Joy House (Les Felins)
Joy House (1964) by Rene Clement is an unseen and underappreciated film that really deserves a look by anyone who is interested in cinema that is peculiar, offbeat and sometimes a little strange.
It was adapted from a novel by the prolific paperback novelist Day Keene. The French seem to have a nose for finding these things and God bless them for it. It stars Alain Delon one of French Cinema’s biggest stars who is still around but semiretired. In youth he was a handsome almost pretty man with the rugged nature of a mountain climber and the projected soul of a gigolo. At least that’s the way he came across in most of his films. Despite his looks he was quite a good actor who in his long career made films with nearly every great director in Europe at the time. Everyone from Visconti and Antonioni and even Jean Luc Godard. His international breakthrough came four years before with Purple Noon (1960) the first film version of Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley. That film was his first collaboration with Rene Clement director of Joy House. Mr. Clement was a distinguished filmmaker who had received an Academy Award (Best Foreign Film) in 1952 for Forbidden Games. But despite their pedigree and some name American actresses in the cast the film somehow fell through the cracks. It never got an art house release in the US and wound up on the bottom half of a double bill that featured Delon in an American gangster film called Once a Thief(1964) co-starring Ann Margaret. The idea was to expose Delon to the American film going audience and launch him as a box office star here. But it didn’t happen and after several poorly received films he went back to Europe and resumed his popular and critically successful career.
But Joy House is a fascinatingly perverse film that deserved a better reception than it got. I saw it on the double bill mentioned above. Both films were reviewed and Joy House was dismissed as a worthless throwaway. The people I saw the film with agreed with that assessment. I thought they were wrong and I still do, I was quite taken with it. I thought it a quirky and original film that deserved a repeated viewing and a closer examination but no one I knew agreed with me. I still do and over the years I have looked at it several times and its fascination still holds. It still exerts its power.
In genre terms I guess one could describe it as absurdist noir. On screen it plays like a collaboration between Cornell Woolrich (Rear Window and The Bride Wore Black), Samuel Beckett and Eugene Ionesco with a touch of Edgar Allan Poe thrown in. Delon plays gigolo/playboy/petty criminal named Marc living on the Rivera, who is discovered having an affair with the sexy wife of a powerful gangster who orders his men to kill him. They catch Delon and take him out to the country to do the deed but he manages to escape and winds up in a flophouse among derelicts and winos. He is there a week when two beautiful but somewhat strange women dressed in black come to their soup kitchen to feed them. He is told that they do it on a regular basis and the denizens of the place refer to them as “The Black widow and her niece”. The women are played by Lola Albright, a beautiful actress who had done most of her screen work at that time on TV, particularly the popular series Peter Gunn (84 episodes). She was 39 in this film. Jane Fonda, 27, but looking considerably younger plays the niece. This was the 8th picture in her career and the beginning of her French phase that extended from this film in 1964 to 1972 with Godard’s Tout va Bien. It is revealed in the narrative that the widow’s husband died some time before and that she has become a recluse living in a sequestered mansion with only her niece who also serves as her maid. On their first encounter the widow is taken with Delon and hires him as her chauffer. Fonda is pleased about this because her interest in Marc is somewhat more basic. He gets to the house, gets the lay of the land and quickly sets out to seduce the widow for what he can get out of her. He succeeds but it quickly becomes clear to him and us that perhaps he’s in way over his head with both of these women. While at the same time the gangsters are in hot pursuit and are getting closer and closer.
The film is moody, off beat and off center. Nothing is what it seems. The gangsters are deadly but sometimes their behavior is so inept that they could be mistaken as members of the Keystone Kops. And this is deliberate because the lead gangster is played by Sorrell Brooke who later played Boss Hogg on the long running series The Dukes of Hazzard. Albright in the role of the widow is quiet, seductive and dark. She delivers most of her lines with a disarming smile that contradicts almost everything she has to say. Fonda, in her part is innocent, kittenish, pliable and emotionally in need. But her character can also be sly and cunning when need be.
The house too with its winding stairway and multiple mirrors has its secrets as well. The whole film plays like a game of maze where the story keeps leading down one blind alley after another until it all comes to an abrupt ending but with a snappy little coda that is both ironic and amusing in the black comedy sense of the word. Joy House is a film that stays teasingly in the mind long after you’ve seen it. Give it a try, see what you think.
Vicente Aranda’s Lovers (Spain -1991) not to be confused with Louis Malle’s The Lovers (France-1958) is one of the most erotic and sexually charged motion pictures you will find anywhere. The potency of its sexuality is such that you can almost feel it coming off the screen. In these supposedly enlightened times there are any number of films that boast sexual frankness but very few that can be said to be truly erotic. This is one of them.
The story is based on a real event that took place in Spain in the late 1940s. Originally the film was scheduled to be made as part of a TV series called Traces of Crime. But when the series got cancelled Aranda decided to set it in the 1950s and make a theatrical feature out of it. The story concerns a young man (Paco) who has just completed his military service. He is romantically involved with the very catholic, very moral Trini who works as a maid for a retired officer and his wife. She plans to marry Paco and have a normal life like everyone that she knows. Into this comes the landlady (Louisa) of the place where Paco rooms. She is mid to late 30s, still in her prime and exudes a sexual appetite with every move she makes and everything she says. She quickly seduces the young Paco and opens erotic doors into which he eagerly enters. Trini senses this and attempts to compete but is wholly inadequate. The landlady is too knowledgeable, too experienced and too predatory. She might also be criminal as well. That role is played by Victoria Abril, Spain’s reigning sexpot at the time. An actress who described herself as “80% organic and 20% cerebral”. She came to screen prominence playing sexually uninhibited characters in films by Aranda who discovered her at age 18 when he cast her as a transsexual in his 1977 film Cambio de sexo (The Sex Changers). Her fully committed performances often surprised and shocked the bourgeoisie of Spain but Abril didn’t care. She pushed the limits of respectability with each succeeding film she appeared in. In Amantes she is the sexual center of the film and charges it with her own erotic fire. But she’s not alone for Mirabel Verdu (later to shine so brightly in Y Tu Mama Tambien (2002)brings her own sexual fire to the picture as well. Amantes is a love story, a sex story, a crime story and a real life tragedy all rolled into one.
