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.

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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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Tuesday, August 5, 2014

THE FLAME WITHIN (1935)

Psychiatry. Unrequited love. Emotional adultery. Clown costumes. The Flame Within is a veritable textbook of classic movie genres. 

Dr. Mary White, apparently confusing her occupation of psychiatrist for relationship counselor, is treating Linda Bolton for suicidal tendencies, and Linda's fiance Jack Kerry for alcoholism. Now there's a fun couple! The good news: Linda and Jack are eventually cured. The bad news: Jack and Dr. White fall in love. Ha! Better get out those razor blades, Linda!



Paging Dr. Bozo, paging Dr. Bozo...
Writer/director Edmund Goulding appears to have consulted Symbolism for Dummies when putting together The Flame Within. Mary White's name recalls both the name of Jesus' mother and the color of purity. Dr. Gordon Phillips, the man hopelessly in love with her, dresses as an especially sad-eyed clown at a costume ball. Jack Kerry, who sobers up to become an inventor, develops an inflatable airline seat, symbolic of the kind of plot device that actors were paid to deliver with a straight face.

Advice for the man on the make:
get rid of the costume before you put the
moves on a woman.
Despite its soap opera aura, The Flame Within features some fascinatingly progressive notions, not the least of which is a woman who prefers her profession over marriage. In fact, Dr. White alarmingly considers psychiatry "a religion," perhaps allowing her to take a tax exemption. For doubtful patients like Jack Kerry, however, she refers to herself as a "nerve specialist." Make up your mind, lady!

Pining in the background for Dr. White is the older Dr. Phillips, who appears to have taken the Hippocratic oath from Hippocrates himself.  Perhaps most startling for its time, Dr. White is herself several years older than her object of lust, Jack Kerry. Unintended laugh alert: somebody refers to him as John Kerry, another fellow with a penchant of collecting rich, older women.

Director Edmund Goulding, Louis Hayward
and Ann Harding (Dr. Mary White) look
for a greater ecstasy than themselves,
and fail.
Seeing that The Flame Within was a product of 1935 Hollywood, all this refreshing progressiveness flies out the window in the last reel. Having returned from a trip to Europe, Kerry wants to dump Linda for Dr. White, who's equally in love with him. But Dr. White, taking that psychiatry-as-religion jazz seriously, advises him that doing something good for someone who needs him -- like staying with the wife whom he doesn't love -- will provide a "greater ecstasy" than his own happiness. 

While there might be an argument to be made for that schlocky slice of philosophy, most people would reply Buuuuuuullshit. I mean, tell that to Louis Hayward, the actor playing Kerry, who was married twice, all the while carrying on a long-term affair with Noel Coward. Tell that to anyone involved in the making this movie. That "greater ecstasy" routine was just a sop to both the censors and the saps in the audience who were living lives that couldn't compare to those they saw in glossy, upscale M-G-M pictures like this.

Most disappointingly is The Flame Within's final moment, when Dr. White decides to take her own advice, and announce that she's going to give up her profession. What will you do, her wannabe-paramour Dr. Phillips asks. Turning to him soulfully, she whispers, "You tell me." While their colleague Dr. Frazier smiles approvingly at their sudden engagement, the lesson for women is to marry a guy you don't love only because he needs you. Just for laughs, somebody please run this movie for Gloria Steinem.

"Can you treat my daughter
once she comes of age?"
It's appropriate Linda Bolton -- who tries to commit suicide a second time by jumping out of Dr. White's window --  is played by Maureen O'Sullivan. During one of the two costume ball scenes, she wears a blonde wig -- and, for a moment, becomes the spitting image of her equally-nutty daughter Mia Farrow, who's had, um, relationship issues of her own. Until her final moment onscreen, O'Sullivan's character is quite unlikeable throughout The Flame Within, making you wish she'd successfully jump out the window for a change.



What keeps The Flame Within worth watching is Ann Harding as Dr. White. Unlike her drag-queen contemporaries Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, Harding doesn't indulge in histrionics. Her subtle, empathetic performance is so different from everyone else's that at times she appears to have come from several decades in the future. No wonder she's been pretty much forgotten -- there's nothing to parody. 

Harding, too, might have been more self-aware than the character she plays. Finally succumbing to Dr. Phillips' amorous entreaties, the expression on her face is anything but ecstasy, probably unnoticed by audiences 80 years ago, leaving one with an uneasy feeling as the movie fades out. There's plenty of drama in The Flame Within, alright, but not all of it intended.

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