Friday, June 26, 2009

Preminger's "Angels"

There seem to be two major schools of thought regarding the directorial skills of Otto Preminger. Some believe that he made a terrific film in his first effort with Laura (1945), but could never come up with much success after that; these critics feel that Preminger’s style was simple and that he wasted many filmgoers’ time with his adaptations of blockbuster novels during the early part of the 1960s.

Then these are those like myself, who think that Preminger was a great director, offering films of great subtleties as well as especially fluid camera work. There was the scintillating Anatomy of a Murder (1959), a superb courtoom drama that grabbed us from the initial frames. Think about the world of Washington, D.C. that he put on the screen in Advise and Consent (1961), with the lies, secret meetings and backstabbing power plays – no other political film is as clever or as devastating.

There are many other examples I can give of Preminger’s directorial talent, from the inner workings of the Vatican in The Cardinal (1963) to the subtle psychological manners of Bunny Lake is Missing (1965). Preminger was a superb, highly structured filmmaker who succeeded in many different types of genre.

In this post, I will deal with two of his earlier films, Fallen Angel (1945), made at 20th Century Fox when he was under contract to that studio and Angel Face (1952), made for Howard Hughes at RKO. Preminger served as producer as well as director on both of these works; today his critics often praise his skill as a producer (rarely, if ever, going over budget) far more than his directorial skills.

Fallen Angel was Preminger’s followup at Fox to Laura and for this work, he surrounded himself with several of the same crew he used on that film; this included cinematographer Joseph LaShelle, art directors Lyle Wheeler and Leland Fuller, costume designer Bonnie Cashin and composer David Raksin. Perhaps the most famous member of Laura that returned for Fallen Angel was Dana Andrews, cast as the male lead. The director used Andrews, one of his favorite actors, in several more films in the 1940s and ‘50s; this set a tone throughout much of Preminger’s career as he would work with actors and technicians who contributed the type of work that pleased Preminger. The director’s temper tantrums became legendary and unfortunately, have overshadowed his creative efforts in the eyes of his critics; this is regrettable and I believe that studying his works in detail should prove what a talented director he really was.

Fallen Angel is one of the most stylish film noirs ever made. Just look at the introduction in which we view the title credits - written on road signs – from the front windshield of a bus as we hear Raksin’s bustling and tense title theme. This is a supercharged opening to a film that has several other wonderfully creative scenes.

The main character Eric Stanton (Andrews) is a loner who gets off the bus (he is forced off, as he didn’t have enough money for a full ride) in the California town of Walton, some 125 miles from San Francisco. He walks into a run of the mill diner, where we are introduced to Stella (Linda Darnell), a waitress who was missing for a few days. Everyone at the diner, from the kindly old owner, Pop (Percy Kilbride) to the gruff detective, Mark Judd (Charles Bickford) is relieved to see her. Stanton is intrigued by her shapely body and sultry looks; we know immediately that these two will tangle during a good portion of the film.

Darnell, who was Fox’s sexpot at the time, is just great in this role. Her husky voice and no nonsense ways give her a powerful image; she is able to attract men – and toss them aside – with ease. Stanton is obviously attracted, but he doesn’t back down from her ways, while in Stella’s eyes, Eric has a rough edge that appeals to her. He quickly romances her and then tells her he will marry her once he comes up with enough money. She is doubtful, but if he can deliver the cash, she will marry him, as she craves a normal life spent with one man who truly loves her.

His plan is to marry June Mills, a young woman living in town with her slightly older, domineering sister Clara (Anne Revere). June has a $25,000 inheritance owed her; Stanton plans to marry her, get his share of the cash and then dump June, in order to win back Stella.

The contrast between these two women is especially intrigiung:

Stella – brunette, sultry, rough, dominating, experienced in romance
June – blonde, pretty girl-next-door looks, charming, agreeable, few romantic affairs

But both seek the same thing – the comfort of married life.

Preminger takes this juicy tale and injects great style into it. He uses crane shots remarkably well in this film; the camera is constantly swooping down on the actors or gliding in between them. My favorite shot is when Eric and Stella are dancing cheek to cheek in one of those smoke-filled nightclubs you find in most film noirs. Preminger uses an extreme closeup and LaShelle lights this shot so that their faces alternately go in and out of the light. After a few seconds, Preminger’s camera follows them across the dance floor as they maneuver their way around other couples, finally extiting through the rear door, as their bodies disappear in the thick smoke. It’s a sexy shot and a memorable one.

