The World of Suzie Wong
To whom it may concern…
Integrating into an essentially alien society or culture is a process which demands that one should not only become familiar and comfortable with the prevailing mores and customs but, and this is arguably an even greater challenge, also reassess oneself. This complete awakening, a combination of introspection and extrospection acts as a powerful dramatic hook. It lies at the heart of The World of Suzie Wong (1960) and applies particularly to William Holden’s stranger in a strange land. However, the setting in colonial era Hong Kong and that curious Eurasian atmosphere it generates, coupled with its examination of the demimonde that flourished in the bars and dance clubs of the city by night, means that it has an application for Nancy Kwan’s title character too. All of this ties in with the quest for fulfillment, a theme that figures prominently in Strangers When We Meet, the other Richard Quine directed movie released that year.
It all starts in a lighthearted, playful way, with Robert Lomax (William Holden) sparring and flirting with the Chinese girl he encounters on the boat ride into Hong Kong. The mood alternates between coy and farcical and is buoyed along by the irrepressible optimism and positivity that films of the era seemed able to tap into without ever needing to break sweat. She is Suzie Wong (Nancy Kwan), a veteran of the waterfront bars despite her youth, although Lomax is not initially aware of this, having seen no reason to doubt her claims of coming from a wealthy and decorous background. Both of these characters are at heart dreamers, one spinning a yarn for the sheer fun of it, just to indulge her fantasy harmlessly in the company of a stranger she is unlikely ever to meet again, while the other harbors hopes of transforming his desire into something real – I guess this contrasting perspective might, in a nutshell, be seen as defining the nature of dreams in youth and maturity. Lomax has come east to make a fresh start, and a radical one at that. He has grown weary of life as an architect and has decided to have one last shot at making it as an artist, giving himself in the region of a year, or until his money runs out, to either realize this ambition or face up to the fact it is not to be.
Suzie (Nancy Kwan), on the other hand, is motivated, superficially anyway, by the kind of ephemeral thrill-seeking, bordering on hedonism, that is the preserve of the young. Yet these flights of fancy really only exist on the surface, and as the movie progresses it becomes apparent that there is a depth of longing within her too, that need for emotional stability and security which is innate to every person. In her case it is perhaps even stronger due to her own particular personal circumstances. So, there are quite profound themes and issues being explored and, despite the occasional but well integrated foray into lighter areas, they gradually build and grow in intensity, revealing themselves in an almost kaleidoscopic manner with tones and shades of meaning and motivation forever shifting or altering the perspective of both the characters on the screen and that of the viewers of the drama.
If fulfillment is the bedrock of the story then rediscovery represents the path which should be taken. Suzie is Robert’s inspiration in every sense, the muse who forms the basis of his art and also the person who opens up that route back to a fulfilled life. While it’s not explicitly stated in the script, although I feel there are oblique hints, the journey undertaken by Robert Lomax to such an alien environment, tossing aside what one might assume would have been a successful career to try to make a fresh start as a painter, is suggestive of some trauma in his life. His initial rejection of any kind of commitment – his claim that it is basically the result of his straitened finances is only half-credible, I think – indicates a man who is in retreat from personal relationships.
If his art is inspired by Suzie, then I reckon it is fair to say his reconnecting with life through that art is similarly achieved. At one point she tells him that he will die inside without his art, that it both sustains and defines him. Then later Kay (Sylvia Syms), the well-to-do banker’s daughter who finds herself by turns jealous and besotted, suggests that if he never painted Suzie again he wouldn’t die. It is at this moment that he becomes completely aware of himself and his situation. He is now conscious of the fact that his whole existence has become bound up with Suzie – his art, his love, his life itself are essentially one and the same. If one aspect or ingredient is absent or denied, then he can never attain fulfillment. So, love, art and life are inextricably linked for Robert Lomax, with no one part functioning properly without the other. And it is the unlikely figure of Suzie who acts as the gravitational hub for all of these elements.
Richard Quine may have come on board as a replacement for Jean Negulesco, but this notion of fulfillment earned through an imperfect love underpinned Strangers When We Meet and thus I can’t help wondering whether the theme didn’t have some resonance for the director. The movie does appear to have been strongly influenced by producer Ray Stark and writer John Patrick as much as anyone yet the mere fact Quine occupied the director’s chair for two films released in the same year which were both so markedly informed by this theme is certainly intriguing. I would like to mention too that I was struck by the fact that both movies present emotional crescendos played out in the midst of intense rainstorms. Quine made only a handful of dramatic movies overall, which I think is a pity as he did display an affinity for this type of material, although that should by no means be taken as a criticism or dismissal of the highly entertaining comedies and satires he is more commonly associated with. As with Strangers When We Meet, George Duning contributes another lush and evocative score and Geoffrey Unsworth’s cinematography makes the most of the Hong Kong locations as well as the beautifully lit interiors.
Watching movies featuring William Holden never disappoints, the man could be tough or sardonic, flippant or intense, but whatever the part he consistently brought a sense of a real person to his roles. The part of Robert Lomax has a number of dimensions, jauntiness, adventurousness, humility, a hint of desperation and, crucially, a solid core of compassion. Holden had become such an accomplished performer by this stage that he could convey all of this smoothly and convincingly. Nancy Kwan was making her screen debut in the title role and took the place of France Nuyen, who had been originally cast and then fired by the producer. She brings a beguiling freshness to the role, frank and energetic throughout, and coping well with the powerful and dramatic moments. Michael Wilding comes across as something of a caricature of an Englishman abroad; it’s amusing enough in its way, but I’ve always thought there was a touch of the artificial to many of his performances. Both Laurence Naismith and the recently deceased Sylvia Syms offer good support.