Vicente Aranda was 66 when he made this film and it became his biggest international success winning several awards for himself and Victoria Abril. But in the US it hardly got much of a release. And today it can only be found on used VHS tapes. No DVD had been struck from it thus far. Aranda’s career has advanced since that time with several high budgeted films like Mad Love (2001) and Carmen (2003). Prior to Amantes he was mostly known as a director of erotic horror films like The Exquisite Cadaver (1969). But even in those days the underlying theme that seemed to travel from film to film has to do with the cruelty and uncontrollable nature of sexual passion. With Amantes that theme is front and center in its boldest and most dramatically potent context. The film is beautifully photographed, very well acted and handsomely directed right down to its mournful ending. Amantes is a forgotten film that should be given a second chance.
(Or: Bad films we love)
The Best of Everything (1959) is one of those movies I go back to time after time for no reason I can intelligently explain except that I love it. The film was adapted from a bestselling novel by Rona Jaffe and was later turned into a daytime drama (soap opera) in 1970 with James Lipton, the creator and host of Inside the Actor’s Studio as its head writer. But the film is what we’re talking about here. It is a slick piece of Hollywood gloss produced by 20th Century Fox and directed by Jean Negulesco (1900-1993) at the time Hollywood’s go-to guy of “Women’s pictures”, who directed such films as: Three Coins in the Fountain (1954), A Certain Smile (1954), A Woman’s World (1954) and later The Pleasure Seekers (1964) which was really a remake of Three Coins in the Fountain. They went to the right guy for The Best of Everything is very much a woman’s picture and Negulesco directs it with such polish it could easily have come right out of the pages of Women’ Home Journal or Cosmopolitan magazine.
It is the story of three attractive and innocently sexy young women who go to Manhattan in search of romance, adventure and a career that will sustain them until they fall in love and get married. The tone of the story is set up at the start by a toast they propose in their apartment.
“Here’s to men. Bless their clean cut faces and dirty little minds.”
The career in this film is publishing. They all work as secretaries at Fabian Books, a conglomerate that publishes novels, How-to books and various magazines. And some of the things that take place behind those closed office doors and played for humor would qualify today as “sexual harassment” of the most tasteless kind. But never mind that. The pleasures of the film are multiple. First there is the title song written by Sammy Cahn (Lyrics) and Ken Newman (Music) and perfectly sung over the titles by Johnny Mathis. The visual montage of people going to work that accompanies it is a valentine to early morning Manhattan. That alone is worth the price of admission. In fact the film is so beautifully shot in rich color by Deluxe that the entire film could be viewed as a visual valentine to New York city, especially the East Side and Madison Avenue.
Then there are the three principals Caroline Bender (Hope Lange) young, serious and hopelessly in love with a wrong guy. Her best line in the film comes after she learns that the love of her life has married another. She says this to Mike Rice (Stephen Boyd 1931-1977) a co-worker at the company.
Oh Mike, please make love to me. Even if you don’t love me, please, please make love to me.”
They used that clip in every trailer of the film as a come on and to illustrate how bold and daring the film really was. The second roommate is April Morrison (Diane Baker). She’s young, naive and a little bit dopey. She’s due to learn a harsh lesson about men and love from a wealthy no account named Dexter Key (Robert Evans). But the most dramatic story revolves around Greg Adams (Suzy Parker) an aspiring actress who falls in love with a brilliant and smolderingly attractive stage director David Savage played by Hollywood’s smolderingly attractive Louis Jourdan. Suzy Parker at that time was Fashion’s highest paid model. She was said to be “the most photographed woman in the world”. Critics brought out their axes for her performance in this film but I never saw anything particularly bad about it. No, she wasn’t Katherine Hepburn or Bette Davis but she wasn’t awful either. I suspect that it was their way of getting even for her being just so damn beautiful. Who knows?
In a supporting role is Martha Hyer, a quite attractive woman who never got the guy in most of her films (See Some Came Running –1958 or House Boat –1958). She’s having the same problem here. And saving the best for last there’s the queen of them all Miss Joan Crawford (1905-1977) as Amanda Farrow, a tough, hard bitten and cynical editor who hates “You young college types who think you can come in here with your Bachelor’s degrees and take over the company.”. Her character is so bitter that she could serve as a cautionary tale all by herself. But she too has a secret. She’s having an affair with a married man.
“I waited for you all night.” She says to him on the phone. “What? You were home? But last night was ours. I will not be taken for granted. I only have one small corner in your life and I will not settle for less. Now you and your rabbit faced wife can both go to hell!”
She delivers that line of dialogue as only Joan Crawford could and that too is worth sitting through the film for.
