Thursday, December 05, 2013

The Brattle's Centennial Celebrations: The Blue Dahlia; The Glass Key; It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World; and Raiders of the Lost Ark

I would have seen one or two more, but White Christmas didn't draw me in for the Danny Kaye double feature quite the way The Court Jester would have. Although, maybe I'm mis-remembering, but hasn't the Brattle had to cancel The Court Jester before because it couldn't get a print (or, now, a DCP)? Maybe I just missed it last time, but if not... C'mon, Paramount, what's wrong with you?

Kaye probably deserved a series of his own, but the others included in the tribute - Blue Dahlia & Glass Key star Alan Ladd, Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World director Stanley Kramer, and Raiders cinematographer Douglas Slocombe - could probably say that too. At the very least, we got to see some pretty nice copies of some good movies. The Ladd ones were on crisp black-and-white 35mm, It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World was a good DCP, and I think Raiders was 35mm - it was advertised as such about half the time, but I never saw any of the telltale signs, like reel changes and the like.

My preferred theory for that is that the guys at the Brattle have show Raiders enough times that they don't actually need any prompting for when to do the changeovers. And, hey, they didn't correct Nick Frost when he tweeted that he'd just seen the movie in 35mm at the Brattle, apparently at the same show I went to.

The Blue Dahlia

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 27 November 2013 at the Brattle Theatre (Centennial Celebrations, 35mm)

There are a lot of names that can lead a person to check out The Blue Dahlia: while it was recently screened at the Brattle as part of a tribute to Alan Ladd, it's also a highlight for Veronica Lake and character actor William Bendix. Oh, and it's written by Raymond Chandler. That may not quite be a dream team, but director George Marshall certainly gets an enjoyable film noir out of it.

Johnny Morrison (Ladd), Buzz Wanchek (Bendix), and George Copeland (Hugh Beaumont) are returning home to Los Angeles from the war in the Pacific, honorably discharged; while George and the addled Buzz are looking for an apartment, Johnny aims to reunite with his wife Helen (Doris Dowling). Maybe he shouldn't have surprised her; he finds a party in full swing, with the guests including apparent lover Eddie Harwood (Howard Da Silva). He stomps out and starts hitchhiking to nowhere, coincidentally picked up by Eddie's spurned wife Joyce (Lake). The stink Johnny kicked up on the way out looks awful bad when Helen is found dead the next morning.

Writer Raymond Chandler is best known for his Philip Marlowe stories, most famously adapted to film with Humphrey Bogart playing the detective in The Big Sleep. That story is famously convoluted, and Chandler's plot for this movie is similar to it and his other novels, with sudden zigzags somehow adding up to a mystery story that may not quite be the fair-play puzzle of an Agatha Christie, but which reaches an end all the more satisfying because we like the put-upon hero. Johnny Morrison isn't really the Marlowe type, which is sort of a pity - there are few greater joys than reading the words Chandler puts in Marlowe's mouth - but there's honor to him, and even if the patter isn't as snappy as in Chandler's most famous works, there are still some great exchanges between the characters, Johnny and Joyce especially.

Ladd & Lake do their best work in some of their first scenes together, pondering the idea of becoming different people and unknowingly finding kindred spirits. They're a good-looking pair, well-able to get across the fact that, while Helen and Eddie have hurt them, some part of each recognized that their marriages were built on sand. Lake plays the cool one, while Ladd has a bit more fire to him, even when focused on finding his wife's killer.

They're good, but the supporting cast is what really makes the movie sing. Howard Da Silva's Eddie is in with gangsters, and we know that from his second scene, but he's surprisingly charming in a way that's not false or seemingly purposeful from his first. There's a similar charm to Will Wright as "Dad" Newell, a blackmailing hotel detective who is the sort of fun "extra" character that makes Chandler's convolutions worth it. William Bendix is the opposite as Buzz, abrasive and hostile from the word go (and he probably wouldn't refer to jazz as "monkey music" if the script were shot today), but the steel in his skull has left the character permanently confused, and Bendix does a fantastic job of bringing the horror of that situation forth.

It all comes together under the sure hands of George Marshall. He was a journeyman as opposed to a master, the kind of director who doesn't mess anything up but maybe doesn't quite push it into the canon of essential noir. Even without that distinction, the film still has a half-dozen things going for it, and most movies should be so fortunate.

(Formerly at EFC)

The Glass Key

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 27 November 2013 at the Brattle Theatre (Centennial Celebrations, 35mm)

The Glass Key is the sort of murder mystery where the fact that a man is dead comes across as an inconvenience and romantic attraction is often asserted as much as felt. On the other hand, it's also a movie with as much stuff happening as you can fit into 85 minutes without it feeling like too much, and never being dull counts for a lot.

