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Tag Archives: Raymond Massey

Mourning Becomes Electra (Nov. 19, 1947)

Dudley Nichols’s Mourning Becomes Electra has its staunch defenders, but so does every other awful movie.

Mourning Becomes Electra is unquestionably the worst movie I have seen so far this year, and it’s unlikely that I will see another one that’s as bad in the short time remaining. If I did “worst of the year” lists, it would almost certainly be at the very top.

Rosalind Russell was nominated for the Academy Award for best actress for her role in Mourning Becomes Electra and famously lost out to Loretta Young, who played a young Swedish-American woman in the lightweight comedy The Farmer’s Daughter, despite the fact that Russell lobbied hard for herself. (Russell did win the Golden Globe for best actress for Mourning Becomes Electra.)

I’ve got nothing personal against Rosalind Russell, but if I’d been a member of the Academy 64 years ago, she could have given me a brand new Lincoln Continental, a sable coat for my wife, and one hundred thousand dollars in cash, and I still wouldn’t have voted for her.

It’s not just that her performance is so one-note and hysterically pitched, but also that the entire film is so ineptly directed that each actor in the film seems to be directing him- or herself.

Mourning Becomes Electra is a film version of Eugene O’Neill’s play cycle of the same name, which was a reimagining of the Oresteia trilogy by Aeschylus.

Instead of Agamemnon returning from the Trojan War to his wife Clytemnestra, his son Orestes, and his daughter Electra, a Union general named Ezra Mannon returns to Massachusetts from the Civil War to his wife Christine, his son Orin, and his daughter Lavinia.

Just as in the Greek myth of Orestes, Ezra Mannon is murdered by his wife, and her children plot to avenge their father’s death.

Just like O’Neill’s original play cycle, the film is divided into three parts, Homecoming, The Hunted, and The Haunted.

Of course, the play is more than just a retread of classical Greek tragedy. O’Neill was also strongly influenced by the Freudian psychosexual theories that were in vogue in the ’30s.

However, for a movie with kissin’ cousins and freaky Oedipus complexes, Mourning Becomes Electra sure is boring.

The problems begin at the beginning. The first scene of Homecoming involves Seth Beckwith (Henry Hull), the Mannons’ groundskeeper, leading a small group of townspeople around the Mannon estate and explaining all the characthers’ names and relationships. It’s obvious that Seth and the townspeople are meant to function as a Greek chorus, but it’s too much information too soon, and without any context, it’s mind-numbingly boring.

In Homecoming, Christine Mannon (Katina Paxinou) and her daughter Lavinia (Russell) howl at each other for awhile over the affections of officer Adam Brant (Leo Genn), who it turns out is the product of an illicit coupling between a Mannon male and a lowly housekeeper, both of whom were expelled from the house. Brigadier General Ezra Mannon (Raymond Massey) returns home, and his wife conspires with her lover, Adam, to poison him. Ezra accuses her with his dying breath.

In The Hunted, Orin Mannon (Michael Redgrave) returns home and spends a lot of misty-eyed time with his head in his mother’s lap. Eventually his sister Lavinia convinces him that Adam Brant and their mother were responsible for their father’s death, so they sneak aboard the ship The Flying Trades and kill Adam after they observe Christine’s rendezvous with him. Following Adam’s murder, Christine shoots herself out of grief.

In The Haunted, Orin and Lavinia return home after a romantic year-long getaway to the South Seas. When they return to Massachusetts, their friends — a slightly less dysfunctional pair of siblings, Peter Niles (Kirk Douglas) and Hazel Niles (Nancy Coleman) — are disturbed by the changes Orin and Lavinia have gone through. Lavinia plans to marry Peter, but Orin threatens to reveal all of their crimes to Peter if she goes through with her plan. Orin tries to molest his sister, and kills himself when she rejects him. Then, instead of marrying Peter, Lavinia shuts herself up in the house forever. The end.

