March 2011

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Reviews by Jonathan Wallace


Mary Queen of Scots (1969) by Antonia Fraser is a highly readable, at times gripping, popular history of the unfortunate queen of France and then Scotland who was highly intelligent, accomplished and firm, yet not in the end strong enough to withstand the violent currents around her in a primitive country. Imprisoned for nineteen years and then finally executed by Queen Elizabeth, her putative peer who had no jurisdiction over her, Mary, a Catholic in a Protestant country, went to her death with grace and consummate freedom of speech, leaving behind her competent poetry, an essay on adversity, and a history of realpolitik and sensitive analysis of circumstances which made her interesting and rather modern. You sense Fraser is a little in love with her subject. The book is a corrective to the usual view that history is written by the victors; Fraser is lenient towards Mary's mistakes (the final one was countenancing a plot against Elizabeth), and detests Elizabeth, who comes across as a violent and hypocitical autarch, far from the strong, maternal, amusing queen of English tradition.

I had long wanted to track down The Mexican Tree Duck (1993), by James Crumley because of its wonderful title. This is the second Crumley novel I have read about investigator C.W. Sughrue, who is Philip Marlowe's extremely troubled cousin (rarely do ten pages go by without Sughrue snorting cocaine, speed or even methamphetamine). The work is original and full of evocative noir prose (the detective's Montana base helps there; why is there so much great writing about Montana in particular?). However, the narrative is often rushed and programmatic, packing a dizzying amount of information in (a problem that Raymond Chandler also had). The supporting characters--biker, criminal lawyer (in both senses), Mexican gangsters with Oxford educations, and the required trio of mysterious, beautiful women who bed the detective--are wonderfully sketched and the pay-off moderately satisfying. A prehistoric ceramic model of the titular bird, created by unknown hands, and soaked in old human blood, is an almost irrelevant, but very enjoyable, mcguffin.

The Plague Dogs (1977) by Richard Adams, is a rather grim follow up to the wonderful "Watership Down", which itself contained, but transcended, some sinister and violent themes. This book, with its vivid depiction of extremely cruel animal experiments and its dog protagonist with part of his brain removed, slides downhill through most of its hundreds of pages towards an inevitable bloody ending, then pulls out a happy one with a knowing wink. Adams failed to solve the old problem involved in telling stories which are complex, evocative and potentially interesting, but make the reader depressed and rather suicidal.

How To Be Good (2001) by Nick Hornby, is a dreary and trite adultery-in-suburbia style novel. It also supports the proposition that its very difficult for people to write believable first person characters of the other gender.


I resisted The Kings Speech (2010), directed by Tom Hooper, as long as I could, telling people I don't like "speech therapy movies". But (as everyone replied) it contains two really rousing performances by Colin Firth, as the stammering King, and Geoffrey Rush, as the mad half-fraud who cures him. Helena Bonham Carter (on whom I have a major crush) is restrained, funny and odd as the king's consort, the relationships are touching and the central story--will the King be able to deliver his first rousing radio speech in wartime? --dramatic enough. I did wonder if the king's speech defect as portrayed--more shyness than a stutter--was realistic. A true stammer, with its tedious and heartbreaking endless repetition of consonants, would have been very uncinematic and painful to watch.

True Grit (2010), directed by the Coen Brothers, is a remake slightly superior to the original rather wonderful John Wayne movie, because more faithful to the novel, and because Mattie Ross is played by a more age appropriate and effective actress. Jeff Bridges is excellent as Rooster Cogburn, and in general the movie feels like a real Western, in an era when attempted entries in the genre are all dull or preposterous.

Penny Serenade (1941), directed by George Stevens, is a medium effective weepie starring two fine comic actors, Irene Dunne and Cary Grant who were excellent together in the madcap romantic comedy "The Awful Truth". Both prove they have tragic chops, as she miscarries, they adopt and then their little daughter dies suddenly. They are on the verge of coming apart entirely, when...something saluatry happens. However, the movie is marred, possibly even destroyed by the epic awfulness of the little girl, who far exceeds the era's standards of wooden exaggerated falsity for child actors. You're glad when she kicks. There are strong supporting actors, Uncle Applejack the pressman who can change a diaper, and the tough but compassionate woman who runs the orphanage.

Tunes of Glory (1960), directed by Ronald Neame, is a revelation: Alec Guinness in a powerful dramatic role as the earthy, alcoholic major who has been acting colonel of a venerable Scottish infantry regiment until John Mills, an unpopular, rule oriented "toy" soldier, arrives to take it over. The two men, who detest and yet feel for one another, butt heads until there is a Tragic Offstage Shot fired by one, which winds up destroying both. I thought of Zola, who apropos of a fatal encounter in one of his novels asked God: "Why did you break this against that?" Its well written to the point of gripping, and has bravura performances by both men, whose range was so immense that either could have played either role.

