Thursday, January 26, 2012

Blanche Fury (1948)

Hm, I'm still not quite sure whether I liked this movie or not. It's a little bit of everything, and I think I would have preferred something more... I'm not sure what the word is... clear cut? Or perhaps what keeps it interesting is that it's all over the board? It's hard to explain what I mean.

The brief synopsis without spoilers... Blanche (Valerie Hobson), tired of her poor and lowly positions as nurse/companion/house servant to a series of old ladies, receives a notice that her uncle would like her to come home and take a position as governess for her young cousin, Lavinia. The new position brings considerable more money with it, and ambitious for wealth and stability, Blanche marries her cousin, Lawrence(Michael Gough), which gives her the Fury surname... which her cousins appear to have appropriated from the previous, true owners of the estate when they left no legitimate heir. Things are complicated by the presence of Philip Thorn (Stewart Granger), who is the illegitimate son of the last Fury. He's quite bitter over not owning the estate himself and having to be groundskeeper for the usurpers. Blanche falls for him, even though she marries the other guy. Complications, illicit romance, murder, courtroom drama, perhaps a supernatural curse result from this mix of characters.

Okay, that wasn't brief at all! It's all quite complicated, which I admit I liked.

I think the movie just confused me because I kept flipflopping on how I reacted to the characters. In the first scenes, Blanche is so unpleasant, that I wondered how I'd make it through a movie with her as the lead. Then she turned really nice. Then she turned a bit mean again. Then she turned nice... it was odd. Same with Philip, played with lovely, simmering anger by Stewart Granger. He seems rightfully angry, then he takes it a couple steps too far, then a few steps really too far, then he comes back and I like him again... So I never could decide if I liked or disliked these people.

On the clear dislike list: Michael Gough as Lawrence was quite the despicable character, and he played it marvelously. On the clear like list: Lavinia (Suzanne Gibbs) was sweet and nice the whole time.

Then there's the whole possible curse on the estate, always lurking in the background. I rather enjoyed that. Gave the film a bit of a Gothic, horror cast to it that fit well with the mansion's dark shadowy corners and the sordid deeds of the plot.

There's a whole courtroom section... I didn't like that. Of course, it's a very very very rare film that makes me like anything set in a courtroom.

I did love the two lead actors. They did a great job and worked played well off each other. Valerie Hobson had the right look for her character: beautiful and austere, but soft when she needed to be. Stewart Granger was full of sharp edges, all dangerous and broody and stormy (except when his character was around horses, then he would turn gentle). His character had just one obsessive goal and watching his schemes turn darker and darker to achieve it was fascinating. I think the fact that he is so darned handsome makes his role work even better, because you want to like and trust him, even when he's scowling and plotting. I would have been more than a bit terrified of him, if I were in that movie.

It was definitely an engrossing film, and I wasn't sure how it would end, which is also something I liked about this movie. I should also mention the score by Clifton Parker, which was really neat and fit the movie perfectly. I loved the main theme in particular. Wouldn't mind owning this score on CD at all. It set the scene and the mood perfectly. And there was an intriguing use of color! Look at this shot, all blue, red, white. Very striking.

I think now, after writing this up, that I want to see it again. Now that I know the plot and the characters and how it wraps up, I think I'd like to go back and see how it fit together.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

King Solomon's Mines (1950)

Well, to my great surprise, I did not particularly like King Solomon’s Mines. This seemed like a perfect fit with my love of adventure films, action, on-location filming, and Stewart Granger. I would have thought anybody could safely recommend this movie. But even factoring out the animal element (and I really should know better than to watch any movie heavily involving animals that was made before animal safety regulations were introduced, as I will just get upset) I still didn’t like this movie.

Why? Because I hated the plot, or lack thereof. This was a quest story, never one of my favorite types of plots. I much prefer journeys (like Lord of the Rings), which is similar, but where characters return changed from their adventures at the end. Quests are just that... characters travel in search of something and have random adventures along the way. And I have to admit, this bores me greatly. For me, King Solomon’s Mines was a series of incidents that tied together only because they happened to the same people.

