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Monthly Archives: November 2010

No Regrets for Our Youth (Oct. 29, 1946)

No Regrets for Our Youth
No Regrets for Our Youth (1946)
Directed by Akira Kurosawa
Toho Company

No Regrets for Our Youth was the second film Akira Kurosawa directed after the end of World War II. (The first was Those Who Make Tomorrow, which was released on May 2, 1946. He was forced to direct it by Toho studio bosses. He disliked making the film and never included it in his list of official credits.) No Regrets for Our Youth is an interesting counterpart to two other films I watched this year, Italy’s Roma, città aperta (Rome, Open City) and Germany’s Die Mörder sind unter uns (The Murderers Are Among Us). These three pictures are all early efforts by filmmakers in former Axis powers to come to terms with the enormity of World War II.

Roma, città aperta represents an almost total abnegation of responsibility, which is fair enough, considering the role most Italians played in the war compared with the litany of horrors perpetrated by Germany and Japan. No Regrets for Our Youth is more similar to Die Mörder sind unter uns. Both films are stridently anti-Fascist, but both sidestep the gruesome specifics of what actually went on during the war.

Setsuko Hara stars as Yukie, the daughter of a university professor with leftist leanings. (Hara would only work with Kurosawa once more, when she starred in his film The Idiot in 1951, but she was one of Yasujirô Ozu’s favorite actresses, and starred in six of his films from 1949 to 1961.) The film begins immediately after the 1933 University at Takikawa protests against the Japanese invasion of Manchuria. Yukie is courted by two young men, Ryukichi Noge (Susumu Fujita) and Itokawa (Akitake Kôno). Itokawa is sensible and boring, while Noge is a political firebrand and hot-headed. Yukie is naturally drawn to Noge, but he is arrested after a demonstration and spends four years in prison.

When he is released, he seems to be a changed man; broken in some essential way. Yukie packs up and moves to Tokyo, where she lives for three years, toiling away in a variety of menial jobs. Itokawa and Noge both re-enter her life, and she ends up marrying Noge, who is now involved in espionage. Eventually he is arrested by Imperial forces, and Itokawa, who is now a lawyer, steps in to defend him.

No Regrets for Our Youth is a film with two distinct halves. The second half, in which Yukie goes to visit Noge’s parents, is visually and dramatically stronger than the first. Noge’s parents are both simple farmers living in a remote village. They are terrorized by the other villagers because their son was a spy, and they never go out during the day, only planting at night. Yukie decides to stay with them and fight against adversity, finding value in tilling the land.

It would be decades, of course, before most filmgoers in the West would see this film. The first Kurosawa film to make any impact outside of Japan was Drunken Angel (1948), and Kurosawa didn’t have a true breakout success until Rashomon (1950), which won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 1951.

No Regrets for Our Youth is a good film, but it’s not a great one. The performances from the lead actors are excellent, especially from Hara. She ages and grows over the course of the film in a realistic way, which is important when a film covers a period of many years. The story is involving, but not exactly what I would call “gripping.” The scenes in the rural village have a distinctly Soviet flavor to them, and I believe that Kurosawa made this film in an atmosphere of heavy censorship and control by occupying forces.

This is the earliest Kurosawa film I’ve seen, so I don’t know what his pre-war films are like, but it seems to me that he really came into his own as an artist starting in the late ’40s, when he reworked American and European stories and film techniques for pictures like Stray Dog (1949) and High and Low (1963), two of the best police procedurals ever made; Seven Samurai (1954) and Yojimbo (1961), two samurai films that drew heavily from American westerns and were in turn copied over and over by directors making actual westerns; and his reimaginings of Shakespearean dramas set in feudal Japan, Throne of Blood (1957) and Ran (1985).

La Belle et la Bête (Oct. 29, 1946)

Jean Cocteau began filming La Belle et la Bête (Beauty and the Beast) almost immediately after the end of the Nazi occupation of France. It wasn’t a quick or an easy shoot. Cocteau had to contend with limited film stock of varying quality, cameras that jammed, aircraft flying overhead that ruined the sound, and the general disarray of post-war France.

The 56-year-old Cocteau was a well-known writer, poet, visual artist, and director of avant-garde films, but this was his first foray into mainstream filmmaking. It begins with an exhortation to audiences to remember what it is to be a child, and to experience magic without the jaundiced eyes of an adult.