The men in the film don’t count for much. Mike Rice (Boyd) is a rueful drunk who hangs around the edges of scenes. Louis Jourdan plays David Savage in his French/American mode. French for seduction, American for cruelty. And Robert Evans, later head of production for Paramount, was an actor who always projected a repulsive charm on screen. Here he is at his most charmingly repulsive.
All in all the film is great, soapy, glamorous fun that takes place in the real world which nevertheless comes up looking like Never-Never Land. It is the kind of film that Hollywood makes better than anyone else in the world. This is a movie that you can laugh at, laugh with and enjoy, all at the same time.
A film truly for which the phrase “Guilty pleasure” was coined.
When I was a youngster as far as I was concerned anyone who did more than one thing on a film was a genius. For example, if you wrote and acted you were a genius. If you directed and acted in the same film you were a genius. If you produced and just acted, the same thing. We would often say “And he produced the film too, you know.” With a little bit of awe in our voices. Of course we had no idea what producing a film entailed but nevertheless we were impressed. But as you can see there were qualifications. If you wrote, produced and directed, maybe….The jury was still out. If you produced and directed forget it. What you did behind the camera didn’t count for much. You had to act. I had to be able to see you. Ida Lupino for example with a film like The Bigamist (1953) which she directed and starred qualified her as a bonafide genius. Jose Ferrer with films like The Shrike (1955), The Great Man (1956) and I, Accuse (1958) qualified as well. Now today everyone does it so as you can see, there aren’t any geniuses anymore. The minute everyone starts doing it genius goes out the window.
Orson Welles was of course everybody’s definition of a genius in motion pictures at the time. He wrote, he produced, he directed and he acted so I accepted him as one. Also I was being constantly told that he was by the media and the press, especially the fan magazines like Photoplay and Modern Screen that I read with fanatical devotion. But secretly I didn’t buy it. I had seen Citizen Kane (1941) and it struck me as confusing. And a film like The Lady from Shanghai (1947) was incoherent to my fourteen year old mind. Still I accepted the fact that he was a genius because everybody said so. But in my heart of hearts he was just an overweight guy with a deep voice. Looking at the situation over from every possible angle I ultimately figured out that one of the prerequisites of being a genius was that you had to be fat. Of course you also had to act, direct, produce and write etc. But first you had to be fat or at least overweight. So Peter Ustinov who did all three sometimes qualified.
Now to me at the time the real genius in films was a guy nobody in the press or even in my circle of acquaintances was calling a genius. His name was Hugo Haas (1901-1968). No one remembers Hugo Haas today but he made films in the 1950s mostly with an actress named Cleo Moore (1928-1973). He was fat, had a mustache and sat most of the time in his pictures. But the credits always read: written, directed and produced by Hugo Haas. And somewhere else it would also say: Starring Hugo Haas and Cleo Moore.
Cleo Moore was blonde, well endowed and kind of pouty looking. She projected a cheap, available aura that us boys found so exciting that we would talk about climbing up on the screen and doing things to her. At the time she looked to be about twenty six in those films. Hugo Haas was somewhere in his mid to late forties, maybe even fifty, which to our young minds meant that he was disgustingly old. He was also fat, ugly and I think he may have even had bad teeth. I know that on the sound track you could hear him breathe all the time. That made him extremely dirty and perverse. We liked that a lot…Here was this filthy, dirty old man and he was always trying to get himself intimately, sexually involved with this young, pretty and obviously tarnished woman. All his films revolved around plots like that. He was always the old guy with a good job like a banking official of some kind. A job where he had access to money. Big money that belonged to some government agency or some large corporation. Along Cleo would come to tempt him with her curvy body and her “sly come hither” smile. The woman was clearly a strumpet but he didn’t know it although we, experienced teenagers that we were, could’ve told him so. Still he would fall for her, leave his plain older wife, steal the bank or corporation’s money and make plans to run away with her to Mexico or some island in the Pacific. But of course she had other things on her mind. She would have a young muscular guy that she loved in the background. These guys always wore jeans and a black T-shirt. And they would always be photographed standing or leaning in some doorway. When Cleo passed the guy would just grab her arm, pull her to his chest and kiss her. If she balked at being handled like that the guy would slap her and she would beg him to kiss her some more…The plan naturally was to kill the old man, take the money and live happily ever after. But something would go wrong; the old man would find out about their plans and turn the tables on them. He would call the police and confess but they never believed him, so he would have to go after the couple himself and more often than not, kill them. Sometimes he would get killed himself in the process. The pictures always ended with some biblical quote printed on the screen pointing out the moral of the story.
My friends and I absolutely loved these films. They were the closest things we could get to genuine pornography. The unspoken possibilities of the plots and the possibilities of Cleo Moore sent our teenage minds searching into all kinds of forbidden corners. And the best part of it was the fact that we weren’t restricted from seeing these films by the Catholic Legion of Decency, an organization that rated the films that we could and couldn’t see. But they didn’t know from Hugo Haas. I think it was because the budgets of his films were generally so low, and the production quality across the board (acting, sound, photography etc.) was so miniscule that they didn’t even look at them for rating. Subsequently the films got a general release, mostly on double or triple bills and disappeared from view right after. That was great for us because we went to see them searching every inch of the screen and listening to every line of dialogue for something prurient that we could expand on. We were never disappointed.
One particular favorite was a film whose title I don’t recall anymore. Anyway, in that one Hugo owns a bar and is married to Cleo. Imagine the obscene possibilities of that. Periodically he would demand his marital rights and she would go into the bedroom with him. But it was always clear that she didn’t want to and was doing it with great reluctance. Now these films never showed any sex scenes or anything even near that. I don’t think I ever saw young Cleo Moore kiss old Hugo Haas on screen. Her kissing stuff was saved for the young guys. With the old guy she would go into the room and the scene would fade. Our imaginations did the rest.