Mourning Becomes Electra flopped terribly at the box office, and was hastily recut from its original 173-minute version down to a 105-minute version (which I believe was achieved by chopping off the entire final third section, The Haunted). It has since been restored, mostly, and exists on DVD in a 159-minute version. (The full 173-minute version has been shown on TCM.)

The main problem with Mourning Becomes Electra is how uninteresting and stagy the direction is. (Dudley Nichols did much more work as a writer than as a director, and Mourning Becomes Electra was the last film he ever directed.) This does not mean, however, that it is a faithful adaption. The demands of cinema are very different from the demands of the stage. Simply running through the lines of a stage play in front of a camera is a very different proposition than performing a play night after night in front of an audience. As a film, Mourning Becomes Electra is a “faithful” adaptation of O’Neill’s play in the same way a film of an elderly British man reading Great Expectations aloud for 19 hours could be called a “faithful” adaptation of Charles Dickens’s novel.

It also doesn’t help that nearly everyone in the cast has a wildly different accent from everyone else, and that nearly everyone is the wrong age for the character they’re playing. The “young and handsome” Adam Brant is played by Leo Genn, a square-headed, fat-lipped 41-year-old British actor. Lavinia is supposed to be a young woman, but Rosalind Russell was 40 (or nearly 40) when she appeared in Mourning Becomes Electra, while Katina Paxinou, who plays her mother Christine, was only 46. This closeness in age could perhaps be overlooked if the two actresses were on the stage together, but on film, it’s distracting. Also, Paxinou’s thick Greek accent could perhaps be explained by her marrying into the Mannon family, but how to explain Michael Redgrave’s British accent?

The psychosexual and incestuous drama of Mourning Becomes Electra is obvious and ham-fisted. This is a film that is likely to be praised as “Freudian” only by people who have never read Freud. It’s also a film that is likely to be praised only by pretentious dilettantes who think that merely by forcing themselves to sit through something long and crushingly boring they are engaging in a high-minded activity.

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Possessed (July 26, 1947)

If you like to see Joan Crawford get her crazy on as much as I do, then you’ll love Possessed.

Curtis Bernhardt’s fevered noir melodrama begins with a surprisingly unglamorous-looking Crawford wandering the streets of Los Angeles in a daze, asking everyone she passes if they’ve seen “David.”

Crawford isn’t wearing any makeup, and her journey through the early dawn streets reminded me of a similar scene that appeared a decade later in Louis Malle’s Ascenseur pour l’échafaud (Elevator to the Gallows) (1958), in which Jeanne Moreau wanders the streets of Paris without makeup. (Was Malle influenced by Possessed? It’s certainly possible.)

The character Crawford plays, Louise Howell, is taken by ambulance to the psychopathic ward of the Los Angeles Municipal Hospital, where she is cared for by Dr. Willard (Stanley Ridges). He gives her narcosynthesis to lift her out of her catatonic stupor, and the tale of what brought Louise to this place is told through a haze of flashbacks and psychobabble.

Louise was a nurse in the employ of wealthy Dean Graham (Raymond Massey). Her job was to care for Graham’s infirm wife.

After a brief love affair with an average-looking but very charming architect named David Sutton (Van Heflin), Louise became hopelessly attached to him. When David told her that he wasn’t the marrying kind, and that he had to break things off with her, it began her spiral into madness. She was convinced that there was another woman, but he assured her there wasn’t.

“Louise, don’t hang onto me. You’ll get hurt,” he said in exasperation, and his words were prescient. The straitlaced, self-possessed Louise began to unravel.

Dr. Willard diagnoses her with a persecution complex. She thought that David breaking up with her was all part of a plan. Everyone was against her. Dr. Willard calls it “typical schizoid detachment … split personality.”

Despite its sometimes overheated story and dialogue, Possessed is a stylistic feast. Franz Waxman’s musical score perfectly underscores every one of Joan Crawford’s scenes, and Joseph A. Valentine’s cinematography visually expresses her madness.

There are recurring visual motifs, most notably water. For instance, when David gets into his boat and leaves Louise sobbing on the dock, the churning water symbolizes her inner turmoil. The doctors hovering over Louise’s bed discuss her case, then the scene cuts to a shot of the carafe of water by her hospital bed that dissolves into a shot of the water around Dean Graham’s home.

