Godard’s Le Mepris, Mankiewicz’s The Barefoot Contessa, Moravia’s Il disprezzo

Written by Joe D on November 12th, 2010

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The Beautiful B.B. she looks a little like Ava Gardner

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Ava in Contessa

Jean Luc Godard is getting an honorary Academy Award! How great is that, of course he won’t show up for it. Maybe this was on my mind when I started watching Joseph Mankiewicz’s The Barefoot Contessa.

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Producer In Screening Room- Contessa

The films are similar, they both have Movie People as characters. There’s a director with integrity, Fritz Lang in Contempt and Humphrey Bogart in Contessa. A beautiful goddess, desired by all, Ava Gardner in Contessa, Bridgit Bardot in Contempt. They are both concerned with personal integrity in the face of a powerful prick,an American film producer that wants to control everyone, have everyone kiss his ass which they do for money.

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Producer wants Sex Goddess Wife

Michel Piccoli loses his wife to Jerry the producer when he accepts the job of re-writing the script for Jerry’s production of the Odessy, he says “I’ll be able to pay off our apartment!” This theme of estrangement between a husband and wife comes from Alberto Moravia’s novel, Il disprezzo. The book was published the same year that The Barefoot Contessa was released, maybe they somehow fused in Godard’s brain. The Rich American Movie Producer, The Super Sexy Star, The Director, The Writer, The Yes Man. These are the new Mythic characters for the 20th Century. Like the Greek Gods, they live on Olympus and they have petty squabbles that effect all life on Earth. They test your souls, tempting you, like the Devil on the mountain top offering Jesus all he can see.

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There’s even a big sceen in a screening room in both films, in Contempt Jack Palance (Jerry Prokosh) throws a film can at the screen like a Greek discus, expressing his displeasure at the footage screened. In Contessa Edmund O’Brien turns in a horrible over the top performance as Kirk Edwards ass licking yes man. Constantly mopping his face with a giant handkerchief, babbling like a baboon, chewing the scenery in an over the top style. Jerry Prokosh has a beautiful female assisstant that he constantly degrades, getting her to bend over so he can write a check on her back.

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Degradation Of Beauty By Producer In Screening Room- Contempt

In Contessa Bogart is the man in peril of losing his integrity, the director of the proposed film. In Contempt Michel Piccoli is the writer, the man in danger of losing all to the American producer, Fritz Lang is the director but he seems above it all, like a God Of Film already up in the Celestial Movie Studio, the eccentricities of the Earth bound barely affect him. Maybe someone should make a new film about the New Gods, The New inhabiters of our Cinematic Olympus, The American Producer! The Sex Symbol, The Director in trouble, like Odysseus trying to get back to Ithica.

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New Gods – New Myths replace the Old

Val Lewton’s Curse Of The Cat People, Mario Bava’s Operazione Paura

Written by Joe D on September 21st, 2010

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I recently re-watched Curse Of The Cat People, Val Lewton’s masterpiece. Running an extremely efficient 70 minutes, it’s incredible how much story, atmosphere, character, and artistry the filmmakers have packed into this B thriller. The brilliant script by DeWitt Bodeen picks up the characters from 1942’s Cat People 7 years or so later and now living in Tarrytown, NY, nearby to where Lewton grew up. This setting enables Lewton to inject local lore from his own childhood, notably the legend of the Headless Horseman Of Sleepy Hollow. Lewton was primarily a writer and even though he gets no screen credit as such, this script was a collaboration between Bodeen and him. Robert Wise, crack editor of such RKO gems as Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, The Devil And Daniel Webster was called in to replace the original director Gunther Von Fritsch, who had fallen behind schedule, Wise began his directing career with a bang. Cinematography was by the terrific Nicolas Musuraca, lensman of the incomparably shot noir Out Of The Past. Art Direction by the prodigiously talented Albert S. D’Agostino ( perhaps a distant relation of mine) and Walter Keller. Top it off with excellent performances most notably that of the wonderful child actress Ann Carter. Curse Of The Cat People is an incredibly sensitive film, dealing with the fantasies of a lonely, mis-understood child. Amy Reed creates a “friend” that cares for her and plays with her, partly because her father refuses to believe her stories. Oliver Reed (played by Kent Smith) was married to Irena (Simone Simone) in the original Cat People. He’s afraid his daughters’ flights of fancy will lead her to a similar end as Irena. His loss of the woman he loved has made him afraid for his daughter and really for himself, he does not want to go through the loss of a loved one again, as a result he clamps down on his daughter, seeking to snuff out her “dangerous” imagination. He only succeeds in driving her into the arms of her friend Irena. Amy had discovered a picture of Irena and her mother’s guilty response triggered an unconscious identification with the beautiful, mysterious figure in the photo.