For example, when we finally reach this village in the middle of the unknown territory, we randomly encounter a criminal, who we’ve never heard of before in the movie until now. We have an exciting bit of fight/escape/chase... and then neither the criminal nor the villagers chasing our heroes with the intent of murdering them are ever mentioned or encountered again. It’s just a completely random incident. We do find out that our MacGuffin, Deborah Kerr’s husband, passed by, but there are a hundred ways to find out that information. That's just one example out of many. This movie is nothing but a string of mini-adventures, none particularly related to anything else... and while many viewers may not only not mind that, but love that type of story, it personally drives me crazy. When we finally get to the fabled mines... woo, hey, guess what? They’re real! But does anybody care? Does anybody pocket some jewels? We came all this way, and nothing happens. We also find our MacGuffin unsurprisingly dead. Nothing happens about that either. Nobody is changed or different at the end of this movie, other than they’re a lot more starving and tired than when they started out.


So, the scenery was impressive, Stewart Granger was handsome and pretty darned awesome, Deborah Kerr whined a lot (not without cause), her brother was my favorite character, the animals scenes traumatized me -- particularly the awful, horrible opening, the plot bored me silly, and there wasn’t even any payoff at the end in the mines that we went all that way to find...

What should have been a film right up my alley, just... wasn’t.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Secret Invasion (1964)

While I'm not fond of watching films on my computer, I do love Netflix's instant viewing just because I can sample some movies I'm not sure I really want to spend time on, on the spot, without waiting for the DVD to ship to me. I'm still waiting for King Solomon's Mines to arrive, so while I'm in a Stewart Granger mood (and I appear to have now forgiven him and gotten over my image of him as a double-crossing ratfink), I decided to try out The Secret Invasion, a 1964 WWII war movie directed by Roger Corman. Seemed like it might be right up my alley.

After a lackluster, rather cheesy first twenty minutes, it evened out and became a rather enjoyable WWII movie. This film seems to be a predecessor to The Dirty Dozen, with a similar concept. In this case, Stewart Granger's British officer leads five criminals on a mission into Yugoslavia to free a general from a Nazi prison. If they're successful, they'll be granted pardons. These prisoners are played by Mickey Rooney, Henry Silva, Raf Vallone, Edd Byrnes, and William Campbell. This may be a rather low budget film, but it certain brings an interesting cast to the plate! William Campbell, of course, is always delightful, and I love Raf Vallone. He's a solid actor, and I always think I've seen him in more movies than I have, for some reason. In many ways, he's more the lead in this film than Granger, and I liked his character a lot. His character carries this film, and he stays at the emotional center. He's also the smart one who basically takes over -- with no objections from Granger's character, interestingly -- to complete the mission. Mickey Rooney can often be annoying, but he looks like he's having the time of his life here, all grins and good humor, so I didn't mind him.

The movie benefits greatly from being filmed on location in Yugoslavia. It looks great, all sweeping vistas of the blue sea, blue sky, the old stone town, the mountains. Beautiful scenery. There's also a ton of extras for the big finale. Sometimes I think I get so used to television and its smaller budgets (mostly thinking Combat! here with usually no more than a handful of enemy soldiers giving chase to the good guys at any given time), that when easily a couple hundred enemy soldiers appear and start fanning across the countryside, I was thinking, whoa! The good guys are really in trouble. And when a matching number of armed partisans show up... well, it makes for an exciting finale, that's for sure.

The plot had a few interesting twists towards the end which kept it from being a strictly routine commando-mission type plot. I'd have to say I really enjoyed the second half. The first half has the obligatory get-to-know-the-criminals section, which was very brief, a couple escape attempts by some of the criminals, and arrival in Yugoslavia and setting up the scene. The second half is where the real action and story occurred.

Stewart Granger is one of those actors who aged extremely well. He's as handsome and fit as ever and still well-suited to action. He wields a machine pistol as nicely as a sword. There's lots of running around, hand-to-hand combat, etc., and he's right in the thick of it.

Not a film I'd want to own, but I'm glad I saw it. It was a diverting, suspend-your-disbelief, behind-the-enemy-lines couple of hours.

Monday, January 16, 2012

The Prisoner of Zenda (1937/1952)

Since these two versions come nicely packaged on one DVD, I watched both of them this weekend. I viewed the 1952 version first, then the 1937 version. Now, the 1952 is a remake that used the same script, so the dialogue, even the staging, etc. is virtually the same. The only real differences are the cast, and that one film is in b&w, the other in color. I have to say I liked both versions and would happily watch either again, but if I had to choose, I'd go with the 1937 version.

