Hester Street 1975
The times they are a-changin’ as much as we sometimes don’t want them to. Here’s TOTT… that occasional (probably will be weekly again once school begins) collection of personal problems and updates that I sometimes need to do to clear my mind and exorcise some negative emotions. It makes most sense if you know me well and I don’t think I make much sense tonight… but there’s angst and stuff I need to write down. It starts a little dark but you can laugh at me near the bottom as long as this one is.
Before we begin… congratulations to FC Kansas City on their NWSL title, beating the Seattle Reign 2-1. Amy Rodriguez and Lauren Holiday were superb on the day as there is now less than a year to the Women’s World Cup.Read more
Portrait of Jennie (1948)
William Dieterle’s romantic fantasy Portrait of Jennie (based on Robert Nathan’s novella of the same name) has had the misfortune of not only being ignored upon its release but that it has also changed distributor hands numerous times over the last few decades. And considering how beautiful the film is crafted despite its rather predictable supernatural-influenced plot, it is a picture that is in need of an audience and energetic champions of it. As Portrait of Jennie is rigidly a romantic fantasy, accept the supernatural for what it is, don’t expect concrete explanations, and don’t expect the male lead to question what he is seeing. It is Joseph H. August’s cinematography that stars over two good performances from Jennifer Jones as Jennie Appleton and Joseph Cotten as struggling artist Eben Adams.
1934 is a young year and in the chilling winter Eben takes his copious collection of landscapes to the Matthews & Spinney art gallery. Though Mr. Matthews (Cecil Kellaway) turns Eben’s uninspired paintings down, Ms. Spinney (Ethel Barrymore) sees value in Eben’s work. Following this transaction, Eben meets a little girl named Jennie for the first time while sitting on a bench in Central Park. Jennie strikes conversation and mentions her trapeze artist parents performing at a theater Eben believes to have been torn down decades ago. They continue walking and talking as Jennie sings a haunting song as the day goes by. She soon says to him, “I wish that you would wait for me to grow up so that we could always be together”, disappears, and Eben retrieves her scarf and a newspaper dating back to 1910 nearby. Something inside of him his awakened and he rushes to sketch Jennie’s likeness. He has found the motivation to create magnificent works of art and is eager to see Jennie again. The problem is that she ages faster than she should. On the second meeting, Jennie is exiting her teenage years. On the meeting after, she is approaching young adulthood. As he falls in love with her, Eben investigates those (including Lillian Gish’s Mother Mary of Mercy) who have heard of Jennie and hears something he particularly wishes was not true. Eben grows a little more suspicious every time Jennie recoils at a certain painting of a Cape Cod seaside.
The climax and resolution of Portrait of Jennie are jaw-dropping in their magnificence. When a rare New England hurricane strikes where Eben and Jennie are sailing, the black-and-white scheme is immediately tinted green once the first lightning bolt strikes and reverts to sepia following the storm. This is aided by some tremendous special effects for the 1940s with waves crashing just about everywhere, drenching the characters and heightening the sense of danger. Though the efforts of the effects team might be considered quite dated compared to the computer-generated standards of today, the lightning and crashing waves seen in Portrait of Jennie are about a decade ahead of their time. Similar effects were perfected in films such as The Ten Commandments (1956) and numerous mythological/sword-and-sandal period pieces that became popular in the 1950s. The final frame of Portrait of Jennie which contains the eponymous portrait is presented in full Technicolor. It is rare for any film - past or present - to even consider changing the coloring of the frame in the middle of the movie, let alone using both black-and-white and color (though Portrait of Jennie only uses true color for a few seconds). Dieterle - who began directing in the silent era - employs silent era techniques in the closing stages, catching everyone who watches this film off-guard and forcing us to pay attention to events on-screen even more. It makes for a hell of a surprise.
One needs to note that although Portrait of Jennie is classified as romantic fantasy, the film emphasizes the romance over the fantasy. The fantastical elements are integrated into the drama and are portrayed as part of the fabric of Eben’s love for Jennie. Whatever magic, mysticism, or visual effects-driven tricks of the mind is deemphasized and never explained. Yes, Jennie is not what she appears to be. Part of the genius of this film is that it never concentrates on what she actually is, but instead examines who she is to Eben instead. The fantasy is reserved for brief, but important exchanges of dialogue and closing minutes of the film. Humanity’s corporeal existence triumphs over the supernatural. Because, in life, only the former matters and is what lingers in our memories as the seasons change and years pass.
