Monday, August 3, 2015

Concert Review: Woody Allen and his New Orleans Jazz Band at the State Theatre

Woody Allen and his New Orleans Jazz Band. Woody's the short, nebbishy guy with the glasses.

I’ve been a fan of Woody Allen’s movies since I was teenager, so I was very excited to hear that he was coming to the Twin Cities to perform live with his jazz band. For many years, Allen has played the clarinet in a New Orleans jazz band in New York City. While Allen has performed in Europe several times with his band, he hasn’t toured much in the United States. I knew this was a rare opportunity to see one of my favorite directors live in person, and a chance to hear some great music as well.

The concert proceeded much like I thought it would: Woody said a few words after the second song, and also at the end of the concert. That was it, no stories about the many great movies he’s made, no jokes. But in between there was some very good music. Allen’s band is usually called the Eddy Davis New Orleans Jazz Band when Allen plays with the group in New York City. The band featured trombone, trumpet, piano, bass, and drums, with Allen on clarinet, and Eddy Davis on banjo. The music was very good, but it would have been more fun in a more intimate setting than the 2,000 seat State Theatre. (The concert could have been held in a smaller space: the balcony wasn’t even half full.) 

The band’s repertoire is said to be more than 1,000 songs, and for this concert they played some songs I knew, like “Down by the Riverside,” Irving Berlin’s “Easter Parade,” and W.C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues.” They also played many songs I didn’t know, but I enjoyed those as well. While Allen calls himself an “amateur” on the clarinet, it’s very clear from hearing him play that his love of this music runs deep. It’s fun to see someone doing something they love, and it’s obvious that Woody Allen loves New Orleans jazz. At the age of 79, Allen still has real passion for both music and movies, as Irrational Man, the 47th movie he’s directed, was just released two weeks ago. Even though Allen’s film work is uneven, as classics sit next to clunkers, I always admire artists who just keep going. Sure, his latest movie might not be as good as Annie Hall or Manhattan or Match Point, but why should that stop him from working? Allen has crafted some of the greatest comedies of the last 50 years, and it was a lot of fun to be able to spend some time with him tonight.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Movie Review: James Mason in The Deadly Affair, directed by Sidney Lumet (1966)

James Mason, Harriet Andersson, and Maximilian Schell in The Deadly Affair, 1966. Who knew that James Mason was taller than Maximilian Schell?

James Mason in The Deadly Affair. He had such beautiful, haunting eyes.

James Mason and Maximilian Schell in The Deadly Affair.
James Mason had a very successful year in 1966. He was nominated for an Oscar as Best Supporting Actor for his role in Georgy Girl, the movie that made Lynn Redgrave a star, and he played a supporting role in The Blue Max, a film about German pilots in World War I starring George Peppard and Ursula Andress. Both Georgy Girl and The Blue Max were among the top twenty grossing movies of 1966. Mason’s third film of 1966 was the lead role in The Deadly Affair, which was based on John le Carre’s first novel, Call for the Dead. The Deadly Affair was directed by the always excellent Sidney Lumet.

In The Deadly Affair, Mason plays le Carre’s spy George Smiley, who had to be renamed Charles Dobbs for this movie, because Paramount had bought the rights to the Smiley character when they made The Spy Who Came in from the Cold in 1965. (Smiley is just a supporting character in Cold, as that film focuses on Alec Leamas, brilliantly played by Richard Burton, who should have won the Oscar for it.) 

The Deadly Affair begins with Dobbs interviewing a government worker who has been accused of being a spy. Dobbs seems certain that the man isn’t a spy, but later that night the man is found dead, an apparent suicide. Dobbs investigates, thinking that there’s more to the story than meets the eye. We observe Dobbs’ investigation, and also get glimpses of Dobbs’ difficult home life. He’s married to the much younger Ann (Harriet Andersson) who is habitually unfaithful to him. Dobbs’ old friend Dieter Frey (the very handsome Maximilian Schell) comes into town from Switzerland on business, and Ann begins an affair with Dieter. When Dobbs finds out about this, it leads to one of my favorite scenes in the movie, as Dobbs calmly discusses the situation with Dieter. Dieter says to Dobbs contemptuously, “In any other country we wouldn’t even be on speaking terms, this is a ridiculously British scene.” Dobbs responds, “I don’t know, I’ve never played it before.” A tense scene at the end of the movie takes place in a theater, during a production of Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II. The dialogue from the play really heightens the tension at that point in the movie. 

