The American films of German-born filmmaker Max Ophuls have never been as celebrated as his more overtly stylized and seductively romantic French films. That attitude is fed by a sense of ill-treatment by the studios. He dropped the “h” to become Max Opuls in the credits of his Hollywood movies, which can either be seen as an insult to his heritage or simply part of the American assimilation that his fellow immigrants also went through. More defining is Ophuls’ miserable experience on his first American project, Vendetta (1947), a production micromanaged by Howard Hughes, who ultimately fired Ophuls. That experience colored Ophuls’ entire American period to the point that he himself dismissed the films he made as compromised. I disagree with that assessment. His films haunt the space between the idealism of unconditional love and the reality of social barriers and fickle lovers. Yet his greatest films are anything but cynical; ironic certainly, but also melancholy, sad and wistful, and always respectful of the dignity of those who love well if not too wisely. There is a great dignity in his best American movies, but where his European films present obstacles in the form of social “rules” versus emotion and desire, his American films frame the same issues in terms of economics, opportunity, and the lack of social and legal power to break out of circumstances.
Olive previously gave us the Blu-ray and DVD debut of Letter From an Unknown Woman (1948), the most continental of his American movies, a romantic tragedy set in an idealized past with a decadent, self-absorbed high society man and a dreamy poor girl briefly swept into his world. Caught shares the same elegant camerawork, evocative production design, and the meeting of high culture and working class society but imports it into contemporary (circa 1940s) United States. It’s the first truly “American” film of his American era and, for all the film’s over-enunciated social commentary, it is a powerful drama rooted in the dreams and anxieties and realities of American filmgoers.
The Big House: Triple Feature (Warner Archive) is a special edition for the MOD (manufacture-on-demand) line.
The 1930 The Big House, directed by George Hill, is the original men-in-prison drama in terms of the way it established the conventions. There’s the pecking order of tough guys behind bars, the culture of loyalty, the sniveling snitches, the prison reform speech from the tough but committed warden (Lewis Stone, who is indeed tough), an inmate protest, a prison break and a riot. And through it all, Hill shows us the overcrowding, the regimentation of routine, and the numbing, soul-crushing oppression of the experience, from the processing of a newly-convicted prisoner (Robert Montgomery as a privileged kid completely unprepared to take care of himself here) to the predatory society within. Chester Morris is the leading man here as Morgan, a kind of underworld aristocracy thanks to his reputation as a criminal mastermind, and he comes off as a slightly darker, tougher, and more wooden Richard Barthelmess, the square guy rolling with tough breaks. Wallace Beery is the prison-yard bully Butch, who isn’t too bright but defers to Morgan, and Montgomery is nervous and sweaty as the wide-eyed fresh meat who ignores good advice and turns snitch, illustrating the warning given by the warden in the first scene: “Prison doesn’t make you yellow, but if you are already yellow, prison brings it out.” I guess we know his predilections.
The story is basically a roll call of what will become prison movie clichés but the presentation is striking. The mess hall scene presents mealtime in purgatory, with the inmates lined up in rows and columns with regimented precision, and the image is echoed at chapel, where the prisoners file in out of duty rather than faith. Meanwhile Hill contrasts the surface of resignation to the routine with the covert dealings below the table tops as inmates pass weapons and messages out of sight of the guards. The soundtrack keeps returning to the lock-step trudge of marching feet instead of music. And the warden responds to the occupation of a cell block by prisoners with overwhelming force: he calls in the tanks! It was nominated for Best Picture and Best Actor (Wallace Beery) and won Oscars for the sound and France Marion’s screenplay.
The Big House was previously released as a stand-alone movie on the Warner Archive line. The “special edition” of this release comes in the other two films of the triple feature: the French language version, directed by Paul Fejos and starring Charles Boyer as Morgan, and the Spanish language version. Both are shot on the same sets and utilize the same crowd shots, special effects, and even shot-lists and set-ups. The compositions are almost exactly the same, like an assembly line cranking out the alternate versions on a timetable, and the biggest difference is in the variations of characters brought by the actors and dramatic direction. Fejos seems constrained by the structure here—see his striking Hollywood work in the Lonesome disc set Criterion released last year (a triple feature in its own right) to see his eye for setting scenes and moving the camera—but he and Boyer turn Morgan into a much more charismatic figure, less hard-boiled, smoother and cooler, with a sense of authority that comes from confidence and ease. The Spanish version, from journeyman director Ward Wing (a sometime actor with a couple of shorts and documentaries to his credit as a filmmaker), hasn’t the same strength of character (Jose Crespo is a bland, unimpressive Morgan but Juan de Landa makes a strange mix of childlike clown and psychopathic bully as Butch) but the production value and the momentum keep it rolling along.
