Wednesday, October 8, 2014

THE PRESIDENT'S MYSTERY (1936)

James Blake has a bad case of the guilts, thanks to being a mouthpiece for George Sartos, the ruthless owner of National Cannery. After lobbying Congress to kill a proposal that would help small businesses at the expense of National Cannery's profits, Blake decides to cash in his $5,000,000 investments and fake his death. 

Leaving behind his faithless wife, Ilka, he moves to Springvale, a town negatively impacted by his lobbying, to revive the local co-op cannery. Ilka, meanwhile, is killed by Sartos' chauffeur, Roger. Just as Blake's succeeding in rebuilding Springvale, Sartos tracks him down. When Blake refuses Sartos' blackmail, he's arrested for Ilka's murder. The kindly sheriff lets Blake out of jail in order to prevent a mob -- paid by Sartos -- from destroying the cannery. Roger confesses to Ilka's death, and Sartos himself is arrested for inciting a riot.

I know what you're thinking. Where's the president? And where's the mystery? In the title, that's where. As the on-screen prologue explains:

How the hell do I know? You're the President.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt, talking with a magazine editor on one of his favorite subjects - mystery stories - advanced the question: "How can a man disappear with five million dollars of his own money in negotiable form and not be traced?" Challenged by this, the editor enlisted the aid of six famous authors. The result was a thrilling story. The same problem intrigued the producers of this photoplay, and in another form is now brought to the screen. The proceeds of the sale of the plot, both for publication and motion picture rights, have been given voluntarily by the publisher to the Georgia Warm Springs Foundation.  

Someone should tell Liberty that there's a
difference between "Plot By" and
"Shooting the Breeze with a Friend Over Drinks."
Well, that was a very generous donation. I only wish the screenwriters had been half as generous as donating a real mystery. In fact, the only mystery is why it's called a mystery. 

I've never read the original novel, but I would hope it's more "thrilling" than the movie. Hero James Blake isn't even smart enough to come up with the ol' fake-death-and-disappear routine on his own. He gets the idea from the latest copy of Liberty magazine where -- well, whaddaya know! -- The President's Mystery is prominently featured. Meta movie, 1936-style.
"Hey, I use a cigarette-holder like FDR.
I must be a good guy!"

If The President's Mystery is interesting at all today, it's because how ruthless and almost nihilistic businessman George Sartos is. An SOB whose corporate philosophy makes the Walton Family look like the Little Sisters of Mercy, he literally doesn't care about the effect his business practices have on anybody, as long as National Cannery's profits keep going north. 

James Blake's lobbying is shown in a montage that features everything you hate about Washington: boozing, schmoozing, golfing -- let's call it what it is, legal bribery -- interspersed with a series of screaming newspaper headlines: SMALL INDUSTRIES DOOMED! FEDERAL LOANS OUT! Hey, capitalist pigs gotta eat. 


C'mon, cheer up. Think of how happy
the corporate shareholders are!
And movie audiences gotta get romantic subplots, like the one James Blake has with Springvale Cannery owner Charlotte Brown. After meeting cute in a trout stream, Blake follows Charlotte back to the Springvale town meeting, where he discovers just how destructive his lobbying has been. This gives its citizens a chance to drive home how unchecked capitalism, crooked politicians and Godzilla-sized businesses can ruin entire towns. How nice that America has learned its lesson since then. Oh wait. (James and Charlotte are played by British-born Henry Wilcoxin -- a favorite of Cecil B. DeMille -- and Betty Furness, whose appearance is trumpeted on the credits as "Courtesy MGM". It must have been something of a drag for both to get loaned out to Poverty Row's Republic Pictures for a low-budget B-movie like this.)

Some of the movie's political theatre might be courtesy co-screenwriter Nathaniel West. Yes, the author of Miss Lonelyhearts and The Day of the Locust was better known -- make that better paid -- as a screenwriter, first at Republic Pictures, then later at RKO Radio. West might have painted a grim picture of Hollywood in Locust, but when you make a grand total of $1,280 from your novels (according to West bios), well, the movie factory looks pretty good. Great writers, like the aforementioned capitalist pigs, gotta eat, too.

