Feb 24, 2016

Hitchcock's The Wrong Man (1956) on Blu-ray

I found a real-life story more terrifying than any fiction...this is it!--Alfred Hitchcock

The downbeat, but moving The Wrong Man was Alfred Hitchcock's only film to be based on a true story. It is also perhaps one of his most personal films, focusing more intensely on the director's mistrust of police and authority which figures often in his other work. Henry Fonda and Vera Miles star in what would be among the strongest roles for both actors in this tense drama that is now available on Blu-ray from Warner Archive.

Fonda stars as Christopher Emmanuel "Manny" Balestro, a musician who really was the string bassist in a jazz combo at the Stork Club. In 1951, only five years before the release of The Wrong Man, he was accused of a series of hold-ups because he so closely resembled the real thief. As he struggled to clear his name, the musician's wife Rose (played by Vera Miles in the movie) began to lose her sanity, leaving him with another, more complicated problem to face.

Balestro's story first became public in the 1953 LIFE Magazine article A Case of Identity, written by journalist Herbert Brean. Brean wrote a film treatment for the story, which he then sold to Warner Bros. Hitchcock then hired playwright and screenwriter Maxwell Anderson to write the screenplay, which would stay very close to Manny's true story.

This fidelity to reality can also be seen in the way Hitchcock films The Wrong Man. While he made liberal use of sets, there are many fascinating location shots of mid-century New York, including a few noir-worthy nighttime shots of the city and a couple of scenes filmed in the actual Stork Club.

This is one of Hitchcock's most subtle works. He seems more in tune with the emotions of his characters and less preoccupied with games and plot twists. It is as if he feels deeply for his subject, and in a way identifies with him.

In fact, Hitchcock had faced what he viewed as wrongful imprisonment as a five-year-old. Having misbehaved, the young Hitch's father sent to the local police station with a note that instructed that he be locked up so that he may be taught a lesson. Though the boy was only behind bars for a few minutes, that experience haunted him throughout his life, and it is assumed is at least part of the reason his films so often featured people who were wrongly accused or targeted.

You can see the director's empathy with his terror-stricken characters in the details he chooses to highlight. He notes the way the arresting detectives hook their hands onto Manny's arm, depriving him of his freedom, and the way he reacts in silent horror to the fingerprinting ink on his hands. As he is searched and methodically relieved of his personal belongings, the camera steadily observes his increasing humiliation and helplessness.

Hitchcock is equally attentive to Miles, as she silently and often in complete stillness communicates the deterioration of Rose's mental health. The director was remarkably in simpatico with the actress, always knowing how to frame her for maximum emotional impact. She in return accomplishes one of her best performances. I still wish I could have seen what this remarkably sensitive performer could have done with the lead role in Vertigo (1958), but she became pregnant and could not accept the role.

Fonda is also at his best here in an equally subtle performance that I feel has been underrated because he is so understated. He plays a man who draws suspicion to himself not just because he resembles the real criminal, but also for his lack of outward charm. He is an introvert, sensitive, a bit tense and always with a serious expression on his face. Manny is the kind of man who gets lost in his own head and doesn't realize the fear he can cause when strangers wonder what he is thinking. Fonda communicates all those characteristics with delicacy, creating a character who is complex and intriguing not despite his remarkably clean-cut ways, but because of them.

And Manny is thoroughly decent, surprisingly so for a musician who makes his living in nightclubs. He doesn't drink, he goes home right after work and he is an attentive father and husband, despite his unusual schedule. Hitchcock gives you plenty of time to like him before the trouble begins.

For those reasons, the idea that he could be suspected of being wrong is utterly confusing to him. That hint of doubt in Rose, the thought that her seemingly gentle and religiously devout husband could be guilty seems to play as much of a role in her breakdown as the stress of the accusation.

Hitchcock lavishes loathing on the system that fails these decent people. The detectives rush to blame Manny, never asking him for an alibi or even giving him the opportunity to call his wife so that she knows why he hasn't come home on time. They seem determined to find him guilty, so they can close their case and gloat over their investigative skills. His lawyer, while often helpful, can also be insensitive, laughing with a colleague as he endures the boredom of another trial while Manny looks at him in mute disbelief.