Three films on two discs. The print has seen wear and the contrast fluctuates a bit but it looks quite good considering the age and the era. The French and Spanish versions are not quite as well preserved but perfectly watchable and acceptable. The English subtitles are actually close captions and include notations on sound effects.
5 Fingers (20th Century Fox Cinema Archives), a smart 1952 espionage thriller directed by Joseph Mankiewicz, features James Mason in a superb performance as the contemptuous valet to the British Ambassador to Turkey during World War II. A career servant, he decides to make his fortune selling British military secrets to the Germans and enlists a penniless French countess (Danielle Darrieux), a woman he once served and still desires, to help him hide his money and provide a safe house. Based on real events from World War II, the 1952 film reworks the story and the players to make the valet, who is given the code name Cicero, a bitter, resentful British man determined to break through the class barriers. Mason plays him with smooth arrogance and cynicism, beholden to nothing but money and power. While he’s nakedly obsessed with class and status, everyone else is simply more subtle about it—this almost invisible valet is never once suspected by either side of being the leak in the embassy—and the Germans are so afraid that he’s actually a double agent that they never act upon the intelligence. Even the agent sent from London to find the leak (Michael Rennie) discounts him from his investigations.
The direction is low key, with a focus on the culture of the city of Ankara during the war (Turkey did not choose sides and Allied and Axis powers both had a presence in the city), the script full of sharp wit and clever dialogue, and the story is filled with delicious ironies. Mankiewicz did not receive screenplay credit but some of the dialogue surely came from his pen, such as the Countess saying to a civil servant: “Please don’t look at me as if you had a source of income other than your salary.”
The Fox Archive release has not been mastered in HD and it looks only slightly better than laserdisc quality, but it’s a good source print and is perfectly watchable.
Roadblock (Warner Archive) opens with a set-up that promises a femme fatale siren thriller and a heist picture, and in its own way it defies both genres, or at least it takes a different twist. Charles McGraw is the hardcase of an insurance investigator, an incorruptible agent who earned the name “Honest Joe” but falls hard for a chiseling dame (Joan Dixon) looking to score a rich husband: “You’re a nice guy, honest Joe, but you’re not in the right league. I’m aiming for the World Series.” So he trades his integrity in for a crooked payday and ends up investigating the very robbery he masterminded while his partner (Louis Jean Heydt in soft-spoken conscience mode) starts to suspect him.
The 1951 picture is a film noir by definition, with its corrupted characters and mercenary femme fatale and atmosphere of a noose tightening around our anti-hero. Director Harold Daniels is no visual stylist and there’s a slackness to many of the scenes, but he comes to life in a nighttime murder scene that he transforms into a model of noir violence, an urban street fight in the dark of the empty city picked out in shards of light (credit likely goes to cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca, RKO’s crime movie vet), and the screenplay co-written by Steve Fisher has a bite of irony in its twists. And give the film credit for making a heist film work where we never see the heist; we’re checking in from McGraw’s honeymoon, which is also his alibi. The gravel-voiced McGraw carries the rest of the film with his working class integrity and moral judgments twisted into self-destructive panic when he becomes everything he despises just to impress a girl. Print quality is good.
Wicked is the operative term in this apt title to the Eclipse release of three outsized, overwrought, gleefully excessive Gothic-pulp melodramas made by the British studio Gainsborough during World War II. The studio had been around since the twenties but found sudden popularity with the potboiler costume drama. While the rest of the British film industry was (much like Hollywood) turning out paeans to patriotism and stoic resilience in the face of hardship, shortages, and sacrifice, these Gainsborough melodramas offered audiences an escape with bad behavior, wicked schemes, and villains who betray friends and lovers out of greed, arrogance, or mere thrill seeking.
