WHAT IMPRESSED ME THIS WEEK (Audrey Hepburn’s Lesson in “Authenticity”)

(NOTE: Possible spoilers for Wait Until Dark and Panic Room contained herein.)

The times they do keep changing. Frequently not for the better.

This week’s cheery news (news to me at least) was that my area’s last good video store–which happened to be the first store I ever rented a video from back in the early eighties and has for years been the only vid-store in town that wasn’t fronting a porn-shop–went out of business.

So no more cheap fixes on movie night.

No more browsing long shelves for interesting things I missed and probably never would have known about otherwise.

Oh well.

For now, at least, there’s one chain record store left (I notice everyone still calls them record stores even though they’ve now sold mostly sell CDs and DVDs for nearly as long as real record stores actually existed).

This record store is in the mall, right next to the biggest movie theater.

Between ten bucks and a quarter for Liam Neeson’s latest and a run through the used DVD rack where I could pick up three movies for seven bucks (at least as cheap as the rental option, actually, just nowhere near the selection), I decided on the latter.

The best of the three movies I bought was Panic Room, David Fincher’s auteur-ish 2002 take on the vulnerable-actress-trapped-in-her-home-by-psychopaths genre which reaches back at least as far as noir-ish items like The Spiral Staircase (1946, where the actress was the estimable Dorothy McGuire and the director was the minor auteur Robert Siodmak) and Sorry, Wrong Number (1949, where the actress was the more-than-estimable Barbara Stanwyck and the director the minor auteur Anatole Litvak) and which remains defined by 1968’s Wait Until Dark, which was directed by Terence Young (reliable but nobody’s idea of an auteur) and starred Audrey Hepburn.

I haven’t seen The Spiral Staircase and it’s really been too long since I’ve seen Sorry, Wrong Number for me to make a fair comparison. However, as I, like all people of quality, am a huge fan of Stanwyck, I’m guessing there’s a reason I haven’t revisited it even once. Something to do with an excess of artificiality if memory serves. And believe me, as a fan of artificiality in the old Hollywood manner, it had to be pretty excessive to leave me cold.

There’s a lot of artificiality in Wait Until Dark as well. But I watch it on a regular basis, including this week….right after I watched Panic Room.

It’s well made, of course. No movie is worth re-watching if it doesn’t meet that test. But Sorry, Wrong Number was well made, too (I do remember that much). For that matter, so is Panic Room, although, even as a fan of its two stars, Jodie Foster and Forrest Whitaker–two actors who I really wish worked more–I doubt I’ll bother seeing it again.

Actually, I should qualify that “well made” slightly for Panic Room.

It’s well made by modern standards and, seeing it side by side with one of Old Hollywood’s last gasps in nailing-down-the-basics, it certainly suffers by comparison.

Wait Until Dark keeps its physical and psychological spaces firmly fixed. It’s easy to know where everyone is–in body and mind–at all times, a quality I actually find pretty handy in a thriller. Panic Room’s spaces are, like those of nearly all modern thrillers, hopelessly confused. A standard walk-through of the space that’s about to be invaded at the very beginning–in this case a four-story Manhattan apartment–feels like a tacked on device where Dark’s similar meet-and-greet is integrated and organic. Worse, Fincher’s “device” does nothing to help the viewer stay oriented as to what’s going on later when the action starts–that is, the opening scene fails to serve its only good reason for existing.

Doubtless the subsequent confusion is meant to make some sort of statement (I mean, I’d hate to think it was merely incompetence, what with all that showy camera work going on) but it’s the sort of statement a director typically makes when he doesn’t have faith in his ability to disorient us any other way.

You know, by doing something like actually scaring us.

And that’s the trick with these things.

How exactly do you scare an audience which knows good and well that no actress big enough to play these parts in a big-budgeted script that elicits our sympathy–not Jodie Foster, certainly not Audrey Hepburn (Stanwyck died, but, assuming memory serves at least a little, with her character it came more as a relief than a tragedy)–is ever going to be killed on-screen by murderous psychopaths.

