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Friday, May 31, 2013

William Wyler | The Best Years of Our Lives



period of adjustment
by Douglas Messerli

Robert E. Sherwood (screenplay, based on a story by MacKinlay Kantor), William Wyler (director) The Best Years of Our Lives / 1946

Winner of seven Academy Awards in 1946, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Supporting Actor, William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives is the kind of film that both critics and audiences love. It is one of the most attended films of all time, and revived nearly every year on television for Memorial Day, when I generally watch it once again.
     The film’s beautiful long focuses, its superb actors, including three of my favorites, Myrna Loy, Fredric March, and Teresa Wright, with wonderful performances by Dana Andrews and Harold Russell enhance its weighty subject, the return home from the war of three men and their difficulties reassimilating into the post-war culture. This work is so likeable, in fact, that it seems down-right Un-American not to describe it, as New York Times Film critic Bosley Crowther did, upon its premiere, as “superlative entertainment” that is also “food for quiet and humanizing thought…”
     
  Yet each time I see it again, I find this weepy melodrama a bit more stale than the last viewing, and I have never admired it much. Perhaps it is its very meticulousness that bothers me, those touching scenes between the former seaman, Homer (Russell)—who has lost his hands in an aircraft carrier bombing—his family and girlfriend, Wilma; the intensely quiet love between the former air force captain, Fred Derry (Andrews) and the young and radiant Peggy Stephenson (Wright); and the more than supportive family of Sergeant First Class Al Stephenson (Frederic March)—each of them in their turn reiterating like a Hallmark card small town American values. For Homer, obviously, the central problem is his disability, for Fred it is both a bad marriage and the fact that, with little prewar job experience, he must now report to a man who once worked for him. Al finds it hard to return to his loan officer job at the bank, where he is now personally committed to offering loans to former soldiers without collateral, an action opposed by the bank itself; Al also spends a little too much of his time with alcohol. Together, the three run into each other again and again, seemingly preferring one another’s company more than the wives and girlfriends to whom they have  returned.
     In fact, when they cross paths, trouble seems to be stirred up: Al’s daughter falls in love with the married Fred, and Al is forced to demand Fred stay away from her. Fred, socking out a man who has taunts Homer, loses his job. At a banker’s banquet, a slightly inebriated Al argues for his belief that the bank must stand with the vets, endangering his own position.    
  
    Yet despite of all the “difficulties” which this film expounds, these men, who have given up “the best years of their lives,” seem relatively unfazed. The women in their world, accept for Fred’s wife Marie, are all loving and supporting, their families are willing and ready to help them to readjust. Not one of these men suffer posttraumatic stress disorder (although an early version of the script was to have included that) and none of them are terribly violent nor depressed. They do not even feel sorry for themselves, and even the victimized Homer comes around to feel safe with Wilma to help him, marrying her in the end.
    
   If the script seems to demand our sympathy and even tears, in the end, it all appears to have been to no avail, as everything gets tidied up, Peggy finally linking up with Fred, and Al nicely readjusted in the arms of his loving wife (Loy).
      Like so many of Wyler films, this movie is simply too slick. Everything is done so gracefully and stylishly that we ultimately feel little emotion and even less need for rumination, let alone deep thinking. This film, unfortunately, hardly dares to take on its own subjects. And Wyler makes no attempt whatsoever to explore what might have been the loneliness and isolation of those left behind at home.
       As David Thomson has subtly expressed it: “It would have taken uncommon genius and daring at that time to sneak a view of an untidy or unresolved American past Goldwyn or the public” of the day. Yet it is just that “untidy” and “unresolved” world which might have made The Best Years of Our Lives a great film, allowing it to truly explore the issues it broached. Wyler had neither the daring nor genius. As it is, his work simply glows out like well-lit room, encouraging its heroes to come inside and get back to normal life.

