Friday, August 22, 2014

Five Reasons to Live by Charles Lieurance

1. Salt Flats/Yellow Sky (William A. Wellman, 1948)

Serving as the storm-tossed sea in William Wellman & screenwriter Lamar Trotti's oddball Western retooling of Shakespeare's The Tempest, the Death Valley salt flats are a desolate dividing line between Gregory Peck & his gang of rootless Confederate wash-outs becoming full-fledged criminals or perhaps reclaiming lost honor. While it's a long trek to take in search of a plotline, cinematographer Joseph MacDonald imbues the flats with a metaphysical intensity. At night the lunar surface -- veined with fissures that seem to slither in high-contrast relief -- glows ominously around the sleeping figures of the outlaws & their horses. And as these insignificant ridge-runners plod through the endlessness of it all, the audience begins to sort the unwitting noblemen (Peck, of course) from the career criminals (Richard Widmark, of course), the fools (Harry Morgan & Charles Kemper) from the psychopaths (John Russell as Lengthy). By the time we reach the ghost town of Yellow Sky, Anne Baxter's haughty & slightly gun-crazy Miranda & James Barton's doddering Prospero, it's pretty evident how this scenario will play out. The hostile desert mapped out the ritual in advance. 

2. Gerhardt Maier, The Swastika Kid: Second Complaint/A Foreign Affair (Billy Wilder, 1948)

Flagrant opportunist Captain John Pringle (John Lund) takes his turn at the bench adjudicating domestic affairs for the residents of the bombed-out ruins of post-war Berlin & for the second time he's faced with little Gerhardt Maier (Ted Cottle), a boy who simply will not abstain from scrawling swastikas on every available surface, much to the distress of his politically suspect father (Richard Ryen). Herr Maier promises Captain Pringle he'll break the boy's arm if he does it again & then then proceeds to threaten the boy with summary starvation. Pringle, with drowsy sarcasm, suggests the father simply shove the boy in a gas chamber, to which Herr Maier promptly snaps to attention & shouts, "Yes, Herr Captain!", barely containing a reflexive Hitlergruss. The captain pragmatically suggests baseball as a curative: "A little more baseball & a little less heel-clicking is what he needs." Of course, when Pringle dismisses them, both father & son click their heels together & bow at the waist like two hinges on a rapidly closing door.
Richard Ryen was a German actor & stage director of some note in the Weimar era & he fled to the U.S. shortly before the war. Like so many others he spent the war years in Hollywood playing Nazi officers almost exclusively, including a Lt. Schmidt, a Colonel Mueller, a General Pulzer, and, most famously, a Colonel Heinz, second fiddle to Conrad Veidt's Major Strasser in Casablanca. This brief, but memorable, bit in A Foreign Affair was his last role before returning to Germany & eventually becoming a popular freelance journalist.

3. Max Buda Loves Dr. Schwartzbacher/The V.I.P.s (Anthony Asquith, 1963)

Aside from the dazzlingly opulent opening credits & the presence of the always reliable Margaret Rutherford as a pill-popping, down & out duchess waxing romantic about daffodils, there isn't much to recommend this airport lounge version of Grand Hotel. But it's difficult to completely discount the mugging of Orson Welles in anything from this era & as pompous snoot Max Buda, he's infinitely more worthy of your attention than the musty contretemps of Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor & Louis Jourdan. Miserly Buda spends most of the film spouting the kind of arrogant aphorisms to the press one can easily imagine Welles himself spouting in better days, but behind closed doors Buda is instantly transformed into a moaning penny-pincher at the mercy of his, um, accountant (?), one Dr. Schwartzbacher (Martin Miller). Throughout The V.I.P.s, Buda is either throwing up his hands & blustering at the gods over having to pay taxes, or playing smoochy-face with Schwartzbacher every time the diminutive doctor finds a legal loophole big enough for the cinematic behemoth to wiggle through. Though Buda is engaged to voluptuous actress Gloria Gritti (Elsa Martinelli), he obviously finds her curves distasteful & even a peck to her perfect cheekbones seems to bring him pain. Quite the opposite with Dr. Schwartzbacher however. As they commiserate over tax shelters, the two giggle rapturously, embrace ecstatically & give one another the cutest little kisses this side of duty-free, wobble-headed oriental kissing dolls. 

Moravian actor Martin Miller played all manner of effete foreign doctors (including Dr. Rosen in Michael Powell's infamous Peeping Tom) & put-upon rocket scientists throughout the 50s & 60s, so playing a half-mad, mincing accountant opposite Orson Welles must have seemed like a welcome stretch.

4. Glacier Park Cocktail Party, Dress: Barn-Dance Formal - Dangerous Mission (Louis King, 1954)

Black and white characters are lighter than air. They speak in quick witty bursts or are brutally perfunctory, rattling off coarse threats or stammering, desperate pleas for mercy as if the clock is ticking. They dance in word & deed. Even when black & white films brood, the characters are more likely to drift away across the landscape as ghosts than to become petroforms.