This is probably a direct reaction to the critics (most notably Jean-Paul Sartre) who felt that Cocteau was not political enough. Cocteau’s only allegiance in life was to art, and it is appropriate that he made this film as a reaction to critics, since it’s one of the most beautiful and magical pieces of filmmaking I’ve ever seen. His plea to audiences that opens the film seems unnecessary. This is a film that speaks for itself.

In adapting the 18th-century fairy tale, Cocteau used a lot of the same techniques he used when he made his experimental 1930 film Le sang d’un poète (The Blood of a Poet); simple special effects, an obsession with mirrors, statues that come to life, and tricks of speed and perspective.

As in the original story (most famously written by Mme Jeanne-Marie Le Prince de Beaumont in 1756, although she didn’t create the tale), Belle (played by Josette Day) lives with her merchant father (Marcel André) and her two nasty, selfish sisters, here named Félicie (Mila Parély) and Adélaïde (Nane Germon). Cocteau added two male characters, Belle’s brother Ludovic (Michel Auclair) and her handsome but shallow suitor, Avenant (Jean Marais).

The domestic scenes in the film are designed and lighted to look like paintings by Vermeer and Rembrandt. The characters all wear 17th-century costumes, and the interiors are beautiful to look at, even though the human drama is stifling and petty. Félicie and Adélaïde bicker and ridicule Belle, and are indifferent to their father’s rising debts. Meanwhile, Ludovic and Avenant avoid all responsibility and are only interested in the pursuit of leisure.

When Belle’s father rides off into the woods, the mood of the film dramatically shifts. Using a combination of real parks and woodlands with studio sets, Cocteau creates a magical fairy-tale world directly based on 19th-century engravings by Gustave Doré.

When Belle’s father first enters la Bête’s castle — revealed when a gate of tree branches magically parts — his shadow moves against the castle entrance even though he is standing still. Once inside, candelabras held by human arms mounted into the wall magically spring to light. It doesn’t matter that you can see wires holding the candelabras aloft; the simple but painstaking special effects are still breathtaking. When Belle’s father sits down in the banquet hall, sculptures of human faces on the mantel of the fireplace are actually the faces of human actors covered with soot, their bright eyes the only thing about them that looks alive as smoke pours out of their nostrils.

This delineation between fantasy and reality continues throughout the film. When Belle enters the castle to fulfill the punishment meted out to her father for picking one of la Bête’s white flowers, she floats through long corridors full of billowing white curtains in dreamy slow-motion. There are doors and mirrors that speak to her, and a bed with a white fur spread that slithers open. The special effects are simple, and a lot of them are done “in the can” by simply reversing the film.

It’s been awhile since I’ve seen Disney’s 1991 version of this fairy tale, but that film bears an enormous debt to Cocteau’s version. Everything from the look of the beast to the costumes, set design, and subplot about Belle’s jealous suitor are lifted directly from this film. While the Disney version is perfectly competent, it doesn’t have the otherworldly power of Cocteau’s vision. La Bête, in particular, is less cuddly and more uncanny here. He’s played by Jean Marais, who also plays Belle’s suitor, Avenant, which would be distracting if he wasn’t completely unrecognizable under the heavy makeup and mountains of hair. Marais plays la Bête as a noble, leonine creature with a deep nasal monotone. Unlike the lovable furball of the Disney film, there are a few moments in which he is truly frightening; appearing as if by magic when Belle’s father picks a flower, drinking from a brook on all fours like an animal, or standing over the carcass of a deer that he has mutilated.

Given that Cocteau was gay and Marais was his longtime lover, it’s tempting to read a lot into this film. For Freudian readings of heterosexual power dynamics and the vagaries of lust, the Beauty and the Beast myth is second perhaps only to the story of Bluebeard. Are all men beasts who must stifle bloodthirsty and rapacious urges in order to be with women? Did Cocteau, who had begun to suffer from painful eczema, feel like a beast himself?

All theories are welcome, but I prefer to heed Cocteau’s advice in the preface and take this magical film at face value.

The Strange Woman (Oct. 25, 1946)

Edgar G. Ulmer’s The Strange Woman, directed with uncredited assistance from Douglas Sirk, is based on the 1945 novel of the same name by Ben Ames Williams.

