Friday, 10 October 2014

Othello (1952)

Orson Welles' take on Shakespeare's Moor of Venice is a brave but flawed film. While visually striking, the disjointed and distant feel of Othello makes it hard to connect with the story or characters.

Welles sticks faithfully to the story, with the titular Venetian General falling foul of the scheming of his supposedly faithful servant Iago, and being tricked into doubting his wife’s fidelity, with tragic and deadly consequences. However, trimming a three hour play in half creates two problems. Firstly, the pacing becomes so frantic that the story becomes confusing and garbled at times. Secondly, the cuts mean we lose some of the characterisation and ambiguities that make the play so rich. Subsequently, the characters are not as interesting, and the scenario of a dignified intelligent person being destroyed by mix of a devious scheme from a master plotter (and a fizzing energetic bundle of evil) and his own insecurities, becomes a slightly dim man being tricked by a slightly devious man. Desdemona is similarly diminished as a personality, from the fiery, independent woman of the text, defying her father to marry the man she loves, to a simpering helpless, passive girl. Some of the shots seem designed to put distance or a barrier between the audience and the figures on screen, which, when combined with the two-dimensional characters makes for uninvolving viewing, lacking the emotional core that can make Othello so devastating.

Welles plays Othello in “Blackface” make-up, which looks more silly and distracting than offensive nowadays. There is little to read into this in terms of racism as he was simply following the theatrical convention of the time, and indeed, race is one of several themes left unexplored thanks to the copious chops made to the text.

Having said all of that, Othello looks magnificent, making full use of the locations in Venice,Tuscany, Rome and Morocco where it was shot. Given the nightmare Welles had making the film, with frequent lengthy breaks in production, while he went off to make other films to raise money to finish this one, it is obviously a labour of love, and he deserves recognition and credit as someone who broke new ground in transferring Shakespeare from the stage to the screen, and making good use of the medium along the way.

One for Welles completists, and cinematic Shakespeare completists, but this version of Othello may leave the more casual viewer cold.

Monday, 6 October 2014

The Falcon's Alibi (1946)

The penultimate entry in the RKO series of Falcon mystery thrillers, The Falcon's Alibi is one of the most enjoyable, thanks to two actors who nearly outshine the lead, as well as the film taking a more "hard boiled" approach to crime than usual.

The story starts with the Falcon aka Tom Lawrence (played as usual by the suave and charming Tom Conway) befriending a lady at a racetrack. The lady in question is Joan Meredith (Rita Corday), secretary to wealthy socialite Gloria Peabody. Mrs Peabody is unaware that some of her expensive jewels are missing, and Joan is concerned that suspicion will fall on her. Lawrence steps in to help, but along the way falls foul of the police, a gang of LA crooks, a terrified nightclub singer, and a radio DJ who may not be everything he appears to be.

The format for these films is solidly in place by this stage, with Lawrence stumbling into a mystery without even trying, aided and abetted by a sidekick (in this case the semi-regular character Goldie Locke) and dimwitted police detectives, charming his way to a rather rushed conclusion. However, what lifts The Falcon's Alibi above the norm is the intriguing supporting cast, and their story. Elisha Cook had his big break playing the creepy but hapless low-rent crook Wilmer in John Huston’s groundbreaking version of The Maltese Falcon and here as Nick, the local radio DJ he brings the same sort of unsettling intensity. He is excellently complemented by the alluring Jane Greer as Nick’s wife, nightclub singer Lola Carpenter. Greer gives her a believable vulnerability and likeability. Their doomed, crumbling relationship becomes a more intriguing storyline than the missing jewels, to the point where you sometimes feel, jumping between them and the Falcon, as though you are watching two different stories, one of which is not going to end well.

Cook and Greer would continue to shine in Film-Noir classics such as The Big Sleep, The Killing, and Out of The Past, but sadly the future was not so bright for the Falcon, as the waning popularity of the series would see RKO make one more before pulling the plug.

Monday, 29 September 2014

Polyester (1981)

Polyester sees John Waters send up and celebrate suburban life, as well as taking barbed swipes at religious extremists, soap operas, Alcoholics Anonymous, and foot fetishists. It also features one of the most memorable cinematic gimmicks since the glory days of über huckster William Castle.