Los Angeles, May 30, 2013

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Alfred Hitchcock | Notorious



opening closets
By Douglas Messerli

Ben Hecht (screenplay), Alfred Hitchcock (director) Notorious / 1946

On the surface, Alfred Hitchcock’s beautiful film Notorious is a straight-forward romance between T. R. Devlin (Cary Grant) and Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman), with the added intrigues of a spy-movie and underlying mystery. Hitchcock’s 1946 film is so well made, and so embedded in the romantic tropes of the day, that even the Hays Office’s ban on kisses longer than three seconds, was cleverly broken by allowing the actors to “nuzzle,” “kiss,” and “talk” their way through two and one-half moments, creating in most heterosexual viewers (and even  homosexual ones) one the most erotic love scenes in American film-making. In this work the “thriller” aspects of the plot are almost perfectly enmeshed with the problematic love-affair between Devlin and Huberman, two beautiful actors who seem to be naturals together, and, if film-lore was correct, were indeed comfortable—in part because of Grant’s acceptance of and help in making Bergman feel relaxed in her role—in one another’s company. Surely, one might argue, this is one of Hitchcock’s most openly heterosexual films, with the beautiful Bergman being loved not only by Devlin but by the well-educated and cultured, if utterly detestable, Nazi, Alexander Sebastian (the almost unctuous Claude Rains).
      
But, of course, and, as Grant might quip (as he does in this movie and in The Philadelphia Story) “naturally,” Hitchcock’s films always have several layers, as does Grant’s witty acting. If, by film’s end, the two major figures drive off into the sunset to live out their lives as a loving couple, they certainly have to find their way through a great deal of confused and twisted issues of sexuality to get there.
    
    First of all, and perhaps most importantly, the beautiful Alicia is a marked woman, even a wonton one. She is, after all, the daughter of a traitor, an American-Nazi sympathizer who is in the very first scene found guilty of espionage and sentenced to twenty years of prison. Even then, at the trial, he defends his position, threatening American society (“You can put me away, but you can’t put away what’s going happen to you, and to his whole country next time. Next time we are going….,” certainly a terrorist-like threat), and, soon after, commits suicide. Perhaps in reaction to her parentage, Alicia is a woman who drinks heavily, and has, so we are told, sought out the beds of numerous strangers. Indeed, it is her very history that has brought Devlin to one of her rather insipid, drunken parties, where he hopes to recruit her as a spy—for what purpose he has not yet established. Even she is disgusted by the emptiness of her “celebration,” dismissing her guests into the dark before she attempts to take a late-night drive with her uninvited visitor. The drive, in which she is almost arrested for drunken driving, ends even more disastrously as Devlin is “forced”—a very strange concept given his somewhat affable violence—to slug her, knocking her out. So ends their first “date.”
     The next morning she is hung over, as Devlin hovers over her, literally spinning in her vision, as he offers her a glass of liquid that chillingly reminds one of the milk containing a light-bulb he served up Joan Fontaine in Hitchcock’s Suspicion of five years earlier. Certainly it is not an auspicious beginning of a “romance.”
      Despite the invitation to join her friends upon their yacht, however, Alicia—obviously attracted to the man who has already abused her—rejects their plea to join them, which requires nothing but her own readiness, without even a suitcase (“We have everything aboard!”)—in preference of Devlin’s invitation for a vague future in Rio de Janeiro. It will not be the first time that we perceive that this daughter of a Nazi readily assents to the sadomasochistic life proffered up. She has, indeed been filled with self-hating: hearing of her father’s death, she responds:

                           When he told me a few years ago what he was, everything
                           went to pot. I didn’t care what happened to me. Now I re-
                           member how nice he once was, how nice we both were. It’s
                           a very curious feeling, a feeling as if something had happened
                           to me, not to him. You see I don’t have to hate him anymore—
                           or myself.

Even as in the new environment, she recovers some of her sense of self-worth and health, abandoning her alcoholic ways, she is tortured by Devlin’s taunts:

                          alicia: Well, did you hear that? [she has just refused a second
                               drink.] I’m practically on the wagon, that’s quite a change.
                          deddddevlin: It’s a phase.
                          alicia: You don’t think a woman can change?
                          devlin: Sure, change is fun, for awhile.

      One might almost think Devlin (Grant), a bi-sexual in real life, were talking of himself. Indeed, soon after, when she accepts the role as a kind of Mata-Hari to seduce Alex Sebastian, he uses her very love to verbally abuse her again: “I can’t help recalling some of your remarks about being a new woman. Daisies and buttercups, wasn’t it?”
      But even during their brief “love” affair, it is clear that, despite her deep love for him, he is removed, uncommitted to the love-making in which he participates. Hitchcock has, in fact, caught their relationship quite clearly in its sputtering interruptions, the kiss, the nuzzle, the questions which always intrude: Devlin is as unsure of his love of this “marked woman” as Sebastian is impetuously convinced of his. As Alicia herself proclaims:

                           alicia: This is a very strange love affair.
                           devlin: Why?
                           alicia: Maybe the fact that you don’t love me.