Joseph H. August’s cinematography recalls snippets of noir when the scene fits. Otherwise, the camerawork weaves together a tapestry of conflicting emotions as Eben spends days, if not weeks or months, in between meetings with his beloved Jennie. The metaphysical questions disorient Eben and that disorientation is captured by a number of Dutch angles, shooting scenes in Central Park through a canvas, and a number of low-angled shots (most memorably during this moment in the opening half of the film). The lighting can be otherworldly, lending a dense atmosphere the mystery behind the fantasy. The atmosphere - thanks to August’s cinematography and the lighting - feels like a hybrid of film noir and a silent fantasy film. It makes for a remarkable combination and you just can’t afford to avert your attention from each frame as the answers behind Jennie’s appearances unravel before your very eyes.
The performances are rather good and the presence of Joseph Cotten as Eben can only be explained by producer David O. Selznick. Selznick, who had an ego as outsized as his famous mansion (since renamed, but also featured in Gone with the Wind) and had bouts of extreme jealousy, had only recently stolen Jennifer Jones away from her former husband Robert Walker, wanted to ensure that his wife would not have affairs while shooting Portrait of Jennie on the East Coast. Talk about a domineering, misogynistic husband who wants nothing but to control every little thing his wife does. Selznick wanted to make sure that Jones’ co-star would not even think about having an affair with Jones and so he chose Joseph Cotten - happily married for seventeen years at this point - as the safest bet. Though his casting is no accident, Cotten does well but not spectacularly. The same can be said about Selznick’s Jennie playing Jennie as both actors have better performances than this. Portrait of Jennie is a director’s and cinematographer’s picture, not so much an acting vehicle. But that is being harsh as both actors drew praise from critics and audiences.
From a musical lens, Bernard Herrmann was originally commissioned to do the score but due to scheduling overruns, backed out after only completing the opening theme (which was kept in the film). Dimitri Tiomkin became the substitute. Tiomkin throws in a theremin in specific Jennie-related scenes (similar to the theremin’s use in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1945 film Spellbound, but not as extensive). This is not too notable a Tiomkin score as so much of the score has been adapted from the works of Claude Debussy. One hears variants and themes from Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, Arabesque #1 and #2, and most especially The Girl with the Flaxen Hair. Though Jennifer Jones’ hair is anything but flaxen, Tiomkin’s score summons the requisite romance for Portrait of Jennie. Though it could prove distracting for Debussy’s numerous fans, most will not mind (and I certainly didn’t) or even be aware that the score is heavily adapted.
Portrait of Jennie is a mindbender of a film with a narrative structure that still remains fresh despite the now-conventional outcome of the film (it was anything but conventional in 1948). Though the fantasy is not the film’s selling point, Portrait of Jennie is nothing but magical as Dieterle paints a compelling portrait of a lonely and broke artist’s burst of inspiration and the elusive lady behind that stroke of artistry. Met with a poor box office result and inconsistent distribution rights, Portrait of Jennie is still rather unknown and underrated today. As the final Selznick International Pictures production and without an initial theatrical distribution by a major studio, Portrait of Jennie has been the property of ABC, Fox, and other companies before settling with MGM/UA and its affiliation with Turner Entertainment Company (which gives TCM broadcasting rights). That constant change in airing and distribution rights has not helped its reputation at all. But it is a film worth seeking for its sheer artistry and gripping, stormy conclusion.
My rating: 9/10
^ Based on my personal imdb rating.
Alec Guinness in The Bridge On The River Kwai (1957)
Rudolph Maté was one of Europe’s most accomplished cinematographers, whose camerawork for The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928, France) and Vampyr (1932, France/Germany) rank among some of the most distinctively shot films of all time. When he took his talents to Hollywood in the 1930s, his excellent output did not stop, with films such as Dodsworth (1936), Stella Dallas (1937), Foreign Correspondent (1940), and To Be or Not to Be (1942) among these later works. By 1947, Maté launched his directorial career and his work in D.O.A. (which stands for “dead on arrival” and is based on the 1931 German comedy film The Man in Search of His Murderer) is excellent, though somewhat let down by its whirlwind pace which can make the latter half of the film quite difficult to follow and the inconsistently-written dialogue that ranges from the incisive to cringeworthy corniness. D.O.A. is a good noir that needs desperately needs someone to give it a restoration. Immediately.
