Harper

Gasser

Harper (1966)

Harper (1966)

Following up on the success of his other “H” movies, Paul Newman made Harper in 1966, having requested the name be changed from “The Moving Target” to draw on the box office luck he realized with Hud and The Hustler. The story harkens back to the private eye tales of the 40s, and producers scored Lauren Bacall in a supporting role to cinch that motif.

Newman is Lew Harper, a private eye living out of his office because his wife (Janet Leigh) is in the process of divorcing him. His friend and former DA Albert Graves (Arthur Hill) recommends him for a job with Bacall’s Mrs. Sampson, who wants him to investigate the disappearance of her philandering husband. The wealthy woman has an attractive step daughter –whom Graves wants to marry– also very keen on locating her father. This Miranda (Pamela Tiffin) joins Harper and the Sampson pilot/driver Alan Taggert (Robert Wagner) in scoping out the subject’s last known whereabouts –an airport and hotel where Mr. Sampson keeps a “bungalow.”

Harper meets washed up actress and sometimes companion to Mr. Sampson, Fay Estabrook, played by Shelley Winters. He gets her drunk and searches her apartment only to be interrupted at gunpoint by Estabrook’s husband. Harper plays Texan and manages to leave without the man being wise to his real reason for being there.

Harper manages to pick up one clue or one sliver of information at each stop in his investigation that leads him to another place and another clue. The plot becomes increasingly convoluted as Harper concludes Mr. Sampson has been kidnapped and ransom sought. Julie Harris plays nightclub singer and heroin addict Betty Fraley, who has a link to another player that we won’t see coming. In fact, when all is said and done, you’ll be wishing William Powell would materialize to give us the end-of-movie run down of who did what and why.

The story at times felt like a scavenger hunt and one that could be easily recreated as a party game. Although Harper is adept at blending into his surroundings, he has perhaps too easy of a time getting information from people and it always manages to be helpful information that never leads to a dead end. How many times have we seen the matchbook in a dead guy’s pocket lead us to the nightclub where all the unsavory sorts mingle? Is that always going to be a foolproof clue into cinematic eternity? Harper is very much a tribute to the old crime movies of decades earlier, but it could perhaps have tried to mix things up.

Where the movie does distinguish itself from its predecessors is in the violence and sex appeal the 1960s could afford. Newman’s character finds himself regularly brutalized while Tiffin shakes her hips and Winters requests Harper not try anything tonight. It’s certainly a grittier drama made all the more modern by being shot in color rather than in the stark black and white we have become accustomed to in this genre.

Harper certainly isn’t Newman’s finest work, and I often get annoyed by mysteries that have too much going on to actually follow the plot. Harper is not a bad flick, though. It’s just not one I’ll likely watch again.

2013 CAPA Summer Movie Series (Columbus, OH)

It’s my favorite time of year in central Ohio, or nearly. CAPA, our local arts organizing group, has announced its lineup for the 2013 Summer Movie Series held in Downtown Columbus’ historic Ohio Theatre. For those of you unfamiliar with this seasonal gem, the June 28 through Aug. 25 series features a plethora of classic movies shown in the theater that was originally built as a movie house and is now used for concerts, ballets, etc.

Among this year’s offerings are two Hitchcock movies, which you know delights me. The wonderfully amusing The Trouble with Harry, To Catch a Thief and the Jimmy Stewart rendition of The Man Who Knew Too Much will certainly be on my schedule.

Other prize showings include An American in Paris, Grand Hotel, Citizen Kane, Bonnie and Clyde, The Thin Man, 1974′s The Great Gatsby, and Touch of Evil.

I have been notoriously bad about achieving all the CAPA Summer Movie Attendance goals I have set in years past, and I won’t pretend this year will be any better. I do hope to at least catch the Hitchcock flicks, but I’ll admit The Man Who Knew Too Much won’t be at the top of my list.

