Rightwing Film Geek

Older films seen during the week

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CONFIDENTIAL AGENT (Herman Shumlin, USA, 1945, 6): I was in a Graham Greene mood a few days ago, so I watched this Greene-novel-based film on TCM, and it was effective as long as I could keep a straight face at the basic ludicrousness of the casting. Was there ever a more distinctly *American* star actress than Lauren Bacall? Was there ever a more distinctly *French* actor among Hollywood stars than Charles Boyer? So, why O why, are these two fine actors cast as a British aristocrat’s daughter and a Spanish agent for the Republic during the 30s civil war? Boyer and Bacall weren’t even trying to hide their unmistakable voices. (You also hear Peter Lorre’s rat-fink voice passed off as a Spaniard.) With better casting or even a minor rewrite (it wasn’t as if the Spanish Republic didn’t attract support from leftists in every country in the world), there was a potentially great film here. The plot, involving a republican agent’s attempt to outbid the nationalists for a British coal contract, sound boring, but coal is really just a MacGuffin for a picaresque series of clear, lean and suspenseful set pieces involving characters whom we know only as threats or friends or both or neither. Boyer is more effective than I would have dared imagine at playing a driven, intense and eventually ruthless man. Bacall doesn’t know how not to be alluring. We also see the shards of (what I imagine are) Greene’s novel and his characteristic themes, though smoothed into a straight spy story, in scenes involving some of the supporting characters — the 14-year-old hotel attendant; Mr. Mukerjee, the observer; the pusher of the Universal Language of Brotherhood; the miner whose son was in Spain. In these short scenes and what the actors do with these eccentric characters, you get a sense of what Greene was driving for, while seeing it being watered down for a genre-movie script. CONFIDENTIAL AGENT was the equivalent of an art school student trying to mimic Leonardo or Michelangelo — there’s a great movie among these ingredients; too bad it isn’t what was made.

Betty+Compson+++George+Bancroft+-+The+Docks+of+New+York+(2)+meeting+2

THE DOCKS OF NEW YORK (Josef Von Sternberg, USA, 1928, 9): Sternberg was credited with about six or seven silent films, of which at least three have solid reputations. I’ve now seen two (DOCKS and THE LAST COMMAND; UNDERWORLD remaining). And I’ll commit critical blasphemy by saying that I honestly prefer these two silents to Sternberg’s famous series of films with Marlene Dietrich. Sternberg’s overheated, overripe fantasies and his stylizations in set design and subject matter and acting style seem kind of ludicrous when exposed to sound and the realism of the talkies (although maybe it’s just English; I think THE BLUE ANGEL is great, but I’ve only ever seen the German version). DOCKS is a triumph of magnificent style over a really thin story — in a 24-hour period over two days, a stoker on a ship saves a drowning woman of questionable virtue on his night ashore and the two kinda maybe fall in love, but do get married definitely. As a lark. Or not. This low-life fairy tale is contained within a typically bizarre Sternbergian universe — an overstuffed mix of the glitter and the gutter that must’ve set a young Fellini’s imagination wandering. But it’s not all smoke and nets and roving camera movements over barroom lines and through chair-tossing fights (the camera really seems to move in all four directions and all three dimensions in a way few films from that era did). In the admittedly very stylized way, you won’t see better acting than the interplay between George Bancroft as the rough-hewn stoker and Betty Compson as his wife/prostitute. The looks on their faces and their gestures make words so painfully redundant that it’s not hard to see why many critics until the mid-1930s thought talkies were the death of film. And you keep reminding yourself as you’re watching this sex-drenched film that could probably get a G-rating that you’re seeing a film made in 1928 showing things that you thought were never shown in American movies until the 1960s.

March 12, 2005 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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