Housewife Francine Fishpaw is watching her life crumble around her. Husband Elmer is having an affair with his secretary, her promiscuous daughter is two months pregnant, her son is a juvenile delinquent, she feels like she is a bad daughter to her own mother, and the only way she can cope with all of this is by hitting the bottle. So far, so standard melodrama. But scratch beneath the surface of that synopsis and a completely different world appears, twisted and rebuilt through the combination of a low budget and a uniquely camp and warped sensibility. Francine is played by mega sized drag queen Divine, her husband is owner of the local X-rated cinema, her daughter is a perpetual motion go-go dancing machine, her son is a foot fetish freak known as the Baltimore Stomper, and her mom is a coke sniffing bully and thief.

The core of the film is a parody of melodramatic soap operas, and many of the plot twists and turns are not much more convoluted than appear in those. As well as mocking the sort of problems that characters in soap operas face, Waters also mocks the simplistic solutions of the genre. The son comes straight out of a few months’ probation, as a clean, sober and law abiding citizen, channelling his foot fetish into his art, while the daughter discovers macramé and becomes a mellow peace loving hippy – all of which is interesting, considering that Waters has long had a second career teaching in prison.

Unlike the subject matter, the cinematography and shot composition is often quite flat, which may be a consequence of the low budget, but it may also be a deliberate choice, as a counterpoint to the outré subject matter. There is also a wonderful eye for details that matter in suburbia, such as the importance of the home or the obsession with brand names.

On it’s release Polyester came to cinemas with the added bonus of ODORAMA. 

This has roots in the eye catching audience enticing novelties of the likes of William Castle and his penchant for getting the audience to experience to some extent what is going on in the film, as well as a short lived gimmick called Smell-O-Vision. Smell-O-Vision was a system that released smells during the showing of the one film associated with it, a crime flick called Scent of Mystery. With ODORAMA (as explained by a Dr Quackenshaw during an hilarious short prologue) audiences are given a scratch-and-sniff card with ten distinct numbered odours. When the appropriate number is displayed on screen, you scratch the matching one on the card and get a nose full of whatever Francine is inhaling at that time. However it is not just an empty ploy as smells are a recurring theme throughout Polyester, at times driving the plot and the shock revelations, as well as some of the gags.

Even without ODORAMA the film is never dull, with some great throwaway gags (my favourite: the Drive-In cinema showing nothing but art house films, with Champagne and Caviar on sale in the lobby), references to Waters' cultural obsessions such as Patty Hearst and the Manson Family, and a soundtrack by the likes of Debbie Harry and Michael Kamen.

The star of the show is, of course, Divine, who pulls off the rare trick of making an unbelievable character seem, if not totally believable, then largely sympathetic. Along with the star, the supporting roles are played by members of the "Dreamlanders", the troupe of oddballs, misfits and actors used by Waters for as long as he has been making films. Edith Massey holds her own amongst the histrionics as Cuddles Kovinsky, the wealthy, simple minded, eternally cheerful best friend of Francine, while Mink Stole puts in a striking turn as the adulterous secretary. Outside of the regulars, 50’s heartthrob Tab Hunter makes a noteworthy appearance as Todd Tomorrow, the too-good-to-be-true beau who appears in Francine’s life, just when she needs him most.

More than three decades after its release, Polyester, still manages to be hilarious and transgressive, and, like Dr Quackenshaw says, “…some odours may shock you, but […] some things in life just plain stink”

Monday, 22 September 2014

The Falcon in Hollywood (1944)

The Falcon in Hollywood is one of the best of the original RKO Falcon series, with the hackneyed plot more than compensated for with the breezy script, debonair star, and his sassy sidekick. In addition, we also get a fascinating behind the scenes tour of the RKO backlot.

This time the Falcon is on vacation, in Tinseltown, enjoying a relaxing day at the races. However, within minutes of the opening credits he is being questioned by police detectives and approached by beautiful women. Before you can say "how does he do that?", he is embroiled in a murder mystery involving a shady businessman, a neurotic, superstitious Shakespeare quoting movie producer and film that seems to be cursed.