Now working behind the bar was another dirty old guy. This guy was skinny but he also had bad teeth and didn’t seem to like shaving. He would make suggestive remarks to Cleo who was working as a waitress. She would tell him off; Hugh would find out and run the dirty bastard off the premises at gunpoint. In comes a new bartender played by either Richard Egan or Vince Edwards, who later became Dr. Ben Casey on the TV series Ben Casey or some other low rent hunk of the time. But he’s young, good looking and oh yes, muscular. They fall in love but decide to be moral and not touch each other although we know that they’re dying to. Hugo seeing them together, suspicious bastard that he was becomes paranoid and jealous and starts accusing her of things she hasn’t done and even starts beating her too. Of course the stud bartender comes to her rescue and in a fight on a rooftop Hugo misses with a club he’s wielding to bash the bartender with and falls to the ground breaking his neck. But just before dying he looks up at Cleo and says something like: “I’m sorry, please forgive me.” The camera then moves to an overhead shot of the street as the police and the emergency people converge on the scene. The biblical quote comes up and then: The End.
An incredible film! Incredible philosophical observations about life, love and morality. A masterpiece of motion picture art and no one was recognizing it. I was outraged, really outraged that they were calling Orson Welles a genius when the real genius of the cinema was there for all to see. Didn’t they know that? Couldn’t they read? The credits said: Written, Produced, Acted and Directed by Hugo Haas.
I thought the world a truly unfair place and I still do. If it wasn’t Hugo Haas would be listed among the giants of motion picture masters. Retrospectives and festivals of his work would be annual events worldwide. Books and thesis projects would constantly be on display, and his name would be synonymous with a certain kind of high quality achievement in cinema. This hasn’t happened yet. But I’m sure it will when the critical assessment of film appreciation deepens and matures. Hugo will be right up there with Bergman, Fellini, Hitchcock, Ford and the others. But until then, Hugo Haas, wherever you are know that you have one fan. And he’s sitting right here singing your praises.
John Huston, beyond being the center of a cinematic dynasty and a magnificent actor, was possibly the king of literary adaptation in 20th century cinema. Even his debut film came from a book: Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon. From there he adapted B. Traven (The Treasure of Sierra Madre), Stephen Crane (The Red Badge of Courage), Herman Melville (Mody Dick), Charles Shaw (Heaven Knows Mr. Allison), Carson McCullers (Reflections in Golden Eye), Rudyard Kipling (The Man who Would be King), and the Bible among others. It is an exception in Huston’s body of work to find a picture not adapted from a novel, story, or play.
John Huston with his father Walter Huston
Some of these, like Moby Dick and The Man who Would be King were feats of cinematic endeavor. He tackled the epics of literature, always challenging his skills as a director. For me, his most interesting adaptations and perhaps his most daring were the three he did near the end of his career. These were taken from two novels and one short story, all considered by many to be un-film-able.
John Huston had already tested his craft against Southern Gothic literature with his Carson McCullers adaptation. In 1979 he made Wise Blood and dove head-on into the tortured religious narrative by Flannery O’Connor. He cast Brad Dourif as Hazel Motes, the man who starts the “church of truth without Jesus Christ Crucified”. Huston chronicles his scattered attempt at rebellion, the highlight a shrunken human body from Africa picked as the replacement for Jesus.
What amazes me about this adaptation is that it doesn’t feel like the early Huston. Like Kubrick, he seemed unwilling to surrender to the dull direction so many directors take in the winter of their careers. He and his cinematographer created a dreary South, muddy, drab, without the usual lush green to liven it up. Still, he didn’t exaggerate: it feels like a real place and regardless of how ridiculous the story becomes, the people too are real.
And that is the success of this adaptation, that beyond its faults, its inability to come together as a whole picture, it does convey the human tragedy, the story of a man bound to a religion and unable to escape it. The ending is beyond painful.
Under the Volcano
Five years later, with a couple failures in between, Huston directed an adaptation of the Malcolm Lowry novel Under the Volcano. It’s the story of an English expatriate, an alcoholic, a once honorable man with a loving wife and an adventurous brother. The lead is played by Albert Finney, maybe better than he ever played anything, and his performance is the ultimate cinematic representation of the alcoholic with no other rival but Nicolas Cage in Leaving Las Vegas.
Like Wise Blood, Under the Volcano doesn’t work as a complete picture. Huston worked hard to incorporate Day of the Dead imagery as a prominent symbol in the narrative but it never quite jives with the rest of what’s going on. His ending too, though it feels bold as hell for an old man, also comes off as clumsy and not a good finish for this tragedy. Beyond his careful direction of Finney’s performance, what is marvelous about this daring attempt is Huston’s ability to capture the expatriate experience: the troubled lost white man in the third world, his hypocrisy, his dependencies, and ultimately his failure to escape.
A couple of years after Volcano, John Huston chose another adaptation: James Joyce’s short story The Dead (by many considered to the greatest work of short fiction ever). It would be his last film; the finale of a career that started in the Studio days of 1941 and stretched the death of that system, the revolutions of the New Wave, the emergence of the American independents, and ended in an era far different than the one in which it began.