The four major stars of the trilogy are all introduced in The Man in Grey (1943), a dime-novel version of a Gothic melodrama set in the cruel culture of the British aristocracy, led by James Mason in his breakout role as the title character. Lord Rohan is a brutish, proud aristocrat who marries a sweet, sunny heiress (Phyllis Calvert) simply to secure an heir to the name. Top-billed Margaret Lockwood (of Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes) is the dark to Calvert’s light, bitter and calculating and ready to sacrifice her best (and only) friend in the world to grasp fortune as Mason’s mistress, and Stewart Granger makes a superb entrance into the drama, to all appearances a highwayman ready to rob Calvert’s coach, but in reality a poor player with a charming confidence and an honest soul, especially next to the crude, cruel Rohan.
The story is framed with a contemporary sequence, an auction of the family estate where a young woman and a dashing officer meet to bid on items from the estate. In fact, what interests them most are the seemingly inconsequential mementoes in a keepsake box, little worthless baubles that, through the course of the film, we see invested with great personal value. These modern players are, we learn, descendents of the dramatis personae, and in case you don’t recognize them at first, it’s clear in the coda that they are played by none other than Calvert and Granger.
Director Leslie Arliss creates a world of luxury and culture with minimal studio sets and painted backdrops. I don’t know that there is a single shot taken on location. A nighttime carriage ride through a desolate landscape, for example, is created entirely on a stylized set similar to what Fritz Lang will later purposely use for Moonfleet, an artificial, theatrical suggestion of the dark world outside. In fact, the whole thing is an unreal, stylized piece of work, from the settings to the characters. Mason is especially mesmerizing as the selfish, arrogant Lord who would rather watch the dogfights with the local peasants or satisfy his appetite for violence in a duel over some slight than play the public aristocrat. All dark, glowering power, he’s not quite a villain but certainly no hero, and any drive to avenge his wife’s fate is entirely a matter of vanity. The only glaring discordance in a film so shamelessly melodramatic and outsized is the servant boy Toby, a black African child played in blackface and a cringing patois by white British child actor Harry Scott.
VCI, a DVD label that rose out of PD films and second-tier films of the past, has been turning yeoman’s work of releasing obscure movies on DVD into a remarkable job at unearthing and presenting the real B-movie, programmers and forgotten low-budget film of the forties, fifties and sixties, with an emphasis on crime, mystery and noir. Some of the most interesting finds have come from their relationship with Renown Pictures, many of them branded “”Best of!” British Classics” (I don’t understand the curious quotes an punctuation either), others bundled under vaguely titled double features and triple features of “British Film Noir” or “Crime Thrillers.”
Which, mind you, is not to say that the films themselves are all (or most or even often) remarkable. Many of the films branded “British Film Noir” are only vaguely related to the American genre while some of the films in other collections are more in tune with the style and/or sensibility of American film noir. Many are forgotten for a good reason. And the technical quality of these releases varies wildly, from good prints and decent masters to substandard prints and indifferent, noisy digital masters.
But these releases are a window into a particular strain of filmmaking almost forgotten in the lazy and usually incorrect branding of “B-movie” on low budget films from Hollywood and elsewhere. And periodically, they unearth a minor classic, a forgotten gem or a fascinating artifact excavated from the archives.
Here are a few of the more interesting releases of late, beginning with Candlelight in Algeria (1944), the latest release of a “VCI “Best of!” British Classics” branded programmer.
Before James Mason found international success and caught the eye of American filmmakers in films like The Seventh Veil and Odd Man Out, he was a very busy actor in the British film industry, working his way up from supporting roles to leading men. This snappy 1944 espionage thriller, made on a budget comparable to an ambitious American B movie, finds romantic adventure in wartime intrigue in Algiers as Mason flees the Nazis with vital information for the Allies, or so he tells the American girl (Carla Lehman) who becomes his ally. As she becomes entwined with a smitten French Vichy officer and a cagey Nazi spy hunter (Walter Rilla), Mason slips in and out of her life in various undercover identities (and a mustache that our heroine rightly ridicules) to get secret plans to the Allies necessary for the planning of the invasion of North Africa.
I have a soft spot for Albert Lewin, a literary Hollywood writer/producer turned director with a continental sensibility an eye for handsome imagery (if not always cinematic storytelling). His productions tended toward literary adaptations (The Good Earth, 1937, which he produced, and The Picture of Dorian Gray, 1945, which he scripted and directed) but Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (Kino) is an original script (“suggested by the Legend of the Flying Dutchman,” in the words of the credits) reverberating with mythological themes, literary and classical references and a Hemingway-esque atmosphere of the lost generation of idle wealthy Europeans in early thirties Spain.
