July 19, 2019

Death Takes a Holiday

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Mitchell Leisen - 1934
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

I have a vague memory that takes place in the early Sixties. Reading the listings of movies shown on television, I came across the title, Death Takes a Holiday. I'm a bit puzzled by what this means. My mother gave be a brief explanation. The movie was shown at a time when I wasn't able to watch it. And somehow this film that has piqued my curiosity never seems to have reappeared either on television or at any of the many venues in New York City showing older films in the early Seventies. I can't really explain why I didn't bother getting getting the DVD when it was a bonus included with Martin Brest's remake, Meet Joe Black, a film I actually liked quite a bit. (Disclosure - I was acquainted with Martin Brest at NYU and made a student movie with him.)

Mitchell Leisen's second directorial effort is now a standalone blu-ray. In reviewing Leisen's filmography, the suits at Paramount were quite patient with Leisen as his early films generally got good reviews, but were financially uneven. Leisen would hit his stride about two years and several films later once he teams up with charismatic actors like Carole Lombard, Barbara Stanwyck, Claudette Colbert, Ray Milland, Don Ameche and his most frequent star, Fred MacMurray, combined at best with screenplays by Preston Sturges or the team of Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder. Death Takes a Holiday originally was a an Italian play, later performed in an English language version on Broadway. Leisen's graceful traveling camera cannot totally transcend the portentous dialogue.

Most of the film takes place in a large villa, in the Paramount studio version of Italy, marginally less elaborate than the exotic locations of fellow studio directors Josef von Sternberg and Ernst Lubitsch. Death is first seen as a blobby shadow following several aristocratic celebrants speeding on a mountain pass in their elongated roadsters. Making an appearance late at night, Death shows up again at the villa in the form of a tall man draped in black cloth, partially transparent. He reveals to the villa's owner, Duke Lambert, his identity, plus his request to appear in human form as a guest for three days. Death wants to know why he is feared. Suspension of disbelief is required here. Not because I have a problem with Death appearing in the form of Fredric March, Brad Pitt, or the chess playing Bengt Ekerot, but because I figure that Death has been around long enough to have a clue or two about human behavior. Death reappears as the Duke's friend, Prince Sirki, complete with monocle and an East European accent, to learn about life from the leisure class, where men wear tuxedos and the women wear tiaras.

During the three days, people miraculously survive ship sinkings, school burnings, getting trampled by horses, and other disasters. Death questions the futility of existence, which is pretty easy to do when your with people who do nothing but race boats, play ping pong, or visit exclusive casinos. Death is attracted to Grazia, first scene praying at a church, meeting her would-be fiance, Corrado, son of the duke.

Fredric March plays Death as an alien being whose speaking and mannerisms become less stilted and more fluid over the course of the three days. Evelyn Venable, was Paramount's ingenue at the time, seen here as Grazia. Venable has a passing resemblance to Olivia De Havilland, but she lacked that sparkle needed for more more than brief stardom, and I got the sense, especially in Venable's close-ups that Mitchell Leisen was looking for De Havilland, but may not have known it at the time.

There is one nice shot of March and Venable sitting together by a fountain pool, seen upside down in reflection. The camera tilts up to the two sitting together, Death has only an hour left as a guest in the villa and wants to spend that last hour with Grazia. Death Takes a Holiday was produced before the Production Code took effect, but what happens in that last hour is never shown, nor stated.

Where the code was challenged all involve actress Gail Patrick, uttering an inaudible "damn", trying to seduce Prince Sirki by informing him of her flexibility regarding the need to get married, and sharing a bed with another female guest.

Leisen got start working for Cecil B. DeMille, and the interior of the villa looks like a DeMille set moved indoors, with huge classical statues in the hallways and oversized Renaissance paintings on the walls. There is a traveling shot, with the camera moving backwards as the guests enter the villa, walking through that very long entry way.