Note FDR's quote on the upper left --
not exactly a ringing endorsement of
his own idea.
Over the years, The President's Mystery was one of those obscure movies I'd always wanted to see, just for its bizarre origins. A story written by six authors, each taking a different chapter, from an idea suggested by the sitting president. The film version co-written by a man almost unknown in his own day, but would later be renown as the author of two of the more trenchant novels about the underbelly of American popular culture. President Roosevelt himself gets a "Story Conceived By" screen credit.

And the result? A not-bad 52-minute movie which, had its origins been more humble, would have become even more forgotten than it already it is. It's remarkable, in its own way, that The President's Mystery successfully tackles so many different topics -- capitalism, quasi-socialism, murder, economics -- in less than an hour. In that respect, it would make a great double-bill with the still-relevant Washington Merry-Go-Round. And it still leaves time for a wedding engagement at the climax. 

Don't think I spoiled the ending -- that was no mystery, either.

                                                       ************************
 To read about Washington-Merry-Go-Round, go here.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

DR. KILDARE'S STRANGE CASE (1940)

If you find yourself in need of medical attention the next time you're in New York, you can't do any better than Blair General Hospital. That is, if you like soap opera shenanigans, gossipy switchboard operators, violent ambulance drivers, smokers outside the operating rooms, and ethically-dubious procedures.


Dr. Kildare's Strange Case, starring B-movie leading man Lew Ayres, was the fourth entry in M-G-M's popular series about the dreamy diagnostician learning his craft at the side of the crotchety cripple, Dr. Gillespie (the crotchety cripple Lionel Barrymore). By now, enthralled audiences were getting to know these people better than their own families. Kildare's growing love for nurse Mary LaMonte; Gillespie's life-threatening melanoma; Kildare's parents dispensing wisdom the way pharmacists do Valium; and all the other supporting characters who seem to be paid to stand around and yak all day instead of doing their jobs. If all hospitals were this much fun, I'd go to med school right now.


Joe Wayman looks forward to physically
abusing Sally after work.
But not all is well at the House of Blair. Molly Byrd, the Superintendent of Nurses, is giving Gillespie a hard time. ("If I don't drink one glass of milk a day," he grouses to Kildare, "she hides my cigarettes.") Ambulance driver Joe Wayman is known to smash the skulls of alleged miscreants with an industrial-sized monkeywrench. And Dr. Gregory Lane, a supposedly brilliant brain surgeon, has been on something of a cold streak lately, his nickname around the hospital being "The undertaker's best friend." (Wouldn't you like to work in a warm, supporting atmosphere like that?) Lane himself bitterly comments after his latest botched surgery, "The operation was a success, but the patient died!" Good to keep a sense of humor at times like this. 

Lane redeems himself by saving the life of an unidentified hit-and-run victim. Unfortunately, the surgery appears to have left the guy a babbling idiot, yelling "Friday!" incessantly. Kildare decides to save Lane's career by proving that the patient was a babbling idiot before the surgery as well.


You'd be pissed-off like Nurse LaMonte
if you were stuck between a chain-smoking,
wheelchair-bound grouch and the dreamboat
who won't give you a tumble.
It wouldn't be a Kildare movie without enough subplots to fill a cemetery, and this Strange Case is no exception. Gillespie diagnoses a woman's rash as a reaction from the lacquer on her mah-jonng tiles. Joe the ambulance driver gets Sally the switchboard operator drunk at the local hash-house.

And this being only the fourth movie in the series, Kildare, still an intern, hasn't made a major move on Mary LaMonte yet, thanks to his meager $20-a-month salary. (And you wonder why your medical bills are so expensive!) Yet, he turns down a chance to work at the prestigious Messinger Institute at $6,000 per annum, just so he can continue stick around with Gillespie, and to watch Dr. Lane date the horny Nurse LaMonte. Audiences in 1940 were supposed to approve Kildare's decision, but looking at things from a 21st-century perspective, all we can think now is, What a 24-karat sap!

But whence the strange case we've been promised? Well, remember the hit-and-run patient? Kildare has a theory that the guy is suffering from schizophrenia -- or, as he pronounces it, "SKEEZ-o-frenn-ya," like the punchline of a joke about a crazy Irishman. Going behind Gillespie's back, Kildare consults with his own father, a small-town doctor, about the possibility of curing the patient via insulin shock therapy. Kildare père has seen the effects of the procedure first-hand: "One of the most terrifying things I've ever seen in my life!" Insulin shock therapy, he explains in an off-handed way typical for the Kildare pictures, "causes patients to go backwards through evolution -- ape, bird, lizard, and so forth." What. The. Fuck.