The World of Suzie Wong ought to be easy enough to track down on DVD and it has also been released on Blu-ray by Imprint in Australia. Personally, I feel it has a lot going for it; it looks squarely and unflinchingly at such matters as prostitution and casual racism yet never patronizes nor loses sight of that alluring and elusive central theme, and of course Nancy Kwan is enchanting throughout. I think it is a really great movie.
Youngblood Hawke (1964) was the penultimate film directed by Delmer Daves, one of those melodramas he turned his attention to from 1960 onward. The critical response to these films has been mixed at best, although one could say that this characterizes the response to the director’s body of work as a whole. So far, I have only seen a smattering of these late career movies myself, but I fully intend to catch up with them all sooner or later. Youngblood Hawke is a classic rise and fall drama with a pleasing thread of self-discovery and renewal forming the backbone of the narrative.
Arthur Youngblood Hawke (James Franciscus) is an aspiring writer, driving coal trucks in Kentucky by day and spending his nights working on his novel. His break comes just before Christmas, a phone call from a New York publishing house confirming its desire to publish his book and inviting him to the city to sign contracts and so on. So it’s with a mix of awe and joy that Hawke arrives in the metropolis, dazzled by the scale of the place, the skyscrapers and monuments, and scarcely able to absorb the fact that someone is prepared to pay him good money to do what he loves, to write. Before the day is over he will have made the acquaintance of two beautiful women, both of whom will alter the course of his life. He is taken in hand by his editor Jeanne Green (Suzanne Pleshette) who finds him a small attic room to rent in the same building she occupies in Brooklyn. That same evening, Christmas Eve, at a literary party he’s been asked to attend he meets Frieda Winter (Genevieve Page), wealthy, sophisticated, provocative, and married. In these early stages, every step Hawke takes is an ascending one, his career path rises promisingly before him, the critics and socialites flatter and flirt respectively, and he, as any young man thrust suddenly into such a position would, basks and revels in the attention and allure of it all.
So Youngblood Hawke is a success; he’s been declared just that by the men and women who create reputations, but those same people can crush them just as easily and just as quickly. The thing is, for all his apparent charm and his ability to write award winning prose, Hawke is at heart a novice in the art of living. He craves success and thinks that the appetizer he has been served up will lead naturally to a grander and richer main course. For it’s riches in the real, monetary sense that draw Hawke, not for their own sake – he’s not so mercenary as that – but for their ability to set him free from financial worry, free to pursue his art in earnest. This leaves him walking something of an ethical tightrope, performing a precarious balancing act between artistic integrity on the one hand and the lure of the fast buck on the other. That someone so inexperienced should falter and lose his way is only to be expected, and that lack of artistic or professional surety extends to his personal affairs as well. This of course provides the real meat of the story, the tug-of-war for his heart with the excitement and illicit unpredictability of Frieda on one side and the reliability and patient devotion of Jeanne on the other.
Youngblood Hawke was Delmer Daves’ first movie shot in black and white since Kings Go Forth, and while I understand budgetary considerations played a part in that decision I also think it works well in this story, and the cinematography of Charles Lawton (a frequent collaborator with Daves) is luminous in places. In truth, I think the story lends itself to monochrome with some of the more powerful scenes, particularly those in Hawke’s apartment, benefiting from the starkness. Daves had a lot of creative control on the movie, not only directing but also producing and adapting Herman Wouk’s novel. As such, I think it’s fair to say it’s very much his film and his trademark theme of placing complex people in difficult positions where there are no easy choices is fully explored. The script ties it all up in a much more positive way than I understand to be the case with the source novel. Again, this positive thrust is characteristic of the director’s work, there’s always that path towards redemption, or renewal and rebirth as far as Youngblood Hawke is concerned, in his films. His characters are put to the test by life’s challenges, forced to confront harsh and perhaps unpleasant realities, both with regard to themselves and those most precious to them. Yet there is a reward to be attained, a victory which is frequently richer and more satisfying by virtue of being so hard won.
The movie begins and ends at Christmas and it’s surely significant that the main character experiences the dawn of new phases of his life at both points. Is the whole film to be viewed as a parable of sorts, or perhaps as an allegory? Daves’ films do have a strong sense of the spiritual to them after all, so perhaps that’s not such a stretch. Hawke sets out on his journey from humble beginnings and winds up being lauded and celebrated, drawn across the river to Manhattan to be tempted by its glitter and glamor. Yet it proves to be something of a creative desert for him, sapping his creativity and his spirit, and so he retreats back to Brooklyn, back from the brink and back to life itself, to be reborn as another Christmas comes around.
I’ve heard it said that the casting of James Franciscus is one of the weaknesses of the film, but I’m not sure about that. For the most part he acquits himself well, catching that wide-eyed wonder of Hawke in the early stages and that ever present ambition that blinds him to the pitfalls ahead of him. If there is a touch of awkwardness in some aspects of his performance, it feels appropriate for a character who at times shows an astonishing lack of perception. Genevieve Page’s worldly Frieda points out the paradoxical contrast between his artistic voice with all its depth of appreciation of the human soul and the tone deaf naivety of his interactions in his private life.
It is the women in Hawke’s life who understand him better than he does himself, laying the foundation for two very strong roles for the characters of Frieda and Jeanne and the two actresses playing those parts produce correspondingly fine performances – of course Daves typically presents women in a highly positive light. Both women are drawn to the writer right from their first meetings but then find themselves repelled by the selfishness, pettiness, and latent prudery he fails to control on various occasions, although never quite enough to make a clean break with him. Daves had already worked with Suzanne Pleshette on Rome Adventure a few years earlier and her role as Jeanne allowed her to explore a down to earth sexiness that feels very authentic. As the more passionate and the more conflicted Frieda, French actress Genevieve Page has the showier part and has more to work with. She gets to play two fine scenes with Franciscus, one in her own home and one in his studio apartment, both of which run the gamut from passionate desire to a cauterizing self-disgust. There is some real rawness on display, in a very human performance, and it is to Daves’s great credit that he never invites the viewer to make cheap or facile judgements about this character and affords her a marvelously classy exit. She is written as a person with flaws and failings as well as strengths and virtues, Page plays her in that way, Daves directs her so, and the movie as a whole benefits from that frankness.