Kat Ellinger's commentary offers some information on the production of Death Takes a Holiday, but I was hoping for something on how much of the screenplay was the work of the two credited writers, Maxwell Anderson and Gladys Lehman. I'm guessing that most of the declamatory scenes were by Anderson. Ellinger takes time to discuss the theatrical origins of Death Takes a Holiday, as well as reviewing the careers of several of the stars and production team.

There may be a little bit of irony that when I finally get to see Death Takes a Holiday, it's a time when I've been dealing with my own mortality. No fear of dying, but if Death comes to meet me in human form, I'm hoping she resembles Tiffany Haddish.

July 16, 2019

Hold Back the Dawn

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Mitchell Leisen - 1941
Arrow Films BD Region A

The past - did novelist Anna Seghers see Hold Back the Dawn sometime prior to writing Transit? Was she familiar with Ketti Frings' screen treatment? Both Seghers' novel and Leisen's film are about refugees, told in the first person. The narrator is of questionable background, telling his story to a vaguely known acquaintance. Both narrators are waiting for the documents that will allow them to travel, and both use fraudulent means, involving a woman, to accomplish their goal. Both men stay at a crowded, run-down hotel with other refugees. The routine is overwhelmingly tedious. In both the novel and the film, a refugee frustrated by bureaucracy hangs himself. Hold Back the Dawn takes place in a small border town in Mexico, directly across from the United States. Hitler was considered Europe's problem, and the U.S. government maintained a strict limit on immigration. Transit takes place in Marseilles in 1942, at a time when refugees were hobbled by time-limited travel visas, and the hope of going to Mexico or Brazil, should a ship be available. Both Dawn co-writer Billy Wilder and Anna Seghers, as well as Frings' husband, spent time in Mexico before getting approval to live in the United States. Anna Segher's 1939 novel, The Seventh Cross was made into a movie by MGM that came out in the same year that Transit was published in English. The director of that film was Fred Zinnemann. Billy Wilder and Fred Zinnemann were among the aspiring filmmakers who made the German People on Sunday in 1930.

The present - I don't think anyone can watch Hold Back the Dawn without thinking about current events. Even Olivia de Havilland's character isn't immune from xenophobia. Yesterday's "scum" become today's invaders. Unfortunately, no one at Homeland Security seems have that right combination of strictness and understanding as Walter Abel. It's also unavoidable to look wistfully at a film that takes place in a world where marriages of convenience aren't investigated too closely, immigrants wait patiently for legal approval, and the two times rules are circumvented are both gently comic moments.

First and foremost, Hold Back the Dawn is a Hollywood movie. It was produced at Paramount, a studio founded by Adolph Zukor. As an orphaned eighteen year old Hungarian Jew, Zukor probably showed little obvious promise of becoming a self-made millionaire even before getting into the motion picture business. Charles Boyer plays a Romanian gigolo, officially a dancer, told that due to quota restrictions, he can expect to be allowed to leave the Mexican border town for the U.S. in at least five years. His "dance partner", played by Paulette Goddard meets up by chance at the border town's Climax Bar. Boyer learns he can expedite things by getting married to a U.S. citizen, and once he receives citizenship papers he can file for divorce. Boyer encounters schoolteacher Olivia De Havilland shepherding a group of school boys for a brief visit across the border. Temporarily stranded due to a car accident, Boyer acts as a rescuer for De Havilland and her charges, sweet talking her into marriage.

The film both plays up to, and against Hollywood conventions and the on-screen personas of Boyer and De Havilland. In her booklet notes, Farran Smith Nehme describes Boyer as having a "chocolate-ganache voice". Boyer's performance as he woos De Havilland borders on self-parody, but perhaps that's partially the result of seeing too many Pepe Le Pew cartoons. It is after the two are married that Boyer fights his own impulses and screen image to make sure the marriage is unconsummated. De Havilland, Warner Brothers' resident "good girl", is first seen bouncing in anticipation in a hotel room with a wedding cake, and sheds her clothes to take a dip at a deserted beach. Boyer is the worldly conman from Romania by way of Paris, while De Havilland is proudly from small town Azusa, California. This is a film that requires surrendering to an on-screen romance of this mismatched couple.

