The Sun Also Rises

Adaptation, moving from one medium to another, has been a feature of moviemaking since the earliest days, and it’s always been fraught with difficulties. Shifting a theatrical production from the stage to the screen ought to be a reasonably smooth procedure, after all drama is drama, right? Well, not always. What captivates in the theater can all too easily appear static and restrictive on the screen. Yet this is as nothing compared to the potential pitfalls of the literary adaptation, and the more famous or well-regarded the source material, the greater the chance of a negative reaction. This is understandable – authors decry the debasement of their work, the simplifications imposed, and readers express dismay at the excision of cherished passages or, worse yet, casting decisions that make a nonsense of the images they’ve been carrying around in their minds. In short, a screenwriter with a  book to adapt can be forgiven for seeing himself (or herself) on a hiding to nothing. The Sun Also Rises (1957) is based on what might well be Hemingway’s best book and it doesn’t seem to have made too many people happy. The author reportedly derided it and the screenwriter Peter Viertel disliked it. I’m not really sure what the critical consensus is but I know I always enjoyed the movie. If the book was about dreams and desires that were doomed to failure, flirtations and affairs that could only ever be imitations of what the protagonists wanted or needed, a paean to the beauty and tragedy of what can never be, then I reckon the movie, because of rather than in spite of all its flaws, might just be as good an adaptation as anyone could ever hope to make.

The Lost Generation: Hemingway and Fitzgerald, Paris, art, passion and a massive collective hangover after years of pointless slaughter seguing into a decade of apparent aimlessness, where creativity was the only antidote available to a creeping despair. Jake Barnes (Tyrone Power) is a product of all this, surrounded by artists and assorted dilettantes, wunderkinds and wasters. He is in some ways the most directionless of them all, a newspaperman who never returned home after the war and probably never will. The scars of conflict run deep in his case, rendering him impotent and thus consumed by apathy and resignation. He’s an observer of the hedonism and excess, central to it all by acquaintance yet peripheral by necessity. It’s through his eyes that the viewer sees the story unfold: first in the Parisian nightspots where he reacquaints himself with the aristocratic Lady Brett Ashley (Ava Gardner) – in his words, a drunk and a drifter – and just about tolerates the painfully self-aware Robert Cohn (Mel Ferrer); and then later in Pamplona for the fiesta, where Brett’s fiancé the dissipated Mike Campbell (Errol Flynn) meets up with them all. The whole thing amounts to a journey of discovery, where a group of desperate people are gradually force to confront the reality that, through ill-fortune or maybe just the vagaries of fate, none of them can ever hope to capture the love or personal fulfillment they yearn for. Yes, the sun will rise on another day but it’s a chill dawn that signals a world moving further away from their grasp.

The entire second act is played out during the height of the fiesta, with Mexican locations doubling for Pamplona. As the relationships become ever more tangled and the jealousies, flirtations and frustrations grow in intensity to match the progress of the fiesta the one constant in the background holding the group together is the Corrida. Hemingway was fascinated by bullfighting, writing Death in the Afternoon to address his passion for it. My own take on that aspect is that it was fueled, as were so many of his themes and concerns, by the reaction to those wartime years that left the characters of The Sun Also Rises adrift in the world. Much is made of the nobility and honesty of man confronting the overwhelming power of nature head on, of its spectacle and theatricality. It feels like an attempt to juxtapose this grand theater of death with the mindless mass slaughter he had experienced. It is as though his attitude to living and, maybe even more important in his case, dying is shaped by it; there appears to be a need to find some order and formality to it all and thus achieve some spiritual accommodation with himself and perhaps with the world in general.