Aside from the leads, the supporting cast is deep and constitutes a major draw in itself. Among the highlights are the seemingly ubiquitous John Dehner as Hawke’s chiseling uncle offering a masterclass in misplaced overconfidence, Mildred Dunnock as his prim mother, juggling defiance and reproval, Edward Andrews as the critic who mixes smarm with acid, and Kent Smith’s cool, calculating cuckold. All those alongside Mary Astor and John Emery, Lee Bowman and Eva Gabor, Berry Kroeger, Werner Klemperer, Don Porter, and so on.
Youngblood Hawke is available on DVD via the Warner Archive and it offers a fine, crisp and clean widescreen transfer of the movie. There are no supplements whatsoever, which I feel is a pity as the film does merit some attention. Frankly, I found much to enjoy and appreciate in this film – the appealing cast, Charles Lawton’s cinematography, Max Steiner’s buoyantly memorable score, and of course Delmer Daves’ hearteningly positive view of people.
The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse
While literary adaptations come up for discussion on this site all the time, remakes of earlier movies are less common. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1962) is both an adaptation of the novel by Vicente Blasco Ibáñez and a remake of the silent film directed by Rex Ingram and starring Rudolph Valentino. In the interests of full disclosure, allow me to get it out of the way from the get go that I have neither read the novel nor have I seen Ingram’s movie. As such, I won’t be indulging in any comparisons here, which is something I try to avoid where possible anyway. After all, a work ought to be assessed on its own merits, to do otherwise is to rob it of its integrity.
This is a tale of family, war and division yet, in the final analysis, I think it is also a film about unity. The opening is celebratory, packed with dancing, music and, above all, color. It is 1938 in Argentina and Madariaga (Lee J Cobb), in a brazen repudiation of his years, is reveling in life, for its own sake and also in anticipation of the coming together of the two branches of his family. Madariaga has two daughters, one married to Karl (Paul Lukas), a German, and the other to Marcelo (Charles Boyer), a Frenchman. The offspring of these two couples will all be present after a long absence, so it should be an occasion for joy. However, it is, as has been noted, 1938 and joy is about to take a long vacation. During the course of the evening, Karl’s son Heinrich (Karl Boehm) comes clean about his involvement in the Nazi cause, provoking outrage in his grandfather. To the accompaniment of elemental furies within and without, the old man has visions of the horsemen of the title, representing conquest, war, pestilence and death, charging across a lightning ripped sky. And then he dies. The story moves to Paris, seen largely through the eyes of Julio (Glenn Ford), the dissipated and pleasure-seeking son of Marcelo. That storm which toppled the head of the family half a world away has followed and has lost none of its strength on the long journey. Julio is a self-absorbed wastrel, quick to seduce the wife (Ingrid Thulin) of one of his father’s friends, complacent and secure in the apathy afforded by his neutral status. When the war finally breaks out and engulfs everyone, he gradually learns the value of love, of loyalty, of sacrifice and, crucially, of what it means to be part of a family, even a divided one.
War, love and hate, but family above all. We follow the fate of the two conflicting branches of the family, one half seduced by darkness and the other coddled by decadence. The war cleaves them, tearing the younger generation in particular apart and setting them at each other’s throats. Yet by the end, when the horsemen have done their worst, the intangible and eternal core of the family remains intact, in spirit if nothing else. That finale, with those lords of chaos riding triumphantly across the sky, has an unquestionably grim quality, an ancient malignancy pressing on in a relentless continuum. Still, there is a grain of hope there too – there are, it seems, two slightly different endings and it’s possible the viewer’s perceptions may shift depending on which one is seen – hinting at the ultimate resilience of the concept of family. Both sides of Madariaga’s clan have been devastated yet even in the moment of their greatest loss those who remain have been drawn back together. Perhaps that is the message running through it all, that family in its broadest possible sense, that of society of which we are all members, still endures. The rampaging horsemen may be forever with us, but so too are those unshakeable familial bonds that hold everything in place.
The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse was poorly received on release, with a disappointing box office and a critical drubbing. Bosley Crowther of the New York Times, who never seems to have met a picture he liked, kicked the movie good and hard. Opinions are always varied and no more than an individual’s reaction to what is offered up, and of course there’s no getting away from the fact that I am simply presenting my own take here, but it is generally both poor form and somehow worthless to criticize a work for what it is not as opposed to what it is. Should anyone feel like seeking out Mr Crowther’s hatchet job on the film, it will be clear that he appeared most offended by a remake and adaptation not being a carbon copy of what came before. That type of criticism feels utterly redundant. However, what struck me as even more wrong-headed were the barbs aimed at Vincente Minnelli’s direction. To quote from that review:
“…most of it reeks of the sound stages and the painted sets of a Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio These, on wide screen in color and lighted like a musical show, convey no more illusion of actuality than did “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.”That much is the fault of the screen play, garbled grossly by Robert Ardrey and John Gay, and the staging of Mr. Minnelli, who should have looked at a couple of neo-realist films.”
That comment indicates to me that the writer either ignored or fundamentally misunderstood the director and his intentions. The artist is concerned with truth first and foremost. In order to address this, he searches for, he explores, and if he is truly fortunate, he finds himself in a position to present that truth via his chosen medium. Minnelli was an artist. For him, the quest for truth took precedence over any thoughts of adherence to realism. Cinema allows for the incorporation of a broad range of techniques and approaches, and there are those who try to reconcile artistic truth and realism. Minnelli, on the other hand, sought to achieve a separation, happily sacrificing the illusion of realism – and excepting documentaries, what appears on the screen can never be anything other than illusion – in order to break down those barriers which would stifle artistic expression.
