Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Dirty Harry article

I apologize for my recent absence. Sound on Sight is doing an Action Movie Month, and I've been working on several articles on the Dirty Harry franchise. The first one is here, entitled Dead Right: How Dirty Harry Captured the '70s Culture Wars. We'll see if Magnum Force or the Tyne Daly sequel inspires anything a fraction as meaningful.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Cleopatra (1963)

The granddaddy of box office bombs, Cleopatra (1963) plays even worse now than it did fifty years ago. This overblown sword-and-sandal flick is gaudy, talky and incredibly boring – the longest bad movie ever made. It cost a then-outrageous $44,000,000 and three years to produce, and takes just as long to watch.

Julius Caesar (Rex Harrison) arrives in Egypt to track his rival Pompey. He finds Pompey slain, and soon becomes drawn into a civil war between adolescent King Ptolemy (Richard O'Sullivan) and his sister Cleopatra (Elizabeth Taylor). Caesar negotiates an alliance with Cleopatra, who bares him a son. As Caesar's ambition grows his political rivals grow weary, leading to his assassination. Caesar's envoy Marc Antony (Richard Burton) arrives in Egypt, falls for Cleopatra and encourages her to fight against Rome's new Emperor, Octavius (Roddy McDowall).

Cleopatra's is an oft-told tale: everyone from Shakespeare to Shaw to H. Rider Haggard has dramatized the Queen of the Nile. Director Joseph L. Mankiewicz tries mating Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra (the star-crossed romance) to Shaw's Caesar and Cleopatra (political gamesmanship), missing the former's language and the latter's incisive characterization. The result is a deadly dull concoction that misfires on every level.

At least Cleopatra starts well. Caesar's arrival in Egypt interrupts a messy political situation he navigates through bluff: he diffuses a riot by mingling with a hostile crowd. The following hour works passably, with Caesar and Cleopatra negotiating an alliance while tentatively falling in love. If Mankiewicz's script lacks Shaw's wit (certainly not with painful Epic Speak, as when Cleopatra tells Caesar "My breasts are full of love and life!") he captures some of his play's charged gamesmanship; this all suggests a worthwhile movie's forthcoming. 
Enter the interminable second hour. Even before Antony joins the fun, Cleopatra falls into a rut of endless, repetitive debate, none of it advancing the plot. We get a rehash of Julius Caesar with Caesar contemplating an Emperor's crown and Brutus (Kenneth Haigh) plotting his demise. Antony is an obnoxious boor, his scenes with Cleopatra less romantic than aggravating; the Queen herself becomes inert amidst betrayals, headdresses and low cut dresses. Cleopatra never recovers, even with Octavius's arrival. After the Battle of Actium the plot fizzles completely, stumbling on for 50 superfluous minutes because the writers couldn't figure out the ending.

Even worse, Mankiewicz has little eye for spectacle, and the requisite cast-of-thousands wide shots and ornate scenery just sits there. He even shoots dialogue scenes in stiff medium shots, forcing us to admire the lavish sets in tableaux. One of the few inventive bits sees Caesar's assassination witnessed through an oracle's vision. But most everything's clunky, including Cleopatra's kitsch entry into Rome, complete with nude dancers, Nubian slaves and the Queen mounted atop a stone sphinx.

Most of Cleopatra's action occurs offscreen, with a narrator describing battles that this gargantuan production somehow couldn't afford to show. An early skirmish in Alexandria is passable, but the Battle of Actium is a failure. Photographer Leon Shamroy offers some handsome shots of burning warships, but the only action is a feeble duel between Antony and a faceless goon. Even Alex North's score is underwhelming, resembling a feeble riff on his Spartacus music.
Given the leads’ turbulent offscreen relationship, it’s a surprise they’re so dull. Elizabeth Taylor has sex appeal but little range; over the course of four hours, only her costumes change. Richard Burton’s stuck in petrified ham mode, declaiming rather than acting. The script only affords them fleeting glimpses of chemistry, making them a royal bore. Rex Harrison walks away with the picture, making Caesar charmingly snide in his approved manner. Too bad he dies halfway through.

A deep supporting cast offers game bench support. Roddy McDowall plays a wimpy, usurping Octavius; Martin Landau, Antony’s right-hand man. Kenneth Haigh has a few scenes as Brutus; it’s amusing to see the original Jimmy Porter playing opposite his screen successor. Pamela Brown devours scenery as a wicked priestess. Hume Cronyn, Michael Hordern, Andrew Keir, Marne Maitland and Carrol O’Connor feature among the incidental cast. These actors do their best, but they're glorified spear carriers to Liz and Dick.