Why? Because of Douglas Fairbanks Jr. as Rupert of Hentzau. Because he is awesome. The biggest difference between the two versions is in Rupert's character. In the 1952 version, James Mason has the role.

Both are very good, but despite the fact that they're saying the same dialogue, each is an entirely different character. James Mason is an older Rupert, a wee bit older than Stewart Granger, and he makes Rupert more thoughtful, creepy, and downright evil. Douglas Fairbanks Jr. is considerably younger than Ronald Colman, and is a cocky/arrogant/devil-may-care version. I wanted James Mason to get it at the end, whereas I wanted Douglas Fairbanks Jr. to get away.

I wouldn't want to mix casts, either, because each villain works specifically with their type of protagonist. Stewart Granger is a bit flippant and devil-may-care himself, so James Mason is a nice foil for that. Same with Fairbanks and Ronald Colman. Colman is the thoughtful one, so having Fairbanks be the grinning, cocky one works beautifully. I particularly love their sword fight at the end. Fairbanks' Rupert is so arrogantly sure of himself, facing this unassuming, older Englishman. You can just see how he's positive there's no way he can lose. But Ronald Colman's Rudolph is all steady confidence and resourceful physicality. As the fight goes on and Fairbanks realizes he's not teaching Colman a lesson, quite the reverse, he gets more and more desperate. It gives the whole fight an arc that plays out just perfectly.

Granger and Mason seem much more evenly matched, and while Mason plays Rupert with a fair touch of arrogance, there's more caution there, less recklessness. He's more the older soldier going to teach the younger foreigner a lesson. As he starts losing, his desperateness is of an entirely different tone. It's quite interesting watching the two movies back to back. I loved both sword fights.

I enjoyed Stewart Granger and Ronald Colman. One gives you matinee idol dashing, the other gives you clever reliability. I think Ronald Colman and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. are the better matches for the characters they're portraying, but at the same time, it's hard to beat handsome Stewart Granger. I think this is why I liked both versions. The 1937 version is better, more accurate, but the 1952 has a lot going for it too.

As for the rest of the cast, both sets of actors were good and interchangeable. Princess Flavia is played by Deborah Kerr in the newer version, Madeleine Carroll in the older. Jane Greer vs. Mary Astor, as Antoinette. They all were fine. Same with the different sets of male characters. Oh, I should mention that the 1937 version has David Niven, who is delightful.

Some favorite shots from both films:

Douglas Fairbanks Jr. showing his dangerous side.

Ronald Colman, nicely backlit by the fireplace during the final fight... but you know, did he have to put on the heavy sweater? He had a very nice black outfit on before he swam the moat... rather like:

Stewart Granger sneaking around, in his most excellent and attractive black attire. See, he knows better than to put on a wool sweater! More please!

And finally, my favorite shot of Stewart Granger in the whole movie, as the imprisoned king, suffering from an unknown wound, rumpled and disheveled, chained up, and sporting a lovely five o'clock shadow. I'd break into the castle to rescue him!

There's a 1979 version of Prisoner of Zenda that I'd like to see, but Netflix doesn't have it. It stars Peter Sellers, which doesn't interest me, but it does have one of my favorite modern sword fighting actors, Stuart Wilson, as Rupert of Hentzau, and I would dearly love to see him play that role! I've commented on how fast he is with a sword every time I see him wield one (which, so far, is in Ivanhoe, Mask of Zorro, and Princess of Thieves... the latter, I realize, I loved and never blogged about... sigh.) One of these days, it might come around.

Friday, January 13, 2012

The Vikings (1958)

Sometimes, I just have to go back to the tried and true. Sometimes, I get sick of seeing movies new-to-me, and I want something comforting and familiar. So, I re-watched The Vikings last night, for the umpteenth time. This film is one of those films on which I grew up. Although, I do actually remember a time before I saw it. When we were young and there weren’t VCRs or DVDs yet, we’d have to wait for the network stations to decide to air something, and we could wait months to see something. My mom would intrigue us by telling us how cool certain movies were and what we had to look forward to when it finally did air. For The Vikings, she would always tell us about her favorite part, when Kirk Douglas climbs up the tower in the end battle and swings feet-first right through the stained glass window at the top.

