Jan 29, 2014

Book Review: The Crime Films of Anthony Mann

The Crime Films of Anthony Mann
By Max Alvarez
University of Mississippi Press, 2014

I hate dialogue. The camera is the most exciting part of the medium for me. It can get anything over in one flash: you can experience a great shock or great beauty or any great moment simply by seeing it pictorialized. -Anthony Mann

Though director Anthony Mann is perhaps best known for bringing out James Stewart's dark side in a series of so-called psychological westerns, I've always liked him best for his early noir and crime movies.

I appreciate the scope and toughness of Winchester '73 (1950), The Naked Spur (1953) and The Man from Laramie (1955), but I'm much more likely to return to the thrilling, tense worlds of Raw Deal (1948), Border Incident (1949) and Side Street (1949). This is where I think Mann was most inventive, working within the limitations of often small budgets to create an economical, distinctly action-driven style that gave his early flicks a shot of excitement.

In a short, but eventful life, Mann worked successfully across several mediums. He got his start as a teenager, acting on Broadway, soon moving on to directing. That led to work in some of the very first live television productions, which gave the young director a crash course in filming on a tight schedule. He went to Hollywood in 1939, where he struggled to find his niche for several years, but the odd dramas and unsatisfying musicals in his early filmography helped him to build his skill and reputation. Before long, he started to grab audiences with gritty movies about the dark side of society, and his budgets began to gradually increase.

The Crime Films of Anthony Mann focuses on those early years in Hollywood, where he primarily made his mark at Republic and RKO studios, but the book covers the full scope of his life. There's a surprisingly detailed biography, which offers satisfying context for his work. There's also just enough information about his lesser/non-crime films to give proper context. I enjoyed this approach; it nicely balanced the various phases of life so that the text was simultaneously thorough and carefully focused.

Mann had an unusual childhood, spending many years living in a commune-like community in San Diego called Lomaland. There he had his first taste of the arts and the chance to perform Greek and Shakespearean classics. His early life had its dark times though. Punishments at the center could be abusive and Mann was basically abandoned there by his parents for most of his childhood. Before he left his sheltered Lomaland existence at the age of fourteen, rescued by his mother's cousin, he had never even seen money.

He was then moved to New York, where after a few years of schooling Mann dropped out and began his real education on the stage. While he struggled for years to find his place as a director, the young man's momentum was always strong and his career progressed steadily from those early days. It's remarkable to think that this skilled craftsmen got his start in the movies as an east coast talent scout for David Selznick in 1936. He truly worked his way up from the ground level.

Alvarez describes Mann's work as achieving "the maximum in cinematic impact from minimum of means" and it is this element that I found most exciting to read about. The director knew exactly what he needed and he went about getting his shots with a remarkable combination of efficiency and artistry. He would have a set lit and then get every shot he needed from that angle, so that there would be no need to spend the time preparing it again, and yet his results were not as workmanlike as you'd expect.

There's also lots of detail about Mann's fruitful partnership with cinematographer John Alton, who understood the director's rhythm and knew how to make striking images by working with the limitations of a dimly-lit scene. Various screenshots throughout the book help to illustrate the accomplishments of these skilled professionals.

Alvarez does solid detective work, digging up answers about the more mysterious elements of Mann's life. His analysis of the director's reported involvement in He Walked By Night (1948), the classic noir starring Richard Basehart, left me convinced that while uncredited, he had definitely made a significant contribution to the direction of that film. This is strong film scholarship, revealing fascinating details and approached with great responsibility.

Many thanks to University Press of Mississippi for providing a copy of the book for review.

Jan 26, 2014

Quote of the Week

For me, self-respect is one's greatest treasure. What does it all add up to if you don't have that?

-Marilyn Monroe

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Jan 22, 2014

Book Review--William Wyler: The Life and Films of Hollywood's Most Celebrated Director

William Wyler: The Life and Films of Hollywood's Most Celebrated Director
Gabriel Miller
University Press of Kentucky, 2013

William Wyler had an astoundingly successful career on every level. He was strong box office, drawing in crowds with classics like Jezebel (1938), Mrs. Miniver (1942) and Ben-Hur (1959). His films received 127 Oscar nominations, of which he won 38 statues. His actors fared well too, with thirteen wins out of 35 nominations.

Wyler directed his entire adult life, and thanks to strong support from his studios, he had a remarkable amount of control over the quality of his material. He took risks right to the end of his career, filming his first musical, Funny Girl (1968) at age 66 and tackling racism with a thoroughly modern brutality two years later with his last film, The Liberation of L.B. Jones (1970). He insisted on filming the projects he believed in and that rarely led him wrong.

