Meet Me in St Louis, USA 1944.

Sunday December 16th at 5.30 p.m. Friends of the HPPH Xmas screening.

This is the Friends’ Christmas movie though technically it is not a seasonal film The plot actually covers the summer of 1903, then autumn, winter and spring. However, the Christmas sequence is one of the most memorable in the film, indeed in all Hollywood. It is full of seasonal tropes and motifs and features the wonderful ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’. The film is a musical and one of the classics produced by the M-G-M Studio.

The plot follows the domestic and romantic developments in the household of Mr Alonzo Smith (Leon Ames) and Mrs Anna Smith (Mary Astor). Their family includes four daughters; Rose (Lucille Bremer), Esther (Judy Garland), Agnes (Joan Carroll and “Tootsie” (Margaret O’Brien). There is a single son, Lon Jr. (Henry H. Daniels, Jr.). There is also a youthful Grandpa (Harry Davenport) and a maid with a tart tongue, Katie (Marjorie Main).

The cast are excellent and one of the great pleasures of the film. Judy Garland, in her nineteenth feature, is in her youthful and vibrant mode rather than the darker and more emotional tone of her later years. Her songs are done with accomplishment, especially my favourite ‘The Trolley Song’. Margaret O’Brien, in her tenth film, is a well-practised scene stealer but always entertaining. The story does tend to sentiment but Marjorie Main’s Katie continually inserts a more caustic note. The beaux of Rose and of Esther are not quite as interesting as the girls [neither in Lon Jr.), but this is [among other things] a woman’s picture.

Much of the film is in bright sunshine and vibrant Technicolor. But autumn introduces a darker tone with some fine chiaroscuro. And winter offers both twilight scenes and plenty of snow. The director, Vincente Minnelli, is a fine craftsman and he is a master of musical genre; he would later direct The Pirate (1948) and An American in Paris (1951). Early in his career he was a production designer and Minnelli makes use of splendid mise en scène and has a preference for fine travelling shots. In this he is aided by the excellent craft personnel of M-G-M. The Art Direction is by Lemuel Ayres, Cedric Gibbons and Jack Martin Smith; the Set Decorations are by Edwin B. Willis with the costumes designed by Sharaff. They all look and meld beautifully. The cinematography is by George Folsey, who had a long and distinguished career. The Technicolor is excellent and the sequence shots are finely smooth; watch the way the camera handles the opening number, ‘Meet Me in St Louis’.

The screenplay was adapted from a series of short stories by Irving Brecher and Fred F. Finklehoff. They have succeeded in blending these into a complete and integrated story. The songs are a medley from many sources including that of the 1904 Great Exhibition with which the film ends. Most of the score was adapted by Roger Edens but clearly also involved Arthur Freed. Freed is the guiding spirit behind the cycle of classic films from M-G-M, of which this is one of the finest.

The film was a major success on release, coming second in the annual box office. It received four nominations in the Academy Awards though it failed to win one. However, since then it has been listed among the American Film Institute’s ‘Greatest American Musicals’ and two of the musical numbers made it into the AFI’s ‘100 years … 100 songs’. It remains a perennial, classic. 113 minutes of pleasure in glorious colour, songs and unrivalled Hollywood production values. Happily the film is screening from a 35mm print so it can be enjoyed in its original format.

My Cousin Rachel – a novel and two films.

The new film is screening daily from Friday June 6th until Thursday June 15th.

Daphne Du Maurier published this novel in 1951. It offered a romantic and mysterious story with many of her familiar features. The novel is set in the C19th, but offers no particular dates. The setting is Cornwall, and the book includes descriptions of the Cornish countryside and, importantly, the coastline and the sea. There is a Gothic feel to the novel, and there are traces of the influence of the Brontë sisters. The obvious reference is Du Maurier’s earlier classic, ‘Rebecca’. It shares the setting and the mystery from the past. However, instead of a young and naïve female narrator, we have a young, naïve and male narrator. This is Philip Ashley who has been bought by up an older landowning relative Ambrose. Early on Ambrose’s death takes Philip to Florence and later leads to his meeting Ambrose’s widow Rachel.

Rather as with ‘Rebecca’ the book offers an investigation of a woman; in the earlier novel this was the dead wife of Maxim de Winter; this later novel investigates Philip’s cousin Rachel. However, the final resolution of this story holds ambiguities whereas in ‘Rebecca’ the mystery is fully explained. Just as Rebecca is aided by the intimidating Mrs Danvers Rachel is aided by the more slippery Rainaldo: [slippery perhaps because he is Italian].