Feature: A Movie Through Its Posters — Psycho

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Psycho is one of those movies that is known worldwide and still revered as a great piece of horror history. In no way is that more evident than by the sheer extent of foreign movie posters for the flick.

Hitchcock was the “master of suspense” but his movies did not really fall into the horror category before Psycho. The movie was controversial and met with a lot of pushback from the Hayes Office but Hitchcock managed to make compromises –giving up one scandalous aspect to allow another to stay in. The movie nevertheless is well known for Janet Leigh‘s undergarment outfits at separate instances in the film’s start. This part of the film certainly did not escape notice to those individuals who create movie posters worldwide. Six of the posters above feature the scantily clad Leigh, which probably proved a selling point for the flick.

Also prominent in the posters is the horror-stricken face of Anthony Perkins upon discovering a body in his hotel’s bathroom. The lead-up scene also was a source of controversy with the short takes assembled to give the impression we are seeing nudity. Including Perkins on the posters in this manner certainly would have lulled the audience into believing his character’s innocence, fueling one of the movie’s twists.

My favorite of these posters is the German one. It is simple and striking with its bold teal color and large Perkins facade. I love that shot of Perkins, and I think this poster uses it to its greatest effect. Which do you like best?

Feature: Movie Posters from France

I have done posts in the past comparing U.S. movie posters for American films to those advertisements that were produced internationally for the same flicks. Italy has proven to be a good source of interesting posters (see this post for examples), but France is no slacker when it comes to out doing the Americans on the artsy side. The following are some comparisons between the American posters and French. Which versions do you prefer? If you have your own favorite French posters, please share.

FRANCE VS. AMERICA

The American poster is not bad for Touch of Evil, but the French one is even more dramatic. While the U.S. made the poster suggestive via the embrace between Janet Leigh and Charlton Heston, the French more subtly suggested the bedroom action by framing the characters with a bed post. The foreign version might actually convey to audiences that Heston is responsible for the horrible bed-based action Leigh will suffer in two different settings, whereas the American version is a bit more romantic.

You can see the similarities between where the French and the Americans were going with the poster for Operation Petticoat. Both are provocative with the woman’s legs, but I must say the French had a bit more fun with the depiction of the men’s reaction. I’m laughing more at the French one than the American.

Another sexy movie with two different posters approaches is The Lady from Shanghai. All versions of the American poster featured that same pose by Rita Hayworth, but the French version certainly has a more interesting and artistic quality. This might be a matter of taste. What do you say?

Now for some comedy/war fun. Although the American version assures us there will be laughs to be had, the French poster draws a very serious picture. It is not bereft, however, of two men dancing together, so a close enough look sheds some light into the elements of Stalag 17. However misleading, I do appreciate the artistry of the French approach.

This difference might be my favorite. The Lost Weekend approaches both emphasize the seriousness of the film, but where the American take crowds in unnecessary elements, the French took a simplistic view. For those who have yet to see the picture, the bat surely will present some confusion, and it references only a minor, yet memorable, scene in the movie tracing an alcoholic’s helplessness under the influence of drink.

What it your analysis?

Touch of Evil

Wowza!

Touch of Evil (1958)

It had been probably seven years since I had seen Touch of Evil, so when the opportunity presented itself to see it on the big screen, I said, sure, why not? I probably should have been shouting from the rafters because in the interim I had completely forgotten just how much of a masterpiece the picture is.

The Orson Welles flick is most commonly celebrated for its 3 minute and 30 second opening sequence. This long take weaves the camera through the streets of the Mexico border area that is our setting after we witness a bomb placed in the trunk of a car. The camera eventually unites us with stars Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh, the newlyweds who are crossing into America. They pass over just as the ill-fated car does and are within view of the fiery blaze that occupies the screen after the movie’s first cut.

