Warner Archive Blu-ray: Hepburn and Cooper Share Love in the Afternoon (1957)

Director Billy Wilder's Love in the Afternoon (1957) is an odd little romance. It’s a shade too long, and even though the thought of Audrey Hepburn and Gary Cooper together has its appeal, the gap in their ages is always a bit unsettling. Still, the film, which is now available on Blu-ray from Warner Archive, offers an interesting perspective on infatuation and how it can pull an admirer out of reality.

Hepburn is Ariane, a college-aged cello player who lives in Paris with her father Claude (Maurice Chevalier), a private detective who specializes in marital infidelity. The young student is fascinated by the sensational aspects of Chevalier's cases, committing the contents of his files to memory on the sly. This is how she learns of wealthy American Frank Flannagan (Cooper), eternal bachelor and serial adulterer.

Ariane learns that an angry husband is on his way to a posh hotel to blast away his unfaithful wife and Frank. The pair are conducting an affair to the strains of Fascination, played by a Gypsy music ensemble hired for the afternoon tryst. She rushes to save him, standing in for the adulterous spouse. Though he is at first baffled by this mysterious girl who would risk her life for a stranger, her youthful charm and clear fascination with him draw him to her.

Hepburn, always prone to a little preening, does so more than usual as Ariane, but only in her scenes alone. When she has someone to play off of, she becomes more engaging. 

She is sweet with Chevalier, who worries that he has corrupted his daughter with the shady aspects of his business, but who understands that she must have the freedom to make her own choices. He nudges her towards moral decisions, and Hepburn subtly balances the childishness in her that requires his intervention and the emerging awareness of adult life she is slowly beginning to engage in herself, rather than simply reading about it in her father's cases.

It is possible that Wilder was aware of the jarring difference in Cooper and Hepburn's ages. In the early scenes the actor is kept in the shadows, remaining a romantic, mysterious figure. Only Ariane is fully lit in her close-ups. It is when a connection has been made between the two that you finally see Frank's weathered face, and by then you are charmed by the idea of them as a pair. The young cellist's attraction to this older man is summed up in a perfect line: "He's got such an American face. Like a cowboy or Abraham Lincoln."

There are many little frustrations in Love in the Afternoon. Scenes that go on longer than they need to, explanations can drag on, but the film also has perfect moments of romantic suspense, like a scene at the opera where Ariane observes Frank from afar, on pins and needles, wondering if she will be able to attract his attention.

Cooper is odd as a ladies' man. His sexuality is so much more potent when he is shy and passive, a bit of hunky catnip for the Dietrichs and Oberons of the world. Hepburn is perfect for her role though. Ariane doesn't seem engaged with reality, she'll do foolish, dangerous things to pursue her romantic fantasies, and the actress seems to have an innate understanding of the tension and desire of infatuation that drives her.

The Blu-ray picture is nicely executed, clean, but with an appealing shimmer to it. The disc includes a trailer for the film.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

Book Review--High Noon: The Hollywood Blacklist and the Making of an American Classic

High Noon: The Hollywood Blacklist and the Making of an American Classic
Glenn Frankel
Bloomsbury USA, 2017

It's hard to believe, but during its production the classic Academy Award-winning western High Noon (1952) was not expected to attract much more attention and acclaim than a standard 'B' picture. It had a low budget, brief production schedule, and had become almost an afterthought to producer Stanley Kramer, who was occupied with a new production deal he had made with Columbia Studios. In a new book, Glenn Frankel describes the major players in the film's creation, its production, and the way the blacklist affected the tone of the final product and the lives of its creators.

Cooper and Kelly in High Noon

All the major players of the film are profiled, with enough backstory to explain how they came to be on an isolated western film location in the early fifties. It's an interesting juxtaposition of personalities and careers, from the seasoned Montana cowboy and established movie star Gary Cooper to the less assured Philadelphia socialite Grace Kelly in her first major role. You also get a sense of the inner workings of the production company that Stanley Kramer ran with the film's screenwriter Carl Foreman, and the challenges of pulling together a strong cast and crew for a low-budget film.