I like, but do not love, Hold Back the Dawn. My own estimation of Mitchell Leisen is still that his best work was done between 1937 and 1941, with screenplays by Preston Sturges and the team of Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder. My own favorites are Arise, My Love, written by Brackett and Wilder, and Remember the Night, written by Sturges (and why is this film not shown on Christmas?). The two moments I will savor in Hold Back the Dawn include the previously mentioned scene of De Havilland anticipating giving up her virginity to Charles Boyer, and Walter Abel's U.S. customs agent discovering the birth of an anchor baby in his office. Farran Smith Nehme's booklet notes discuss the making of the film and the rift between Wilder and Leisen over changes in the screenplay. IMDb lists Richard Maibaum as having made uncredited contributions to the screenplay, yet neither Nehme, nor Adrian Martin in his commentary track made note of this, making that credit questionable, although Maibaum did write several credited screenplays for Leisen. Martin's commentary track, aided by an additional interview with BFI programmer Geoff Andrew, argue for Leisen's auteur status, remarking on the recurring themes in his films as well as his visual choices. Martin also refers to the Senses of Cinema survey of Mitchell Leisen by David Melville, also worth reading. This month is seeing a Leisen revival with new blu-ray discs of Easy Living and Death Takes a Holiday on the way.

July 12, 2019

The Tough Ones

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Roma a mano armato / Rome Armed to the Teeth
Umberto Lenzi - 1976
Grindhouse Releasing BD Regions ABC two-disc and one CD set

There's a scene in Raoul Walsh's White Heat, where the manic gangster, Cody Jarrett, has escaped from the penitentiary with a con, Parker, who had attempted to kill him, hiding him in the trunk of the getaway car. Jarrett is a sociopath, but because he's played by James Cagney, he's the kind of gangster that the audience roots for in spite of themselves. The morning after the escape, Parker is still enclosed in the car trunk. From inside the trunk, Parker tells Jarrett that it is getting stuffy inside the trunk. Jarrett shoots several bullets into the trunk, in his words, to provide ventilation for his victim. While most contemporary viewers will probably chuckle at the black humor of this scene, in its time it was considered horrifying. I thought of White Heat and Umberto Lenzi's documented admiration for Raoul Walsh while watching The Tough Ones.

In The Tough Ones, Tomas Milian plays the part of Moretto, a hunchback who has thus far hidden his criminal activity. Moretto goes to a pawnbroker, with the premise of pawning some jewelry, and offers the pawnbroker to touch his hump for good luck, as according to the superstition. The pawnbroker declines the offer. Moretto turns around with a machine gun, shooting the pawnbroker, with the comment that not touching his hump brings bad luck. It's the combination of violence and cruel sarcasm that makes the character of Moretto appear inspired by Walsh's Cody Jarrett. Lenzi also adds a propensity for Roman rhyming street slang for Morretto. Moretto's gang of bank robbers are an especially nervous bunch, equally as ready to fire their machine guns at random targets.

Whatever filament of a plot there is concerns a Roman cop, Tanzi, searching for a criminal on the run. Tanzi is portrayed by Maurizio Merli, and is typical of many of his other film appearances, is that rogue detective who disregards bureaucracy, slaps around bad guys and asks questions later, and can be counted on for a high speed car chase. To his credit, Merli also does his own stunts including the driving. Tanzi encounters a virtual catalogue of the kind of crime that took place during the time The Tough Ones was made including the previously mentioned bank robbery, kidnapping, rape, purse snatching and illegal drugs. In his commentary track, Mike Malloy states how several set pieces in The Tough Ones are to found in other Eurocrime movies. Lenzi's film helped set the template for similar films featuring the names of cities in their titles, the various narrative elements as well as star Maurizio Merli's on-screen persona.