The Dead is not a good film. But it is almost unimportant whether it succeeds on any traditional level. For me at least, I have to look at it as the swan song of a Hollywood professional, the stroke of an old man at one last feat: to bring the forty or so pages of Joyce’s Irish tale into a feature film. Huston captured the world of the Irish upper class at their Christmas party. Again he and his cinematographer picked the right colors, the dark browns, the deep reds; I only wish they were even more rich.
What he couldn’t quite bring to the screen was the sublety of Joyce’s story. It is about a successful, proud man who realizes for the first time in his life that his wife might have loved someone other than him. Sure, the story sounds simple enough but the subtext of Joyce’s writing, the details of Irish nationalism and gender relations are complex. Huston tried hard to direct Donal McCann and his own daughter Anjelica Huston in this delicate situation and ultimately failed.
However,I must respect him, the king of adaptation, for never failing to dare the literary world as a movie director. In the end of The Dead, he gave us montage of Ireland on a winter’s night. It is frozen, lifeless and beautiful. These images linger with me, and so does the man himself.
The Glenn Ford Suit
In the late 1940s and early 50s Glenn Ford was an actor who gave my friends and me a lot of thrills at the movies. Now I know that the 1950s is a long time gone but from the vantage point of age and memory (mine) it seems like only a few weeks ago when my friends and I would go to The Center Theater to watch one of his films and talk about it all week after school. For one thing, in those days he rarely played the good guy. He was always the character on the edge so that you never knew until close to the end which way he would go. He was always ambiguous which was nice because his characters always kept us guessing, always kept us in suspense.
In the plots of many of the films he was always in some intriguing place like South America, Central America or the Caribbean (Gilda-1946, Affair in Trinidad-1952, Plunder of the Sun-1953, Appointment in Honduras-1953). At the time such locales were somewhat exotic. But the truth is that they were all shot on a sound stage at Columbia Pictures Studios. But on screen they told us it was South America or wherever so we believed them. Plus there were always a few mustachioed guys speaking with accents and several dark haired women with flashing eyes and nicely rolling hips to convince us even more. Ford always played an American expatriate down on his luck. Sometimes he was a gambler or a guy on the run from the Mob or a disgraced detective or cop. Once in a while he might be a CIA agent just posing as a wastrel. But we didn’t find that out until the end.
Early in the picture he would wander into some nightclub looking disheveled and unshaven. He rarely shaved in those movies. He always looked handsomely dirty and roughed up. Not so much that he looked derelict. Just enough to look reckless and sexy. He would enter the club in the middle of a song being sung by a sultry singer who would of course be played by Rita Hayworth looking for all the world like mortal sin personified. Their eyes would meet and you knew right then and there that trouble was in the air. Man/woman trouble? To quote Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men (1992) “Is there any other kind?” Glenn would ask for the boss and the barman would point him to the back. He would go but not before making some smart remark to Ms. Hayworth who was at the bar calling for a drink. When he made the remark some underling would tell him confidentially; “Watch your step. That one belongs to the boss.” The boss was usually played by George Macready a quite good character actor who spoke with what sounds like a British accent although he was born in Providence, Rhode Island. The trick with the accent is that it made him sound both cultured and corrupt and maybe even decadent. Macready was older and had a long squirrelly face with a scar so you knew right away he was a bad guy. He would look at the disheveled looking Ford and tell him; “I need a man like you.” And hire him on the spot to do some menial job around the club. But that was a cover for what he would really be doing. Often smuggling diamonds, running guns or selling US secrets to some foreign government.
On the personal front Ford would find out that Rita not only belonged to the boss but that she was in fact his wife. So messing around with her was definitely out of the question given the morality of the times. Still we could sense that they had eyes for each other so it was only a matter of time when all their suppressed emotions would erupt in a frenzy of passionate kisses and florid background music. This is when Rita would say; “I can’t stand him touching me. I can’t even stand him looking at me.” Of course the question then becomes, if she feels that way why did she marry the man? “He was a friend of my father and after Dad died he brought me up. So I felt that I owed him something.” Or; “He took me out of the gutter and made me respectable and not looked down upon or spit on.” And indeed the marriage did seem to be a curious one. Rita and Macready never kissed on the lips, only on her cheek. And this was as it should be. They were visually incompatible. He was old and corrupt, she was young and sensuous. The idea of such a marriage was an aberration and we in the audience knew it. She was meant for Glenn and somewhere in the middle of the film it’s going to hit her like a ton of bricks. In the meanwhile Macready keeps her on a very short leash. Outside of letting her sing in his nightclub he kept her a virtual prisoner in the house. The only other thing she seems able to do is sunbathe in the back garden or by the pool looking fetching in some brief outfit. And Macready always had some underling spying on her every move and reporting it back to him.
“We’ve got to get you out of here.” Glenn would tell her between kisses. “We’ll go tonight.”
But of course Macready knows of their plans because of his underling’s report. “How dare she do this to me after all I’ve done for her?” He would mutter to himself. “She’ll pay for this. And he’s going to pay too.” That’s when we knew the double cross was in. In today’s movies people don’t double cross each other anymore. They lie, they betray, they cheat each other but they don’t call it “double cross”. I liked it when they did. There was something more underhanded and evil about the act.
Macready would try his double cross and it would backfire on him. Ford or someone else would kill him in a fight and Rita, a free woman now, would run into his arms. And it was precisely at this moment that we would find out that Ford wasn’t the unkempt piece of gutter scum everyone thought him to be. In fact he was quite the opposite. He was a Treasury agent sent by the government on a special assignment to break this Nazi ring that was smuggling counterfeit dollars into the US.
