Monday, February 28, 2011

Amanda Knox: Murder on Trial in Italy (PIlgrim/Project X/Lifetime, 2011)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was the awkwardly titled Amanda Knox: Murder on Trial in Italy, based on a real-life tabloid case I’d already seen broadcast on Dateline NBC and which Lifetime accompanied with an hour-long documentary (which I haven’t watched yet) purporting to tell the true story. Amanda Knox was a young, rather flaky but nonetheless studious young woman who had grown up in Seattle, her parents had divorced, and in the middle of her college education she decided to do a year’s worth of studying in Perugia, Italy. She moved there in the summer of 2007 and found a room in a cottage with three other girls her age, including Meredith Kercher (Amanda Fernando Stevens), who had come from Britain but was otherwise doing much the same thing Amanda was. The two met on the campus of the University of Perugia and got along at first, but Meredith soon got upset with Amanda for leaving the bathroom they shared too dirty, not doing her share of the dishes and other pretty normal antagonisms people in communal living arrangements often fall into.

Two months after Amanda’s arrival, Meredith is found murdered in her room and suspicion falls on Amanda, her Italian boyfriend Raffaele Sollecito (Paolo Romio) and a Black drifter, an immigrant from Africa named Rudy Guede (Djibril Kédé). The police become convinced that the three of them committed the brutal assault together, staging the scene so it looked like Meredith had been raped and killed by an outsider who had broken in, and as with so many other recent tales of police interrogation (including the Michael Crowe case in Escondido and Cameron Todd Willingham, not only convicted but actually executed in Texas for burning his house down and killing his three daughters, a crime arson experts who examined the evidence later concluded didn’t happen at all because the fire started accidentally), it soon becomes clear that the purpose of interrogation is not to elicit information, but to zero in on a person or persons the police have already decided is guilty and get either a confession or at least more evidence (including contradictory statements) to bolster their case.

The question of whether Amanda Knox did it is rather peripheral to the movie — oddly, of the two people who have commented on the film on one said it skewed the story to make her look innocent and one said it skewed the story to make her look guilty (and the latter person also used his commentary as the excuse for a diatribe against the Roman Catholic Church, which he seemed to think was responsible for framing Amanda even though there’s no evidence for that) — the real interest is in the interrogation process (the police give Amanda the old line that they’ll go easier on her if she talks) and also in the way both sides exploited the media to try the case: the local prosecutors talked up the case in the Italian media (especially their tabloids — remember that for the last two decades or so Italy is a country that has been run by a tabloid publisher!) and the Knox family talked it up in the American media, while the victim’s family talked it up in the British media.

There is a bit of a sense of culture shock when Amanda finds herself confronted with a criminal justice system dramatically different from the one back home — but as things turn out the Italian justice system isn’t that different (there’s still a jury, a prosecution and a defense — she isn’t being tried by a judge and she isn’t being presumed guilty, at least not so far as we can tell from Wendy Battles’ script) except in one detail: when the prosecutor in the case, Mignini (Vincent Riotta), is himself indicted for malfeasance in an earlier case he isn’t taken off this case, as he surely would be in the U.S. (if for no other reason than any U.S. district attorney wouldn’t want to risk a reversal on appeal by having a case presented by a tainted prosecutor!); he goes right ahead and tries it, and even his eventual conviction on the charges from the earlier case (of a serial killer in 1985) has no bearing on the Knox case; in fact, when Amanda claims to have been beaten by police while in custody (something that, as old movies reveal, was actually routine in this country before the Warren Court and the Miranda rule!), the Italian authorities not only investigate (more or less; I’ve seen too many police whitewashes under the guise of “investigating” their fellow officers’ conduct to take that all too seriously!) and find the officers guiltless, they threaten Knox’s parents with three years’ imprisonment if they keep repeating the charge that their daughter was beaten while incarcerated.

It’s a pity all these interesting issues didn’t get stated in a better movie — Battles’ script and Robert Dornhelm’s direction bounce around from time to time and, though there are a few titles giving us time cues, there aren’t enough of them, so that in one scene we’ll hear characters discussing Meredith’s murder and in the next one, separated only by a jump cut, we’ll see her alive and well. Amanda Knox is a better-than-average Lifetime movie but hardly the film it could have been, even on a Lifetime budget — and it also doesn’t help that the film’s Italian characters, though played by actors whose names at least look genuinely Italian, speak in English throughout and use accents that suggest that they learned our language from watching Chico Marx. (I’d have preferred to have the Italian characters talking to each other in Italian, with English subtitles — but that many subtitles on a TV-movie would probably have driven the average non-film-buff viewer crazy.)

Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Prowler (Eagle Productions/United Artists, 1951)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was The Prowler, made in 1951 by producer S. P. Eagle (a.k.a. Sam Spiegel — he had decided to form a pseudonym by turning the first two letters of his last name into initials, and various jokesters in Hollywood came up with similar names for other well-known producers of the time, like M. A. Yer or Z. A. Nuck) and director Joseph Losey, and a quite good film noir that had been singularly elusive; I had seen it on commercial TV on a local San Diego station in the early 1980’s but shortly thereafter it dropped through the cracks of commercial distribution and has only resurfaced recently, with an official DVD release and some new exposure on TCM.

It’s one of the rather interesting sub-genre of noir in which the protagonist is a cop who goes over to the criminal side — others include the Douglas Sirk/Sam Fuller Shockproof (a quite impressive movie despite the rewrite of Fuller’s script by producer Helen Deutsch, which Sirk felt ruined the film), Pushover (directed by Richard Quine at Columbia in 1954 with Fred MacMurray essentially rehashing his role from Double Indemnity, only instead of a corrupted insurance salesman he’s a corrupt cop, and Kim Novak surprisingly impressive in her first major role as the woman who corrupts him) and Private Hell 36 (a rather messy movie, also from 1954, in which Ida Lupino co-produced with her previous husband Collier Young and co-starred with her then-husband Howard Duff, and director Don Siegel resented the “bedroom politics” that were going on around him — though he still got a chilling performance out of Steve Cochran as the bad cop).

The Prowler begins with officers Webb Garwood (Van Heflin) and Bud Crocker (John Maxwell) getting a call that Susan Gilvray (Evelyn Keyes) has reported an attempted break-in at her elaborate home in the L.A. suburbs. Webb is immediately struck by Susan even though, when he asked her point-blank if she was married, she said yes — to a man who made enough money to retire and build the house they’re living in, but who continues to work for the fun of it, doing an all-night D.J. show on a local station which Susan feels she has to listen to continually because he slips little messages to her in between the records, then gets upset if he comes home and she hasn’t heard them. (He always signs off his program with her name.) She and Webb are both transplants from Indiana and even attended the same high school, where Webb was a star athlete — good enough to win a college basketball scholarship (we see him lying on his bed in a small room, wadding up a piece of paper and throwing it into the light fixture as if it were a basketball, which had Charles worried that by doing that he was going to set the room on fire), only to blow it after the second game when the coach benched him, he argued it and got kicked off the team and lost his scholarship.

The Prowler continues as Webb invents excuses to come to Susan’s house, at first in the guise of a cop and later leaving her under no illusions that he’s there because he wants her sexually — Losey indicates the change by having him turn up there in street clothes instead of his uniform — and she rather reluctantly drifts into an affair with him that seems motivated more by boredom than love. He’s interested not only in her but the $65,000 she stands to inherit if her husband dies, which would give Webb the money he would need to quit the police force and buy a motel in Nevada, so — without telling her, which alone sets this apart from most noirs — he hatches a plot to murder Gilvray by pretending to be responding to another prowler call; he will slash open a screen door at the house and lure Gilvray outside with a gun, thinking he’s warning off the prowler; then Webb will shoot Gilvray and claim he mistook him for the prowler (and to make this credible he uses Gilvray’s gun to wound himself after he’s shot and killed Gilvray). The coroner’s jury returns a verdict of accidental homicide after Susan and Crocker both lie for Webb — saying that she’d never seen him before the night he “accidentally” killed her husband (why they felt a need to lie when there doesn’t seem to be anything particularly incriminating about the fact that the two cops were out to Susan’s house on a prowler call before is a loose end screenwriter Hugo Butler, working from a story by Robert Thoeren and Hans Wilhelm, doesn’t bother to explain) — and Webb and Susan marry, which prompts attention from the tabloids, obviously driven by the salaciousness of a widow marrying the man who (albeit supposedly justifiably) killed her husband, then buy the motel and run it together.

It appears that Webb has pulled off the perfect crime when biology rears its ugly head; Susan turns out to be pregnant, and the pregnancy is too far along for the child to have been conceived after Gilvray’s death — and it can’t be Gilvray’s because he was impotent (a flash point in the relationship between him and Susan that helped lead her to be interested in an affair in the first place). Webb freaks out and insists that he and Susan drive out to a ghost town in the Nevada desert his partner Crocker once told him about, where they will remain until she’s had her baby; they’ll either stay there long enough to pass off the baby as post-marital or place it in a home and then “adopt” it legally. Only when Susan actually starts going into labor Webb freaks out again, blowing his whole scheme by calling a doctor when he’s convinced Susan will not be able to deliver safely on her own, then plotting to kill the doctor — Susan, who’s finally realized that Webb killed her husband and did it for the money as much as for her (and gets him to admit it), warns the doctor and he gets away, and Webb tries to flee — only Crocker, his former partner, figures it out and blocks Webb’s way until the Nevada cops can come and arrest him, where in a scene Losey pretty obviously ripped off from High Sierra Webb tries to escape by climbing up a pile of mine tailings but is shot down just as he reaches the top.

