Desert Island movie #6
Would you believe there was actually a time when romanticism and good looks and not acting or story or even directorial razzle-dazzle could not only power a film but could also push it into the realm of becoming a classic? One example that comes quickly to mind is An Affair to Remember (1957). Leo McCarey’s remake of his own Love Affair (1939) which was then remade again in 1994 with Warren Beatty and Annette Benning with less happy results proving my point that it was the stars not the story or the acting that made the two previous versions so memorable.
My desert island pick this time around does not have such a lofty pedigree or reputation as the films mentioned before. In fact as far as I can tell it is just about forgotten by most people of a certain age who’ve seen it. Yet it is a film that got good reviews and showed a respectable profit at the time of its release. Since then it seems to have disappeared from sight. I hardly ever see it on TV or cable and it is never mentioned as exceptional in the filmography of its two major stars. Still it is a delightful movie and one that I keep going back to whenever I’m in the mood for pleasant, uncomplicated lightweight entertainment. The film I’m talking about is Melville Shavelson’s Houseboat (1958) starring Cary Grant and Sophia Loren. The main story itself isn’t much. It’s about a widower (Grant) trying to become a father to his three children after having been away for most of their young lives. Into their midst comes Cinzia (Loren) the daughter of a celebrated Italian symphony conductor, posing as a maid in an attempt at escaping from the stuffy world of her father and his friends.
Much of the film takes place on the houseboat of the title as Grant and Loren looking their glamorous best go through the dance of sizing up each other, interacting with the children and finally falling in love. There is a terrific supporting cast featuring Martha Hyer, Eduardo Ciannelli and Harry Guardino who nearly steals the film as Angelo whom Grant tries to pair up with Loren. The scene where he goes to pick her up for a date complete with flowers is laugh out hilarious along with several other moments in the film. Murray Hamilton is also in the film. It was his first and he remembered it as one of the most pleasant shoots he had ever been on.
But the thing that makes Houseboat special and memorable as far as I’m concerned is the pairing of Grant and Loren. She was 23 at the time and he was 53 but that didn’t matter they still looked great together. Actually they had been paired in a film once before The Pride and the Passion (1957) and it was on that shoot that Grant said he fell madly in love with Loren. He even asked her to marry him. And Loren, smitten for a while reciprocated his ardor but later on decided to marry producer Carlo Ponti instead. This troubled Grant and he actually tried to get out of acting with her in Houseboat but finally decided to honor his contract .And it is a testament to their ultimate professionalism that none of the tension of their strained personal relationship ever shows up on screen. They light up the film with the warmth and romantic aura that makes you wish they had appeared in more films together.
Cary Grant because of his poise, wonderful sense of timing, his acting savvy and his impeccable good taste has often been cited as the quintessential movie star. And I for one go along with that assessment. The greatest proof of this to me is the way he has lifted and improved so many indifferent films with his presence and charm…And Sophia Loren to me is one of those women who was born for the silver screen. From the first she appeared she lit up the screen with her beauty, her earthy sexuality, her personality and the inner fire of her creative abilities. And she just got better and better as the years went by. This was her seventh Hollywood film and after that she went on to have one of the most successful careers in the history of international cinema. A career filled with well known and well regarded films along with many, many acting awards. And like all legendary stars she brought something more to movies besides good looks and good acting… She brought the magic of her personality that lit up the screen and connected with each and every member of the audience. So when you put these two together even when the material isn’t spectacular they’re going to brighten it up with their own special glow. And that is what they do in Houseboat. He brings knowledge and experience; she brings youthful exuberance and her sense of humor to the enterprise. And together; along with everyone else (for film is a collaborative medium after all.) they deliver one of the most enchanting romantic comedies of the 1950s. The scene where they dance to the Academy Award nominated song “Almost in my Arms” is a prime example of the kind of romantic moment we long for in movies but rarely ever get any more. And the thing that makes it so special is the chemistry of the stars. Nothing else, just that and that alone. Murray Hamilton years ago said to me that looking back on all the films he appeared in (And the number at the time was around 300) the most beautiful actress he ever worked with was Sophia Loren. I told him that I envied him and he laughed and said; “You’re not the only one. The list is in the millions.”