Especially not if one of the criminals (Richard Crenna in Dark, Forrest Whitaker in Panic Room) turns out to have a conscience that can be appealed to (and here, Panic Room burns the narrative basics again by having the man with the conscience play the bigger role and by playing out the final confrontation that is built into the structure–the vulnerable actress/star finally pitted, one-on-one, against the real murdering psychopath, as something other than the climax). Not that Dwight Yoakum, good as he is here, was ever going to match Alan Arkin, but there’s no way for the air not to go out of the thing just when the tension should be mounting if you play that crucial element off to the side.

So, if Panic Room–which, all complaints about the modern-ista technique of trashing basic narrative in order to be-different-for-the-sake-of-being-different aside, really is well-acted and directed–didn’t hold my interest all the way through the first time, why does Wait Until Dark hold my interest every single time?

Arkin’s certainly part of the reason. The lessons he gave in quiet menace–lessons which, he reveals in the DVD’s making-of documentary, made the producers very nervous during the first weeks of shooting because they had no idea what he was up to–have never really taken hold in modern Hollywood. I mean Yoakum’s character, by no means the worst example of overkill even in my relatively limited experience, comes into the invasion-space wearing a ski-mask while his two partners (thinking the place empty) are showing their faces.

Sinister!

No really.

After all, there’s nothing wrong with marking the real baddie in this situation. Heck, Arkin’s character enters wearing a leather coat and dark glasses.

But, going back to narrative basics again, the subsequent “reveals” should amount to something–something which deepens the terror rather than disperses it.

Something more disturbing, perhaps, than finding out Dwight’s not wearing a hair-piece for this role.

Yeah, something more than that.

If you want me to stay interested all the way through, anyway.

So there’s that for a reason to watch–Arkin becoming more terrifying as the movie goes along. And more terrifying still (as opposed to more pathetic) when his own moment of vulnerability finally does arrive.

Plus all that about using the narrative basics because the basics really do work.

Pretty good reasons on their own.

But the real reason I watch Wait Until Dark regularly is because it has a moment at the end which I haven’t seen in any other movie of this type or, come to think of it, in any other movie at all.

It has a moment–a moment that lasts exactly as long as it takes to shout “Oh God!” and resonates far, far beyond the echo–in which Hepburn conveys real physical terror.

In that single moment, she achieves a feat I haven’t seen (or, more particularly, heard) in any other movie.

She sounds like someone who genuinely fears for her life.

She sounds that way every single time.

She sounds terrified in a way that actresses as great as Barbara Stanwyck and Jodie Foster (fair claims for the very best of the respective generations just before and just after Hepburn’s own, in which exactly no one thought she was the very best) could not approach–could not approach, in Stanwyck’s case, in a movie where her character actually was going to die.

And Hepburn sounds that way–a way Barbara-freaking-Stanwyck and Jodie-freaking-Foster couldn’t sound–even though she’s Audrey Hepburn being stalked by a psychopath in a set of movie-land circumstances where there’s no possible way her character is going to die.

So I guess the main reason I watch Wait Until Dark once a year or so is the same reason that makes any art worth revisiting as something more than comfort food.

Every now and then, I want to stand in awe.

(Now, such a scene as I’ve described can’t arrive in a vacuum…so here’s the “reveal” scene–one of many memorable moments that precede the finale (which I’m not linking on the chance somebody might want to watch the movie). It’s highly theatrical and, I think, all the more effective for being so.

Incidentally, this is the second time in the last few weeks I had to upload my own video to YouTube so I would have something to show. Not sure yet whether this will develop into a habit.

Anyway, this mostly quiet scene is about a thousand times as effective as Dwight Yoakum getting his hand caught in a “panic room” door that isn’t supposed to let such things happen and screaming his head off–the equivalent confrontation moment in Panic Room.)

