Reap the Wild Wind (Les Naufrageurs des mers du sud)

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

All-Region Import;
Elephant Films;
Adventure;
$45 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Ray Milland, John Wayne, Paulette Goddard, Raymond Massey, Susan Hayward, Robert Preston.

My most educated guess is that Cecil B. DeMille’s Reap the Wild Wind may have been Paramount’s third-highest grosser of Hollywood’s entire World War II era, given that the starry mountain’s productions of For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943) and Going My Way (1944) were close to the top performers released by any studio in those two respective years (with a nod to Warner’s This Is the Army). But with more assurance, I can tell you that for pushing 60 years now, Reap has been my favorite DeMille movie except for his The Ten Commandments swan song — which, after all, does boasts Edward G. Robinson’s gonzo Dathan and the chance to see hot couple John Derek and Debra Paget falling under the Golden Calf’s pernicious influence and upping their boogie quotient. Plus, one must concede, the artful constipation Charlton Heston brought to every role he played, and in this case, beneficially.

On the other hand, 1942’s Reap has a fabulous cast delivering in the goods via (in some cases) admittedly 19th-century theatrical acting styles — and this is before we even get to the best giant squid the studio could cough up for the industry’s No. 1 cash-cow director. I do wish that this seafaring blockbuster with an occasional julep twist didn’t overextend the footage allotted to an un-blamable Louise Beavers in another of those “wasn’t slavery fun?” roles — but this was an inevitable by-product of the 1840’s Dixie setting (by way of the Florida Keys) and Paramount’s desire to fashion Reap as its answer to the Margaret Mitchell/Selznick/MGM Gone With the Wind. At least Beavers, a la Wind’s Hattie McDaniel, gets to make with the sass while futilely trying to turn the sometimes tomboy-ish babe of the house (here, it’s Paulette Godard, who’d been a finalist for the Scarlett O’Hara role) into a lady. And for that matter, you know going in (or should) that DeMille wasn’t, just on general principles, the most racially sensitive filmmaker who ever lived, though I have always dug the showmanship chutzpah he exhibited by casting Boris Karloff as a Seneca chief in Unconquered.

You also know (or should surmise) that John Wayne had to be hitting the top of the Big-Time when the movies’ most successful director (DeMille’s name on a marquee was more potent than that of most stars) in one of his most lavish productions just three years after the Duke’s breakthrough in Stagecoach. As it turned out, the picture gave Wayne one of the most interesting roles of his career (though maybe not as interesting as his Genghis Khan camp-fest turn in The Conqueror) in that it was the closest time that he ever came to playing a villain. In the truth, the picture kind of splits the difference: Though Wayne plays a wronged sea captain successfully tempted by circumstances to perform a dastardly act, he remains a sympathetic figure and certainly a co-equal to dandy lawyer Ray Milland for the hand of Goddard, who impetuously plays one against the other with a level of guile that’s never totally clear (which makes it interesting).

We open in the Keys with Wayne knocked cold under the orchestration of his first mate — a covert lackey, turns out, of Raymond Massey’s crooked lawyer (think a more WASP-ish version of Roy Cohn in the pre-Civil War South) who’s gotten financially fat from a ship-salvaging business whose services include wrecking the vessels in the first place. The busted-up ship currently in question is owned by Goddard, who’s inherited the business and immediately falls hard for Wayne after rescuing him amid his on-board stupor and protestations that he hasn’t a clue what happened. This is all true enough, and Wayne’s perfidy comes later — but not until after he gets embroiled in said love triangle after Goddard subsequently visits her aunt in Charleston and meets company attorney Milland, whom she initially despises because he’s understandably casting a wary eye at Wayne’s sailing prowess. The two men have some history.

The movie positions Milland as the lace-favoring type who’s good at tony social affairs where sopranos entertain but is actually a pretty accessible guy. In fact, when he throws the movie’s first punch (of many), he actually decks Wayne. The two make fairly civil adversaries, and it’s fun to watch them, as is enjoying a remarkable supporting cast (Lynne Overman in whiskers, not long before his death?), round out the package. In one of those remarkable casting breaks that can add to a movie’s currency with passing years, two of the key subordinate roles go to actors who later became very big stars: Susan Hayward and Robert Preston. This packaging of this All-Region disc, which is among the most beautiful I’ve ever seen of a vintage Technicolor movie, reflects the changing fortunes of its actors, billing Wayne, Hayward, Milland and Goddard in that order. It’s the same order they appeared in when Reap was re-issued in (pretty sure) 1954, and I marveled at the ads in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, when I would have been 6 or an early 7. This is a movie I wanted to see very early on, and it did not let me down (even in black-and-white) when I saw its local TV premiere on a late, late show in 1960.