Born in 1889, Williams was a prolific novelist who is probably best known today for the same reason he was famous in 1946; he wrote the novel Leave Her to Heaven in 1944, which was made into a hit film in 1945 starring Gene Tierney as Ellen Berent, a calculating sociopath with twisted ideas about love.

The Strange Woman was a natural choice to be made into a film following the success of Leave Her to Heaven. Both stories are psychosexual portraits of women with Electra complexes who use their allure to ensnare men and who don’t allow conventional morality to keep them from their goals; even taboos like murder mean nothing to them.

Unlike Leave Her to Heaven, The Strange Woman is a period piece. The film begins in Bangor, Maine, in 1824. Young Jenny Hager (Jo Ann Marlowe) is being raised by a single father (Dennis Hoey) whose only love in life seems to be drink. After Mr. Hager receives stern words from prosperous shop keeper and importer Isaiah Poster (Gene Lockhart) when he once again begs a jug of liquor off of him, the scene switches to a river bank, where young Jenny is tormenting Mr. Poster’s son Ephraim (Christopher Severn), a sickly boy who can’t swim. She pushes him into the river and holds his head under with her bare foot, but when Judge Henry Saladine (Alan Napier) arrives in a carriage, she says, “Poor, poor Ephraim,” and jumps in. She drags him to shore and blames his predicament on the boys she was with.

The judge is disgusted with Mr. Hager for stumbling through life drunk and failing to care for his daughter, but once Jenny and her father are alone, it’s clear that she loves him unconditionally. “Before long we’ll have everything,” she says. “Just as soon as I grow up we’ll have everything we want, because I’m going to be beautiful.” Mr. Hager tosses his empty jug into the river, and when the ripples clear, child actress Marlowe’s reflection has become that of the beautiful Hedy Lamarr.

Jenny may be all grown up, but clearly only a few years have passed. All the adults are played by the same actors, and things are much the same in Bangor. Her father is still a hopeless drunk and Mr. Poster is still the wealthiest, most powerful man in town. Bangor appears to be a little rowdier, however, with more commerce coming through the docks, and more drunken sailors stumbling around. Jenny and her friend Lena (June Storey) hang around the waterfront, attracting the attention of sailors. Lena tells Jenny that, with her looks, she could get the youngest and best-looking men around, but Jenny replies that she’s only interested in snagging the richest.

When her father confronts her, she flaunts her sexuality, bragging that she can make any man want her, and he beats her viciously. The whipping he gives her, while they stand face to face, is a little ambiguous, and more than a little sexual.

She runs away to Mr. Poster’s house, and shows him the stripes on her back, throwing her hair forward and dropping the back of her dress, as if she’s posing for a racy portrait, and his face registers both shock and lust.

It’s not long before Jenny marries Mr. Poster. It’s clear that he is a replacement for her father. Her physical longing, at least for the moment, is focused on her old friend — and new son-in-law — Ephraim, who has been sent away to school. She writes Ephraim a letter telling him how lucky he is to have a “nice young mother” and that she will “demand obedience and love.” She writes that if he refuses her, “I will punish you by not kissing you good night” and ends her letter with the line “…come home and see what a fine parent I can be. I do think families should be close, don’t you? Your loving mother, Jenny.”

Ephraim (now played by Louis Hayward) returns home, and he and Jenny slowly but surely fall for each other.

As the film poster above rather obviously shows, Jenny has two faces. For instance, when she and Ephraim sit on the banks of the river together, her recollection of pushing him into the river when he was a boy is flawed. She tells him that those rotten boys did it to him, and she tried to save him. Is she lying? Does she know she is lying? Does he know? Does he go along with it because he loves her, or does he truly believe her?

Jenny’s dual nature mirrors the nature of Bangor itself. On the one hand it is a prosperous New England town with an active churchgoing population of well-to-do people (like Mr. Poster and his young wife), but on the other hand it is a seedy little port city full of drunken sailors and “grog shops and low houses” (a.k.a. pubs and brothels). Jenny uses her husband’s money from his shipping and lumber businesses to improve the town, shaming him publicly into contributing large sums to the church. In private, however, she is carrying on with Ephraim, and even encourages him to arrange an “accident” for his father so they can be married.