All of the men in the tale are in thrall to Pandora (Ava Gardner), a beautiful American nightclub singer who has come to Esperanza, Spain, via London, and spurns the attentions of her admirers with a mix of cruelty and ennui. Then she is drawn to the mysterious ship anchored in the bay and meets the ageless Renaissance man Hendrik (James Mason), a haunted loner whose story is the stuff of legends, and becomes captivated by this mystery man who seems to know her yet makes no advances.
The African Queen is the most celebrated DVD debut this week, but I’d argue that Bigger Than Life (Criterion) is the most important. Never released on VHS, rarely seen on TV or cable (and even then only in pan-and-scan versions) or revived in the dwindling repertory circuit, this film has not received its due as a masterpiece of American social drama in large part because it’s been so damnably difficult to see. Criterion’s much-appreciated release now resolves that part of the problem with an edition that celebrates the film with due respect.
Ostensibly a drama about prescription drug misuse and abuse and drawn from an article in “The New Yorker,” this portrait of a grade-school teacher and middle class father (played by James Mason, who also produced and helped develop the project) is as much about adult male masculinity and responsibility as a husband and father, and the pressure on him to live up to the ideal, as Rebel Without a Cause is about the emotional realities of being an American teenager. Ed Avery (Mason, playing an American schoolteacher without even trying to mask his distinctive British accent) is already suffering (secretly and silently) from spasms of pain in his hands and back while he (also secretly) moonlights a few afternoons a week as a taxi dispatcher to make ends meet. He’s afraid to complain about the pain because he can’t afford to be sick. His wife, Lou (Barbara Rush), is just as anxious and just as nervous to say anything about it; she’s afraid he’s having an affair. And though they laugh it off when they come clean, that anxiety is never far from their suburban existence.
I wrote about Carol Reed’s The Third Man for Turner Classic Movies a couple of years ago and more recently wrote on The Fallen Idol. Now they are screening his rarely-see The Man Between, which returns Reed to the post-war European theater, this time with the focus on cold war tensions.
The cold war proved such a hot setting for Carol Reed’s brilliant continental thriller The Third Man (1949) that he made a return visit to the territory in The Man Between (1953). Instead of a Vienna carved up by the Allies, this film takes us to Berlin of the early fifties, a city divided into West and Soviet-controlled East Berlin with checkpoints and security stations. Our introduction to this post-World War II Berlin is much like that of our heroine, Susanne (Claire Bloom), a decisive young British woman who flies to Germany to visit her brother, Martin (Geoffrey Toone), and his German wife, Bettina (Bettina Mallison). Susanne is whisked from the international modernity of the airport to the quaint beauty of old Berlin, a tourist vision of Bavarian charm that Susanne finds enchanting. It’s Bettina’s way of showing this impressionable young woman the best of her home before taking her to the reality of the rest of the war-ravaged city.
From the opening scenes, Reed establishes a tension: strangers ominously eye their movements through the airport and a young boy on a bicycle, an otherwise unobtrusive figure of innocence playing in the streets, tails their taxi and makes lazy figure-eights outside their home, a lone building jutting out of the rubble and ruins of their sector of the city. Bettina is nervous and agitated and a night on the town does nothing to ease her disposition; she slips out for a surreptitious meeting that only jangles her nerves more. Susanne finally sees the mystery man on a day trip to East Berlin. As they settle in for tea at a café, the figure (guided by the boy on a bicycle, keeping up his dogged surveillance) steps into the room and over to their table like an old friend. James Mason is the smoothly shady and romantically sinister Ivo Kern, an acquaintance – and surely much more – of Bettina. Susanne is instantly fascinated and an odd kind of courtship begins between the impressionable but headstrong young woman and the older man with an ulterior motive, one that inevitably draws her into the political intrigue of citizens fleeing the East for the West and the espionage by agents no better than mercenary thugs attempting to staunch the flow. “He’s not the government and neither am I,” the weary skeptic Ivo confesses to Bettina after she’s snatched from the streets of West Berlin by an East German agent. “He’s just a gangster trying to get what he can.”
Read the entire piece here. The film, which is not on home video in any form (at least in the U.S.), plays on TCM on January 24.