Of the many extras, one I found of interest was an older supplement by Michele De Angelis of the late, lamented DVD label, NoShame. A personal note here - NoShame was the first company to send me screeners when I first launched this website. De Angelis positions The Tough Ones within a history of Italian narrative films that documented the social changes in Italy following World War II. That Eurocrime thrillers would have a connection to neorealism is less of a stretch when one considers the influence these films had on Hollywood film noir. De Angelis goes on to discuss the influence of films such as The French Connection and Dirty Harry on the Eurocrime genre.

The Calum Waddell produced documentary about Umberto Lenzi's career is frustrating as there is nothing about his life prior to his career as a director, and does not bother mentioning films made prior to the thrillers with Carroll Baker. While Lenzi's giallo and crime films are his best known, I encourage those unfamiliar with the early works to check out Lenzi's official debut feature, Queen of the Seas, a costume adventure film about the female pirate Mary Read, and Lenzi's version of Gunga Din, Three Sergeants of Bengal. Hollywood veteran Arthur Kennedy appears in The Tough Ones as Tanzi's supervisor. If someone wasn't familiar with Kennedy, they would think the only film of note he appeared in was Lawrence of Arabla. Aside from multiple Oscar nominations, Kennedy had roles in a handful of film noir classics, notably Too Late for Tears. It may possibly be coincidence that Kennedy had also appeared in one film each by Raoul Walsh and another director Lenzi admired, Samuel Fuller.

It's the first supplement on the second disc, titled "Umberto", that I would consider required viewing. Umberto Lenzi talks about his life and career for almost an hour. In addition to Walsh and Fuller, Lenzi also names Otto Preminger and Robert Siodmak as part of the four most influential directors. Three of the four have directed key films in the history of film noir, with Fuller making a contribution as a screenwriter. The Fuller connection is more obvious in Lenzi's use of social commentary and also with the war films that Lenzi describes as being his most personal work. Several other film noir filmmakers are also cited, including Edward Dmytryk and that director's masterpiece, Christ in Concrete. There are also some brief clips from Lenzi's first film, made in Greece, Mia Italida stin Ellada. Lenzi is forgiven exaggerating is memory of working as an assistant on Raw Wind in Eden. The only person whose career really suffered from that film's failure was star Esther Williams. Lenzi offers a first-hand account of film production practices in Italy when genre films were imported around the world.

Additional information of genre production practices, as well as more specific information on the making of The Tough Ones is in the interview with screenwriter Dardano Sachetti. Supporting player Corrado Solari offers several humorous anecdotes. The still beautiful Maria Rosaria Omaggio talks about making her film debut under Lenzi's direction. There is also an hour and a half interview with Tomas Milian which includes discussing his time with the Actors Studio. In all, be prepared to set aside several hours on the supplements. And if an interview with composer Franco Micalizzi isn't enough, there is also the enclosed CD with the soundtrack.

As for information regarding the making of The Tough Ones, Lenzi recounts how he filmed the car chases on the street, in real traffic. The additional secret sauce is that Lenzi would have the camera run at 22 frames per second, heightening the sense of speed when projected at the normal 24 fps. A conversation with composer Franco Micalizzi offers more information on their several collaborations. Film historian Roberto Curti's booklet notes provide context regarding the real life inspirations for several scenes, as well as some background on the production of the film. Umberto Lenzi had an interest in history, as well as film history. It would seem in light of much of the material included with The Tough Ones that Lenzi understood that as a genre filmmaker, much like those directors he admired, that his work would receive greater appreciation by future film fans and scholars.

July 02, 2019

Transit

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Christian Petzold - 2018
Music Box Films

Would I have thought differently about Transit had I not read Anna Segher's novel beforehand? The novel was published in 1944, taking place in Marseilles between late 1940 and early 1941 before the complete Nazi takeover, when refugees with the right papers and money could leave France for the U.S., Mexico or other South American countries. Seghers was also a refugee, taking inspiration from her own time in Marseilles. The narrative is primarily done in the first person by a young man, an escapee from a concentration camp, who has been given the suitcase and letters of an author who is revealed later to be dead. The unnamed narrator takes over the identity of the author in order to leave Marseilles, trying to work his way with the various bureaucracies to make his arrangements. A mysterious woman turns out to be the author's wife. The characters are ill-fated, whether by their own choices or circumstances beyond their control.

