Wednesday, February 23, 2011

La Chaine

A poster that tries to make Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier look like a Lynd Ward woodcut.

Somehow, it doesn't seem as much fun to comment, as I'm about to, on something that aired on a network rather than something I chose for myself, on DVD, as my own personal Programming Director.

When you make your own choices, it's something suspiciously like a creative action, and when you can comment on it, you're a lone voice. But when potentially millions of other people have seen the same film at the same time, and drawn their own conclusions, you're just one voice in a million with an opinion that's no better or more well-informed than anyone else's -- and you know, possibly it's worse and less informed than some! We live in an age where any idiot with a keyboard can call himself a critic, and I'm no less of an idiot than most.

TCM, until last night, had been obliging me by running pictures that I'd already seen before, or perhaps even owned a copy of, and that was good because it freed me up to do other things. But last night they aired The Defiant Ones, one of those significant gaps in my experience, and I had no choice but to glue myself to the telly!

It's a genuine classic, hard to take your eyes off of, even though it's riddled with Creeping Hollywoodisms that sometimes threaten to bring down the whole affair.

In particular, at first I had a real hard time buying Tony Curtis in his part. It's not that he didn't do everything in his power to sell it, but he's fighting history -- in this case, a history that occurred both before and after he made this movie. It's hard to look at Tony Curtis and not see Tony Curtis, if you catch my drift.

You'd think the same would be true with Poitier, but it's obvious that Poitier put on some weight for this role, and he looks physically different from the man who made To Sir With Love and In the Heat of the Night.

It goes deeper than that, though, to the script. I had a hard time believing that these two characters with their reputed backgrounds, would have the kind of conversations that they sometimes have, and use the very self-consciously scripted words that they sometimes use.

Then there's the Good Cop / Bad Cop subplot, with the parts played by actors who don't really bring anything to the roles that goes deeper than the surface, the bumpkin with his omnipresent radio playing sophisticated jazz, and worst of all the Girl.

Yes, the Girl. The Single Mother living out in the middle of nowhere who still manages to look like, well, like a Hollywood Actress in full seduction mode.

But the other things in the movie are so strong that they manage to just plow right over these contradictions in the sense of reality. It's beautifully shot, acted powerfully by both of the leading men -- -- and by Lon Chaney Jr. in a small part, dipping most effectively into his seemingly bottomless well of Inner Conflict and Despair.

I'm going to digress here and pass on a rumor about Chaney that I can't substantiate and that may already be known to you. It is said that Chaney was a repressed homosexual. If this is true, then the key word (repressed) would explain a lot of the conflictedness that Chaney brought so successfully to most of his screen roles.

I've heard a story that I can't attribute, because I can't remember the source, that Chaney and Raymond Burr worked on a picture together, and Burr was very cruel to Chaney, berating him in front of everyone for being a "faggot."

Which says particularly nasty things about Burr, who was himself a closet homosexual.

As you can see, I have faults, too: in order to make the writing interesting for me, I have to stray away from the subject and try to show off how much I know.

My father met Raymond Burr, once, on an airplane. He reports that Burr was about as flaming as they come, and made some advances.

But then, my father has his faults, too, and one of them is homophobia.

My father also met Sidney Poitier on an airplane. Mr. Poitier gave my father a copy of the novel Parnassus on Wheels, by Christopher Morley. Ever since that day, many years ago, when Poitier was at the height of his success, Parnassus on Wheels has been on my reading list. And I still haven't read it.

I figure that I still have time, and that some things should be saved.

Let's see. In the roster of celebrity meetings, among others, my father met Leo McKern, in a hotel bar in Florida, while McKern was in America for the filming of Rumpole's Return. I'll have to ask him about that one, to see if there are any juicy anecdotes. But his memory has always been a convenient one, and he's not a Spring Chicken anymore, and it wouldn't surprise me if he no longer remembered the encounter at all.

Where was I?

The Defiant Ones. Yes. Beautifully shot and acted. Highly contrived, yet quite compelling. Not a favorite, by a long shot, but completely worthy of its reputation. Holds -- and rewards -- your attention. Quite possibly hobbled a bit by it's own success, in that it was later imitated by lesser pictures and television series.

That about says it.

Incidentally, a Google search for the poster revealed a French version with the title I used in the header of this post -- and I'm not sure but that The Chain wouldn't have been a better title for the American release as well!

-- Freder.


  1. I have a love-hate relationship with Turner Classic Movies. Although I love their library and commitment to classic films, I do feel that my schedule is dictated by their design! Sometimes I do just pop a DVD in to be rebellious, but TCM has a much better selection. That, plus the DVR, makes them my catnip!

  2. Raymond Burr a "closet homosexual?" Well, by modern definitions, I suppose that qualifies -- folks just didn't Declare back in Burr's heyday, there was no Rainbow Coalition and the FLINTSTONES still had "a gay old time" each week, because the word hadn't been co-opted by slang and sociopolitical agendas -- but my understanding is, when the cameras weren't rolling and the press wasn't around, there wasn't much "closet" about Raymond Burr!


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