Heston’s Mike Vargas is a Mexico native and detective in that country, but the crime is sort of out of his jurisdiction because it happened on American soil. The American authorities, headed up by the grotesque Hank Quinlan (Welles), agree to work with Vargas because the bomb was planted south of the border. In the midst of this, however, Vargas has to find a place to keep the new wife, who is an American. Susan is too tough to spend the duration of the story in a hotel room, however, and the story follows her increasingly dangerous circumstances while Vargas is busy investigating.

The challenge Vargas faces is that Quinlan is far from an honorable cop in the typical sense of the word. He is well revered for bringing so many men to justice, but as the Mexican will eventually learn, he often goes outside the law to ensure convictions. Quinlan drills into a young Mexican man as his prime suspect for the explosion that murdered a construction magnate and his girlfriend. The man is dating the victim’s daughter, who would inherit her father’s fortune. Upon interrogation at the couple’s apartment, however, Vargas discovers Quinlan has planted the damning evidence but none of the American cops are willing to doubt their leader.

As Vargas digs into Quinlan’s corrupt past, Susan has already been twice threatened by a group of young Mexican greasers. The woman is being targeted to get to Vargas, although their motivation is not totally clear. Susan refuses to be frightened until she finds herself alone in a hotel complex. She is in desperate need of sleep, but when a group of party animals move in next door, she has more than exhaustion to worry about. What will transpire over the following day is more horrible than she could ever have predicted.

Touch of Evil was filmed almost entirely at night. The picture is incredibly dark and Welles uses the black and white film to his advantage in exuding a dark mood on all who watch it. Low-angle shots heighten the drama as we watch the shadowy faces of the unfriendly Vargas and Quinlan. Welles also uses sound to convey the solitude of night as our characters’ footsteps echo though streets and shadows run along walls. We have a sense that danger lurks around every corner, and are constantly on edge. Enemies attack from multiple angles as the American authorities offer no refuge from the Mexican criminals.

Welles might give his best career performance in Touch of Evil. Quinlan is such a despicable and powerful character and Welles is capable of intimidating the audience right out of their seats. I normally do not care much for Heston, but he is great as Vargas. His tan look, with dark hair and mustache, creates a convincing Mexican although he refrains from any accent. I think this helps to level the playing field between Vargas and the American detectives; although, we are still fully aware he is an outcast among this group. Leigh, meanwhile, has plenty of sex appeal and the sass necessary to make her arrogant enough to believe she is safe from harm. She reportedly broke her arm before filming and the cast was hidden during filming. During the hotel scenes, the cast was sawn off and her arm reset after filming.

Marlene Dietrich plays a small part as a gypsy to whom Quinlan goes for his traditional binge drinking. She delivers lines in her usual German drawl through a cloud of smoke she emits via the stogie on which she sucks. High-angle shots flatter her angular face while dark hair and lipstick transform her nationality. Welles alumnus Joseph Cotton appears in a tiny role, as apparently Keenan Wynn does, however, I did not spot him (so if anyone can tell me where he is, I’ll revisit the flick and find him!).

Touch of Evil is textbook filmmaking. It is artistic to the extreme while offering a riveting, convoluted story and powerful acting that has one biting his nails for half the feature. Seeing it on the big screen was a real treat, but it is a must-see movie no matter the venue.

Source: TCM.com

Little Women (1949)

Gasser

Little Women (1949)

      Louisa May Alcott’s novel “Little Women” has found its way onto the big screen at least five times since the creation of motion pictures and we have probably not seen the last of it. Although I have seen three of these, I cannot quite decide which is the best of them. The 1949 version starring June Allyson differentiates itself in some ways from the other versions and in particular expands the part belonging to Elizabeth Taylor.

     In this Little Women Taylor plays Amy, who at 12 is the youngest of the March sisters in the book and in other incarnations of the movie. But at 17, Taylor’s already voluptuous body belies the youngest character’s age and visually appears to be the second-youngest sister. Beth, who is meant to be the second youngest sister, is played by Margaret O’Brien who was five years younger than Taylor. The choice of Taylor as Amy is logical in that she is meant to be the daintiest and grow to be the prettiest of the March girls, but the dying of her hair blonde does not favor the actress whose dark eyebrows defy her hairstyle.