The climactic squid mayhem probably ensured the smash box office, though if ’54 was indeed the re-issue year, I wonder how Walt Disney felt about its impact on that coming Christmas’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea — whether, that is, it would diminish the newer picture’s key selling point or whet audiences appetites to see additional name actors battling those tentacles. Like Jaws the shark, DeMille’s creature looks mechanical yet cool all the same — and, in fact, Reap was kind of the Jaws of its day. Though even before this “money” climax, there’s a long and outlandish late-movie trial scene which, by comparison, makes the jurisprudence in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance look as dignified and legally stable as, say, the white-wig stuff in Hitchcock’s The Paradine Case or Robert Donat in The Winslow Boy.

As mentioned, this is one beautiful print, and I say this as one who saw UCLA’s 35mm archival copy of Reap maybe three times as programmer for the AFI Theater and a couple times via a collector’ friend’s 16mm IB holding. At long last, though not yet in the U.S, some of these Universal-controlled DeMille Paramounts are making their way to Blu-ray, albeit just in time for most of the director’s biggest fans to be dead. Reap distributor Elephant Films has itself recently brought out the uncut Sign of the Cross and Technicolor Unconquered, the latter featuring the sight of Goddard tumbling down a monster waterfall in a canoe with Gary Cooper. A Big Drink tumble, a squid, the Golden Calf, a lion’s lunch of Nero-offending Christians: in his day — which I concede isn’t always to-day — DeMille knew what audiences craved even more than their Milk Duds and the theater’s free air-conditioning.

Mike’s Picks: ‘The Heroes of Telemark’ and ‘Reap the Wild Wind’

A Matter of Life and Death

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Criterion;
Fantasy;
$29.95 DVD, $39.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars David Niven, Kim Hunter, Roger Livesey, Raymond Massey.

You say it’s the Criterion banner hanging over Sony’s ace restorer Grover Crisp and his colleagues — after they’ve put their all into one of the end-all-be-all’s of three-strip-Technicolor achievements? If so (and it is), you’re probably safe even plundering your 401k for the emergency funds to bet a stash that we’re talking a visual banquet you don’t get everyday or, in some cases, even every year.

Speaking pigmentarily (did I just make up a word?), you can usually tell at once — from the intensity of flame on RAF squadron leader David Niven’s downed bomber — how good any print of the Michael Powell-Emeric Pressburger A Matter of Life and Death is going to be. In this case, the red is right, and it’s easy to see why so many film folk have, be they Elvis fans or otherwise, such burnin’ love for this picture. Powell himself, in fact, rated it the personal favorite of the multiple all-timers he did with Pressburger — who was primarily the duo’s writer, though they always shared an unusual joint on-screen credit.

Actually, there are several Powells (whether filmed with his longtime partner or not) that my own self prefers, from The Thief of Bagdad through Peeping Tom. But that’s mostly a matter of favored subject matter, and I will say this: You can watch 1946’s Matter multiple times and always see something new or (this is quite true in my case) be affected by a shot or minor detail that didn’t make a direct hit previously. P&P’s celestially-bent fantasy is a marvel of invention, starting with the fact that Heaven is in black-and-white and the earthbound scenes are in electric three-strip — though, as Stephanie Zacharek points out in the accompanying Criterion essay, the former is never referred to as Heaven per se (something that had eluded me). This said, the film’s U.S. release title did end up being changed to Stairway to Heaven because “death” was perceived to be even less of a marquee magnet than it’s always been, what with wartime losses so burned into recent memory.

The deal is this. Niven is preordained to die in the crash but miraculously survives due to a transportation hangup by an upstairs emissary of death (Marius Goring going full French-dandy route and looking as if he belongs in one of stage productions from Marcel Carne’s Children of Paradise, which began hitting U.S. theaters about a month before Matter/Heaven did). In the meantime, Niven has fallen instantly in love with (first) the voice and (soon thereafter) the full human form of a Boston-bred air communicator (Kim Hunter) who had “talked him down” to what both assumed would be as soothing a journey as possible to his unambiguously imminent death. A logical reaction to a) Niven’s survival; and b) the appearance of Goring would be that the former needs some kind of doctor — a need soon fulfilled by a Hunter buddy (the great Powell-Pressburger veteran Roger Livesey), who turns out to have great deal of knowledge about neuroscience for one who buzzes around the countryside on his motorbike. (I got a feeling that David Lean must have remembered some of these scenes when shooting the great opening to Lawrence of Arabia.)