Give all of this, it doesn't seem right that Wyler isn't one of the bold name directors, like Ford, Huston and Hitchcock. This is partly due to the common critical claim that he was not a true auteur. A good craftsman, yes, but there was the idea floating around that he was supposedly not the author of his films. That belief has always made me hopping mad, because Wyler most certainly had ownership of his films and a fully developed cinematic vision.

I'm grateful that Miller has made a solid argument supporting an auteurist theory in William Wyler: The Life and Films of Hollywood's Most Celebrated Director. Wyler's touch is subtle, but it is clear. Through this detailed review of several films throughout his career, the patterns begin to emerge and it's fascinating to see them develop. Not only did this legendary director have authorship of his films, he built an enduring, varied body of work stringing together his common themes and methods.

Perhaps one of the reasons the nuances of Wyler's style have not drawn much attention is because he left so much to the audience. With frequent use of deep focus, he opened up the screen to viewer interpretation. You could see many dramas progressing in one shot, and while he would subtly frame the action to draw the eye where he pleased, there was always that extra layer of activity to color your perspective.

The perfect example of this open-ended, but also focused staging is in the famous bar scene from The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). While World War II vet Fredric March is watching a fellow soldier pound out a lively song on the piano in the foreground, his attention is clearly on a phone booth in the corner of the room, where another friend is on the phone with March's daughter, breaking up with her at his behest. Wyler coaxes you to look in that corner, but he offers another bit of action to be considered as well, if not given full attention.

Miller also explores the way Wyler uses power dynamics in his movies. I never realized how often he used actors standing on different levels on staircases to demonstrate which characters have the upper hand. It's such a simple effect, and I never noted it explicitly, but it had its intended effect.

So yes, Wyler was an auteur, for these and other reasons that unfold throughout the book. He had a consistent style, common themes and a sort of social consciousness that could be seen in all of his work, from lighter comedies like The Good Fairy (1935) to the darkest of dramas, such as The Collector (1965), which he made late in his career.

Each chapter of Wyler explores either a single film or a group of titles that are thematically similar. The focus tends to be on Wyler's more complex works. Less serious flicks like Roman Holiday (1953) and How to Steal a Million (1966) get much less attention, which I found disappointing. While these productions may not have been as challenging or thought-provoking, they are nevertheless a part of the director's career and I would have liked to have seen more stories about the making of these films and how he approached lighter fare.

I also craved more details about Wyler's personal life. His marriages to Margaret Sullavan and Margaret "Talli" Wyler, the latter of which was one of the most enduring Hollywood unions, get only the briefest mention. His children get even less, two of them are referred to in a brief Wyler quote, and the fact that he eventually had four all together is not included at all. I would have given that a pass if the "Life" in the title of the book hadn't offered the promise of something that wasn't quite forthcoming. I'd been hoping to learn more about the man away from the camera and his professional circles in order to get a deeper perspective on his work.

Overall, this is a much needed and expertly executed exploration of the role Wyler played in his work. The power of his films is undeniable; they are hardy classics that continue to draw an audience. With this book, hopefully his audience will also develop a greater appreciation of the man who so skillfully brought these visions to life.

Many thanks to University Press of Kentucky for providing a copy of the book for review.

Jan 20, 2014

10 New Movies for 2014

My movie viewing is all over the place. I always ended up watching random flicks on YouTube or re-watching old favorites. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but I know that I'm missing a lot of good stuff because of my lack of focus.

I perked up when Laura of Laura's Miscellaneous Musings posted her 2014 list of ten new-to-her movies she will watch in the year to come. I've enjoyed reading her lists for years, and I realized that creating my own list would help me to make sure I see the things I really want to see. Just deciding on the movies was so much fun. I'm really looking forward to doing this. My picks:

1. Strange Impersonation (1946)
I used to see the DVD box for this at the video store all the time. It always intrigued me, but for some reason I never rented it. After reading about it in the new book, The Crime Films of Anthony Mann, I thought it was finally time to check it out.

2. Go West (1925)
Last fall I went through a major Buster Keaton binge, which has only slightly petered out over the following months. I missed seeing this one though. There's just something about him having a cow as a costar. I have my qualms. But this is Buster in his golden age, and even at his worst he's always worth watching.

