Sunday, September 28, 2014

The Browning Version (1994)

Terence Rattigan's The Browning Version has inspired several films, but the 1951 version with Michael Redgrave remains the classic. Mike Figgis's 1994 remake is every bit as good. Anchored by Albert Finney's heartbreaking performance, it provides a different take on Rattigan's study in disappointment.

Andrew Crocker-Harris (Albert Finney) teaches classics at an English prep school, where he's roundly despised by students as a stuffy bore. Yet Crocker-Harris has reason to be upset. His wife (Greta Scacchi) openly elopes with fellow professor Frank (Matthew Modine); the headmaster (Michael Gambon) plans to reassign him to another school. Precocious young Taplow (Ben Silverstone) shows "the Crock" sympathy, with a gesture that moves the intransigent teacher. Crocker-Harris must confront how badly he's wasted his life.

Figgis and writer Ronald Harwood update Browning to the present, with beautiful Dorset settings and minor tweaks to the story. Frank is American in this version, and there's a Nigerian child whose parents are subjected to unintentional condescension. Besides multicultural considerations, Browning also probes changes to education. The school's phasing out classics, with a new professor (Julian Sands) hoping to teach modern languages instead of Greek. Here Crock is less a pedant than an anachronism: who needs classics in this day and age?

This Browning more substantially alters its characters. Crocker-Harris is more sympathetic here: we get flashes of the great teacher he could have been, more remorseful than nasty. Some critics question making the Crock likeable, but this seems as valid an interpretation as a burnt-out bore. Figgis also gives the supporting cast more to work with: Millie seems repressed rather than merely horrible; Frank doubts their relationship from the start; even Taplow gets a subplot dealing with a bully. These changes add welcome texture to the story, elevating it above a one-man show.

Albert Finney gives a remarkable performance, nearly matching Michael Redgrave. Tightly wound in early scenes, he gradually lets his guard down to devastating effect. Finney masters the emotional moments, namely when Taplow's gift inspires an unexpected breakdown. This moment could be overplayed but Finney provides enough restraint to be moving rather than mawkish. Certainly his final speech, though a replay of Redgrave's, hits all the right notes.

Browning's helped by a deep supporting cast. Greta Scacchi is hateful and cold, yet allows room for sympathy: we understand why she fell for Crocker-Harris and her subsequent disappointment. Matthew Modine (Full Metal Jacket) is callow yet likeable, one of his best roles. Michael Gambon (The Insider) is excellent as the jovial, condescending headmaster. Julian Sands gets the weakest role, largely a sounding board for exposition. Ben Silverstone makes an endearing Taplow and Jim Sturgess plays another student.

Many critics (Roger Ebert, Leonard Maltin) consider this Browning Version inferior to the original. Admittedly the substantial changes to Rattigan's characterizations may put some off; why make the "Himmler of the Lower Fifth" sympathetic? But I prefer fresh interpretation of a classic to stiff restaging, and consider this nearly the original's equal.

Friday, September 26, 2014

The Winslow Boy (1999)

David Mamet breaks from profane verbal sparring for a genteel Terence Rattigan adaptation. The Winslow Boy (1999) is one of Rattigan's perennials, already adapted into a classic 1948 movie. Mamet's version is tastefully directed, reasonably faithful and well-acted, yet never strikes the necessary spark.

In 1911 England, Osbourne Naval Academy expels teenaged Ronnie Winslow (Guy Edwards) for stealing a postal note. Father Arthur (Nigel Hawthorne) believes he's innocent. Arthur summons high-profile lawyer Sir Robert Morton (Jeremy Northam) to defend Ronnie, against the advice of daughter Catherine (Rebecca Pidgeon). The case drags on through several trials, Parliamentary hearings and adverse press coverage, becoming a national scandal. Yet despite attacks on his family, Arthur refuses to yield.

Where the earlier film was a courtroom drama, Mamet's Winslow Boy elides the trial, instead focusing on its impact on individuals. Arthur risks his reputation to ensure justice is done; even Catherine says that moving on will cause less damage than continued defense. In pragmatic terms Arthur's stand seems ridiculous: who cares about a five-shilling theft? But the Royal Navy's refusal to budge becomes national shame in the run-up to World War I. Sir Robert asks why the Navy risks disgrace over such a trifling matter.