The first film adaptation of the book was produced by Twentieth Century Fox in 1952. In black and white and running 98 minutes the film was helmed by Hollywood professionals: script by Nunnally Johnson who also produced and direction by Henry Koster. The filmed starred Richard Burton as Philip and Olivia de Havilland as ‘my cousin Rachel’. This was Burton’s first film in Hollywood. Du Maurier was not keen on the initial screenplay and later unimpressed with de Havilland’s characterisation. She did, though, enjoy Burton’s Philip and some sequences actually filmed in Cornwall. The cinematography by Joseph LaShelle is finely done. And the visual chiaroscuro emphasises the Gothic feel more than the novel. There is a romantic and dramatic score by Franz Waxman. The screenplay is highly compressed: 98 minutes is really insufficient for the plot and characters. The setting of the film is the 1830s: information gained from Ambrose’s tombstone visited by Philip, something he avoids in the novel. Burton has Philip’s intensity and impetuosity but lacks the naivety in relation to women. De Havilland lacks the complexity of Rachel, but this is at least partly due to the scriptwriting. The film does retain the ambiguity of the novel, but the relationships do not convincingly prepare for this. On a happier note Don, the Labrador, survives avoiding his accidental death in the novel.

Now, in 2017, comes a new adaptation. The main production company is Fox Searchlight, who presumably retain the copyright to Daphne Du Maurier’s novel. It is a company project and writer and director Roger Mitchell was recruited to this. The film has received quite a few favourable reviews. It is in colour, with a ratio of 2.35:1 and runs ten minutes longer than the 1952 version. It has also enjoyed location filming in both England and Italy, so the film should offer settings that would meet the wishes of Du Maurier.

This is Mitchell’s first screenwriting credit, so that is an unknown. His previous directorial record does not offer a lot of relevance to this type of property. He did direct Hyde Park on the Hudson (2012) which I enjoyed and which has some slight parallels with this story. Rachel Weisz is cast as ‘cousin Rachel’. This would seem to be ideal. She has starred in some rather run-of-the mill genre films but also some fine dramas: of particular relevance here is her role as Hester Collyer in  Terence Davies’ beautifully judged version of The Deep Blue Sea (2012). Sam Claflin plays Philip. Rather like the director how appropriate he will be is hard to judge. The ‘Pirates’ film and the ‘Hunger’ series’ have little in common with Du Maurier’s romantic mystery. I thought he was good in Their Finest (2017) as Tom Buckley, but that character is far removed from Phillip Ashley.

Some reviews praise the romance but are less enthused by the mystery. It will clearly be worth seeing. Will it match the great Du Maurier adaptation, David O. Selznick’s 1940 version of Rebecca directed by Alfred Hitchcock?

Fences, USA 2016

Daily, Saturday February 18th through till Thursday February 23rd.

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The two leading players in this film, Denzel Washington and Viola Davies, have both been nominated for Academy Awards. Viola Davis has already won a Golden Globe as Best Supporting Actress. This, like the Academy Award, nomination, should really be for Best Actress as whilst her screen time is less than Washington her character and performance are equally essential to the film.

This is an actor’s films with both Washington and Davis reprising roles that they played on Broadway in 2010: Troy and Rose Maxton. And another player in this production Stephen McKinley Henderson as Jim Bono is part of a fine supporting cast.

The film is adapted from a play originally written in 1983 by August Wilson. He died in 2005 but had already written a screenplay on which this film is based. Wilson, whose early experiences of US racism informed his work, wrote a cycle of seven plays about Afro-American life and experiences. He insisted that this play, if adapted for cinema, should be directed by an African-American, and Washington both stars and directs.

The play fits into what is almost a genre of African-American life on film, harking back to A Raisin in the Sun (USA 1961), another play adapted first for television then cinema. In fact this film displays its theatrical origins both in structure and settings. It also has lengthy dialogue scenes but the delivery by the fine cast make these compelling and convincing.

The film is set in Pittsburgh in the 1950s and moves onto the early 1960s. These times are an important backdrop to what is essentially a family drama. And the title, as Rose explains to Troy in one powerful scene, is itself a metaphor for the emotions and contradictions dramatised in this absorbing film.

Johnny Guitar USA 1954

Sunday 29th May at 1 p.m.