3. Repeat Performance (1947)
Since both Ivan of Thrilling Days of Yesteryear and Laura of Laura's Miscellaneous Musings have written about their fondness for this time traveling drama/noir, I've become curious enough to see it. I like Joan Leslie too.

4. Man With a Movie Camera (1929)
I've started this movie several times, only to abandon it because I felt like I wasn't paying proper attention. There's just so much to take in here, I want to watch it when I can really focus. This year I am determined to see it all the way through.

5. The Constant Nymph (1943)
How can I love Joan Fontaine as I do and have never seen this flick? I may need to watch this first.

6. The Reluctant Debutant (1958)
I've been wanting to see this ever since I read about it in a book years ago, but for the most part its on my list because I can never get enough Kay Kendall.

7. Brainstorm (1965)
Just learned about this one. I'll give any decent thriller a try and I've been hearing good things about it.

8. Street Scene (1931)
I love pre-codes and King Vidor. Good enough!

9. Dead of Night (1945)
I'm so afraid of dummies, puppets, certain kinds of scary-looking dolls (pretty much all dolls then). Get one of them talking on their own and I'm not going to sleep well for a few days. So for good reason I have been wary of this horror omnibus which yes, features a story with a chatty, evil ventriloquist's dummy. I keep hearing how good it is though, so I'm finally going to get some ovaries and take a look.

10. The Last Laugh (1924)
Ugh, Emil Jannings being humiliated. Again. It doesn't surprise me a bit that I've been putting off watching this legendary silent. I know I'm missing out though, so this is the year I'll check it out.

I've been enjoying reading these other "10 For 2014" lists that have popped up in the past few weeks:

Laura's Miscellaneous Musings

Happy Thoughts Darling

Out of the Past

What's your list for 2014? I'd love to see your choices in the comments!

Images Source: Wikipedia

Jan 19, 2014

Quote of the Week

The literal content of his scenes, which in silent films had been imagined, was too intense to be put into spoken words.

-King Vidor, about John Gilbert

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Jan 15, 2014

Book Review--Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3
Robert Matzen
GoodKnight Books, 2013

In order to properly tell the story of the 1942 death of 22 passengers in TWA flight 3, a crash that has endured in memory because one of them was the glamorous film star Carole Lombard, author Robert Matzen strove for authenticity. He thought he could do no better than climbing to the site of the crash on towering Mt. Potosi in Nevada, a chilly peak with a view of Las Vegas below. The four hour climb led him to a site where there were still shards of metal covering the ground, enough that he could hear them crunching with each step. There were other fragments as well, even human bones.

This is the chilling introduction to a detailed, touching account of the crash that killed soldiers, an air hostess, two pilots, the actress, her mother and her husband Clark Gable's assistant and best friend Otto Winkler. The actress was rushing home to see her husband after selling two million dollars in bonds in a whirlwind fundraising campaign. She feared Gable was getting too cozy with current costar Lana Turner and was desperate to distract his roving eye with her presence. Lombard gets most of the attention, but every passenger on board gets a moment, and that's what makes it such an effective, devastating story.

Having never read a book about Carole Lombard (how can that be?) I can't say whether Fireball adds anything of significance to her story. It appears that much of the biographical information comes from Larry Swindell's book about the star, with a few more tidbits from Carole Lombard, The Hoosier Tornado by Wes D. Gehring. I craved more detail in these sections, but the brief biographical gloss did what it was meant to do. You certainly know what the world has lost once you see what this generous, energetic woman had to offer.

In the first part of the book, chapters alternate between Lombard's life and the story of the crash. While I've seen this work before where a dramatic event dominates the life of a subject, it was a bit distracting here. I found it jarring to be tossed back and forth along the timeline.

There's a point though where the tragedy of the crash begins to close in though and the story forges forward without distraction. The intensity of the narrative increases as it becomes clear that lives were not only lost, but destroyed in the aftermath of the crash. Clark Gable and Otto Winkler's wife Jill carried the weight of their losses for the rest of their lives. It was an event so horrible that they could not even attempt to recover.

Lombard selling bonds
There are others who also could not escape the fallout from flight 3. Widows and widowers who were at the beginning of a happy life together, or who were together for so long that they couldn't imagine continuing without each other. One soldier who hoped to help a fellow army man by giving up his seat on the plane went on to enjoy success and happiness, but never set aside the pain of knowing that he had it all because he dodged death with what he thought was an act of generosity. The dozens of rescuers who worked to document the crash site and retrieve bodies would have nightmares the rest of their lives about the horrors they witnessed.

