Monday, December 22, 2014

Laura—Is it Really Noir?

Gene Tierney is beautiful. That is the one thing about LAURA, Otto Preminger’s 1944 noir masterpiece that I can say with certainty. God is she beautiful. But beyond that, it is hard for me to say anything with certainty, or much of anything at all. I am not even sure if the movie is noir. I mean, noir is supposed to be grimy and gritty and dark, and the characters in thrall to their own obsessions, and everyone is supposed to come to a bad end. Though this one has death, in the end it also has the uniting of the detective, Mark MacPherson, with Tierney, who plays Laura Hunt. It is comedy that is supposed to end with marriage, not tragedy, not noir.

And although we see a few scenes where it is dark and raining or snowing, we are mostly surrounded with beauty. Beautiful things, beautiful people, even if those people may be ugly inside. And Laura is not portrayed as a beauty that harbors evil within her—she is as gorgeous inside as she is outside (although some critics have opined that she is a blank and beautiful slate upon which the three men who love her project the image of their ideal woman).
And at least part of the mystery is solved halfway through, when we find out that it was not Laura who had her face blown off, but the sometime girlfriend of her suitor Shelby Carpenter, Diane Redfern.

And the movie is in places high camp. To me, camp is when a stock character is taken, consciously or unconsciously, by the actor, to a ridiculous extreme. When it is done by mistake, it can be funny (think Ed Wood). And it can be funny when it is done on purpose (think Tim Curry in THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW).  And surprisingly enough, a character can be both camp and an effective cog in the machinery of a movie at once.

I am referring to Clifton Webb’s role as Waldo Lydecker, of course. He’s brilliant as the effete, effeminate, waspish, viperous, vile and full of bile social critic who loves Laura and whom we meet, MacPherson and the viewer both (MacPherson so obviously a different kind of man than Lydecker in this scene), typing his column in a bathtub which would have made a Roman Emperor proud. And Vincent Price plays it for laughs and on the level all at once, too, as a 6’4" limp-wristed and charming Casper-Milquetoast-layabout-genteel southerner who lost the family fortune and who is involved in the only on-screen violence of the movie (save the last scene) when MacPherson punches him in the gut. He crumples like the big baby he is, and is nearly weeping when Ann Townsend (Laura’s aunt and rival, who is evil both inside and out, but at least shows an awareness of this when she says to Laura about Carpenter “I want him. I’m not a good person, and neither is he, but I don’t care”) comes and cuddles and coddles the little mammy’s boy, who is nevertheless, in the words of Lydecker, “a male beauty.”

There’s a little kinkiness to the movie, too. MacPherson takes to spending all this time at Laura’s apartment, going through her closets, drinking her booze, and reading her letters. If it was not the 40’s, we might have had him sniffing her panties, or even wearing them. He’s falling in love with his fantasy of who she was, and Lydecker knows it.

MacPherson is a tough guy in the classic mold, for all his sexually outré tendencies. He had his leg shot up taking down a gangster in “the Battle of Babylon” (so dubbed by Lydecker) and so possesses a “silver shin.” And the corrupt rich that he must investigate don’t impress him at all. He says of Price and Lydecker and all the other men Hunt has allowed to court her: “For a charming and intelligent girl, you certainly surrounded yourself with a remarkable collection of dopes.”

Maybe the corruption of the upper classes is the problem. There is no one for Hunt among all that glitz and phoniness. She is too trusting, too good, even to the point of constantly giving Carpenter another chance, even as Lydecker proves to her he is cheating on her. MacPherson wouldn’t give the time of day to any of the “dopes” he meets as he travels through high society in this tale.

And there is another noir element missing—the detective doesn’t get beaten up. MacPherson has nobody to really fight (you couldn’t call what happens with the wimp Carpenter a fight), and is never in danger himself, never has to put himself on the line for Laura. Of course, he proved his mettle when he got his silver shin.

There is certainly romance in this movie. MacPherson falls asleep in Hunt’s chair, drinking her booze. She comes home from her weekend in the country, and he wakes from his dreams to find the girl of his dreams. There was never “meet cute” cuter than this one. Before the scene is over Hunt is calling MacPherson “Mark” and saying that sometimes when you meet someone you feel like you have known them all your life.