Winslow Boy evokes Edwardian society through its delicate characterizations. We admire Arthur's stand even if it seems ridiculous; he's nothing more or less than a loving father. Catherine's the most intriguing character: a headstrong suffragette, she's betrothed to a stuffy soldier (Aden Gillett) who views her liberalism as eccentricity. She pegs Sir Robert as an Establishment sell-out, little realizing the risks he faces just in taking the case. Unsurprisingly, the movie ends with hints of romance between Catherine and Sir Robert.

The cast is faultless. Nigel Hawthorne is the emotional anchor, never doubting his son or wavering on principal despite great personal cost. Rebecca Pidgeon is endearingly haughty and self-convinced. Jeremy Northam gets the showiest role, investing Sir Robert with smug charm. Gemma Jones interjects wit and sanity as Arthur's exasperated wife. Neil North plays a minor role, having starred in the earlier Winslow Boy adaptation.

Yet The Winslow Boy seems underwhelming, more genteel than genuinely engaging. Maybe the culprit's Mamet's direction, handsomely competent but unremarkable. Or maybe it's the stiffly faithful rendering of Rattigan's text: perhaps it requires more stylish treatment, like Terence Davies' The Deep Blue Sea. Whatever the reason, Winslow Boy proves merely adequate where it should be moving.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler

At last we review Fritz Lang's Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler (1922). Four-and-a-half hours long, leisurely paced and heavily stylized, it's tough going for those not attuned to silent cinema. Yet Dr. Mabuse rewards persistence viewers, both for its influence and as an absorbing epic.

Dr. Mabuse (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) is a renowned psychiatrist, eccentrically interested in mesmerism. He moonlights as a master criminal, using a web of henchmen, myriad disguises and hypnotic persuasion to sew chaos. Having rigged the stock exchange, Mabuse tries entrapping Englishman Peter Hull (Paul Richter) for money, then kidnaps Countess Told (Gertrude Welker). Soon Inspector Wenk (Bernhard Goetzke) is on Mabuse's tail despite lack of evidence. Can the straight-laced cop unravel Mabuse's nefarious scheme?

Novelist Norbert Jacques intended Mabuse as metaphor of postwar Germany, which Lang's film encourages. Dr. Mabuse opens with its villain manipulating the stock market: this during Weimar's hyperinflation, reaching 4.2 trillion marks per US dollar by 1923. It also satirizes German decadence and obsession with mystics like Erik Jan Hanussen. And Mabuse's befuddled Weck channels Weimar's ineffectual authorities, helpless as the Freikorps and Spartacists battled in the streets. Lang expanded this in M, with Berlin's underworld hunting a serial killer, and The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, remaking Mabuse as Hitler analogue.

Subtext aside, Mabuse's a fascinating creation. On the surface he's a cunning Mafia chief, insulating himself through layers of underlings. He uses both force and cunning to effectuate his plans: three grotesque henchmen, blind counterfeiters, his devoted moll Cara Carozza (Aud Egede-Nissen). But he's also a hypnotist, persuading victims to cheat, make love, even commit suicide. Supervillains like Blofeld and the Joker owe much to Mabuse's Machiavellian madness: one henchman even gasses Wenk in his car!
Mabuse's opening two hours are languorous. After the spectacular stock market opening, Lang settles into crafting his "Image of An Age" with nightclubs, seedy hotels, seance tables and smoke-filled rooms. Lang and writer Thea Von Harbou linger on settings while slowly introducing plot strands and supporting players: Wenk, Hull, the ditzy Countess and confused Count (Alfred Abel). The second half is brisker, tying its subplots and characters together for a satisfying conclusion.

Lang's direction overcomes the slow plotting. Otto Hunte creates weirdly stylized sets, including a retractable nightclub as intricate as Metropolis's future city. Even the respectable casino features flat triangle tables, cacti and wall masks. Lang and photographer Carl Hoffman experiment with surreal exposure effects: while Mabuse hypnotizes one victim, the background fades to black, leaving the Doctor's disembodied head. Or when the Count, and Mabuse, are menaced by ghosts, chairs morphing into monsters. There's little action, but the climactic siege plays as tensely as any modern thriller.