As I said above, Hemingway expressed dissatisfaction with the adaptation, much to producer Darryl F Zanuck’s disgust, although it’s been suggested he may not even have seen it. Screenwriter Peter Viertel wasn’t happy with how it all turned out either, complaining about the decision to shoot in Mexico rather than Spain. Frankly, I don’t think that makes a lot of difference to the finished movie and it certainly isn’t something this viewer would count as a weakness. He also seems to have had some issues with the casting, but he’s not alone in that and it’s something I’ll come to later. Are there changes to what Hemingway had put down on paper thirty years before? Yes of course, but again my own feeling is that these aren’t of a magnitude to trouble me, and I think it’s necessary to come to terms with the fact that a shift to a different medium is always going to result in changes for a range of practical reasons. What’s important is to respect and appreciate a work on its own terms, not in relation to where it came from, not what we the audience feel it should be, not even what the original creator wanted. Ultimately, one can only evaluate the worth of a piece of art on the basis of what it is.

Henry King’s direction is as assured as ever, transitioning smoothly from  scene to scene and on into each distinct act. The CinemaScope image is well used by him in the scenes illustrating the crowded and bustling nature of the fiesta but what’s critical is his ability to maintain the required sense of intimacy when the main players interact – the bar and bistro scenes, the pivotal bedroom scenes where everyone retreats for rest but where personal revelations are made and souls are frequently bared, and of course the two key moments with Brett and Jake sharing the back seats of cars. Those are the moments where King’s lens brings the focus onto the principals, where they and their jumble of emotions dominate that big screen to the exclusion of all else.

As for the casting, I’ve seen comments before to the effect that the movie was miscast with a central group who were too old for the parts they were playing. This is undeniable and some of them look very shopworn indeed, although again I’ve never considered it a drawback. It’s been many years now since I read Hemingway’s novel but I do recall thinking that here were a collection of people whose youth had been stripped away by the horrors of combat, who had been forcibly aged beyond their years. Tyrone Power and Errol Flynn do look tired but their characters have been badly bruised by life so that’s not an issue as far as I’m concerned.

Power gets across the introversion, bitterness and only half concealed impatience of Jake, his surface affability appearing thin and brittle at times. Ava Gardner is fine too as the unfulfilled beauty, a woman who ought to have it all but who has fallen foul of a piece of rotten ill-fortune by loving the one man who cannot satisfy her needs. The substitutes she flits restlessly around are a disappointing selection: Mel Ferrer’s emotional immaturity and self-absorption is easy to despise and Errol Flynn’s decayed swashbuckler can only ever be a temporary  distraction. And it’s a superb performance by Flynn, a brutally honest portrayal of self-destruction. The sparkle is still there and the charm too but there’s a desperate sense of regret that can’t fail to touch one and I doubt the screen has ever seen a finer display of ragged dignity. Eddie Albert provides a happy-go-lucky prop for Flynn, and Juliette Greco, who just recently left us, is impressively insouciant in a small part. It seems that few people were keen on Robert Evans as the bullfighter who captivates Gardner, prompting Zanuck’s famous “the kid stays in the picture” remark. To be honest, I don’t think he adds a lot – he does have a certain gauche quality that is partially endearing but I’m not sure there’s the kind of magnetism about him that would give rise to an obsession in a character like Brett.

The Sun Also Rises has always looked strong on DVD; I had the old UK disc for many years and thought it looked fine but I was tempted to pick up the the Blu-ray over the summer when I noticed it going cheap.  Unsurprisingly, it looks even better in high definition and there are some nice supplements to add value, including a commentary track, an audio interview with Henry King,  a featurette on the making of the movie with contributions from Peter Viertel among others, and one on Hemingway adaptions in general.  All in all then, I feel that despite the reservations some have expressed regarding casting choices, locations, and changes from the original text, that the movie holds up well. If there are imperfections, and I’m not sure some of those are as damaging as they’re alleged to be, then that’s perhaps appropriate for a film about characters who are themselves less than perfect.

