Shanghai Express

“It took more than one man toFamous still change my name to Shanghai Lily,” Marlene Dietrich tells her former lover in Shanghai Express (1932). This was before the Hays Code — just — when an actress could get away with a line like that. Dietrich plays “a woman of many casual affairs,” as Mordaunt Hall delicately put it in his review for the New York Times.

Mr. Hall was quite smitten. Dietrich, he wrote “. . . is langourous but fearless as Lily. She glides through her scenes with heavy eyelids and puffing on her cigarettes.” There is, indeed, the famous still of Dietrich, cigarette in hand, gazing skyward. Another of her in the train corridor wearing a negligee. This last one was too much for Vanity Fair. Director Von Sternberg “traded his open style for fancy play, chiefly upon the legs in silk, and buttocks in lace, of Dietrich, of whom he has made a paramount slut,” the magazine accused.Marlene-Shanghai-3

In fact, Shanghai Lily was reputed to have “wrecked a dozen men, up and down the China coast,” according to the friend of her paramour in the film, Doc Harvey (Clive Brook), but she never comes across as a slut. For one thing, she’s too fascinating, and she has no illusions about herself. We can’t help rooting for her, and in the course of a train journey from Peiking to Shanghai, she proves her moral worth and wins her lover back.

Nearly everyone else on the train seems to be hiding something. There’s a half-Chinese warlord (played by a white actor in “yellow face,” Werner Oland, who would soon become famous for playing Charlie Chan), a disgraced French officer, a missionary, a gambler, a stuffy old lady and an opium dealer. Gradually we learn their secrets as the train is commandeered by rebels. Only the other woman of ill repute, a Chinese prostitute named Hui-Fei (Anna May Wong) demonstrates comparable courage. 

This was Wong’s greatest role in American film. Mostly she was consigned to playing delicate flowers or Dragon Lady parts. Here she smokes a lot, to great effect (I’d put her right up there with Bette Davis), and never abandons her dignity.

Definitely worth watching.

An Affair to Remember

Two Tables for One

We have this film to thank for Cary Grant’s performance in North By Northwest. After a couple of flops, including the big-budget failure, The Pride and the Passion, Grant was ready to retire from the movies. Dealing with the colossal ego of his co-star in that picture, Frank Sinatra, had drained him. Charles Higham and Roy Moseley described Sinatra’s behavior on the set of The Pride and the Passion in their biography of Grant:

Sinatra was at his worst at the time, his nervous, volatile temperament annoying to everyone. He insisted on calling Cary “Mother Cary”; he refused to drive in a chauffeured Mercedes but insisted that his Thunderbird be flown in from Hollywood; he threatened to urinate on Kramer if the director would not get him back to his hotel before midnight . . .

As if putting up with Old Blue Eyes wasn’t bad enough, Grant had fallen in love with his other co-star, Sophia Loren. The affair was quite passionate, and Loren has admitted that she was torn over whether to accept Grant’s proposal of marriage when filming ended, but she ultimately turned him down and went back to her lover, Italian director Carlo Ponti. Grant was devastated.

Then came the opportunity to make An Affair to Remember (1957), a remake (by the director of the original) of a 1930s romantic drama of thwarted love, with a happy ending. Grant plays a charming, witty — and irresistible — bachelor, a role he had perfected. One last fling in Europe, and he’s ready to settle down with a New York heiress, to the dismay of women all over the world. Then he meets Deborah Kerr on the ship, and has second thoughts.

Kerr is returning to her sugar daddy (well, that’s how we’d describe her relationship with the wealthy man who has set her up in a swank apartment, to which he has a key, and promised to advance her singing career; fifties movies could be naughty, in an oblique way). Of course, she is smitten, and it’s cute to watch the two of them as they attempt to avoid the inevitable.