Huckleberry Finn (1939), directed by Richard Thorpe, is the role Mickey Rooney was born to play, and he nails it. This is a lively rendition of the novel, which avoids the N word, cuts out a lot of story and takes some other liberties, but which is essentially true to Twain's vision. Rex Ingram as Jim remains dignified, despite uttering some dialect. I didn't realize until afterwards that I have seen this wonderful actor in two other movies, as an African soldier in "Sahara" which I reviewed last month, and as the genie in "Thief of Baghdad". Though not as well remembered as Paul Robeson or Hattie McDaniel, he worked steadily in the 1930's and 1940's and was in two of Hollywood's attempts to present stories about black characters, "Green Pastures" and "Cabin in the Sky".

I was really pleased to catch up with The Three Penny Opera (1931), directed by G.W. Pabst, a rarity shown on Turner which utilized much of the cast of the original German production, including Lotte Lenya. The music and setting are wonderful, and the cynical story is completely modern: street criminals have become bankers by the end, and sit at the table with businessmen and the police chief, constituting the permanent oligarchy, while outside a crowd of protestors shuffles into darkness like zombies. I wonder if Brecht and Weill clearly saw the wave coming that just a couple of years later, would chase them out of Germany? The character of Peachum the entrepreneur is uncomfortably semitic in look, body language and beard. From the Wikipedia article about the movie: "Who is the bigger crook, he who robs a bank or he that founds one?"

I have been enjoying movies about kings. The greatest examples of the modern genre are probably "The Lion in Winter", which I reviewed here recently, and "A Man for All Seasons". This month, I watched two starring Richard Burton, Becket (1964), directed by Peter Glenville, and Anne of the Thousand Days (1969), directed by Charles Jarrott. An interesting sidenote is that so many of these films are based on plays, "Becket" on one by Jean Anouilh and "Anne" on Maxwell Anderson. Both films are somewhat inferior entrees in the genre. Richard Burton plays Becket in the first and Henry VIII in the second, but in neither film does he seem really engaged; he never delivers a performance to rival his in "Night of the Iguana". Peter O'Toole as Henry II in "Becket" (a role he also played opposite Katherine Hepburn in "Lion") is better. Becket's arc, from debauched clown to troubled, moralist archbishop, is not really persuasive. "Anne" is a moderately better movie, with a fierce performance by Genevieve Bujold and a haunting last long shot of the infant Elizabeth walking towards the castle.

The Rain People (1969), directed by Francis Ford Coppola, is an interesting failure worth seeing for its angsty 60's road movie atmosphere, beautiful cinematography, and compelling early performances by Robert Duvall and James Caan. A pregnant woman fleeing her confining marriage, played effectively by Shirley Knight, picks up a brain damaged, puppy-like football player (Caan). They both encounter a haunted traffic cop (Duvall), resulting in a classic 60's downer ending in a trailer park. The title metaphor--there are people made of rain, who look normal but dissolve--is lovely.

Dark Victory (1939), directed by Edmind Goulding, is a highly enjoyable weepie with Bette Davis dying of movie star disease (the kind that makes you more beautiful as you near the end). That said, it has some interesting dealing-with-oncoming-death elements, despite the lack of realism. Humphrey Bogart turns in a bad supporting performance as an unconvincing Irishman; so many of his roles through-out the 1930'sa give no hint of the greatness and stardom he achieved a few years later.

The More the Merrier (1943), directed by George Stevens, is one of the best screwball comedies to come out of Hollywood in the '40's. During the height of the wartime housing crunch in Washington DC, a mischevous, angelic old man talks his way into a young woman's apartment, sets her up with a young soldier, and superintends the beginning of their romance. It is the kind of movie (like "The Lavender Hill Mob", which I reviewed recently) in which things happening in the corner of the frame--people falling and sliding on rain-slicked streets--will make you laugh out loud. The old man sees Farragut's statue and, as he toys with the lives around him, invents a song: "Damn the torpedos, full steam ahead!"

A Room With a View (1985), directed by James Ivory, is a lovely adaptation of the E.M. Forster novel, starring beautiful, young Helena Bonham Carter. The film is worth study for the fidelity of its translation of very detailed Forster prose to cinematic action--the stabbing in the Italian square, Lucy finding George in the field and their unexpected kiss, and most interesting and effective, the "Would you like a bathe?" scene. Most really faithful screen renditions of novels are lifeless, but this one is vibrant. I particularly identified with Denholm Elliott as George's harmlessly mad father who just wants everyone around him to love one another, and be truthful.

La Grande Illusion (1937), directed by Jean Renoir, which I had last seen as a teenager, is one of the greatest films ever made. It is a gentle, simple story about class and war, the fading away of the nobility in favor of the mechanics and the Jews. It is also a gripping story of prisoners of war attempting escape, of friendship, and the love a lonely German farm woman conceives for the French escapee she shelters. Every detail of the movie is understated and telling. There is a moment when a dying French nobleman, having given his life to cover the escape of the mechanic and the Jewish guy, tells the German aristocrat who shot him: for commoners, a war time death is a tragedy, but for us it is a good way out. You sense this unbearable exhaustion of centuries, a man staggering under a load he is forced to carry but eager to lay down. There are wonderful performances by the great Jean Gabin, as the mechanic, and Erich von Stroheim, as the German aristocrat who hates his duty as a policeman but (having been badly burned in combat) has no other way to serve.

