterly impossible to sum up, really. Some kind of horror, certainly. Very British, back when that meant something, although quite what I’m not entirely sure. 

So whats it about, then? Well its set in the ‘present’ of 1971 but it seems wholly of the 1920s, something from that era. I’m sure even in 1971 it must have seemed terribly anachronistic, totally self-absorbed. In 2020? Crikey. The great Ian Holm, who sadly passed away not so long ago, stars in this looking very young with his film career long ahead of him, playing Martin Lynch-Gibbon, a wine merchant who is enjoying an affair with a mistress, Georgie (Jennie Linden), until his wife Antonia (Lee Remick), ignorant of Martins infidelity,  announces she is having an affair with Martins’ best friend, psychiatrist Palmer Anderson (Richard Attenborough) and that she wants a divorce. Palmer and Antonia’s biggest concern is that Martin doesn’t feel guilty about their affair, they must all stay good freinds. It seems everyone can behave like utter bastards, but the important thing is to be civil about it and don’t cause a fuss. I think Billy Wlder would have had a ball making a film like this, but er, it definitely is not the film Billy Wilder would have made.

severed2Well, what about the severed head, then? I really don’t know. Honor Klein (Claire Bloom) the enigmatic half-sister of Palmer (who Martin at one point finds in bed with Palmer, this is so messed up) makes some kind of speech quoting something about severed heads but it was lost on me. By the time she says it, Martin’s mistress is off with Martins brother Alexander (Clive Revell) and Martin is chasing after Honor despite her tryst with her half-brother whilst Palmer of course is supposedly living with Antonia. Utter cads, the lot of them, but at least they are polite. So very 1920s. Maybe its a study in self-obsessed people who are overwhelmed with self-gratification at the expense of all others, who think they can get away with being complete bastards as long as they are pleasant and civil about it. But how is that supposed to be laugh-out-loud funny in any sane world?

Er… Yes, exactly, Somehow its supposed to be funny, wildly sophisticated, maybe. The biggest shock is the cast- as you may have noted from my notes above, its a brilliant cast so badly wasted its almost criminal. Some of them seem to know they are in a farce, but perhaps director Dick Clement (yeah, he that wrote Auf Wiedersehen, Pet) hadn’t been told. Certainly I’m not so sure some of the cast were in on the joke.

Bet you came close to pressing the ‘Abort’ button. Yeah, oh boy so awfully close. Sometimes horrible calamities like this can be morbidly fascinating though, like you can’t quite believe what your eyes are seeing. 

Anything good about it? Well I did quite like the music score by Stanley Myers (who would later work on The Deer Hunter, of all things), an orchestral score which seemed to have a gentle, sweet, almost timeless life of its own within the film. It was the best thing about the film, for me. That music, and the frankly bizarre alien-world London of so long ago proved quite entertaining, but the latter’s true of any film of that era, its like some other world now, and quite oddly mesmerising. 

A Severed Head is on the Talking Pictures schedules should you feel the urge to hunt it down.

 

 

If Lovecraft wrote a date movie: Spring

springThis film first caught my attention several years ago, but as often is the case with indie films with limited distribution deals, the film proved elusive to find in HD resulting in an outlay not worth the blind-buy. Years passed, and I’d actually forgotten about it. Thankfully, as often happens these days, by pure chance I found the film on Amazon Prime and  having re-sparked my curiosity from years ago, could not resist- I watched it immediately.

After the death of his mother, Evan (Lou Taylor Pucci), a troubled young American tries to escape his problems with the law by taking a trip to Italy, where he enjoys a few drunken adventures with some Brits and ends up in an old, quiet coastal town. A beautiful woman, Louise (Nadia Hilker) catches his eye and he finds himself intrigued by her and falling in love. It might be the Italian sun, the sea, the wine, or the fact that she’s quite gorgeous and extraordinary, but its rather like Avanti! for the Lovecraft generation. The film is exquisitely photographed, really making the most of the startling and captivating locations, just as Billy Wilder’s film did, giving the film a lushly romantic feel. Evan is right about one thing- Louise, you see, is indeed no ordinary woman, but not wholly in the romantic sense that Evan is thinking of.

Spring is surprisingly a very subtle movie; I was quite swept away by it. Its mostly a character piece, with two fantastic leads. Pucci is a naive young man angry at the world , trying to escape his troubled past by finding something new, always trying to do the ‘right thing’. Hilker, meanwhile, as the bewitching Louise is quite a revelation, a beauty who is older and wiser than her apparent age suggests and quite a force of nature, an exciting and mysterious femme fatalle. I had one of those ‘where have I seen her face before?’ moments until I discovered she’s appeared in the last few seasons of The Walking Dead that I watched before bailing on the show last year: chalk her up as another great talent utterly wasted by the soul-destroying writing on that show. In Spring, she utterly shines, stealing every scene she’s in: its definitely her movie and on the evidence of this performance deserves success in future films if she can escape that tv show.

spring3Considering this is indeed a monster movie with a few startling transformations and shocks, its quite a feat that its the relationship between the two characters that proves the centrepiece of the movie. Its no mean achievement in a film like this to establish a realistic, emotive relationship as if its primarily a date movie posing as a genre piece, rather than the other way around. Indeed, I think its not until the hour-mark that the horror aspect starts to surface.