What makes the picture memorable, however, is not the shipboard romance. It’s Grant’s bitterness when Kerr fails to show up for the rendez-vous they’d planned in six months’ time. It’s not her fault, of course. The poor thing was hit by a car on her way to meeting him on the top of the Empire State Building and lost the use of her legs, but Grant doesn’t know that. Bitter, he’s even more attractive than he was when he was debonair. Maybe not as appealing as when he thought Ingrid Bergman was relishing her romance with Claude Rains in Notorious, but well worth watching.

Grant got his mojo back with An Affair to Remember. The boost kept him going through several forgettable films (including Houseboat, when he was reunited with Sophia Loren) and one keeper: North by Northwest.

Release Date: March 18th!

AllTheWrongPlacesFront

Old Hollywood glamour comes vividly to life in historian, novelist, and film blogger Lieberman’s series debut, highlighting the effects of the 1950s Red Scare on the movie industry and the tragedies that happened off the silver screen. Aficionados of Alfred Hitchcock and Hollywood-themed mysteries will find this historical noir right up their alley.

 – Library Journal

Return of the Pink Panther

If you’re only going to watch one Pink Panther movie, this is the one I’d recommend. You get more of Peter Sellers than in the original installment, Chief Inspector Dreyfus’s tics and twitches are at just the right calibration, and Cato has really hit his stride.

There’s the usual slapstick, with perhaps a tad too many pairs of pants getting ripped, but the bit with the lightbulb popping up in the Swiss hotel room, and the scene where Clouseau and the bellboy are hiding in the sauna are nicely done. You also get Clouseau saying “minkey,” “phoehn,” and “rheume.”

But the best part’s the costumes. Peter Sellers’s Englishman’s parody of a Frenchman was never better than the telephone repairman, complete with goatee and espadrilles in his ticky tacky truck. The bumbling cleaner who vacuums up a parrot: we see it coming quite a ways off. It’s still hilarious.Lounge Lizard 2 And nothing tops the swinger putting the make on the suspect’s wife in the hotel bar.

Christopher Plummer doesn’t have much to do as the presumed jewel thief. He’s not as suave as David Niven, who played Sir Charles Lytton the first time around. There are a few nice touches in the scenes he’s in, like having “Casablanca” playing on the piano when he arrives in the fancy hotel in Lugash (the scene was filmed in Morocco) and giving him characters reminiscent of Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet to play against when he is there.

Oh, and you get the pink panther animation over the titles, along with the Henry Mancini score. What’s not to like?

East of Eden

Reading end-of-year tributes to the Hollywood stars and other cultural icons we lost in 2014—particularly those whose deaths were untimely—got me thinking about James Dean (1931-1955). I’d just read East of Eden, John Steinbeck’s epic reworking of the Biblical story of Cain and Abel, set in California’s Salinas Valley. Elia Kazan’s film version of the last third of the novel introduced movie audiences to the troubled young actor, who would go on to make two more films before dying in a car accident at the age of twenty-four.

Dean Train

It’s obvious why Kazan chose Dean. He was made for the role of Cal Trask, the screwed-up son of an evil woman who deserted him and his twin brother Aron at birth and went on to run a whorehouse that specialized in S&M (this in a novel that came out in 1952!). Cal and Aron’s father, Adam, was never the same after she left and Raymond Massey plays him as a cold fish. In a key confrontation early in the film, Adam forces Cal to read the Bible at the dinner table, a crude dramatization of the book’s far more poignant rendering of their miscommunication.

In the book, the boys were lovingly tended by the family’s Chinese cook, Lee, and there is deep affection between them. Cal is fiercely protective of Aron, seeing him as a better person, a pure soul, whereas he knows himself to be innately flawed and struggles to be as good as his brother. Steinbeck made him a complicated character who demonstrates a great deal of self-awareness in conversations with Lee, whereas in the film he comes across as something of an adolescent psychopath, albeit a very attractive one.