These personal histories are alternated with stories of the film's production and the simultaneous black list drama. Those story lines intertwined when former Communist Foreman's script started to reflect the increasing pressure he felt from HUAC as he continued to refuse to name names or confirm his political beliefs. A standard story of a honorable lawman became a portrait of his own frustrations. The writer's isolation ultimately closely mirrors that of Marshal Will Kane (Gary Cooper), who becomes similarly disillusioned when even the people he felt he could rely upon the most abandon him. Ironically, the initially firmly loyal Cooper would be one of the men to step back in his support of Foreman, though he was essentially forced to do so.

Screenwriter Carl Foreman in 1961

I've read a lot about the Hollywood blacklist, and while I've found the more sweeping histories of this time fascinating, I've learned that the more personal the stories are, the better I understand the effect of that time on Hollywood. Through Foreman's fear, desperate strategizing, and depression, the damage of the blacklist can be understood with excruciating clarity. It is possible to understand how many in the movie industry acted in ways that seem cowardly to modern eyes, and even to contemporaries at the time, but who were too focused on survival to consider the consequences of naming names and caving to HUAC.

Foreman is one of the men who didn't cave and he never stopped feeling angry about being punished for it. Frankel shows how the screenwriter's defiance of committee pressures put stress on his career and personal life, even destroying his marriage. While his is a bleak story, it is made clear that he comes out ahead of many of his colleagues simply because his conscience allowed him to sleep at night. The brash, but brilliant writer becomes the heart of the story, sometimes unsympathetic, but always worth rooting for.

This is an effective account of the production of High Noon and the tense atmosphere surrounding it, expertly mixing politics and entertainment until it is evident that there is often very little difference between the two.

Many thanks to Bloomsbury USA for providing a copy of the book for review.

Warner Archive Blu-ray: Spencer Tracy Fights a Whole Town in Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)

Bad Day at Black Rock opens with a startling long shot of a train shooting through the desert like an angry centipede. There is a feeling of recklessness to the image, as if the hurtling Streamliner could go off the rails from the aggression of its momentum. From that first jarring moment, there is atmosphere of peril in this story of John Macreedy, a World War II veteran with one arm who finds himself faced with hostility and suspicion when he arrives in the isolated town of Black Rock. Now available on Blu-ray from Warner Archive, the film is timelessly tense and full of great performances.

Spencer Tracy is the soldier, and the grey-haired, paunchy actor is definitely too long in the tooth for the role, though he is so effective that age almost seems beside the point. His arrival in Black Rock unsettles the locals, because the train hasn't stopped there for four years. When it becomes clear the town will have a visitor, people on the streets bristle, coiling like venomous snakes.

Without even knowing the purpose of his visit, they feel threatened. When they learn he wishes to visit the nearby Adobe Flat, they are filled with fear. Macreedy puzzles over their aggression, only certain that they have something to hide and that he needs to find out what that is and what they plan to do about him.

Much of the pleasure of Bad Day at Black Rock is in its supernaturally-talented cast, many of them Academy Award winners and nominees. Joining Tracy is Robert Ryan in a terrifyingly controlled performance, Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine as a pair of thuggish locals, and Walter Brennan and Anne Francis who are as wary as the rest of the townspeople, but not as hostile. Any one of these performers had the power to make this film special, that they are all together feels like a casting miracle. They play to their various types well and make something more of their familiar personas as a group.

In a way, Tracy's advanced age adds a level of tension to his performance. You don't sense in him the efficient utility of a soldier. When buffoons like Borgnine and Marvin bully him, you think he hasn't got a chance. It is clear that he is clever, and that saves him plenty, but with his disability and humble physique, it at first appears that can't be enough to ensure his survival. Then in a scene of remarkably understated, but effective violence, he demonstrates that his resourcefulness is not only in his intellect, but also training and experience that may surpass that of these townspeople who shut themselves off from the rest of the world.