Ephraim won’t be the last man in Jenny’s trail of conquest, either. As soon as she lays her eyes on John Evered (George Sanders), the tall, strapping foreman of Mr. Poster’s lumber business, it’s clear that the weak-willed Ephraim doesn’t stand a chance.

The Strange Woman is a well-made film with fine performances all around (with perhaps the exception of Gene Lockhart, who as Mr. Poster exhibits some of the most over-the-top reaction shots I’ve seen since watching Grayson Hall on Dark Shadows). Its narrative is sprawling, and clearly adapted from a novel, but the filmmakers keep everything moving along nicely.

Director Ulmer was a talented craftsman who toiled away in Poverty Row for most of his career, producing a few masterpieces, a few awful pictures, and plenty of films in between. The Strange Woman represents the rare film on his résumé with a decent budget and a reasonable shooting schedule. He was lent out by P.R.C. (Producer’s Releasing Corporation) at Lamarr’s insistence (apparently they were friends back in their native Austria-Hungary). He was paid $250 a week for the job. P.R.C. studio boss Leon Fromkess, on the other hand, received roughly $2,500 from United Artists. While he may have gotten the short end of the stick financially, the deal gave Ulmer a chance to work with a professional cinematographer (Lucien Andriot), a major star or two, a well-written script based on a hot property, and major studio distribution.

Crime Doctor’s Man Hunt (Oct. 24, 1946)

Crime Doctor's Man Hunt
Crime Doctor’s Man Hunt (1946)
Directed by William Castle
Columbia Pictures

William Castle’s mystery programmer Crime Doctor’s Man Hunt is yet another wacky outing with Warner Baxter as Robert Ordway, M.D., Ph.D. (a.k.a. the Crime Doctor).

The Crime Doctor was a character created by Max Marcin for a Sunday-night mystery radio show that ran from 1940 to 1947 on CBS stations. Like a lot of radio detectives (e.g., Boston Blackie, the Falcon), the Crime Doctor also got his own series of hour-long B movies.

In the first film in the series, Michael Gordon’s Crime Doctor (1943), a Depression-era crook and racketeer named Phil Morgan survives a murder attempt, but suffers from complete amnesia, reinvents himself as “Robert Ordway,” and puts himself through medical school. Once he gets his degree, he focuses on rehabilitating criminals. His past eventually catches up with him, but everything works out all right, and he is able to continue being Dr. Ordway, putting crooks behind bars and helping the helpless.

Crime Doctor is one of the best films in the series. The subsequent films are all a lot of fun, but Dr. Ordway’s checkered past is rarely referred to. Baxter’s performance in the lead role is always top-notch, however, and most of the Crime Doctor pictures are a cut above most other mystery programmers from the ’40s.

In Crime Doctor’s Man Hunt, John Foster (Myron Healey), a young, pencil-mustachioed man suffering from “bomb shock and combat fatigue,” comes to see Dr. Ordway. He’s suffering from fugue states in which he wanders in a daze, always drawn to the same intersection, but he doesn’t know why, and never remembers how he got there. He could get treatment from the Army, but he doesn’t want his fiancée to know about his condition.

His fiancée, Irene Cotter (Ellen Drew), comes to see Dr. Ordway right afterward. (Foster’s attempts to conceal his condition from her were clearly in vain.) Dr. Ordway deflects her questions and tells her that he can’t violate any patient’s confidentiality.

As with most of the Crime Doctor films, things get loonier as the film goes on. We learn that Foster had his fortune cast during a “slumming party” downtown, and was told by a fortuneteller named “Alfredi” (real name “Alfred Hemstead,” played by Ivan Triesault) that he would meet his violent death on the corner of Garth and Davis streets, which is why he is continually drawn there.

There’s also a case of split personality, which I won’t say too much about in order not to give anything away. However, even the dimmer bulbs in the audience will see the “twist” ending coming from a mile away. I’m not even sure it was meant to be a surprise.

Ordway comments at the end of the film that this has been a strange case, first the fugue, then the split personality. “Doctor, I’d like you to come see my wife,” says Police Inspector Harry B. Manning (William Frawley). “Split personality?” asks the doctor. “No personality,” quips the inspector.

Deception (Oct. 18, 1946)

In my recent review of Decoy (1946), I mentioned that most of the movies that are now classified as film noirs were originally called “thrillers” or “melodramas.”