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Winter comes and it gives Musuraca and D’Agostino a chance to really shine. Irena gives her Xmas present to Amy, transforming the garden behind the family home to a glittering cathedral of shimmering lights, fantastic winter forms of ice, snow, the bare limbs of trees, a magical application of Movie Studio Artifice, effects done in camera with lighting changes, some of the most beautiful examples of this lost Art ever created.

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Another noteworthy sequence is when Irena appears in Amy’s bedroom, telling her little friend she must go, never to be seen again. This is accomplished with a tracking shot, Irena is there and then she is obscured by the camera tracking behind a chair,when the camera emerges Irena is gone, the open window letting some mist cascade in where she once stood, also pay careful attention to the sound track lest you miss the whispered “Goodbye” a beautifully mixed sequence. A group of carolers comes by the house and the shots of the family framed in the front door of their home listening are superb.

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Sir Lancelot appears as the faithful man-servant and he is as always great. Lewton used him several times in his films and he always played a character of great dignity, a tribute to Lewton’s egalitarianism. Lewton was hired at RKO ( my favorite studio) to run their “B” horror unit. The movies had to be short ( these were the days of the double bill), produced for under$150,000, and based on a title the studio brass came up with. Lewton disliked this title and the marketing of the film was off base suggesting a straight horror revisit to the original Cat People but I think the title is good, the curse is what happens to the traumatized survivors of the first film, mainly Oliver and Alice Reed. Cat People was a huge hit, saving RKO from the brink of ruin so the studio left Lewton alone and he was able to create some wonderful fantasies on a shoestring budget, a real tribute to the talents involved. Culminating in his masterpiece Curse Of The Cat People, a very personal film.

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Val Lewton
This brings me to Part Two of this essay, something that struck me while recently viewing this film. Does it contain the root of a character from Mario Bava’s masterpiece Operazione Paura (Kill Baby Kill) .Curse Of The Cat People was made in 1944, as soon as WWII was over the USA flooded Europe with films. They had been prevented from distributing films in Europe during the war. I’m sure Mario Bava went to see this film in Rome and it made a deep impression on him. Bava’s father was a special effects artisan, a sculptor who made creatures for films. Bava was an effects cameraman, master of the in camera effect, matte painting, trick lighting etc. He had to have seen this masterpiece of studio artistry and been deeply moved. The story goes that when he was casting Operazione Paura he searched high and low for a young girl to play the part of the ghostly killer. He couldn’t find one, finally he got a young boy to don a wig and play the part. I think he was looking for his own Ann Carter. A child that resembled her. There are some similar images in the films, for example when the girls are seen in Close Up looking through a window pane.

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Another paralell, a child’s ball provides the key to another dimension in both films, in Curse Irena is first revealed tossing Anne’s ball back to her, the little girl throws the ball offscreen to her friend and Simone enters with it and throws it back. In Paura the bouncing ball of the devil girl is often the first sign of her coming.

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Bava’s film is an illusion inside of an illusion, a puzzle at the heart of which is a subversion of innocence to evil, a baroque fantasy about the loss of childhood innocence. Perhaps not so far fetched considering the realities of a war torn country. One thing that always struck me about Curse Of The Cat People is the hominess, domestic peace of it’s setting. You want to live there in Tarrytown amongst the legends, old bridges, fireplaces, gardens. Life seems so peaceful, serene. Maybe Operation Paura is a reaction to that idyllic vision from an artist that lived through real horror. Another interesting fact, the girl who falls to her death, impaled on a wrought iron fence at the begining of Operazione Paura is named Irena.

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Mario Bava

The Blue Dahlia Redux

Written by Joe D on March 9th, 2010

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The idiotic “Shoot the match and prove you didn’t kill my wife” Scene, although it looks like a cigarette, which is what’s written in the script but was changed to a match during filming, probably re-infuriating Raymond Chandler!

