Though I’ve also seen Behind the Candelabra, The Boat That Rocked, Point Break and Blood but I’m going to shift those into this upcoming week’s entry.
My quest to see pretty much every Pre-Code continues. This viewing was also inspired by a resurgence of love for Robert Montgomery. I found myself falling for him many years ago, back when I first started watching classic films. It subsided for years until I saw him in When Ladies Meet this year. It all came flowing back. The dapper obliviousness. The drunken cavorting. The boyish charm.
The Easiest Way disappointed me quite a bit, though an ambitiously mobile camera and a couple of outdoors scenes lend a little to grasp on from a formal point of view. The story didn’t bring the progressive aspects of women claiming their own desires, even under the guise of a compromised message film. Instead, we see Constance Bennett exhibiting inertia as subdued dignity. Her lack of character kills the film in its tracks. Many people love Bennett; stunner though she is, color me unimpressed with her acting abilities (at least here). Watching a non-entity of a character make poor choices and become a pity-case for Depression-era women about what not to do in the face of easy opportunity isn’t very fun. Furthermore, Robert Montgomery gets a pitiful fifteen minutes of screen time. Slightly making up for this is his perfect entrance.
Anita Page as Bennett’s sister, and Clark Gable in his first sizable role as her husband, are a parallel instructional couple of how to live life as a woman in the 30’s. Honestly and dutifully of course!
There are a few notables here. Though the final scene plays into my inherent issues with the film, it strikes an effectively complex and bittersweet cord. Marjorie Rambeau has a palpable desperate quality to her speeches which also mark the most astute and empowering material in the film.
Much more satisfying than the slim pickin’ offerings of Haywire, Side Effects is another yet another Steven Soderbergh genre exercise, this time working within a third generation Hitchockian springboard. It’s a meticulous Jenga tower of a pharmaceutical potboiler fronted by Scott Z. Burns’ precision and Soderbergh’s reliably yellow-hued stasis. It’s a satisfying old-fashioned romp that plays around with manipulation through perspective.
Its final act veers into somewhat uncomfortable territory. I’m not sure if we’re ready to have gleeful throwbacks to the archaic sexual politics of 80’s/early 90’s thrillers with no repercussions. Even more importantly, it simply doesn’t come off, landing between preposterous yet not preposterous enough to retain the necessary guffaw factor. Other unfortunate elements include Vinessa Shaw’s shrill one-note wife.
The trailers worked too hard to cover up its halfway point event, making the very thing they were trying to hide obvious. However, I appreciate that the marketing had the intended effect of not knowing where the film was going after the halfway point. Rooney Mara and Jude Law are both excellent, particularly Mara who paints a realistic picture of crippling depression with her doe-eyed fragility as well as her other layered nuances of character.
Soderbergh’s cinematography under pseudonym Peter Andrews presents some of the best, and at the very least some of my personal favorite, digital cinematography I’ve seen, utilizing shallow focus and deep sensual lighting amidst a clinical backdrop.
#114. Night Must Fall (1937, Thorpe)
I’m a big ball of giddiness when it comes to Night Must Fall. It features a career-best performance from Robert Montgomery, playing against type as an Irish homicidal maniac with equal parts charm, vulnerability and psychosis. Opposite him is Rosalind Russell as a repressed quiet niece torn between her fascination for morbid visceral excitement and recognizing her fright as a dangerous reality and that her inaction is paved with potential consequence. There’s an atypically interesting and rich dichotomy between the two characters; it almost feels like a plot line from “Dexter”; except actually good. No, great.
Night Must Fall is severely underrated and filled with character-driven tension. I basically spent the entire time lustily swooning over Montgomery, getting lost in his ‘baby-faced’ Irish lilt and trickster charm tactics. This is a memorable yarn based on an acclaimed play of the time and featuring Robert Montgomery’s only Academy Award nominated performance (and his own favorite performance as well). That introductory shot with the nonchalant swinging door is one of the best first character glimpses in film. I’d count this film among my many favorites.