The script keeps our hero busy locking horns with the police, the criminals, the filmmakers and the actresses. Helping and hindering in equal measure in the faithful sidekick role is cabbie Billie (Veda Ann Borg).Although the part is played by a woman, the character is pretty gender neutral and, refreshingly, she is not presented as merely a love interest who occasionally screams, but as great comic relief. 

Given the subject matter and setting, The Falcon in Hollywood qualifies as a film about filmmaking, with the focus on the behind-the-scenes drama as much as any taking place in front of the camera. With the ruthless scheming producer, autocratic director and pompous diva actors, it is fascinating to see how the movie world sees itself.

Friday, 19 September 2014

The Falcon in Mexico (1944)

The Falcon in Mexico is the ninth entry in RKO's Falcon series and sees a change of location/stock footage/backdrops, with pleasantly entertaining results.

As usual, our freelance crime-fighting mystery solving hero Tom Lawrence aka The Falcon (played for the sixth time by Tom Conway) gets dragged into the mystery in an amusingly implausible manner, one that us mere mortals can only dream of. Within seconds of kissing his girlfriend goodnight at her apartment, he finds himself lip-locked with a mysterious woman named Dolores in order to shield her from a passing police officer, then helping her break into an art gallery, to recover a painting that she has recently modeled for – even though the artist, Humphrey Wade, has supposedly been dead for over a decade. Dolores promptly disappears just as the Falcon finds the body of the gallery owner. Now wanted for murder, Lawrence teams up with Wade's daughter Barbara and travels to Mexico to clear his name and find out whether reports of Wade's death have been greatly exaggerated.

Conway is a suave as ever, playing the Falcon as seeming amused and bemused by events, but never fazed by them. As usual, he has a sidekick, Manuel, a stereotypical laid-back Mexican, who helps Lawrence negotiate the mean streets of a strange country, and who may not be all he seems, as his character takes on more significance later in the story (the sidekick also has a sidekick, in the shape of his son, basically a mini-Manuel)

The script saunters along at an appropriately relaxed pace, but does stick to the plot without getting sidetracked, with the exception of a few weak musical numbers. Given the brief running time of these sort of films (typically 65-70 minutes), it does leave the denouement feeling rushed, and the killer almost arbitrary. Nevertheless, there is enough entertainment along the way to make that not too much of a problem.

Interestingly, an oft repeated – and never confirmed – legend about this film concerns the stock footage, which is supposedly taken from Orson Welles' unfinished documentary about Brazil, It's All True. Whether this is true or not, what we see is very well shot and certainly a step above the usual stock footage standards.

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

The Falcon in Danger (1943)

The Falcon in Danger, the sixth of RKO's Falcon films, is an unremarkable affair, where an annoying sidekick, a dull script and flat direction undo the charming lead.

The story starts intriguingly, with freelance crime solver the Falcon, aka Tom Lawrence (played by Tom Conway) somehow getting roped into investigating a plane crash at an airport in New York. Missing from the wreckage is the pilot, two wealthy businessmen and $100,000 in securities.

Sadly instead of spending time developing this mystery properly, there is instead too much attention given to the Falcon's grating fiancée Bonnie Caldwell, and her, ultimately unsuccessful, attempts to keep Lawrence out of crime fighting. It is not that a character like the Falcon cannot work with a female sidekick; it is more that, whoever that sidekick is, they need to serve a function in the storytelling, whether that is getting the hero into or out of scrapes, or providing somebody for the hero to explain plot points to, for the benefit of the audience. Given that the film only has just over an hour to tell the story, the fiancé diversions are a mistake, and when we do return to characters and elements related to the crash, they feel rushed or poorly thought out.

Tom Conway took over the character of the Falcon from the original star, his brother, George Sanders, and while Conway is no George Sanders – who could be? – but luckily he still manages to be suave, (even when on roller skates) and entertaining enough to keep us watching, and make for mostly pleasant, if unessential viewing.