 

THOSE WOMEN OUT WEST….ALWAYS GETTIN’ IN THE WAY! (I Watch Westerns: Special Edition)

“In fact we always throw a woman into the story, because without a woman, a western wouldn’t work. Even though she isn’t necessary, everyone appears to be convinced that you cannot do without a woman. But as soon as you get to fighting against the Indians, or to the chase scenes, or when the heroes discover the traitor, then the woman gets in your way. So then you have to come up with a clever trick and send her somewhere so she won’t be in your way, and you won’t need to film her. It’s sad to say, but women do not have much importance in westerns…On the other hand, maybe someone will make a western some day with a woman as the main character.”

(Source: “Interview With Anthony Mann,” conducted by Charles Bitsch and Claude Chabrol for Cahiers du Cinema, March 1957 and reprinted in the booklet accompanying the Criterion Collection’s release of The Furies)

Well, with all due respect to one of my favorite directors (and one of the greatest western directors) it was hardly as bad as all that!

It’s true women weren’t usually leads in westerns, but Mann himself had, for instance, seven years prior to this interview, made The Furies, in which Barbara Stanwyck–being, you know, Barbara Stanwyck–had not exactly shrunk into the background just because she had top billing and the most screen time and was the script’s central character and all.

And as for them “getting in the way,” when the going got heavy? Well, I guess that was sort of a rule, but I could point to a lot of exceptions.(My favorite being Susan Hayward’s sharpshooting at the end of Rawhide–beautiful because it comes straight out of her character even though we’ve never seen her with a rifle in her hand before that moment–Jack Elam might have looked surprised at having that twitch in his eyelid permanently stilled but there’s no reason we should be!)

Still, while Mann’s expressed view may have amounted to a kind of selective amnesia, it was and is–all evidence to the contrary–a common one.

Too bad, because, outside of what used to be called “women’s pictures,” actual women (as opposed to the admittedly marvelous fantasy creatures favored by the makers of screwball comedy, musicals , biblical epics, film noir and Li’l Abner movies) played a more significant role in westerns than in any other major Hollywood genre.

If we’ve mostly forgotten their vital presence, it’s probably because we don’t think we need their kind any more.

Since I beg to differ–and since I need to update my file of self-defining things–I’m listing a countdown of my five favorite examples out of a potential hundred or so (with accompanying introductory and valedictory shots):

5) Gail Russell as Annie Greer in 7 Men From Now (1956: Budd Boetticher, director)–Quite probably the most affectless and unassuming performance ever given by a strikingly beautiful woman in a Hollywood film. Russell’s own inherent shyness and troubled life–which had very much left its mark on that beautiful face by then–probably worked in her favor here, even as it had almost certainly kept her from major stardom elsewhere. One wonders if the brief time she had left might have been lengthened if more people had noticed.

All in a day's work...

All in a day’s work!

After the bodies have stopped falling.

After the bodies have stopped falling.

4) Angie Dickinson as “Feathers,” (aka “The Girl,” aka “The Lady,” aka “The Lady She Did Not Go!”) in Rio Bravo (1959: Howard Hawks, director)–The Hawksian woman–greatest of all Hollywood’s femme fantasies–improbably and indelibly humanized.

I think we might be in a Howard Hawks movie...

I think we might be in a Howard Hawks movie…

Yes...yes we are.

Yes…yes we are!

3) Claire Trevor as Dallas in Stagecoach (1939: John Ford, director)–The epitome of turning a shop-worn cliche (in this case “the hooker with a heart of gold”) into flesh and blood, maybe because she did the best job of showing that the heart wasn’t made of gold but of pain and fear. The Oscar waited down the line, for some year when Vivien Leigh and Hattie McDaniel weren’t performing miracles in Gone With the Wind. But Ford’s single-handed resuscitation of the western as an art form could never have worked all the way through without her.

Shamed in sunlight...

Shamed in sunlight…

Redeemed in darkness.

…Redeemed in darkness.

