Monday, July 28, 2008

Three Revisitings

234. It's difficult to imagine an American studio of the period making a film as resolutely downbeat as Saraband for Dead Lovers (1948, directed by Basil Dearden). For that matter, it's fairly out of character for Ealing Studios, too, who were best known for their droll comedies. But downbeat this film is, telling of the tragic love affair between Princess Sophia Dorothea, the wife of the future King George I, and Swedish Count Philip Konigsmark, a mercenary in the hire of the Hanovers. There's much court intrige as the Hanovers plot to assume the English throne (they succeeded beyond their wildest dreams--the current Royals are descended from Sophia and George I). Unlike an American producer, Michael Balcon isn't tempted to append a happy ending to the actual historical record. This movie unfolds more or less as it did in "real life," in which Konigsmark is murdered by the minions of the Hanovers and the machinations of the fading Countess Clara Platten, who had an unhealthy obsession with the man. Sophia Dorothea then spent the rest of her life imprisoned in a castle. But getting to that point is all of the fun. Our doomed lovers are played by Joan Greenwood (so young it hurts to look at her, but already possessed of that fabulous voice) and Stewart Granger. The swordfight at the end is reminiscent of the swashbucklers Granger became known for (especially Scaramouche), but no swashbuckler would end the duel as this film does. The sets won an Oscar, and the costumes SHOULD have, and this is a fine example of the work of the great cinematographer, Douglas Slocombe. Supposedly, this is one of Christopher Lee's first film appearances, but I didn't spot him. One wishes that director Basil Dearden could have employed a livelier cinematic sense, but the film is overstuffed with other pleasures that its relatively mundane direction isn't really a liability. And I LOVE the title.

235. I took another look Phil Karlson's Scandal Sheet (1952) this week. I really like the hard boiled deadpan that Karlson evolved in his crime movies from this period. It's a harder version of film noir, minus some of the poetry of shadows, but adding a hard-nosed approach to storytelling. The story itself is a variant of The Big Clock (the film credits the story to a novel by Sam Fuller, but that doesn't change the dynamics), in which a reporter is investigating a murder committed by his editor, who is guiding the investigation away from himself. John Derek is more or less a non-entity as the lead here, but Broderick Crawford more than makes up for it as the movie's heavy. For that matter, Donna Reed is entirely too much for Derek, too. But he's servicable enough. There are fine character faces in support, too, including Henry Morgan as a photographer and Henry O'Neill as a drunk ex-reporter. As a plus, this doesn't waste time on extraneous detail, and clocks in at a terse 82 minutes. Talk about no-nonsense filmmaking.

236. I'm sure that when I originally saw it on its first release, the pointed critique of consumer culture and the Reagan revolution in Poltergeist (1982, directed by Tobe Hooper) was completely lost on me. I was there for the special effects, I'm sure. Watching it a quarter of a century later, I'm shocked that I missed all of that. I was also suprised at how careful the film is in building its sense of "wrongness," going from playfully unsettling manifestations of the "poltergeist" to outright horrors like the evil tree outside the children's window and that damned clown doll. The first half of the movie is a masterclass in how to construct a post-modern haunted house movie. Gone are the gothic excressences and the crumbling mansions of the past. Here we have a haunted tract house that looks just like all the other tract houses around it. We see the day to day minutiae of the lives of an average suburban family that creates a shock of recognition in the audience (the similarity to producer/ghost-director Steven Spielberg's Jaws is striking). By the middle of this latest viewing, I realized that I was watching a really good Stephen King movie. The second half of the movie is the light show, what all those teen age kids in 1982 went to see the movie for. Some of the effects haven't held up, but some of them--the house folding in on itelf at the end, for example--are as awesome today as they were back then. But perhaps the most interesting thing about this movie is that it's a horror movie in which no one dies. It's a carnival ride, sure, with bizarre mirror images thrown in to disorient the audience, but like a carnival ride, no harm is done in the end.

1 comment:

DeAnna said...

I love Poltergeist. Love it. And it remains among the scariest movies ever, in my eyes anyway. I saw it when I was still in grade school and couldn't sleep for weeks after. I still don't think I've watched the whole thing with my eyes open, especially the part where they guy pulls his face off in the bathroom sink. I'm sure the effects aren't realistic (wouldn't know, never could watch that bit!), but I do know that the sound effects are quite good!

And yes, THE CLOWN! Shudder. I also get the creeps over the chairs stacked on the table.

But I've never considered what the movie is saying. Hmmm, looks like I too need to see it again. Maybe I'll try harder to keep my eyes open all the way through.