Thursday, October 22, 2009

I just can't resist it

I'm opting to join Nanowrimo again this year. I've successfully completed it the last five years, and I swore last year would be my last. But here we are, and it's suckering me in again. This year, though, I don't need a new novel started. I need my "POW" novel finished, so that's what I'm going to be working on, the second 50K. Unfortunately, there's a reason it's not yet complete yet... I have some major thinking to do to re-figure out some places I went astray in the first half before I can launch in. And a little over a week to do it... Typical. This also seems to happen to me every year. I'm an idiot.

And, as that means my brain is occupied and unfit for anything else, the rest of this post is dedicated to a gratuitous pic spam of Tyrone Power from The Black Swan. I didn't have the dvd when I watched and reviewed it previously (just used Netflix's instant viewing option), but thanks to a good friend's birthday present, I can now watch it and take all the screen captures I want. I swear, he looks better in this movie than in all his other movie combined. But maybe that's just me. (double-click on any pic to get the full size)

Sunday, October 18, 2009

The Eddy Duchin Story (1956)

This biopic about pianist and band leader Eddy Duchin is not a happy story, and yet, despite the sad misfortunes of his life, this movie was surprisingly never depressing or a downer. In fact, it was rather the opposite. There's so much love of life in this film, that death and sadness merely serve to stress how important it is to pursue your dreams and happiness. Because you never know when those you love will be taken from you, you never know how long you yourself may have.

Spoilers follow....

Eddy's story is fairly simple. Young pianist comes to NY, with Kim Novak's help, gets a job with an orchestra, works his way up until when the bandleader moves on, he steps in and takes over. He marries Kim Novak, but their happiness is short-lived, and she dies after giving birth to their son. Eddy splits on tour, unwilling to deal with her death and his new son. Five years go by, WWII is about to break out, and his friend Lou, played by James Whitmore convinces him to meet his son. His son is reserved and polite, and Eddy is devastated. Off to the war he goes. When he gets back, he tries to make amends. He falls in love with a new woman, his son, who also plays the piano, slowly learns to love him, but just when everything should be at its happiest, Eddy learns he has leukemia and is dying. A sad life for such a talented musican.

The film starts with his arrival in New York and goes through his death. Oh sure, Tyrone's technically way too old to play the young Eddy Duchin, but he's so full of energy and enthusiasm, I had no trouble believing in him. The montage of him and Kim Novak falling in love is one of my favorite parts of the movie. Sometimes, moments like that can seem cliche, but this montage really worked for me. Maybe it was just Tyrone Power and Kim Novak together. It's actually not a pairing I would have thought of, but I like them together. A lot.

Besides the falling-in-love montage, I had three favorite scenes. Kim Novak's death scene, because of how Tyrone played it. He knows she's dying, she doesn't. I thought his acting could not have been better here. I particularly like when actors let you see what their characters are thinking. It's one of the things I love about Dana Andrews. How effortlessly he conveys internal thought processes and the subtext of a scene. Tyrone does that here.

James Whitmore is one of my favorite character actors. The guy is so solid, so reliable. He can do anything. He gets my next favorite scene, where he lays into Eddy for running away from his son for five years. Eddy is a very even-keeled, happy, smiling sort, and he finally loses his temper. I'm a sucker for a good angry "Shut up!" (which is a post all unto itself) and Tyrone cuts loose with an excellent one.

My third favorite scene is the very end of the movie, which I won't give away, but it's such a simple and elegant way to end the movie. Sentimental without being melodramatic, and oddly satisfying. That's a weird thing to say about a movie that ends with the title character's death, but it's true. The writer half of me quite admires how they handled it.

And I'd be remiss if I didn't mention how impressed I was with Tyrone Power's piano playing. In the A&E Biography of him I recently watched, it said he basically memorized the fingering in order to look convincing. That had to be a helluva lot of work, but it sure pays off. Except for a few occasions where the music's obviously way too complicated, he pulls it off. And even in those complicated moments, his hands are still in the right areas of the piano, and his fingers are moving fast enough in the right directions that perhaps if you aren't a piano player, you might not even know he's faking it then. It's so great to watch a movie where they don't have to have the piano's bulk obscure the actor. The opening scene where we first get to see him play, you see a set of hands first, and I was thinking, okay, here they go, they'll cut to his face. But nope, the camera slowly pulls back to show Tyrone playing. Because of his memorization, they never have to cut away from showing him at the piano. I really appreciate that, particularly as there's a lot of piano playing, and he does a fabulous job of making it all look natural.

Not a fabulous movie or one I need to own, but quite enjoyable. Beautiful New York location shooting, great period cars, lovely dresses for Kim Novak, great music. I particularly like the Chopin.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Witness for the Prosecution (1957)

Man, I loved this movie. Loved! I went into it a bit leerily, as 1) I'm not particularly fond of courtroom stuff, and 2) my dad had spoiled the ending a couple months back. Silly me. It had me hooked from the first lines of dialogue between Charles Laughton and Elsa Lancaster. Well, really, it had me when Billy Wilder's name went by as part of the screenwriting duo and as director. The man makes wickedly smart movies.

The rest of the movie delighted me primarily because of Charles Laughton and Elsa Lancaster. They are absolutely delightful butting heads as a barrister recovering from a heart attack and his pesky no-nonsense nurse.