I got the published screenplay to Raymond Chandler’s The Blue Dahlia. It has an introduction by the producer John Houseman. Houseman tells the story of Chandler needing to get drunk to finish the film after a secret meeting with the head of production who offered R.C. a $5000 bonus to get the script done. Houseman claims that Chandler was blocked, that George Marshall had shot almost all the pages written, 93 or so, and that the attempted bribe by the studio head had so insulted and enraged Chandler that he wanted to quit. But rather than let a fellow veteran of the English public school system down, Chandler heroically opted to sacrafice his health by consuming vast quantities of alcohol which he assured Houseman would enable him to finish. Now there are a few points worth mentioning, the script was almost complete, Chandler had begun work on The Blue Dahlia as a novel, and we know from his correspondence that he had an ending in mind all along, that Buzz (William Bendix) the steel plate in the head veteran was the killer. The Navy objected to this most strenuously and Paramount agreed to change the ending. Houseman does not mention this fact in his introduction. So this is what I think happened, Chandler finished the script as he planned, with Buzz as the killer, the Navy objected, Chandler was called in to a meeting with the studio head, Mr. Head told Raymond to change his ending and offered him $5000 to make it go down easier. Chandler flipped out, he hated the movie business and couldn’t stand anyone telling him what to write. Chandler went to Houseman and threatened to quit. Then R.C. went home and thought it over, “I’ll write their crap ending but on my terms. ” He made his list of demands, he got to work at home, drunk, with round-the clock secretaries he could chase around, and limos waiting at his beck and call and a doctor on call to take care of him. He had to anesthetize himself to write that idiotic scene where Buzz shoots a match in Johnny’s hand to show he wasn’t the killer and then the captain tricks Dad the house detective into giving himself away. Oh Brother! I think Chandler hated that character,( the house dick) he has all the abuse in the movie heaped on him. Houseman acts as if this was the great ending Chandler came up with at the last minute, that Chandler didn’t have an ending in mind at all which we now know is untrue. So that’s my take on why old R.C. needed to get loaded to finish the script. Another point was revealed in Houseman’s intro. During a fight scene a heavy oak table fell on Don Costello’s toe and broke it. Director George Marshall staged the rest of the scene so Costello didn’t have to walk around, he fights Alan Ladd but on the floor. It was brilliant! A great example of taking an accident that could have shut down production and making something better out of it. Marshall really rose to the challenge and elevated the scene creatively. Bravo! More Myth and Magic in the Land Of Make Believe!

Mack Sennett’s A Movie Star

Written by Joe D on January 18th, 2010

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I finally started watching the Slapstick Encyclopedia I borrowed a few years back. I will return it to it’s rightful owner soon! Anyway one of the films jumped out at me in Volume 1. It was A Movie Star by Mack Sennett. It was produced under the Triangle Films banner, Sennett had left Keystone and gone into business with his old boss D.W. Griffith, the man who taught Sennett how to make a film. A Movie Star was one of the first Sennett pictures to have a script, the earlier ones were just ideas on paper and then cast and crew improvised the rest. It shows, The Movie Star is consistently funny from beginning to end. It also is a very early self referential film being about the movie business. The action takes place in a nickelodeon theater, a star (Mack Swain) aka Handsome Jack shows up where his latest picture is playing, so he can wallow in the adoration of his fans, especially the female ones.

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Handsome Jack Poses Next To His Poster

A real actor shows up and is not impressed and shows it during Handsome Jack’s bow taking. Handsome Jack also starts clapping surreptitiously to cue the audience throughout the movie.

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Handsome Jack Starts The Spontaneous Applause, A Technique Still Used At Previews Today!

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The Shakespearean Actor Shows Contempt For Jack’s Antics

There are shots of the film on the screen in the theater and this is years before Keaton took this idea to a new level in Sherlock Junior.

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Film Within A Film

Handsome Jack is scoring with the chicks after the show when his battle-ax wife and two kids show up to put an end to his fun.

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The Wife And Kids Put A Crimp In Jack’s Game

A Movie Star is directed by Fred Hibbard, I guess Sennett was the producer, and the acting is so much better than in the Sennett directed movies where everyone is way too far over the top. I also read that nobody liked Sennett, especially the people that worked for him, they’d get skilled under his tutelage then head out for a job at another studio, even his stars, Arbuckle, Chaplin, and Normand did this. But still in all those were the days! Just cranking out films one after the other, how cool is that! There are some other great touches in this film, we get to check out the theater musician/sound effects man, he shoots pistols, whoops like a wild Indian, beats a drum, and plays the piano to accompany the film.

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The Super Cool Sound Effects/Music Man!

And we get a glimpse into the projection booth and see the projectionist hand cranking the projector! If you want to check out a good Early Silent Comedy check this one out. It delivers.

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The Wild Indian Smooches On Handsome Jack’s Girl, They Shot This In Front Of A Circular Rotating Background Panel!