My reference to Lovecraft in the title of this post is not accidental- its really got Lovecraftian undertones, albeit grown-up, open-minded Lovecraft (which, er, doesn’t exist, now that I think of it). In some ways one could get away with summarising this film as Billy Wilder’s Avanti! crossed with Stuart Gordon’s Dagon. If that sounds intriguing, you’d be right. I suppose in some ways, that whole monster sub-plot proves totally unnecessary, and that’s what might make this film so interesting/frustrating: the two leads are so good and their romance so convincing, that’s probably enough, leaving the horror almost superfluous. Which really isn’t what I had expected, and made it such a pleasant surprise.

If I have a problem with the film, its possibly how it concludes. If by some ghastly whim Lovecraft ever had really written a horror romance, he would have had it much darker, but the film goes the Billy Wilder route. Individual mileage may vary- I guess some may feel its perfect and validates everything that happens earlier in the film, and I guess they’d be right, but that’s never how Lovecraft had it in his stories, finally making the film less of a Lovecraftian movie that it threatens to be. Intellectually that darker end would have been more fitting, perhaps, albeit it could have felt like a bitter punch to the stomach so the alternative taken is hardly surprising.

Spring is apparently finally coming to Blu-ray here in the UK later in the summer, if that still comes to pass I think I’ll be getting a copy. This was a great little movie.

Spring is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.

 

Fedora and the Shelf of Shame

fedora1Welcome to the first (and hopefully not last) instalment of the Shelf of Shame, a series of posts where I finally get around to watching discs that have been sitting on the shelf for far too long. I’m starting with the Billy Wilder film Fedora, released on Blu-ray/DVD here in the UK by Eureka, a disc I bought several months ago and hadn’t gotten around to watching. There’s films that have been sitting on that shelf of shame for much longer than that, several years some of them (Betty Blue is one that springs to mind, which I bought back in 2013, shudder), but as a keen admirer of Billy Wilder’s filmography it didn’t seem right for this film to be on the shelf of shame for any longer.

That being said, I bought this one knowing very well that Fedora is not one of the best Wilder films, but even one of Wilder’s lesser films is better than those of most other directors. Wilder is rightfully a legend in cinema history- with films like Double Indemnity, Some Like It Hot, The Apartment, Ace in the Hole to his name…. even one of his ‘lesser’ films, Avanti!, qualifies as a personal favourite, so Fedora had to be worth a shot, no?

At the beginning of Fedora, we witness a frantic-looking woman throw herself from a station platform into the path of an approaching train, instantly killing herself.  The woman is legendary film actress Fedora (Marthe Keller), an icon of Hollywood of old, and as crowds of adoring fans visit her body which is lying in state prior to a lavish funeral, waiting in the line is down-on-his-luck film producer Barry ‘Dutch’ Detweller (William Holden). Through the device of a voice-over and flashbacks, Dutch tells us his story, of events just two weeks prior, when he had tracked down the reclusive movie star to a remote island in the Mediterranean. Dutch had written a script based on Anna Karenina, and was trying to get a deal to make it into a film, one of the conditions of his backers being that he should get Fedora out of retirement to take the starring role in the romantic tragedy.

Dutch knew Fedora from many years prior, having met her on a movie set in his youth back when Fedora was at her Hollywood prime, a huge movie star, and she and Dutch had shared a one-night liaison. Having tracked her down to a remote island in the Med, Dutch hoped his past liaison with her might enable him to convince her out of retirement. The Fedora he found hiding away from the public eye on the remote island was as beautiful and ageless as he remembered from all those years ago, but acted furtive and nervous, finally claiming she was being held captive on the island by the Polish Countess Sobryanski (Hildegard Krief) that owns it. Before Dutch could free her from the clutches of the countess and her associates, Fedora was taken from the island hideaway to France, where she would commit suicide just several days later, as we saw at the beginning of the film.