We open with Paul Madvig (Brian Donlevy), who runs the political machine in a medium-sized New Jersey city and is expected to play kingmaker in the upcoming gubernatorial election. Surprisingly, he throws his support behind Ralph Henry (Moroni Olsen), a reform candidate - mostly because his daughter Janet (Veronica Lake) turned his head. While Madvig makes nice with the beautiful people, his right hand man Ed Beaumont (Alan Ladd) deals with the less savory elements, like the gambling debts of Janet's brother Taylor (Richard Denning), whom Opal "Snip" Madvig (Bonita Granville), Paul's sister, has more than a bit of a thing for. When the dead body turns up, Madvig's old and new enemies are looking to pin it on him, and Ed's efforts to get him off the hook aren't helped by how little his boss seems to be bothered by the turn of events.

Madvig has a lot of enemies, to the point where it's difficult to keep track of them - there's a businessman who likely expected Madvig's support, a gangster, and a reporter, with the district attorney's involvement inevitable as well. It's a murder mystery that has no shortage of suspects so long as the term is described as "characters who are not the detective" (with Ed taking that role), especially if you take it as a given that framing Madvig may be all the motive someone needs. The trouble is, not many of them are really interesting enough for the audience to really invest in that story, even when it does connect to the good stuff.

What is the good stuff? Mainly, how class works as a dynamic in the story. The glass key of the title comes from Ed telling Paul that the Henry clan may say they've given him the keys to the kingdom, but that key will shatter if he turns it too hard, and that hangs over almost every interaction in the movie: Madvig may wield considerable influence, but his working-class roots show, and there's no chance that Janet will actually marry him once he's no longer useful. Madvig may be in denial about this, but Ed is hyper-aware, and there's a similar undercurrent to the other Madvig/Henry pairing, that Taylor may be a screw-up, but he'll only be allowed to fall so far, and Snip may only be allowed to climb so high.

The cast does a nice job with this, though it's not quite the arrangement the opening credits promise. Brian Donlevy may be first-billed, but Madvig is actually something of a supporting character, one who is always acting himself. Still, Donlevy makes him an interesting one, allowing the practiced artifice and overpowering infatuation to run into each other so that the audience is never quite sure where one ends and the other begins.

Still, it's Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake who sit at the center of the movie, and while it takes a long time for the attraction that characters talk about to really manifest, they're quite good individually. Ladd plays Ed Beaumont as a smart guy perhaps too committed to the chip on his shoulder to really succeed, although capable of great charm and sarcastic wit when pushed. Lake brings grace and refinement to Janet, but keeps in-character when she has to show a flash of passion because someone has hurt her brother or because Ed is just so frustrating. There are a couple of other nice performances in there, too, with Bonita Granville doing what's needed to make the audience believe that Opal will run to her brother's enemies because they at least seem to care about what matters, while William Bendix takes a character that could just be Thug #2 and making him one of the film's most memorable.

The thing is, for as much fun as it is to watch Ladd and Bendix abuse each other verbally and physically, that dynamic in particular has done more than its bit by the end, and for all that the various reversals, escapes, and arguments keep things moving, director Stuart Heisler and screenwriter Jonathan Latimer eventually wear themselves out. The finale is one of those mystery-movie last acts where everybody gets accused of committing the murder, to the point where it feels a bit artificial. It's not necessarily surprising that things turn out this way; Latimer is adapting a Dashiell Hammett novel, and Hammett tended to be more interested in corrupt men and institutions more than the crimes that corruption lead to. To be fair, this stretching mostly leads to the viewer noticing it's stretched rather than actual watch-glancing.

Ladd, Lake, and Bendix would reunite a few years later to tackle a script by another pulp master (The Blue Dahlia by Raymond Chandler) and make a somewhat better movie. This one's no slouch, though - whether filling out a double feature or a box set, it's a quick, often-clever movie tha certainly earns its keep.

(Formerly at EFC)

It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 30 November 2013 at the Brattle Theatre (Centennial Celebrations, 2K DCP)

Depending on which cut you see, It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World can run from two and a half hours to over three; the digital restoration that recently played the Brattle Theatre was the 154 minutes of its original 35mm release. That's a downright extravagant length for a film whose ambitions really don't go much farther than making the audience laugh a bit, but it is committed to that single, modest goal, and it never stops trying to make it happen, even when other films would have called it a day.