Petzold has transposed the story to the present era. The timeline has been collapsed, sub-plots jettisoned along with several characters. While loosely adapting Carnival of Souls for Yella, and The Postman Always Rings Twice for Jerichow worked, the time and place did not have to be specific. In Petzold's Transit, while we see the occasional roundup of "undesirables", there is no sense of a palpable threat by the group given the vague identity of fascists. Segher's novel also takes place over a period of several months with a stress on the boredom of waiting for papers to get approved, for trying to stay warm in what seems like a never ending winter, where the pizza that comprises the main diet is purchased as rationed bread. Petzold's changes include a young boy, half German/half North African, and his deaf-mute mother, also illegal aliens, as an attempt to make the updated version more timely. At the same time, Petzold has deracinated Segher's version which significantly included several Jewish characters. Ending the film with Talking Head's song, "Road to Nowhere" struck me as irresponsibly flippant.

While taking place in a contemporary Marseilles, some obvious indicators or timeliness are absent, such as cell phones and computers. I understand Petzold making a connection with the various refugee crises taking place in Europe. With the rise of nationalism that has taken place, Petzold virtually anticipated what has happened recently in Italy with the recently installed right-wing government punishing those who assist the would-be migrants from North Africa. Those aspects from Seghers novel that make it universal, still read and discussed, may not be lost, yet feel diminished in the film. The darkness and desperation of Segher's novel has been replaced by sunshine and casual inconvenience.

June 25, 2019

The Wild Heart

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Gone to Earth
Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger - 1950

The Wild Heart
Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger - 1952
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

"He (David O. Selznick) never had the guts to direct a picture himself. He shunned the responsibility. He preferred to spend hours and days of his life dictating memos telling other people how to direct films. This made him a rather pathetic figure." - Michael Powell

Two perfect shots: First, Jennifer Jones as Hazel Woodus is introduced in a long shot, seen from a distance walking up a hill. The wind in blowing from the right of the screen. There are a row of trees all tilted leftwards that frame Hazel on the right side. Hazel walks leftward and then right, facing the wind. The shot establishes Hazel's character as being both part of the natural world but also fighting against it. As played by Jones, Hazel is connected to Pearl Chavez and Ruby Gentry, the woman as the perpetual outsider due to societal roles and her own rebellious nature.

The second perfect shot is a tilt-down at two pairs of feet. The recently married Hazel agrees to a rendezvous with Reddin, a local squire who previous tried to seduce Hazel, and has since pursued her, disregarding her status as the wife of a minister. The marriage has yet to be consummated. The two meet in the vicinity of the same area of the opening shot. Hazel is barefoot. Reddin is wearing brown boots. Hazel is carrying a handful of flowers. We see the two meet within the shot of the two pairs of feet coming closer. Hazel is standing on her toes. The flowers fall down onto the ground as the shot continues. We then see one of Reddin's boots trample the flowers as he picks up Hazel. The shot refers back to an earlier scene, with Hazel unaware of the connotations of the expression "pick up". Within that single shot is all we need to know about Hazel's infidelity.

For those who are not aware of the film's history, The Wild Heart is the re-edited version of Gone to Earth, supervised by Jones' husband, producer David O. Selznick. Kino Lorber has chosen to make The Wild Heart the main feature of the new blu-ray, with Gone to Earth listed as a bonus. Most cinephiles would probably have it the other way around. In any case, viewers can finally see both films and compare for themselves. This long awaited release may well be one of the more important blu-ray releases of the year.

