setsuled: (Mouse Sailor)

A nice, handsome guy and a nice, beautiful woman are stuck on a deserted island together, not having sex. That's because he's a marine and she's a nun in John Huston's 1957 film Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison, a sweet, respectful World War II film about commitment to roles assigned by institutions. Taking place on a Pacific island but shot at Trinidad and Tobago, the film is filled with great, effective exteriors and lovely performances but the film isn't quite an effective counterpoint to the eroticism of Black Narcissus.

Why should I think of Black Narcissus? Deborah Kerr plays a nun in both films--Anglican in Black Narcissus and Catholic in Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison. Black Narcissus was the subject of controversy when it was released in 1947, partly because it depicted nuns driven mad by bodily lusts which devotion to Christ was inadequate to overcome. Released ten years later, Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison shows Kerr as an Irish nun, Sister Angela, trapped alone on an island until an American named Allison (Robert Mitchum) washes ashore in a life raft.

Huston establishes the story from Allison's point of view and I loved the eeriness as the marine cautiously ventures into the island and through an ominously abandoned village.

There's no hint of love at first sight when he finds Sister Angela alone in the church. The two strike up a very platonic friendship as they work together, making do with the limited supplies in the village and cooperating hunting for a sea turtle He always calls her "Ma'am". Allison's curious about nuns and the two swap info about their respective orders, coming to the conclusion that marines and nuns have a lot in common in terms of discipline, self-denial, and devotion. It's not until Allison gets drunk on some sake left behind by some Japanese troops who briefly occupy the island that he gets to talking about just what these physical and mental uniforms of theirs mean when there's no-one but the two of them.

By the way, even though none of the Japanese troops become characters, Huston never portrays them as inhuman caricatures. A scene where Allison hides in the rafters watching a couple Japanese men getting drunk and playing Go is oddly human and charming and in stark contrast to other World War II films where Japanese troops are portrayed as ridiculous goblins.

Anyway, Kerr's performance is really nice and I can believe someone like her really could be so steadfast in her devotion to not even for a moment be tempted by pleasures of the flesh. And I like how Allison's more aggressive mood when he's drunk is never overplayed and he feels deeply ashamed of himself afterwards. But the film's simply not as impressive as Black Narcissus with its vivid, gorgeous colours and its more complex characters. If the two movies are different sides of an argument, Black Narcissus brings a lot more evidence for its side. By contrast, the more realistically shot Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison oddly comes off as a light fantasy for those who believe in the power of chastity.
setsuled: (Doctor Chess)

I'm often surprised by the light-hearted attitude 1940s British comedies take towards World War II. A vivid example being 1946's I See a Dark Stranger, a comedy spy thriller about a naive Irishwoman who becomes a spy for Germany during the war. The film is a finely crafted enough comedy by Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder and I couldn't help feeling affection for the characters even as I felt its treatment might be a bit too breezy. On other hand, maybe something like this wasn't wholly a bad idea at a time when Britain, Ireland, and Germany were trying to find a way of being at peace with each other after bitter conflict.

The film's opening scene is really remarkable for its context. Set in a pub in an Irish village, an old man tells a story of fighting in the Irish Revolution and stirringly describes killing English soldiers. Mind you, this is a British film. If the Irish characters here seem a bit buffoonish, they're no worse than the English characters shown later on. In fact, they're a bit less buffoonish.

Deborah Kerr, whose Irish accent sounds a lot more natural than her American accent, plays Bridie Quilty who's been raised on the stories of the revolution, her father having fought in it. It being her twenty first birthday, she decides to go to Dublin and meet with her father's old comrade, Michael O'Callaghan (Brefni O'Rorke), to join the IRA. To her disappointment, O'Callaghan has come to accept peace with Britain and tries to convince her to do likewise. O'Rorke plays the character as calm and wise in contrast to Bridie's youthful rashness and I suspect part of the motive with this film was to reassure British audiences that Ireland was an ally and dissenters were sentimental old men and adorable young fools. On the one hand, it's a nice idea to put everyone at ease with each other, on the other, it's a bit patronising. Still, O'Callaghan comes across as easily the wisest character in the film.

