I Have To Leaf It Alone: “A New Leaf”

Elaine May‘s 1971 film, A New Leaf, is a misfire, notwithstanding it was butchered through cutting by Paramount Pictures, a company May sued.  I’m skeptical of it regardless, though, since some pretty weak May-written comedy dominates the movie’s first few scenes and, several years later, May was willing to direct a movie as fuzzy and unsatisfying as The Heartbreak Kid.

As the concoction goes on, it gets invigoratingly bright and witty, and Walter Matthau does, as John Simon indicated, “a very neat job of humanizing” a wastrel who needs money and chooses to marry for it (and worse).  He rightly praises May, a co-star here, for the same kind of humanizing.  All the same, A New Leaf is messy.  Despite May’s talent, it isn’t nearly as good a comedy as the Harold Lloyd films I’ve reviewed.  Old Hollywood, this time, scores over the Seventies.

Another French Job – Truffaut’s “The Story of Adele H.”

Francois Truffaut’s French picture, The Story of Adele H. (1975), is a partly fictitious period piece about Adele Hugo’s unending pursuit of a British lieutenant with whom she once had a romance.  (Adele was the daughter of Victor Hugo.)  He doesn’t want her, but she obsessively wants him.

The idea was long ago expressed that there is in the one who obsessively and relentlessly loves a person unworthy of that love not only pathology but also greatness.  Critic John Simon pointed out that in Adele H. Truffaut failed to see this, and so his heroine’s greatness is casually ignored.  This is too bad, but at least the film has themes and beauty and is highly interesting.

Are there people who turn amatory love into a religion?  Sure.  They’re everywhere.  This is one of the themes in the film.  Isabelle Adjani enacts Adele and is perfect, supplying the character’s remoteness, determination and sheer fragility.  The British lieutenant is too cold—played well enough, however, by Bruce Robinson.  Truffaut’s direction is gratifyingly good, with those charming fadeouts and wipes included.  The costumes by Jacqueline Guyot and the production design by Jean-Pierre Kohut-Svelko are winning.

Somewhat underrated by critics, The Story of Adele H. needs to be given its due.

(In French with English subtitles.)

Cover of "The Story of Adele H."

Cover of The Story of Adele H.

Justice Or No? The Movie, “The Hangman”

Michael Curtiz (director) and Dudley Nichols (scriptwriter) gave us 1959’s The Hangman, a riveting Western about a U.S. marshal out to arrest a popular man.  Marshal Bovard (Robert Taylor) is dedicated to his job and distrustful of people, although he becomes a little less distrustful near the movie’s end.  The man he’s after, to be sure, rightly knows that a jury will probably pronounce him guilty when he isn’t.  There is constantly a specter of legal injustice.

What is most stellar about this movie is the cast, usually because of how inherently interesting and good-looking it is.  Taylor’s virility can rattle any cage.  Tina Louise, though limited as an actress, is effectually, amicably sensual and has a charming beauty.  Mickey Shaughnessy, Mabel Albertson and even Jack Lord all have their appeal.  So does Nichols’s relatively simple if imperfect script.  The Hangman is a respectable addition to the Curtiz oeuvre (which includes Casablanca).

From Down Under, A Movie Called “Winter of Our Dreams”

An Australian film, Winter of Our Dreams (1981), concentrates on a bookseller, Rob (Bryan Brown), who cheats on his wife, and now the two maintain what amounts to an open marriage.  Following the suicide of a former girlfriend, Rob wishes to talk about the woman to her friend Lou (Judy Davis), a prostitute and a junkie.  Lou becomes attracted to Rob and to a sexual relationship with him that promises nothing.  None of the characters finds the close consorting they effect very fulfilling.

During the “winter of our dreams,” people’s dreams are frozen; they go nowhere, they are unfulfilled.  This is particularly true for Lou, comforted at the end only by the melody of a song she hears at an anti-Bomb gathering.  John Duigan‘s film—written and directed by him—is astute and meaningful.  He stays away from longueurs, and his flick is not tedious.  Smooth Brown doesn’t have much to do, but Miss Davis does.  She is a fleshy wonder, convincing as a druggie who goes straight; fascinatingly fragile.  The film lives because of Duigan first, Davis second.

A Weekday Lover Every Week: “The Five Day Lover”

Jean Seberg is the star of a 1961 French film, The Five Day Lover, wherein she plays the mistress—a married one with children—of the currently unemployed Antoine (Jean-Pierre Cassel), regularly kept by his lover (Micheline Presle).