That first shot of Hazel, a small figure among tall trees, was not part of The Wild Heart. David O. Selznick was reduced to co-production status in 1949 following Portrait of Jennie and a loss of $12,000,000. to his studio. Selznick recognized the directorial talent of the time with films by Carol Reed, Powell and Pressberger, and Vittorio De Sica. At the same time, Selznick was unable to leave the films alone, making his own versions for U.S distribution. Minor tinkering with The Third Man was followed by heavy editing and re-shoots on Powell and Pressburger's film. De Sica's Terminal Station was significantly abridged, re-edited, and given the lurid title of Indiscretion of an American Wife. I would guess that not a day went by when David O. Selznick would not remind someone within earshot that he had produced Gone with the Wind, at the time the biggest box office success ever. In terms of his relationship with filmmakers on his European co-productions, Selznick was the Harvey Weinstein of his day.

The basic story, adapted from a 1917 novel, takes place in Shropshire, a county in northern England that borders Wales, in 1897. Hazel Woodus lives in a remote part of the countryside with her father, a craftsman who makes coffins. Hazel's closest relationship is with her pet fox called Foxy. She also relies on a book of spells left by her mother, described as a gypsy, for her decision making. Hazel is emblematic of the tensions of British history, between its past as a Roman colony and identity more tightly defined as Christian. This is made more clear with the relationships with the hedonistic Jack Reddin and the chaste Edward Marston, complicated by Hazel's own mixed feelings about both men. Just as the pet fox can not be completely domesticated, neither can Hazel.

Even at age thirty, when Gone to Earth was produced, Jennifer Jones still looked youthful enough for her role as Hazel. She was able to speak with the appropriate accent to the approval of Michael Powell. The blu-ray is for me a quite beautiful rendering of the original Technicolor film.

There are also commentary tracks for each version that are largely complimentary with minimal duplication of information. Samm Deighan makes the connection of Gone to Earth with the earlier Powell and Pressburger film, A Canterbury Tale, as well as the novel's position as part of a history of gothic novels. On The Wild Heart, Troy Howarth provides more history on the cast and crew, as well as some discussion on David O. Selznick's revision of Gone to Earth which began as soon as he saw the first rough cut prior to the 1950 release.

What would have been more helpful, but would require deeper research, is details on who actually worked on the footage commissioned by Selznick. The film begins with a voice over spoken by Joseph Cotton, prose about Roman Britain and pagan beliefs. There are several scenes that are not in Gone to Earth, as well as more close-ups of Jones, and insert shots. One example is of Hazel standing over a sundial at Reddin's estate. In Gone To Earth, Hazel is seen in a long shot. Selznick has a cut so that the audience reads an adage on the sundial. There is some information to be gleaned from a website devoted to the films by Powell and Pressburger. While it has been acknowledged that Rouben Mamoulian directed the scenes per Selznick, based on the history of Selznick's other productions, there may have been other hands involved. Did Ben Hecht write the Selznick prologue, and who wrote those revised scenes? Troy Howarth tries to give a good defense of The Wild Heart. My own sense is that David O. Selznick was uncomfortable with letting the images speak for themselves, remaking the film to conform to his own idea of a star vehicle for wife Jennifer Jones, with underlining to eliminate any possible ambiguity. Selznick's odd grandiosity is also displayed by cutting the actual movie down to about 82 minutes, and then bookending the film with two minutes of music, an overture and exit music, on each end for a "Roadshow version".

For some film viewers, simply having Gone to Earth and The Wild Heart together may be more than enough. I would be surprise if this KL Studio Classics release was not among the nominations of significant home videos by Il Cinema Ritrovato.

June 23, 2019

Ted Talk

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Tramps (Adam Leon - 2017)

In the interests of journalistic transparency, I am a Netflix subscriber both of the DVD services and streaming.

I also want to express regret at not writing more legible notes, but that that's what happens to me when I scribble in the dark. Hopefully, I will remember this event correctly.

Maybe I should have tried to get an interview with Ted Sarandos has some of my questions and concerns were not covered.

This was my first time attending Series Fest, which as is indicated by the name, a weeklong event in Denver dedicated to series television. My interest in seeing the dialogue between Liberty Global's Ted Fries and Netflix's Chief Content Officer, Ted Sarandos, stems from the crossover of filmmaking talent providing Netflix films and television series. This event took place on June 21. Due to the number of attendees, I watched the discussion as a simulcast on one of the screens at the Sie Theater.