All of those elements which have been pointed out as flaws or weaknesses are deliberate choices on the part of the director. While Minnelli might have had some reservations with regard to aspects of the script and casting, the staging and presentation feel very characteristic of his work. He was a very visual director, making bold choices when it came to color and that balletic sense he brought to set piece scenes: the debauched Parisian parties, the Latin nightclub, the riot that leads to the initial arrest of Yvette Mimieux. There is a oneiric quality to all of this, heightened sensations brought to life on the screen in order to stimulate the viewer’s emotions. The striking colors are very effective too; the predominance of red is notable, from the drenched and saturated newsreel footage, suggesting danger and violence, to the decor of Glenn Ford’s apartment. The contrast of red and grey is marked in that set, and also in the costuming in one key scene. The color scheme of the apartment is reflected in the intense, passionate red of Ford’s smoking jacket and the cooler, more practical grey of Ingrid Thulin’s suit, mirroring their contrasting characters when they reluctantly acknowledge that circumstances have left them no alternative but to part.
In terms of casting, the most widespread complaint seems to relate to that of Glenn Ford, mainly due to his age. Admittedly, he is old for the part, in his mid-40s at the time. The early scenes in Argentina, and also pre-war Paris, where Ford is supposed to be gliding along fueled by youthful hedonism, feel a bit forced. However, the role of Julio is one which requires the character to mature fast as the war takes an increasingly heavy personal toll and the option of simply sitting on the fence becomes no option at all. It is here that Ford grows into the role, or it could be said the role grows around him. Either way, that internalized dissatisfaction which the actor was able to exploit so well in his classic western and noir roles in the preceding decades serve him well. As the character of Julio begins to live a double life, so Ford gets the requisite psychological squirming across. Minnelli is said to have initially wanted Alain Delon for the part and it’s interesting, if not especially productive, to speculate on how he would have handled the part. Ingrid Thulin (dubbed by Angela Lansbury) has a certain Scandinavian aloofness about her – Ava Gardner is said to have been the first choice for the role – but she plays well off Ford and their relationship feels credible.
Charles Boyer’s turn as the head of the French side of the family is nicely judged. He is as suave as one would expect of a man in his position, but there is discomfort too, and it comes out in two scenes with Ford, one where he confesses to the cowardice which has hounded him all his life, and then on a rain-soaked Parisian bridge, racked with grief after the death of his daughter, as he begs his son to be a braver and better man than he had ever been himself. Boyer also shares a poignant moment with Paul Lukas, where both men are screaming at each other in bewilderment as the horror of their personal tragedies mounts. Paul Henreid is simultaneously chilling and stoic as the hero of the resistance, slowly being destroyed, physically by the attention of the Gestapo and mentally by the loss of his wife’s love. As for the others, Yvette Mimieux is fine as the impassioned younger child of Boyer, while Karl Boehm is a textbook Nazi. Finally, Lee J Cobb plays it large in the opening scenes. Is it all too affected? Well, that is something the viewer will have to decide. For me, in a movie where many aspects are heightened and intensified with the aim of raising the dramatic temperature, Cobb’s performance can be considered to be just another dab of color.
The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse can be found on DVD in the US as part of the Warner Archive, and editions are available in France, Italy and Spain. This is a film I came to relatively recently and one which I quite like. It has its flaws and it drifts in places but there are enough of Minnelli’s characteristic flourishes to draw me in, and Glenn Ford is someone I can always watch. It is not perfect but the pluses outweigh the negatives for me and I reckon it is a good deal better than some of the criticism leveled at it would have us believe.
Strangers When We Meet
This is a story about building a house. Is that too glib? Perhaps it sounds like it is, but it’s not meant to be. Would it be better if I said it’s about lack of fulfillment? Well, that’s true too; it’s a movie about both, and at heart it’s a movie about people in love. All of these elements converge in Strangers When We Meet (1960), separate and unconnected when they initially come together, just as the title itself suggests, fuse and then diverge again at the close. Still, that climactic separation is not quite as clean or as complete as one might expect – after all, nobody and nothing can remain unchanged and unaffected by their experiences.
The post-war suburban idyll, that’s the image we’re first presented with. A peaceful and prosperous looking street gradually filling up with chattering parents and children bustling along to the bus stop. They gossip and exchange small talk, bid a temporary farewell to the kids and then start to drift apart again, off to resume their day as the strangers they had been a few minutes before. But not all of them; architect Larry Coe (Kirk Douglas) lets his gaze linger a touch longer on the demure yet voluptuous Maggie Gault (Kim Novak), and she discreetly returns that slow-eyed appraisal. So there we have it, those tiny hairline cracks in the veneer of prim middle-class respectability are suddenly exposed to the glare of the early morning sun. I don’t suppose it’s necessary to go into huge detail regarding the plot here. Suffice to say that Larry and Maggie are both less than satisfied in their lives; she is married to a stiff and undemonstrative man while he feels suffocated by the twin pressure of unrealized professional potential and a wife (Barbara Rush) he blames for stifling his creativity. Therefore, we have two people struggling with what they think are unfulfilled lives, ripe for romance and risk. The trigger for it all, what tips the balance, is the aforementioned house. Larry has been given a commission by a bestselling novelist (Ernie Kovacs) to construct his dream home – something he seizes onto hopefully, as a drowning man will snatch at anything buoyant. It’s this that actually brings Maggie and Larry together, the building of the house proceeds alongside the blossoming of their illicit relationship, with its completion resulting in… Well, watch it yourself and see.