There’s a reason Cleopatra is remembered more for its behind-the-scenes turmoil than its content. True, star watchers and bad movie buffs might be intrigued by its reputation. Be warned that 248 minutes is a steep price to slake your curiosity.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The Spy in Black

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger first collaborated on this wartime melodrama. The Spy in Black (1939) shows the future Archers' penchant for humanizing their villains, even amidst a familiar cloak-and-dagger tale. 

In 1917, German U-Boat Captain Hardt (Conrad Veidt) embarks on a secret mission to destroy Britain's fleet at Scapa Flow. He meets with a German agent Frau Tiel (Valerie Hobson), masquerading as a schoolteacher, and a disenchanted Royal Navy Officer (Sebastian Shaw). Hardt forwards crucial information to the German Navy, but he soon realizes his mission's more complicated than it seems.

There's not much original in The Spy in Black, loosely based on a J. Storer Clouston novel. Powell's narrative brims with expected tools of double (and trouble) agents and treachery, that stretch an already thin story to the breaking point (how does a submarine commander become a secret agent?). The film has some clever touches, like a school lesson underscored by artillery fire or the bitterly ironic finale, and there's some fun banter between Hardt and Tiel. The plot mechanics though rarely stray from the obvious.

Powell and Pressburger populate their potboiler with humanizing touches. Recently departed from blockaded Germany, Hardt salivates at the sight of butter. There's even a scene where he and Tiel enjoy a ham dinner with orgiastic pleasure. Hardt's such an honorable character, tough, resourceful but chivalrous, that we almost root for him. Tiel makes a snappy romantic foil and Powell provides colorful bit characters: the rough-hewn locals, the tough ferry captain (George Summers), a gormless priest (Athole Stewart) who stumbles into the plot. The Spy in Black almost works better in the margins than its main storyline.

Conrad Veidt makes Hardt menacing yet likeable, an honorable antihero. It's easy to cheer even if he's nominally the enemy. Sebastian Shaw is a stiff counterpart; Valerie Hobson's smart, snappish makes a nice costar. Marius Goring, one of the Archers' favorites, plays Hardt's lieutenant; June Duprez has a miniscule part.

The Spy in Black provides an efficient spy caper. It's more interesting though as a precursor for Powell and Pressburger's later works: the respectable German enemies, the touches of local color, the emphasis on humanity, even in wartime. From those thematic interests came some of England's finest films: 49th Parallel, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, A Canterbury Tale among them.

Monday, May 11, 2015

The Other Side of the Wind

My Citizen Kane piece for Sound on Sight's doing well; I've received several friendly comments, re-posts by the fine folks at Wellesnet and The Projection Booth, research assistance from Joseph McBride, and more Facebook likes/shares than I'd have thought possible. This might be the most-read article I've ever done.

If any of my benefactors are reading, I sincerely appreciate your generosity. And as always, thanks to my readers for your support.

Besides Groggy's self-promotion, there's a major project going on to support Orson Welles' unfinished last movie, The Other Side of the Wind. Welles spent most of the last '70s trying to film this project, it an autobiographical tale of an aging director (played by John Huston) struggling to produce his own work in the face of ridicule and disinterest. Peter Bogdanovich, who acted in the film, writes about it here. Josh Karp recently a published a full-length book on the subject, which I plan to buy next time I hit the Barnes and Noble.

Legal issues prevented its publication for decades, but now most of them seem to have been overcome. All it needs is funding.

Fear not, cineastes! You too can play an active role in bringing Welles' final film to the screen. Indiegogo's hosting a crowd sourcing campaign and I encourage you to donate to it here

Sunday, May 10, 2015

In Which Groggy Raises Citizen Kane

I've spent the last two weeks preparing an article on Citizen Kane for Sound on Sight - specifically, on Pauline Kael's "Raising Kane" and the debate it ignited over the film's authorship. I'd hoped to finish it before Welles' 100th birthday, this past Wednesday, but it took longer than expected to research.

Nonetheless, you can now read Kael Vs. Kane: Pauline Kael, Orson Welles and the Authorship of Citizen Kane. I hope you find it worthwhile.