Someone once said to Cary Grant that they wished that they were Cary Grant. And the former Archibald Leech answered that he wished he was too indicating that he knew the difference between the screen image and the real man. With Houseboat we have these two great screen personalities at their incandescent best. And any person lost on this mythical desert island won’t be lonely for long with these two for company.
The Jazz movie. Since I don’t know much about Jazz and haven’t seen many of the movies made about it, I’m totally unqualified to declare any movie the quintessential Jazz movie. Still, I do not retract my statement. All Night Long, directed by Basil Dearden, is the Jazz movie because I can’t imagine anything more perfect.
At first, a 50’s/60’s re-telling of Othello in the Jazz-club London sounds like one of those rotten Shakespeare modernizations that often (always) go wrong. Well, slap a one-location, one-night scenario on and you’ve got potential for a major cinematic blunder, full of good intentions and bad decisions. But no. Somehow it worked.
All Night Long is one long night of deception, lust, greed, and Jazz. A mixed British/American cast crowds a warehouse like apartment with brass instruments and back-stabbing motivations. There are lots of good actors here: Richard Attenborough for one, and Paul Harris as the noble Othello-turned-Jazz band leader Rex is solid as hell. But it’s one guy who steals the show and his name is Patrick McGoohan.
I had no idea McGoohan when in the movie when I started it. He navigates the tiny world of musicians and women with devilish ambition. Boy, he makes the whole picture. A dynamite performance, I’m telling you. It rocks the socks off his turn in The Prisoner and stands as one of the most intriguing/ repulsive/ attractive characters the cinema knows.
And here, another stellar effort from Basil Dearden, who I first made acquaintances with last week’s The League of Gentlemen. Dearden was no fluke filmmaker. No. It took great cinematic instincts to hold a movie like this together and he keeps it tight and wild till the last beautiful shot.
Throw in some cameo spins from Dave Brubeck and Charlie Mingus and wow, this is one hell of a picture.
In 1960, some British underground filmmakers made a movie called The League of Gentlemen. It’s a heist movie, and to my mind, maybe the best ever made. Certainly, fifty years later, it remains a fresh cinematic experience.
A retired colonel played by Jack Hawkins assembles a group of ex-soldiers with tainted, criminal histories for a robbery. That’s all I’ll say for plot specifics. These men almost belong in a Hawks film, but no, they’re too melancholy for that. And it’s the melancholy, the dry wit, the way writer Forbes, director Dearden, and the actors create a group of ex-soldiers, lost in a world of peace with a last chance at glory that becomes something quite terrific.
Nigel Patrick gives a standout performance, an equal to Hawkins in screen presence. A scene like the one where Patrick washes Hawkins’ dishes is something that would never make it into most movies, but this is what makes The League of Gentlemen good. The heist scene is nothing compared the tiny moments between these characters, the dialog, the wit.
And of the heist I will only say that it was simple. Stark. It and the movie possess no flash. They are neither burdened by tricks or twists. Anyone making a movie in this genre should return to Gentlemen because it will outlast all the Ocean’s and Italian Jobs.
I must thank good and bad luck that this movie never came together as it was intended to (as a Hollywood vehicle with Cary Grant). Sure, that fantasy version might’ve been a good romp but what we have here is very special. And for me, an introduction to a group of filmmakers I’d like to make cinematic acquaintances. Jack Hawkins has always caught my eye, a contagious force on screen. Add to his company Bryan Forbes, young, full of life in this picture. He also wrote the screenplay (from a novel by John Boland) and later directed some films. More movies directed by Basil Dearden are available in the Criterion box which includes Gentlemen and I plan to seek them out.