The Lone Pines desert locations, used for so many Hollywood films, feel particularly isolated here. Long expanses of dusty sand and brush are surrounded by looming hills, which are beautiful against the blue skies and fluffy clouds, but also oppressive in the way they give the feeling of shutting out civilization. It is a constant reminder of Macreedy's vulnerability, because he is far away from anyone who can help him.

Special features on the disc include commentary by film historian and author Dana Polan and a theatrical trailer.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

Book Review--Hollywood at Play: The Lives of Stars Between Takes

Hollywood at Play: The Lives of Stars Between Takes
Stephen X. Sylvester, Mary Mallory and Donovan Brandt
Globe Pequot, 2017

Hollywood at Play is a cheerful book of beautiful photos featuring gorgeous stars from the classic age of film, here defined as the years 1925-60. In the introduction, the authors seem almost guilty about its sunny, uncomplicated tone, noting that while all looks well in the photos, these are the years of The Great Depression, World War II and the Cold War. They also point out that the movie industry itself has a dark history, emphasizing the way stars were taken advantage of and otherwise abused. While these observations are interesting, there's no need for explanation. In intense times, the joy of watching charismatic, glamorous people enjoying themselves is intensely gratifying and of great importance.

With categories like On the Town, At Home and The Sporting Life, the focus is truly on enjoying life, though admittedly a meticulously staged view of such recreation. It's a pleasing mix of color and black and white, group and portrait shots and covers the decades it features fairly evenly. The 127 photos come from the collection of Eddie Brandt's Saturday Matinee, which according to the authors is the first and oldest family-owned video store, in addition to being a photo archive. While there were a few images I recognized, for the most part the content was new to me and often fascinating.

The format of the book showcases the photos to great advantage. Each picture gets its own page and there's a short paragraph on the opposite side offering information about the image and bits of trivia about the subject. Having seen many photo books where poorly-sized images or cluttered pages made it difficult to fully appreciate the pictures, I relished being able to focus completely on each image because they all had room to breathe.

There's not a particular pattern to the tidbits in the text: a photo of Joan Crawford playing with her poodles is accompanied by several sentences about her rivalry with Norma Shearer; the passage accompanying a jolly Jimmy Stewart playing pool describes his pioneering role in making profit participation a part of actor pay. It's the one unpredictable element in a book that is designed to offer uncomplicated pleasure.

This is truly a coffee table book, it doesn't go deep into its subjects, but I did learn a few new things. That said, the photos are rightly the focus here and they are a lot of fun.

Many thanks to Globe Pequot for providing a copy of the book for review.

Book Review--Need More Road: A Movie Obsessive in a Noir Situation

Need More Road

Stephen Jared
Solstice Publishing, 2016

I went into Need More Road feeling sure of the path it would take, almost anticipating the climax of what seemed like a familiar film noir plot of crime, a femme fatale and deception. While it begins with all the familiar traits of the genre, the story takes an unexpected turn, going deeper into its central characters than I expected. This unusual twist on genre conventions is Stephen Jared's latest in a series of novels that live in, and sometimes collide with, the world of classic film.

It is the story of Eddie, an almost-fifty bank teller who lives a life of near solitude. He spends his free time at the movies and since he is in a small town, that means he must often watch the same films repeatedly if he wants to get his regular cinematic fix. Seeing the world through the eyes of Robert Mitchum and the like gives him an eye for danger, and he recognizes the peril when movie-star gorgeous Mary Rose sashays into his life and seems suspiciously enamored with his bland self.

Eddie is tired of his uneventful life though. When Mary Rose starts talking about her mysterious father, and bank heists, he knows he is in for trouble, but he is too lit up by the way she makes him feel to back away. Aware that he is being betrayed, he rebels against his boredom and lonlieness.

I don't want to reveal too much about the turn this novel takes, but it does develop in a unique way. Most of it moves forward along a solid genre path, but then it turns away from convention and begins to tell the story in a different, more character-driven way. I feel like it would have been a more solidly constructed book if it had followed through in the tone with which it started, but it wouldn't have been as interesting. It has the feel of a movie fan stepping into a film and changing the narrative to fulfill a more personal vision.