Rudolf Klein-Rogge had previously appeared in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and married Thea Von Harbou (who left him for Lang). Dr. Mabuse made Klein-Rogge a screen legend. He's an imposing presence, with coarse features, piercing eyes and perpetually arched brow belying his disguises. Hardly a subtle role, but Klein-Rogge relishes playing Mabuse's evil to the hilt. Naturally Klein-Rogge became typecast as villains, not least in Lang's Metropolis and Spies.

Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler is valuable as cinematic landmark, social document and entertainment. Lang revisited Mabuse in two sequels, and the character resurfaced in several lesser movies. While Testament is more accessible, Gambler is an indisputable classic.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The Blue Max

The Blue Max (1966) updates the dogfight epic for the cynical '60s. Playing off familiar themes of ambition and class warfare, it's undoubtedly better as spectacle than story. But what spectacle!

German soldier Bruno Stachel (George Peppard) abandons the trenches for the romance of aerial combat. Commissioned an aerial officer, he clashes with his squadron leader (Karl Michael Vogler), who considers him excessively ambitious, and Willy (Jeremy Kemp), an aristocrat contemptuous of Bruno's working class origins. But Bruno wins the respect of General Von Klugerman (James Mason), who makes him a proletarian propaganda tool. Soon however, Bruno's pursuit of the Pour le Merite (the titular "Blue Max") endangers his colleagues.

Director John Guillermin marshals an impressive production, mixing battle scenes with period recreations shot in Ireland. The infantry battles, handsomely dressed locations (especially Klugerman's luxurious headquarters) and Berlin bread riots are effective in their own right, maintaining interest between aerial combats. Only Ursula Andress, as Von Klugerman's wife and Bruno's paramour, seems misplaced in modern hairstyles and lingerie - adding sex to the omnipresent violence.

Blue Max rightly stands on its incredible combat scenes. Real WWI mock-ups strife and dive against Douglas Slocombe's widescreen canvas, equaling anything in Wings and Hell's Angels. Unlike say, Battle of Britain it's easy to keep pilots straight, keeping audiences engaged in the action. But Guillermin outdoes himself with the massed air raid coordinated with a ground assault. This jaw-dropping sequence ranks among the most impressive battle scenes ever. Accompanied by Jerry Goldsmith's sweeping score, Max is an exhilarating epic.

The interstitial material can't help being shakier. Blue Max's script (credited to five writers) probes class warfare conflicts familiar since Grand Illusion. Proletarian Bruno resents his peers' condescension, eager to outperform the stuffy Prussian blueboods. Interestingly though, Bruno isn't likeable himself; he's a boor who endangers his colleagues for personal glory. This conflict works fine, but the romance wastes time and the Bruno-Willy rivalry aborts just as it heats up. Max concludes with a pathetic tragedy that seems rushed and anticlimactic.

George Peppard makes Bruno an arrogant, driving antihero. Jeremy Kemp (Operation Crossbow) provides a study in icy contempt. James Mason lends dignity to his expositional role, but Ursula Andress is less character than sex toy. Karl Michael Vogler (Patton) gets a nice role as Bruno's resentful superior. Derren Nesbitt (Where Eagles Dare) and the ubiquitous Anton Diffring have smaller parts.

It says much for The Blue Max that it compels even when the story sags. Like most dogfight movies, it's more fun epic than deep drama. But war movie fans, aviation buffs and casual filmgoers should find plenty to enjoy.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Revisiting The Empire of Crime

"When humanity grows bored by the banality of blockbusters... when snobbery has become the supreme law, then the time will have come for the Empire of Film."
I'm on vacation this week, which may influence my blogging schedule. But I rewatched The Testament of Dr. Mabuse tonight and decided to write something for Moviepilot. Hence my article The Empire of Crime: Dr. Mabuse, the Original Supervillain. In which I try showing, in brief, the evolution of Mabuse and his impact on the superhero genre.

This reminds me that I've yet to review Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler. A swell idea, but you try making time for a four hour silent movie.