Director Richard Quine had been making a succession of mostly light comedies throughout the 1950s, with a couple of films noir such Pushover and Drive a Crooked Road thrown into the mix. Bearing that in mind, a melodrama in the mold of Douglas Sirk would appear to be an odd project for him to take on. For all that, it works very well indeed, with Quine tackling the serious themes with skill, tact and sensitivity. He never allows it all to become too broad, overheated or overwrought. And visually, he paints from an exciting and evocative palette as he and cinematographer Charles Lang Jr light, frame and color the movie beautifully – from the marvelously tinted and shadowed first “date” for the clandestine lovers to the warm autumnal mellowness of the final scene, and through it all Ms Novak’s costumes progress from brazen scarlet to virginal white later in the movie, indicating a journey back to spiritual purity. All in all, an excellent handling of cinema’s own special syntax.
So to the writing, the solid core of any piece of filmmaking and frequently the area where the most significant strengths or weaknesses lie. In this case it comes from the pen of Blackboard Jungle writer Evan Hunter ( a man I’m more familiar with for his 87th Precinct books under his other pseudonym of Ed McBain) and adapted from his own novel. As I said in the introduction, it’s a movie about building a house and as such needs a firm foundation to anchor it. Indeed the characters themselves comment on a few occasions about the precarious placement of the house, half joking that it may all come crashing down. And here the architect is seen to be really constructing his building for the woman he loves; she appears to have inspired it and even if he’s not fully aware of this himself, I think it ought to be clear enough to the viewer. The tragedy here is that he’s building this for someone else to occupy, which leads back to the accompanying theme of lack of fulfillment – the entire premise of his love can never truly be fulfilled.
Still, it’s not quite as bleak as all that. I can only offer my own interpretation but I think that, ultimately, Hunter wants to put across the idea that the act of loving, both the physical and the emotional, are as close to personal fulfillment as anyone can hope to arrive at. That it may not always be a success or be directed towards the right person is perhaps irrelevant. Some will be lucky, they will connect with that ideal or perfect match, but for others the knowledge that they were able to touch on a form of perfection in an imperfect situation may actually be enough, or at least be enough not to negate that love which was but briefly shared.
The last time I wrote about a movie starring Kirk Douglas was on the occasion of his 103rd birthday. Since then he has sadly left us but in doing so he also left behind a wonderful legacy of performances to be enjoyed. He was of course a front line star, a man who seemed as big as the movies themselves yet versatile enough to be wholly believable in whatever role he took on. As an increasingly embittered middle-class man drifting into dissatisfied middle age, he’s never less than credible.
There’s a nice degree of subtlety involved in Douglas’ differing interactions with both Barbara Rush and Kim Novak, as wife and mistress respectively. Both actresses bring a lot to the movie too, Novak has the bigger role with more screen time and she uses that enigmatic quality to good effect – incidentally, this was the third of four films she made for Quine – and the hesitancy and uncertainty she tapped into so well in Hitchcock’s Vertigo is in evidence again. Rush has to wait till the third act to get her big moments and handles them just fine, notably the creepy confrontation with Walter Matthau’s two-faced neighbor. Matthau himself is delightfully sleazy and oily in his role, taunting Douglas during the pivotal barbecue scene before later making his move on Rush in the literally tempestuous climax. A word also for Ernie Kovacs, someone else who was used on a number of occasions by Quine. There are only hints at his quirky comedic side as he gives us an interesting take on the self-doubting writer, a successful man who is every bit as much in search of fulfillment, primarily the artistic kind in his case, as any of the other characters. The fact is that pretty much everyone in the movie is living their own variation on the American Dream; the problem is it’s giving most of them sleepless nights.
I’m not sure if Strangers When We Meet has been released on Blu-ray – someone will no doubt set me straight on that – but it is freely available in multiple locations on DVD. I’ve had the Italian release for some time but only recently got around to it, and I’m very pleased that I did. The movie has, to my eyes anyway, been presented very well and the marvelous Scope image is highly immersive. The fact is of course that the story itself draws you in with its touching and deeply affecting portrayal of lost people searching desperately for meaning, fulfillment and genuine love. It really is a rich, layered and intelligent piece of filmmaking, a joy to watch and one I’ll most certainly be revisiting.
A new decade heralds change, or at least that would appear to be the received wisdom. It’s tempting to see it like Janus, as a point of transition gazing both ahead and back simultaneously. And no, this isn’t going to turn into some reflection on where we find ourselves today; it’s merely a coincidence that I happened to look at a movie which also appeared at the beginning of a new decade. The Plunderers (1960) came out just as the the western was about to enter a period of significant change. Could it be termed a transitional work? Well, for my money, it has much more in common with the works which preceded it, although perhaps there is a case to be made for it taking some tentative steps towards the post-classical era.
So, what’s it about? Conflict is naturally the key element of all drama and this movie presents it on a number of levels – interpersonal, intrapersonal and generational. On the surface, it’s a simple tale of four youthful drifters arriving in a tired and washed-up town, a place where all vigor has been abandoned and where the ageing population is unprepared for any challenge to the torpid complacency. These four are restless and dissatisfied, wearied from a cattle drive and emotionally raw at the realization that they just blew all their earnings in a week of indulgence in Dodge City. Right on the cusp of manhood, these youngsters need to reassert themselves, to make people sit up and take notice of their importance, but are singularly lacking in the maturity necessary to acquire that which they most desire, the respect of others. Thus, when an initial bit of minor roguery and mischief leads to the mildest of rebukes, their bravado is further stoked. It all leads up to threats, murder and, finally, a confrontation with a one-armed veteran, provoking a spiritual awakening of sorts.
