Friday, April 15, 2011

Curse You, TCM!

Does Robert Osborne think that I don't have anything better to do than sit around and watch movies?
There was a good stretch over the past few weeks where I got a few things done, because TCM was running pictures that I'd seen before, or things that weren't so appealing that I was willing to take the time, or else just running the good stuff at an hour that didn't work for me. This week they could almost have been thinking, "Let's target that idiot up in Maine! He hasn't been watching for a while!"

First came So Evil My Love, with Ann Todd and Ray Milland, part of their tribute to Milland going on this month. It was a good contrast to The Uninvited; Evil being the operative word, Milland does it like a champ, making his seduction of Miss Todd credible enough that her own descent into evil takes on a level of inevitability. Todd gives a marvelous performance herself, going on a deep journey with some ups and a whole lot of downs. Her looks give her a natural advantage, as she has a kind of cold beauty, the Ice Princess ready to melt, given enough reason. Soon she's up to all manner of trouble, including murder for the sake of an undeserving love.

The ending is that rarest of things, a shock ending that really is shocking, both in its unexpectedness and its detached savagery. Had the same scene been filmed today, it would have been much more graphic, and far less effective. Leo G. Carroll (Mr. Waverly from The Man from U.N.C.L.E.) gets the last word, and he ain't just whistling dixie, Missus.

Wednesday night was A Southern Yankee. I broke a rule for this one: Never come into any movie from the middle. Out of pure monkey habit, I am compelled to watch Survivor in all of its idiot incarnations, oftentimes marveling at the stupidity of the players while blithely ignoring the level of stupidity it takes to watch the thing. On Wednesday nights I don't even check the listings. Redemption Island, here I come! Just don't ever call it a "reality" show.

So I missed the first third or so of A Southern Yankee and now I want to watch the whole thing. I'd never seen one of Red Skelton's movies before, knowing him only from his decades on television (he was a favorite of my wee years) and stage. I think Red must be one of the hardest working comedians in the biz, but he is an acquired taste: with his facial ticks and his crossed eyes and his arms cocked this was and that, it's a little bit like the School of Schizophrenia. It was nice to see him not doing Clem Cadiddlehopper for a change, and this picture, while far from a classic, goes down easy and pleasing with some real laugh-out-loud moments. According to Osborne, Buster Keaton worked as a consultant on this picture -- so Red had good taste in advisors, although there's little of the trademark Keaton manipulation of reality on display.

The plot? I'm not sure that there was one. Anyhow, if you glanced at the poster above, you get the drift. Civil War spoof, just an excuse to hang gags on. Most implausibly, Red gets the girl in the end, or she gets him. I'm not sure which.

Then last night my plans for the evening were foiled when The Glass Key appeared on my menu at eight o'clock. Before last night I never knew that this had been filmed, much less twice, and the second time with such a great cast including Brian Donlevy, Veronica Lake, Alan Ladd and William Bendix (the kind of actor who, once you've seen him do comedy, is hard to take seriously in dramatic roles like this one). 

I don't think that The Glass Key is one of Hammett's more compelling novels, and that shows in this screen adaptation. It's hard to really fall in love with a movie when absolutely everyone in it is a villain, including Ladd, albeit a villain who goes through a kind of violent redemption in the hands of the Bendix character. But it does have all the hardboiled elements including a hero who can take a lot of punishment (and does) and a femme fatale capable of giving looks, as Raymond Chandler writes, that men "can feel in your hip pocket."

Actually the thing I found most remarkable about Veronica Lake was how very young she seemed. Before this, I'd only ever seen her in Sullivan's Travels. and although that picture was made earlier, somehow she looked as though she'd been around the block a few more times.

Apparently Ladd is one of the few actors who didn't mind working with Lake; whether or not that's true, they certainly do perform some chemical magic together on screen, and the sparks between them are the picture's main draw. Unfortunately, John Huston or Michael Curtiz didn't direct this, and it shows. Except for a few scattershot scenes, the movie lacks both the mood of The Maltese Falcon and the lightness of touch in The Thin Man series. 

It's interesting to watch the way violence is portrayed in The Glass Key, and I strongly believe that, nine times out of ten, this is the way it should be done. We never see the actual beatings in any great detail: the director inevitably cuts to reaction shots of the bystanders, and by watching their faces we are allowed to sense the brutality of the scene. Only the consequences of the beatings are shown in detail, and this is pretty much unflinching, as real as they were allowed to get in those days.

I liked all three of these pictures, although I didn't love any of them. I'm hoping that tonight the TCM programmers will opt to go with something along the lines of "Giant Gorilla Night." I've seen all the giant gorillas I need to see, and Getting Something Done tonight sounds like a good direction to head in!

-- Freder

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