Even for a Kildare movie, this is some weird medical shit. So of course Kildare fils is eager to jump into it. Moving the patient to a private room without permission, Kildare convinces Mary LaMonte to help him perform a procedure better suited to Island of Lost Souls. Mary, being the only sane person at the hospital, demands an explanation. "Buried deep in the brain," Kildare says gravely, "is the brain of our human ancestors." Also the brain of anyone who thinks this is a good idea. 
"Man, I love torturing people for my own
professional edification!"

What follows the insulin overdose is the strangest sequence in the entire Kildare series. Filmed partly in silhouette, the patient indeed goes back in time to his Alley Oop origins and beyond, twisting, shuddering and squirming in agony, his eyes popping out as if being pushed from the inside, like something out of a Universal horror movie. 

There's no accompanying music, just Kildare doing a quiet play-by-play for the terrified LaMonte. "The hands are beginning their first primitive movements... The body is trying desperately to obey the impossible demands of the brain..." That sounds like me every morning. Audiences probably thought this bizarre scheme was S.O.P. in hospitals at the time -- they trusted doctors to pull off stunts that would get their licenses revoked today.

But guess what. It works! The patient, who now identifies himself as Henry Adams, went haywire when his wife left him five years earlier. But she had a change of heart and was going to return on Friday -- only Adams was too far gone to understand. Kildare brings the wife to his bedside, where the couple reconciles. And Adams' post-surgery regimen? About a gallon of glucose administered intravenously, followed by jelly sandwiches and milk. Had he remained a neanderthal, he would have been served a bronto-burger and a bill for services rendered.

Kildare performs an emergency
appendectomy on Gillespie while
Nurse LaMonte applies

 anesthesia

To recap: This is a hospital where the chief diagnostician is a heavy smoker; the ambulance driver is a sociopath; the chief brain surgeon keeps his job despite killing patients; and an intern seriously ignores protocol and performs a procedure out of Dr. Mengele's notebook.  

And people loved it! So much so that five more Kildare movies with Lew Ayres followed, before Lionel Barrymore's Gillespie continued on his own for another five. In 1949, they re-teamed for a radio series, The Story of Dr. Kildare. I shudder to think of the misguided men and women who were inspired to enter medical school by these quacks.

                                                       ******************** 

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

THE SNIPER (1952)

Long before he was the producer of "message" movies both treacly (Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, A Child is Waiting) and self-consciously serious (Ship of Fools, The Defiant Ones), producer Stanley Kramer made a film noir "message" movie, The Sniper. And instead of tackling the issues of race, religion or Nazis, The Sniper took on psycho killers. Don't tell me that doesn't sound better. 


"No, I'm not Shepard Smith!"
Terrifically directed by Edward Dmytryk, The Sniper follows a week or so in the life of ex-con Eddie Miller (played with the perfect combination of angst and pathos by Arthur Franz) a guy who's had it with women abusing him, even if it's all in his mind. I mean really had it, like shooting all brunettes who cross his path. Since this is taking revenge a step too far, the public and the press start pressuring Police Lt. Frank Kafka (what a name) to catch this guy before he starts turning his rifle on blondes. Now that would be a loss.

But this being a Stanley Kramer production, we learn early on that Eddie Miller's problem is a lack of proper psychiatric treatment. Eddie, you see, wants to be locked up. He calls his old prison shrink for help, but the doc's analyzing a nine-iron at the golf course. He even deliberately burns his hand on a stove as a failed signal to the e.r. doctor that there's something wrong with him. What's a rejected guy to do but keep killing women?

Dr. Kent tries to figure out if chopsticks
are phallic symbols.
While the local yokels are readying the hot seat for the still-unknown sniper, police shrink Dr. James Kent has other ideas. What this boy needs, he says, is help. In fact, he insists, that's what all these psychos need before they go shooting women from rooftops. Dr. Kent being played by Richard Kiley, the original star of Man of La Mancha, you expect him to sing "The Impossible Dream" to get the public on his side. 