Bernard Hermann matches the low key tone of the film with an unusually subdued and menacing, jazz-tinged score. He features the double-bass, Manny's instrument, as if to always make the musician's presence felt, even when he is not in a scene. It gives the music an interesting depth, as if it is also a character.

The Wrong Man is a slow, excruciating and deeply compelling film, that ends up being more touching than you would expect because of the loving, if ultimately troubled family at its core.

While the picture has a bit more grain and softness to it than in the typical Warner Archive Blu-ray release, the image quality is consistent and suits the gritty setting of the film.

The disc includes a trailer for the film and the making-of documentary Guilt Trip: Hitchcock and The Wrong Man, which is an interesting exploration of the drama's themes and elements with particularly thoughtful insight from Peter Bogdanovich, Robert Osborne and film critic Richard Schickel.

Check out the LIFE Magazine article that inspired the film here.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

Feb 18, 2016

On DVD: Night Will Fall (2014), A Concentration and Extermination Camp Liberation Film, and Alfred Hitchcock

Unless the world learns the lessons these pictures teach, night will fall, but by God's grace we who live will learn.

In 1945, army cameramen documented the liberation of Nazi concentration camps across Germany and areas of Poland that were annexed by the Germans during World War II. Their mission was to provide proof of the atrocities and bear witness for the rest of the world. British Ministry of Information's Sidney Bernstein, a producer in peacetime, was tasked with overseeing the film. The production is perhaps most famous for the involvement of Alfred Hitchcock, who provided valuable guidance to his friend Bernstein once the project was underway.

The official title of the Bernstein documentary was to be German Concentration Camps Factual Survey. That film was eventually withheld from the public, and put into storage. In 2008, the Imperial War Museum, which had stored copies of the footage since the 1950s, completed the film. After nearly seventy years,it was finally screened at the 2014 Berlin Film Festival. The documentary Night Will Fall, now available from Warner Archive, tells the story behind that footage, the making of the film and the lives of its subjects and creators. It's a horrifying tale, told with much of the graphic footage collected by Bernstein's cameramen, but in a world where bigotry and dangerous regimes still pose a great danger to many innocents, it is important to see the damage hate run rampant can cause.

This is an unforgettable document of a dark history. Footage shows captured SS soldiers dragging skeletal bodies to mass graves, and tossing them in like rag dolls, their humanity all but erased. There are stacks of the dead and dying, and people so emaciated that they look like walking skeletons. Amidst the despair and horror there are children who are given chocolates, cookies and hugs from British soldiers and told to "be calm, help is on the way." Some of them have forgotten their own names though, and their families are lost.

There are also stacks of clothes, shoes, eyeglasses, all from Nazi victims. The act of killing thousands of victims a day has its costs, so prisoner's teeth are removed and mined for gold, before death women's hair is cut and stuffed in bags to be sold to textile mills. The ashes of burned bodies are given to farmers for fertilization. These camps were in many ways a boon to the German economy. The heartlessness of this enterprise is driven home by footage of children's toys and albums full of prisoner's photos before their capture. These people brought their most treasured items to the camps; they didn't know that they were going to be killed, or worse tortured or experimented upon.

Footage of these horrors is interspersed with interviews conducted with soldiers, liberated prisoners, cameramen who filmed the camp liberations and family members of broadcasters and other major players in the documentation of the camps. Most of the soldiers are still unable to speak about what they saw without breaking into tears. The childhood survivors are more stoic as they reminisce, but it is clear that all who saw the camps have been held captive by the memory ever since. Whatever the differences in their stories, there is a collective shock among them all.

Though Hitchcock was not a driving force in the film, his involvement has been the source of much fascination. The director was eager to help Bernstein as he was too old and overweight to serve in the war. According to the film, he offered helpful insight, the most useful of which was the suggestion that the filmmakers add maps that showed how close large populations of people were living to the camps, near enough to smell rotting corpses and the smoke from the furnaces continuously burning victims.