Max Reinhardt

Written by Joe D on November 3rd, 2009

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Max Reinhardt, king of German theater had to flee Nazi oppression at the height of his creative success. He came to America, staged A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Hollywood Bowl and was signed to a contract by Warner Bros. to direct a film version. I guess it didn’t make money because Reinhardt didn’t get to make any other films. But the film he did make with William Dieterle co-directing is incredibly beautiful. Fantastic images in luminous Black and White, they must have upped the silver content in that batch of nitrate film because the images positively glow!

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A number of Reinhardt’s collaborators from Germany re-located to Hollywood and created some of the most creative films ever made there. Dieterle made the incredible Portrait Of Jennie, a magical film beloved by none other than the great Surrealist Luis Bunuel.

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Although Dieterle was driven to drink and a nervous breakdown by the incessant barrage of telegrams from amphetamine fueled producer David O. Selznick. The cameraman Joseph August of that film died soon after of a heart attack, Selznick strikes again? John Brahm, director of The Lodger, The Locket, and Hangover Square was a Reinhardt alumnus.

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John Brahm

So was Otto Preminger, not a filmmaker of Fantasy, but definetly a ground-breaker when it came to sex, race, drugs, Black-Listing. Plus he directed the archtypal Laura.

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Mr. Freeze says “Where’s Dorothy Dandridge?”

And Edgar G. Ulmer labored in the Art Department for Reinhardt. He directed the Bauhaus influenced Horror fim The Black Cat. A curious coincidence, Reinhardt opened an Acting School in Hollywood to pay his bills, Anne Savage attended and hit it off with Max, she later starred in Ulmer’s Detour.

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Edgar G. Ulmer, a Black Cat crossed his path at Universal

Here’s a promotional film about the making of A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Arnold Laven, R.I.P.

Written by Joe D on September 21st, 2009

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Producer- Director Arnold Laven has passed on. He’s responsible for a large amount of influential film and television. I just read a great interview with him the other day. It was done for the Noir City Sentinel, the newsletter of the Film Noir Foundation and you can read it here. I was so impressed with this interview I ordered the DVD of Laven’s directorial debut, 1952’s Without Warning, one of the first serial killer pictures and full of great Los Angeles location photography. I will post about it once I get it.

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Besides his great film noir work Laven was in a large way responsible for two giant Western television sagas, The Rifleman and The Big Valley. Both big sources of inspiration for a generation of filmmakers including Quentin Tarantino who has expressed as much to me.

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He also directed Tim Holt’s last picture The Monster That Challenged The World, Laven and Holt met many years earlier on the set of The Arizona Ranger and became good friends. He talked Holt out of retirement to make this SciFi /Horror movie. It has a gripping scene of a woman and a young girl trapped in a closet as the monster breaks through the door to get them. Check it out.

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Val Lewton, Cat People, Martin Scorsesce

Written by Joe D on January 15th, 2008

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Martin Scorsesce produced and narrated a film about producer Val Lewton, Val Lewton: The Man In the Shadows. It’s very good and it’s great to see an under appreciated filmmaker get his due. TCM showed a lot of Lewton’s work, especially the RKO stuff, to complement the premier of this documentary, directed by Kent Jones by the way. So much has been written about Lewton’s films, I don’t want to repeat what’s already been said but let me throw my 2 cents in. His work especially with Touneur, wise and Robson was so subtle and atmospheric, so artfully made (Nicholas Musuraca is one of the all time masters of B&W cinematography, check out Out Of The Past and Albert S. D’Agostino , one of the greatest Production Designers ever to put a fountain on a set) There’s nothing today that compares with this quality filmmaking! Nothing!
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And here’s something I noticed in Cat People. There is a transitional device almost like a fade to black and back but it’s not, it’s an optical that mimics a shadow passing in front of the camera, like a black panther wiping the lens. I’ve never seen this technique used elsewhere and I’ve never heard mention of it made by anyone. It is very subtle and because it’s used to transition from one scene to another it’s accepted as a typical fade in/out yet it creates a sense of unease that sneaks up on you, just like the rest of the film. It slowly wraps you up in a fog of suspense so suddenly you realize you’re lost, in a dark place at night and something may be following you. The documentary also tells you how hard Lewton worked. He killed himself making these films for unappreciative assholes. It’s just not right. And then Mark Robson, the editor he promoted to director, at great personal cost, screws him out of a partnership with Robert Wise and himself! They don’t give the details in the documentary but it certainly makes Mr. Robson look like a scumbag. By the way this review is part of the Val Lewton Blogathon, hosted by The Evening Class.
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How could you do it, Mark Robson?