The supporting cast in The Deadly Affair is excellent, and the movie features a superb performance from character actor Harry Andrews as Inspector Mendel, the retired police officer who helps Dobbs unravel the case. Beatle film fans will need to look out for Roy Kinnear from Help!, who is excellent in a small role as a disreputable scrap yard owner, and Kenneth Haigh as Bill Appleby, who assists Dobbs and Mendel with the investigation. Fans of A Hard Day’s Night will recall Haigh’s brief but very funny role as Simon, the TV executive who wants George Harrison’s opinion on shirts. When George calls them “grotty,” Simon responds, “Of course they’re grotty, you wretched nit, that’s why they were designed. But that’s what you’ll want.” Simone Signoret is also stellar as the dead man’s widow. (Signoret won an Oscar as Best Actress for her role in 1959’s Room at the Top, also starring the wonderful Laurence Harvey, and she was married to French actor Yves Montand.) Harriet Andersson is also very good as Dobbs’ wife. Andersson is most well-known for the many movies she made with Swedish director Ingmar Bergman. Maximilian Schell perfectly captures the smarmy charm of Dieter, and he’s certainly a fellow I wouldn’t want my wife spending too much time with. Lynn Redgrave has a tiny role in The Deadly Affair, although she doesn’t have any scenes with Mason. She’s an intern at a theater who is only called “Virgin” by the director, who is played by her brother, Corin Redgrave. (It’s the only film they appeared in together.) 

James Mason is one of my favorite actors, and he delivers an incredible performance in The Deadly Affair, as he shows Dobbs’ weariness, but also his single-minded devotion to investigating this death, despite what the personal and professional consequences might be. In my opinion, it’s one of Mason’s very best performances. Mason was nominated for a Best British Actor award at the BAFTA Film Awards for The Deadly Affair, but he lost to Paul Scofield in A Man for All Seasons.

Sidney Lumet was a big fan of Mason’s, and he said the following about the actor: "I always thought he was one of the best actors who ever lived. Whatever you gave him to do he would take it, assimilate it and then make it his own. The technique was rock solid, and I fell in love with him as an actor, so every time I came across a script I wanted to direct I would start to read it thinking is there anything here for James? He had no sense of stardom at all. He wanted good billing and the best money he could get, but then all he ever thought about was how to play the part. In that sense he reminded me more of an actor in a theatre repertory ensemble than a movie star, and it was what made him so good." (Quote from TCM’s website for The Deadly Affair.) Lumet directed Mason in four movies, including his Oscar-nominated role in The Verdict. As Lumet said, Mason was a very talented actor who could excel in a variety of roles, and he seamlessly made the transition from leading to supporting roles as he got older.

Cinematographer Freddie Young invented the technique of “pre-fogging” the film on The Deadly Affair. “Pre-fogging” means exposing the film in the camera to a small amount of light, and that technique gave The Deadly Affair a distinctive, washed-out color palette. Fun fact: You can see in the movie that James Mason was taller than Maximilian Schell. IMDB lists them both at 5’11”. 

The Deadly Affair is a very good movie that I would recommend to fans of le Carre’s unglamorous secret agents, and to anyone who enjoys the acting of James Mason.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Movie Review: Criss Cross, starring Burt Lancaster and Yvonne De Carlo (1949)

Yvonne De Carlo and Burt Lancaster in the opening scene of Criss Cross, 1949. Burt's jacket is really weird, it has a checkered pattern with black elbow patches and a black back. Did anyone really wear jackets like that in 1949?

Yvonne De Carlo and Burt Lancaster clinch for the cameras in Criss Cross, 1949. Get away from her Burt, that dame's no good for you!
Burt Lancaster was a star from the very beginning of his movie career. He made his electrifying screen debut in The Killers in 1946. Although his acting technique improved over the years, his charisma was readily apparent from the moment he first stepped onto the screen.

Before Lancaster made The Killers, his entire professional acting experience consisted of a single appearance on Broadway in the play A Sound of Hunting, which ran for three weeks in November, 1945. That fact always blows me away. You’d never know from watching The Killers how little experience Lancaster had. Of course, he had been an acrobat for years in the 1930’s, but that’s very different from being an actor. Lancaster was older for an actor who was just starting out. He turned 32 in November, 1945, and he was 6 months older than Tyrone Power, who had been a major movie star for nearly a decade. But Lancaster quickly made up for lost time. In 1947 Lancaster formed his own production company and took charge of his film career. 

Lancaster was an extremely handsome man. He was tall, athletic, and had thick wind-swept brown hair and magnetic blue eyes. Lucy Kibbee, the wife of screenwriter Roland Kibbee, who would go on to work with Lancaster on several movies, said of her first glimpse of Lancaster at a Hollywood party: “I grabbed Kibbee and said, ‘My God, there’s a Greek god sitting over there!’ He was so gorgeous and tall and beautiful and had this great body, physically above everyone in the room.” (Burt Lancaster: An American Life, by Kate Buford, p.83) 

Lancaster signed non-exclusive contracts with producers Hal Wallis and Mark Hellinger. Wallis wanted to change Lancaster’s name to Stuart Chase, but decided against it because there was a famous economist with the same name. Lancaster certainly didn’t look like he should have been called Stuart Chase. 