Laura’s romantic view of life is counterbalanced by Lydecker’s cynicism. It is funny to hear Lydecker espousing noir-ish cynicism in his fey way, and effective: “sentiment comes easily at $15 a word,” and “I’m not kind, I’m vicious, it’s the secret of my charm.” It is sex and romance he is most cynical about, telling Hunt “with you a lean strong body is the measure of a man.” He tells her she is being cheap and predicable in falling for MacPherson, who “is muscular and handsome in a cheap sort of way, but not capable of normal and warm human relationships.” But Hunt sees better then Lydecker does the human nature around her (she knew deep down that Carpenter couldn’t have done it, and Lydecker could, and she tells Lydecker it is he who is being “cheap and predictable.”)

Yes, Hunt is a pretty wonderful character. A determined career woman, she tells MacPherson that she only does what she chooses to do with her own free will, and gets the half-broke Carpenter a job. And when she corners Lydecker at lunch, trying to sell him on promoting a product, a pen, and he says, “I only write with a goose quill dipped in bile” and tells her that his lunch is more important than her career, she is proudly angry and also shows real pity for a man who could think that way.

In the last scene, Lydecker, who has killed Redfern instead of Hunt by mistake, decides to finish the job, to kill Hunt rather than let another man have her, and as his radio spot plays in Laura’s bedroom, a spot about love itself, and death (“they are not long, the weeping, the love and the hate…”) he confronts her with a shotgun. MacPherson has not gotten there in time to save her, but she manages to push the gun away and runs into MacPherson’s arms, and another cop kills Lydkecker. We realize that for all his faults, for all his rage and narcissism, Lydecker really did love her, the old noir ambiguity raising its head here, love and hate, good and evil, always mixed, nothing ever pure, except for when Andrews and Tierney are portrayed as perfect people possessing a perfect love.

So true love, and inner beauty, conquers all. Or does it? Could it be that the movie maker has something of the sense of Waldo’s cynicism about such things? Dana Andrews and Gene Tierney are by far the most physically attractive characters in the movie, and the most attractive as human beings. But in a world where inner beauty really mattered most, would they have to have such attractive exteriors? Well, they would if you wanted the movie to make any money, I can’t help but think. Lydecker would have said the same, except he would have found a better way to say it.

© 2014 Mike Welch

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Yes, Stephanie, There is a Santa Claus (And He’s a Capitalist)

I never caught my mommy kissing Santa Claus, but the two of them did seem to spend a lot of time on the phone. They were definitely tight. As Christmas drew near, my mother would say to me, “Oh, Santa called today. He wanted you to know that a lot of kids want a Slinky this year so you might have to wait until after the holiday to get one.”

“Santa would visit after Christmas?” I asked.

“No, he’s too busy getting ready for the next year but he’ll see it gets to you.”

One year mom said, “Santa called to talk about something you asked for but he also wanted to know if you wanted a doll this year. I’ve told him before that you usually ignore your dolls after a week or two. He says he has some really special books this year.”

Tiny narcissist that I was I basked in the glow of Santa’s tender concern for the quality of my Christmas. It didn’t seem strange to me at all that Santa took time to call my mother at work.

Then there was the year I saw the Casper the Friendly Ghost Christmas cartoon. Casper was busily getting gifts together for poor children. I was disturbed by it and turned to my mother after it was over.

“Santa doesn’t visit poor kids?”

There was a flash of something, perhaps panic, in my mother’s eyes.

“Why wouldn’t he visit poor kids?”

My mother sighed. “Well, Santa does have to be paid.”

“The milk and cookies aren’t enough?" (The father of one of my friends saw that Santa got a single malt Scotch)

The fact that “the right jolly old elf” demanded money was shocking to me. My parents weren’t rich and I always got quite a few Christmas gifts. One year I got both Barbie and Chatty Kathy.