Spotted in a bookshop buying books on learning the German language, Bridie's recruited by a German spy who goes by the name of Miller (Raymond Huntley). Of all places, he puts her on assignment in an English town with a statue of Oliver Cromwell, whom Bridie takes every opportunity throughout the film to curse.

And, wouldn't you know, Miller has her seduce a British officer named David Baynes (Trevor Howard) who says he's there because he's working on a thesis on Cromwell. As with the explicit details of World War II and the Irish Revolution, Bridie never manages to say precisely why she and everyone back home hate Cromwell so much. Discussing slaughter at the hands of Cromwell and his men at Drogheda would risk making Bridie not seem so foolish.

Because the German agent is a buffoon, his assumption that David is an intelligence officer based on the fact that David says he's not in town to fish turns out to be utterly wrong. This puts Bridie into a rage after she's wasted a whole afternoon falling in love with David. Miller's not nearly as buffoonish, though, as the leader of the German spies in England we meet later played by a portly Norman Shelley in a ridiculous check sport coat and boater hat.

Witnessing his interrogation technique of slapping someone in the face a few times can only seem insultingly trite at this point.

But meanwhile, the British COs in the Isle of Man, where Bridie and David end up, are a strange pair of philandering big men with matching moustaches and bald heads who routinely fumble in their jobs.

The film actually shows some British military police getting shot so I wonder how comfortable war veterans were laughing at this movie. But many of the gags are very good and the leads are charming.
setsuled: (Louise Smirk)

In the weeks before the attack on Pearl Harbour, handsome soldiers and beautiful women are caught in private, passionate melodramas in 1953's From Here to Eternity. The screenplay is much too broad to make most of its stabs for emotion very effective but the actors carry a lot, both for their performances and for their physical appearance.

Burt Lancaster must have the broadest shoulders I've ever seen. He easily encompasses Deborah Kerr in the famous beach love scene, the scene that's misled many people into thinking the film was going to be all about romance. Kerr, in something of a breakout role for her in the U.S., has a fairly small part in the film and a really strange American accent. I wouldn't be surprised to learn she was dubbed. There are a few scenes where the filmmakers seem to avoid giving her as much dialogue as possible--a scene where she and Lancaster are worried about being spotted at a restaurant has a long, continuous shot of her face with absolutely no dialogue. It's like watching a silent film actress--and Kerr really makes it work.

Lancaster's a sergeant named Warden and Kerr plays Karen, the wife of Warden's captain. She's known for sleeping around, something Warden tosses in her face angrily in an unintentionally funny moment just after the two have been going at it in the surf. The film is filled with over the top, hot headed guys.

But most of the film focuses on a private named Robert E. Lee Prewitt, played by Montgomery Clift in a wonderful, vulnerable, raw nerve performance. In a plot point nicked from The Quiet Man, Prewitt's a former boxer who refuses to fight now after he accidentally caused permanent harm to another boxer. But the whole reason he'd been transferred to the regiment is because the captain (Philip Ober) wants him to fight for his team. So a bunch of Prewitt's superiors commence giving him "the treatment"--kicking him during training and giving him unfair punishments. Much to their frustration, he takes it all in stride.

He's befriended by a nice, hot headed guy named Maggio (Frank Sinatra) who establishes a dangerous rivalry with the hot headed stockade sergeant, Judson (Ernest Borgnine), leading to two knife fights in the film. Maggio's a good guy whose unlikely misfortune fuels the melodramatic, noble reactions from those around him.

Donna Reed plays a gentleman's club hostess named Lorene, apparently a prostitute in the source novel, which better explains the conflicted feelings Prewitt and she have when he falls for her.

I found myself enjoying the movie most when everyone was just hanging around a bar or the club while Maggio tells drunken jokes and Prewitt plays his bugle mouthpiece, which Reed handles at one moment rather suggestively. But for some reason my favourite visual was Kerr in this dress with what looks like a bunch of wicker disks.