After providing a bit of personal background, Sarandos explained his decision to have the Netflix content team based near Los Angeles in order to cultivate relationships with the studios, and to keep a separate identity from the tech team. This was when Netflix had just begun, before DVD technology dominated home video. Even at that time, Reed Hastings anticipated home streaming even though what existed about twenty-years ago was virtually unwatchable on small screens within the computer monitor. I don't remember when I started streaming myself, but it was initial on a laptop for the first few years until I bought my first blu-ray player that had a streaming option. I have seen the streaming content change from older, previously unavailable films to primarily recent programming of films and series. I miss being able to see such obscurities like Irvin Kershner's The Young Captives or the Italian costume drama, The Tempest, with second unit work by Michelangelo Antonioni. More recently, having gone to bat for Orson Welles' The Other Side of the Wind, interest has apparently been generated for the streaming of older films by Welles.

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Nappily ever After (Haifaa al-Mansour - 2018)

Sarandos explained that Netflix measures success based on how many households watch a certain show. The publicly announced figure of thirty million households for Murder Mystery was mentioned. How this translates into number of viewers is subject for dispute. The key takeaway for me was that the reason why Netflix largely eschews traditional ratings formats is because the success of a film or series is specific to that show. Too give a more quantifiable example from the way success is measured in theatrical films, Dark Phoenix has earned about 209 million dollars. Yet with a reported budget of 200 million, the film has lost money for the studio after factoring in costs for publicity, among other costs. Booksmart has earned a modest 20 million to date, with low box office standing. Alleged box office pundits who wrote off Booksmart did not anticipate that this "little" films would recoup its Six million dollar budget, or prove to have unexpected resiliency in finding its audience. While I would not be able to provide specific examples, what this would mean in terms of a Netflix branded film is that while it may not be a breakout success like Bird Box, most of their films are moderately budgeted so that they are free from the same expectations as a theatrical film.

Another interesting point was the freedom the content team had in choosing choosing content, and likewise in the freedom given to the content providers. While it was not mentioned, Martin Scorsese's The Irishman will probably be a test of the limits of auteur driven films produced by Netflix. In addition to household numbers as the tool for measuring success, social media was mentioned as used by viewers as a driver for success, referring back to Bird Box.

What wasn't addressed is that with the sheer number of films and series available, how do you find what's worth watching? My own viewing has included films that have not involved Facebook memes or national conversations. One thing Netflix could do that would be helpful for some films would be to list the name of the director along with the main actors in their screens that provide the title and short synopsis. It was through an article on independent filmmakers choosing Netflix over tradition theatrical distribution that I found out about Tramps by Adam Leon - and additionally saw his earlier Gimme the Loot. I had been following Alice Rohrbacher's career from the beginning, and am sure more people have seen Happy as Lazzaro than her two older films. But how many who delighted in Wajda, the first narrative feature from Saudi Arabia and debut from female filmmaker Haifaa al-Mansour, are also aware that she directed Nappily ever After?

Sarandos final major point was that international series would be local in both language and content, using the German series, Dark as an example. While something like Murder Mystery might be the television equivalent to comfort food for fans of Friends and Adam Sandler movies, that subscriber base also allows for more niche viewing of foreign language series and films, as well as the independent films branded as Netflix Originals. I'm not sure how the algorithms and data gathering work on this, as some of my more enjoyable experiences with streaming have been taking chances with the unfamiliar.

June 21, 2019

Midnight Lace

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David Miller - 1960
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

Would Midnight Lace have been a substantially better film had Ross Hunter's usual go-to director, Douglas Sirk, hadn't retired the year before? We can only guess based on such prior works as the wonderfully nutty Lured with the eclectic cast of Lucille Ball, Charles Laughton and Boris Karloff, and the more obvious wife-in-peril Sleep My Love. David Miller probably got the gig on the strength of Sudden Fear with Joan Crawford threatened by two-timing Jack Palance. Midnight Lace isn't exactly suspenseful, but it is entertaining.