In fairness to my mother, I have to admit that she staunchly denied ever telling me that Santa had to be paid. She would counter my accusation by reminding me that I had accused her of killing my first childhood pet, Kippy, a parakeet. I don't remember that at all.

I did finally get her to admit there wasn’t a Santa Claus.

“Are you upset?” she asked.

“I guess not,” I said. Some clueless doctor had told my parents that my disability made me "frail and high strung" so I always tried not to get upset.

Years later I was doing a psychotherapy session with the single father of a little boy.

Little Tommy wanted to discuss his Christmas list. Dad was saying he couldn’t have everything on the list. He handed me the list. In one column was the name of the toy, in the second column, its price.

No one had to tell him that Santa expected money.

© 2014 Stephanie Patterson

Friday, December 19, 2014

Christmas Traditions

Happy holidays, folks. This is usually the day when I contemplate my seasonal affective disorder, but it isn't bothering me this year, for some reason. Maybe I outgrew it. Hey, the sun is shining! All my Christmas presents are bought! What could be nicer?

So instead of griping about being depressed I thought I'd talk about traditional Christmas activities that my family and other families have indulged in over the years, things I've seen and heard about that charm me. The latest belongs to my dentist's assistant. Christmas Pajamas.

When she and her husband were very young and her little boy was a baby, they hadn't much money for presents, so they agreed to give each other a pair of pajamas. On Christmas Eve they came home from church, opened their pajamas, put them on, and wore them all through Christmas day. They still do this. All three of them open their pajamas on Christmas Eve and wear them all day on Christmas, even going out to visit the wife's sister and her family (who may also be wearing their own Christmas pajamas. The practice is spreading).

Our family has a tradition of opening one present on Christmas Eve, though I never thought of pajamas. This tradition began many years ago in Woodbury, New Jersey, when my Dad was serving in the navy in Camden and we rented the downstairs half of a house. The landlords, the Harneys, lived in the upstairs half. Mrs. Harney, a very sweet woman, had a boy of her own but no daughters, and so she was pleased to wrap up girlie presents and give them to my sister and me on Christmas Eve. We opened them by candlelight. I still remember some of the things she gave me, an interlocking set of wooden doll furniture that you could take apart like a puzzle and put in the doll house, a pair of four-inch porcelain dolls dressed up like a bride and groom, or it might have been Fred and Ginger, in evening clothes. I still had them after we moved to Illinois, where I loved them to pieces.

In Illinois our neighbors, the Fuldes, hosted a huge family party every Christmas. One of the features of this gathering was the awarding of the Cow Plate. It was a dinner-sized plate hand-painted with a picture of a Holstein standing in a field. To be given the Cow Plate was an honor, signifying some great achievement of the previous year, getting married, having a baby, buying a farm, or whatever the Fuldes and Bainbridges could think of to merit the plate. It was not a thing of beauty. That was part of the fun. I dimly recall that the ceremony was accompanied by a chorus of "Roll Out the Barrel." I had a crush on one of the Bainbridge cousins, and so they let me hang around.

To be in love at Christmastime is the best tradition, I think. And to have a baby lying under the tree. Harold and I put John under the tree for his first Christmas while we opened presents. He was about six weeks old. He slept through it all, and so he doesn't remember any of it. But I do.

© 2014 Kate Gallison

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Regifting the Holiday Movie

This season, I decided to do something radical. Rather than obsess about all the decoration and holiday cards and cleaning and baking I never had a chance of getting done, I would spend more time having real holiday cheer. 

I'd go out to dinner, have people over, meet for drinks. Get together with friends.  

Here are a few, from my other career's holiday party Wednesday night, some of them worthy contenders in the Most Hideous Christmas Sweater contest, which I got to judge. Yes, that's me in the elfin cap. 

I opted for fun this year. And a lot less stress.

I don't normally re-gift, but this year, I was busy enjoying myself, and I decided to re-gift a blog.  

Last November, I shared my top 5 holiday film recommendations. 

And if on this last Thursday before Christmas, you're still obsessing about what will never get done, you might want to throw in the holiday towel -- the one that you have to remember to wash separately or it turns your husband's undershorts pink -- and have a little fun. 