Twitter Sonnet #1022

The tin antennae tune from under clouds.
Like drifting weeds but sharp and hungry leaves.
As the merging shades above become as shrouds.
As holy ants depart with pupa sheaves.
Returning lamps adorn the space at hand.
A liver sorts an ocean if you ask.
I've seen the crows describe a certain band.
In flying carts I can't refuse a task.
A giant hand became the nearest suit.
Some clothes can take a pending hat for song.
Entire towns exclaim sometimes to loot.
In semblance of a sink the trough was long.
The eyes encompass burning ginger fields.
From here a reddish ink composed the yields.
setsuled: (Mouse Sailor)

To-day's my sister's birthday and also Robert Mitchum's 100th birthday so happy birthday to you both. Last night I watched Mitchum in 1960's The Sundowners, a relaxing, almost slice of life story about a family of sheep drovers in early 20th century Australia. Directed by Fred Zinnemann, it has a wonderful quantity of location footage and real sheep shearing that turns out to be gently fascinating.

The Carmodys roll into frame in a covered wagon with little fanfare during the opening credits. The film does a nice job of bringing the viewer in with a fairly normal group of people who happen to have the lovely job of herding sheep. It reminds me of the obsession poets used to have with the idyllic lives of shepherds--there's something just so pleasant about even the arguments between Paddy (Mitchum), Ida (Deborah Kerr), and their son, Sean (Michael Anderson, Jr.).

The actors do a respectable job at Australian accents, refreshing after movies like Sister Kenny where no-one even bothered. I will say, as much as I love Deborah Kerr, she's definitely miscast here. When they're alone in their tent, Paddy compliments her body, telling her she's how women ought to be shaped, unlike the skinny women they'd seen in town--"Broomsticks, nothing to hang onto." She immediately replies with an amusing and lightly chiding, "Did you try?"

The only problem is Kerr is pretty slender herself. Throughout the movie the script comes back to the idea that Ida has looks that show she's worked hard and in poverty all her life but as fun as Kerr is with some of the snappy dialogue in this film she's just too naturally elegant and poised. In one scene, we see her wistfully watching a society woman in a train and in the next scene we see her in the hotel looking like this:

She has a bit of a tan but mainly she looks as crisp and graceful as any lady of refinement--really more so than most. Her and Mitchum are a really sexy couple, though.

More appropriately anachronistic is Peter Ustinov in a supporting role as Rupert Venneker, an English hired hand that takes up with the Carmodys, the strangest and most intriguing character in the film.

He won't say much about his past unless he's forced to defend his dignity and mention the time he spent as a captain on a Chinese ship or the great family he was born into in England. He seems to strike up a romance with the always charming Glynis Johns as the hotel owner but the relationship doesn't go where you might expect and it's not for entirely mercenary reasons Rupert's drawn to the Carmodys. Some might say what we're seeing is repressed homosexuality, which I think is possible, but there are other equally possible explanations for his isolation which is for the most part only incidentally referred to.

There's a conflict running through the film between Paddy and Ida over the idea of continuing as drovers, as he wants, and settling down on a farm, as she wants, but for the most part the film is episodic. We watch the Carmodys take a job shearing, Ida working in the kitchen. A coworker's wife gets pregnant, a fight breaks out in the road after two trucks of workers nearly collide, there's a brush fire the family barely escapes. Rupert convinces Paddy to enter a shearing competition--and Mitchum is clearly doing some actual shearing.

Mitchum, even in these circumstances, is, as usual, magnetic in his zenlike coolness and idle strength.

The movie ends with a nicely unresolved feeling as though the story of the Carmodys and Rupert is still going on somewhere, pretty much as it was most of the movie.
setsuled: (Mouse Sailor)

So you want a better life. Why not go to war? It'll very likely improve both you and your spouse, or at least that's the message in Alexander Korda's 1945 wartime propaganda film Perfect Strangers (Vacation from Marriage in the U.S.), a message all the more insidious for the fact that it's a pretty good movie with amazing performances from Robert Donat and Deborah Kerr.

