RSS Feed

Tag Archives: Shelley Winters

Winchester ’73 (June 7, 1950)

Winchester 73
Winchester ’73 (1950)
Directed by Anthony Mann
Universal Pictures

Among film geeks, Anthony Mann is revered for two things — his hard-boiled film noirs of the 1940s and his “psychological westerns” of the 1950s.

Mann’s western phase kicked off in 1950 with three films, Winchester ’73 with James Stewart, The Furies with Barbara Stanwyck, and Devil’s Doorway with Robert Taylor.

Winchester ’73 was significant because it was Mann’s first film with Jimmy Stewart, the most likeable beanpole everyman in Hollywood, and it helped Stewart craft a new image for himself.

Mann and Stewart went on to make seven more films together, but it is their five westerns that are best-regarded today. After Winchester ’73 came Bend of the River (1952), The Naked Spur (1953), The Far Country (1954), and The Man From Laramie (1955).

I first saw Winchester ’73 about 15 years ago, after being completely blown away by Mann’s noirs T-Men (1947) and Raw Deal (1948), and wasn’t as excited by Winchester ’73.

Stewart and Mitchell

Winchester ’73 is regularly lauded as the first “adult western,” and the beginning of a richer and more complicated era for the genre.

I don’t totally buy this. While the majority of westerns in the 1930s and ’40s may have been aimed at kids (it’s almost impossible for an adult to watch a Buster Crabbe western without clawing their eyes out), there were westerns aimed at adult viewers going all the way back to the birth of cinema. To say that Winchester ’73 is the first “adult western” is to ignore the westerns directed by John Ford, Raoul Walsh, André De Toth, and plenty of others.

Don’t get me wrong, I think the 1950s was the best decade for westerns in the history of Hollywood, and Winchester ’73 is a really good western with complex characters and excellent performances. It just doesn’t totally work for me. It has an episodic structure that follows the “priceless … one in a thousand” Winchester ’73 rifle as it passes from owner to owner, and most of the episodes don’t do much for me until Dan Duryea shows up toward the end. (Although I do always get a perverse thrill from seeing Rock Hudson playing a shirtless Native American.)

I find the last third of Winchester ’73 incredibly thrilling and fun to watch. Duryea plays runty, nasty villains like no one else, and its during his episode of the film that Stewart finally shakes off his nice guy image and does stuff on screen that he’d never done before.

Duryea and Stewart

While it’s not my favorite western of all time, I still would recommend Winchester ’73 to any fans of westerns, as well as any film fans who want to explore the western genre. It’s a well-made movie, an important western, and William H. Daniels’s cinematography is gorgeous.

Also, the DVD of this film released in 2003 is a must-have for classic film fans. The special features listed on the DVD case only refer to an “Interview with James Stewart,” which is the most insane piece of underselling I’ve ever seen on a DVD.

That interview is actually an entire commentary track for the film. It’s guided by an interviewer who asks questions, but it’s still Jimmy Stewart talking about the movie as it goes, occasionally commenting on what’s happening onscreen, but mostly just sharing recollections of old Hollywood and old talent, as well as waxing philosophical about the old studio system. It’s incredibly enjoyable to listen to for anyone who’s a classic film fan. It was originally recorded in 1989 for a LaserDisc release of the film. Toward the end of the commentary with the interviewer, Jimmy Stewart marvels at how far technology has come and says, “laser, huh?”

It’s incredibly rare to have this kind of commentary track from a star as old as Stewart, and it’s something to be treasured.

Winchester73DVD

Advertisements

The Great Gatsby (July 13, 1949)

The Great Gatsby
The Great Gatsby (1949)
Directed by Elliott Nugent
Paramount Pictures

Long before Robert Redford and Leonardo DiCaprio played F. Scott Fitzgerald’s great American striver Jay Gatsby, another iconic blond pretty boy tackled the role.

I first saw Elliott Nugent’s version of The Great Gatsby in 2012 as part of Noir City 4 at The Music Box Theatre. Although in the lobby after the screening I overheard one audience member very angrily denounce the film as “not noir in any way,” and I couldn’t disagree, it’s not a bad film and I’m glad I saw it.