There’s a lot going on here. We have the four interlopers trying to find their place in the world, but without the structure and guidance to point them in the right direction. This appears to be a throwback to the tales of rebellious youth that abounded in the previous decade, but the crucial difference here is that those earlier examples tended to push an essentially optimistic message whereas The Plunderers has an altogether sourer vision – the generational conflict depicted promises no positive outcome. Maybe this can be seen as a reflection of the stagnation that would begin to creep into the genre and give rise to a new and more nihilistic approach. Or from a wider sociopolitical perspective it might be seen as holding up a mirror to the waning of the somewhat detached Eisenhower era which was about to give way to the more radical and energetic Kennedy years. Then again, I may well be trying to read too much into it all.
What is certain is that the movie charts the gradual reawakening of the conscience and sense of responsibility of its leading character. Jeff Chandler puts in a fine, understated performance as the veteran who has been scarred both physically and psychologically by his wartime experiences. The fighting robbed him of the use of an arm and left him an emotional cripple as well. His withdrawal from his community is partnered by his distancing himself from his former lover (Marsha Hunt, happily still going strong at 102), and her needling of him for his lack of guts almost constitutes an assault on his masculinity. It feels as though his passivity and apparent impotence is being weaponized in both a literal as well as a figurative sense. What finally rouses him to action is the belief of the storekeeper’s young daughter (Dolores Hart). There is the suggestion that he has lost confidence in himself as a result of his injuries yet I think it’s clear enough that his fear is not based on an absence of self-belief as much as a reluctance to revert to the violence that he earned a fearsome reputation for indulging in during the war. While the classic 50s western built towards a spiritual rebirth, I think it’s telling that The Plunderers ends on a grimmer note with its emphasis on guilt and an inner monologue that’s actually a prayer for forgiveness.
Bit by bit, I’m getting round to featuring works by a variety of filmmakers who really ought to have been represented on this site earlier. Today it’s the turn of Joseph Pevney, an actor turned director who made a number of impressive genre movies throughout the 1950s before moving on to a long a successful career on television. The Plunderers was one of his last feature efforts and I think it’s a strong one. Almost the entire picture is shot within the confines of the town, keeping our attention focused and the dramatic tension ratcheted up. It’s very obviously a low budget affair, but Pevney’s interesting camera placements, along with the layered writing, help make a virtue of this. I feel it’s also refreshing to see the climactic duel making use of knives as opposed to the more traditional quickly-drawn pistols. All told, there is little on screen violence until quite late in the story – with the exception of two tough and rather brutal beatings – and when it does take place it’s appropriately shocking in its abruptness and tragedy.
As far as options for anyone wishing to view this movie are concerned, there’s a manufactured on demand DVD available from the US via the Warner Archive and there had until recently been a release in Germany, but the latter seems to have gone out of print now. I’m an unashamed fan of low budget movies that punch well above their weight and I actively seek these out. Sometimes they work out fine and at other times they don’t; happily on this occasion, I felt The Plunderers was a success and I recommend checking it out. In fact, I enjoyed Pevney’s work so much here that I’m of a mind to feature a few more of his movies back to back. We’ll see…
Planet of the Vampires
Impressions and influences, those are the two items on the agenda today. It wouldn’t be much of a movie that didn’t make some kind of an impression, good or bad, on viewers, and I want to focus on those which I was aware of as I watched Planet of the Vampires (1965), the Sci-Fi chiller from Mario Bava. And then there’s the question of influence, which is something of a two-way street as far as I can tell, and all part of the evolutionary chain running through cinema from its infancy right up to the present day.
Distress signals in Sci-Fi rarely bring anything good, and Planet of the Vampires certainly doesn’t challenge that truism. This is what draws the ill-fated crews of two spacecraft to the planet Aura, and ultimately dooms them. We follow events from the perspective of Captain Markary (Barry Sullivan) as he becomes increasingly aware of some presence on the planet which is capable of influencing the thoughts and actions of his crew, driving them so far as to attack and kill their own comrades. In itself, that ought to be enough to worry anyone. However, when dead crew members start to reappear looking to add to their number, and the remains of another, clearly alien spaceship, suggest something similar has happened before, well…
For me the standout feature of Planet of the Vampires is the distinctive look. The image of astronauts clad in black leather roaming across a psychedelic technicolor landscape, all the while being stalked by vampire/zombie hybrids, is a striking one. Even when the plot doesn’t always seem to make sense, when the meaningless techno-babble makes one’s head spin and the characters insist on placing themselves in needless danger time and again, those visuals are what help to keep one’s attention focused.
There are plenty of people who will tell you that this movie was a big influence on Alien, which came out 15 years later, and I guess there is a strong case to be made for that. While I’ve not done much reading up on this myself, I have a hunch it’s been well covered elsewhere so there’s not to be gained from my serving up the same stuff. What I noticed more were the influences it seemed to draw inspiration from, namely Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The whole notion of sleep bringing damnation as opposed to succour is hard to miss. Even if the message about relaxing (one’s vigilance) being potentially fatal loses some of its punch stripped of the paranoid Cold War subtext, it remains potent on an everyday level.
Anyway, there you have it, a much shorter piece than I normally like to post, with a few random musings thrown in there. It’s not down to laziness on my part, or any lack of affinity for the movie in question, but instead the pressure of demands on my time in the run up to the holidays. I doubt I’ll have time to put up anything else between now and Christmas, so I’ll use this (admittedly unseasonal) offering as an opportunity to wish a merry, peaceful and relaxing Christmas to all who stop by here.