Ford was an okay actor in these films. Later on he became a very good actor. But in those early days he was competent and not too much more. But the thing that thrilled us about him was the way he dressed. It seemed that he wore the same suit from movie to movie. So much so that we called it “The Glenn Ford Suit”. And since the films were in black and white we had to guess at its color. No problem there. We figured it to be dark brown or rust with blue lines about an eighth of an inch all through the fabric. In real life they were hideous looking but on Glenn Ford they looked great. So great that we all wanted Glenn Ford suits. There was an Arabic man named Ahmed who had a men’s store on Main Street. So we went to him and showed him a photo of the suit from some fan magazine then told him we each wanted one just like that. “I can order them for you.” He said. “But it will cost twenty five dollars each.” Twenty five dollars for a suit! Even to look like Glenn Ford that was pricy for our teenage pocketbooks because none of us had any money except what we earned from some part time jobs we had. But when he said we could pay it off on installments a deal was struck. We got our suits and all was right with the world.
When we put them on the suit fit us like a second skin. That Saturday we wore them to the movies and everyone thought we looked cool. Particularly the girls. You could see their eyes just sparkle when they looked at us. And whenever they were close they were always reaching out and touching not us but the suit.
Another thing about the Glenn Ford suits is they didn’t just look good on you. They had a way of making you stand with your legs apart and your eyes squinting. If you smoked you blew smoke out in a kind of stylish way that made the smoke curl in interesting patterns before evaporating. It also made you listen with a kind of smirk on your face that said you were ready to punch the talker if he said something you didn’t like. And if you were talking to a woman you knew how to look in her eyes and burn her down with your crinkly smile. And if you didn’t like what she was saying you blew smoke in her face. None of us really smoked. I still don’t. But in my Glenn Ford suit I smoked. It was a prop that went with the suit.
You also knew how to talk when you wore that suit. For example if you walked into a club and asked “Who owns this joint?” and the bartender asks; “What’s this all about?” You would look over the place, take a draw from your cigarette, blow out the smoke and say; “I don’t talk to men who wear aprons. Let me see the boss.” And if he hesitated you would pull him across the bar, slap him a few times and he would run to do your bidding damn quick. It never ever came to that but we were always ready.
Friends said we looked great in our Glenn Ford suits but our mothers said we looked like idiots. “Those suits and your skin are exactly the same color. From a distance with those stripes you look like lizards.”
They didn’t see anything resembling Glenn Ford about us. But we weren’t surprised. Mothers never knew anything about what was cool and what wasn’t. Because if they did they would recognize they were the parents of the coolest guys in town. Or in the world for that matter. All thanks to one thing; Our Glenn Ford Suits.
The Line-Up (1958) isn’t a good movie. It is a feature-length continuation of the San Francisco-Dragnet rip-off TV Show of the same name. The screenplay is clumsy. It’s the right length (86 minutes) but the movie doesn’t really begin till minute twenty-two. It does perhaps the worst thing one can do in pulp: make characters philosophers.
Still, it stands for the impeccable craft of director Don Siegel. There is one scene in the picture that shows just how good this Authentic American Primitive was.
Eli Wallach, the movie’s main gangster-psychopath, needs to drop a package off at an amusement arcade (a structure of the past, part-museum, part fun-land). The problem is, the package isn’t complete. The plan went sour when a little girl decided to wipe a bag of stashed heroine on her doll’s face. Wallach is supposed to leave the drugs and walk away: he has been warned repeatedly to leave no later than 4 o’clock, because he must not see the man who makes the pick-up.
But he must stay, he must explain their mistake. And so after waiting around a while, a thin-faced man in a wheel chair rolls up to the place where the drugs should be dropped. Wallach approaches him. He explains the situation. The man does not even look at him: he gazes with a stern but calm expression at nothing. Wallach begs for some kind of response.
The man says, “You’re dead. No one sees my face and that makes you dead.” Wallach, enraged, kicks the chair over the ledge. The man falls to his death and the death of an innocent skater on the ice rink below.
The scene is stark. It is stripped of all artifice. The violence is sudden, shocking. On the commentary of the DVD, crime-writer James Ellroy says it just about as good as it can be said: “Siegel was proficient. He knew where to put the camera. He knew what to tell the actors.”
Siegel and his cameraman only use close-ups when necessary and when they do, boy are they powerful. He learned how to make movies from chopping montages together. Some of his work can be seen in classics like Casablanca. From there he learned the economy of images. When he was ready to direct, he no longer needed montages. He knew where everything belonged. He came to every picture as a professional: a man of craft.
There is much more to be written about this director.
Siegel and Eastwood, who credits Don as one of his main influences.
In 1957 John Cassavetes came to St. Thomas to make a film based on the moderately bestselling autobiography by novelist and screenwriter Rob White called Our Virgin Island. His co-star in the film was Sidney Poitier. Both had appeared together before in Martin Ritt’s searing drama Edge of the City (1957).
At the time of their arrival both were well known to young movie goers. Poitier because he was the first African American actor to work consistently in movies playing dramatic roles. Cassavetes because he had played a number of disturbed juveniles and thugs on TV and in films. Three of his films The Night Holds Terror (1955), Rumble on the Docks ((1956) and Saddle the Wind (1958) along with Edge of the City were well known to us. Cassavetes was part of a group of young rebels who were invading the screen. The cycle started with Marlon Brando in The Wild Ones (1953) and became very popular with James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause (1955). After that it seem that every studio jumped on the bandwagon producing films with titles like Dino (1957) and The Young Don’t Cry (1957). Sal Mineo, James Darren and Cassavetes were often tapped to act in these films and I liked them a lot. For me he was the quintessential thug-hero. There was something lean, hungry and feral about his looks and his acting that gave the characters he played an authenticity I never got from Dean or Brando. Both were good actors playing their parts, but with Cassavetes I felt I was seeing the real thing. His eyes in close-ups seemed to suggest that he was haunted by hardship and deprivation. He also seemed to be possessed of an inner rage that I found compelling and irresistible.