Sheila York

A List Without the Pressure (November 2013)

I know. Already you’re behind. Back in July, you made a list of all the things you’d do for the holidays, back when you thought you’d suddenly turn super-human. You bought a glue gun, for heaven’s sake, because you just knew you’d have time to make wreaths and centerpieces and hand-made cards. You’d have plenty of time to clean; heck, you’d refinish the floors. You’d find a very special new side dish that would become a family classic. You'd be worshiped. Your holiday table would look like a magazine and you wouldn’t say one harsh word to your sister even though her idea of helping is standing in the kitchen door with a dish towel.

Okay. Put down that list and back away. Nobody has to get hurt here.

You need a new list, that’s all. Just like when you have to exchange a gift because, while your mom is a dear sweet soul, she still tries to dress you in pink argyle.

Here’s what you’re going to do. Find a movie and watch it. And you’re only going to be interrupted if you want to be, maybe by trips to the kitchen for a snack reload. You’re going to turn off the phone and the tablet, and throw a tree skirt over them; then send the kids to their friends’ houses. I’m sure their parents would love visitors this time of year. Tell everybody you’re going to spend an evening watching something that doesn’t have a promo creeping onto your screen telling you to watch something later, instead of enjoying what you’re watching now.

But what to watch? 
Here’s where the new list comes in. 

There are plenty of classic Christmas tales that show up over the holidays, and show up and show up and show up: A Christmas Story; It’s a Wonderful Life; Miracle on 34th Street; Home Alone; White Christmas (described by a friend as “the whitest musical ever made”); and umpteen versions of Christmas Carol.

But, while I was not thinking about whether I can spatchcock a 14-pound turkey or bake five sides at five temperatures in two ovens, I went back through dozens of films set during the holidays and made a list of some of the ones I’d like to spend time and calories on.

See if there’s anything on it for you.

My final list is eclectic, but then I love all kinds of films. It might be tilted a bit toward period movies, because that’s where I live most of my creative life, with my heroine screenwriter. In addition, my picks were influenced by availability. I would have recommended Remember the Night (Barbara Stanwyck & Fred MacMurray), but it’s not easy to get hold of. You can catch it, however, December 17 on Turner Movie Classics.

Here we go. A few picks, in reverse order of preference, for your consideration.

5. The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942)
Bette Davis, Monty Wooley
Written by Julius and Philip Epstein, based on the play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart; Directed by William Keighley

Sheridan Whiteside, famous wit, radio host and literary critic, takes over the small-town Ohio home of local leading citizens when he’s temporarily confined to a wheelchair after falling on their icy steps during a speaking tour. Gloriously spoiled and self-centered, he commands the household, manipulates lives without a second thought, and entertains an eccentric parade of visitors, many of whom were based on real life celebrities such as Noel Coward, Harpo Marx and Gertrude Lawrence. [Alexander Woollcott was the real-life inspiration for Whiteside.] 

Played by Monty Wooley without pulling punches, Whiteside is a tyrant used to adoration and obedience. But when he goes too far and threatens the happiness of his secretary, who’s fallen for a local Joe, he — for Christmas Day at least — is forced to consider the consequences of his behavior. 

While Bette Davis is pitch-perfect as his uptown-girl secretary, it is not a perfect film. The staging is, well, stagey. And the local Joe is out of his league. (Many otherwise entertaining period films are marred by a weak performance from someone the studio had under contract for their looks.)

Still, it’s a spirited, highly diverting time-capsule glimpse of Broadway legends Kaufman & Hart sending up their celebrity friends and the people who take abuse to be around them.

Try something tart with it, like a tall glass of holiday-red Campari and soda.

If you’re not drinking, something salty, like peanut brittle.

4. Christmas in Connecticut (1945)
Barbara Stanwyck, Dennis Morgan
Written by Lionel Houser and Adele Comandini; Directed by Peter Godfrey

Leave your logic out in the cold, make yourself a hot buttered rum, curl up and enjoy Barbara Stanwyck in this screwball tale of a popular homemaking & food writer who enraptures readers with magazine articles full of blissful details about her perfect life on a Connecticut farm — all of which is a total fraud. Elizabeth Lane, the envy of millions of American women, lives is a New York apartment and can’t boil an egg. Because she loaned him money to buy his restaurant, a local chef has been dishing her recipes while she invents the rest.