What separates The Prowler from the other bad-cop noirs is the sheer obsessiveness of it all; Van Heflin’s character is considerably more black-hearted than the innocent but weak figure usually used as the male lead of a noir, and Evelyn Keyes is more morally ambiguous — not outright destructive the way Barbara Stanwyck’s character was in Double Indemnity but not morally strong enough to confront her lover or even see through his act until the very end — and what fascinates me about it most is how it’s almost a parable of devolution. At the start of the film Webb has a well-regarded (if low-paying) job as a cop and Susan is living in an elaborate mansion with the voice of her husband (and the musical playlist of his show, a series of instrumentals stupefying in their repetitive banality — we see very little of him on-screen but his choice of music and the smarmy voice with which he makes his announcements tells us all we need to know about how unpleasant life as his spouse would be, while his insistence that his wife listen to all his broadcasts gives him a Big Brother-ish quality, as if he’s trying to run her life even when he’s not physically there) as her constant companion.

Later, after the murder, they’re reduced to running a desert motel — and while Webb thinks of this as a step up, what Losey’s visuals (superbly realized by the veteran cinematographer Arthur Miller, who had just left 20th Century-Fox after a long contract and was hoping for an exciting future in independent film — only he caught a debilitating illness, tuberculosis, which forced him to give up his next assignment, The African Queen — Jack Cardiff replaced him — and Miller had to live the remaining 19 years of his life in semi-retirement, occasionally resurfacing to do an interview or appear in a documentary before he died in 1970) tell us is it’s a step down, a way station on the route to the ghost town, where he and Susan practically revert to a primitive existence (albeit one with a battery-powered record player on which Webb inadvertently plays an aircheck of one of Gilvray’s shows — so it seems like the bastard is still spying on her even from beyond the grave!) before he’s shot down like an animal against the desolate desert landscape.

In his book-length interview with Tom Milne, Losey has surprisingly little to say about The Prowler except to praise producer Spiegel a.k.a. “Eagle” for giving him excellent behind-the-scenes help (including the services of cinematographer Miller, who had been working ever since he shot The Perils of Pauline in 1914!) and allowing him to rehearse the cast for two weeks before he started shooting. One oddity of this film is how many of the personnel involved in it were blacklisted; Dalton Trumbo, who worked on the screenplay with Butler, had already been blacklisted and within a year or two Losey himself would be (and would be forced to flee to England and resume his career there), as would John Hubley, the great cartoonist whom Losey brought in as a “design consultant” — Boris Leven was the art director of record but it was Hubley who designed that bizarre house in which the Gilvrays live (and according to Dalton Trumbo not only worked on the script but actually supplied the voice of Gilvray’s radio broadcasts, though both Milne’s book and The Film Noir Encyclopedia credit actor Sherry Hall with playing Gilvray on screen).

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Deep in My Heart (Konigsberg Company/Lifetime, 1999)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran a movie from the Lifetime backlog that actually turned out to be surprisingly good: Deep in My Heart, not the 1954 MGM biopic of Sigmund Romberg starring José Ferrer but a 1999 production directed by Anita W. Addison from a script by Ronni Kern, with supposedly at least some basis in real life, about Boston housewife Geraldine Eileen Cummins (played as a young woman by Cara Buono and as a, shall we say, “mature” one by Anne Bancroft), who just four months after having had her second child with her husband Bob (Kevin O’Rourke) goes out alone to see an Elvis Presley movie and is jumped by a Black man who rapes and, it turns out, impregnates her. She gives birth to the baby — it’s 1966, abortion is still illegal and even if it weren’t, she and Bob are heavy-duty Catholics who take the church’s teachings way too seriously even to consider it — but soon decides, whether it’s because looking at her daughter’s dark skin would remind her of the rapist who fathered her or because she can’t face the task of explaining to her friends and neighbors how she has a Black child when she hasn’t been unfaithful to her husband, to put the child up for adoption because she thinks the girl, whom she and her husband have already named Barbara Ann (after the Beach Boys’ hit? We’re never told but we guess so), would be better off being raised by people who look like her.

The state puts Barbara Ann (Olivia Kassardjian) with a Black foster mother, Corrine Burrell (Lynn Whitfield), who’s by far the most morally superior person in the movie, and for seven years she raises Barbara Ann as her own — until, reflecting the argument novelist Ann Padgett made when I interviewed her (based on her own experiences working for San Diego County Child Protective Services) that you want to avoid getting involved in systems because systems have their own priorities and the people running them tend to make the decisions they think are best for the system rather than the people unlucky enough to be under its jurisdiction, the state takes Barbara Ann away from Corrine and places her with Wisconsin couple Paul and Annalise Jurgenson (Albert Schultz and Anna Krige). Annalise is the closest thing this movie has to a villain, a self-righteous and self-centered white liberal who’s always marching for one cause or another and whose latest cause is adopting an “unadoptable” Black child and giving her the advantages of a middle-class white home — an arrangement her husband reluctantly goes along with (their agreement has been that he’ll work as an architect so she won’t have to have a job at all and therefore can be an activist full-time) until she gets the bright idea that Barbara Ann would be better if they moved to the Black part of town. Paul reacts by leaving her, and if the intent was to make things better for Barbara Ann, it backfires big-time.

Whereas in an otherwise all-white neighborhood she attracted attention and some friendships as a novelty, in a Black neighborhood she’s “just another Black girl” — rejected by whites because she’s Black and by Blacks because she’s half-white, and shunned by virtually everybody until in high school she meets a nice young Black guy, Don Williams (Jesse L. Martin from the later cast of Law and Order), who picks her up in church, gets her pregnant but turns out to be a good person after all; they marry and she has four more kids by him, and the two of them end up with a stable middle-class lifestyle (though just how they make their living is a mystery — like all too many movies, this one hardly gives us a clue about what sorts of jobs most of these people have). “I have a stable Black family,” Barbara Ann tells us later in the movie (when she’s an adult and is played by Gloria Reuben); “a lot of us do, but we don’t make the 6 o’clock news.”

Eventually Barbara Ann’s dormant interest in her biological forebears is awakened by a doctor who warns her she may have chronic asthma and in order to diagnose her properly, he would like to know her family history to see if that runs in her family — only she has only the dimmest memory of her real mother even though she’s held the memory of Corrine but still hasn’t tried to contact her. Finally Barbara Ann files a legal request for her adoption documents and through them is able to trace Gerry Cummins, whose husband died when he had a heart attack while driving in Florida (the state to which they’d retired — a neat irony in Ronni Kern’s script since they met while she was in high school and he was the school bus driver, so they’re brought together by driving and also permanently separated by driving!), whereupon she moved back to Boston, moved in with her fraternal twin brother Gerald (Peter MacNeill), who takes the call Barbara Ann places from Wisconsin, then goes to Hawai’i for a week and leaves Barbara Ann tense while the message sits back in Boston before Gerald returns from his trip and finally tells his sister that a woman claiming to be the daughter she gave up years before has called. “She says she’s your daughter,” Gerald says; “She is my daughter,” Gerry replies, and there’s a tense confrontation between the two women and a final Cummins family reunion — with the Black relatives of Barbara Ann’s husband mingling with the white Cumminses as if it’s the most natural thing in the world — that edges towards the sappiness Kern’s script and Addison’s direction have mostly avoided.

There are a few bits of overwrought and unduly obvious symbolism — like the umbrella the young Gerry was carrying when she was raped, which slips out of her grasp and blows down the street (we get it — the umbrella symbolizes the sheltered existence she’s previously been leading and its loss symbolizes the loss of that shelter) — and a few odd loose ends (we never learn whether she reported the rape — though we assume she didn’t; to this day rape remains the most underreported of all the major crimes) — but for the most part Deep in My Heart (despite the sappy title) works surprisingly well and, in a quiet, un-underlined way raises some interesting issues about just what constitutes a “family” and to what extent love trumps biology and when and how emotional connections become more important than genetic ones. It also shows how far we’ve come on family law; in 1966 not only was abortion illegal but there was also no such thing as “open adoption,” no way a parent could give up a child for adoption while still remaining involved in the child’s life — adoption was flat and final and you were expected, if you were a mother who gave a child up for adoption (the use of the phrase “give up” itself says much about how the process was seen!), you were supposed to let the child pass out of your life and go on as if you’d never had him or her at all.

Deep in My Heart is also unusually well done in that Kern is able to use real-life political events (like the anti-busing demonstrations in Boston and the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King, as well as the subsequent race riots) as background and reinforce the story with them without making them overly important and turning the movie preachy — and, in the middle of the current debate over whether casting directors deserve an Academy Award category, this film’s casting director, Tina Gerussi, is one of its unsung heroines: it’s not easy to cast a movie that takes place over so long a period of time that several of the roles have to be played by different actors to reflect the same characters at different ages, but she managed to pull it off and assemble a team of actors for each multi-cast role who are fully believable as the same person.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Long Shot (Fine Arts/Grand National, 1939)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Long Shot, a thoroughly undistinguished but moderately charming film about horse racing from Fine Arts Pictures, releasing through Grand National, in 1939. It was directed by Charles Lamont, who also got an “associate producer” credit, from a screenplay by Ewart Adamson based on an “original” story by Harry Beresford and George Callaghan — “original” definitely in quotes because the film is a ragbag of clichés arranged so predictably one knows almost from the first reel how it’s going to come out. The dramatis personae include young horse owner Jeff Clayton (Gordon Jones, a more attractive and personable leading man than usually got to star in an indie), whose horses are consistently winning races against those of his mentor and role model, old rancher Henry Sharron (Henry Davenport); Sharron’s niece Martha (a young Marsha Hunt, starting a career that should have taken her to major stardom and probably would have if she hadn’t been blacklisted) and her fiancé Lew Ralston (C. Henry Gordon), who expects to marry Martha despite her own uncertainty and the opposition of uncle Harry, who’s read him as someone who’s up to no good — as have we, if for no better reason than C. Henry Gordon is playing him!