A fastball thrown by the
screwball.
Lt. Kafka initially doesn't buy into Dr. Kent's theories, but is soon won over when he receives reports of a fellow at a carnival who's a little too eager to throw fastballs at a woman in a dunking cage -- one of the many creepy moments found in The Sniper. Seems Eddie Miller, who has already become a suspect, was known to be fast with the balls in his day. If only he joined the majors -- then he'd be shooting up steroids instead of dames.

"Bet you don't recognize me
without the 'stache, eh, kid?"

Perhaps Stanley Kramer knew that the idea of an almost-sympathetic killer was going to be a tough sell. Why else would the world-weary, seen-it-all Lt. Kafka (I laugh every time I write that name) be portrayed the usually-debonair, audience-friendly Adolphe Menjou? Minus his dashing mustache for the first time since puberty, Menjou can't completely disguise his urbane demeanor -- he speaks too articulately for a cynical cop -- yet is great fun to watch because he's playing against type. You almost expect him to break out a bottle of Ruinart Blanc de Blancs, vintage 1889, when he finally captures Miller.

...while the cops say, "We're busy
working, bub."
Kramer, not surprisingly, lays on the "society is to blame" spiel a little thick now and then in The Sniper, starting off with a pre-credit prologue. Dr. Kent gets two soliloquys on the matter, while Lt. Kafka makes with the Freud routine eventually. Yet two women who set Miller off on his killing spree -- a woman slapping her young son, and Eddie's harridan of a supervisor at work -- are so hideous that you're sorry that he didn't shoot them instead. Next time, Eddie, choose your targets with better care. 


Edward Dmytryk and cinematographer Burnett Guffey make great use of the San Francisco locations, especially the shadowy nighttime sequences. One of their recurring visual motifs is Eddie Miller taking aim while normal life continues behind him, whether it's at a carnival sharpshooting gallery or on a rooftop. In a particularly startling moment, an elderly woman removing towels from an indoor drying line near a window reveals a police sniper on the next door roof, but doesn't notice him herself. The madness, Dmytryk seems to be saying, is so prevalent that people don't even see it anymore.

It's always important to keep on the lookout for familiar faces in old movies, and The Sniper is no exception. The legendary Charles Lane (left) appears briefly as a barfly annoying a lounge singer moments before she's killed by Miller. (That's noir queen Marie Windsor, co-star of Two Dollar Bettor in a small but important role.) The sympathetic intern in the e.r. is Sidney Miller, whom I immediately recognized as Warner Brothers' stock Jewish kid from 20 years earlier. You can see him when he was 18 years-old in the previously-discussed bootleg-toothpaste drama, The Big Shakedown. (His character names from those Warners' days include Sanford Nussbaum, Issadore Marks, Maurice Levy... and George Washington. That's comedy, folks.) 
 
It's a pity that The Sniper is pretty much ignored these days, especially compared to Kramer and Dmytryk's other 1952 production, the appallingly-overrated High Noon. To my narrow-vision eyes, he never made a better, tighter movie. (His rare venture into comedy, It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, crawls 3 hours and 40 minutes.)  If I have to be fed a message, let it be a quick, tasty one like The Sniper.

                                    ****************************

To read about Two Dollar Bettor, go here.
To read about The Big Shakedown, go here.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

DUEL IN THE SUN (1946)

Oh my God. Has there ever been a more oversexed, overheated, overproduced, overacted movie than Duel in the Sun? With phantasmagorical three-strip Technicolor and shouting-to-the- rafters dialogue making it look every inch the fever dream of amphetamine-addicted producer David O. Selznick, Duel in the Sun was intended to top his previous epic Gone with the Wind

Instead, the huge, grossly-expensive (almost $100-million when adjusted for inflation), two year-long production is still considered one of the most harebrained movies from Hollywood's "golden age." Director King Vidor handles Selznick's risible script with the same anvil-like touch that he would bring to The Fountainhead three years later. Vidor, by the way, was one of six directors who helmed Duel in the Sun during its lengthy inception -- or is it ejection? -- including Selznick, who, in a rare moment of lucidity, fired himself. As for the acting, there's so much ham on display that it's probably banned in Jewish and Muslim neighborhoods.

