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Monthly Archives: August 2010

I See a Dark Stranger (July 4, 1946)

Frank Launder’s I See a Dark Stranger, which premiered in the United Kingdom on July 4, 1946, is half a loaf of noir slathered with generous helpings of romance and comedy. It’s a very enjoyable picture that’s notable as a star vehicle for the lovely Deborah Kerr before she was well-known in Hollywood.

The opening of the film is pure noir. Shadows fall heavily on the quiet nighttime streets of a little town with signs all about in French. A panicked man rushes through the town, searching for something. Suddenly there’s a shot of something that doesn’t quite fit, and the narrator’s voice appears on the soundtrack. “An Isle of Man signpost outside a French town,” he says. “That’s odd. But we’ve started this tale at the wrong moment.”

He goes on to tell us that this is really the story of Bridie Quilty (Kerr), and we see the young woman in the pub where she works as she eavesdrops on her father’s boozy tales of the Irish Revolution, rapt, even mouthing the words of his story at one point. Bridie hates the English and the memory of Oliver Cromwell as much as the most hardened member of the I.R.A. does, and wants nothing more than to join the group when she reaches the age of majority, just like her father did. The film treats her fervor lightly, however, and right off the bat the viewer knows that this coming-of-age story will contain a fair measure of disillusionment for its protagonist. But not, of course, before she gets in over her head.

As soon as Bridie turns 21, she heads for Dublin to make contact with a former compatriot of her father, a man named Michael O’Callaghan (Brefni O’Rorke). Far from the fearsome soldier she expected, O’Callaghan is a mild-mannered curator of a museum who doesn’t seem to mind seeing a large painting of Cromwell every day and feels that the terms of the Government of Ireland Act 1920 that partitioned the country were fair enough, which boggles Bridie’s mind. More significantly, he seems to have never heard of her father, which should raise a red flag, but doesn’t, since Bridie is as bull-headed as she is patriotic.

Undeterred by her experience in the museum, Bridie looks for resistance where she can find it, and falls in with a man named Miller (Raymond Huntley). He appears at first glance to be a rumpled Englishman, but Bridie learns that he’s a spy working against the English, so she goes to work for him without a second thought.

Bridie is blithely unaware of politics outside of Ireland and the U.K., and the film is clever enough to share her point of view for some time. Astute viewers, of course, will immediately be able to suss out exactly which nation Miller is spying for, but it’s not directly stated for awhile. As far as Bridie’s concerned, the enemy of her enemy is her friend. After hearing how much Bridie hates every last Englishman, Miller says to her, “For a subject of a neutral country, aren’t you being a little belligerent?” Bridie responds, “There’s nothing belligerent about it. It’s entirely a question of which side I’m neutral on.”

As I said, I See a Dark Stranger is a mixture of noir and comedy. It’s heavier on the comedy than it is on the thrills, especially toward the end, but for the first half, there are some sequences that wouldn’t be out of place in any other espionage potboiler, such as the scene in which Bridie has to dispose of a corpse, and comes up with the ingenious notion of putting the body in a wheelchair and pushing it through town as though she’s just taking an old man for a walk (she’s really heading for the cliffs overlooking the ocean). It’s never very serious, though, and the film is generally more interested in humorous situations and amusing characterizations than it is in plot points.

Kerr is fantastic, and carries the picture with ease. Trevor Howard is great, too. He plays Lt. David Baynes, a Brit who becomes infatuated with Bridie and realizes too late the amount of trouble she’s in. There are also two very funny caricatures of stiff upper-lipped British policemen, Capt. Goodhusband (Garry Marsh) and Lt. Spanswick (Tom Macaulay) who may very well have served as the inspiration for Hergé’s comic characters Dupont et Dupond (Thomson and Thompson in English translation), two detectives who are indistinguishable from each other. Spanswick and Goodhusband are both bald, have neat little black mustaches, and say things like “Cheerio, old boy.” By the end of the picture, however, they’re allowed to grow out of their stereotyped roles, are fairly easy to tell apart, and even get a few intentionally funny lines, such as when Spanswick says to a hotel manager who is afraid that German prisoners of war may have escaped from the nearby internment camp to hide out in her hotel, “If the food I’ve had here is anything to go by, they’re more likely to escape from the hotel and beat it for the internment camp.”

Colorado Serenade (June 30, 1946)

P.R.C. western Colorado Serenade, which stars lunkheaded cowboy actor Eddie Dean, is a good movie to fall asleep while watching. Dean has a terrible screen presence, zero acting ability, one dopey facial expression, and a great voice. So the best way to enjoy him is with your eyes closed, halfway between sleep and wakefulness.

That’s how I imagine at least a few moviegoers enjoyed this picture in the summer of 1946. As a one-hour Poverty Row oater, Colorado Serenade would have played as the bottom half of a double bill. After the newsreel, the cartoon, and the feature at the top of the bill, who wouldn’t be a little bit sleepy? And with Dean’s smooth, rich baritone belting out tunes like “Home on the Range,” “Ridin’ Down to Rawhide,” “Riding on Top of the Mountain,” and “Western Lullaby,” staying awake doubtless proved a challenge to anyone who hadn’t just drunk a cup of coffee.