Ralston has concocted a plan to rig every race in which Sharron’s horses are involved so that the family loses everything and then Martha will have to marry him for his money — though exactly how he manages this is left a mystery by the writing committee, who leave quite a few loose ends in a messy script that at times seems like what A Day at the Races would look like if you cut the Marx Brothers out of it. Sharron’s ranch and stables are foreclosed on but he and his jockey, Danny Welch (George E. Stone), spare one horse, Certified Check (sufficiently important to the story that the horse who played him, “Denmore Chief,” is listed as part of the cast — fittingly, since the horse delivers a more powerful and emotional performance than some of the humans in the film!), by turning him loose in the wilds of Arizona. (The fact that a thoroughbred racehorse wouldn’t last two days on the open range was cheerily ignored by the writers.) Certified Check is caught in a roundup by a horse-trader but Jeff, Danny and Jeff’s Black manservant Tucky (James Robinson, doing the shuffling-servant bit only marginally less offensively than Stepin Fetchit — his performance reminded me of Godfrey Cambridge’s comedy routine about a movie he’d supposedly made in which he played a slave supposedly mourning the death of his owner by grabbing hold of his corpse and calling out to him, “Massa Jack, Massa Jack” — Cambridge’s punchline was, “You know, they never released that picture — ’cause I never released Massa Jack!”) buy him after Danny tricks the horse-trader into thinking he’s lame.

In the film’s one even remotely creative plot twist, Henry Sharron fakes his own death and has his lawyer write a will leaving half of Certified Check to Jeff and half to Martha, in hopes that they’ll get together, run the horse and fall in love — despite the complication that because of an auto accident (Martha struck him with her car), Jeff has been left with a rib lodged dangerously close to his heart that could stab him internally and kill him if he ever gets too excited, which he interprets as an instruction to stay out of horse racing forever. Nonetheless, Martha traces Certified Check to Arizona and she, Jeff, Danny and Tucky travel the country entering Certified Check in minor races — only to find that he veers off the rail in mid-race and quits running. Henry poses as his own ghost to come to the camp from which Jeff and Martha are operating and tell Tucky to tell Jeff to have Danny run the horse in the middle of the track, where he’ll do better — and with a few more clichéd complications (like the moving van they commandeer to take Certified Check to the Santa Anita handicap by enrolling its driver and, later, the truck’s owner and the young couple whose furniture they were supposed to be transporting in their scheme to keep Certified Check a long shot so they can make lots of money betting on him in the big race), ultimately Certified Check wins the Santa Anita handicap despite the efforts of Lew Ralston to sabotage him — though Ralston’s instruction to his jockey to foul Danny don’t lead to any obvious result in the race and it becomes just one of the many dropped plot threads with which the writers have littered their script (the bit about Jeff’s rib being lodged near his heart and threatening to stab him to death disappears in mid-movie, and nothing is made of Ralston and his right-hand man sneaking a peek at one of Certified Check’s practice runs and discovering that the horse is genuinely fast and a real threat to Lew’s plans to make a killing on the race with his own horse).

Long Shot lumbers along for 67 surprisingly slow-seeming minutes until it ends the way we knew it would back in reel one. The writers seem to have drawn some elements from the real-life story of Seabiscuit (who’s actually mentioned in the film’s dialogue) — a horse who comes out of nowhere, a lame jockey (Danny supposedly had an accident but, he reveals later, was really tripped up by one of Ralston’s jockeys in a big race Ralston wanted to win by any means necessary) and a final victory at the Santa Anita Handicap, the race in which Seabiscuit established himself — but both of the movies actually based (more or less) on the Seabiscuit story are better than this one!

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Wagner’s Mastersinger, Hitler’s Siegfried: The Life and Times of Max Lorenz (EuroArts, 2008)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I picked out a DVD from EuroArts Video called Wagner’s Mastersinger, Hitler’s Siegfried: The Life and Times of Max Lorenz, a documentary originally produced for German TV and issued in a package with a sample of Lorenz singing Wagner’s opera Siegfried in Buenos Aires in 1938: a CD containing the entire first act and a substantial chunk of the second. The reviews I’d read of the package warned of terrible sound quality on the Siegfried CD, but aside from a couple of speed glitches (the recording machine unaccountably slowing down and then speeding up again) the sound was quite good for a 1938 broadcast and certainly listenable enough that the glories of Lorenz’ voice came through stunningly. The documentary was made in 2008 and was a précis of Lorenz’ career that stressed the fact that his peak years as a performer, 1933 to 1944, overlapped the Nazi regime in Germany and World War II.

He was born in Düsseldorf, Germany on May 10, 1901 and his real name was Max Sülzenfuß (that ornate character at the end is what the Germans call an “S-set” and indicates a double-S, and “Sülsenfuss” was a ridiculous enough name even among his fellow Germans that when he started his stage career he rather arbitrarily picked “Lorenz” as a stage name). He was the son of a butcher who wanted him to go into the family business and couldn’t have cared less about his artistic ambitions, but his mom slipped him money from the family cookie jar (or whatever the equivalent they were using) to go to the theatre and study the stars of his day. All he ever wanted to do was sing, and after a couple of teachers he described as “very average” (he lasted long enough to do a series of interviews on German TV and recount his past) he lucked out and studied with Ernst Grenzebach, who was both one of the leading voice teachers in Germany in the early 1920’s and a person with plenty of connections with the major opera companies that he used to place his students and get them jobs. Lorenz landed an audition at Bayreuth in 1925 and Wagner’s son Siegfried cast him in the supporting role of Walther von der Vogelweide in Tannhäuser, only Lorenz lost his voice at the end of an exhausting rehearsal schedule and Wagner Sohn told him to go study some more and try again another year.

In 1927 he landed a contract with the Semperoper in Dresden, and in 1928 he sang the murderously difficult tenor role in the world premiere production of Richard Strauss’s opera The Egyptian Helen (based on a variation of the Trojan War myth in which the real Helen of Troy is hidden out in Egypt by the gods, who send a replica in her place to Troy, so when the war is over she and Menelaus can be reunited because she hasn’t “really” been unfaithful to him; in the version librettist Hugo von Hofmannstahl wrote for Strauss, that doesn’t really happen but Menelaus is hypnotized into thinking it did). That got him an offer from the Berlin State Opera to repeat the role in 1929, and the Berlin company hired him as a permanent member; he also got offers outside of Germany, including one from the Met in 1931 in which he sang five roles by Wagner, the composer who would become his specialty. (He sang non-German operas, too, including Verdi’s Aïda and Otello, but he sang them exclusively in German — which probably explains why the Met hired him only for operas that were written in German in the first place.)

In 1933 Winifred Wagner, Siegfried’s widow (he had died in 1930 and she had taken over the Bayreuth festival after his death) and also a close friend of Adolf Hitler, hired him for Bayreuth, this time singing Wagner’s insanely difficult leading tenor roles — and from there until the end of the war Lorenz remained the leading tenor and Germany’s favorite Wagnerian, despite two aspects to his private life that ordinarily would have been the kiss of death — literally — under the Nazis. First, in 1932 he had married his manager, Charlotte “Lotte” Appel, who was Jewish — which wasn’t a big deal then but became a very big deal later on, especially in 1943, when it took the personal intervention of Hermann Göring, Lorenz’ patron among the Nazi elite, to keep her and her mother from being sent to the death camps (this, the film explains, was right after a popular actor named Gottschalk and his Jewish wife had committed joint suicide after she got an order to go to the Terezin camp) — and second, he was actively Bisexual. In 1937 he was actually arrested after being caught in flagrante delicto with one of his male lovers, and Hitler said that no matter how the court case turned out, Lorenz was no longer allowed to sing at Bayreuth — whereupon Winifred Wagner told him that if she couldn’t have Lorenz sing at Bayreuth, she’d have no choice but to close the festival down because without him, “Bayreuth can’t be done.”

Lorenz ended up in the same ambivalent position as Richard Strauss, Wilhelm Furtwängler and a lot of other basically decent people trying to pursue their careers under Nazi rule: he went along with the regime in public but did what he could behind the scenes to save his family members and anyone else he could. The film touched on (in 52 minutes’ running time it could do little more than touch on) the dilemmas facing him in his relationship with the Nazis and the unfairness that a man who’d put himself at risk defying the Nazis was hampered in his postwar career by being considered “the Nazi tenor.” It also contained interviews with major singers, some contemporaries (like soprano Hilde Zadek) and some later singers inspired by him (baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and tenors René Kollo and Waldemar Kmentt), who proclaimed Lorenz the greatest Wagner tenor of all time, and while I would disagree with that (to me, quite frankly, Lorenz’ contemporary Lauritz Melchior — who, by the way, was also Bisexual — was the Wagner tenor, then and since), certainly he was a very, very good one, as good as anyone can be in these voice-straining and stamina-draining parts.

The film features a clip from a 1934 German newsreel showing a couple of minutes of Lorenz and Frida Leider on stage at Bayreuth in the Dawn Duet from Götterdämmerung that powerfully displays what charisma and intensity they must have projected (a pity even the Wagner-mad Nazis weren’t about to greenlight the filming of an entire Wagner opera!) as well as a clip from a 1943 film called Altes Herz werd wieder jung (which I think means something like “Old Hearts Were Always Young”) showing him in a performance (in German, of course) of Verdi’s Otello. It probably also helped that Lorenz looked, if not totally like the image of a Wagner hero (the film includes a clip of Paul Richter as Siegfried from Fritz Lang’s 1923 film and suggests he was Lorenz’ model for how he wanted to look on stage in the operatic version of the role), certainly better than most of the Heldentenors since (and quite a bit better than Melchior, who for all the eloquence and unsurpassable power and richness of his voice really did live up to Jonathan Tolins’ jibe in the play Twilight of the Golds that you were supposed to believe Siegfried was a superhero when he “looks like Ed Asner in a loincloth and a blond wig”) — and the film (written by Eric Schulz and directed by him and Claus Wischmann) shows a drawing of Lorenz early in his career by a Gay artist named Stassen which, it’s suggested, helped launch his career by depicting Lorenz as the Germans’ collective dream of an Aryan hero.