Bonus features on the Warner Archive disc include a pair of short films made with the Bernstein footage. Death Mills, a Hollywood production overseen by Billy Wilder takes on a deeply accusatory tone, asking why such brutality was allowed to exist for so long. Oswiecim (Auschwitz) is a Soviet propaganda film that shows many of the same images, but focuses on claims of heroism shown by the Red soldiers it says have led the liberation. An interview with historian Rainer Schulze repeats much of what is discussed in the film, but also includes useful insight into the footage. Of particular interest is Schulze's advice that modern viewers be advised to note how the victimization of Jews is downplayed in the footage, taking away the opportunity to discuss the racial motivation behind many of the killings.

Night Will Fall is a compelling film, perhaps not for everyone, but very important to see nevertheless. Though it's hard to watch, it's important that we as a society don't shield ourselves from these aspects of our history. We need to be reminded to stand up for each other, because the hate that drove these atrocities still exists today. Knowing our history gives us context, and reinforces the importance of speaking up and addressing bigotry before it turns deadly.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. This is a Manufacture on Demand (MOD) DVD. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

Feb 11, 2016

On DVD: A Trio of 1931 Pre-Codes, Including W.C. Fields' First Sound Feature

While many silent film stars struggled, or chose to retire at the dawn of the talkies, a stream of stage stars descended on Hollywood to pick up the slack. These performers had to tone down their act and stop projecting to the back row, but they were  for the most part confident speaking, and singing, for the microphone. 

Though names like Winnie Lightner, Marilyn Miller, and the comedy team Olsen and Johnson are not well remembered today, these Broadway and vaudeville artists made their mark by embracing sound and giving those early talkies a shot of energy. In a trio of new releases from Warner Archive, these stars, and W.C. Fields in his first speaking film role, romp through a pre-code playground of wealth.

Already by the early thirties talkies were experiencing a change. Musicals had been the biggest success of the first sound films, but the studios had overdone it. Now that audiences were tired of the genre, the scramble was on to change musicals in production to comedies. Gold Dust Gertie and Fifty Million Frenchmen (both 1931), both featuring the vaudevillian comedy team Olsen and Johnson, are two such productions.

There isn't a hint of musical left to Gold Dust Gertie, which instead plays like a string of vaudeville bits, or maybe as a prototypical screwball comedy. Winnie Lightner stars as gold digging, serial monogamist Gertie Dale. In the opening scenes she marries Olsen and Johnson on different dates. By the time we are brought up to date, she has divorced them both, and is determined to collect on unpaid alimony. When she sees how poor they are at business, Gertie earns the money for them by designing sexy, and best-selling swimsuits for the company where they are employed.

Though I'd heard their names before, I didn't know much about Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson before watching this film. While the vaudeville, Broadway and radio stars have had a great influence on comedy (you can especially see it in Jerry Lewis' style), I didn't find them interesting here. In fact, Johnson's high-pitched laugh, which seems to be a running gag, got on my nerves pretty fast. That said, I could see how they appealed to audiences, I just don't think they had freedom to cut loose as they needed in this film. Perhaps it would be more appealing to established fans of the duo.

I had more fun watching Lightner perform her expert manipulations of the men in her life, putting them to work for her. It's a shame that the temporary demise of musical comedy movies also meant the end of her career. It would have been interesting to see what she could have done in the screwball era.

The movie bounces along pleasantly enough for most of its 65 minute running time, but a goofy final boat chase scene takes things up a notch. I even started to warm to Olsen and Johnson during a particularly funny bit featuring an clingy eel.

Like Gold Dust Gertie, Olsen and Johnson's Fifty Million Frenchmen was also originally meant to be a musical. That it was converted to a comedy is a great loss to film history, because the stage production featured the songs of Cole Porter. A few snippets of You've Got That Thing and You Do Something to Me bounce around the soundtrack, teasing what might have been.

While I didn't find Olsen and Johnson much more amusing here, I thought this was a charming film. Set in Paris, it centers on a love story between an American (William Gaxton) and the girl he wishes to wed (Claudia Dell), but it is at its best when it lets the supporting cast run wild. It's racier than Gertie, with lots of clever double entendres and adventurous characters like Helen Broderick as a tourist who comes to Paris eager to be "shocked" and "insulted". Her putdown battle with a trio of snooty ladies is one of the best exchanges in the movie.