2) Kim Darby as Mattie Ross in True Grit (1969: Henry Hathaway, director)–Darby played Mattie Ross, one of the great prickly pears in American fiction, as though Charles Portis rather than Hollywood convention should be the prevailing authority on the subject. (Pick to click: “If I smelled as bad as you, I wouldn’t live near people.” But there are oh, so many.) Boy has she been slagged for it, especially in light of Hailee Steinfeld’s very fine, if rather comfortingly modern, take in the 2010 remake. Boy are people wrong. Among the dozens of reviews I read when the newer version hit theaters, only one–by the conservative critic James Bowman–bothered to point out that Darby was much more convincing than Steinfeld when taken as the frontier woman Mattie Ross is supposed to be. (Granted Steinfeld wasn’t always helped by the newer script, which, among other things, has Mattie professing ignorance of what horses eat!) Out of Darby’s many adroit touches, my own favorite is the arm-swinging walk she used to hold up against John Wayne in long shots. Yeah, it was Mattie Ross to a “T,” but I’ve also often wondered how many of the great thespians Wayne routinely dominated in such shots over the years wished they had thought of that.

Old maidhood awaits...

Old maidhood awaits…

...Not without its memories.

…Not without its memories.

1) Vera Miles as Hallie Stoddard in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962: John Ford, director)–Not just one of the great gender/genre performances but one of the great performances period and, as almost goes without saying, she’s received scant thanks for it. All she had to do, for starters, was hold her own–playing twenty-something and fifty-something–in a western that had John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart and Lee Marvin all at the very top of their considerable games. She made that look easy (and made it look easy in that particular way that allows many people to assume that it could only look so easy if it really was easy). Then she had to make it her character’s movie without resorting to any obvious scene-stealing (not so much because anyone would have cared–though they might have–as because such obviousness would have fatally unbalanced the story). After all that, at the very end, she had to deliver the “Aren’t you proud?” speech in such a way that the answer would remain naggingly ambiguous, forever reminding us that the value of the past will always be determined by what we make of the future–while leaving room for those who insist on “knowing” to make up their own minds. And yes, she made that look easy, too. Ever gallant, Hollywood rewarded her by providing that all her best future roles be TV show murderesses and Disney wives.

Age...

Age…

...to youth

…into youth

And youth...

And youth…

...to age.

…into age.

Please feel free to add your own…Like I say there are many to choose from!

DON’T WORRY, NOTHING TO SEE HERE, MOVE ALONG PLEASE…THOUGHTS ON CITIZEN KANE BEING DETHRONED

The headline being attached to Sight and Sound’s latest list of the “greatest films” is that Citizen Kane–which topped the once-a-decade poll five straight times from 1962 to 2002–was displaced by Vertigo.

Studying the top 50, we find that the real news, as usual, is that nothing has changed.

Existentialism still trumps narrative. Concepts still trump people.

Directors still count (and conceptual, existentialist directors still count most of all). Performers still don’t count even a little bit.

A lot of people are lamenting the absence of Luis Bunuel or Howard Hawks or Erich Von Sternberg or Douglas Sirk or whoever and, in at least some cases, I see their point.

But I miss Vivien Leigh and Barbara Stanwyck and Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant a lot more. Not to mention Anne Bancroft and Humphrey Bogart and, heck, Gloria Grahame. (That’s GWTW and/or Streetcar, plus The Lady Eve, Notorious, The Miracle Worker, The Maltese Falcon, The Big Heat and/or In A Lonely Place for those keeping score at home….and, incidentally, shifting the focus from directors-only, to great-directors-collaborating-with-great-actors would also redress the diminution of women’s-importance-in-film discussed, albeit without much insight, here)

Interesting and serendipitous that Vera Miles, the astringent, oft wrongfully-dismissed muse of both Alfred Hitchcock and John Ford’s last great periods–and the woman Hitchcock never forgave for backing out of Vertigo after he had already built his story-boards around her irreplaceable profile (he knew what had gone missing even if his now-triumphant acolytes didn’t and don’t) is the only American lead besides Brando who made the list twice.

So at least they got that part half-right.