The film also makes the rather odd assertion that the Bayreuth Festival was in desperate artistic straits when Winifred Wagner took it over and cleaned up its scenery (by hiring Emil Preetorius as her set designer) and musical values (by hiring Heinz Tietjen, whom Lorenz credited as being a tough taskmaster but also one who improved him greatly as a singer, as her musical director) — which is belied by the quality of the Bayreuth recordings made by British Columbia in 1927 (excerpts from Parsifal and orchestral bits of the Ring), 1928 (an abridged but substantially complete Tristan) and 1930 (an abridged but substantially complete Tannhäuser) as well as the daring hiring decisions made by Siegfried in his last years, including hiring Arturo Toscanini in 1930 as the first non-German ever to conduct at Bayreuth. (The orchestra musicians derisively called him der Italiener.)

Walter Legge’s memoir On and Off the Record contains his on-the-spot review of the 1933 Bayreuth festival that paints a very different picture, largely because many of the non-German artists Siegfried had invited either were fired or quit when Hitler took over and announced a policy of “German Artists for German Art.” Toscanini, who in 1931 had been beaten by a Fascist mob in Italy for refusing to conduct the Fascist anthem “Giovinezza” before one of his concerts, wasn’t about to yield to Winifred Wagner’s pleas that he ignore the politics and just come and be an artist, and Legge wrote that “consequently the performances of Die Meistersinger and Parsifal were considerably inferior to those that most of us expected when, five or six months ago, we bought our tickets. The fault is not on Toscanini’s side — no one can blame him for his withdrawal.” Legge praised the work of Tietjen and Preetorius, and said he was pleasantly surprised that the Bayreuth orchestra had not audibly suffered from the order to fire its Jewish members, but he listed all the great foreign-born musicians and singers the German audience would no longer get to hear under the Nazis’ policies and wrote, “Musically, at least, the fanatical nationalism of Germany is to a great extent a fear-induced protection of inferior home products against superior foreign competition.”

As for Lorenz, he continued his career after the war, moving with his wife to Vienna and even taking Austrian citizenship, and he starred as Joseph K. in the 1953 world premiere of Gottfried von Einem’s opera based on Franz Kafka’s The Trial (making a pun on the meaning of “Einem,” which is “one” in its ordinal form, one reviewer covering the premiere of Einem’s 1947 opera Danton’s Death and finding the music highly derivative of other composers, wrote, “Nicht von Einem sondern von vielen” — “Not by one but by many”) and ultimately worked down to character roles; he retired in 1962 (though the following year he made a brief appearance on Austrian TV singing the death scene from Verdi’s Otello with piano accompaniment) and died in Vienna in 1975. After the war Lorenz is generally considered to have been past his prime — but I recently listened to Wilhelm Furtwängler’s 1950 Ring cycle from La Scala in Milan, in which he was the Götterdämmerung Siegfried, and though the two other star tenors in the cycle (Günther Treptow in Walküre and Set Svanholm in Siegfried) were younger, Lorenz outsang both of them and was a worthy partner to Kirsten Flagstad, who sang Brünnhilde in all three operas in which the character appears. Lorenz was certainly a fabulous tenor, far superior to anybody singing this repertoire today!

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Bizet: Carmen (Metropolitan Opera, 1/16/10)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The movie last night was the recent Metropolitan Opera telecast of Bizet’s Carmen, from one of their live HD transmissions to movie theatres on January 16, 2010, which if not a fabulously great Carmen was certainly quite a good one despite a few strikes against it, notably the use of the grand opera version (with recitatives composed by Ernest Guiraud after Bizet’s death) rather than the original version with spoken dialogue premiered at the Opéra-Comique in Paris in 1875. The opera was staged in a new production by Richard Eyre that updated the setting to the 1930’s and supposedly staged the original plot against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War — which quite frankly was neither a new idea nor especially well executed; in the early 1980’s Frank Corsaro did a Carmen production at the New York City Opera that not only set Carmen during the Spanish Civil War but actually worked the war into the plot (in Corsaro’s version Carmen was a resistance leader for the Republic — instead of smuggling goods for money at the start of Act III, her crew was smuggling guns into the country for the Loyalist army — while the army Don José was enlisted in was Franco’s), and though some of the plot changes to fit the concept seemed forced, the production benefited from a clear directorial point of view and from a quite good Carmen in Victoria Vergara.

The Met’s production differed from the 19th Century norm mainly in playing the first and fourth acts on a revolving stage against a spiral-shaped brick wall that was visibly crumbling (were we supposed to believe it was a building that had been hit in an air raid?) and in having the stage lighting way too dark to suggest the sunlit Seville town square Bizet and his librettists specified for act I (in which the cigarette girls emerged from an underground cistern the Met probably had left over from its production of Salomé — were we to think the cigarette factory’s owners had located it underground so it would survive a future air raid?) and the bullring exterior for act IV. Lillas Pastia’s tavern in act II was a geometric creation evoked mostly by a series of black beams erected against a blue backdrop, and only Act III — which is supposed to take place in the dark (on the moon-less night the smugglers have naturally chosen for their work) — really “looked” right.

As with most Met productions where they try to get fancy with the staging, what saved this one was the singing: I’d heard Elina Garança (pronounced “Garancha” by announcer Renée Fleming) before on European broadcast recordings but I’d been unprepared for how good a Carmen she would be. Though her voice is solidly mezzo in this potentially in-between role that some great sopranos (notably Geraldine Farrar, Maria Callas and Leontyne Price) have played, Garança both sang the music and projected the character with power and authority. The other principals were all excellent, with Roberto Alagna managing to turn his own recent career troubles to good use in his account of the tortured Don José; Barbara Frittoli making as much as one could out of the bland “good girl” role of Micaëla (even more than usual she seemed less like José’s pre-Carmen girlfriend and more like a surrogate for his mother!); and Teddy Tahu Rhodes stepping in for an “indisposed” (opera-speak that can mean anything from genuinely ill to having a diva/divo hissy-fit and deciding s/he doesn’t want to sing that night) Mariusz Kwiecien in the difficult role of Escamillo, who gets the most famous aria in the opera (the “Toreador Song” — the one of which Bizet told a friend, “Well, they’ve asked for shit and they’ve got it” — I’ve read the word variously rendered as “excrement” and “ordure” but I’m sure what Bizet really said was “merde” — and actually marked the music to be played “avec fatuité”) but whose role, like Carmen, is composed in between the usual vocal ranges, not quite baritone and not quite bass.

Conductor Yannick Nézet-Seguín occasionally took some of the music too slow for the desired effect — the performance got sluggish sometimes, though I think that was less Nézet-Seguín’s fault as conductor than the decision to perform the work with the Guiraud recitatives (which sound as authentic as one would expect — Bizet had signed a contract for a Vienna production the day before he died, almost certainly knew that the Vienna Court Opera would want recitatives instead of dialogue, and would likely have composed them himself if he’d lived — but also tend to slow down the story) — and the playing of the Met orchestra (and the recording) was transparent enough that one could hear the amazing details of scoring Bizet worked into Carmen. We’re with Bizet where we would be with Verdi if he had died just after composing Rigoletto — a few operas of promise and then one masterpiece — and it’s easy enough to hear why once Nietzsche had his final falling-out with Wagner, he picked Carmen as the opera he would hail to the skies as the greatest ever written, the anti-Wagner opera that would pound the Wagner cult into dust. It’s a realistic story about realistic people driven by realistic emotions, and though it was French and therefore isn’t generally considered an ancestor of the Italian verismo movement, it’s hard to imagine that Cavalleria Rusticana or Pagliacci would have come to exist without the example of Carmen to show their composers how to put real life — including the sorts of crimes real people actually commit rather than the ridiculous ones that drive the plots of things like Trovatore — on the opera stage.

Carmen also seems to me in a way to be the first film noir — even though movies didn’t exist when it was composed — partly due to the basis of the story in a “realistic” short novel by Prosper Merimée which used the noir device of having the whole story narrated as a flashback by Don José (Merimée, an anthropologist who had done research in Spain, worked himself into the story as a character and had himself interview José in his prison cell on the eve of his execution for Carmen’s murder, and I wish an opera director would have the guts to stage Carmen that way sometime, using Merimée’s words over the orchestral introduction and supplying bits of narration for José from the book), and partly because it anticipates so many of the trappings of both film noir and the pulp crime fiction it derived from: the innocent and rather clueless young hero, the femme fatale who entraps him, his degradation from a certain degree of social position into a life of crime (though in Merimée’s book José is presented as a Basque nobleman who’s already disgraced the family and been forced to join the army as his punishment, so he’s already on the road downhill even before the part of the story presented in the opera begins!) and the dire ending as well as the overall aura of fate that drives both the characters and the plot. (The prediction Carmen makes in the card scene — that first she will die and then José will — seems a bit incomprehensible without the knowledge from Merimée’s novel that José will be executed for Carmen’s murder — and, in a bizarre twist Merimée probably picked up on from his anthropological studies, while facing death José is perversely proud that he’s been told that, because of his noble origins, he will be garroted instead of hanged.)