The tale of a young, half-breed trollop who causes havoc between two brothers and their racist father, Duel in the Sun intends to be spicy but winds up being tasteless. It would have fared better as a low-budget RKO black & white programmer as originally intended, but once Selznick got his Oscar-winning paws on the project, all bets were off. 

Warning: staring at this sun on a high-def
TV for 10 straight minutes can cause
permanent eye damage.
The movie announces its intentions to epicdom (a word I just made up) with a 10-minute instrumental prelude by Dimitri Tiomkin, which never manages to string together more than three interesting notes at a time. 

The difference between "prelude"
and "overture" is 7 minutes.
Just as it comes to a thudding end, and you're settling in for, you know, a movie, the voice of character actor Reed Hadley announces, "Ladies and gentleman, the overture to Duel in the Sun!" -- followed by three more unmemorable minutes of the Selznick Studio orchestra sawing away while Hadley describes the movie you're about to see. Show, don't tell! 

Then that's followed by the credits, and that's followed by a magniloquent prologue spoken by Orson Welles (presumably to make it sound classy) before the movie finally kicks in. I guess Selznick had to do something to make it seem as long as Gone with the Wind. (Without the music folderol, Duel in the Sun runs only a little over two hours.)

Now we know where Elvis Presley got his sneer.
If Duel in the Sun was Selznick's attempt to turn his then-mistress, Jennifer Jones, into another Vivian Leigh, he should have spent more time on his shrink's couch and less time popping bennies. Wearing dark "Injun" make-up, Jones instead resembles a drunken Emirates Airline stewardess. And rather than being sexy, as was Selznick's intentions, she's actually seriously sluttish, admitting, "I'm trash like my maw!" A moment later, upon reflection, she writhes on her bed shouting, "Trash, trash, trash, trash, trash!" Yeah, like the script, script, script, script, script!

"After we do the nasty, I'm going out to kill
a mockingbird."
Anyone familiar with the stolid Gregory Peck of To Kill a Mockingbird will be shocked by the horny, violent sociopath presented here. Unlike Alfred Hitchcock's multidimensional bad guys, Peck's Lewt McCanless is a rotter through-and-through, licking his chops like a hungry wolf eyeing a defenseless lamb -- in this case, Jennifer Jones' Pearl Chavez. As for Pearl, it winds up being one of those I-hate-you-so-much-I-love-you relationships that always work out real well in the end. (Note: that was delivered with a heavy dose of irony.) If nothing else, Peck appears to be having the time of his life playing a heel for a change, far looser in Duel in the Sun than anything else he ever made, even if he is more cartoon than human. 

Joseph Cotten is amused by Jennifer Jones'
attempt at catching flies with her mouth.

Jessie McCanles, Lewt's younger brother, hasn't got a chance with Pearl. While having pledged her love to Jessie, she's far more attracted to bad boy Lewt. Just to show you how low Pearl is, she  allows Jessie to enter her room just as Lewt is in there lighting up a post-coital smoke. (What's Apache for "bitch"?) Cotten is saddled with pity-me dialogue, but so underplays his part that he comes off better than most of his co-stars. (The only other actor in Duel in the Sun who avoids histrionics is Herbert Marshall as Pearl's father, and that's only because he's killed off after ten minutes.)

The good preacher takes a personal interest in
Pearl's salvation.
Yet despite Jones' and Peck's grandstanding, it's up to the old-timers to really pull out the stops. Walter Huston's brief appearance as a shady preacher proves that the actor knew kitsch when he saw it, and, as with his role as Doc Holliday in The Outlaw, plays it with outsized tongue in cheek. King Vidor probably didn't get the joke.

"I look like Hillary who?"
Nor did Vidor do poor Lillian Gish any favors as Lewt and Jessie's mother Laura Belle McCanles. Perhaps not having seen any Gish performance since The Birth of a Nation, Vidor appeared to have instructed her to telegraph her emotions by opening her eyes like manholes, dropping her jaw to the floor, and placing her hands on her cheeks whenever possible. Her final scene -- crawling from her bed to console her grumpy husband before dropping dead at his feet -- is perhaps the cruelest, most unfortunately-hilarious thing a legend like Gish ever had to suffer. Other than the rest of her scenes in Duel with the Sun.