Because, Lord knows, the plot of the film won’t keep you on the edge of your seat. Like many of Dean’s other P.R.C. westerns, Colorado Serenade is filmed in color — a rarity for the bargain basement studio — but everything else is typically cheap. Eddie and his comical sidekick, “Soapy” Jones (Roscoe Ates) team up with an undercover lawman named Nevada (David Sharpe) to take down a bunch of stagecoach robbers, but not before Eddie and Nevada, thinking each other on opposite sides of the law, slug it out in a good old-fashioned western saloon brawl.

The fight that closes the picture is actually pretty good, too, with a few stand-out stunts, such as Nevada leaping from the balcony and tackling a black hat in the bar below him, but it’s too little, too late after a turgid, talky flick that feels much longer than its 68-minute running time.

Anna and the King of Siam (June 20, 1946)

John Cromwell’s Anna and the King of Siam isn’t nearly as well known as The King and I, the Technicolor extravaganza starring Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr that was made a decade later. Both films tell the same story, but The King and I does it in the form of a Rodgers & Hammerstein musical. I saw The King and I when I was a kid, and have strong memories of certain scenes, but not of the film as a whole. So I came to Anna and the King of Siam relatively fresh, and was able to watch it without constantly thinking of Brynner’s iconic performance, at least most of the time. The one big difference — if memory serves correctly — is that the later, musical version of this tale was more of a love story. It’s not as if it ended with a marriage, or Kerr being added to the king’s harem or something, but there was a romance of some sort that grew over the course of the film. The closest Anna and the King of Siam gets is a couple of scenes between Anna and the king that end with the king leering, and seeming to contemplate her in a sexual fashion.

Anna and the King of Siam is the first filmed adaptation of Margaret Landon’s 1944 book of the same name. Producer Darryl F. Zanuck reportedly bought the rights to Landon’s book immediately after reading the galleys. As is often the case, the real-life Anna Owens was a considerably more interesting and complicated person than she was portrayed in the book or any of the films about her. This is largely due to her own self-invention. Anna Leonowens was born in poverty in India in 1831, the daughter of Sgt. Thomas Edwards, a soldier in the private army of the Dutch East India Company, and his wife Mary Anne Glasscott, an Anglo-Indian woman. Later in her life, Leonowens took pains to hide her origins, and claimed that her father’s rank was lieutenant (later she claimed he had been a captain), and that she had been born in Wales. It’s important to remember that these fabrications were not merely for the purpose of self-aggrandizement. As a widow and a single mother, Leonowens faced an uphill battle in life, and almost certainly would have faced discrimination if her mixed-race heritage had been known.

While Anna and the King of Siam doesn’t delve deeply into Anna’s background, there is never any intimation that she is anything but the most proper of British ladies. The Anna Owens of the film, played by Irene Dunne, embodies the best values of the “modern” British empire, while King Mongkut (Rex Harrison) represents an older form of governance; repressive, misogynistic, autocratic, and superstitious.

Reportedly, most Thai who saw the picture were shocked and angered by the portrayal of their revered nineteenth century king, and the film was banned in Thailand due to “historical inaccuracies.” It’s hard to argue with this assessment. Landon’s book and Leonowens’s own recollections were by all accounts at least partially fabricated, and overemphasized Leonowens’s role in the king’s life, as well as the harshness of his regime. And there’s the larger question of how well any white actor — even one as talented as Rex Harrison — can portray an Asian character.

Granted, the yellowface portrayals in the film look ridiculous, especially Lee J. Cobb as the “Kralahome,” or prime minister, who appears for much of the film stripped to the waist, covered with dark makeup, and sporting a pomaded pompadour. But, like Harrison, he delivers a nuanced performance, and in their scenes together they drop the stilted line deliveries that they have in their scenes with Anna or her son Louis (Richard Lyon). (They continue to speak English, of course, but the syntactical variance is still a nice touch.)

If one ignores questions of historical accuracy, Anna and the King of Siam is an excellent and involving story of cultural differences and the challenges and rewards of education in the face of adversity. The principal actors all give great performances, especially the beautiful Linda Darnell as the king’s newest and most alluring wife, Lady Tuptim. It’s a role that easily could have been one-note, but Darnell is able to create a sexy yet repulsive character who grows more complicated as the film goes on, and eventually becomes the central tragic figure of the picture. Also, Anna and the King of Siam looks fantastic. It won two Oscars, one for best black and white cinematography and the other for best art direction, and they were well-deserved.

Henry V (June 17, 1946)

Laurence Olivier’s film adaptation of Shakespeare’s history play Henry V was originally released in the United Kingdom in November of 1944. (The date I’ve listed above is the release date of the film in the United States.) Following its release in the United States, Henry V was nominated for a 1946 Oscar for best picture, as well as Oscars for best actor, best score, and best art direction. It didn’t win in any of its nominated categories, but Olivier did receive an honorary Academy Award “for his outstanding achievement as actor, producer, and director in bringing Henry V to the screen.”