Criss Cross, from 1949, was Lancaster’s ninth movie, and in his filmography it followed the luridly titled Kiss the Blood off My Hands, which was the first movie that Lancaster’s production company made. Criss Cross had been a project of Mark Hellinger’s, and Lancaster was excited about working with Hellinger again. Hellinger had produced Lancaster’s first two movies, The Killers and Brute Force. When Hellinger died suddenly from a heart attack in December, 1947, Universal studios took over production of Criss Cross. Lancaster was not looking forward to making the film, as the script had changed a great deal since Hellinger had died. But Lancaster didn’t have much of a choice, as Universal told him he would be in breach of his contract if he didn’t make Criss Cross. 

On the set of Criss Cross, Lancaster was reunited with director Robert Siodmak, who had directed The Killers. The plot of Criss Cross was becoming very similar to The Killers as well, with Lancaster cast as the hapless film noir stooge who falls under the spell of a treacherous woman. The woman in Criss Cross was played by the stunningly beautiful Yvonne De Carlo. De Carlo had first met Lancaster at a casting conference in late 1946, and according to her autobiography, they began a short but passionate affair, which included an encounter where they made love in De Carlo’s backyard on her mink coat! (Against Type: The Biography of Burt Lancaster, by Gary Fishgall, p.57) 

Criss Cross opens with a tracking shot of Los Angeles from a helicopter, which eventually focuses in on a parking lot, where we met Steve Thompson (Lancaster) and Anna (De Carlo), caught in a passionate embrace. They are divorced, and she has married someone else, but they are passionately in love. Criss Cross then flashes back to Steve’s return to LA. He’s been traveling the country, trying to get Anna out of his system after their divorce. He thinks he’s been successful, but of course it hasn’t worked. When Lancaster goes to their old favorite club, look closely at the young, handsome guy with dark hair who Yvonne De Carlo is dancing with. It’s Tony Curtis, in one of his first film roles. Anna and Steve start dating again, even though all of their encounters seem to end with them getting into a fight. Anna also starts dating the gangster Slim Dundee (Dan Duryea), who she eventually marries. But when she runs into Steve again, they start an affair. Eventually Slim finds out about their affair, and Steve offers Slim a proposition: he will help Slim rob an armored truck. (Helpfully, Steve works for an armored truck company.) Of course, things go awry during the robbery, and it becomes clear that the plan was to double cross Steve. Steve gets shot, but he’s able to thwart the robbers from getting all of the money, and the newspapers hail him as a hero. As he recovers in the hospital, Steve is kidnapped by one of Dundee’s thugs. Steve bribes the thug to take him to Anna instead, who has all of the robbery money. Instead of being happy to see Steve, Anna lashes out at him, telling him he would only slow her down with his broken arm. Criss Cross ends bleakly, as Dundee shows up and shoots both Steve and Anna dead. 

Criss Cross is a good, gritty film noir, but for me it was too similar to The Killers to really be a classic. I think The Killers is just a better movie. But Criss Cross has all of the typical noir elements: interesting camera angles, a fatalistic and hapless protagonist, flashbacks, voiceover narration, a colorful supporting cast, and a cold-hearted femme fatale. 

Dan Duryea gives an excellent performance as Slim Dundee, the kind of slimy gangster that no one would want to run into. Stephen McNally is also very good as Pete Ramirez, a cop who tries to help Steve. Duryea and McNally both had interesting lives before they became actors. Duryea majored in English at Cornell University, and then entered the advertising business. When he suffered a heart attack in his late 20’s, he decided to pursue acting, which had always been his first love. Duryea had success on Broadway in The Little Foxes, and he reprised his role in the 1941 movie version. Duryea worked steadily in movies and television until his death in 1968. Stephen McNally had a successful career as an attorney before he quit in his late 20’s to become an actor. Like Duryea, McNally always found plenty of work in movie and on television. McNally retired from acting in 1980, and passed away in 1994.

After Criss Cross, Burt Lancaster would try harder to broaden his screen image, and he broke out of the tough guy mold with roles like the alcoholic Doc Delaney in Come Back, Little Sheba. I’ve always admired how Lancaster tried to show his full range as an actor. Just when it looked like he might be typecast as a film noir actor, he made a swashbuckling film like 1950’s The Flame and the Arrow, which showed a different side of his talent, and demonstrated what a great acrobat he was. With his roles in Come Back, Little Sheba in 1952, and From Here to Eternity in 1953, Lancaster was finally taken seriously as an excellent dramatic actor. Lancaster was never afraid to play against type, and in many films he downplayed his charisma and his athletic physique. Slowly but surely, one film at a time, Lancaster expanded his range, to the point where he may have been the most versatile leading man of his generation.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Book Review: John O'Hara's Hollywood, short stories by John O'Hara (2007)

Cover of John O'Hara's Hollywood, 2007.