Even in the midst of what might seem as a romantic tour of the beautiful Brazilian city, Devlin admits, in yet another of his on-film admissions, of his gay preferences: “I’ve always been a-scared of women.” We hardly need Ben Hecht’s open comments to make us realize this fact; but, as I have written before, the obvious in both Grant’s and Hitchcock’s films is often openly hidden.
      The plot turns even more sinister when his CIA associates reveal what they really want from Alicia Huberman, that she meet and romance the suspected Alex Sebastian. And, despite his somewhat subdued protests, comparing Alicia to the official’s,  notably at-home, protected wives, he is party to what basically must be described as selling Alicia into sexual slavery. As Hitchcock himself has said in an interview with Traffaut, “Cary Grant’s job—and it’s rather an ironic situation—is to push Ingrid Bergman into Claude Rains’ bed.”
        
     Although the film indicates this action as arising from his sense of duty, we also clearly perceive it arises from his own disorientation with his attraction to a woman, which Hitchcock and Hecht further reveal in his purchase of a bottle of champagne for what was to have been their first domestic encounter—she cooking chicken (a chicken she admits that has caught fire; she is completely inexperienced with the domestic world, while she gushes about the joys they might one day experience together: “Marriage must be wonderful with sort of thing going on every day!”)—he leaves the champagne, symbol of romance, at the office. Champagne will  will again betray her at Sebastian’s grand party later in the film.
      If Devlin is a reluctant lover, even more strange as a suitor is Sebastian, a man controlled by his dominating mother, who is perhaps the most powerful figure in this film. Just as in Casablanca, Rains performs Sebastian as a man, basically heterosexual, yet confused about that identity. Although completely caught up in the romantic world of his German upbringing with the young Alicia, she also represents—just as she does to the American “patriots”—a figure who represents a kind of "trophy" symbolizing position and power, which, in Sebastians’ case, is utterly intertwined with the jealousy he feels for her. A great deal of his courting of Alicia has to do with the “attractive man” with whom he has first seen her: Devlin. And it is clearly Devlin, more than her own charms, that so appeal to him that he mentions it several times. Upon querying Alicia about her riding with Devlin when he has first encountered her, she puts everything into perspective: she was so upset and lonely after her father’s imprisonment, she observes, that she would have “gone riding with Peter Rabbit.”
      It’s a small statement, yet it expresses the utter complexity of all of their relationships in this densely-rich film. In the original Peter Rabbit book of 1902, The Tale of Peter Rabbit, Peter, dressed in human garb, disobeying his mother’s orders, sneaks into Mr. McGregor’s garden to eat as many vegetables as he can. McGregor spots him and is on the chase. Peter escapes, but loses his jacket and shoes, which McGregor uses to dress a scarecrow. Wearily returning to home, Peter becomes ill and is put to bed with a dose of chamomile tea. If one ever wondered about the brilliance of both Hecht and Hitchcock as writers, I need only note that this is close to the story of Alicia’s experience in the Sebastian household.
      Without even consulting his domineering mother, Alex Sebastian determines to marry Alicia, mostly out of jealousy, without his mother’s consent; she does not even attend the marriage and belittles the relationship throughout, particularly at the horse track, where Alex keeps his lover in the eyes of binoculars, while he pleads with his mother to be pleasant; her response: “Wouldn’t it be a little too much if we both grinned at her like idiots?”
     Even at the couple’s first meeting at a restaurant, when she recognizes her American head agent Prescott (Louis Calhern), Alex speaks of his handsomeness. And when she later reports this to Prescott, he quips as she about to attend a dinner party at Sebastian’s house, “Sorry I’m not going with you!”
     The world Alicia has entered is sharply misogynistic in a way that the outer shell of the plot does not want to reveal. If on the outer layer, Alicia is beautiful figure loved by two men, underneath this tale she is simply a “type,” perfect for the job, “not a lady.”
      Is it any wonder that upon her early return from the “romantic” honeymoon, Alicia spends her first days attempting to open every closet in the Sebastian mansion—despite the fact that Madame Sebastian, the overbearing mother, holds most of the “keys.” There is nothing in these small closets to uncover, but this strong woman must know that the sexuality of her world is somehow "locked up." After the dinner party, where once more liquor has been the subject of demonstration and protestation—an important sub-theme in this movie of stuporous individuals—Alicia is encouraged to open the Sebastian house up to a huge celebration, a very dangerous thing in a world of dark secrets.
      