Keep an eye out for Bela Lugosi in a brief part as a thwarted magician. He would make a much bigger impact that year in his breakout role as Dracula.

Olson and Johnson would make films into the forties, their most popular effort being 1941's Hellzapoppin'.

While Marilyn Miller was a Broadway legend, famous for headlining the Ziegfeld Follies, she would only make a trio of films in Hollywood. The first two, Sally (1929) and Sunny (1930), were adaptations of previous stage successes. In her final screen role, Her Majesty Love (1931), she is charming, if a bit low-key, as a barmaid who wins the heart of a wealthy playboy (Ben Lyon).

Miller's appeal didn't completely translate to the screen, and here she is upstaged by the swoon-worthy camerawork of director William Dieterle and fellow Ziegfeld star W.C. Fields as her former circus performer father.

Fields had made several silent films before he finally shared his distinctive drawl with the world in Her Majesty Love. It's interesting though, because he isn't quite the W.C. Fields here. He's much softer and friendlier, though just as apt to cause a disruption as he would be in future roles. Though it's possible he wouldn't have gone as far with a persona this tender, its fun to see him steal the movie with a jolly grin as he juggles plates and expertly flings eclairs to the plate of a stunned gentleman at a fancy luncheon.

The movie's appeal isn't all Fields though; it's got a lot of fascinating details. In a particularly intriguing boardroom scene, the chatter is punctuated by eccentric bits of business: an elderly lady knitting, a man noisily cracking walnuts and another gentleman dropping his specs in a cup of milky tea. Tidbits like these kept the humor simmering in a vibrant, lively scene.

Miller would go back to the stage briefly after her Hollywood years. Perhaps she would have returned in later years, but it was not to be. The actress struggled with alcoholism and eventually died in 1936 from the effects of a recurring sinus infection.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copies of the films for review. These are Manufacture on Demand (MOD) DVDs. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

Feb 9, 2016

Book Review--Groucho Marx: The Comedy of Existence

Groucho Marx The Comedy of Existence
Lee Siegel
Yale University Press, 2016

Though he made his name inspiring laughs, Groucho Marx's comedy was often more brutal than it was humorous. Witty yes, but with such a dark view of humanity that his wisecracks always feel like arrows whizzing past your skull. In his new career analysis of the most famous Marx brother, Lee Siegel explores the roots of the nihilism in his humor, from his Jewish faith and lack of a formal education to his profoundly different, and influential parents.

Siegel goes inside Groucho's early personal life in an attempt to weave those details into his public life. He does this not so much to uncover all the mysteries of the man, but to more deeply examine the nature of his comedy. 

Though Groucho had ambitions to become a doctor,  he left school in his elementary years, and he'd always feel the need to prove himself among intellectuals, as is illustrated in the book via his uneasy relationship with T.S. Eliot. His Jewish faith and the Yiddish theater would affect his self-image and performance style as well.

The whole Marx clan in 1915, Groucho, Gummo, Minni, Zeppo, Frenchie, Chico and Harpo

Groucho's strong-willed mother Minnie also had much to do with his entry into show business, but his less potent father Frenchie was perhaps his greatest comic influence. According to Siegel, he was like many immigrant men who did not adjust to life in a new world with as much confidence as their wives. The elder Marx gave up on success, losing himself in endless pinochle games, and he was similarly lackluster as a family man.

The scorn that the brothers felt for their less than ambitious father is prominent in their comedy, where the weak are targeted as much as the strong. They lack respect for any kind of authority, whether it be over a great fortune or a peanut cart. The implication seeming to be that no one is up to the job they claim simply because they claim it.

The Marx Brothers, Chico, Groucho and Harpo, in 1948
That sort of misanthropic comedy wasn't always a surefire hit. Marx Brothers movies that are considered classics today, were not as beloved in the 1930s. In a 1960s appearance on the Dick Cavett show, Groucho could not recall receiving fan mail while he made movies, but with the revival of the Brothers' films thirty years later, he began receiving over one hundred letters a week. 