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This classic western has been re-released in a digital format by the BFI. You can read about it in the May edition of Sight and Sound under ‘The Psychological Western’ and ‘Westward the Women’. Both suggest why this film is now a cult classic, but there are other good reasons as well.

The director Nicholas Ray is a celebrated ‘auteur’ from the last stages of classic Hollywood, [i.e. the studio system]. His films are full of interest and he has a particular facility with colour: the best example being Rebel Without a Cause (1955). The screenplay is by Philip Jordan, whose other work includes Anthony Mann’s fine western The Man From Laramie (1955). The cinematography is by Harry Stradling who won two Academy Awards and received another 12 nominations. And the music is by Victor Young, who also won an Oscar and received another eleven nominations. Charlton Heston always maintained the nominations were what really counted as they were from one’s own peers in the Academy.

The film also has a stellar cast. Joan Crawford, in one of her outstanding roles, is saloon owner Vienna. She is the central character in the film despite being listed third in some publicity. Her support in the film is Sterling Hayden as drifting Johnny ‘Guitar’ Logan. Hayden’s laconic persona, with ample gravitas, led to Bernardo Bertolucci casting him in his epic 1900 (Novecento, 1976).  The opposition is led by Mercedes McCambridge as Emma Small; she almost liberally spits fire in the film. And the ever dependable Ward Bond is her sidekick John McIvers.

The film takes one of the central themes of the western genre – revenge – and treats it in an entirely unconventional manner. The film crosses over with the small-town melodrama, a genre that Ray used in his Bigger than Life (1956). This is a film that especially reflects on the social and film industry ‘witch-hunts’ of the period. The HUAC ‘witch-hunt’ is featured in two recent releases, Trumbo (2015) and Hail, Caesar (2016). Even if you are not a fan of westerns I would reckon this is a 110 minutes of completely engaging drama. The film was produced in the early days of modern widescreen formats and is in the 1.66:1 aspect ratio and was filmed in Trucolor for Republic Pictures.

 

Spotlight USA 2015

Wednesday March 16th at 3.40 p.m.

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There is a final opportunity to see this Oscar winning film. I suspect that the members of the Academy voted for the film partly to demonstrate their social awareness in a year when they need good publicity. And then probably partly because it a traditional genre film with a well-written script, good production values and an impressive roster of actors/characters.

The film falls into a cycle of journalist movies. The most famous of these is probably All the President’s Men (1976) and that is clearly an influence on this film. There are several scenes where there are visual crossovers, including in the offices of the newspaper and then one with Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) researching the story in a public records library. Pfeiffer also interviews the surviving victims of the abuse that is the focus of the story. These are a distinctive feature and extremely well done. And the mise en scène constantly reminds us of the guilty party – the Roman Catholic Church in Boston. In an engaging actual parallel – Ben Bradlee edited the Washington Post during the Watergate investigation: his son Ben Bradlee Jnr. was Assistant Managing Editor at the Boston Globe during the Spotlight investigation.

In other ways the genre influence is not always for the best. There is a fairly long sequence as Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo) waits to access legal records that are key to the completion of the story. This is played for suspense but the plot does not really justify this.

The film also fit into a cycle of films set in the city of Boston. Criminality and noir seem to be something of a constant. But the religious presence in the city is also a constant. The other earlier film that I was reminded of was The Verdict (1982 ). In that film Frank Galvin (Paul Newman) is fighting the church in a legal battle over medical incompetence. Apart from visual moments there is also a parallel with Walter Robinson (Michael Keaton) of the Spotlight team: both have to come terms to mistakes in their past.

 

It’s a Wonderful Life USA 1945

From Friday December 18th until Thursday 24th.

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This classic film comes round every Christmas. Some of the audience revisit an old favourite; some taste its pleasures for the time. After over six decades of success one would think that there is nothing left to say or write about this film. But, just as it finds new fans, it also stimulates fresh insights and comments. With an unusual stance Sandy Irvine in Picturing a Planet in Peril (Introducing Green Issues to Film Studies in Splice Volume 3 issue 2, Spring 2009) writes:

“Take, for example, the popular evergreen It’s a Wonderful Life by Frank Capra, released in 1945. The major driving force in environmental destruction is simply human overpopulation, and George Bailey [James Stewart] and his wife [Donna Reed] generously contribute to the population boom by parenting four children, instead of just ‘replacing’ themselves with two (indeed, in real life, actress Donna Reed was a mother of four).”