       The grand party ends in the basements of the mansion, with Devlin and her seeking out the “key” (which she has stolen from her husband’s key-chain) to the Nazi activities. Once more, it is the “lack” of champagne—the romantic symbol at the center of this tale—that destroys their cover. Deep in the confines of the wine cellar, Devlin accidentally breaks open a bottle of vintage wine to find, not the source of lover’s pleasure, but black sand, the darkest remnants of what might be described as a romantic representation, and in this case, even more disturbingly, the leftovers of uranium, possible atomic destruction.
      Without proper time to cover and hide the discovery—something Devlin/Grant has never been able to do throughout this revelatory myth—he must again “pretend” a love which clearly does not exist, intensely kissing Alicia only to try to convince Sebastian than it is a frustrated last attempt at an impossible love:

                    “I knew her before you, loved her before you, only I’m not as
                    lucky as you…” 

But we know the truth. Devlin has in that very action of symbolic romance sent Alicia to certain death.
      By early in the morning, Sebastian has discovered her deceit, and returned to the beside of his mother for consolation and protection:

                    “Mother, mother, I need your help….I am married to an American agent.”

     The chamomile tea of Peter Rabbit follows, laced with a poison that will kill the “wanton lady” if Madame Anna Sebastian has her way. Although the plot requires Devlin to unexpectedly (particularly given his determination to the leave the country) and somewhat ridiculously to come to her rescue, in the more sublimated fantasy of Hitchcock’s masterwork he rescues her only in order to have “the poisons” removed from her system; she is still a venomous being not worthy of his attentions. Despite his cinematic assurances, “You’ll never get rid of me again,” we realize that in his claims of being “a fat-headed guy, full of pain,” the pain may not have been simply his jealousy of her relationship with Sebastian, but the pain of his own sexual orientation.
      As Alex Sebastian is called in to face his Nazi compatriots for his sins, asked to admit to his self-created lies for which he will surely face death, the “happy” couple of Alicia and Devlin drive off into the dark shadows of this cinematic romance with only the audience’s applause. Although I love this film, I cannot bring my hands together, but joyfully offer up the bifurcations of my head.

Los Angeles, May 28, 2013

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Jean Grémillon | Le ciel est à vous



obsessions
By Douglas Messerli


Albert Valentin (scenario), Charles Spaak (screen adaptation and dialogue), Jean Grémillon (director)
Le ciel est à vous / 1944

Jean Grémillon’s profound and uplifting film, Le ciel est à vous, was the third of his major works created during the Vichy rule of France. The movie begins with a series of visual images and a song that quite strongly establishes some of the underlying issues of this work. A group of orphanage children, under the imperious observation of a priest, are “playing” in the local countryside is Southern France. But the play is one of enforced organization and the boys, holding hands, spin in two directions in an inner and outer circle. Clearly one can read this as a kind of visual metaphor for the wheels, tires, and machines at the center of this work; but the image also suggests, in its two opposing rings, in a somewhat more subtle reading, a country which is currently a kind of bigamist, its people married both to the France of the past and the Germany of the present.
      Soon after, the children are freed to collect their capes, before they are collected by the priest into a kind of army formation, marching back to the town where their orphanage lies, singing a song that is focused upon “restrictions”: “No my daughter, you shall not go dancing.” Something is clearly wrong in this kind of constricted playtime.
      The very next scene reveals a family on the move, forced out for the construction of a new air field. Although both the Gauthiers (Thérèse and Pierre) seem outwardly in good spirits, we can see in their faces and in their children’s actions their fears and simple weariness. Pierre (Charles Vanel), an automobile mechanic, packs up a cart and his family auto, returning with his son to gather up just a few more pieces of junk (“you never know when they may prove useful”) while his wife (the marvelous Madeleine Renaud) and her always complaining mother (Raymonde Vernay) drive off, more worried about her family’s piano than anything else. Before they can even reach their new apartment, the workers, finding it impossible to deliver the piano by the stairs, have raised it by pulleys into the air in their attempt to deliver it through a window. Of course, it drops and is destroyed.
     