The two basically play two roles each, and maybe a transitory third role. They start the movie off as a dull, miserable married couple, the Wilsons, Robert and Cathy. Robert is a meek, set in his ways bank employee, at one point contemptuously called an "old maid". Cathy is a stay at home wife who never wears makeup and seems to have a perpetual cold. Then Robert finds himself forced to join the navy and, while he's gone, Cathy joins the Wrens, the women's branch of the Royal Navy at the time.

Gradually, both are transformed and the actors carry it off brilliantly in their performances. Donat's body language becomes more relaxed and expansive--maybe going slightly too far later in the film when he's propped himself up against the fireplace while sitting.

Cathy, under the influence of her worldly new cohort, Dizzy (Glynis Johns), starts smoking and wearing makeup. Both separately start to think they could never go home to their stuffy spouses, each has as close to an extramarital affair as the censors would allow--Robert with a nurse who tells him about how her recently deceased husband went from being a boring clerk to an exciting world traveller whose memory she admires, Cathy with an intellectual in a scene Korda lifts almost wholesale from Powell and Pressburger's A Canterbury Tale.

When the Wilsons are rediscovering each other in the third act, both are surprised to find the other can now dance, prompting the reply from both, "One picks these things up." The message isn't terribly subtle--join the navy, get the sexual experience that will make you more appealing to the opposite sex. Yet I did find it charming and kind of insightful that both Robert and Cathy felt that they were suffering before because they thought the other needed them and it was this suffering that made each seem so helpless to the other. And Donat and Kerr sell it so well. Donat's best known roles were behind him at this point and this was near the start of Kerr's career so it's also an interesting overlap of two eras.

But I would rather the film had been about Deborah Kerr and Glynis Johns having adventures. My favourite scene in the movie is just the two of them on an overcrowded train, taking turns resting their heads in each other's laps.

setsuled: (Louise Smirk)

If someone asked me to write a musical about the King of Siam, I'd probably write a song called "I'm the King of Siam, I am". Fortunately for the world, it was Rodgers and Hammerstein who wrote the music for 1956's The King and I, a beautiful film with great performances. Its cultural clumsiness does not age well yet even now it's hard not to love Deborah Kerr, elegantly and assertively negotiating with an obstinately patriarchal society. And, oh, the costumes, the sets--it's all splendid, I can't resist melting.

The costumes, both Siamese and English, are beautiful, exaggerated versions of their real life counterparts. Kerr, as Anna, wears a ridiculously wide crinoline, about 30% bigger than women actually wore in England at the time--and she wears it in every scene. The fact that Kerr carries it off with dignity alone speaks to her incredible talent. The King, his harem, and children are always covered with jewels.

Yul Brynner as the king cuts a fantastic figure, it's a shame that all the Siamese characters are portrayed like children who Anna must tactfully manage for their own good. The costumes, for being exaggerated, are accurate enough, but the film flaunts misconceptions of Buddhism and portrays most of the Siamese women as pathetically controlled by superstition and the King needing to be guided on nearly every point of etiquette. It is sort of endearing in Brynner's hands that he's actually trying, enough so that the climactic dance sequence is breathtaking, not just for Kerr's gorgeous gown.

The fact that it's immediately followed by a confrontation about the injustice of slavery is really stimulating, particularly after the beautiful and strange Siamese ballet version of Uncle Tom's Cabin a few scenes earlier.

One could look at the whole film as a sort of dream version of Western culture, actually, more than a fantasised version of Siamese culture. By adopting Siamese costumes, names, shapes, and superficial aspects of Siamese culture, the confrontations about slavery, science, religion, and feminism almost seem to exist without any specific cultural connexion. I could almost imagine Anna waking from this dream discovering she's leading a feminist rally in London.


setsuled: (Default)

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