So this is one of the beauties of the movie. You can look at the story clinically — as in that the idea that Goring’s pressure from upstairs superiors to whisk Niven away as planned is all in the latter’s overactive mind and thus justification for brain surgery. Or you take everything here at face value and believe the fantasy — which is easy to do because cinematographer Jack Cardiff and the production designer were working at the peak of their powers and are constantly putting something scintillatingly fresh into the frame. Even the title card is unlike anything from 1946; it’s more in ’50s Invaders From Mars mold.

This is true even though Matter was Cardiff’s first film as chief cameraman — as well as the fact that it was actually the same production crew’s next film (Black Narcissus, my favorite movie from the year of my birth) that ended up getting both of them their Oscars. Just the heavenly waiting room where the dead check into and await their fates is a marvel of detail — and these scenes aren’t even in color. Niven’s own fate is to face trial (a full tribunal is more like it) over whether his Brit self will be able to enjoy a mortal’s life with a love who’s Yankee-bred — an amorous match-up that particularly offends Niven’s Brit-hating prosecutor (Raymond Massey, in the kind of uptight hard-ass role he used to own).

In addition to Zacharek’s infectiously enthusiastic essay and a carried-over 2009 commentary from film scholar/P&P biographer Ian Christie, the extras here are almost a primer in what and how to go out and get germane supplements. There’s Martin Scorsese’s bouncy intro (about 10 minutes) from 2008 — he a Powell fan/disciple and then a personal friend whose longtime editor (Thelma Schoonmaker) eventually married the then elderly filmmaker. What’s more, we get Schoonmaker herself, whose observations sometimes touch upon the P&P movies’ editing — a subject about which she knows plenty (Oscars for Raging Bull, The Aviator and The Departed).

Cardiff was the greatest color cinematographer ever — period — so there’s a short featurette specifically on Matter labors from Craig McCall, who directed 2010’s masterful Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff. Visual effects pro Craig Barron — his credits merely include The Curious Case of Benjamin Button — is here for discussion of the design and matte work, as is Harrison Ellenshaw; they first met Powell as youngsters when working on The Empire Strikes Back. And then there’s Powell himself for an hour from one of the best episodes of Britain’s “South Bank Show” that I’ve seen — an elaborately produced affair (I’d almost bet that Powell called some of the shots himself) that was done when he published the first volume of his memoirs. I remember my old film prof William K. Everson, who almost never gave ‘A’ grades, calling that volume either one of the five best film books or the best director bio he’d ever read. (Can’t remember which one it was, so this might help explain why I was always praying a ‘B’)

Even though it’s much maligned today, I’ll always have significant affection for Michael Todd’s once overpraised Around the World in 80 Days — due in large part to Niven’s turn as Jules Verne’s Phileas Fogg, who burned into my childhood mind that one should be prompt and always on time. This said, I have to concede that Matter boasts the most charming performance the actor ever gave, and later in life, Niven told Powell that Matter’s was the favorite role of his career. This one charms as well, which isn’t easy to do when the subject is death. But, in fact, the real subject here is the all-dominant power of love, which I suspect is he reason that Matter still gets to a lot of people emotionally and was even commercially successful in U.S. theaters at the time amid a banner year for movies that positively humiliates what I see polluting my nearby multiplex as we speak.

Mike’s Picks: ‘A Matter of Life and Death’ and ‘The Adventures of Tom Sawyer’

The Woman in the Window

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Street 6/19/18;
Kino Lorber;
Mystery;
$19.99 Blu-ray;
Not rated
.
Stars Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett, Dan Duryea, Raymond Massey.

As with a lot of fellow nitpickers whose starting position should be that we’re still talking about a very good movie, Fritz Lang’s The Woman in the Window from 1944 has always been problematic because it has one of the shakier wrap-ups of the big-screen ’40s — though hardly the shake-i-est because there’s always Robert Siodmak’s The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry from the following year. Let’s continue hoping that all the yahoos who instigated creaky censorship boards of the day have been moaning in pain half-a-century or more Waaaaaay Down South where the fires burn, watching the hundred most impoverished PRC releases on a loop.