John O'Hara at work, circa 1960. He's looking you over to figure out which brand of shirt you're wearing and what that says about you.
John O’Hara was one of the most successful American authors of his generation. O’Hara rose to fame during the 1930’s through his short stories in The New Yorker, and from his first two novels, Appointment in Samarra, and BUtterfield 8. O’Hara spent varying amounts of time in Hollywood from 1934 and 1955 as a screenwriter, and his time in California informed the short stories in the 2007 collection John O’Hara’s Hollywood. The book collects all of O’Hara’s 22 stories about Hollywood and the movies. It’s an excellent collection for fans of O’Hara’s writing, but it’s not without its faults. 

Most of O’Hara’s early short stories from the 1930’s and 1940’s were very short, with many being under 1,000 words. O’Hara was a master at creating a mood in just a few words in these super short stories. O’Hara’s stories don’t really have endings that resolve the story; they just suddenly come to a halt. In this way, they capture the rhythm of real life. 

Personally, I found the early short stories in John O’Hara’s Hollywood to be the most interesting. I thought that some of his later stories from the 1960’s were just too long and lacked narrative drive. The longest stories in the book are “Yucca Knolls,” “James Francis and the Star,” and “Natica Jackson,” and those are the three stories I found most disposable. They range from 50-80 pages in length, and they’re overly reliant on dialogue. Not much happens in them, and it seems that the only reason they are so long is just because they could be. O’Hara also seems stuck in the past in these stories, as they re-hash the 1920’s and 1930’s, the decades which he was most comfortable writing about. 

The last piece in the book is one of the most fascinating; it’s a non-fiction piece titled “Hello Hollywood Goodbye,” that O’Hara wrote in 1968 for the magazine Holiday. Unfortunately, the introduction doesn’t mention it at all, so we don’t get much context for this piece. From what I know about O’Hara’s writings, it was fairly unusual for him to write an autobiographical non-fiction essay. 

John O’Hara’s Hollywood was edited by Matthew J. Bruccoli, the leading scholar of John O’Hara and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Bruccoli’s introduction is excellent, but someone in the proof reading department was asleep at the wheel, as the introduction states that F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote What Makes Sammy Run? and The Disenchanted, while Budd Schulberg wrote The Love of the Last Tycoon: A Western, when it’s actually the other way around. 

I noticed some interesting things as I read John O’Hara’s Hollywood, and one of them is that O’Hara really had a thing for fake movie titles with the word “strange” in them. In “The Magical Numbers” the fake biopic of President John Tyler is called Strange President. (p.22) Strange Courage is the movie the actor in “Adventure on the Set” has just finished. (p.27) Strange Virgin is the name of the movie that Kenyon Littlejohn is making a test for in “Drawing Room B,” (p.49), and it’s also the name of the movie, adapted from a novel, being made in “The Industry and the Professor.” (p.62) I wondered if all these fake movies with “strange” in the title was supposed to be an in-joke for movie fans. Were there a lot of movies with “strange” in the title being made in the 1930’s and 1940’s? 

O’Hara might be making some in-jokes as he re-uses some character names in different stories. “The Answer Depends” name checks Sidney Gainsborough, who appears in the first story in the book, “Mr. Sidney Gainsborough: Quality Pictures.” The fictional actress Doris Arlington is mentioned in “The Answer Depends,” “Yucca Knolls,” and “James Francis and the Star.” 

John O’Hara was a very interesting writer. He was clearly gifted with superb and sensitive abilities to capture the way people talked, thought, and felt, but yet in his personal life he had a knack for pissing off nearly everyone he met. Of course, he’s not the only great writer who also had a difficult personality. O’Hara had a keen sense of class and status in America, and he had a large inferiority complex about having never attended college. Ernest Hemingway supposedly once made the joke that he was collecting funds to send O’Hara to Yale. The sad part is, O’Hara might have taken Hemingway up on his offer. Obsessed with Yale life, O’Hara badgered the university to give him an honorary degree. Yale declined, because O’Hara was graceless enough to ask for the degree. O’Hara also made no secret of his desire to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Of course, he never got it. 

O’Hara finally quit drinking in the mid 1950’s, and he became a much more prolific author, publishing 10 novels and 7 short story collections between 1955 and his death in 1970. He became a famous and wealthy author, and he gloried in the social signifiers that his status afforded him, as he drove a Rolls-Royce and an MG convertible with his monogram on the door.

O’Hara still holds the record for the most short stories published in The New Yorker, with an incredible 247! Along with those two other Johns, Cheever and Updike, O’Hara became synonymous with The New Yorker and the sophisticated short stories found between its covers. 

At his best, John O’Hara was a superb chronicler of American life and culture, and John O’Hara’s Hollywood presents some of his best work.