Robin Wood: Letter from an Unknown Woman
Oh, Joan Fontaine. She tells a character’s story like it’s her own. For less than a decade in her career she’s been playing little girls who grow up. Her performance is Max Ophuls’ “Letter from an Unknown Woman” made me remember “Rebecca” and start my ‘Best Female Performances’ list, but that’s still too big a task for me. She’s like the precursor to actresses like Kirsten Dunst, the latter having played teenagers for 15 years in her career.
Lisa Berndle (Fontaine) experiences an unrequited love with an egotistic pianist, Stefan Brand (Louis Jourdan). Her earlier mannerisms are waif-y and awkward but she grows into a poised but nonetheless oblivious and idealist of a woman. Her voice is more full and thus distracting this time around. That also means she puts just as much sympathy and maturity to her character the same way that Jourdan does with Stefan.
The characters are still placed within the constraints of a melodrama. I love melodramas but I can’t find a place in my heart for this one. Lisa’s still a stalker. She must have known how Stefan would treat her knowing that he goes through women. She feels no anger for him despite his forgetfulness and how he has not supported their child. Also, despite of how bad his actions look on paper, the film doesn’t blatantly show a streak of meanness on Stefan. However, if the audience had a bigger hint of that, they might have walked out in droves.
What I also appreciate in “Letter” is Ophuls’ auteur-like touch on the film. There’s the long take camerawork that follows its subjects like a carousel. There’s diamonds and glitz and trumpets and music. There’s also the little freedom that the he allows female characters, like he does in parts of “The Earrings of Madame de…”. I’m not an expert on classic melodrama, but I can’t imagine any early female characters allowed to have a second marriage or a marriage after a second child, or the social mobility involving with a 19th century model marrying a general. With Ophuls’ worldview and Fontaine’s performance, it also seems like the movie is more about the fun Lisa had along the way instead of the tragedy that befalls her, and both feel refreshing.
Robin Wood: The Chase
I saw this movie a week or two ago and I was really worried that this article might be too late. The politics in this film doesn’t fit like a puzzle piece in the events this week. Nonetheless, how timely is it with riots going on to write about a movie with riots going on?
This movie’s so ambitious and powerful I don’t know where to start. It’s a hidden highlight of the careers of the film’s actors like Brando, Fonda and Redford. It’s also one of the best movies I’ve ever seen, but then again I change my mind about that a lot.
“The Chase,” directed by Arthur Penn by and is a Lillian Hellman adaptation from a Horton Foote novel. It centres on small town Texas, troubled by one of their own, Bubber Reeves (Robert Redford), who escapes from prison. I’ve read a lot of Lillian Hellman lately, who fills her stage mostly with a family or group of friends who exploit the unseen lower classes. However, the movie is just as much an Arthur Penn vehicle, shaping this film as a western in plain clothes, as American decadence while putting violence and the youth’s rebellion in the mix.
I understand that the film uses its first act for introductions, which some viewers see as a bit tedious, but it’s better for the film to answer those questions in the beginning instead of doing so for the rest of the movie. Bubber’s escape is a problem for the town’s citizens. Sheriff Calder (Marlon Brando) wants to keep Bubber safe from a mob, but his good intentions and clouded by Val Rogers’ (E.G. Marshall) bribing. Bubber’s wife, Anna (Jane Fonda, the best actress of New Hollywood, but we’ll talk about that later), wants to leave him for Val’s son Jake. Bubber’s mother (Miriam Hopkins) wants his son back and even considers selling it to her contemptuous neighbours. Edwin (Robert Duvall, subtle this time) becomes paranoid since he’s taken money that all has accused Bubber of stealing.
Unlike Hellman’s earlier plays, we finally get to see in Bubber, a lower class victim, as a fleshed out character. Robert Redford’s amazing as Bubber that I always wonder why I doubt his acting. He’s dangerous, troubled, trashy and childlike. The movie itself divides critics then and now and Sam Kashner called him miscast. However Redford’s good looks, distracting in half of his earlier films, helped his character. If he was less attractive and more gruff, the audience wouldn’t have sympathized with him. His mother is another face of the oppressed, yet she is just as flawed. Her blind maternal love makes her lash out at Calder and despite of the little truth she bellows to the town, she can’t see his true intentions.
Besides from being a ‘contemporary western,’ it’s also a part of the ‘lynching’ sub-genre, more popular in the 1930’s and early 1940’s. In 1966 this movie adds to the genres and making the mob’s methods more terrorizing. They already don’t respect Calder, branding him as paid help by the Rogers’s and they invade his privacy about the news of Bubber’s escape. Calder takes a three-minute gang beating in his own office and home. Learning that Bubber’s in the wharf, the town leaves their sexually and alcohol-charged parties and congregates with their guns and alcohol. Instead of other ‘lynching’ films when the mob is already marching in numbers, the film lets the audience watch the mob grow. A car and then another car and then the rest of them. These people aren’t as single-minded but just as dangerous, some just wanna kill Bubber, others make him as a strange sexual icon, the rest disapprove and cynical but don’t express outrage and watch the lynching happen.