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Eclipse (The Twilight Saga: Eclipse) (Summit Entertainment, 2010)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I eventually watched a movie that had been in my backlog for a while: Eclipse, third film in the so-called “Twilight Saga” of vampires and werewolves at war in the Pacific Northwest and in particular Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart), normal human beloved of both boy vampire Edward Cullen (Richard Pattinson) and werewolf Jacob Black (Taylor Lautner). This episode, scripted by Melissa Rosenberg from Stephenie Meyer’s source novel, has a tighter, more structured plot than the predecessor, New Moon — this one stays in Washington state, moving only between the small town of Forks where Bella lives with her divorced father, local police chief Charlie Swan (Billy Burke) and Seattle, with a brief sequence in Florida when Bella goes there to visit her mother and takes Edward with her; New Moon’s plot took us to Italy and introduced us to the Volturi, a sort of vampires’ Vatican that provides overall governance and leadership for the cult — but it’s also not as good a movie.

Part of the problem is a change in director; apparently Chris Weitz thought that post-production on New Moon was taking so long he didn’t feel he could do justice to Eclipse on the one-a-year schedule the producing company, Summit Entertainment, was demanding, so he relinquished the reins to one David Slade, a former music-video director who’d made only two previous features — so the marvelously classical 1940’s Hollywood style in which Weitz shot New Moon was replaced this time with something more frantic, more typical of the modern-day youth-movie blockbuster, with faster action, quicker cutting and an overall sense of speed that worked well enough in the big action scenes but took some of the edge away from the doomed romanticism that has been the series’ strong point throughout. Even the alternative-rock songs, which in New Moon has been used brilliantly — not stuck into the soundtrack to provide “names” to sell a CD but carefully selected to heighten and express the emotional moods of the scenes in which they were heard — seemed more arbitrarily inserted this time, though I still give the series credit for using this more sophisticated form of contemporary pop music (and by acts who, aside from Beck, really aren’t major “names”) instead of slapping a bunch of highly salable pop artists on the soundtrack.

Eclipse actually seemed to get better reviews than New Moon from the critics — whoever does the “underrated/overrated” column in the Los Angeles Times hailed it as an improvement over New Moon and the Eclipse DVD has a cover blurb from Entertainment Weekly calling it “the best ‘Twilight’ movie so far!” — mainly because it is a better constructed plot with an exciting action climax. The story centers around Victoria (Bryce Dallas Howard), one of the evil vampires from the first Twilight (remember that in Stephenie Meyer’s vampire mythos bad vampires kill human beings and drink their blood, while good vampires feed only on animals — which in the first movie Richard Pattinson’s character, in a nice bit of dry wit, compared to humans living exclusively on tofu: it would keep you alive but it wouldn’t be very tasty), whose lover James was killed in that film’s big action climax. (In the first Twilight Victoria was played by Rachelle Lefevre and James by Cam Gigaudet, who frankly did more for me aesthetically than Richard Pattinson did.)

Victoria has hatched a revenge plot which involves going to Seattle and putting the bite on as many people as she can, thereby turning them into “newborns” — Meyer’s argot for the newly vampirized, who according to a bit of exposition we get (again from Richard Pattinson) in Eclipse, are the most ferocious of all vampires, the ones with the literal blood-lust most blatantly upon them and the most insatiable about them. The “newborns” launch a pattern of random and indiscriminate murder in Seattle, baffling the cops, who attribute it either to a very active serial killer or some sort of ritual cult (the allusions to the real “Green River killer” who terrorized Seattle for years are probably deliberate), and in the end the good vampires —the Cullen clan ¬— and the werewolf pack led by Taylor Lautner’s character have to join forces in an uneasy alliance (since, remember, the werewolves — associated with Native Americans for some reason — are the sworn enemies of all vampires, and we learned in New Moon that if Pattinson’s character Edward puts the bite on Bella and vampirizes her, even if she wanted him to, that would break the truce and the werewolves would be forced to go after the Cullen clan and exterminate them) to beat back Victoria and her vampire crew.

The man-to-wolf transformations of Jacob and the other Native American werewolves are well done, though not quite with the élan of the similar sequences in the Underworld movies (as I wrote about the first Underworld, in the days of digital effects “we’ve gone a long way since the days when John Fulton had to wait patiently for his double-exposure shots while Jack P. Pierce progressively plastered more and more of Lon Chaney, Jr.’s body with yak wool!”), and the wolves look utterly convincing except for the lack of genitalia (enforced by the ratings board, according to an interview Lautner gave to Jimmy Kimmel — so the days of the stupidities enforced on movies by the old Production Code are not entirely gone!) — but to me the film is still strongest in its quieter moments, and particularly in its dramatization of Bella’s dilemma and her choice between Edward and Jacob.

What I think has made the Twilight stories so popular both as novels and as films is the fact that for all the supernatural and horror-film mythical trappings, at base they’re just the story of an adolescent girl blossoming into womanhood and confronted with a choice between two boyfriends: the romantic but neurasthenic nerd who’s pale-skinned and stays out of the big battle, and the butch, muscular guy who not only fights in the battle but gets seriously wounded at the end of it. (Between Twilight and New Moon Lautner went on a bodybuilding course because he was worried he’d be replaced in the role of Jacob if he didn’t bulk up and become as genuinely muscular as the character was supposed to be — and in this episode director Slade gives us plenty of shots of his ripped chest, standing out even among his brethren in the wolf pack, who also get a lot of shirtless shots when they’re in human form.)

This bouncing back and forth between the macho “type” as the acme of male sexiness as presented on screen (Clark Gable, John Wayne, Steve McQueen) and the androgyne (which began as a screen “type” with Valentino and has continued up through Leonardo DiCaprio — who, come to think of it, would probably have been as “right” for a Valentino biopic as he was wrong, at least physically, for one about Howard Hughes!) has been going on virtually throughout the history of movies, and what makes Eclipse work as drama (as well as action) even though it’s hardly as wrenching emotionally as New Moon (and it pretty much ends in the same place, with Edward and Bella at odds because Bella wants him to vampirize her, and he’ll only do so if she’ll marry him — and he’s sufficiently “old-school,” reflecting his real age rather than his appearance, that he doesn’t want to have sex with her until they’re married, either) is the way the filmmakers have been able to portray Bella’s well-worn dilemma as if it were fresh and new.

The Great Waltz (MGM, 1938)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was The Great Waltz, an MGM production from 1938 that’s more or less a biopic of Johann Strauss, Jr. — though it comes with an odd disclaimer acknowledging that virtually nothing in the movie is factual and Strauss himself and the Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Josef are the only characters in the film actually based on real people: “In Vienna in 1844 ‘nice people’ neither danced the waltz … nor kissed their wives in public … nor listened to new ideas … In 1845 came Johann Strauss II and his immortal melodies … We have dramatized the spirit rather than the facts of his life, because it is his spirit that has lived — in his music.” The movie is a weirdly mixed experience because MGM had three directors on it — French director Julien Duvivier gets sole screen credit but Josef von Sternberg (a real Austrian!) and Victor Fleming also worked on it (and the big ball scene probably helped Fleming get the job of replacing George Cukor on Gone With the Wind a year later; the two sequences are strikingly similar) — and two of those people (Duvivier and Sternberg) are among the most stylish filmmakers ever.

The film doesn’t look like an MGM musical, especially one pre-Arthur Freed; the settings are not only lavish but moodily photographed (cinematographer Joseph Ruttenberg won an Academy Award for it) and the camera doesn’t just hold still for a few discreet cuts to project the stars’ performances: it dances and swoops around ballrooms, outdoor carriage rides and town squares in a waltz rhythm. The conceit of this film is that in 1844 Johann Strauss II (Fernand Gravet, whose last name is spelled “Gravey” on for some reason) is an unhappy worker in a Viennese bank who passes the time doodling waltz melodies on bank ledger paper — until he’s caught at it and fired. He doesn’t seem to have a home of his own — it’s established that his father is dead (actress Alma Kruger is credited as playing his mother but she has almost nothing to do) and installed him in the bank before he croaked so Strauss söhn would have an established career (one wouldn’t know from this movie that Strauss’s father was also a composer — or that his two brothers, Eduard and Josef, composed as well) — and to the extent he lives anywhere it appears to be at the home of baker Vogelhuber (Bert Roach), whose daughter Poldi (Luise Rainer, top-billed) is Strauss’s girlfriend. He sneaks home to the Vogelhubers’ to tell them he’s been fired, and he gets the idea of organizing an orchestra and rehearsing them until he can get them a job playing his music.

He lands the job at a local café and beer garden, and it looks like his first night is also going to be his last until the famous opera diva Carla Donner (Miliza Korjus) arrives and demands that he play more music, then invites him to the palace for a formal soirée. Though she doesn’t remain for even the length of one song, Carla’s appearance piques the curiosity of the hangers-on in the town square and the café owner throws open the windows until the people of Vienna hear the wonderful music and come down in droves, flocking into the café and filling its owner’s dance floor with happy waltzing couples. Strauss makes a contract with Julius Hofbauer (Hugh Herbert, of all people!) to publish his music — and as bored as he was at the bank, his business training stands him in good stead as he negotiates a contract for 1,000 gulden per waltz. (Didn’t anyone bother to tell the writing committee — Gottfried Reinhardt, Samuel Hoffenstein, Walter Reisch and Grand Hotel author Vicki Baum, uncredited — that the unit of currency in Austria at the time was the thaler, from which the American word “dollar” derived?) Meanwhile, at the court reception Carla scandalizes everyone by singing a waltz of Strauss’s (Oscar Hammerstein II worked on this film as lyricist, setting new English words to Strauss’s melodies), but the new music soon becomes popular.