In many ways, Fedora as a film really doesn’t work. Its sequences on the romantic Mediterranean lack the wistful romance of Wilder’s superior Avanti!, and most viewers will quickly deduce the films central ‘twist’ long before it is revealed. But there is something else going on in Fedora, and part of it is no doubt a shared theme with Wilder’s early classic Sunset Boulevard, another film about a reclusive Hollywood legend that also starred William Holden, and also was told through flashbacks and Holden’s narration. It all combines into a curious symmetry and a suspicion that there are layers of meaning that escape us (indeed, most likely not even there) but yet still tantalise.

fedora2Fedora dates from 1978, and is Wilder’s second from last film, and yet feels older than it is, clearly old-fashioned even in 1978. This is deliberate, as the film is a somewhat bitter love letter (how typical of Wilder) to Hollywood of old, the director far removed from the Coppolas and Spielbergs and Scorceses and other young turks that were taking over. “It’s a whole different business now! The kids with beards have taken over! They don’t need scripts, just give ’em a hand-held camera with a zoom lens!” cries Dutch forlornly at one point, and you wonder if its Wilder wailing through him. The new corporate studio system in place when this film was made was already far different to Old Hollywood (it is to Hollywood’s shame that Wilder could not get this film made in Hollywood, instead relying on European investors).

Through its love/hate eulogy for Old Hollywood, and the power of film to immortalise and at the same time destroy, the film weaves quite a spell. While it is far from Wilder’s best work, there remains something utterly bewitching about it. Its not a great movie, but remains quite a good one. Fedora isn’t really about that ‘twist’ and is really more about its atmosphere, its languid pace, its performances (albeit two of them undermined by some very dodgy dubbing, unfortunately). For me I think its greatest asset is its central terror of growing old and being utterly defeated by the past- its likely unintentional, but Fedora’s nightmare in this film was possibly the same that could have haunted Wilder himself in the twilight of his career, his importance and worth in Hollywood in the era of Star Wars quite unfair.

Avanti! again

avantiSo I returned to Billy Wilder’s Avanti! again. Its widely considered one of Wilder’s lesser films, and of course when compared to some of his greatest films (a list, remember, that includes Some Like It Hot, The Apartment, Double Indemnity and Sunset Boulevard) I suppose that’s inevitable, but the film has a certain charm that draws me to it, perhaps more so than some of those ‘greats’ oddly enough. The fact that it stars Jack Lemmon is likely part of that, since he’s one of my favourite actors. But Avanti!… is strangely magical.

Even when it was first released, back in 1972, it was considered old-fashioned which was understandable looking at that era of 1970s American cinema – your Godfathers, Taxi Driver, Jaws, The Exorcist etc. But the funny thing is that once divorced from their original release, films like Avanti! (and certainly you could include Its A Wonderful Life alongside it, decades earlier) become utterly timeless in a way their contemporaries can’t. Avanti! is also so endearing, it really feels like love, my affection for it. Its a little bubble of romantic, sweetly funny joy and has frozen in time a sense of time and place forever. Revisiting Avanti! is just like revisiting a favoured place or fondly remembered friend that you haven’t seen in a long while.  It doesn’t hurt that the film features a gorgeously romantic score by Italian composer Carlo Rustichelli that can literally break your heart or laugh with joy- it plays almost throughout the film and gently seduces you without you even knowing it’s doing it.

avanti ostSome people have issue with the films languid pace and think it runs too long- clocking in at 2 hours and 24 minutes it is perhaps a little indulgent but when its a film you love, you just enjoy the extra time to wallow in it. As it is, rewatching it this time I felt the ending came just too soon, feeling rather abrupt. I wanted more of Lemmon and Juliet Mills (who in particular is so achingly bewitching and beautiful here), more of the island, the Rustichelli score, the gentle comedy Its one of my regrets that at the end, when Lemmon and Mill’s new lovers agree to repeat the routine of their parents and meet again at the islands hotel the next summer, I won’t ever be able to see it, rejoin their affair or see the adventures each yearly rendezvous brings. I want to feel what they feel, again, and again, but its locked away (well, at least I have the DVD and the Blu-ray and the soundtrack). We can but dream of what happened the next year, and the one after, and the one after that…

I came back to Avanti! by way of a German blu-ray that matches a US release from a year or so ago that was region-locked. Why we have to rely on German HD releases of quality films like this I don’t know- I would have thought this kind of thing (anything Wilder, frankly) was a sure thing for boutique labels like Arrow or Eureka over here. As it is, the two short cast  interviews included are slightly marred by burned-in German subs but the film itself is perfectly fine with English soundtrack and optional player subs. The HD image is a little problematic, likely derived from the same source/master as the earlier DVD but it looks fine with stable grain and no DNR: a fine filmic image with superior detail to the SD version. No doubt a fresh new master would sharpen things up better still and enable some improved colour ‘pop’, but really, a new master for a niche film such as Avanti! is unfortunately highly unlikely (but I’d like to be proven wrong).

I learned from the interview with Juliet Mills that the part of US STate Official J.J. Blodgett, played by Edward Andrews in the film, was originally written for Walter Matthau, but at the time Billy Wilder and Matthau were having a feud which nixed the actor appearing in the film. In hindsight you can tell it was written for him, some of that dialogue just drips for Matthau’s personality and comic timing, and him in it would just have made Avanti! even more perfect. Chalk that bit of casting up as another of movie history’s great ‘what ifs’.