Another beautifully directed and photographed scene is when we see June and Eric in bed at a hotel in San Francisco shortly after they have married. He falls asleep and she nervously gets up to go to the window. Preminger films this so that only the letters H-O-T of the hotel sign across the way are visible to the audience. As this is their first time in bed (Eric in his plot to please Stella left June’s home the night of the wedding), this is such a delicious moment! The shot is at night and Preminger stays with it through a dissolve to morning. H-O-T, indeed!

In Angel Face, the stylish camera work was not as evident, due to the budget restraints at RKO at the time. But Preminger managed to inject a lot of sexual tension in this film and there are many unforgettable sequences.

Working with a superb script by Frank Nugent and Oscar Millard from a Chester Erskine story, the film deals with ambulance driver Frank Jessup (Robert Mitchum) who becomes obesessed with Diane Tremayne (Jean Simmons), a young woman who lives with the father she adores and the stepmother she detests. The two meet in the first sequence as Frank responds to an emergency at Diane’s house as her mother has been the victim of a not-so-accidental gas leak. After reassuring everyone that things are fine, Frank walks downstairs where he sees Diane playing a lovely romantic theme on the piano (a haunting piece of music by composer Dimitri Tiomkin); the quick cuts between the two of them tell us that their lives will soon intertwine.

They do meet soon afterwards, as Frank cancels dinner with his girlfriend to be with Diane, who has followed him in her car. Diane has the upper hand here and will continue to have it throughout the film, as Frank makes some poor decisions; this is certainly a classic film noir theme. One of my favorite lines from this or any other film noir is when Diane asks Frank if he really loves her; his remark, a beauty: “With a girl like you, how can a man be sure?”

Diane soon does away with her stepmother when she rigs the transmission in her car so that it will only go in reverse once she steps on the accelerator. Unfortunately for Diane, her beloved father gets in the car with her stepmother; she did not plan on this and now must deal with two murders after the car with both of them in it plunges down the hillside of their suburban Los Angeles mansion.

As Frank was recently hired as a chaffeur to the Tremaynes – this was plotted by Diane – he is a prime susupect in the murders, although he had nothing to do with it. For sake of sympathy, a trial lawyer suggests that Frank and Diane marry, reasoning that the jury will be less eager to convict a loving couple.

While the flashy camerawork is more evident with Fallen Angel, the psychological manners of Angel Face are much more complex. Frank knows that Diane is evil yet is constantly drawn back to her, as much for her beauty as for her control. Toward the end of the film, there is a scene when Diane is deep in thought on a future without Frank who has told her he is leaving her. Forseeing her own death, she thinks about how she will take down Frank as well. For this moment, Preminger has her sit slumped in a chair in her now-empty home wearing Frank’s sportcoat. It’s a disturbing image and one that so exquisitely sums up the connection between the two protaganists.

For these two films, Preminger studied the obsessions men and women share when it comes to romance and power; of course, there were no easy answers presented. He injected both films with intelligence and flair combined with a beautiful visual style, a formula he would repeat for another three decades as a director.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

"Martha Ivers" - Wicked Fun

When I pick up movies at the local branch of the Chicago Public Library, I try and get a nice mix of films, be they new or old, mystery, comedy or musical, Hollywood or foreign. I’ll admit to often searching out old black and white films of the 1940s and ‘50s, as I love the craftmanship as well as entertaining stories of so many of those works.

Last week I picked up The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, a 1946 film directed by Lewis Milestone. I was intrigued by the title, but what drew me in was the fact that Barbara Stanwyck was one of the stars. I’ve always loved her work and just can’t resist watching her work; to me she was one of those actors like James Cagney who took control when they were on the screen; in my mind, she was as sultry and as mesmerizing an actress as has ever emerged from Hollyood.

Anyway, I am so glad I made this selection, as Martha Ivers is one of the most entertaining, wickedly ironic and just sheer delightful movies I’ve seen in some time. It’s a complex story, with two sets of main characters, whose lives intertwine in strange, sometimes convoluted ways and it winds up as a insightful look into the deception of love and the question of absolute power. While over films have dealt with this subject, few have done it as stylishly as this one.

The films opens up in the fictional city of Iverstown in 1928 with a sequence of two teenagers, Martha and her friend Sam who are running away from home. Martha has a special reason for doing so, as she is living with a cruel rich aunt whom she despises for her dominating presence. Sam is a poor kid and wants to run off to join the circus, a situation Martha finds entrancing.

They hop aboard a freight car in the station, but are immediately discovered by the police. They take Martha back home, but Sam mangages to escape. Martha is brought back to her house and after being scolded by her aunt, goes to her room where Walter, a boy her age who happens to be the son of Martha’s tutor, listens to her plans to escape.

