March 2, 2009

0 Brief Reviews

THE SET-UP (1949) ***½
The Set-Up recounts one crucial night in the life of a boxer, Stoker Thompson (Robert Ryan). Although the film is steeped in the milieu of the world of professional boxing, that milieu is so deglamorized and so filtered through the film noir look and sensibility that the movie transcends the boxing genre to become one of the key examples of the noir genre of the late 1940's. At 72 minutes, The Set-Up is lean and concentrated. Every detail is selected by director Robert Wise and cinematographer Milton Krasner to create a focused noir ambiance. The film's harshly lit nocturnal underworld is bounded by the dilapidated Paradise City Arena (boxing Wednesdays, wrestling Fridays), the shabby Cozy Hotel where Thompson is staying, a tawdry penny arcade called The Fun Palace, and a seedy night club called Dreamland whose garish dance music can be heard every time the action moves outside or a door or window is opened.

Everyone in the movie is sleazy—the lowlife hustlers huddled in doorways or loitering on the sidewalks, the jaded, corrupt men who work at the arena, the vicious smalltime hoodlum who fixes fights, and especially the grotesques in the audience screaming for blood and mayhem. The boxers are portrayed as pathetic losers who start out as frightened kids and end up as punch-drunk burnouts. Somewhere near the end of this career arc is Stoker Thompson, who after twenty years in the ring is at the age of 35 considered over the hill. The one thing that keeps him going is the illusory belief that he is always just "one shot away" from a really important match that will make his dreams reality.

The climactic bout between Thompson and a much younger boxer that caps the movie—brilliantly staged, photographed by multiple cameras, and edited to emphasize its brutality and arduous physicality—was clearly an influence on Scorsese's Raging Bull. Robert Ryan, in one of his rare starring roles, is uncharacteristically sympathetic, a dreamer who refuses to admit that any chance of success faded long ago, a man who no matter how badly beaten always struggles back to keep on fighting. As he says, "If you're a fighter, you gotta fight." And he keeps right on fighting until the end of the movie, when the relentlessly bleak world he inhabits finally breaks and then discards him.

GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933 (1933) ****
In the early 1930's Warner Bros. produced a series of musicals that established their own unique style, a down-to-earth working-class view of show business in keeping with the gritty movies the studio produced in other genres. The typical Warners musical features a story about the practical and financial problems of mounting an elaborate revue-like stage production. The musical highlights are the outlandish and often surreal production numbers of Busby Berkeley set to the songs of Al Dubin and Harry Warren as performed by Ruby Keeler, Dick Powell, Joan Blondell, and Ginger Rogers.

The archetypal Warners musical is often considered to be 42nd Street (1933). But after seeing Gold Diggers of 1933 again recently, I would have to say that it is the better movie. The plot is constructed in such a way that rather than jamming all the production numbers into the last part of the movie as in 42nd Street and the similar Footlight Parade (1933), they are distributed throughout the movie, which opens with "We're in the Money" and concludes with "Forgotten Man," the latter perhaps the apotheosis of all Berkeley's production numbers. This results in a better balance, and more appealing mix, of music and plot. The plot itself adds new elements to the familiar "let's put on a show" story of other Warners musicals. It follows three showgirls as they pursue fame and romance—the innocent Polly (Ruby Keeler), the voluptuous and intelligent Carol (Joan Blondell), and the zany Trixie (a very funny Aline MacMahon, in a role reminiscent of Jack Lemmon's Daphne in Some Like It Hot). When these showgirls tangle with the members of a snobbish Boston family (Dick Powell, Warren William, and Guy Kibbee), it allows for the kind of pointed interaction between the working class and the privileged rich more typical of a Capra comedy.

The Great Depression is an integral part of the movie, both onstage and off, providing a more topical context than the standard Hollywood musical. And while other 1930's musicals are often suggestive, this one—made the year before the Production Code began to be enforced in earnest—is at times downright bawdy. Gold Diggers of 1933 has enough serious elements and enough depth of characterization to give it greater substance than one might expect, but it never forgets that it is primarily an entertainment, and a very lively and thoroughly enjoyable one. Also worth noting are the fluid camerawork of Warners house cinematographer Sol Polito and the eye-catching Art Deco sets of Anton Grot.