When her publisher (unaware of her deception — I told you, leave the logic outside) decides it would be great publicity for her to entertain a naval war hero for the holidays, she has to scramble to find what she needs, beginning with a farm in Connecticut, someone to pass as her husband, and a baby.

Dennis Morgan, popular as both a singer and actor in his career, in thoroughly winning as the sailor she falls for, and their forbidden attraction (remember, she’s supposed to be perfectly married) gives this light entertainment some heart. Sidney Greenstreet as her publisher, determined to get off his doctor-mandated diet and get some of her famous cooking, and SZ Sakall, as the anxious chef trying to derail the heroine’s pending marriage to the wrong man, add fine decorative touches to this holiday package.

3. Die Hard (1988)
Bruce Willis, Bonnie Bedelia, Alan Rickman
Written by Jeb Stuart and Steven E. de Souza, based on a novel by Roderick Thorp; Directed by John McTiernan

McTiernan’s shatter-the-glass spectacle is over the top in so many ways. But most of them work, thanks to the confluence of McTiernan’s taut direction, the source material from Roderick Thorp, and the lead performances — Bruce Willis at his wise-acre best; Bonnie Bedelia, who makes a complete character out of a mostly reactive role; and Alan Rickman as the masterfully smooth villain. [Don’t tell me J.K. Rowling didn’t change the nature of Severus Snape after seeing Rickman’s performance in the first Harry Potter film.]

You probably know the plot. You’ve seen variations of it tried dozens of times since: supposed terrorists hijack an entire building in Los Angeles on Christmas Eve and demand a fortune to release their hostages. Only a New York detective, accidentally there while visiting his estranged wife, stands in their way. 

After a long day of holiday shopping, set out a good bottle of whiskey and a big bowl of caramel corn, and remind yourself — even when the stubborn stupidity of upper-echelon law enforcement reps and the trite portrayal of journalists begin to grate — why action film makers have been trying and failing for decades to match Die Hard’s impact.

To this day when a building blows up on screen, David and I say (often in unison): “We’re gonna need a shitload of screen doors.”

2. We’re No Angels (1955)
Humphrey Bogart, Peter Ustinov, Aldo Ray
Written by Ranald MacDougall, based on a play by Albert Husson; Directed by Michael Curtiz

It’s not often you get light-hearted and Devil’s Island in the same sentence, let alone in a holiday film.

Three convicts escape the Devil’s Island prison and insinuate themselves into the lives of a sweet, but bumbling local shop-keeper, his wife and their daughter, with robbery in mind to fund their trip off the island. While perfecting their plan, they discover their intended victims are facing ruin at the hands of an officious, but respectable relative who considers it just good business to throw them out and break the daughter’s heart by forbidding her to marry his son.

What are criminals to do? With a blithe disregard for traditional morality, they dispense their own justice, and disarm you completely while they’re doing it.

Bogart holds his own, toe to toe, with Ustinov in snappy patter and droll asides. And Aldo Ray as their young, amoral pal is a grand foil for them both. [You should catch Ray’s brilliant performance as the dim-witted boxer in the Tracy & Hepburn vehicle Pat and Mike. The man didn’t get to make enough good movies.]

I think you need to munch on some old fashioned sugar cookies for this one, and open a bottle of something sparkling.

Now we get to my #1s. Yes, two of them.

Your choice here depends on whether you’d like a holiday story about love or a really dysfunctional family.

1. The Lion in Winter
Peter O’Toole, Katherine Hepburn
Written by James Goldman, based on his play; Directed by Anthony Harvey

First, big thanks to Annamaria, who reminded me about this classic film. We were chatting about our holiday favorites, and she said, “Lion in Winter.” I laughed out loud. Then immediately realized how brilliant a choice that was and decided to steal (uh, homage) the idea.