In some respects the story climaxes early, leaving you waiting for a big finish that never comes. I have not been able to decide if I dislike this, or if this unusual narrative choice gnaws at me because it is unfamiliar. In some respects it retreats to safety; in others it boldly pushes back at expectations.

If you like Jared's other books, or appreciate fiction set in a classic film-inspired milieu, this should be of interest. It's good for an escape, dark, but not unrelentingly bleak, and with some intriguing historical detail.

Many thanks to Stephen Jared for providing a copy of the book for review.

Review--Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds

I first heard of Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds when a local theater invited me to a free screening of the documentary in mid-December. Though I was not able to attend, the film is now showing on HBO and available on the channel's streaming service. Now that I have seen it, I've thought a lot about how differently it would have affected me if I'd caught that screening. The film focuses a great deal on Reynold's failing health and Fisher's fear for her well-being, a sad reversal of what would play out in the year after its filming.

In this documentary of perhaps the most famous mother/daughter actresses in modern history, you are presented with a loosely organized series of incidents in the lives of these two remarkable women. There's no great effort to dig deep into their lives or find any coherence in all of it. You are simply invited to observe: sometimes there is a great revelation, and bits of their history bounce around, but for the most part it simply offers the privilege of spending time with these women and the people who love them.

You see them interacting with their fans. Reynolds is shown giving her last performances in Las Vegas, barely able to walk, gingerly singing her classic songs and yet enveloping her audience in irresistible warmth and charm. Fisher attends a fan convention to sell autographs and photo ops, something which she initially found distasteful, but seems to have accepted as she carefully praises her fans for their devotion.

These public performances are juxtaposed with their private banter at the large compound where both women have homes. Their interactions in these scenes feel both like well-worn comic shtick played to the cameras and a demonstration of the genuine warmth and constant conflict bubbling between them, which is more playful now than it was in the past. As Fisher packs a bag for Reynolds, her mama cheekily reminds her not to turn her bum to the camera. In another moment Fisher barks at her mother about brother Todd, "what does he get in the will and what do I get?" It's all hilarious and deadly serious at the same time.

This affectionate push and pull is essentially what Fisher and Reynolds are willing to reveal about their relationship, though when Carrie quips to a reporter, "we are always on the red carpet," you wonder if there is much more to see. There's a busy, chaotic flow to their interactions: they will be quiet and intimate one moment, then suddenly break into song together and follow the reverie with an argument. They're both clearly a lot to handle and they enjoy dealing with each other.

Before Reynolds and Fisher devastated their fans with their abrupt deaths, they had endured plenty of heartbreak themselves. As much as they try to face life with humor, it is clear the entire family is hurt deeply by things like the lack of support for a Hollywood Museum to house Reynold's massive costume and prop collection. Todd tears up while talking about the eventual auction of the increasingly expensive-to-maintain artifacts, well aware that parting with these items broke his mother's heart.

It is also difficult to watch Fisher manage her varied relationships with her aging parents. In a 2010 clip, she is shown with her dying father, the singer Eddie Fisher, finally connecting with him as she has wished to her entire life, making the heartbreaking confession that she tried to be funny as a child so he would want to be with her more often. Where her mother is concerned, she struggles because of their lifelong closeness, anticipating the inevitable result of her declining health. Watching her collapse in tears because she fears for her mother's well-being and dignity as she accepts a lifetime achievement award from the Screen Actor's Guild, the acid-tongued superstar becomes painfully relatable and you see how much strain remains behind the scenes in show business.

Those moments of vulnerability are in great contrast to Fisher's wise-cracking, foul-mouthed persona. Her wildly decorated house, which features an impressively-endowed lion's rear end sticking out of a wall, joke signs on every surface, and even the massive image of a Prozac pill embedded in the kitchen floor, begin to seem like a defense against the pain she has faced and an expression of her own exhaustion with her intense personality.

