Dedications: My four late friends Rory, Stan, Bryan, Jeff - shine on you crazy diamonds, they would have blogged too. Then theres Garry from Brisbane, Franco in Milan, Mike now in S.F. / my '60s-'80s gang: Ned & Joseph in Ireland; in England: Frank, Des, Guy, Clive, Joe & Joe, Ian, Ivan, Nick, David, Les, Stewart, the 3 Michaels / Catriona, Sally, Monica, Jean, Ella, Anne, Candie / and now: Daryl in N.Y., Jerry, John, Colin, Martin and Donal.

Monday, 26 November 2012

Treats: a western, a Bette Davis classic and Antonioni

Quite a good few days: another look at a superior western, plus one of Bette's 60's grand guignols and that last Antonioni masterwork ....
Movies one becomes obsessed by: at different times I was obsessed about EAST OF EDEN, and then about THE MISFITS, and BLOW-UP and KLUTE, and then the 1954 A STAR IS BORN and 2001 A SPACE ODYSSEY etc - and those favourite Hitchcocks, Michael Powells, Wilders, Mankiewiczs, Hawks etc. When I was 30 in 1975 I became as obsessed about Antonioni's THE PASSENGER as I did about his Monica Vitti films and BLOW-UP (ZABRISKIE POINT not so much), THE PASSENGER has another screening today on our Film4 channel as part of its Jack Nicholson season. I was dazzled by THE PASSENGER then in 1975 and, as per The Passenger label, had a full page analysis of it published in a film magazine of the time, the very good FILMS ILLUSTRATED which gave readers a page each issue to talk about a film - quite good in that pre-internet age (whereas now we can write to our heart's content about whatever it is we want to...). The tone of the article makes me wince a bit now, but hey - it was 1975! (the full text is at the Antonioni label). Then the next year I became obsessed about TAXI DRIVER and OBSESSION and ....
My 1976 review,  see Passenger label
Back to THE PASSENGER: Antonioni's melancholy and languid existential anti-thriller becomes hypnotic as we watch and identify with Jack Nicholson as a soul-sick television reporter on assignment in North Africa who decides to assume the identify of the dead man in the hotel room next door and sees where it leads him, too late he realises he is now a gun runner ...  as we travel from Africa to Germany, London and Gaudi's Barcelona ... there is a stunning climax and that nice little coda. It remains a key '70s movie for me but was probably overshadowed by Nicholson's mega-hits of the time like CHINATOWN and CUCKOO'S NEST ... Jack in that check shirt and green combat trousers in that riveting African section at the start still looks as iconic as Hemmings in the white jeans in BLOW-UP (and after the cluttered muddy look of a modern film like MAGIC MIKE the clean sharp clear photography here is an absolute dream). I must play the Nicholson commentary on the dvd ...

I had not seen Robert Aldrich's HUSH ... HUSH, SWEET CHARLOTTE since its release in 1965, when Bette was back on a roll after BABY JANE (which I did not like at all really) and DEAD RINGER which I liked a lot in 1964 where she played the 2 sisters nice Edie and nasty Margaret (that one deserves a whole review of its own, soon then ...). Joan Crawford quit this gothic melodrama conceived to capitalise on the success of WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE, leaving the road clear for Bette to romp away with the show and she duly had a field day, and even managed to be quite moving at times. 
I remember critics like Kenneth Tynan being impressed with her work here, as the ageing Southern Belle whose life has been blighted by people thinking she had decapitated her married lover (a young Bruce Dern) 40 years earlier.  Bette's friend and co-star Olivia De Havilland sashayed into Crawford's role as scheming cousin Miriam and Olivia is in fact ideally cast here, while Agnes Moorehead's nutty housekeeper makes even Davis look as though she is underplaying. The icing on the cake is a final appearance for Bette's old co-star from THE GREAT LIE Mary Astor who has a couple of scenes, much older here of course, as the ideally named Jewel Mayhew who holds the secret as to what really happened all those years ago. Its unexpectedly gory for its era with some loopy hallucinations, but Bette is mesmerising here and achieves real pathos by the end. Just try looking away, even though it goes on far too long ...I reported before on seeing Olivia up close at the National Film Theatre in 1972 (at NFT label), marvellous that she is still here in her 90s, along with sister Joan ...

Back out west with another look at SEVEN MEN FROM NOW, the first of those westerns laconic star Randolph Scott make with director Budd Boetticher. This 1956 one was written by Burt Kennedy, who took up directing too and was produced for John Wayne's Batjac company. Wayne was meant to start in it but it seems got held up on THE SEARCHERS

Ex-sheriff Ben Stride tracks the seven men who held up a Wells Fargo office and killed his wife. Stride is tormented by the fact that his own failure to keep his job was the cause of his wife's working in the express office and thus he is partly responsible for her death. Stride encounters a married couple heading west for California and helps them. Along the way they are joined by two n'er-do-wells, Masters and Clete, who know that Stride is after the express-office robbers. They plan to let Stride lead them to the bandits, then make away with the loot themselves. But they aren't the only ones carrying a secret. 

This is a perfect little western, barely 80 minutes long with 3 great performances. Apart from Scott being his usual man of few words there is the young Lee Marvin coming into his prime, perfecting that persona that would serve him well in the '60s, and the very affecting Gail Russell is the lovely leading lady. Gail was a real charmer and is usually referred to in tragic terms. She died aged 36 from alcohol problems, alone in her Hollywood apartment. Like Linda Darnell it is one of the sadder Hollywood stories. She had been married though to Guy Madison for 5 years and was a friend of Wayne's with whom she made 2 films. 
Here she is the wife of the farmer heading west in their covered wagon whom Scott helps and travels with, before it all arrives at a satisfying conclusion. Scott and Russell have some nicely understated scenes together, before Marvin goes off like a firework. I like this one a lot, and must watch out for more of these Scott westerns (like COMMANCHE STATION, THE TALL T, BUCHANAN RIDES ALONE, RIDE LONESOME etc)  and anything featuring Gail Russell. The young Stuart Whitman is here too.

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