At the time when he came to the island I was working for our local radio station where one of my jobs was to interview any celebrity who visited the island. This was an agreeable gig and one that I took seriously because of my love for movies and anything having to do with them. My qualifications for this job were nonexistent. I had no experience in reportage or radio work and my accent was so thick that it was unintelligible to all but other islanders. Still I was given this job and was paid a fat fifteen dollars a week for my efforts.
As soon as Cassavetes and Poitier arrived I approached them for interviews. Both said yes right away. When I did my interview with Cassavetes he was intrigued that one so young (I was 16 at the time) had such a job and talked to me at length about it. And of all the movie celebrities I had interviewed he was the one who seemed to be most interested in who I was, what I aspired to and what my life was like living on the island. As we sat and spoke all the violence and rage I had seen in the movies were nowhere in evidence. The man I was eating with and talking to was relaxed and full of jokes and high spirits looking at the beautiful scenery around us and marveling at it. I enjoyed our conversation greatly yet when it came to doing our interview on the air I was inexplicably nervous. So much so that I began to stutter and the paper I was holding with my questions was shaking.
I remember him smiling gently and taking the questions from me as we talked. Then he started asking me the questions I had intended to ask him. And after I answered he would then connect my response to something from his own background. This was the way we did the whole interview and it was great. He had managed to put me at ease and things flowed smoothly after that. At the end he clapped my shoulder and said;”Good job. This was one of the best interviews I’ve ever done.” I walked away from that session with my head in the clouds.
Years later as I watched his career develop as an idiosyncratic actor and filmmaker I wasn’t at all surprised. The quicksilver alertness and generosity of spirit that he became well known for had always been a part of who he was as far back as 1957 when we did that interview together.
It is always being said that because of his grace, gallantry and impeccable dancing skills Fred Astaire always made his partners look good. Well I think that the same could be said about Cassavetes. Of course in a different area of cinema. He has been gone for some time now but his reputation as a filmmaker and as a warm and giving person is still on the rise. Again I’m not surprised. I knew him for only a brief moment but it remains as one of the bright spots in my life.
The first movie star I ever saw in person was Richard Widmark. He had appeared in perhaps a dozen movies that I had seen mostly playing a bad guy who seemed to take great delight in not just being evil but unspeakably so. Therefore when at the end of the movie and he got his comeuppance it was not just satisfying but cheer inducing.
He was thin and sly. His smile was crooked and it quickly turned into a sneer. He couldn’t be trusted even when he was being sincere. You could tell that from his eyes. They were always darting about searching for corners or dark places. Other performers had strong steady eyes, Widmarks’ was always flashing around nervously. He kept us on the edge of our seats with those eyes because you never knew what he was up to. He was unpredictable and dangerous. But our favorite part was not his eyes but his hair. It was blond and sat relatively lifeless on his head until he was punched or slapped. Then it would come alive. It would fly like a wave breaking over a rock and that would tell us that the blow really hurt. This bad guy was finally getting what he deserved. And if the guy administering the beating was big and beefy as Victor Mature then we really went crazy. “Hit him again!…Slap him, slap him, make his hair fly!” we would scream. And invariably the movie would grant our wish. The hero would punch and slap him, cowardly Widmark would whimper and whine and we loved it. We loved Richard Widmark, loved him more than we loved our own parents and went to see every movie he appeared in.
It was a Saturday afternoon and the sun was as usual high and bright in the sky. We kids were standing in front of The Center Theatre waiting to go in and see the triple bill of action films they were playing when someone, one of our other friends said: “Hey, you know who down on the waterfront?”
“The movie star man. The one who does do the giggle.”
“Who you talking about?”
“Richard Widmark man. Don’t you know nothing?”
“Richard Widmark?! Oh my God!”
And with that we took off running all three of us.
And there he was. There he was in sunglasses wearing a sport shirt with tan slacks. Richard Widmark, our favorite bad guy and God. He was standing there talking to some people and pointing to something out at sea. He wasn’t physically that big but he looked like he looked in the movies kind of wiry and hard. He was saying that he was just on the island for the day and that the island was beautiful. We didn’t want to hear any of that. We wanted to hear him giggle that evil giggle of his. But as he stood there and talked to the small crowd that had gathered around him it was clear that he wasn’t going to unless someone had the daring to ask him. And even then he might not but somebody had to take the chance and ask.
“You ask him……No, you ask him…..Why me? No, you ask him!” We kept pushing each other and quarrelling. Then for reasons I don’t remember it fell to me to do the asking. I couldn’t have been more than eleven or twelve at the time. None of us were. It was a tough job but someone had to do it. I borrowed a pen and a piece of paper and asked him for his autograph. And while he was signing his name I said quietly: “Sir, you think you could do that laugh for us?”
“The one you does do just before you beat a woman or kill a man.”
“ You want me to do my evil laugh, huh?”
“Yes, yes that’s it. Your evil laugh.”