Doris Day plays Kit Preston, heiress and newly-wed to British businessman Brian Preston (Rex Harrison). Brian is so busy with work that the two have yet to go on an actual honeymoon. The film opens with Kit walking home across a park in London fog so thick it's called a "pea souper". A strange voice from an unseen source tells Kit that she will be murdered. Kit runs home in a panic. Later, she begins getting telephone calls from the same unknown person. Brian tries to convince Kit that it is a prank. There are a series of "red herrings" to keep the audience guessing as to who wants Kit dead, including the constantly sponging son of the housekeeper, a gaunt man dressed in black, and the foreman of the construction site next door. For me, the biggest mystery is why Midnight Lace received an Oscar nomination for the costumes - the only thing uglier than Doris Day's fur-collared coats is one of the hats worn by Myrna Loy.

Russell Metty may have been a house cinematographer at Universal, but he may well be the one to credit for the use of color and shadows. In addition to his work with Sirk, Metty also had Orson Welles' Touch of Evil to his credits. There is one scene with tension between Kit and Brian in their bedroom. During the day, the bedroom is an extremely light shade of pink. In this scene, when Kit is certain that her stalker is standing in view of the bedroom window, the colors of the bedroom are stronger shades of pink, purple, blue and red. The choice of colors is suggestive of a proto-giallo, and not entirely unrelated to a film like The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh, Sergio Martino's delirious version of the gaslit wife. There is also the scene with Kit trapped in her apartment building's narrow elevator, in fear of a man seen only as a black silhouette. Somebody like Dario Argento would have stretched the scene further, and milked it for greater terror. I was struck use of red lighting on the interior walls when the true identities of several characters are revealed.

Without giving too much away, the final scene could have been David Miller's Vertigo. Doris Day clings on to a steel column in the building next door, still an empty skeleton. There are no photographic effects, nor any sense of the kind of danger Hitchcock could convey. Again there is the sense that more could have been done, restrained by Ross Hunter's desire not to make his audience too uncomfortable.

On the debit side, the film takes place in a tourist's idea of London. Either the screenplay should have had a slight revision, or the film should have been recast as John Gavin, at age 29, was clearly too young to play the part of the building foreman, a man who tells Kit about his traumatic experience in World War II. A night out at the ballet means an excerpt from Swan Lake, billed with Giselle and Petrushka, middle-brow and middle-class idea of culture.

As it turns out, Kat Ellinger also makes the connection between Midnight Lace and giallo in her commentary track. Ellinger draws the line with connections to Mario Bava's Blood and Black Lace to the films made about a decade later by Argento, Martino and others. Ellinger discusses also how producer Ross Hunter packaged the film primarily for a female audience, as well as employ stars from an earlier era in supporting roles, as Myrna Loy and Roddy McDowell appear here. Connections of various cast members to the films by Alfred Hitchcock are mentioned, notably Day in The Man Who Knew Too Much, but also supporting cast members Gavin, John Williams and Anthony Dawson. Unless I missed it, Ellinger does not mention Herbert Marshall as having appeared in two Hitchcock films. Being from London, Ellinger is able to point out how the rear screen appearance of a bridge makes it appear longer than it really is. It may be redundant to mention that the first giallo is considered to be Mario Bava's The Woman Who Knew Too Much.

As for the title, our heroine buys what is probably best described as loungewear, black pants with a lacy black top. Hardly the diaphanous nightie that the title Midnight Lace might suggest, but would anyone expect that from Doris Day? In keeping with the title's undelivered suggestions of eroticism, the best way to enjoy Midnight Lace is to enjoy what the film is, not for all the things it isn't.

Kino Classics has also taken the unusual step of offering a choice of aspect ratios when viewing Midnight Lace. While most cinephiles will probably choose the original 2:1 version, there is also the option of 1.78 for those who insist that the entirety of their wide-screen television frame be filled.