Watch on the Rhine (1943), directed by Herman Shumlin, is an able translation of the Lillian Hellman play, re-enacting Auden's "necessary murder" as a glorious anti-fascist (Paul Lukas, reminsicent of Paul Henreid in "Casablanca") confronts and must kill a slimy, amoral Rumanian opportunist who is blackmailing him. The movie contains a fine self-effacing performance by Bette Davis, who reportedly took a supporting role in order to ensure that Lukas, who had been in the Broadway production, was offered the movie role. The language is fine, the character sketches interesting, but my enthusiasm for Lillian Hellman's work dropped preciptously after the "Pentimento" veracity scandal. Interestingly, the adaptation is by her lover, Dashiell Hammett, which also raises the enjoyable side issue of the almost sexual "ronde" of famous authors adapting one another in Hollywood: William Faulkner writing "The Big Sleep" based on Raymond Chandler; Chandler working on James M. Cain's "Double Indemnity", etc.

The Black Legion (1937), directed by Archie Mayo, is decidedly a B movie, starring Humphrey Bogart, with some respectable aspirations: it is about the rise of a Klu Klux Klan-like organization, complete with the sheets and lynchings,and it contains some respectable rhetoric about liberty which feels like it was written by an ACLU attorney (one who could write reasonable dialog). Humphrey Bogart, playing a resentful ordinary joe who gets caught up, is near-terrible, and it raises the question of whether Bogart was really an actor of range, as I always assumed, or was later coddled by directors who allowed him to stay in his heroic, angry, sardonic comfort zone. In this film he cries, and is never believable.

The Little Foxes (1941), directed by William Wyler, is another compelling Lillian Hellman adaptation, about the people who devour each other and the earth and those who stand by and watch them. Bette Davis, looking old and tired, turns in a trademark performance, and Teresa Wright is fine as the daughter who comes to see her as a monster.The movie resonates in the era of the Koch Brothers, who are the chief eaters of democracy in our time.

I saw two Holocaust-inspired movies which were so similar in characterization and casting they could have been done with the same actors--an apparently straightforward simple American; a complex Eastern European woman; and a child in need of protection. The first was The Search (1948), directed by Fred Zinneman, in which a GI played by Montgomery Clift shelters a mute, traumatized Czechoslovakian boy amidst the ruins of Germany, while his mother, separated from him in Auschwitz, searches for him. It is well-rendered and moving, yet probably unrealistic, as children this small were killed upon their arrival at Auschwitz. The other film was a noir, The House on Telegraph Hill (1951), directed by Robert Wise. Richard Basehart plays the callow American, who turns out to be a murderous sociopath. Here, the mysterious Eastern European is a Polish woman who survived Belsen and assumes the identity of a friend who didn't, to come to the U.S. and raise her friend's child. Basehart is the boy's guardian, who wants everything for himself. The movie is appropriately suspenseful and atmospheric, and creates the interesting spectacle of a governess who is simultaneously a terrible enemy and, at the end, an unexpected ally, of the Polish interloper. Both films are interesting artifacts, because relatively few American films have dealt with the Holocaust or its consequences ("The Pawnbroker" and "Schindler's List" are two others in this very small genre). Another feature both films have in common: neither of the concentration camp survivors is Jewish.

Separate Tables (1958), directed by Delbert Mann, was based on a play by Terence Rattigan. It is a poignant example of the genre in which the author lifts the roof off of a small hotel or bar, to show us the lives within ("The Iceman Cometh", "The Time of YOur Life", etc.) In this case, it is a residential hotel by the English seaside where decayed and broken people go to pass the time until they die. It presents two main stories, an American ex-soldier who never went home and who is visited by his once glamorous, ex-model ex-wife, who is sick and lonely; and a retired British soldier who has lied to the others about his education and accomplishments, and is exposed when the local paper reports his arrest for soliciting women in a movie theater. Burt Lancaster and Rita Hayworth are fine as the Americans. David Niven as the soldier, and Deborah Kerr as a fearful, rather simple-minded woman who adores him despite everything, are heart-breaking. Wendy Hiller surpasses them all as the hotel manager, engaged to be married to Lancaster, who with kindness, simplicity and consummate dignity befriends Hayworth, delivers her own fiance to him, and then saves Niven's life almost in passing.

This last reminds me of the argument that I have made here occasionally: every movie is about a moral dilemma, even those which claim not to be. For a non-didactic portrait of a kind human being solving the most difficult of daily problems of right and wrong, watch "Separate Tables" and fasten your eyes on Wendy Hiller whenever she appears.

Also, Deborah Kerr seems to me an actress of quite remarkable talent, excellent at playing strong and wounded characters (she plays a fragile, wounded character here, but quite powerfully). I just took a look at her filmography and remembered the work she did in "The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp", the stunning "Black Narcissus", "King Solomon's Mines", "From Here to Eternity", "Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison", "The Sundowners" and "Night of the Iguana".

I make a point of not watching the Oscars or paying attention to the results, but: how distressing that the Academy was wise enough to nominate the stunning lead performance of "Winter's Bone", then unimaginative enough to give so many awards to the far blander and safer "King's Speech".