It starts tragically, as a car driven by elderly crook Smiler Grogan (Jimmy Durante) goes sailing off a winding California mountain road. The men in four other vehicles stop to see if there's anything to be done, but there isn't; before he goes, though, Smiler tells his would-be rescuers about $350,000 buried under a "big W" in Santa Rosita. They initially plan to go together, but arguing over how to split the windfall and basic greed soon make it a race. Buddies Ding Bell (Mickey Rooney) & Benjy Benjamin (Buddy Hackett) and married couple Mellville & Monica Crump (Sid Caesar & Edie Adams) take to the air, while a fender-bender has truck driver Lennie Pike (Jonathan Winters) and nervous J. Russell Finch (Milton Berle) - traveling with his wife Emeline (Dorothy Provine) and her pushy mother (Ethel Merman) searching for new ground transport. The former hooks up with Otto Meyer (Phil Silvers), who quickly ditches him to go after the money himself; the latter meet English horticulture enthusiast J. Algernon Hawthorne (Terry-Thomas), with the plan of having Emeline's brother Sylvester (Dick Shawn), a lifeguard in Santa Rosita, stake the place out first. In the meantime, the detective who has been working the Grogan case for years, Captain T. G. Culpepper (Spencer Tracy), is discretely keeping an eye on the lot of them.

That's a lot of names for a story that is not exactly complex, and there are many more passing through, from "Rochester" Anderson to The Three Stooges. Keeping them all occupied is one of the most impressive juggling acts in movie history, as writers William & Tania Rose come up with enough scenarios and obstacles to keep every member of the large ensemble busy while director Stanley Kramer allows them to play out at a natural pace, never cutting away from one group before its bit hits a punchline just to check in on someone else but also not ever letting it feel like characters are gone for too long or losing track of what each is doing. Editors Gene Fowler Jr., Robert C. Jones, and Frederic Knudtson are likely a big help as well; while the end result isn't perfectly smooth sailing - there are moments, when the movie jumps back to the police station and someone brings their neighbor up to date on what's going on, including the scene just prior, when I wonder if Kramer didn't necessarily trust his ability to keep things clear.

For all the skill Kramer et al show in keeping things moving, they're generally telling very basic jokes, from the moment when Smiler Grogan literally kicks the bucket to the last scene, when they pull out maybe the hoariest old chestnut that exists, a gag beloved by small children but obviously unsophisticated by adult standards. But that's when the movie has an overt wink at the audience, saying, sure, these are gags you've seen before, but the simple things work: Everyone laughs at an obnoxious person falling on his or her ass, especially if you don't get so caught up in yourself as to forget that the world is, in fact, kind of mad.

That said - if you're going to go with elemental jokes, it certainly doesn't hurt to fill the cast with folks who have the sort of split-second comic timing and carefully-honed comfort with their persona to make something the audience has heard a million times before hit the funny bone just right. Thus, Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Johnathan Winters, Mickey Rooney, Buddy Hackett, Ethel Merman, and Phil Silvers. Fifty years later, Winters is probably the only one among them that a random sample of the population whose popularity has endured, while the idea that someone as milquetoast as Berle was a superstar can seem downright perplexing to a younger audience, but they know how to handle this material, and their fine-tuned execution should work for even relatively jaded audience members. It's kind of unfortunate that Merman is the only woman in the cast who really gets to be funny - and from doing an often-groan-worthy battle-axe mother-in-law character - but nobody has a joke he or she can't handle. That includes Spencer Tracy, the main actor in the cast, who does a fine slow burn and shares a nice moment with Dorothy Provine toward the end.

A lot of the comedy is physical, and it's some impressive slapstick, both in execution and scope. Kramer's got a great big Super-Panavision frame to play with, so when his characters stumble over something or destroy a building, it's bigger than anything they could do on the stage or the television of the time, or even the silent films that clearly inspired them. It gets cartoonish toward the end, but it's fine over-the-top slapstick. Kramer does a fine job with the other visuals, too - the movie doesn't have a lot of high-speed chases, but the automotive and aerial action is actually very impressive, especially for the time.

It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World is a comedy classic, although it's not the innovative gigantic-guffaws, I-can't-believe-they-went-there variety that makes the label unequivocal. But it tells jokes incredibly well, and keeps on doing so until well past when other movies would have ended and making it work. That it can get those laughs without offense without seeming timid just makes it more impressive.

(Formerly at EFC)

Raiders of the Lost Ark

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 1 December 2013 at the Brattle Theatre (Centennial Celebrations, 35mm)

Look, I'm not saying I can't find new ways to say I love Raiders of the Lost Ark each time it plays in Boston and I go get a ticket, I just don't have time right now. So here's a link to the last time I saw it in 35mm (or just the eFilmCritic review).

The noon show wasn't the most packed, and the clear print wasn't quite the greatest I've seen, but still... When I got out of the theater, there were little kids excited about what they'd just watched. So, yes, it still holds up. Like there was any doubt.

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