Lillian Gish wipes away the
spittle from Barrymore's
line-readings.
But nobody -- no body -- overdoes it like Lionel Barrymore as Sen. Jackson McCanles, the family patriarch. Once a wonderfully subtle actor, Barrymore had by now settled comfortably into the wheelchair-bound lovable crank character that defined the latter part of his career. Under Vidor's direction, however, Barrymore crosses the divide between crank and bull undergoing a wide-awake vasectomy. Bellowing, bawling and roaring his dialogue like a one-man zoo, he officially becomes a self-parody in Duel in the Sun the way his brother John did in Playmates. But at least the latter was supposed to be a comedy.

At least you can see the (over)budget on the screen.
An impressive sequence featuring hundreds of cowboys charging down a steep hill and across the plains is still exciting (and today would be recreated with CGI). The psilocybin-like Technicolor is wildly vivid, with fiery red sunsets and gorgeous blue skies popping out of the screen, while Tiomkin's score never, and I mean never, stops. As Bosley Crowther wrote in his New York Times review, "Oh, brother—if only the dramatics were up to the technical style!"

D.W. Griffith visits Huston and Barrymore
on the set of Duel in the Sun, and decides he got
out of pictures at the right time.
Thanks to the lurid promise of SEX SEX SEX, Duel in the Sun actually turned a financial, if not artistic, profit, becoming the second highest-grossing movie of the year. It would go down in history as being the first movie little Martin Scorsese ever saw -- such are legends made.

Love means never having to say you're
sorry after shooting each other to death.
Today, Duel in the Sun divides viewers. Scorsese, still a fan, believes it was ahead of its time. Everybody else thinks it's the work of a madman. But the best part -- the absolute icing on the cake -- follows the climax. Pearl and Lewt shoot each other a dozen or so times before dying lustily in each other's arms in the hot desert sun. Pull back, fade out... to five minutes of Exit music. Two hours and 20 minutes of non-stop score -- and I still can't remember a frigging note.

 


                                              ****************************

 

Friday, August 29, 2014

AN ACT OF MURDER (1948)

Anyone who tells you that present-day Hollywood movies are more mature than ever should seek out An Act of Murder. Really, I'd like to see a writer pitch an idea involving a middle-aged couple and euthanasia. "Are you crazy?" would come the reply. "A middle-aged couple?!"

Calvin Cooke is a hanging judge, following the letter of the law like a senator follows a Gallup poll, sentencing criminals to 20 years when 20 days would be more appropriate. His straight-arrow attitude is put to the test when his wife, Catherine Cook, is diagnosed with a fatal disease found exclusively in studio sound stages. Her doctor informs Calvin of her illness, while keeping Catherine in the dark. The Hippocratic Oath, as we know, states, "First, tell no truth."

Unwilling to let his wife suffer as she deteriorates, Calvin makes a split-second decision to kill her and himself in a car crash while returning from vacation. He survives, however, and, rather than taking it on the lam with a cutie-pie half his age like anyone else would, turns himself in for murder. (Remember, this is a movie.) His future son-in-law, David Douglas, whom he loves like a lice-infected cavity, volunteers to take on the case.

In 1948, this was normal. Today, audiences
would throw up.
Other than all those alliterative character names, An Act of Murder is an adult movie that would put most of today's releases to shame. What strikes you almost immediately is that there was a time when mature (i.e., older-looking) actors took the leads in A-pictures. Fredric March and Florence Eldridge look every bit their ages -- 51 and 47 respectively -- and then some. Way then some. (To put it in perspective, Brad Pitt is 51 and Sandra Bullock is 50.) And don't tell me about good genes, unless you're talking about those belonging to their plastic surgeons.

Can you think of any actor, other than George Clooney, who doesn't appear to be in arrested development?  Or an older-looking actress who isn't relegated to character roles? This couple is in love, and you get the feeling they still get it on once in a while. Perhaps that's because March and Eldridge were married in real life, which must have given their on-screen situation a little more charge. Hey honey, I've got a script for us where I kill you. No, really, you'll like it. Let's rehearse.