Johnny Apollo

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It seems that I’m drawn back, time and again, to what we can term transitional works, be they westerns or any other genre. I suppose that reflects my own interest in observing the general shape of cinematic development, and the progress of popular culture overall. The more hyperbolic aspects of marketing might like to encourage the perception that new styles or movements suddenly explode onto the scene without warning and forever change the face of entertainment. However, that’s not the case at all, and I doubt it ever will be. No, all things grow out of and build upon what came before, some in a more radical fashion than others. Film noir was the great game changer in Hollywood in the 1940s, and it’s evolution fits the trend I’ve mentioned here. The French critics of the post-war period may have noticed what looked to them like a dramatic new direction in cinema after years of being starved of new US movies. Still, that was just an altered perception resulting from a unique set of circumstances; film noir took form just as gradually as any other cinematic movement. Johnny Apollo (1940) is one of those movies that shows the transition happening, borrowing heavily from the socially aware gangster films of the 30s and blending in the makings of a darker, more fatalistic tone.

The film follows the ups and downs of Bob Cain Jr (Tyrone Power), a carefree member of the wealthy elite who sees his life take a dramatic downward turn. The opening is pure 30s, as a frenetic Stock Exchange suspends trading amid accusations that Cain Sr (Edward Arnold) is an embezzler. This fact, along with his father’s indictment and subsequent imprisonment, leaves the younger Cain in a spot. His privileged upbringing has left him unprepared for such a rapid downfall. His initial reaction is a combination of naivety and a kind of spoiled petulance – how could his father disgrace him and damage his social standing in such a way? At this point, we’re looking at a deeply unsympathetic character, and I think one issue with the film as a whole is the fact that this initial selfishness is never quite overcome. However, Cain Jr soon feels the chill wind of reality as his attempts to make his way in the world get scuppered again and again by his father’s new notoriety. It would appear that all those friends and contacts were all of the fair weather variety. In one curiously satisfying twist, Cain finds himself shown the door by a boss who finds his concealment of his identity particularly distasteful – his own old man having died a drunk in prison. So, with his options running out fast, Cain finds himself drawn into the shady underworld of Mickey Dwyer (Lloyd Nolan), a big-time gangster. It’s here that Cain undergoes a major transformation, adopting the pseudonym Johnny Apollo and using every illicit means at his disposal to rise through the ranks of the underworld, all in the hope of securing his father’s release from prison. Personally, my biggest problem with all this is the matter of plausibility. Gangster movies of the classic 30s period did see honest men drawn into a life of crime by a mixture of social pressure and a desire to strike it rich. The crucial difference though is that those 30s movies generally featured lower class guys whose choices were dictated by their poor backgrounds. Johnny Apollo asks the viewer to accept that such circumstances could lead the wealthy down a similar path. Frankly, I have a hard time buying into that idea, and although the incongruity does recede somewhat as the story moves along it’s difficult to shake it off completely.

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Was Henry Hathaway one of the most versatile directors ever? Even a brief scan of his credits would suggest that he may well have been. Hathaway’s career was long, varied and successful, with examples of top class work in just about every genre. It seems that to be considered among the great director’s one needs to have either a recognizable motif, or to have concentrated in one particular genre. Hathaway was one of those thoroughgoing professionals whose dedication to his craft seemed to preclude any of the personal touches we associate with the more highly regarded figures in cinema. From a critical perspective, it was also his misfortune to be such an adaptable filmmaker – it’s much more difficult to put any kind of personal stamp on movies when the style varies so greatly. However, Hathaway remains one of my favorite directors, and I don’t think I’ve ever been completely disappointed by one of his movies. Johnny Apollo is well shot throughout, but the jailbreak finale is probably the real highlight and really ramps up the excitement. Unfortunately, from my point of view anyway, we get a coda tagged on which looks like it’s just there to provide a weak happy ending.