As a fan of film noir, I’m always a little saddened to think of how it gradually faded from cinema screens. Then again, that very briefness is part of its allure, those two decades or thereabouts of slipping in and out of virtual and literal shadows, of exploring the moral ambiguities of life. Of course, the point is that it did fade as opposed to completely disappearing – it never really went away (arguably the themes have a timeless universality which precludes that possibility) and by the 1970s we were simultaneously reassessing the phenomena and witnessing the resurgence of what would come to be termed neo-noir. This leaves us with a type of cultural no-man’s land between these two eras, one which is often a fascinating place to take a spin around. A lot of people will tell you that the classic period of film noir drew to a close with Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil. As such, it seems somehow appropriate to look at Warning Shot (1967), based on another Whit Masterson pulp story, as an example of one of these linking works.
A stakeout in Los Angeles on a foggy night, two weary cops sat in their car hoping to get a line on a killer, and hoping just as hard to get relieved and head home to spend the evening like regular human beings. One of them, Sergeant Valens (David Janssen), goes for another look around and calls out a warning to a figure he glimpses exiting the apartment complex under surveillance. The figure bolts, the cop gives chase, another warning, a gun is drawn, and one fatal shot is fired. As the body is hauled out of the swimming pool it plunged into, the alarming fact that the victim was a respected doctor is revealed, not to mention the more troubling fact that no gun is turned up. Here we have a standard noir setup, a guy we have seen acting according to the rules is about to come in for a roasting by the media and, with all the available evidence suggesting his guilt, he’s on the point of seeing the law he serves focus all its attention and resources on him. His unhappy personal life and, more significantly, his previous near fatal run in with a shooter conspire to further darken his character in the public perception. With his badge suspended and his departmental favors running out, Valens is left with only one realistic option – prove that the victim was something other than the blameless philanthropist he’s been portrayed as.
The first thing to grab one’s attention as the opening credits play is the depth of the cast. David Janssen, fresh off what I continue to believe was perhaps the finest TV show ever made – The Fugitive, takes the lead and he’s a good pick for the part of the fall-guy cop. Those years spent playing Richard Kimble stood him in good stead, honing his edgy self-awareness and that trademark cautious uncertainty had become second nature by this stage. Interestingly, Ed Begley, frequently cast as loud, hectoring and unpleasant types (12 Angry Men springs readily to mind here), is instead handed a more sympathetic part as Valens’ superior.
After that the list of names is impressive indeed: Eleanor Parker, George Sanders, Lillian Gish, Sam Wanamaker, Stefanie Powers, Keenan Wynn, Joan Collins, George Grizzard, Walter Pidgeon, Carroll O’Connor. And there we have both a strength and a weakness of this movie. Frankly, it’s natural to want to see as much of these people as possible yet it doesn’t work out that way. The bulk of these performers appear in what are essentially cameos – popping in to add another piece to the puzzle Valens is racing to solve and then dropping out as abruptly, leaving the viewer wishing so many of these roles could have been expanded just a little more.
If there was a glut of talent in front of the cameras, there wasn’t exactly a shortage behind them either. Buzz Kulik may not have had a huge number of cinema credits to boast of but his television work was extensive and his name turns up on a succession of well-known shows, not the least of which is The Twilight Zone. Some names just naturally stand out and that’s surely the case with cinematographer Joseph Biroc, whose long career stretched right back to It’s a Wonderful Life and included work in every conceivable genre. The movie can at times take on a slightly flat, TV feel but I reckon it’s down to Biroc’s skill that it rises above this as often as not. The mood of the whole piece is further enhanced by a typically classy Jerry Goldsmith score. And while we’re on the subject of notable names, it would be extraordinarily remiss not to mention veteran costume designer Edith Head’s stylish contribution.
Warning Shot was released on DVD in the US by Paramount years ago but seems to have gone out of print and, consequently, risen in price. I have an Italian DVD which is completely English-friendly and looks very nice; it is bright and colorful with a tight and smooth widescreen picture and no print damage I was aware of. In terms of story and mood, I reckon this movie bridges the gap between classic film noir and its soon to be rebooted cinematic progeny. That said, it’s a flawed production overall and the attempt to pack it out with familiar faces ends up hurting it more than helping it – the succession of brief interludes stimulate the appetite like a teaser for a much-anticipated movie but you wind up feeling slightly dissatisfied when you realize that’s all you’re going to get. Generally, it’s an entertaining thriller, taking a sidelong look at mid-late 60s society, rising above its limitations in some respects but, paradoxically, finding itself bound by some others of its own making in the process.
Pressing ahead with more Hammer, let’s step forward a few years to look at the next stage in the development of the studio’s thriller output. The influence of the early films noir could still be seen in the black and white, Jimmy Sangster scripted suspense yarns with their trademark twist in the tail. Fanatic (1965) was something of a departure, shot in color and taking an entirely different thematic tack. If the previous template had been the noir-edged Hitchcock homage, then the new version was more in line with the “crazy old lady” sub-genre popularized by Robert Aldrich’s Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? at the beginning of the decade.
Generally, I like to give an overview, or at least some flavor of the plot at this stage. I tend to simply touch on details as I reckon it’s poor form to drift into spoiler territory for those who may not have seen a given movie, and it’s also a lazy and slightly pointless way of writing. I’ll be brief here too but for perhaps different reasons on this occasion, namely the simplicity and directness of the plot. In essence, it concerns Patricia Carroll (Stefanie Powers), a young American girl who has come to England to be with her fiance, but who also has in mind a short visit to the family of a previous lover who passed away suddenly. That family is limited to the mother, Mrs Trefoile (Tallulah Bankhead). At first, the old lady in her crumbling home and surrounded by the oddball help appears a mild eccentric with too little company and too many religious hangups. Later though, Patricia discovers that those convictions are of the deep-seated variety, of the fanatical type in fact. And the plan is for Patricia to spend a lot more time in the house…
OK, I’ve a confession to make here: while I’d say I was a fan of Hammer studios and all their varied films, I’m not at all fond of this particular sub-genre. I remain adamant that the likes of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? is vastly overrated, and I far prefer Aldrich’s more subtle, and ultimately more affecting, Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte. Now when it comes to Hammer, I’d rate The Nanny far above Fanatic in the “crazy old lady” stakes, and for broadly similar reasons. I think the issue for me is the level of camp involved. Films of this kind tread a fine line between grotesque farce and a more genuine brand of psychological tension. In my opinion, the greater the camp quotient, the greater the risk of tipping over into a mean parody. Fanatic starts off with what I feel is a broad and farcical tone, before plunging into deeper and darker waters. However, I think that detour towards meanness then appears magnified. Essentially, there’s too much mean – the heroine becomes objectified via her ordeal and the villains are too stylized to ever seem real.