That brutality is described in detail. Some sections of Fireball are so graphic that I wondered if they might be too traumatic for some of the more devoted fans of Lombard. I assume that any reader would know they were in for something heavy in reading this book, and it is truly a rough read in that regard. The only upside: the plane hit the mountain so hard, so quickly that it is unlikely most of the passengers knew what was happening.

I don't know if I've been brought to tears as many times reading a book as I have this one. Learning the stories of all who were involved, from the crash victims to family and friends was moving, but also unbearably sad. It was a great show of respect to tell all 22 stories and to acknowledge the enduring effects of this unfortunate event. I'm glad I know what happened, and that I now understand the true impact of the crash, but that knowledge haunts me and I'm sure it always will.

Thank you to GoodKnight Books for providing a copy of the book for review.

Jan 13, 2014

A Few of My Favorite Joans

As Joan Crawford is the Star of the Month on TCM in January, I've been seeing her name around a lot lately. It got me to thinking about how many of my favorite stars were named Joan, the kind of women who are indescribably amazing to me. Mentioned the crazy cool of Joans on Twitter, knowing that I was missing a lot of names:

My followers helped me to fill in the holes left by my sleep deprived brain. There were some Joans I was was astonished to have missed. Here are my favorites, and a few clips demonstrating why:

Joan Blondell

Joan Crawford

Joan Fontaine

Joan Greenwood, in The Importance of Being Earnest (1952) (link leads to great clip)

Joan McCracken

Other fabulous Joans: Collins, Davis, Bennett, Leslie, Sutherland, Plowright, Jett, Sims and of course of Arc...I'm sure there are more?

Thank you to @chrisgiddens, @RobertWRossEsq, @GMLidington, @DianeFudge, @70sStreetFan and @GrandOldMovies for your Joan input.

Jan 12, 2014

Quote of the Week

He was almost unbearably handsome. In my first love scene with him…I was so overwhelmed, I froze.

-Colleen Moore, about John Barrymore

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Jan 9, 2014

Book Review--A Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Film Noir: The Essential Reference Guide

A Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Film Noir: The Essential Reference Guide
John Grant
Limelight Editions, 2013

Though your typical movie fan is going to have a good feel for what makes a flick film noir, the definition can be slippery if you try to pin it down. It has a definite feel, but is at the same time imprecise in its boundaries. In his encyclopedia of the genre, author Grant solves this problem by simply stating, "you know what it is when you see it."

There were many titles in this book that had me thinking what I saw as noir was dramatically different from Grant, but I didn't find that too troubling. There's so much to enjoy here that it doesn't matter if a few choices bring up an eyebrow. He lost me at Throw Momma From the Train (1987), but his inclusion of Ace in the Hole (1951) led me to think about that dark drama in a new way.

One of the most exciting things about Encyclopedia of Film Noir is that it covers so much ground. It has movies from the silent age to the current day: proto-noir, neo-noir and the classics in between. There's also an impressive international diversity with picks from countries such as the Philippines, Italy and Egypt, though the USA, France and United Kingdom are most heavily represented.

Lots of the thrillers, crime flicks and even comedies here don't fit into traditional ideas of noir, but they do seem at home. Grant is comfortable throwing in movies with just a hint of the style, or which were an early influence as the form developed. This opens up the book nicely, keeping it from being too tight in scope.

Entries are generally brief, though a few big titles get a more in-depth review. Beyond plot description, they can be unpredictable, with tidbits of information about production, audience reception and how they fit into the world of noir. There's also the odd extended section for significant noir or noir-tinged characters and series like the Thin Man movies and Tom Ripley.

It's a blast to read this book. Though it's easy to skim for particular periods and countries, I found it most rewarding to read in big chunks. Combing through in this way led to some great discoveries. I've now got a viewing list that will keep me busy for a long time. A helpful appendix in the back also groups films by actor, author and director.

Reading the introduction is vital to understanding the language and concepts of noir used throughout the encyclopedia. Grant does an excellent job concisely describing important elements like fate, the dangerous femme, double crosses and the quicksand effect. He also explains god gaming, when a "protagonist believes a false version of reality," which is in essence the key to the unease that characterizes noir.

I can back up that subtitle, this is an essential reference for any fan of noir or crime movies.

Many thanks to Hal Leonard Performing Arts Publishing Group for providing a copy of the book for review.

Jan 5, 2014

Quote of the Week

Anything you can laugh at, you can't hate...we tried to do it with a little comedy.

-James Cagney, on his gangsters

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