The recognition was well deserved (even though Olivier considered the award a “fob-off” from a jingoistic Academy). This film is a splendid achievement, and holds up remarkably well. Not only is it a fine cinematic adaptation of a great play, it’s a beautifully crafted film within a play within a film, in which Olivier the director has fun with convention while Olivier the actor delivers an assured and commanding performance as Henry, only recently a monarch after a misspent youth (chronicled by Shakespeare in Henry IV parts one and two).

The film’s full title is “The Chronicle History of King Henry the Fift With His Battell Fought at Agincourt in France,” and that’s how the title appears on the opening placard, which invites people to attend “Will” Shakespeare’s play, performed by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men at the Globe Playhouse this day, the first of May, 1600. There follows a panoramic vista in gorgeous, nearly surreal Technicolor of the London of Shakespeare’s day. It’s obviously a model, but it’s an effective one, with wisps of smoke rising from chimneys and tiny vessels dotting the Thames.

The beginning of the film attempts to faithfully recreate the theatrical experience one would have had at the Globe during Shakespeare’s time. There are no set dressings, and the Chorus (Leslie Banks), in each of his appearances, invites the viewer to suspend his or her disbelief, vividly describing the scene that is about to be played, and in so doing draws attention to the artifice of the play. As the film goes on, however, it moves out of the confines of the theater and becomes increasingly realistic, reaching its apex when Henry finally leads his troops in battle against the French at Agincourt.

Artifice and realism aren’t strictly delineated in Henry V, however. When the film first moves out of the theater to the court of France, the ocean is a static sea of waves that looks like the backdrop for a puppet show in Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. And after the impressive battle, which was filmed in County Wicklow, Ireland (as a neutral country, it wasn’t ravaged by the war), artifice slowly returns in the form of phony-looking backdrops and a return to the stagey castle set of the French court.

When Olivier first appears on screen, it is as Oliver the actor, standing backstage in full costume, waiting for his entrance cue, and coughing into his hand in a decidedly unheroic fashion. As soon as he steps on stage, however, his voice commands attention. By the time he delivers his famous Saint Crispin’s Day speech, I was eating out of his hand. This is no mean feat, either, considering the historically accurate haircut Olivier saddled himself with, as well as his very noticeable eye makeup.

It’s common knowledge that Henry V was made with the cooperation of the British government and designed to be a nationalistic morale booster in the days following the Allied push into Normandy. Consequently, the scene in which Henry threatens to rape women and kill children was excised from the script, along with the hanging of Bardolph and Henry’s order to kill French prisoners. But it’s all in keeping with the tone of the film, which is more a celebration of theater and patriotism than it is a nuanced character study.

South of Monterey (June 15, 1946)

William Nigh’s South of Monterey is another dreary Cisco Kid programmer from Monogram Pictures. Gilbert Roland, in his second appearance as the character, cuts a dashing figure and is always fun to watch, but overall this one is a real snoozer.

I wasn’t exactly knocked out of my seat by Roland’s first turn as the character in The Gay Cavalier (1946), and his second outing is more of the same, with a by-the-numbers story and an anticlimactic finale. As before, Roland is fun to watch as a smooth Lothario and laid-back hero. It’s everything else about this picture that’s the problem.

This time around, Cisco, his sidekick Baby (Frank Yaconelli), and his merry band of Mexican outlaws have a rival, called “The Silver Bandit.” It should come as no surprise to veterans of Saturday afternoon matinees that Cisco and his crew will be blamed for the nefarious exploits of The Silver Bandit.

South of Monterey combines the two hoariest concepts in these types of films; the evil landowner bleeding the poor farmers dry and the young woman in danger of being forced to marry a man she doesn’t love.

The main villain of the piece is the local tax collector, Bennet (Harry Woods), who repossesses peasants’ land based on non-payment of sky-high taxes and then resells them for a profit. The young woman in danger of being forced into a loveless marriage is Carmelita (Iris Flores), the sister of local commandante of police Auturo (Martin Garralaga). Carmelita is engaged to a fiery young activist named Carlos Mandreno (George J. Lewis), but her brother is angling to have Carlos thrown in jail and his sister married off to his friend Bennet.

The film tries hard to achieve an exciting, south of the border flavor, and occasionally succeeds. Roland doesn’t play Cisco as a Boy Scout — he’s a tequila-drinking, womanizing, cigarette-smoking rapscallion. Also, there are four songs in the film sung in Spanish, one of which leads Cisco to pay Carmelita one of his typically over-the-top compliments, “Your voice has the sweetness of a meadowlark, and the softness of mission bells at twilight.”

South of Monterey isn’t a terrible programmer, it’s just a fairly typical Monogram cheapie. The main reason for me that it was a step down from The Gay Cavalier was the climactic fight, which was a fistfight. Yawn.

As he ably demonstrated in Captain Kidd (1945) and The Gay Cavalier, Roland was a hell of a sword fighter, so it’s a shame to see him swinging haymakers and smashing furniture when his blade was no doubt screaming out for blood. I know I was.

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