     We all know that the story creates a deep friendship between main character Jo (Allyson) and neighbor Laurie (Peter Lawford) that essentially ends with Jo’s rejection of his marriage proposal. Amy then is meant to grow into a lovely young woman who captures Laurie’s fancy and becomes his wife. The downside to Taylor’s presence here is that Laurie could just have easily fallen for her at the film’s start as later on as her appearance changes only in the slightly finer clothing she dons.

     But moving away from the, perhaps, annoyance that is Taylor in Little Women, Allyson must be applauded for her fantastic portrayal of tomboy Jo, who is ever after equality for women. Her boldness ignites the friendship with Laurie who has moved in with his wealthy grandfather in the home next door. We see a lot of Laurie, more than in other movie versions, as he lets no class boundaries block his relationship with the girls and Jo in particular. His grandfather, Laurence Sr. (C. Aubrey Smith), is also quickly repainted from a grumpy old man to a generous friend who gives Beth his piano and supports the family through the girl’s illnesses.

     I perhaps never found it more heart wrenching than when Winona Ryder‘s Jo rejects the proposal from Christian Bale‘s Laurie in the 1994 Little Women. I did not experience the same emotion in the 1949 version. I would not say that Allyson nor Lawford poorly acted their parts but perhaps Jo is so masculine here that it is hard to imagine her as a marriage candidate. I typically also find myself heartbroken in watching other versions when Jo goes on to fall in love with the German she meets in New York, but I did not feel that way in this instance. This Professor Bhaer, although played by the Italian Rossano Brazzi, is handsome enough and affectionate enough to warm us to him as Jo’s suitor.

     Also joining the cast is Mary Astor as mother Marmee who is thankfully in few scenes as she brings little to the part and at times delivers the dialogue poorly. Janet Leigh plays oldest sister Meg and is appropriately polite and beautiful in her role. Despite the great cast, Allyson really stands as the best part, as well she should. This might not be the best filmed version of Little Women but it is nevertheless entertaining.

  • Little Women is set for 3:45 a.m. ET Sept. 8 on TCM.

Hitchcock Blogathon #7: Psycho

Wowza!

Pyscho (1960)

      I think Psycho might be the most famous if not most ingenious Hitchcock movie. That is not to say it is everyone’s favorite, but I think even non-classic-movie fans know Psycho. I will not dive too deeply into the plot, since I think everyone knows it: A young woman steals $40,000 and on her way to her boyfriend she spends the night at the Bates Motel. There Norman Bates and his mother become involved in her murder and the remainder of the film follows the boyfriend and sister as they attempt to discover what happened.

     There are so many aspects of this film worth noting. It was filmed using low-budget television techniques but has some impressive tracking and crane shots. At the end when the sister finds Norman’s mother, she hits a lightbulb sending it swinging and flashing light against the corpse’s face. Hitchcock hoped this would give the impression there were eyes in that head.

     The story, based on a novel by Robert Bloch, kills off its famous leading lady before the film is halfway through, tripping up what audience members thought they knew about the picture. The soundtrack by Bernard Hermann, a Hitchcock regular, is the most memorable of scores linked to the director, with the screeching strings from the shower scene being copied in TV and film up to the present day.

      The dialogue is wonderfully suggestive and thoroughly laced with Hitchcockian humor. In the shop where boyfriend Sam (John Gavin) works, a woman is inquiring about pest poison and whether it is painless. She says she thinks death should always be painless, this just after Janet Leigh‘s body has been dumped. The writing points to clues about Norman Bates and his mother; Sam says being alone out there would drive him crazy. “That’s a rather extreme reaction don’t you think,” Norman says.