Judge Cook not only learns that his wife is dying,
the long-distance phone call isn't
considered a deductible, either.
As usual in old movies, the medical stuff is a little sketchy. Catherine's disease is never quite spelled out -- her doctor alludes to a "neuroplastic situation," admitting that any disease with several names is something medical professionals don't know anything about. You can trust this guy, right? Especially when his first bit of advice to Calvin when breaking the news is, "Have a cigarette." His colleagues' bedside manners leave a little to be desired -- like, oh, compassion -- telling Calvin during a conference call, "Surgery is useless" and "Death is indicated at any time." Don't forget to pay the receptionist on the way out! 

Following doctor's orders -- other than smoking cigarettes -- Calvin keeps the diagnosis from Catherine, in order to make her final days that much more peaceful. Like dropping coffee cups, falling into mirrors, and going blind are peaceful. Calvin gets a prescription of Demorine to give Catherine when necessary, with the warning that
"Let me get you a flower for your funeral --
I mean, corsage!"
more than two every 12 hours could be fatal. I Googled "Demorine," and the only thing I found was someone on Facebook, so that must be another of those only-in-Hollywood medical things.

But Calvin can't stand to see his wife suffer. An idea is planted when a medical advertisement reading, none too subtly, KILL THE PAIN catches his eye in a drugstore. A moment later, that idea blooms when a dog who's been hit by a car is put out of his misery by a friendly cop. Muttering, "Well, we can't let him suffer," he pulls out his gun and blows its head off. Paws up, don't shoot!

The Judge is up for murder, but he's just pissed-off
his daughter is sleeping with his lawyer.
Watch enough old movies, and you get to appreciate actors you took for granted on TV in later years. In An Act of Murder, that would be Edmond O'Brien as David Douglas, the lawyer who believes there's more to justice than law. Or the other way around. Only 33 but looking 50, he doesn't quite appear the ideal suitor for Cook's law-studying daughter, Ellie, played by 23 year-old Geraldine Brooks. (Everybody looked older then.) And talk about different times -- Calvin doesn't blink an eye when Ellie casually smokes in front of him, like it was normal.  Which it probably was back then.

It's Ellie who gives David an idea that leads to An Act of Murder's twisty climax, which I won't reveal. However, Fredric March's closing lines still resonate today, if only accidentally. Realizing that intentions can be as important as legalities, he admits that a person must be "judged not just by the law but the heart" -- words similar to those used by Barack Obama when nominating Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court. That guy really does have a thing for Hollywood.

Can you imagine a studio today
backing a major movie with this
couple in the lead roles?
Even during a time of grown-up movies, An Act of Murder probably stood out. It was, in fact, nominated for the Cannes Film Festival's Grand Prize. It holds up quite well, still packing several punches, with Fredric March giving his usual classy performance (something else sadly missing from most actors today). Like its leads, An Act of Murder is a mature piece of work -- one that continues to make profound statements on human nature and what really counts when judging a person's actions. Unlike, say, Transformers Part 3.

Pay no attention to the image of
a car driving off a cliff, folks!
But as with Freud 14 years later, Universal-International Pictures got a little skittish about the title, eventually re-releasing it as Live Today for Tomorrow -- what the hell does that even mean? -- which sounds like a homily you'd see hanging in somebody's laundry room. Adding insult to artistic injury, the one-sheet's design makes it look like a love story instead of, uh, an act of murder. For that alone, the head of the marketing department should have been force-fed a bottle of Demorine.

                             ***************







Tuesday, August 19, 2014

FREUD (1962)

Few high-pedigree movies of the last half-century or so have done such a thorough disappearing act as Freud. Premiering to major fanfare in 1962, it quickly underwent nervous studio butchering before vanishing into the collective unconsciousness of Hollywood producers, who would make sure not to make any more movies about psychiatrists, unless they were farces or Barbra Streisand vanity projects. 

Perhaps the headcases who ran Universal-International Pictures realized too late that a movie called Freud, directed by John Huston and starring Montgomery Clift, wasn't going to be a date movie. Instead, it focuses on the Viennese shrink developing his theory on how we're all screwed up because we either loved our mothers too much and hated our fathers, or vice-versa, or both. In a year that saw two Disney productions in the top 10 highest-grossing movies, Freud was not what the doctor ordered.