She’s actually the mistress of Count Anton Hohenfried (Lionel Atwill, perfectly playing suave villainy as usual) but as she hangs around with Strauss the two start feeling a mutual attraction — especially when, in the film’s most famous scene, the two ride in a carriage through the Vienna woods and, with help from the coachman and various locals, human and otherwise, the two of them come up with the melody for Strauss’s classic “Tales from the Vienna Woods.” Carla wangles a commission from the court to have Strauss write an operetta in which she will star, and during rehearsals Poldi (ya remember Poldi? Actually you haven’t been given much of a chance to forget her, since the film has periodically cut to her, whining and pouting and simpering in that annoying series of affectations that constituted Luise Rainer’s entire “acting” style) feels so alienated she refuses to attend the premiere of her husband’s opera — until Count von Hohenfried comes to visit her, says that Carla is too tempestuous to make Strauss a good mate, and implores her to fight for her man and her marriage. Eventually she does so, and Strauss says goodbye to Carla on the bank of the Danube as she sails off on a boat trip they were originally supposed to take together — and Strauss is encouraged by the sights and sounds of the Danube to compose you-know-what. Strauss and Poldi are reconciled — and the film suddenly cuts to a sequence 43 years later.

The film’s conceit early on is that all this romantic intrigue was happening on the eve of the 1848 revolutions that swept through Europe (but produced surprisingly little lasting change — optimists about the current status of Egypt take note!) and in which Strauss was involved, writing a march for the revolutionaries and nearly getting both himself and Carla arrested; the revolution ends with Franz Josef (Henry Hull) taking over as emperor of Austria-Hungary and promising a reform government and a constitution; 43 years later, however, he’s an old man (with the famous huge muttonchop whiskers that adorn just about every representation of the real Franz Josef and have come to symbolize just how out of touch he was with the problems of his country and his people) and he summons Strauss to the palace for a gala reception at which a huge choir comprised of as many extras as MGM could hire for one of their big-budget prestige films sings him “The Blue Danube” as he and Poldi, in all the best age makeup MGM’s department could come up with, bask in the affection of the crowd and proclaim that they did it all for Vienna; indeed, the final song is a choral version of a Hammerstein adaptation of a Strauss waltz called “I’m in Love with Vienna.”

The Great Waltz
is a frustrating movie because all the stylish direction is applied to a pretty silly plot line and a surprisingly weak cast; though the film is full of wonderful supporting actors (including Sig Ruman as the banker who fires Strauss early on, Herman Bing as the café owner and Al Shean, half of Gallagher and Shean and also uncle of the Marx Brothers, as a cellist in Strauss’s first orchestra) the film could have used stronger leads. According to the American Film Institute Catalog, the role of Strauss was originally planned for Nelson Eddy (which probably meant they intended for Strauss to do a lot more singing than he does in the film — as it is two singers, Earl Covert and Ralph Leon, doubled for Gravet the rare sequences in which Strauss sings) and they also considered Francis Lederer, Brian Aherne, Clifton Webb and Fredric March — but the person the film really cried out for was Cary Grant: Strauss is depicted as a naturally insouciant man whose personal charm carries over into his music and is what makes it popular, and Grant could have done that with ease while Gravet looks too much like an animated mannequin, complete with way too much brilliantine that makes his hair reflect the camera lights.

As for Luise Rainer, I’m glad she’s survived to 101 but that still doesn’t make her a great actress; the writers evidently decided that the most impressive part of her acting in The Great Ziegfeld had been the famous “telephone scene” in which, on receiving the news that Ziegfeld has married someone else, she fights back the tears as she calls him and wishes him well — so, even though virtually all this film takes place well before the telephone was invented, the script gives her scene after scene of her talking to Strauss and pleading for his continued love as she skirts the thin edge of tears; it was annoying enough in The Great Ziegfeld but here scene after scene like this really gets oppressive, especially since she has to play them to Gravet in person and he’s uninclined to react at all. With such weak leads it’s not surprising that Korjus steals the film (she got an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actress, but it was the only film she made in the U.S.; afterwards she went back to Europe and resumed her operatic career); she’s got charisma and screen presence to burn, as well as a glorious coloratura voice (even though, oddly considering her European reputation, she lacks a real trill).

The Great Waltz is one of those movies that triumphs over weak casting in the leads because the music (even given some rather gloppy rearrangements by Dimitri Tiomkin instead of just using Strauss’s finely honed orchestrations) is so much fun and the film is wonderfully paced and cut to a waltz rhythm — and judging from the scenes showing “Tales of the Vienna Woods” and “The Blue Danube” coming to life in Strauss’s head from the scenes around him, it seems likely that at least some of the writers or directors of this film had seen Abel Gance’s masterly biopic of Beethoven two years earlier and seized on his uncanny anticipations of music videos as the way to dramatize the otherwise rather dull-looking act of composition on screen. Incidentally, screenwriter Gottfried Reinhardt was the son of Max Reinhardt, the great German stage director who was forced to flee when the Nazis took over (he worked in the U.S. on Kurt Weill’s The Eternal Road, a pageant of Jewish history that was apparently overproduced but, judging from the excerpts recently released on CD by Naxos, has a lot going for it; and he also signed with Warner Bros. to film his celebrated stage production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream) — and the father of Stephen Reinhardt, the controversial Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals judge who’s currently hearing the case on the constitutionality of Proposition 8 (and whose wife, Ramona Ripston, recently retired after 30 years of running the L.A. branch of the American Civil Liberties Union).

Marked for Murder (PRC, 1945)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

On Monday night Charles and I had watched a considerably less exalted movie: Marked for Murder, a 1945 PRC production which despite its noir-ish title was actually a “B” Western starring stalwart Tex Ritter (who’d played a singing cowboy in a series for Grand National in the 1930’s — and though neither was a major studio, there was a considerable gap between a quality-conscious independent like Grand National and a grind-’em-out company like PRC whose few quality films seem to have come about almost by accident) and PRC regular Dave O’Brien in yet another tale about the war between sheepherders and cattle ranchers. Local attorney Tex Haines (Tex Ritter), when he isn’t hanging around his office leading folk-music sings (he and a pair of tall, gangly young men billed as the Milo Twins open the movie with a quite nice version of the folk song “Froggie Went A-Courtin’” — odd that there’d be a song recorded by both Tex Ritter and Bruce Springsteen! — and though the rest of the songs in the film are a bit disappointing after that one, they’re still a lot of fun to hear), is working with Texas Rangers Dave Wyatt (Dave O’Brien) and Panhandle Perkins (Guy Wilkerson) to forestall a range war — only they get lured out of town and decoyed and the war nearly starts anyway.

It’s not much of a movie but it’s strikingly directed by movie veteran Elmer Clifton — some of it’s plainly shot in the manner of a million “B” Westerns before it but some of it looks almost noir (but then Ritter was prone to that sort of thing — one of his better Grand National films, Rollin’ Plains, features a climactic sequence in which actor Hobart Bosworth is made up as a ghost to try to force a confession from the no-goodniks who tried to kill him, and it’s one of the spookiest things ever put on screen in what’s ordinarily considered a pretty inoffensive genre) — and it’s fun, though it’s at its most entertaining when Ritter and/or the Milo Twins are singing. Ritter had a long career and his most famous film is one in which he didn’t actually appear on screen: High Noon, in which he sang the famous song throughout (and sang it beautifully, with a chilling restraint absolutely appropriate for the movie and a far cry from Frankie Laine’s strained, overwrought dramatics on the hit record on Columbia); in 1962 he recorded an album with Stan Kenton for Capitol, and in the 1970’s, when country violinist Charlie Daniels gave a typically snotty interview in which he said he’d pay $10,000 to any jazz musician who could make a decent country record, Stan Kenton’s manager sent him a bill for $10,000, a copy of the Kenton/Ritter LP and a note from Kenton saying, “It was a real pleasure to record with Tex Ritter. He was a real gentleman” — as compared to he didn’t have to say whom!

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Meet the O’Briens (Roland Reed Productions; TV, 1954)

By Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

One of the movies Charles and I watched last night was a 1954 pilot for a TV series called Meet the O’Briens, so obscure doesn’t seem to list it — certainly it was never picked up and only this episode ever existed — starring Dave O’Brien as a chronically unemployed young man living with his in-laws (Emory Parnell and Helen Spring) and trying to make his wife happy with him even though he’s not only not bringing in any income but just about everything he tries goes wrong. What was most astonishing about this show was how it prefigured All in the Family, though without the politics — the father-in-law was a proletarian and the character played by O’Brien was clumsy and comically idiotic.

In this story, written by David Barclay (also the credited producer) and Eddie Forman, Dave wrecks the family car and, in the funniest scenes in the show, he and a tow-truck operator (Willie Best, in one of the strongest appearances I’ve seen by him — yes, he’s playing the same slow-witted shuffling Black servant stereotype he always did, but given that he’s playing opposite a white character who’s even stupider than he is, it manages to be funnier than Best’s usual schtick) turn a crushed front end into a car that’s in bits and pieces: their first attempt to tow it lifts the bumper off the car, the second lifts the entire front end and then the whole engine gets pulled from its moorings and swung around on the business end of Best’s tow truck. Needless to say, he has to report to his father-in-law that he’s just destroyed the family car and all he has to show for it is the $60 the junkman paid him for what was left.

The writers concoct a series of comic reversals in which it turns out that there’s an insurance policy on the car which will pay a bit over $500 and allow Dave’s father-in-law to replace it — only Dave gets swindled by Silly Sammy (Eddie Marr), the used-car dealer, and an old woman (Hellene Hill), who jointly scam him out of the $500 and sell him back the same car, only repainted. Throughout the whole show Dave keeps saying he should move back to Denver, where he was living before he married, and where he has more contacts and can therefore have a better chance of finding a job — and his father-in-law as well as his wife keep talking him out of it.