Color -- especially Technicolor & its taxonomic forebears -- is the language of weight. Characters become mildly sentient rock formations on endless blazing highways, deserts & plains, seem to ossify in rooms gaudy with hue & tint, rooms whose furniture & bric-a-brac have great presence now & feud like tethered divas with Max Factor's often garish idea of human flesh tones. They brood like prisoners overgrown with green & brown until they may as well be coal deposits, never allowed the ministrations of monochrome clerestory light beams which could at any moment pull them gently from the barstool & up to that silvery filmic afterlife promised to all denizens of black & white. Or they are simply transformed by the light or the shadow into wisps. But actors in Technicolor are earthbound, tied to whatever colors sizzle. They are separate from production design & landscape only by virtue of speech, so they speak in a code, or with their heads turned,  or in urgent whispers so you'll know they aren't an armoire or Chimney Rock.

Those movie vehicles made strictly to blister the retina with Technicolor -- and Louis King's Dangerous Mission is certainly one of those -- are so overburdened with saturated color that the action seems played out in a tub of radioactive tar. Actors move & stand only where the colors say they can. When they dress for cocktails, bronc-riding or a hike in the woods, they are forced to dress beyond the natural limits of a closet. When they arrive, they stand in tableaux whenever possible, waiting for the Technicolor dye to set. Those directors proficient in the process -- Sirk, Siodmak, Donen, Tashlin, Hawks -- either wallowed in the splashiness & created brilliant Post-War moving comic books, or employed actors writ so large on the American consciousness that even this brazen bully of a palette could not weight them down.

Many, slyly succumbing to the petrifying quality of Technicolor, managed to create a cinema of symbols & undercurrents, in which the actors, suspended in this delirious aspic, consummated their boilerplate rituals on sets & in landscapes that all but tore at their costumes & well-appointed pomp like harpies. While the cast, decked out in couture clown suits, made with the histrionic grief & soapy rage using a minimal amount of facial muscles so as not to crack the paint on their faces, the director set their stultifying pageant in front of a tree full of crows or a vase of dying flowers or an enormous window shaped like an egg or sickly violet shadows from a hedge of lilacs or the sudden violent, misshapen shadow of a chapel cross on the crib of a bastard child. My favorite film in this category -- other than Sirk's "weepies" of course, because that's another continent entirely -- is Lewis Allen's Desert Fury from 1947. While there's nothing spectacular in the plot proper & the performances are stiff as prison linen, worms wriggle beneath the chic Hollywood Cowboy surface, from the aforementioned bizarre egg-shaped window at which Lizabeth Scott holds vigil for her gangster lover, to the jittery hothouse in which her gangster lover (John Hodiak) plays sweaty, dangerous homosexual tag with "companion" Wendell Corey. Thanks to Allen's subversive talent, the actors don't even need to move (and alleged hero Burt Lancaster moves less than most) to turn this peacock feather into a shiv.

Ahem. The movie at hand, though, is Dangerous Mission, where the dazzlingly artificial View-Master panoramas of Montana's Glacier National Park & environs ARE the picture. Though the screenwriter here is the great Horace McCoy (it's painfully simple to see which elements are his -- the milk-drinking assassin, for one) this is a color film about the color. If there are undercurrents or symbols at work here, they are the traditional symbols & undercurrents of a hack thriller. The cast is beyond sturdy -- Tyrone Power, Vincent Price, Piper Laurie, William Bendix -- but they wince, surrender & sleepwalk as the Technicolor cotton candy suffocates them.

Once the actors bow gracefully out of the equation so Hollywood can prove it's got more to offer than television, it becomes easier to view this as a cinematic aesthete, completely gorging on the sumptuous nothingness of the colors, costumes, sets, liquor bottles, cocktail shakers, weird jade statues, rodeo cowboy lamps, fierce blue neon, luminescent bolo-tie clasps & each of the tiny postcards on the rack at the Glacier Park Visitor's Center, which can never be enlarged enough to see clearly, but promise a weird meta-film of their own...

Which is by way of saying that watching Dangerous Mission is not without its compensations. Not at all. First & foremost are these goddamn Nudie suits (by way of costumer Michael Woulfe) from the cocktail party (at a "house built smack into the side of a mountain") that unite all of the main players at the beginning of the film. If, after mingling in this group of weekend cowpokes, you're still unsure of who's the crazy killer & who's the cop sent to nab him, you may want to stick with puppet shows. Having been to Glacier National Park & parks like it on innumerable family vacations in the early '60s, I can tell you that most of what you see on screen seems fairly accurate (the film naturally errs on the side of cleanliness, crowd-control & sheer visual polish), though the atomic glow & cocktail vibe was always missing & I never saw even a hint of these magnificent suits & dresses.

Uh-Oh, snowslide...

5. Festival of the Unsettling Plaster Masks, La Cumbre -- Second Chance (Rudolph Mate, 1953)

Here's another film at the mercy of Technicolor, its artificial vistas completely overpowering the plot & the somnolent cast. Still, the vistas are exotic bordering on the surreal (a magical town perched atop a thread of stone) & Mitchum & Palance really do their best to actually MOVE through the slog of that florid palette. So much so that their fisticuffs -- especially atop the very odd tram -- resemble experimental cinema. It's almost impossible to get good screen captures of these titanic battles, a good sign for a Technicolor programmer, but this odd little folk festival in Mitchum & Linda Darnell's Mexican Shangri-La holds a creepy fascination.