While I’ve admitted that I’m not altogether happy with the plausibility of the central character’s development, I can’t lay the blame for that at Tyrone Power’s feet. I feel he managed to nail the shift quite effectively – from fresh-faced enthusiasm to dismay, and finally a kind of ruthless single-mindedness. His interaction with Edward Arnold was well handled too, and this is crucial since the father son dynamic, and expectations of each, forms the basis of the story. Arnold had the more sympathetic part though; he may be an actor we don’t normally think of in such a light, but he brought a great deal of quiet dignity to his role as the fallen tycoon. However, as is often the case, Lloyd Nolan nearly steals the picture from under everyone’s noses. Nolan was a terrific actor, whose distinctive delivery and likeable demeanor, even when he was being vile, always adds something special to a film. In Johnny Apollo, Nolan was vicious, mean and hypocritical, but you can’t help rooting for him just a bit. I find it difficult to think of Dorothy Lamour without recalling her films with Bob Hope and Bing Crosby. She’s good enough as Nolan’s put upon moll, and Power’s object of desire, but the Hope and Crosby connection makes her seem a little out of place in a straight drama like this. I’ll add a word of praise too for fine supporting turns from Lionel Atwill, Marc Lawrence and, most particularly, Charley Grapewin.

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I’m pretty sure Johnny Apollo was only ever released on DVD in the US as part of a Tyrone Power box set from Fox. I never picked up that set since the other movies contained didn’t especially appeal to me. Instead I bought the movie when Bounty in Australia put it out as part of their noir line. The film is licensed from Fox and boasts a very strong transfer – it’s sharp, clean and has good contrast levels. The disc is a bare bones effort though with no extra features at all offered. Even though Bounty have marketed the film as noir, as I said in the introduction, this is very much a transitional picture. Frankly, the whole thing has more in common with 30s movies, but the seeds of noir are there too, with the last third delving deeper into the ambiguities of dark cinema. If the film is approached purely as a film noir then it’s likely to prove disappointing. Viewed as a kind of bridge in the evolution of the thriller, it’s altogether more satisfying.

Diplomatic Courier

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In the past I’ve done a few write-ups on those thrillers that take advantage of the devastated world of post-war Europe. The uncertainty evoked by time and place, the dreams of a better future coupled with the knowledge that the dangers of the past are no further away than a glance over the shoulder, is a strong foundation on which to build tales of intrigue and deception. In the late 40s and early 50s, as the chill of the Cold War was spreading, there was an abundance of such movies. I think the appeal of these pictures, despite the patriotic trappings required by the contemporary political climate and the inevitable loss of immediacy with the passage of time, lies in their ability to tune into the despair and disillusionment of those displaced and damaged by war and the subsequent carving up of a continent. Diplomatic Courier (1952) is one of the lesser known examples of this sub-genre, despite its boasting a strong cast. This film is not without its flaws but, taken as a whole, it remains a slick and atmospheric espionage thriller.

It starts off with one of those voice-of-God narrations, extolling the virtues of dedicated government agencies, which I tend to find irritating but quickly settles down to telling the story in a more traditional way. In short, a coded document originating in Romania needs to be passed to a courier in Salzburg for transportation back to the US. Sounds simple enough in itself, and thus our courier, Mike Kells (Tyrone Power), is promptly dispatched to do the business. Of course, things don’t quite run according to plan and Kells’ contact winds up dead on the railway line outside the city, without having completed the exchange. The circumstances leading to the murder aren’t clear as they were preceded by a series of cat and mouse shenanigans aboard the train involving a couple of heavies (one of whom is Charles Bronson in a blink and you miss him role) and an unidentified blonde. Kells now finds himself high and dry, and his only lead is the blonde, a Czech refugee called Janine Betki (Hildegard Knef), on her way to Trieste. His only option is to travel to the Italian city, track down Janine, and hope that she can lead him to the missing document. Again, the errand seems uncomplicated yet Trieste is a nest of spies and assassins, with danger lurking and ready to pounce within its ruins and darkened courtyards. Trying to run down one female in an unfamiliar and hostile locale ought to be problem enough, but Kells faces the added complication dealing with the attentions of an amorous American pleasure seeker, Joan Ross (Patricia Neal), who he met after falling asleep on her mink clad shoulder en route to Salzburg. What emerges is that both these women have a central role to play in the mystery, the question though is which one, if either, can be trusted.