In the 1950's the director Otto Preminger seemed deliberately to seek projects that challenged the Production Code. In The Moon Is Blue (1954) the offending subject was sex. In the courtroom drama Anatomy of a Murder (1959), an allegation of rape—a crime not supposed to be mentioned by name—played a large part. Advise and Consent (1962) was one of the first mainstream American movies to deal openly with homosexuality. In between these movies, Preminger tackled the taboo subject of heroin addiction in this film, based on a novel by Nelson Algren. Because of the film's notoriety and its source material, I anticipated a work of harsh realism and ground-breaking maturity. What I found instead was a subject daring for its time framed in strictly conventional Hollywood terms. The whole movie is filmed on a studio set that represents a city block of a down-and-out Chicago neighborhood. But as impressive as this set is, its resemblance to the real thing is superficial, its squalor relegated to a few suggestive touches.

Frank Sinatra plays Frankie Machine, who has just returned from a jail term and treatment for heroin addiction at the federal facility in Lexington, Kentucky. Faced with the stress of a neurotically possessive paraplegic wife (Eleanor Parker) who is obsessively jealous of a pretty downstairs neighbor (Kim Novak) and whom he doesn't love, and with constant inducements to return to his criminal cronies and resume his use of heroin, he must use all of his willpower to resist falling back into his former life. The casting of Arnold Stang as his best friend, Leonid Kinskey as a quack doctor, Robert Strauss as a petty hoodlum, and Darren McGavin as a heroin dealer makes the atmosphere closer to Damon Runyon than Nelson Algren. The details of his life seem a Hollywood version of sleaze, more imagined than observed. The restrained Novak is surprisingly good, while Parker gives a florid, old-style performance that seems anomalous given the modern subject matter. The melodramatic contrivances of the plot also seem curiously old-fashioned.

One definite plus is the cinematography of Sam Leavitt, whose camera glides elegantly around the set during Preminger's customary long, unedited takes, although in a sense that elegance seems incongruous with the grim nature of the story. Another plus is Elmer Bernstein's hard, brassy jazz score, although its jagged tone unintentionally emphasizes the flaccidity of other elements of the movie. The biggest plus is Frank Sinatra's earnest performance (which deservedly earned him an Oscar nomination), in which he convincingly portrays Frankie's desperation to be strong while battling his own inner weaknesses and external temptations. That performance alone makes the movie worth seeing, but aside from that, don't expect anything remotely resembling realism. This is a purely Hollywood approach to a social milieu the movie clearly doesn't have much understanding of.

PYGMALION (1938) ****
Anyone familiar with My Fair Lady (1964) should take a look at this film version of the play by George Bernard Shaw on which the later musical is based. It is an even better movie. The plot is essentially the same, as is much of the best dialogue—no great surprise, since the adaptation is by Shaw himself. Without interruptions for songs and with its brisker pacing, the wit of the dialogue and the social commentary of the plot are even more pronounced.

Leslie Howard, who co-directed the movie with Anthony Asquith, is splendid as Prof. Henry Higgins, not so effete as Rex Harrison but still a self-centered academic insensitive to the feelings of others. Howard, a trained stage actor, gave many fine dramatic movie performances (The Animal Kingdom, Of Human Bondage, The Scarlet Pimpernel, Petrified Forest, Intermezzo), but I've never seen a better one by him than his comic turn in Pygmalion. As Eliza Dolittle, Wendy Hiller, also a trained stage actress, demonstrates amazing range in an even more demanding role.

As Higgins attempts to transform Eliza from a coarse Cockney flower seller into the simulacrum of a lady, Hiller must show Eliza's innate intelligence and a growing awareness of the artificial nature of class distinction. In the scene where Eliza has tea with the mother of Prof. Higgins, Hiller, playing the scene absolutely deadpan, is riotously funny. When she tells off Higgins for his coldness and lack of response to her feelings, she does so with a fiery spirit reminiscent of the young Katharine Hepburn. And at the end she must show that the experience of a new lifestyle has so altered Eliza that she is riven with confusion and anxiety at no longer having any real identity. All this Hiller does wonderfully in a subtly nuanced performance that is the center of the movie. She expresses all the phases of her character's transformation without ever losing the continuity of the character, convincing us that all of this playing about with social identity and self-presentation is happening to a real person. It is simply an astounding piece of acting. Even if you are thoroughly familiar with My Fair Lady, Pygmalion—with its brilliant balance of entertainment and social satire—is a film not to be missed.


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