“Well”, he said “Heh…heh…heh…heh…heh…heh. I can’t do it for you because it’s in my contract that I can’t laugh unless it’s in a scene and a camera is turning. You follow?” And then he did that incredible giggle again. And we just froze where we were standing, we practically wet our pants because he had taken off his sunglasses and was looking straight at us while he was doing it.
He left after a few minutes because he had someplace to go I suppose but we just stayed there. We forgot about the movie we were going to or that we had already bought the tickets. This was better than any triple bill could be. Richard Widmark standing there talking to us and doing his giggle. We spent the rest of the afternoon going minutely over everything that was said right up to the moment when he did his laugh. For weeks and months after we recreated word for word the whole episode for our friends.
In the course of a long career Widmark did some wonderful work in films and also on TV and not always as the villain. He played many a hero and men of integrity but we liked him best as a villain.
He died in 2008 at the age of 93 and I whispered a quiet “Thank you” that I hope he heard. It went something like this. “Thank you Richard Widmark for your talent and career. And thank you particularly for that Saturday afternoon giggle. You’ll never know what years of pleasure you gave to those three West Indian boys that day.”
Mastroianni! Mastroianni! Mastroianni!
Italian actor Marcello Mastroianni (1924- 1996) was and still remains my favorite film actor of all time. He began appearing in films in 1948 (I Miserabili) but it wasn’t until 1960 with the release of Fellini’s controversial La Dolce Vita that the film going public outside of Italy knew who he was. He was so little known internationally that the producers of the film wanted someone more recognizable for the lead. But Fellini insisted on him because as Mastroianni put it; “He wanted somebody plain. Someone no one would pay attention to. Someone with an ordinary face. So I said; ‘Fine, I’m that ordinary face. Use me.’ And he did.” Upon its release La Dolce Vita with its episodic structure depicting several strata’s of Italian society created an international scandal of sorts when the Vatican and the Catholic intelligentsia condemned the film as a celebration of decadent and immoral behavior while on the other end of the spectrum Marxists and other political Leftists praised the film as a stunning indictment of certain bourgeois values. What no one disputed was the mastery of Mastroianni’s performance in the central role. The subtle nuances he invested in the character along with his low key, non showy acting style and (despite Fellini’s assessment), his charming good looks, quickly made him the most in-demand actor in Europe and other parts of the world as well.
He played so many romantic parts and the term “Latin lover” became synonymous with his name. He hated the moniker and tried to distance himself from it throughout his career by selecting roles that would discourage that kind of labeling. Roles like the impotent man in Bell Antonio (1960), the title character in A Slightly Pregnant Man (1973), a homosexual in A Special Day (1977), along with many other roles. Yet the name stuck and after a while he realized there was nothing he could do except let time pass as it did and the phrase became attached to younger actors.
I became aware of him in 1960 in La Dolce Vita along with everyone else. The impact of his performance and his laid back “Devil may care “persona hit the young film going audience like a freight train. All the women wanted him for their lover, all the guys wanted to be like him. Why? Because he seemed to embody the epitome of cool. Nothing about him was hurried or confused. Nothing seemed to upset his equilibrium or poise even when it was some woman demanding more passion than he was willing to give. Then he would take her coat along with her purse and show her to the door. If she resisted he might give her a push and then return to what he had been doing without showing any sign of distress. In a different instance he might make some romantic or sexual overture to a woman and be rebuffed. His response would always be a slight shrug and a benign smile as if to say; “That’s life” as he walked away from her. We all wanted to be like that in life. We all wanted to be Mastroianni.
Then in a seemingly short period of time he gave several terrific performances in films like La Note-1961, Divorce, Italian Style(1961), 8-1/2(1963), Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow (1963), The Organizer (1963)Marriage, Italian Style (1964)that told us that behind those “Latin lover” good looks was an actor of impressive range and depth.
What most of us didn’t know at the time is that in Italy he had appeared on stage playing a wide variety of roles. Everything from Shakespeare to Pirandello with Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller and Ionesco somewhere in the mix. So in many ways Mastroianni was as complete an actor as one could find anywhere.
In motion pictures he worked with virtually every major director playing everything from womanizers, assassins, priests, generals, thieves, landowners, counts, laborers, secret agents and beyond. The directors who worked with him referred to him as; “a monster of acting”. And “the only actor in the world who can play just about anything”. When asked Mastroianni modestly said that he didn’t subscribe to any school or style of acting. “I just see myself as a blank canvas on which the director can paint.”
Later in his life he was quoted saying; “I love to make movies, I love to act. I always want to improve that’s why I make so many movies.”And indeed he did .In a career that spanned 48 years he appeared in 143 films.
Now although he made more films with other directors: Ettore Scola (8 films), Marco Ferreri (7 films), Mario Monicelli ( 7 films) Eduardo De Filipo (7 films), it is with Federico Fellini with whom he made 5 films that he is most closely identified ( La Dolce Vita -1960. 8-1/2 – 1963, City of Women – 1980, Fred and Ginger – 1985 and Intervista – 1987). The critical establishment even went so far as to suggest that Mastroianni was Fellini’s alter ego. Both scoffed at the idea, especially Fellini. During a 24 year period (1954-1978) he co-starred with Sophia Loren in 14 films making them the most successful couple in film history.
Near the end of his life Mastroianni made a documentary film called; Marcello Mastroianni, I remember. It was released in 1997, one year after his death. The film is an interesting, charming and often amusing summation of his entire career. A graceful end to a great career spent in the public eye. “I like people” he says in that film. “And I love life.” And with it he left us with a legacy that will endure as long as cinema itself.