At one point, both Gene Tierney and Tyrone Power were attached to the project. According to several websites, Tierney was deemed “too beautiful” to play Daisy Buchanan by both Nugent, the director, and Richard Maibaum, the producer, but none of those websites have a source for that claim. Personally, it seems an insane reason not to cast an actress as Daisy Buchanan. She’s the unattainable object of Gatsby’s romantic longing. Whether or not she’s really the most beautiful woman in West Egg, Long Island, is immaterial. Film is a visual medium and a beautiful actress playing Daisy just makes sense.

Betty Field, who plays Daisy in this film, is attractive, but she possesses none of the ethereal beauty of an actress like Tierney. Also, I can think of no better actress than Tierney to project outward beauty coupled with inward emptiness and callousness.

Alan Ladd, however, makes a better Jay Gatsby than I imagine Tyrone Power would have. Ladd was a handsome actor whose understated persona was always somewhat unknowable. Viewers could project whatever they wanted onto him.

Because of this, Ladd is perfect as Gatsby, the bootlegger who single-mindedly built a fortune and passed himself off as a man who came from money. Gatsby’s outward appearance was perfect, but like the beautiful books in his study, which all have uncut pages, there is nothing behind the façade.

Alan Ladd

The early parts of the film play up Gatsby’s early days in organized crime, exploiting Ladd’s facility with gangster movies and film noirs. Eventually, though, the film settles into a talky version of the novel that is largely drawn from Owen Davis’s stage adaptation that opened in 1926 and ran for 112 performances.

As I said, it’s not a bad film, but it’s not a particularly compelling one. Ladd is a good Gatsby, and the other performers are generally fine. I liked Barry Sullivan as Daisy’s husband Tom and loved Shelley Winters as Tom’s mistress Myrtle.

The film is at its best when it most resembles a hard-boiled noir, but those moments are few and far between.

The biggest flaw, of course, is that it’s a straightforward and very literal adaptation of a great American novel, and possesses none of Fitzgerald’s elegant prose. It’s worth seeing, but far from a masterpiece. It’s a great example of why the phrase “the book was better” became a cliché.

A Double Life (Dec. 25, 1947)

A Double Life
A Double Life (1947)
Directed by George Cukor
Universal Pictures

George Cukor’s A Double Life stars Ronald Colman as a brilliant stage actor named Anthony John — “Tony” to his friends — who loses himself so completely in each of his roles that he has to be careful about which parts he accepts.

When the film begins, Tony appears to be a charming, “hail fellow well met” sort of chap who’s as friendly with theatrical agents and his fellow actors as he is with stagehands and women on the street. It’s no coincidence, however, that he’s starring in Philip MacDonald’s comedy A Gentleman’s Gentleman.

When the run comes to an end and he’s offered the lead in Shakespeare’s Othello, Tony hesitates. He’s always wanted to play the part, and even worked out some staging ideas years earlier.

But the role of Othello is a dark one (no pun intended), and Tony fears what psychic and emotional depths he might sink to playing the tragic Moor night after night.

And he’s not the only one. His beautiful ex-wife Brita Kaurin (Signe Hasso) cautions against it. She and Tony still love each other, but when she tells her boyfriend, theatrical agent Bill Friend (Edmond O’Brien), what it was like to be married to Tony, it’s clear that the good times and bad times all coincided with the parts he was playing. “When he’s doing something gay like this it’s wonderful to be with him, but … when he gets going on one of those deep numbers,” she says. “We were engaged doing Oscar Wilde, broke it off doing O’Neill, were married doing Kaufman and Hart, and divorced doing Chekov.”

Winters and Colman

Against her better judgment, however, Brita eventually takes the role of Desdemona, and everything goes just as badly as you might expect.

If A Double Life were just a burlesque version of Othello, with a stand-in for Iago whispering lies about infidelity in Tony’s ear, it wouldn’t be nearly as good or as interesting as it is.

Instead, it’s a hypnotic portrait of self-inflicted madness. We watch Tony slide easily from one persona to another early in the film when he slips on a pair of eyeglasses and goes out to eat in a new restaurant, convincing young waitress Pat Kroll (Shelley Winters) that he’s new in town.