Meet the O’Briens was a Roland Reed production and recruited a lot of Hollywood heavyweights (or at least medium-heavyweights) behind the cameras: the cinematographer was Paramount veteran Lucien Andriot, the art director McClure Capps (Sam Goldwyn’s son-in-law), with Dick L’Estrange as production manager, S. Roy Luby as “supervising editor” and William Beaudine, Jr. as assistant director — and the director was Abbott and Costello veteran Charles Barton. It’s a modestly amusing show but I can see why it wasn’t picked up as a series — the TV executives who said no probably worried about how they were going to sustain enough fresh complications from the basic premise to do a new and funny episode every week. Also, Dave O’Brien was considerably, shall we say, portlier than he’d been during his days as a leading man at PRC in the early 1940’s — though he was still in good enough shape to take a nice pratfall down a long, steep flight of stairs inside the two-story house in which the main characters live!

Max and the Donkey (Pathé, 1912)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Right after that we watched Max and the Donkey, a 7 ½-minute one-reeler from French comedian Max Linder, made for Pathé in 1912 and a real gem, a charming comedy in which as the movie opens a young woman, Lili (Paulette Dorsy), has just become engaged to a young man (Joé Dawson) — only Max Linder (using his own name for his character, as Laurel and Hardy did later) wants her too, and he offers to take her for a ride on his donkey. Her fiancé gets wind of this and dresses up in a donkey costume, substituting himself for Linder’s real donkey, and one of the choice gags is when Linder and Lili both sit on the fake “donkey” and he can barely bear their weight. (We never learn how he got rid of Linder’s real donkey, or why Linder never noticed the difference.) There’s a charming chase scene between Linder and the faux “donkey,” during some of which they climb down the side of a building (represented by placing a painted backdrop of a building on the studio floor and having the actors crawl on top of it — it’s an unconvincing effect but the very early-movie dorkiness of it, especially when the “donkey” walks across it and you can see the creases in the cloth as he passes, just adds to the charm), and a final fight scene in which the “donkey” bests Linder and wins from him a promise not to court Lili again.

Linder is frequently thought of as an influence on Chaplin, and there are certainly gestures and moves from Linder here that seem “Chaplinesque,” but he’s not quite as funny as Chaplin because he’s playing a well-to-do dandy. What made Chaplin so great was not only that he used the gestures of a gentleman but he used them while playing a tramp — one doesn’t expect the homeless (or near-homeless) character Chaplin played in film after film to have the effortless sang-froid Linder shows here — but Max and the Donkey is still a very funny movie and whets my appetite for more of this fascinating and ultimately ill-starred (he died in 1925 at age 41 after having attempted a career in Hollywood — when Chaplin left Essanay studio in 1916 they hired Linder to replace him, but American audiences didn’t take to him and he returned home) comedian.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Evel Knievel (Fanfare Corporation, 1971)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I picked a 1971 movie called Evel Knievel which I’d downloaded earlier from, and though Knievel mercifully didn’t play himself in it (George Hamilton did — and I couldn’t help but reflect on the absurdity of Hollywood casting the same actor as Hank Williams and Evel Knievel), it was this film that put Evel Knievel on the pop-culture map and changed him from a backwater stunt-man star into a full-fledged member of the celebriati. (Certainly I’d never heard of him before this movie came out.) It was a cheap-jack production, directed by Marvin Chomsky (any relation to Noam? Probably not, though in the 1970’s he did achieve a reputation for doing politically conscious TV-movies, including two about the Nazis and the Holocaust and one about the 1971 Attica prison riots) from a script by Alan Caillou and Hollywood’s Mr. Macho (at the time), John Milius, and as a movie it’s exactly what you’d expect a film about Evel Knievel to be.

The gimmick is that he’s about to do a major motorcycle jump over 19 cars — breaking his own record of 18 and doing something that’s supposed to be impossible — and as the film opens he’s walking down the empty Ontario (California, not Canada!) Motor Speedway (represented by a series of architectural shots, heard over big, “inspirational” orchestral music, that makes it look as if Chomsky had done an in-depth study of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will and Olympia, maybe in preparation for all those movies about Nazis and the Holocaust) rehearsing his spiel to the crowd before the jump (“Before I jump this motorcycle over these 19 cars — and I want you to know there’s not a Volkswagen or a Datsun in the row — before I sail cleanly over that last truck...”), and the experience launches him into a series of Proust-like recollections of his past, from his days as a child in Butte, Montana (his voice-over mentions that the entire town is honeycombed with mineshafts, and just as he’s telling us how this can happen, a car drops down into one as the ground gives way under it — we’re almost led to watch this as deserved comeuppance for the driver having been making fun of the boy Knievel just before the earth opened up and swallowed his car, and it’s a measure of the overall irreverence of this movie that we don’t really feel sorry for the driver but find the scene grimly funny instead) through his first sight of a daredevil show at 12, his realization that that’s what he wanted to do with his life, his apprenticeship at county fairs and carnivals, his tutelage from veteran daredevil Charlie Knesson (veteran Western star Rod Cameron, whose death provides the only real note of pathos in this film), his meet-cute with his wife-to-be Linda (Sue Lyon, whose film career started at the top — the title role in the 1962 Lolita, scripted by Vladimir Nabokov from his novel and directed by Stanley Kubrick — and therefore had nowhere to go but down) and his series of broken bones, all set by his regular physician, Doc Kincaid (Bert Freed), the closest thing this movie has to a deliberate comic-relief character: he’s always chewing out Our Hero for his devil-may-care attitude towards his own body. (Charles and I both thought of the same joke — a reference to Siegfried in Wagner’s Ring cycle — when Evel boasted that he didn’t know the meaning of the word “fear,” and we said, “At least I didn’t until I had to walk through the wall of fire to get to my girlfriend … who, by the way, is also my aunt.”)

One thing that amused us is not only did director Chomsky use footage of the real Knievel’s stunts to represent them in his movie, but the early footage was pretty obviously derived from surviving home movies (“Who was the cinematographer, Abraham Zapruder?” Charles joked) and it was only as Knievel’s fame and prestige increased that we started seeing professionally shot stunt footage of the real one. The movie is as silly as one would expect given what it’s about, and yet in a weird way it works. George Hamilton’s severe limitations (to put it politely) as an actor are just right for this role; it doesn’t matter (as it did when he tried to play Hank Williams!) that Hamilton has no depth as a performer because Evel Knievel didn’t either. Working with a script that doesn’t even try to explain What Makes Evel Run — Caillou and Milius either didn’t give a damn about that themselves or knew their audience wouldn’t — Hamilton gets to play a man who lives entirely on the surface, and since he’s not obliged to plumb any depths in his characterization it not only doesn’t matter but in a way it’s an actual asset that he can’t. Sue Lyon does vapid bimbo quite well — complete with her character’s utter disinterest in even attempting to keep her husband to herself sexually; she knows it ain’t gonna happen and therefore she isn’t going to try.

There are some moments that offer bizarre cultural flashbacks — notably the God-awfully ugly early-1960’s cars of the people who drive to see Knievel’s early performances — and on the whole Evel Knievel is a nicely entertaining movie whose triviality is just right for its subject matter; certainly far more could have been done with Knievel’s life (it’s not surprising that lists at least three other movies about him, TV-movies from 1974 and 2004 as well as a 1977 film, Viva Knievel!, in which he played himself), and one could readily imagine a Stunt Man-type treatment in which an aging Knievel deals with his body failing and his mind wondering whether it was all worth it. Knievel fans on complained that the film offered a sanitized treatment of him that minimized his boozing and womanizing, but even as it stands the film makes Knievel seem like an almost pathologically self-absorbed creature, prone to fits of diva-itis and living his life as if he truly believes the entire world was put here just to be his playground, suggesting possibilities for a darker movie treatment of the Knievel legend. Still, in its devil-may-care own right the 1971 Evel Knievel is a really fun movie that gets off on the triviality of its subject matter and manages to be quite entertaining — and I was amused at the multiplicity of the musical styles tapped for the background score, including rock, country, classical and jazz.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Gambling House (RKO, 1950)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Gambling House, a 1950 RKO production that showed a lot of promise as a film noir even though the stars were Victor Mature (well, he did make noir-ish movies like The Shanghai Gesture and I Wake Up Screaming) and Terry Moore, and William Bendix (TCM showed this one as part of a birthday tribute to him) really stole the movie even playing a part he wasn’t especially well suited for. The title is pretty inexplicable — one would expect from it that Mature would be playing a man running an illegal casino (the setting is New York City) but in fact, though he’s a gambler, he doesn’t have a casino of his own and he does his gaming in a Guys and Dolls-style “floating crap game” in various hotel rooms. He’s Marc Fury — short for his true name, Marcus Furioni (since he’s supposed to be Italian, “Marco” would have been a more appropriate first name) — and as the film begins he’s recovering from an injury sustained in a gun fight in which gang boss Joe Farrow (William Bendix) shot and killed a man.

Farrow offers Fury $50,000 to take the blame for the killing, including representation by Farrow’s own lawyer and a series of witnesses, including Farrow himself, who will testify that Fury committed the murder in self-defense and get him off. Fury makes the deal, only no sooner is he acquitted than he’s arrested again — this time by Federal agents, who have found he was born in Lacania, Italy and though he’s been in the U.S. since age five, his parents never bothered to become U.S. citizens and therefore he’s a citizen either. Therefore, since though he served honorably in the military during World War II his peacetime activities included a lot of criminal convictions, the U.S. government has decided to seek his deportation as an undesirable alien. It’s a fascinating basis for a movie and it has resonance even today — one could readily imagine a remake in which the protagonist would be a young gangbanger who tried to turn his life around by enlisting in the U.S. military, only to get the door to legal residency slammed in his face by the failure of the DREAM Act and the hard-line attitude being taken by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) of deporting any undocumented immigrants convicted, or in some cases even arrested for a crime, no matter how minor, to try to get as many of the presumably “worst” ones out of the U.S. forever.