Aron, however, grows less admirable as the novel progresses, becoming self-righteous and revealing moral weakness. By the time Cal forces him to face up to the truth about their mother, we have lost interest in him. Of course he’s going to die in World War I. It’s not just the Cain and Abel scenario playing out (and really, Kazan didn’t have to make Cal shout, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” to get the point across). Nobody could live with a prig like him. No wonder his girlfriend falls for Cal.

Cal is far more compelling, and by the end of the picture, Dean succeeds in showing us the character that Steinbeck created. We see him grow up and find within himself the basic goodness that (we sense) will never come easily to him. He will always struggle to be his better self. Alas, James Dean did not live to master his own demons and show us what he could do.

Mambo

Robert Rossen named names to the House Un-AmericanMambo Poster Activities Committee — fifty-seven of them. Then he went to Italy and made this ponderous film. Mambo (1954) is a mishmash of neorealist solemnity and “women’s picture” melodrama. The actors all seem to be holding back, as if they too found the story implausible. The dancing scenes lack joy. Rossen himself considered the movie a failure, and yet he poured his heart and soul into the project. “I got involved, took it seriously, but it just didn’t come off,” Alan Casty quotes him as saying in Robert Rossen: The Films and Politics of a Blacklisted Idealist.

No, it didn’t work as a movie, but as a cri de coeur, Mambo is strangely compelling. Here is Rossen’s attempt to justify his betrayal of his former comrades, an anguished plea for understanding, if not forgiveness. He can’t forgive himself, you see, but as we watch his confused heroine Giovanna (Silvana Mangano) abandon her dreams and her integrity under the sway of her ne’er-do-well lover Mario (Vittorio Gassman) and her dissolute aristocratic admirer, count Enrico Marisoni (Michael Rennie), we can’t help but notice Rossen’s remorse.

Like many Jews who made their way to Hollywood in the 1930s and 40s, Rossen was drawn to Communism. The Party was “dedicated to social causes of the sort that we as poor Jews from New York were interested in,” he told his son, and his early scripts featured working-class characters and explored big themes like bigotry and injustice. But after the war, he grew disillusioned with Communism’s monolithic structure and left the party, as did many others. His Academy Award-winning adaptation of Robert Penn Warren’s novel All the King’s Men (1949) gives a more jaded perspective on working-class heroism, showing how easily even noble ideals can be corrupted.

But Mambo demonstrates that Rossen had not abandoned his idealism. He used Katherine Dunham’s interracial dance troupe for the mambo scenes — this in the segregated pre-Civil Rights era — and he has Ms. Dunham herself instructing Giovanna on the virtues of hard work and rigorous training, belying the general perception that such “primitive” dance forms came naturally to African peoples. At the end of the film, after she has caused the deaths of two people, Giovanna seeks salvation through rejoining Dunham’s troupe and losing herself in her work.

Rossen was initially called to testify before HUAC in 1951, and had taken the Fifth. Blacklisted, he had two years of unemployment to reconsider his principles and when he was called again in 1953, he caved in and gave the committee what it wanted. “It killed him not to work. He was torn between his desire to work and his desire not to talk, and he didn’t know what to do,” his son explained.

After Mambo, he went on to make six more films, including the epic Alexander the Great (1956) starring Richard Burton, Island in the Sun (1960), a controversial story about interracial love in the Caribbean which featured Dorothy Dandridge and Harry Bellefonte in serious roles, and The Hustler (1961) with Paul Newman and Jackie Gleason, now considered a classic. Akin to the flawed Giovanna, work figured in Rossen’s salvation, I would say.

The Pride and the Passion

Poster - Pride and the Passion, The_05Frank Sinatra, Cary Grant, and Sophia Loren in Napoleonic era Spain. The two men are vying for the woman, butting heads for most of the picture. Wait, there’s more. A big cannon. Okay, that’s it.