Fritz Lang directed Window from a Nunnally Johnson script to launch that period in the mid-’40s when the former briefly enjoyed commercial success after immediate follow-ups Ministry of Fear and Scarlet Street also proved popular. (And before The Secret Beyond the Door — also with Window/Street’s Joan Bennett — materialized in 1947 to turn any money-related magic touch back into a pumpkin. In one of his greatest career years (1944), Window also gave the now freelancing Edward G. Robinson (post-Warner) a role worthy of capping his memorably dynamic insurance sleuth in Double Indemnity from a few months earlier. In contrast, the married assistant professor Robinson plays here isn’t dynamic at all but notably meek — albeit one who turns uncharacteristically daring once his life turns messy after meeting the title subject on the street (she’s been the model in a conspicuous storefront painting that has captured his imagination).

Though what really makes Bennett tick is one of the movie’s more intriguing questions, she definitely isn’t a dangerous femme fatale in the usual noir sense (that would be Scarlet Street). And as for what she and Robinson are doing before an out-of-the-blue violent act that substantially alters the film’s direction … well, it’s kind of foolhardy for a man in Robinson’s situation to be on the scene at all but necessarily over the line.

This “situation” includes a wife and two children who are away on a trip, an absence that brings to mind a more serious take on this hook, courtesy of The 7-Year Itch. Before you go “uh, huh,” one should note that this family unit is reasonably harmonious in an un-stimulating way — and that the wife is by no means the disagreeable sort who’d automatically destroy anyone’s quality of life by walking into the room. For one of those, see the crone Charles Laughton is married to in Siodmak’s splendid The Suspect from the same year.

Window is full of potential spoiler minefields, though I gotta say that it was a movie that had been substantially written about even when I was a kid. So let’s merely set the table by noting that Bennett turns out to be a lonely and insecure kept woman with fleeting flashes of confidence; that Robinson gets in deep; and that one of Robinson’s men’s club cronies is a well-cast Raymond Massey as a snooping D.A. who, for fun, is taking Robinson on his investigations to help solve a crime the former knows all too well about.

There’s also Dan Duryea’s terrific show-up late in the picture to make such a strong impression that I (all well as bonus-commentary contributor Imogen Sara Smith) am always surprised to be reminded that his part isn’t bigger. Though Duryea had been quite memorable recreating his stage role three years earlier in the Goldwyn-Wyler film version of Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes, this in reality was his breakthrough screen role, paving the way for the Lang-Robinson-Bennett-Duryea reunion in Scarlet Street, a movie I like even more.

Historian Smith’s voiceover is tight and well thought-out, offering the expected bios of the key actors and personnel but also giving weight to alternative interpretations of key events in ways that soften the negative impact of the weak wrap-up. Among other things, they make us wonder if the movie can’t be just as easily seen as an exploration of what makes men’s roving minds tick when they’re jawboning at a men’s club (who the hell would want to go to a men’s club, anyway?) — though, OK, tons-o-fun relationships between senior marrieds likely didn’t offer that many socially normalized alternatives at the time this movie was set. Robison wasn’t likely to be asking the Mrs. to go running with him.

Whatever the interpretation, events are all photographed and constricted in superb Lang style, though aside from some newsreel satire and one bullseye replication in one scene of what old radio commercials sounded like, Lang was never going to be mistaken for Henny Youngman or Rodney Dangerfield. I remember Jonathan Demme once telling me in an interview that it was actually Brian De Palma who came up with the idea to open Married to the Mob with Rosemary Clooney’s recording of Mambo Italiano — quickly noting that one didn’t usually go to De Palma for comical music advice. Not dissimilarly, you don’t watch Lang movies for knee-slapping fun (though the last particular bonus always gave Hitchcock an extra boost), but he could really immerse you in a sinister world.

In keeping with this, Smith offers up some of the stories about Lang’s tyrannical moods and mistreatment of actors (especially minor ones); though Bennett and others would continue working with him, these were not “loose” sets. Maybe this explains how it came to be that Sylvia Sidney wrapped her long career by working with Tim Burton, the second time against a Slim Whitman soundtrack.

Kino’s Blu-ray isn’t up to the impossibly high standards of the French release of Siodmak’s Criss Cross, but neither does it suggest the difference between Grace Kelly and Maria Ouspenskaya in terms of cosmetics and, in this case, delineation of shadow and light. It’s certainly the best presentation of this independent production (originally distributed by RKO) that I’ve ever seen and another example of Blu-ray turning me into a Milton Krasner fan when I didn’t know I was. With me, he’s almost getting to be another Joe MacDonald when it comes to consolidating credits that I didn’t realize were all his — as in, he “shot that, and that … and THAT?!!!”

Mike’s Picks: ‘Up in Smoke’ and ‘The Woman in the Window’