Ronald Colman

He’s a hugely talented actor, but his talent comes with a price. The more popular his performances as Othello become, the more his mental and emotional health deteriorate. (And his performances are indeed popular; his Othello ends up running on Broadway for an unbelievable, not to mention unrealistic, 300 performances.)

When Tony finally commits the inevitable murder, it’s not a passionate reenactment of Othello’s murder of Desdemona, it’s a weird, tawdry killing committed in a dissociative state.

There’s much about A Double Life that’s heavy-handed, both visually and thematically. If you’re paying close attention, all the attempts early in the film to hammer home the point that Anthony John has a “double life” might seem like a bit much. (Even his name — two Christian names in search of a surname — is a clue.) By the second or third reel, however, I was completely enthralled.

Othello

The plot of A Double Life is essentially pulpy and exploitative, so I think a great deal of credit must be paid to Ronald Colman for his exceptional performance, not only as Anthony John, but as Anthony John playing Othello. (The role was originally intended for Laurence Olivier. When Olivier was unavailable, the producers went with another seasoned British thespian.)

Colman ended up winning the Academy Award for best actor for his role in A Double Life. It was the fourth time he was nominated and the first time he won. (Miklós Rózsa’s score also won an Academy Award.) There are moments when his performance tends to get a little exaggerated and “showy,” but I thought that was appropriate for the character. He’s playing a self-involved, grandiose stage actor, after all.

Milton R. Krasner’s brilliant cinematography bears mention, too. There are many things about A Double Life that don’t exactly place it in the category of film noir, but the look of the film is pure noir. It’s full of shadows, dramatic lighting effects, city streets at night, and cramped, dark rooms. There’s a mounting sense of dread running through the film, and Krasner’s cinematography is largely responsible for it.

I had no idea what to expect from A Double Life and I was completely blown away. It’s a film where everything comes together; Cukor’s direction, Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin’s script, Krasner’s photography, and the performances of the three principal actors. I’m looking forward to seeing it again some day, and I highly recommend it if you’ve never seen it.

New Orleans (April 18, 1947)

Arthur Lubin’s New Orleans takes place in 1917, the year that Storyville, the notorious red-light district of New Orleans, was shut down.

Like Edgar G. Ulmer’s Carnegie Hall (1947), New Orleans features some of the greatest musicians and performers of the ’40s shoehorned into a flat, uninteresting story.

I had high hopes for New Orleans. In the first scene, we see Nick Duquesne (pronounced “doo-cane”), who’s played by Arturo de Córdova, operate his casino and nightclub with smooth, effortless charm. Duquesne is known as the “King of Basin Street,” and de Córdova plays him well, so I was hoping to see an involving story about vice, graft, and crime.

Alas, the story quickly devolves into a maudlin melodrama about a young blond singer named Miralee Smith (Dorothy Patrick) who falls in love with both Duquesne and the Dixieland jazz she hears played by Louis Armstrong and his ragtime band. Of course, Miralee’s mother, the wealthy Mrs. Rutledge Smith (Irene Rich) doesn’t approve, and wants her daughter to sing opera.

The screenplay and acting in New Orleans are better than they are in Carnegie Hall, but the only reason most people will want to see this movie is for the music. The good news is that there’s plenty of it, especially if you’re a fan of Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday.

Holiday plays a maid named Endie, and she doesn’t look happy in the outfit, or in the scene in which she’s dressed down by Mrs. Smith for playing the piano and singing while on the job. The strange thing is that her role as a maid is tangential to her role in the rest of the film, and she only appears in a maid’s uniform in her first scene, in which she introduces Miralee to jazz. After that, Holiday loosens up a bit, and her scenes onstage with Louis Armstrong and his band are all fantastic. Together they perform Louis Alter’s “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans,” “The Blues Are Brewin’,” and “Endie,” as well as Spencer Williams’s “Farewell to Storyville.”

Holiday and Satchmo aren’t the only great performers in the film. Woody Herman, Charlie Beal, Barney Bigard, George “Red” Callender, Meade “Lux” Lewis, Kid Ory, Bud Scott, Lucky Thompson, and Zutty Singleton all play themselves.