I rarely pass up an opportunity to watch Cary Grant, and this epic’s notorious because of the romance that developed between Grant and Loren in the course of filming it. Grant’s marriage to Betsy Drake was dissolving; Loren was waiting for Carlo Ponti to divorce his wife. “Both of us soon realized that the feelings between us were beginning to be laced with love — and we were scared.” In her forthcoming memoir, Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow, Loren admits that she was torn:

I knew that my place was next to Carlo — he was my safe harbor, even though I was still waiting for him to make a decision about our lives; our furtive relationship couldn’t go on much longer. At the same time, it was hard to resist the magnetism of a man like Cary, who said he was willing to give up everything for me. On our last night, he invited me out, looking more solemn than usual. Inside, I was afraid.

There was a gorgeous sunset outside as he turned to me, looked me in the eyes and said simply: “Will you marry me?” My words got caught in my throat. I was like an actress in a movie who’s forgotten her lines.

I felt so small in the face of this impossible decision. “Cary, dear, I need time,” I whispered breathlessly.

He understood. And he deflected my reply with a light touch of humor: “Why don’t we get married first, and then think about it?”

Grant seems to have behaved like a gentleman, and although Loren chose Ponti in the end, the two remained close. “In a treasure trove of memories that I keep in a box, there are letters and notes in Cary’s elegant, joyful handwriting that still fill me with tenderness,” she writes, “they speak to me of a fondness that, although it changed over time, never waned.”

You can get a sense of the heat on the set of The Pride and the Passion from this flamenco scene:

Night of the Living Dead

I don’t know what’s scarier, being attacked by flesh-eating zombies or being trapped all night with the Coopers, the 1960s nuclear family who have barricaded themselves into the basement of the house where Ben and Barbra have taken refuge, Nuclear Family2along with a nice young couple named Tom and Judy. Ben is smart, calm, and resourceful—a good thing, because Barbra’s no help at all. Granted, she’s just seen her brother Johnny die while trying to rescue her from a zombie and barely escaped the creature, but the poor girl’s a basket case throughout the film.

Mr. Cooper likes being addressed as “Mr. Cooper,” the way dads did in those days. He’s used to calling the shots, bossing around his wife Helen. She’s understandably upset about their little girl, who has fallen into a coma after being bitten by a zombie, but the scenes where she lashes out at her husband in Who’s-Afraid-of-Virginia-Wolfe fashion are truly terrifying.

Village Voice critic Elliot Stein called Night of the Living Dead the “first-ever subversive horror movie.” George Romero’s low-budget chiller established most of the conventions for the genre, but the director himself admits that he was only picking up on what was “in the air” at the time. He chose a black actor to play Ben because he was “the best actor from among our friends,” Romero said, but Martin Luther King’s assassination not long before the picture’s release “gave the film much more weight.”

Indeed, Ben has more in common with the nonviolent King than the fiery leader Malcolm X or Black Panther activist Eldridge Cleaver. He strikes me as the quiet, thinking type of African-American character played by Sidney Poitier: dignified, non-threatening, slow to anger. Nobody but Mr. Cooper seems kick-ass about killing zombies. He launches molotov cocktails out the upstairs bedroom window at the undead with gusto while Ben and Tom are attempting to fill up Ben’s pick-up truck with gas so Tom can go for help.

Killing zombies is just a job to Ben, approached in the same workmanlike fashion as he displays in nailing up the doors and windows of the house. The only time we see him get hot under the collar is when he’s butting heads with Mr. Cooper. Sure, he punches the guy and is eventually forced to shoot him, but it’s totally justifiable, a “they call me Mr. Tibbs” kind of moment.

Really, I was more disturbed by the ending, where Ben gets shot by the cops, who mistake him for one of the undead. Cahiers du Cinema hailed Night of the Living Dead as “a powerful statement on racism.” In the light of last summer’s shooting of an unarmed teenager in Ferguson, Missouri, the film’s ending takes on new and chilling relevance. You can download it for free. For a taste of what’s in store, watch the trailer. Bon Appétit!