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The whole thing moves along at a brisk pace under Henry Hathaway’s direction, but I do feel the script could have used some tightening to cut down on the kind of disposable dialogue that just serves to slow the momentum. Also, there are a few too many convenient arrivals at crucial moments. Having said that, Hathaway, aided by cameraman Lucien Ballard, creates some nice images and takes full advantage of the European locations. The best scenes are those with Kells blundering around Trieste following up clues that frequently leave him even more confused than ever. By this time, Tyrone Power had left his swashbuckling days behind him and was exploring more varied roles. I thought he was pretty good as the messenger boy thrown in at the deep end and unsure of who’s really on his side, apart from a faithful but hyperactive Karl Malden. Both Patricia Neal and Hildegard Knef gave strong but very different performances – the former oozing a kind of feline sexuality, while the latter tapped into a credible blend of vulnerability and grit. Of the two, I’d say Knef produced the the better work, probably due to her character benefiting form greater depth. I mentioned earlier a fleeting appearance by Charles Bronson, and it’s also worth pointing out that’s there’s a small part for Lee Marvin in there too.

Diplomatic Courier is available on DVD from Fox in Spain – the only release of the movie anywhere that I know of – in a pretty good edition. The print is quite clean and crisp, but there is a fair bit of grain in evidence early on. Actually, I can’t work out if it’s genuine film grain or some kind of digital noise; I have a hunch it’s the latter but I’m not expert enough to call it for sure one way or the other. Whatever, it fades after the first ten minutes or so. The Spanish subs are removable via the set up menu, and the extras are limited to a gallery and some text based cast and crew info. This was my first viewing of the film, a total blind buy, and I enjoyed it a lot. I did have some issues with the script, but the acting is good overall and the direction and location photography are very stylish. Yet another picture that deserves a wider audience.

 

Rawhide

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No, we’re not talking about the TV series featuring Clint Eastwood and Frankie Laine’s memorable theme song. This is Henry Hathaway’s claustrophobic western from 1951 with Tyrone Power and Susan Hayward. It’s one of those pictures that seems to have fallen through the cracks and is rarely talked about. I think the reason Rawhide doesn’t enjoy a better reputation can be traced to one essential weakness in the script, or more accurately the characterization, which I’ll look at later.

Tom Owens (Power) is a man with a lot to learn; he’s the son of the stagecoach owner and has been sent west to learn the business. With his apprenticeship nearing its end he’s eager to escape the confines of the isolated swing station which he’s been sharing with stationmaster and ‘tutor’ Edgar Buchanan. The first whiff of danger comes with the news that a notorious outlaw called Zimmerman (Hugh Marlowe) has broken out of prison and has already committed a murder. The first consequence is that Owens now finds himself saddled with task of putting up a disgruntled female passenger (Susan Hayward) and her child, since company policy dictates that the stage can’t carry them in these circumstances. It should come as no surprise that Zimmerman and his men duly arrive and take control of the station. So far this is all fairly standard fare, but the second half of the film really cranks up the tension as Owens has to play a cat and mouse game with Zimmerman to ensure not only his own survival but that of the woman and child also. The real surprise is who comes to dominate proceedings and gains the upper hand in the end.

 

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Susan Hayward was one of those strong women who seemed to dominate the screen effortlessly. From her first appearance in Rawhide, she grabs hold of the viewer’s attention and never lets go until the credits roll. People often use, and indeed overuse, the term powerhouse performance but it’s no exaggeration to say that Hayward delivers one here. She proves herself tough and resourceful enough to be a match for any of the male characters. However, if this is one of the great strengths of the film it’s also the factor that damages it. While it’s no criticism of Hayward, both Power and Marlowe pale in comparison. Power’s character is a weak one from the outset and remains so for the duration. In certain films that’s not necessarily a bad thing, but westerns tend to suffer when the male lead appears ineffectual. There is a similar problem with Hugh Marlowe’s villain, who is a bit colorless and just doesn’t appear to have the steel required to control a band of desperadoes. In fact, Marlowe looks completely out of place in this setting, although he is given a backstory to help explain the cultured nature of Zimmerman. Now, this kind of thing could hamstring a film, but it’s saved by the performances of Zimmerman’s sidekicks, particularly Jack Elam and Dean Jagger. Elam was an actor who was prone to hamming it up and devouring the scenery, and his turn as the depraved Tevis does just that. However, given Marlowe’s shortcomings, this adds some much needed meat to the outlaws’ threats.