Acting doesn’t get much better than O’Toole and Hepburn as King Henry II and Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine. Once passionate for each other, his affairs and her conspiracies have turned love’s flame into a relentless desire to immolate the other. After years confined by the king for her attempts to overthrow him, Eleanor is invited to spend Christmas 1183 at court and together as a family — and what a family. Two parents and three sons feasting on treachery, all plotting to manipulate the others and control who will be named Henry’s heir.

Beyond the two leads, there’s the treat of seeing Anthony Hopkins long before the fava beans and nice Chianti as son Richard; a naughty, deceitful turn by Timothy Dalton as the king of France; and the frustration of John Castle as son Geoffrey, who is every bit as conniving as the others, but can’t figure out why no one wants him on the throne. You might find the characterization of son John a bit off-putting, to put it mildly. Henry’s determination to name this filthy and not-too-bright scoundrel his heir is only explicable because Richard is a bit too close to mommy, who encouraged him to lead rebellions.

But oh my, when O’Toole and Hepburn parry and thrust with Goldman’s bright, bracing dialog, the sky lights up.

You’ll need something to keep you warm though. Lion in Winter also does a terrific job of showing that winter in a medieval castle was, figuratively and literally, not for the thin-skinned. So maybe a throw rug and big mug of mulled wine.

Of course the heat of the constant family friction might help a little.

Outside of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, no film couple has been so dysfunctional and so riveting.

1. While You Were Sleeping (1995)
Sandra Bullock, Bill Pullman, Jack Warden
Written by Daniel G. Sullivan and Fredric LeBow; Directed by Jon Turteltaub

This film is first-line proof of the adage that 90% of directing is casting.

Lucy is a lonely young woman (and a bit of a recluse) who longs for love while selling tokens in a Chicago transit booth. She fantasizes about a future with a handsome lawyer (Peter Gallagher) she sees every day on the platform, and when he’s accidentally shoved off it and knocked unconscious by thieves on Christmas Day, she jumps onto the tracks to save him. At the hospital, where he remains in a coma, a nurse overhears her musing “I was going to marry him,” and, quickly, not only has Lucy been ushered to the man’s side but also embraced by his family as his fiancée. Then she meets his bother.

It’s a credit to the director Turteltaub, Bullock and Warden (as the family’s longtime friend who knows her secret) that you’ll buy why she can’t tell them the truth, over and over. And the actors playing the wacky members of the family pull real people out of what on the page would look hokey and jokey. The cast even manages to beat back the efforts of the musical score to tip your insulin balance.

Bullock and Pullman are at the top of their game, and love unfolds quietly and naturally. The scene between the two ought-to-be lovers on the slippery pavement in front of her apartment is a classic.

You have to have chocolate for this one, maybe a whole chocolate cake. And in honor of that scene, how about a little ice wine to go with it?

Sheila York

Copyright 2013, Sheila York

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Christmas Noir

As we close in on our annual celebration of “the day the angels sang,” I am lining up a bevy of films to keep me from needing insulin injections, as would be the case with consumption of normal cinematic holiday fare.

Here are the Christmas movies I recommend to ward off hyperglycemia:

Though not really a Christmas film, The Victors certainly has the most unforgettable juxtaposition of a grim scene with a traditional carol.  It takes place during World War II and is based on an actual execution of an American deserter.  You can watch the 1963 British anti-war film on YouTube.  You will know what I mean as soon as you hear Frank Sinatra’s voice.

There is a ton on the Internet about this year being the hundredth anniversary of the Christmas Truce of World War I.  A great movie that covers that territory is Joyeux Noel.  Made in 2005, of the three films here, this one is the most heartwarming.  But it does take place during a war that killed millions, so it won’t take you too far from reality.

And then there is my favorite Christmas movie of all time, The Lion in Winter.  A splendid cast, a fabulous script, and a portrayal of a family holiday gathering that will make your family look benign, not matter how dysfunctional you think you are. 

These choices, I admit, are quirky, but you can eat candy with impunity while you watch them.

Happy Christmastide!

Annamaria Alfieri