Once Upon a Time in the West

Ordinarily I steer clear of films that were intended as allegories. They go down like medicine and, let’s face it, most directors take themselves way too seriously when they embark on a mission. Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) is an allegory in the form of a Western, too, a genre freighted with moral purpose. I confess, I was a little nervous going in, but I saddled up anyhow, put on my spurs, and set off for Sweetwater.

Henry Fonda disarmed me, right off the bat. Those baby blue eyes on the face of a cold-blooded killer. It took awhile to regain my bearings, after he blew away the McBain family, but when the dust settled, I saw that I needn’t have worried. There’s a message here, to be sure, but Sergio Leone has a light touch, an approach to lesson-giving that I can only describe as fatherly.

Affectionately, he drapes an arm around our shoulders. Us, the Americans: he loves us, we must understand that he is speaking as a friend. More than a friend, an admirer. As a boy growing up under fascism, watching Westerns (this was before World War II, when they would be banned), he believed all the clichés. Epic heroes, taming the frontier, armed not only with rifles but with integrity. Such a contrast, those virtuous cowboys and their G.I. brothers, the ones who liberated Italians from the Nazis, versus his defeated countrymen, who had embraced Mussolini’s nationalism and stood by while their leader formed a shameful alliance with Hitler.

Ah, but in the decades since the war ended, we lost our way. It pains him to say this, but he must be honest. First came the witch hunts of the McCarthy era (Mickey Knox, a blacklisted actor living in Italy, worked with Leone on the English dialogue for the picture), followed by the violence of the civil rights battle and capped off by the Vietnam war. No longer proud, our values tarnished, we turned away from our own epic myths. Sure, Bonanza was still running on TV, but the motion picture Western was languishing in America.

Once Upon the Time in the West revived the industry, which was already flourishing in Italy. Like Leone’s Man With No Name trilogy (A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly), this picture features characters of dubious integrity and marvelous Western vistas (mostly shot in Spain), a score by Ennio Morricone. In addition to Fonda, there are fine performances by Charles Bronson and Jason Robards.

But here’s the big difference: Once Upon a Time in the West OUTITW_Jill1has a woman at its center, a prostitute, Jill (played by the lovely Claudia Cardinale). She brings hope at the end of the picture. Redemption, even. John Boorman saw this film as “Leone’s gift to America of its lost fairy stories.”  I think he’s right.

Yojimbo

I’ve heard Yojimbo described as Japanese nihilism and that’s true up to a point. Morally speaking, there are no uplifting lessons here; it’s dog-eat-dog in Akira Kurosawa’s pioneering noir Western. The story revolves around an impoverished samurai, Sanjuro, who stumbles into a village terrorized by warring criminal gangs. Once admired for their warrior skills and aristocratic code of honor, the samurai had become swords-for-hire following the Western penetration of Japan in the mid-nineteenth century.

Sanjuro sells himself to the highest bidder, and has no qualms about double-crossing his employers. He appears unscrupulous, a casual killer who sponges off his hosts, lies and cheats, loyal to nobody. And yet he grows on us. Well before Sanjuro reveals his compassionate side, I found myself rooting for him.

For one thing, the bad guys were so much worse than he was, and let’s face it, the village was a mess. Who could blame him for wanting to get the heck out of there? Gary Cooper, Alan Ladd, John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, Henry Fonda: I don’t care who you pick, nobody could have cleaned up that town.

Kurosawa was a fan of Russian literature. Ten years before he made Yojimbo, he adapted a Dostoevsky novel for the screen. The Idiot was his least successful project, but it was important to him, and very personal, a bleak commentary on postwar Japanese society.

Yojimbo covers the same territory, but it turns out to be less bleak in the end. The hero of The Idiot is too pure, too fragile, for the corrupt world in which he finds himself. Sanjuro, on the other hand, is well-suited for the modern era. In the Darwinian struggle for survival that characterized the evolution of the Western genre, his type would be selected for.