Alas, the script we actually have — by Marvin Borowski and Allen Rivkin, based on a story by Erwin Gelsey (who also wrote the story for the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers musical Swing Time, another film in which the male lead was a gambler) — doesn’t rise to the interesting possibilities of the premise, notably the culture shock Marc would feel if the government successfully deported him (there are hints of that in his total non-knowledge and disinterest in the Italian language and his response, when he’s asked exactly where in Italy his native town Lacania is, that he hasn’t the slightest idea) and the whole issue, moral as well as political and legal, of throwing a person out of a country when he’s lived his whole conscious life here and knows no other sort of life. Instead the film grafts an exciting crime thriller onto a rather preachy story about how Fury, threatened with deportation, rediscovers the American dream and embraces it in the person of volunteer aid worker Lynn Warren (Terry Moore), who takes his case for an International Rescue Committee-style organization and with whom, of course, Fury falls in love.

The thriller elements of this plot include Farrow’s reneging on his deal to pay Fury the $50,000; Fury crashing Farrow’s nightclub and stealing it, then buying a cashier’s check with it and sending it to an Eastern European family Lynn is also representing; and Fury finally winning his deportation hearing against all odds after the judge (Basil Ruysdael, who played Detective Hennessy in The Cocoanuts in 1929, thereby putting the entire rest of this cast one degree of separation from the Marx Brothers — though he made something of a specialty in playing judges; he’d previously done so in Pinky and The File on Thelma Jordon and would do so again in These Wilder Years; he also played a lot of ministers and professors) is moved by his plea for a second chance to be a good American, then getting involved in the inevitable final shootout that leads to Farrow’s death.

I suspect Howard Hughes’ influence in the horrible preachiness of the script — particularly in Terry Moore’s supposedly “inspirational” lines as she tries to talk him out of his crooked lifestyle and into being a “good American” — and though the reviewer whose comments on the film came up when I looked it up on their Web site loved the actors and hated the movie, my reaction was almost the exact opposite: I found the story fascinating, though flawed, but didn’t care for the actors. Victor Mature was all wrong for the part — I kept thinking how much better this film would have been with someone like Dick Powell in the lead, who would have portrayed the character’s arc from devil-may-care anti-social individualism to a sense of a social conscience with a sort of world-weary flippancy that eluded Mature — and Moore was even weaker, walking through a part Barbara Stanwyck (if she’d been about 15 years younger) or Ida Lupino could have played to the nines. Bendix is miscast — he was utterly right for his role as the mentally disabled veteran in The Blue Dahlia (and his performance in that film would have been even stronger if the U.S. military had allowed Paramount to keep Raymond Chandler’s original ending in which Bendix’s character was the murderer instead of threatening not to cooperate with any Paramount production in the future if the plot device of having a man being driven homicidally crazy by an injury suffered in combat was retained), but he’s pretty unconvincing as an unscrupulous gang boss.

Gambling House is one of those frustrating bad movies with a good movie trapped in it trying to get out — the director is Ted Tetzlaff, making the transition from cinematography after having shot two of the greatest noirs of all time (Notorious for Alfred Hitchcock and the original D.O.A. for another cinematographer-turned-director, Rudolph Maté), and the visuals Tetzlaff and veteran RKO cinematographer Harry J. Wild come up with are impressive (more so in the crime-thriller scenes than in the parts of the storyline dealing with Terry Moore and her missionary work with immigrants), and there are some quite clever ironies (notably the one that pending his deportation hearing Fury is being detained at Ellis Island, surrounded by newly arrived immigrants seeking the same legal U.S. residency status Fury had had and essentially pissed away), but the potentially interesting drama gets lost in a flood of too many leaden “Americanist” speeches and Victor Mature — at least under Tetzlaff’s direction (maybe if he’d got to make more than one film with Josef von Sternberg, who cast him as an opium-addicted doctor in The Shanghai Gesture and got the performance of Mature’s life out of him, he’d have developed into a stronger actor than he was during his glory years) — simply isn’t good enough to dramatize the character’s inner conflicts and fears.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Vertigine (Itala-Film, 1941)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran the movie Vertigine (“Vertigo”), a 1941 Italian film which we were unable to locate subtitles for, though it was simultaneously filmed in Italian and German (a few German nationals — notably Camilla Horn, the leading lady of John Barrymore’s 1928 Russian-revolution epic Tempest — appeared in the film; the casts were the same in both but the Italian actors were dubbed in German for the German version, while the German actors were dubbed in Italian for the all-Italian version we watched). The star was Italian tenor Beniamino Gigli, who made quite a few films even though by 1941 he was a rather dumpy-looking balding guy, and in this movie he was relegated to second billing, playing famous tenor Luciano Riccardi (the ironic similarity of the name to that of a later tenor who became an even bigger international star than Gigli, Luciano Pavarotti, didn’t elude me), with Emma Gramatica top-billed as his sister Letizia, but with most of the screen time going to the three points of a typical romantic triangle: Riccardi’s daughter Claudia (Ruth Hellberg), her boyfriend Alberto Vieri (Herbert Wilk), and the “other woman” in Alberto’s life, Corinna Deslys (Camilla Horn).

Directed — competently but ordinarily — by Guido Brignone from a script by Guido Cantini (translated into German for the alternate version by Ela Elborg and Georg C. Klaren) — Vertigine takes a sharp turn into soap opera midway through as Alberto leaves Claudia for Corinna, who takes him on a grand tour of Europe’s casino resorts and sticks him with some heavy-duty gambling debts, and Claudia bails him out financially without telling him that she’s actually been diagnosed with a fatal disease. In order to take care of his daughter, Riccardi suddenly announces his retirement (done through the usual device of a montage of newspaper headlines), then makes a comeback singing Rodolfo in Puccini’s La Bohème — and in a film that until then has been pretty plainly written and directed there’s a marvelous (though not as original as Brignone and Cantini evidently thought it was) metafictional scene in which Riccardi, in character, is consoling the dying Mimì (Livia Caloni) on stage just as Alberto, now returned to Claudia, is consoling her as she dies.

It’s a strongly plotted film — more so than I expected when I took the chance on running it even though Charles and I know virtually no Italian (we expected it to be more of a musical and less of a soap opera) — and Gigli, playing what amounts to a second lead, does get a few chances to sing. Probably his most impressive moment is his first selection, staged as part of an outdoor music festival that’s going on in Venice when the film opens, which turned out to be an Italian-language version of “Winterstürme wichen den Wonnemond” from Wagner’s Die Walküre. Gigli’s voice was supposed to be past its prime by 1941, but you couldn’t tell it from the delightfully lyrical singing he does throughout the movie, and his “Winterstürme” (or whatever it is in Italian) is astonishing, different from what we’re used to hearing not only because it’s in Italian but because Gigli’s lyric tenor is worlds apart from the Heldentenor (or wanna-be Heldentenor) we usually hear as Siegmund. It’s not clear from this excerpt that he could have tackled the entire role, but his gorgeously honeyed voice communicates Wagner’s lyricism and the sound of Italian actually fits the music surprisingly well. (I remember buying the Romophone CD Wagner en Français and thinking the French language seemed less to be reflecting the music than fighting it — but that’s an impression I’ve never had from hearing Wagner in Italian.)

Gigli’s other selections are the 18th century aria antiche “Caro mio ben” by Giordani (though in researching this song on the Internet I found that there’s common agreement that the composer was named Giordani but dispute over which Giordani: it’s usually attributed to Giuseppe, 1744-1798, but some musicologists credit the song to his older brother Tomasso, 1730-1806), which he’s shown singing in a recording studio; and staged excerpts from Bohème and Cilèa’s Adriana Lecouvreur (the latter with an unidentified soprano, the Bohème bits with a separately credited cast: Livia Caloni as Mimì, Tito Gobbi as Marcello, Tatiana Menotti as Musetta and Gino Conti as Colline — though the other singers’ roles are so badly truncated Gobbi, whom it would have been interesting to hear this much before he became a major star in his own right, is reduced to about two or three lines). One of the film’s most interesting conceits is that it goes out of its way to show how widespread the fictional Luciano Riccardi’s popularity extends; as he sings the Wagner, the camera pans away from the image of him on stage to remote speakers and people in restaurants and public squares hearing the performance “live” over them even though they’re literally miles away from where it’s taking place; and when he’s shown recording “Caro mio ben,” the camera cuts from him in the studio to his daughter and her lover listening to the record at home.

Vertigine seems like an odd combination of musical and soap opera — the Italian title means “dizziness” or “vertigo” and seems to be an oblique reference to Claudia’s illness (the German title, Tragödie die Liebe, gave the whole plot away!) — and it was actually issued in the U.S. in 1946 under the title Broken Love, so there’s always a possibility that a subtitled or dubbed print might emerge and we might be able to appreciate this movie more fully in a language we both understand. Also of note is that when the 1944 U.S. film Laura was finally released in Italy in 1946 (after the end of World War II made it possible for the U.S.-Italian cultural exchange to resume in both directions) it was called Vertigine — while Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 masterpiece Vertigo was called La donna che visse due volte (which I’m guessing means something like “The Woman Who Showed Two Sides” or “The Woman Who Lived Twice”) for its Italian release.