     The performance by Janet Leigh is great. As she drives from Phoenix with the stolen money, we hear her internal dialogue as she imagines what the people she knows will say about her disappearance. When she imagines the businessman from whom she stole the money saying he will kill her, the worried expression on her face transforms into a sinister smile. Anthony Perkins gives the best performance, however. This wonderful casting against type by Hitchcock put this handsome young actor in the shoes of a subtly creepy psychopath. The slight shifts in his expression and vocalizations paint the portrait of a man attempting to act normal but hiding a horrible secret.

The MacGuffin: The stolen money.

Where’s Hitch? Wearing a cowboy hat, Hitchcock can be seen through Janet Leigh’s window as she returns to the office.

Source: Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light by Patrick McGilligan

I will be posting reviews of Hitchcock movies every hour ending at 8 p.m. today, but other members of the Classic Movie Blog Association, which is hosting the blogathon, have plenty to offer also. Links to their articles is up at the CMBA site. Check them out!

Holiday Affair

Dullsville

Holiday Affair (1949)

     I am down to one of the last of the holiday films on my DVR, which I figured should be reviewed before we officially exit the holiday season. Unfortunately, I do not have many good things to say about Holiday Affair. A story involving a love triangle and the son belonging to a young widow (maybe it is more of a love square), this film has too much crammed into its plot to be very enjoyable.

      Janet Leigh is Connie, the single mother of a boy whose father died in the war. She works as a comparison shopper — a pursuit rather frowned upon by competing companies. She essentially buys a product, compares it to what her company sells, then returns it. Robert Mitchum‘s Steve works in a toy department where Connie purchases and expensive train set. Her son mistakes the item as an Xmas gift for himself and is devastated to learn otherwise. Connie returns the toy the next day, and Steve is fired for not reporting her despite knowing she is a comparison shopper. So, naturally, the man tracks down the woman and buys her lunch. After a day of shopping, the two are separated in a crowd but Steve has half her belongings. When he shows up at her door, Connie is flustered in front of boyfriend Carl (Wendell Corey) trying to explain the man.

     The boy takes a liking to Steve, who leaves the expensive train set at the front door on Xmas morning. When Connie goes to find Steve to pay him for the gift, she locates him in the park where he is hanging out while in between living establishments. He will not take the money. Later that day, the police call because Steve has been arrested and Connie is the only person to clear up the confusion. She, with Carl and her son, go to the station and free Steve from charges resulting in a misunderstanding of events that occurred earlier at the park.

     By now Connie has agreed to marry her boyfriend, which she has debated for some time, even though Steve put the moves on her … and offers his own proposal in front of the fiance and the parents of Connie’s dead husband. So Steve now plans to move to California for a job whenever he has train fare. Next, the boy decides his train is no longer any fun since Steve has essentially been barred from their lives. He wanders to the department store from which it came to return it, worrying his mother sick about where he has gone. A long, convoluted sequence later the boy has the money and Connie sets off to give it to Steve. Still with me? Steve pretty much says he’s not going to try for Connie’s affection any more, even though Carl has freed her. Do not fret, however, Connie will grab her son and manage to meet Steve on the train as he’s on his way west.

     Now do you see what I mean about this being too complicated of a plot to really enjoy? Stories should be simple, especially love stories. There may be complicating factors, but the basic action should be easy to explain. Holiday Affair had enough drama for multiple films and not enough romance for one.

     I realize that despite considering myself a Leigh fan, I have maybe only seen her in Psycho and Bye, Bye Birdie. I found her rather dull both acting and beauty-wise. Mitchum, on the other hand, had not done romantic movies like this before. He was known for his hardened criminal roles, and I will forever associate him with his Night of the Hunter role, much to his detriment. Mitchum was apparently assigned this part to improve his image after some marijuana-related charges sent him to jail (more on that from Angela at The Hollywood Revue). I would not say the man is great as a romantic. He sort of lacks any gleam of charm, at least in this role. To sum up, forget Holiday Affair.

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