Sunday, June 08, 2008

Film Log

Some classic movies I saw recently... It was just a coincidence that all three were directed by the same guy Edmund Goulding, who like William Wyler or Michael Curtiz was a very competent and efficient studio hand.

The Razor's Edge (Edmund Goulding, 1946): In this adaptation of the novel of the same name by Somerset Maugham (which I have not read), 40s matinee idol Tyrone Power plays a sort of proto-hippie who is disillusioned with his upper class life in Chicago and after breaking off his engagement to Gene Tierney takes off to Europe and then to India searching for Truth and salvation, which means walking on a "razor's edge" as a helpful Indian guru explains to him. He then returns back to Paris where he tries to clean up the mess in the lives of people he knew using his new found wisdom. In general I find this brand of sentimental religious hooey exasperating but from a historical point of view one has to concede that Maugham was writing this before these ideas became cliches. The film anyway doesn't dwell much on these ideas and instead is more interested in straight-forward melodrama. Clifton Webb is particularly remarkable in his role of an awful snob, very similar to the unforgettable role he played in Otto Preminger's Laura. He says things like, "I don't like the propinquity of the hoi-polloi" or at other time, "I can't think how a young man can come to Paris without evening clothes." In true melodrama fashion he gets his moment of redemption in the end which Webb does a good job of. He was actually nominated for an Oscar for this role. Gene Tierney is also good specially in the later half of the film when she transforms herself into a jealous harpy. Anne Baxter is also excellent in a supporting role. In fact she won an Oscar for it too. Overall, it is a bit too "respectable" and conventional and like other big-budget well-intentioned Hollywood movies of the period somewhat dated.

Grand Hotel (Edmund Goulding, 1932): Grand Hotel is less of film and more a parade of Hollywood stars of the period and as a result its appreciation will depend on the extent to which one is familiar with the iconography of all these stars. The proto-Atlmanesque narrative style of ensemble cast playing a bunch of characters, each one of them with their own background stories criss-crossing each other's paths throughout the film, is pretty well done too, extremely impressive for its time. Most of the actors act as if they were in a silent film - with exaggerated gestures and body movements or may be they are just playing icons. Greta Garbo is specially amazing as a depressive ballet dancer who is crying to be left alone all the time. Actually the quote "I want to be alone" has become associated with her real-life persona too. I have never seen any of the early films of Joan Crawford and this was a big surprise. John & Lionel Barrymore and Wallace Beery complete the rest of the cast and they are all pretty good as well.

Nightmare Alley(Edmund Goulding, 1947): Nightmare Alley was one of the pet projects of its star Tyrone Power who wanted to do something other than romantic and swashbuckling leads, which were good fit for his pretty but mostly inexpressive face. Nightmare Alley really goes to the other extremes, it is really dark, even disturbing specially the ending which must be one of the most brutal endings in all of film noirs, or may be it feels that way because it befalls Tyrone Power. The plot is complex and I won't describe it here but there are some amazing sequences specially a faux-poetic monologue which shows how easy it is to manipulate other people into believing something they want to just by being good at spewing fancy words, "a story about a boy and his dog" as one of the characters says. The later section when Power becomes a famous mentalist who claims to have communion with the dead are particularly fascinating in the way it so powerfully shows how his betrayal of other people's trust goes way deeper, to something betraying God. This is really a terrific film in every sense, not just a brilliant noir. Not to be missed.

Just to end, a snap of Tyrone Power (taken from his wikipedia profile)

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