While we do laugh at Groucho, it is an uneasy laugh, more of uncomfortable recognition than joy. His rebellion against social structures is what makes him eternally modern and more relevant as time passes, because that rejection of the norm is the signature of progress.

The Marx Brothers' style was a protest of sorts, wrapped up in chaos, but Groucho always stepped in to put a point on the action, jabbing it home with his cigar. It was as if he was justifying the madness, and insisting that it all made more sense than the status quo.

It is this man that Siegel reveals, a scornful, restless, self-educated intellectual whose world view ripens over the years more than it ages.

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

Feb 2, 2016

On DVD: Western Noir in Roughshod (1948) and Station West (1948)

It wouldn't take much to transform Roughshod (1948) and Station West (1948) into city-set noirs. Just take away the horses and add a pool of light from a streetlamp. These newly-released westerns from Warner Archive have the wisecracks, gangsters, and even the stars of the genre.

Roughshod has a most western cast of characters: Gloria Grahame, an exiled dance hall girl leading her fellow hoofers from uptight Aspen to a new job in Sonora; Robert Sterling, a cowboy transporting a herd of horses with his kid brother (The Yearling's Claude Jarman); and John Ireland, a psychopathic escaped convict looking for revenge on Sterling, who captured him once after the bandit murdered his friend. They all clamber across Sonora Pass, some of them finding what they want along the way and veering off the trail; the rest moving forward towards their desires, or because they have nowhere else to go.

Grahame knows Sterling wants her, as much as she irritates his morals, and she tries to make it easy for him to accept her. The problem is that she looks and talks like a femme fatale. Grahame can't be the wholesome girl forced into a shady life; she looks like she was born knowing where the bodies are buried.

That contradiction makes her character more plausible. Sure she's teaching Jarman how to read, but she also makes sure to look seductive while resting on the ground, giving Sterling her best "you want this" look. She also has an unnerving habit of never breaking eye contact with him. This woman is bold and modern in a way he doesn't recognize, and it excites him.

Roughshod gets its noir pedigree from the ground up: the script was written by Out of the Past (1947) scribe Geoffrey Homes. There's an interesting sharpness to the dialogue, it tells a familiar story, but there's always just a bit of bite, often provided by Grahame and Ireland as different representatives of the seedy side of life. Most of the action takes place at night, adding a moody, and menacing gloominess to the proceedings. Director Mark Robson heightens the intensity by making his villains loom dangerously in the foreground, and giving Ireland the most extreme close-ups, leaving the honest folks to cowering in the background, out-of-focus and out-of-control.

Station West (1948) benefits from a strong, diverse cast, including Agnes Moorehead, one-man Greek chorus Burl Ives, and noir superstars Dick Powell and Jane Greer. Powell is a military intelligence officer working undercover to find the murderer of a pair of enlisted men who were killed while serving as gold shipment guards. He's in familiar territory--playing a western version of his grim-faced gumshoe character. As the ambitious owner of a saloon, and leader of the murderous bandits, Greer is also in a recognizably dark realm, using her subtle beauty to conceal her viciousness as only she can.

The script has snap; characters banter with the sharp efficiency of a fencing match. They say all the clever kinds of things an ordinary person might think of a couple of hours after the party is over. Everyone is on their toes and ready to strike.

An interesting cast does much with that dialogue. Ives is the guitar-playing hotel owner, who provides wry comic relief with his spontaneous and pointed songs. In an unusual move, it is the women who hold power here: Agnes Moorehead as a wealthy, and self-possessed widow who as owner of the gold mine helps Powell behind the scenes, and Greer as the refined gangster in angelic white gowns who quietly rules from her plush saloon. Guinn "Big Boy" Williams adds some rough-fisted grime to all that refinement, while Raymond Burr is his cowering opposite in a viscerally craven performance as an understandably nervous lawyer.

It is a brilliantly self-assured production. The action flows easily and everyone seems happily cast and confident in their roles. There's nothing remarkable about the story; this one is all about the execution, and even more than Roughshod it could be easily transferred from the Wild West to a dark street corner. This underseen classic is deserving of a wider audience.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copies of the films for review. These are Manufacture on Demand (MOD) DVDs. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.