Meanwhile, Sam arrives in Martha's room, planning on taking her away. A violent thunderstorm hits, the power in the house goes out and we soon see the aunt climbing the stairway to check on everyone in the house. When she sees Martha’s kitten that she despises, she starts to hit the feline with a fireplace poker. Martha sees this and in the darkness, grabs the poker from her aunt and starts to beat her, eventually causing her death when her aunt falls down the staircase and fractures her skull. Seconds later, the power in the house comes back on and Martha’s tutor sees that her aunt is dead. Martha, standing next to Walter, makes up a story about an intruder who supposedly caused the woman’s death. Walter, who saw Martha beat her aunt, confirms her version. All of this only a few minutes into the movie!

We then flash forward eighteen years where we see Sam (Van Heflin) driving by Iverstown with a sailor he picked up as a hitchhiker. He has an accident and has to take his car into town for repairs. Little does he realize at that moment how long it would be for those repairs to take place!

Killing time, he walks through town where he meets Antonia “Toni” (Lizabeth Scott), a beautiful, mysterious woman who is on her way back to her hometown, assuming she can get to the bus station on time. Both take a taxi and when she is late for the bus, he reserves rooms for himself and her in a local hotel. Soon the truth comes out that she is avoiding her return trip home, due to her passionate dislike of her father.

We then meet Martha (Stanwyck) who married Walter (Kirk Douglas, excellent in his screen debut), who is now the local district attorney. This is a marriage of convenience for her, as she stayed with Sam, thank to his keeping his mouth shut about the murder. Sam is now guilt-ridden and spends much of his time at night with a bottle, as he can’t honestly face the public and talk about the law, given his previous behavior. Neither can really leave the other, as their secret might emerge.

This is the setting then for all sorts of intrigue and double crosses, as Walter soons discovers that Sam is in town; thinking he must have returned for a blackmail scheme, as he was a witness to the murder years ago, he does his best to send Sam away. Martha meanwhile, sees that Sam is with Toni; her feelings for Sam return and she is now determined to get him back and away from this new woman in his life.

I won’t give any more of the plot away, except to say that it is constantly full of twists that you don’t expect. You’re never really sure if Sam cares much for Toni or is only spending time with her, given his forced time in town. Once Sam sees Martha, will he fall in love with her or resist her charms?

The original story by John Patrick was nominated for an Academy Award (the category of original story no longer exists), which was well-deserved. At the beginning of the film, we see Sam running away. We find out bits and pieces of his later life and discover that he is a gambler who is constantly running out of and then winning money. He’s a restless drifter, so we don’t think that he’ll fall for either woman, but this time might be a little different, given the allures of Toni and Martha.

For me, it is Robert Rossen’s screenplay that is among the greatest achievements of this film. Rossen was an immensely talented craftsman who could write and direct with great passion; after his work in the early and mid-1940s as one of Hollywood’s top screenwriters (I wrote about his adapted screenplay for The Sea Wolf in a previous post), he directed several of his screenplays, including All The King’s Men (1949) and The Hustler (1961).

I recently wrote a post about some of my favorite movie quotes; there are enough in this screenplay for a separate post. Rossen had a great ear for dialogue and for this film, his words were as sharp and acerbic as ever. Here are a few examples:

- Early on Martha talks to her husband Walter about the murder she committed and how they conspired to convict someone else:
“The man they executed was a criminal. If he hadn’t hanged for that, he would have been hanged for something else.”

- Later, Walter discusses Sam with Martha:
Walter: “You know what’s on my mind, Martha? About Sam?
Martha: “ I think I do and that’s where it will stay, in your mind. Unless I tell you differently.”

- In a scene when Sam goes to see Martha in her office:
Martha: “What do you want?”
Sam: “I think I’ve got what I want. I think I’ve got a gimmick. A gimmick is an angle that works for you to keep you from working too hard for yourself.”

- And perhaps the film’s most famous exchange, when Toni admits to Sam that she deceived him:
Toni: “Go ahead and hit me Sam. I’ve got it coming.”
Sam: “The only thing you’ve got coming kid, is a break.”

Lizabeth Scott and Van Heflin in a publicity shot for the film

Lewis Milestone (All Quiet on the Western Front) directed this film with a nice energy and composer Miklos Rosza cranks up the strings when things get a bit melodramatic. The acting is uniformly good, with Heflin cooly playing all the angles, Scott offering a nice combination of innocent and sexy, Kirk Douglas sneering as only he could sneer and Barbara Stanwyck giving us another of her icy, domineering females who just won’t take no for an answer. Whether you’re a lover of film noir or just someone who likes an old-fashioned, steamy potboiler, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers is for you.