When Louise stops the little pendulum of her bedside clock from ticking because it’s “driving her crazy” the sound is replaced by the sound of dripping water outside her open window. She slams the window shut, trying to control her madness.

Possessed could never be called a realistic film. But that’s not its goal. It subjectively depicts an unraveling psyche, and isn’t afraid to veer into territory that sometimes seems as if it would be more at home in a horror movie than in a melodrama.

A Matter of Life and Death (Dec. 25, 1946)

Stairway to Heaven
A Matter of Life and Death (1946)
Directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
The Archers / Eagle-Lion / Universal Pictures

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s brilliant fantasy A Matter of Life and Death premiered in the United Kingdom on November 1, 1946, and later that year in New York City, on Christmas day, retitled Stairway to Heaven. (After World War II, the word “death” was verboten in film titles for awhile in the United States.)

The film begins with the following statement: “This is a story of two worlds — the one we know and another which exists only in the mind of a young airman whose life and imagination have been violently shaped by war. Any resemblance to any other world, known or unknown, is purely coincidental.” It’s a playful opening, and can be interpreted in more than one way. “The Archers” (the name Powell and Pressburger used for their partnership) had a light touch, and were able to weave magical realism into their stories without ever seeming childish or silly.

After a cheeky narrated tour through the cosmos, we see Squadron Leader Peter Carter (David Niven), his Lancaster bomber in flames and about to crash. Peter’s parachute is shot too full of holes to function properly, and he is desperately trying to reach someone on the radio. Next to him lies the body of Flying Officer Bob Trubshawe (Robert Coote). Peter manages to get in touch with June (Kim Hunter), an American radio operator, and pours out his heart to her. Finally, he professes his love before leaping out of the bomber without a parachute.

The scene in which Niven wakes up in the pounding surf and believes himself in the afterlife is a masterpiece of subtle humor. He stands, breathes deeply, and walks toward the beach with a beatific gaze, shedding his earthly raiments. The first person he sees is a boy playing a pipe, tending sheep, so why wouldn’t he think he’s passed on to his final reward?

Meanwhile, his mate Bob finds himself in the “other place,” an otherworldly bureacracy in which angel wings arrive en masse on long runners, ready to be attached to newly arrived bodies, and businesslike clerks take names and hand out assignments. Bob is told that there was a clerical error that caused Peter to fall through the cracks, and that he’ll need to be collected forthwith.

The scenes on terra firma are filmed in beautiful Technicolor, while the scenes in the afterlife are filmed in black and white. (Technically it’s “monochrome Technicolor,” not proper black and white, but since I’m not as big of a film nerd as Martin Scorsese, I couldn’t tell the difference.) It’s a simple but brilliant stylistic choice, and it’s way ahead of its time. Films in the ’30s or ’40s that mixed black and white with color film invariably depicted the fantastical world in color and the prosaic world in black and white. To do it the other way around looks forward to the ’80s, when black and white was coming back into vogue, and filmmakers like Scorsese and David Lynch showed just how surreal and otherworldly black and white film could look.

Kim Hunter and David Niven

June and Peter fall in love, but for Peter, time occasionally stops all around him while a ridiculous French aristocrat from the other world known as “Conductor 71” (Marius Goring), pays him visits.

June’s friend Doctor Reeves (Roger Livesey) believes that Peter’s visions aren’t supernatural, but symptoms of a brain injury. Eventually this “matter of life and death” comes to a head as Peter is operated on in our world while simultaneously facing trial in the other.

A Matter of Life and Death is a fantastic film that is satisfying on both a technical level and an emotional level. The performances are all wonderful, and Powell and Pressburger are masterful filmmakers.

Incidentally, in a 2004 poll of 25 film critics in Britain’s Total Film magazine, A Matter of Life and Death was named the second greatest British film of all time, sandwiched between Get Carter (#1) and Trainspotting (#3).