Fanatic looks like it had been, and probably continues to be, heavily reliant on the presence of Tallulah Bankhead in the role of the demented Mrs Trefoile. Now, if I’m honest, I’ll have to say I’ve not seen much of this actress’s work. Aside from Fanatic, I’ve seen (and liked) Hitchcock’s Lifeboat but that’s it. I suspect that’s the extent of most people’s experience of Bankhead as an actress but her legend, driven by a range of professional and personal activities, is such that her name was and is a strong selling point. However, I reckon a performance should be evaluated on its own merits rather than any other influence and, on that basis, I’m going to probably go against received critical response here and say I wasn’t overly impressed. Frankly, there’s an archness and an air of aloof knowing that severely limits the credibility for me – where I longed for cool menace I got pantomime instead.
I’m guessing Stefanie Powers would have been regarded as more of a lightweight at this stage but, conversely, I found her performance more successful. It’s a difficult role – her character is driven right to the edge – but she handles it very well, going from carefree to desperate, and finally emotionally numbed with ease and confidence. Yootha Joyce is fine too as the repressed and nervy housekeeper but I feel Peter Vaughan, as her husband, is a little mannered and consequently less convincing. There’s also an early, undemanding, part for Donald Sutherland.
Fanatic is another title in the first Hammer box set released as a limited edition by Powerhouse/Indicator. Once again, I found the visual presentation to be of a typically high standard with a clean, sharp transfer and exceptionally fine-looking color and detail. The supplements are as usual a big part of what makes these releases so attractive, featuring newly filmed pieces on the movie, on Bankhead, the composer and interviews with crew members. I admit I’m not as enamored of the film itself as some will be but there’s no denying the quality of the package presented here.
Hammer and horror, it’s hard to think of one and not the other. I guess this is fair enough as the studio made its name, and maintains its own corner within popular of culture as a result of this automatic association. Late night TV screenings of the famous Gothic horrors and their spin-offs also helped cement this image in our consciousness. Still, despite being an integral and influential part of the studio’s output, it was not the exclusive focus. There were also crime movies, Sci-Fi, fantasy, swashbucklers, and of course thrillers. The increasing number of DVD and Blu-ray releases over the years has highlighted this range with recent packages from Powerhouse/Indicator, including the set with Maniac (1963), demonstrating just how attractive these films can look.
A French schoolgirl, Annette Beynat (Liliane Brousse), is on her way home when she is forced into a car and then assaulted. This ordeal is witnessed by youngster who alerts the girl’s father. Enraged by this, he attacks the culprit and hauls him unconscious back to his workshop, where he then kills him with a welding torch. This is pretty strong stuff but, mercifully, nothing graphic is actually shown on screen, all of the shocking and grisly elements being left to the viewers’ imagination. That’s the setup. We then leap ahead four years to the bar run by Annette and her stepmother Eve (Nadia Gray), and the arrival in their midst of an American painter, Jeff Farrell (Kerwin Mathews) who has been drifting around the south of France. He represents a new source of heat in an already hot spot and arouses the interests of both the women. Soon though, he sets his sights on the more experienced Eve and embarks on a relationship which draws Annette’s ire and also leads to a plan that puts many lives in danger. Eve wants out of her marriage and her husband wants out of the asylum where he has been confined. So a plot is hatched to give everyone what, on the surface anyway, they seem to desire. Of course, in such a tale nothing and nobody is ever quite what they seem…
After the somewhat brutal opening it’s clear enough that this isn’t a Hammer Gothic, although what follows looks for a time like it intends to develop into a Southern Gothic of the Tennessee Williams variety, with a hot and sweaty Kerwin Mathews generating friction and causing the emotional temperature of the Camargue to climb. However, in a picture where the tone and ground are forever shifting, the touch of writer Jimmy Sangster soon steers the kind of convoluted course that ought to be familiar to anyone who’s seen any of his mini-Hitchcock thrillers. It reveals itself as a twisty and absorbing thriller with deception and betrayal at its core. I tend to think (with good reason given how many credits he racked up in that role) of Michael Carreras as a producer first and foremost, although he did direct a number of features too. He makes good use of the French locations in this one and the scope frame both highlights the scenery and, when employed at low angles, gives an unexpectedly claustrophobic feel to some of the interiors.
Nadia Gray is probably the pick of the performers as the passionate bar owner at the center of an increasingly complex web. Mathews is fine too as the lead, a man who thinks he knows exactly what he’s doing but we always have the idea someone is manipulating him very skillfully. Liliane Brousse is very charming and Donald Houston, especially when seen behind dark glasses, provides a hulking and threatening presence.
A word now about the presentation of the Indicator Blu-ray, currently only available as part of this limited edition box set. The black and white scope image looks very crisp and clear, a super transfer. As usual with this company’s releases, the supplements are first-rate including specially commissioned booklets and on disc features such as a short, original documentary on the film, another feature on Nadia Gray and yet another with reminiscences of the shooting from surviving crew members. All told, we’re looking at a really attractive package here that gives the movie its due, and then some.