Forget that much of Freud's work in this field has been discredited in the last couple of decades. (For some reason, women go into hysterics over the word "hysteria.") There's much to admire about Freud on its own terms. First, Huston made the wise decision to abandon the original script written by France's favorite cockeyed philosopher, Jean-Paul Satre, which would have run about 10 hours. 

No wonder he never got the girl on
"The Man from U.N.C.L.E."
Second, casting Montgomery Clift was brilliant, in that his presence -- usually described by movie historians as "troubled" -- makes Freud more human than we tend to picture him. I mean, this Freud is so repulsed by his patients that he temporarily quits psychiatry altogether, because these people are, you know, nuts. I mean, how would you react to David McCallum speaking like Peter Lorre before making out with a headless mannequin he thinks his is mother?

"On the count of three, you're going to quack
like a duck. Just kidding!"
But thanks to his mentor, Dr. Josef Breuer, Freud is soon back in the game, taking on the case of Cecily Koertner, blind and paralyzed since a traumatic childhood incident involving her father. Peeling back the layers of Cecily's memories like a jumbo shallot, Freud cures her physically and psychologically, while discovering the root of his own deep-seated hatred for his father. Doesn't anybody like their parents?


If all this sounds like the patient-curing-the-doctor routine beloved by Reader's Digest, don't be put off. Freud is a serious, perhaps great movie, even if it has a whiff of old Hollywood about it. The mishmash of accents; occasional dialogue along the lines of, Siggy, you look hungry, eat a sandwich!; the boastful father who envisions great things for his son the doctor. 

Yet, had Huston waited for a more liberated time, Freud would have lost its prime assets: Montgomery Clift; the stunning black and white photography; and Jerry Goldsmith's Twilight Zone-ish score (parts of which were later lifted for Alien). The dream sequences, by the way, look like the dreams I have, which, upon reflection, is more information than you need.

"Say,  you look familiar..."
One of Huston's inspired casting choices directly involves Freud's sexual theories. Freud's wife Martha believes that he married her only because, according to him, we all fall in love with someone who reminds us of somebody else. No surprise, then, that the actresses playing Freud's mother and wife look like sisters. If that's not enough, Rosalie Crutchie, as Freud's mother, was only 42 -- the same age as Montgomery Clift. Oh, yuck.


Larry Parks expounds on the psychological 
underpinnings of singing "My Mammy."

In hiring Larry Parks as Dr. Breuer, Huston was doing his bit to break the Hollywood blacklist. Famous for starring in The Jolson Story and Jolson Sings Again, Parks' movie career was derailed by admitting to Congress that, when barely out of his teens, he was very briefly affiliated with the Communist party. A white guy in blackface who was once red -- only in Hollywood, kids. 

Freud himself should have been on the set of the movie. John Huston emotionally tortured
Having fun with Spence and Monty.
Montgomery Clift over the latter's sexuality. Clift, now in the depths of his booze and drug addiction, briefly fled to Germany for the premiere of Judgement at Nuremberg, where, reports film historian John McElwee, "a hostile German press merely exacerbated [his] already bizarre behavior... [Clift], according to one observer, 'showed up stoned and drunk out of his mind, jumping on Spence’s back.' Things got worse when Monty crawled on his hands and knees between the aisles, and 'screamed all sorts of crazy things,' causing Tracy to flee from the auditorium." Today, that kind of thing would earn you a spokesman gig for Cabo Wabo Tequila and a guest shot on Two and a Half Men. 




"Good God, I can't believe
that title!"
Still far more interesting than most any movie today, Freud comes from a time when intelligent dialogue was not only important, but expected from this kind of drama. Unfortunately, the studio wasn't particularly keen on it. Shorn of several minutes for general release, the film was given the legendarily stupid title Freud: The Secret Passion. Some posters printed it as Freud: A Secret Passion -- a subtle yet vital difference for the article-obsessed.

Following its TV debut in the late '60s, Freud vanished for about 15 years before briefly reappearing on home video. It went AWOL for many more years until a handful of airings on cable television -- then disappeared again for over a decade. Today, the original 140-minute version is commercially available on DVD only in Spain.

Well, not quite. I remember a particular dream sequence at a train depot during AMC's sole broadcast of Freud about 25 years ago. When watching the DVD, I was disappointed to discover that it was missing. For God's sakes, leave Freud alone!

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