   With continued good spirits the couple and their children move into their new place, which contains a garage. Will they be able to afford the rent, they ponder. Although exhausted from the move, Pierre has little choice but to take on the job of repairing a car a wealthy man delivers up to them, working through the night with his wife at his side. We immediately perceive, accordingly, just how hard-working this family is. A few scenes later they have clearly made enough to settle in and even buy a new piano along with the lessons from a local piano teacher for their talented daughter.
      The man whose car Pierre has repaired, it turns out, runs a garage in a nearby village, and is so impressed by his abilities that we would like to hire him. Yet the family stays put, Pierre working hard, but increasingly sneaking off to the air field. He loves planes, so we discover, having been the mechanic for a notable flying hero in World War I. Thérèse, however, does commute to the nearby city, working for the gentleman as a very successful car salesperson.    
      She increasingly finds it difficult to reach her husband by phone, and, ultimately, some rancor grows between the couple, particularly when she returns home to find he has spent many of their days apart flying and teaching others how to fly. Not only is she rightfully fearful for husband’s dangerous hobby, but she is somewhat resentful for now being the major money-earner of the household, while forced to spend time away from her children.
      Her son, in her absence, is ill with a cold. Her daughter, studying as a pharmacist, would prefer to attend the music conservatory, which she is encouraged to attend by her teacher. Although Pierre has apparently given his permission for her to change her life course, her practical-minded mother refuses, ending the lessons and locking up the piano. Suddenly we note the significance of the restrictions of the very first scene and a kind of reiteration of the children’s song about dancing. This shift in the family’s placid situation is most clearly expressed in Thérèse’s drive to the airfield to collect her husband and bring him home.
      Pierre, however, remaining calm, attempts to explain his love of airplanes, arguing that the War has represented some of the happiest days of his life. When he finally coaxes Thérèse to join him in a flight, he immediately wins her over, as she is utterly thrilled with the brief voyage into the sky.
     
   Again the film tilts yet in another direction, as the previously earth-bound mule of a worker is suddenly obsessed with the freedom the sky proffers. She quickly learns how to fly, and begins a series of spirals, spins, rolls, and tumbles through the air, picking up prizes in aviation again and again.
      Sadly, however, her daughter, equally obsessed with music, must secretly visit her teacher in order to play the piano. He, for his part, assures her that “small towns need girls like [her] so that the best things in life may continue.” However, her obsession in this film is quite ignored as her mother becomes determined to take on an even greater challenge of flying further that any other aviatrix. In order to do that, the couple must purchase and retool a plane. The piano is sold, other pieces of furniture going with it, as the two apply for city loans and grants, supported for by a local town counselor, Noblet, an admirer of aviation. But just as they complete their plane, Noblet dies, and the grant is cancelled. Another noted aviatrix arrives in town, dominating the press coverage and succeeding it going the distance.
      Soon after, however, Thérèse becomes determined to make another attempt, and in near silence, no press recording her takeoff, flies off for the record. For days nothing is heard from her: the plane has no radio. Pierre returns home to his children and his mother-in-law, she abusing home for allowing her daughter to attempt the flight. Others call to criticize him as well, and he forced to take the phone off the hook. Upon observing a crowd gathering outside his home, he becomes determined to meet them, arguing, one presumes, his and his wife’s viewpoints. The crowd, in turns out, has gathered to celebrate the news they have heard: Thérèse has succeeded in going 3,000 miles, a distance beyond any previous female flier!
      So does Grémillon’s protofeminist hero symbolize all the unspoken desires of occupied France, affirming the fierce spirit of French citizens. Yet I could not help, despite this strong affirmation, noting the still unexpressed desires of so many that remain unable to play out their obsessions, like the Gauthier’s young daughter, Jacqueline, who has been told throughout the film, that she cannot go dancing. Surely the director, himself trained as a musician, cannot have helped but have noted the painful inequality between that young girl and her powerful mother. Perhaps only when French freedom is achieved, he suggests, can Jacqueline also join the ball.

Los Angeles, Memorial Day 2013