The film, however, shows larger differences in the younger generations. There is Bubber, Anna, Jake in the wharf and technically Lester is part of their group though the latter gets thrown in jail. Class and race divide the four characters yet they still found a way to grow together and help each other. Redford and Fonda shows great chemistry and rawness as a couple, finding romance just before the end. Unfortunately the town separates them from each other. I felt dread when the teenagers started throwing Molotovs and burning tires and throwing them at Bubber’s direction, the visuals effectively horrifying in the big screen. Kids should know not to follow their parents bad behaviour but they do. The youth’s participation in this brutality shows Hellman and Penn’s stark worldviews and makes the town hopeless. And yes, for those things it makes this movie more shocking than Penn’s next film, “Bonnie and Clyde.”
1966 and to a lesser extent 1965 were crap yet some films release in those years seemed to have opened the floodgates for 1967 and New Hollywood. To understand the films of 1967, we have to look at some of the films a director did a year before. “The Chase” gave way to “Bonnie and Clyde.” Mike Nichols gave us “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” before giving us “The Graduate,” which should have won Best Picture that year. Stanley Kramer’s troubled idealism in “Ship of Fools” helps him and us into “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.” Richard Brooks shows the guns in “The Professionals” and eventually in “In Cold Blood” (To be honest, Richard Brooks is the Cezanne of New Hollywood in a way that he was pedantic until he discovered the rebellion of the 60’s).
And for every week era in Hollywood, foreign films step in to do the job. Godard followed the cool “Masculin Feminin” with the dangerous “Le Weekend.” Melville follows “Le Deuxieme Souffle” with the slick “Le Samourai.” Films released in 1966 include “The Battle of Algiers,” “Blow-Up,” “Aflie” and many more that I haven’t gotten into. 1967 is an all out party while 1965-6 is a tight rope walk, but I kinda wanna see the latter instead.
Robin Wood: Rio Bravo
Sorry for the hiatus, 32 regular readers. I’ve been busy with the World Cup/ shenanigans.
The film’s focus is on maintaining order. John T. Chance (John Wayne) is middle management, the Sheriff of Presidio County, Texas. He arrests a murder suspect and does his best to keep the latter in a jail cell for six days when the Marhsall comes and takes the prisoner into a larger penitentiary. To have a John Wayne character have so much trust on slow government bureaucracy is a rare thing to watch. You’d just expect him to shoot the guy. But then again, he tries to convince the town that he can run the town by himself, so tough guy’s still there.
As Hawksian film go, the supporting characters do not believe that Chance can do it by himself. In an inspired human resources strategy, Chance reluctantly hires Dude (Dean Martin), a junior driven to alcoholism by a girl, Colorado Ryan, a young buck out to avenge his old master’s assassination and, unofficially, a histrionic ex-stripper named Feathers (Angie Dickinson). One of the main plots concern Chance’s relationship with Dude, the former not deriding the latter but actually hopes that Dude goes back to his old form. During the screening, I saw this team as the manifestation of old values, that it was easier to get a job or a second chance those days even for a drunk. Now I also realize that most of Chance’s associates asserted and fought for a place in his circle, definitely a capitalist move for those characters.
There’s a slight presence of music felt in “Rio Bravo” as in some classic Westerns. The characters in the sheriff’s office can hear the trumpets blaring the same tune played by the Mexicans who invaded the Alamo. Also and most importantly is Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson’s musical number. There are many readings of music sequences like this. To relieve tension before the final showdown. To show how civilized the sheriff/hero is. To show a growing culture in the early days of America. All of those apply to “Rio Bravo.”
This film might also be the gayest John Wayne will ever be in front of the camera. Howard Hawks is all about the bromance, after all, and John Wayne has that sense of humour about himself that nobody expects. Almost trying on red pantyhose while Feathers walks in. Kissing his crippled jail guard in the forehead. Dude being jealous, thinking Chance has replaced him with a younger gun. Making the most beautiful woman in the world wait for Chance while he’s ‘stuck at work.’ Gay. In a more serious note, Chance is a character with a homosocial bond with his fragile deputy, treating the latter like a son, which is exactly what both need and they won’t shy away from that.
There’s also Feathers as a character, who is superficially more of a whore than a mother, but she’s more complex than that. For contrast, a man in “Rio Bravo” are carte blanche. One man is wronged by a woman while another is somebody’s son, but there’s no real history of the man beyond that. They might as well be born in and by the desert. Feathers, on the other hand has traversed from city to city, from being a gambling accomplice to singing songs in her stockings. She came from somewhere, has a deeper past, the bearer and mother of old America’s past sins. Yet she came to Presidio to eventually settle down and fortunately found a man willing to overlook her past. She’s shocked and even mad at him for overlooking the fact that she’s ‘that kind of woman.’ He likes you for who you are, girl, just take him. And yes, the age difference is kinda unrealistically creepy, but they eventually find a compromise.
Rio Bravo is showing on AMC at July 1 and 2, but don’t worry, I’ll remind you again.