Desert Island Movie #5
Raging Bull/ Casino
Despite their differences I look at these films as a single entity. The one extending the other the way Dumas’ 20 Years After extends the story of The Three Musketeers. The difference here being that Casino (1995) is not in any way a sequel to Raging Bull (1980). But there are many surface similarities. The most obvious is in the casting of Robert DeNiro, Joe Pesci and Frank Vincent in principal roles that in some way echo the roles they played in Raging Bull. And in the case of DeNiro and Pesci that relationship could be extended to Goodfellas (1990) as well. So why not add that film into the mix? Because to me that film is totally different in spite of the fact that both films (Goodfellas and Casino) were co-authored by Nicholas Peliggi. And both utilize a voice over narration technique. For me Goodfellas portrays (and brilliantly so) an enclosed world of friends, girlfriends, residents and bad boys behaving and very much misbehaving in what seems an almost hermitically sealed- in world whose boundaries never extends much beyond the stores, homes and bars of their small neighborhood. In Raging Bull and Casino we never get much sense of a community. If anything both Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull and Ace Rothstein in Casino seem to be at odds with their communities in a variety of ways. What connects both films in my mind are the roles DeNiro and Pesci play, the volatile way they interact with each other along with Frank Vincent providing able support. And also the obsessive fashion in which both DeNiro and Pesci’s character pursue their separate goals in each film.
Visually the films are quite different from each other too. Raging Bull is shot in sumptuous black and white by Michael Chapman and the action of the film stays mostly in the tenements of the Bronx in New York. While Casino’s sun bleached look was provided by Robert Richardson. And that film stays mostly in the lush environs of Las Vegas, Nevada and the barren desert that surrounds it.
The casting of Robert DeNiro as Ace Rothstein whose Jewish background is mentioned many times in both the narration and in the dialogue was viewed as a mistake by many critics when the film first came out. And I must confess that I had a problem with it too. The main reason was because DeNiro had played so many characters whose Italian American personas were so pronounced. But with repeated viewings I think that his performance is so carefully nuanced and so well realized that it transcends any kind of ethnic scrutiny and stands out fully on its own merits. In both films he plays men whose narcissistic possessiveness make the sexy/beautiful women they marry crazy. And then they stand back looking at the women puzzled as to why they are acting the way they are. I can think of no one else in the history of movies who has done this better than the way DeNiro does it in these two films. The result is both disturbing and funny at the same time. It is the same with the violence in these films. The acts are simultaneously horrifying and amusing. I know many people who are turned off by this mixture that Scorsese seems to be able to do better than any other contemporary filmmaker. I am not among their number. I love it so much that sometimes I ask myself; “Am I the only person in the world that think these films (along with Goodfellas) are some of the funniest movies that I’ve seen in the past thirty years or so?” Every time I see one or the other I laugh my head off at the dialogue exchanges, the creative use of obscenity, and the crazy behavior of the characters. I just have to think about the scene in Casino between DeNiro and Sharon Stone where he’s trying to figure out what Lester Diamond (James Woods) did with the twenty five thousand dollars that Ginger gave him. Or the early scene in Raging Bull where Jake tells his brother Joey to punch him in the face. It strikes me as a scene that Pinter might’ve written in his prime. This is the stuff upon which great comedy is constructed. Another is the head in the vise sequence in Casino.
And as always in a Scorsese film the acting by all involved is peerless. It begins with the casting of the secondary roles. Half the time the individuals who fill out those character roles don’t seem like actors at all. Just folks he picked up on the streets and told them to say those words. That’s how convincing they are. Most are old guys with faces that even a mother might have trouble loving. But boy are they good. So good that I now see them showing up in films by other directors and on TV commercials spoofing the characters they have so memorably created. Still we can’t just take for granted the excellence that DeNiro and Pesci brought to Raging Bull and then with the addition of Sharon Stone in Casino. For me it’s like watching fine musicians play to each other in perfect harmony.
For these and a multiplicity of other reasons these two films (counting as one) must hold a permanent spot on that shelf where I place my desert island choices.