“To put it bluntly, Pietà is a baseless experience posturing under the guise of arthouse profundity. I’m not quite sure what Michael Mann and fellow jury members were thinking when they awarded it the Golden Lion at last year’s Venice Film Festival. I’m also not sure how so many people are being tricked into finding meaning in this faux infant terrible submission. It comes down on us like a sloppily blunt object but without the impact. Kim Ki-duk’s limply affected ‘realism’ is a creative cop-out as he shamelessly uses his name and reputation to wrongly excuse his barely present content. It’s a defense mechanism that only goes so far; you only have to remove his proclamation ’18th film’ statement to realize this entire film, from its unpracticed camera to its cheap shock tactics, is a pile of bull.”
#116. Sightseers (2013, Wheatley)
Rising out of the same kind of mundane death-related British humor from films like Kind Hearts and Coronets and The Trouble with Harry, Sightseers is sprinkled with moments of scathing clarity but is too often bogged down in one-note transparency. We get it. It’s funny because Tina and Chris treat murder like light-hearted shenanigans.
Alice Lowe and Steve Oram created these characters and wrote the film, which Ben Wheatley then directed. Tina and Chris are both pretty pitiful individuals with Chris lacking for creativity and swamped in resentful class issues and Tina a repressed dog psychology obsessive whose life has passed by taking care of her deeply unpleasant mother. Though it boasts two fantastic lead performances, my main problem with Sightseers is that they are seen as pathetic creatures. They are not depicted with an adoptive get-on-board-the-murder-train sympathetic glee, even if Wheatley and co do a good job of entrenching us into their mindsets. They are depicted with one-note pity, as sad adults in arrested development. You don’t root for them and I wanted to be rooting for them.
The trajectory of their road trip, and the film, is a lovingly crafted smaller sights of Northern England tour (the Pencil Museum!) There are shots, like the one above, that Wheatley employs that have either Oram or Lowe staring straight into the camera that are involving instigating moments. And that final scene is tops; truly tops and the kind of biting jab the rest of the film was trying to execute with intermittent success. Basically, Scott Tobias’ NPR review perfectly sums up how I felt about it. He articulated it way better than I ever could.
Known as pretty much the first prison film, The Big House establishes a well-known prototype whilst stretching out the boundaries of its own blueprint. Basically, it tweaks its own formula while simultaneously establishing it. Writer Frances Marion became the first female to win a non-acting Oscar for her screenplay and a lot of prison visits and research went into her preparation. So the film is on one level a critique of the prison system, namely the indoctrination process and life within a microcosm society. Overcrowding, poor care, conformity, discipline and the authorial rot are all addressed.
We expect to sympathize with Robert Montgomery’s Kent, a Tobias Beecher-lite audience surrogate, with the touted up big-shots of Chester Morris and Wallace Beery as our troublemakers. In fact, Montgomery’s shifty snitch-fish out of water is seen as the enemy. Morris and Beery, united by loyalty and an inside-out pattern of established friendship are actually the ones with which we sympathize. Chester Morris, who had yet to impress me in a film, is fantastic here. And Beery, in a role that brought him back on top elicits the perfect dangerous but soft lovable aura, even as he talks about his murder rap and knocking dames teeth in. A rare gift that. The two have such memorable chemistry and you become very attached to their camaraderie.
George W. Hill gets around the stilted blocking of early talkies by mixing it up where he can. He creates a claustrophobic atmosphere of sweat and brawn, using boxed-in framing and dark strips and towering architectural structure which threatens to weigh down on the prisoners. There is also a lot of panning and effective use of close-up. Montgomery’s darting eyes are so well-captured in the second half. You are just waiting for him to explode with quaking fear. And finally, the climax of the film is a thrillingly-mounted event of smoky chaos and uncontrollable gunfire. In short, this ranks up among my favorite Pre-Code films.