Fox put Rawhide out on DVD in R1 last spring in a box which bundled it together with Garden of Evil and The Gunfighter. Typical of much of Fox’s output, the transfer is excellent and the disc has some nice extras, including a short featurette on Susan Hayward and another on the Lone Pine locations. All told,  Rawhide is a fine western with some very tense and genuinely dramatic moments. It’s not quite in the top tier, largely for the reasons I mentioned above, but is well worth an hour and a half of anyone’s time. It’s been suggested to me that there are some similarities to Boetticher’s The Tall T, and I can see where that may be the case. However, the similarities are really only plot points and both the characterization and direction mark them out as quite different films. Having said that, I do think that those who enjoyed Boetticher’s spare tales of tight knit groups in a tense situation would definitely take something positive from Rawhide.

Jesse James

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Having recently seen The Assassination of Jesse James, and having enjoyed it immensely, it occurred to me to go back and revisit some of the other movies based on the legendary outlaw. Along with William Bonney the name Jesse James has become an integral part of the myth of the west. For both of these men, questions of who and what they were and why they acted as they did have been endlessly explored and no truly satisfactory answers have emerged. But does that really matter? To me it doesn’t since the movies are and were, at heart, an entertainment and storytelling medium. It seems naive in the extreme to seek the whole truth in a dramatic form – if you want the real facts you need to look elsewhere. Henry King’s 1939 version of Jesse James certainly bends the truth more than a little, but that doesn’t mean the film is a poor one.

This movie opens in the years following the Civil War and portrays Jesse (Tyrone Power) and brother Frank (Henry Fonda) as peace loving farmers in Missouri. That’s the first of many inaccuracies, for the truth is that the brothers had already strayed into lawlessness during the war – Frank riding with Quantrill and Jesse with another group of guerrilla raiders. There is no doubt, right from the beginning, that the true villain here is the railroad and more specifically it’s representatives. The railroad, as in many westerns, is shown to be the product of the greedy and corrupt east. It is the actions of one of the railroad agents (Brian Donlevy) that causes the James bothers to turn their backs on the law. From this point on their fates are mapped out for them and further dissembling on the part of the big businessmen serves only to provide more justification for the brother’s criminal activities.

The movie is full of some fine set pieces such as the early train robbery with Jesse riding up to the rear, hauling himself aboard, and then proceeding along the roof for the whole length of the locomotive until he reaches the engine. The famous raid on the bank in Northfield could have been given more time but it does contain some great action shots – Jesse and Frank riding their horses through a store window to escape and then following that up with a dive off a cliff into a river below.

Power and Fonda play the brothers as essentially romantic and heroic figures, but the film is not above pointing out the less honorable aspects of Jesse’s character. At one point Randolph Scott’s sympathetic lawman makes it clear that Jesse’s initial justification has been superceded by simple, inexcusable criminality. Another scene, on the eve of the Northfield raid, shows Jesse to be a man on the verge of losing control and only the efforts of his more rational brother haul him back. Scott’s supporting role doesn’t offer much and I get the feeling that it was only included to show that all authority figures are not scheming back-stabbers. The notorious Bob Ford is played by John Carradine as a craven scoundrel with whom the viewer can feel no sympathy whatsoever. As a portrait of cowardly betrayal it’s well done but, as with all the villainous parts, remains one dimensional.

Fox issued the movie on DVD last year and the presentation is a good deal less than might have been hoped for. Frankly, the print is in poor condition and this is particularly evident for the first half hour or so where the age of the film becomes painfully obvious. Things do improve as it goes on but issues with the colour occasionally arise. The film clearly needs restoration work but, despite it’s shortcomings, I’m still very happy to at least have it in my collection.