Laughton's character of Sir Wilfrid is supposed to relax and do nothing that might cause him stress, and, of course, to force a brilliant man to sit around doing nothing is sheer torture. So he neatly side-steps his way into a murder trial defending Tyrone Power because he can't resist jumping at a challenge. Poor Tyrone's character, Leonard, is accused of bumping off a lonely old widow (the wonderfully endearing Norma Varden!) for the inheritance she's going to leave him.

There's a great exchange between Leonard's wife, Christine (Marlene Dietrich), and the lawyer working with Sir Wilfrid, regarding Leonard's, ahem, relationship with the murdered woman. The lawyer, mincing around the topic, Marlene Dietrich's character unfazed and pragmatic. Cracked me up:

Brogan-Moore: 'Quite obviously, Mrs. French should come to look upon your husband as a son, or perhaps a favorite nephew.'
Christine Vole: 'You think Mrs. French looked upon Leonard as a son? Or a nephew?'
Brogan-Moore: 'I do. An entirely natural and understandable relationship.'
Christine Vole: 'What hypocrits you are in this country.'

The movie's nothing but fabulous dialogue. And the way the plot unfolds really is ingenious. But it would still be nothing without Charles Laughton in the lead role. He is utterly perfect, sneaking cigars and brandy behind Elsa Lancaster's back with as much relish as he has questioning witnesses and trying to get Tryone off the hook. I mostly know him as an actor from Mutiny on the Bounty, but I really need to find more things he's done. It surprised me a little how funny he was in this movie. His little smirk as he goofs off on the staircase lift; his delight in pulling one over on Elsa Lancaster. He made me laugh aloud more than once with the little quirky things he did. I also did not know until after I watched this film that Laughton and Lancaster were married for over thirty years!

Tyrone Power does a very good job with his role too, which is actually a rather difficult one, and not fully appreciated until you reach the end of the movie and can look back over the whole thing. He swings easily from jaunty and unconcerned, to worried, to histrionic, and back again, as needed. The trivia notes on IMDb say that William Holden was the first choice for Leonard. That would also have worked quite well. Interestingly, it got me wondering how Sunset Blvd. might have worked with Tyrone Power as Joe Gillis. I often try actors in a mental, alternate versions of Sunset Blvd., wondering how they'd fare, if put to it. I think Tyrone would have done quite nicely. But he reminds me of Holden on occasion. Both handsome and devil-may-care, both a bit shady when they want to be, both good with characters who accept the easy route even as it eats them up inside (thinking Nightmare Alley here for Tyrone, but there're other examples too), both able to charm women, young and old.

I'm not particularly a fan of Marlene Dietrich, but I also haven't seen her in very much. Her first scene with Charles Laughton, where you expect one thing from her and get quite another... her natural aloofness is used to advantage. Her character is one of constant surprises, and she conveys a lot with just an arched eyebrow. Though I also craved someone like Barbara Stanwyck for this role, just because Marlene Dietrich often seems one-note, and Stanwyck can play cold but is anything but. Dietrich seems to lack depth sometimes, but I think that might be a weird illusion. I'd have to see her in more things. And she does get to some fun, unexpected moments in this one. Besides, for a woman in her mid-fifties when this was made, she sure looks fabulous. There are women in their thirties who don't look as good.

All in all, a very satisfying film.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

The Mark of Zorro (1940)

Today is a marvelous day. I'm on vacation (it's my birthday tomorrow). I got to sleep in this morning, I'm listening to Manon Lescaut, and I have two loaves of homemade Italian bread rising and a mini-pot (personal size!) of homemade spaghetti sauce simmering on the stove. Unfortunately, neither will be ready to actually eat for a few more hours, but they look and smell fabulous!

I also got to watch The Mark of Zorro for a second time. Amazingly enough, I don't believe I'd ever seen the movie before now. I loved it! A fine version of the Zorro tale. Tyrone Power makes an excellent Diego/Zorro. He can turn his two characters off and on as needed. I particularly liked when he first returns home to California. He gets more and more frustrated and angry with what he's hearing about the supposed behavior of his father... and then he finds out who's really behind the people's woes. You can see him absorb the situation quickly and astutely and immediately retreat from man of action into a disguise that won't alarm the new government. Self-protection and a new game to play, all rolled into one.

A game it definitely is. He's freshly come from Spain, where life had been a series of training, duels, and trysts. He expects California to be boring... and to his delight finds it's anything but. This Diego comes alive when he realizes there's something for him to do with all his training after all. He seems to relish deceiving everyone as a fop as much as he enjoys the action and results of being Zorro.

There's great supporting cast, from the lovely Linda Darnell as his love interest, to Eugene Pallette, to Gale Sondergaard with her deliciously wicked smile. She's actually not evil for once, merely selfish and self-centered. Basil Rathbone plays Captain Pasquale. He's always toying with his sword, and you just can't wait for him and Tyrone to have at it. Most of the best scenes are between the two. Diego deliberately baits the captain any chance he can get. And Pasquale alternates between sneering at the "weak" Diego but still getting insulted. It's great fun. My only regret is that the big fight between the two happens a little earlier than I expected, and that removes the only real threat.

All in all, a great romp. Zorro is one of those characters I never tire of watching.