This is a Philippe de Broca movie, with some of the French New Wave’s froth, and it treats infidelity as lightly as it does romantic love in general.  That’s a problem.  What’s more, if this is a comedy, it’s nearly devoid of laughs.  Yet Lover is an artistically tasteful, genuinely romantic production—neither very strong nor a failure.  The main actors are careful and endearing. . . But, again, not very strong; and, in point of fact, I suspect it has weakened with time.

(In French with English subtitles)

Straight Shootin’: 1999’s “The Straight Story”

David Lynch  built a G-rated movie, The Straight Story (1999), around the event of 73-year-old Alvin Straight taking a trip by riding mower to visit his stroke-afflicted brother.  The trip, in 1994, began in Iowa and ended in Wisconsin.  A gentle picture with humor, it was meant to be deeply moving, and it is.  It concerns people, viz. Alvin and his daughter Rose, who have somehow endured.  The sentimentality with which Alvin (a perfect Richard Farnsworth) speaks of family is something he does not possess regarding old age, and neither does the film.

Lynch was content to forgo the elements of sex and nudity and violence and profanity this time lest they prevent an audience from “feeling” something.  For his next film, Mulholland Drive (2001), he went back to sex and nudity but this picture, too, can be moving, as well as sad.  But Lynch was going backwards; unlike The Straight Story, Mulholland Drive is a clunker.

Look God-Ward, Angel: The Movie, “Angels of Sin”

In Robert Bresson‘s first feature film, Angels of Sin (1943), which I saw on YouTube, righteous behavior intersects with the worldly behavior of a desperate soul.  Here, a zealous young nun, Anne-Marie (Renee Faure), tries to Christianly love a female ex-con (Jany Holt) taking refuge in Anne-Marie’s convent.  Unknown to the convent sisters, she is there after having committed a murder.

Less oddly directed than Bresson’s later films, Angels is also less spiritually vivid and resonant, and is far from first-rate.  It is a serious picture, though, and does well in showing the distinctive lives of nuns.  To my mind, frankly, it is about the impossibility of saintliness (but not sacrifice), albeit we also infer from it that the devout life is a good life.

(In French with English subtitles)

Crazy About “Gun Crazy”

Bart (John Dall), one of the central characters in 1949’s Gun Crazy, has always been obsessed with guns but horrified of killing.  He begins a love affair with a sharpshooter-entertainer, Laurie (Peggy Cummins), who admits to being “no good,” by which she means she is disposed to steal and, worse, will kill out of fear.  And she does get fearful as the two embark on a life of armed robbery.

The suggestion could be made that the film deals with America’s love for guns except that Laurie is supposed to be from London.  Besides, was there ever any talk of America’s love for guns in 1949?  No, Gun Crazy is a thriller about two individuals who are gun-crazy enough to turn to armed crime.  It is also pretty romantic:  Bart and Laurie genuinely love each other, notwithstanding a quick second of betrayal occurs at the end.

Cleverly directed by Joseph H. Lewis, this noir achievement is riveting and unpretentious.  Absolutely fine in their parts, John Dall has an appealing face a trifle more friendly than handsome, and Peggy Cummins has a face with a schoolgirl charm and an overall gorgeous appearance.

Peggy Cummins

Peggy Cummins (Photo credit: classic film scans)

Half-Full Glass: The Movie, “Beat the Devil”

That it boasts sophisticated dialogue and was filmed in Italy is nearly enough to render the American film, Beat the Devil (1953), by John Huston, an art-house adventure story—or, put another way, a minor work of art.  It stars Humphrey Bogart and, because of its second half, is in my view a failure.  The first half is sparkling and intriguing, the second half thin and trivial.  The only two reasons I watch Beat the Devil is to hear that dialogue (not without plenty of wit) and to see the sheer pulchritude of Jennifer Jones and Gina Lollobrigida.  But the genuinely good Huston movies of the 1950s, I say, are The Asphalt Jungle and The African Queen.

1990s Ukraine: “A Friend of the Deceased”

A Friend of the Deceased, from 1997, is yet another movie about economic troubles in Central and Eastern Europe, this time in post-Soviet Ukraine.  It has a fairly happy ending, but before we reach it there are messages about the gangster-style cheapening of human life and people living practically for the bare necessities.  There is also one about hopeful living, though.

Directed by a twosome, the film is a trifle unsteady but still smart and involving.

(In Ukrainian with English subtitles)