Irving Rapper’s Deception, about a love triangle in the world of classical music, sometimes gets thrown on the film noir pile, but it’s a melodrama through and through. The film reunited the director and all three stars of the popular, classy flick Now, Voyager (1942), which featured one of Bette Davis’s most iconic performances.

Lightning didn’t strike twice. While Deception, which reunited Davis with her fellow Now, Voyager alumni Paul Henreid and Claude Rains, received generally positive reviews, it was the first picture Bette Davis made for Warner Bros. that lost money. It’s a good film, but as melodramas go, it’s not terribly thrilling, and the criminal activity is kept to a minimum.

In the first scene of the film, piano teacher and musician Christine Radcliffe (Bette Davis) rushes through the driving rain to a concert in a small, second-floor performance area. She sees cellist Karel Novak (Paul Henreid), and she begins to cry. Quite by chance, she saw an announcement for the performance and couldn’t believe it, since she believed that Novak, her old flame, had died during World War II.

Their reunion is so emotional that it quickly leads to marriage. Even before the nuptials, however, Novak senses that Christine might be hiding something from him. She lives in an enormous apartment with a spectacular view of Manhattan, and her closets are full of fur coats, all improbabilities in the tight housing market of 1946, especially on a piano teacher’s salary.

Things quickly reach a head at their wedding celebration, with the appearance of Christine’s teacher, the famous composer Alexander Hollenius (Claude Rains). He has witticisms and icy remarks to spare, but he doesn’t really tip his hand until Christine sits down to play Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 23 in F minor, Op. 57, the “Appassionata.” Hollenius listens, enthralled, and crushes his champagne glass in his hand. When Christine rushes to tend to him, he says, “Like all women, white as a sheet at the sight of a couple of scratches. Calm and smiling like a hospital nurse in the presence of a mortal wound.”

That’s the first hint he drops about his feelings, but it won’t be the last. When Christine goes to visit him the next day, she walks into Hollenius’s conservatory and calls the piece he is playing “wonderful,” to which he responds, “Extraordinary, isn’t it, that music can exist in the same world as the basest treachery and ingratitude?”

From the beginning, Christine kept Novak in the dark about her relationship with Hollenius. Hollenius goes along with this deception, but never misses an opportunity to drop a hint or needle Novak about something. Compounding the mess is the fact that Hollenius is one of Novak’s favorite composers, and when he offers Novak the chance to be the soloist for the world premiere of his new cello concerto, Novak is ecstatic. Christine, on the other hand, senses that the mercurial Hollenius may be setting a trap for the emotionally fragile Novak.

And it certainly seems that way to the viewer, especially when Hollenius brings in Bertram Gribble (John Abbott), a journeyman cellist, to act as understudy in case Novak’s strained nerves get the better of him. Besides all the barbs and insinuations in social settings, Hollenius the conductor even seems hell-bent on tormenting Novak during the serious work of preparing for their concert, when he forces him to replay the same measure over and over during a dress rehearsal.

I’ve rarely seen a character in a film wield his art as a weapon quite so effectively as Hollenius does. It’s a perfect role for Rains, who as an actor projected a unique mix of effeteness and virility. By the time the climactic world premiere scene rolls around, the audience’s nerves are so thoroughly jangled that merely watching Henreid bow and pluck at his cello’s strings is as suspenseful as watching someone defuse a ticking time bomb. (It helps that Henreid’s pantomiming is nearly perfect. His cello parts were actually played by cellist Eleanor Aller, the wife of Felix Slatkin, when she was pregnant with their son, Frederic Zlotkin. Henreid was coached on how to properly mimic playing the instrument by Aller’s father, Gregory Aller.)

The score of Deception and all of Hollenius’s compositions were written by Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957), an Austro-Hungarian composer whose stirring, neo-Romantic scores for films like The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) and The Sea Hawk (1940) presaged the work of John Williams. His style was too old-fashioned and his medium was too populist to attract anything but disdain and indifference from critics and scholars during his lifetime, but he was incredibly talented, even though his music was neither groundbreaking nor avant-garde. In Deception, he seems to be straining against the bonds imposed on him by the conventions of the cinema, and Novak’s cello part in the concerto is especially moving and powerful. At least I thought so.

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