This movie is directed by Richard Fleisher, who directs my number one movie of all time, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Harper Goff, who designed the Nautilus in 20,000 worked with Fleisher again on The Vikings to help recreate the Viking ships, villages, etc. and, once again, he does a spectacular job. There’s a lovely little retrospective extra on the DVD of Fleisher talking about his memories of making this movie, of the two years it took, the research they did, the location work, his funny memories, and a lot of great still photos of the actors during the shoot. Wish there were more DVD extras like this, to add that cool insight and bits of trivia! Here's two of my favorite pics from the retrospective.

Anyway, I love this movie for a jillion and one reasons. This is the type of movie I grew up. Westerns, war movies, and period action adventures. There’s a lot of violence in this movie, but except for one scene, you don’t actually see much blood at all. I love that about older films. You don’t need the gore to get the point across. I absolutely cringe at one point in this movie even though you don’t see a thing. You don’t need to! When will modern filmmakers get it back in their heads that letting your audience fill in the blanks themselves is a hundred times more effective then showing it outright. Even still, this is undeniably a violent and movie and so definitely not for everybody. But then, hello, Vikings! Not the most peace-loving of people. Life was short, harsh, brutal, but also full of passion and beauty.

This is my favorite Tony Curtis movie, and my favorite Tony Curtis look. I love him with his beard. He’s an amazingly good-looking man anyway, but I just love him like this, less pretty and more straight handsome, all edgy and full of raw anger. He and Kirk Douglas play off each other so well, and I love their sword fight at the end, particularly as it takes place at the top of this tower, partly on these very steep steps. I've seen this movie how many times? And I still worry every single time that one of them is going to slip and fall.

This is also my second favorite Kirk Douglas film, right behind 20,000. His character isn't a nice man at all, but he fits right into the world the movie depicts and provides the perfect antagonist and foil for Tony Curtis. And The Vikings is also my favorite Ernest Borgnine role. He just makes a perfect Viking leader, with that great boisterous laugh of his. I love Janet Leigh in this movie as well and wanted to be her when I was little. She is so pretty as Morgana!

This is also the film in which I fell in love with James Donald. He’s one of those stalwart British actors who slips into good movies and makes them better. This was the first film I saw him in, and I quite fancied him. His character of Lord Egbert is intriguing. He allies with the Vikings, which technically makes him a traitor to England, but he does it only because King Aella is such a ratfink. He looks out for himself, but he’s not a coward either. He looks for ways to come out ahead personally, but at the same time, he’s got broader scope. I’m also an absolute sucker (probably since the first time I saw Mario sing “Vittoria!” in Tosca) for patriotic characters who quite loudly, noblely, and very inadvisedly, seal their guilt by decrying the evil of their captors in front of their captors. Good way to get yourself killed. Also a good way to make me love you forever. Egbert gets in such a moment when he’s hauled off to the dungeons: “Lies will not sustain a tyrant!” Mwah-hah-hah. He has some of my other favorite moments in the movie, such as when Ragnar (Ernest Borgnine) gives him a friendly clap on the back and nearly sends him flying. Egbert’s expression is priceless. I also love the casual, confused way he says, “Oh, I see,” when Ragnar explains a Viking custom to him. Makes me laugh every time. My only complaint is that I don’t know what happens to his character in the final battle! Does he live? Does he die? Alas, no such answers are forthcoming. I like to assume he made it, of course, and gave his devious, but faithful support to the new, true king.

I love the on location scenery in this film. The fjords are gorgeous, and I really do love ships… if it floats and is elegant and dangerous, I’m probably in love with it. My breath catches and my heart soars whenever I see a beautiful ship, and I absolutely adore these sleek dragon-headed Viking ships. I think if the movie was nothing but shots of the ships sailing around, I'd probably be quite happy. Yeah, I think I really did want to run away to sea all my life and just never fully realized it.

My favorite part of this film is the running of the oars scene. As the successful Viking ship comes in to dock, the rowers hold their oars out and the rest of the crew run along them. The scene makes me grin and grin.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Two short reviews

Well, I find I don’t have much to say about Scaramouche other than I enjoyed it. It was pretty, it had lovely costumes, it had fantastic sword fights, I’m growing to like Stewart Granger, I love Eleanor Parker, and, oh, did I mention it had fantastic sword fights? It won’t become a favorite, but I’d definitely watch it again.