The film opens with a sensational development: accountant Frank Bigelow (Edmond O’Brien) is followed in a behind-the-back tracking shot as he walks through the halls of the police station to report his own murder. The LAPD aren’t surprised and already have his information given to them from San Francisco. Cue the flashback and noir-style cynical narration and we soon learn Bigelow sipped a shifty drink filled with “luminous toxin” (explained as iridium, but even the film’s science is sketchy) and that there is no cure at this late stage. The doctors give Bigelow a week to live at most, but most likely only one or two days. Bigelow - with the inadvertent assistance of his secretary girlfriend Paula (Pamela Britton, whose character is based in Los Angeles) - seeks out his murderer and his or her intentions. Flying almost immediately down to Los Angeles, he crisscrosses back and forth across the City of Angels to question the likes of Miss Foster (Beverly Garland), Mr. Halladay (William Ching), the widow (Lynn Baggett) of a man named Eugene Phillips and her brother Stanley (Henry Hart). He also runs into a posse of gangsters and the film really becomes complicated from here.
Before you ask whether or not this film has a happy ending please do yourself a favor and read the title of the film. Bigelow is a doomed man as is established in the opening few minutes and he could care less about dying. All he cares about is finding his murderer and dispensing of that person. How Bigelow goes about dashing across San Francisco, hopping on the first plane down to SoCal, and zipping across Los Angeles in a matter of what is probably less than twenty-four hours seems nigh impossible. He finds himself in a series of frightening and spine-tingling situations and shootouts that I wish upon no one. Bigelow never sits down or stands still in this movie unless he has to as he elects to pace about and sprint his way across the length of this film. The way he even enters rooms is excessive in its animation. His performance is completely overwrought (look at that picture above this write-up for crying out loud!) and it is brilliant in that respect as only when his character is faced with his impending death does he truly begin to actually live. But my debauched desire for entertainment did not care if D.O.A. was realistic or not in all of its depraved chaos. The premise of a future homicide victim investigating his own imminent murder is a mouthwatering prospect and D.O.A. delivers on arrival.
While Maté sat in the director’s chair, another accomplished cinematographer Ernest Laszlo controlled the cameras. His work is most masterful just before and during action scenes. Along with film editor Arthur H. Nadel, their aggregate work results in a film as fidgety as the main character. A lack of a clean, restored print makes it difficult to ascertain the effectiveness of the lighting schema as film noir is known for its extreme chiaroscuro - contrasts between lights and darks. The suspense-building is superb and the fast editing and fluid camerawork has ensured that D.O.A. has barely aged since its 1950 release. It is still a devilishly exciting experience as the twists and turns and the presence of psychopathic henchmen (Neville Brand in particular) allow D.O.A. to be a whirlwind of a noir, a shot to the arm of action and desperation.
Then there is Dimitri Tiomkin’s “what the hell is going on”-inducing score. String runs are everywhere in a glorious hodgepodge of extremely complicated minor key passages covering too many octaves in too little time and using far too many slurs for a majority of the film. If it didn’t accompany Bigelow’s anguished state, Tiomkin’s score might be classified as music for music’s sake. Though it might not be the most pleasant to listen to, it fits the film extremely well.
And though some might digress, I consider D.O.A. to be a narrative mess. The film moves so rapidly in the second half and introduces several characters in a short span of time. One might be hard-pressed to explain the resolution of this rollercoaster of a film noir and this does make the conclusion less rewarding as it should be. The character of Paula is underutilized and the romantic subplot doesn’t feel deserved. But yet, D.O.A. is a solid film noir that refuses to release the viewer by the scruff of the neck, dragging us along with Bigelow as he bounds across the city and witness his case of diaphoresis. The San Francisco running scenes were shot without a city permit so one actually sees confused civilians bumping into O’Brien during his performance. In Los Angeles, the final showdown with the murderer is set in the Bradbury Building amid its iron staircases and ornate railings - the building would later be used in Blade Runner for its climax, too.
D.O.A. is a film noir unafraid of wreaking havoc. Considering that Bigelow is living on borrowed time, it is a hell of a way to live out an otherwise unremarkable existence beforehand. As it is in the public domain, D.O.A. has over twenty companies that offer a home video version and - as a result - the prints comes in various levels of quality. Though sorely lacking of a restoration, D.O.A. remains perversely entertaining for its very premise and its obdurate refusal to slow down.
My rating: 7.5/10
^ Based on my personal imdb rating. Half-points are always rounded down.
Our Town, a 1940 film adaptation of a play of the same name by Thornton Wilder starring Martha Scott as Emily Webb, and William Holden as George Gibbs.