Saturday, February 19, 2011

Crack Up (1946)

While casting Crack Up, the filmmakers must have made a clerical error. How else to explain Pat O'Brien playing an art critic and Herbert Marshall a cop? Still, it works because Pat O'Brien is pretty bad ass: he makes art criticism seem like a gritty profession. As usual, he drags me, kicking and screaming into liking him. Herbert Marshall is pretty urbane for a cop, but he is supposed to be an undercover agent from Scotland Yard. I guess that makes a difference.

Despite the weird casting, Irving Reis' highly competent direction ended up selling me on this film noir. Reis seamlessly strings together the various set pieces, including, my favorite sequence: O'Brien on the run from the law in a penny arcade. Deft camera movement and clever editing work together to turn a guy standing around pretending to play a video into edge-of-your-seat action.

The script is less good--at times, not even up to the level of a decently written teleplay. An overly enthusiastic writer gives Marshall a rant about how Americans don't appreciate their law enforcement, thus ruining the surprise revelation of Marshall's cop identity. At least the writers do manage to keep track of the plot twists. I like film noir best when it's not so grand at the expense of logic. If I get to the end of the movie and feel that I've learned something about the nature of good and evil but still don't know who dunnit, I get a little peevish. Yeah, I'm talking about you, Big Sleep! No, of course, I'm not saying that Crack Up is better than The Big Sleep--just that it annoyed me less.

O'Brien plays George Steele, whom we first meet in the throes of an alcoholic bender and apparent mental breakdown. In typically circuitous noir style, we soon learn that he began his evening aboard a train that crashed. The problem? The cops have no record of a train wreck. Even in 1946, they kept track of that kind of stuff. So it's not looking good for our hero's sanity. One of his museum colleagues (Claire Trevor) agrees to help him clear his name. He retraces his steps, beginning with another ride on the same train that made him loopy. So far it's a little Lady Vanishes with a some Spellbound tossed in for good measure.

I'm fine with derivative filmmaking, but in those particular Hitchcock films, it’s the romance that keeps me coming back. Here, Claire Trevor manages to play both gal Friday and mysterious dame. Her friendship with O’Brien teeters on the edge of romance and, although it's not a huge surprise when they hook up, it's satisfying. Marshall provides the third side of the triangle, but that plot element doesn't really work. He and Trevor have no chemistry, and in one scene she admits that he makes her miserable. If it weren't for Marshall’s sudden uptick in energy at the end of the movie, I would want to give him B-12 shots. Eventually, however, he solves the crime with panache and starts to seem like an actor who might be worthy of a detective series of his own.

Speaking of detective series, I let out an internal "squee" every time someone in the movie called O'Brien "Mr. Steele." I can't help but wonder if the creators of my all-time favorite TV show, Remington Steele, weren't referencing Crack Up. If you gave Pat O'Brien's wardrobe to a woman, turned the urbane undercover cop into an urbane undercover con man, kept the references to art theft and forgery, squinted and stood back twenty paces, you might have Remington Steele. 

Thanks to the epic series The 100 Greatest Posters of Noir, I will never take movie advertisements at face value again. This poster is terrible. If Where Danger Lives did a 100 Worst, this might well make the list. The title is too small and the tagline is too big. The cracked font is an obvious concept carried out in a half-assed fashion, and, combined with the green, the whole thing reminds me of a turtle. Claire Trevor looks nothing like the poor woman on the poster, who appears to have a painfully broken leg. Pat O'Brien’s portrait does him no favors, either. Herbert Marshall gets third billing, but his portrait dominates the poster. Maybe the artist was a secret Herbert Marshall fan? Nah: no one with such good taste could turn out this little fiasco.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Gentleman Jim (1942)

Before I saw this movie, my knowledge of Gentleman Jim Corbett had been limited to a particularly audacious Bob Dylan rhyme in the song "Hurricane." (We're gonna put his ass in the stir/we're gonna pin this triple mur/der on him. He ain't no Gentleman Jim.) Nevertheless, I was quickly absorbed in this biopic chronicling the life of the famous 19th Century boxer. For those who need more to entrance them than Errol Flynn's near-constant shirtlessness, this tightly plotted film has plenty of action. Director Raoul Walsh (White Heat, High Sierra) keeps things moving along briskly, with fight scenes peppered liberally throughout the script.

Flynn plays a boxer so cocky and self-absorbed that in the climactic championship bout his main concern is that his hair not get mussed. In addition to fame and fortune, Corbett is also pursuing wealthy boxing patron Victoria Ware (Alexis Smith), who keeps promoting the up-and-coming fighter in hopes that he will get his ass kicked and learn his place already. He keeps winning, and eventually Ware realizes that Corbett differs from his nouveau riche "betters," a bunch of dirt prospectors and miners who got lucky in the Gold Rush, only in being a few decades more nouveau.

The Not So Quiet Man

In the meantime co-stars Alan Hale and Ward Bond steal all their scenes as, respectively, Corbett's scrappy Irish father and larger- than-life Irish rival, John L. Sullivan. Bond is particularly fun to watch; this character stands alongside his hilarious turn as a gambling, boxing-enthusiast priest in The Quiet Man as outstanding examples of his supporting work. Also in the mix is another The Quiet Man alum, Arthur Shields, who plays a gambling, boxing-enthusiast priest. Like The Quiet Man, this movie is funny, sentimental and wildly entertaining. What the later, better-known film has--and Gentleman Jim lacks is the romance. Flynn and Smith have nice-ish chemistry but their constant arguing is shrill and annoying. There's a fine line with these things, and usually it is the script that makes the difference. Give squabbling people amusing things to say, and you've got a Noel Coward play. Give them the script to Gentleman Jim and you're eavesdropping on the dysfunctional couple upstairs. But Smith and Flynn are so gosh-darned pretty that this shortcoming doesn't sink the film. Feel free to use the mute button, is my motto. The movie works as light entertainment and solid proof, if you needed any more, that Raoul Walsh could direct the heck out of an action scene.

The only thing I really learned about 19th Century prize fighting from Gentleman Jim, was that boxers favored sweaters over robes at one point in history. Several scenes show meaty, sweaty boxers with sweaters tied around their necks like 1980s yuppies.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Cinema OCD Valentines

Once again, I make Valentines out of random photos I've collected this past year. Print these out and give them to your would-be Valentine or anyone else you want to deeply confuse. (Click on the image to see print-ready version. )

Best. Screencap. Ever.

Note: pixelated refers to the movie dialog, not to the fact that my thumbnails look like crap!

Forgive me, but I could see no other way to get this on to my blog.

Valentines + sarcasm= a winning combination.

Nora, this one's for you!