One of the highlights of watching it is that it was filmed partly in the French Village backlot at MGM that was used heavily in the television series, Combat!. It was great fun to see the oh-so-very-familiar locations all colorful and shiny. Particularly as Stewart Granger always reminds me a bit of a British version of one of the Combat! stars, Rick Jason. Both are tall, dark-haired, very handsome men, with similar face shapes. I also enjoyed a short retrospective extra on the DVD, with Mel Ferrer talking about the film. I love that he said he and Stewart Granger really jumped up on the precarious balcony railing for the final fight, without really giving it a second thought. They just did it, no safety nets or anything. Whoa. Well it sure does look great!

I also find I don’t have much to say about The Lady From Shanghai. I neither liked nor disliked it, expressly, though I lean towards the dislike category. There just wasn’t much for me to hold onto or care about. It appears I am turning out not to be much of a fan of Orson Welles as director. Rita Hayworth was gorgeous, as usual, though. I like her with the short blond hair. Orson Welles as actor is always fun to watch, so I enjoyed their interplay, but, oddly, I couldn’t understand some of his dialogue. I find this amusing because I have no trouble understanding Antonio Banderas at his most accented mumbling, but I couldn’t understand Orson Welles with an Irish accent. Go figure. I like the scenes on the yacht and in Mexico best. I disliked the courtroom scenes the most, mostly because it’s a rare film that makes me like anything set in a courtroom. And the rest of the film just sort of fumbled along, neither here nor there for me.

Monday, January 09, 2012

To be or not to be...

Well, my leg healed fast, fortunately. I'd like to say I watched a couple movies while I was keeping it immobile on the couch, but, well, I've been in too much of an opera mood for movies (I'm listening to Butterfly as I type this). I received the DVD of the Barcelona 2003 production of Thomas' Hamlet, an opera I've never seen or even heard all the way through before, so that was my viewing pleasure over the New Year's holiday. Simon Keenlyside sings the title role, and that meant I was grinning and loving every minute he was on stage. But then, I am thoroughly in love with Simon Keenlyside and his voice. He's the first baritone in... well, ever... who can actually compete with Sherill Milnes for number one position in my heart. And they're different enough that I can love them both for different things without them ever really overlapping, and that just makes life full of win-win.

Hamlet the opera was almost three hours long. Only a couple arias are truly memorable, but the rest of the music is pleasant enough, and the story of Hamlet is always entertaining. The opera changes quite a few things from Shakespeare, but that just made it more fun, when the plot deviated and went new directions. The ghost has a much expanded role, and I think those changes were probably my favorite differences.

The staging, alas, was very minimalist. I don't mind operas updated to modern or different settings, but I do prefer a bit of awesome spectacle in my opera sets. I don't find bare walls at all appealing. Of course, on the other hand, it means I can focus entirely on Simon Keenlyside, and that's not a bad thing... I think my favorite part of the whole operas is this one tiny little bit after he feigns total madness and then, when everyone has fled the stage and he's alone, his stance and expression instantly sobers to this rather resolute, satisfied grimness. Almost gave me chills.

The following aria has been one of my favorite baritone arias for years and years, so it was nice to finally see it in context with the whole opera. This clip is from the Met's 2010 version, which I'd really love to see, but alas it's not on DVD yet. Sigh.

I also finished watching Scaramouche, which I will review shortly!

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

My Foolish Heart (1949)

This movie reminded me that I am just not much of a straight romance person. This isn't a bad movie, there's nothing wrong with it, many other bloggers I know really really love this movie (coincidentally, Patti, from They Don't Make 'Em Like They Used To just reviewed it very positively here)... it's just not for me. It simply doesn't offer me what I look for in my entertainment, despite Dana Andrews being in it. I was bored from the get-go. I never could relate or feel for the characters, the plot held no surprises and was very by-the-book, and... I found I'd rather have been elsewhere. Sigh. The only character I truly enjoyed was Robert Keith as Susan Hayward's character's father. He was great, and their relationship was refreshing.

Very glad I finally saw this one -- it's been on my to-see list for ages! -- but it's not one I'll be revisiting any time soon.