This aspect possibly escapes most members of the audience. And I am sure that you can enjoy the film and not worry about population during its screening. There is an unexpressed assumption here. That George should follow in his parent’s virtuous footsteps: not just by taking on the Building and Loan Society, but also in only fathering two children: in their case George and his brother Harry (Todd Karns).

I have to confess that I would have been hard put to name the four Bailey children. I looked it up, Janie Bailey (Carol Combs), Pete Bailey (Jimmy Hawkins), Tommy Bailey (Larry Simms), Zuzu Bailey (Karolyn Grimes). However, I could name Clarence’s (Henry Travers) favourite book, Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain. And I could identify one of Uncle Bill’s (Thomas Mitchell) pets as a squirrel.

So if you have a new insight over the coming week why not post a comment?

Carol (UK, USA 2015)

Opens Friday November 27th

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This film promises to be a real treat. The two stars, Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, have already received  plaudits for their performances. The film is directed by Todd Haynes, one of the most talented filmmakers working in the USA. His Far From Heaven  (2002) was a memorable and intelligent re-visiting of a classic by Douglas Sirk. And the film is adapted from a novel by Patricia Highsmith, The Price of Salt (1952). Highsmith is an enjoyable and stimulating writer. Her novels are replete with a real sense of irony. Moreover, her novels adapt so well to the other media. The BBC offered a series of fine radio adaptations of her five Ripley novels in 2009 and repeated these in 2014. Then there are the films – all the ones I have seen have been good but the outstanding ones are probably The American Friend (Der amerikanische Freund 1977) directed by Wim Wenders and Strangers on a Train (1951) directed by Alfred Hitchcock.

Haynes was quoted in the LIFF Catalogue where the film was the closing screenings,

“When we think of our love affairs, our most memorable ones are those that put you on the side of the weaker and desiring subject. Stories about marginal women are more interesting than films about men: they contain the limits of social burden: women’s lives are more burdened by society, in the choices they make, as they carry on the institutions of the family, satisfying men.”

This promises to be a real treat. It opens on Friday and is screening most days of the following week.

 

Citizen Kane, USA 1941

Screening on Monday May 25th at 3 p.m.

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The film is screening in a 35mm print, the original format, though unfortunately it is not possible to use a nitrate print. The characteristics of this format will do proper justice to one of the classics of cinema. It managed for fifty years to come top of the  Sight & Sound critics’ polls, held every decade. It turns up again and again, to the delight of those familiar with the film, and as a treat for those who have never seen it before, at least on the large screen and in the darkened auditorium. This occasion follows on from the centenary of Orson Welles, the director, on May 6th.

The script by Herman J. Mankiewicz [with Orson Welles] is at once witty and complex, with a distinctive structure. The cinematography by Gregg Toland makes exceptional use of both deep staging and deep focus, and has passages of beautiful chiaroscuro. And there are impressive special effects by a Hollywood veteran, Vernon J. Walker. The art direction by Van Nest Polglase offers range of fabulous settings from Xanadu to the great opera House in Chicago. Whilst the costumes cover the late C19th up until the present of the film. The cast are terrific, a fine actress like Agnes Moorehead has only a short scene on screen. She, like many of the cast including Joseph Cotten, had worked with Welles in the New York Theatre and radio. The editing by Robert Wise and Mark Robson [both to later become directors in their own right] is finely done: watch the sequence of breakfast scenes between Kane and his first wife Emily. The film is a key innovator in the use of sound, recorded by Bailey Fesler and James G. Stewart, but also benefitting from Welles own experience on radio. And this enjoys the first score in the career of Bernard Herrmann, one of the greatest of Hollywood composers.

All this is orchestrated by Welles, himself appearing as Kane. Both are characters with immense talent and giant egos. Welles claimed that on the night of the premiere he shared a lift in his hotel with William Randolph Hearst, the basis for the film’s fictional press baron. Welles offered Hearst a ticket to see the film, which was declined. Welles remarked:

“Kane would have accepted”.

Hearst got his revenge with a virulent press campaign, aided on the quiet by Hoover’s FBI. So the only Academy Award for the film was Best Screenplay. It did though win the New York Film Critics’ Award for Best Picture. And since then the film has enjoyed success after success. Moreover viewers and critics alike still discuss and argue over the film’s portrait and the famous single word in the opening scene.

A favourite term of praise for me is ‘panache’:

style – swagger – dashing manner

magnificence – brilliance – brazen exhibitionism

Welles had it by the bucketful, as does his most memorable film.