Reynolds also allows the cameras to glimpse her at low moments. Though she seems hardwired to keep on smiling, she isn't afraid to admit to her grief, like when she barely holds off tears while presenting items in her memorabilia collection that are for sale. Though her body is giving out on her, she insists on living the life that her spirit craves, and as she shoots across a Vegas casino floor in her Little Rascal, a determined look on her face, you can't help but be impressed by the power she finds in sheer will.

It was often difficult to watch Bright Lights. I'm still getting used to the idea of these two being gone. It is heartbreaking to see the family and friends who love them and know the loss they would be experiencing a year later. But what a gift it is to have this film to remind us of why we love them.

In Theaters: La La Land (2016)

La La Land deserves awards, perhaps not all the awards, but it is worthy of praise. As a classic movie fan, it's amazing to be able to see a nicely-executed new musical with a passion for the productions of the past, filmed on 35mm, splashed across the screen in a theater. With a score reminiscent of the wistful and dreamy music Michel Legrand wrote for Jacques Demy films like The Young Girls of Roquefort (1967) and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964), and the colorful production design of MGM and Fox musical classics, it does scratch that nostalgic itch to a great degree.

It is a love story, starring the charismatic if not sizzling duo of Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling. She is Mia, an aspiring actress slogging through disappointing auditions for small parts in cop shows and cheesy dramas. He is Sebastian, a jazz pianist who dreams of opening his own club, though he currently pays the bills playing Christmas carols in a restaurant. They meet ugly in a brief moment of road rage, but after several more encounters, they give in to their respective charms and become deeply smitten with each other. They love deeply, but struggle to keep their relationship strong as they pursue their dreams.

Mia and Sebastian live in a pretty LA, free of garbage and sidewalk encampments. Gosling dances down a sparkling clean pier, remarkably free of bird droppings. It's all bathed in soothing shades of blue, green and pink. No one is supposed to have money, but everyone is impeccably dressed. It is the setting of one of those strange, but peaceful dreams you might have before waking.

I didn't go into La La Land expecting Gosling and Stone to perform at the level of the artists in classic Hollywood musicals, but it was hard not to feel let down nevertheless. While I realize the golden age of musicals has passed, are there really no triple threats out there anymore? It is possible to act your way through a song though, even with vocal limitations, and that is what these two have done to satisfying effect.

Dancing is trickier, and it is here where Gosling and Stone are weakest. Watching them, I was reminded of a fantasy sequence in Pal Joey (1957) where Kim Novak and Rita Hayworth are dancing side-by-side. The identical choreography makes the difference in their skill levels clear. Novak executes all the moves and stays on the beat, but there's no artistry. On the other hand, trained dancer Hayworth writhes with sensual fluidity, feeling the dance as much as she is following choreography. This is where our leads fall short: you can hear them counting in their heads, doing their best to simply pull it off. There's no extension of the arms, no emotion within the movement; they don't have the posture or bearing of dancers. There's just no faking the work that goes into that kind of technique.

La La Land is tidy and precise to an almost excessive extent. There's never a true sense of peril; no feeling that if these characters don't find their way, they are finished. You always see they have a wide safety net, and at the very least they will end up okay. Living their dreams isn't a matter of life or death for them. Their quarrels even seem to glide along familiar, near reassuring rails. Even the glossiest of classic musicals had that passion of do or die.

As a fan of classic Hollywood it is impossible to ignore these shortcomings. Despite them, in many ways I felt La La Land spoke my language. There's the posters of Ingrid Bergman looming over Mia in her apartment, the first date at a repertory theater to see Rebel Without A Cause (1955) and the progression of that meeting to the observatory that was featured in the film. Getting lost in it is pleasurable, particularly for those moments that speak to lovers of the classics.

Ultimately, I succumbed to the beauty La La Land had to offer. The music is lovely; the production design is colorful and sensuously appealing and Gosling and Stone give their characters more depth and emotion than is on the page. To enjoy it, you essentially have to give yourself up to it and accept it on its own terms. Then the romance blooms, and the world it creates becomes a place to live the dream of the perfect artistic life. I found it to be a lovely escape, though I admit that when I went home and bought the soundtrack, I also purchased a few tunes from Michel Legrand's score for The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.
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